The Convenient Construction Of The Public-Private Distinction

Revolutions are public affairs; revolutionaries bring them about. They fight in the streets, they ‘man’ the barricades, they push back the forces of reaction. And then, they go home for the night, to a meal and a warm bed. There, they rest and recuperate, recharging the batteries of uprising, ready to battle again the next day. Revolutionaries are men, doing the real work, out in the public sphere; their home fronts are staffed by women, whose job is to sustain the revolution’s domestic aspects.

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985, pp. 57-58), David P. Jordan writes:

Although Robespierre was most at his ease in the midst of bourgeois domesticity, he depended upon others to create such an environment for him. Left to himself, he would have perpetuated his solitude in bleak rented rooms. It is worth noting that he fought the Revolution from the comfort of a bourgeois home. His passivity, his willingness to have others look after him, bespeaks an indifference to the mundane. He knew nothing of the marketplace; in Paris, as it had been in Arras, food awaited him at table, including the fruits he adored. Similarly, he knew nothing of the conditions of the desperately poor, with whom he never fraternized extensively. And there is no record that he ever went next door at the Duplays’ to talk to the carpenters in the shop. [citation added]

“An indifference to the mundane.” The home is the site of the mundane, the ordinary, the dull and dreary. Outside, the public sphere, where the non-domestic happens, is where the extraordinary takes place. That is the zone of men, the revolutionaries; the home is where women (and perhaps some servants), like a pit-stop crew, get the smooth machine of revolution up and running again with an oil and tire change for the body and mind. The revolutionary, from his lofty perch, can look down on and disdain these mundane offerings, the labor underlying which is not worthy of recognition in manifestos intended to stir the masses to action.

The excerpt above is drawn from a book published in 1985, two years after Carole Pateman‘s classic feminist critique of the public-private dichotomy appeared in print.¹ It shows in paradigmatic form, the standard (male and patriarchal) construction of the public-private distinction in political theory. The ancient Aristotelean understanding of polis as sphere for politics and civic life and home as venue for a much lower form of life persists here. Jordan does not make note of Robespierre’s detachment from the domestic with approval, but he does not find anything problematic in it either; instead, it appears as the sort of bemused indifference that we associate, quite romantically, with artists, writers, poets, and others too intent on cultivating their creativity to be bothered with the ‘mundane’ particulars of life. In this history, the public fray rises above domestic scurrying; the men hover above the women below.

Note 1: Carole Pateman, ‘Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy,’ in Public and Private in Social Life 281,281 (S. I. Benn & G. F. Gaus eds., 1983)

Robespierre On The Iraq War

In 1792, Revolutionary France debated, and prepared for, war. It was surrounded by monarchies who cared little for this upstart viper in the nest; and conversely, a sworn “enemy of the ancien regime” could not but both despise and fear what lay just beyond its borders: precisely the same entity in kind as was being combated at home. War often seemed inevitable in those days, and it would come, soon enough, on April 20th, when France declared war on Austria. But Revolutionary France, true to its spirit, devoted considerable time and energy to debating the decision to continue politics by such means.

Some, like the war’s most “categorical…passionate [and] persuasive” proponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, “imagined war rallying the country behind the Revolution and forcing the duplicitous King [Louis XVI] either to support the war and the Revolution or reveal his counterrevolutionary intentions.” But just as important, was the “crusading” aspect of the war:

War would carry liberation to the oppressed peoples of Europe, groaning still under the despotism France had thrown off. [Jordan, pp. 84]

The most passionate opponent of the war was Maximilien Robespierre. His denunciation of war plans had many dimensions to it. They remain remarkably prescient and insightful.

First, Robespierre noted that “during a war the people forget the issues that most essentially concern their civil and political rights and fix their attention only on external affairs.” Because war is conducted by the “executive authority” and the military, during war, the people direct “all their interest and all their hopes to the generals and the ministers of the executive authority.” Such slavish devotion to those in power–especially since in conducting the war, Revolutionary France would have been “fighting under the aegis of the Bourbon Monarchy”–results in a characteristically eloquent denunciation: War is “the familiar coffin of all free peoples.”

But it was the “crusading” and “utopian” aspect of the war that seemingly most troubled Robespierre, for in it he could detect an internal incoherence. The vision of lands and peoples invaded by Revolutionary France welcoming their conquerors struck him as risible:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. [It is] in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow [and] no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre did not waver from this conviction. A year after France had entered that period of its history which would be characterized by almost incessant outbreaks and declarations of war, Robespierre wrote that “One can encourage freedom never create it by an invading force.”

The historical illiteracy of those who declared war on Iraq is oft-commented on; here is yet more evidence for that claim.

Note: This post is cribbed from David P. Jordan‘s The Revolutionary Life of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 82-86; all quotes and citations originate there.)