‘In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution’ reviewed by Patrick King

In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution

Translated by David Fernbach, Verso Books, London and New York, 2012. 108pp., £12.99 hb
ISBN 9781844678624

Reviewed by Patrick King

About the reviewer

Patrick King is a graduate student in the History of Consciousness department at UC-Santa Cruz. His …


The phenomenon of Jacobinism has always been an interpretative problem for Marxism, both politically and historically. In Marx’s early works, for instance, an appreciative but firmly critical stance was maintained, with most of the negative thrust falling on the Jacobins’ disregard for the social relations that underlay their egalitarian demands for universal political rights. Following from this critique, Lenin and Gramsci both expressed a good deal of admiration for their attempts and partial success at constructing class alliances with the peasantry and sansculottes, the popular classes that were at some points the two driving forces of the most expansive moments of the French Revolution. It has also of course become common to use the phases of the French Revolution as a comparative model for other social revolutions and upheavals, since it constitutes the classic example of a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ The ‘Jacobin phase’ usually denotes the most radical or vanguardist phase, when a political organization or party decisively intervenes and takes control of an uncertain situation and implements its specific agenda. The Bolshevik-Jacobin comparison is the one that is most frequently made, and many Bolshevik leaders constantly made references to the prior event.

And yet the Reign of Terror is the aspect of the Jacobin program that has been nearly universally condemned, even on the Left. The Jacobins may have instituted far-reaching social and political reforms that were ahead of their time, but the seeming descent into a virtual military dictatorship and an endless cycle of gratuitous blood-letting (seen as the seeds of both totalitarianism and the current wave of terrorism associated with the 9/11 attacks) has become the hard kernel that must be uniformly denounced, as no form of progressive politics can have a positive judgement of such occurrences. Any political evaluation of the Jacobins cannot be extricated from the moral judgments that inevitably result from an analysis of the Terror.

Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror is a not only a welcome corrective to these moral critiques of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, a reading that has become commonplace across the political spectrum; it is also a decisive historiographical intervention in our understanding of the revolutionary process.

For Wahnich, any detailed understanding of the Terror requires a close analysis of the ‘revolutionary dynamic.’ She constructs a framework around the internal logic of the conflict itself, driven by the motivations and emotions of the actors and the set of determinate historical possibilities they confronted. An apt description of Wahnich’s methodological approach can be found in C.L.R. James’ (1989, 89) cogent dictum from The Black Jacobins: ‘phases of revolution are not decided in parliaments, they are only registered there.’ To her contemporaries that hold the Revolution to be an ‘intolerable event’ overrun by revolutionary violence, Wahnich charges that these ‘moral reverse projections’ are fundamentally incapable of grasping the specificity of the political sequence or conjuncture that produced the Terror.

What these prior readings misrecognize is the ‘founding dynamic of emotional economy’ that formed the political laboratory of the Revolution and the difficulties that came in trying to preserve the nascent Republic. The conflictual interplay of sentiments and prescriptions, feelings and judgments within the accelerated time of the Revolution formed a complex chain of responses between the sovereign actions of the ‘people’ and the conversion or translation of those actions within the halls of the Legislative Assembly and then the National Convention. This circulation of revolutionary discourse and political sensibilities embodied the difficulty of political representation: the connection between, on the one hand, the ‘translatability of popular emotions’ and the ‘sacrality of the law’; and, on the other hand, the actual ability of the representatives to find an ‘appropriate and performative speech’ that successfully integrated this popular sovereignty that struggled to be contained.

Such an approach can be met with a certain scepticism, as it is difficult to pin down conceptually: emotions, especially collective emotions, are very difficult to grasp as tangible objects of study, and are thus difficult to define. Drawing on the work of both Jacques Guilhaumou and Jacques Rancière, Wahnich defines her approach in terms of an ‘aesthetics of politics’ that is also connected to the ‘sacred’ relation that defined the ‘revolutionary social and political bond’ (23). As the ‘foundation of a new symbolic system’ that was to maintain ‘revolutionary desire,’ the Terror cannot be dissociated from the resulting short-circuit between morality and politics. In Robespierre’s words, the ‘maintenance of equality’ is related to the ‘development of virtue’; the practice of politics was tied to the construction and cultivation of a morality, certain sentiments and behaviors (73). When enemies rose up against the forces allied to continue the revolutionary initiative, instilling within those forces a fear or dread that threatened to break this bond, the task became one of defensive action or ‘public vengeance’: each person, as part of the national general will, was called to save the patrie, to ‘participate in this sacred transaction … to rescue the people and the Revolution, to save right’ (25). While such language of virtue, commitment, and engagement may seem hard to comprehend and even dangerous today, Wahnich provides extensive archival evidence for her claims of the continual mobilization and effectiveness of this discourse of political sensibility.


Wahnich begins her narrative about the Terror with The September Massacres, which are viewed as an expression of popular vengeance and dissatisfaction with the Legislative Assembly’s actions through the summer of 1792— one of the most contentious and insurrectionary periods of the entire Revolution, culminating in the insurrection of the 10th August. These massacres, which ended in the death of thousands of political prisoners held in Paris, were held by many participants to be ‘insufferable but justifiable’ (49). Wahnich compares the actions as a decision on the sovereign exception, an appeal to Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of the phenomenon as well as Walter Benjamin’s notion of divine violence that founds any legal order (9-10, 45). Appeals to a natural humanity had no purchase for the representative defenders of these actions; political sides had to be chosen and defended, unity had to be preserved. The Terror itself was established through the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal (later to become the Committee for Public Safety) in March 1793 during a renewed crisis for the Republic (the invading armies, the uprising in the Vendée) with the ‘aim of preventing emotion from giving rise to dissolution or massacre’ (64). It was the ‘employment of sovereign vengeance by the people’ as filtered through the legislative order, and thus was tied to the expressive and demanding emotions (justice, enthusiasm, vengeance) of the general will (49, 65). Wahnich then moves chronologically, from the first responses to the Massacres by Robespierre to the eventual establishment of the revolutionary tribunal and the consolidation of the institutional arrangement that led and carried out the Reign of Terror (the Committee of Public Safety). This period of the Revolution is a complex knot of events, with many shifts in allegiances and rapid turns in popular attitudes. Indeed, while this book has a compact argument, one wishes that a timeline could have been inserted in as an appendix so the reader could track some of the events and organisations that are not defined from the outset. In any case, even during these shifts Wahnich sees a clear orientation to the political discourse and argumentation of the moment: repeated calls to ‘rally the people’ against the internal and external enemies of the revolution, the need to ‘be terrible, to save the people from being so,’ and the alignment of a ‘desire for liberty’ with a ‘desire for Terror’ (63).

Wahnich does not absolve the Jacobin leaders, notably Robespierre, from criticism. To account for the indisputable fact that the Terror led to the fall not only of the Jacobins, but also, for many, the promise of the political principles won from 1789-1794, Wahnich traces the coexistence within the Terror of a ‘logic of public vengeance’ and a ‘logic of war’, with the latter gaining the upper hand in the internal debate over clemency and leniency in punishment for political enemies. This is first touched upon in the context of a fascinating discussion about the differences between Robespierre’s absolutist understanding of political truth with that of Camille Desmoulins, who was eventually killed along with Danton for his increasing criticism of the direction of the Committee for Public Safety (54-5). A rift took shape between these initially close allies in their understanding of how to conceive the political sphere: as a plurality of political sensibilities, some worse than others, in which an individual’s viewpoint could be transformed or modified, or as a strict division between true and false viewpoints – the pairing of the ‘love of patrie’ with a ‘love of truth’? Robespierre’s position, adhering to the logic of war, led to an accumulative ideological drive towards a ‘fatal purity’ that labelled more and more of his contemporaries as enemies: the temporal exigencies of the ‘abyss of terror’ made his extreme position on political change impossible to hold for long.

While Wahnich does successfully argue against anachronistic impositions of modern-day terrorism and dictatorial or totalitarian regimes, she does not comment on the fact that various and ostensibly emancipatory revolutionary movements have taken on the form of the radically antagonistic logic inherent to the law of suspects (the Prairial Law). Such a form – when adversaries become absolute enemies – is liable to self-destruction: the movement slowly turns on itself and loses touch with its basis of popular support (71). I want to stress that with this point, I do not mean to invoke Furet’s comparison between the Gulag and the Terror, but just note the difficult task of figuring out how to protect what has been gained in a political struggle. A cycle of vengeance, she notes, is easier to open than to close, and she does point to the extraordinary attempts to totally remake the social fabric through L’An II, through public education and civic festivals – the Rousseauian dream (58, 76-77). But it has been a quite common occurrence for many revolutionary governments or organisations to succumb to repressive measures in order to maintain power; it cannot be denied that the Committee’s accrual and arrogation of authority (its channelling of popular demands and claims) during the Terror also undercut its calls for unity.

The Terror, in Wahnich’s view, was thus carried out as an attempt at self-restraint in the wake of popular violence, but also as part of a project to introduce a new political morality within the common social bond that formed during the revolution, as a refusal to let what had been previously won become a lost cause. It was a ‘process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty’ (97). Other reviewers have noted that the Preface by Slavoj Žižek is ill-suited to the main argument of the book, and I tend to agree. Žižek, along with Alain Badiou, has notoriously defended the notion of revolutionary terror, arguing that it should not be simply rejected out of hand, but understood as something that can and sometimes must occur in any emancipatory political sequence as a way of injecting a good dose of ‘popular discipline’. Wahnich’s position is more nuanced, and the most valuable aspect of her argument is more conflictual or strategic, having to do with the measures taken to sustain a popular power: how did the revolutionary dynamic effectively allow for the construction of a political body capable of giving a ‘voice to the voiceless?’ How was a revolutionary sentiment produced that took as its maxim that ‘political power does not lie on the side of wealth, but of generalized emancipation’ (81-90)? The revolutionaries’ insistence on the ‘primacy of political existence’ as a guiding prescription that had concrete, transformative effects within society is a lesson that continues to be instructive. 

4 November 2014


  • James, C.L.R. 1989 The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books).

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