The Jacobins shared a defining ideological feature. They divided the world between pro- and anti-Revolutionaries — the defenders of liberty versus its enemies. The French Revolution, as they understood it, was the great event that would determine whether liberty was to prevail on the planet or whether the world would fall back into tyranny and despotism.
The stakes could not be higher, and on these matters there could be no nuance or hesitation. One was either for the Revolution or for tyranny.
Confronted by a monarchical Europe united in opposition to revolutionary France — old Europe, they might have called it — the Jacobins rooted out domestic political dissent. It was the beginning of the period that would become infamous as the Terror.
Among the Jacobins’ greatest triumphs was their ability to appropriate the rhetoric of patriotism — Le Patriote Français was the title of Brissot’s newspaper — and to promote their political program through a tightly coordinated network of newspapers, political hacks, pamphleteers and political clubs.
Even the Jacobins’ dress distinguished “true patriots”: those who wore badges of patriotism like the liberty cap on their heads, or the cocarde tricolore (a red, white and blue rosette) on their hats or even on their lapels.
Insisting that their partisan views were identical to the national will, believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent. Political opponents were treasonous, stabbing France and the Revolution in the back.
To defend the nation from its enemies, Jacobins expanded the government’s police powers at the expense of civil liberties, endowing the state with the power to detain, interrogate and imprison suspects without due process. Policies like the mass warrantless searches undertaken in 1792 — “domicilary visits,” they were called — were justified, according to Georges Danton, the Jacobin leader, “when the homeland is in danger.”
If the French Terror had a slogan, it was that attributed to the great orator Louis de Saint-Just: “No liberty for the enemies of liberty.” Saint-Just’s pithy phrase (like President Bush’s variant, “We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself”) could serve as the very antithesis of the Western liberal tradition.
On this principle, the Terror demonized its political opponents, imprisoned suspected enemies without trial and eventually sent thousands to the guillotine. All of these actions emerged from the Jacobin worldview that the enemies of liberty deserved no rights.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
I nearly missed reading this op-ed in the Sunday NYTimes. It draws some rather sharp distinctions between the Bush/Cheney/Rove wing of the Republican Party today with the Jacobins who ruled France in the wake of the French Revolution.