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Thursday, September 09, 2010

On Paris in the Terror

I am finishing up Stanley Loomis's "Paris in the Terror" which is an insightful and detailed history of what happened when the light of reason was doused in the City of Lights. I see now why the French Revolution is not coupled with the English and American Revolutions and, rather, should be more closely coupled with the Russian Revolution. In my mind, the English and American Revolutions centered on ideas that led to increased freedom and the end to random violence by the state. The French and Russian Revolutions seem to have led to the opposite, a reduction in freedom and an increase in random violence by the state. I have not studied much French history, to my chagrin, so I may have a naive view of what the French Revolution was all about but this is what I take away from Loomis's treatment of the events.

Towards the end of the book, Loomis has three very powerful paragraphs that are chilling to freedom-lovers:

Mme. Duplessis never received this little cry [a letter written by her daughter before the daughter was sent to the guillotine] from the edge of the grave. All such letters from the condemned were seized by Forquier's clerks and thrown into the files of the Tribunal, an act not so much of deliberate cruelty as of bureaucratic indifference to human suffering. The heyday had now come to the petit commissaire, the traditionally rude and disaffected men who make life miserable for those who solicit consideration from the offices of government. But instead of handling visas, tax difficulties or postage stamps, the clerks of the Revolutionary Tribunal dispatched human life.

I get a very Anthem-like or 1984-like dystopian view of human existence in such a system.

The paragraph continues:
In the welter of red tape and paper work with which they surrounded themselves, they were as insensitive to the grief of the bereaved as they were to the anguish of the dying. Lucile's last letter and many hundreds like it may be read today in the French National Archives, mute and terrible testimonies to the human suffering that was the price of the lifeless theories of such men as Robespierre and St. Just. Many of them are still stained with tears and in many others an unsteady hand betrays all to graphically the fear and despair of their doomed author.

I wonder what Loomis means by "lifeless theories?" In one sense the theories of Robespierre and his future fellow-travelers are lifeless because life, as defined by liberal (not statist) traditions, cannot exist in a world "run" by Robespierre. Or is Loomis suggesting that the theories of Robespierre were lifeless in the sense that individuals - a lot of individuals - had to die to fulfill the theory? This is very much what Lenin and Stalin, especially the latter, did.

Still more from Loomis:

During the months that preceded Danton's death the Tribunal had claimed 116 victims. in the following two months more than 500 were sent to their deaths. After the Law off 22 Prairial (June 10) was passed, the carnage began in earnest. Between June 10 and July 27, the day of robespierre's downfall, 1,366 victims perished. There can be no doubt that if Robespieere had not been overthrown, these numbers would have greatly increased in the months after Thermidor.

Loomis points out that the total population of Paris at the time was about 650,000, so it seems that the "Terror" only led to the death of a small minority of people. However, Loomis points out that the "terror" arose because anyone and everyone was on the potential hit-list of the state. Aristocrats, cleaning girls, doctors, scientists, land-lords - the heterogeneity of the people who were sent to the guillotine is how the entire city was paralyzed with fear.

A final paragraph that speaks to the fragility of human freedom in the face of evildoers:
In many ways it was better to be in prison than "free" in a city paralyzed by terror and suspicion. In prison, at least, the worst was over. One could fairly well count on death. "Out of prison you could not venture to meet, speak to or scarcely look at your friends, so terrified were you of compromising one another." So writes Pasquier, Napoleon's future Chancellor. "If you heard a knock on the door you immediately imagined that Revolutionary commissaires had come to take you away. But behind bars you re-entered society, as it were. You were surrounded by your relatives and friends and could converse freely with them."

Don't say "it can't happen here" because you know it can - if we are not vigilant about our freedoms.

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Take a deep breath, CADII. Our country (and the world as a whole) is freer now than it's ever been (unless you hyperbolize marginal tax rates to a comparable level with the Reign of Terror).
In many dimensions we are as free as ever in human history. In other dimensions less so. Overall we are on the right-tail of the distribution of freedom. However, the French Revolution, as it were, happened with the blessing of the people but ended with those very people being betrayed by their newly created paradise.

reading about what does happen in parts of the world - Kosovo, Croatia, North Korea, Sudan, Congo, Somalia, to name just a few that pop to mind, things are not that far off from the words used to describe the "terror" in Paris - most likely because all "terrors" have the same underlying structures.
I'm sure the French also believed they were too sophisticated a society to fall to the Thought Police and violent retribution.
I agree that passions here in the US are raising daily - anything is possible.

The Revolution stops here! ...right.
I also read this amazing book recently. Mr Loomis laid out a truly shocking series of events that quickly raged out of anyone's control. The French Revolution was so much worse than I thought.
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