Terror in the French Revolution and today

In Defense of the Terror:

LIberty or Death in the French Revolution

Since the 1990s, and especially after September 2001, terrorism has replaced Communism as a major world political media headline. Racists and nativists, particularly in Europe and the United States, have seized on this development to recruit large numbers of supporters primarily on the basis of Islamophobia. For their part, intent on taking advantage of the fear that terrorism has generated, the ruling classes and the forces for law and order have ignored or kept silent about the considerable extent to which terrorism—however mistaken and often reactionary—is a response to the very real dispossession and oppression of imperialism and local rulers. Surreptitiously, and with a fair amount of success, these forces have expanded the meaning of terror from the deliberate killing of civilians by state or nonstate actors to many other forms of political violence such as, for example, violent demonstrations and other clashes with police, and even nonviolent actions such as interfering with

governmental functions with the obvious goal to repress, isolate, and make many forms of resistance illegitimate and unpopular.

This expanded definition of terrorism has ignored a more frequent and consequential form of terrorism: state terrorism. The right wing along with many liberals rejects the notion that states themselves, including those of capitalist democracies, engage in terrorist activities, as in the case of the massive and indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations by the allied powers in World War II, and today’s bombings and drone warfare by the United States that have killed thousands of civilians in countries such as Afghanistan.

Sophie Wahnich’s arguments in defense of terror

The term “Terror,” means the terrorism carried out by a revolutionary state, and hails back to the French Revolution; it emerged as an ideologically laden term used in the conservative backlash to that revolution during the Thermidorean reaction of the 1790s in France, and was disseminated abroad by conservative figures like Edmund Burke, and by reform-minded literary figures such as Charles Dickens. These and other highly influential voices helped create a veritable antirevolutionary archetype—based on numerous questionable premises and facts—that has been brought back to life in recent decades by the writings of people like the French historian François Furet.

One would have hoped that a serious left-wing study explicitly presenting itself as a defense of terror would have examined the historical record to dispel and respond to such conservative archetypes. Unfortunately, In Defence of the Terror does no such thing. It is instead a pretentious, badly written book1 that has only one virtue: brevity.

Wahnich roots the Terror in a dynamic of “emotions” governed on one hand by the pursuit of vengeance and, on the other hand, by the pursuit of political “sacrality.” (Although not properly explained, I suppose she is referring to an attempt to ensconce the revolution into an absolute untouchable truth beyond question or criticism.) As she tells it, the revolutionaries, faced with the intent of counterrevolutionaries to terrorize the patriots, reacted by taking the initiative to use terror, or as she puts it, they decided to “be terrible.” Thus, in reaction to the dread provoked by their enemies, the revolutionaries’ “emotions” turned into the demand for terror (19–20). The problem is that these “emotions”—the pursuit of vengeance and the sacred—while real, are highly diffuse and can apply to many different kinds of political behavior. They do not explain the specific politics of that revolution that led specific actors to take specific decisions in response to existing conditions.

It is not surprising that, consistent with her general outlook, Wahnich also argues that the Terror involved “a political paradigm that places sentiment rather than reason as the founding position,” (73) and makes of revolutionary activity not a voluntary, politically conscious act, but a behavior independent of individual or group volition and choice, since according to her, “someone who does not rise up against tyrant and crime, but allows crime to happen, himself becomes a tyrant and traitor” (89). This is an application of the concept of collective responsibility that Wahnick explicitly endorses, and which ignores the very real distinctions between different degrees of responsibility and guilt. Taking this notion to its logical conclusion, a confused, fearful, or apathetic citizen is as responsible for political misdeeds or crimes as a war criminal. And following Wahnich’s logic, the democratic process of politically winning people over to join the progressive or revolutionary movement becomes irrelevant, whether in the France of the 1790s or in the France of the twenty-first century.

Neither is it surprising that Wahnick’s notion of collective responsibility is of a piece with her antihumanist sentiment that defines the human condition as limited to the possession of civic and political virtue. Incorporating Robespierre’s notion that the sentiment of “political humanity” had to prevail in each person over the sentiment of “natural humanity,” Wahnich argues that the Terror brought two views of humanity into conflict: “One of these, committed to saving bodies indifferently (those of friends, enemies, accomplices, traitors, slaves) so as not to injure its sentiment of natural humanity, was attached to the life of each human being as such, while the other was attached to preserving the meaning that a person wishes to give to life, to the common well being” (52–53, Wahnich’s emphasis). This stands against the notion that being human is in itself a unique attribute with a vital sentient, moral, and rational content and potentially independent of any specific political views or behavior.

Marx and Engels on the French Terror

Given Wahnich’s disappointing approach, it is necessary to turn to an alternative perspective on the French Revolution and its Terror. While thousands of articles and books have been written on these topics, the substantial, although dispersed, writings of Marx and Engels point in useful directions and provide an implicit method to analyze these events.

It is important to point out that Marx and Engels were not “Robespierrists” in their interpretation of the French Revolution and the Terror; they did not regard Robespierre’s political current as the progressive leadership of the revolution. There has been some confusion on this matter in the Marxist literature; the dominant interpretation of the French Revolution and the Terror has been much influenced by pro-Robespierre historians like Mathiez and by the historic “line” adopted by the French Communist Party.2 In fact, Marx and Engels were politically hostile to Robespierre and to the main faction of the Jacobins, and favored instead the Hébertist and the “Enragé” factions” that criticized the Jacobins for their neglect of the social question.3 Wahnich recognizes this as a feature of Robespierre’s politics, and points out that he rejected the idea of an agrarian law involving land distribution even though he acknowledged that inequality was the source of many evils and crimes. Robespierre, writes Wahnich, thought that equality of goods was an unrealizable chimera and that the solution should tend more to “render poverty honorable than to proscribe opulence.” (81) Indeed, Marx noted, in an 1844 article, that Robespierre saw the existence of extremes of poverty and wealth “only as an obstacle to pure democracy,” not as a social issue to be overcome, and that Robespierre’s solution to inequality and poverty was the establishment of a “universal Spartan frugality.” That derived, according to Marx, from Robespierre’s glorification of the will over material conditions. As Marx argued, for Robespierre

The principle of politics is the will. The more one sided...the political mind is, the more does it believe in the omnipotence of the will, the more it is blind to the natural and spiritual limits of the will, and the more incapable it is therefore of discovering the source of social ills.”4

When analyzing the Terror itself, Engels held that it made sense initially as a way to confront the enemies that were making war on the revolution inside and outside France. But, as Engels explained in a letter to V. Adler, the problem was that Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety had adopted a modest, limited perspective of how to end the war that fell far short of the war perspective of the left-wing Commune elements “who wanted the propagandist war and the republicanization of Europe”—that is, who wanted to conduct the war in a manner that would internationalize the revolution in order to deepen it. In a later letter to Kautsky, Engels concluded that this left wing proved to be in the right—which became clear only after Robespierrre had beheaded it.5 In other words, since the Commune with its extreme left-wing tendency became a hindrance for Robespierre, as well as for Danton, both of whom wanted to end the war and achieve peace in their own limited way, the Terror became for Robespierre a means of self-preservation and thereby became absurd. Then, when the foreign threat seemed to have come to a complete end, the Terror became untenable; Robespierre fell, and the bourgeois orgy of reprisals began.6 Writing to Marx in September of 1870, Engels reflected on the nature of the “Reign of Terror” in 1793:

We take this to mean the reign [or rule] of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are terror stricken. La terreur is in large part useless cruelties committed by people who are in fear themselves, for their own self-assurance. I am convinced that the blame for the Reign of Terror in ’93 lies almost exclusively on the shoulders of the terribly frightened bourgeois behaving like patriots, and on the little philistines who are shitting in their pants, and on the lumpen-mob making a profit out of the terreur.7

This discussion is not meant to suggest that Marx and Engels were in principle against the use of terror in a revolutionary situation. In his survey of the writings of Marx and Engels on revolutionary terror, Hal Draper found that they thought it was justified in many instances, usually when used as a defense against the terrorist practices of the ruling classes, and even as a last resort to prevent the revolutionary forces from disintegrating. Thus, in The Peasant War in Germany, a study of a peasant war against the nobles and landlords in the German-speaking areas of Central Europe in 1524–1525, Engels defended the decision of Thomas Münzer, the leader of the rebellion, to execute two of his supporters for advocating for the German princes’ offer to pardon the rebels if they delivered Münzer alive.8 For Münzer, who at that point was leading a desperate attempt to defend his rebel troops from being massacred, support for the princes’ proposal, no matter how minimal, meant opening the door, in an extremely critical military moment, to the wiping out of the rebellion and its leadership. That is why, in Engels’ view, he was justified in having them summarily killed.

Engels’ considerations are highly relevant to the modern and current issue of desertion from rebel/revolutionary forces in unstable military situations, where the rebels are gaining and losing territory and consequently do not have the material means or prospect of stable rule that would allow them to enforce less drastic forms of punishment like imprisonment. It must be noted, however, that Robespierre’s Terror was a different phenomenon, and involved very different considerations than those included in the peasant war in Germany. Robespierre and his Jacobins took advantage of a real counterrevolutionary threat to justify their own “surplus repression” (the conscious use of repression that went over and beyond the threat they confronted) in pursuit of their factional interests, and to impose their own class perspective and political point of view on other revolutionary groups with different political perspectives. This is why Hal Draper, in his discussion of the Terror of 1793, introduced the distinction between the “Terror” proper and ‘the final degeneration of the Terror into a bloody caricature of itself.”9

Behind Marx and Engels’ discussions of the specifics of the Terror, is a method that focuses most of all on the social and political program and social and political composition of the revolutionary leadership as well as the political programs associated with the different tendencies in that leadership (with particular emphasis on the centrality that the social question and deepening the revolution had for them). All of this combined with an understanding of the military and survival needs of the revolution against the armed aggression coming from within and outside France. It continues to be a useful method to understand specific cases of political violence, including terrorism.

Terror and terrorism today

In addition to her analysis of the Terror in the French Revolution, Wahnich’s book presents other discussions by herself and other authors on contemporary terrorism and political violence, the most notable being the lengthy foreword by Slavoj Žižek. Unfortunately, however, his foreword does little to clarify and actually muddies up the issues at hand.10 He claims, for example, that “for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it is always a matter of strategic consideration to use violence against the enemy or not)” (XXI). In the first place, to claim that violence is “never” necessary is to implicitly make a case for nonviolence or pacifism, a position he has rejected in the past, but which at least his foreword does not acknowledge. In the second place it is an ahistorical, apolitical generalization: one can never know in advance when violence will be necessary since it is a tactic influenced by the existing relation of forces between the contending parties. Moreover, it is far more likely than not that violence will occur given the long-standing historical record of the classes in power to recur to violence to fight off any real threat to their power, which makes violence a necessary response to those involved in the struggle to improve their lives and to liberate themselves from oppression.

Lastly, it is also true that, in general terms, the recourse to violence by the oppressed is always legitimate. But this tenet might have to be qualified when looking at the concrete circumstances of the case, as for example, the violence of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) against their undoubted oppressors—the Iraqi and Syrian states. The legitimacy of their particular kind of violence must be questioned in light of the sectarian violence and atrocities they have perpetrated against women, gays, and “nonbelievers,” aside from the oppressive regimes they have forced on the people of the lands they have occupied.

State terrorism and individual terrorism

There are other issues relevant to terror and terrorism today that are alluded to but not sharply outlined by Wahnick and Źiźek. One is state terrorism. As noted before, the forces for law and order have contributed to the ideological manipulation of the term terrorism by, on the one hand, labeling many forms of legitimate violence, such as guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes, and even non-violent resistance, such as obstructing and sabotaging the functioning of imperialist governments, as terrorist and, on the other hand, by ignoring or denying the reality of state terrorism, as in Hiroshima, Gaza, the Kurdish lands, Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

State terrorism employs weapons, such as nuclear bombs, whose exclusive purpose is to terrorize and wipe out whole populations precisely because the intrinsic nature of these weapons prevents them from discriminating between combatants and noncombatants, and between military targets and civilian populations. This is why many of such weapons and instruments of state terrorism are not neutral and cannot be utilized by progressive and revolutionary forces, whether in opposition or in power. So when Ernesto “Che” Guevara boasted that “the Soviet atomic bomb was in the hands of the people,”11 he was not only blatantly ignoring the undemocratic political realities of the USSR, but also the intrinsic inability of nuclear weapons to distinguish between combatants and civilians, between the government and ruling classes and the rest of the population.

Similar considerations apply to other methods of state repression such as torture, as in the case of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where the US government, under the legal claim that armed Islamic militants do not belong to “regular” constituted armies and are thus not entitled to the protection of international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war, felt free to torture prisoners.12 It is not only that systematic torture “doesn’t work” in terms of producing reliable information as both liberals and conservatives have argued, probably correctly, but that these methods, like nuclear weapons, are not neutral and cannot be used by progressive and revolutionary forces. Its systematic use requires secrecy and the deception of the population; it doesn’t only brutalize its victims, but also its practitioners and eventually the society as a whole. It is in this sense that the systematic use of torture violates democratic principles as well as the humanist tenets that Wahnich, following Robespierre, dismisses so easily.

Regarding individual terrorism, V. I. Lenin and other socialists in the classical Marxist tradition strongly criticized the theory and practice of individual terrorism because of its “substitutionist” character in replacing mass action with individual action. While this makes sense as a general guideline for progressive and revolutionary social change, it is impossible to foresee all the political conjunctures and circumstances that may justify the violent actions and initiatives of individuals (and small groups). Critics in the classical Marxist tradition have a tendency to downplay the content of individual violent actions, if not altogether ignoring them, or the specific nature of the target and whether, for example, bystanders are deliberately targeted. So, for example, during the struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the Cuba of the 1950s, the militant opposition detonated hundreds of bombs in towns and cities all over the island. They had typically been carried out with various goals in mind, such as helping to create a sense of instability and unrest, to demonstrate that the government was vulnerable, and were generally placed in locations where civilians were unlikely to be harmed. There was nothing “substitutionist” about these bombings as such,13 and in fact these incidents helped to raise popular confidence and militancy against the dictatorship. The same could apply, under certain circumstances, to other individual acts of violence involving, for example, the assassination of despots and dictators.

The use of the term terror today

In the more than 200 years since the French Revolution, the term terror has been used, abused, distorted, and transformed. Words have denotations and connotations, which in the case of the term terror, have been shaped by great historical crimes and tragedies. So just as it has become necessary and more useful to use the term revolutionary socialism instead of communism,14 it is also more useful to talk, instead of terror, of the necessary use of violence for self-defense against any violent political attacks, and for taking power and preserving it. This alternative term emphasizes the notion of what is necessary, that is, it emphasizes the politics of the proportionate and rational response to threats and acts of aggression instead of the callousness that sometimes smuggles itself into the defense of revolutionary violence.

It is true that an authentic revolutionary upheaval from below inevitably involves “excesses,” but when these are condoned or sanctioned by the revolutionary leadership, they are no longer “excesses” but government policy. This stance avoids Wahnich’s understandable but ultimately sterile effort to insist that “revolutionary terror is not terrorism,” (102) although she is correct that there is no moral equivalence between the French revolutionary Terror and contemporary terrorist acts such as those carried out on September 11, 2001.


  1. Since David Fernbach is an excellent translator and Marxist scholar in his own right, I can only assume that he did the best he could with a text that was probably even worse in the original French.
  2. Hal Draper, Special Note C “The meaning of ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume III, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986, 361.
  3. Ibid., 365–66.
  4. Cited by Hal Draper in Ibid., 362 (Marx’s emphasis).
  5. Cited by Hal Draper in Ibid., 365.
  6. Ibid.. 364–65.
  7. Ibid., 364.
  8. Ibid., 372.
  9. Ibid., 361. Similar issues arose during the Red Terror in the early years of the Russian Revolution. For an extensive and detailed discussion of this issue see chapter 4 of Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (New York: Verso, 1990), 113–143.
  10. The Slovenian philosopher’s showmanship has helped him to raise his public profile, but his politics are far less than commendable, and combines a lot of revolutionary, if not ultra-left, posturing, with unprincipled opportunism. Thus, while on one hand Trotsky’s possibly worst book Terrorism and Communism has become one of Žižek’s favorites, he has recently apologized for Syriza’s turn to austerity in Greece and for the European Union’s rejection of refugees.
  11. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Apuntes Críticos a la economía política, Editado por María del Carmen Ariet García (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006), 294, cited in Samuel Farber, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 93. It is worth noting that this was written in the mid-1960s after Guevara had become highly critical of the USSR.
  12. At the same time, the US government contends that since it is engaged in a “war” against terrorism of indefinite duration, it is entitled to keep prisoners in Guantanamo without time limits or trials.
  13. Of course, my defense of this particular tactic does not address the more general and important question of the substitutionism of the Cuban revolutionary leadership before and after it took power in 1959.
  14. That is probably one of the reasons that, for example, the organization that sponsors this journal is the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and not the International Communist Organization (ICO).

Issue #82

March 2012

Enforcers for the global 1%

NATO and the G8 come to Chicago
Issue contents

Top story

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

Letters

WeAreMany.org