In Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789–1848, Adam Zamoyski argues that modern systems of state repression have their origin in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, at a time when fear of the revolution spreading gave rise to panic and paranoia among ruling classes across Europe. For them, the French Revolution was “a mass explosion of every kind of wickedness, caused by the breakdown of the mesh of moral and social structures.” Zamoyksi quotes the famous opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, to give a sense of what the defenders of the monarchy thought:
We are at war with a principle. And an example, which there is no shutting out by Fortresses or excluding by Territorial Limits. No lines of demarcation can bound the Jacobin Empire. It must be extirpated in the place of its origin, or it will not be confined to that place.
Napoleon’s rise only amplified the fears of the ruling classes. He came to power as a self-styled “emperor,” in the wake of the defeat of the Jacobins and the radical stage of the revolution, dismantling the radical republican structures established during the revolution. But though he contained the revolution’s militancy at home, he spread it abroad, leading the French armies across Europe in a war of conquest. Eventually, Napoleon was defeated and sent to exile in Elba, but escaped. The ease with which he gathered his forces and retook Paris struck fear into the rulers of Europe. Even though he ruled for only a hundred days, his example forever changed the way ruling classes dealt with their fear of revolution.
Their solution was the creation of a system of repression and surveillance that has since remained at the core of all states. Napoleon, in fact, showed them the way. He collaborated with his police chief, Joseph Fouché, to set up mechanisms to impose order with a heavy hand and spy on his enemies. “I admit,” Fouché wrote, “that there never has been a police as absolute as the one which I commanded.” He was one of the first to conceive of surveillance as a method of social control. Sometimes overt violence and imprisonment were necessary. But more effective on large groups of people was the sense that they were being watched and the state knew all. Even if that wasn’t true, it was enough to have the people believe that the state was always watching their actions.
After the defeat of Napoleon, the forces of counterrevolution would have liked to go back to the old order as if nothing had happened. But this was impossible. Joseph de Maistre, the conservative philosopher, complained that even members of the old ruling classes had “clearly allowed themselves to be penetrated by the philosophical and political ideas of the age.” As the duc de Broglie, a French aristocrat, put it:
Without despising or wishing to denigrate the ancien régime, I regarded as puerile any attempt to reinstate it. In heart and mind I belonged to the new society, I believed fervently in its boundless progress; and while detesting the process of revolution. . . . I regarded the French Revolution in globo as an inevitable and salutary affliction.
Not every innovation of the revolution was retained. But the one thing that was universally kept was the system of surveillance and policing that Fouché created. From France to Italy to Germany to Russia, states copied Napoleon’s example by setting up their own systems of surveillance and repression to protect ruling classes fearful of rebellion from below. Zamoyski describes the Austrian Count Metternich and his propensity to see conspiracies around every corner. Metternich used the system of surveillance to warn every ruler in Europe of impending attempts to overthrow their rule. One of his main methods was control of the post office through his police chief, Count Josef Sedlnitzky. Berne was the hub through which all Swiss mail passed, and Sedlnitzky’s allies there made sure that “all mail between France, Germany, and Italy was accessible to the Austrian authorities.”
One example of the “conspiracies” that Metternich uncovered gives a sense of the scale of the fear of revolution that permeated Europe. Shortly after Napoleon’s defeat, Metternich thought that a demonstration in London at the Tower of London would be turned into a Jacobin uprising. In fact only a few radicals gathered and called for moderate reforms. But at Metternich’s urging, the protest was violently repressed. He wrote the London authorities, praising them for decisive action in putting down an attempt to overthrow the state.
Zamoyski argues that not only were the various repressive measures not necessary, but were damaging to the natural “liberal tendencies” that would have progressed in European society. Instead, this paranoia created a “culture of control of the individual by the state.” He adds,
Perhaps the most damaging legacy is a wholly imaginary vision of the political and therefore the social sphere as a permanent conflict between the privileged and the underprivileged; a paradigm of the rich and influential ensconced in their citadels besieged by a violent, anarchic mass of the poor and deprived, led by mad dog terrorists bent on storming those citadels and overturning the social order. This notion has bedeviled European and worldwide political discourse ever since.
Certainly, Zamoyski is right that figures like Metternich and other rulers, such as Alexander I of Russia and Pope Leo XII often overreacted to perceived threats. But Zamoyski’s thesis suffers from a number of weaknesses flowing from his liberal, idealist view of history. First, the French Revolution did indeed represent an existential threat to Europe’s feudal ruling classes and their states. Over the next 150 years, bourgeois revolutions would sweep away their old order—either by violent ones from below, like in France and Russia, or through others from above, like in Germany and Italy. While there were individual instances of paranoia, the ruling classes’ fear that their social order was in danger was quite justified.
Second, Zamoyski conflates the different societies that he analyzes. Reading the book, one gets the sense that the Austrian monarchy and the constitutional monarchy of England were the same. In fact, capitalism had long taken root in England as a result of a revolution that established a capitalist state nearly a century earlier. It was on the cusp of rapid industrialization. The ruling class in England feared Jacobinism because it worried it would trigger uprisings of the emerging working class. By contrast, societies like Austria and Russia were ruled by feudal states that oversaw societies only beginning to enter the transition to capitalism. They feared not working-class revolution, but a bourgeois one like France’s. In highlighting the parallels, Zamoyski glosses over important distinctions between the period’s different kinds of states, societies, and class struggles.
Third, Zamoyski is wrong to contend that the “conflict between privileged and underprivileged” is just a product of fear. In reality, different societies’ structures of exploitation and oppression generate irrepressible class and social struggles. States exist to contain, deflect, and if necessary repress them. The old saying “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re wrong” applies to ruling classes and their states. Their fear is rooted in the reality of class struggle.
Finally, Zamoyski claims that state repression creates and spurs on terrorism and revolts. In one sense he has a point. Repression makes the state a target of people’s anger and alienation, but he takes it too far. In fact capitalism’s class antagonisms will spur struggle and revolution no matter what the ideology—whether liberal or reactionary—that shapes state policy.
Phantom Terror is an impressive book that offers a vast amount of sources and research into the formation of the modern repressive state apparatus. For this reason it is of great use to historians of the period, and for us to understand the source of what we encounter in state repression today. But the book suffers from a liberal idealist framework that ignores the class and social conflicts under capitalism.