Introduction: Causa Locuta, Roma Finita
. . . One usually forgets that Freud’s five great clinical reports are basically reports on a partial success and ultimate failure; in the same way, the greatest Marxist historical accounts of revolutionary events are the accounts of great failures (of the German Peasants’ War, of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, of the Paris Commune, of the October Revolution, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution . . .). Such an examination of failures confronts us with the problem of fidelity: how to redeem the emancipatory potential of these failures through avoiding the twin trap of nostalgic attachment to the past and of all-too-slick accommodation to “new circumstances.” . . .
I THE STATE OF THINGS
Radical Intellectuals Or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction) in 1933
A domestication of Nietzsche
. . . Is Brown not all too un-Nietzschean in her reduction of “Nietzsche” to a provocative correction of democracy which, through his exaggeration, renders visible the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the democratic project? When she proclaims Nietzsche’s implicit (and also explicit) anti-democratic project “unliveable,” does she not thereby all too glibly pass over the fact that there were very real political projects which directly referred to Nietzsche, up to and including Nazism, and that Nietzsche himself constantly referred to actual political events around him—say, the “slave rebellion” of the Paris Commune that he found so shattering? . . .
II LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao
“What do you want?”
. . . Jacobin revolutionary terror is sometimes (half) justified as the “founding crime” of the bourgeois universe of law and order, in which citizens are allowed to pursue their interests in peace, but one should reject this claim on two accounts. Not only is it factually wrong (many conservatives were quite right to point out that one can achieve bourgeois law and order without terrorist excesses, as was the case in Great Britain—although there is Cromwell to remember . . .); much more important, the revolutionary Terror of 1792–94 was not a case of what Walter Benjamin and others call state-founding violence, but a case of “divine violence.” Interpreters of Benjamin wonder what “divine violence” could effectively mean—is it yet another leftist dream of a “pure” event which never really takes place? One should recall here Friedrich Engels’s reference to the Paris Commune as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat:
Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
One should repeat this, mutatis mutandis, apropos divine violence: “Well and good, gentlemen critical theorists, do you want to know what this divine violence looks like? Look at the revolutionary Terror of 1792–94. That was Divine Violence.” (And the series can continue: the Red Terror of 1919 . . .) That is to say, one should fearlessly identify divine violence with positively existing historical phenomena, thus avoiding all obscurantist mystification. When those outside the structured social field strike “blindly,” demanding and enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is “divine violence”—recall, a decade or so ago, the panic in Rio de Janeiro when crowds descended from the favelas into the wealthy part of the city and started looting and burning supermarkets—this was “divine violence” . . . Like biblical locusts, divine punishment for men’s sinful ways, it strikes from out of nowhere, a means without an end—or, as Robespierre put it in his speech in which he demanded the execution of Louis XVI:
Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is thus another name for Benjaminian “divine violence” which is outside the law, a violence exerted as brutal revenge/justice—but why “divine”? “Divine” points towards the dimension of the “inhuman”; one should thus posit a double equation: divine violence = inhuman terror = dictatorship of the proletariat. Benjaminian “divine violence” should be conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: not in the perverse sense of “we are doing it as mere instruments of the People’s Will,” but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of a sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or lose one’s own life) made in absolute solitude, with no cover from the big Other. If it is extra-moral, it is not “immoral,” it does not give the agent the license just to kill with some kind of angelic innocence. The motto of divine violence is fiat iustitia, pereat mundus: it is through justice, the point of non-distinction between justice and vengeance, that the “people” (the anonymous part of no-part) imposes its terror and makes other parts pay the price—Judgment Day for the long history of oppression, exploitation, suffering—or, as Robespierre himself put it in a poignant manner:
What do you want, you who would like truth to be powerless on the lips of representatives of the French people? Truth undoubtedly has its power, it has its anger, its own despotism; it has touching accents and terrible ones, that resound with force in pure hearts as in guilty consciences, and that untruth can no more imitate than Salome can imitate the thunderbolts of heaven; but accuse nature of it, accuse the people, which wants it and loves it.
And this is what Robespierre is targeting in his famous accusation to the moderates that what they really want is a “revolution without a revolution”: they want a revolution deprived of the excess in which democracy and terror coincide, a revolution respecting social rules, subordinated to preexisting norms, a revolution in which violence is deprived of the “divine” dimension and thus reduced to a strategic intervention serving precise and limited goals. . . .