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Words to Die By

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books and culture

Words to Die By

A new series resurrects some of history’s bloodiest manifestos. February 20, 2007

Virtue and Terror, by Maximilien Robespierre (Verso, 160 pp., $14.95) and On Practice and Contradiction, by Mao Zedong (Verso, 160 pp., $14.95)

These two books appear in a new series, “Revolutions,” published by Verso, a well-known British firm specializing in radical leftist gobbledygook. The books come with introductions by Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian psychoanalyst and social theorist, who assaults both the English language and the intelligence of those who actually manage to figure out what he’s saying.

If you think that’s harsh, here’s a representative Žižekian sentence: “The claim that the people does exist is the basic axiom of ‘totalitarianism,’ and the mistake of ‘totalitarianism’ is strictly homologous to the Kantian misuse (‘paralogism’) of political reason: ‘the People exists’ through a determinate political agent which acts as if it directly embodies (not only re-presents) the People, its true Will (the totalitarian Party and its Leader), i.e. in the terms of transcendental critique, as a direct phenomenal embodiment of the noumenal People.” Got that? The advertising that accompanies the two books says that “only a philosophical voice so profoundly attuned to the dissonances of our age as Slavoj Žižek’s could do justice to the great revolutionary texts of modernity.” In a way it’s true: Žižek’s matchless prose is a fitting introduction to these abhorrent volumes.

Maximilien Robespierre led the phase of the French Revolution called the Terror. It lasted a little over a year. He gave the orders that resulted in beheading, drowning, shooting, or burying alive about 20,000 men, women, and children. Mao Zedong ruled China between 1949 and his death in 1976. During his tenure, his followers murdered, on a low estimate, 20 million people. These two men were among the handful of great mass murderers of modern times, in the same class as Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot, and Stalin.

Both Robespierre and Mao seized control of and radicalized revolutions that they did not start. In each case, the revolution destroyed the previous corrupt regime and replaced it with hell on earth. Instead of their predecessors’ venality, Robespierre and Mao sought ideological purity, and they had a cold impersonal hatred of those whom they suspected of not sharing their crazed theories. This hatred brought them to murder people indiscriminately, not for what they did but for what they were. Innocence was no part of Robespierre’s or Mao’s vocabulary; the notion that punishment should be for real crimes, both men thought, was subversive of the grandiose project of achieving happiness for all. Their ideologies dictated the only way to reach that lofty goal; those who disagreed with their ideologies became enemies of mankind, deserving only extermination.

Robespierre was half-educated, Mao not at all. Both were charismatic and fanatical. Robespierre’s ideology derived from Rousseau, Mao’s from Marx. They borrowed what they could from these thinkers, treated their derivative beliefs as incontestable truths, never questioned themselves, and ignored readily available criticisms. Robespierre and Mao were monsters, but they exacerbated their monstrosity by sophistical self-righteousness.

They were also mind-numbingly tedious in their writings and speeches, in which they deduced policies from their ideologies—and in which, undeterred by the disastrous failure of these policies, they just deduced more policies. The books under review, two of the “great revolutionary texts of modernity,” collect some of these deductions. We get from Robespierre such gems as “terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” Mao teaches us that “by civil rights, we mean, politically, the rights of freedom and democracy. But this freedom is freedom with leadership and this democracy is democracy under centralized guidance . . . democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries is the people’s democratic dictatorship.” As for who provided the “centralized guidance,” and who the “reactionaries” were and what happened to them, well . . .

In view of the past, present, and no doubt future horrors that ideologues will inflict on the world, it’s important to understand their mentality. What are they thinking when they order the killing of untold numbers of innocents? Don’t they see the bodies? Are they devoid of all feeling for human suffering? The answer is that they view the facts through the grotesquely distorting prism of ideology. They see, not mangled bodies, but dead enemies; not innocent victims, but obstacles to universal bliss. And in themselves, they see not monstrous evildoers, but benefactors of humanity.

They can believe such travesties because their ideologies offer a misguided explanation of why the world is as it is, rather than as it ought to be. Often, as everyone knows, we fail to get what we deserve; good people come to bad ends, and bad ones die in comfort. Justice doesn’t reliably prevail; reason doesn’t always guide key decisions; and even the best-laid plans may fail, thanks to stupidity, indifference, and selfishness. Ideologies explain why this happens and, more important, they promise that human life can escape these defects. The world isn’t as it should be? Blame bad political arrangements—poverty, injustice, fear, and poor education. The way to make the world better, therefore, is to change those bad political arrangements radically. Only force—revolution—can bring that radical change about. After a revolutionary cleansing, people will no longer be corrupt, evil will disappear, and justice and universal happiness will prevail.

If ideologues were reflective, they would realize that bad people are what causes bad political arrangements. Ideologies rest on the mistaken assumption that changing political arrangements will change people. But human nature remains what it always was; only the ways it expresses itself change. Good and bad motives, virtues and vices, excellences and defects—all have characterized and will continue to characterize human beings. The ideologues’ efforts to change human nature aren’t just futile; they’re also calamitous, since they’re marked by the very flaws that they seek to eradicate. The gruesome crimes of Robespierre, Mao, and other despots testify to this truth.

Contemporary radical leftists thus have a choice. They can persist in searching for a better ideology. Or they can accept that the English-speaking and Scandinavian democracies are the envy of the world for good reason: by a slow process of trial and error they have arrived at a political system that is realistic about human nature and provides stability, high living standards, freedom, and justice. This system has many defects, but it’s still better than any past or present alternative. Reason dictates the clear choice, but it is not clear that radical leftists will make it. And the books in Verso’s “Revolutions” series, resurrecting fanatical delusions, will not help them give up their search for a nonexistent road to an unreachable goal.

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