What is postmodernism? Is it a problem? The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism. It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks. The French Revolution discussion relies primarily on Timothy Tackett’s outstanding book, The Coming of the Terror of the French Revolution, as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The French Revolution.
- Intro: The Trouble with Zombies
- Part 1: Truth is Dead
- Part 2: Objectivity is Dead
- Part 3: Hegel’s Dialectic
- Part 4: Staring into the Abyss
- Part 5: Heidegger Knows Nothing
- Part 6: Rousseau’s Paradise Lost
- Part 7: Radicalization and Revolution
- Part 8: Fear, Paranoia, Reaction, War, and Betrayal
- Part 9: First Terror
Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modern Enlightenment philosophy that overthrew Medieval faith. Modernism supposed we could use reason (not faith) to know reality. Its progeny were individualism, science, liberal democracy, free markets, technology, and medicine.
Postmodernism’s leftist political ideology is based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He offers postmodernists a political philosophy that features socialism, totalitarianism, and unthinking religious fervor.
Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment was the polar opposite of Enlightenment thinking and values. Enlightenment’s virtues were Rousseau’s vices: reason, individualism, economic liberalism, liberal democracy, science, technology, medicine.
Rousseau’s writings inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror. In 1789, desperate King Louis XVI convened the Estates General. This started a revolution. The commoners’ “National Assembly” began a constitutional monarchy. From 1789 to 1792, a cycle recurred – radicalization, leftist mob violence, and appeasement. In August 1792, the constitutional monarchy fell to a second revolution of leftist militants. The imprisoned King stood accused of treason.
The French war against Austria and Prussia turned to crisis. With Louis in prison, Lafayette turned traitor and escaped to Austria. The formidable Prussian army invaded France and marched towards Paris, under the command of the Duke of Brunswick.
The left used the crisis to seize power. Brissot and the leftist Girondists controlled the Assembly. Robespierre and the radical left Paris Commune controlled much of Paris. The radical left spewed conspiracy theories and fake news. Authorities cracked down on the clergy and the Right. The prisons filled with political prisoners.
In the First Terror, the political prisoners were massacred. Robespierre and his Paris Commune spread fear of prisoner conspiracies and Prussians at the gates. In September 1792, they called for action. Paris guards and militants attacked the prisons and executed political prisoners. In the provinces, vigilantes massacred the clergy and assorted enemies. As 1792 wound to a close, the First Terror would ebb.
The King awaited his fate in the Temple prison.
In September 1792, a new Convention assembled in Paris. They abolished the monarchy, declared the French Republic, and set to work drafting another constitution. Meanwhile, the Prussians advanced and the First Terror continued.
As 1792 wore on, the Prussian crisis ended. Brunswick’s Prussians advanced on Paris, evading French General Dumouriez and his unwieldy French recruits. French General Kellerman moved to stop the Prussians at the Battle of Valmy. After an epic artillery duel, Kellerman’s professional soldiers repulsed Brunswick’s Prussian infantry advances. Plagued by hunger and disease, the Prussians straggled away in retreat.
The Prussian defeat was a victory for Brissot and his pro-war Girondists. With the crisis past, the Convention worked to restore order, dismantle the Terror, and reign in the radicals. The political crimes Tribunal and Paris Commune were dissolved.
Brissot and the Girondists attacked Robespierre and the radicals. The Girondists wanted the radicals imprisoned. They blamed Robespierre and the radicals for the prison massacres. They accused the radicals of trying to murder Brissot. Brissot couldn’t prove it. He was stuck, “forced to follow step for step these miserable anarchists”.
Farewell to Kings
The Convention tried the King and sentenced him to death. The Girondists demanded due process (defeating the Mountain radicals, less disposed to such trivia). In December 1792, the Convention tried the King and found him guilty. The Girondists’ sought an appeal to the people, but the Mountain radicals defeated them. The Convention sentenced the King to death (by a majority of one vote). The Girondists appealed for clemency, but were defeated, again.
On January 21, 1793 the King was marched from the Temple prison and guillotined. The crowd was silent, then chanted, “Long live the nation! Long live the Republic!”
Factional hatred grew worse. Both the Girondists and the Mountain received death threats. A Mountain deputy was publicly assassinated. The Mountain radicals blamed the Girondists.
Robespierre and the radicals had outflanked Brissot and the Girondists. The Girondists had been on the Left. As Robespierre moved radically left, he left the Girondists on the Right. The crowd seemed with Robespierre.
Robespierre and the Mountain radicals wanted execution without trial. This isn’t inconsistent with Rousseau’s political theory. Rousseau put no man above “the law”. The law is only the general will of the collective and the exercise of power in its name. The individual is unimportant. Technicalities like due process, legal formalities, tribunals seem trivial. Rousseau’s ideas are radical and easily lead to mob rule and terror.
War, what is good for? Next: Part 11, Civil War.