Gramsci, Terror, & Thermidor (was Re: Gramsci Redux)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Oct 16 23:52:04 PDT 2000

Leo Casey enlists Gramsci for Laclau & Mouffe:

>Secondly, when Gramsci invokes the Jacobin tradition in his discussions of
>the political party, this is not a simple adoption of the more extreme
>moments of the French Revolution, an incorporation of the politics of the
>"Reign of Terror." To the contrary, Gramsci is interested in a very
>particular aspect of the Jacobin tradition -- its organization of what he
>calls the national-popular will. That is, he is interested in how the
>Jacobins articulated a particular set of class interests as the expression of
>the national interest. He is arguing that only when a working class party can
>do the same will it be able to exercise hegemony and rule.

Gramsci (SPN: 115): "restoration becomes the first policy whereby social struggles find sufficiently elastic frameworks to allow the bourgeoisie to gain power without dramatic upheavals, without the French machinery of terror. The old feudal classes are demoted from their dominant position to a 'governing' one, but are not eliminated, nor is there any attempt to liquidate them as an organic whole; instead of a class they become a 'caste' with specific cultural and psychological characteristics, but no longer with predominant economic functions. Can this 'model' for the creation of the modern states be repeated in other conditions?" [For more on Gramsci's thoughts on Jacobinism vs. Passive Revolution, see "Carl Cuneo's Notes on Gramsci's Concepts of Passive Revolution" at <


Gramsci did _not_ think of the Jacobin Terror as senseless & excessive violence (though moments of excess certainly did exist during the period of Jacobinism). He thought of Terror as the use of force against the Counter-Revolution. Further, he suggests above that the absence of "dramatic upheavals...the French machinery of terror" in countries (including England, America, and other nations that underwent bourgeois "revolutions") other than France meant that modernization in them was regrettably initiated through "passive revolution," the policy of restoration in which the "old feudal classes are demoted from their dominant position to a 'governing' one, but are not eliminated, nor is there any attempt to liquidate them as an organic whole." This failure to liquidate the old feudal classes as an organic whole (big landlords, etc., especially in the South) created economic, political, & cultural backwardness that laid the groundwork for fascism (itself a kind of "passive revolution") in Italy & elsewhere. The same _failure to liquidate the slave owners_ in the American South at the moment of independence eventually necessitated the bloody Civil War in the mid-19th century (contrast this sorry dithering in the USA with the decisively more democratic French & Haitian Revolutions); and with the Counter-Revolution against Black Reconstruction (removal of the federal troops & reconciliation with ex-slave owners in the South), racial oppression & economic backwardness became perpetuated, only transformed into the form of share-cropping.

As for the Terror in France, excessive or otherwise, it dialectically emerged from the violent struggles waged by the sans-culottes, which were sublated (negated & incorporated at the same time) by the Jacobins:

***** Lecture 13

The French Revolution: The Radical Stage, 1792-1794

Inflamed by their poverty and hatred of wealth, the sans-culottes insisted that it was the duty of the government to guarantee them the right to existence. Such a policy ran counter to the bourgeois aspirations of the National Assembly. The sans-culottes demanded that the revolutionary government immediately increase wages, fix prices, end food shortages, punish hoarders and most important, deal with the existence of counter-revolutionaries. In terms of social ideals the sans-culottes wanted laws to prevent extremes of both wealth and property. Their vision was of a nation of small shopkeepers and small farmers. They favored a democratic republic in which the voice of the common man could be heard....In other words, and this is important to grasp, the social and economic ideas of the sans-culottes were politicized by the Revolution itself.

On August 10, 1792, enraged Parisian men and women attacked the king's palace and killed several hundred Guards. The result of this journee was the radicalization of the Revolution. By September, Paris was in turmoil. Fearing counter-revolution, the sans-culottes destroyed prisons because they believed they were secretly sheltering conspirators. More than one thousand people were killed. Street fights broke out everywhere and barricades were set up in various quarters of the city. All this was done in order to consolidate the Revolution - to keep it moving forward. On September 21st and 22nd, 1792, the monarchy was officially abolished and a republic established. The 22nd of September, 1792 was now known as day one of the year one. In December, Louis XVI was placed on trial for violating his subjects' liberty and on January 23rd, 1793, Louis was executed like an ordinary criminal. From this time on, the Revolution had no recourse but to move forward.

After the execution of Louis, the National Assembly, now known as the National Convention, faced enormous problems. The value of paper currency (assignats) used to finance the Revolution had fallen by 50%. There was price inflation, continued food shortages, and various peasant rebellions against the Revolution occurred across the countryside. France was close to civil war.

Meanwhile, the revolutionaries found themselves not only at war with Austria and Prussia, but with Holland, Spain and Great Britain. As the Revolution stumbled under the weight of foreign war and civil war, the revolutionary leadership grew more radical. Up to June 1793, moderate reformers had dominated the National Convention. These were the Girondins, men who favored a decentralized government in which the various provinces or departments would determine their own affairs. The Girondins also opposed government interference in the economy.

In June 1793, factional disputes with the Convention resulted in the replacement of the Girondins with the Jacobins, a far more radical group. The Jacobins and Girondins were both liberal and bourgeois, but the Jacobins desired a centralized government (in which they would hold key positions), Paris as the national capital, and temporary government control of the economy. The Jacobin platform managed to win the support of the sans-culottes. The Jacobins were tightly organized, well-disciplined and convinced that they alone were responsible for saving and "managing" the Revolution from this point forward. On June 22, 1793, 80,000 armed sans-culottes surrounded the meeting halls of the National Convention and demanded the immediate arrest of the Girondin faction. The Convention yielded to the mob and 29 Girondin members of the Convention were arrested.

The Jacobins now had firm control not only of the Convention, but the French nation as well. They were the government. And they now had even more pressing problems: civil war was everywhere, economic distress had not been lifted, they had to keep the sans-culottes satisfied, they suffered continued threats of foreign invasion and the nation's ports had all been blockaded. They lived, dreading the possibility that if they failed, so too would the Revolution. Only strong leadership could save the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety assumed leadership, in April 1793. As a branch of the National Convention itself, the Committee of Public Safety had broad powers which included the organization of the nation's defenses, all foreign policy, and the supervision of ministers. The Committee also ordered arrests and trials of counter-revolutionaries and imposed government authority across the nation. What is amazing is that only twelve men controlled the CPS, although the CPS was ultimately led by MAXIMILLIEN ROBESPIERRE (1758-1794).

In Robespierre's utopian vision, the individual has the duty "to detest bad faith and despotism, to punish tyrants and traitors, to assist the unfortunate and respect the weak, to defend the oppressed, to do all the good one can to one's neighbor, and to behave with justice towards all men." Robespierre was a disciple of Rousseau--both considered the general will an absolute necessity. For Robespierre, the realization of the general will would make the Republic of Virtue a reality. Its denial would mean a return to despotism. Robespierre knew that a REPUBLIC OF VIRTUE could not become a reality unless the threats of foreign and civil war were removed. To preserve the Republic, Robespierre and the CPS instituted the Reign of Terror. Counter-revolutionaries, the Girondins, priests, nobles, and aristocrats immediately fell under suspicion. Danton, a revolutionary who sought peace with Europe, was executed.

The CPS also closed the numerous political clubs of the sans-culottes. The CPS feared spontaneous action, that is, that the revolutionary leadership might pass into other hands. About 17,000 people died as a result of the Terror. The choice instrument, was the guillotine -- it was quick and humane. In 1794, there were mass executions at Lyons. Boats were fired upon and sunk at Nantes -- 500 were killed in one execution. About 15,000 people perished officially and over 100,000 people were detained as suspects.

Robespierre and the CPS resorted to the Terror but not because they were blood-thirsty madmen. They did, however, wish to create a temporary dictatorship in order to save the Republic (a Roman idea). By the summer of 1794, there seem to be less need for the Terror. The Republic seemed a reality, an aristocratic conspiracy had subsided, the will to punish traitors decreased, and most sans-culottes went home to tend to business. And, as the need for the Terror decreased, so too did Robespierre's power and leadership. Some members of the Convention, fearing for their own lives, ordered the arrest of Robespierre. On July 27, 1794, (the 9th of Thermidor) Robespierre was guillotined -- the sans-culottes made no attempt to save him. With the 9th of Thermidor, the machinery of the Jacobin republic was dismantled. Leadership passed to the property owning bourgeoisie, that is, those men of the moderate stage of the Revolution (see Lecture 12).

By 1795, the government had passed into the hands of the five-man Directory. The new legislature sat in two chambers: the Council of 500 and the Ancients (or Senate). The Directory tried to preserve the Revolution of 1789 - they opposed the restoration of the ancien regime as well as popular democracy. They refused to leave the door open for either the excessive radicalism of the Jacobins or the spontaneity of the sans-culottes. The Directory muddled on until 1799. By this time the French Revolution was over and the French tried to get back to business as usual. Radicalism had been effectively thwarted as well. But France was still at war with the rest of Europe. And because of the war, leadership began to pass into the hands of generals. One of these generals would seize control of the government in November 1799. And on December 2, 1804, this general, Napoleon Bonaparte, would declare himself Emperor of the French -- the new Augustus Caesar. As François Furet [The French Revolution, 1770-1814, (Blackwell, 1996), p.215] has remarked:

Ten years after 1789, the French Revolution had largely become in public opinion that very special something which eluded [Benjamin] Constant's analysis: a universalist nationalism, in which the historian can discern its component elements of anti-aristocratic passion and rationalism, transfigured by the idea of the nation's historico-military election. The Directory could no more identify this mixture of sentiments than it could reassure those whose interests were threatened. On both sides there was the implicit demand for a king, but one who was radically different from other kings, since he would be born of the sovereignty of the people and of reason. This was where Napoleon Bonaparte, king of the French Revolution, was born. In 1789, the French had created a Republic, under the name of a monarchy. Ten years later, they created a monarchy, under the name of a Republic....

copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis stevek at Last Revised -- August 08, 2000

<> *****

Since we live in the period After the Autumn of the Patriarch, it is no wonder that Laclau & Mouffe, as well as many others, have come to prefer the Thermidor (e.g., the Third Way, humanitarian imperialism, etc.) to the Terror (which exhausts, for L& M, Marxism as well as Jacobinism):

***** ...Robespierre was dead and the Thermidorean Reaction had begun. The new government that emerged, the Directory, abolished the economic controls of the Terror, limited the franchise and stifled every effort at political protest. The Thermidoreans, it is clear, were trying to purge France of all revolutionary activity. By emphasizing the principles of 1789, they accepted the liberal-bourgeois gains of the Revolution, but certainly not the more radical aspirations of the sans-culottes.... ("Lecture 17 -- The French Revolution and the Socialist Tradition: Early French Communists (1)" at <>) *****


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