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

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Tue Oct 17 14:08:38 PDT 2000

Though I disagree with you on Gramsci's interpretation of the Jacobins & Machiavelli (more on this later), you are entitled to your opinion on this subject. We should, however, refrain from judging the Jacobins & Machiavelli by our contemporary democratic or socialist standards. Anachronism makes us ignore their _democratic_ achievements while minimizing the _anti-democratic_ aspects of their contemporaries in comparison.



I wanted to mention something about the complex role of Christianity back when this thread (was it this thread?) was running on slavery and the question of whether the apparent stability of slavery was due to the consent of the oppressed or merely the artifact of force.

The judeo-christian moral universe was and is both the yoke for and the succor against a very long history of slavery. I think it is worth considering the central role of this religious tradition in a lot of what has been discussed in this and the previous thread. What I mean by Christianity is the whole conceptual armature of it, its cultural elaboration into politics, law, society and its prescriptive belief system, not just the physical buildings and the texts.

Somebody posted a quote from Marx to the effect that the ether of submission was capital. This isn't wrong as far as it goes, but it doesn't define the role of religion in this submission. So, what wasn't mentioned was that the peculiar melding of Christianity and Capital in the US was critical to the form that slavery took here. Why? Because it provided a ready made moral hierarchy of human worthiness and conveniently placed Africans at the bottom as an ethico-religious justification for the legalistically constructed but immediately practical motives of the slave owning economic elite. It also provided the theoretical bystanders, all those non-propertied white masses with an excuse to either look the other way or join in the atrocity.

I think one of the other interesting things that can be looked at are the differing readings of the same religious tradition--one white, considering the patriarchal hierarchy of human worthiness, its rectitude with the feudal ordering of the world, and the other black, focusing on individual resistance under oppression (Egypt and Rome), freedom conceived as an ether beyond the material vale that is hopelessly removed from a lived reality, and a profound identification with the universal lamentation of oppressed Jews and Christians in antiquity.

Christianity is positively reeking with slavery, oppression, and subjugation, and deforms the entire cosmos of the mind and sensibility to those ends. This central theme of Christianity surfaces under both Machiavelli and the Jacobins. The church was central to Machiavelli's concept of civic virtue constructed as an antithesis to religious morality and makes a methodological practice of the separation between the well run city of man and the well run city of god. The contrasting view, the wedding of political conduct with Christian morality can be seen in Erasmus.

What seems forgotten about the Jacobins was that their wrath aimed at the ancien regime, was exercised measure for measure on the clergy and religious orders as well. It was the divine rights of both that were brought before the committee for public security, found lacking in that modern republican spirit and then dispatched to face the radical equality of citoyen guillotine.

Thermidor was among other things the erasure of the religious calendar, as well as the declaration of a total cultural war on all forms of the Christian feudal order and propertied classes. This war went right on down to the feudal methods of measuring time and space. These were replaced with the infamous metric system. The revolution under the Jacobins would replace the holy days of yore and their elaborated mysteries of saints and relics with celebrations for the supreme being which was in essence the revolutionary national state itself. Festivals for the republic, like sans-culottide, days without pants(?) included parades in roman togas ordered with children in antique costumes, followed by adolescents, then the grown-ups and the old complete with variously decorated floats on wagons. The Jacobins began this national propaganda program and consigned it to citoyen David and a cultural war began that has only been rivaled and exceeded in the twentieth century. In David's hands the entire feudal ideal that merged royal art with religious celebration and decoration was re-ordered along the spare roman lines so that the celebration of the republican national state was the first and only form of public art and public religion. The styles and forms of pre-christian antiquity were resuscitated and re-worked to compose neo-classicism and became the revolutionary model for all national buildings and public architecture as can be seen in Paris and Washington DC. The rococo dress styles were popularly proscribed as indicative of nobility and feudal decadence with their lace and velvet pastels and replaced with the plain colors and complete lack of ornamentation. You can see the changes in David's portraits before, during, and after the revolution.

So, in a sense what the posted lectures called the Thermidorian Reaction or the languishing Directorate was merely the rendition of the facade or cultural accouterment of revolution with out its political substance, the radicalization of the Jacobins answerable to the national convention, universal suffrage, and the rising aspirations of the lower classes. But the culture war that the term Thermidor reflects finally ran afoul of the more entrenched social customs and religious beliefs and those parts of Christians feudalism that cultivated the moral hierarchy of human worthiness and its attending cosmological subjugation into unequal classes.

Among the strange political battles that took place in which religion played a central role was the Jewish question. Consider that under the revolution the people had to be enrolled as citizens, take an oath of allegiance and be sworn into membership. They were converted from royal subject to national citizens. This was done on a local level administered by local officials. This lead to a question of the status of Jews, the Jewish question, particularly from Alsace and eastern France with larger jewish communities. The conversion of Jews to citizenship was debated in the Constituent Assembly off and on from the beginning. Jews finally won full rights to elective office over the catholic and theocratic resistance coming from the more conservative clergy in late 1791 or the eve of the Jacobin take over. However, until that Jacobins arrived, the catholic clergy could still entertain the idea that the revolution would creat a christian national state, and not an entirely secular one, perhaps modeled on the ideals of Erasmas rather than Machiavelli and the Enlightenment

This lack of mention of role of Christianity seems like a slight error or omission in these threads, but I think it is critical to remember it. For one thing we are engaged in a similar cultural war with the obnoxious religious right and virtually all the issues of the moral majority, and their impact on national politics, policy and law are echoed in the historical sweep of modernity at its origins in the French revolution.

Chuck Grimes

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