Book Review: In Defense of the Terror by Sophie Wahnich
I must admit that, even after a careful reading, Wahnich’s in Defense of the Terror evaded my full comprehension. Before opening this short book, I assumed it would be a revisionist or politically pointed historical study. Its title and publisher Verso’s presentation of it reinforced that preconception, which I believe collapsed upon a first reading.
Not a Work of History: The Archaeology of a Word
Just because a historian writes a book does not make it history. Wahnich might be engaging with historians’ interpretation and making use of written sources in a similar way, but the book is not primarily an exposition of the French Revolution in any normal sense. Rather, it is a kind of archaeological study of terror––not just the Terror of the French Revolution but the idea of terror as it runs from the 1790s to the present. Coupled with this is the word “terrorist,” a word that, she notes, originated in the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794. Her primary purpose is to demonstrate that revolutionary terror was a justified intervention on behalf of a revolution beset by the dread of its enemies. it was “a process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty in which the object was to conquer tyranny or die for liberty.” It was, therefore, not related to the epithet “terrorist” until it was defeated and de-legitimized by the conservative reaction to it. Revolutionary terror, she believes, actually channeled popular emotions connected to revenge and warfare and restricted rather than promulgated chaos and anarchy. It was a sovereign act conducted by the revolutionaries in the name of liberty.
Given the above, In Defense of the Terror cannot be classified as a conventional history book. Its intentions are too present-minded even if it refracts them through a historical detour. The end of the book is a reflection on the incidents of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. Wahnich’s concluding sentence is telling: “The violence exercised on 11 September 2001 aimed neither at equality nor liberty. Nor did the preventive war announced by the president of the United States.” The book works its way up to that sentence by traveling through history and unearthing an analogy that can disprove the “democratic” ideals of the American wars of reprisal.
Wahnich’s primary analytical frame throughout the book is emotional. Discussions in the book often centre on the kinds of feelings experienced by the people and articulated by the leaders of the French Revolution. Beginning with the death of Marat and the dread it provoked, she lays out a scheme for how this dread could be transformed into a justification for terror. The enemies of the revolution milled about unchecked, and if one of the great leaders of the people could fall to their blades, there was a sense of danger as well as an outpouring of desire for revenge. For the most part, therefore, the Terror was a kind of sovereign act of revenge on the enemies of the people. Those who opposed this terror were eventually identified as enemies as well, and the entire affair escalated into a state of war before long. Enemies who could previously be “othered” and imprisoned became targets that death alone could quench. As a result, Robespierre and the other prosecutors of the terror put thousands to death by guillotine in the name of liberty. Wahnich aims to prove that this was not a paradoxical notion, that defense of the revolution demanded such a response, which she defends as far more moderate than what the people otherwise might have done.
Politically, In Defense of the Terror functions here and now not so much as history but as a treatise in favor of the violence of revolution. Exercised in the name and for the defense of the people, it struck righteous terror into the minds of the enemies of the revolution and attempted to normalize the values of liberty and equality, the civic religion of revolutionary France, into society’s emotional core. It also removed the obstacle of reactionary enemies. Though it ultimately failed to safeguard the most radical phase of the revolution, with its defeat giving way to Thermidor, Napoleon, and the Restoration, it proved an apt example for the Red Terrors of the twentieth century. Given the immense and entrenched military power of the bourgeoisie in the twenty-first century, we are behooved to remember that no revolution has proceeded without terrors both White and Red, and that the primary aim is to defeat the first and establish the second as law. Though the book is often elliptical in making its points and even too timid at times, it has some salient points despite these limitations. Strongly recommended to those interested in the French Revolution or the contemporary meaning of terror and terrorism.