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Refighting the Revolution

In response to:

The Decline and Fall of the French Revolution from the February 15, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to offer three objections to the scathing funeral ode pronounced by Conor Cruise O’Brien, “The Decline and Fall of the French Revolution” [NYR, February 15].

The first is quite simply that if the Revolution was as dead as O’Brien claims then it would be unlikely to arouse such an impassioned and comprehensive attack.

The second is that O’Brien is only able to deny the emancipatory legacy of the Revolution by entirely ignoring its impact on the French colonies in particular and on New World slavery in general.

Indeed, if we compare the French Revolutionary record on slavery with the three Anglo-Saxon revolutions preferred by O’Brien then there can be little doubt about the superiority of Jacobinism over Anglo-American liberalism. The English revolutions actually helped to rivet the chains on some millions of captive Africans. The revolution of, amongst others, American slave-holders enunciated some fine principles but left slavery undisturbed where it really counted, in the plantation zone. The Constitution of 1787 even contrived a euphemistic acknowledgement of slavery. By contrast the French Revolution in its Jacobin phase came to support a policy of general slave emancipation (the Decree of Pluviose An 2, February 1794). The later Directory gave vital sustenance to the “black Jacobins,” as C.L.R. James called them, so that by the time Napoleon attempted to restore slavery it was impossible.

The willingness of the French Revolutionaries to back slave rebellion and emancipation was by no means simply an act of disinterested nobility. And those responsible for it were in some cases also responsible for despicable terrorism and corruption. But these circumstances cannot cancel out what the Jacobins achieved nor do they justify Conor Cruise O’Brien’s partiality and neglect.

At the time of the Decree of Pluviose slavery was still upheld by the laws of New York just as there was also a thriving British slave trade. The adoption of the Decree by the Convention—and the tenacious resistance of hundreds of thousands of former slaves—was a powerful factor in persuading the British and New York legislatures to change their minds, just as the example of the Black Jacobins was to inspire abolitionists, black and white, for nearly a century.

In cadences reminiscent of his countryman Edmund Burke, O’Brien excoriated the absolutism of the Jacobins, their willingness to advance the state against private interest. Yet it was precisely respect for private property which prevented eighteenth century Anglo-Saxon liberalism from expropriating the slaveholders just as it was civic zeal for the common good which made thinkable the French revolutionary policy of revolutionary emancipationism.

The third objection relates to O’Brien’s strange contention that the revolutions of 1989 simply contradict that of 1789. The slogan of “liberty, equality and (as we would say today) solidarity” is surely alive and kicking? Nationalism can indeed, as O’Brien warns and as we have also seen in the Communist states, take ugly forms; but surely a yearning for national liberation played some role in 1989? Timothy Garton Ash has suggested parallels with 1848 which surely has some link to 1789? A small but not insignificant detail is that the “Internationale” sung by the Chinese students in June was also a product of that French Revolutionary tradition belittled by O’Brien.

Robert Darnton, writing eloquently over a year ago in your pages, achieved not only a fairer assessment but also a real and prophetic insight into the liberatory charge of a Revolution whose memory can still prove disagreeable to those gorged on power or wealth.

Robin Blackburn
London, England

Conor Cruise O’Brien replies:

Mr. Blackburn’s best point is the one about the Decree of the Convention liberating the slaves in February 1794. But even that is not as good as he makes it sound. The Convention was moved—as Mr. Blackburn is aware—not by any abstract passion for la liberté, but by an acute desire to keep at least some form of control over France’s rich colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The Convention’s writ did not run at the time of Saint-Domingue. The slaves were in rebellion, under Toussaint l’Ouverture, and the English, then at war with France, had landed in force to annex the island in the name of George III. The decree of Pluviose gave the revolting slaves an interest in fighting the English, to keep the island French. The move was good tactics, but no more than that. Other points are weaker. Any Chinese students who sang the Internationale are likely to have been complimenting not some French tradition but the Soviet Union, saluting their visitor Gorbachev, whose liberalizing regime they wished to contrast with China’s reactionary one. And the main symbol of their movement, “the Goddess of Liberty,” was clearly modeled on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

It is not likely that many of those who brought about the destruction of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe felt themselves indebted to the French Revolutionary tradition. All the regimes they were overthrowing, after all, had—like their model, the Soviet Union—universally and consistently propagated a cult of that tradition, which Marxism-Leninism claimed, not without some reason, to have brought to perfection.

Still, I am grateful to Mr. Blackburn if only for having likened my modest literary efforts to the prose of Edmund Burke.

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