The Guillotine (Part Four: Mutatis Mutandis)
First as tragedy, then as farce, then as farce, then as farce…
“Burn the guillotines; demolish the prisons”
In Parts One and Two we saw the emergence of the guillotine as linked with the creation of a rational liberal state. In Part Three we traced the guillotine as a function within the broader Terror, culminating and climaxing with the ironic guillotining of Robespierre.
The death of Robespierre was not, of course, the end of the guillotine. While French Civil Society may have had little use for Robespierre’s cult, and the labouring classes resented the decimal calendar giving them less days of rest, the repressive arm of the state always finds justification for itself.
For this reason, for those living in the shadow of the French Revolution, the guillotine did not come to represent revolution, but the worst excesses of state tyranny. It was then not an image to invoke for emulation, but as something to avoid. Bakunin writes of the “dreadful guillotine of 1793.” Kropotkin urges that “in the next revolution we hope that this cry will go forth: ‘Burn the guillotines; demolish the prisons; drive away the judges, policemen, and informers.’” Proudhon suggests that of socialism, “Robespierre would have guillotined it.” Émile Henry and Chummy Flemming would both invoke the guillotine as the symbol of their persecution.
These revolutionaries are all anarchists, and so their critiques are linked to broader criticisms of state oppression. Proudhon, for example, decries that people “be shut up, under the pretext of reforming them, in one of those dens of violence, stigmatized, put in irons, tortured in body and soul, guillotined.” He lambasts the state-based justice system established during the Revolution:
At last, since 1789, justice has been exercised directly by the State, which alone gives enforceable judgments… What have the people gained by this change? Nothing. Justice remains what it was before, an emanation from authority; that is to say, a formula for coercion, fundamentally void, and open to challenge in all its decisions. We do not even know what real justice is.
However, the anarchist critique goes beyond just moral indignation and also looks at the guillotine practically as a revolutionary tool. Bakunin argues:
In general, we can say that carnage was never an effective means to exterminate political parties; it was proved particularly ineffective against the privileged classes, since power resides less in men themselves than in the circumstances created for men of privilege by the organization of material goods, that is, the institution of the State and its natural basis, individual property.
Therefore, to make a successful revolution, it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods; to destroy property and the State. It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and be condemned to suffer the sure and inevitable reaction which no massacre has ever failed and ever will fail to produce in every society.
Kropotkin argues “if they had guillotined a hundred dukes and viscounts every day, it would have been equally hopeless,” because “organised and legalized Terror” serves no end “than to forge chains for the people. It kills individual initiative, which is the soul of revolutions; it perpetuates the idea of obedience to a strong government. It prepares the dictatorship which throttles the revolutionary tribunal.” As Terror is conducted by the State it “above all” serves “the governing classes” and “prepares the ground for the less scrupulous of them.” He concludes that:
The Terror of Robespierre necessarily ended in that of Tallien, and this in the dictatorship of Bonaparte. Robespierre hatched Napoleon.
One may be a little sceptical of arguments put forward by the anarchists, who will always find reason to critique state violence. Blanqui, one of the more unabashedly authoritarian revolutionaries of the 19th century, would defend the Terror as a necessity, but at the same time link it and the guillotine to the end of the Revolution. “Robespierre killed the revolution in three blows: the scaffold of Hébert, the scaffold of Danton, the altar of the Supreme Being.” If Robespierre had triumphed, the counter-revolution would have succeeded after “a few months of guillotine,” rather than through the “fifteen years of victories” seen under Napoleon.
If we turn to Marx and Engels (how many Blanquists remain among us?), we can get a clear understanding of what they believe revolutionary dictatorship should look like. “Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like?” Engels asks, “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Without delving into too much detail, in 1871, Paris was again torn asunder by revolution, with the workers seizing power and declaring the Paris Commune. This short lived experiment holds numerous lessons for all revolutionaries, and Marx examined it closely in The Civil War in France. In context of all of the above, it is of little surprise that during the Commune, rather than erecting guillotines, the revolutionaries tore them down. Amid cries of “Down with the death penalty!” they destroyed, in the words of the Commune, “these servile instruments of monarchist domination” for the purpose of “the purification of the Arrondissement and the consecration of our new freedom.”
The key lesson Marx and Engels took from the Paris Commune, even appending this lesson to the Communist Manifesto, was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” The Commune was “the direct antithesis” against the “centralised state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature” which at first served the absolute monarch and then the bourgeoisie. The “repressive organs” of the old government were to be “amputated” by the revolutionaries.
Again, Marx and Engels were by no means pacifists or anti-authoritarians, but they understood that the old regime had to be dismantled. The guillotine embodied this old regime and all of its repression.
“First as tragedy, then as farce”
After the Girondists, the Dantonists, the Hérbertists, the Robespierres had all found themselves brought to their own scaffold and executed, you would think the lesson would be clear. But somehow that was not enough, and we see a repeat of the whole saga again with the Bolsheviks in 1917. The Bolsheviks were well acquainted with the French Revolution, and even prior to the revolution Lenin had faced charges of being a Robespierre.
Danton had justified the Terror by saying “let us be terrible in order to dispense the people from being so.” Lenin would similarly declare “The courts must not ban terror… but must formulate the motives underlying it, legalise it as a principle.” Both wished to harness the power of the guillotine, institutionalise it, and use it as a grizzly means to their idealistic ends. The danger of this was well recognised in advance. Errico Malatesta would observe:
Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades are assuredly sincere revolutionaries (…) and they will not be turning traitors — but they are preparing the governmental structures which those who will come after them will utilize to exploit the Revolution and do it to death. They will be the first victims of their methods and I am afraid that the Revolution will go under with them.
History repeats itself: mutatis mutandis, it was Robespierre’s dictatorship that brought Robespierre to the guillotine and paved the way for Napoleon.
Lenin may have kept his head, but like Robespierre he found himself shot by a fellow revolutionary, crippled, and at the mercy of the state apparatus he had created. His last days were spent under house arrest, his letters and calls monitored, his contacts policed, his reading censored, his orders suppressed, and he died slowly, painfully and powerlessly. Stalin, the man he considered “intolerable” and wanted removed, became the new Napoleon.
Trotsky criticised those “Marxists” who supplemented themselves with moral groundings. “These people began, of course, with Kant and the categorical imperative. But how did they end?” he sarcastically writes. Well how did Trotsky’s amoralism end? With Trotsky in exile and the “deformed workers’ state” terror apparatus putting an ice pick through his skull.
Mutatis mutandis indeed.
The Consecration of Our New Freedom
The guillotine still exists, is still part of our institutions. Its ceremony summons the magistrature, the church, armed policemen, and in the shadows the President of the Republic — in short, the whole power structure. There is something in this that is both physically and politically unbearable.
When Foucault wrote these words in 1973, the guillotine was quite literally still in existence. It would be used as the official mode of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. However, the guillotine was a mere embodiment, a physical representation, of the power structure that still exists to this day. This power structure is, largely, as it was in the French Revolution and every subsequent regime: atomised liberal individuals existing as equals underneath the power of the rationally-organised State.
The resurrection of the guillotine by the modern left is an appeal to the very apparatus they are suggesting to overthrow. As long as they remain within those trappings they will inevitably only recreate the same misery they say they are opposed to. Marx suggests that the future social revolution:
…cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution… must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content — here the content goes beyond the phrase.
Kropotkin was similarly dismayed by the reactionary nature of his contemporary “revolutionaries”:
When we glance at the mass of Revolutionists, Marxists, Possibilists, Blanquist, or even bourgeois — because everyone partakes in the revolution which is now growing… and when we analyse their principles, their aims and their methods — we find with dismay that they are all looking backward; that none dare face the future, and that each of these parties has but one idea — to reproduce Louis Blanc or Blanqui, Robespierre or Marat; they are all strong on the question of government, but equally powerless to bring forth a single idea capable of revolutionizing the world.
…All dream of the revolution as the legal massacre of their enemies; of the revolutionary tribunal, the public prosecutor, the guillotine, and their own employees — the hangman and the jailer.
…This is the dream of 99 per cent of those who usurp the name of revolutionists. The Jacobin tradition stifles them, as the monarchical tradition stifled the Jacobins of 1793.
How sad is it, that yet another hundred years later, we are still stifled by the Jacobin tradition. Even Blanqui would state that “Terror is the dogma of the Old World. What does it have in common with fraternity, that of the future?”
The Guillotine, as we have seen, is not an instrument of the revolution. It does not represent an eruption of popular discontent against their oppressors. It is a tool of the ruling class, erected on scaffolds literally above the thronging masses, maintained by bureaucrats of the state, to carry out coldly calculated decrees of so-called justice. The loftiest goals of socialism or “the left” — a “fully developed humanism” being “the genuine resolution of the conflict… between man and man”, “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being”, “the true resolution of the strife… between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species” — are all repudiated by the guillotine.
I don’t want to write too much about what justice should look like in some future society. It is in fact the claims about a future society that should make us wary. If the imagined future is utopia, the ends will always justify the means. Camus eloquently puts it:
One kills for a nation or a class that has been granted divine status. One kills for a future society that has likewise been given divine status. Whoever thinks he has omniscience imagines he has omnipotence. Temporal idols demanding an absolute faith tirelessly decree absolute punishments. And religions devoid of transcendence kill great numbers of condemned men devoid of hope.
We don’t need to, and should not, look to the future, but at what we are doing right now. The example of the guillotine tells us that life is sacred… until we decree it is not. We should take up with Camus and “call a spectacular halt and proclaim, in our principles and institutions, that the individual is above the state.” We need to reject the guillotine and everything it stands for.
Most of the primary quotations I have tried to link within the articles. The following works cover where I drew most of my history from:
Florin Aftalion, The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation
John Wilson Crocker, History of the Guillotine
François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution