France and Terror

Barb Wire

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s New York Times column about the plight of France, I deployed my usual caustic sarcasm:

If the fate of the West is in any way dependent on the French, then our civilization is doomed beyond all hope of redemption.

This could create the impression of thoughtlessness, and I don’t wish to leave such an impression. Any wise person who has studied modern history knows that the French Revolution set loose upon the world a destructive spirit — presenting us alternately with the threat of anarchy and tyranny — that has since seldom permitted us to enjoy prosperity in peace. What is remarkable is the extent to which French intellectuals have caused this endless tide of human misery.

“We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”
Edmund Burke, 1790

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Burke’s insight into the fundamental error of the French Revolution — its inspiration by such philosophes as Rousseau and Voltaire — could be extended to every “progressive” movement ever since.

The modern Cult of Progress, the characteristic “presumption” of the intelligentsia in their belief in their own superiority, has repeatedly afflicted humanity with enthusiastic schemes for political, social and economic change. Always these innovations require us first to destroy “hitherto existing society” (to quote the Communist Manifesto), and to entrust our future to the control of elites. Always the result is the same. From the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France to the Bolshevik Terror in revolutionary Russia, from Kristallnacht in Germany to the “Great Leap Forward” in China to the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia, the path of “progress” is a trail painted in blood, littered with the corpses of those murdered or starved to death for the sake of political theories.

Opponents and critics of these deadly theories — conservatives, as we have generally been called — are mocked and demonized by the intelligentsia, who lend their prestige to popularizing bad ideas, particularly inspiring naïve idealistic youth to imagine that they have found the formula for Progress and Reform that will lead them to that promised utopia, Equality. The young have no direct knowledge of the intelligentsia’s numerous previous failures, and what the young are taught in school about history does little or nothing to warn them against the dangers of such theoretical schemes.

For many decades now, America’s schools, colleges and universities have been less concerned about teaching facts than about teaching attitudes. The elites in academia and the bureaucratic mediocrities who operate the K-12 school system don’t teach young people that Lenin’s Bolsheviks and Hitler’s Nazis were both ideological heirs of the French Revolution. Indeed, it’s rare nowadays to meet anyone under 50 who knows a damned thing about the French Revolution. The history of the Soviet Union is largely neglected in our schools, while the history of Nazi Germany becomes a caricature — Hate is Bad Thing, in case you didn’t know — and the true lessons of that era are never taught. There was an excellent little book by A.L. Rowse, Appeasement, which should be required reading in our universities, but which is instead out of print, so that unless you search it out on Amazon you’ll never understand why Neville Chamberlain thought he could purchase “peace for our time” at Munich. Likewise, students must find for themselves William Shirer’s classic history of Hitler’s Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, because their teachers will never assign it.

We are confronted with the spectacle of an entire generation of young people who are at once “educated” (possessing college diplomas) and yet also vastly ignorant. For the past 20 years, our youth have been led to believe that as long as they know how to look up something on the Internet (if they were honest, they might footnote everything in their assigned writings to Wikipedia) then there is never any need to know anything. One sometimes finds young feminists blabbering on about this or that example of patriarchal oppression in such a way as to make it evident that they haven’t read any more feminist theory that could be found in an introductory Women’s Studies textbook. Likewise, we have become accustomed to encounter young progressives lecturing us on economics when it is plainly evident they know almost nothing about the subject. (Learn something: Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell.)

As dismaying as is this vast ignorance among young liberals, many conservatives are not much better and, in some cases, much worse. Because it has become nearly impossible for any conservative to gain employment in academia — university faculty are nowadays as ideologically “diverse” as Stalin’s Politburo — there is no professional incentive for any conservative to study history in depth.

Sometimes it seems conservatives are trapped in current events, always arguing about whatever’s at the top of the Drudge Report, never bothering to trace our problems back to their historical roots which, as I say, can be found in the French Revolution.

From the day the mob stormed the Bastille in July 1789, events in France proceeded with a certain relentless logic. In October 1789, the revolutionaries exploited an economic crisis to incite the mob to march on Versailles. The economic policy of the revolutionaries, as Burke observed, could be summarized in a single word: “Assignats!”

Whatever the problems of the ancien regime, the revolutionary regime unleashed upon the citizenry of France new problems that became steadily worse, as Burke had presciently foreseen. Establishing a pattern for all such future regimes, revolutionary propagandists insisted that all problems of the regime could be blamed on the regime’s enemies — royalists and other counterrevolutionary elements of society, including Catholic clergy, to say nothing of hostile foreigners. More than 200 priests were killed during the September Massacres of 1792, the King and Queen were executed in January 1793, the Committee of Public Safety was established in April, Marat was assassinated in July and in September 1793 began the Terror. About 40,000 people were executed in a span of 10 months. In one of the last atrocities of the Terror, 16 Carmelite nuns were sent to the guillotine in Compiègne.

The acknowledged leader of the Terror regime, Robespierre, had been foremost among those who demanded the execution of the King: “Louis must die so that the nation may live.” Finally overthrown in July 1794, Robespierre himself was executed by the guillotine, to which his revolutionary fanaticism had sent so many others.

Does it not strike anyone as ironic that the French Republic, whose founding gave birth to the idea of revolutionary terror, should today be threatened by another species of terror? A nation that was baptized in blood for the sake of radical theories and slogans — “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” — now encounters fanatics whose ideas are less theoretical but whose slogan is slightly more frightening: “Allahu akbar!”

Charlotte Corday could not be reached for comment.

First published at

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Robert Stacy McCain
Robert Stacy McCain is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in the news business. He is a correspondent for The American Spectator, editor-in-chief at Viral Read and blogs at

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