Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions
The great romance and fear of bloody revolution - a strange blend of idealism and terror - have been superseded by blind faith in the bloodless expansion of human rights and global capitalism. Flying in the face of history, violence is dismissed as rare, immoral and counterproductive. Arguing against this pervasive wishful thinking, Arno J. Mayer revisits the two most tumultuous and influential revolutions of modern times: the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although these two upheavals arose in different environments, they followed similar courses. The thought and language of Enlightenment France were the glories of western civilization; those of tsarist Russia's intelligentsia were on its margins. Both revolutions began as revolts vowed to fight unreason, injustice and inequality; both swept away old regimes and defied established religions in societies that were 85 per cent peasant and illiterate; both entailed the terrifying return of repressed vengeance. Contrary to prevalent belief, Mayer argues, ideologies and personalities did not control events.
Rather, the tide of violence overwhelmed the political actors who assumed power and were rudderless
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What Reviewers Are Saying
[An] impressively measured, frank and thoughtful book... Ambitious ... Continuously suggestive and inquiring. -- John Dunn The Times Literary Supplement [An] enormous and ambitious work... Comparing the French and Russian revolutions, Mayer focuses on how they reflected the struggle between revolutionary ardor and counterrevolutionary resistance, antireligious fervor and religious intransigence. He stresses the contingencies affecting revolutionary terror rather than the ideology or psychology of leaders. [MayerA's] examination of conceptual signposts such as revolution, violence, vengeance, and terror is a useful contribution to the history of ideas. -- Stanley Hoffman Foreign Affairs A courageous and dispassionate reflection on the French and Russian revolutions. This is the first serious attempt to answer the revisionist historians, many of whom insist on viewing the past through the prism of present day requirements. Mayer reminds us that revolutions by their very nature provoke a violent response from those being deprived of power. -- Tariq Ali The Financial Times Probably the best comparative study of the French and Russian Revolutions to date. Carefully researched and filled with cogent and insightful analysis, it is mandatory reading for all scholars in the field. -- J.W. Thacker History Mayer's absorbing recapitulation of these ultimately tragic events leaves the reader with the desire to read more about the French and Russian Revolutions: the best compliment any historical work can receive. Library Journal There are many ways to read this long, rich and idiosyncratic book. As Mayer warns, objective and value-free study of the subject is impossible ... Mayer traces the road from reform to rage and terror, one of menace and fear, vengeance and countervengeance, exhilaration, self-delusion and mutual carnage. He has wise things to say about the blending of traditional enmities and new war cries, and about the clash between urban imperialism and rural distrust, about the satisfaction of butchering familiar enemies rather than complete strangers, about the rise of informing as a civic virtue... [A] long, rich, and idiosyncratic book. -- Eugen Weber New York Times Book Review Mayer boasts a long record of intellectual provocation... [Here he] minimizes the rold of both ideology and the personality of the revolutionaries. Violence, he argues, resulted from seismic collisions of old order and new... Indeed, Mayer demonstrates, some of the bloodiest episodes of both revolutions occurred as old animosities between Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and contending groups in the countryside turned into armed antagonisms. -- Corey Robin Boston Review "[Mayer] insists that contrary to such conservative scolds as Edmund "Burke and Hannah Arendt, violence is not the product of ideological intoxication; it is an objective historical necessity in all polities. Citing an array of hard-headed thinkers from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Carl Schmitt...Mayer affirms that violence has been indispensable to every 'founding act' in history, even in such legalistic polities as our own--a proposition which it is difficult to dispute. -- Martin Malia Los Angeles Times Book Review
An analysis of the furies (both left and right) of the French and Russian Revolutions that gets lost in a time warp.Princeton historian Mayer (The Persistence of the Old Regime, 1981) sets out to show that there is no revolution without violence, terror, and war; that there can be no revolution without counterrevolution; and that revolutions, bad as they may be, are no worse than the unjust social orders that invariably precede them. The last point is Mayers most novel idea, but he never really proves it (and to the extent that he tries, he gets himself into hot waterarguing, for example, that the concentration camps of the Soviet Union were a reflection of the dead hand of Russia's past). He also develops another interesting idea, claiming that religious conflict was an important revolutionary force in both events; the Protestants were ranged against the Catholics in France, while the Jews in Russia were opposed by the White forces (who made good use of anti-Semitism in compensating for an unappealing political ideology). But when Mayer argues that in the long run revolutionary situations benefit oppressed . . . religious minorities, one wonders how he differentiates the subsequent travails of Jews in the Soviet Union. Similarly, his argument that Lenin did not encourage excesses and did not instrumentalize anticlericalism until 1918 runs up against the evidence of recently disclosed documents in which Lenin orders subordinates to shoot priests publicly. Mayer then argues that, in the short run, collectivization failed to remedy the chronic ills of agricultural productionwhich implies the truly novel conclusion that it did so in the long run. Finally, Mayer gives a reprise of the notion that Stalin might have permitted democracy in Eastern Europe if it hadn't been for the perception that somehow took hold that he intended to treat them like vassal states.Mayer claims to brush history against the grainin fact, he succeeds mostly in brushing against the facts. (Kirkus Reviews)