Terror and the Police State – Chapter 3

[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]



Great wrongs are often done to secure what are seen as great rights.  If you subscribe to that lethal view that the ends justify the means, then you may invoke righteousness to justify terrorism.  Just think of the righteousness of John brown on slavery.  The problem then is – how do you distinguish the righteousness of John Wilkes Booth on slavery?

The French Revolution was supported and applauded from the beginning by people like Kant, Beethoven, and Wordsworth – and the majority of the enlightened people and uncrowned or unrobed heads in all Europe.  It was a colossal blow against caste and privilege, and an elevating insight into the claims of the rights of man.  Macaulay said that the only event to compare to the Reformation was the French Revolution.  Both involved people rising up against caste.  The Terror and Napoleon would put many off – Napoleon for his imperial throne and his aristocracy as much as for his wars – but the massive sense of liberation would endure.  Those championing the revolution claimed the moral high ground at the start, and they have never relinquished it.

Their decision to go to war to defend the revolution was a large part of what produced the Terror, but it did a lot more than merely change the face of war.  The old regimes of Europe, with their kings and nobles, would never have armed the people.  There was a change in the ideas of change in politics.  Professor Doyle said:

In other words, it was a profound cultural transformation.  The writers of the Enlightenment, so revered by the intelligentsia who made the Revolution, had always believed it could be done if men dared to seize control of their own destiny.  The men of 1789 did so, in a rare moment of courage, altruism, and idealism which took away the breath of educated Europe.

Righteousness is not a term to endear people to those professing to have it, and the moving forces in this revolution were full of it.  There was the sense that so many in the nation had suffered too long under a just sense of grievance caused by privilege, and this privilege was the foundation of the inequality against which the revolutionaries were fighting.  Being a champion of liberty and equality was to be a moral hero.  This is precisely the moral ground claimed today by the champions of civil or human rights, although not as many have to put their lives on the line as the men and women of 1789.

The essential dignity of each of us is the notion that crowns Kant’s moral philosophy.  He held that dignity (or worthiness) is beyond price, and that humanity so far as it is capable of morality alone has dignity.  A friend of Kant said this of his reaction to the French Revolution: ‘He lived and moved in it; and, in spite of all the terror, he held on to his hopes so much that when he heard the declaration of the republic, he called out with excitement: ‘Now let your servant go in peace to his grave, for I have seen the glory of the world.’’

Then the righteousness of the revolutionaries showed itself in the way that they defended their gains, and their nation.  There was of course faction and rebellion and civil war, and foreign nations that were intent on restoring the monarchy and punishing those who had reviled and then killed their king.  The French only had to look at what happened to the killers of Charles I in England when Charles II was restored – after an interregnum of almost a generation.  So, political idealism became fused with personal courage and love for the nation.  True revolutionaries were true patriots – who else could be?

It is hardly surprising that in extremis people took to extreme measures whether they were part of government or not.  What we call the Terror was the culmination of those forces.  The people of France were going where no one had been before.  They were trying to build a system of government after the old one had collapsed under the weight of its own inanity and brutality.  They had not had much if any experience of either governing or trying to build government.  At the same time, foreign enemies and their supporters within were threatening this young new nation with death and destruction.  You cannot just step out and go and buy a text-book that tells you what to do in a case like that.

Arthur Young was a man of birth, property, and position who knew what it meant to farm the land.  He was uniquely placed to give a balanced view on the excesses of the revolution.

It is impossible to justify the excesses of the people in their taking up arms; they were certainly guilty of cruelties; it is idle to deny the facts, for they have been proved too clearly to admit of a doubt.  But is it really the people to whom we are to impute the whole? – Or to their oppressors who had kept them so long in a state of bondage?  He who chooses to be served by slaves, and by ill-treated slaves, must know that he holds both his property and life by a tenure far different from those who prefer the service of well-treated freemen; and he who dines to the music of groaning sufferers must not, in the moment of insurrection, complain that his daughters are ravished and then destroyed, and that his sons’ throats are cut.  When such evils happen, they are surely more imputable to the tyranny of the master than to the cruelty of the servant. 

The wish to see like cases treated alike underwrites all our notions of justice.  If you contend that people are equal, and that they should be treated equally, the old caste system was a very cruel travesty and a very unjust imposition.  The hatred of the aristocracy – the owners of the burnt chateaux – was fuelled by the revulsion of privilege, and privilege is by definition in contempt of the rule of law as we know it, since one essential principle is that all people are equal before the law.

There is little point in looking for anything like righteousness behind the police states or terror practised in Germany or Russia.  The German nation had a just grievance at the behaviour of the Allies after the Great War.  No one stated that grievance better than John Maynard Keynes, but neither Versailles nor anything else could justify the Nazi revolution or terror.

The suffering of the Russian people from oppression at the bottom in about 1917 was probably not significantly less than that of the French people in 1789, but the Bolsheviks (Communists) lived in a moral and political world all of their own.  The Russian people would have to pay for the intellectual conceit of Marx in thinking that his mind was powerful enough to dictate logically verifiable answers to the human condition, and the insatiable craving for power of Lenin led him to insist on departing from the blueprint of Marx to suit his own ego and timetable.  The Russian police state now seems to us to be an inevitable product of a totalitarian kind of government that Communism prescribed, but the full ghastly flowering of the terror in Russia owed much to the personal insecurity and cruelty of Stalin.

The French would spend the next century in learning that it is hard to legislate ideals into law, but in committing itself to the Rights of Man in 1789, France was adopting as a nation a faith or aspiration that would be utterly contradicted by those regimes that we least admire, such as those of Russia or Germany when they generated their reigns of terror.

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