148 years ago this week, on April 6, 1871, armed participants in the revolutionary Paris Commune seized the guillotine that was stored near the prison in Paris. They brought it to the foot of the statue of Voltaire, where they smashed it into pieces and burned it in a bonfire, to the applause of an immense crowd.
This was a popular action arising from the grassroots, not a spectacle coordinated by politicians. At the time, the Commune controlled Paris, which was still inhabited by people of all classes; the French and Prussian armies surrounded the city and were preparing to invade it in order to impose the conservative Republican government of Adolphe Thiers. In these conditions, burning the guillotine was a brave gesture repudiating the Reign of Terror and the idea that positive social change can be achieved by slaughtering people.
“What?” you say, in shock, “The Communards burned the guillotine? Why on earth would they do that? I thought the guillotine was a symbol of liberation!”
Why indeed? If the guillotine is not a symbol of liberation, then why has it become such a standard motif for the radical left over the past few years? Why is the internet replete with guillotine memes? Why does The Coup sing “We got the guillotine, you better run”? The most popular socialist periodical is named Jacobin, after the original proponents of the guillotine. Surely this can’t all be just an ironic sendup of lingering right-wing anxieties about the French Revolution.
The guillotine has come to occupy our collective imagination. In a time when the rifts in our society are widening towards civil war, it represents uncompromising bloody revenge. It represents the idea that the violence of the state could be a good thing if only the right people were in charge.
Those who take their own powerlessness for granted assume that they can promote gruesome revenge fantasies without consequences. But if we are serious about changing the world, we owe it to ourselves to make sure that our proposals are not equally gruesome.
It’s not surprising that people want bloody revenge today. Capitalist profiteering is rapidly rendering the planet uninhabitable. US Border Patrol is kidnapping, drugging, and imprisoning children. Individual acts of racist and misogynist violence occur regularly. For many people, daily life is increasingly humiliating and disempowering.
Those who don’t desire revenge because they are not compassionate enough to be outraged about injustice or because they are simply not paying attention deserve no credit for this. There is less virtue in apathy than in the worst excesses of vengefulness.
Do I want to take revenge on the police officers who murder people with impunity, on the billionaires who cash in on exploitation and gentrification, on the bigots who harass and dox people? Yes, of course I do. They have killed people I knew; they are trying to destroy everything I love. When I think about the harm that they are causing, I feel ready to break their bones, to kill them with my bare hands.
But that desire is distinct from my politics. I can want something without having to reverse-engineer a political justification for it. I can want something and choose not to pursue it, if I want something else even more—in this case, an anarchist revolution that is not based in revenge. I don’t judge other people for wanting revenge, especially if they have been through worse than I have. But I also don’t confuse that desire with a proposal for liberation.
If the sort of bloodlust I describe scares you, or if it simply seems unseemly, then you absolutely have no business joking about other people carrying out industrialized murder on your behalf.
For this is what distinguishes the fantasy of the guillotine: it is all about efficiency and distance. Those who fetishize the guillotine don’t want to kill people with their bare hands; they aren’t prepared to rend anyone’s flesh with their teeth. They want their revenge automated and carried out for them. They are like the consumers who blithely eat Chicken McNuggets but could never personally butcher a cow or cut down a rainforest. They prefer for bloodshed to take place in an orderly manner, with all the paperwork filled out properly, according to the example set by the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks in imitation of the impersonal functioning of the capitalist state.
And one more thing: they don’t want to have to take responsibility for it. They prefer to express their fantasy ironically, retaining plausible deniability. Yet anyone who has ever participated actively in social upheaval knows how narrow the line can be between fantasy and reality.
Let’s look at the “revolutionary” role the guillotine has played in the past.The guillotine is associated with radical politics because it was used in the original French Revolution to behead monarch Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, several months after his arrest. But once you open the Pandora’s box of exterminatory force, it’s difficult to close it again.
Having gotten started using the guillotine as an instrument of social change, Maximilien de Robespierre, sometime President of the Jacobin Club, continued employing it to consolidate power for his faction of the Republican government. As is customary for demagogues, Robespierre, Georges Danton, and other radicals availed themselves of the assistance of the sans-culottes, the angry poor, to oust the more moderate faction, the Girondists, in June 1793. (The Girondists, too, were Jacobins; if you love a Jacobin, the best thing you can do for him is to prevent his party from coming to power, since he is certain to be next up against the wall after you.) After guillotining the Girondists en masse, Robespierre set about consolidating power at the expense of Danton, the sans-culottes, and everyone else.
By early 1794, Robespierre and his allies had sent a great number of people at least as radical as themselves to the guillotine, including Anaxagoras Chaumette and the so-called Enragés, Jacques Hébert and the so-called Hébertists, proto-feminist and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges, Camille Desmoulins (who had had the gall to suggest to his childhood friend Robespierre that “love is stronger and more lasting than fear”)—and Desmoulins’s wife, for good measure, despite her sister having been Robespierre’s fiancée. They also arranged for the guillotining of Georges Danton and Danton’s supporters, alongside various other former allies. To celebrate all this bloodletting, Robespierre organized the Festival of the Supreme Being, a mandatory public ceremony inaugurating an invented state religion.
After this, it was only a month and a half before Robespierre himself was guillotined, having exterminated too many of those who might have fought beside him against the counterrevolution. This set the stage for a period of reaction that culminated with Napoleon Bonaparte seizing power and crowning himself Emperor. According to the French Republican Calendar (an innovation that did not catch on, but was briefly reintroduced during the Paris Commune), Robespierre’s execution took place during the month of Thermidor. Consequently, the name Thermidor is forever associated with the onset of the counterrevolution.
But it is a mistake to focus on Robespierre. Robespierre himself was not a superhuman tyrant. At best, he was a zealous apparatchik who filled a role that countless revolutionaries were vying for, a role that another person would have played if he had not. The issue was systemic—the competition for centralized dictatorial power—not a matter of individual wrongdoing.
The tragedy of 1793-1795 confirms that whatever tool you use to bring about a revolution will surely be used against you. But the problem is not just the tool, it’s the logic behind it. Rather than demonizing Robespierre—or Lenin, Stalin, or Pol Pot—we have to examine the logic of the guillotine.
The above is an excerpt. The complete text is at https://crimethinc.com/2019/04/08/against-the-logic-of-the-guillotine-why-the-paris-commune-burned-the-guillotine-and-we-should-too
Hard Crackers is not affiliated with crimethinc, nor does it subscribe to the crimethinc total world view.