Andy Merrifield, author of Magical Marxism (Pluto, 2011), has contributed another piece to the Cities@Manchester blog on the new urban question, and lessons that insurrectionary political movements can learn from the past.
We’ve reproduced his latest essay here, which considers the legacy of Blanqui, Robespierre and the sans-culottes.
“When the government violates people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties?” – Robespierre
“The history of the revolutionary movement is, first of all, the history of the links that give it its consistency” – Agents of the Imaginary Party
One of the recurrent gripes about the movement we’ve come to call “Occupy” — from the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the eventual clearing out of Zuccotti Park — has been its failure to conceive a plan of action, a concerted strategy during its insurrection. There wasn’t and still isn’t any strategic campaign, critics says, no coordination between particular occupations, no sense of how to amalgamate and channel all that anger and dissatisfaction into a singular, unified oppositional force — one that can stick around over the long haul. (The most recent salvo is Thomas Frank’s in The Baffler magazine (#21): “With Occupy, the horizontal culture was everything. ‘The process is the message’… Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.”) The other, related quip is: What comes next after the insurrection, after the good guys have assumed power, or even when they’re still trying to wrestle against power? (Zizek has been vocal here: “carnivals are cheap,” he says. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” Egypt, as a case in point, is still feeling the heat of a “successful” insurrection from a year or so ago.)
These two questions are intimately related and form part and parcel of the same revolutionary simultaneous equation: organizing an insurrection, consolidating it, moving through it, and, then, planning for its aftermath, putting in place something new, establishing a different set of social institutions and social relations in lieu of the old oppressive ones. (Simultaneous equations, we might remember, are equations between two unknowns, unknowns that must be solved at the same time.) This dual conundrum has preoccupied revolutionaries and revolutionary thought since time immemorial. Walter Benjamin, we know, plotted the revolution in his own head, even while — especially while? — he lurched toward his shadow figure, Blanqui, the man of action; Blanqui the arch-conspirator who spent thirty of his seventy-six years on earth in various French gaols.
Blanqui was everything Benjamin wasn’t: practical, fearless, ruthless. His very raison d’être was organization, plotting and propagandizing for the insurrection; Blanqui, Marx said, was the “head and soul” of the French workers’ movement. But Blanqui satisfies only the first part of that revolutionary simultaneous equation. “The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui,” Benjamin says, “certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress — they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui — more so than any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later’.”
Blanqui dreamed of a worldwide league of revolutionary communists. He also tried to put that dream into reality, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Blanqui’s communism was an eclectic mix of Marxism avant la lettre and heterodox anarchism, of trying to consummate the revolutionary hopes begun in 1789, yet which ended in Thermidorian backlash. Blanqui “couldn’t adjust himself to an organization of huge dimensions,” Samuel Bernstein says in Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (1971). “It rendered absurd his strategy of insurrection; and it placed in the foreground the working class which he had never regarded as a key propeller of history.” Blanqui’s political organization was limited in size, Bernstein says, tightly pulled together, hierarchical in structure; made “like a seamless garment, programmatically homogeneous, disciplined, obedient, and ready to move.” Blanqui’s insurrection was vertically organized yet spread itself out horizontally, immanently entering daily life, not so much a factory struggle as an urban war, a civil war rooted above all else — or below all else — in the street.
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The key organizing medium for Blanquists was the “Society of the Seasons,” formed in the 1830s when Marx was still a fresh-faced lad. The society met clandestinely; leaders went unseen; meetings recruited foot soldiers who’d form an army of revolt, ready for action, likely violent action. The Society’s network barely stretched beyond Paris; but its covert nature of cells unnerved the powers that be and meant the Society punched above its weight, or at least threatened to. In Blanqui’s time, these Society of the Seasons were the revolutionary Jacobin clubs forty years down the line. (Blanqui may have disagreed: In his early career he admired the “Incorruptible” Jacobin, Robespierre, but later claimed he was really a Hébertist, a descendent of the radical eighteenth-century journalist Jacques-René Hébert.)
Blanqui knew, just as Robespierre knew, just as any revolutionary today must know, that if an insurrection were to succeed, and consolidate itself afterward, it would have to muster support from the faubourgs, from the banlieues, from the peripheral hinterlands. We might see any society of revolutionaries nowadays similarly needing to establish cells in the banlieues, cells within urban cells, revolutionary activity flowing through the capillaries and arteries of our global urban fabric, through its physical and fiber-optic infrastructure, through its hardware and thoughtware. These secret cells must plot to stymie the dominant flow of things and will likely be spearheaded by professional organizers and tacticians, by black bloc’er anarchists, by socialists and autonomous communists of different stripes and persuasions, by anonymous rookies, by those who’ve never been politically active before, by men and women, blacks and whites, young casseurs and voyous, by everybody who, with Occupy, with the Arab Spring, with the revolt in the banlieues, with the ongoing urban civil war everywhere, with growing unemployment, have found some medium to channel and refract their energies and dissatisfactions.
Perhaps there’s a neo-Jacobinism blowing in the wind, not quite bawling out but certainly getting whispered, a revival of Jacobin values with its great desire to abolish slavery in our urban neo-colonies, to denounce aristocratic plenty and root for sans-culotte empowerment. In 2010, for instance, Jacobin: A Magazine of Culture and Polemicwas launched in the US by a young socialist journalist Bhaskar Sunkara; the mag attempts to tap a younger radical readership, urging people “to modify your dissent,” to turn the screw against neoliberalism; within its pages Zizek has already invoked “The Jacobin Spirit,” defending Robespierre and his “virtue of violence.” (See, too, Zizek’s presentation of Robespierre: Virtue and Terror ; and Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of Terror .) Meanwhile, French radical publisher La fabrique not so long ago published the selected writings of Robespierre —Robespierre: pour le bonheur et pour la libérté [for happiness and for liberty]: “citoyens, voulez-vous une révolution sans révolution?”; and a biography by Georges Labica, first published in 1990, is scheduled to reappear soon, maybe at a riper moment, through the same house: Robespierre: une politique de la philosophie. “La Révolution n’est pas terminée,” warns editor Eric Hazan, mischievously.
The Jacobin club was founded on the eve of Revolution, in a Dominican convent on the Seine’s Right Bank, along rue Saint-Honoré. Meetings there were secret debating societies, made up of left-leaning deputies, republican enemies of the monarchy who’d push for the constitution of 1791. The club bore the noble label “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality”; later it opened its membership to small storeowners and artisans. Over 5,000 clubs operated throughout France; pamphlets and newspapers got published; rallies and processions organized. After the fall of the monarchy, Robespierre led the Jacobins in the National Convention. But the revolutionary fervor of the Jacobins came through its popularism, through the support of the sans-culottes, “those beings,” a 1793 archive says, “who go everywhere on foot, who at no point have millions in the bank, nor a chateau, nor valets at their beck and call; who lodge simply and at night present themselves to their section … applying all their force to pulverize those who come from that abominable faction of stately men.” And those stately men, the aristocrats? “They’re the rich,” another 1793 document says, “all those fat merchants, all the monopolizers, the mountebanks, the bankers, all the swindlers and all those who have something.” Sound familiar?
And a “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality,” a neo-Jacobin radicalism today that’s as organized and offensive as its namesake from the 1790s? Why not? This time, though, any society would really need to be “popular,” would need to open its doors to all types of sans-culottes, and of all genders. Meeting halls, debating chambers and political networks might be less grandiose: in cafés and on street corners, in estates and at youth centers, in universities classrooms and at mall bowling alleys, anywhere where young people hang out; dialogue might be online as well as face-to-face; a society of “friends” puts another egalitarian spin on Facebook camaraderie. A contra-Tea Party that drinks fair trade coffee.
But let’s be clear: secrecy would be paramount in these meetings, certainly initially, during the plotting, given how the forces of law and order mercilessly cracks down on all subversive politicking. We’ve heard about how the FBI infiltrated Occupy Wall Street (OWS), tracked known activists and student radicals, even on college campuses. The “Partnership for Civil Justice Fund” (PCJF), a US watchdog civil rights group, recently blew the whistle when they obtained FBI documents: “from its inception,” PCJF say, “the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat.” FBI offices and agents, “were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month prior to the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country.” And in France, especially in the banlieues, the “Brigade anticriminalité” (BAC), overtly and covertly, has intensified “special police units” patrolling “les zones sensibles.” As Mathieu Rigouste writes in La domination policière (La fabrique, 2012), “the generalization of the BAC in urban territories is one of the decisive stamps of the counter-insurrectional restructuring of the police.”
If anything, “austerity” these days has become a veritable 9/11 in Europe: a watchword, in other words, for neoliberal governments to quieten any dissenting voice. In Greece, where austerity has been most brutally implemented, “centers of lawlessness” have been nipped in the bud. Early this past January, two longstanding “occupied” social centers in Athens, Villa Amalias and Skaramanga, with over 100 makeshift residents, were summarily evicted; and former denizens promptly arrested in an relentless police war of attrition, “Operation Zeus,” against all those outside the dominant orthodoxy, including undocumented migrants. In Al Jazeera newspaper, Antonis Vradis reports from the frontline:
“The eviction of Villa Amalias and the forthcoming police operation,” Vradis says, “reveals what is an inescapable contradiction in the reformulation of power in the Greek territory: In its short-term quest for stability, it is accelerating long-term social and political change.”
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Against such short-term desperation for stability comes, then, an urgent and accelerated need for social and political change. Any Jacobin revival has to take us into and through the insurrection; and it has to leave us with something to build upon on the other side, in its aftermath. Which leads us to the second part of our revolutionary simultaneous equation. One of the amazing things Eric Hazan points out in Une histoire de la révolution française (La fabrique, 2012), his fresh, partisan take on an old story — the French Revolution — is how quickly it all happened, how fast an immense and deeply entrenched power structure and administration evaporated, caved in, without neither warning nor transition. Hazan evokes the spirit of the Jacobin club, as much about what it might still be as what it once was: “the Society and its affiliates functioned as a system of diffusion of radical ideas. Nothing is more absurd than the notion of ‘Jacobinism’ as an authoritarian Parisian dictatorship. That’s a fabrication inherited from the [counter-revolutionary] Thermidor, which endures along with a hatred of the Revolution.”
Hazan devotes memorable, generous lines — again with the same spirit of going back to the future — to the National Convention, the first revolutionary assembly elected through universal (male) suffrage. “Was the Convention representative of the people?” he asks. If considered as an electoral system, he says, which is to say, as a system of participatory democracy, then clearly not. Yet the virtues of the Convention, as well as its suggestive, enduring visionary politics, came and might still come through an altogether different means. To be sure, the Convention is still unprecedented in how it allowed ordinary people to intervene in its sittings. That ordinary citizens and not a few sans-culottes could pass through the hollowed gates of Parliamentary politics was remarkable then and almost unthinkable now.
Although the Convention’s “Salle du Manège” was limited in size, it did manage to receive three thousands citizens at any one time; and at tribunals, says Hazan, ordinary folk “didn’t hesitate to noisily speak out their opinion”; deputies were forced to respond on the spot and were directly answerable to peoples’ plain outspokenness, to interrogation from their constituents. Alongside this popular participation, sittings of the Convention kicked off by listening to peoples’ letters, often voicing long commentaries on deputies’ propositions, offering suggestions, sympathetic encouragement, angry critique. “In this regard,” concludes Hazan, “the Convention is the first and only national assembly where the people had been able to have their voice directly heard.”
So a message rings out, loud and jarringly: what an insurrection needs to do is force those Parliamentary doors open, smash them down if necessary, so that “the people” gain access. Not so much a participatory government as the chance for a real representative assembly, one in which elected politicians, for the first time in centuries, would actually be responsive to their electorate, engaging with them within an open democratic structure; they’d be answerable, in other words, to the populace not to the usual powerful suspects.
But how to keep counter-revolutionary economic and political interests at bay, how to justifiably shut them out of any new Convention, how to ruthlessly shut them out if necessary? The theme of violence inevitably enters the scene, the idea that there’s a legitimate violence responsive to the everyday violence initiated by the forces of law and order, from its judiciary to its paramilitary, from its surveillance and containment to the outright wars it wages against people its power base doesn’t like. War, from this standpoint, is a just-in-case response, a strike-first-ask-questions-later initiative, a branch of “democracy” that needs to construct its own inconceivable foe: terrorists. Guy Debord confirmed as much back in 1988: “Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results.” “People must certainly never know everything about terrorism,” says Debord, “but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable.”
More than two hundred years after Robespierre’s execution, an ideological logic lives on in governments around the world, one that defiles the Jacobin legacy, panders to a revisionist, right-wing Thermidorian telling of the truth: Robespierre was a bloody tyrant, a fanatical monster, a terrorist butcher. And yet, as Eric Hazan maintains, “Robespierre took positions of great coherence and astonishing courage — positions where he was always a minority and sometimes absolutely alone: against suffrage censitaire [census suffrage], for civic rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the right to petition, for the freedom of the press … In what country, in what assembly, have we ever heard so much contre-courant argument declared with such force of conviction?” Robespierre was defiled, still is defiled, because what he said threatened ruling class privilege, upset their status quo; to defile him thus serves to tarnish every future hope of revolution, of future social change. “I was born to fight crime,” he says in a final speech from 1794. “The time has not arrived for men of substance to be able to serve their homeland with impunity; defenders of liberty will be outlaws, for as long as the horde of scoundrels predominates.”
The new urban question is about creating a Jacobin movement that can contest the “horde of scoundrels” who still predominate, stand up to their arsenal and ideologues; a movement that can loosen the neo-Haussmannite grip on our society, and declare war against its protagonists and puppets. Manuel Castells saw the old urban question as a question answered by “urban social movements” struggling for their right to the city; yet the new urban question needs to be countered by something much more expansive, something much more far-reaching: by an urban political movement that struggles for generalized democracy, that organizes a concerted insurrection; and, moreover, knows exactly what it’s fighting for as well as against. To do so we need visionaries as well as agitators, conspirators like Blanqui but also leaders like Robespierre, people with big plans and grand convictions — outlaw mathematicians who know, perhaps more than anything else, all about revolutionary simultaneous equations.
Subversive Politics and the Imagination
Breathes new life into the Marxist tradition, applying previously unexplored approaches that reveal vital new modes of political activism and debate.
“Andy Merrifield is original, erudite, politically alive and readable. And above all, this book will be (in strictly the first sense of the term) thought-provoking!” – John Berger, novelist and critic
“Andy Merrifield brings us a Marxism that is ‘warmer’ than most recent forms, Marxism as it might have been imagined by DH Lawrence or one of the great Latin American novelists. He wants us to reimagine Marxism without bureaucracy and without commissars. If we can get deep into the ideas themselves, they can be a life force for us. Andy helps us see how Marxism can make us more authentic human beings.” – Marshall Berman, author of All that is Solid Melts into Air