This book was not easy to write. I was able to finish it because of countless people who supported me, even when I did not want it or know it. It is an honor to acknowledge so much labor and kindness.

I discovered political theory as an undergraduate student in the classroom of Brooke Ackerly. She and Lisa Guenther brought me into the world of political theory, philosophy, and feminism. Nothing has so transformed my life since, and I am grateful to them for welcoming me to the world of politics and ideas. Other teachers have offered their precious mentorship over the years. At the University of Chicago, Patchen Markell and Dipesh Chakrabarty graciously advised me. At Cornell University, a heroic team of teachers and role models supported me. Thanks to Jason Frank, who championed the project from the beginning; to Aziz Rana, for shaping my political voice; to Camille Robcis, who taught me so much French history; to Isaac Kramnick, for being my role model teacher; to Enzo Traverso, who skewered my arguments with such skill; to Paul Fleming, for always having his office door open; and to Jill Frank, who always crystallized my arguments like a miracle.

During my time at Bard, I had terrific company with whom to kvetch about research, teaching, and rogue reimbursement checks: Roger Berkowitz, Susan Blake, Katherine Boivin, Odile Chilton, Rob Cioffi, Lauren Curtis, Justin Dainer-Best, Laura Ford, Simon Gilhooley, Pınar Kemerli, Peter Klein, Michael Martell, Chris Mcintosh, Allison McKim, Ani Mitra, Duff Morton, Michelle Murray, Dominique Townsend, Olga Touloumi, and Marina van Zuylen. A book manuscript workshop at Bard helped me refine the following chapters, and I thank the participants, including Lori Marso, Karuna Mantena, and Samuel Moyn.

Innumerable comrades have traveled this path with me, supporting me in ways both large and small. Jennie Ikuta has made the profession of political theory a fun place to be. Aaron Gavin gave me time and space in New York to read, write, and argue with him. Vijay Phulwani and Ed Quish have kept me politically honest. Murad Idris has improved all of my arguments, and I’m thrilled to be finding a new home with him, Lawrie Balfour, Jennifer Rubenstein, Colin Bird, and George Klosko at the University of Virginia. For turning an isolating process into a shared, communal one, I also thank Ilil Benjamin, Michaela Brangan, Jane Glaubman, Michael Gorup, Sinja Graf, Nina Hagel, Ulas Ince, Colin Kielty, Lena Krian, Jon Masin-Peters, Alison McQueen, William Pennington, Adam Schoene, Bécquer Seguín, Nathan Taylor, Alexis Turner, and Timothy Vasko. An additional call out to those who organized with Cornell Graduate Students United. They have taught me the supreme importance of solidarity.

Three people need special acknowledgment. No one keeps me grounded more than Nolan Bennett, and this book would not exist without his friendship. He read more of it than anyone else. Avery Slater has been a constant source of inspiration and awe. Her intellectual generosity is unmatched. Finally, thanks to Éric Trudel for countless nights of bad movies and Chinese take-out. I would not have survived this book without his companionship. To everyone, I owe an immeasurable debt of support, inspiration, and affection.

Angela Chnapko at Oxford University Press supported this book from the beginning with enthusiasm. She solicited two terrific anonymous reviewers, and their detailed reports improved the manuscript substantially. Parts of the book were published previously in earlier shapes. Chapter 1 appeared as “The People as a Natural Disaster: Redemptive Violence in Jacobin Political Thought” (American Political Science Review 111, no. 4 (2017), pp. 786–800). Chapter 2 appeared as “The Demands of Glory: Tocqueville and Terror in Algeria” (The Review of Politics 80, no. 1 (2018), pp. 31–55). A small piece of the introduction is culled from “ ‘Does Democracy End in Terror?’ Transformations of Antitotalitarianism in Postwar France” (Modern Intellectual History 14, no. 2 (2017), pp. 537–563).

My parents left Vietnam for the United States in 1977 with no English, no community, and no money. In the forty years since, they have made unbelievable sacrifices. My father worked two full-time jobs for decades, and it wore his body down without ever touching his spirit. My mother spent years stitching collars for low, piecemeal pay in the middle of the night after putting my sister, brother, and me to sleep. Her wrists are worn and injured to this day; the recurring pain interrupts her sleep. Both beam with pride that their children have found successful careers. But in a more equal world, they could have written books, too, or become scholars and teachers. They could have had vacations, or hobbies, or retirement accounts. Instead, they have spent their whole lives working for a pittance and taking on debt so that their children could become what they could not. Absurd as it is, I hope this book is a tiny piece of evidence that their sacrifices were not pointless, that the precious time stolen from them was not for nothing. This book is for my parents, but it is also theirs, too.

Introduction: The Virtues of Violence in Times of Social Disintegration

How we think about violence tells us something about how we imagine the ties that bind us. As our ideas about violence evolve, so, too, do our accounts of social interdependence and the patterns of agency and vulnerability that we perceive.

An image of violence as anarchy has particularly shaped the social contract tradition and its vision of the social bond. Since Thomas Hobbes, to talk about violence has been to talk about disorder and the ways the social bond snaps from injury or death. For John Locke, he who commits violence “declares himself to live by another Rule, than that of reason and of common Equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of Men, for their mutual security.”1 He therefore becomes a criminal, a threat to our peaceful coexistence. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, violence against a fellow citizen expels a person from the social body: “Every evil-doer who attacks social right becomes a rebel and a traitor to the fatherland . . . he ceases to be a member of it, and even enters into war with it.” Thus, Rousseau concludes, “he must be cut off from [society] either by exile as a violator of the treaty, or by death as a public enemy; for such an enemy is not a moral person, but a man.”2 In this tradition, violating the social compact designates oneself as an outlaw, an enemy of humanity.3 It invites the violence of organized society upon oneself, not as a type of counterviolence, but as justice.

Within the revolutionary and republican political culture of modern France, a different, less familiar image of violence came to prominence: violence as social regeneration. French thinkers invoked this alternative image alongside its contractualist counterpart. But, according to this alternative image, violence was not a source or symptom of anarchy. It was its solution. Rather than something sublimated as men escaped nature into society, violence saved society from dissolution. This was especially true when the agent of violence was “the people.” Maximilien Robespierre captured this image of violence in December 1793 when he argued that revolutionary terror had “nothing in common with anarchy or disorder.” On the contrary, it instituted the social bond, for it was “not [guided] by individual passions, but by the public interest.”4 That link to the public interest made the people’s violence unifying rather than anarchic. “Woe betide us,” Robespierre warned, if through violence they were to “break the bundle apart, instead of binding it.”5

This alternative image of violence reappeared after the Revolution by thinkers from right to left. General Robert Thomas Bugeaud would invoke it to justify the French conquest of Algeria in the 1840s. “It is a cruel extremity” to wage total war against native Arabs, “but a horrifying example was necessary to strike terror” into their hearts. In Bugeaud’s terror, the Abbé Jacques Suchet would see proof that “Soldiers of France, you have not degenerated.” On the contrary, French terror would make the desert “flower again.”6 The anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon appealed to this alternative image of violence in his 1861 La Guerre et la Paix: “War is divine, that is to say, it is primordial, essential to life and to the production of men and society.” That is because a man only emerged from “the primeval slime which served him as a womb” once “he stood over the body of an enemy he had slain.”7 Communards, too, found in their 1871 civil war against Versailles a similar vision: “Paris works and suffers for all of France, which it prepares through battles and sacrifices for its intellectual, moral, administrative and economic regeneration.”8 By the eve of the First World War, this image of violence saturated French political culture. Right-wing intellectuals like Georges Valois promised, in a 1912 manifesto, to restore freedom “in the forms appropriate to the modern world, and which allow [the French] to live by working with the same satisfaction of honor as when they die in combat.”9 On the left, Georges Sorel made a similar point in his 1908 Reflections on Violence: “It is to violence that socialism owes those high ethical ideals by means of which it brings salvation to the modern world.”10

This book tells the story of how political thinkers and intellectuals weaponized this image of violence in the struggle for democracy in nineteenth-century France. It does so in the conviction that popular violence as social regeneration was not something niche or fringe, a phenomenon oblique to the history of French political thought. Instead, it was commonplace, and by understanding why that was the case, we gain a distinctive vantage point on modern democracy and the theoretical dilemmas its revolutionary emergence prompted.

Of course, this image of violence was neither unique to the nineteenth century nor to France.11 Historians have traced its roots as far back as the Wars of Religion and medieval penal justice, and it persisted into twentieth-century political thought in France and elsewhere.12 It figured prominently in the context of American frontier expansion.13 Within conservative and counter-revolutionary traditions, it was associated with writers like Joseph de Maistre, for whom the executioner’s killing axe was “both the horror and the bond of human association.”14 Revolutionaries of all stripes also invoked it, from futurists like Filippo Marinetti to anticolonial nationalists like Frantz Fanon.15 It was a promiscuous image of violence, one that Dominick LaCapra has usefully described as “redemptive violence.” Redemptive violence, LaCapra argues, aims to interrupt “a deadly compulsive cycle of repetition” or to introduce “a radical, even total, rupture with the past” through “purification, regeneration, or redemption.”16 It brings together a normative sociology of the human bond with a moral commitment to forging those bonds anew in an act of violence.

This book builds on this previous work, but it focuses on moments when redemptive violence expressed the agency of “the people.” It turns to the historical theater of nineteenth-century France because, more than most contexts, these decades saw a causal connection drawn between popular violence and social regeneration. If premodern thinkers conceived redemptive violence as an act of providential agency, writers during and after the French Revolution conceptualized redemptive violence in the context of an emerging self-governing society. No longer heavenly destruction, redemptive violence in nineteenth-century France expressed the collective agency of a society capable of ruling itself without the intercession of a superior, extra-social power—a democratic society. The sources of social cohesion and renewal were to be drawn, not from God or tradition, but from the activity of the people themselves. Immortalized in the language of “terror,” images of redemptive violence proliferated throughout the long nineteenth century at key moments in which the integrity of the national community entered into crisis and where political thinkers despaired over the fate of the social bond.17 It has not been my aim to write a history of redemptive violence, nor to offer a normative evaluation of it. Instead, I have tried to understand its polemical appeal because I am convinced that we do not properly understand modern democracy until we can understand why redemptive violence could be invoked on its behalf.

Redemptive Violence from the Great Revolution to the Great War

Redemptive violence’s ubiquity in the history of political thought raises important questions for democratic theory. What did it offer that alternative vocabularies of democratic agency could not? What were the sources of its appeal? To answer these questions, the following chapters examine episodes in French history where figurations of the people’s violence as redemptive assuaged wider anxieties about a society on the brink of disintegration. These episodes span the long nineteenth century from the French Revolution to the First World War. They involve complex conjunctures ranging from civil war and revolution to industrialization, imperial conquest, and the institutionalization of parliamentary democracy. Each is further marked by different shapes of violence, from street insurrections and the levée en masse to total war and the cut of the guillotine. Yet these episodes are connected by a common pattern of thinking despite their heterogeneity: political intellectuals warned that entropic forces unleashed by democratization threatened the French social body, and they sought to repair that social body by reawakening the people’s agency through violence. Whatever their ideological persuasion, these thinkers came to believe that the path leading from an anarchic multitude to an organized democratic society did not require violence’s prohibition but its virtuous expression by the people.

The following chapters are designed to bring this persistent pattern of thinking to our attention. Chapter 1 turns to the French Revolution and the threat of social disintegration raised by the prospect of killing Louis XVI. Because royalist ideology identified the king’s mystical body as a transcendental guarantee of social cohesion, revolutionary regicide threatened to dissolve the French social body. The chapter shows how Jacobins sought to bypass this dilemma by redefining regicide as redemptive violence. They assimilated classical tyrannicide to new theories of natural disaster and ecological self-regulation circulating in the scientific culture of the late eighteenth century. In so doing, Jacobins transformed regicide by the people into a naturalistic source of renewal and rebirth.

Chapter 2 turns to the July Monarchy (1830–1848) when France began its violent conquest of Algeria. During these years, liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville argued that commercialization and economic utilitarianism were threatening France with social disintegration. A democratic culture of “individualism” was leading to psychological withdrawal among citizens, isolating them from one another. This société en poussière—an “atomized” society—could not enjoy modern liberty because it had forfeit its taste for collective glorious endeavors. Tocqueville’s desire to save democracy from its own atomization, I suggest, shaped his apologies for colonial terror during the conquest of Algeria in the early 1840s.

Chapter 3 analyzes the threat of social disintegration posed by industrialization and the social question. For French socialists writing in the 1840s, the merely “political” republicanism of the Revolution had privileged the individual rights of man at the expense of social solidarity and spiritual renewal. As a result, the social cohesion of the people had been dissolved by the punitive competition of market society. Setting their sights on a “social” Republic instead, Communards waging civil war against the French national government in 1871 were pushed to articulate their ideals of social cooperation and regeneration through the language of republican militarism. Only by reincarnating the fractured “electorate” as a unified “people in arms” could a “social society” be won.

In Chapter 4, anxieties over disintegration were blamed on the positivistic intellectual culture of the Third Republic and the elite interest politics it justified. In unmooring French citizens from la France profonde, parliamentarism and positivism fostered what Maurice Barrès called a nation of uprooted (déracinées). The chapter reconstructs how Georges Sorel and his fellow travelers on both the left and right advocated for mythic proletarian violence to counteract that moral degeneration. Their arguments contributed to the mass war mobilization in the lead-up to world war in 1914.

An image of the people’s redemptive violence recurred across these historical conjunctures. In no case was it reducible to something simply destructive, a last resort, or a strategy for domination. Instead, it appeared productive in the paradoxical way that democratic theorists have demonstrated all claims on behalf of “the people” are paradoxically productive: “claims made in the name of the people always transcend the horizon of any given articulation, drawing their power from their own unrealized futurity.”18 The people names a transformative principle because it draws a gap between democracy’s “pragmatic” and “redemptive” faces.19 It is a description as well as an aspiration, and no appeal to historical grounding can definitively close that gap.20 As we will see, modern redemptive violence also presupposed the people as its agent and promised to bring them about as their own effect. The regeneration that redemptive violence promised was always self-regeneration.

That the people’s violence emerged in the nineteenth century as a catalyst for self-regeneration announced an epochal shift away from redemptive agency’s historic attribution to divine power. It marked the emergence of modern humanism, the intellectuals’ dream that “Man” could be his own foundation. This dream was not a straightforward sign of secularization any more than the European passage to political modernity was a straightforward process of disenchantment.21 In his funeral oration for those killed on the 10 August 1792 insurrection, Cousin de Grainville broadcasted an image of the new world solicited by the people’s violence. It was a world in which “from dawn till sunset, the people will reign” as a power descended “from heaven to earth” to literally regenerate the world, to refertilize it.22 The poets of the revolutionary era, too, genuflected before the people’s new redemptive agency. Consider William Blake in 1791: “Hear, O Heavens of France! The voice of the people, arising from valley and hill, O’erclouded with power.”23 Consider, too, Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1801 “The Voice of the People”: “You were the voice of God, so I used to think / In my holy youth; yes, and I maintain this still.”24 If a measure of transcendence clung to the people’s power, what remains important is how they remained a worldly power.25 The power, even duty, to regenerate society belonged to them alone.

As an expression of their autonomy, the people’s redemptive violence figured as something that could mitigate the dangers of democratization at the same time that it advanced democratization as a positive project. Indeed, democracy was both a problem to be solved and a horizon to be reached. It was, Christopher Meckstroth argues, historically self-reflexive, capable of providing for its own immanent critique.26 This latter point can sometimes be difficult to see because of the idiosyncratic semantic itineraries of words like “democracy” and “the Republic.” Both held situational meanings and a dual signification: an institutional arrangement and a prescription for popular sovereignty which those arrangements could never definitively express. That was why the terms could be used interchangeably, as fellow travelers, or as a way to critique the other for not being democratic or republican enough. Robespierre treated them as synonyms, arguing that the French Republic was the world’s first “true democracy” because it entailed the people ruling themselves through their own laws as equals.27 Proudhon treated them as opposites: democracy meant representation, and the republic meant direct popular sovereignty. Never would the two meet.28 Sorel, for his part, agreed with Robespierre that they were synonyms—but for parliamentary representation. So much the worse for both. Both were incompatible with the direct self-rule of the people: “the activity of producing useful things in a purpose chosen by ourselves.”29

If we set aside linguistic positivism and search for the patterns of thinking amid the noise, we can detect what thinkers meant. And what they meant was clear enough: even as democratization had unleashed forces that were damaging society, the solution also lay in a deeper, more encompassing form of democratic society. Violence was productive for that purpose, because it unleashed the power of the people. And in the nineteenth century, Lucien Jaume reminds us, “the power of the people was above all a sociological and moral power, not an institutional one.”30 It was a redemptive power that could convey us from social disintegration toward a more positive democratic state. That positive democratic state involved, not a set of institutional prescriptions, but what communards like Louise Michel called a “revolt against social inequalities,” one that would bring “Art for all! Science for all! Bread for all!”31 Democracy was a millenarian horizon and a progressive scientific achievement even as it remained a reason for trepidation.

“Democracy!” Tocqueville wrote in his preparatory notes for Democracy in America. “Don’t you notice that these are the waters of the flood? Don’t you see them advance constantly by a slow and irresistible effort? . . . Instead of wanting to raise impotent dikes, let us seek rather to build the holy ark that must carry the human species over this ocean without shores.”32 In the struggle for democracy in nineteenth-century France, there was no going backward, no obstructing the flood. Democratization could only be survived by sailing through it, by activating at thresholds of crisis the power of the people.

Redemptive Violence’s Sources of Appeal: The Argument

In analyzing the recurring role of redemptive violence, these chapters build an argument for rooting its appeal in French republicanism’s persistent demand for a concrete social body. By French republicanism, I mean the political culture that grew out of the historical experience of the Revolution rather than any specific set of normative prescriptions.33 Anglo-American political theorists have grown accustomed to speaking of republicanism as a paradigm of normative reasoning, extractable from its historical context, and whose purpose is to develop and defend the Roman ideal of libertas as non-domination.34 But in France, republicanism was never primarily a paradigm for normative reasoning. It was a kind of intellectual gravitational field consisting in a set of common motifs, symbols, scripts for collection action, and shared historical memory centered on the legacy of the Revolution. It resembled what Mark Greif calls a “maieutic discourse.” A maieutic discourse “has the form, ‘We must ask,’ ‘We must think,’ ‘We must answer’ ” and “yet does surprisingly little work of disputation, selection, and mutual destruction among the answers.” These discourses shape “the whole public space of thought” through “an unseen kind of principle of determination of historical thought” irreducible to a logic, principle, or concept.35 Maieutic discourses do not provide decisive answers. They shape our perception of what questions seem worth asking, what questions carry gravitas. Republicanism in France was this type of gravitational field. Hence it is not well understood as a prescriptive paradigm in normative competition with liberalism or socialism. Rather, French republicanism was the crucible within which liberalism and socialism developed in France: they named alternative paths to realizing the French republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.36

Explaining redemptive violence’s appeal by pointing to a specifically French republican desire for a concrete social body may nevertheless seem counterintuitive. After all, however internally contested nineteenth-century French republicanism turned out to be, virtually all of its critics agreed that it was a modern language of abstraction. Ever since Edmund Burke developed this interpretation, scholars have denounced French republicanism’s aim for “abstract perfection” as a source of violence.37 De Maistre attributed the Revolution’s “satanic quality” to its “artificial” universalism, which was “a pure abstraction, an academic exercise made according to some hypothetical ideal.”38 What characterized French republicanism, he believed, was its absurd myth of an abstract man bereft of any social particularity: “I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.,” but “as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me.”39 Jules Michelet, otherwise sympathetic to the Revolution, would lament of its leaders, “Being logicians without metaphysics and jurists without law and history . . . these dreadful abstractors of ultimate essences armed themselves with five or six formulas which they used like so many guillotines to abstract men.”40

According to this familiar interpretation, French republicanism’s emphasis on abstraction distinguishes it from its classical antecedents.41 French republicanism inherited the traditional valorization of martial glory and civic virtue associated with the republics of antiquity. But the influence of the Enlightenment and the vicissitudes of national history also oriented French republicanism toward political rationalism and moral universalism, which became its cudgels against the inherited stratifications of the ancien régime. If peoplehood for Cicero or Machiavelli expresses our membership in a particular polity, peoplehood in French republicanism expresses our membership in a common but abstract body—“the people”—which we enter into by leaving behind our markers of social differentiation. In so doing, we ascend to become rights-bearing citizens who stand free and equal to one another. The Count of Clermont-Tonnerre invoked this procedure of abstraction when discussing Jewish emancipation in December 1789: “we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to them as individuals.”42 And it was this republican model that Karl Marx critiqued in “On the Jewish Question”: the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen emancipated the individual by reducing him to a citizen, an “abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person” in false opposition to man as a concrete, “sensual” existence living as a particular member of civil society.43

Undeniably, there is a great deal of truth in this tradition of interpreting French republicanism as a culture enthralled with abstract universalism. Its history consists in a sequence of abstractions—the People, the Nation, and the Empire—negotiating the realities of political exclusion.44 However, interpreting the struggle for democracy in France through the prism of redemptive violence shows this interpretation to be one-sided. From the Revolution onward, republicanism’s demands for political abstraction were always tethered to demands to reconstruct a concrete social body. We see this latter commitment expressed in the ways republicans insisted, time and again, that the people cannot be reduced to an aggregate of individuals living together under common laws. In terms more familiar to contemporary political theorists, “the people” were emphatically not adhered by what John Rawls called a modus vivendi, a “social consensus [which is] founded on self- or group interests, or on the outcome of political bargaining.” In a modus vivendi, “social unity is only apparent” because “its stability is contingent on circumstances remaining such as not to upset the fortunate convergence of interests.”45 In contrast, republicanism in France defined “the people” in terms of a qualitatively distinct form of social interdependence that pointed beyond the convergence of self-interest. As Rousseau had argued, what is decisive for a people to become a people is the transmutation of natural individual freedom into a civil, moral freedom whose enjoyment is dependent on all others. This type of peoplehood is not the product of an equilibrium of factions or an aggregation of preferences, but collective moral reincarnation.

Indeed, as this book will show, the moral reincarnation of the social body was a kind of idée fixe for French thinkers in the nineteenth century because the difficult experience of revolution had uncovered a paradox at the heart of democratization: where it required emancipating the abstract individual as free and equal to all others, democracy also atomized the very “people” whom it announced as sovereign. The price of achieving popular sovereignty was the disintegration of the people. This paradox led generations of political thinkers to sense, however inchoately, that founding a modern republic through democratic revolution required not only abstract individual citizenship, but also a concrete social body. These two requirements did not represent contradictory or incompatible demands. Instead, they worked in tandem to specify the terms of successful democratization. Meeting the demand for abstract political equality without satisfying the demand for a concrete social body would only produce a parliamentary and legalistic husk, what Charles Péguy denounced on the eve of the First World War as a de-republicanized Republic emptied of essence.46

This revolutionary demand for both abstract political equality and a cohesive social body made theorizing “the social” an intellectual priority for postrevolutionary French thought. Hence the new sciences of sociology, zoology, and social physics were tasked with explicating “the physiological constitution of the social body.”47 Hence, too, thinkers of all stripes adopted a social-theoretic orientation toward political theory. They appropriated classical republicanism’s belief in virtue—something that could mitigate the degenerative inclinations of time and human nature—to draw new causal connections between moral improvement and social cohesion. Time and again, the thinkers in this book will insist that morality is what makes social cohesion something thicker than the fortuitous convergence of private interests or the quantitative accumulation of preferences. Time and again, they will conclude that lifting a disorganized multitude into a sovereign people requires reasserting the moral foundations of “the social.” And they will articulate that requirement through calls for a regenerated social body. Produced through fantasies of unity and anxieties over le corps morcelé, these conceptions of the social body will become “central to the internal coherence of French ideas about who did and who did not qualify as ‘French.’ ”48

In short, explaining redemptive violence’s appeal as a language of democratic agency requires foregrounding how democratization made “the social” into a problem to be solved. Robespierre intimated as much when he claimed that democratic revolution required men to “substitute morality for egoism . . . principles for practice . . . the rule of reason for the tyranny of fashion . . . the love of glory for the love of money . . . in short all of the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and absurdities of monarchy.”49 The point was formulated more elegantly by François Guizot, a man at best ambivalent about the Revolution but who nevertheless reached a similar conclusion to Robespierre in 1828: “the progress of society necessarily involves and carries with it the progress of morality. . . . They imply that in the spontaneous, instinctive conviction of mankind, the two elements of civilization, the social development and the moral development, are closely connected; that at the sight of the one, man at once looks forward to the other.”50

By the Third Republic, this connection between moral improvement and social cohesion became a defining feature of French social thought. In his 1893 The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim critiqued the contractualist conception of society promoted by English social theorists like Herbert Spencer. In Durkheim’s eyes, their vision of society as a spontaneous, self-organizing product of free exchange (“contractual solidarity”) could not account for the objective forces of social causation that bound together modern societies (“organic solidarity”). In contrast to Spencer’s vision of society as a “vast system of particular contracts,” Durkheim described society as a supra-individual moral organism. Taking direct aim at contractual solidarity’s explanatory sufficiency, Durkheim concluded that “We cooperate because we wish to, but our voluntary co-operation creates duties for us that we did not desire” because “a contract is not sufficient unto itself, but is possible only thanks to a regulation of the contract which is originally social.”51

Men cannot live together without acknowledging, and, consequently, making mutual sacrifices, without tying themselves to one another with strong, durable bonds. Every society is a moral society. . . . Because the individual is not sufficient unto himself, it is from society that he receives everything necessary to him, as it is for society that he works.52

“Every society is a moral society”—this claim could just as well serve as a credo, not only for Durkheim, but also for republican political culture in nineteenth-century France. In identifying morality as the element that elevated abstract contractual solidarity to a genuine social bond, Durkheim formalized what had remained tacit in republican thought since the Revolution: social cohesion is not reducible to either a modus vivendi or a representational notion of peoplehood. A modern republic needs abstract, free citizens as well as a moral, concrete social body. Redemptive violence’s conceit was that it could incarnate the people in both these respects. Conceit it was, and conceit it remains. But grasping that conceit as the source of redemptive violence’s appeal underscores how republicanism in France was never simply an attack on monarchy on behalf of abstract equality. It was shaped as much by its hatred of hierarchical society as by its anxiety over social disintegration. Without a cohesive social body, one whose bonds transcended a modus vivendi, it was not possible to have a society sufficiently united to rule itself. It was not possible to have a democratic society.

A Critique of Antitotalitarianism

The book offers this argument as a provocation for us to rethink the place of violence in democratic politics. If the story it recounts and the perspective it opens up looks jarring, that is partly because political theorists have avoided studying redemptive violence. For one, it fits uneasily into existing conceptual languages designed to explain violence. It is a deliberate act, and so it differs from the violence of impersonal structures or the cruelty of strategic necessity.53 The harm it inflicts is physical rather than symbolic, even if the wounding depends on its symbolic representation.54 It resembles founding violence in its aim to illegally constitute a new order, but it is the work of “the people” rather than of singular figures such as the lawgiver, prince, or conspiratorial elites.55

Moreover, twentieth-century intellectual historians have long associated redemptive violence with fascism or totalitarian ideology. Among its premier chroniclers from Mark Antliff to Zeev Sternhell, redemptive or “palingenetic” violence finds its sources in the late nineteenth century and blossoms in twentieth-century fascist political theory.56 A creature of the avant guerre years, this violence catalyzed the birth of “the new man,” personified variously as a youthful addict of technological velocity, a hybrid organic-mechanical soldier, or “Homo Sovieticus” erecting the “radiant future.”57 I have leaned on this historiography for my own arguments, but the teleological association it draws between redemptive violence and fascism has encouraged political theorists to dismiss that violence as beyond rational analysis or so contemptible that it requires no detailed examination. The only appropriate response is moral repudiation. As Tracy Strong has complained, since 1945 “much of the political thought in the West has been devoted to developing theory that would keep ‘it’ from happening again.” Postwar academic political theory is governed by “a tacit question: ‘What is the relation of this thought to the Nazis?’ ”58 As a result, redemptive violence has typically occasioned, not theoretical understanding, but indignation. It is portrayed, not as a fraught solution to real political problems, but as the unique pathology of political traditions like the Counter-Enlightenment,59 anti-modernism,60 reactionary modernists,61 fascist blackshirts, and communist revolutionaries62—virtually anyone but contemporary liberals,63 whose violence is typically realist, a matter of “dirty hands,” and checked by either a skepticism of moral perfectionism or a commitment to constitutionalism.64 The consequence has been that the history of redemptive violence has frequently been reduced to a history of illiberalism.65

This latter interpretative tendency takes its most sophisticated shape in the democratic theory that developed during postwar France’s “antitotalitarian moment.”66 During the 1970s–1980s, French intellectuals developed a belated theoretical critique of totalitarianism. European émigrés in the United States had been producing such criticism since the Second World War, but the postwar prestige of the French communist party (PCF) marginalized analogous theoretical developments domestically. The critique of totalitarianism in France would not flourish until the 1970s, when a confluence of contexts eroded the PCF’s intellectual credibility: its failure to criticize the Algerian War, its continuing subservience to Moscow, soixante-huitard direct democratic critiques of the electoral left, the influence of Eastern European dissident literature, and wider liberal reorientations of French intellectual culture.67 These intersecting contexts rekindled interest in the origins of totalitarianism in France. Antitotalitarian critics from the Socialisme ou barbarie group sidelined during the late 1940s earned newfound public esteem after May 1968, especially Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis.68 Hannah Arendt’s section from The Origins of Totalitarianism on totalitarianism finally appeared in French in 1972. Beginning in 1977, the “New Philosophers” appeared on Apostrophes, Friday at nine-thirty to broadcast moralizing critiques of communist totalitarianism to millions of television viewers: a perfect expression of France’s postwar dream of modernization.69

France’s “antitotalitarian moment” inspired a generation of democratic theorists and historians to invent a genetic, teleological link between democracy and totalitarianism. This teleological link was new. Prior to the 1970s, the few French thinkers who analyzed totalitarianism traced its origin to bureaucratic rationality. As Castoriadis had argued in 1947, it was the Soviet Union’s rule by an independent bureaucratic class that made totalitarianism a new historical formation, irreducible to either capitalism or socialism.70 By 1976, however, the seeds of twentieth-century terror were not to be found in the contradictions of a bureaucratic mass society but in the political theory of Jacobinism and its discourse of political will. Antitotalitarian theorists “discovered” the democratic origins of totalitarianism.71

François Furet’s 1978 Penser la révolution française was the most famous example.72 His book quietly weaponized Lefort’s arguments to accuse Jacobinism of containing the seeds of totalitarianism past and present, making his book fatally “ambivalent about the democratic project itself.”73 Penser la révolution française identified an immanent “dynamic” or “logic” governing the revolution whereby “the political” liberated itself from “the social” only to dominate it. “The social” contained concrete relations sustained by habits, institutions, and corporate associations that secured social cohesion, whereas “the political” overlaid abstract relations of equality deliberately constructed by individuals constituting themselves as citizens. And in the French revolutionary dynamic, Furet argued, the latter sought to reengineer the former as it saw fit. Liberated from any social grounding, “democratic ideology” was “ever ready to place ideas above actual history, as if it were called upon to restructure a fragmented society by means of its own concepts.”74 As “the political” won its autonomy, however, it took on the burden of providing the principle of the new world from within itself, immanently, and to continuously assert that principle lest the community fall back into disarray. The consequence was terror: an insistence by democratic ideology that full discretion be given to “the will of the people” as the sole support for political order and cohesion. Independent and bereft of foundations except for itself, “the political” converted itself into its own foundation and in the image of absolute power. In his stunning conclusion, Furet believed that the Revolution therefore simply adopted, and inverted, the image of power in the absolute monarchy; namely, absolute power to the will of the people.75

This teleological argument about democracy and terror sidelined an earlier postwar consensus that totalitarianism presented an unprecedented metamorphosis of bureaucratic rationality. It also inspired a generation of French democratic theorists to elaborate on the democratic provenance of totalitarianism under Furet’s institutional leadership.76 This included Marcel Gauchet, Lefort’s former student at the University of Caen, participant of Furet’s political theory reading group at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in the mid-1970s, and the current editor of Le Débat.77 In 1980, Gauchet concluded that “the European model of democracy inseparably carries with it the totalitarian menace” because democracy in Europe was not simply a political regime but “a mode of social being” that demanded the violent dismemberment and reconstruction of the social body.78 This generation also included Pierre Rosanvallon, successor to Furet at the Institut Raymond Aron and one of Lefort’s doctoral students. Rosanvallon concluded that the revolutionary proclamation of “the people” as sovereign fractured their existence into a symbolic and real existence—a modern, democratic iteration of the king’s two bodies.79 The unity of the people was therefore always symbolic rather than real, and it depended on the continuous exercise of rational collective will to be sustained. Thus, “in this framework, political life found itself emancipated from all constraint and all form. It became pure action, unmediated expression of a directly palpable will”—that is, terror.80

These antitotalitarian arguments left their fingerprints on Cold War democratic theory in powerful and lasting ways. They took redemptive violence seriously by situating it in a teleological history of illiberal democratic revolution run amok from the Terror to the Gulag and even May 1968.81 They further positioned liberal pluralism as the neglected antidote.82 Neither this teleological association of redemptive violence with totalitarianism nor the identification of its history as one of illiberalism have disappeared. We can still read how the “unity” of French revolutionary political culture—its desire for political equality and emotional transparency—contained an “intrinsic dynamic . . . independent of the principles proclaimed by revolutionaries” which led to terror.83 We can read how the idea of “revolution” evolved into “a form of authority” with a life of its own that solicited subsequent forms of violence and terror into the twentieth century.84 We can even see echoes of these arguments in contemporary anxieties about populism and other varieties of democratic “disfigurations.”85 Even if these antitotalitarian arguments now take different shapes and draw on different archives and languages of political theory, they still speak of a “logic” or “dynamic,” “embryonically” contained in the emergence of modern democratic politics. In the end, democracy turns out to be “a pathology waiting to happen.”86

This book shares the starting point of Furet and his followers, namely Lefort’s observation that the emergence of “the people” as sovereign heralded the disintegration of “the social.”87 It shares that point of departure, however, to show that we can and should draw something other than liberal antitotalitarian conclusions from it. At bottom, antitotalitarian arguments about redemptive violence are arguments that the origins of totalitarianism lie in the misguided pursuit of democratic social cohesion. They insinuate that there is something intrinsically proto-totalitarian about the idea of social cohesion itself because it cannot be secured without political violence. In writing this book, however, I have come to the conclusion that associations of redemptive violence with totalitarianism have provided an alibi for many critics to evade fundamental questions about the shape of the social body in modern democracies. In making social cohesion a theoretical taboo, consideration of which sets us on a path to redemptive violence, the legacies of liberal antitotalitarianism have made us hesitant to think about the types of social bonds that democratic politics require. We would rather understand democracy as disagreement, as agonism, or as pluralism.88 Breaking the grip of these interpretations is therefore important because it also breaks the grip of the Cold War on our democratic imagination. It allows us to take up the task of reimagining fraternité anew, to ask after the kinds of social bonds we must create together to be free. That task, after all, was once the soul of the modern struggle for democracy.

The point of understanding redemptive violence’s ubiquity is to intensify our concern with the problem of the democratic social bond, not to steer us away from it. On one hand, we have to appreciate how the myriad voices under study here shaded into one another on the importance of redemptive violence. Tocqueville’s remarks on French decadence and war’s vivifying moral effects are almost indistinguishable from Sorel, a thinker often considered the intellectual father of fascism. Parisian communards who dreamed of a federated horizontal society and denounced Jacobinism could be found invoking—often literally—the same image of violence as Robespierre and St. Just. To study these thinkers in isolation from one another, as is typically done, conceals the image of redemptive violence connecting them.

On the other hand, we need to leave behind the ahistorical platitude that would group them together into a single “illiberal” or “exceptional” tradition propelled toward totalitarianism.89 We need to read redemptive violence’s ubiquity not as pathology but as a significant clue to understanding what democracy meant to those who struggled with it and for it. At any rate, those men and women hailed from different corners of French politics and disagreed, often profoundly, on the requirements of authentic democratic rule. They also expressed their fixation with the moral reincarnation of the French social body through different diagnostic languages. They decried atomization, disintegration, individualism, abstraction, and moral degeneration, and they demanded unity, harmony, social cohesion, concreteness, and moral improvement. The paths they took from social disintegration to social regeneration in the nineteenth century were too ad hoc, and the manifestations of redemptive violence they endorsed too polymorphous, to be explained by a “logic” of democracy. In fact, terror can never be the logical outcome of an “immanent dynamic” to revolutionary democracy for nobody can be propelled to violence by something like that. What we call the necessity or momentum imposed by the revolutionary course of events, Maurice Merleau-Ponty reminds us, will never be anything but the necessary course of events as we see it.90 No single path conveyed French thinkers from social disintegration to redemptive violence because no such thing could exist. There were instead multiple paths, each of which had to be paved by men and women who did not know how to do such a thing, only that it was urgent—the experience, in other words, which often incites political theory.

If I have therefore excavated a family resemblance beneath heterogeneity, it is not because these thinkers shared a hidden ideological filiation or were subject to an intrinsic dynamic immanent to democracy itself. Instead, they shared a common situation. And situations, to follow Merleau-Ponty once more, are always equivocal. They do not elicit determinate responses from us, never mind a logic of action. They do, however, invite us to map out projected possibilities as probabilities, “to take sides from the very start” in the face of a future that is never “entirely forseeable”—including the use of violence.91 It is the ambiguity, not the logic, of a historical situation that places violence on the table.

The situation, first raised by the Revolution, was this: From what was the social bond to be forged in the age of democracy? If the elemental unit of democracy was the emancipated individual, then what was society? Despite everything that separated them, French thinkers in the long nineteenth century found themselves called to answer this question. It was the urgency of rethinking the social in an age of democracy that invited so many French thinkers to turn to redemptive violence. That is what this study hopes to reveal in clear, dramatic terms.

Political theorists should reconsider our commonplace conviction that revolutionary violence—especially terror—is driven by abstract thinking run amok. These convictions acquiesce too much to Edmund Burke’s interpretation of the French Revolution: that political violence is essentially destructive, that it is antisocial, that it leaves behind only “the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”92 We need to account for the fact that virtually every modern proponent of redemptive violence critiqued political abstraction. They critiqued it because the Revolution, and the republican political culture which grew out of it, taught them that democratic self-rule depended not only on winning abstract political citizenship, but also on regenerating the moral fiber of the social body. If the Republic were to limit itself to achieving abstract, individual political citizenship, it would win the sovereignty of the people at the cost of dissolving them back into a haphazard multitude of atomized individuals. Generations of French thinkers therefore sought to mitigate the disintegrating effects of the abstraction procedures so required. The formation of a democratic society in France could not be separated from attempts to forge the social body anew, to supplant the severed social bonds of the ancien régime with superior republican fraternity.

It is also time we reconsider the conventional ways we narrate the role of violence in the history of political thought. It is simply not true that redemptive violence was a pathological deviation for European political development, and its inevitable telos was not totalitarianism.93 It was never simply a means for conquest and domination. Instead, it offered a flexible, productive vocabulary that answered genuine, even intractable paradoxes thrown up by attempts to create a modern republic through democratic revolution. Redemptive violence may be unsettling, even shocking to the conscience. We who have witnessed its use in the twentieth century have earned our right to be ambivalent about its use, even by “the people.” And even the most enthusiastic proponents of redemptive violence in the nineteenth century dimly sensed Max Weber’s subsequent warning, that the use of violence for political ends always “risks damaging our idols for generations to come.”94 Even so, ambivalence about redemptive violence must not obscure how it responded to real dilemmas raised by democratization. If fascists also appealed to it, that was because they, too, found themselves compelled to reimagine the social bond in an era in which democracy had called its nature into question. This is not an apology or an excuse for redemptive violence but the necessary starting point for understanding its widespread appeal. Redemptive violence promised to repair the fraying social bond. That promise captured the imagination of French thinkers as they struggled to construct a democratic republic amid the ruins of the past.

The social contractualist image of violence as anarchy has long helped political theorists define the principles of a legitimate democratic society. But when it came to creating that democratic society in practice, political thinkers depended on an altogether different image of violence: violence as productive of sociality itself. Redemptive violence took away life, but it did so while rebinding the social tie. It authorized murder, but not before transforming it into something more than death. If we are to understand democracy as an ongoing historical achievement rather than a normative theory of popular sovereignty, we ought to bring this alternative image of violence into focus. Doing so reminds us that democracy is never simply a claim about the source of right. It is also a battle cry for alternative visions of the social bond. In France, that cry invited its political thinkers to reassert republican peoplehood against the disintegrating forces which beset it from within and without. Time and again in the long nineteenth century, that also meant turning to the virtues of violence.



You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!