—Napoleon Bonaparte in conversation circa 1808
Recently, Jacobin magazine published a piece by Harrison Fluss arguing that present day-left-wing radicals should “revisit” the Cult of the Supreme Being. He argues that the republican religiosity that Robespierre attempted to institute represents a positive alternative to both liberal tolerance and fanaticism, New Atheism and clericalism. In raising the need for such an alternative, he is asking a good question. Where he errs is, above all, in is in his lack of conviction. He wants to endorse the Cult of the Supreme Being without actually following the logic of such an endorsement to the end:
What we can learn from these figures is not so much the need to institute a new religion, but a very secular lesson about the relationship of belief and popular power.
These “lessons” in turn amount to reducing all beliefs–whether rationalistic and fundamentalist, dogmatic or skeptical—from propositions that are true or false to more or less tactically useful expressions of interest.
Even this crude pragmatism is immediately undermined by his attempts to defend Robespierre simultaneously from charges of cynicism and naivety, the upshot of which makes him appear guilty on both counts. If he didn’t actually believe in his deistic profession of faith, then he was indeed utilizing it and the credulity of other people in an instrumentalist manner. If he did in fact believe it though, saying that he was “really” just trying to fight the class struggle by other means is both untruthful regarding the facts and disrespectful to Robespierre as a person. At the very least, it shows a basic failure to understand what belief in a God, whether that of Abraham or of Spinoza, means and entails for those who have it. At the same time, to the extent that Robespierre really did in the Supreme Being, the cogency of the critique of his creed from both “the Left” and “the Right” is increased.
This self-defeating concern with individual intentions extends to Fluss’ explanation of why the Cult of the Supreme Being failed preempt the onset of Thermidor. The subjective feelings of certain factions of the Jacobins themselves, not the unpopularity of their ideas among ordinary people, is used as an explanation for their downfall:
Their cynical mockery and contempt for Robespierre’s earnestness contained the seeds for turning back all the popular gains the Jacobins had made up to this point… In Robespierre’s wake, the Directory replaced the Convention, and safeguarded the narrow property interests of the rich at the expense of the popular interests of the French plebs and sans-culottes.
Ignored in such summation is all the other materiel and ideological factors that served to make the Jacobin regime, unlike the succession of pre-Restoration governments that followed it, unendurable. From the Maximum law that suppressed wages to the forced extraction of food from the countryside by the People’s armies, from the suppression of popular folk customs to the violent persecution of non-juring priests, the Jacobins had left themselves open to attack from both the left and the right. If the Jacobins had been truly beloved by the French “plebs”, they would not have been betrayed and executed to jeers of the crowd in the capital itself by their erstwhile colleges. Ignored also is the extent to which the men of the Thermidor were themselves earnest republicans, not mustache-twirling opportunists.
More to the point: Fluss’ explanation supposes that if the Jacobins had only acted sooner, everything would have been better:
All of Robespierre’s efforts to heal the rifts of the nation around a new civic religion were too late.
As if any amount of time would have made his attempt to paper over real social antagonisms with Sub-Masonic theatrics any more convincing. Civic deism could not satisfy either the disciples of the philosophers or the children of the Church, and unlike the abbies and convents of the latter, it couldn’t be relied upon to provide the poor with bread and the sick with beds. At the end of the day, the Jacobins were allowed to rule only long as they could present themselves as the sole party capable of preserving the unity of the patria. As soon as it was clear that there were other, non-petit-bourgeois crank options available, the no longer endangered national unity could be reaffirmed by their overthrow. Flimsy pedagogical street shows couldn’t change this reality.
It is instructive to compare this confused, vacillating Jacobin enthusiasm with healthy Bonapartist anti-clericalism. The fleeting cult of the Supreme Being inherited the wind. By contrast, the imperfect compromise of the Concordat set the basic pattern of church and state relations France for the next century until the abolition of the Organic Articles in 1905 more or less completed annulment of the marriage between Rome and her eldest daughter. The Gallican heresy was crushed between the rising power of the modern state and the Ultramontane claims of Rome, making Jacobin civic deism a redundant novelty item. But this point can be more succinctly summed up by looking at just one of several interventions made by Napoleon in the culture wars of his day.
During the summer of 1805, several prefects, for their own “enlightened” reasons no doubt, sided with conservative bishops who called for a ban on dancing in front of churches. Despite his fixation with his plans to invade England, this development was deemed important enough for him to write a personal letter to Jean-Baptiste de Nompère de Champagney, the Minister of the Interior:
I don’t know where this will end. Is dancing now an evil? Do we want to return to the time when villagers were not allowed to dance?
If everything the bishops say is to be believed, we would have to ban balls, entertainments, fashions, and turn the Empire into one big convent…
Make it clear to them…that the civil authorities do not involve themselves in this kind of thing.
Emma Goldmann is incorrectly believed to have declared “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” But the emperor really did want the people to dance, even in front of churches if they so desired. Instead of seeking to found a new religion of his own, Bonaparte confined himself to siding with the people against the crotchety arrogance of the existing clergy. Or rather he chose to side with an older popular understanding of sacred space which conflicted with both the comparatively younger Tridentine concern for religious discipline and the bourgeois sobriety promoted by the enlightened, post-revolutionary bureaucracy. Significantly, Bonaparte doesn’t say the bishops couldn’t rail against dancing in front of churches. What he does do is make clear that they can’t expect the civil authorities to enforce such ecclesiastical edicts, which is what the prefects in question were apparently doing.
The Emperor’s own private religious opinions were mercurial to say the least. But whatever his own opinion of Christianity at any one time, what remained consistent was his insistence that the sphere of the state had a separate competence and dignity apart from the sphere of the church. He recognized intuitively that the neo-pagan civic religion dreamed of by Rousseau and his disciples was just that, something dreamed, as opposed to a necessity rooted in contemporary realities. The antique Greco-Roman fusion of politics and religion was as hopeless as the medieval synthesis of the same represented by the soon to be defunct Holy Roman Empire. The Jacobin attempt to replace the old absolutist marriage of church and state with a forced union of their own was thus a dead end. What was needed, Bonaparte realized, was more negotiated arrangements that guaranteed greater space for parties that, while superficially more conservative than Robespierre’s cult, were actually far more in keeping with the modern spirit.
This is not to advocate the copying of anyone’s specific solutions. History itself has already demonstrated the inadequacy of the details of Napoleon’s compromises. What remains potentially valuable however, is the Bonapartist attitude to the problems at hand. Instead of surrendering politics over to either the furies of the Enlightenment or those of traditional piety, a respectful (or if one prefers, suspicious) distance must be kept from both, the better to allow all to develop according to their respective vocations. The shared twin tenets of fanaticism everywhere, that the truth can be proved by sheer will power and that facts can be guaranteed by coercion, must be renounced; not out of mere indifferentism, but out of sense of duty to defend the prerequisites of a truly “public” order. Instead of aspiring to become the self-made popes of a new dispensation, we should strive to be humble watchmen along the borders between the sacred and the profane. Instead of clumsily forcing an answer to perennial questions, a discipline of listening. Instead of seeking to outdo the originality of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed, an ethics of humble editorial custodianship. Jealous bourgeois possessiveness must give to demotic magnanimity. For if politics is to escape the cul-de-sacs of both liberalism and millenarianism, it must learn to earn its own bread, and let others do the same.
Edited by drwhat ()
anyway nice article maistre
You can't even explain this by saying he's being ultra-leftist, because that would be the case if he was engaging in whatifery about Babeuf, not Robespierre.
The power of religion doesn't simply come from the people's collective faith but the indisputable fact that God is real.
I highly doubt anyone is going to bother having an Is God Real argument here
Recently, Jacobin magazine published a piece by Harrison Fluss arguing that present day-left-wing radicals should “revisit” the Cult of the Supreme Being
i was just now preparing a list of some retarded new names for months
So did Robespierre actually believe in God or not????? FUCK! Im on the edge of my seat here!!
"Is it not He whose immortal hand, engraving on the heart of man the code of justice and equality, has written there the death sentence of tyrants? Is it not He who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice?
He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood. He created the universe to proclaim His power. He created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.
It is He who implanted in the breast of the triumphant oppressor remorse and terror, and in the heart of the oppressed and innocent calmness and fortitude. It is He who impels the just man to hate the evil one, and the evil man to respect the just one. It is He who adorns with modesty the brow of beauty, to make it yet more beautiful. It is He who makes the mother's heart beat with tenderness and joy. It is He who bathes with delicious tears the eyes of the son pressed to the bosom of his mother. It is He who silences the most imperious and tender passions before the sublime love of the fatherland. It is He who has covered nature with charms, riches, and majesty. All that is good is His work, or is Himself. Evil belongs to the depraved man who oppresses his fellow man or suffers him to be oppressed.
The Author of Nature has bound all mortals by a boundless chain of love and happiness. Perish the tyrants who have dared to break it!"
--From a Speech to the Convention, May 7, 1794 by Maximilian Robespierre
Edited by RedMaistre ()
"I once called Edmund Burke an atheist. I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre. Nevertheless, the remark had reference to a truth which it is here relevant to repeat. I mean that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic. The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man. Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have. "I know nothing of the rights of men," he said, "but I know something of the rights of Englishmen." There you have the essential atheist."
From What is Wrong with the World
Babeuf was badass
Died better than Robespierre too, despite having a knife still lodged in his chest from a failed suicide attempt. But then again, most every major figure involved in the French Revolution exited the stage better than the Jacobin leadership.
all ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.
for Althusser, what is significant is that capitalism is determinant of our social practice which manifests as our imaginary relationship to everything at all levels. Structure is not an overarching system but in fact a constant process and infinitely leveled system that at all levels is determinant in the last instance. Politics and ideology are ultimately determined by the structure of capitalism (which is simply the triple quality of the commodity as value, use value, and exchange value) just as much as race and gender or even star wars fandom or memes. To claim that the system has changed from a vertical to a horizontal system doesn't chance the fact that it is a system nonetheless and is thus structured by capitalist relations.
I think Zizek grasps this when he claims that the ideology of modern liberalism is new age spirituality or polytheism. But he goes the wrong way and wants to return to the cult of the supreme being. For Zizek, it is the immateriality of communism that makes it sublime, in fact belief affirms its truth value precisely because it is impossible. This is not the communism approach which remains completely atheist. Communism is not simply 'the real movement' of the working class but communists must be 'as radical as reality itself.' Communism is no longer then simply an attack on god or the ideology of capitalism, it is an attack on the infinite gods that exist in every postmodern community: nerds, social media, video games, hipsters, liberal politics, spiritualism, goons, etc. It is only in the postmodern age that communism can truly become 'ruthless criticism of all that exists.'
Postmodernism is simply an escape from this, a reification of new horizontal structures while consciously avoiding their materiality through practice. I think RedMaistre is approaching a form of materiality in his critique of religion but without reaffirming the radical atheism of communism (as radical as reality is means as radical as reality can be materially), this sounds equally like an affirmation of the postmodern new age polytheism that Zizek is correct to attack.
What is SJWism
What is social media but belief in the god of affective labor?
this is correct though.
Edited by RedMaistre ()
i'm sorry RedMaistre.
I don't think that they are otherwise equivalent either, and didn't mean to imply they were interchangeable. The Bolsheviks' program was proletarian not petite boisterous, for one thing, and they were far more successful than the Jacobin in integrating a revolutionary politics to the task of governing a country.
Edited by RedMaistre ()