The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. [Note: Because of a production error, this piece is appearing after the excerpt about Rainer Maria Rilke.]
But this success, where is it?
—Edgar Quinet, quoted by Jean-François Revel in Fin du siècle des ombres.
Edgar Quinet (1803–1875) was born in the aftermath of the French Revolution and lived out his life in its long shadow. Nowadays, he is hardly ever read for himself, and only rarely cited, and then usually for a single remark. In his lifetime, however, he was a public intellectual of the type we know today, his opinions argued over by everyone who had an opinion. An admirer of religion who drew the line at the Jesuits, he gave lectures on the latter subject that caused so much controversy they were suppressed by order of the government. In the next revolution, in 1848, he was on the barricades, and voted with the far left in the National Assembly. Exiled to Brussels after the coup d’état, he settled in Switzerland in 1857 and did not return to Paris until the fall of Napoleon III. During the siege of Paris in 1870, he was conspicuous as a patriot. Before he died in bed, five years after the Commune, he had written a shelf of books about the philosophy of history. Apart possibly from his autobiographical fragment, Histoire de mes idées, published in 1855, most of his books now excite no one. But a single line, the one quoted above, made it all the way to the 1990s, because it presaged an idea whose time had come.
Quinet’s celebrated single line came from a less-celebrated paragraph, but the paragraph is worth quoting in full, because it evokes a specific context that has refused to go away. He wasn’t just giving us a handy witticism to trot out every time somebody made a mess and called it a triumph. He was talking specifically about the connection, in the absolutist mentality, between claims and crimes:
The persistent illusion of the terrorists is to invoke a success in order to justify themselves before posterity. In effect, only the success can absolve them. But this success, where is it? The terrorists devoured by the scaffolds that they themselves erected, the Republic not only lost but rendered execrable, the political counter-Revolution victorious, despotism in place of the liberty for which a whole nation swore to die: is that success? How long will you go on repeating this strange nonsense, that all the scaffolds were necessary to save the Revolution, which was not saved?
But we need the paragraph only to remind us of the context. With that given, the line stands alone, ready to be imported into any argument about the event that did most to shape modern political history. Quinet’s unsettling sound bite about the French Revolution was echoed by contemporary French intellectuals Jean-François Revel and François Furet, both of them careful to give him the credit. “Far enough from the revolution to feel only fleetingly the passions that troubled the view of those who made it,” wrote Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, “we are yet still close enough to be able to enter into and comprehend the spirit that brought it about. Soon one will have difficulty doing so: because the great revolutions that succeed make the causes that produced them disappear, thus becoming incomprehensible through their very success.” But the question, “Where is the success?” was already being heard under the Second Empire, from a few awkwardly skeptical voices, of which Quinet’s was one. There had always been aristocrats to ask it, but Quinet was an intellectual. Had the French Revolution been worth the agony?
“Where is the success?” is another version of Orwell’s answer to the contention, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Orwell asked: “Where is the omelet?” Nobody sane seriously doubts that in the case of 18th-century France, democracy had to come. But was the Revolution the best way, and didn’t it help to ensure that the democracy was incomplete? The question has always turned on whether the Jacobinist terror was inevitable. (The most gargantuan expression of Jacobinist terror, the massacre in the Vendée, did not become a question until late in the 20th century: The bones were a long time coming to light. Nowadays, mass graves can be seen by satellites.) The same question divided the gauchiste left and the independent left in modern France, and still does divide them everywhere in the world. If you can’t have a revolution without Jacobinism, then it becomes a matter of how to have reform without revolution. Anyone who “accepts the necessity of Jacobinism” wants to try his hand at it.
When François Furet hinted at this conclusion in his truly revolutionary book on the French Revolution, he found himself immediately tagged by the left as a diehard spokesman of the reactionary right. It was assumed that if he was against the Terror, he was against the people. His contention that the Terror had been against the people was not accepted. More than a hundred years had passed since Quinet had contended the same thing, and the idea was still considered too paradoxical to be entertained. One can safely conclude that the impressive combined death toll of revolutions in the last century will go on being considered as justifiable well into the next.