Monday, March 15, 2010

Policing Public Opinion

In the French Revolution.
In this impressive first book, Charles Walton explores the fate of free speech from the last years of the ancien regime, through the decade of the French Revolution, to the repressive regime of Napoleon Bonaparte. His focus, however, is on the first five years of the Revolution. As he puts it quite succinctly in his introduction, "This study examines the many reasons for the tragic reversal in freedom of expression between 1789 and the Year II (1793-1794)" (p. 4). As the title of the book suggests, Walton places this work in the context of much recent scholarship on the role of public opinion in France in the late eighteenth century, but he also engages the debate among historians over whether or not we should see the trajectory of the Revolution as essentially the product of ideology. For Walton the answer is plainly "no." In his view, the anxieties and frustrations generated by the exercise (sometimes abuse) of free speech contributed to the radicalization of revolutionary politics and ultimately the repression of free expression under the Terror. To understand that development, he argues, one must look first to the culture of calumny and honor in ancien regime society....

For Walton, then, it was a culture of calumny that led to the Terror, rather than ideology as it was for François Furet.1 We are still in the realm of words, here, though, and Walton struggles to explain how the Jacobins could move from what he characterizes as a "quasi-libertarian" position on freedom of expression in 1790-91 to the Law of Suspects in 1793 and the repressive regime of the Terror in the Year II, under which 37 percent of those brought to justice were punished for what they said or thought, rather than for what they did. We might find part of an answer to this conundrum, it seems to me, in Condorcet's pamphlet on press freedom, in which he had argued that the chief purpose of press freedom was to censure authority. So long as the monarchy existed, there was a clear authority to be censured. But once Louis XVI had been executed, attacks on authority became attacks on revolutionaries by each other. Such attacks had been there since 1789, of course, but in the absence of a king on whom to focus patriotic fervor, those attacks now became more deadly. And in the absence of a king, the sovereignty of the people, asserted as an abstract ideal since 1789, now called out for more precise definition.

Walton insists that one must consider circumstances, as well as this culture of calumny, to understand fully the path to the Terror, but in this area he is on rather less sure footing than in his discussion of published views on freedom of expression on both sides of 1789. He points, for example, to the laws of 4 December 1792 and 29 March 1793 as the products of a "rising intolerance for radical and royalist speech" (p. 129). War, the September massacres, and the looming trial of Louis XVI almost certainly influenced the first law, while the Paris market riots of February played a role in the heightened tensions that led to the second. Much is made of Jean-Marie Roland's efforts to shape and control public opinion (or esprit public, a rather different thing, as Walton notes) in his tenure as Minister of the Interior in late 1792. But when Walton discusses Roland's resignation on 21 January 1793, apparently as a result of the controversy generated by his propaganda campaign, he fails to note that this was also the date of the king's execution. The battle over the king's fate, I would argue, was more important in the ongoing struggle between Girondins and Montagnards than the war of words between the two factions. Roland, a hero to the people for having been dismissed as minister by Louis XVI in June 1792, could not function successfully as minister in the absence of that same king.

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2 comments:

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

Another very interesting read.

Right now, I'm in the midst of Dumas' "The Knight of the Maison Rouge," and speech is, indeed, a serious issue. The smallest slip of the tongue could get you guillotined (if the background of this, admittedly, fictional piece of work is to be taken as gospel).

I'm going to see if I can get this book through the school - LOL - I would probably only read it once, and $50 is a tad steep for this starving artist for a one-time read LOL.

Thanks for the intriguing posting.

elena maria vidal said...

I think that Dumas' work is reliable as far as stuff like that goes. The Walton book does sound fascinating. Too bad it is so pricey but then there is always interlibrary loan for us starving artists and scholars! ;-0