Maximilian Robespierre is mostly remembered as the man responsible for the Great Terror. Progressives, of course, remember him fondly for this. Killing enemies of the revolution is the thing they fantasize about the most. It is why they are always trying to instigate violence. Normal people think of him as an example of what happens when fanatics gain power. He’s the example of the guy who started out with good intentions, but he eventually grew mad with power and ended up worse than what he opposed.
He was a much more complicated person than is remembered, though. For example, he opposed the death penalty, but then championed the execution of the king. He opposed the indiscriminate use of terror, but ended up claiming it was the necessary tool of democracy. He defended rivals branded as traitors, but then turned on close friends and saw them off to the guillotine. As a result, he remains one of the more famous and most controversial figures in the French Revolution.
The thing that was his eventual undoing was the fact that he could never work out the limit of civic virtue. At what point was a man deemed sufficiently virtuous? Where is the line between traitor and patriot? It was a problem for all of the revolutionaries and a problem that has haunted the Left ever since. Radicalism always starts as a rejection of something. It never ends at a clearly defined point. There’s no limiting principle. No matter how much you oppose something, there is someone else who opposes it more.
That was the problem the revolutionaries faced when they toppled the king. The old order was orderly, even if it was unjust. It set limits on behavior. The new order, such as it was, had no limits as it was entirely based on the rejection of royalty and the royalists. Revolutionary virtue was one’s opposition to the old system and one could ever be too opposed to the old order. At least, that was the thinking until the members of the National Convention figured out where it was heading.
That’s the inherent problem with radicalism. It lacks a limiting principle. Christianity, for example, solved this problem early on by turning the problem around. The concept of sin makes virtue the passive position. Heresy is the active state, while grace is the passive state. As long as you did not actively commit sins against the faith, you were sufficiently virtuous. Even though you were born with original sin, baptism into the faith cleansed you of that sin. From there, it was up to you to maintain it.
Political radicalism has never found anything similar and thus has been condemned to repeat the life of Robespierre. There is not point at which one clearly passes from the state of sin to the state of virtue. Instead, virtue is the running from sin, which is always running after you like a monster in a horror movie. It’s why the Left today obsesses with leaning forward and looking ahead to the future. Virtue is an active state, the act of running from the past, like a frightened animal trying to outrun the slowest of the herd.
We’re seeing this with anti-racism. The recent Martin Luther King holiday provided an opportunity for the members of the One True Faith to display their piety. When the holiday was created a generation ago, it was sufficient to say some nice things about the man and leave it at that. Most people simply ignored it entirely. Today, you have to come close to demanding the death of all white men or you risk being called a racist by the Cult. The day is filled with one anti-racist after another signalling their virtue.
This column appeared Monday in USA Today.
I’ll let Ta-Nehisi Coates boil it down for you. White society was not achieved through “wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land.” In short, through three centuries of kidnapping, torture, murder and rape. Broken teeth, broken bones and broken spirits. Families ripped apart. Children taken from their parents. Men humiliated in front of their wives. Women brutalized within earshot of their husbands. Lash after bloody lash on bare backs. Then, sleep on a bare wooden floor. No doctor, no dentist, no nothing. Just non-stop misery with a few hymns on Sunday.
The whole column boils down to a blood libel. If you are white, you are born with a sin that can never be cleansed. You are forever outside the light of salvation. That means there is no limit to your misery, which is why honkies, like the idiot who wrote that piece, write columns where they condemn themselves and others for being white. There can be no limit to how much one hates their ancestors, and therefore themselves, as there is no outrunning the mortal sin of whiteness.
Anti-racists are the modern version of the Flagellants. During the black plague, the allegedly virtuous would go around whipping themselves as a form of mortification of the flesh. Put another way, just being alive made them, and everyone else, sinners. The willingness to destroy their own flesh was supposed to show their rejection of sin. Initially these people were viewed by the authorities as harmless lunatics, but then the Church eventually did the wise thing and condemned the movement.
This is where anti-racism is right now. You cannot be anti-racist enough. There is no limit so anyone can come along and be more anti-racist than the current most anti-racist guy. If one is not constantly racing to be even more pure, they risk being accused of heresy, which in the modern age means being a racist. It is why Trump is called a racist. It’s not just a political taunt. The lunatics of the anti-racism movement see anyone not racing toward virtue as an enemy of their cause.
This is the natural end of all radicalism. It is why it appeals to the hive minded. The anti-racists would merrily round up white people and kill them, not for any crimes they committed, but as a form of human sacrifice. That is what the regular executions in Paris became during the Terror. They were purification ceremonies, not punishments for the guilty, but purity was always just one more head in the basket away. It’s the inevitable end of all mass movements when there is no limiting principle.
Robespierre eventually went to his demise in what we call today the Thermidorian Reaction. The sensible people of the revolution figured out that putting lunatics in charge was going to get everyone killed so they did what had to be done, which was kill the lunatics. It is a lesson that has had to be relearned time and again since the French Revolution and one that will have to be learned now with the anti-racists. There’s no reasoning with them so the only solution is to eliminate them.
It raises a larger question though. How does a modern society keep these radical lunatics from coming back with some new cause? Christianity used to be a handy brake on this sort of thing. The overthrow of Christianity as the transcendent moral authority has opened the nuthouse doors to these sorts of movements. If you look at the history of the West since the Enlightenment, it has been one blood thirsty movement after another trying to replace Christianity as the moral authority of last resort.