Book on French Revolution next to gallows at US Capitol from January 6 insurrection.
Furet (left) and an image from the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol (right).

On Guillotines, Monarchy, and the American Right

There’s been a lot of talk about guillotines over the past couple of years. They’ve been a symbol of protest against the ever-expanding wealth of tech billionaires, but also more chillingly been invoked (and almost literally constructed!) by those supporting Donald Trump and the Republicans during the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The invocation of the French Revolution by both sides here seems clear, both claiming to wear the mantle of those who threw off their monarchy at the end of the eighteenth century.

Those claims by the Right, however, seem at first glance to not make sense. They state that they represent the will of the people and want to terrorize those they consider “tyrants.” And yet, they themselves have tried to overturn a legitimate election and more recently enacted sweeping voter suppression laws across several states in order to cement their own hold on power. In addition, the Right and their enablers rush to stake out absolutist positions related to “religious liberty” or “freedom of speech” but then cheer on (or directly use) state power to limit just those liberties and freedoms they purport to support. For example, they assert “liberty” to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, and assert “freedom” to legislate against mask-wearing during a global pandemic or to ban the teaching of history they don’t agree with.

Those who are understandably concerned about these moves tend to point to the inconsistency of the Right’s position, to their apparent “hypocrisy,” and thereby attempt to shame them into honoring their absolutist positions. But this is a fool’s errand. The problem isn’t the Right’s hypocrisy, but rather their consistency — theirs is a different form of political speech, one rooted cloaked in democratic forms but is at its core authoritarian. The Right uses a political discourse that self-justifies its positions and renders their opponents’ arguments illegitimate.

And the French Revolution can help us understand why that is.

The course of the French Revolution during the late eighteenth century seems, in some ways, a paradox. The monarchy was thrown off, at first gradually and then suddenly. A largely bloodless transition of power came to be awash with blood during The Terror. A radical democratic experiment within a few years transitioned into a new form of dictatorship with Napoleon.

It’s understandable then that historians have been attempting to explain what happened and why almost since the events themselves occurred. This is, after all, the very bones of history itself — not a simple recounting of events one after another but a series of analyses, a conversation among people to help make meaning from sources that often don’t want to tell us what we want to know.

One such analysis, first published in 1978, but this year celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its translation into English in 1981, is François Furet’s collection of essays Interpreting the French Revolution. This was a foundational text in what’s come to be known as the “linguistic turn” in history. Very simply, the linguistic turn is the move by historians to acknowledge that language (written and spoken) constructs and shapes the lived experiences of people in the past. In one of Interpreting’s essays, “The French Revolution is Over,” Furet applied this approach to his analysis of the Terror — the period of the revolution from roughly 1792–94 in which, under the leadership of Robespierre, massacres occurred and most executions were carried out. So, we return to the guillotines.

Furet argued that, in overthrowing the monarchy, the First French Republic ended up adopting a mode of discourse that was taken from the overthrown monarchy. In large part, this made sense because it was readily available to the republicans, having been the dominant language of politics for a century and more. But that language didn’t translate well to a different form of government.

Eighteenth-century French monarchs were thought to have been avatars for the nation. So, that meant that what was good for the king was good for the nation — there was no conceptual daylight separating what the king said and enforced and the will of the nation as a whole. In other words, it’s the apocryphal (and likely false) saying of King Louis XIV — “L’Etat c’est moi” — come to life. The king was the state and the state was the king. This political structure of course benefitted the monarchy greatly, as it allowed them to justify their hold on power. Dissent was not just disloyal to the crown but was treasonous to the state as well.

This stance cannots stand in a democratic form of government. Democracies need argument, debate, discussion — to allow multiple voices to be heard. But the First French Republic was never fully able to cast off that monarchical discourse. And so as the revolution progressed, particularly as the new republic was threatened by other nations who were shaken by what they saw happening in France and war erupted, the Estates General began to assume to themselves the political discourse of monarchy.

Over the course of 1792–94, the avatars of the “will of the people” continued to narrow. It was no longer the legislature as a whole, composed of hundreds of delegates that embodied the “will of the people,” but it specifically became the Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre. He vocalized the public will and embodied the public good so that those who disagreed became existential enemies of France herself who needed to be eliminated. Hence, we wind up with the Terror — denunciations and mass executions of perceived enemies both at home and abroad. The Terror, Furet argued, was only ended when Robespierre lost control of the discourse and no longer embodied the public will, so he himself became a threat and was executed.

Contemporary America hasn’t, of course, reached its own Terror. But the parallels between the modes of discourse in the late eighteenth- and early twenty-first centuries are striking. The Right has adopted an authoritarian mode of discourse because they think they embody the will of the people, the nation itself, and so are the only legitimate political actors.

Indeed, there’s a reason the Right persistently uses the language of “real Americans” and “real America” to contrast themselves with their fellow citizens. For them, anything that deviates from their ideal of intellectual and cultural homogeneity is anti-American, whether it be questioning the narrative of the nation’s founding, not letting racists speak at university campuses, or allowing LGBTQ+ individuals to enjoy their rights. This is a discourse that creates and justifies its own reality, one freighted with the specter of looming violence. If they are “real Americans,” any actions they take — even if it’s literally storming the Capitol to overturn an election — are for them justified.

This is the intellectual culture of monarchy, one that justifies the increasing concern from political scientists and democratic observers about the fragile state of American democracy, and warnings raised over the past few years about authoritarianism on the Right.

Furet concluded his essay on the French Revolution by arguing that Napoleon was the logical conclusion of the Terror — a dictator who used republican forms to embody the will of the people in himself. It’s a sanguine reminder of how this type of political discourse moves, how the discourse of monarchy, when adopted by republicans, can win out in the end.

We ought to pay attention to history, not because it repeats, but because it shows us how things might have been different. The point of history is to show us paths we need to be fighting against and possible worlds worth fighting for.

Prof & Dept Chair. medieval/ modern. nostalgia/ apocalypse. Wrote THE BRIGHT AGES (Harper, Dec 21). Neutral Good. See more