Sunday, June 28, 2020

Kevin Duong's "The Virtues of Violence"

Kevin Duong is Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France, and reported the following:
A reader of The Virtues of Violence finds me pivoting on page 99. It has a section break, and like many such breaks, it doesn’t make for artful reading. However, at the center of the page sits the heading “From the Electorate to the People-in-Arms.” This chapter studies midcentury French socialism’s changing relationship to political violence, and the heart of its argument is expressed here in oversized lettering and bold typeface. France in the 1840s saw the first organized demands for universal male suffrage. Equipping each man with a ballot was beyond the pale of respectable politics, because French elites feared there existed a causal connection between universal suffrage and democratic socialism. A revolution in February 1848 put the hypothesis to the test when its leaders implemented universal manhood suffrage. The experiment did not go well for “Dem-Socs.” The new electorate voted for Louis Napoleon, first as president and then as emperor in 1852. Thanks to the clever use of plebiscites, Napoleon III terminated the Second French Republic to popular acclaim.

This tragedy is well known by students of French history. My own heading “From the Electorate to the People-in-Arms” is meant to draw attention to the way these events betrayed socialists’ faith in electoral politics. As I put on page 99: “As the editors of Le Peuple reminded their readers in September 1848, ‘Socialism is a science, politics is an art; Socialism has principles, politics has only fantasies; Socialism knows only humanity, politics knows only individuals.’ So much the worse, then, for political answers to the social question.” In the chapter’s remainder, I describe how disenchantment with universal suffrage enhanced socialist enthusiasm for insurrectionary violence and the levée en masse, especially during the 1871 Paris Commune.

The book is not organized around the canonical opposition between ballots and bullets, so on its own, page 99 might be misleading. Then as now, French socialists were caught in a tug of war, unsure if their millenarian hopes for an egalitarian society were best pursued in or beyond the electoral arena. Yet that tug of war was specific to the institutional and intellectual conflicts that embroiled French socialists in the nineteenth century. Others I study in the book found their own paths to regenerative popular violence. French revolutionaries like Robespierre and St-Just, for example, turned to such violence because of the limits of constitutionalism, not electoral democracy. Likewise, Alexis de Tocqueville justified colonial terror in North Africa in the 1840s because of commercial society’s centrifugal impact on the French national psyche. Writers and intellectuals of all types came to appreciate the constructive role “the people in arms” played for democratization, but they never arrived at that appreciation in a uniform way.

There is, though, one specific clause on page 99 that speaks to the wider argument of the book: “Socialism knows only humanity, politics knows only individuals.” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon probably wrote this sentence; he was chief editor for the paper in which it appears. The Virtues of Violence is an effort to understand why regenerative popular violence was such a promiscuous trope in nineteenth century France. Proudhon’s contrast on page 99 between “humanity” and “individuals” points to a piece of the answer: the French struggle for democracy was a struggle against the experience of social disintegration. Democracy required the creation of a “humanity” beyond the quantitative aggregation of discrete “individuals.” Violence by “the people-in-arms” promised—and it was never more than a promise—to create those transcendent social bonds. This violence holds less appeal today than it did two centuries ago. Its vision of democracy, however, is still something we grapple with.
Visit Kevin Duong's website and learn more about The Virtues of Violence at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue