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Words to Die By

John Kekes

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A new series resurrects some of history's bloodiest manifestos.

Virtue and Terror, by Maximilien Robespierre (Verso, 160 pp., $14.95) and On Practice and Contradiction, by Mao Zedong (Verso, 160 pp., $14.95)

These two books appear in a new series, "Revolutions," published by Verso, a well-known British firm specializing in radical leftist gobbledygook. The books come with introductions by Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian psychoanalyst and social theorist, who assaults both the English language and the intelligence of those who actually manage to figure out what he's saying.

If you think that's harsh, here's a representative Žižekian sentence: "The claim that the people does exist is the basic axiom of 'totalitarianism,' and the mistake of 'totalitarianism' is strictly homologous to the Kantian misuse ('paralogism') of political reason: 'the People exists' through a determinate political agent which acts as if it directly embodies (not only re-presents) the People, its true Will (the totalitarian Party and its Leader), i.e. in the terms of transcendental critique, as a direct phenomenal embodiment of the noumenal People." Got that? The advertising that accompanies the two books says that "only a philosophical voice so profoundly attuned to the dissonances of our age as Slavoj Žižek's could do justice to the great revolutionary texts of modernity." In a way it's true: Žižek's matchless prose is a fitting introduction to these abhorrent volumes.

Maximilien Robespierre led the phase of the French Revolution called the Terror. It lasted a little over a year. He gave the orders that resulted in beheading, drowning, shooting, or burying alive about 20,000 men, women, and children. Mao Zedong ruled China between 1949 and his death in 1976. During his tenure, his followers murdered, on a low estimate, 20 million people. These two men were among the handful of great mass murderers of modern times, in the same class as Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot, and Stalin.

Both Robespierre and Mao seized control of and radicalized revolutions that they did not start. In each case, the revolution destroyed the previous corrupt regime and replaced it with hell on earth. Instead of their predecessors' venality, Robespierre and Mao sought ideological purity, and they had a cold impersonal hatred of those whom they suspected of not sharing their crazed theories. This hatred brought them to murder people indiscriminately, not for what they did but for what they were. Innocence was no part of Robespierre's or Mao's vocabulary; the notion that punishment should be for real crimes, both men thought, was subversive of the grandiose project of achieving happiness for all. Their ideologies dictated the only way to reach that lofty goal; those who disagreed with their ideologies became enemies of mankind, deserving only extermination.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 11-Mar-07

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