Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Video: lecture on Emancipation and Independence
This is the video of the lecture I gave at the University of Washington this spring on my forthcoming book, Emancipation and Independence. The Preface and the Introduction which accompanied the lecture are here and here. In addition, I commented on the lecture itself in
Revisioning the American story: the role of emancipation in the American revolution here.
In response to the point that few biographies of the leaders of the French Revolution exist compared to multitudinous New York Times bestselling biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and some others, John Dunn recommended to me Ruth Scurr's intriguing Fatal Purity, an elegant and thoughtful biography of Robespierre (Ruth is married to John). Given the strange fatality of the story - to achieve virtue, Robespierre licenses the same terror which to his surprise, takes him down - the book moves in wonder and sadness to the denouement. Through biography as in a novel, it conjures a particular reality with a vividness that social history often lacks. It also lacks the analysis and play of social forces which such a history as Albert Mathiez's, Albert Soboul's, George Rude's or Daniel Guerin's has or the concern with the revolution of the slaves in Saint-Domingue which it was the Convention's high point in 1794 to support (neglected by the French, this point is emphasized in Robin Blackburn's The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, and novelly applied to the complexities of the American Revolution in my Emancipation and Independence).
But Scurr's tale makes a very important point - those who espouse virtue so highly and see in themselves so little flaw, who are so willing to take the lives of the impure, even those around them - often end up with their heads cut off. The book is thus implicitly a powerful argument for mass, nonviolent revolutions. Killing is final. One cannot revive the universe, with all its potentials, that each of us is. A revolution that slaughters many "lightly," in the idiom of Socrates, and would as soon, in a different passion, wish its victims, often ultimately its leaders, back to life, cannot. It is the nobility of the South African revolution - more cause to cut off the heads of the leaders of apartheid, there cannot be- that it did not welcome executions (in engravings, William Blake depicted the French poor as blacks; the cause of enslaved and colonized Africa leaps through the oppression of the poor in Europe; it is why Marx fought for internationalism and said, in a different context in Capital, "labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded"; it is why Gandhi and not the British empire has the secret of renewal). Mandela, Tutu and others found the wisdom to deal with the greatest injustices through inspiring public truth-telling (where possible, i.e. where some of those who carried out crimes could ask for forgiveness; many of the perpetrators were Cheneyesque, beyond knowing or recognizing any truth) and not silencing them and others permanently. See Desmond Tutu, the Israelis and the Palestinians here. These stories are worth considering together.
The existence of this elegant biography of Robespierre, however, also confirms my original point. An English biography yes, an unleashing of French biographies, no (Fatal Purity is published by Metropolitan Books in the U.S. - a lively division of Henry Holt & Co. - in 2006 and simultaneously by Chatto and Windus in the United Kingdom). Scurr worked at Cambridge with two English historians of France. Thus, France remains the territory of social history (and aided the America Revolution which America to this day has trouble acknowledging). American Independence lies in shadow; the money is in biography and even well-rewarded social histories (something new) to some extent mill the edges off, do not disturb the main story. As the lecture shows, I hope to illuminate darkened waters...