In Yenan, just below the Great Wall, the area where Chinese civilization originally developed over 3,000 years before, Mao proceeded to build a new party and state fully in his own image. This was a critical period, for the ideas he worked out in Yenan he would turn back to nostalgically in the late 1950's and 60's, when he launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Among them were the sending of party cadres down to the countryside for ideological remolding and the stress on self-reliance, mutual aid teams on farms and popularized education.
What can be more "totalitarian" than this closed loop of "your very fear of being guilty makes you guilty" - a weird superego-twisted version of the well-known motto "the only thing to fear is fear itself"? One should nonetheless move beyond the quick dismissal of Robespierre's rhetorical strategy as the strategy of "terrorist culpabilization," and to discern its moment of truth: there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision, because, in such moments, innocence itself - exempting oneself from the decision, going on as if the struggle I am witnessing doesn't really concern me - IS the highest treason. That is to say, the fear of being accused of treason IS my treason, because, even if I "did not do anything against the revolution," this fear itself, the fact that it emerged in me, demonstrates that my subjective position is external to the revolution, that I experience "revolution" as an external force threatening me.
But what goes on in this unique speech is even more revealing: Robespierre directly addresses the touchy question that has to arise in the mind of his public - how can he himself be sure that he will not be the next in line to be accused? He is not the master exempted from the collective, the "I" outside "we" - after all, he was once very close to Danton, a powerful figure now under arrest, so what if, tomorrow, his proximity to Danton will be used against him? In short, how can Robespierre be sure that the process he unleashed will not swallow him? It is here that his position assumes the sublime greatness - he fully assumes the danger that the danger that now threatens Danton will tomorrow threaten him. The reason that he is so serene, that he is not afraid of this fate, is not that Danton was a traitor, while he, Robespierre, is pure, a direct embodiment of the people's Will; it is that he, Robespierre, IS NOT AFRAID TO DIE - his eventual death will be a mere accident which counts for nothing:
IB History at BIFS - Mao's China - The Cultural Revolution
At the same time he brooked no opposition to his control. To consolidate his new regime in the early 50's he launched a campaign in which hundreds of thousands were executed. In the late 50's, despite criticism from other party leaders, he ordered the Great Leap Forward, ultimately causing widespread disruption and food shortages. Throughout his years in power he toppled one of his rivals after another in the party. In the Cultural Revolution he risked throwing the country into chaos.
The Russian Revolution, 100 Years On: Its Enduring Allure and Menace
This authentic revolutionary logic can be discerned already at the level of rhetorical figures, where Robespierre likes to turn around the standard procedure of first evoking an apparently "realist" position and then displaying its illusory nature: he often starts with presenting a position or description of a situation as absurd exaggeration, fiction, and then goes on to remind us that what, in a first approach, cannot but appear as a fiction, is actually truth itself: "But what am I saying? What I have just presented as an absurd hypothesis is actually a very certain reality." It is this radical revolutionary stance which also enables Robespierre to denounce the "humanitarian" concern with victims of the revolutionary "divine violence": "A sensibility that wails almost exclusively over the enemies of liberty seems suspect to me. Stop shaking the tyrant's bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains."The critical analysis and the acceptance of the historical legacy of the Jacobins overlap in the true question to be raised: does the (often deplorable) actuality of the revolutionary terror compel us to reject the very idea of Terror, or is there a way to REPEAT it in today's different historical constellation, to redeem its virtual content from its actualization? It CAN and SHOULD be done, and the most concise formula of repeating the event designated by the name "Robespierre" is: to pass from (Robespierre's) humanist terror to anti-humanist (or, rather, inhuman) terror.
In his , Alain Badiou conceives as a sign of the political regression that occurred towards the end of the XXth century the shift from "humanism AND terror" to "humanism OR terror." In 1946, Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote , his defense of the Soviet Communism as involving a kind of Pascalean wager that announces the topic of what Bernard Williams later developed as "moral luck": the present terror will be retroactively justified if the society that will emerge from it will be truly human; today, such a conjunction of terror and humanism is properly unthinkable, the predominant liberal view replaces AND with OR: either humanism or terror... More precisely, there are four variations on this motif: humanism AND terror, humanism OR terror, each either in a "positive" or in a "negative" sense. "Humanism and terror" in a positive sense is what Merleau-Ponty elaborated, it sustains Stalinism (the forceful - "terrorist" - engendering of the New Man), and is already clearly discernible in the French Revolution, in the guise of Robespierre's conjunction of virtue and terror. This conjunction can be negated in two ways. It can involve the choice "humanism OR terror," i.e., the liberal-humanist project in all its versions, from the dissident anti-Stalinist humanism up to today's neo-Habermasians (Luc Ferry & Alain Renault in France) and other defenders of human rights AGAINST (totalitarian, fundamentalist) terror. Or it can retain the conjunction "humanism AND terror," but in a negative mode: all those philosophical and ideological orientations, from Heidegger and conservative Christians to partisans of Oriental spirituality and Deep Ecology, who perceive terror as the truth - the ultimate consequence - of the humanist project itself, of its hubris.
There is, however, a fourth variation, usually left aside: the choice "humanism OR terror," but with TERROR, not humanism, as a positive term. This is a radical position difficult to sustain, but, perhaps, our only hope: it does not amount to the obscene madness of openly pursuing a "terrorist and inhuman politics", but something much more difficult to think. In today's "post-deconstructionist" thought (if one risks this ridiculous designation which cannot but sound as its own parody), the term "inhuman" gained a new weight, especially in the work of Agamben and Badiou. The best way to approach it is via Freud's reluctance to endorse the injunction "Love thy neighbor!" - the temptation to be resisted here is the ethical domestication of the neighbor - for example, what Emmanuel Levinas did with his notion of the neighbor as the abyssal point from which the call of ethical responsibility emanates. What Levinas thereby obfuscates is the monstrosity of the neighbor, monstrosity on account of which Lacan applies to the neighbor the term Thing (das Ding), used by Freud to designate the ultimate object of our desires in its unbearable intensity and impenetrability. One should hear in this term all the connotations of horror fiction: the neighbor is the (Evil) Thing which potentially lurks beneath every homely human face. Just think about Stephen King's Shining, in which the father, a modest failed writer, gradually turns into a killing beast who, with an evil grin, goes on to slaughter his entire family. In a properly dialectical paradox, what Levinas, with all his celebration of the Otherness, fails to take into account is not some underlying Sameness of all humans but the radically "inhuman" Otherness itself: the Otherness of a human being reduced to inhumanity, the Otherness exemplified by the terrifying figure of the Muselmann, the "living dead" in the concentration camps. At a different level, the same goes for Stalinist Communism. In the standard Stalinist narrative, even the concentration camps were a place of the fight against Fascism where imprisoned Communists were organizing networks of heroic resistance - in such a universe, of course, there is no place for the limit-experience of the Muselmann, of the living dead deprived of the capacity of human engagement - no wonder that Stalinist Communists were so eager to "normalize" the camps into just another site of the anti-Fascist struggle, dismissing Muselmann as simply those who were to weak to endure the struggle.
It is against this background that one can understand why Lacan speaks of the inhuman core of the neighbor. Back in the 1960s, the era of structuralism, Louis Althusser launched the notorious formula of "theoretical anti-humanism," allowing, demanding even, that it be supplemented by practical humanism. In our practice, we should act as humanists, respecting the others, treating them as free persons with full dignity, creators of their world. However, in theory, we should no less always bear in mind that humanism is an ideology, the way we spontaneously experience our predicament, and that the true knowledge of humans and their history should treat individuals not as autonomous subjects, but as elements in a structure which follows its own laws. In contrast to Althusser, Lacan accomplishes the passage from theoretical to practical anti-humanism, i.e., to an ethics that goes beyond the dimension of what Nietzsche called "human, all too human," and confront the inhuman core of humanity. This does not mean only an ethics which no longer denies, but fearlessly takes into account, the latent monstrosity of being-human, the diabolic dimension which exploded in phenomena usually covered by the concept-name "Auschwitz" - an ethics that would be still possible after Auschwitz, to paraphrase Adorno. This inhuman dimension is for Lacan at the same time the ultimate support of ethics.
In philosophical terms, this "inhuman" dimension can be defined as that of a subject subtracted from all form of human "individuality" or "personality" (which is why, in today's popular culture, one of the exemplary figures of pure subject is a non-human - alien, cyborg - who displays more fidelity to the task, dignity and freedom than its human counterparts, from the Schwarzenegger-figure in to the Rutger-Hauer-android in ). Recall Husserl's dark dream, from his Cartesian Meditations, of how the transcendental cogito would remain unaffected by a plague that would annihilate entire humanity: it is easy, apropos this example, to score cheap points about the self-destructive background of the transcendental subjectivity, and about how Husserl misses the paradox of what Foucault, in his , called the "transcendental-empirical doublet," of the link that forever attaches the transcendental ego to the empirical ego, so that the annihilation of the latter by definition leads to the disappearance of the first. However, what if, fully recognizing this dependence as a fact (and nothing more than this - a stupid fact of being), one nonetheless insists on the truth of its negation, the truth of the assertion of the independence of the subject with regard to the empirical individuals qua living being? Is this independence not demonstrated in the ultimate gesture of risking one's life, on being ready to forsake one's being? It is against the background of this topic of sovereign acceptance of death that one should reread the rhetorical turn often referred to as the proof of Robespierre's "totalitarian" manipulation of his audience. This turn took place in the midst of Robespierre's speech in the National Assembly on 11 Germinal Year II (31 March 1794); the previous night, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and some others were arrested, so many members of the Assembly were understandably afraid that their turn will also come. Robespierre directly addresses the moment as pivotal: "Citizens, the moment has come to speak the truth." He then goes on to evoke the fear floating in the room: