Featured post

History Lessons

"We need to be reiterating the benefits of Brexit. This is so important in the history of our country, it’s Magna Carta, it’s the burg...

Thursday, 3 December 2015

In Defence of Doubt

  ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.’ (Rosa Luxembourg)


The debate is over. Or, at least, the votes in parliament have been counted, and MPs have voted to support British planes to bomb targets in Syria.  For many outside observers (me, at least), the whole issue was shot through with complexity and unpredictability: who can say whether action or inaction will lead to more beneficial (or less harmful) outcomes? However, there are debaters, both in and out of parliament, who have treated the issue as if the right decision was obvious, with no room for legitimate disagreement: to some it was a war against ‘evil’, while for others it will prove to be ‘another Iraq’. The Prime Minister, who should know better, made an undignified slur against the leader of the opposition. He was in turn mocked for a lack of planning, as if a war could be arranged like a game of chess, in which the actions of the neatly ordered sides could be easily predicted in advance. For those of us struggling to keep up with all of this hot air, it was tempting to simply join one side or the other in their clamourous conviction.

Let’s turn back briefly: it is Paris, and the year is 1793[2]. The revolutionaries have dethroned and executed the king, declared a republic and chosen a new assembly based on universal male suffrage. Surrounded by enemies, the majority of the deputies seek refuge in certainty: on the left, Citizen Danton calls for ‘audacity, audacity, always audacity’ to save France. On the right, the Girondins are unimpeachable in their moral integrity – their speeches enable them to find new ways to protect la patrie from the evil machinations of their political opponents. Squished between the warring factions are the Plain, usually known more derisively as ‘the marsh’, weedy, weak-willed and hesitant deputies who vote sometimes with one faction, and then the other. Their lack of conviction is always emphasised in contrast to the ‘Mountain’, the group of deputies who thrive on conviction and certainty, and whose speeches argue relentlessly for courage, virtue, and inevitably, masculine strength. To sit in the Mountain is intoxicating – to know that you and your companions are alone responsible for the defence of all that is good in the revolution, and that together its enemies can be weeded out and defeated. These are the men that are willing to terrorise France, in order to save her.

The leaders of the ‘Mountain’ made a great virtue of their pure intentions, and of their contempt for compromise.  They castigated moderate voices, usually accusing them of a secret pact with the country’s enemies. Faced with such powerful rhetoric, their opponents lost credibility, enabling the ‘Mountain’ to seize power. In office, these idealists wrecked France. By the middle of 1794, over 40,000 had fallen victim to summary execution, including almost all of the leading Montagnards and Girondins who had abused each other so freely in 1793. In the end, the only prominent figures left belonged to the much-derided ‘marsh’, who took on the heavy responsibility of dragging France away from rule by fear. One such leader, Sieyès, was asked what he had done during the Terror, to which he replied simply ‘I survived’. The modern descendants of the ‘marsh’ are similarly unfashionable. Moderate politicians are dismissed not only for their arguments, but because their very moderation makes them suspect: they are ‘red Tories’ who fraternise with the enemy, or woolly liberals who bend with the wind, interested only in their own advancement. But since certainty can be such a powerful tool of suppression and political control, I’m glad that we have leaders who don’t always share it. 

[1] After so much discussion about the Syria vote, I found that listening to this episode of the 'Moral Maze' on doubt vs. certainty clarified my opinions (thank you, Gaffer). In  addition, I had a very useful conversation with Andrew Lin, who helped me to moderate my own line of argument. The views expressed are, of course, my own.
[2] According to their respective opponents, the deputies on the Right in the National Convention (the Girondins) were a collection of traitors and warmongers, whilst the deputies on the Left were rabble rousers and, inevitably, ‘terrorist sympathisers’. There aren’t many forms of political discourse that we don’t more or less owe to the debates of the French Revolution

No comments:

Post a Comment