Postmodernism 101, Part 8: Fear, Paranoia, Reaction, War, and Betrayal

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  The French Revolution discussion relies primarily on Timothy Tackett’s outstanding book, The Coming of the Terror of the French Revolution, as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The French Revolution.

Previous posts include:

martin-heideggerMartin Heidegger

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modern philosophy.  Enlightenment modernism overthrew Medieval faith.  Modernism supposed we could use reason (not faith) to know reality.  Its progeny were individualism, science, liberal democracy, free markets, technology, and medicine.

Postmodernism’s philosophical foundations were laid by German Counter-Enlightenment philosopher Martin Heidegger.  In dark, mystical meditation, Heidegger conjured metaphysical nihilism from the spirits of earlier Counter-Enlightenment thinkers (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Kant).  His philosophy embraced Nothing, opposed Western reality, reason, and logic; focused on contradiction and conflict; and dwelt in dark shadows of emotion.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Heidegger’s subjective philosophy poorly explains postmodernism’s political leftism.  Marxism’s twentieth century crisis of faith offers a much better explanation.

Rousseau offered postmodernists a political philosophy that features socialism, totalitarianism, and unthinking religious fervor.  Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment was the polar opposite of Enlightenment thinking and values.  Enlightenment’s virtues were Rousseau’s vices: reason, individualism, economic liberalism, liberal democracy, science, technology, medicine.

louis-xviKing Louis XVI

Rousseau’s writings inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.  After years of war, France’s Old Regime faced a dire fiscal crisis.  When the nobility rejected tax reforms, desperate King Louis XVI convened the Estates General, a General Assembly, representing the nobility, clergy, and commoners.

The 1789 Estates General began a cycle of radicalization and revolution.  The commoners politicized and chose self-styled “patriots” and future revolutionaries as their deputies.  Radical Paris mobs spurred the deputies on, to declare themselves a sovereign “National Assembly”.  The King reluctantly gave in.  The National Assembly went to work to create a constitutional monarchy.

Things went downhill, from there.


Paris of 1789 was ripe for mob violence.  The Paris working class had a known propensity for violence.  Summer storms had devastated the grain harvests.  Freezing winter destroyed the winter wheat, fruit trees, and vineyards.  Bread prices soared.  Drinking water was in short supply.  Famine was everywhere.

Violent unrest and food riots broke out.  Some uprisings targeted the nobles, clergy, and merchants.  Rumors spread that bands of brigands were roaming the countryside, looting, and raping.  The Paris riots ended in violent repression, with many soldiers and more rioters killed.

Amidst this turmoil, fearful King Louis XVI made the mistake of gathering mercenary troops for his defense.  In typical Louis fashion, he took the Queen’s advice and made things worse.  He dismissed popular finance minister Jacques Necker and appointed arch-conservative advisors.  Civil war seemed imminent.

bastilleStorming of the Bastille

As usual, Paris exploded in violence.  People barricaded the streets. Radical mobs roved about.  They looted, attacked royal troops, and paraded fashionably about with heads on pikes.  Troops mutinied (as would often be the case).  Intent on seizing arms and ammunition, mobs and soldiers stormed the Bastille. Nobles cowered in their homes.

As usual, the King moved to end the violence.  He reappointed Necker, and bowed to the National Assembly.  As usual, it did no good.

Violence grew and spread.  Paris mobs tortured and decapitated the mayor.  Once again, rumors spread that brigands were spilling from Paris to loot the countryside.  Townsfolk panicked. They organized militias and staged “municipal revolutions”.  Peasants rebelled, attacking the usual targets – nobles, clergy, merchants, landlords, and Jews.

declarationDeclaration of the Rights of Man

As usual, the Assembly moved to end the violence and unite the country.  On August 4, they decreed an end to feudalism, an end to aristocratic privilege, an end to the institutions of the Old Regime.  They proclaimed their lofty “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”.  Hymns were sung.  Oaths were sworn.  A new day beckoned – a new society of liberty and equality, a “new man”.

Things went downhill, from there.


Of course, unrest only continued in Paris.  Bread lines became food riots.  Unruly mobs stormed the Assembly and the King’s palace.  Radicals embraced mob violence.  “Reason will perhaps need to be accompanied by terror”, one said.

As 1790 progressed, the Assembly scrambled to create a government.  The demise of the Old Regime had left a power vacuum.  Anarchy grew, as institutions fell apart – administration, police, courts, the military.  Locals improvised “public safety” committees, tribunals, and paramilitary “national guard” forces.

The new government got off to a rough start.  The administration was beset by power struggles, political rivalries, insubordination, and questioning of authority.

georges-dantonRadical Cordelier Georges Danton

The Assembly fruitlessly struggled to contain the Paris radicals.  An intensely partisan press spewed hateful political rhetoric and fake news.  Paris workers protested in the streets.  More soldiers mutinied against their aristocratic officers.  Radicals gained control of local “national guards”.  Small scale civil wars broke out.  There were peasant uprisings, attacking the usual targets (nobles, clergy, etc.).

Political clubs and patriotic societies gained influence.  The radical Cordeliers, defenders of the poor, spread paranoid conspiracy theories.  The influential and progressive Jacobins became more radicalized.  Radical feminists railed against men’s “perpetual tyranny” over women.  Monarchist and conservative political clubs went underground, in fear of the mobs and paranoid authorities.

festivitiesGreat Festivity

As usual, the Assembly again moved to unite the country.  In June 1790, they abolished the hereditary nobility.  There was great festivity.  Hymns were sung.  Oaths were sworn.

Things went downhill, from there.


Revolution sparks reaction.  Naturally, the nobility reacted against the revolution.  The Assembly rejected the noble’s Catholic faith, as the state religion.  Nobles and clergy protested the seizure and sale of church property.  “Refractory” clergy, who refused to swear oaths of allegiance, faced violent threats from protesters.  The nobles had quite enough when the nobility was abolished.

The conservative press stirred hysterical fears of counterrevolution.  Some called for a knightly crusade to save the crown and the “true faith”.  Some called for revenge and blood.  Some called on European powers to invade.

By the end of 1791, thousands of aristocrats had fled.  Most of the aristocratic military officer corps fled.  Their counterrevolutionary armies gathered, across the Rhine.

louis-returnsLouis unceremoniously returns to Paris

The King tried to flee but got caught.  He had hoped the Revolution would collapse.  In June 1791, on the the Queen’s bad advice, the King and family tried to flee (to Austria, some say).  They were caught and returned to Paris.

The King had betrayed them.  In Paris, the radical Cordeliers protested, accusing the king of treason.  The Assembly shook its collective head in dismay.  The radical mobs called for insurrection.  The Assembly declared martial law and launched a repressive crackdown on the radicals.

robespierreThe Jacobins’ Robespierre

This split the influential Jacobins into rival factions.  Jacobin moderates split off into a new faction, the “Feuillants”.  Robespierre and the leftists dominated the remaining Jacobins.  The rival factions accused each other of treachery and betrayal.

As usual, the Assembly struggled to restore order.  The moderate Feuillant majority completed the Constitution and presented it to the King.  Hymns were sung.  Oaths were sworn.

Things went downhill, from there.


The leftist Jacobins accused the Feuillant moderates of being traitors and Austrian-sympathizers.  The radical leftist Jacobins were angered by the Feuillants’ repressive crackdown on leftist radicals.  The Feuillants and Jacobins were divided over the issue of “rule of law”.  The stuffy Feuillant moderates were sticklers for it.  The leftist Jacobins were much more flexible – rule of law, mob rule, whatever.

sans-culottesA sans-culotte enforces the dress code

1792 saw Paris grow even more radical and militant.  Working class militants donned red caps and staged growing protests – the “sans-culottes” (so-called because they wore pants, rather than fancy nickers).  As fearful Parisians armed themselves, the pike business was booming.  Packing the Assembly galleries became a favorite pastime for radical militants.

Meanwhile, Austria and Prussia threatened France with war.  Austrian Emperor Leopold II was only bluffing, in a show of support for Louis and the Queen (Leopold’s sister).  The French, in no mood for jokes, took Austria’s bluff seriously.

Some Jacobins called for war.  “To war, to war! Such is the cry of all patriots,” declared Jacobin Jacques Brissot (a center-left “Girondist”).  Brissot called for exporting the revolution – a “crusade for liberty” to free the “enslaved people” of Europe.  The Feuillant moderates joined their call for war.  The King (dubiously) joined their call.

brissotThe Girondists’ Brissot

The war issue split the Jacobins, again.  The radical Jacobin Robespierre was antiwar.  The Girondist Brissot mocked Robespierre and his antiwar Jacobin radicals  (known as the “Mountain”).  Robespierre and the Mountain were intensely paranoid about the enemy within, and much less worried about foreign threats.

In April 1792, the King addressed the Assembly and formally requested a declaration of war.  In near unanimity, the Assembly declared war on Austria.

Things went downhill, from there.

rochambeauGen. Rochambeau

The war started off poorly.  France declared war on Austria, but now faced both Austria and Prussia (who had joined in alliance). As usual, the French troops mutinied.  Faced with mutinous troops and murdered officers, French General Rochambeau called it quits and resigned.

Panic ensued at this betrayal.  The paranoid left enacted measures against real and imagined threats.  They summoned national guards to the city, cracked down on the hapless clergy, and disbanded the King’s guard.  The King agreed to disband his guard, but vetoed the rest.  The Paris radicals were predictably furious.

lafayetteGen. Lafayette

In June 1792, demonstrators marched on the Assembly, protesting the King.  Armed bands paraded through a nervous Assembly.  As usual, things escalated.  A huge mob marched on the King’s palace.  The jeering crowd cornered the King, taunting, and humiliating him.

General Lafayette was outraged, so outraged that he abandoned his troops at the front.  He returned to Paris and demanded that the Assembly prosecute the perpetrators.  Lafayette tried to mobilize the Paris guard (his former command) to arrest the Jacobins.  Failing at this, he returned to the front.  Some thought Lafayette a traitor.

As usual, radical Paris mobs took to the streets.  The usual mobs were now joined by (heavily armed) patriotic young guardsmen from Marseilles.  They demanded removal of the King for “perjury, treason, and conspiracy against the people”.  Then, they learned of the “Brunswick Manifesto” (an enemy letter to the King) that promised Prussian vengeance on Paris, if the royal family was harmed.

Once again, Paris radicals again marched on the Assembly.  They demanded removal of the King.  They demanded action against the traitor Lafayette.  The radical left Mountain supported them.  The Feulliant moderates opposed them.  The Girondists and centrists didn’t know what to do.

paris-commune-revengeThe Paris Commune attacks

Always ready for action, militant radicals took matters into their own hands.  On August 10, the radical Paris Commune launched their planned insurrection.  The alarm bells tolled.  Radical guardsmen rushed to arms.  Militants seized royal arsenals.

Radical guardsmen moved to seize the King.  With cannons in tow, they marched on the King’s palace, to negotiate its surrender.  Some palace guards and police abandoned their posts.  The royal family quietly slipped away, seeking refuge in the Assembly.

Back at the palace, the King’s Swiss guards opened fire on the insurgents, mowing them down and seizing two cannons.  The insurgents mounted a furious counterattack to avenge the Swiss “ambush”.  The insurgents slaughtered every Swiss guard they could find.  Over one thousand combatants lay dead.

Things really went downhill, from there.


“No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts,” Voltaire wrote to Rousseau, “In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on four paws. However, as it is more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it.”  The French Revolution bid adieu to the “new man” and bonjour to Rousseau’s  beasts.


The radical left gives Terror a trial run.  Next: Part 9, First Terror.