Statue Fontaine des Jacobins
I was having a brief conversation yesterday morning at Berkeley, California. I have heard Berkeley called the “People’s Republic” before, but as long as it costs $400,000 for a two bedroom house with 1,500 feet of floor space and $3 for a cup of coffee, I’m going to have to challenge this “People’s Republic” claim.
This is definitely a reflection of how firmly entrenched philosophical idealism is in the American intellectual landscape. We measure politics based on an extremely limited set of allegedly polarized ideas.
At any rate, he and I and one other person (all men) were discussing the recent coup in Thailand, and the two of them drifted into a discussion of how much more superior the US system was to most others, based on the Founding Fathers’ vision. Yeah, those guys again. Founding. Fathers.
Their genius, it seems, was that they understood that without a functional and universally enforced set of procedures to carry out public decisions, there was a danger that democracy would “tumble” into a situation with angy mobs carryng pitchforks. In my usual circumspect way, I blurted out, “That can often be the only real form for democracy.” Pitchforks, that is.
I was about to leave, so this youngish fellow, being diplomatic, decided to simply validate without any argument.
“So, you’re a Jacoban.”
“We could use a bit more Jacobinism,” I relpied… both of us smiling and saying good-bye.
But the remarks stuck with me for the rest of the day.
Okay, it’s a funny word. But it’s one we should know.
During the French Revolution, one of the most prominent revolutionary groups was the Jacobin Club. This was the actual period where the term “left wing” came into use, which I will not explain here (it is linked). The name Jacobin came from the club’s headquarters address on St. Jacques Street. In October 1789, the monarchy tanked, leaving the Jacobins a prominent force on the National Constituent Assembly. In time, the Jacobins were further radicalized and brought popular deomcracy right into the Assembly, outraging the bourgeoisie who felt they owned the Revolution. La Rochefoucauld was so freaked out that he wrote:
[I]n the midst of the capital committed to our care a public pulpit of defamation, where citizens of every age and both sexes are admitted day by day to listen to a criminal propaganda. . . . This establishment, situated in the former house of the Jacobins, calls itself a society; but it has less the aspect of a private society than that of a public spectacle: vast tribunes are thrown open for the audience; all the sittings are advertised to the public for fixed days and hours, and the speeches made are printed in a special journal and lavishly distributed.
Nothing so inflamed the fear of the ascendent “middle class” (soon to become the ruling class) as the association of many of the Jacobins with their emerging popular base within the lower classes. FS denizen Audrey Mantey is particularly fond of the description of an “army of the homeless” that came to defend the Paris Commune. I quite agree with her.
Then shit happened, Napolean finally took power, and things went on a different tack. But the association of Jacobinism with popular uprising as a form of democracy remained…. ergo, the demonizaiton of the Jacobin spirit.
This association was immortalized in C. L. R. James’ immensely readable history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.
My two acquaintences were right, of course, that the Foundering Fathers were intensely fearful popular democracy, in exactly the same way that today’s American bosses fear the developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and now Mexico.
The Federalists in particular were vividly cognizant of the threat posed to them by an uncontrolled mass. Living in a seething sea of disaffected indentured servants, slaves, poor people scratching out a living on the edge of the forests, and indigenous nations, they were keenly aware that the “freedom” for which they fought was limited to a few. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers in 1787-8, precisely as a guide for retaiing white, male, bourgeois power in the new nation. The addition of a Bill of Rights was the result of a nascent class struggle that the Federalists lost. They opposed the Bill of Rights vigorously. So when faced with the threat of non-ratification of the Constitution, Madison himself wrtoe the Bill of Rights, in a manner that still expressed these rights not as positive entitlements, but as a list of what the government could not do, and in a way that left those in power… in power. So there was “freedom of the press,” but no provision to ensure that the poor had the same access to public communications as the rich. Literally, “freedom of the press was for those who owned one.”
In no time, Jacobin became an epithet in the US to refer to lower class rabble-rousers. The urgency to impose federalism in accordance with the newly drafted papers was based on a recent rebellion by an American “Jacobin,” named Daniel Shays, in a rebellion that pitted scrabble-farmers against big landowners.
Jefferson’s expressed sympathies for Shays’ rebels led him to being called “Jacobin,” which the Federalists said can only lead to [eek!] “athieism and democracy.” Of course, Jefferson’s sympathies didn’t extend to women, indigenous folks, or slaves. The point is, ths Jacobin thing was a serious expression of fear among the privileged.
People in Berkeley are privileged, too.
As it turns out, there is a living public fugure who has been called “Jacobin,” the frequent subject of this blog: Catharine MacKinnon. Diana Schaub called her that, listing fellow Jacobins, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, Alison Jaggar, Susan Faludi, and Catherine Stimpson — while holding up nitwits Camille Paglia and Katie Rophie as the alternatives.
The prolific Welsh Trotskyist, Alan Woods, who still chews on the Tralin-Statsky debate like an old bone, and waits for the decisive event that will send the masses flocking behind the flag of the fifty-person Fourth International. Once again, Marxists can critique the hell out of The Federalist Papers for their fear of the lower classes, but they can’t seem to divest themselves of their hostile fear of feminism. Wood wrote in the aptly titled “Marxism versus feminism – The class struggle and the emancipation of women ,”:
For Marxists, the root cause of all forms of oppression consists in the division of society into classes. For many feminists, on the other hand, the oppression of women is rooted in the nature of men. It is not a social but a biological phenomenon.,
The fact that this is opening sentence utter horseshit, of course, hasn’t caused a peep of consternation on the male left, even though this ridiculous screed was written as late as 2001. This began an essay that supposedly linked the Jacobins to feminism, but the vast majority of it seems to be an essay teaching the ladies how to be proper Trotskyist women.
How is it, then, that the Marxist who is sympathetic to the Jacobins and even their liberal use of the guillotine, is moved to make a straw woman of feminism, while Diana Schaub, erstwhile supporter of feminist impersonators Paglia and Rophie resurrect the epithet just for MacKinnon the Anti-Christ?
I’ll tell you why? The hostility to feminism on the left is identical to the hostility of the privileged to Jacobinism. It’s is the fear of losing control. It is the slavery-period white Southerner’s fear of slave revolt.
I can hear the feigned outrage already. How dare you compare me to a racist! Anything but confont the real fears that are being named.
The fact is, the turbulence of Jacobinism brought an upsurge in feminist consciousness and organizing. Note that among the main complaints of criminality by La Rochefoucauld was the mixing of men and women in public.
In the correct biblical theory of marriage it is the wife who is not made full equal in the copartnership, but is made subordinate, in a limited degree, to the affectionate authority of the husband. Hence, a superficial person may think that women would gain by substituting the infidel Jacobin theory of marriage for the true one. But this is a huge practical mistake. It will ever be the women who will incur the chief calamities from this instability of the marriage relation. The history of six thousand years has shown the only fortress for the safe defense of the rights, dignity and happiness of woman (who is practically the weaker vessel) is scriptural and life-long monogamy. The sure tendency of all lower forms of union is to corrupt the offspring, to barbarize the male sex, and reduce the â€˜weaker vesselâ€™ from the honored place of wife to that of a toy of manâ€™s lust, and then the slave of a superior brute force. Will our shallow, conceited age utterly refuse to learn from history? Where else has woman escaped practical enslavement, except in the lands where she is a scriptural wife…The American woman who seeks this liberation… is clutching at a shadow, but letting slip the vital substance…She has her Jacobin freedom, but she has sunk herself from the wife to the concubine. -Robert Lewis Dabney, 19th Century Presbyterian Scholar
Jacobinism, in spirit, is not about breaking taboos (which always serves to demonstrate the privilege of those who can “transgress” these boundaries and to re-validate those same boundaries); it is about ignoring them. It is in the laughter of the indigenous people who sealed off the roads into La Paz and brought down a government. It is not in a woman learning how to desire “like a man,” but learning how not to need a man.
The fear of disorder is a male-constructed fear, the Terror of The Chaos residing in the heart of masculine dualism… chaos being charactersitic of nature and women (Mother Nature – Irrational Woman)… all that stuff that Man has to control. The supreme irony of course is that by working against nature, as patirarchy as done from the very beginning, serial episodes of truly terrifying chaos are the result.
We’ve been over this terrian before on FS (several times), but I was feeling the compulsion to riff on Jacobinism. Take it from here, folks.