Let’s hear it for the Terror 

Let’s hear it for the Terror 

It is often said that if you are not a socialist at twenty, you don’t have a heart, and that if you are one at forty, you don’t have a head. Anyone who has read Mark Steel’s Reasons To Be Cheerful , a wry look at his small part in the anti-Thatcher movement of the early 1980s, will know he certainly had a heart. And those who read his latest work will soon realise that, though he has a fine mind for comedy, he certainly has not grown a head. Which is appropriate, as his chosen subject contains lots of missing heads.

His latest offering is itself a revolutionary concept – a history book written in the style of a stand-up comedy routine. There have been humorous accounts of history before, most notably 1066 And All That , but these were whimsical overviews, not detailed accounts of a particular event. History is enjoying a mini-revival at the moment (albeit at a time when a large proportion of the population believes Nelson Mandela fought the Battle of Trafalgar) and this has inspired Steel to leave Blair alone temporarily and go back in time.

Vive La Révolution is, as its title suggests, a defence of the great experiment that began in 1789 and ended at Waterloo 25 years later with the total destruction of France as a military power. Steel begins with his two great gripes about modern attitudes to the Revolution — first, that the public’s view of the event is largely shaped by The Scarlet Pimpernel and Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head , “of which the Carry On film is the far more realistic”. And, second, his disenchantment with historians, who are not only anti-revolution and conservative, but boring and pompous to boot.

“Many of them assume you already know what happened, and concern themselves with debating an obscure point put forward by a rival academic,” he writes. “If they have a dispute with their neighbour, they write a book that goes ‘Recent studies have confirmed the frequency with which Mr Roberts has blocked my drive.’” For this reason and others, members of the academic establishment will pretend this book does not exist, and will be furious when large numbers of their students quote it to them.

What makes this more than a simple idiot’s guide is that Steel has clearly done his background reading: within its 300 pages there are countless incidental anecdotes that bring Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins to life. He quotes the often hilarious contemporary descriptions of the oftmaligned Marat, which depicted him as a toad, a hyena and a horseleech. Steel speculates that, had he not become a revolutionary, he could have made a decent living as a sideshow in a working man’s club.

He details the exploits of Danton and presents him as an 18th century Oliver Reed. He describes Marat’s arrest by 300 guards, and how he exaggerated the incident so ridiculously as to suggest that there were 12,000 officers. “Even in my home town of Swanley, I never heard a pub regular claim, ‘So the Ol’Bill have come for me, I’ve turned round, there’s only 12,000 

of ’em, ain’t there?’” Steel may not like to admit it, but he is a talented historian in its simplest, truest sense, in the ability to tell a story well, with humour and an understanding of the human and absurd.

And yet Steel peppers his pages with too many modern analogies, endlessly drawing comparisons between the Paris riots and modern day demonstrations, and putting the great politicians of the 18th century next to the mediocrities of today. And much of his thinking is just too Dave Spartist to take seriously, such as the link he makes between the Anglo-American war on Iraq with the Prussian/Austrian attack on revolutionary France. 

Iraq has not, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, ever declared the universal rights of man.

Steel also, predictably for a member of the Socialist Alliance, underestimates the power of religion. He has a great deal to say about the corruption and greed of the pre-revolutionary Church, but does little to explain why so many were prepared to die for it at the same time as the Parisians were building temples to “reason”. The revolutionaries began a campaign of de-Christianisation, he says; however, he omits the most gruesome details of this bloody campaign. The Mark Steels of the day believed that this would be the end of the Catholic faith, but the tenacity of those fighting in the Vendée was something that, even today, atheists cannot comprehend.

What is slightly disturbing about Steel is his willingness to defend the terror and violence that occurs on almost page of this book, such as the 40,000 executions carried out by the revolutionary regime. “The other consideration often strangely forgotten is that the Terror took place in a country under siege,” he explains. “It was part of the war.”

Can he be serious? The worst atrocities in human history were committed in war, and war used to justify them. Steel attacks what he calls “selective grieving syndrome” in which people outraged by September 11 seem not to care about Chechnya. In fact, he is himself a notorious practitioner of what Ferdinand Mount called “asymmetrical indulgence”. “Gruesome, but not in the first division of historical bloodletting,” he says of the French executions; and yet any Right-wing regime that killed equivalent numbers to prevent communism or anarchy would face Steel’s unreserved wrath.

Similarly, early on he qualifies the Terror by stating that “it was mostly directed within the revolution, rather than the aristocracy”. The argument that “they only did it to their own kind” is exactly the sort of taxi-driver logic that he usually pokes fun at.

And this brings us to Steel’s conclusion — that all the violence was worth it, because the French Revolution “shaped millions of minds into looking in the opposite direction. It created a world of boundless possibilities.” Strangely, he completely ignores events that occurred a decade earlier and 3,000 miles away: a revolution that allowed the world to dream of freedom without the accompaniment of mass murder.

This article was published at The Catholic Herald

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