Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Forgetting Filippo Buonarroti (11 November 1761- 16 September 1837)



Filippo Buonarroti was a Jacobin terrorist and proto-communist conspirator.
Filippo Giuseppe Maria Ludovico Buonarroti was born in Pisa, in the Duchy of Tuscany, on 11 November 1761. Not for the first time when it comes to champions of equality, his family could boast of an élite pedigree: his mother, Giulia Bizzarini, was a Sienese noblewoman, while his father, Leonardo, came from a long line of Florentine jurists and magistrates. He was also descended from the Leonardo Da Vinci's brother, Buonarroto. As will be seen, such ancestry contributed exactly zero to making him a proponent of civilisation.
Buonarroti was likely sent to a Jesuit school, as would have been normal for a member of his class, and there he would have remained until the suppression of the order in 1773. So far, so good, because up to this point young Filippo distinguished himself in worthy subjects, particularly music and mathematics.
His father then found him a position as a page in Grand Duke Leopold’s court, where he served for five years. The Grand Duke ran a reformist government, somewhat like his brother-in-law, Louis XVI of France, who proved somewhat less successful. From there, at the age of seventeen, Buonarroti enrolled in the University of Pisa, which, along with the court, was a centre of that same reformist spirit. Ironically for someone who would spend almost his entire career on the wrong side of the law, his aim was to obtain a doctorate in that same subject.
And there is where things went awry, because the university was a cesspool of ‘Enlightenment’ ideas, and his professors exerted themselves to shape the naive young man in their mould. Culprit number one was Giovanni Maria Lamperdi, a disciple of Mably, Puffendorf, and Grotius; he taught him public law. Culprit number two was Cristoforo Sarti, a follower of Locke and Condillac, who taught him philosophy, made him aware of his position on society and the social order, and, most importantly, exposed him to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The latter’s egalitarian gospel inflamed the youth's mind, who was thereby transformed into a fundamentalist.
Once a Doctor-in-Law, Buonarroti went to Florence, where he met and married Elisabetta de' Conti, who bore him four daughters and a son.
During this period, his literary talents were noticed by the Grand Duke, who made him Chevalier de Saint Stephen. Such patronage would have assured him a lucrative position in Tuscany’s court, and therefore comfort and tranquillity for his family. Yet, even this early, it was already too late. He joined vainglorious Adam Weishaupt’s Illuminati in 1786—or so it seems: details of his activities from this point onward are murky. This quickly landed him into trouble, for his home was raided by the police, who found books containing anti-clerical and Masonic propaganda. He only avoided further punishment through the intercession of his father.
The ingrate was, however, unrepentant, and got to work immediately editing a scurrilous political rag, pretentiously named Gazette Universale. This platform he misused to agitate on a factional local issue involving the Stadtholder of the United Provinces—and supporting, of course, the political radicals. The result was a formal complaint against him by the Dutch Consul to the Grand Duke.
Soon enough there was another cause for the recidivist Tuscan, for by July 1789, France was in a state of revolution. As the heads began to roll, Buonarroti greeted the news with jubilation, greedily devouring the reports and writing approvingly of the events for a journal. As soon as it was published, the Florentine authorities decided they’d had enough and duly expelled him. But Buonarroti had little to worry about, because once in exile in Corsica the Jacobin gang rewarded him, a fervent atheist, with a government post that put him in charge—not with the least bit of irony—of ecclesiastical affairs and government lands.
Unsurprisingly, his fanatical zeal elicited hostility from the Bastian populace; he was dragged through the streets and put on a boat to Leghorn. Having been dumped there, it was out of the boat and into the prison cell for the noxious fellow. Unfortunately, however, the (Jacobin) Corsican authorities requested he be returned—not to be reprimanded, but to be praised for his ‘activity in the cause of liberty’.
Buonarroti then travelled for a while, agitating, organising local cells, and serving the Jacobin régime in various capacities, wholly relaxed about the measures taken against him by the Italian authorities. By 1792 his unwelcome activity brought approval from the Departmental Council.
In January 1793 he accompanied an expedition to Saint Pierre, in Sardinia,

armed as a good Jacobin missionary with a ‘sword in one hand, the Declaration of Rights in the other’.[1]

According to historian Elizabeth Einsenstein, his activities there may suggest how the term ‘propagande’, which initially meant a particular congregation devoted to the spreading of the Gospel, came to acquire its modern (pejorative) meaning.[2] From there he went to Paris to demand the annexation of Saint Pierre by France, to denounce Pasquale Paoli, the patriot leader of the Corsican resistance to French conquest, and (a dream for this Francophile) become a French citizen by decree. His opposition to Paoli earned him favour from the Bonapartes, which, sadly, would later prove useful to his wretch.
While in Paris, he delighted at the crushing of the Girondists, and enthusiastically approved of the Constitution of 1793. Buonarroti visited the Jacobin Club in the Rue Saint Honoré and became chummy with Maximilian Robespierre and fellow terrorists. Legend has it that he would drop by in the evenings to play on the clavichord tunes hummed by Robespierre; that he gave lessons to the daughters of the latter's landlord, Maurice Duplay; and that he and Philippe Le Bas, husband of Duplay's daughter Elisabeth, would improvise family concerts. In other words, the obsequious traitor wormed his way into every corner of Robespierre’s circle.
He was soon given a new post as commissioner for the Executive Council, as which he was to serve in Corsica. The journey was interrupted by his imprisonment in Lyons by the anti-Jacobin party. Once again, unfortunately, the ne’er-do-well was turned loose, and, upon returning to Corsica, spent his time during the siege of Toulon trying to oust Paoli and pushing Jacobin propaganda. Within months he was promoted to national commissioner for the conquered areas east of Menton, a position only made possible by the illegal occupati0n of Oneglia by French troops.
Buonarroti managed to hold on to this job for a year. But did he succeed in converting the locals to his creed? Hardly. And this greatly embarrassed him. Crestfallen, he focused thereafter on transforming schools into brainwashing centres, staffing them with ideologically correct sycophants, and opening new indoctrination factories (he called them ‘schools’) to make the populace more malleable and receptive to egalitarianism. The clergy and the aristocracy he persecuted without quarter.  ‘While you destroy the enemies from without,’ he wrote to Massena, ‘I guillotine the traitors from within’.[3]
A sort of secret police and kagaroo court were also organised, but these came too late, since a week later Robespierre fell in the Thermidorian Reaction. Not surprisingly, historian G. M. Pira would later feel justified in describing him as a bloodthirsty terrorist.[4]
That he was allowed to carry on in his post under the Directory owed only to the fact that, from their point of view, he was only an obscure, minor, far-away functionary and they had bigger fish to fry much closer to home. Away with it he would not continue to get indefinitely, however: when he illegally confiscated land belonging to a Genoese aristocrat, justice caught up with him at last. The authorities recalled him to Paris and from there it was straight to prison. He became an inmate in Plessis in March 1795.
Unsurprisingly, this inflexible dogmatist loved incarceration. He spent his time exchanging abstract theory, ideas, and tactics with fellow political criminals—including, most notably, François-Noël Babeuf, another proto-communist extremist; living ‘in the most intimate fraternity’, this rotten lot would sign songs and lick their wounds, though these were fewer than they deserved. Also unsurprisingly, and for the above reason, incarceration did nothing to reform this Tuscan traitor: on the contrary, after his release he remained as obdurate and as determined as ever to go back to the bad old days of the Terror; the fall of Robespierre he saw, in fact, as the worst calamity of his life.
Needless to say that by this time Buonarroti had long been deserted by his wife, who had put up with him only until 1790, just long enough to give birth to his son. Thus, he was unemployed, penniless, and alone. He was welcome only among the worst sort, namely the Societé des Egaux, organised by his fellow ex-convict, Babeuf. Merged with the vestiges of the Jacobin Club, they met at the Panthéon. The Directory tolerated such activity on tactical grounds only, since it helped to counter-act royalist efforts to oust the administration.
Now, any sensible person would have not given this man the time of day, and left him to find some sort of gainful employment that contributed something to society. Instead, the French foreign office gave him a hearing, and he was able, through his contacts, to influence policy in Italy and the Netherlands. His secret intrigues helped delay unification of his native Italy by seventy years.
While thus engaged he set himself up as a music teacher. Music, however, he taugh little, choosing instead to push his politics onto his pupils while he had them captive. They paid him and learnt very little of what they paid for. Buonarroti even found time to take up a lover, Teresa Poggi.
By 1796, Buonarroti had become such a nuissance at the Foreign Office that the Foreign Minister, Charles-François Delacroix, father of Eugène, the Romantic painter, finally recommended him to François Cacault, ‘the agent of the French republic in Italy’. Cacault was not impressed:

The Citizen Buonarroti . . . is a Florentine who has ample talent in Literature, and in Philosophy, who writes well enough and easily in his own tongue; for the rest, he knows neither the world nor its affairs, he has an ardent imagination, he finds himself in Paris in a needy state, he asks to be given a Mission whose vast objective is altogether undetermined, he indicates a general point of view, but how can he expect to realize any part of it? He could not hope to penetrate Italy . . . he is very well known and would be arrested anywhere—the Grand Duke has a letter from him, wherein he declares that the finest moment of his life would be when he saw the prince guillotined.[5]

At an opportune moment, Delacroix presented Caucault’s letter to the Directory for consideration, and less than a week later Buonarroti was arrested along with the rest of Babeuf’s rabble (the so-called ‘conspiracy of equals’).
Babeuf was convicted and promptly guillotined, but Buonarroti, an enthusiastic proponent of the guillotine himself, was let go with a mere deportation sentence, along with six others. He was transported in an iron cage to the island of Chebourg, where he was incarcerated at the Fort National. There, things went a little differently than in Plessis: jealousies and class hatred cleaved the egalitarian inmates, pitting the educated, upper class deportees against the uneducated, working class ones, who were denied privileges allowed to the former. Buonarroti, of course, belonged to the former, and managed to get prison authorities to let him share quarters with his lover, whom he’d passed as his wife, and who enabled him to carry on clandestine correspondence with the annoyingly ineradicable Jacobins in Paris.
Too soon after, Buonarroti’s favour with Napoleon paid off, for in 1800, with the Directory gone and Napoleon installed as First Consul, his sentence was commuted to detention and he was transferred to a much easier régime in the island of Oléron, where he also—would you believe it?—was granted a subsidy of three francs per day. In 1802 he was transferred again to Sospello in the Maritime Alps, where he was able to begin scheming once again, laying the foundations for his secret society. Yet, the natives despised him, it seems, and he begged to be transferred to Geneva, the birthplace of his beloved Rousseau, much to the chagrin of the prefect of Leman, who became desperate to rid himself of the pest.
In Geneva, Buonarroti finally founded his lodge, pretentiously named Les Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits, camouflaged as a Masonic organisation, and modelled on Weishaupt’s Illuminati. Buonarroti was a believer in the thèse de complots advanced by John Robison and Augustin Barruel in their respective accounts of the roles played by secret societies in the French Revolution, and this informed his conspiratorial methodology.
The prefect’s insistent letters to Paris were ignored until Malet’s abortive coup of 1812, in which Buonarroti figured as a notable anti-Bonapartist. Talk about biting the hand of his benefactor! Buonarroti was then transferred to Grenoble, where he stayed until the end of the Empire, whenceupon he returned to Geneva, pledging good behaviour. The prefect wasn't fooled:

in order to realise [his pledges] entirely, it would be necessary for his head to be reorganized. He considers himself, on the one hand a Spartan—on the other as a political martyr.[6]

Incredibly, the hypocrite offered his services to Napoleon after the latter’s escape from Elba, but he never left Geneva.
The fact was that a long time had passed since the fall of the putative ‘Republic of Virtue’ (i.e., the Terror, for most people) and he had been forced to shift away from insurrectionary methods in favour of secret orders and conspiracy. It is perhaps worth noting that the vehicle of this egalitarian extremist, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits, and its successor Monde, was organised on strictly hierarchical principles. Indeed, the lower-ranking members were deliberately kept in the dark as to the true aims of the leadership. Not only that, but in his self-aggrandisement, Buonarroti saw himself as a sort of secular St Ingatius of Loyola:

Midst the collapse of free institutions, midst the general corruption of sentiments one cannot find . . . future regeneration save in a secret corps guided by a pure and dictatorial authority; what the Jesuits did to mislead and enslave men, the Monde has attempted to do in order to enlighten and deliver them. Good and evil can be operated by the same mechanism; if the end is just and wise, what difference does it make if the means have been used in other circumstances for a contrary end!
The jesuitical congregation can be compared to an army full of enthusiasm and submissive conviction to a homogeneous and absolute authority. It is precisely an equivalent army that the Monde has attempted to establish against tyranny.

As Einsenstein points out, however,

[t]he Society of Jesus was only one organ of a much larger, fully developed institution that commanded the allegiance of a vast population; it exacted vows of obedience in terms of an accepted theology that was not kept from most of its members. Buonarroti’s society was related only to a Jacobin 'church' that may have been militant for a brief historic moment within the parochial confines of a single nation. . . . It was . . . never again to be triumphant, save in the confines of his own imagination.
 Not that reality was an impediment for the fatuous dreamer. And, at any rate, his organisation had real, practical short- and medium-term aims, one of which consisted of using Freemasonry—for which he felt contempt, since he considered its adherents amateurs—as a Trojan horse by instructing every candidate for the supreme command (the grandiosely named Grand Firmament) to infiltrate, rise through the ranks, and acquire a key position within a lodge in his country of residence. His entire ethos in his relations to the Masons was characterised by ‘deliberate duplicity and bad faith’.[7]
The same applied to his relations with the French and Italian branches of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies who conspired in opposition to the monarchs of pre-unification Italy. Indeed, he convinced the Carboneria of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Lombardy to accept a restructuring, which he passed as reforms, but which he designed to facilitate infiltration: he added ‘a third grade so as to dovetail its hierarchy with that of the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits’.[8]
In turn, the French Charbonnerie, an analogous secret society founded by students in 1820,

led by moderate liberals like Lafayette and de Corcelle, was considered ‘disfigured’ and a decree of August 4, 1822 forbade all members of the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits to communicate freely with it; diplomatic relations through official delegates were maintained, however, and the organisation was deemed useful enough to encourage the formation of new ‘ventes’ under Buonarroti's auspices.

Buonarroti's secret society was, then, entirely autonomous. It represented a conspiracy not only against the prevailing regimes but also against the competing opposition groups.[9]

Thus, it turns out that the Robison and Barruel put forth a valid historiographical methodology, for at least in the early 19th century there was indeed

a cosmopolitan, super-secret network, masterminded by a dedicated professional, the work of whose agents could be discerned in radical movements in the major European capitals.[10]

Metternich had genuine reasons to worry.
Of course, historians on the Left have engaged in minimising and whitewashing Buonarroti’s activities. The socialist Georges Weill talks of an ‘international republican association’ that played an ‘insignificant’ role,[11] while Frederick B. Artz, who campaigned against fascism and used to sleep with some of his gay students, dismissed it as an ‘international liberal organisation’[12] that had been taken much too seriously by Metternicht.[13] Diligent researches have shown otherwise. According to Armando Saitta, Buonarroti was ‘incontestably the animator of most of the societies of masonic or carbonarist inspiration from 1812 to 1830’. Arthur Lehning, after examining the testimony of one of Buonarroti's agents, concluded that Buonarroti was, if not omnipotent, certainly omnipresent in the sprawling underworld of early 19th century secret societies.
Yet, omnipresent or not, Buonarroti's efforts came to naught, due perhaps to his own incredible vanity. He recruited one Alexandre Andryane, a young man who had paid to be taught Italian and got much more in the bargain. The Italian lessons had become music lessons and these had become conspiracy lessons. Andryane was sceptical, sharing neither his master’s ‘exaggerated opinions’ nor his tedious ‘obsession’ with 1793, but, nonetheless, out of fascination, admiration, and respect for the eccentric codger, he enthusiastically allowed himself to be initiated into the order. Following a successful notiviate, Buonarroti charged him with a mission: he was to go to Italy with series of documents—‘a mass of papers, one more useless and dangerous than the other, sufficient to compromise half of Italiy’[14]—that ‘included the Rules and Statutes of the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits and the names of hundreds of co-conspirators’.[15] This was an entirely unnecessary gesture, and a foolish risk for someone who had laboured for so long to construct his secret network; therefore, it seems that the desire to show off his masterpiece was greater than the fear of disaster. Another case, then, in which weakness prevailed.
Alas, the nervous fellow-traveller was arrested. The documents fell into the hands of the police, the plot unravelled, and the whole of it became public knowledge. Andryane went to prison. Buonarroti, on the other hand, simply relocated to Brussels and carried on with his normal life. Though he was intermittently watched and even harassed by the authorities, they were half-hearted enough, and he skilful and well-connected enough, for him to avoid further imprisonment. It seems the authorities didn't take him as seriously as he took himself, after all.
Others did take him that seriously, sadly, or were at least inspired by the model he’d pioneered, of a secret society, amounting to a private army, revolving around a shady personality. Out of Buonarroti’s intrigues arose the Romantic stereotype of the black-clad, mysterious, wild-eyed conspirator.
A comical aspect of Buonarroti's relocation was his taking yet another lover, a Swiss woman called Sarah Desbains. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and, understandably, Teressa Poggi made her mind known. Buonarroti had hoped for a ménage à trois, oblivious, clearly, of the fact that Poggi, who had been raised in the traditional ways of Europe, was not about to begin to live like a Muslim wife in a harem at the age of 60, and share her man with a Swiss viper. The sexagenarians conducted their dispute entirely by correspondence, with Poggi venting her fury in a stream of vituperative letters and Buonarroti obdurately blind to obvious facts of life.
By carrying on with his normal life we mean that Buonarroti went straight back to his intrigues. Once in Brussels, he would reorganise his secret society, which, as already mentioned, would be called Monde. And he also set about rebuilding his network.
Meanwhile, at his new base of operations he enjoyed the company of the surviving riff-raff from the First Republic, who, being classed as regicides (i.e., murderers) were deemed too nefarious to qualify for the Amnesty of 1816. The washed-up old codgers met at the Café des Mille Colonnes and spent their abundant free time writing memoirs, which were, of course, little more than apologias, self-vindications, and settlings of old scores. Even as an orthodox Robespierrist, Buonarroti was a bit of an oddball among these miscreants, who were still rancorously divided on ideological, factional, and personal bases, but his patrician ancestry, personal charm, and high-level connections stood him in good stead. While some had been fellow inmates, he condemned those who had had a hand in the fall of his hero.
From among this gang of rascals emerged the first works of historical revisionism—or, more honestly, propaganda—concerning the French Revolution. Among them are the ‘histories’ by Alphonse de Lamartine and Alphonse Esquiros, and the three-volume hagiography of Robespierre by Ernest Hamel, all of which can be traced to Elisabeth Duplay-Lebas. The main figure, and the one who produced the most significant writing in the end, was Buonarroti. Philipe-Joseph-Benjamin Buchez and Prosper-Charles Roux’s Histoire Parlamentaire de la Révolution Française (1834) can be traced to Buonarroti's writings and conversations; Paul Mathieu Laurent’s Réfutation de l’Histoire de France de l’Abbé de Montgaillard (1828) was, though resulting from the impact of Saint-Simonism, published by Charles Antoine Teste, who ‘was to became Buonarroti's chief lieutenant’;[16] the Mémoires de René Levasseur (de la Sarthe) Ex-Conventionnel (1831) was edited by Teste’s protegé, Achille Roche, who appropriated Buonarroti’s interpretation, as put forth in the latter’s own piece of pious, martyrological apologetic, Conspiration pour l’egalité dite de Babeuf, suivie du procès auquet elle donna lieu et des pièces justificatives, published the year before but clandestinely circulated, reviewed, summarised, quoted, and analysed since 1828. Others, like Jean-Barthélemy Hauréau’s martyrology, La Montagne (1834), or Albert Laponneraye’s introduction to his two-volume edition of Robespierre’s writings, aped their master's tone.
While the extent to which these works were sold or circulated is difficult to ascertain nearly two centuries hence, there is no question that proved immensely influential. Worse still, it intellectually bolstered future malefactors: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both read Roche’s work, which provided them with a first orientation on the French Revolution, and both considered a German-language edition of Buonarroti’s Conspiration in 1844.
It bears quoting a couple of passages from Conspiration to illustrate the sort of rhetoric indulged in by Buonarroti:

The infatuation of the atheists, the errors of the Hérbertists, the immorality of the Dantonists, the humbled pride of the Girondists, the dark plots of the Royalists, the gold of England disappointed on the ninth Thermidor the hopes of the French people and of the human race.[17]

As to the fanatical mass murderers of the Committe for Public Safety, witness his nauseating praise:

One cannot too much admire the prudence with which these illustrious legislators, turning reverses and victories to account with equal skill, were able to inspire the great majority of the nation with a self denial the most sublime, with contempt of riches, pleasures, and even death . . .
. . . the astonishing metamorphosis by which so vast a population, . . . but a season before, the sport of voluptuousness, cupidity, levity, and presumption cheerfully renounced a thousand factious enjoyments, rivalled one another in zeal to offer up their superfluities on their country's altar, thundered in mass on the armies of coalesced sovereigns and contented themselves with demanding for their all, bread, steel, and equality.[18]

Unbelievably, Buonarroti deemed the Constitution of 1793 not to have gone far enough: ‘it did not completely answer the wishes of the friends of humanity. One regrets to find in it the old deplorable ideas on the right of property’.[19]
To his relief, however, Robespierre remedied the failing with his Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Buonarroti also excused the use of extra-legal autocratic violence by the ‘redeemers of humanity’ on the basis that (1) it was necessary for them to stay in power until they could crush their enemies completely, and that (2) they

knew that before conferring on the people the exercise of sovereign power, it was necessary to render the love of virtue general—to substitute disinterestedness and modesty for avarice, vanity, and ambition . . . They knew that they coercive and extraordinary measures indispensable to operate so happy and great change are irreconcilable with the forms of regular organization.[20]



In other words, the great egalitarian and democrat Filippo Buonarroti’s ideal was a ‘virtuous’ few using whatever means necessary, no matter how savage, thieving, or homicidal, to bring the populace to heel with their idea of grace. For him this made perfect sense because the masses had been politically ‘conditioned’ and corrupted by an evil minority, and were consequently too stupid, venal, and degenerate to realise the salvation that Robespierrists had made available to them. Man must be forced to be free!
Furthermore, he took the view that the Terror hadn’t been sufficiently vigorous, as otherwise the Thermidorian reaction would never have occurred. This is something future revolutionist would need to take into account (as indeed they did).
It is a matter of interest that Buonarroti’s utopian vision had not a few things in common with the totalitarian régimes that would follow a century later:

The young readers of the 1830's were told that in the new social order 'the country takes possession of every individual at birth and never quits him till death. Young men should be initiated into French society by a solemn oath and ceremony complete with the presentation of a suit of armor. They were to be subject to military service and "constantly encamped on the borders of the Republic" as an object lesson to the "servile soldiery of all the despotes of Europe." Public festivals, military burials, monuments, and athletic contests should be "calculated to exalt the shoul and preserve the martial spirit of arms." The official religion would be Robespierre's cult of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. Worship would be limited to respect for Rousseau's social contract, the defense of equality, and public festivals.[21]

And it gets better:

The printing and distribution of "all writings" was to depend on whether "the conservators of the National Will" judged "their publication useful to the Republic." Arts and sciences were to be discouraged—the former led to "a taste for superfluities, disgust at simple manners, the love of voluptuousness and frivolities" while scientists tended to "become superior" . . . "No pains would have been spared to keep away all persons who would introduce frivolities and foreign fashions; the curious would have been subjected to rude tests and to a severe surveillance."[22]

And better:

The major economic problems of the nineteenth century would be solved quite simply by turning the clock back, by legislating the industrial revolution out of existence.[23]

And better:

The poor would readily agree to exchange their rights to their meagre holdings for membership in a "grand national community which maintains all its members in an equal and honourable mediocrity". The wealthy . . . would be so heavily taxed and so unfavourably treated that their only resort would be emigration or the "voluntary" surrender of their possessions . . . The family unit should be undermined; perhaps children should be forbidden to bear the name of a father who had not distinguished himself by great virtues . . . "[24]

As defined by Buonarroti, of course.
Says biographer Einsenstein,

Buonarroti’s detailed description of the ultimate transformation of the “human heart” into an organ of the body politic after the nececessary liquidation of a self-alienated minority; his insistence on the suppression of every institutionalized activity that might distract the individual from the performance of his civic duties suggest, at the very least, that the work is by an enemy of Mr. Popper’s “open society”. Indeed both the text and the spirit of the work seem to prefigure, with remarkable exactitude, a recent description of the “totalitarian mystique” by an acute observer of contempoary [1959] Soviet society.[25]

In Buonarroti’s case, she adds, the citizen was not a ‘passive, anonymous mass mind’, but an active and convinced participant. This, I would add, further resembles rather than distinguishes Buonarroti’s utopia from the sort of egalitarian totalitarianism that exists in modern Western societies, where egalitarianism is often promoted and enforced by the state with less vigour, extent, and thoroughness than by the citizens, who police their own minds to much greater extent than it is possible for the state to do. It is for that reason that ‘inequality’ is constantly on the agenda, highlighted by citizen activists in the media and academia, and efforts to increase equality, measure it, and legislate it into existence remain ongoing.
The July Revolution of 1830 permitted not only the publication of Buonarroti’s book, but also his return to France, still in the belief that he could resurrect the Robespierre's régime.
It was there that he organised Monde, his resurrected secret society and ‘invisible arm’, this time with even more grandiose ambitions of global domination, and now completely at odds with the 19th century reality.

Buonarroti’s plan for international conspiracy seems romantic, antiquated, vague, and futile—the work of a "crank" who had outlived his times.[26]

His efforts proved, accordingly, a failure. His influence on one of the leaders of the Chartist movement in Britain was recorded only in passing in two obscure books, of interest only to academic specialists and collectors of curiosities. The best he managed were a smattering of mentions in cheap political rags churned out by British radicals who, at any rate, saw him as a peculiar foreigner in his approach to reform. In Italy, his efforts proved a fiasco and served only to fracture the Risorgimento, due to his jealous condemnation of Giuseppe Mazzini, who, in turn, regarded him as an old dinosaur, senile, impotent, and overly besotted with, and subservient to, France.
It seems Buonarroti could not abide someone else in the protagonical role. Parallel organisations arose, with the predictable ‘mutual name-calling and vindictive rancor’[27] that would later in the century be replicated by the emergent communist leadership.
From 1830 until his death, long over-due, Buonarroti had two close collaborators—close enough to operate almost as a unit, for all intents and purposes. Former Saint-Simonist Charles Antoine Teste, his puppy dog (though a fully grown man in his fifties), has already been mentioned. Voyer d’Argenson was the other. This latter individual was of even more aristocratic a background than Buonarroti; he was also more his own man, managing somehow to influence Buonarroti on economic matters (his field of expertise), though the ‘master’ attained at best only the foggiest notion of that discipline. D’Argenson was a member of the Societé des droits de l’homme, an execrable neo-Jacobin gang that believed in the all-to-familiar mix of equality, a large state apparatus, restrictions on private property, and a planned economy.
This gang provided Buonarroti with a non-conspiratorial field of operation. Eventually, he caused a schism (of course), and organised a rival society, the Societé des droits du peuple, complete with manifestos denouncing the parent organisation as ‘Fayettists’ and ‘Bonapartists’. By the end of 1833 Buonarroti's manœuvrings ensured his man, d’Argenson, was among those in charge.
While Buonarroti focused on pure politics and, specifically, on back-biting, intrigue, demagogery, and agit-prop, he, nevertheless, developed contacts with the proto-communist neo-Bavouvists—including Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who would spend much of his life in prison and repeatedly condemned to death, though never executed. His wretched thinking also helped lay the foundations for something that no one needed: a first French socialist party. That said, it would be a mistake to think of Buonarroti as a full communist, for he didn't give a jot about production and his views on the industrial revolution were reactionary, opposing industrialisation but also distrusting the workers, whom he viewed as not having a clue. Nevertheless, in the opinion of Arthur Lehning, who recognises the distinction between Buonarroti's egalitarian elitism and the Marxist prolecult, Buonarroti forged

the first link in the chain of international . . . organizations which led three decennia later to the foundation of the First International.[28]

Moreover, like the Marxists, Buonarroti was a critic of the liberalism of the Restoration and of Orléanist France, and even more so of its Anglo-American expression. The former two he saw as subtle deception—monarchy cloaked with token liberalism to ensure the Ancien Régime’s continuity—while the latter he saw much in the same terms, except as even more insidious, being an emblem of English slavery, where the ‘slaves’ loved their servitude. His contempt for the English was long-standing, as we have seen; he regarded them as ‘priests of Plutus’, all about ‘avidity for wealth’. The Americans were even worse. Even the name ‘United States’ he scoffed at as a Girondin heresy and a revival of ‘aristocratic localism and feudal provincialism’.[29] Only with the publication in 1836 of the English translation of ConspirationConspiracy of the Equals—by James 'Bronterre' O’Brien, a Chartist activist who had been influenced by Babeuf and translated the latter's writings for the Poor Man’s Guardian, did Buonarroti think there was any hope for the English.
His Anglophobia, as everything else, had roots in the First Republic of Robespierre, which had been shaped by the opposition of Rousseau cultists to the anglophiles Voltaire and Montesquieu. Voltaire was doubly guilty by commission, for he had been sceptical towards Rousseau's egalitarianism: upon reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Human Inequality, Rousseau wrote its author a letter, stating:

I have received, sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society—from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations—have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I.[30]

This suspicion towards ‘token’ liberalism made Buonarroti long for counter-revolutionary excess, and hate any sign of establishment moderation. He hoped the counter-revolutionaries would gain the upper hand, go all out in their vengeful tyranny, and thus trigger a popular uprising that would sweep them out of power and bring back the Terror. He wanted heads to roll. Only in a republic in which all opposition had been guillotined and the populace had been so thoroughly brainwashed that no dissident thought would ever even occur to anyone would his dream be safe. Buonarroti’s spiritual brother in crime, Blanqui, also hoped for counter-revolutionary excess.
Far from progressive, however, Buonarroti became ever more antiquated and irrelevant. It was he who now embodied the sclerotic reactionary, an 18th-century relic in a 19th-century world, seemingly blind to the 40 years of political change that had taken place in France. Anyone who reads his unctuously hagiographical Observations sur Maximilien Robespierre, published shortly after his death, can see this in an instant.
Buonarroti died aged 76—far too advanced an age for someone who’d dedicated his life to a noxious cause. His funeral oration was pronounced by his suck-up, Charles Teste, on 18 September 1837.
For a century Buonarroti was forgotten. And not without reason, for, despite having extended his tentacles throughout Europe, to the extent that there was not a single secret society in France, Italy, or Spain that he didn't reach; despite his obsessive efforts to revive the cruentous First Republic; despite his personal charm, good breeding, and high-level contacts—despite all that, he accomplished next to nothing. His literary talent had been recognised by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, but he squandered it on propaganda, pamphlets, and hagiographies of criminals, mass murderers, or knaves. It says something about his underachievement that, though their subject matter was unworthy, he came to be remembered only for his writings.
Despite having trail-blazed a new profession (revolutionary) and provided a template for the clandestine internationalist organisation, this remained noticed until Lenin made a success of it. Only then did anyone begin to look back at the antecessors. Even now, however, a full biography is yet to be written in English: the only one that exists, by Elizabeth Einsenstein, is short and largely an essay mapping out bibliographical areas of research for future scholars. None have grabbed the batton. In France, the only proper biography did not appear until 2008—171 years after his death. 
And that may be because a revolutionary leader he was not. Neither was he an original thinker, for his was the cult of others—Robespierre in particular, who was himself a follower of Rousseau. At best, he was a link in the chain between the French Revolution and the communists. His utopian vision had much in common with the ‘worker’s paradise’, but this is not something any decent person would to be proud of.


[1]        Elizabeth Einsenstein, The First Professional Revolutionary: Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761 - 1837) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959) 17.
[2]       Ibid.
[3]       Ibid. 21.
[4]       Ibid.
[5]       Letter of Cacault to Delacroix, dated 20 Germinal, Year IV (6 May 1796).
[6]       Georges Weill, “Philippe Buonarroti”, Revue Historique LXXXIV (1904) 262.
[7]       Einsenstein 45.
[8]       Ibid.
[9]       Ibid. 46.
[10]      Ibid.
[11]       Georges Weill, Histoire du Parti Républicain (Paris: F. Alcan, 1928) 12n.
[12]      Frederick B. Artz, Reaction and Revolution: 1814-1832, The Rise of Modern Europe, ed. W. Langer (New York: 1934) 142, 150.
[13]      Einsenstein 46.
[14]      Ibid. 53.
[15]      Ibid. 52-3.
[16]      Ibid. 64
[17]      Buonarroti (Bronterre) 32n.
[18]      Ibid. 26-7.
[19]      Ibid. 23-4.
[20]      Ibid. 25-6.
[21]      Einsenstein 74.
[22]      Ibid.
[23]      Ibid.
[24]      Ibid. 75.
[25]      Ibid. 77.
[26]      Ibid. 85.
[27]      Arthur Lehning, “Buonarroti and his International Secret Societies”, International Review of Social History 1.1 (1956) 135.
[28]      Ibid. ??
[29]      Ibid. 140.
[30]      Voltaire to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 30 August 1755.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

David Crawford's Lights Out

David Crawford's Lights Out is one of a constellation of underground post-apocalyptic novels written by American authors in recent years, catering to the prepper / survivalist subculture. These novels would be considered by mainstream readers to be on the political Right, although in reality their authors are libertarians or classical liberals who describe themselves as 'conservative'. While theirs are not the views promoted in mainstream media nowadays, they do not stray from acceptable discourse.
David Crawford - Lights Out 
Written between 2003 and 2006, Crawford's novel began life much like those by Dickens, only serialised in a blog as opposed to a periodical. It is claimed that once it was made available as a PDF, the file was downloaded millions of times. It was finally published as a print book in 2010.

Lights Out falls into the subset of apocalyptic fiction that explores the EMP scenario: an event takes place that knocks out all electronics throughout the United States, causing society quickly to fall apart. Like Fortschen's One Second After, which I reviewed in 2013, this novel focuses on what a man, his family, and his community do in order to survive. In many ways, the two novels are very similar, but Crawford has more faith in the community and none whatsoever in the Federal government. Crawford's novel is also vastly longer, spanning 600 pages in tightly packed print in trade paperback format, and focuses on the detail of ensuring the health and survival of a community, based in Silver Hills, a subdivision outside of San Antonio, Texas, rather than a grim transformation from pampered consummers to born-again American pioneers. Unlike Fortschen's novel, there are plenty of guns and shoot outs along the way.

Crawford is certainly not a literary writer. His prose is functional and his narration fastidiously prolix, although he can turn a ringing phrase every now and then. All the same, for some reason he manages to keep the reader ensnared the story, to the point that, hundreds of thousands of words later, one is sorry to be reaching the end of the novel. He also succeeds in planting events that have significance later on. There is plenty of tension along the way, as the story converges towards its climactic confrontation. And, though his characters are very stereotyped, they are sufficiently human for this not to become a nuisance. In fact, Crawford displays psychological insight, at least when it comes to the way men deal with men.

The story begins with the event itself. Mark Turner, the main character and an accountant, on his computer, in his office, when the lights go out. The dialogue is a little forced, clumsy, or unnatural at first, but Crawford does a good job at taking us through the unfolding scenario from that single point of origin, expanding the story in ever-widening circles, adding more and more characters, as the event's implications come into play. Throughout the reader is left as much in the dark as the characters are: without electronics, it becomes difficult to obtain information, and the latter's sources are subjective, limited, and unreliable. The characters are all groping in the dark at first, initially thinking the power will be restored quickly, and then gradually realising—in the midst of chronic uncertainty—to what extent things have changed and, more importantly, to what extent they will have to change.

One amusing element in the story is the perception of the central government authorities as clueless, useless, and lying. Initially, the President goes on air via the emergency broadcasts, which Turner can pick up via a wind-up radio (why the electronics of that device survived the EMP is not explained), and declares that the power will be restored 'in two or three days'. As time passes, this timeframe is pushed further and further back, until all timeframes are abandoned, replaced instead by ever more stringent security measures. Martial law is declared, movement is restricted, and so on. As the days go by, Turner comes to realise that the government is simply attempting to keep people calm with deception to buy itself time while officials figure out what to do. Any faith he may have had in the government's ability to restore power is lost fairly quickly—the presidential broadcasts soon become 'more of the same', until they are forgotten altogether, obviously irrelevant.

The truth is that replacing the damaged electronics would take years, even with people working flat out, and their ability to do so would be hampered by the fact that, without power, no replacement electronics can be made. At best, any return to the electronic age would be in small pockets and over a period of years. The implication at the end of the novel is that recovery takes a generation.

Crawford exhibits commendable restraint by abstaining from the sort of speechifying that afflicts fiction in this particular subgenre. Indeed, we don't ever find out whether the EMP was caused by, for example, a solar flare or human agency. In the end, as the social order begins to crumble, the cause becomes unimportant: it cannot be undone; what matters is adapting to the new reality. And the message—obvious—is that one would have to be pro-active, self-reliant, and community-oriented, or else you will lose your property, your freedom, and your life.

The descent into anarchy is not instantaneous, as happens in Alex Scarrow's Last Light, a novel about the sudden end of oil. In Lights Out it takes over a period weeks. Initially, people are still able to shop at their local supermarket, but, with transportation very limited—only pre-1980s vehicles work—it becomes ever more difficult for the haulage industry to refuel and resupply, so supermarkets end up imposing restrictions per head, leading to growing queues, theft, and robbery. Once the food and the water runs out, cities become increasingly dangerous, sites of looting, gang blight, and gun law. Of course, the army, the National Guard, and FEMA are deployed, but they cannot manage to maintain order.

In fact, they cannot even manage to protect private property: the government urges people to abandon their homes and report to FEMA-run refugee centres, give up their guns, and remain there until further notice. These are all capital offences from the traditional American point of view; private property, individual freedom, and the right to bear arms are sacred cornerstones of the American identity.

It goes without saying that for Turner this would have never been an option, even if, having rejected an offer to join his employer's all-white compound early on, he hadn't already organised his neighbours into arming themselves, stocking up, and fortifying Silver Hills. The latter undergoes radical change during the course of the book, in response to evolving conditions, going from suburban development to self-sufficient, fortified village. At first a couple of lone guards are posted at the entrance; by the end there are watch towers, ditches, armed patrols, observation points, and even army-style training for the security details. Everyone has to share and pitch in, irrespective of gender or age, for, in the new reality, no man, woman, or child can afford to be an island.

The inevitable tension between communitarianism and individual liberty is resolved in a very American way: residents of Silver Hills are free to do as they like, but, if wish to survive, it becomes clearly in their rational interest to sacrifice their individual wants and desires on behalf of the community. The choice is there in theory, but has already been made in practice. Needless to say that there are plenty of hard choices to be made, not to mention loss of life—the American conservative mind loves sobering realities: once the country descends into chaos, the cities become ruins, and city-dwellers begin traversing the countryside, as beggars, robbers, or scavengers, the old rules no longer apply. You own only what you can defend by force, at the point of a gun.

Despite its apocalyptic nature and the constant sense of external threat, Lights Out is neither a despairing lament nor a cynical remonstrance. Rather, it is an exaltation of the 'can-do', 'hands-on' attitude. The characters are not righteous superheroes with extraordinary skills and never-ending good luck; they are ordinary individuals who are thrown into an extraordinary situation and must muddle their way through, making mistakes and taking loses. Indeed, Turner, though displaying courage on more than one occasion, is one who reacts to danger, rather than one who seeks it or revels in it; fortunately, he reacts well and thus becomes an accidental or reluctant hero. Similarly, though respected by his wife and children, and enjoying authority among them and his community, it is his wife who usually gets her way in domestic matters, running circles around her husband. He also has difficulty with one of his neighbours, who is strong on feminist values. Turner is a modest, unpretentious fellow with a lot on his mind, who simply desires the safety of his family.

One has to wonder, however, whether Crawford is overly optimistic in the way he unfolds his scenario. I tend to think that in such circumstances social order would break down a lot faster and that people would be more selfish and short-sighted, finally coming round late and only when they have their backs to the wall. Certainly, the folk of Silver Hills all—save for one—seem unusually decent, friendly, unselfish, and cooperative.

Then again, I suspect Crawford's aim is to show what you could do if faced with a range of possible situations arising from an EMP.

It seems that there are efforts to turn Lights Out into a trilogy of films. Needless to say that Hollywood showed no interest, so this is going to be an independent production. A short teaser can be viewed here.