The Poisoned Chalice of Counter-Revolutionary Conspiracy Theory
Reflections on the lecture given on 10 June, 2014 by Prof. Samuel Moyn (Columbia): “Is Democracy Conspiratorial?”
In the research literature one often comes across the statement that every conspiracy theory contains a grain of truth. Indeed, one finds the statement repeated so often that it has taken on the trappings of a tired platitude. It is more than apparent that many conspiracy theories present a warped and distorted view of the world. But before we fall into the trap of dismissing them as a reflex reaction, it might be also worth acknowledging the more or less truthful observation which is at the core of a conspiracy theory and around which then the subsequent exaggeration and distortion accretes.
Watch the talk in full below:
This been said, if one then takes the trouble to uncover the “truth” within the conspiracy theory, then most often one arrives at something which is also fairly banal and hardly surprising. Thus, we can take the classic conspiracy theory of the Abbé Barruel as an example. As is well-known, over the course of the four volumes of the Mémoires pour servir à une historie du Jacobinisme he charged the Freemasons and the French philosophes with having undermined the Old Regime and unleashed the French Revolution: of course, the forms of sociability developed by the Freemasons and the ideas of emancipation elaborated by the philosophes implicitly challenged the traditional structure and the ideological underpinnings of the Old Regime. This is the grain of truth. But to extrapolate from this and posit planned subversion is, of course, gross exaggeration.
Are there, however, conspiracy theories which exhibit all the usual exaggeration but nevertheless contain at their cores truths which we did not know, indeed which are unfamiliar to us and, upon discovery, offer exciting prospects for further thought. This possibility was at the forefront of my mind as I listened to the highly stimulating speech given last week by Samuel Moyn who is the James Bryce Professor of European Legal History at Columbia University. Prof. Moyn’s lecture focused on François Furet’s classic work Interpreting the French Revolution (Penser la Révolution française, 1978). The book provides one of those cases which can prompt us, in addition to following Foucault and Barthes in questioning the notion of an author, to also query our notion of the “work” with its implicit postulate of unity and internal cohesion. Furet’s work does not exhibit these qualities – rather from a historiographical point of view it can be seen to document the evolution of Furet’s thinking over the 1970s and in particular his progressive repudiation of the Marxist interpretation which for so long had been firmly entrenched within French academia.
If Furet was moving away from Marx, what or whom was he moving towards? Prof. Moyn’s lecture was a showcase in how to identify the currents of ideas and attitudes that mould and shape the development of an intellectual’s thought. Broadly speaking, there were two currents: firstly the political theories developed within a circle of thinkers among whom Claude Lefort was particularly prominent: these thinkers espoused a defiantly antitotalitarian stance towards the Leftist utopia in its concrete Soviet realization. Furthermore there were intrigued by democracy and the paradox at its heart: that the people might govern themselves. It was this paradox which also animated the thought and, in this case, the antipathy of the second source of Furet’s ideas, namely, the highly problematic tradition counterrevolutionary conspiracy theory. Here Furet found his spokesperson in the fascinating figure of Augustin Cochin, the historian of the Revolution whose family background had provided him with the means to pursue a life of private scholarship and had also instilled in him the intense patriotism which would lead to his death on the battlefields of the first world war in 1916.
If Furet was ostensibly interested in formulating an interpretation of the French Revolution no longer enthralled to questions of ideological alliance, then Cochin was perhaps the most incongruous figure one could imagine as the olive branch extended to the opposite side in supposedly inaugurating a period in which the study of the Revolution was to pass from impassioned ideologues to detached historians. Cochin was, after all, a counter-revolutionary figure sworn to opposition towards democracy and devoted to the memory of a pre-democratic age in which the French sense of unity was founded not in specious notions of equality but in reverence towards transcendental truths. Whether Cochin appealed to a conspiracy theory in explaining France’s fall from grace is a contentious point. He was, in any case, at pains to distance himself from the likes of Barruel. But this is in many ways a curious characteristic of the tradition of the counterrevolutionary conspiracy theory; it is made up of thinkers who disavow any allegiance to a conspiracy theory explaining the demise of the Old Regime but who nevertheless still fall under its sway. To drink from this source is to drink from a poisoned chalice, and Prof. Moyn felt that even Furet’s interpretation bore the imprint of the conspiracy theory.
Of course, this raises an interesting question. The counter-revolutionary conspiracy theory contains a grain of truth, and an interesting one at that. Whatever one might say about the interpretation of the French Revolution put forward by Cochin, a plausible case can be made for the claim that he was highly attuned to the paradoxical nature of democracy, even if this engendered in him a deep aversion towards democracy. Indeed, once one ignores the negative sentiments, Cochin’s ideas revolve around the same questions which would fascinate thinkers such as Lefort. Furet’s later strategy though raises the question: is it possible to extracting the grain of truth at the core of a conspiracy theory without becoming tainted by this form of thinking?