The White Moderate: The Greatest Threat to Freedom

by Corey Robin on January 21, 2013

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I’m reminded of these words, from Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”



Moz in Oz 01.21.13 at 6:46 am

That’s still a constant problem for any activist or activist group. There’s never a right time to change anything, or more accurately there’s always going to be a voice for the status quo.

But I suspect even the most apparently-boring voices for change get much the same response as the radical revolutionaries, just from fewer people “library cards should be black on white because that’s easiest for the widest range of people to read”… “maybe next year, we’ve already started the process for this year”.


Dr. Hilarius 01.21.13 at 7:18 am

Other people’s pain is the easiest to bear.


Bob 01.21.13 at 9:35 am

I find this article to be extremely rude. You generalize the moderate white as someone who is against racial equality, which is simply not true. There will always be racist people in the world, you don’t have to follow their timetable. Make your own choices and follow through


Neil 01.21.13 at 10:54 am

“I find this article to be extremely rude”.

That’s probably because you didn’t understand it. As the other commentators were able to see, the point is not that moderates are racists, but that for any proposed change there is a large group of people who support the goal but who find good reasons why for any time, now is not the right time for action.


MjM 01.21.13 at 11:44 am

Bob’s comment is, sadly, a perfect example of King’s thoughts.

Bob is more concerned with a perceived rude comment against people who are like him, than the injustice that King writes about from his prison cell. How dare MLK point out truth that destabilizes his ordered worldview.

Since a perceived slight against white people is morally equivalent to centuries of slavery and oppression Bob’s worldview necessitates focus on the slight against him prior to even considering the comment itself.

Evil thrives when good people allow themselves to be distracted by nonsense.

Maybe we should rename MLK day to Bob’s day to soothe his bruised ego.


The Raven 01.21.13 at 12:46 pm

Bob, in King’s day, that was the white “moderate.” Personally, I find putting people in jail for protests against segregation to be extremely rude.

King was writing about the “centrists” of his day. I suppose then, as it was now, the attempt was made to clip the political spectrum at the center, so that it was possible for privileged conservatives to believe they were actually moderates, not conservatives vested in the status quo.


Corey Robin 01.21.13 at 12:50 pm

I actually think it’s good that Bob at #3 found King’s piece to be “extremely rude.” In the last two decades or so, King has been bathed in precisely the kind of embalming fluid that he worked so hard to dispel from American politics. He sought, as he put it elsewhere in his Letter, to provoke and create tension: “There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” It’s good that people today still find him rude, that he makes people uncomfortable and creates tension in the air. That means he’s still doing his job. And now our job is to take that provocation and turn into the productive release that he sought.


GiT 01.21.13 at 1:18 pm

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal


Rich Puchalsky 01.21.13 at 1:23 pm

There was a good deal of that embalming fluid dripping over the Swartz discussion. The people who write that “special deterrence” is what our protestors need now, and of course they don’t mean people like MLK Jr., because he was a hero and didn’t harm anyone’s property and everyone can obviously see that those laws were unjust, unlike the laws that we have now which were democratically enacted.


The Raven 01.21.13 at 1:28 pm

After 1789, we have cause to fear revolution. I still do not understand why it is held up as an example: its main success seems to have been feeding my ancestors.

It would be better, I think, if there were less fear of change, but that would mean taking violence out of the equation.


phosphorious 01.21.13 at 1:31 pm

Let’s not be too hard on Bob. He’s just concerned, is all. About tone. And civility. And the possibility of reverse racism.

He’s not concerned about justice, but given enough time, I’m sure he’ll come around. . .


William Timberman 01.21.13 at 2:14 pm

Rich Puchalsky @ 9

There was a good deal of that embalming fluid dripping over the Swartz discussion.

Indeed there was — and still is, as of an hour or so ago. The law properly understood (and why does no lawyer ever seem to understand it this way?) is, as Bruce Wilder has said, a political instrument, not an administrative tool of this or that self-appointed majesty. Equal justice under the law doesn’t come cheap, and people denied it can rarely rely on civility to recover what’s been taken from them, especially not when folks like Orin Kerr are in charge of deciding who shall or shall not have access to it.


R. Porrofatto 01.21.13 at 2:19 pm

GiT #8
Yup. And this one:
The people of old Mississippi
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand how their minds work
What’s the matter don’t they watch Les Crane?
But if you ask me to bus my children
I hope the cops take down your name
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal


Walt 01.21.13 at 2:22 pm

Ah, the Internet. Bob had a bizarre misreading of the original post, which has been followed with bizarre misreadings of his comment, thus allowing the world to continue to spin on its axis.


Don A in Pennsyltucky 01.21.13 at 2:46 pm

I was that white moderate. In 1965 as a 9th grader I remember being asked about the goals of the Civil Rights movement and saying that “they want too much too soon”. In my omnipotent naivete, I thought that incremental change would happen eventually but that it was not possible to get people to change quickly. In 1975, I thought the same thing about getting people to stop using male pronouns to refer to mixed-gender groups.

I was wrong both times and I am very glad that I was. Had Dr. King not pushed for change now, I would never have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people with dark skins and had the Women’s Rights movement not been able to achieve such rapid success, I wouldn’t have the African-American woman heading up the division where I work and doing such an excellent job of removing obstacles that prevent us from doing our work well.


DrDick 01.21.13 at 3:07 pm

And as it was then, so too is it still today. “Moderates” of this sort, who abound in all times and places, are perhaps more bound to the status quo, or at least to not upsetting it, than the radical reactionaries. Above all, they wish to preserve their own small privileges, with little regard to the deprivation of others.


Adam Roberts 01.21.13 at 3:26 pm

The implicit question framed by Corey’s post, it seems to me, is not ‘are moderates bad?’ (it seems to me inarguable that people who ‘wish to preserve their own small privileges with little regard to the deprivation of others’, to quote DrDick, there, are indeed bad people) but: have ‘moderates’ in this sense done more damage, tout court, than extremists?

We don’t want to think of ourselves as ‘extremists’, of course. We want to think of ourselves as ‘radicals’, ‘revolutionaries’ and so on. And let’s hope we are. But ‘moderate’ is the piece of rhetorical nomenclature in the box today, and moderate opposes extremist. The moderate says: ‘racially integrated buses are a fine idea, but not yet, one step at a time, etc etc.’ The extremist plants a bomb. (Or maybe the ‘terrorist’ plants a bomb, whilst the extremist supports him).

(‘We’ in that second paragraph should be in inverted commas, of course.)


rea 01.21.13 at 3:29 pm

The classic example of the white moderate:

… In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.—Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856


Neil 01.21.13 at 3:35 pm

Adam Roberts: false dichotomy. There is (usually) an enormous territory between the poles of moderation (= support for change in principle but opposition to any means that might bring about change) and extremism defined as you have (support for terrorism). And of course the fact that ‘moderates’ (so defined) call one an extremist does not entail that one is an extremist.


diptherio 01.21.13 at 3:46 pm

To update the quote: replace “Negro” with “poor person” (let’s remember, Dr. King was organizing a “Poor Persons’ March” on Washington when he was assassinated), replace “White Citizen’s Counciler and Ku Klux Klanner” with “Republicans and Tea Partiers,” and replace “white moderate” with “Barack Obama.” Maybe that will make more sense to Bob.


AcademicLurker 01.21.13 at 3:48 pm


Not to derail the thread but I think it’s inaccurate to describe Lee as a “moderate” on slavery. To acknowledge that slavery was an unfortunate evil but oppose doing anything to hasten its end because “it’s all in God’s hands” was more or less the standard pro-slavery position before the war.


christian_h 01.21.13 at 3:50 pm

The Raven (10): I really don’t get this attitude. That 1789 is held up as an example of horror is in itself the other side of the embalming fluid quoted above (the trick being to separate the ostensibly moderate hero from the violent extremist in the story that we construct about political progress). It relies on ignoring the massive violence meted out by the absolutist state right until July 14, 1789 and starting the history of the revolution just then: oh my, how suddenly violent life has become now it’s the King’s head that rolls!

People in 1788 lived as we live now under a system that constantly applies violence to perpetuate itself. The idea that this could be changed without being prepared to counter this violence seems naive to me (and no I am not arguing for quixotic armed insurrection, I’ll leave that one to the gun nuts).

In any event, the reference to revolution is not one to violence, but rather to the belief that fundamental change happens, when it happens, rapidly. We won’t reform our way to a just society.


DBW 01.21.13 at 3:59 pm

MLK actually addresses the issue of extremism in a head-on way in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. For the moderate who assails the “extremism” of the Civil Rights marchers and their demands, he says that if a commitment to justice is extremism, he will gladly don the label–and associates it with, if I remember correctly, Jesus, Martin Luther, and Thomas Jefferson (who, apparently in his mind, was not a proto-fascist but an extremist for liberty). But he also appeals to the moderate by distinguishing his brand of extremism from the revolutionary violence of those who wait in the wings if justice is unfulfilled. King manages to synthesize a pragmatic appeal to moderates with a commitment to the fulfillment of an abstract notion of justice in the here and now. But he throws the violent revolutionary under the bus in order to do so.


MPAVictoria 01.21.13 at 4:07 pm

GiT and R. Porrofatto

Phil Ochs is so awesome. I wish I had thought of it first.


js. 01.21.13 at 4:17 pm

AR @17 is particularly bizarre since one of King’s main concerns in the Letter is to separate out the question of voilent vs. non-violent methods from questions regarding “moderation” vs. “extremism/radicalism”. And yes, while DBW is right that King embraces the “extremist” label, I’m less convinced that his rejection of violent methods is meant as an appeal to moderates (except perhaps indirectly, insofar as it makes blindingly obvious the violence and brutality of the state).


mpowell 01.21.13 at 4:33 pm

King was right to criticize moderate whites as a way to encourage further progress, but his complaint makes no sense. Are these moderates really the greatest stumbling block to your people’s freedom? Perhaps he should have considered the example of South Africa as a potential alternative. An even larger black population but with a nation-wide apartheid system at least as strict as the most severe examples of Jim Crow. Things would certainly proceed more quickly if all the moderate politicians and voters in the country would suddenly switch their political views to those of the activist, but it is really quite silly to talk about them as a great stumbling block. Their existence is what enables change without violent and lethal action and international assistance as was required in SA. But you can’t expect 100% sound reasoning from MLK. He was not a philosopher or a political scientist. He was a master rhetorician/pastor leading a broad-based political movement.


rea 01.21.13 at 4:35 pm

Academic Lurker @ 20–no, there were actually many people who agreed with Alexander Stephens ( VP of the Confederacy):

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth . . .


AcademicLurker 01.21.13 at 4:53 pm


With the disclaimer that I’m not any sort of specialist in the subject, my impression was that pro-slavery rhetoric became more militant once there was a serious possibility of slavery actually ending. I thought that in the decades before the war a bit of pious muttering about God in His wisdom ending slavery “in time” (e.g., never) was normal among the respectable pro-slavery set.


js. 01.21.13 at 5:07 pm

[MLK] was not a philosopher or a political scientist.

While technically true, of course, this seems remarkably unfair. King self-consciously and effectively deploys a certain strand of the natural law tradition to situate and justify his actions, and those of other activists. In fact, there are close and striking parallels between what King writes and passages in Aquinas’ discussion of law—parallels which, I’d modestly suggest, having taught the two texts together—cannot possibly be accidental. Look, it’s one thing if you disagree with King about the white moderates. It’s quite another, and a far worse thing, to dismiss him as “a master-theoretician/not a philosopher”, and hence presumably not worthy of the kind of close reading we honor properly “philosophical” texts with.


js. 01.21.13 at 5:09 pm

Sorry. The last sentence should read, “to dismiss him as a ‘master-rhetorician/not a philosopher’…”.


Jamelle 01.21.13 at 5:19 pm


King was a well-educated man, with academic training in philosophy and theology. He wasn’t a professional philosopher or social scientist, but he wasn’t a backwoods preacher either.


LFC 01.21.13 at 5:36 pm

From the quote in the OP:
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice

This clause is esp. interesting to me b/c the negative peace vs positive peace distinction is standard in the ‘peace studies’ and conflict res. (etc.) literature. I’m guessing that MLK and the peace studies people both took it from some earlier source but I don’t know the provenance or pedigree [or substitute whatever other fancy synonym you want…] Or maybe ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is its first appearance?

As to mpowell’s remark about King not being a philosopher, pol theorist etc.: It’s sort of beside the point b/c, as can be inferred from js’ remark about having taught King and Aquinas together, ‘Letter’ is now, or such is my impression, a canonical work taught in high schools and colleges — which I think is good, since you don’t want to limit the canon to works produced by professional philosophers. (‘Letter’ had not yet attained its present status when I was in h.s. and college.)


LFC 01.21.13 at 5:45 pm

The ‘positive peace’ notion is also evident in Pope Paul VI’s remark “if you want peace, work for justice,” which — taken as purely strategic/practical advice — does have critics.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.21.13 at 5:52 pm

What MLK wasn’t is revolutionary. While those bad moderates prefer (or pretend to) slow progress, MLK prefers to progress quicker. But more or less in the same manner, by means of state violence only. That’s why he is so frustrated with the moderates. He himself was a moderate. If he was a revolutionary, the moderates would’ve been irrelevant. Certainly much less harmful than the KKK, who would actually shoot at you, when you storm the state capitol.


70's lib 01.21.13 at 7:17 pm

True, Phil Ochs is awesome….
… but when you talk about destruction,
don’t you know that you can count me out…


UserGoogol 01.21.13 at 7:53 pm

What does mildly irk me about this post is that moderation is relative. Every political thinker can be thought of as moderate in some sense, since infinite radicalism is impossible on many levels. As such, what is moderate and what isn’t is really a product of the particular social context, so when you take a paragraph like that out of its original context, it can come across as trying to tar others with the association, which depending on who those “others” might be can be unfair. The fact that you’re Corey Robin is biasing me, though. If Matthew Yglesias had posted this exact same post word for word, I’d interpret his usage of the word moderate very differently.


Substance McGravitas 01.21.13 at 8:54 pm

The National Review posts a brief positive squib on King, commenters won’t let them forget the NR’s opposition.


MPAVictoria 01.21.13 at 9:18 pm

“The National Review posts a brief positive squib on King, commenters won’t let them forget the NR’s opposition.

I wonder if frequent poster and former NR contributor Tim Wilkinson has any thoughts about this.


JW Mason 01.21.13 at 9:33 pm

former NR contributor Tim Wilkinson

You mean Tim Worstall, no?


shah8 01.21.13 at 11:46 pm

/me raises eyebrows…

Now wait just a minute here…

First of all, all this “moderate” stuff is intended to be disarming. That’s usually the purpose of labeling something “moderate” or the “compromise position” or “Third Way”. King wasn’t really talking to a well intentioned polity. If he was, he wouldn’t have outlined his argumentation the way he did, like the discussion about “positive speech” and the presence of “justice”. His motives were to undress concern trolls of their “I’m not a racist, but…” dressing from over their sentiments, and make it more difficult to make their genuine feelings attractive and normative.

In any event, it has always amazed me, ever since I was old enough and educated enough to know, just how much white people care about race, and over the most trivial bullcrap. This has always amazed me, this creativity that some people have when trying to feel better about their noxious attitudes, like that Dred Scott dogwhistle. And it has always amazed me just how defensive white people can be when a minor racist sentiment is challenged. I don’t think I have ever been banned from any forum for a reason other than something related to white racial butthurt. And when I mean trivial, I mean stuff like correcting someone who fiddles with the stats to prove that Colt McCoy is, indeed!, better than Aaron Brooks.

There have always been poseurs within the groups of people who identify as “left”, who are largely “for me, but not for thee” every which way. Feminist who only look out for a certain segment of women. Nationalists who only think of the other guys just like them. Police unions who couldn’t give a crap about the janitors. Etc, etc, etc. Part of all movements is getting to people who want to pitch in, organize them, and exclude the time-wasters and the free-loaders. As MLK understood, radicalism means clarity, and it puts the burden of temporizing on the people that do it, not the people who listen to it. Why not now?


Anderson 01.22.13 at 12:07 am

“The law properly understood (and why does no lawyer ever seem to understand it this way?) is, as Bruce Wilder has said, a political instrument”

Not even that.

“You had to play the big scene,” he said coldly. “Stand on your rights, talk about the law. How ingenuous can a man get, Marlowe? A man like you who is supposed to know his way around. The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be.”

–Chandler, The Long Goodbye, ch. 8. (And yes, I am a lawyer.)


Anderson 01.22.13 at 12:21 am

Not to derail the thread but I think it’s inaccurate to describe Lee as a “moderate” on slavery.

After the war at least, Lee was, I think, a fairly consistent paternalist: he thought the ex-slaves were too poorly educated to be given the vote, but he also thought they should be educated. This was actually a relatively enlightened position for a Virginian. So he ended up as a “white moderate,” in multiple senses of the term.


Steve S. 01.22.13 at 12:48 am

Most years I see a few news stories and public service ads on TV over the weekend commemorating MLK Day, but this year it seemed like there was much less of that. Instead there was a good deal of excitement for the Inauguration. And as I mentally noted the ritual rerunning of snippets from “I Have a Dream” being supplanted by promos for America’s quadrennial orgy of imperial self-congratulation I thought, what a wonderful tribute to Dr. King.


john c. halasz 01.22.13 at 12:51 am


“Their existence is what enables change without violent and lethal action and international assistance as was required in SA.

And I suppose the battle of Cuito Cuanavale had nothing to do with the matter.


Main Street Muse 01.22.13 at 1:17 am

Moderates (of any color) like to avoid extremes (of any kind.) That is the definition of a moderate.

The work of a revolutionary is to inflame moderates into action. Very difficult task – especially when one works to appeal to logic and reason (as King did) versus appeals to fear and anger (as we see with the NRA’s fear-based appeals on needing a gun to protect from “monsters” and the public sector [aka government] – going so far as to schedule “gun appreciation day” on the day set aside to honor a man who was publicly gunned down.) We seem to pay much greater attention to squashing “monsters” rather than listening to the “better angels of our nature.”


purple 01.22.13 at 2:14 am

Why the Socrates fetish, who by standard interpretations was opposed to democracy ?

Seems rather moderate.


MPAVictoria 01.22.13 at 2:19 am

Oops so I did JW Mason. Apologies to Tim Wilkinson.


The Raven 01.22.13 at 2:23 am

christian_h @ 10: What did the Jacobins win? They killed allies, enemies, and ultimately their own leaders indiscriminately and by the end most of the French were so disgusted that they welcomed the return of an aristocracy.

Indiscriminate violence is not freedom, rather it is the right hand of slavery.


Cleisthenes 01.22.13 at 2:41 am


“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’, if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the “horrors of the… momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak?

A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court


shah8 01.22.13 at 2:59 am

Main Street Muse:

That’s the sort of interpretation I have a problem with. Ultimately, what MLK wanted was not extreme in the abstract. You know, equality and shit. Nobody who wanted to think about it, and who thought black people were people, could avoid the moral imperative in that positive peace. Not any more than anyone who didn’t already hate non-heterosexual people can really say that gay marriage could destroy their own.

“Moderates” were not moderate, or sensible, or any other positive connotation. They were not in between “extremes”. This world ain’t the True Blood world, where there is a minority of people who need to suck blood and stuff, never age, and plenty of those who don’t consider humans their equals and act as so. Integrating vampires is a far more dicey proposition than allowing a person to sit anywhere she likes, free of targeted, lethal, terrorism. There was never any extreme (danger, finance, otherwise) to be moderated against, except that you had to recognize someone’s very humanity.

No it was not that “moderates” had to be galvanized. It’s that “moderates” had to be suppressed, and visible practices of non-violence was how it’s done (of course, everyone else who wishes to preserve a non-egalitarian society has taken notes, and such non-violent movements aren’t allowed easy access to media these days).


William Timberman 01.22.13 at 3:18 am

Anderson @ 41

A mechanism for whose use? That’s what makes it a political instrument. As a mechanism the law may be value neutral, but the mechanism is only the form, never the content. Only lawyers can afford the luxury of mistaking the one for the other, which is why the rest of us are so reluctant to take what they say about the subject as gospel.


Main Street Muse 01.22.13 at 3:27 am

To shah8 – I agree that equality should not be an extreme position, but in this country, equality has never been the norm – the declaration that liberated the US from England allowed that “all men are created equal” but if you were Native American or a slave or a woman, that lovely umbrella of equality did not cover you. So moving toward the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers meant tearing “moderates” away from their long-held beliefs about “equality.” And yes, that was and remains a considerable challenge. And King had every right to be “gravely disappointed” in the white moderates not eager to upend the status quo to let the disenfranchised into the fold of freedom and justice for all.


js. 01.22.13 at 3:37 am

What did the Jacobins win?

I think it’s worth checking out Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution on this. (Although perhaps you’re already familiar with it, in which case you can disregard this.) As I recall, he makes a pretty convincing case that their platform, if you will, while quite radical for its time would be recognizably centrist/liberal now. Also that the Jacobin years were quite instrumental for the future of the French state, and positively so. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I don’t have the book at hand, so (a) apologies if this is inaccurate (though I don’t think it is), and (b) I’m pretty reluctant to provide any specifics.


Anderson 01.22.13 at 3:43 am

50: “Only lawyers can afford the luxury of mistaking the one for the other”

I’m not sure where this crochet about lawyers comes from, but lawyers (1) regard the law mainly with regards to favorable results for clients and (2) are quite conscious of the politics behind the law. Any public defender, or anyone familiar with “tort reform,” can tell you that.

I am unclear from your comments what you think lawyers are supposed to be doing differently, but I am happy to be educated.


Anderson 01.22.13 at 3:44 am

53: crotchet not crochet. Not that there’s anything wrong with crochet.


Omega Centauri 01.22.13 at 3:48 am

As one of those white moderates (I was barely a teenager), I do recall that our first emotional reaction to this, was indignation at being criticized. Others had to try to explain what he meant. Now, I think MLK knew what he was doing, and wouldn’t have been taken aback by our gut defensive reaction, but I think that was the overwhelming reaction at the time among the moderates.
Us moderates from the liberal NE were rooting the the underdogs MLK and company. But, I suppose for many, making the country look bad internationally, at a time when social comparison versus the commies was an important front in the cold war -well that wasn’t exactly appreciated. A few took up the challenge, joined marches etc (at some personal risk). But, most of us watched from the sidelines.


js. 01.22.13 at 3:49 am

When King talks about “the white moderates”, isn’t he picking up on a self-designation/self-conception, i.e. isn’t he addressing white people who think of themselves as moderates? That’s always been my understanding, and I think it’s crucial to the point. He’s not picking out the “moderate” position from some objective vantage point. Mutatis Mutandis for his self-description as an “extremist”.


minnesotaj 01.22.13 at 4:42 am

I submit as evidence in the matter, Ray Davies and the Kinks:

Undoubtedly there are those (and my last several day jobs has been to change corporate cultures) who drag their feet about “how it’s done” and “why we must” and “what if…” — but the first rule of those would would bring change is to understand change, to find the styles, the values, the hooks to the future that might genuinely get others to engage in the risks of moving forward.

My read of King’s statements is that he is trying to set those hooks, and by those means: not blow up the pond — trying to embarrass into shame those whom he knows swim with him, already — rather than trying to land by any means.


William Timberman 01.22.13 at 4:51 am

Anderson @ 53

My original comment was at best tangential to the topic of this post, so I should probably not belabor the point I was trying to make. It’s enough to say that the Aaron Swartz prosecution amounted to an egregious misuse of the mechanism of the law to criminalize what was essentially a political act, and Orin Kerr’s defense of that prosecution was — as Rich Puchalsky implied — a bit of sophistry which very much depended on pulling rank on people who can’t claim to be legal scholars.

Pontius Pilate was allowed to wash his hands after a similar bit of sophistry, but we shouldn’t allow Orin Kerr the same privilege, not at least without a discussion of why in this, as in so many other cases, the law insists on being an ass. Lawyers have a right to claim that justice isn’t their business, or perhaps more accurately, that it isn’t exclusively their business, but if that’s their claim, then they have no business pretending otherwise, which in this case, Orin Kerr very definitely did.


js. 01.22.13 at 5:19 am

Wha? What does preserving strawberry jam (in all its different varieties) and custard pie have to do with any of this? (Also:the original version, and the only one worth listening to.)

More seriously, (and to clarify my last comment a bit), King’s point is clearly that the so-called and self-conceived white moderates are squarely on the side of injustice—this is how they can be “the great stumbling block” in the fight for civil rights (so also, they don’t “swim with him”, or whatever).

At the same time, to say that the white moderates are the great stumbling block, on the side of injustice etc., is not to say that they are inevitably any or all of these things. (Which is why, while I agree with a lot of what shah8 says, and while my 57 was partly in support of his view, I disagree that King thinks the moderates need necessarily be “suppressed”—cf. #50.) The point of the designation is precisely to make evident to the self-conceived “moderates” (the kind who would “sympathetically” read what King wrote while gravely tsk tsk-ing his methods) the ways in which they support and abet injustice. But I take it that part of the point here is that making this evident can at the very least make them less of a stumbling block.


minnesotaj 01.22.13 at 5:35 am

… people’s sense-making is almost intransigently concrete: to the extent that they can identify with some future state, they will move toward it… to the extent that it is foreign, or threatens, their presently-idealized future state, they will oppose it. “But will Dr. Who still show on BBC One?” and “Does the Farmers Market go on?” are relevant questions… even, or especially, in a case such as “Shall we permit all–especially those strange to us–to share our rights?”

Davies is, IMHO, singing, rather than splitting, these hairs in VGPS.

To your final graf, Js, … precisely.


The Raven 01.22.13 at 5:47 am

js@53: I’d like to look into your recommendation of Hobsbawm, though it goes on to a stack of recommended books. FWIW, I think you’re probably right that the Jacobin program would now be considered moderate; I’ve often thought that the Framers would regard modern American democracy as insane anarchy. And, like you, I am hesitant to say more, but being a risk-prone bird, I will anyway. It’s just—it seems to me that the defenses of the Jacobin violence sound remarkably like the defenses of the violence in our current society, and that oughtn’t be so; it has to be violence to a purpose, or else the violence is in control.


mek 01.22.13 at 9:04 am

I think @40 has it – MLK is directing his comments not to what we might conceive of as a group of white moderates, but to those who think of themselves as white moderates. It’s easy to conflate his terminology here with a “political middle” which by definition shies from poles and extremes. The middle is comprised of the apolitical, those who readily accept the status quo and adapt to it (for a multitude of reasons: necessity, apathy, pragmatism, etc). The political middle are often alienated from the political process, and are frequently the target of activists seeking to agitate the populace to action.

MLK’s white moderates are quite different – they are people who perceive themselves to be white moderates. They are apologists for unjust institutions, who actively perceive and triangulate a political middle, to which they attempt to lay claim. There are exceedingly many still.


FRauncher 01.22.13 at 9:41 am

Anderson @ 42 – Lee a white moderate, maybe, but my grandfather, born and raised in Louisiana, was still thinking the same way in 1910.
Strange, how moderates never seem to get anywhere.


ajay 01.22.13 at 10:38 am

“Between justice and genocide there is, in the end, no middle ground” as another smart man said…


Anderson 01.22.13 at 12:24 pm

59: but it was lawyers for Swartz who argued your same position.

The prosecutors in the Swartz case were showing the “Rambo mentality” that the civil bar has been trying to purge for some time (hence the dated metaphor). If anything, they were acting “politically.” Had they been less conscious of the law as politics and more as an imperfect mechanism, Swartz might be alive today.


rea 01.22.13 at 12:26 pm

Strange, how moderates never seem to get anywhere.

That was rather my point in mentioning Lee. The classic white moderate view is that slavery, or later segregation, or later discrimination, is wrong . . . but they don’t think the time is ripe to do anything about it–they never think the time is ripe to do anything about it.



Anderson 01.22.13 at 1:36 pm

67: true dat. Lee had more of an excuse. To keep repeating his same line, while ignoring Jim Crow, was disingenuous.


Sebor Krasna 01.22.13 at 2:15 pm

“The Interrogation of the Good” by Bertold Brecht

Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.

You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?

Hear us then: we know.
You are our enemy. This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration
of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.


AcademicLurker 01.22.13 at 3:03 pm


I guess I’m just quibbling because if Lee counts as moderate, I’m not sure where that leaves folks like Lincoln, who spent the years leading up to the war casting around for some painless way to end slavery before finally accepting that there wasn’t one.

They certainly couldn’t be called radical, since the radical position was abolition now, whatever the cost.

It just seems to me that a definition of moderate that includes both Lee (no intention whatever of ending slavery but willing to make vague noises about how it would be nice if it just magically disappeared at some unspecified point in the future) and Lincoln (genuinely bent on ending slavery but looking for a non-disruptive way of doing it), is overly broad.


William Berry 01.22.13 at 3:20 pm

@69 (Academic Lurker)

Yes, exactly.

In a purely southern, antebellum context, Lee is a moderate. In the North, he is just another slavery apologist, with a little aristo politesse thrown in. From the abolitionist POV, Lincoln is a moderate. In the South he is a dangerous radical.


Trader Joe 01.22.13 at 3:29 pm

A 1963 ‘moderate’ (when the letter was penned) would be an arch-conservative by 2013 standards….this doesn’t mean there aren’t any left, but it does mean that over the course of 40 years the mid-point of the conversation changes….this is true of countless things, not just racial issues.

Its rarely the moderates who cause this midpoint to move – its the push/pull of those who carry the countervailing views most strongly.

Periodically there are events which will fundamentally shift a moderate view on a topic in a sharp way – 9/11 was one such, Newtown perhaps, will be another….but racial and gender equality issues rarely have event catalysts, they just require generations to die so that outdated views can gradually supplanted with newer views/new mid-points.


Rich Puchalsky 01.22.13 at 3:40 pm

This thread is being embalmed all over again. How does “moderation” operate now? Part of it is what Duncan Black calls Very Serious People, of course, but that’s a media / policy cohort rather than an activist cohort.

I know that there are going to be any number of people saying “how dare you compare Occupy to the Civil Rights Movement”, and yes, there were many important differences. But you can’t ever talk about Occupy — and couldn’t talk about it when it started — without moderates giving free advice about how people were doing it all wrong. Debates about tactics and organization were, of course, a big part of the Civil Rights Movement, and people regularly disagreed about what to do and how it should be done. But the people critiquing Occupy from outside it generally never felt the real need for any alternative at all. It was all “why are you so laughably disorganized?” and “because when we tried to be organized, it didn’t work, and nothing was happening” didn’t count as an answer.


Luis 01.22.13 at 4:38 pm

I don’t think the Occupy critiques (at least the best ones) are the same thing that MLK is talking about here, Rich. The “moderates” MLK is attacking see the solutions – have had them described in great detail – but think the solutions would rock various boats too much, so things have to be done “moderately” – i.e., more slowly. The best Occupy critiques boil down to either “you didn’t propose a solution” or “I don’t think what you’re proposing is a solution; it won’t work for reasons X, Y, and Z.” That’s very different from “your solution would work, but X, Y, and Z might be inconvenienced so lets do it another time.”

(I’d also note that MLK always had not just lists of specific grievances, but lists of specific steps to be taken to remedy those grievances. Compare and contrast, again, to Occupy, where the grievances were sometimes well-articulated, often not, and the solutions were correspondingly vague at best and non-existent at worst.)


Luis 01.22.13 at 4:43 pm

And I should add that there are many, many issues on which the MLK critique is very directly applicable today; as a prime example, the president’s speech yesterday was, on many issues, quintessentially “moderate” in the way MLK is attacking here. I’m just saying that I don’t think Occupy is a good example of the things being blocked by “moderation.”


Rich Puchalsky 01.22.13 at 5:16 pm

Luis, if you want to characterize what the moderates MLK was attacking were saying, it might be good to look back at their statement (“Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen”). There is no mention of solutions there, either in terms of agreement or disagreement, only an insistence on recommitment to negotiation. Similarly, MLK Jr. doesn’t focus on solutions in his reply. He writes that “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

I agree that the Civil Rights Movement always had a good idea of what its next goal was, what the next thing was that it should ask for. That’s one of the many reasons why it was so much more successful than Occupy. But there is a tendency to dismiss non-segregation problems that the movement started to address as never having existed in the first place — components about militarism, for instance. If those hadn’t been swept away by the official celebrations, the Civil Rights Movement might look a lot more unfocussed and wooly to people now.


mpowell 01.22.13 at 5:35 pm

It’s quite another, and a far worse thing, to dismiss him as “a master-theoretician/not a philosopher”, and hence presumably not worthy of the kind of close reading we honor properly “philosophical” texts with.

I think he’s worthy of close reading because he does an exceptional job of using the rhetoric of American political tradition to support his positions, but this is really not the same thing as being a good philosopher. MLK was perfectly willing to tell us the lies we liked to hear in a way that would advance his cause. If you read/listen to his work as a philosophy of political justice, it will not make much sense. If you read it as an educated and intelligent man advancing a political agenda, it will.

That’s why I think his argument that the moderates are the great stumbling block is not very convincing taken on its own, but that it was a perfectly reasonable rhetorical move at the time. It was an incitment to action not an actual logical argument.


Rich Puchalsky 01.22.13 at 6:02 pm

In partial agreement with mpowell, people should note that MLK Jr. does the very typical moderate “I’m standing between two positions” bit in the letter. He’s not really addressing a binary between moderates and extremists intended to stand for all time, he’s criticizing particular attitudes.

“At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. “


Sumj 01.22.13 at 6:56 pm

The real question is, do they still exist today?


Anderson 01.22.13 at 8:14 pm

If MLK had been a philosophy professor, he would’ve written journal articles, and someone else would’ve had to lead the marches for civil rights.

“Not a philosopher” is sometimes a compliment.


Stephen 01.22.13 at 8:51 pm


Mark Twain was a wonderful writer but a dreadfully incompetent statistician. If you take literally his statement that “the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions” you would conclude that the pre-Revolutionary regime was killing people at the rate of a hundred thousand or more each year (if “mere months” is taken to be a year or more).

There is a problem there: the Ancien Regime deliberately killed people, certainly, but at far less than a thousandth of that rate.

Another problem: you could say that the Ancien Regime, though not deliberately and specifically drowning, shooting and beheading people at anything like the rate of the Revolution, let many die every year in misery, through “death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. True enough: but did the Revolution do better? Look up “le maximum” and Gracchus Baboeuf.

If one were living under the Ancien Regime, and sure to live for a thousand years or more, then one’s probability of meeting an unjust death in that period might well be as high or higher than the equivalent probability in the Revolution. Trouble is that, from the point of view of an ordinary person with an ordinary lifespan just before the Revolution, chances of survival would be much better if the Revolution had never happened.

Not to mention that the Revolution did not last, was succeeded by the mega-deaths of the Empire, and then the restoration of the original Bourbon monarchy.

There have been some revolutions that have not been, in the short to medium term, a step to the worse: not many. Examples?


Mao Cheng Ji 01.22.13 at 9:22 pm

“There have been some revolutions that have not been, in the short to medium term, a step to the worse: not many. Examples?”

It doesn’t matter. The fact that the king and his minions can and will get their heads chopped off if they go too far, it creates an important constraint. Checks and balances.

Similar to democratic kings (representing ‘all their men’ behind them) having to stand for an election every few years. And when the elections become less and less meaningful, the prospect of spontaneous head-chopping becomes the next ‘check’. Without it, the dynamics would’ve been quite different. More unpleasant.


rmgosselin 01.22.13 at 11:25 pm

This passage from King reminds me of a paper written by a student I had while teaching inside Attica. This student considered Lincoln something of a white moderate, especially after reading his Second Inaugural Address. The name of the paper was, “John Wilkes Booth: The Bastard Who Freed the Slaves.”


Hidden Heart 01.23.13 at 12:06 am

The kind of moderate King wrote about doesn’t, today at least, say anything like “It’d be inconvenient for me if you push for that now.” They say things like:

* Your pursuit of a narrow interest-group concern breaks our message of focus on some general one.

* Your pursuit of your own self-interest that way threatens the viability of our coalition on some general matter.

* Of course we care about your grievances but we don’t have time to formulate an appropriate strategy; please stop sabotaging our worthy efforts.

Some of my friends in GLBT activism are feeling rather mean right now. It was always a given that the presidential and party line would be “When the time was right, we acted wisely, and now all is well.” But it’s sometimes infuriating to see the groups and people outside the party who told them to shut up, stop jeopardizing the ACA, and just generally to stop being so damn selfish now attributing the results of sustained protest to the target of the protests rather than to the instigators. Also, of course, now that they’ve got DADA repealed and some movement on marriage equality, they can please shut up about ENDA and other issues that will threaten the vital second-term campaigns.


Hidden Heart 01.23.13 at 12:07 am

DADT, that is. Though a DADA act might be worth formulating too.


rootless (@root_e) 01.23.13 at 1:11 am

King was not a one trick pony and it’s worth reading his other work seriously.

“Where do we go from here” is really brilliant.

Also recommended: In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America by Eddie Glaude.

And – short but sweet –


js. 01.23.13 at 1:48 am

It was an incitment to action not an actual logical argument.

Surely you don’t mean that a call to action can’t consist in a chain of reasoning where a set of premises lead to a conclusion? In any case, I don’t at all see why such a thing couldn’t exist, and in fact I think “Letter” very much qualifies as a call to action that consists in a quite cogent chain of reasoning, etc. (On the other hand, you presumably also don’t mean that if “Letter” were submitted for publication at J. Phil., it would be rejected. Of course it would, but what exactly does that show? So, e.g., would the Crito I imagine.)

It’s true that King draws on “rhetoric of the American political tradition” to make his case. It’s also true, as I pointed out above, that King draws on Augustine and Aquinas and a rich tradition of natural law theory to make his case. In fact he draws on a lot of things. What he constructs though is precisely a very powerful argument.

Rich points out (78) that King is targeting “particular attitudes”, presumably particular attitudes that were prevalent in the context in which King was writing. This is very true. But it’s just another false dichotomy to suggest that King wasn’t thereby also identifying and critiquing a quite general tendency among those who style themselves “moderates” (across at least a significant range of contexts). If you doubt that this is a false dichotomy , I suggest that you check out some of Plato’s early dialogues (the Crito once again is perfectly serviceable, though the Apology might be even better).

Look, I’m not particularly hung up on the “philosopher” label (though speaking as someone who is in a philosophy dept., “rhetorician” does sound dismissive to me). What does very much matter I think is that King is making a quite insightful argument about people who self-conceive as “moderates”—an argument that quite obviously generalizes (see Hidden Heart’s 84 for a perfectly good contemporary application). But unless you approach the text as worthy of serious analytic treatment, you’re of course going to miss the argument (as lots of people on this thread obviously do).


Cleisthenes 01.23.13 at 4:53 am


The use of the Twain quote was to highlight the fact that the popular view of the Jacobin Terror is that it was premeditated and unique in its blood thirst, its depravity and its violence. It wasn’t. Twain makes it clear that the lot of the average French person was bleak and dismal for a millennium, but if direct violence is the measure you want to use then the Bourbon monarchy had more than its fair share, far more than the Jacobins can ever be accused of- the pointless slaughter of the seven years war and the Atlantic slave trade are just two 18th Century examples. Robespierre and the Convention of course abolished French slavery during the terror (5th February 1794).

But the real question is why did the terror emerge? It’s a popular theory that all Revolutions “carry within them the seeds of their own destruction” but of course this is crude determinism, ironically a charge leveled against left wing History held by those who believe Revolution to be doomed to deterministic destruction. Revolutions are dynamic, chaotic by their nature and at the mercy of human agency and events. The French Revolution and the subsequent terror is one such example of this in action.

The reign of terror stemmed from the destabilization and threat to France caused by the declaration of war in the Assembly by the opportunist Brissotin faction on 20th April 1792. The most vehement opponent of war was one Maximilien Robespierre who famously declared, “Armed missionaries are loved by nobody”. War was supported secretly by the counter revolutionaries and Louis XVI who saw it as an opportunity to bring the revolution to its knees and towards absolute restoration.

The reign of terror was not some uniform, thought out, premeditated plan of bloodthirsty action but one that was planned according to circumstances and events. This is why some areas of France never felt the impact of the terror at all. The maximum was an attempt to stop war profiteering and to try to ensure the supply of food to French citizens and Gracchus Babeuf was executed by the reactionary Directory, instituted after the fall of Robespierre.

Yes there were disgusting excesses, notably Fouche in Lyons who was recalled to Paris by Robespierre as a result (and would go on to be chief reactionary against Robespierre during Thermidor and faithful servant of Napoleon). The maximum was chaotic in its implementation and had dubious results and yes towards the end Robespierre descended into paranoia, exhaustion and excess. However the radical phase of the Jacobin period introduced policies and reforms we now take for granted- universal suffrage, abolition of slavery etc and saved France from coalition occupation and the re-installation of absolute monarchy in 1793-1794. This was humanity’s advance. Unfortunately there has never been a radical political advance in human progress that has not included violence as an integral part.

The reactionary revolt of Thermidor ensured the White Terror (surpassing the Jacobin Terror for violence), the stripping of suffrage; bourgeois rights as against citizen’s rights and the way clear for the Bonapartist regime.

The French Revolution is a tumultuous event in human history and cannot be categorised as ‘one event and one failure’. There are at least three distinct periods- 1789-92, 1793-94 and Thermidor until Brumaire (1799) and the periods differ fundamentally in terms of what was gained and lost. The Revolution’s lessons are myriad and its effects are still felt today. It should never be dismissed as a wasted, doomed, premeditated, violent attempt to change humanity- all tumbrils and guillotines. Unfortunately for the most part it is.


JW Mason 01.23.13 at 5:43 am

I’m playing with the idea that the qualitative difference between “radicals” and “moderates” is that the former but not the latter are willing to engage in negative-sum games. The radical sees a difference between right and wrong, and is willing to pursue right even at the cost of self-destruction; the moderate knows half a loaf is better than none. The radical says let justice be done, though the skies fall; the moderate weighs costs and benefits.

I think the advantage of this definition is that it describes a difference of kind and not degree, and it’s not pejorative toward either side; when you think of it this way you see that any politics will have radical and moderate moments. And it corresponds, roughly at least, I think, to King’s ideas. Tolerating “tension”means accepting that you may have to commit to a posture that is irrationally costly, taken in isolation, if you want your opponents to back down.


The Raven 01.23.13 at 6:06 am

” It should never be dismissed as a wasted, doomed, premeditated, violent attempt to change humanity- all tumbrils and guillotines. Unfortunately for the most part it is.”

That was not my intention. I do think though, that it is regarded as glorious by people who likely enough, if they lived in that time and place, would have lost their heads.

The most casual study refutes premeditiation. But that makes it all the worse. It did not start with the intention of creating terror. Instead, it descended into terror, going from the highest of intentions to the lowest of actions, and left a lasting mark in history by that process. It is hard for me to escape the belief that the modern model of non-violent revolution, pioneered by Gandhi, that most stern of lawgivers, and followed by King, is a more hopeful one.


Hidden Heart 01.23.13 at 6:31 am

JW Mason: On the other hand, we might say that the difference is who we are prepared to tell “You bear more burden now.” The moderate, in the sense that King is addressing, is at least as likely to tell that to the victims of injustice as to the perpetrators of it. The radical is more likely to tell it to those who’ve benefitted most and suffered least. The moderate will accommodate himself (and we are pretty much always talking about “he” in this context) to any outcome so long as it doesn’t inconvenience him too much; the radical is the one who declines to be comfortable when others are in avoidable misery.


JW Mason 01.23.13 at 7:50 am

Hidden Heart-

I dont necessarily disagree with you. But I’m trying to find a way of defining the terms that doesn’t cary the implication that one is necessarily right and the other wrong.


John C. 01.23.13 at 5:23 pm

Interesting that King criticizes the “moderates” when he himself was a “moderate” civil rights leader.
As King mentions in the passage, a moderate is someone “who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”
Yet, in comparison to Malcolm X, King was this exact same person. Both sought to achieve equality for blacks in America, but each had very different conceptions of the proper method for achieving this goal. For King, it was nonviolence and integration; for Malcolm X, it was through segregation and self-defense. But even Malcolm X, while described as an “extremist” by his opponents, was not nearly as radical in his views as the Southern White Supremacists.
Which is why I find a lot of these comments puzzling. If anything, you can point to King’s achievements as an example of the success of “moderation.”


Stephen 01.23.13 at 8:57 pm

Mao Cheng Ji@82

“The fact that the king and his minions can and will get their heads chopped off if they go too far, it creates an important constraint.”

Very true. Also true for the President or the First Secretary of the Communist Party. But only a very partial truth.

Joseph de Maistre – not I think a writer much admired on CT, but one sometimes worth considering – put it more generally. Abuses in government may eventually produce popular revolutions, and that is a very important lesson for governments. But the abuses of revolutions are usually worse than the abuses of the previous governments, and that is a very important lesson for peoples.

You see, the French Revolution was not just a matter of beheading king, queen and some nobles. Most of its victims were ordinary decent people, and the outcome was no improvement. As someone, I forget who, said: enthusiasm for revolution in settled societies is too often playing with fire, by children who don’t even know that fire is hot.


Stephen 01.23.13 at 9:43 pm

Cleisthenes, grandson of a tyrant but reformer of the constitution, @88:

I’m sure we agree that the popular view of the Jacobins and the Terror is erroneous. I doubt if either of us would limit that to the view of the Jacobins, or the Terror. And I am at least as well aware as you of the different phases of the Revolution. Where we would differ, I think, is in the weight we would give to to what you would regard as the excesses of the Terror and I would regard as an integral part of it. Granted that it was not what anyone originally intended, it was still far worse than anything that had happened in France for many years, even worse than St Bartholomew’s Day: Fouche in Lyons was not the worst, consider the Vendee, the September Massacres, the fate of the Princesse de Lamballe, or the final settling of scores between the leaders of the Revolution which make Al Capone look moderate and merciful.

I agree Robespierre spoke against the revolutionary declaration of war against France’s neighbours. He also, before he had a chance to exterminate his real or imaginary enemies, wrote passionately against the death penalty. And once he and his friends were in power, I don’t remember that they (notably Saint-Just) were against the war. I really am not sure to what to make of him myself, but the phrase “two-faced conniving bastard of a weasel” does come to mind.

As for the improvements of the Revolution: universal suffrage was introduced on the condition that anyone standing or voting for the wrong parties would have a very short life expectancy, wars as futile as the Seven Year’s War were replaced by much longer but equally or more futile ones, slavery was indeed abolished (to be restored later), the absolute monarchy was abolished to be replaced by the absolute Empire …

This has wandered a long way from the original thread. To try to return: no, I don’t think moderates are the worst enemies, and I fear that in a genuinely revolutionary situation many real moderates will end with their heads tumbling into the basket. To be followed or accompanied, of course, by the heads of many revolutionaries.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.23.13 at 10:03 pm

Sure it was an improvement. Revolutions only happen when things can’t go on as usual anymore. Exactly because the risk for people involved is very high. They can’t take it anymore, so they revolt. Anything is an improvement.

Now, it’s true that ‘ordinary decent people’ will suffer, but a revolt is something that happens to a society: the society is sick, it convulses, and these ordinary people become, as they say, a collateral damage. Perhaps they should’ve organized and done something to prevent the breakdown? That would seem like a better lesson than “whatever happens, don’t revolt”…


engels 01.23.13 at 11:49 pm

+1 MLK

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