Cornell historian Holly Case has a fascinating piece in The Chronicle Review on Stalin as editor. Reminds me of that George Steiner line that the only people in the 20th century who cared about literature were the KGB. [click to continue…]

The History of Fear, Part 3

by Corey Robin on October 7, 2013

Today, in my third post on the intellectual history of fear, I talk about Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. (For Part 1, Hobbes on fear, go here; for Part 2, Montesquieu on terror, go here.)

I suspect readers will be more familiar with Tocqueville’s argument than they are with Montesquieu’s and even Hobbes’s.  His portrait of the anxious conformist has become a fixture of the modern mind. But that familiarity is part of the problem. Tocqueville’s privatized self, the submissive individualist amid the lonely crowd, has come to seem so obvious that we can no longer see how innovative, how strange and novel, it actually was. And how much it departed from the world of assumption that, for all their differences, bound Hobbes to Montesquieu. Part of what I try to do here is to recover that sense of novelty.

For more on all that, buy the book. But in the meantime…

• • • • •

There are many who pretend that cannon are aimed at them when in reality they are the target of opera glasses.

—Bertolt Brecht

Just fifty years separate Montesquieu’s death in 1755 from Tocqueville’s birth in 1805, but in that intervening half-century, armed revolutionaries marched the transatlantic world into modernity. New World colonials fired the first shot of national liberation at the British Empire, depriving it of its main beachhead in North America. Militants in France lit the torch of equality, and Napoleon carried it throughout the rest of Europe. Black Jacobins in the Caribbean led the first successful slave revolution in the Americas and declared Haiti an independent state. The Age of Democratic Revolution, as it would come to be known, saw borders transformed, colonies liberated, nations created. Warfare took on an ideological fervor not seen in over a century, with men and women staking their lives on the radical promise of the Enlightenment. [click to continue…]