Two dubious experiences at the weekend – first, the BBC’s Terror! Robespierre and the French revolution (classy exclamation mark there). This featured plenty of re-enactment (my absolute worst thing), with an inappropriately chiselled and actorly Robespierre, and Simon Schama making lots of spurious comparisons between the Terror and the Chinese cultural revolution, the Russian revolution, and Hitler. And probably just about any other historical atrocity that came to mind, if he’d been given the space. I wouldn’t mind that – the talking heads were quite interestingly balanced, with Slavoj Žižek declaring that ‘A revolution without violence is like beer without alcohol, or coffee without caffeine’, and the wonderful Hilary Mantel giving a humanist view of Robespierre as a man overwhelmed by events and the purity of his moral aims.
But interspersed with the footage taken from 1930s films about the revolution they also showed scenes from the Khmer Rouge revolution, the Iranian revolution, even the recent protests in Iran. This ‘all revolutions are created equal, violence can never be justified, revolutionaries are inevitably corrupted by power’ liberal orthodoxy is utterly boring and completely stifles any kind of interesting analysis of the historical meaning of the French revolution and the Terror, or indeed of any kind of revolution. The nadir of taste came when they read out the names of the Girondist faction (in the accepted style of TV-memorial: solemn music, pictures of the executed fading slowly in and out of view) and at the end segued into a list of the old Bolsheviks executed by Stalin: Zinoviev, Kamenev, etc. Look! All revolutions are the same! They all finish the same way! Everyone ends up dead! So don’t even think about it, kids.