The Virtues of Violence

The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France.

Oxford University Press 2020, ISBN: 9780190058418

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If democracy liberates individuals from their inherited bonds, what can reunite them into a sovereign people? In The Virtues of Violence, Kevin Duong argues that one particular answer captivated modern French thinkers: popular violence as social regeneration. In this tradition of political theory, the people’s violence was not a sign of anarchy or disorder. Instead, it manifested a redemptive power capable of binding and repairing a society on the cusp of social disintegration. This was not a fringe view of French democracy at the time, but central to its momentous development.

Duong analyzes the recurring role of the people’s redemptive violence across four historical moments: the French Revolution, the imperial conquest of Algeria, the Paris Commune, and the years leading up to World War I. Bringing together democratic theory and intellectual history, he reveals how political thinkers across the spectrum proclaimed that violence by the people could repair the social fabric, even as they experienced democratization as social disintegration. The path from an anarchic multitude to an organized democratic society required the virtuous expression of violence by the people–not its prohibition.

Duong’s book urges us to reject accounts that view redemptive violence as an antidemocratic pathology. It challenges the long-held view that popular violence is a sign of anarchy or disorder. As shocking and unsettling as redemptive violence could be, it appealed to thinkers across the spectrum, because it answered a fundamental dilemma of political modernity: how to replace the severed bonds of the old regime with a superior democratic social bond. The Virtues of Violence argues we do not properly understand modern democracy unless we can understand why popular redemptive violence could be invoked on its behalf.