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.

Violence is Repugnant. This book aims to make you less certain of that. Duong’s surprising and original history of redemptive violence in 19th-century French political thought recaptures its relationship to a democratic desire–solidarity–that abstract rights and individual freedoms cannot satisfy. Not that we twenty-first century democrats should take to the barricades as revolutionaries, but that we must honor the demand for social cohesion and imagine non-nativist ways of satisfying it.

Lisa Disch, Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Kevin Duong’s highly readable book deftly weaves together theory and history in an important argument about the redemptive capacity of violence. Drawing on key revolutionary moments from France, Duong’s work serves as a timely corrective to those who would dismiss violence as solely destructive and divisive. Reviving conversations about violence in politics could not come at a more opportune time.

Judith Grant, Professor of Political Science, Ohio University

In his arresting and innovative study, Kevin Duong returns to episodes in the French republican tradition to show how violence appealed tot hose struggling to bring the abstractions of modern democracy into communion with the concrete social body. For historians and theorists willing to think with Duong beyond the limits of the Cold War, this book is essential.

Samuel Moyn, Professor of History, Yale University

Duong sheds light on our present with a significant and timely blend of democratic theory, political thought, and history.

Stephen W. Sawyer, Professor of History, The American University of Paris