Eric Hazan: ‘The Revolution isn’t over yet’

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Text and interview by Camille Polloni and Aurélie Champagne.

The writer and La Fabrique editor Eric Hazan makes a bet: ‘under this government there could be major movements’.

The 76 year-old Eric Hazan arrives on foot from his makeshift office on the heights of nearby Belleville, from where he directs the publisher La Fabrique. This short man, with the physique of a print worker, instantly gets on familiar terms.

I call everyone ‘tu’ and not ‘vous’, all the time. Except those who I think aren’t going to call me ‘tu’ in reply.

Born to a stateless mother (herself born in Palestine) and a Jewish father of Egyptian origin, Eric Hazan has led many lives, having previously been a surgeon in Lebanon and an editor at Beaux-Arts Hazan, inherited from his father, before it was bought out by Lagardère.

Click here for a French-language video of the interview with Eric Hazan.

A writer, translator of Edward Saïd, champion of Palestine and lover of Paris, Eric Hazan began his small activist publisher La Fabrique’s catalogue in 1998 with works by the philosopher Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou and Edward Saïd, followed by a mass of essays and theoretical texts.

The author of The Invention of Paris and Chronique de la guerre civile, Hazan continues to publish ‘books for struggle, books that look toward the future’.

A mentor, almost an oracle of revolution for some – and an irritating sectarian prophet for others – Hazan talks of books, history and current affairs, all of them at a similarly gentle pace. His sentences are punctuated by long pauses, his eyes always sparkling with a little mischief – or charm.  

Strangely, we find out that Eric Hazan is less virulent than the passions that he raises – something that he is still busy trying to work out. This only makes him all the more indecipherable.

The man who continues to herald ‘the coming insurrection’ speaks of ‘subverting the police’, dreams of ‘the authorities vanishing’ and damns ‘barracks communism’, admits having ‘tactically’ voted Socialist in the last presidential election.

He says that he is ‘haunted by the figure of Robespierre’, and lights up when he describes a Paris street corner whose natural slope has been leveled out by the Paris city parks service.

Today, his 400-page People’s History of the French Revolution poses intriguing questions: is this just the latest fad of an aging intellectual? Or does Hazan still find the ‘spark’ of the coming revolution in the folds of a period that historians have already wrung dry?

Rue 89: Why take an interest in the French Revolution?

Eric Hazan: It’s a pivotal period: there is before the Revolution, and after the Revolution. Not knowing about it is as absurd as having a door without a hinge or a suitcase without a handle... I’ve realized that some of the youth around me know nothing about this period at all, while others have a mistaken understanding of it.

Soboul and Furet’s books on the Revolution date from the 1960s. Over the last half-century, ideas have changed. We don’t write history in the same way any more. So I said to myself – at last, let’s have a stab at it…

What was so urgent about leaving behind the present day and the twenty-first century, making an incursion into history?

I am haunted by the figure of Robespierre, which is simultaneously very mysterious, imposing, tragic and at times deceptive. He has almost everywhere been slandered and calumnied. It’s important that this figure is better understood.

What are the slanders against him?

The guillotine, the blood, the dictatorship…

That’s also part of Robespierre, no?

The dictatorship, certainly not. The blood and guillotine, well yes, but despite himself. He participated, he send the Cordeliers and the Dantonists to the guillotine. But at the same time he consistently opposed 75 Girondin MPs being charged – and successfully so. He is emblematic of the Revolution.

In slandering Robespierre, saying that he was a bloody tyrant, you slander the whole Revolution. You trash it as well as him.  

In your preface you write: ‘I hope the book will blow a little revolutionary enthusiasm into our own epoch, in which there is more of a tendency toward relativism and derision’. Is that your goal?

Yes. [Silence.] Today people say ‘Ah yes, the Revolution… you still believe in that, do you?’ Everyone says that. When you reply, ‘Yes, of course’, they pause astonished for a moment, out of pity. This book shows the extent to which the idea of revolution is still a current one. It’s a history that’s still underway, it’s not over yet.

Have the revolutionary uprisings been minimized in favour of the ideals brought before its assemblies?

I tried to show the two great theatres of the Revolution: on the one hand, the Assemblies, the great speeches and the illustrious personalities. On the other hand, the popular movement, a deafening, overwhelming noise from below – one that was sometimes further from the centre…

The way France was organized in June 1789 tells us a lot about systems that we believe will last forever. At the head of each province there were intendants and sub-intendants, from Louis XIV onward. But when the echo of the storming of the Bastille spread across the whole country, the system vanished. It collapsed overnight, without putting up a fight. The intendants left the keys on the table and fled. Spontaneously, everywhere, new elected administrations were established. And this peaceful, communal revolution was the basis of everything that followed.

Let’s leave the Revolution aside for a moment. Did you follow the presidential elections?

Yes. My position – very much criticized by some around me – was that it was important to change the ‘hotel manager’. The old one was really a problem, him and his gang. I thought it was important to get rid of him. Which doesn’t mean expecting anything of what followed. And events have confirmed this, I believe.

Do you usually vote?

From time to time I vote tactically. There are moments where it doesn’t make sense to be rigidly anti-parliamentary, anti-universal suffrage. Sometimes it’s useful. The great Popular Front strike of 1936 followed the Left’s return to government. I think that disappointed hope is a good start for activity in some of the less likely workplaces.

My bet is that major movements could take place under this government. But there couldn’t have been under the previous one.

Yet in 2010 you said that ‘If the Socialists were in power today they would continue the attacks on undocumented migrants, but in a less ostentatious, less cruel way’ - ?

[Laughs] No, that was a mistake. We can hardly say that the Interior Minister today is any less cruel than his predecessors.

ERIC HAZAN: MÉLENCHON ISN’T THE WAY TO REVOLUTION

During the Tarnac affair you testified as a witness, on account of having published The Coming Insurrection, which the police attributed to Julien Coupat. But there was nothing forcing you to be there…

Yes, but that didn’t put me off going. In the end it was a good thing that they tied themselves up in more knots by calling an publisher as a witness.

How do you think this will all end?

The best thing that the Interior Ministry’s anti-terrorism sub-department could do to get itself out of this mess would be to abandon the prosecutions. They couldn’t even put the case together properly, their case file is empty.

When we speak of The Coming Insurrection, where, in your view, is it coming from?

The coming one?

Yes, the coming one…

Firstly, I don’t see the spark for it coming from Paris. People don’t know each other any more, the city has atomized everything. On the contrary, from cities like Rouen, Rennes, Reims, perhaps… From the East… from the cities where there is a really big student population and lots of political groups and associations.

Moreover, I don’t think there will be a truly frontal confrontation with the forces of order. That would be suicidal: the police’s arsenal is enormous. I think that it would be more like a general shutdown. I can imagine the state apparatus evaporating. A little like the ancien régime’s intendants giving up in summer 1789. I am not saying there won’t be battles here and there, but not in the classic sense. The authorities vanishing – that’s your insurrection.

When subversive youth lash out at policemen, I think they’re mistaken. I think that the movement we need would be – well, it’s easy to give advice, and I can’t do this because I’m alone and too old, but… we need a movement to subvert the police. Today there’s a lot of black police, Arab ones, and those who are neither black nor Arabs, poor guys from rural backwaters who are transplanted here and there – miserable, hated, badly treated and badly paid. That’s what we need to tell them: you, like us, are oppressed. I think we need to talk to them.

The Bastille could never have been stormed if the Gardes-Françaises, the regiment charged with keeping order in the capital, had not taken the side of the insurrection, together with their canons and their officers.

You put more emphasis on students than the young people in the banlieues [suburbs]?

No. The insurrection can only come about if the non-student youth, the young people in the neighbourhoods that people call ‘difficult’ or ‘sensitive’ cases are in the front ranks. As Sarkozy said after the 2005 riots, ‘There will be an appalling end to [president Jacques Chirac’s term] if the students and the young people in the banlieues join together’. He understood pretty well. For the people who govern us, such an alliance is a terrifying prospect.

How did you see it when it kicked off in Amiens?

It was a very normal revolt.  I think [the Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc] Mélenchon and co. showed their limits, here. They said ‘burning schools – that won’t do!’. Obviously that is a stupid response. But ultimately that’s just part of their republican, flag-waving, secular etc. ideology. They’ve understood nothing. One day one of these revolts will end up pulling everything along with it.

You regularly rally against ‘barracks communism’. What kind of communism do you believe in?

I think it would be mistaken to pre-define it in too much detail. It will be have to be invented as we go along. Camille Desmoulins said ‘On 14 July 1789 there weren’t even ten of us republicans’. The idea of the Republic wasn’t even in people’s heads. We have to take one thing at a time. We need to think about the means of insurrection, and above all avoid repeating the ‘intermediate stage’ of old – the provisional government, election of a constituent assembly etc.

We have to create irreversible changes without falling into chaos. If people are sitting in the dark with nothing to eat, we won’t get far.

So what happens, after the insurrection?

That’s what we need to reflect on. For the moment, I don’t have that clear in my own head: I haven’t thought about it or discussed it with other people enough yet.

Isn’t it annoying, not to know?

No.  

Translated by David Broder
See original french here.