Victor Hugo: two faces of political violence

They wanted an end to oppression, an end to tyranny, an end to strife, work for men, education for children, social goodwill towards women, liberty, equality, fraternity, bread for all, an idea for all, a paradise made of this world, progress. And that good, sweet blessed thing, progress, they demanded fearsomely, driven to extremity, to utter distraction, half-naked, with bludgeon in hand and a roar in their throats. They were savages, yes, but savages of civilization.

They asserted rightfulness, with a fury. They wanted, through fear and trembling if need be, to force the human race towards paradise. They seemed barbarians, and they were saviours. Wearing the mask of darkness, they clamoured for light.

Facing these men, ferocious men admittedly, and terrifying, but ferocious and terrifying for the sake of good, are other men, smiling, braided, gilded, beribboned, star-spangled, in silk stockings, white plumes, yellow gloves and shiny shoes, who with their elbows resting on a velvet table beside a marble chimneypiece gently insist on the preservation and perpetuation of the past, of the Middle Ages, of divine right, of fanaticism, of ignorance, of slavery, of the death penalty, of war; glorifying quietly and politely the sword, the stake and the scaffold. As for us, if we had to make a choice between the barbarians of civilization and the civilized representatives of barbarism, we would opt for the barbarians.

But, thank heavens, another choice is possible. A sheer drop is no more unavoidable ahead of us than behind. Neither despotism nor terrorism. We want the gentle incline towards progress. God sees to that. Making slopes gentler – that is the whole principle on which God operates.

Victor Hugo – Les Miserables (Christine Donougher translation) [Amazon UK non-affiliate link]

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