Enemies of the People, Past and Present

‘The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.’ So declared Maximilien Robespierre in a speech delivered to the French National Convention on Christmas Day, 1793.

The concept of this sort of enemy – an enemy of the nation at large – was not new. People had been proclaimed ‘public enemies’ for many centuries. The Roman emperor Nero was declared hostis publicus by the Senate in 68 AD. But the revolutionary age gave this declaration a new force, a new impetus.

No longer was such a person an enemy of only the apparatus of state or of the elite. The old order had been dramatically overthrown. National politics changed fundamentally and with seeming irrevocability. In such a situation, the old phrases were no longer sufficient.

All this had been undertaken with seeming popular support. The people had, at least theoretically, demanded the removal of the old order. They had ensured it, too, by taking to the streets or by fighting back against the elites. This precipitated a dramatic divergence in the way governments were constituted, and what the purpose of government was. It was now built upon pretence of serving the people. This changed both the content and language of politics.

A crime against the state is one thing; a repudiation of the people was another. And the language which characterised the latter crime was more dramatic, more emotive, more loaded with feeling.

In France, in the course of the Terror, the above became associated with the shrill denouncements, the sudden, capricious exercising of partial justice, which characterise the era to this day. To be an ‘enemy of the people’ was to be a dead man walking.

A similar status was affixed to those who attracted the term in the Soviet Union. Along with other comparable labels – ‘enemy of the workers’ and ‘class enemy’, for example – those who were described as an enemy of the people, vrag naroda, attracted more than normal punishment. As subverters of the Soviet ideal, they had no personal rights and their lives were forfeit.

Entire social and political groups, real and imagined, were considered enemies of the people. Kulaks, supporters the Russian monarchy, democrats – all felt the full weight of those words.

In the China of Mao Tse-Tung, the phrase once again found frequent employment. In his speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”, Mao said that ‘the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people’. He went on to say that the suppression of these enemies had to be different from the punishment of ordinary rule-breakers under the law.

The phrase has, therefore, understandably sinister connotations. And for many years, especially after the fall of Soviet Communism, it fell out of use. This is no longer the case.

In 2016, the idea of revolution seemed to shake off its unfortunate associations. Revolution of one sort – populist, right-wing – was all the rage. First came Britain’s referendum on membership of European Union, which the Leave campaign won, thus undermining the settled order and changing the way politics is conducted in this country. Then came the victory of Donald Trump in the American presidential election.

In November 2016, when the High Court ruled that the government would require Parliamentary approval to trigger the formal process of leaving the EU, the next day’s Daily Mail was declarative. Those judges were ‘Enemies of the People’ for delaying the implementation of the referendum’s outcome.

In the Soviet Union, the legal system was a means of persecuting enemies of the people. In contemporary Britain, it seems, the legal system, so far as it affects election results, is the repository of those enemies.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called hostile journalists ‘enemies of the American people’ for spreading ‘fake news’.

The notion of ‘public enemies’ was until recently considered tame, by now almost harmless. Due especially to its popular association with American gangsterism of the twentieth century, it can be ironically employed – serving, for example, as the title of a witty collection of letters exchanged by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which the two bemoan their critics and the fashionable scorn which is heaped on their works.

The re-emergence of ‘enemies of the people’ and related concepts, however, is more concerning. It harks back to an era when the mouthpieces of state power – often absolute power – cloaked arbitrary punishments in the guise of the popular will.

This is not true today. In democracies there is no absolute power. But there are some things which are seen to be especially important in this new, populist landscape. Amid a changed political scene, certain ideas are treated with reverence by the press and politicians.

In Britain at the moment, leaving the European Union appears to have been afforded sacred status. Never mind that it will indeed happen; never mind that the party which has thrown itself gleefully behind that outcome will likely win June’s upcoming general election.

Forget all that. It seems, at least for certain people, that there is simply insufficient adulation for the idea. Some people are voicing political dissent against the notion of Brexit. Many of them are warming over campaign rhetoric, and though this is repetitive, it is their right to continue to hold certain views about what future events may hold.

Ditto many within a broader European context, a transnational debate spanning nearly thirty nations.

And yet, as this new election approaches, it seems the ‘enemies of the people’ line will resurface. Except now such people are ‘saboteurs’, as in the Mail’s front page exhortation that Theresa May ‘crush’ the aforementioned.

The return of this term, ‘enemies of the people’, indelibly associated with political violence and social turmoil, is not a positive development.

Its careless use could lead to a new ugliness in political debate, an unwelcome return to the sort of language best left in the past.