The Guillotine: Second Time as Meme


Cover of Jacobin, Issue 10, Spring 2013

by Justin E. H. Smith

…the executioner himself adopts beside the block an offensively heroic pose, as if to do the thing with dignity were the only motive of the doing.
— Angela Carter, “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”

I knew another of my periodic retreats from the public expression of political opinions had arrived when, contacted by a certain French media outlet for my views on the recent electoral victories of the Front National, I muttered something about how I’ve been busy writing about animals recently, and then quoted Kropotkin to the effect that the animals, unlike us, seem to get by just fine without holding elections at all.

The name I’ve just invoked should serve as a guide to the sort of ‘deviations’ I am about to express, relative to what is increasingly a party-line view among young metropolitan leftists and their hangers-on in fashion and lifestyle.

Well, it’s hard to really talk about ‘views’ in the age of memes. Surely you’ve seen it by now: the ironized, memified representation of the guillotine, often accompanied by slogans announcing that this is the fate awaiting the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, that ‘the French knew how to deal with the 1%’, etc. Likely the most iconic representation of that execution device in the past few years is the one presented on the cover of the Spring, 2013, issue of Jacobin Magazine, showing it as the ‘Giljotin’:  an IKEA-bought, home-assembled, mass-produced piece of furniture.

I am not an admirer of the original Jacobins, and for this reason I cannot support any media venture that derives its name from that movement. The magazine has on occasion shown itself to be a lucid defender of truth and justice, as for example in a recent defense of serious social-scientific critique of capitalism, against the frivolous academic-blogger culture’s displacement of our attention to the all-pervasiveness of gender, and that same culture’s vain dream of fixing the associated problems by compelling everyone, pretty much, to just watch their language, and to make regular public performances of preparedness for privilege-checking, of ‘radical humility’. “Give me a card-carrying brocialist over one of these oily ‘allies’ any day” is surely among the most refreshingly exasperated pleas from the left I’ve read in a long, long time.

But still, shame on Jacobin for helping to turn a murder weapon into an icon of urban radical fashion. I understand that from a certain point of view it is the same desire for ‘realness’ that motivates them both to publish lovely screeds against silly liberal moralizing and dead-end identity-mongering, on the one hand, and on the other hand to insist that what they are really pushing for is revolution, and that revolution means heads are going to roll, etc. But in truth I strongly suspect that most educated urban twenty-somethings who flirt with the symbol do so in the secret hope and expectation that it is never in fact going to come to that, that they will never be called on to pull the lever on a Goldman Sachs CEO, or on the small child of a Goldman Sachs CEO (nipping inheritance structures in the bud), or on a former comrade now accused of harboring too many deviations. Anyhow I know would not pull the lever, and in fact I do think a scenario in which I would be called upon to do so is likely enough in the near future that I consider it important to spell out my position now. I am on the side of the people being guillotined, whoever they are, by definition.

Am I with the 1% then? It is only the most ill-informed and romantic idea of the history of the guillotine’s use that would lead a young person today to suppose that it is an execution instrument uniquely suited to the despatching of people who have it coming: one-percenters, idiot bourgeois with Izod shirts and with pink sweaters tied around their necks, or this ridiculous pair. You would have to know nothing at all about the actual events of the French Revolution to suppose that only the late-18th-century equivalents of these familiar types met their doom at the guillotine. At the university in Paris where I teach, for example, there is an ampitheater, in which I sometimes have the honor of lecturing, named after Olympe de Gouges. She was a brave and lucid French feminist, murdered by the Jacobins in 1793, at the guillotine, effectively for no other crime than taking the idea of égalité a bit too seriously.


Many also do not know that the blade continued to fall long after the French Revolution had congealed into the French state. It was a weapon of state violence, by which the state monopoly on violence, against its own citizens, was continually demonstrated and reaffirmed up until the last French execution in 1977. The death penalty was formally abolished in France in 1981, and it is this abolition that now gives France, along with other EU states, a compelling moral voice in its routine denunciations of the continued use of capital punishment as state terror in the United States.

During the 187 years of its use in France, the guillotine was also deployed by other regimes whose claim to be exacting revolutionary justice by means of it was even more disputable. It was deployed in the murder of at least 16,000 people in Nazi Germany, and was used in countless secret executions in the GDR. Anyone can use a guillotine, in fact, just as anyone can use an electric chair or a ‘cocktail’ of fatal chemicals. The idea that one method of capital punishment is specially suited to revolutionary justice, while others are strictly the mark of oppressive regimes, is a symptom of the same pathetically sloppy thinking about capital punishment that currently enables it to continue in the United States: if only we could find the right way of doing it, liberals and lawmakers seem to think, then it would be just fine.

Until his retirement in 1981, France employed a single state executioner, a functionary of the Republic named Marcel Chevalier. He was married to the daughter of the previous state executioner, and at the moment of the abolition of the death penalty his son was in training to succeed him. (Revolutions generate their own inheritance structures.)

Chevalier was last called to duty for the beheading of a certain Hamida Djandoubi, a 28-year-old Tunisian immigrant, on September 10, 1977. Djandoubi had murdered his former French girlfriend, Elisabeth Bouquet, three years earlier. He was the sort of criminal who could easily find his way to an electric chair in the US. He was a sadistic murderer, a member of an increasingly detested minority group, and there was nothing, but nothing, counter-revolutionary about his transgression.

Remarkable testimony of his death was given by Monique Mabelly, at the time the chief examining magistrate of Marseille [doyenne des juges d’instruction], who was obligated in view of her  position to bear witness to the execution. She took personal notes on what she saw, and confided them to the Lord Chancellor Robert Badinter, who in turn had them published in Le Monde in 2013, a year after her death.

She bears profound and revolting testimony to the true nature of what she sees. She relates surprisingly significant details, as when the executioner Chevalier takes off Djandoubi’s handcuffs in order to replace them by a cord, and exclaims in joking reassurance, “You see, you’re free!” She describes how the condemned man desperately stalls for time like a child who does not want to go to bed.

She describes turning away just before the blade comes down, not for fear of ‘losing it’, “but out of a sort of instinctive, visceral shame (I do not find another word).” And she describes what happened next:

I hear a dull sound. I look again – there is blood, a lot of blood, very red blood – , the body has tumbled into the basket. In one second a life has been cut off. The man who spoke less than one minute before is now nothing more than a blue pair of pyjamas in a basket. A guard takes up a spray hose. One must quickly remove the traces of a crime… I have a sort of nausea, which I control. I have in me a cold revulsion.

The return of the guillotine remains, for now, not a crime, but only a meme. It would be good if some of the people who are spreading it could feel a trace of the shame Monique Mabelly felt when the French state last asserted its power by using that revolutionary weapon on a sorry and powerless man.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website