Address to the Constituent National Assembly

31st July 1848

Translator: Paul Sharkey

CITIZEN PROUDHON: Citizen Representatives, you are impatient, not so much to give me a hearing, as to have done with it. For the past twenty years socialism has been exciting the people. Socialism made the February Revolution: your parliamentary squabbles would not have stirred the masses. Socialism featured in every act of the revolution: in March 17th, April 16th, and May 15th. Socialism held court at the Luxembourg [Palace] whilst politicking was going on at the Hôtel de Ville. The National Workshops have been a caricature of socialism: but, having been none of its making, they have brought no dishonour upon it. It was socialism that served as the rallying flag of the recent uprising; those who laid the groundwork for it and those who exploit it needed that great cause if they were to draw in the worker. It is socialism that you would have done with, by forcing it to give an account of itself in this forum. I would like to have done with it myself. And since you have guaranteed me freedom of speech, it will be no job or mine or of anybody else to put paid to socialism or anything else. (Prolonged mumbling)

With all due attention I have listened to the comments of the Finance Committee regarding the motion I had the honour of putting to you; then, with all the diligence I could muster, I pored over the report that you heard on Wednesday last and I declare that, having read it, I reckon I have more justification than ever for pressing for my motion to be passed [...]

The intention was, in riding roughshod over me, to ride roughshod over socialism at a stroke, which is to say, ride roughshod over the protests coming from the proletariat and, in so doing, to take another stride down the path of reaction (Go for it! — Hear! Hear! — Let loose!)

Understand this: socialism’s strength does not lie in the success of a single individual. But since a financial motion has been turned into a partisan issue, I am not about to shy away from the wider debate. It will be proven today that there are financial bigwigs who, through their ineptitude over the past twenty years, have been the cause of our ruination. Thanks to the Finance Committee, the argument is not between Citizen Thiers and me; it is between labour and privilege [...]

Citizen Representatives, the motion put before you is nothing less — and bear this in mind — than the February Revolution: and what you are about to do for one you will be doing for the other. You know nothing of my proposal, any more than you do of the Revolution (Objections), whether it be its principle, its purpose or its means. The Finance Committee which, given its brief, should have familiarised you with these, has not told you a single thing about them. Its entire suspicion about my motion was that it was a touch revolutionary. Does the Finance Committee welcome revolutionary thinking? Does it see the February Revolution as anything other than a surprise, a lamentable mishap? As for myself, I am one of those who do take that revolution seriously and who have pledged to see it through. So you will forgive me, citizens, if, in order to explain my motion, I take a rather loftier view of matters. Besides, in my prefatory remarks I will be extremely brief. In ’93, if memory serves, just when the Republic was facing the direst threats, a tax of one third was slapped on income. I am not about to tell you how that tax was arrived at, how it was greeted or how it worked out. What I would like to point out to you, and this is the only thing that matters right now, is that in ’93 property paid its dues to the revolution. Back then, when it was a life-or-death issue, property — and this was a rare event — made a sacrifice to public safety; and this has gone down in memory as one of the most horrific sacrifices since time began. Since then, in the fifty six intervening years, property, by which I mean net income, has made nil contribution to public affairs (Denials and laughter). Save your laughter for later.

Tax established on the basis of proportionality, the only possible basis for it, has been a burden entirely borne by labour. Labour alone — let me say it again deliberately by way of an invitation to any who might contradict me — labour alone has paid tax just as it alone produces wealth. Along came the 1848 Revolution. Its dangers, its anguish, albeit of a different nature, have not been any less than those back in ’93. So the point is to find out whether property, whether net income, insofar as it is special and separate from gross product, is willing to do ANYTHING for the Revolution! In ’93, the revolution was fighting against despotism and against the foreigner. In 1848, the revolution’s enemies are poverty, the division of the people into two sorts, the haves and the have-nots. The purpose of the February Revolution has, at different times, been variously described, as the eradication of poverty, the organisation of labour, the reconciliation of labour and capital, the emancipation of the proletariat, and, most recently, as the right to work or the guarantee of work. This formula of the right to work or guarantee of work is the one you embraced in your draft Constitution, Articles 2, 7 and 132 and which, I have no doubt, you will uphold (Noises off)

So, accepting this encapsulation of the crux of the revolution as the right to work, I come directly to my motion and I wonder: of what does this right to work consist and how can it possibly be achieved? [...]

Work could be guaranteed if the market for production were without limits: that was my first argument. I do not think that that anyone will contradict me on that score. If labour, collectively speaking, was continually in greater demand than supply, then plainly there would be a guarantee of work; it would not require promises from the State; it would not compromise freedom, nor order. Thus far, no difficulty. So what is it that stops us from ensuring such an outcome? The power to consume, in society and in the individual alike, is infinite; and if the greatest of fortunes is never enough for a man who knows how to live, how might consumption stand in a country where love of comfort, an appetite for luxury and refinement of manners are taken to the lengths they have been among ourselves and if the ability to consume was bestowed upon this land in proportion with its needs? Is it not a plain fact that if, instead of a meagre product of 10 billion, which brings each of us a mere 75 centimes a day, we had the wherewithal to spend 100 billion, or 7.50 francs per day per head, we would do so? (Shuffling) I am not saying that we are in a position so to do right now; but I am saying that we have it in us to spend them. (Laughter).

 So, at bottom, what is lacking is not the will to consume and thus the market; it is merely that consumption is ill served. There is something thwarting it, something vetoing it. The shops are bulging with goods yet the people go naked; trade is stagnant and the people’s life is all deprivation! We being as we are, we all want comfort first and then luxury; we produce, insofar as we have it in us to do, whatsoever we have to in order to satisfy our desires; the wealth is out there waiting for us, yet we stay poor! How to explain this mystery? What thwarts consumption and which, as a necessary consequence, vetoes work, is the fact that the circulation of products is hobbled. And the circulation of products is hobbled:

1. By the exclusive use of gold and silver as instruments of exchange.

2. By the interest rate or levy that must be paid for access to them.

3. By the analogy that has been drawn between all capital and instruments of production, notably the land, and the instrument of circulation, cash, in the sense that, on every side, levies have been imposed upon the instruments of labour as upon money, rendering them, as far as their idle holders are concerned, essentially inert bodies that generate interest.

4. Finally, by the fascination with gold and the ravages of monopoly, the impact of which is that instead of producing for the purposes of enjoyment and thus consuming in proportion with his labours, the individual produces for the purpose of amassing either gold, or capital and, by means of such accumulation, claiming exemption from toil, the right to live without producing and to exploit the toilers [...]

The people, stealing a march on the economists on this score, is beginning to grasp this: the working class has analysed the secret power stymieing circulation, closing markets and inevitably leading to stagnation and strikes. In the proletariat’s eyes, savings and retirement funds are modern society’s equivalent of devil-take-the-hindmost. The financiers know nothing of this, or, if they know, feign ignorance; their privilege being at stake here. So, as I see it, the issue does not boil down to establishing some impossible community [communauté] or decreeing an illiberal and premature equality; it consists of doing away with the charges of all sorts by which production, circulation and consumption are burdened, an abolition which I sum up by the more technical and more financial formula of Free Credit (Sundry interjections)

Free credit is the translation into the language of economics of those two words enshrined in the draft Constitution, guaranteed work. Now, the interest on money being the cornerstone of privilege and the regulator of all usury, by which I mean all income from capital, so it is by means of progressively whittling away the interest upon money that we must arrive at free credit and abolition of the taxes that hobble circulation and which artificially generate poverty. Which is what we will shortly be achieving by setting up a National Bank whose capital might be raised, and here I am following the usual reckonings of finance, to 1 or 2 billion, and which might ensure discount and commission in the desired conditions, but without interest, since there is an implicit contradiction in a society’s profiteering from itself. So let us have our National Bank, let us organise public loans and, unless we want to cling to and forever perpetuate privilege and poverty, it is plain that with that bank we will have, setting administration and office costs aside, discount for nothing, loans for nothing and, finally, housing and land usage for nothing. (General and prolonged hilarity).

And once we reach that point (further laughter) the principle activating the businessman and the industrialist having changed, love of comfort and effective enjoyment having replaced ambition and greed as the spurs to toil and the fetishisation of gold having been overtaken by the realities of life, savings giving way to mutuality and with capital formation achieved by means of capital exchange per se, consumption will be relieved of all burdens, as will the faculty of enjoyment. (Lengthy interruption. — laughter and sundry exclamations)

So I concede and I have not the slightest difficulty in making this declaration: I concede and affirm that the guarantee of work is incompatible with retention of the established levies and charges on circulation and the instruments of labour and with property’s seigneurial rights. (Exclamations)

Those who claim otherwise may describe themselves as phalansterians, Girondins or Montagnards; they may be very honest folk and excellent citizens — but they are certainly not socialists; I will go further, they are no republicans. (Further exclamations).

In the same way that political equality is incompatible with monarchy or aristocracy, so equilibrium in circulation and exchange, and parity between production and consumption — in other words, guaranteed work — cannot be reconciled with the royalty of cash or the aristocracy of capital. And since these two sets of ideas are essentially interdependent, we are forced to conclude again that property or net income which owes its existence entirely to servitude, is an impossibility in a Republic; and that only one of two things can happen: either property will overrule the Republic or the Republic will overrule property. (Laughter. –Ripples of agitation).

It is a matter of regret to me, Citizens, that what I am saying should cause you to laugh so, because what I am saying here will be the death of you. (Oh! Oh! — Fresh laughter)


Let me say it again: the February Revolution has no other meaning. (Whispering). Progressively doing away with all these seigneurial rights which are a burden upon labour, a hindrance to circulation and a block to outlay and doing so in the quickest possible order; then, and as a necessary follow-up, whipping up an insatiable demand, opening up a bottomless market and basing the guarantee of work on indestructible foundations; that, without delving too deeply into the new forms of a society thus constructed, is how I see the chances of immediately and practically resolving the social question. That is what I call, improperly maybe, abolishing property. For, and bear this in mind, here we have no expropriation, no bankruptcies, no agrarian law, no community, no State meddling and no trespass against inheritance or family (Gales of laughter); only the annihilation of net income by means of the competition from the National Bank which is to say, freedom, naught but freedom (Interruptions) [...]

Citizen Representatives, you have just heard my declaration of faith. It was needed in order to have you grasp the sense of my motion and the report that has been read to you made that all the more indispensable. I have been accused of disguising my intentions, or nor daring to state here what I have set down in print in pamphlet and newspaper over the past ten years. You are my witnesses here today as to whether I am dissembling, whether I am afraid to spell out my beliefs and wishes in the presence of France. Yes, I seek the abolition of property in the sense of which I have just been speaking; and that is why, in an article denounced in this forum, I penned this phrase: Property income is an unearned privilege, and one that it behoves society to revoke.[1] But as I have pointed out to you, the repeal of that privilege might be abrupt and violent, in short, effected in such a way as a reasonable person might say was a tribute to anger, but it might equally be phased in and peaceably done. As a representative of the people and therefore mindful of my obligation to husband every interest, I call upon you here today to order such repeal to be carried out with whatever slowness of pace and arrangements the vested interests might wish for and with all of the assurances of security that the propertied might insist upon. (Sniggering)

And it is for the purpose of tending to the ways and means of such repeal and not at all with an eye to immediate effect that I move that a special tax be temporarily introduced, a tax upon income, by means of which the nation would weather the crisis and toilers and masters revert to the position they occupied prior to the revolution; depreciated property would recover its value; and public loans would be introduced upon a fresh footing.

Here then is […] the meaning behind my motion:

1. To spell out the import and purpose of the February Revolution to property and to the bourgeois class.

2. To serve notice upon property of the intention to proceed with the remaking of society and, in the interim, to invite it to contribute towards the revolutionary endeavour; the propertied to be held answerable for the consequences of their refusal, with nothing excluded. (Loud interruption)

SEVERAL MEMBERS: What! With nothing excluded? Explain yourself!

CITIZEN DUPIN (representing the Nièvre): How plain can he be? Your money or your life!

NUMEROUS VOICES: Mister Speaker, have the member explain himself!

CITIZEN SPEAKER: The member has heard the question; I invite him to explain himself.

CITIZEN PROUDHON: Reserves go hand in glove with responsibility. The meaning is ..

SEVERAL MEMBERS: We got your meaning!

CITIZEN PROUDHON: The meaning is that, in the event of a refusal, we would ourselves proceed with the liquidation without you. (Angry rumblings)

NUMEROUS VOICES: Who, you? And who might you be? (Excitement)

CITIZEN ERNEST DE GIRARDIN: Are you talking about the guillotine? (Murmurs. — Several challenges are made to the speaker from several quarters).

CITIZEN SPEAKER: I call upon all present to be silent. The speaker has the floor so that he may explain his thinking.

CITIZEN PROUDHON: When I used those pronouns you and we, it was self-evident that at that point I was identifying myself with the proletariat and identifying you with the bourgeois class (Further eruptions)

CITIZEN SAINT-PRIEST: But that is social warfare!

A MEMBER: June 23rd holds the floor!

SEVERAL VOICES: Let him speak! Listen! Listen!

CITIZEN PROUDHON (resuming): My purpose in setting out the means I have was to show you that my motion also conserves the interests of property, which is so crucial to the very object of the revolution. The most irksome part of my motion is that, in terms of outcome, it can never fail; nothing like it has ever been seen in the world of finance; and, above all, it is not a translation nor a borrowing from the English. No one has dared to retort that a levy on income is unfair; they would be contradicted by the masters of the science, the secret vow of taxation and the example of England; they would have public opinion lined up against them [...]

This is the first time since a vote on taxation became a parliamentary prerogative that a levy has been accused of being an act of piracy! A levy on income piracy? What are we then to call a levy on labour? Murder? [...]

One has only to spell the thing out to prove to any person of good faith that such property which has so laughably been turned into the cornerstone of family and civilisation, hangs by a single thread which will not take long to snap, even though some might still wish to uphold it. The appointment of a National Bank is tantamount to killing off property at a single stroke, without argument or bandying words.

A VOICE: There you have it, death without further ado!

ANOTHER VOICE: Publish this speech in Le Moniteur! Haul its author away to Charenton![2]

End Notes

[1] Proudhon uses the term “rente.” This can be translated as annuity – i.e., income from a capital investment paid in a series of regular payments. As he opposed all forms of non-labour income (rent, profit, interest, etc.) and so refers to all forms of revenue generated by ownership. (Editor)

[2] Charenton was a lunatic asylum, founded in 1645 by the Frères de la Charité in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, now Saint-Maurice, Val-de-Marne, France. (Editor)