Chapter X: Political Idealism: Efficiency of the Federal Guarantee

An observation to be made in general on moral and political sciences is that the difficulty of their problem comes above all from the figurative way basic reason designed their elements. In the popular imagination politics, as well as morals, is a mythology. There all becomes fiction, symbol, mystery, idol. And it is this idealism which, adopted with confidence by philosophers as an expression of reality, causes them so much embarrassment later.

The People, in the vagueness of its thought, sees itself as a gigantic and mysterious being, and everything in its language seems to keep it thinking of its indivisible unity. It is called the People, the Nation, i.e. the Multitude, the Mass; it is the true Sovereign, the Lawmaker, the Power, the Ruler, the Homeland, the State; it has its Conventions, its Ballot, its Conferences, its Demonstrations, its Pronouncements, its Plebiscites, its Direct Legislation, sometimes its Judgements and its Executions, its Oracles, its Voice, like thunder, the grand voice of God. It feels as vast, irresistible, tremendous as it loathes divisions, scissions, minorities. Its ideal, its most delectable dream, is unity, identity, uniformity, concentration; it curses as injurious to its Majesty all that would divide its will, break up its mass, create in it diversity, plurality, divergence.

All mythology presupposes idols, and the People never lacks them. Like the Israelites in the desert, it improvises gods when nobody cares to give it any; it has its incarnations, its messiah, its messengers sent by God [Dieudonnés]. It is the celebrated military leader,[1] it is the glorious king, conquering and magnificent, like to the sun, or even the revolutionary tribune: Clovis, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Napoléon, Victor-Emmanuel, Garibaldi. How many, to get on the pedestal, are only waiting for a change of opinion, a passing fancy of fortune! For these idols, most of them also empty of ideas, as devoid of conscience as itself, the people is zealous and jealous; it does not suffer itself to be disputed, to be contradicted, above all to be haggled with over power. Do not touch its anointed ones or it will treat you as sacrilegious.

Full of its myths, and considering itself as a mainly undivided collectivity, how would the people understand in one leap the relationship of the citizen to society? How, under its inspiration, would the men of State who represent it produce the true conceptions of government? Wherever universal suffrage reigns in its naivety, one can predict in advance that everything will be done in the sense of indivisibility. Since the people are the collectivity that holds all authority and all right, universal suffrage, to be sincere in its expression, will have to be itself undivided, i.e. elections will have to be carried out by the list system: there even were in 1848 some unitarists who were asking for a single list for the 86 departments. From this undivided ballot sprung up an undivided assembly, deliberating and legislating like a single man. In the case of a division in the vote, it is the majority that represents, without any reduction, national unity. From this majority will emerge in its turn an undivided Government which, taking its powers from the indivisible Nation, is appointed to collectively and jointly govern and manage without [regard for] local feelings or parochial interests. This is how centralisation, imperialism, communism, the absolutist system, — all these words are synonyms, — ensue from popular idealism; that is how in the social pact, conceived after the manner of the Jacobins and Rousseau, the citizens resign their sovereignty, and how the commune, [and] above the commune the department and the province, are absorbed into the central authority, becoming mere agencies under the immediate direction of the ministry.

The consequences will not take long to be felt: the citizen and commune being deprived of all dignity, the invasions of the State increase, and the cost to the taxpayers grows proportionally. It is no longer the government that is made for the people, it is the people that is made for the government. Power invades everything, seizes everything, claims everything, in perpetuity, forever, for good: War and the Navy, Administration, Justice, Police, Public Education, Public works and repairs; Banks, Stock Exchange, Credit, Insurance, Assistance, Savings, Charity; Forests, Canals, Rivers; Religions, Finances, Customs, Commerce, Agriculture, Industry, Transportation. On the whole lot, a tremendous Tax, which strips from the nation a quarter of its gross product. The only thing the citizen has to do is to carry out his little task in his little corner, getting his little salary, raising his little family, and leaving anything else to the government’s Providence.

Faced with this predisposition of minds, in the midst of powers hostile to the Revolution, what was the thought of the founders of ’89, [being] sincere friends of liberty? Not daring to break the body of the State, they had to concern themselves above all with two things: 1st, to contain Power, always ready to usurp; 2nd, to contain the people, always ready to be led by its tribunes and to replace the morals of legality by the ones of omnipotence.

Until now, indeed, the authors of constitutions — Sieyès, Mirabeau, the 1814 Senate, the 1830 Chamber, the 1848 Assembly — believed, not without reason, that the major point of the political system was to contain the central Power, while leaving it with the greatest freedom of action and the greatest force. To reach this goal, what were we doing? Firstly, as it was said, we were dividing Power into ministerial categories; then we were dividing legislative authority between royalty and the Chambers, with the prince’s choice of ministers subject to the majority vote of the later. Finally taxation was voted on yearly by the Chamber, which seized this opportunity to review the government’s acts.

However, whilst one was organising the negotiating of the Chambers against the ministers, one was balancing the royal prerogative by the representatives’ initiative, the authority of the crown by the sovereignty of the nation, whilst one was matching words with words, fictions with fictions, one was giving the government, without any reserve, without any other counterbalance than a vain faculty of criticism, the prerogative of a huge administration; one was putting in its hands all the forces of the country; one was suppressing, for more safety, local liberties; one was destroying parochialism; one was creating, finally a formidable, overwhelming, power to which one was giving oneself the pleasure of waging a war of epigrams, as if reality were sensitive to personalities. Well, what happened? The opposition ended up being considered right by the people: ministries fell one after the other; one dynasty was overthrown, then a second, empire replaced republic, and the centralising anonymous despotism grew, [while] liberty declined. Such has been our progress since the victory of the Jacobins over the Girondists. This was the inevitable result of an artificial system, where metaphysical sovereignty and the right to criticise were put on one side, and all the realities of national domain, all the powers of action of a great people, on the other.

In the federative system, such anxieties would not exist. The central authority, initiator rather than executor, only has a quite restricted part of the public administration, the one concerning federal services; it is placed in the hands of the States, absolute masters of themselves, and having for everything that concerns them the most complete, legislative, executive and judicial authority. The central power is all the better since [it is] subordinate and entrusted to an Assembly formed of delegates of the States, members themselves, quite often, of their respective governments, and who, by this reason, exert over the federal assembly’s acts supervision all the more jealous and severe.

The difficulties faced by the publicist in containing the masses were no less great; the means employed by them all too illusory, and the outcome just as unfortunate.

The people are also one of the powers of the State, the one whose explosions are the most terrible. This power needs a counterweight: democracy itself is forced to acknowledge it, since it is the absence of this counterweight which, delivering people to the most dangerous incitements, leaving the State exposed to the most incredible insurrections, has twice brought down the republic in France.

One thought to find the counterweight to the masses’ action in two institutions, one very costly for the country and full of dangers, the [other] one no less dangerous, [and] particularly painful to the public conscience: they are, 1st, the permanent army, [and] 2nd, restrictions on the right to vote. Since 1848, universal suffrage has become the law of the State: the fear of democratic unrest having grown in proportion, one had no choice but to also augment the army, to give more support to military action [de donner plus de nerf à l’action militaire]. So that, to protect oneself from popular rebellion, one is obliged to, in the system of the founders of ’89, increase the strength of Power at the very time one takes on the other hand precautions against it. So that, the day Power and the people hold out their hands to each other, all that scaffolding will collapse. Strange system where the People cannot exert sovereignty without the risk of breaking the government, nor the government exercise its prerogative without marching into absolutism!

The federative system puts a stop to the agitation of the masses, to all the ambitions and incitements of demagogy: it is the end of the regime of the public square, of the triumphs of tribunes, of the absorption [of public life] by capital cities. What is the point if Paris, within its walls, has revolutions if Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen, Lille, Strasbourg, Dijon, etc., if departments, masters of themselves, do not follow? Paris will have wasted its time… The federation thus becomes the salvation of the people: because it saves it, by division, from the tyranny of its leaders and from its own madness.

The 1848 Constitution, on one hand, removed the command of the army from the President of the republic, on the other hand had tried to avert this double danger of usurpation by the central Power and revolt by the people. But the 1848 Constitution did not say what progress consisted of, under what conditions it could be carried out. In the system it had founded, distinction of classes, bourgeoisie and people, still remained: we saw it during the discussion on the right of work and the law of 31st May restricting universal suffrage. The unitary prejudice was stronger than ever; Paris giving the tone, the idea, the will to the departments, it was easy to see that, in case of a conflict between the President and the Assembly, the people would follow its elected leader rather than its representatives. Events confirmed these predictions. The day of 2nd December showed what purely legal guarantees are worth against a Power that united popular favour with administrative strength, and that also has its own right. But if, for example, at the same time as the republican Constitution of 1848, municipal and departmental organisation had been made and implemented; if the provinces had learnt to live a proper life again; if they had had their share of the executive power, if the inert multitude of the 2nd December had been something in the State beyond mere voters, the coup d’état would have been impossible. The battlefield being limited to [the area] between the Elysee palace[2] and the Palais-Bourbon,[3] the hue and cry of the executive power would have enthused at the very most only the garrison of Paris and the personnel of the ministries.[4]


The idea of Federation is certainly the highest to which the political genius has risen until now. It exceeds by far the French constitutions promulgated for seventy years in spite of the Revolution, and whose short duration honours our country so little. It solves all the difficulties that the accord of Liberty and Authority raises. With it, we do not have to be afraid of sinking in governmental antinomies; of seeing the plebes emancipating themselves by proclaiming a perpetual dictatorship, the bourgeoisie manifesting its liberalism by pushing centralisation to excess, the public spirit corrupting itself in this debauchery of licentiousness copulating with despotism, power coming back constantly into the hands of an intriguer, as Robespierre would call them, and the revolution, in the words of Danton, always remaining with the most villainous. Eternal reason is at last vindicated, scepticism defeated. One will no longer blame human misfortune on the failings of Nature, the irony of Providence, or the contradiction of the Mind; the opposition of principles finally appears as the condition of universal balance.

End Notes

[1] “le chef de guerre élevé sur le pavois” is literally “the warlord raised on the shield” (Translator)

[2] Official residence of the French president (Translator)

[3] Seat of French National Assembly (Translator)

[4] Some imagined that, had it not been for the vote of 24th November 1851, which the President won against the right-wing and ensured the success of the coup d’État, the republic would have been saved. There has been a great deal of railing, on this occasion, against the members of the Mountain who had not declared themselves against the right. But it is obvious, according to the law of political contradictions (see above, chapters VI and VII) and in view of the facts, that if the President had been defeated, the people having abstained, the bourgeois principle prevailing, the unitary republic would have transformed itself without the least difficulty into a constitutional monarchy, and the country would not return to the status quo of 1848, but to a regime perhaps even harsher than that of the 2nd December, since a government of at least equal strength would have been joined by the decisive supremacy of the middle-class and the already half established restriction on universal suffrage, the deserved disgrace of the masses.