The Mystification of Universal Suffrage

Le Représentant du Peuple

30th April 1848

Translator: Paul Sharkey

How come the very people who three months ago were calling whole-heartedly for universal suffrage now want no part of it?

And how come those who could not have been more apoplectic about universal suffrage three months ago dare today to take the credit for it?

The very same lack of principle and the same bad faith explain this double paradox. Some bemoan a lottery in which they have lost power; others marvel at a mechanism to which they are indebted for their privileges. What a truly splendid, moral and grand thing politics is! …

Those of us who were taking exception to this tired foolishness, universal suffrage, long before the Cormenin Law are within our rights to complain about it and take it down a peg.

Universal suffrage, we used to say, is a sort of atom theory whereby the law-maker, powerless to have the people speak in its essential unity, invites citizens to have their individual says, viritim,[1] just the same way as Epicurean philosophy explains thought, will and intelligence away in terms of combinations of atoms. As if the overall mind, the People’s mind could ever be construed from the sum of a given number of votes!

The most reliable way of getting the People to lie is to introduce universal suffrage. Voting by head count in matters of governance as a way of gauging the will of the nation, is the precise equivalent, in terms of political economy, of a redistribution of the land. It is agrarian law transplanted onto the terrain of authority.

Because those writers who first concerned themselves with the origins of governments have taught us that all power derives from the sovereignty of the nation, the bold conclusion has been drawn that the best course was to have all the citizenry vote, by word of mouth, by presence or by piece of paper and that an absolute or relative majority of the wishes so expressed was equivalent to the will of the people. We have been dragged back to the practices of the barbarians who, eschewing reasoned argument, operated in terms of acclamation and election. A material symbol has been misconstrued as the actual formula for sovereignty. The dust-cloud of votes has been construed as the very essence of the people’s will! ...

And then there is the miscount of votes. I take the Paris elections by way of an example.

Upwards of 400,000 citizens were entitled to vote in the Seine department, but scarcely 300,000 cast their votes.

To whom are we to ascribe the 100,000 abstainers?

Regarding them as if they did not exist, on that very basis you chalk them up to the elected candidates whereas you might with equal justification wager that, had they voted, they would have tilted the balance to the other side, or at least that they would have altered the outcome of the poll considerably.

And another paradox:

Of the 300,000 votes cast, a mere 13 candidates claimed more than half; the 21 others have been returned only by relative majorities of between 144,000 and 104,000 votes.

How can those returned by a minority of the electorate purport to be the people’s choice? What! There are 200,00 voters who take exception to M. Lamennais’s candidacy,[2] but because they could not agree on who they wanted instead of him, M. Lamennais wins in spite of them. In the same way — and the law has anticipated this eventuality — a candidate with 298,000 votes cast against him and 2,000 for him was returned! And that deputy would claim to have been returned by universal suffrage! What a cheek!

Furthermore, if only those who framed this wonderful law known, when looking to popular suffrage expressed on a person-by-person basis, had dealt with the issue appropriately! If they had told the citizenry:

The labouring class means to have its share of all of the advantages enjoyed by the bourgeois class. Being the more numerous and poorer and thus the stronger class, that class is the master of power. Bourgeois or workers, the point is that, by common consent, they carry through a comprehensive overhaul of the economy. So you should be choosing the men best equipped in terms of their speciality, moderation and commitment to govern the interests of all.

It is beyond doubt that, had it been posed in those terms, the question put to the electors would have produced a quite different outcome.

Instead of which, what has the government done?

For a start, through its declarations, its example, its decrees and its commissioners, it has raised the basis for warfare between the two castes designed to keep the people divided, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In view of which the vast majority of citizens has begun to adopt a defensive stance before the redundancy of the bankrupted banker, the jobless artisan and incomeless property-owner. Everybody has become bourgeois and nobody wants to be counted as proletarian. From which point on, the ends to which the elections would be held were foreseeable.

And there’s more.

All of a sudden, on April 16th, the provisional government with its lamentable pendulum swings between communist and conservative notions provoked turmoil right across the spectrum of views and the once again the issue in the election was between property and community [communauté].

For social reform, it was a lost cause. The mass of the citizenry, who would readily have embraced it, has just pretty much rejected it under the name of communism.

Communism shunned, that is the real meaning of the 1848 elections. We no more want community of labour than we do community of women or community of children! The 260,000 votes cast for M. de Lamartine cannot have any other meaning. Or are they an embracing of the illustrious poet’s theories or some epigram? Then along comes the new National Assembly with its equivocal mandate. As for ourselves, we shall see to it that our citizen representatives are reminded of the issue.

France, we shall tell them, wants no part of community: who can question that? We do not want it any more than you do.

But has that any bearing on the social question? Is railing against community enough to stamp out poverty?

Has the privilege of property been abolished?

Have the bourgeois turned into workers?

Have the workers turned into bourgeois?

Has our public debt of six billion, a budget of two billion, for it is going to be two billion, plus another twelve billion in mortgaged funds, been reduced?

Is the crisis drawing to an end?[3]

Has commerce been re-established?

Has labour been so organised that bread is assured within and without?

Are we free?

Are we equals?

Are we brothers?

Good folk who fear the dissolution of your marriage bonds, have a second look before you retreat into your shared insignificancy. If you so much as dream that you are here only to lend your backing to a negation, you have not understood your mandate. It only remains for us to act as your guiding lights. Get on with it!

End Notes

[1] “one man at a time” (Translator)

[2] Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854), a Catholic liberal elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848.

[3] France, at this time, was still in the throes of a dire economic crisis resulting from the collapse of a speculative bubble in 1847. (Editor)