The Reaction

Le Représentant du Peuple

29th April 1848

Translator: Paul Sharkey

The social question has been put on the long finger. April16th has consigned the socialist candidates to oblivion. The cause of the proletariat, denounced with such venom on the barricades in February, has just fallen at the first hurdle in the April elections. The people’s enthusiasm has given way to consternation: as before, it is the bourgeoisie that is to determine the conditions of the workers. The root of all evil, and let us spell it out one last time, has been the inadequacy of the Luxembourg [Commission] and the weakness of the Interior Ministry. Let Messieurs Blanc and Ledru-Rollin forgive themselves as we have forgiven them! They have allowed France to go to ruin and sold out the proletariat. But they are low-born: and consequently they are ours. In the wake of the battle for Cannes when Varron lost the Republic’s last remaining army, the Senate passed a vote of thanks to him for not having given up hope in the country. Let Messieurs Blanc and Ledru-Rollin but tell us that they have not lost hope in the emancipation of the proletariat and we stand ready to send them our congratulations. What matters now is sizing up the situation correctly.

For some time now, in the newspapers of the provisional government, doubts have existed as to the February revolution’s having thus far been, as far as its representatives are concerned, only some sort of a retrospective revisitation of the first revolution. The two parties sharing power attack and threaten each other, under the labels Girondin and Montagnard. First and foremost, they accuse each other of restoration and counter-revolution. Little by little our makeshift monitors are wakening up to their retrograde delusions. [There is] Nothing more enlightening, nothing more telling than their mutual recriminations. Should the reaction raise its head, it will be in the ranks of the government. If plots are being hatched against the government spawned by the barricades, it is in the ministerial ante-rooms. If the authorities, pulled this way and that, should, with its communist manifestos and doctrinarian inclinations, trigger a flight of capital, murder credit, unsettle the workers, desolate property; should the organisation of labour lead to the whole of France’s downing tools, the blame lies with this two-faced democracy which rules and governs. All of the ground that we have covered in retreat over the past two months was covered under the aegis of memories contrary to the old republic. It is by ’93 and all of its discord that we are being ruled; and as for 1848, that is still the seven-times-sealed book. What we have here is a phenomenon of social psychology that is deserving of further exploration. That phenomenon has come to pass in every revolutionary age and it is this that has raised every peril and determined catastrophes.

The democrats of ’93, conjuring up a republic with their highschool memories, after devouring one another, set the revolution back by half a century. True, Robespierre could scarcely be held to blame for the ambition and venality of Mirabeau, the hesitancy of La Fayette, the weakness of Péthion, the nonchalance of Vergniaud, the vices of Danton or the fanaticism of Marat. But Robespierre was a Spartan; it was he that triggered the counter-revolution. The democrats of 1848, building the republic on their parliamentary memories, have also set the revolution back by half a century. I am not pointing the finger at their patriotism, their good intentions, their disinterestedness. The sum total of their fault is that they only imitators; they thought themselves statesmen because they were following the old models!

So what is this queer preoccupation which, in time of revolution, bedazzles the most steadfast minds, and, when their burning aspirations carry them forward into the future, has them constantly harking back the past? How does it come about that the People, just when it is making the break with established institutions, takes another plunge and gets further immersed in tradition? Society does not repeat itself: but one would have thought it was walking backwards, like the rope-maker playing out his rope. Could it not turn its gaze in the direction in which it is going?

This is not the place for a comprehensive exploration of this difficult problem which strikes at the very depths of our nature and relates directly to the most abstract principles of metaphysics. We shall restrict ourselves to stating, in accordance to the recent works of philosophy, that the phenomenon involved has its roots in the make-up of our understanding and can be explained by the law of the sameness of opposites, a law that lies at the bottom of creation, as well as of logic. That said, let us turn back to the issue at hand.

In order to organise the future, a general rule confirmed by experience, the reformers always start out with their gaze fixed upon the past. Hence the contradiction forever discovered in their actions: hence also the immeasurable danger of revolutions.

So, on the day when the People overthrow the monarchy, they promptly replace it with a dictatorship. In which we have nothing but remembrance, a memory that goes back further than the overthrown monarchy; and a contradiction, in that absolutism is invoked as a safeguard against absolutism.

The rest was implicit. The Convention had its pro-consuls, Napoléon his prefects. The provisional government has its commissioners. In substance nothing has changed: all we have had is a change of personnel. Everyone can see today what this re-enacted comedy has cost us. The commissioners of the provisional government, precisely because they were merely memories, have flagged up the reaction; they had had their instructions from their masters.

The February revolution was made to the strains of the Marseillaise and old republican anthems. More memories and yet more contradiction.

Contradiction, I say, and note this: the 1848 revolution inspired no poet. The social idea, anti-lyrical it would appear, has been obliged to unfold itself to the rhythms of the political idea. No matter what may have been said, as far as we are concerned, the epic is no more: and, trivial though it might seem, we are doomed to perform the labours, not of heroes, but of shop assistants. The princes of the new Republic will not be sword-wielders but pen-pushers. The 1848 Revolution, an economic revolution, is as bourgeois as could be. It is the workshop, the shop counter, the household, the cash-drawer, the most prosaic things in the world, the things least suited to revolutionary energy and high-flown words. How could one set down in verse or to music the worker’s sharing in the profits, the partnership between labour and capital, the balance of imports against exports? Organising trade and credit, boosting production, widening markets, determining the new shapes of industrial companies — none of this involves the temperament of 1793: like it or not, we have to resign ourselves to being mere civilians.

The Marseillaise is suited to the idea for which it stands: it offends our most heartfelt inclinations: instead of enlightening the citizenry, it stuns them. This nonsense costs the Republic huge sums, not to mention its security. Singing of the Marseillaise amounts to playing into the hands of the reaction and is tantamount to a provocation.

Among the factors that accelerated the downfall of the constitutional monarchy, pride of place has to go to weariness with, and revulsion against parliamentary proceedings. Well! scarcely had disaster struck and the bodyguard of the Palais-Royal was still smouldering than France was overrun with clubs. Instead of burning itself out, the parliamentary fever spread. Instead of one tribune, we now had ten thousand of them and what tribunes! Never has such a confusion of the gift of speech been witnessed. Cobblestones from the barricades, like the stones cast by Deucalion, became orators. Everybody was talking like a Demosthenes: albeit reasoning like a [General] La Palisse. At a gathering of five hundred citizens, I witnessed the most redoubtable issues of political economy — matters of which I am certain no one in that venerable gathering understood a word — settled in five minutes, to thunderous applause. I saw the most hare-brained motions greeted by enthusiasm and puerile proposals carried unanimously. The provisional government could scarcely fail to legislate them into existence. Several received the sanction of its decrees.

Contradiction and reminiscence! Folk played at mini-parliaments, as well as at mini-workshops and mini-wars. But, workers! The clubs are not the place to do battle with property: that would be your workshops and in the marketplace. We will shortly be looking into this new strategy with you. Leave the politicking and the eloquence to the bourgeois. The rhetoric of the clubs has nothing to teach you. All this palaver is an affront to practical reason, to labour’s gravitas, to the seriousness of matters, to the silence of study, to dignity of spirit. Remember that under Napoléon, a fellow who made war the symbol of labour, there was no speechifying. And clubs belong neither to our times nor to our outlook nor to our mores. This sham agitation will die away itself of boredom and desertion: if it were otherwise, the woes that it would bring you would be incalculable.

One of the first moves of the provisional government, one of its most widely applauded moves, was the implementation of universal suffrage. On the very day when that decree was issued, we wrote these same words which might well seem a paradox: “Universal suffrage is counter-revolution.”

After the event, judge for yourself if we were wrong. The 1848 elections have been carried, overwhelmingly, by the priests, by the Legitimists, by the Dynastics, by the most conservative and most backward-looking elements in France. It could not have been otherwise.

So how hard could it have been to understand that within man there are two instincts, one the conservative and the other the forward-looking: that each of these two instincts only ever serves the purposes of the other, that each individual, gauging matters from the vantage point of self-interest, takes progress to be the furtherance of that interest; that such interest being at odds with the collective interest, the sum total of votes, rather than signifying general progress, is indicative of a general retreat?

We have said and we say it again: the Republic is the form of government wherein, every will retaining it freedom, the nation thinks, speaks and acts as a single man. But in order to achieve this ideal, all private interests, rather than pulling in the opposite direction to society, must work to the same end as society, which is not a possibility under universal suffrage. Universal suffrage is the materialism of the Republic. The more this arrangement is used and until such time as the economic revolution becomes an accomplished fact, the greater the retreat towards royalty, despotism and barbarism, all the more certainly if the votes are greater in number, more considered and more free. You would point the finger at the proletarian’s lack of expertise and its indifference? But that is the very thing that makes a nonsense of your theory. What would you say of a father of a family who would leave it to his children freely to dispose of his belongings and then, ruined by them, would blame the inexperience of their youth? And what an argument against you the proletariat’s indifference constitutes!

Because in the entire provisional government not a grain of common sense has been found, because we deluded ourselves that the dream of revolution might be sustained by strength of numbers, here we find ourselves in the middle of the bourgeois backlash! And the emancipation of the proletariat has to be put back by fifty years! We are paying a heavy price for our bedazzlement by novelists and blatherers. And, if the chief blame did not lie with ourselves, I would say that the ministers who have, in an unprincipled way and with no basis in law, misusing a temporary dictatorship, exposed the salvation of the people to the vagaries of this monstrous reckoning, should be stripped of their civic rights.

With one hand, the provisional government imposes taxes on luxuries; with the other, it puts on a show for the people, free of charge. Remembrance and contradiction. The tax on luxury reduces work of the poor by whatever it reduces the consumption of the rich, and it reduces the State’s revenue by whatever reduction it makes in the labour of the former and in the pleasures of the latter. Threefold deficit, threefold impoverishment: such is the upshot of the tax on luxury.

Free entertainments, precisely because they are free, are a trespass against labour and the people’s morals: furthermore, they are a trap set for its good faith since the money which the spectator does not pay at the box-office, will be paid over to the tax collector who will pay the performers! Ruination, ruination everywhere.

One day an order issued by the prefecture of police commanded that the names of the streets and monuments be changed. The following day, a petition signed by the clubs asked that the remains of Armand Carrel and Godefroi Cavaignac be laid to rest in the Panthéon. Contradiction and plagiary!

Historic names are replaced by other historic names and men by other men: idols by other idols. But there is still the same old idolatry, the same vandalism. So who does have the right to tear down national monuments? You Père Loriquets[1] of Jacobinism, teach your voters how to fill in their ballot papers and let the Palais-Royal be called the Palais-Royal!

It has rightly been said that the backward-looking farces played out by the provisional government have cost us more in two months than the invasions back in 1814 and 1815.

So what is going to happen when we shift from farce to tragedy? The bourgeoisie is going to get irritated and will resolve to put paid to socialism. The handiwork of reaction, begun by the radical party, will be carried on in the opposite direction and with the same vigour by the bourgeois party. We have had our 21st January, our 31st May, our 9th Thermidor and we shall have our 2nd Prairial. The proletarian masses are ready to budge: and the National Guard, abetted by the army, to offer resistance. All of the actors are in their positions, all well versed in their parts. The Rommes, the Goujons, the Duquesnois, the Soubranys are ready for the sacrifice. Messieurs Ledru-Rollin, Flocon, Albert, Louis Blanc are in position. We have found our Monsieur Boissy d’Anglas[2] is standing by: he is M. de Lamartine. M. de Lamartine, his head filled with history, was initially on the side of the Mountain and, ever faithful to his tales of drama is now going over to the side of the Girondins.

The vague notion of some fresh, inevitable terror is in the air and has souls in turmoil. The workers tell themselves that the revolution needs a fresh beginning: and who can foresee how the restarted revolution will end up? The provisional government, demolishing property, with no benefit to the proletariat, through its financial laws, which the National Assembly cannot allow to stand without the country’s being exposed to danger but which cannot be rescinded without provoking an uprising, looks as if it has decided to make terror inevitable.

In ’93, the only cause of the terror was the resistance from an infinitesimal aristocratic minority. The existence of society, guaranteed in any case by the rich gains of the revolution and by the overall lack of solidarity, had nothing to fear from the Terror. In 1848, the supposed cause of terror would be the antagonism between two classes of citizens, one numerically stronger and the more formidable on account of its poverty, the other superior in terms of its wealth and intelligence. With both surviving thanks only to the commerce in goods and reciprocal relations, it is inevitable that in such a clash society will perish.

Let the first moves by the National Assembly expose the plans of the reaction; let a careless vote ignite the people’s wrath; let there be a general recourse to arms; let the national representation be breached and then, under pressure from some other dictatorship, let movement grind to a standstill, and France will go up like a hive wreathed in flames with the choking, singed bees stinging one another to death.

So, once the government runs out of resources:

Once the nation’s progress is spent;

Once the country’s production and trade have petered out;

Once a famished Paris, blockaded by departments declining to send any more shipments, any more payments, finds itself cut off;

Once the workers demoralised by the politics of the clubs and by the idleness of the national workshops turn to soldiering just to survive;

Once the State has commandeered the citizenry’s silver and jewellery for forwarding to the Mint;

Once a million proletarians have turned against property;

Once house searches become the only means of tax-collection;

Once the peasant, for want of hard cash, takes to paying his taxes in kind;

Once commodities have become so rare that barriers are swept away and a final blow dealt to national industry;

Once famished gangs take to roaming the land and organising raids;

Once vagabondage has become the staple condition;

Once the peasant, standing guard with loaded rifle over his harvest, gives up on farming;

Once working women, broken by hunger, have all cut loose;

Once prostitution, grief, poverty have driven them to distraction;

Once troupes of women, following the flying columns of National Guards, take to marking the Republic’s feast days with ghastly bacchanalia;

Once the first blood has been spilt, once the first head has fallen;

Once the abomination of disappointment has spread throughout France:

Oh, then you will know what revolution is when it is instigated by lawyers, carried out by artists and steered by novelists and poets! Once upon a time Nero was an artist, a lyric artist and playwright, an enthusiastic lover of the ideal, a worshipper of antiquity, a medal-collector, tourist, poet, orator, swashbuckler, sophist, a Don Juan, a Lovelace, a spirited, imaginative, likeable fellow brimful of life and sensual appetites. Which is what made him Nero!

Wake from your slumbers, ye Montagnards, Girondins, Feuillants, Cordeliers, Muscadins, Jansenists and Babouvists! You are but six weeks away from the events I herald. Cry: Long live the Republic! Off with the masks! — Then about-face and march!

End Notes

[1] Père Jean-Nicolas Loriquet (1767-1845), a Jesuit priest whose Histoire de France, a l’usage de la jeunesse (1820) delicately attempted to write Napoléon Bonaparte out of French history as much as possible. (Editor)

[2] François Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas (1756-1828), a politician who successfully steered his career in power from the Revolution of 1789 through the rise and fall of Napoléon. (Editor)