General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century/To Business Men

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To you, business men[1], I dedicate these new essays. You have always been the boldest, the most skilful revolutionaries.

It was you who, from the third century of the Christian era, drew the winding-sheet over the Roman Empire in Gaul, by your municipal federations. Had it not been for the barbarians, whose coming suddenly changed the aspect of affairs, the republic which you established would have ruled the Middle Ages. Remember that the monarchy in our country is Frankish, not Gallic.

It was you who later vanquished feudalism, arraying the town against the castle, the king against the vassals. Finally, it was you who, for eighty years past, have proclaimed, one after the other, all the revolutionary ideas—liberty of worship, liberty of the press, liberty of association, liberty of commerce and industry: it is you who, by your cleverly drawn constitutions, have curbed the altar and the throne, and established upon a permanent basis equality before the law, publicity of State records, subordination of the Government to the people, the sovereignty of Opinion.

It is you, you alone, yes, you, who have set up the principles and laid the foundation for the Revolution of the Nineteenth Century.

Nothing survives of the attacks which have been made upon you.

Nothing which you have undertaken has fallen short.

Nothing at which you aim will fail.

Despotism has bowed its head before Business: the victorious Soldier[2], the legitimate Anointed[3], the citizen King[4] glided away like phantoms as soon as they had the misfortune to displease you.

Business men of France, the initiative in the progress of humanity is yours. The untutored workingman accepts you as his masters and models. Is it possible that, after having accomplished so many revolutions, you have yourselves become counter-revolutionaries, against reason, against your own interest, against honor?

I know your grievances: they do not date only from February[5].

One day, the 31st of May, 1793, you were taken by surprise and were supplanted by the shirt-sleeved brigade. For fourteen months, the most terrible period that you have ever encountered, the helm was in the hands of the leaders of the mob. What could they do for their unfortunate supporters during those fourteen months of popular dictatorship? Alas, nothing! Presumptuous and boasting as usual, their efforts reduced itself to continuing as well as they could, your task. In 1793, just as in 1848, those elected by the people—who for the most part were not of the people—cared for nothing but for preserving the rights of property: they cared nothing for the rights of labour. The whole power of the government, outside of its resistance to foreign enemies, was devoted to maintaining your interests.

None the less, you were wounded by this assault upon your ancient privileges. Because the people, through inexperience, did not know how to continue the revolution which you had begun, you seemed, from the morrow of Thermidor[6] on, to oppose this new revolution. This was a halt in progress for our country and the beginning of our expiation. The people thought to avenge themselves by voting for the autocracy of a hero as a curb to your insolence. You had sowed resistance, you reaped despotism. Glory, the most foolish of divinities and the most murderous, took the place of liberty. For fifteen years the tribune was silent, the upper classes humiliated, the Revolution blocked. At last, thanks to you, the Charter of 1814[7], extorted, not conceded, whatever they may say, launched it again upon the world; fifteen years had not passed when the old regime met its Waterloo in those July days.

In 1848, the people, supported, as in ’93, by your bayonets, drove an old knave[8] from the Tuileries, and proclaimed the Republic. In so doing, it only made itself the interpreter of your sentiments, drawing the legitimate conclusion from your long opposition. But the people had not yet been initiated in political life: for the second time they failed in controlling the revolution. And, as in ’93, their presumption again aroused your wrath.

Nevertheless what evil had the inoffensive people done during their three months interregnum, that you should show yourselves such ardent reactionaries when you had scarcely been restored to power? The Provisory Government had done nothing but try to soothe your vanity, to calm your disquiet. Its first thought was to recall you to the family council: its only desire to make you the guardian of the lower classes. The people looked on and applauded. Was it then in reprisal for this traditional goodfellowship, or on account of their usurpation of your place, that, when you had been reestablished in your political preponderance, you treated these simple revolutionaries like a pack of rascals and criminals, that you shot, transported and sent to the hulks poor workmen who had been driven to revolt by starvation, and whose sacrifice served as a stepping stone to three or four intrigues in the Executive Commission and the Assembly? Gentlemen, you were cruel and ungrateful. Moreover the repression which you enforced after the events of June cried for vengeance. You became accomplices of reaction; you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

And now, corrupt political schemers of every stripe, the objects of your eternal hatred have reappeared. The clericals have clapped their extinguisher on you: friends of the foreigner have made you finance their anti-national policy: the hangers-on of all the tyrannies which you had overthrown make you their associates daily, in their liberty-destroying vengeance. In three years your pretended saviors have covered you with ignominy, exceeding the wretchedness which half a century of failures has left to the workers. And these men, whom your blind passion has permitted to grasp unlimited power, scorn you and deride you; they call you enemies of order, incapable of discipline, infected with liberalism and socialism: they look upon you as revolutionaries.

Gentlemen, accept this name as the title of your glory and the pledge of your reconciliation with the workingmen. Reconciliation is revolution, I assure you. The enemy has established himself in your domain, let his insults be your rallying-cry. You, the elder sons of the Revolution, who have seen so many despotisms born and dead, from the Caesars to the last of the Bourbons, you cannot escape your destiny. My heart tells me that you will yet accomplish something. The people are waiting for you, as they did in ’89, ’93, 1830, 1848. The Revolution stretches out her arms to you; save the people, save yourselves, as did your fathers, through the Revolution.

Poor Revolution! everybody throws a stone at it. They who do not slander it distrust it, and strive to divert it. One talks of extending the powers of the President: another discourses upon the fusion of the two branches, and of the necessity of putting an end to the choice between monarchy and democracy. One pleads for the Constitution of 1848; another demands direct legislation. You might call it a conspiracy of empirics against the idea of February.

If this policy could serve any purpose; if it were endowed with the smallest power for restraint and peace, I should remain silent: I should not care, gentlemen, to disturb your peace. But, admit it or deny it as you like, the Revolution is rushing upon you with a speed of a million leagues a second. It is not a question for discussion: it requires preparation to receive it, and above all, to understand it.

During the leisure given by a long imprisonment, when Power, breaking my journalist’s pen, held me aloof from the polemics of the day, my revolutionary soul betook itself to travels in the realm of Ideas.

From my wanderings I have brought back from beyond the prejudices of our worn-out world, a few seeds which cannot fail to grow, if planted in the soil that we have prepared for them. You, gentlemen, may have the honor of first planting them: the first fruit will be to remind you of the only thing with which it is worth while at this time to concern yourselves—the Revolution.

And may bolder explorers than myself, encouraged by my example, at last complete the discovery, of which men have dreamed so long, of the Democratic and Social Republic!

Greeting and fraternity.
P.-J. Proudhon.
Conciergerie, 10 July, 1851.

Translator's Notes[edit]

  1. Bourgeois. This untranslatable word and its kindred have been translated by different approximations, all inadequate.
  2. Napoleon Bonaparte.
  3. Louis XVIII
  4. Louis Philippe
  5. 1848: The Establishment of the Second Republic.
  6. 9 Thermidor (27 July, 1794): Execution of Robespierre and installation of the reactionary régime.
  7. At the first Restoration under Louis XVIII.
  8. Louis Philippe.