Second Letter


I said in a preceding article that the reactionary, legitimist, feudal and clerical threat had incited a revival of the revolutionary spirit of the bourgeoisie, but that between this new spirit and the one that had animated it before 1793 there was an enormous difference. The bourgeois of the last century were giants, in comparison with whom even the most daring of the bourgeoisie of this century seem to be only pygmies. To be assured of this, one has only to compare their programs. What was the program of eighteenth-century philosophy and of the Great Revolution? Neither more nor less than the integral emancipation of all humanity; the realization of the rights and real and complete liberty of every man, through the social and political equalization of all; the triumph of the human world over the wreckage of the divine one; the reign of justice and fraternity over the earth. The trouble with this philosophy and this revolution was that neither understood that the realization of human brotherhood was impossible so long as States existed, and that the real abolition of classes, the political and social equalization of individuals, will be possible only through the equalization of the economic means of education, instruction, labor, and life for everyone. Nevertheless, one cannot reprove the eighteenth century for not having understood this. Social science is not created and studied solely in books; it needs the great lessons of history, and we had to have the revolution of 1789 and 1793. We had to undergo the experiences of 1830 and 1848, to be able to arrive at this henceforth irrefutable conclusion: that any political revolution that does not have economic equality as its immediate and direct purpose is, from the standpoint of the rights and interests of the people, only a disguised and hypocritical reaction.

This most simple and evident truth was still unknown at the end of the eighteenth century, and when Babeuf appeared and posed the economic and social question, the power of the revolution had already been exhausted. But this man retains the honor of having posed the greatest problem that had ever been posed in history, that of the emancipation of humanity in its entirety.

In comparison with this immense program, what goal do we see pursued by the program of revolutionary liberalism in the era of the Restoration and the July Monarchy? Its so-called liberty -- so dignified. so modest, so well-regulated so restrained -- was conceived entirely for the modified temperament of a half-sated bourgeoisie who, weary of combat and impatient to begin enjoying the fruits of its victories, felt itself still threatened, only no longer from above, but now from below, and watched with inquietude as these innumerable millions of exploited proletarians, tired of suffering and preparing to demand their rights in return, massed together like a huge black finger pointing towards the horizon.

At the beginning of the present century this rising specter, later to be baptized the "red specter," this terrible ghost of the rights of all men opposed to the privileges of a fortunate class, this justice and reason of the people, which, as they progress, should reduce to dust the sophisms of political economy, of jurisprudence, of bourgeois politics and metaphysics, became at the moment of the triumph of the bourgeoisie in the modem world, the constant nemesis of its pleasures, the diminishers of its confidence and its spirit.

And nevertheless, the social question was still nearly unknown during the Restoration, or rather, nearly forgotten. True, there were a few great isolated dreamers, such as Saint-Simon, Robert Owen and Fourier, whose genius or great hearts had guessed at the necessity for a radical transformation of the economic organization of society. Around each of them a small number of devoted and ardent disciples grouped themselves, forming a number of small churches, but they were as little known as their masters were, and exercised no influence outside their own groups. There was still the communist testament of Babeuf, transmitted by his illustrious friend and colleague, Buonarrotti, to the most energetic proletarians, by means of a popular and secret organization, but this was still only a subterranean activity. Its manifestations did not make themselves felt until later, during the July Monarchy, and it was not perceived at all by the bourgeois class during the Restoration. The people, the messes of workers, remained quiet and did not demand anything for themselves.

It is clear that if the specter of political justice had any sort of existence at all in this epoch, it could only have been in the bad conscience of the bourgeois. Where did this bad conscience come from? Were the bourgeois who lived under the Restoration any more wicked than had been their fathers who made the revolution of 1789 and 1793? Not in the slightest! They were virtually the same men, but placed in another milieu, in the midst of different political conditions, enriched by a new experience, and therefore possessing a different conscience.

The bourgeois of the last century had sincerely believed that in emancipating themselves from the monarchical, clerical, and feudal yoke they would emancipate all the people along with them. And this naive and sincere belief was the source of their heroic audacity and all their marvelous power. They felt themselves united with all men, and, marching into battle, they carried the rights and the strength of all men within themselves. Thanks to these rights and to this power of the people that had been incarnated, so to speak, in their class, the bourgeois of the last century were able to scale the fortress of political power that their forefathers had coveted for so many centuries, and capture it. But at the very moment when they planted their banner upon it, a new realization entered their minds. As soon as they had conquered the source of power, they began to understand that their bourgeois interests had nothing in common with the interests of the masses, that, on the contrary, the two were radically opposed, and that the power and exclusive prosperity of the possessing class and to be supported by the misery and social and political dependence of the proletariat. From then on, the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the people was radically transformed, and even before the workers had come to understand that the bourgeois were their natural enemies, much more through necessity than ill-will, the bourgeois had already become conscious of this fatal antagonism. This is what I call the bad conscience of the bourgeois.

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Jul 21 2005 11:21


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