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Studies in Socialism/Revolutionary Majorities

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Those great social changes that are called revolutions cannot, or rather can no longer, be accomplished by a minority. A revolutionary minority, no matter how intelligent and energetic, is not enough, in modern societies at least, to bring about a revolution. The co-operation and adhesion of a majority, and an immense majority, is needed.

It is possible—and history has here a difficult problem to solve—that there have been periods and lands where the human multitude has been so passive and so unstable in character that it has been moulded by the will of certain strong individuals or small groups. But since the constitution of modern nations, since the Reformation and the Renaissance, there is hardly a single individual who is not a distinct force. There is hardly a single individual who has not got his own personal interests, his ties that bind him to the present, his ideas about the future, his passions and his thoughts. In modern Europe, then, for several centuries, every human being has been a centre of energy, of conscience, and of action. And since, in periods of transformation, when old social ties are in process of dissolution, all human energies are of equivalent force, the law of the majority is necessarily decisive. A society takes on a new form only when the immense majority of the individuals who compose it demand or accept a great change.

This is self-evident in the case of the Revolution of 1789. It broke out and it succeeded only because an immense majority, one might say the entire country, wanted it. What did the privileged classes, upper classes and nobles amount to when confronted with the Third Estate of town and country? They were one atom, two hundred thousand against twenty-four million, one one-hundredth part of the whole. And besides, the clergy and nobles were divided among themselves and uncertain what to do. There were privileges that the privileged themselves did not defend. They were doubtful about their own rights and their power, and seemed to let themselves go with the stream. Royalty itself, driven into a corner, had to convoke the States-General though it feared them.

As for the Third Estate, the huge mass composed of labourers, peasants, the industrial middle class, the merchants, the leisure class living on income (rentiers), and the artisans, it was practically unanimous. It did not limit itself to protesting against royal absolutism or the parasitic nobility. It knew how to put a stop to all that. The memorials addressed to the throne all agree in proclaiming that the man and the citizen has rights, and that no prescription can hold good against these immortal titles to equality. And they specify the necessary guaranties. The king will continue to be the chief executive, but the national will is to make the laws. This sovereign will of the nation will be expressed by permanent and periodically elected national assemblies. Taxes shall only be levied when they have been voted by the National Assembly. Taxes will bear equally upon all the citizens. All privileges of caste shall be abolished. No man shall be exempt from taxation. No one shall have exclusive hunting and shooting rights. No one shall have the right to appear before a special tribunal. The same law for all, the same taxation for all, the same justice for all. Those feudal rights which are contrary to the dignity of man, those which are the sign of ancient serfdom, are to be abolished without indemnity. Those which encumber rural property and keep it unimproved are to be abolished by purchase. Every employment shall be open to all, and the highest rank in the army shall be attainable by the member of the middle class and the peasant, as well as by the noble. All forms of economic activity shall also be open to all. The permission of the guild and the authorisation of the government shall no longer be necessary before a man can take up this or that trade, create this or that industry, open this or that shop. The guilds themselves will cease to exist; and consequently the Church maintained as a public institution, like a guild, will no longer have a corporate existence. It will, then, no longer have corporate property. And the estates of the Church, the millions of acres of real estate that it holds, having no longer an owner, since the owning corporation is dissolved, will of right revert to the nation, with the reservation that the latter ensures public worship, education, and public charity.

It is true that the Revolution had to have recourse to force; the 14th of July and the 10th of August mark the Fall of the Bastille and the taking of the Tuileries. But—and this is a point that should be carefully noted—force was never employed to impose on the nation the will of a minority. On the contrary, force was employed to insure the almost unanimous will of the majority against the factious attacks of the minority. On the 14th of July it was in opposition to the royal coup d'état, on the 10th of August it was against the treachery of the King, that the people of Paris took up arms; and these acts represented the right of the nation, and were the expression of its will. It was not due to stupid submissiveness that all France welcomed the 14th of July with acclamations, that almost all France ratified the 10th of August. It was solely because the force of a part of the nation had put itself at the service of the universal will which had been betrayed by a handful of courtiers, privileged persons, and traitors. Thus the use of force was in no way an audacious stroke on the part of a minority, but the vigorous means that the majority took to defend itself.

It is of course true that the Revolution was led on to exceed its first demands and its opening programme. In 1789 not a single revolutionary foresaw the fall of the monarchy or desired it. The very word Republic was almost unknown, and even on the 21st of September, 1792, when the Convention abolished the monarchy, the idea of a Republic had not altogether ceased to terrify. But the monarchy did not fall under the assault of a passionate minority or the formulas of republican philosophy. It was only lost when it became evident to almost the whole nation after repeated trials, after the royal coup d'état of the 20th June, 1789, after the 14th of July, after the King's flight to Varennes, and after the invasion, that the monarchy was betraying both the constitution and the country. Monarchy only fell when the contradiction between royalty and the universal will appeared in all its irreconcilable violence. It is evident then that it was by the necessary and logical action of the universal will, not by a surprise stroke of the minority, that monarchy was abolished.


It is undoubtedly true that the revolutionary leaders did not foresee all the economic and social consequences that would result from this act. Mirabeau, for instance, thought that the suppression of royal monopolies and of guild privileges would bring into being in the new order a legion of small producers and independent artisans. He does not seem to have understood the great capitalistic evolution of industry that was about to take place. But others saw more clearly, and the Gironde especially had foreseen that wealth and production (to use an expression of that time) would be like great rivers, the waters of which it would be hopeless to attempt to distribute into little streamlets.

At all events, if the Revolution did not know exactly what the secondary and indirect consequences of the economic and social régime that it inaugurated would be, if it did not have a clear understanding either of capitalism, with its combinations, its daring devices and its industrial crises, or of the antagonistic development of the proletariat, it did at all events know what régime it wanted to inaugurate. That revolutionary France in 1789 was able to have so well defined a conception of the ends for which it was working, and so powerful a will to bring about its desires, was due to the fact that even the boldest reforms that it proposed had either precedents in the past or exact models in real life.

The economic growth of the industrial and merchant middle-class in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the great humane philosophic movement of the eighteenth century had indeed given an audacity and impetus to the public mind which had been unknown before. Nevertheless the memory of the States-General of 1614 was a source of light and strength to the men of 1789, in spite of the two centuries of despotism which had intervened. The nation was not going out absolutely into the unknown; it was reviving a national tradition, while enlarging it and adapting it to modern conditions.

Moreover, from the point of view of economic life and of agriculture and industry, it did not create unknown types of property and labour. It abolished guilds, and the masterships and wardenships that went with them. But there were already in existence whole regions and particularly progressive industries that were entirely freed from the guild system. In the suburbs of Paris, especially, characterised as they were by special industrial activity, the guild system no longer existed. The beginnings of capitalistic production with almost unlimited competition, with a variety of combinations, of joint-stock companies, sleeping partnership, etc., had been growing and getting more powerful for several generations. In the agricultural world, too, many peasant holdings had been freed from feudal burdens. The type of independent peasant-proprietors, exempt from dues, except possibly the hunting rights of the lord of the manor, had already come into being under the old order. The revolutionary process, then, was really only an expansion, a growth of forms already well defined and well known.

When it came to the transformation of the Church the Revolution had strong analogies and vigorous precedents to go upon. The army and justice, which had been feudal institutions in the past, had become in large part State institutions. Why should not the Church as well cease to be a caste corporation and become a State institution? Moreover, even under the old order. Church property was considered to have certain special attributes, and to be subject to State control. The Revolution cited with great effect the famous royal ordinance of 1749, which forbade the growth of the inalienable property (mainmorte) of the Church by legacies. Thus, being controlled by the State, Church property was ready for nationalisation. Here, again, the Revolution had obvious and reliable facts to support it.

In 1789, then, men's minds did not meet in confused aspirations, but in the most precise of positive affirmations. Their wills came together and were harmonised in the full light, the perfect precision of French thought, formed and moulded by the eighteenth century. And the Revolution of 1789 was the work of an overwhelming and perfectly self-conscious majority.

In the same way and in this case even more certainly, the Socialist Revolution will not be accomplished by the action—the sudden surprise stroke—of a bold minority, but by the definite and harmonious will of the immense majority of the citizens. Whoever depends on a fortunate turn of events or the chances and hazards of physical force to bring about the Revolution, and resigns the method of winning over the immense majority of the citizens to our ideas, will resign at the same time any possibility of transforming the social order.