Open main menu
Translation:Confessions of a Revolutionary, to serve as a History of the February Revolution by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, translated by Wikisource
II. Profession of Faith; Nature and Destination of Parties

The judgments of God are mysterious, says the believer. A sacrilegious philosophy, applicable to events its flickering logic can only undertake in his indomitable pride, make them intelligible. Why, you ask, these revolutions, with their deviations and their returns, their catastrophes and their crimes? Why these terrible crises that seem to announce to societies their final hour; these earthquakes among peoples, these great desolations of history? Hear Bossuet, hear all that faith humbles under its salutary yoke: they will tell you that the views of Providence are inaccessible to human prudence, and that everything happens for the greater glory of God, ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Less modest than faith, philosophy tries to give some meaning to the things of this world; it assigns them motives and causes: and, when theology, its sovereign, is silent, the audacious next take the floor. Where supernatural revolution ends, rational revolution commences.

What, first of all, is religion? Religion is the eternal love that ravishes souls in excess of the sensible, and fosters in societies an unalterable youth. It is not for it to give us science: dogma in religion serves only to extinguish charity. So why would so-called theologians make the purest of our consciousness a fantasmacy of mysteries?...

God is the universal force, imbued with intelligence, which produces, by an infinite information itself the beings of all realms, from imponderable fluid to man, and within man alone comes to know and speak to Me! Far from being our master, God is the object of our study: how have the thaumaturges made a personal being, sometimes absolute king, as the god of the Jews and Christians, sometimes constitutional sovereign as that of the deists, whose incomprehensible Providence is not occupied, in precept as in his actions, confuse our reason?

What is the order of salvation, which has nothing in common with the order of the ages; this spiritual which annuls all other interests, this contemplation which demeans everything ideal, this alleged science inspired against all science? What do they want with their dogmas without intelligible basis, with their symbols with no positive purpose, with their rituals devoid of human significance? Catholicism is the allegory of society, or it is nothing. Now the time has come when the allegory must give way to reality, where theology is impiety, and faith sacrilege. A God who governs and who cannot be explained is a God who I deny, who I hate above all things.

And do you believe, when I address this question to him:

“How is it, my God, that Society is divided into hostile, intolerant fractions, each obstinate in its error, implacable in their vengeances? Where is the necessity to the world's progress and the progress of civilization, that men detest each other and tear each other apart? What Destiny, what Satan wanted, for the order of cities and the perfectionment of individuals, that they could not think, act freely from one next to the other, love as needed, and in any case be left alone?”

And that God, through the mouth of his ministers, makes me hear this impious speech:

“Man, do you not see that your race is fallen, and your soul comes from the inception of the infernal powers? Justice and peace are not wherein thou art. The Sovereign Arbitrator, in expiation of the original sin, gave humans their own quarrels. The vessel has the right to say to the potter: why hast thou made me thus?”

Do you believe that my heart is resigned and that my reason should be held to be satisfied?

We might respect, if you like, the secret of God; we might incline our will before his indisputable judgments. But since he confides to the world and ourselves in our enterprising curiosity, he undoubtedly would permit that we might disagree, even concerning the cause of our disagreements, even if we make this controversy one day as known as he. So argue; and it would please the Being with no bottom and no end that we never would have done anything else! Man would have been long ago the master of the earth, and we, socialist-democrats, would not have, from 24 February 1848 to 13 June 1849, incessantly abandoned the prey for the shadow.

For me, I will not shrink from any investigation. And if the Supreme Revelator refuses to instruct me, I will instruct myself, I will descend to the depths of my soul; I will eat, like my father, the sacred fruit of knowledge; and when, by misfortune I am wrong, I would have the merit of my audacity, while He would not have the excuse of silence.

Left to my own understanding, I seek to recognize myself on this terrain bristling with politics and history; and this is what, at first glance I immediately comprehend.

Society, like Time, is presented to the mind in two dimensions, the past and the future.

The present is the imaginary line which separates one from the other, like the equator divides the globe into two hemispheres.

The past and future are the two poles of the humanitarian current: the first, generator of the second; the second, logical and necessary complement of the first.

Embrace by thought, in the same contemplation, the two dimensions of history: it all together forms the Social System, complete, without solution of continuity, identical to itself in all its parts, and wherein anomalies and accidents serve to more clearly highlight historical thinking, order.

Thus the social system, in its truth and entirety, cannot exist on a particular day or in a particular part of the globe: it cannot be revealed to us until the end of time, it will only be known by the last mortal. For us, who hold the middle generations, we can only represent it with increasingly approximate conjectures; the only thing having been devolved to us, in this philosophy of progressive humanity, is, based upon a sound understanding of our past, to incessantly prepare our future. Our fathers have transmitted to us Society of a particular form; we will transmit to our posterity another: there is confined our knowledge, if there be any; there is reduced the exercise of our liberty. So it is in the case of ourselves that we must act to influence the destiny of the world; it is the past of our ancestors that we must exploit, reserving the future for our descendants.

However, since humanity is progressive, and it acts only on memories and forecasts, it is naturally divided into two great classes: the one which, most affected by the experience of the ancients, is reluctant to go forward into the uncertainty of the unknown; the other which, impatient with present evils, is more inclined to reform. To keep an equal account of either of the traditions or hypotheses, and to advance upon an uncertain route of progress, is something impossible for our too exclusive reason. We would not be men, if from the first encounter we judged things with this simultaneity of perception which is the characteristic of science. The first condition of our education is thus discord. Now, as we already perceive the cause of our discussions, we can legitimately hope, without exorcism and without magic, to banish them from the midst of us: faith when it mixes with reasoning, do we offer a principle as simple as that?

Let us get to the facts.

The party of the past, depending on whether we consider it in the order of religious, political or economic facts, is called Catholicism, Legitimacy, Property. The generalization of these three terms is Absolutism.

Everything we can, everything we want, everything we are, whatever point of view in which we place ourselves, derives, either by filiation or opposition, from the past, that is to say from the feudal or patrimonial, from royalty, from Catholicism.

We are no longer what we were yesterday, precisely because we were; we will cease one day to be what we are, precisely because we are.

But how does one accomplish this evolution?

Catholicism, in order to get out of a chaotic state and elevate itself in unity, strives to rationalize itself ever more. Through this rationalism it corrupts itself, it loses its mystical character, and becomes a philosophy of nature and humanity. — The privileges of the Gallican Church in the Middle Ages, the influence of the reform in the sixteenth century; the apologetic works of Fénelon, Bossuet, Fleury, etc., etc., in the seventeenth; the encyclopedic movement of the eighteenth; the tolerance, or rather, the legal and constitutional indifference of the nineteenth, express as many of the diverse phases of Catholicism.

On the other hand monarchy, absolute in its origin as the paternal power of which it is the increment, has need, in proportion to the extent of its domain, to organize, and this organization, which is nothing other than an application of the policy of the principle of the division of labor, inevitably leads the monarchy to democracy. — The emancipation of the commons; the successive infringements of the monarchy under Louis XI, Richelieu and Louis XIV; the constitutions of 1790, the year III, the year VIII, 1814 and 1830; the new constitution of 1848, are the manifestations, in the political order, of the revolutionary cause.

Finally property, by inheritance, by equal sharing, by mutations, by mortgage, by the division of labor, by circulation and by a host of other causes, also tends to change in its nature and form: economists know all of this. — The abolition of masteries, mortmains, feudal rights, etc.; the selling, in the name of the State, of the possessions of the clergy; equality in taxes, levied against property, for sixty years, some modifications which, to be less susceptible, are no less profound and real.

Furthermore, these three parallel movements, the Catholic movement, the monarchical movement, and the economic movement, do not express, as has been said, one and the same, the conversion of the absolutist ideal, into its opposite, namely, the democratic and social ideal. — Considered philosophically, the monarchy of divine right is an emanation of Catholicism, formed from the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal; property is an emanation of monarchy, through the feudal institution. Socialism, or social democracy, the last form of Catholicism, is also the last form of monarchy and property. Socialism is the product of Catholicism and at the same time its opponent, at once Christ and Anti-Christ. Faith will not suit it, no doubt: we need only philosophy, which history sets down.

Catholicism, monarchy, property, in a word absolutism, thus express for us the historical and social past; socialist democracy expresses the future.

Just as absolutism was, in another era, the legal and normal state of society, Socialism also aspires to become the legal and normal state of this society.

As long as the two opposite terms of movement, or parties that represent them, shall not be inclusive, they will make war; they will say, as Ajax to Odysseus: You shall either lift me, or I you! On the day when they shall make their mutual recognition, they will quickly identify and blend with each other.

Catholicism posed the problem: socialism claims to solve it. The first has provided symbolism to humanity; the second gave exegesis. This evolution is inevitable, fatal.

But, as we have said: the revolutions of humanity are not accomplished with this philosophical placidity; peoples do not accept science when reluctant; and then, is humanity not free? It thus arises, for every attempt at progress, a storm of contradictions, of oppositions and of struggles that, with the impression of a divine furor, in lieu of being resolved amicably by dealings, lead to catastrophes.

It follows from these agitations and pangs that society does not pass through the series of its destiny according to a regular plan, and on a straight path; it deviates sometimes right, sometimes left, as attracted and repelled by contradictory forces: and it is these oscillations, combined with the attacks of socialism and the resistances of absolutism, which produce the peripeteias of social drama.

Thus, while the direct movement of society gives rise to two opposing parties, absolutism and socialism; the oscillatory movement produces two other parties hostile to each other and to the other two, which I call, by their historical names, the first, golden mean or doctrine, the second, demagogy, Jacobinism, or radicalism.

The golden mean, known to philosophers by the name of eclecticism, comes from this egotistical and lazy state of mind, which prefers to frank solutions impossible compromises; which accepts religion, but made to its convenience; which wants philosophy, but with reservation; which supports monarchy, but complacent, democracy, but submitted; which proclaims freedom of commerce, but while covering it in protections; which would arrange for the gratuity of circulation and credit, while stipulating interest for capital; finally, whose wisdom consists in maintaining the equal balance, if possible, between authority and liberty, the status quo and progress, the private interest and the general interest; without ever understanding that authority inevitably engenders liberty, that philosophy is the inevitable product of religion, that monarchy continually transforms itself into democracy, and, consequently, that the last term of progress is where, by the succession of reforms, the individual interest is identical to the general interest, and liberty synonymous with order.

The demagogic or so-called radical party results from the impatience which equally causes people to feel the spirit of good faith and the absolutist reaction and the circumspection of the golden mean. Only seeing the kings and priests as exploiters and tyrants, the men of the golden mean as hoaxers and ambitionists, demagogy dreams less of peacefully transforming than of brusquely suppressing previous institutions; it takes the past, not as a theme, but as an adversary. Addressing the people's passions more than their reason, when it imagines to do the talking, it succeeds only in inciting.

The golden mean is the hypocrisy of progress;

Demagogy is its fever.

The golden mean addresses the preferences of the bourgeoisie, hostile to the nobility and clergy, whom they blame for their immobility and of whose prerogatives they are jealous, but is repugnant to the radical tendencies and stiffens against the egalitarian conclusions of progress.

Radicalism is better for the people. Indeed, the more man feels disinherited, the more inclined he is to violently overthrow and reconstitute the society that disinherited him.

Thus demagogy and the golden mean are opposite one another, like absolutism and socialism are between them: these four parties form, if I may say so, the four cardinal points of history. Necessary results of our perfectibility, they are contemporary in society and reason, and indestructible. Under many diverse names, Greek and barbarian, citizen and slave, Spartan and Helot, patrician and proletarian, Guelph and Ghibelline, noble and serf, bourgeois and journeyman, capitalist and worker, you find them in all ages and among all peoples. All of them had their crimes and follies, as they had their share of truth and utility in humanitarian evolution. Instigators of opinion, agents and moderators of progress, they personify the faculties of the collective being, the conditions of social life.

Absolutism is distinguished above all by its inertial force: which is actually its spirit of conservation, without which progress, missing its basis, would merely be an empty word. This is why the absolutist party is also called the conservative party.

What distinguishes the golden mean, or doctrinairism, is a sophisticated and arbitrary character: the actual idea is that it is for society to govern itself, to be its own providence and its own God. The law, for the doctrinaire, is the pure product of the government's thought, so consequently eminently subjective.

Radicalism can be recognized by its ardor in opposing stagnation and arbitrariness: its protestation is its justification.

Socialism conceives the social order as the result of a positive and objective science; but, like any scientific undertaking, it is subject to applying its hypotheses to realities, its utopian views to institutions.

Absolutism, benefiting from its precedence, I would almost say from its birthright, but fooled by its principle, whose whole efficiency is to abrogate itself, forever implementing restoration, only serves to fuel revolutions; — the golden mean endeavors to stop the revolutionary chariot, and only manages to precipitate it; — demagogy wants to accelerate the movement and causes it to react; — socialism, always waging war against the traditions, often ends up being itself excommunicated from society.

Furthermore, it is of political parties as of systems of philosophy. They reciprocally engender and contradict each other, as all extremes, suscitate one another, exclude each other, at times seem to die out only to reappear after long intervals. Every man who reasons and seeks to realize his opinions, whether in politics, in philosophy, immediately classes himself, by the mere fact of the judgment he expresses, in a party or some system: only he who does not think is of no party, no philosophy, no religion. And that is precisely the habitual state of the masses, who, outside of the epochs of agitation, remain completely indifferent to political and religious speculations. But this calm, this intellectual ataraxia of the people is not sterile. It is the people who, in the long run, without theories, by their spontaneous creations, modify, reform, absorb the policy projects and philosophical doctrines, and who, incessantly creating a new reality, incessantly change the basis of politics and philosophy.

Absolutism, dominant in France until the end of the last century, is since then continually in decline; — doctrinairism, manifest with a certain brilliance following the July Revolution, has passed with the eighteen-year reign. As for demagogy and socialism, the first, reignited by revolutionary novelists, reappeared in February, to stem the revolution in the days of 17 March, 16 April, 15 May, and destroy it on that of 13 June; — the second, after having dawdled twenty years its mystical existence, is very near to dissolving itself. There are no more, at the time I write this, parties in France; nothing remains, under the banner of the Republic, only a coalition of ruined bourgeois against a coalition of proletarians dying of hunger. Common misery will have produced that which could only have been general reason: in destroying the rich, it will have destroyed the antagonism.

That which I just said of parties that primordially divide every society, is only a definition: well! it is already the whole history. It is the same philosophy of progress, the death of social mysticism, finis theologiæ! What do the skeptical and inspired endlessly dispute in the case of the value and legitimacy of human reason, no matter their doubt, if reason fatefully imposes upon us its formulas? What does it matter to know that we cannot be men? That is the privilege of reason, that is its misery, if you will, to reduce to simple and lucid ideas the most gigantic phenomena, the most entangled of civilization and nature. Just as the largest rivers are only streams at their source; similarly, for the reason of the philosopher, the most terrible revolutions depend upon naively simple causes. Faith teaches us not to judge things with this vulgar discernment: that is what faith, as well as God from whom it is a gift, does not reason.

The determination that I just made of parties, of their principles and of their tendencies, is real, because it is necessary and universal, common to all ages and to all peoples, regardless of the variety of parties, their origins, their interests, their aims; it is true, because it cannot not be true.

That is the expression of the most general aspects of history, and of primitive attractions of society.

Society, living and perfectible, which develops over time, to the opposite of God, who immovably exists for eternity, necessarily has two poles, one that looks to the past, the other looking to the future. In society, where ideas and opinions are divided and classed according to temperaments and interests, so there are also two principal parties: the absolutist party, which strives to conserve and reconstruct the past; and the socialist party, which incessantly tends to bring out and produce the future.

But society, by virtue of the analytical reason with which man is gifted, oscillates and deviates continually to the right, to the left of progress, according to the diversity of passions which serve as motors. It has therefore also, among the two extreme parties, two middle parties, in parliamentary terms, a center-right and a center-left, a Gironde and a Mountain, which incessantly push or hold the Revolution off its track.

All of this is of an almost mathematical evidence, of an almost experimental certainty. Such is the exactitude of this topography, it is sufficient to simply glance at once for the key to all the evolutions and retrogradations of humanity.