Open main menu
Translation:Confessions of a Revolutionary, to serve as a History of the February Revolution by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, translated by Wikisource
VI. 24 February: Provisional Government

I said somewhere that society is a metaphysic in action, a kind of logic that is played out in proverbs. What the general study of history and the more thorough of political economy has revealed to me, the events accomplished in the last two years have made me touch a finger upon.

Every government is established in contradiction of that which preceded it: this is its reason to evolve, its title to existence. The July government was an opposition to legitimacy; legitimacy was an opposition to the Empire; the latter an opposition to the Directory, which was established in hatred of the Convention, convened itself to end the ill-reformed monarchy of Louis XVI.

According to this law of evolution, the government of Louis Philippe, overthrown unexpectedly, summons its opposite. On 24 February had taken place the deprivation of Capital; on the 25th was inaugurated the government of Labor. The decree of the Provisional Government which guaranteed the right to work was the birth of the February Republic. God! had it taken six thousand years of revolutionary arguments to bring us to this conclusion?...

Here is the antinomic theory confirmed again by experience: those who admit in the direction of human affairs no philosophy and who relate everything to an invisible power, finally tell us how reason explains everything, error and crime, while faith alone does not explain everything?

Not only does the succession of government of the workers following that of the capitalists make sense, it was just. Capital, which had been postulated as principle and end of social institutions, could not be sustained; proof had been obtained that, far from being a principle, it is a product, and that property, whether that of divine right or the sword, is not the motive and plastic force of society. After having corrupted everything, capitalist theory had even made capital go to the dogs.

The facts, in this regard, were flagrant; their testimony spoke loud. At the time of the February Revolution, commerce and industry, outstanding for several years, were in a distressing stagnation, agriculture burdened, workshops idle, stores abounding to be unblocked, the finances of the state were also mistreated as those of individuals. Despite the periodic increase of the budget, which from 1830 to 1848 was gradually raised from 1 billion to 1,500 million, the Chambers had certified a deficit, according to some of 800 million, according to others of 1 billion; the salaries of officials were themselves raised by an annual sum of 65 million. The bankocrats, who in 1830 had made a revolution in the name of interest, who had promised cheap government, who feigned the title of economists, rather than of politicians, the philosophers Must and Have spent one and a half times as much as the government of legitimacy, equally as much as the imperial government, without being able to align their revenues and expenditures.

The proof was given. It was not capital, speculation, usury, parasitism, monopoly, the legislature of 1830 had meant to say, that was labor. Decidedly, the alleged principle of July was as incapable of producing Order as it was Liberty; it was necessary to go further back, that is to say, to descend lower, it was necessary to come to the proletariat, to naught. The February Revolution had therefore been logically, justly, the workers' revolution. How could the bourgeoisie of '89, of '99, of 1814 and of 1830; how could that bourgeoisie who had traversed the descending chain of governments, from Catholicism and feudalism to capital; who only wanted to produce and exchange; who only were elevated to power by labor and the economy, see in the republic of labor a threat to their interests?

So, the February Revolution was essential to the collusion between the authority of fact and of law. The bourgeoisie were vanquished, I do not say by the people, — Thank God! there was no conflict in February between the bourgeoisie and the people, — but were vanquished by themselves, admitted their defeat. Although taken by surprise, and full of worries about the spirit and tendencies of the Republic, they agreed nevertheless that the constitutional monarchy had lived, that it was necessary to reform, from the ground up, the government. They resigned themselves thus; they were ready to support, with their adherence and even with their capital, the new establishment. Had they not, by their opposition, by their impatience, brought down a reign which had become a material obstacle to their commerce, to their industry, to their well-being?... Also, with the advent of the Republic they experienced even fewer contradictions than under Louis Philippe, and so the began to have an understanding of the times and of revolutions!

It is now that I demand the attention of my readers; for, if the lesson does not benefit us, it is useless to occupy ourselves any further with public affairs. We must let the governments go adrift: that each of us should purchase a carbine, a knife/dagger, pistols, and barricade the door. Society is only but a vain utopia: the natural state of man, the legal state, is war.

The government of labor!... Ah! it shall be a government of initiative, no doubt, a government of progress and of intelligence!... But what is the government of labor? Can labor itself be government? Will labor govern or be governed? What is there in common between labor and power?

Such a question, no one had foreseen: not anyone. Driven by governmental prejudice, the people had nothing better to do than to remake first of all a government. Power fell into their toiling hands, was immediately handed by them to a number of men of their choice, charged with founding the Republic, and resolving the political problem, the social problem, the problem of the proletariat. — We give you three months, they told them; and, always sublime in their naivety, still tender in their heroism, they added: We have three months of misery to the service of the Republic! Antiquity and the Revolution of '92 had nothing comparable to that cry emanating from the depths of the people of February.

The men chosen by the people, installed at the Hotel de Ville, having been named the Provisional Government, found it necessary to summon government without an idea, without a goal. Those who, for eighteen years, looked impatiently for the development of socialist ideas, were repeating in every tone: The Social Revolution is the goal, the Political Revolution is the means, were embarrassed, God knows! when, once in possession of the means, they had to reach toward the goal and put their hands to work. They thought about it, I do not doubt; and soon they had to recognize that which Mr. Thiers later revealed, which had been said before him by President Sauzet, that being that government is not made to provide work to workers, that it was safer for them to keep the status quo of Louis Philippe and resist any innovation, as the people did not impose authority.

Yet they were not lacking of intelligence, these conspirators of thirty years, who had fought all despotisms, critiqued all ministries, written the history of all revolutions; each of whom had a political and social theory in portfolio. They asked for nothing better than to take any initiative, these adventurers of progress; and neither did they fault their advisers. How then did they sit for three months without producing the smallest reform act, without advancing by one line the Revolution? How, after having guaranteed by decree the right to work, did they not seem to care, the whole time they were in office, that the means did not fulfill their promise? Why not the smallest assay of agricultural or industrial organization? Why have they denied this decisive argument against utopia, experience?... How! why! is it to be me, socialist, justifying the Provisional Government? It is, you see, that they were the government, and that in matters of revolution initiative repugns the State, as much, at least, as labor repugns capital. This is the key of all the facts which have been accomplished since February in France and in Europe, and which may well be accomplished for years to come.

This is the place to expose the juridical reason for the revolutionary incapacity of all government.

It means that government is by nature immobilist, conservative, refractory toward any initiative, we might say even counter-revolutionary, it is that a revolution is an organic thing, something creative, and that power is something mechanical or executive. Let me explain.

I call organic, not the laws, which are purely conventional, affecting the broader elements of administration and power, such as municipal and departmental law, the law on recruitment, the law on public instruction, etc. The word organic employed in this sense is quite abusive, and Mr. Odilon Barrot was right to say that such laws had nothing organic at all. This claimed organism, the invention of Bonaparte, is only the governmental machinery. I mean by organic that which makes the constitution intimate, timeless to society, superiorly to any political system, to any constitution of the State.

Thus, we say that marriage is something organic. It appertains to the legislative power to take the initiative of any law concerning the relations of interest and of domestic order which gives rise to conjugal society; it does not appertain to it to touch upon the essence of this society. Is marriage an institution of absolute or dubious morality, an institution; in progress or in decadence? We can dispute in that regard as we please: never will a government, an assembly of legislators take initiative in that regard. It is of the spontaneous development of morals, in general society, of what I would call Humanitarian Providence, to modify that which can be modified, to make reforms that only time reveals. And that is, to say in passing, that which has prevented divorce from being established in France. After long and serious discussions, after a few years experience, the legislature has recognized that an issue so delicate and so grave was not within its jurisdiction; that the time had passed for us where divorce could have come into our institutions without endangering the family and without offending morals, and in seeking to untie this knot, the government was running the risk of degrading precisely what it wanted to ennoble[1].

I am suspicious of superstitious feebleness and of religious prejudices of any kind: but I will say that religion is, like marriage, not a regulatory thing or of sheer discipline, but an organic thing, consequently removed from the direct action of power. It appertained, such at least is my opinion, to the Old Constituent, by virtue of the distinction of the spiritual and of the temporal, accepted long ago in the Gallican Church, to set the time of the clergy and to remake the episcopal districts; but I deny that the Convention would have the right to close the churches. I do not recognize in the communal authority and in the society of the Jacobins the power to establish a new cult. The cult was an organic thing in France when the Revolution broke out; and if, by progress of philosophy, one could then proclaim the right to abstain, if one can predict today the forthcoming extinction of Catholicism, one would not be authorized to abrogate it. The concordat of 1802 was not, though it has been said, a deed of revolutionary reaction; it was a mere reparation demanded by the immense majority of the people. I still believe, and on the same considerations, that it appertained to the Chamber of 1830 to ensure by the Charter the liberty, respect and salary of all the cults; I would not answer that it should be permitted to say that the Catholic religion was not a majority religion. Certainly, I would not support today the revision, in the sense that I indicate, of Art. 7 of the Constitution of 1848; what is done, whatever it has cost, is done, and I hold irrevocable. But I would not have voted for Art. 6 of the Charter of 1830.

These examples suffice to explain my thinking. A revolution is an explosion of the organic force, an evolution from the inside out, of society; it is legitimate only insofar as it is spontaneous, pacific and traditional. It is thereby equal tyranny to suppress it as well as to do violence to it.

The organization of labor, which solicited, after February, the Provisional Government to take the initiative, touched upon property, and, consequently, marriage and the family; it implied even, in the terms in which it was posed, an abolition, if one would more like a redemption of property. The socialists who, after so much work on the matter, stubbornly persisted to deny it, or who deplore the fact that other socialists have said it, do not have even the sad excuse of ignorance; they are simply in bad faith.

The Provisional Government, before acting, before making any deliberation, consequently and previously had to distinguish the organic question from the executive question, in other words, that which was within the competence of power and that which was not. Then, that distinction being made, its unique duty, its sole right, was to invite the citizens to produce themselves, by the full exercise of their liberty, new facts upon which it, government, would later be called upon to exercise either oversight, or, as needed, direction.

It is probable that the Provisional Government was not driven by considerations so lofty; it is even suggested that such scruples had not been held. It only wanted to revolutionize: it only knew how to deprive. It was a compound of conservatives, doctrinaires, Jacobins, socialists, each speaking a different language. It would have been wonderful, when they had so much difficulty in agreeing on the slightest police matter, should they have come to agreeing in the end on something like a revolution. The discord that reigned in the camp, far more than generally prudent, preserved the country from the utopias of the Provisional Government; the dissensions which agitated it took the place of philosophy.

The fault, the great fault of the Provisional Government, was not its inability to build, it was its inability to demolish.

Thus, it was necessary to repeal laws oppressive of individual liberty, to end the scandal of arbitrary arrests, fix limits for prevention... One only thought to defend the prerogatives of the magistracy, and the liberty of the citizens was more than ever delivered to the arbitrariness of the parquets. It pleased the haute police to convert a restaurant into a trap; two hundred citizens having gathered for dinner were taken from their women and their children, beaten, thrown in jail, charged with conspiracy, and subsequently released, after the investigating judge, who did not know himself of what the police were accusing them, had been extensively convinced that there was no charge against them.

It was necessary to disarm power, dismiss half the army, abolish conscription, organize a landsturm, keep the troops out of the capital, declare that the executive power could not, in any case, under any pretext, dissolve and disarm the national guard. — Instead, they set about the formation of these twenty-four mobile battalions, of which they informed us later, in June, for utility and patriotism.

It was necessary to ensure freedom of assembly, first by repealing the law of 1790 and any others that could lend to ambiguity; then, by organizing clubs around the representatives of the people, and bringing them into parliamentary life. The organization of popular societies was the backbone of democracy, the cornerstone of the republican order. Instead of organization, the Provisional Government had offered clubs of tolerance and espionage, until due to public indifference and reaction they were extinguished.

It was necessary to pluck the nails and teeth from power, move the public forces of government to the citizens, not only to ensure that government could not do anything against liberty, but also to wrest from the governmental utopias their final hope. 16 April, 15 May, do they not prove the strength of the country against the enterprises of the minority? But, there would have been no 16 April or 15 May, if the government, with its irresistible force had not been confined by an irresistible temptation toward the impatience of demagogues.

Everything was taken against the trend the morrow after February. It was not for the government to undertake what it wanted to do; and that is why they have conserved power as it had been reprized under the July monarchy, even augmented its force. What we needed to do, we did not; and this is why, on 17 March, the Revolution was suppressed in the name of power, by the very people who seemed to be its most energetic representatives. Rather than returning to the people their innovative fecundity by the subordination of power to their wishes, they sought to resolve, by power, the problems of which time had not enlightened the masses; to ensure the so-called Revolution, they retracted liberty! Nothing was offered to reformers of that which had been seen in the great revolutionary epochs: no downward impulsion, no indication of opinion; not a principle, not a discovery that had received the sanction of the people. And these people, they alarmed their reason daily by decrees by which they condemned themselves. Being unable to justify them by principles, they claimed to excuse these decrees in the name of necessity! It was no longer, as before, antagonism, it was the charivari of liberty and power.

Take another look at history, and see how they would produce and achieve revolutions.

Before Luther, Descartes and the Encyclopédie, the State, faithful expression of society, delivered to the executioner the heretics and the philosophers. Jan Hus, the precursor of the Reformation, was burned at Constance, upon condemnation by the council, by the secular arm. But bit by bit philosophy creeps into the hearts of the masses: once the State amnesties the innovators, it takes them for guides and consecrates their right. The Revolution of '89 came from the same source: it was made in their opinion, then it was declared by power. In another vein, when was the state engaged in canals and railways? When did it want to have a steam navy? After multiplied trials, and the publicly acknowledged success of the first entrepreneurs.

It was reserved for our epoch to attempt something that had never been seen, a revolution by power, and then to have it dismissed by the nation. Socialism existed and was propagated for 18 years, under the protection of the Charter, which recognized for all the French the right to publish and print their opinions. The demagogues of February had the secret, in dragging socialism to power, of rousing against it intolerance and of having proscribed thence the ideas. It is they who, by that fatal reversal of principles, caused the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the people to explode, antagonism which had not appeared during the three days of 1848, any more than in 1830; which did not emerge from the revolutionary idea, and which was to result in the most bloody catastrophe, as to the most ridiculous debacle.

Whilst the Provisional Government, deprived of the genius of Revolutions, separated itself at once and the bourgeoisie and the people squandered days and weeks in fruitless trials and errors, agitations and circulars, an indescribable state socialism roused souls, affected the dictatorship, and, surprisingly for any who have not studied the mechanics of these contradictions, gave itself, against its own theories, the signal of resistance.

FootnotesEdit

  1. On the question of divorce, the best solution is still that of the Church. In principle, the Church does not admit that marriage, contracted regularly, can be dissolved; but by a causality of fiction, it declared, in certain cases, it does not exist, or it has ceased to exist. Cladestinity, impotence, crime importing civil death, mistaken identity, etc., are for it, as many cases of diremption of marriage. Perhaps it would be possible to equally satisfy the needs of society, the exigencies of morality and respect for families, in perfecting that theory without going as far as divorce, whereby the marriage contract is no longer in reality a cohabitation contract.