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Translation:Confessions of a Revolutionary, to serve as a History of the February Revolution by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, translated by Wikisource
VII. 17 March: Reaction of Louis Blanc

Question. — Being given for a country the following situation:

The revolution of contempt had overthrown the government that had established the materialistic principle of interests. This revolution, which condemns capital, was inaugurated by the same and carried labor into government. Now, according to generally propagated prejudices, labor, having become government, must proceed through government channels; in other words, it is to the government to do henceforth that which has always been done without it and against it, to take the initiative and to develop the revolution. For, says prejudice, the revolution must come from above, since it is above wherein are located intelligence and force.

But experience testifies, and philosophy demonstrates, contrary to prejudice, that any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous, emanating, not from the head of power, but from the depths of the people; that government is more reactionary than progressive; that it cannot have the intelligence of revolutions, since society, to which solely appertains this secret, is not revealed by legislative decrees, but by the spontaneity of its manifestations; that finally, the sole relationship that can exist between government and labor is that the latter is to the other not a patron, but a valet.

In this situation, a certain number of citizens, carried away by common prejudice, and yielding to a legitimate impatience, want to compel the government to march, that is to say to commence the revolution and organize labor: very just pretension, according to prejudice, but unsustainable, according to philosophy and history. For its part, government, sensing its incapacity and supported by another party of citizens, refuses to act, or rather it reacts against the solicitors: legitimate reaction, from the standpoint of genuine democratic and social law, but supremely unjust according to prejudice, to which the encroachments of power constantly lend new strength.

One wonders what will come of this conflict.

Response. — The sole means to cause the parties to agree would be to demonstrate to them the natural incompetence of government, in any function other than the police. Without notice to itself occurring, the fight is inevitable. The force of the resistance will be due to the intensity of the movement: again, in the event that the fight is prolonged, the revolution, rather than itself develop, into the Government, following the direction of its primitive impulse, it will go through a series of positions diametrically opposite to that which, according to the will of the people, it should have followed. In kind as more men of the movement seek to hold power, more of those of the resistance will decline it.

So says theory: see history.

Fifteen days had barely passed since the proclamation of the Republic, when already anxiety seized minds. According to popular beliefs, power was everything, and we saw it undertake nothing. The most ardent on the side of the people complained that the provisional government had done nothing for the Revolution; the most cowardly among the bourgeois accused it, on the contrary, of doing too much. The decrees on working hours and marchandages, much more than the famous circulars of Ledru-Rollin, were of such a nature as would profoundly alarm the bourgeois class. However, it was not so much at Luxembourg Palace that the reactionary opinion was so addressed, than at the Hotel de Ville. The workers were aware that Louis Blanc and Albert had no way to act on their ambitious projects, and that their impact on the provisional government was almost null; but the bourgeoisie, per some circulars which escaped the Ministry of the Interior, imagine that the Republic was going to lay hands on incomes and properties. On all sides it was thus towards the government, it was towards Ledru-Rollin that arose apprehensions and wishes. Everyone seeking an opportunity, it could not long make mistakes; a puerile pretext it provided.

On 16 March, several hundred national guardsmen presented themselves at the Hotel de Ville in protest against the ordinance which suppressed the elite companies, and defended in consequence the wearing of busbies. This demonstration, directed mainly against Ledru-Rollin, was mistaken by address: then there was nothing in common between the political ideas of the Minister of the Interior and the socialist theories of the president of the Luxembourg Commission. But the shake was given, the fates were going to accomplish it.

The government stood firm against the busbies: aided by some patriots gathered in haste, it forced back the demonstration. The report was no sooner spread, than the alarm was spread in the suburbs. They had dared to attack the provisional government; a counter-demonstration was assigned the next day to support it. Now, this new demonstration was nothing itself, as was the first, but a pretext. In the spirit of a certain number of leaders, it was for no less than to modify the composition of the government, to force it to take a vigorous initiative, and, to give full latitude to its actions, to obtain a more or less remote postponement of elections. Lists circulated from hand to hand, and Huber, my neighbor at the Conciergerie, one of the instigators of the movement, assured me that my name was on a few!... The thought of the demonstration was thus threefold: some, and it was the largest number, intended only to give moral support to the Provisional Government; others asked for the postponement of elections; the last, finally, wanted a cleansing. Moreover, this is how Louis Blanc, witness and actor in this drama, reports on the event:

“Freshly out of popular acclaim, the provisional government had to wonder how it would define itself. Should it consider itself as a dictatorial authority, consecrated by a revolution that had become necessary, and not having to submit its accounts to universal suffrage after doing all the good that was done? Should it to the contrary consider its mission to immediately convoke the National Assembly, containing itself in emergency measures, in administrative acts of secondary importance?

“The Council fell in with the latter opinion.

“For me, I had an entirely opposite opinion to that which prevailed, and I watched the adoption of the other party as must exert the happiest influence on the destinies of the new Republic.

“Considering thus the state of profound ignorance and of moral enslavement where the countrysides in France experience plunges, the immensity of resources that conserve to the enemies of progress the exclusive possession of all means of influence and all avenues of wealth, so many impure seeds deposited at the foundation of society through half a century of imperial or monarchical corruption, finally the numerical superiority of the ignorant people of the countrysides over the informed people of the towns, I think:

“That we should have moved back as far as possible the time of elections.

“That we were commanded to take, in the interval, and that highly, boldly, except to answer for it above our heads, the initiative to accomplish the vast reforms, reserving to the National Assembly the right to reaffirm subsequently, or to reverse our implementation of a sovereign hand.”

It can be seen, without my need to make the remark, that the arguments of Louis Blanc for taking up the dictatorship are exactly the same as those which honest and moderate Republicans have used since to legitimize twice consecutively the state of siege, give the dictatorship to General Cavaignac, bring to the presidency Louis Bonaparte, declare the socialists enemies of society, and create, under the Republic, a despotism such, that one might be tempted to regard as a liberator the first pretender to take the crown. Where can a nation go, when friends and enemies are sure to magnetize it in turn with the same phrases?

“My opinion found itself consistent with that of the people of Paris... I learned at the Luxembourg, several days before 17 March, that the people of Paris were themselves preparing to make an impressive demonstration, for the dual objective of the postponement of the elections and the removal of the troops who still occupied Paris.”

What Louis Blanc said of the removal of the troops is true. The people demanded it with insistence: only Louis Blanc does not realize that the second motif contradicts the other. What was there, in fact, for the people in the removal of the troops? The disarmament of power, the impotence of government. The people, when they are given over to their own instinct, always see more justly than when they are driven by the policy of their leaders: they sensed, and it was for them an old saying, that the government is never better than when it is without virtue. Our enemy is our master! said the common man par excellence, the old Lafontaine.

Here is what the plan was: 1) Demand of the Provisional Government the postponement of the elections, so as to ensure this dictatorial authority, without which, said Louis Blanc, it could not do good; 2) modify the composition of the government. Because, and it is still Louis Blanc who avows it, there existed between the diverse members of the Provisional Government grave dissidences, incompatible with the exercise of the dictatorship: now, who wills the end wills the means. What good was a dictatorial authority, if the government remained heterogeneous?

But who would be the dictators?...

On this delicate question, one would, marvelously, find for any response reaction! Listen to the faithful narrator.

“But, I admit, the idea of the demonstration itself frightened me. I could scarcely believe that more than 150,000 workers could traverse all of Paris without causing any agitation, without giving rise to any disorder...”

Once come to power all men are alike. It's always the same zeal for authority, the same distrust of the people, the same fanaticism for order. Is it not pleasant to see that, on 17 March, the preoccupations that agitated Louis Blanc, secret fomenter of the demonstration, were precisely the same as those which, three weeks earlier, had agitated Mr. Guizot?

“The people were to focus en masse on the Hotel de Ville to obtain the postponement of the elections. Would this grand move be without danger? Previously Paris, the Paris of the revolution, had been admirable for its tranquil majesty and potent repose, had we not to make sure that it would retain until the end this noble attitude?...”

Order, always order; that is to say, obedience, always obedience. Otherwise you will have the revolution, said Mr. Guizot; otherwise you will not have the revolution, said Louis Blanc.

So how does one prevent the announced demonstration? It is Louis Blanc who poses in this way the question. — And if it were true that unknown agitators would have wanted to make some storm come out of the foundation of the multitude set in motion, how does one foil their plans? It is still Louis Blanc who addresses the situation. Agitators! cried he. Mr. Guizot said: factions!

The means proposed by Louis Blanc is cited: it merited being proposed to Mr. Guizot. The Revolution was hijacked on 22 February, as the alleged dictatorship of Blanqui was on 17 March.

It was necessary, says Louis Blanc, to grant to the multitude that which they wanted, that is to say the postponement of the elections (the only thing talked about in the petition of the delegates), therein placing as a condition the integrity of the provisional government. — In short, to accept the letter of the petition, and feign not to notice the spirit; to grant the postponement, if not but for a fortnight, and maintain the Government. Here is how Louis Blanc imagined to deceive the petitioners. On any other occasion, when the people will combine to petition, they will know that with power it must be explained clearly and categorically.

But why would Louis Blanc, who supported the motives of the demonstration, who had developed it in the council, who had brought it to the masses, loath it so much to mutilate the Provisional Government? Was it solely out of consideration and friendship for his colleagues? Not at all. Let us hear our historian:

“These dissidences which, in view of unity of action, would have made the provisional government a very poor power, constituted its originality as a government in passing, destined to keep the place of sovereignty. Yes, the very heterogeneity of the elements of which it was composed was of a nature to salvage the situation, because it tended to maintain in equilibrium the diverse forces in society...”

Thus the provisional government, responsible only for maintaining the equilibrium, had not to direct the revolutionary movement, no more in one sense than in another; thus, since it was conservative, it was not the initiator; thus it had no need for a dictatorial authority; thus the postponement of elections was worse than unnecessary, it was impolitic: it was an attack on popular sovereignty; therefore the demonstration was absurd. That is the consequence that Louis Blanc had drawn from his own premises, and if he had not drawn it, the course of events would have done so for him.

“We were in waiting... Suddenly, at one end of the Place de Grève, appeared a sombre and compact mass. These were the corporations. Separated from one another by equal intervals and preceded by their various banners, they arrived gravely, in silence, in the order and with the discipline of an army...

“The delegates were mounted at the Hotel de Ville, and one of them, Citizen Géraud, having read the petition, I perceived, among the assistants, of the unknown figures, whose expression was something sinister.”

They were apparently the same ones who were observed, by the honest and the moderate, since 15 May and into the June Days. The men of government are subject to peculiar hallucinations.

“I immediately understood that persons outside the corporations had intermingled with the movement” (why not? Were not the corporations of the Luxembourg worthy of representing the people?), “and that those who presented themselves as deputies of the multitude were not all really so, or at least not by the same title. There were men impatient to overthrow, to the benefit of the opinion represented by Ledru-Rollin, Flocon, Albert and myself, those members of the Provisional Government who represented a contrary opinion.”

These men, admittedly, were more consequential than you. They represented in that moment pure demagoguery; and you, with your delegates and your whole Provisional Government, you were already more that of the doctrinaires. But let us see the end.

As is usual in such circumstances, Louis Blanc, Ledru-Rollin, Lamartine amused the people with speeches; Sobrier, Cabet, Barbès and others took sides for the Provisional Government against Flotte, Huber, Blanqui and others. Menacing voices demanded a positive response: to be told that the Government could not act if they let it deliberate. A man rushed to Louis Blanc, and, seizing his arm: Thou art thus a traitor, too! he said. “In thinking of this injustice of passions,” says Louis Blanc, “I could only assert a bitter smile, and that was all.” Finally, the members of the Government showed themselves on the balcony, and the comedy ended with a parade.

“Such was,” adds Louis Blanc, “this day of 17 March, the grandest perhaps of all the historic days in the memory of men!...”

Messrs. Ledru-Rollin, Crémieux and Lamartine had the right to say that 17 March was a beautiful day, and to claim the honor: they did not want the dictatorship, and on that day France was perhaps saved from the dictators. But Louis Blanc and those who, following his example, demanded the indefinite postponement of elections, so that the government, coated with an unlimited authority, had time to do good, these must admit that it was for them a pitiful day. What! behold a man convinced that dictatorship is necessary for the good of the people; that men of power, his colleagues, are hostile to progress; that the Revolution is in peril if we do not manage to replace them: he knows that the opportunity is rare; that once escaped it never returns; that a sole instant is given to strike a decisive blow; and when that moment came, he took the opportunity just to repress those who brought their dedication and their arms, he turned away from their sinister figures! And you will not believe that there was in this man something which, unwittingly, spoke louder than his convictions?

17 March began this long reaction that we will see pass from socialism to Jacobinism, from Jacobinism to doctrinarism, from doctrinarism to Jesuitism, and which, if public reason is not set in order, does not seem about to end. It started at the very heart of the Provisional Government, and by who, great God! by the same one who pushed it more toward the movement, by Louis Blanc. I do not accuse, certainly; I have proven in his defense that the instinct was more sure in him than the judgment. I would have solely preferred that he not have put in the necessity to react against men who, after all, were merely expressing his own thought: for every reaction is regrettable. But do I agree that if the Republic has kept none of its promises, if socialism remains in a state of utopia, the cause could very well not be entirely in the incapacity of the Provisional Government and bourgeois intrigues? The cause is all those who wished to realize the revolution by way of government, before having brought it into the public consciousness, and who, to execute this chimerical enterprise, had stirred up the distrust of the country in delaying for a day, for an hour, the exercise of universal suffrage.