Letter to Workers on Elections

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Letter to Workers on Elections

Translated by Paul Sharkey

Passy, March 8, 1864

To workers,

You ask, citizens, what I think of the Manifesto of the Sixty workers which has appeared in the press? Above all, you are eager to know if, after having come out in May against candidatures of every sort, you should abide by that line or, on grounds of circumstance, support the election of a comrade deserving of your sympathies. I had not been expecting, I confess, to be consulted by anyone on such a matter. I had thought the election campaign spent, and in retirement, my thoughts focused only upon mitigating its dismal effects insofar as I was able. But since, on grounds that strike me as quite personal, your confidence in my opinion has felt obliged to, so to speak, put me on the spot, I will not hesitate to answer your question, the more so as my thinking could scarcely be anything other than an interpretation of your own.

To be sure, I was delighted at the awakening of the socialist idea: in the whole of France just then, who more than myself was entitled to rejoice in it? To be sure, I hold, along with you and with the Sixty, that the working class is not represented and is entitled to representation: how could I believe otherwise? Does not workers’ representation, today as in 1848, signal socialism’s arrival in legislative, political and governmental terms?

We are told that since ‘89, there have been no more classes: that the notion of worker candidates tends to resurrect them: that, if a working man is acceptable as a candidate, just the way one would accept a sailor, an engineer, a scholar, a journalist, a lawyer, this is because that working man will, like his colleagues, represent society and not a specific class: that, otherwise, the fielding of this working man would be a step backwards, an illiberal, even a dangerous move, by virtue of the misgivings, the alarm, the hostility that it would inspire in the bourgeois class.

Such is the logic of the adversaries of the Manifesto, who do not even realise that they contradict themselves. But, as I see it, it is precisely on account of its specific character, and as the manifestation of one class or caste — for I do not recoil from the word — that worker candidature has value: stripped of that, it would be meaningless.

What! Is it not a fact that, in spite of the Revolution, French society is profoundly split into two classes: one, which lives exclusively by its labours, and whose wages are generally less than 1,250 francs annually, for a family of four, a sum that I take to be the rough average of the national product: another, which lives off something other than its labours, assuming that it does work, and lives off the income from its properties, capital, endowments, pensions, subsidies, shares, salaries, honours and stipends? Is it not a fact that, in terms of the division of wealth and produce, there are still, as once there were, two categories of citizen among us, commonly described as bourgeoisie and plebes, capitalism and wage-labour? But the whole of our political organisation, political economy, industrial organisation, history, literature and society repose upon that distinction which only bad faith and a foolish hypocrisy seem to deny.

Society’s division into two classes — one class of waged workers, another of proprietors-capitalists-entrepreneurs — therefore enjoying indisputable de facto status, the implications of that ought not to come as a surprise to anyone: it is that there has always been some question as to whether that distinction did not also have a de jure existence: whether it fell within the province of nature, compatible with justice: whether it might not be possible to bring it to an end, which means contriving some amalgamation of the classes: in short, whether, by means of improved implementation of the laws of justice and economics, one might not successfully do away with a dismal distinction which every man would wish at heart to see eradicated?

That question, scarcely a new one, is what has been described in our day as the social question: it is the whole and all of SOCIALISM.

Well, now! What say the Sixty? They, for their part, are convinced that the social question can be resolved in an affirmative sense: with moderation and firmness, they note that for quite some time, it has been stricken from the agenda, that the time has come to re-table it: to that end, and as a signal or earnest of that resurrection, they propose that one of them stand as a candidate: that, by virtue of his being a working man and precisely because he is a working man, they reckon that he can represent the working class better than anyone else.

And these men are accused of designs upon the re-establishment of castes? Some would have them barred as reactionaries, professing dangerous opinions, from representation of the nation, and their Manifesto has even been denounced as inciting some citizens to hate their fellow-citizens! The press thunders, the supposedly democratic opposition shrieks its displeasure, and there are cries of importunity and recklessness and what not. There are dark hints about the police! With a show of consummate disdain, the question is posed whether the Sixty would claim to know more about their interests and their rights, and about defending them, than Messrs J. Favre, E. Ollivier, Pelletan, J. Simon, etc?[1]


Thus far at any rate, I am quite in agreement with you, citizens, and with the Sixty, and it is gratifying that not for a single moment did you imagine that I could feel differently than yourselves. Yes, class distinction enjoys a de facto existence in our democratic France, and it has yet to be proved entirely that this phenomenon is rooted in entitlement, albeit that there are no grounds for imputing it to anyone. Yes, except for 1848, national representation has been the prerogative of one of those classes: and, unless the representatives drawn from said class make a prompt commitment to effect the fusion sought, justice, common sense and universal suffrage require that the second of those classes be represented like the other, in proportion with its population figures. In mooting that ambition, the Sixty are not in any sense insulting the bourgeoisie, are not threatening it, but are standing up to it like the youngest son to his older siblings.

[. . .]

Such language, as candid as it is modest, ought to reassure the faintest of hearts: and the bourgeoisie, the middle class especially, would be ill-advised to be alarmed by it. Whether it knows it or not, its true ally, its saviour, is the people. So let it with good grace concede the workers’ entitlement to national representation and not, I say again, merely as citizens and despite their worker status, but rather on the basis that they are WORKERS and members of the proletariat.

That said, let me move on to the second point. Whether, in the present circumstances, exercise of the eligibility right is indeed, as far as the working class is concerned, the best way of bringing about the reforms for which it sues, whether such a conclusion on the part of the Manifesto does not conflict with the aim its authors have set themselves, whether it is not at odds with their principles: in short, can socialism, under the current regime, do what it managed to do in 1848 without injury to its dignity and faith? Men of some import in the democracy, whom no one ever suspected of compromise with the enemy, who themselves refrained from voting, nevertheless reckoned it their duty, out of sympathy with the working class and by way of testimony to their distancing themselves from an opposition which was misunderstood, not to oppose the workers’ decision and to wish their candidature well. While acknowledging sentiments in which I share, I regret that I can make no such concession, and on this count I take issue with the Sixty.

Consider this: the imperial government, established by coup d’état, identifies as the prime cause of its success its defeat of red socialist democracy, that to this day that is still its raison d’être, which it has never overlooked that in its policy, and that there is at present nothing to indicate that it has any inclination nor indeed capacity to change. Under that government, the financial and industrial fiefdom, long incubated over the thirty three years of the Restoration and the July monarchy, has completed its organisation and climbed into the saddle. It has supported the Empire, which has rewarded it for its sponsorship. The big companies have formed their coalition: the middle class, the authentic expression of French genius, has found itself being ground down more and more in the direction of the proletariat.

The Republic, through the introduction of universal suffrage, provided Democracy with a moment of effervescence: but the conservative aristocracy soon recaptured the upper hand, and, come the coup d’état, it might be said that power was a foregone conclusion for the side that had best used the reaction against the socialist tendencies. On which basis we may say that, under the regime that has ruled over us since 1852, our ideas, if not our persons, have been, so to speak, placed outside of politics, outside of government, outside of the law. To none but us has access to the periodical press, the preserve of the old parties, been denied. Whereas sometimes a ­proposition inspired by our principles was put to the authorities, it quickly foundered — I know of what I speak — when rebuffed by contradictory interests.

Confronted with a state of affairs where our destruction is the salvation of society and property, what can we do but accept our reprobation in silence, and, since the government has ventured to impose this draconian condition, separate ourselves radically from it? Entry into its precincts, where we may be sure to find all our enemies, old and new, defectors to the Empire and non-defectors, ministry folk and opposition folk, embracing the prescribed conditions, seeking representation in the legislative body — that would be an absurdity, an act of cowardice! All that we are permitted to do under the existing law is register a protest in great elections, through the negative ­content of our bulletins. Bear this in mind — that in the system of compression by which democracy is oppressed, it is not such and such a financial measure, such and such an undertaking, such and such an expenditure, such and such an alliance, such and such a treaty, policy or law that we must debate: they have no need of us for that: our opinion is ruled null and void in advance. Such debates are the preserve of the constitutional opposition, friend or foe. For there is room for every view but ours in the Constitution: can you doubt it, after the brouhaha that erupted everywhere after publication of the Manifesto? Now, in order to exercise our separatism, we need neither representatives nor candidates: in legal terms, all we require is a single word, veto, the most vigorous message that universal suffrage can deliver.

Let us clarify out thought with a few examples:

May we, by word of mouth, in writing, or through the actions of men authentically ours, pledge fidelity to the 1852 Constitution, to which we see all our enemies, Legitimists, Orleanists, ex-Republicans, clericals agog to pledge themselves? No, we cannot, for that oath, injurious to our dignity, incompatible with our principles, would imply apostasy on our part, even should we remain, as so many others have after their oath, the personal enemies of the Emperor. The Constitution of ‘93, by enshrining the sovereignty of the people, swept away the civic oath required under the ‘91 Constitution to these three terms: Nation, Law and King. Let Napoleon follow that example and then we shall see. Meanwhile, no representatives and no candidates!

There are some who say that the pledge imposed upon deputies is meaningless: that it is not binding upon the maker, provided that, in the act of making it, he understands that his pledge is being made, albeit under the name of the Emperor, to the nation: that, furthermore, the pledge does not imply any support for imperial policy. Finally, that it is not for electors to overcome this scruple, which is a matter of concern to the candidates only. In bygone times, the Jesuits alone possessed the secret of salving consciences: Has that secret now been passed down to the Ecole Normale? Such ­moralists, now matter how high their reputation for virtue may stand, ought to be deemed the most infamous human creatures by the socialist democracy. So, no representatives and no candidates!

Just now, I referred to the periodical press monopoly introduced and especially directed against us. From the outcome of the May elections, we know what it cost us to have had a week’s dalliance with it. Do you think that abolishing ministerial authorisation would be enough to do away with that monopoly? Then you are well wide of the mark. We want neither hide nor hair of a regime that has been depraving our political morals, misrepresenting ideas and misleading opinion for 12 years now. Authorising such corruption of the public mind — be it for six months, for a day, or through the election of a socialist deputy — would amount to declaring ourselves accomplices of that corruption and unworthy ever to be heard. So, no representatives and no ­candidates!

We want no conditions upon the exercise of universal suffrage, and why? Not just because natural population clusters have been subverted by arbitrary constituency boundaries: we leave it to the Imperial government’s competitors to bleat while they await their chance to imitate it. Nor is it because of administrative interference either. In meetings summoned to decide the government’s fate, those who rail loudest against such interference are careful to say that, in the minister’s shoes, they would not refrain from it. Chiefly because, with a monopoly over a tame press, with centralistic prejudices in the ascendant, with the rarity and inadequacy of summons, with double, triple, quintuple and decuple candidatures and with that absurd principle — of which electioneers are so enamoured — that a true representative of France should not be known to his electors: with the mishmash of categories, opinions and interests, things are so combined as to smother the democratic spirit in its corporative and local manifestations, as well as in its national manifestations, with the masses denied a voice and reduced to bleating flocks, never having learned to make their presence felt and to have their say.

To call for the emancipation of the plebes and then to consent, in the plebes’ name, to a method of election which is tantamount to rendering it seditious or dumb. What a paradox! So, no representatives and no candidates!

Note, citizens, that in all of this I am sticking to politics alone and deliberately steering clear of economic and social considerations. How many further arguments I could adduce against this candidatures fantasy, which would assuredly not have possessed the people, had we been able in time to explain this proposition, the truth of which you are doubtless starting to discern: that an opposition vote is one thing, a protest vote another and a duly recorded constitutional vote, bearing the stamp of the returning officer another, and a democratic and social vote quite another. In May 1863, the people thought it was voting for itself and as sovereign: it voted only for its bosses and as client. As for the rest, I know that by now you have no illusions left: the worker candidates, if my sources are accurate, say as much themselves. So, what good are representatives! What use are candidates?

Everything that has been done since November 24, 1860, in government and in opposition, indicates a reversion to the regime of 1830, with the sole modification that the title of emperor is to replace that of king, and the Bonaparte dynasty replace that of the Bourbons. Leaving to one side the dynastic issue, with which we need not concern ourselves, can we democrats lend a hand with this about-turn? It would be a betrayal of our past to worship that which we have put to the torch, or put to the torch that which we have worshipped. Now, that is necessarily what must happen if we let ourselves be represented in a legislative body, among an opposition three fourths of which have come around to the idea of a constitutional, bourgeois monarchy. So, no representatives and no candidates!

Many among the workers fail to appreciate clearly these deep-seated incompatibilities between the present or forthcoming political regime, into which they are invited to step, and their democratic social aspirations. This will help them get to grips with the thing:

It is axiomatic that in a country racked by revolutions such as ours is, succeeding governments, although their slogans may change, still close ranks against a third party, and take turns at the duties imposed upon them by this redoubtable inheritance. Now, that is a condition which, should the opportunity arise, we are prohibited from accepting. We — the outlaws of 1848, 1849 and 1852 — cannot agree to the undertakings, deals and all the acts of power devised with an eye to our extermination. That would amount to a betrayal of ourselves, and the world should know that. At present, the public debt, consolidated and outstanding, with growth rates at three percent, stands at 14 thousand 600 millions.

So much for the financial expression of charges accrued since 1789 and bequeathed to one after another of our various governments. It is the plainest and most clear-cut product of our political systems, the most splendid bequest to posterity of seventy five years of conservative, bourgeois rule. If need be, we would assume responsibility for that debt up until 24 June 1848: but we are within our rights to repudiate it after that. And since it is unacceptable that the nation should be declared bankrupt, it would be up to the bourgeoisie to pay off the residue. We await its decision. So, citizens, no representatives and no candidates!

In the Manifesto of the Sixty there is an unfortunate choice of terms. In politics, they profess to be in agreement with the opposition: this is an unduly large concession, inspired by the generous intention of bridging, in part at least, the gulf separating democracy from its representatives, and it must be put down to a slip of the pen. In all sincerity, we can no more be happy with the opposition’s politics than with its economic and social ideas: if the latter be mistaken, how could the former be above reproach? The opposition’s politics is not the criticisms which parties fling at each other regarding their actions, such as the Mexican expedition, the state of Algeria, the swelling budget, etc.: nor is it the banal demonstrations in favour of freedom, the ­philanthropic jeremiads, the sighs heaved over Poland, or the more or less explicit support for the trade agreement. On all such matters of pure detail, we should have our reservations about the opposition’s criticisms, not just as socialists and communists, but as politicians and democrats.

The opposition’s politics is above all its declared anti-socialism, which necessarily places it in the reactionary camp against us. Messrs. Marie and Jules Favre have said as much, in the opening debate, and in a tone never to be forgotten: ‘We are no socialists!’ At which words the entire Assembly erupted into applause: not a single voice was heard to object. So we are within our rights to say that, on the very principle of their politics, members of the so-called democratic opposition are in agreement with the government: they outdo the government itself in their anti-socialism: how could they fail to become ministers some day?

The opposition’s politics is its love for parliamentarism, which will draw it willy-nilly into a bloc with the imperialist majority, under the 1830 arrangement: it is its enthusiasm for centralisation and unification that shines through all its speeches, in spite of all its declaiming about municipal freedoms and sycophancy towards Parisians. Remember, a high degree of centralisation alone can satisfy high ambitions and you will notice that, should France ever have the misfortune to find opposition personnel summoned to take their turn at overseeing this much-cherished centralisation.

The opposition’s politics is its constitutional dynastic oath: it is the solidarity with the actions of the government to which it consents, if only by drawing its deputy’s stipend: it is the compliments, the praises, the thanksgiving which it mixes with its criticisms, the share it claims of its successes and glories.

The opposition’s politics is its conduct in the May 1863 elections. When we saw it, once it had usurped the oversight of the count, trampling suffrage underfoot, fielding everywhere candidates utterly irreconcilable with the spirit of the Revolution, showing itself to be more scheming, more tyrannical, more corruptive than the administration, against which it then strove to focus the public revulsion, so as to whiten its own record. Ah, the elections of May and June 1863, fought by an opposition that posed as puritanical: these elections overturned the result of 1851: have you considered that, citizens?

That is what the opposition’s politics is about. And you would send your colleagues to join it? No, no! No representatives and no candidates!

To those who would now take us to task for halting the popular upsurge, and who might still have the courage to flaunt the title of men of action which they awarded themselves nine months ago, let me answer that the inactive, the inert, the slumberers are themselves, whose splendid discipline has served the views of the reaction, and at a single stroke, cost democracy thirty years of civic virtue, sacrifices and propaganda. What, then, has this rigorous action produced?

1. A thunderous declaration from Messrs. Marie and Jules Favre: ‘We are no socialists!’ Yes! Your representatives have disowned, reneged upon you, as they did in 1848: they declare war on you and you congratulate yourselves upon your actions! Are you waiting until they spit in your face?

2. The lamentable result of the oath. The democracy, led by its new tribunes, fondly imagined that the oath of obedience to Napoleon III, and of fidelity to the 1851 Constitution, could not but be a sublime perjury on the lips of its representatives. It was intoxicated with this notion, and it has sadly deceived itself. Our sworn deputies will no more have the courage to breach their oath than to keep it. Can you see them beating about the bush, sustaining heavy losses, swimming between the waters of treachery and fidelity? Traitors to democracy when in cahoots with the Empire, traitors to the Empire when closeted with democracy. Privy councillors and table companions of His Majesty, are still more honest and less hypocritical. Thanks however to this policy, the Restoration of the Orleanist system, with M. Thiers at the helm, is visibly underway. M. Thiers and his cronies, positing monarchy as in principle essential for the organisation of power, and declaring themselves to be, by virtue of the very same principle, indifferent as to the dynasty chosen, that being a simple question of personalities according to them, are perfectly at home here. Nothing prevents them from taking the oath, and the more that Napoleon affords them cause to keep it, the more content they are.

Also, since the taking of all these oaths, a matter of such high significance and import for the Orleanists, but which the country can watch democrats do only with disgust, the party of constitutional, parliamentary monarchy has bounced back completely: supported by the weightiest and most enlightened faction of the Bonapartists, it believes that its victory is assured: it has secured over the Republican party the only advantage it has retained since 1852, the advantage of logic and political honesty.

3. The conclusion to this deplorable intrigue? Democracy, the preponderance of which should have been established once and for all by the 1864 poll, momentarily hailed as sovereign following the election of the new incumbents, now no longer matters, pending the advent of new order, except as the instrument of a political re-plastering job, against which our every effort must henceforth be deployed in defending ourselves.

As for ourselves, whom some have dared to label idlers, puritans, stick-in-the-muds and eunuchs, sure in the knowledge that we could not reply, this is what we have done and what we have achieved. Our success has been splendid enough for us not to lose heart:

At first we told ourselves:

“In our own right and ante-dating the 1852 constitution, we have the right to vote. We have the right to vote or not to vote.

“If we vote, we are free to choose between the administration’s candidate and the opposition’s candidate, just as we are to protest against each by selecting a candidate of a hue opposed to them both (which is what the authors of the Manifesto propose).

“Finally, we have the right to protest against election of any sort, either by depositing blank votes or by voting for some citizen who would not meet all of the criteria for eligibility, who, say, might not have taken the oath, if in our judgement electoral law, as practised, does not offer sufficient guarantees for universal suffrage, or on any other grounds.”

The point, therefore, was to find out what would be the most useful way for us to vote. Those who have argued that the vote must necessarily designate a candidate, that universal suffrage by itself was bereft of meaning, and that it derived all of its value from the choosing of a man — those people have overwhelmed the public, and they have lied.

We have opted then for the protest vote, by means of blank vote or equivalent, and this was the outcome:

Out of 64 departments we have been able to monitor, there were 63,000 protest votes — 4,556 of them in Paris: proportionally speaking, that makes around 90,000 for the whole of France.

We would have numbered 100,000 in Paris and a million across the 89 departments, had we been allowed to make our voice heard and explain our thinking.

Those scattered votes were enough to sink several candidates from the so-called democratic opposition. They might have sunk them all, and the government might have been left all alone with its elected deputies, facing a protesting democracy, had the monopoly press not smothered our voice.

Do you believe that those 90,000 voters who, in spite of their enforced silence, in spite of calumny, in spite of regimentation of the people, without having managed to communicate or reach agreement, managed to stand firm and, by their protest, preserve the inviolability of democracy, are a minority without virtue? Do you think that this party, seemingly weak in numerical terms, lacks energy? There were twenty of us and our call has been heard over the opposition’s racket by 90,000 men. Suppose that the 153,000 in the capital, who cast their votes for the newcomers, had registered a protest as we did, do you think that that protest would have had less of an impact than the ­harangues with which the opposition has regaled us? What have you to say about that now, citizens? Faced by a veto from 160,000 voters, augmented by some of the 86,000 who purely and simply abstained, would the administration’s candidates with their 82,000 votes have been bragging about representing the capital? Would we be less informed as to our financial situation, the European situation and electoral strengths and so many other matters about which the government and its friends are so wont to prattle, simply because we might not have heeded the pleas of a half dozen lawyers? Would it not be a thousand times better for democracy’s honour and its future prospects, had we left the government to debate with its own representatives and to wash its dirty linen at home, as Napoleon I used to say, than to have besmirched our consciences, hitherto unblemished by oath?

Democrats, your line of conduct has been determined for you. Over the past 15 years, a blind reaction has busied itself casting you out of the law, out of the government, out of politics. The situation in which you have been placed is not of your making: it is the handiwork of a conspiracy by the old parties. They are prompted by a single thought, and that thought is incompatible with achievement of that political, economic and social justice, for which you yearn with all your might. A single oath unites them, the symbol of their confederacy, a snare set for the vanity and zeal of democrats. It is scarcely your fault if, hemmed in by their concert, you are condemned to resort to reprisals against them. Which is why I tell you with all of the vigour and all of the sadness my soul can muster: separate yourselves from him who was the first to stand apart, even as the Roman people in another age stood apart from its aristocrats. It is through separation that you will win: no representatives, and no candidates!

What! Having declared yourselves the equals of the bourgeoisie, the repositories of the new thinking, the hope of generations unborn: having displayed the grandeur of your destiny to the world, can you not devise anything better than to pick up, sub-contracted, those aged bourgeois institutions, the futility and corruption of which have been pointed out to you a hundred times over by the government itself? Your dreams would be of doctrine, the balance of representation and cant! Given the chance to be original, you would act as blatant imitators. That, take it from me, is merely the logical conclusion to the Manifesto of the Sixty: labour democracy declaring by its vote that it is abandoning opposition and that, until better times arrive, is renouncing, not the vote, but having itself represented. Through this manifesto, labour democracy has struck a patrician pose: by electing a representative, you would fall back into the ranks of the liberated. Is there an outstanding man among you? Vote him a civic crown, do not make a prostitute, do not make a candidate of him.

For my own part, I do not think that I need tell you that I abide by my resolutions.

Had I no other grounds for perseverance than remembrance of events in which I have been implicated, things in which I have participated, hopes that I helped arouse, out of respect and in remembrance of so many citizens who have suffered and perished since 1848, so that the people’s liberties may succeed, and whom I have encountered inside prison and in exile, I would repudiate all compromise and I would say: no representatives, no candidates!

Fraternal greetings to you, citizens.

P.J. Proudhon


[1] Jules Favre (1809–1880), one of the leaders of the liberal opposition under the Second Empire. Emile Ollivier (1825-1913), ditto, and was later head of government of the so-called liberal Empire between 1867 and 1870. Pierre Marie (1795–1870) former member of the provisional government of 1848 and organiser of the National Workshops. Jules Simon (1844–1896), philosopher and liberal politician



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