Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis (6 of 6) (1870)

Letter VI
September 15
Having said what I think of the possible union of the workers and peasants to save France, I want to return again to the essential point of my thesis, namely the absolute impossibility for any government, republican or not, and especially of the government of Gambetta et Co., to prevent the catastrophe that is brewing and that can be averted only by the direct and almighty action of the people themselves.
If it return, in the course of my demonstration, to some arguments that I have already used, it is because there are some things we cannot repeat too often: for the salvation of the French people depends on the knowledge of these things.
So let us see what the current government could attempt to do to organize the national defense.
This is the first difficulty that comes to mind. That organization, even in the most favorable circumstance, and much more in the present crisis, con only succeed on one condition: the organizing power must remain in immediate, regular, constant relations with the country that it proposes to organize. But it is beyond doubt that in just a few days, when Paris is surrounded by the German armies, the communications of the government with the country will be cut. In those conditions, no organization is possible. And moreover, at that final moment, the government of Paris will be so absorbed by the defense of Paris itself and by the internal difficulties that it will encounter, that, if it was composed of the most intelligent and energetic men, it would be impossible to think of anything else
It is true that the government could relocate itself outside Paris, in some large provincial city, at Lyon, for example. But then it would no longer exercise any authority over France, because, in the eyes of the people, and especially in the eyes of the peasants, as it finds itself composed not of the elected representatives of all of France, but of the representatives of Paris—of some men unknown, and some others detested in the countryside—that government would have no legitimate title to command France. If it remained Paris, sustained by the workers of Paris, it could then impose itself on France, at least in the cities, and perhaps even in the countryside, despite the very pronounced hostility of the peasants against the men who compose it. For, we must admit it, Paris exerts such a great historical glamour over all French imaginations, that whether they like it or not, they always end up obeying it.
But one the government left Paris, that powerful would no longer exist. Let us even suppose that the large provincial city where it transported its residence, cheered and ratified by that acclamation of the representatives of the population of Paris; that adherence of a province will not carry along the rest of France, and the countryside would not believe itself obliged to obey it.
And what means, what instrument will it use to obtain obedience? The administrative machine? Supposing it could still function, isn’t it all Bonapartist, and won’t it just serve, with the support of the priests, to stir up the countryside against the republican government? It would then have to contain the rebellious countryside, and for that, it would have to employ a part of the regular troops that should stand up to the Prussians. And as the superior officers are nearly all Bonapartists, the government, which would need devoted and faithful men, would be obliged to demote them and seek others; it would be necessary to reorganize the army from top to bottom to make it an instrument capable of defending the republic against the reactionary insurrection. During this time, the Prussians would take Paris, and the countryside would destroy the republic; and that is the only thing that could lead to an attempt at official, governmental defense, by regular, administrative means.
Woe to France, if it expects from the present government a renewal of the wonders of 1793. Those wonders were not produced by the power of the State, of the government, alone, but also and especially by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the entire French people, who, taking their own affairs in hand with the energy of despair, organized in each city, in each commune, a center of resistance and action. – And then, if the State born from the movement of 1789, still very young, and thoroughly imbued with the life and passions of the people, showed itself capable of saving the homeland, it must be said that since them it has grown old and very corrupted. Revised and corrected, and worn down toits mainsprings by Napoleon I; restored after a fashion by the Bourbons, corrupted and weakened by the July Monarchy, it arrive under the Second Empire at the last degree of corruption and impotence; and now the only thing we can expect from it is its complete disappearance,with all the police, administrative, legal and financial institutions that sustain it, to make room for natural society, for the people who retake their rights natural and rise up.
But, you say, the provisional government summoned all the voters for the first half of October, for the purpose of appointing a constituent assembly; that could be to radicallyreform the administrative system, as did that of 1789, and thus give new life to the political State thatfalls into ruin.
That objection is not serious. Suppose that according to the decision of the provisional government, which looks to me to be a bravado cast at the Prussians resolution rather than a resolute reflection, – suppose, I say, that the elections are conducted lawfully, and that there emerges an Assembly whose majority will be prepared to assist all intentions of the Republican government. I say that that Assembly can not make real and profound reforms at this time. That would be to want to execute a flanking movement in the presence of a powerful enemy, like the movement attempted by Bazaine before the Prussians that went so badly for him. Is it at the moment when the government will most need the energetic and regular services of the administrative machine, that it will try to renew and transform it? For this, it would be necessary to completely paralyze it for a few weeks. And during this time what would the government be, deprived of the apparatus necessary to govern the country?
That same impossibility will prevent the governmentfrom touching, in a manner even alittle bit radical, the staff of the imperial administration. It would be necessary to create alegion of new men. All it could do, all it has done so far, is to replace the prefects and sub-prefects with others who are usually not worthmuch more.
These few changes of persons necessarily still demoralize the current administration. It will produce endlesswrangling and a muted, protracted war, which would make it a hundred times more incapable of action than it is today, so that the republicangovernment would have at its service an administrative machinery that is not even worth the one thatperformed the orders of the imperial minister as well as possible.
To obviate this evil, the provisional government will doubtless send in the proconsuls to the departments, some extraordinary commissioners. This will be the height of disorganization.
Indeed, it is not enough to be equipped with extraordinary powers, to take extraordinarymeasures for public safety, in order to have the power to createnew forces, in order to inspire momentum, energy, and beneficial activity in a corrupt administration andin populations systematically discouraged from any initiative.To do this, you must also have what the bourgeoisieof 1792 and 1793 hadto such a high degree, and what is absolutely lacking in the current bourgeoisie, even among the republicans—you must have intelligence,will, and revolutionaryaudacity. And how could we imagine that thecommissars of the provisional government, the subordinates of Gambetta and Co.,possess these qualities, since their superiors, the members of government, the prime movers of the republican party, have not found them in their ownhearts.
Apart from these personal qualities that gave the men of 1793 a truly heroic character, if the special commissioners were as successful as the Jacobins of the National Convention, it was because that Convention was truly revolutionary, and that, basing itself in Paris and on the support of the people, of the vile multitude, to the exclusion of the liberal bourgeoisie, it had ordered all its proconsuls to also rely everywhere and always on that same popular rabble. The commissioners sent by Ledru-Rollin in 1848, and those that Gambetta could send today, made and necessarily will make a complete fiasco, for the opposite reason, and the latter more than the former, because that opposite reason will act more powerfully still on them than on their predecessors of 1848. That reason is that both have been and will be, to a greater or lesser degree, radical bourgeois, delegates of bourgeois republicanism and as such enemies of socialism, enemies of the truly popular revolution.
That antagonism between the bourgeois revolution and the popular revolution still did not exist, in 1793, in the consciousness of the people, or even in that of the bourgeoisie. We had not yet unraveled this truthfrom historical experience, that the liberty of the whole privileged class—and consequently that of the bourgeoisie—was based principally on the economic slavery of the proletariat. As fact, as real experience, that truth had always existed, but it was so tangled with other facts and masked by so many different interests and historical tendencies, especially of a religious and national, character  that it had not yet emerged in its great simplicity and present clarity, either for bourgeoisie, sponsor of labor, or for the proletariat, employed, which is to say, exploited, by it. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat were from then natural enemies, but without knowing it; as a result of this ignorance, they attributed, the one its fears, and the other his troubles, to fictitious reasons, not their real antagonism; and believing themselves united by interests, they marched together against the monarchy, nobility and priests.
That was the great strength of the revolutionary bourgeois of 1793. Not only they did not fear the explosion of popular passions, but they provoked it with all their might, as the only means of salvation for the country and for themselves against both internal and external reaction. When a special commissioner, delegated by the Convention, arrived in a province, he never addressed the bigwigs of the country, nor the kid-gloved revolutionaries; he spoke directly to the sans-culottes, the popular rabble, and it was on them that he relied to execute, against the bigwigs and the genuine revolutionaries, the decrees of the Convention. What they did was not, strictly speaking, either centralization or administration, but provocation. They did not come to a region to impose the control of the National Convention in a dictatorial manner. They did this in very rare occasions, when they came into a region decidedly and unanimously hostile and reactionary. Then they arrived accompanied by troops who added the argument of the bayonet to their civic eloquence. But usually, they came alone, without a soldier to support them, seeking their strength in the masses whose instincts were always in conformity with the thoughts of the Convention. Far from restricting the freedom of the popular movements, for fear of anarchy, they encouraged them in every way. The first thing they were accustome to do was to form a popular club, where they did not no find them in existence. Ernest revolutionaries, they soon recognized in the masses the true revolutionaries, and allied with them to prompt the revolution, the anarchy, and to organize that popular revolutionary anarchy. That was the only revolutionary organization administration and the only executive power which is to be served proconsuls 1793. That revolutionary organization was the only administration and the only executive force used by the proconsuls of 1793.
Such was the true secret of the power of those giants, that Jacobin-pygmies of our days admire, but that they are powerless to imitate.
The commissioners of 1848 were men of an entirely different stuff, who came outof a completely different environment.With their leaders, the members of the provisional government, they belonged to a bourgeoisie that had become doctrinaire and had inevitably, from that time, become separated fromthe people. The heroes of the great revolution were to them what the tragedies of Corneille and Racine had beento literature—conventional models. They wanted to copy them, but the life, passion, the sacred firewas no longer there. Where deeds were required had only been able to make some empty phrases, some grimaces. When they found themeselves in the midst of the proletariat, they felt ill at ease, like otherwise honest people who feel the need to deceive. They strove and strove to find a living word or fruitfulthought, but they found nothing.
In all of this revolutionary phantasmagoria of 1848, there have only been two really serious men, though absolutely dissimilar from one another; they were Proudhon and Blanqui. All the rest were only bad actors who played at Revolution, as the guilds of the Middle Ages played the Passion, until the moment when Louis Bonaparte came to bring down the curtain.
The instructions that the commissioners of 1848 received from Ledru-Rollin were asinconsistent and vague as the thoughts themselves of that revolutionary. They were all the great words of 1793, without any of the great things or goals, nor especially the energetic resolutionsof that era. Ledru-Rollin, like the rich bourgeois and rhetorician that he is, has always been the natural and instinctive enemy of socialism. Today, after great effort, he has finally managed to understand the cooperative societies, but it does not feel strong enough to go further.
Louis Blanc, that Robespierre in miniature, that worshipper of the intelligent and virtuous citizen, is the type of the State communist, the doctrinaire and authoritarian socialist. He wrote in his youth a whole little book on “The Organization of Labor,” and even today, in the presence of the immense labors and phenomenal development of the International, he still remains there. Not a breath of his speech, not a glimmer from his brain has given life to anyone. His intelligence is sterile, as his whole personality is dry. Today still, in a letter recently addressed to the Daily News, in the presence of the horrible and fratricidal butchery to which the two most civilized nations in the world have been delivered, he has not found anything in his head and heart, besides this advice that he addresses to the French republicans, “to propose to the Germans, in the name of the brotherhood of nations, a peace equally honorable for the two nations.”
Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc had been, as we known, the two great revolutionaries de 1848, before the days of June: the one a bourgeois lawyer, a rhetorician puffed up with Dantonesque looks and ambitions; the other, a Robespierre-Baboeuf reduced to the most paltry proportions. Neither has known how to think, to will, nor above all to dare. Besides, the Bishop Lamourette of that time, Lamartine, had impressed on all the acts and all the men of that era, except Proudhon and Blanqui, his false note and his false character of conciliation, – that conciliation that means, in reality, the sacrifice of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, which led to the June days.
The extraordinary commissioners therefore left for theprovinces, carrying in their pocketsthe instructions of these great men,—ratherthe recommendations of a very realreactionary character, that were made to them by the moderate republicans of the National, Marrast, the Bastide,Jules Favre, etc.
Is it any wonder that these unfortunate commissioners did nothing in the departments, if not to stimulate everyone’s discontent, by the dictator’s tone and manner that it pleased them to put on. We laughed at them, and they exerted no influence. Instead of turning to the people, and only to the people, like their predecessors of 1793, they were only concerned with seeking to convert the privileged classes to the republic. Instead of organizing popular power everywhere by unleashing the revolutionary passions, they preached moderation, peace, patience to the proletariat, with blind faith in the generous intentions of the provisional government. The revolutionary circles of the provinces, intimidated at first by that revolution that had fallen so unexpectedly on their head and by the arrival of the Paris commissioners, took courage again when they saw that these gentlemen did not know anything but the phrases and were themselves afraid of people; and the outcome of the mission of Commissioners of 1848 was the sad Constituent Assembly that you know.
After June, it was something else. The sincere bourgeois revolutionaries, those who went into the socialist camp, under the influence of the great catastrophe that killed in one blow the revolutionary actorsof February, became serious men andmade serious efforts to revolutionize France. Theyeven succeeded in large part. But it was too late; the reaction on its side reorganizedwith a formidable power, and thanks tothe terrible means given by the centralization of the state, it eventually overcome completely, more even than it would have liked, inthe days of December.
Well, the commissioners that Gambetta could send in the departments would be even more unfortunate that the commissioners in 1848. Enemies of socialist workers, as well as of the administration and the Bonapartist peasants, on whom could they rely? Their instructions will obviously command them to enchain the revolutionary socialist movement in the cities, and in the countryside the reactionary Bonapartist movement,—but with whose help? In a disorganized administration, that itself remained half or three-quarters Bonapartist, and a few hundred pale Republicans, as uncertain and disoriented as themselves, remaining outside of the mass of the people and exercising no influence on anyone; and some Orléanists, only good, like all the rich people, to exploit and turn a movement in favor of the reaction, but incapable themselves of a resolution and energetic action. And note that the Orléanists will be much the stronger of the two, for besides some substantial financial means at their disposal, they still have the advantage of knowing what they want; while Republicans combine, with their extreme scarcity, the misfortune of not knowing where they are going and remaining strangers at all the real intersts, whether privileged or popular. As a result, whether the commissioners do something or do nothing, they will only do it with the support of Orléanists, and then they will only work, in reality, for the restoration of the Orleans.
Now, what is my definitive conclusion?
It is sufficiently clear from what I have said, andI also started by giving it to you in my first letter. I say that in the danger that France ran, a greater danger than any she ran for centuries, there is only one means of salvation: the general and revolutionary uprising of people.
If the people rise, I have no doubt of their triumph.I only fear one thing,that the danger does not seem pressing enough, greatenough, threatening enough to giveit the courage of despair it needs. At this moment there is no shortage ofFrench citizens who regard the taking of Paris, the destruction and enslavement of Franceby the Prussians, as an absolutelyimpossible thing, impossible to the point of being ridiculous. And leave the enemy to advance peacefully, confident in the star of France, but imagining that it is enough to have said: “It is impossible,” to prevent the thing from happening.
It is imperative to wake from this dream, Citizens of France, if some of you still let yourself be lulled by these fatal illusions.No, I tell you, thisterrible misfortune,  of which you will not even admit the thought, is not impossible,; instead it is so certain, that if you do not rise up today as a mass, to exterminate the German soldiers who have invaded the soil of France, it will be reality tomorrow.Several centuries of national dominance youhave so accustomed your to regardyourself as the first and most powerful people in the world that you havenot even noticedthe seriousness of your situation. That situation is this:
France as a State is lost. It can no longer save itself by ordinary, administrative means. It is up to the natural France, to the France of the people to enter now onto the stage of history, to save its liberty and that of all of Europe, by an immense, spontaneous, and entirely popular uprising, apart from any official organization, and all governmental centralization. And France, by sweeping the armies of the king of Prussia from its territory, will have with the same blow emancipated all the peoples of Europe and accomplished the social emancipation of the proletariat.
Michel Bakunin
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.