JUSTICE: A word about the situation

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Volume I, “Program,” section XII.

§ XII. — A word about the situation.

It is by their principles, religious or philosophical, that societies live.

Before 89, France was Christian: its monarchy was of divine right, its economic constitution established on feudality. Christian, monarchical and feudal, the French nation could be said to be as well disciplined in its thought as it was in its government. She had principles, doctrines, a tradition, a morals; she had rights. Under Louis XIV it arrived, using its principles, at the highest degree of power and glory. No nation disputed its precedence: elder child of the Church, it walked at the head of one hundred million catholics.

The Revolution of 89 changed this position, but did not reduce it. From the Christian, monarchical, and feudal nation that had been emerged one that was philosophical, republican, and egalitarian. Then too, and more than before, it could be praised for having principles, rights, and morals. Its tradition, which up to that point had been confounded with its religion, was displaced: it was the tradition of free reason, older than catholic feudality, more imprescriptible than divine right. One moment, by this abrupt conversion, France could believe itself isolated in the midst of the peoples. But it had become initiator; soon it could judge that its word was accommodated everywhere. An incalculable future opened before it; it had only to wait until philosophy had brought minds to a state of maturity.

The revolutionary whirlwind lasted ten years.

In 1799, a thought of conciliation emerged and seized the government. Minds were divided; the country aspired to rest. It was believed that it was possible, through mutual concessions, to make an accord between the conquests of ’89 and the old religious and monarchical tradition: this was the whole intent behind the consular restoration. All in good faith, and because it was in any case impossible for it to do better, France was at the same time Christian and philosophical, monarchical and democratic, propertarian and egalitarian.

Was this eclecticism founded in reason as it appeared to be founded, for more than half a century, in fact? We cannot believe it. The reception given in 1814 to the Bourbons, the bearers of the Charter, the revolution of 1830, that of 1848, proved that this system of conciliation was only a work of circumstance, and that as the nation was permeated by the new right, the Revolution took on an increasingly decisive preponderance. In any case, it is at least certain that eclectic and liberal France, just like that of ‘89 and ‘93, just like feudal France, had principles, ideas, and that its internal and external policy was the expression of these. Principles! It seemed, in its moderation, to confound the antagonistic thoughts of two modes: many intelligent people, it must be said, were seduced by it. Also, after ‘99, French power experienced an extraordinary development: Europe followed, dragged along rather than overcome, and we shall never know what would have happened if the genius of the emperor and of the governments that succeeded him, had been equal to their aspirations.

Was this system, which, following the revolutionary period as it did, had certainly had its raison d’être, exhausted when, at the end of 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, president of the Republic, seized power?

We are strongly inclined to believe so: this is even, we maintain, what explains the success of the coup d’état. December 2nd, and the regime that has been in place since then, are not the work of one man, nor an incident of history: it is a situation. An impure generation, partly born since the restoration, which of liberalism understood only libertinage, of the philosophy of the eighteenth century only impiety, of the Revolution only dissolution, of eclecticism only skepticism, of the parliamentary system only intrigue, and of eloquence only verbosity; a greedy generation, as coarse as its own native soil, without dignity, started to dominate in the country: it still dominates there. It is this generation that inaugurated, under cover of an imperial restoration, the reign of impudent mediocrity, official advertisements, open swindle. It is this generation which dishonors France and poisons it …

Whatever the causes that so abruptly brought about the end of the middle course [juste-milieu], republican and monarchical, there is one unquestionable fact: it is, on one side, that the fear of falling into an extreme of revolution or counter-revolution drove the masses to accept the coup d’état, and that however, since this fatal date of December 2nd, France, which was once catholic, monarchical and feudal, then philosophical and democratic, finally eclectic, conciliatory and moderate—I will not use the ill-sounding epithet doctrinaire—France no longer had principles, public spirit, tradition, nor ideas, not even morals.

The France of December 2nd follows neither the Gospel, nor the Declaration of the Rights of Man; it is neither a divine-right monarchy, nor a democracy according to the Revolution, nor a government of the middle classes, with balanced powers, as the Charters of 1814 and 1830 wished to establish. A purely arbitrary despotism, a thing from a fantasy,—without precedent in the national tradition nor in the first empire, which, in spite of its military exigencies, still followed principles, nor in the dictatorship of ‘93, which certainly also had its principles, nor in the monarchy of Louis XIV, who cannot be reproached for having lacked any,—more arbitrary, finally, than Machiavelli had dreamed of, for if Machiavelli did not recoil before despotism, at least he placed it in the service of an idea: that is the France of December 2nd.

One will, I expect, cry calumny: one will quote the constitution of 1852, renewed from that of 1804; the Napoleonic idea, which served Prince Louis as a program, and this multitude of declarations, messages, decrees, circulars, professions of faith, brochures, etc, that the imperial government never stops producing. Why doesn’t one add to it the reports of the limited-liability societies and their advertisements? . . . Oh! if words were a guarantee of principles, there would be few governments so well-founded in theory as the empire of the past eight years. But it is by facts, by acts, that a government reveals its essence and proclaims its thought: in this respect, and without at all wishing to reduce my criticisms to a critique of persons, I dare state that the government of Napoleon III, to his misfortune and to ours, has no principles, or, if it has principles, that it has not yet revealed them. Testimonies abound close at hand: since December 2nd, I have recorded them each day. Let us cite the latest, which is at the same time the most serious.

The middle course charted by the first Consul, which had its apogee under Louis-Philippe, recognized that the existence of Catholicism is indissolubly related to that of the papacy, and that the papacy itself, after the abrogation of the pact of Charlemagne, has only the prestige that that it draws from its temporal sovereignty. Under the Caesars, and later under the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, the Franks, and the Germans, the Pope could do without the title and power of prince: religion made him the vicar of God on earth. Charlemagne consecrated this vicariate, not by separating the two powers in the manner that this is understood today, but by opposing them and binding them to one another in a system which embraced the world. As for the gifts of land that accompanied this imperial and papal constitution, it was initially, like the three crowns that ornament the tiara, only a jewel, a badge, a kind of glorification of the pontificate. It is not what made the power of Gregory VII, of Urban II, of Innocent III, of Boniface VIII.—After the papacy, rebuffed by Philip the Fair, had been transported to Avignon, the State having broken with the church on all points and dissolved the old pact, the papacy was still supported, and Catholicism remained standing, thanks to the temporal sovereignty that the popes had gained, in part through the lands donated, and in part by force of arms. But one soon saw how powerless this sovereignty was to preserve Catholic unity. First, there was the great schism caused by the removal of the papal seat; then the Reformation, which removed half of Christendom from the Holy See. Consequently, the authority of the sovereign pontiff, of the Catholics themselves, has been steadily decreasing: the severities of Louis XIV, the legal concordat of 1802, and the capture of Savone, are the signs of this decline. Destroy the temporal holdings of the popes, and Catholicism degenerates into Protestantism, the religion of Christ falls into the dust. Those who say that the pope will never be better understood than when he deals exclusively with the affairs of heaven are either speaking in political bad faith, endeavoring to disguise atrocious deeds behind devout words, or foolish Catholics, incapable of understanding that in the affairs of life, the temporal and the spiritual, just like the soul and the body, are interdependent.

However, in the presence of this tottering papacy, what was the line of conduct taken by the French moderates?

The moderates had as their principle the reconciliation of religion and philosophy, monarchy and democracy, Church and Revolution. They were therefore very careful not to touch the papacy; they would not have dared to assume the responsibility for this great ruin, first of all, because they did not feel able to substitute their own teaching for the religious ideas, and secondly, because the hour of Protestantism seemed to them, with good reason, to have passed, there was, according to them, no longer enough faith in France to be worth the costs of a Reformation, and they would have been ashamed to indenture the conscience of the country any more to Anglican hypocrisy than to German theology; because, finally, in this serious state of uncertainty, it could neither renounce the legitimate influence exerted by France over 130 million Catholics spread across the surface of the glove nor support the formation of an Italian State whose area would have proportionally reduced the French prepotency. It is, indeed, not a matter of burning the old papacy on the furnace bridge of philosophy; it is necessary that the temporal not have to suffer from this decapitation of the spiritual.

The government of Napoléon III has had none of these scruples. Would this be an indication of change of policy on its part, the sign of a return to principles? … After having showered the clergy with his favors, restored the religious communities, recalled the Jesuits, returned control to the Church over its teaching, and given, on all occasions, evidence of his piety; after having disputed the protectorate of the Holy See in Austria for ten years, as had Louis-Philippe, how is it that suddenly, under pretext that the events that he himself has caused are beyond his control, that their logic is inexorable, he tells the Sovereign pontiff that his royalty is no longer for this century, that consequently he has to resign himself to leaving the government of his States in lay hands and condescend to accept from Catholic nations, in compensation for their temporal treasure, a revenue! …

For my part, I applaud the crucifixion of the Church, but on one condition, that the new chief of France should tell us what spirit he intends to substitute for the Catholic spirit: does he propose, after the example of the kings of England and the tsars of Russia, to seize the princedom and the pontificate, or to return purely and simply to the Revolution?

Alas! I am quite afraid that Napoleon III does not even suspect that one can address such questions to him. As the expression of his time, carried to the crest of power by an imbroglio, he constantly testifies, like all of his supporters, to his horror of ideas; he believes only in matter and force. He does not want a Revolution: he proved that by his public safety laws in 1851 and 1852; since then, he has never stopped proclaiming this in all of his acts, both official and unofficial or pseudonymous; he has just repeated this in his letter to the pope of December 31, 1859. He no longer wants the bourgeois moderates: he broke with them irreconcilably with his coup d’etat, and he will take care not to be exposed to their criticism. Through the fault of his situation much more than of his will, Napoleon III does not and cannot want any principle, any guarantee, any freedom. If he sacrifices the pope, it is, as he himself says, because events have forced him to this pass; because he does not have in him what he would require in order to control events, i.e., principles, ideas, a faith, a law. But at the same time that he pronounces the forfeiture of the Holy Father, that he intercepts the bishops’ mandates, that he threatens the Jesuits and bombards the catholic newspapers with warnings, he removes speech from the democracy, and condemns in his courts the philosophers, accused of insult to public and religious morals.

Therefore, neither Christian nor revolutionist, nor anything in between, in a word, nothing: this is the France, not made, but revealed at this point in time by the government of December 2.

The vulgar had not seen this character of the imperial policy initially, not to have not principles and to walk blindly. According to the habit of the French spirit all to pay to the master, one said of Napoleon III: See how happy he is! Everything succeeds to him. The ones rented its spirit of conciliation: it said itself which it was the end of the old parties. The Church greeted in him a new Constantine, while the plebs recommended it, as it had made her uncle, the herald of the Revolution. Maintaining all is discovered: the imperial government is a government without principles, and the emperor cannot about it but; as for its alleged successes, still a little time, and, the things remaining what they are, one will see only calamities there.

No, I tell you, no principles, no true successes: to support the opposite would be to grant to a man a power that the philosophers refuse even to God, that of making something of nothing.

Of what use was the expedition to the Crimea? We prided ourselves on relieving the Ottoman Empire: the peace having been made, we abandoned it like a corpse.—We wanted to halt Russian encroachment: Russia has just conquered the Caucasus, no less important, as the future will show, than Constantinople. Russia has Armenia; its colonists extend over the southernmost coast from the Black Sea to the front door of the sultans’ palace. And France does not have even a foothold in Asia Minor.—Is it the English alliance, or the European equilibrium, that profited from the capture of Sebastopol? The Malakoff’s dead were not buried before Napoleon III, disgusted with the English, signed a peace with the tsar, and contemplated an alliance posing a different threat to the freedoms of the world than the protectorate of Russia on the East. At this moment, admittedly, there is a cooling of the Russian alliance, and a reheating of the English alliance. Protestant England applauds the failure of Catholicism; it reasons, from its point of view, exactly like the French centrists. To strike at the papacy, the Revolution not being there, it is to break the catholic faisceau, it is to lessen France. It proclaims the author of the booklet the La Pape et le Congrès as great a theologian and statesman as Jacques I and Henri VIII, and perhaps will condescend she to sign with him a commercial treaty. How long that will that last? As long as any alliance formed without principles: and England does not trust it.

The empire,—the body of a society that has abandoned the idea,—the empire is agitated, burns powder, makes a din; its glory is not kindled. It could not, or did not know how to preserve the Ottoman empire from its dissolution; it did not put up a barrier to the incursions of Russia; it did not dare to advance to the Adriatic and it left the Austrians in the Peninsula; it does not have even courage to keep its promises to Villafranca; now it lets fall the pope which it wanted to make the federal president of Italy, and which for ten years it had supported. Let us suppose that after the annexation of the duchies and Romagnes in Piedmont comes, with the aid of British diplomacy and the party of unity, that of Venice and Naples; would Napoleon III prevent it? He could not, committed as he is by his own words, bound by his raging hunger for alliance with the English. He would only dare to claim that the will of the people is sacred, as long as nothing is at stake but the sovereignty of the Holy Father, but the annexation of the insurgent territory in the Sardinian States is another thing. The only fruit of the Italian campaign would thus have been used as instrument of the policy of Monsieurs Cavour, Garibaldi, Mazzini, Orsini; to have aroused a powerful neighbor, who cannot love us, who has never loved us, and to have consumed the investment of France.—Can we, say the policies of December 2, prevent Italy from realizing its unity? How would we have the right? Doesn’t the Revolution itself make a principle of respecting nationalities?—Thus Make it then, I will answer them, make the Revolution; attach yourself to it, to its Right, its maxims; and, superior to the world by the power of your principles, and you will not have anything to fear from the expansion of your neighbors… I do not want Prussia at midday, said General Cavaignac. He was right a thousand times, since he was an eclectic. On December 2 he renounced this policy: for the little that the Italians wanted to be there to lend, we would have at our doors an empire of twenty-six million men. Is this the county of Nice or Savoy which would compensate us?

A government without principles is a science without method, a philosophy without a criterion, a religion without a God. We have just seen which sad fruits the policy of December 2 produced outside of France; the results not happier at home. Its balance sheet can be summarized in eight articles:

The tax has been raised from 1,500 to 1,800 million;

The national debt increased by three billion;

Conscription raised from 80 to 100, 120 and 140 thousands of men;

Failure of the middle class and proportional increase in the proletariat;

Reduction of the population;

Depravity of national manners;

Decline of literature and the arts;

Failure of all enterprises of the government.

To speak only about this last article, the litany of the disappointments of the imperial government would be long.

In 1852, the government reduced the government stock from 5 p.c. to 4½. And everyone applauded. We know what purely artificial rise reigned, during that first year, over all values. But the continuation by no means responded to these hopes; the Bank did not decrease its discount; more than once even it raised it up to 6 and 7 p.c., and in last analysis the 4 1/2 remained fixed at 90, which means that, in spite of the reduction, 5 p.c. is always the normal rate of the interest. Any tax, any reduction of assessed income on the property, to be just, must be general. The conversion having remained an isolated measurement, it is as if the government had declared bankruptcy to the shareholders of ½ p.c. Was this a success? The imperial government claimed to create a land-bank: it did not succeed;—to make a credit mobilier: its credit mobilier is a work of agiotage;—to establish docks: the Society of the Docks was finished by the police;—to put the rents at a cheap rate, and half of the Parisian population is driven out of the capital. It had prided itself on relieving the merchant marine; and in spite of the granted or promised subsidies, nothing is done. It had accepted the protectorate of the excavation of the isthmus of Suez; it gives up it today; is this because the business appears bad to it, or in consequence of its change of policy? What to say of the Palace of Industry, the hackney carriages, and so many other things in which the imperial government had a hand? By its commercial treaty with England, it just took the first step in a career of the free trade, i.e., of the permission of all foreign businessmen, disinterested in the question, to ensure, in the French market, and in French waters, the preponderance of England. Free trade, thanks to its name, is one of fantasies of contemporary democracy, which has never shone, as we know, by the light of economic science. There is no need, however, to be a great economist to see only the free trade, which is nothing only than the each by himself, each for himself [chacun chez soi , chacun pour soi], held in such contempt by this same democracy, is not a principle, and that without principles, i.e. without Justice, without guarantees, without reciprocity, political economy, just like politics, is fertile only in disaster. I would only like the small lesson of political economy which appealed to His Majesty to be given to France via its minister of State, to prophesy that it will be with the customs reform issued by Napoleon III as it was with that of Robert Peel: perhaps the price of imported food products will drop, but the people will be more exhausted than before. It is thus so difficult to understand, for example, that if the French wines obtain a considerable outlet in England, the price will raise, and that the French people will drink less of it than before; that it will be the same for meat, butter, vegetables, and fruit; that if, in addition, irons and wrought cottons from England arrive to us at cheaper prices, the wages of the French workers will drop by as much; as a result, that the improvements of price, on the two sides of the strait, will benefit with the shareholders, the owners, with some intermediaries, brokers, merchants; that there will be displacement of businesses and fortunes, but that all in all, industrial competition and capitalist absorption being exerted on a greater scale, the fate of the masses will worsen? … Free exchange has as a condition the exemption from payment of the discount: is one able to carry out, in these terms, the balance of trade?—The imperial government will have the honor of completing the railroads, and even of having built far too many: but it will be able to be also to boast of having delivered the country to the financial aristocracy; to have restored in favor of its creatures the contemptible regime of the pot-de-vin, and to have caused the nation to contract the habit, unknown before, of gambling. Completion of the railroads by the imperial government and its intervention in all businesses, will mark for France the ruin of the middle class, which is to say the disorganization of French society.

The government of the emperor conceived the thought, worthy of praise, to be the restorer of manners, as it had had the ambition to be the founder of the credit. There is to this end an office of propaganda to the ministry for the interior. However, see as this government moralist plays of misfortune! A Mr. Giblain, stockbroker, is accused of embezzlement in the exercise of his charge and of diversion of funds. The facts are noted by experts; the offence is obvious; 1,800 diversions and as many forgeries. The judgment appears inevitable. But no. The jury returns a verdict of not guilty: do you know why? It was determined from the debates, by the jury as well as the Court, that the facts complained of to Mr. Giblain were common with all the corporations of stockbrokers, and declared honourable by the magistrates. This is at the moment when the Court of Cassation, by its confirmative decree against the unofficial brokers, granted to the stockbrokers the privilege of the futures market, that the prosecution pursued a stockbroker accused 1° of having traded in futures, like all his fellows; 2° to have done so on his own account, like all his fellows; 3° to this end to have kept an account of the aforesaid deals, like all his fellows; 4° finally, to have profited, sometimes lost—all is not profit in this trade—on the deals which he made, like all his fellows! … Obviously, the court of appeal and the prosecution did not go in agreement. The judgment was impossible. Do you believe that if the imperial prosecutor had announced his resolution to push the investigation until the end, and to bring before the bench, if it were needed, the swindlers from all the corporations of stockbrokers; if at the same time the court of appeal had withered the aforesaid corporation, by declaring it inadmissible in its request against the unofficial brokers, do you believe, I ask, that the jury would have dared to answer: Not guilt? But the corporation is one of the pillars of the State, for this reason considered holy and inviolable. Under Louis-Philippe, the Testes and Cubières, were the exception, and the jury condemned them. Today, they are the rule, and the jury discharges them. To a power without principles, virtue itself does not succeed. In the absence of the jury, the stones would shout: Hypocrisy!

Let us be fair, however. Undoubtedly, since December 2, a lowering of public morality has taken place in France; the nation lost its self-regard; it feels its own unworthiness, and, as is habitual, it blames the government for it. That is the principle that will bring down the empire, if its unworthiness can likewise be translated into indignation. But the government is in this, like everywhere, merely the expression of the conscience of the country; and if one can only say of it that, for the fidelity with which it expresses the perdition of their hearts, it deserves the recognition of its citizens, then one cannot say that it has deserved their hatred. The humiliation of France begins to reach farther than the coup d’état; Napoleon III, if it were possible to summon him before a jury, would have only a rather small share in that. Does one think by chance that, if the dynasty of Bonaparte had suddenly disappeared, the situation of the country would have changed? That would be a serious error. France can remake itself only through the Revolution; it is not there. After rejoicings such as those which followed the death of Commodius, there would be the biddings of Didius Julianus. This is why we declare, hand on our heart: between us and Napoleon III there is neither envy nor hatred; he neither misled us nor supplanted us; we have upheld him in nothing, we do not aspire to become his successors. He is the official representative, not the personification, of an era of misfortune: that is all. Apart from the acts of Strasbourg, Boulogne and December 2, his complicity does not extend. We will allow ourselves however to recall to him, without any threat, the word of the Gospel: Voe autem homini illi per quem scandalum venit. Which means, in military language: Sentinel, guard yourself!


  1. The coming of the people to philosophy
  2. The definition of philosophy
  3. On the quality of the philosophical mind
  4. The origin of ideas
  5. That metaphysics is within the province of primary instruction
  6. That philosophy must be essentially practical
  7. The character that must be presented by the guarantee of our judgments and the rule of our actions.–Conversion from speculative to practical reason: determination of the criterion.
  8. Justice, universal reason of things: science and conscience.
  9. Supremacy of Justice.
  10. Conditions for a philosophical propaganda.
  11. Law of Progress. Social destination.
  12. A word about the situation.
  13. Conclusion. (next)

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.