“I am a sans-culotte” (excerpt from Justice, Study on Moral Sanction)








I have come here to the end of this long labor.

Accused as it has been for seventy years, the Revolution finally becomes, through my mouth and in my person, the accuser. It proves to you today—to all of you, priests, mystics, worshipers of the ideal, apostles of natural religion, conservators and restorers of the principle of authority, privileged of capital and industry, partisans of divine right in property and the State, representatives of all the fictions of the exhausted age—that you do not know what Justice and order are; that the principles of that moral code, which you are so fond of claiming, are not within you; that you do not know yourselves, and that that certainty of right after which the world, demoralized by you, sighs, can be given by the Revolution alone.

One last question remains for me to address, the most serious of all and the most sublime. Sadly, I can only give it a small number of pages: I wish to speak of the moral sanction.

But I need to say one more word to you beforehand, Monsignor, regarding yourself and my biography: otherwise you might believe that I hold a grudge. Good accounting, says the proverb, makes good friends.

What is it, finally, that inspires in you that holy terror of the Revolution? Ah! I willingly grant your account of it, and that is why, despite the abyss that separates us, I feel ready to hold out my hand: what animates you against us is the sacred interest of that moral law the conditions and principles of which you accuse us of misunderstanding, while I, on my side, reproach you for ignoring it, from alpha to omega. You say, and you have been known to repeat it to philosophers as well as to women and children, that where religious faith is lacking morals is without guarantee as it is without basis, and that, if the doubt is logical, that must inevitably a villainy.

Such was, I am sure of it, the thought that animated you, when you wrote to that correspondent whose name, by respect for your own, will not fall any more from my pen:

The heart of his character is irritation and bitterness against society, from which he believes himself banished by the distress of his family. Having been able, by the force of his spirit/mind, to make some studies, truncated on one side, profound on the other, he has raised for himself a pedestal, on which he would receive the homage of the universe to the detriment of God, who is for him a rival. Proudhon is not an atheist; he is an enemy of God.

Enemy of God, enemy of society, enemy of all order, all law, all morals, in your thought it is the same thing. And why? I have just told you: because, in the system of the revolution, according to you irreligious in essence, as there does not and cannot exist a moral sanction, there no longer exists, there cannot exist a system of morals.

It is that which made to say equally, six weeks ago, the honorable president of the legislative body, M. de Morny, with regard to the law of general security:

Those that the law aims to intimidate and disperse, they are the implacable enemies of society, who detest every regime, anything that resembles any authority whatsoever. For, even in the era when some torrents of public liberty have overflowed in France, when equality is created by the debasement of everything that had been raised up, when popular interests were, not best defended, but flattered in the most servile manner, who still stood up against that tearful society, against that semblance of organization? Them, always the same, the socialists.

I will not do them the honor of discussing their theories; I say only that no excess of liberty can satisfy them, that no pardon appeases them, that they have wrapped France in a secret web whose aim can only be criminal, and that to leave them to conspire in the shadows would be a weakness full of perils. — The hard-working and honest laborers loathe them more than anyone. They know well that the socialist theories, outside of right and of morals, are stupid and impracticable; that by taking the surplus from some, we will never furnish even the necessities to the others; that this would be the ruin of credit, the complete destruction of social capital, and ultimately abjection and misery for all. They know well that it is only free labor, protected by a strong and just government, which can develop property and spread well-being among a greater mass of individuals. — The government must put an end to this work of corruption; it is necessary, come what may that the red party know well that it will find us in its path, before it can strike French society to the heart.

Outside of all right and all morals, which defines itself theologically, according to monsignor Matthieu, [as] enemy of god: such is, it seems to us, the refrain of the frightened souls of the counter-revolution. Outside of law, consequently: that, concludes the head of the third power of the empire, and come what may, that is to say no matter what dynasty is named to govern France, that is how we must act with regard to the red party, to socialism.

There exists in our revolutionary language one name which sums up all these horrors, and it astonishes me that is has not been brought to your mind: it is the name of sans-culotte.

The sans-culotte, that strange creation of the Revolution, who has not been seen again since Robespierre led him to the guillotine was, like your servant, poor, dissatisfied with the social state, never satiated with liberty. He adored Reason with all his heart and soul, affirmed the morality proper to man, the immanence of Justice, and, to prove his claim, permitted himself, as you have so kindly, Monsignor, given me the certificate, to remain honest.

So I am a sans-culotte: it is long since that, seeking my tradition in history, I glimpsed it there; but, before our Jacobin democracy, I dared not boast of it. For some weeks, in 1848, circumstances made me the heir of Clootz, of Chaumette, of Marat, of Momoro (a native of Besançon, I note in passing), of Jacques Roux, of Varlet, of Hébert himself, for I must name them all, I have no right to pick my forebears, circumstances, I say, made me the Epimenides of sans-culottism; perhaps, in another era, I would have been its Spartacus. But to each day its work; to each individual their mission. Mine, all in the realm of ideas, is still not fulfilled; and as long as it is not completed, I can say, on the example of Napoléon III, that the plots and intrigues, from whatever quarter they come, can do nothing to me. Others will realize what I have defined: Exoriare aliquis! . ..

Well, Monseigneur, if the sans-culotte was such that in your senseless terrors you trace his image; if I myself, in this hour of political and social distress, had neither faith, nor law, nor guts, do you know what vengeance would dictate to me and what I would do?

I would have abstained from writing; I would above all have avoided making a book of principles, because principles bear within them the salvation of societies and governments; I would have let the emperor claim, in the universal silence, some principles abominated since 89, and I would have laughed, without fear of spies, in my ideologue’s beard.

Or else, if I could not resist the temptation to set my thoughts down in type [me faire coucher en lettre moulée], I would shut away my thoughts within the bounds of an implacable opposition; instead of a work of philosophy, I would make a work of vengeance. Do you believe, Monseigneur, that even with the law that regulates that press that would have impossible? No, no: there are always means, for an expert pen, to stir up discord; always means, for a sophisticated and spiteful genius, to drive consciences to despair, to aggravate hatred, to excite the people against the bourgeois, even to applaud regicide and obtain the smiles of the du parquet. And listen, without departing from these Studies, I would only need, to satisfy my rage, to follow roughly this program: Delete the exposition of principles; dismiss above all the considerations regarding sanction [sanctionnelles] into which I am about to enter; return to my indignation and my claws; lock myself away in a cold and learned critique; to do for ethics in general what Doctor Strauss has done for the life of Jesus; to show, which is not difficult, that, Justice having foundations neither in religion, which places its subject apart from humanity, nor in philosophy, which reduces it to a notion; conscience being substantiated by no organism, right and duty are reduced to a pure convention, crime to a hazard of war, the social order to an insurance premium, as Mr. de Girardin has said; that done, to end with a disdainful irony [aimed] at liberty, equality, authority and virtue. The Church, and with it all the religious sects, from eclecticism to positivism, would remain crushed, convicted of contradiction and hypocrisy; and, what would put the icing on my misanthropic joy, that Revolution, which since 89, while separating definitively from you where it is a question of the temporal, has retained you to witness the spiritual, the Revolution, struck in the carotid, would shed its blood and give its death-rattle.

That is, Monseigneur, and my readers will say if I am boasting, what I could have done, but what I did not want to do. I have preferred, in my dreadful sans-culottism, to speak to the public as it had a right to be spoken to, according to the independence of my reason and the vigor of my moral sense; I said to myself that the moment had come either for the Revolution to fade away forever, or else to recreate Justice in it, to hold out to a failing society that saving branch [branche de salut] that it cannot expect you, Catholic clergy, to hold out yet; and, certain of the doctrine that I stand for, while I do not hold it because of my genius, I have obeyed my convictions as a philosopher and an honest man, at the risk of compromising my liberty once more: for you are capable, or I know you very little, of denouncing me, in the naïveté of your zeal, for outrage to morals.

Moreover, I am ready; I have long contemplated what I complete today, and, apart from the peccadilloes inseparables from every work of discussion, I dare to say, before heaven and earth, that I have done my duty.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.