From New International, Vol. VI No. 7, August 1940, pp. 131–133.
Transcribed and by marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.
IN France, bourgeois democracy once more has fallen, and this time it has fallen like Lucifer, never to rise again. Since July, 1789, when “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” became the motto of bourgeois France, the republic has been at various times replaced by two monarchical and two imperial regimes, but, republic, monarchy, or empire, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” remained. Today, “Labor, Family and Nation” have been substituted, voted for by a majority of both chambers. The French bourgeoisie has thus given notice that for it an epoch has closed. The democratic regime has now outlived its camouflage in France as well as Germany. According to the military and social results of the present war, it is not at all excluded that France may once more go through the ritual of elections and parliament, that the bourgeois democratic regime may perhaps scramble to its knees, and even stagger to its feet. But the curse of Kerensky will be upon it. To right and left it will face deadly and unappeasable enemies. Its demise will be bloody, complete and final.
The American bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois intellectuals have been rending the heavens with their wails over the defeat of the French army, and the extinction of French culture, symbolized by the swastika flying over Paris. Paris is fallen, is fallen, that great city. For the bourgeoisie this ranting signifies only that American imperialism has lost a useful ally in the struggle for imperialist domination. The American bourgeoisie would cheerfully deliver New York and Washington to the Mikado rather than see the American workers take them over.
The radical intellectuals delude themselves that they are different. They have memories of the American revolution and the French as the joint initiators of the democratic regime in the two hemispheres; of spring vacations in Paris in an atmosphere of good food; women, elegant and at the same time cultivated; and brilliant conversation; above all, the intellectual as an intellectual counted in Paris, which was dear to the overweening vanity of the chronic ineffectives. Hence they raise their voices in the chorus that Rome is fallen, and the capital of Western civilization is in the hands of the barbarians.
The fundamental ignorance and stupidity of these learned chatterers are without bounds. The capture or non-capture of Paris does not signify either the continuance or extinction of a culture. Hitler is not Attila. Weygand is not a Charles Martel. The Nazis are neither barbarians from the North nor infidels from the South. They are flesh of Europe’s flesh and bone of Europe’s bone. They represent a stage in the development of capitalist society, the epoch of its decay. Intellectuals who moan and slobber over the capture of Paris show no knowledge of either history or culture – but a sure instinct for hiding in the steadily diminishing crevices of bankrupt bourgeois democracy. If we want to set dates, the decline of the West began in 1914 with the first imperialist war; or we may say that bourgeois civilization began its panic retreat in October, 1917. But the bourgeois requiem over Paris in the hands of the Nazis has nothing to do with love of culture. It is the defense of one section of bourgeois society against the other, the struggle for imperialist mastery. That we repudiate as we repudiate all forms of defensism in this war.
But the counter-revolutionary squawking of these song-birds being driven out of our hearing, the working class movement is not indifferent to the fate of France or of Paris. The German army in Paris is a bitter experience tor all of us for it is an added burden on the back of the Parisian workers. And the workers of Paris, in the last 150 years, have been the vanguard of the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity. The bourgeoisie has always claimed the undoubted contributions of France to modern society for itself. It is seeking to obtain them under false pretences. For a century and a half the barricades erected by the workers of Paris have marked the stages not only in the extension of democratic rights, but in the clarification of human thought.
The greatest thinkers of bourgeois society in France are those who preceded the French Revolution, Descartes first and then Montesquieu, Diderot and the Encyclopaedists, Rousseau, and in his aristocratic way, Voltaire. We know their errors. But their positive achievements were invaluable. What capitalism was doing in the market-place, they did in the consciousness of men; they destroyed the intellectual structure of the feudal world. However, Diderot and Rousseau, as well as Voltaire, were political conservatives. And if they might have accepted the storming of the Bastille, they would have recoiled in horror from the September massacres and the merciless determination of the enragés. Yes it was the sans culottes who made possible the acceptance, first in France and then in the world, ofEighteenth Century rationalism. Without the Paris masses, there would have been no August 10, 1792. Without their independent organization of the army and supplies, the European reaction would have conquered Paris and France, and the historical current would have flowed in other and perhaps more devious channels. In that respect, the French Revolution was entirely different from the American. The French Revolution was a revolution of the people as the American revolution never was. This intervention of the French working people is one important key to the political history of France and Europe from July 14, 1789, to the present day.
When Bonaparte faced defeat in 1814 and again in 1815, the Paris workers whom he had chained called on him to lead them in revolutionary struggle against the Bourbons. His armies were defeated in the field, and he on the one side and Alexander I on the other both recognized that the revolutionary workers of Paris could alter the whole situation. Alexander feared them but Bonaparte feared them too. Less than twenty years before, Babeuf had written: “nature has given to every man an equal right to the enjoyment of all goods”, and had called upon the people of Paris to translate this doctrine into life. Both in 1814 and in 1815 Bonaparte preferred exile to unloosing the revolution. Bonaparte’s successor, Louis XVIII, never forgot how he had had to fly at the Paris response to the news of Napoleon’s landing at Elba. After his death, in 1824, his successor, Charles X, tried to restore the powers of the reaction.
France was not yet sufficiently industrialized to make a clear division between organized workers and employers. Workers and the small masters came out together, but it was the Paris masses in the east end who overthrew the government. The Orleanist Monarchy of industrial capital stepped into the power lost by the Bourbon Monarchy of landed capital. Liberty, equality and fraternity were advanced by the extension of the vote from one for every three hundred persons to one tor every one hundred and fifty. Following the Paris revolt in 1830, there were insurrections in Belgium, Germany and Italy. The struggle in Britain entered the final phase which culminated in the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. One year after the French Revolution of 1830, the proletariat, organized as a class for the first time in history, appeared in the Lyons insurrection. Henceforth, the French bourgeoisie could never utter the words liberty and equality, without stuttering and looking over its shoulder to see who was listening.
By 1845 the new French government was an anachronism in face of the needs of French society, particularly a growing industry. It was overthrown in 1848 by the first socialist revolution in history. One year BEFORE, in 1847, it had been heralded by the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. How Louis Blanc aided the bourgeoisie in the crushing of the revolutionary workers and how the big bourgeoisie in its fear of liberty, equality and fraternity, finally accepted the bureaucratic second empire is familiar to all students of the movement. They are told in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, the most profound and penetrating historical study every written. These things must be remembered and propagated today when scoundrels and hypocrites babble about “the French” as having been guardians of light and leading for 150 years. Which French?
And French political and social thought during this period? Much of the thought that accepted bourgeois society as its basis is today useless, for example, Chateaubriand and Joseph de Maistre. Comte in philosophy, and the intellectuals of their day, Lamartine and Victor Hugo, exemplified that vague and inflated humanitarianism characteristic of the mid-nineteenth century bourgeois which was to receive its worst expression in the English Victorian painters and the writings of Ruskin, its best in Wagner’s music. On the other hand, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and, despite his confusion, Proudhon, have and will have an unperishable place in modern thought, because all of them challenged the bourgeois order at its root on the question of property. Not only in political action but in political and social thought, it is in the history of socialism that we must look for the history of liberty, equality and fraternity in France.
Revolutionary France in 1789, in 1830, and in 1848 had been the inspirer of nationalist revolts all over Europe. In 1848, following the Paris revolt, revolutions broke out in Austria, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Italy. Napoleon III attempted to carry on the tradition. But France was already the enemy of liberty. In 1858, this Napoleon sabotaged the struggle for Italian unification. His determination to block the unification of Germany was one of the main factors in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He engineered the marauding expedition of Maximilian to Mexico in 1867. His internal policy was equally reactionary until 1860. But Europe after 1848 was entering upon a period of expansion which demanded a different type of government in France. In 1859 the free trade treaty with Cobden struck the first blow at France’s protectionist policy. From 1860 the liberal bourgeoisie began to challenge Napoleon who gave way step by step. Yet in 1870 when his outworn government fell to pieces at Sedan it was revolutionary Paris which took its place at the head of the nation. In the face of the Paris Commune, the French bourgeoisie hastened to ally itself with the Prussian General Staff.
The Commune did not only lay the basis for the consummation of the Marxist theory of the state. It had a direct and immediate influence on the history of France. The French bourgeoisie, today held up as the apostle of liberty and fraternity, did not want the Third French Republic. It wanted a monarchy. Thiers, Bismarck’s ally, was a monarchist. But that reactionary opportunist, even after the bloody suppression of the Commune, saw that France would never stand a monarchy. In 1872 he declared himself a republican, and the next year was hounded out of office by the monarchist majority in the assembly. It was under these auspices that the basis of the French constitution which Laval overthrew was formed.
The first president was MacMahon, a monarchist, appointed for seven years, during which time the bourgeoisie hoped to slip a French king onto the throne. The constitution-makers, all mortally afraid of the French masses, placed in the constitution no bill of rights and no declaration of the sovereignty of the people. The heterogeneous character of the French government during the critical post-war years is due, as far as it is due to the legal character of the constitution, to the fact that this document was drafted by men who from the first to the last were concerned with building barriers between the powers of the government and the people. That the Fourth Republic came into existence at all was due not to the French bourgeoisie who hated it, but essentially to the masses of the French people and their acknowledged leader, the revolutionary proletariat of Paris. That it prospered was due still less to the love of liberty, equality and fraternity by the French bourgeoisie.
Between 1875 and 1900 world trade was more than doubled. Between 1900 and 1913 it nearly doubled. In the general expansion of capitalism France shared fully. In 1870 the quantity of coal mined was 13 million tons. In 1911 it was 38 million. In 1870 the number of patents granted to inventors was 2,782. In 1905 it was 12,953. France escaped the crisis of the Eighties in the manner described by Lenin in Imperialism, the Last Stage of Capitalism. It maintained equilibrium upon the exploitation of a vast colonial empire.
Jules Ferry, the founder of the Third French Empire, was at the same time a pioneer in popular education. A section of the French working class was induced to acquiesce in the imperialist order by reformist bribery and corruption. At the time of the Dreyfus case it was not the speeches of Zola and Anatole France but fear of the Paris proletariat and the consciousness of their own weakness which restrained the reactionaries.
The last seventy-five years of bourgeois France has seen not one famous writer on political or social questions devoted to liberty, equality and fraternity. The brilliant literary gifts of Anatole France were directed against the pretences and hypocrisies of bourgeois society, but he had nothing to put in its place. Hence his sharp irony which is the weapon of the irreconcilable impotent. Sorel, the only political writer of eminence, was an apostle of proletarian violence. Take away the proletariat and socialism from nineteenth century France, and what remains of the struggle for liberty? Reactionaries, windbags, and wit. Nothing else.
And the revolutionary workers of France, and their leader, the Parisian proletariat? At the end of the war by an overwhelming majority, they decided to break with the Second International and join the Third. They drifted back again to the Second International, but once more in 1934 they turned to the Third International, seeking a revolutionary way out of the intolerable difficulties of their position and the fascist proclivities of the bourgeoisie.
From Stalinism they got the Popular Front with its long list of betrayals. That they were ready for the revolution has been officially admitted by Blum and he of all men should know. Then after five years of the Popular Front, Stalinism suddenly hit them across the face with the Hitler-Stalin pact. Today they are trying to understand what has happened. It is for them that the Vichy government stages its trials. Meanwhile the Vichy Government is taking advantage of the despair and the presence of Hitler’s troops to fasten the fascist chains on the workers before they can recover. In one sense Hitler is compelling the French bourgeoisie to do nothing. The French bourgeoisie is attempting what it would have attempted to do with or without Hitler. It is acting as it has acted for the last hundred years, merely adapting itself to the specific circumstances. Bourgeois property, and not liberty, equality and fraternity has been its main preoccupation, now as then.
The New York Times of June 23, hopes that the “French people ... will build something stronger and sounder than the Third Republic when they have another chance to re-fashion their freedom.” To this we reply with a devout Amen. But the days of capitalist expansion are over. Liberty, fraternity and equality can exist even as words only in a French socialist society. That is why the French bourgeoisie has wiped them off the slate. We know who are “the French” who have fought for freedom through the years in France. We know who will fight for it tomorrow. We wait the day, Messrs. Bourgeois, when you will read in the morning headlines that the struggle for freedom has begun again in France. Then, as Henry VIII said to Wolsey when he placed in his hands the evidence of his doom: “To breakfast with what appetite you have.”
Last updated on 10.7.2013