Proudhon's Speech against Thiers

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 3 August 1848

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 321;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 66, August 5, 1848.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung

Paris, August 3. The day before yesterday we were able to render Proudhon’s speech only piecemeal.[1] We will now enter upon a thorough discussion of it. [Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 64, August 3, 1848] M. Proudhon starts with the explanation that the February revolution was nothing but the emergence of socialism which attempted to assert itself in all the following events and phases of this revolution.

“You want to finish with socialism. Oh well, just watch. I will lend you a helping hand. The success of socialism does not by any means depend upon a single man; the present battle is by no means a battle between myself and M. Thiers, but between labour and privilege.”

M. Proudhon demonstrates instead that M. Thiers has only attacked and slandered his private life.

“If we proceed on that level, I would suggest to M. Thiers: let us both go to confession! You confess your sins, and I will confess mine!”

The point at issue was the revolution. The financial committee regarded the revolution as a fortuitous event, as a surprise, whereas he, Proudhon, had taken it seriously. In the year 93 property had paid its debt to the republic by paying a third of taxes. The revolution of 48 must remain in a “proportional relationship”. In the year 93 the foes had been despotism and foreign countries. In the year 48, pauperism was the foe. “What is this droit au travail”, this right to work?

“If the demand for labour were greater than the supply there would be no need for any promises on the part of the state. This, however, is not the case. Consumption is very low. The stores are full of goods and the poor are naked! And yet which country has a greater propensity to consume than France? If instead of 10 million, we were given 100, i.e. 75 francs per head and per day, we certainly would know how to consume it.” (Hilarity in the Chamber.)

The rate of interest is supposed to be the basic cause of the people’s ruin. The creation of a national bank of two milliards which would lend its money without interest and grant the free use of the land and of houses would bring immense advantages. (Vigorous interruptions.)

“If we stick to this (laughter), if the fetishism of money were supplanted by the realism of gratification (renewed laughter), then there would exist the guarantee of labour. Let the duties on the instruments of labour be abolished and you are saved. Those who maintain the opposite, may they be called Girondists or Montagnards, are no socialists and no republicans (Oh! Oh!).... Either property will smash the republic or the republic will smash property.” (Calls of: enough!)

M. Proudhon now becomes enmeshed in a lengthy discourse about the significance of interest and how the rate of interest could be reduced to zero. M. Proudhon stands on weak grounds as long as he maintains this economic point of view even though he creates an immense scandal in this bourgeois Chamber. But whenever, excited by just this scandal, he adopts the proletarian point of view, the Chamber seems to go into nervous convulsions.

“Gentlemen, my ideas are different from yours. I represent a different point of view from yours! Ale liquidation of the old society began on February 24 with the fight between the bourgeoisie and the working class. This liquidation will be accomplished either by violent or by peaceful means. All will depend upon the discernment of the bourgeoisie and its greater or lesser resistance.”

M. Proudhon now proceeds to elaborate his idea of “the abolition of property”. He does not intend to abolish property all at once but only gradually. It is for this reason that he had stated in his journal’ that rent of land was a voluntary gift of the earth which the state must gradually abolish.

“I have thus on the one hand explained the meaning of the February revolution to the bourgeoisie; I have given notice to property so that it may hold itself ready for liquidation and so that the property owners may be held responsible for their refusal.”

A thunderous roar arises from several sides: responsible in what way?

“By that I mean if the property owners will not liquidate voluntarily, we will carry through this liquidation.”

Several voices: Who are we?

Other voices: Send him to the lunatic asylum at Charenton. (Tremendous excitement; a proper storm accompanied by thunder and the roaring of wind.)

“If I say we, I identify myself with the proletariat and you with the bourgeoisie.”

M. Proudhon then enters upon the specification of his tax system and he becomes once again “scientific”. This “science” which has always been Proudhon’s weakness becomes his strength in this narrow-minded Chamber by giving him the boldness to combat with his pure, genuine “science” the defiled financial science of M. Thiers. M. Thiers has proved his practical financial discernment. During his administration, the state treasury decreased while his personal fortune increased.

When the Chamber paid little attention to Proudhon’s further arguments, he declared bluntly that he would continue speaking for at least 3/4 of an hour. When the majority of the Chamber was thereupon getting ready to leave he proceeded once again to direct attacks upon property.

“By the February revolution alone you have abolished property!”

One could almost say that terror kept the people glued to their seats every time that Proudhon said anything against property.

“By recognising in the Constitution the right to work, you have proclaimed the recognition of the abolition of property.”

Larochejaquelein asks whether one has the right to steal. Other deputies do not want to let M. Proudhon continue.

“You cannot destroy the consequences of the faits accomplis” (accomplished facts). “If debtors and tenants are still paying, they are doing so of their own free will.” (Tremendous uproar. The President calls the speaker to order: Everybody is obliged to pay his debts.)

“I am not saying that the liabilities have been repealed but those who are trying to defend them here are destroying the revolution....

“What are we, representatives? Nothing. Nothing at all. The power which gave us power lacked principle and basis. Our entire authority is force, despotism and the might of the stronger. (New eruption of the storm.) Universal suffrage is an accident and in order that it may gain significance, it must be preceded by organisation. We are not ruled by law or justice. We are ruled by force, necessity, providence.... April 16th, May 15th, June 23rd, 24th and 25th are facts, nothing more than facts, which are legitimised by history. We can do today whatever we want to. We are the stronger ones. Let us not speak therefore of rebels. Rebels are those who have no other right than that of superior might but will not recognise this right for others. I know that my motion will not be accepted. But you are in a position where you can only escape death by accepting my motion. It is a question of credits and labour. Confidence will never return, nay, it is impossible for it to return...... (Horrible!) “For all that you might say that you are trying to create a respectable, moderate republic, capital does not dare to show itself under a republic which has to hold demonstrations in favour of the workers. While capital is thus waiting for us so as to liquidate us, we are waiting for capital so as to liquidate it. February 24 has proclaimed the right to work. If you eliminate this right from the Constitution, you proclaim the right to insurrection.

“Place yourselves for ever under the protection of bayonets, prolong the state of siege for ever: capital will still be afraid and socialism will keep its eyes on it.”

The readers of the Kölnische Zeitung know M. Proudhon of yore. M. Proudhon, who, according to the reasoning of the agenda, has attacked morality, religion, family and property, was not so long ago still the acclaimed hero of the Kölnische Zeitung. Proudhon’s so-called social-economic system” was thoroughly glorified in articles from correspondents in Paris, in feuilletons and in lengthy treatises. All social reforms were to proceed from Proudhon’s determination of value. The story of how the Kölnische Zeitung made this dangerous acquaintance does not belong here. But how strange! The very newspaper which in those days looked upon Proudhon as a saviour, now cannot find enough invective to label him and his “lying party” as corrupters of society. Is M. Proudhon no longer M. Proudhon?

What we were attacking in M. Proudhon’s theory was the “utopian science” by which he wanted to settle the antagonism between capital and labour, between proletariat and bourgeoisie.’ We shall come back to this point. His whole system of banking and his entire exchange of products is nothing but a petty-bourgeois illusion. Now, when to realise this. pale illusion he is compelled to speak as a democrat in the face of the whole bourgeois Chamber and is expressing this antagonism in harsh terms, the Chamber cries of offence against morality and property.

  1. Proudhon’s speech is set forth and quoted in this article according to newspaper reports. The full text of Proudhon’s speech at the session of the French National Assembly on July 31, 1848, was published in Compte rendu des séances de l'Assemblée national, Vol. II, Paris, 1849, pp. 770-82