Words of a Rebel
Chapter 4: The Coming Revolution
IN the preceding chapters we came to the conclusion that Europe is proceeding down a steep slope towards a revolutionary outbreak.
In considering the methods of production and exchange, as they have been organized by the bourgeoisie, we found a situation of irremediable decay. We see the complete absence of any kind of scientific or humanitarian basis for public actions, the unreasoning dissipation of social capital, the thirst for gain that led men to an absolute contempt for all the laws of social behaviour, and industrial war without an end in sight: in all, chaos. And we hailed the approach of the day on which the call, "An end to the bourgeoisie!" would echo from all lips with the same unanimity as hitherto characterised the call for an end to the dynasties.
In studying the development of the State, its historic role, and the decomposition that is attacking it today, we saw that this type of organization had accomplished in its history everything of which it was capable, and today is collapsing under the weight of its own presumptions; that it must give way to new forms of organization based on new principles and more in line with the modern tendencies of humanity.
At this very time, those who watch attentively the development of ideas in the heart of present-day society are fully aware of the ardour with which human thinking these days is working towards the complete revision of the assumptions we have inherited from past centuries and towards the elaboration of new philosophic and scientific systems destined to provide the foundations for societies in the future. It is not merely a matter of the gloomy reformer, wornout by a task beyond his strength and by a poverty he can no longer endure, who condemns the shameful institutions that bear down on him and who dreams of a better future.
It is also a matter of the scholar, who may have been raised with antiquated prejudices, but gradually finds them being shaken, and who gives ear to the currents of ideas that are moving through the minds of the people and one day emerges as their spokesman and proclaims them to the world. "The critic's pickaxe," cry the defenders of the past, "is undercutting with great blows the whole of the heritage that has been transmitted to us as revealed truth; philosophy, the natural sciences, morality, history, art, nothing is spared in this work of demolition." Nothing indeed is spared, down to the very foundations of our social institutions- property and power-attacked with equal strength by the slave in the factory and by the intellectual worker, by the man who has an urgent interest in change as much as by the man who will recoil with fright on the day he sees his ideas take on flesh, shake free of the dust of the libraries, and become manifest in the tumult of popular realization.
The decay and decomposition of accepted forms and the general discontent with them; the arduous elaboration of new forms of social organization and the impatient longing for change; the rejuvenating impulse of the critic in the domain of the sciences, of philosophy, of ethics, and the general ferment of public opinion. And on the other side the sluggish indifference or criminal resistance of those who hold on to power and who still have the strength, and sporadically the courage, to oppose themselves to the development of new ideas.
Such was always the condition of societies on the eve of great revolutions; such is the condition of society again today. It is not the overexcited imagination of a crowd of hotheads that reveals it, but calm and scientific observation, to such an extent that even those who excuse their guilty indifference by saying: "Stay calm! There is no danger yet!" will admit that the situation becomes steadily more inflamed and that they no longer have any idea where we are going; having relieved themselves by such an admission, they return to their thoughtless ruminations.
"But it has been announced so often, that revolution of yours," the pessimist sighs in our ears: "Even I believed in it for a while, but it has not happened." It will be all the more mature when it does. "On two occasions' the revolution was on the point of breaking out, in 1754 and 1771," a historian tells us in speaking of the 18th century.(7) (I had almost written: in 1848 and 1871). But since it has not even yet broken out, it can only be all the more powerful and productive when it happens at the end of the century.
But let the thoughtless people continue their slumber and the pessimists grumble; we have other things to do. We must ask what will be the nature of that revolution which so many people expect and for which they prepare, and what should be our attitude in the presence of that eventuality.
We are not making historical prophecies: neither the embryonic condition of sociology, nor the present state of history which, according to Augustin Thierry,(8) "merely stifles the truth under conventional formulae," give us the authority to do so. Let us then confine ourselves to posing a few quite simple questions.
Can we admit, even for a moment, that the immense intellectual work of revision and reformation that goes on in all classes of society, can be satisfied by a simple change of government? Can we claim that the economic discontent which grows and spreads from day to day will not become manifest in public life as soon as favourable circumstances-such as the disorganization of authority-appear as the results of yet unforeseen events?
Is posing these questions a solution? Obviously not.
Can we believe that the Irish and English farm workers, if they see the possibility of seizing the land which they have coveted for so long, and driving away the landlords they hate so cordially, would not seek to profit from the first outbreak to attempt the realization of their hopes?
Can we believe, if there were a new 1848 in Europe, that France would be content merely to send Gambetta packing so as to replace him with M. Clemenceau,(9) and not make an effort to see what The Commune might do to ameliorate the lot of the workers? Can we imagine that the French peasant, seeing the central power in disorder, would not do his best to lay hands on the rich meadows of the holy sisters as well as the fertile lands of the great merchants who-once they have established themselves around him do not cease to enlarge their properties? That he will not take his stand beside those who offer him their support in realizing his dream of steady and well-paid work?
And can we believe that the Italian or the Spanish or the Slavic peasant will not do the same thing?
Do you think that the miners, weary of their poverty, of their suffering and of the massacres that firedamp explosions wreak among them (all of which they still endure-though murmuring-under the watchful eyes of the company guards)-do you think that they would not do their best to eliminate the owners of the mines if one day they could sense that the demoralized guards had become unwilling to obey their chiefs?
And consider the small craftsman, crouching in his damp cave of a workshop, his fingers frozen and his belly empty, striving from dawn to dusk to earn enough to pay the baker and feed his five little mouths, who become all the more dear to him as they grow pallid from their privations. And think of this other man, who has lain down under the first archway he came to, because he cannot pay his twopence to sleep in the common lodging house. Don't you think they would like to find in some sumptuous palace a dry and warm corner to shelter their families, which may indeed be more worthy than those of the wealthy? Don't you think they might like to see common stores stocked with enough bread for all those who have not learnt how to live in idleness, with enough clothing to fit the narrow shoulders of the workers' children as well as the soft bodies of well-to-do brats? Do you believe that those who live in rags are unaware that they could find in the shops of the cities more than enough to supply the essential needs of all the inhabitants, and that if all the workers could apply themselves to the production of useful objects, instead of wasting their energy on producing items of luxury, they would provide enough necessities for the whole community and for many neighbouring communities?
Finally, must we not admit that such things are becoming evident everywhere and find expression on all men's lips in moments of crisis (don't forget the siege of Paris!), and that the people will seek to put them into practice on the day they feel strong enough to act?
The wisdom of humanity has already answered these questions, and here is its reply.
The coming revolution will have a universality distinguishing it from its predecessors. It will no longer be one country that launches itself into the turmoil, it Will be all the countries of Europe. In the past, local revolutions may have been possible, but today, when one thinks of the shaken equilibrium of all European States and the links of solidarity that have been established on the continent, a local revolution cannot succeed though it may survive over a short period. As in 1848, a disturbance in one country will inevitably spread to the others, and the revolutionary conflagration will embrace the whole of Europe.
But if in 1848 the rebellious cities might still place their confidence in changes of government or constitutional reforms, this is no longer the case today. The Parisian worker will not expect from any government- even a government like that of the Commune-the accomplishment of his wishes; he will set to work himself, saying as he does, "Then it will be done for certain!"
The people of Russia will not wait for a Constituent Assembly to grant them possession of the land they cultivate: once they have any hope of success they will try to seize it for themselves; they are already seeking to do that, as witness the continued peasant insurrections. It is the same in Italy and in Spain; and if the German worker allows himself to be lulled for a while by those who would like everything to be done by telegrams from Berlin, the example of his neighbours and the incapability of his leaders will soon teach him the true revolutionary way. Thus, the distinct character of the coming revolution will consist in international attempts at economic revolution, made by the people without waiting for the revolution to fall like manna from the heavens.
But already we see the pessimist, with a sly smile on his chops coming to us with "A few objections, just a few objections!" So be it. We will listen to him and give our answers.