[Footnote: Appeared in le Temps, 3 October, 1871, under the title, Reponse a un ami, and published in Impressions et Souvenirs, p. 53.]
And what, you want me to stop loving? You want me to say that I have been mistaken all my life, that humanity is contemptible, hateful, that it has always been and always will be so? And you chide my anguish as a weakness, and puerile regret for a lost illusion? You assert that the people has always been ferocious, the priest always hypocritical, the bourgeois always cowardly, the soldier always brigand, the peasant always stupid? You say that you have known all that ever since your youth and you rejoice that you never have doubted it, because maturity has not brought you any disappointment; have you not been young then? Ah! We are entirely different, for I have never ceased to be young, if being young is always loving.
What, then, do you want me to do, so as to isolate myself from my kind, from my compatriots, from my race, from the great family in whose bosom my own family is only one ear of corn in the terrestrial field? And if only this ear could ripen in a sure place, if only one could, as you say, live for certain privileged persons and withdraw from all the others!
But it is impossible, and your steady reason puts up with the most unrealizable of Utopias. In what Eden, in what fantastic Eldorado will you hide your family, your little group of friends, your intimate happiness, so that the lacerations of the social state and the disasters of the country shall not reach them? If you want to be happy through certain people — those certain people, the favorites of your heart, must be happy in themselves. Can they be? Can you assure them the least security?
Will you find me a refuge in my old age which is drawing near to death? And what difference now does death or life make to me for myself? Let us suppose that we die absolutely, or that love does not follow into the other life, are we not up to our last breath tormented by the desire, by the imperious need of assuring those whom we leave behind all the happiness possible? Can we go peacefully to sleep when we feel the shaken earth ready to swallow up all those for whom we have lived? A continuous happy life with one’s family in spite of all, is without doubt relatively a great good, the only consolation that one could and that one would enjoy. But even supposing external evil does not penetrate into our house, which is impossible, you know very well, I could not approve of acquiescing in indifference to what causes public unhappiness.
All that was foreseen. . . . Yes, certainly, I had foreseen it as well as anyone! I saw the storm rising. I was aware, like all those who do not live without thinking, of the evident approach of the cataclysm. When one sees the patient writhing in agony is there any consolation in understanding his illness thoroughly? When lightning strikes, are we calm because we have heard the thunder rumble a long time before?
No, no, people do not isolate themselves, the ties of blood are not broken, people do not curse or scorn their kind. Humanity is not a vain word. Our life is composed of love, and not to love is to cease to live.
The people, you say! The people is yourself and myself. It would be useless to deny it. There are not two races, the distinction of classes only establishes relative and for the most part illusory inequalities. I do not know if your ancestors were high up in the bourgeoisie; for my part, on my mother’s side my roots spring directly from the people, and I feel them continually alive in the depth of my being. We all have them, even if the origin is more or less effaced; the first men were hunters and shepherds, then farmers and soldiers. Brigandage crowned with success gave birth to the first social distinctions. There is perhaps not a title that was not acquired through the blood of men. We certainly have to endure our ancestors when we have any, but these first trophies of hatred and of violence, are they a glory in which a mind ever so little inclined to be philosophical, finds grounds for pride? THE PEOPLE ALWAYS FEROCIOUS, you say? As for me, I say, the nobility always savage!
And certainly, together with the peasants, the nobility is the class most hostile to progress, the least civilized in consequence. Thinkers should congratulate themselves on not being of it, but if we are bourgeois, if we have come from the serf, and from the class liable to forced labor, can we bend with love and respect before the sons of the oppressors of our fathers? Whoever denies the people cheapens himself, and gives to the world the shameful spectacle of apostasy. Bourgeoisie, if we want to raise ourselves again and become once more a class, we have only one thing to do, and that is to proclaim ourselves the people, and to fight to the death against those who claim to be our superiors by divine right. On account of having failed in the dignity of our revolutionary mandate, of having aped the nobility, of having usurped its insignia, of having taken possession of its playthings, of having been shamefully ridiculous and cowardly, we count for nothing; we are nothing any more: the people, which ought to unite with us, denies us, abandons us and seeks to oppress us.
The people ferocious? No, it is not imbecile either, its real trouble is in being ignorant and foolish. It is not the people of Paris that has massacred the prisoners, destroyed the monuments, and tried to burn the town. The people of Paris is all who stayed in Paris after the siege, since whoever had any means hastened to breathe the air of the provinces and to embrace their absent families after the physical and moral sufferings of the siege. Those who stayed in Paris were the merchant and the workman, those two agents of labor and of exchange, without whom Paris would exist no longer. Those are what constitutes positively the people of Paris; it is one and the same family, whose political blunders cannot restore their relationship and solidarity. It is now recognized that the oppressors of that torment were in the minority. Then the people of Paris was not disposed to fury, since the majority gave evidence only of weakness and fear. The movement was organized by men already enrolled in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, who belong no longer to the habits and needs of the proletariat. These men were moved by hatred, disappointed ambition, mistaken patriotism, fanaticism without an ideal, sentimental folly or natural maliciousness — there was all that in them — and even certain doctrinaire points of honor, unwilling to withdraw in the face of danger. They certainly did not lean on the middle class, which trembled, fled or hid itself. They were forced to put in action the real proletariat which had nothing to lose. Well, the proletariat even escaped them to a great degree, divided as it was by various shades of opinion, some wanting disorder to profit by it, others dreading the consequences of being drawn in, the most of them not reasoning at all, because the evil had become extreme and the lack of work forced them to go to war at thirty sous a day.
Why should you maintain that this proletariat which was shut up in Paris, and was at most eighty thousand soldiers of hunger and despair, represented the people of France? They do not even represent the people of Paris, unless you desire to maintain the distinction between the producer and the trader, which I reject.
But I want to follow you up and ask on what this distinction rests. Is it on more or less education? The limit is incomprehensible if you see at the top of the bourgeoisie, cultivated and learned people, if you see at the bottom of the proletariat, savages and brutes, you have none the less the crowd of intermediaries which will show to you, here intelligent and wise proletarians, there bourgeois who are neither wise nor intelligent. The great number of civilized citizens dates from yesterday and many of those who know how to read and write, have parents still living who can hardly sign their names.
Would it then be only more or less wealth that would classify men into two distinct parties? The question then is where the people begins and where it ends, for each day competencies shift, ruin lowers one, and fortune raises another; roles change, he who was a bourgeois this morning is going to become again a proletarian this evening, and the proletarian of just now, may turn into a bourgeois in a day, if he finds a purse, or inherits from an uncle.
You can well see that these denominations have become idle and that the work of classifying, whatever method one desired to use, would be impracticable.
Men are only over or under one another because of more or less reason or morality. Instruction which develops only egoistic sensuality is not as good as the ignorance of the proletarian, honest by instinct or by custom. This compulsory education which we all desire through respect for human rights, is not, however, a panacea whose miracles need to be exaggerated. Evil natures will find there only more ingenious and more hidden means to do evil. It will be as in all the things that man uses and abuses, both the poison and the antidote. It is an illusion that one can find an infallible remedy for our woes. We have to seek from day to day, all the means immediately possible, we must think of nothing else in practical life except the amelioration of habits and the reconciliation of interests. France is agonizing, that is certain; we are all sick, all corrupt, all ignorant, all discouraged: to say that it was WRITTEN, that it had to be so, that it has always been and will always be, is to begin again the fable of the pedagogue and the child who is drowning. You might as well say at once.
It is all the same to me; but if you add: That does not concern me, you are wrong. The deluge comes and death captures us. In vain you are prudent and withdraw, your refuge will be invaded in its turn, and in perishing with human civilization you will be no greater a philosopher for not having loved, than those who threw themselves into the flood to save some debris of humanity. The debris is not worth the effort, very good! They will perish none the less, that is possible. We shall perish with them, that is certain, but we shall die while in the fulness of life. I prefer that to a hibernation in the ice, to an anticipated death. And anyway, I could not do otherwise. Love does not reason. If I asked why you have the passion for study, you would not explain it to me any better than those who have a passion for idleness can explain their indolence.
Then you think me upset, since you preach detachment to me? You tell me that you have read in the papers some extracts from my articles which indicate a change of ideas, and these papers which quote me with good will, endeavor to believe that I am illuminated with a new light, while others which do not quote me believe that perhaps I am deserting the cause of the future. Let the politicians think and say what they want to. Let us leave them to their critical appreciations. I do not have to protest, I do not have to answer, the public has other interests to discuss than those of my personality. I wield a pen, I have an honorable position of free discussion in a great paper; if I have been wrongly interpreted, it is for me to explain myself better when the occasion presents itself. I am reluctant to seize this opportunity of talking of myself as an isolated individual; but if you judge me converted to false notions, I must say to you and to others who are interested in me: read me as a whole, and do not judge me by detached fragments; a spirit which is independent of party exactions, sees necessarily the pros and cons, and the sincere writer tells both without busying himself about the blame or the approbation of partizan readers. But every being who is not mad maintains a certain consistency, and I do not think that I have departed from mine. Reason and sentiment are always in accord in me to make me repulse whatever attempts to make me revert to childhood in politics, in religion, in philosophy, in art. My sentiment and my reason combat more than ever the idea of factitious distinctions, the inequality of conditions imposed as a right acquired by some, as a loss deserved by others. More than ever I feel the need of raising what is low, and of lifting again what has fallen. Until my heart is worn out it will be open to pity, it will take the part of the weak, it will rehabilitate the slandered. If today it is the people that is under foot, I shall hold out my hand to the people — if it is the oppressor and executioner, I shall tell it that it is cowardly and odious. What do I care for this or that group of men, these names which have become standards, these personalities which have become catchwords? I know only wise and foolish, innocent and guilty. I do not have to ask myself where are my friends or my enemies. They are where torment has thrown them. Those who have deserved my love, and who do not see through my eyes, are none the less dear to me. The thoughtless blame of those who leave me does not make me consider them as enemies. All friendship unjustly withdrawn remains intact in the heart that has not merited the outrage. That heart is above self-love, it knows how to wait for the awakening of justice and affection.
Such is the correct and easy role of a conscience that is not engaged in the party interests through any personal interest. Those who can not say that of themselves will certainly have success in their environment, if they have the talent to avoid all that can displease them, and the more they have of this talent, the more they will find the means to satisfy their passions. But do not summon them in history to witness the absolute truth. From the moment that they make a business of their opinion, their opinion has no value.
I know sweet, generous and timorous souls, who in this terrible moment of our history, reproach themselves for having loved and served the cause of the weak. They see only one point in space, they believe that the people whom they have loved and served exist no longer, because in their place a horde of bandits followed by a little army of bewildered men has occupied momentarily the theatre of the struggle.
These good souls have to make an effort to say to themselves that what good there was in the poor and what interest there was in the disinherited still exists, only it is no longer in evidence and the political disturbance has sidetracked it from the stage. When such dramas take place, those who rush in light-heartedly are the vain or the greedy members of the family, those who allow themselves to be pulled in are the idiots.
There is no doubt that there are greedy souls, idiots, and vain persons by the thousands in France; but there are as many and perhaps more in the other states. Let an opportunity present itself similar to too frequent opportunities which put our evil passions in play, and you will see whether other nations are any better than we are. Wait till the Germanic race gets to work, the race whose disciplinary aptitudes we admire, the race whose armies have just shown us brutal appetites in all their barbarous simplicity, and you will see what will be its license! The people of Paris will seem sober and virtuous by comparison.
That ought not to be what is called a crumb of comfort, we shall have to pity the German nation for its victories as much as ourselves for our defeats, because this is the first act of its moral dissolution. The drama of its degradation has begun, and as this is being worked out by its own hands it will move very quickly. All these great material organizations in which right, justice, and the respect for humanity are not recognized, are colossi of clay, as we have found to our cost. Well! the moral abasement of Germany is not the future safety of France, and if we are called upon to return to her the evil that has been done us, her collapse will not give us back our life. It is not in blood that races are re-invigorated and rejuvenated. Vital exhalations can issue still from the corpse of France, that of Germany will be the focus of the pestilence of Europe. A nation that has lost its ideals does not survive itself. Its death fertilizes nothing and those who breathe its fetid emanations are struck by the ill that killed it. Poor Germany! the cup of the wrath of the Eternal is poured out on you quite as much as on us, and while you rejoice and become intoxicated, the philosophic spirit is weeping over you and prepares your epitaph. This pale and bleeding, wounded thing that is called France, holds still in its tense hands, a fold of the starry mantle of the future, and you drape yourself in a soiled flag, which will be your winding sheet. Past grandeurs have no longer a place to take in the history of men. It is all over with kings who exploit the peoples; it is all over with exploited peoples who have consented to their own abasement.
That is why we are so sick and why my heart is broken.
But it is not in scorn of our misery that I regard the extent of it. I do not want to believe that this holy country, that this cherished race, all of whose chords I feel vibrate in me, both harmonious and discordant — whose qualities and whose defects I love in spite of everything, all of whose good or bad responsibilities I consent to accept rather than to detach myself from them through disdain; no, I do not want to believe that my country and my race are struck to death, I feel it in my suffering, in my mourning, in my hours of pure dejection even, I love, therefore I live; let us love and live.
Frenchmen, let us love one another, my God! my God! 1et us love one another or we are lost. Let us destroy, let us deny, let us annihilate politics, since it divides us and arms us against one another; let us ask from no one what he was and what he wanted yesterday. Yesterday all the world was mistaken, let us know what we want today. If it is not liberty for all and fraternity towards all, do not let us attempt to solve the problem of humanity, we are not worthy of defining it, we are not capable of comprehending it. Equality is a thing that does not impose itself, it is a free plant that grows only on fertile lands, in salubrious air. It does not take root on barricades, we know that now! It is immediately trodden under the foot of the conqueror, whoever he may be. Let us desire to establish it in our customs, let us be eager to consecrate it in our ideas. Let us give it for a starting point, patriotic charity, love! It is the part of a madman to think that one issues from a battle with respect for human rights. All civil war has brought forth and will bring forth great crime. . . .
Unfortunate International, is it true that you believe in the lie that strength is superior to right? If you are as numerous, as powerful as one fancies, is it possible that you profess destruction and hatred as a duty? No, your power is a phantom of death. A great number of men of every nationality would not, could not, deliberate and act in favor of an iniquitous principle. If you are the ferocious party of the European people, something like the Anabaptists of Munster, like them you will destroy yourself with your own hands. If, on the contrary, you are a great and legitimate fraternal association, your duty is to enlighten your adherents and to deny those who cheapen and compromise your principles. I hope still that you include in your bosom, humane and hard-working men in great numbers, and that they suffer and blush at seeing bandits take shelter under your name. In this case your silence is inept and cowardly. Have you not a single member capable of protesting against ignoble attacks, against idiotic principles, against furious madness? Your chosen chiefs, your governors, your inspirers, are they all brigands and idiots? No, it is impossible; there are no groups, there is no club, there are no crossroads where a voice of truth could not make itself heard. Speak then, justify yourself, proclaim your gospel. Dissolve yourself in order to make yourself over if the discord is in your own midst. Make an appeal to the future if you are not an ancient invasion of Barbarians. Tell those who still love the people what they ought to do for them, and if you have nothing to say, if you cannot speak a word of life, if the iniquities of your mysteries are sealed by fear, renounce noble sympathies, live on the scorn of honest folk, and struggle between the jailer and the police.
All France has heard the word of your destiny which might have been the word of hers. She has waited for it in vain. I too, simple, I waited. While blaming the means I did not want to prejudice the end. There has always been one in revolutions, and the revolutions that fail are not always those with the weakest basis. A patriotic fanaticism seems to have been the first sentiment of this struggle. These lost children of the democratic army were going perhaps to subscribe to an inevitable peace that they judged shameful: Paris had sworn to bury herself under her ruins.
The democratic people were going to force the bourgeois to keep their word. They took possession of the cannon, they were going to turn them on the Prussians, it was mad, but it was grand. . . . Not at all. The first act of the Commune is to consent to the peace, and in all the course of its management, it does not have an insult, not a threat for the enemy, it conceives and commits the remarkable cowardice of overturning under the eyes of the enemy the column that recalls his defeats and our victories. It is angry against the powers emanating from universal suffrage, and yet it invokes this suffrage in Paris to constitute itself. It is true that this was not favorable to it; it dispenses with the appearance of legality that it intended to give itself and functions by brute force, without invoking any other right than that of hate and scorn for all that is not itself. It proclaims POSITIVE SOCIAL SCIENCE of which it calls itself the sole depository, but about which it does not let a word escape in its deliberations and in its decrees. It declares that it is going to free man from his shackles and his prejudices, and at that very instant, it exercises a power without control and threatens with death whoever is not convinced of its infallibility. At the same time it pretends to take up the tradition of the Jacobins, it usurps the papal social authority and assumes the dictatorship. What sort of a republic is that? I see nothing vital in it, nothing rational, nothing constituted, nothing constitutable. It is an orgy of false reformers who have not one idea, not one principle, not the least serious organization, not the least solidarity with the nation, not the least outlook towards the future. Ignorance, cynicism and brutality, that is all that emanates from this false social revolution. Liberation of the lowest instincts, impotence of bold ambitions, scandal of shameless usurpations. That is the spectacle which we have just seen. Moreover, this Commune has inspired the most deadly disgust in the most ardent political men, men most devoted to the democracy. After useless essays, they have understood that there was no reconciliation possible where there were no principles; they withdrew from it with consternation, with sorrow, and, the next day, the Commune declared them traitors, and decreed their arrest. They would have been shot if they had remained in its hands.
And you, friend, you want me to see these things with a stoic indifference? You want me to say: man is made thus, crime is his expression, infamy is his nature?
No, a hundred times no. Humanity is outraged in me and with me. We must not dissimulate nor try to forget this indignation which is one of the most passionate forms of love. We must make great efforts in behalf of brotherhood to repair the ravages of hate. We must put an end to the scourge, wipe out infamy with scorn, and inaugurate by faith the resurrection of the country.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08