Equality is Our Flag (Le Libérateur no. 1, 2 February 1834)

It has become common usage today to demand professions of faith from new politicians.1 Professing a faith necessarily means admitting to something other than material interests. But as soon as one claims to step outside the circle of these interests, with one voice all tendencies of the royalist faction cry out about anarchy. ‘You want to destroy what exists,’ it is proclaimed from all sides, ‘and you have nothing to put in its place!’ This is the sacramental phrase that has now governed the country for three years, and there is no appeal against it once it has been proclaimed against you. And yet we must put an end to this hollow phraseology and categorically explain ourselves, leaving phrasings to one side.

What is meant by destroying what exists? There exists a French nation of thirty-three million individuals spread across a territory of about twenty-eight thousand square leagues. They will apparently grant us that we do not want to erase this territory from the map of Europe, nor its thirty-three million inhabitants from the ranks of the living. The accusations of wanting to overthrow what exists thus bear only on the constitution and written laws of the country, for as regards its customs and ideas, it will be demonstrated below that we respect them more than anyone. Well then, we shall respond that the constitution and the written laws are nothing more than a purely statutory question. In the course of a half-century more than forty thousand of these laws have been passed, not counting the ones still being made, and France would surely lose nothing by simplifying this jumble of statutes.

As for what is called the constitution, it is nothing but a framework for civil servants; a nation changes it the same way a man changes his clothes, without its temperament being in any way disturbed. The one we have today is the eighth we have had to endure in forty years. Thank God that France does not live by the grace of its constitutions, and it will no more die from the death of this one than it did from the demise of the preceding ones. This botched charter is so insignificant a measure that it could be changed without the current government being destroyed, and the government could be changed without its being modified; another dynasty would be able to accommodate itself to the Charter of 1830 just as the dynasty of 1830 was able to accommodate itself to another charter.

To denounce us so strongly because we are bold enough to refuse to venerate such a pastiche is to make a lot of noise about nothing. We, who are profoundly indifferent to its form and go right to the basis of society, could not care less about what might become of the dull buffoonery that is so pompously called our institutions. If, in fact, we call ourselves republicans it is because we hope the republic will succeed in implementing the social transformation that France so urgently calls for and which is its destiny. If the republic were to fail to fulfil this hope we would cease to be republicans, for in our eyes a form of government is not an end but a means, and we only want political reform as a step along the road to social reform.

We know that our projects are dismissed as utopias. But history offers us a guarantee of… – the infallible realisation of these utopias. What would indeed be merely utopian would be to want to reconstitute a nation a priori, with arbitrary elements whose contours would not be based on an analysis of this nation. To do so would mean believing that we could impose on France, as it has been shaped by the preceding fourteen centuries, customs, ideas and beliefs completely foreign and opposed to the ideas and customs that have resulted from the slow organising process of these fourteen centuries. In a word, it would be like saying to France: you will no longer be France, you will be China, Turkey, or the Roman Empire. No-one can change a people in this way, through a sudden metamorphosis, the way wizards in The Thousand and One Nights change a man into a horse or a dog with a simple magic word and a little bit of water thrown in his face.

But if, by contrast, it is precisely in the past that we have found the elements for this reform of the present, and if this reform is the necessary condition for France to have a future, if the reform is nothing but the natural development of its existence as a nation, is not the reproach that we want to destroy everything (which is the sole argument thrown at us) absurd? It is not a matter of destroying or even of replacing; on the contrary, it is simply a matter of continuing an admirable movement of progress which has emerged with irresistible perseverance, smashing one after the other the obstacles that are ceaselessly reconstructed to hinder its forward march.

But all these obstacles have not disappeared, for privilege, the enemy that gives them life, is still standing, and it continues to pursue against equality, the mother of progress, the implacable war that has already lasted 1800 years and which boils away all the more fiercely in the entrails of Christian society. Privilege and equality: these are the two principles which have struggled over France since its infancy. The first, as old as the world of which it is the Ahriman, the evil genius, principle of disorder and violence, seeking support in selfishness [égoisme] and the base passions that flow from it, divides men in order to isolate them, wields no other instrument than material force, gives birth only to competition and war, and has destruction as its final, logical consequence.

The other, a sublime revelation, suddenly appeared to the eyes of the nations like a symbol of deliverance and salvation. Equality, given to the world by the gospel that thus seemed the work of a God, is the principle of order and eternal justice, destined to heal the hideous wounds inflicted by privilege. Equality appeals to all virtues and rejects all vices. It kills selfishness and lives on nothing but dedication and devotion: it is through devotion that it unites and brings men together; it is though intelligence alone that it governs them and that it leads them to coordinate their efforts towards a common goal, which is the well-being of all. Finally, it is unity and fraternity that it establishes on earth, just as privilege produces nothing but hatred and isolation.

The whole of French life is bound up in the duel between these two principles, which fight with incredible ferocity, with neither peace nor truce, for any compromise between them is impossible and the combat can end only with the death of one of the combatants. Privilege, alternately violent and perfidious, humble and arrogant, always bloodthirsty and cowardly, is unable to fight face to face because it feels crushed by the moral superiority of its adversary. But, adopting the tactic of corrupting the soldiers of the opposing camp, and holding out only thanks to the treason of these renegades, it constantly retreats and is relentlessly pursued, being gradually weakened by successive defeats. Equality, meanwhile, brave and calm like the people it represents and disdainful of its enemy’s ruses, advances; it advances, growing stronger with each step, driving privilege back from one refuge after another until it is cornered, at which point equality will leap forward in order to annihilate it.

There is no need to ask us about which side of this momentous struggle our affections and efforts lie. Equality is our faith; we march with ardour and confidence beneath its holy banner, filled with veneration and enthusiasm for the immortal defenders of that faith, animated by the same devotion, and ready, like them, to spill our blood for its triumph. We are with Jesus Christ against the materialist and hateful Jews; with Gregory VII against Europe’s feudal tyrants; with Rousseau against an ignorant and oppressive nobility and a clergy lost to debauchery; with Robespierre against a mass of greedy merchants, of faithless and lawless speculators, of patricidal traffickers, ready, like Judas, to sell humanity for thirty pieces of silver.

In a word, we are always and everywhere with the oppressed against the oppressors, and we say with Saint-Just: ‘The wretched are the powerful of the earth.’2 It makes no difference if oppression takes the form of military or commercial aristocracy, or if the people are exploited by the sabre or the coin; our hearts are moved with the same pity for the sufferings of the peasant trampled by his master’s steed as for the agony of the worker whose blood serves to oil the gears of his industrial overlord. Indeed, nothing has changed, except that privilege, defeated in the armour of a haughty baron, reappears in the garb of the capitalist. It is still privilege, with its same banner of ‘Idleness and exploitation’, and equality continues to oppose to it, with no less resolve, its motto that has so often proved victorious: ‘Intelligence and labour!’

Are these two symbols properly understood? Idleness means man as inert, no longer exercising his faculties, degraded to the state of a brute – in short, man ceasing to be man! Intelligence and labour means man exalted by thought, ennobled by the exercise of his power, man mastering all of creation! This is where these two principles, privilege and equality, lead in the end. We should not be surprised, then, that in the struggle between such enemies victory invariably goes to equality, since either it must triumph or humanity will perish. And so it is that humanity’s two great strengths, which it always has at its disposal in every fight, intelligence and labour, infallibly ensure its success. Labour is the people; intelligence is the men of devotion [hommes de dévouement] who lead them. How can the brutal violence of privilege prevail against this invincible coalition, formed by the genius that conceives and the masses that execute?

No doubt it may prevail from time to time, but its triumph cannot be definitive. If on occasion the side of right succumbs – and we have experienced a painful instance of this vicissitude – the people do not accept fortune’s decision. The people religiously preserve the memory of the martyrs who died for their cause, they secretly erect altars in their hearts, awaiting the day when they can raise them in temples and public squares, and this day cannot fail to arrive. They agree to approve the deeds accomplished by material force only when they also obey intelligent force, always acting towards the triumph of equality as the final goal.

For the people know full well that they have nothing to fear from intelligence, and obey it joyfully, despite the efforts of the privileged who would very much like them to share the hatred it inspires in them. The people do not consider intelligence to be responsible for the crimes of a handful of apostates who do nothing but violently divert it from its destination, by employing it against humanity! For the intelligence that makes a mortal god of man only has real power on the condition that it be moral, that is, useful to the masses. Indeed it managed to sustain, on its own, by moderating the brutality of despotism, the various societies that preceded the arrival of Christ.

It was a sublime effort of human intelligence that, in a corner of Judea, finally revealed that principle of equality, which for so long so many noble geniuses were only able to approach without managing to touch. Ever since this principle was revealed, it is what has served to measure the scope of intelligences, and to recognise truly elevated minds. Intelligence, in its highest form of expression, cannot be selfish, for the only salutary tendency it perceives is that which leads to equality, and one only arrives at equality through devotion. Devotion alone gives thought this irresistible power that rules the world. As soon as it ceases to take its aspirations from this creative principle it falls from those heights where it hovers above men like a column of fire, guiding them through the deserts of selfishness towards the promised land of equality.

Woe betide those who blaspheme intelligence and attempt to enchain it! It is a sign that they no longer march along the road of humanity. Since they lack devotion, intelligence refuses to follow them; unable to steer it, they attempt to stop it in its tracks. They do not understand, having directed it for so long, that intelligence was never reduced to trailing blindly behind them; and since it is no more in their power to suspend its march than to divert it, they explode in imprecations against those intelligences devoted enough to press on to the positions they had deserted. They believed themselves to be a principle when they had been nothing but the instrument of this principle: everything through it, nothing without it.

And so it is that we see the Catholic clergy, after abandoning of the cause of equality, and having become the champion of the feudal and monarchical principle, denounce with all their might the spirit of impiety and pride of the new missionaries who are taking up the sceptre of intelligence that fell from their hands, and who in their turn are followed by humanity, guiding it in its path of liberation. The apostles of Catholicism never thought of cursing intelligence when they ruled through it over peoples that were submissive and recovering [after the fall of the Roman empire]. This is because they were devoted, at the time, and when they ceased being so, selfishness soon exhausted their intelligence.

Nor did they blaspheme against thought, those philosophers of the eighteenth century who employed it with such impressive success to undermine the aristocracy of entitlements supported by a corrupt clergy. For they too fought for equality, and were followed by a whole people attuned to their voice and deaf to the anathemas of selfish priests who grew angry when they no longer listened to. Alas, these noble geniuses did not foresee that unworthy successors, after having struck down the same enemies with this weapon of thought, would then themselves seek to break it in order to establish a new feudalism.

This cruel lesson has been reserved for us – for us, who not long ago heard the powerful voices of today proclaim the high morality of thought, and who, seeing them as its most distinguished spokesmen, enthusiastically followed the flag of equality that they brandished in their hands. And then we saw them change the bloody victory we thought we had won for the cause of equality into a triumph for privilege. Such is the hideous spectacle presented to the world by these renegades from liberalism who for fifteen years appeared to defend this great principle with all their talent against the old aristocracy, and who since 1830 have put themselves in the pay of the aristocracy of capital. Ah! It is bitterly painful to see intelligence, that emanation from on high, betray the mission of devotion it received from heaven, and prostitute itself to privilege in order to share with it the spoils taken from the weak whom it is supposed to defend!

In response, some noble hearts have been broken and have died, rather than suffer this anguish any longer. In fact, at the sight of so much unpunished opprobrium, how could discouragement and disgust not enter the generous souls that still believe in devotion? They feel that these great betrayals profoundly demoralize the people, who end up having faith in neither intelligence nor virtue, and yield with the resignation of despair to exploitation by brute force.

And yet, this is but a momentary defeat. We must march on. When the masses encounter an obstacle they stop, gather themselves together, and overturn it. This is the history of the past; it is also that of the future. Equality did not perish from Catholicism’s betrayal when the latter went over to the camp of feudal monarchy. It will not perish because new apostates have just gone over, with all their munitions and supplies, to the side of the mercantile monarchy. And it will not even perish should future defectors, who today fight beneath its banner, also one day desert it, which is something we should perhaps anticipate, after learning such discouraging lessons.

  1. Source: MF, 107-115, based on the manuscript in MSS 9592(2), ff. 3-8.
  2.  Antoine Louis de Saint-Just, ‘Rapport sur les personnes incarcérées’, 8 ventôse an II (26 February 1794), in his Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, coll. Folio histoire, 2004), 668.