Letter to Tessy (Belle-Île, 6 September 1852)

You are optimistic, my dear citizen; I am not.1 You see everything as rosy; I see nothing but gloom. Which of us is right? I hope it is you. But I fear that a superficial change of public opinion will bring you false hope and you will take the whining complaints of a few bourgeois to be symptoms of something more profound.

It is possible that, for the first and only time in some sixty years, this government has not enjoyed even fifteen minutes of sincere, enthusiastic support. But this may be a guarantee of longevity. There is no Bonapartist party – this explains the general public coldness. No-one greeted the victory of 2 December [1851] as their own. […] Bonaparte has on his side only official or bought displays of support. On the other hand, he has against him only muted hostility from the various parties. No love, but no hatred either. He is no-one’s total enemy. A counter-revolutionary dictator protected by the mask of a parvenu. There are more profits than losses in this hermaphroditism. The neuter gender finds its refuge in indifference.

As for us, two things are killing us: the prolonged destitution and misery of the people after February [1848], and the complete suppression of debate since December [1851] – a double wound that may prove incurable. Why would the masses, who suffered so greatly with the advent of the Republic, not continue happily to opt for the relative well-being that despotism has provided them of late? They compare the two regimes, and the comparison does not go in favour of democracy. Ultimately, the people only undertake revolutions in order to alleviate their suffering. If the Republic worsens it and tyranny relieves it, ‘Well!’, says Jacques Bonhomme,2 ‘long live Caesar; liberty can go to the devil!’. Nothing could be simpler. For there are two undeniable facts: republican destitution and presidential prosperity. What the people sought from upheavals they have found under a Russian regime, and they might well sell France for a scrap of bread. Alas! This piece of bread has already cost the life of more than one nation over the course of history; they have not known that it is poisoned.

In short, Bonaparte simply stitched 2nd December [1851] to 21 February [1848]; he took over Louis-Philippe’s lease but under better conditions, with more silence and less posturing. The system of material interests that sank the one can help launch the other. Nothing depends on chance so much as things done by halves. To the half-rogue, the defendant’s box; to the rogue and a half, the throne.

First of all, there is no more press and, therefore, no more storms. Aeolus is in chains.3 Morality has ceased to unleash against Mammon its hurricanes in three columns [of print]. Moreover, hunger has taken the shine off Puritanism. Nothing dispels revulsion for overabundance like a spot of dieting. Casual bribes used to provoke convulsions; today we are cured of such unhealthy prudery.4 The press and the tribune are no long there to administer the emetic. These two heroic physicians have been dismissed. Their diplomas have been torn to pieces. Bribes nauseate no-one, and the country is able to continue this diet without fear of indigestion or apoplexy.

Farewell false shame! Israel has triumphantly reinstalled the golden calf in its highest places. Henceforth speculation has free rein. It charges full steam ahead across canals, railways, buildings and private investments, without fear of being derailed by a newspaper article or of falling subject to an interpellation.

Everything is up for pillage, everyone stuffs their pockets. It is a never-ending razzia. Who suspects anything? Not even the robbed. The tocsin no longer sounds each morning against the brigandage of the previous night. The bells have been taken down and the robbers are safe. Their government will not descend into scandal like that of Louis-Philippe. The gag guarantees them against this form of disaster. With her turpitude thus concealed, the goddess of lucre sits on her throne in complete safety, allowing seduced eyes to see nothing but her crown, glimmering with gold and precious stones.

The multitude work, eat and enjoy themselves – habits that had been all but lost for three years. What more do they need? Freedom? Necessary for elite souls, superfluous for the peasant. The merest penny is more what they are after. Ah! The stomach, the stomach! It is the parade ground of tyranny. Despotism only ever emerges from the victory of the gut over the brain. Later on, the brain will be cruelly avenged by the paralysis of the stomach. ‘What does it matter?’, says Bonaparte. ‘Let us exploit the intestine first.’

Will he go to war? Not yet. It is a perilous game. It would then no longer be a matter of eagles made of cloth, of paper, not even of feathers. To engage in war it would be necessary to be Napoleon in every sense of the name. A difficult profession! It is easier to win battles underneath the Austerlitz Bridge. The man has, moreover, one real merit – he does not rush, and only detonates his bombs one at a time. He is not yet sufficiently tired of peace to launch himself into war. He will not even hasten the reestablishment of the Empire. His luck as President has not been exhausted. He will follow this course for as long as possible before changing tack. The Empire must be his final and most brilliant metamorphosis. He would be wrong to bring the time forward. Larva, chrysalis or butterfly – this ugly caterpillar seeks to draw out all the phases of its existence for as long as possible. The imperial form will be a final lure, one that it almost irresistible to the masses. The emperor! A magical word, despite the mystifications and disillusionments! It is a resource that must be deployed carefully. Once difficulties arrive then the moment will come to raise the banner and sound the clarion call.

In any case, Empire or not, the least we can say is that democracy is ill, perhaps ill enough to die. And by its own fault! It broke its promises of well-being and betrayed the people’s hopes. Before 1848, the Republic appeared as a distant mirage, glowing and luminous, like the virgin who can heal pain and shame. But this virgin offered only banal debauchery, and now looks like nothing more than an infertile prostitute [trainée], dressed in rags.

Confusion and fear – this is what defines our party! A real Tower of Babel! Projects, systems, claims, they all clash with each other in order to destroy each other. To whom and around what should one rally amidst this swirling pandemonium? The people need a fixed beacon, which might encourage them to march out in a straight and clear line. Revolutions must take place in the mind before they can be carried out in the streets. Where is this initiation taking place today? All is mournful and silent. Democracy has fallen from its high presumptuousness into an abyss,… perhaps into a sepulchre!

All this is a prisoner’s hypochondria talking, you will say. No! I examine, I reason and I make conclusions. You should do likewise. Try to foresee a denouement. Let us see, who will stop this Bonapartist saturnalia, and how? By an insurrection? Even to entertain the idea would be madness. As well as the universal feeling of powerlessness caused by the latest disaster, there is also, as business picks up again, a sort of moral veto against any expression of vocal resistance. It would constitute a form of violence against public opinion and would be harshly received. By the press, by parliament? Both are dead. By the army? An inert body, a blind projectile that receives an impetus but does not provide one itself. The cannonballs fly towards us. They will not turn around by themselves. However much I look and search… there is no way out!

We delude ourselves with vague hopes that chase like mad things after all the discontents of the day. We could drift many long years upon this capricious sea of opinion without ever seeing the shore. The salons sulk; the rue Saint-Denis murmurs; the faubourgs lie dormant; everyone yawns. For never have epigrams, chatter or yawning overthrown a government. Whatever the issue, one must always consider the end. And here, how are we to put an end to this?

Bonaparte, that pampered child of capital, has an abundance of gold and spreads it around in order to conquer the population. He won the Midi through the canals and the railways. He sent out his decrees by post in order to guarantee a relay of enthusiasm along all the roads in the south. Until now these regions, whose bitter resentment of the privileged north can inspire dreams of independence, had always been neglected. Their hostility will turn into gratitude. How much anger has been calmed, hatred extinguished, and how many opinions softened by these great building projects! The devil take the tumult of freedom! Everyone will launch themselves, head bowed, into material concerns, and France, the dethroned queen of intelligence, will be nothing more than another China, turning the millstone and wearing a cangue.

Will an unknown God come and save us from this downward path? I do not know. In the meantime, each day we sink further into opprobrium, threatened with perishing in it from suffocation. A homicidal hand crushes the brain of the nation. Who will remove it? Certainly not pamphlets produced abroad. Their circulation is too limited. The foreign press? A dangerous auxiliary. Hostilities that are inspired not by love for France but by fear of invasion would recommend rather than discredit Bonaparte in the eyes of the multitude.

The rallying of democracy seems to me almost impossible. It has collapsed in terror. The defeat irreversibly dispersed that crowd of champions who were only attracted by the scent of victory. The prefectures are well liked, Cayenne less so.5 The routing of its general staff has left the [popular] army without a leader. There is thus not even a shadow of resistance. Absolute submission. To complain is not to fight.

Our émigrés fidget in the void. They have not learned from the catastrophes. They box against each other atop the ruins, and wage a furious civil war between the various coteries. It is the most sublime ridiculousness. It seems that in London they squabble, they brawl over who is to make off with the bear’s skin, while the bear itself freely makes a meal of the flock.6 What a fine pastime!

As for foreign unrest, I am not much concerned about that. The positions of Hungary, Italy, Poland and Germany are clear, there will be no surprises there. Requiescant in pace! Kossuth and Mazzini can sprinkle them with holy water, they will not resuscitate them; Lazarus will not go along with them. Moreover, I believe they will remain content to exorcise from a distance. A wise precaution.

What amusing characters, with their pretentions to initiate something!… Mazzini above all. What demon of jealously and vanity chafes under their national skin? Here are people who are delighted at our failure: the European Revolution may be postponed indefinitely, but France is in the mud. They cry from one eye and laugh with the other. Our humiliation consoles them for everything. They almost swoon with joy. We let go of the bridle and have been thrown from the saddle. Bravo! They are now to inherit the initiative, they say, and off they gallop on a tour round the world. Hurrah! Let them go, by god, and we shall see some fine tumbles. My advice to them, as a friend, is to leave that steed in the stables. It is too lively for them. Unless they break their necks, they will only ever ride pillion behind France.

Adieu, my dear citizen. If you have any news please do be kind enough to let me know when you have the time, and for the sake of your own contentment, hold on to more illusions than remain to me.

  1. Source: MSS 9590(2), ff. 367-369; we have not been able to identify this correspondent, beyond the reference to ‘Tessy’ in Maurice Paz’s Inventaire sommaire, 49.
  2.  A reference to the pejorative name that some nobles gave the peasants who fought in the Jacquerie revolt of 1358.
  3.  In Greek mythology Aeolus is the god of the wind.
  4.  ‘On est guéri aujourd’hui de cette pudeur maladive que les pots-de-vin fesaient entrer en convulsions.’
  5.  A reference to the penal colonies in French Guiana.
  6.  Blanqui here plays on the proverbial phrase, ‘Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant que de l’avoir pris’ (one must not squabble over the enemy’s spoils before defeating him).