Work, Suffer and Die (c.1851-52)

To work, suffer and die1 for the new masters2 – this is the duty that is imposed upon the plebs, by means of grapeshot, the guillotine and the penal colony [bagne]. The oppressed rise up in the face of such effrontery and ingratitude; they begin to struggle against this impudent aristocracy of parvenus. Since 1789 this struggle has been relentlessly waged, forever the same yet forever new. Whoever now reads the history of our first Revolution also reads about our own current affairs. The events may differ, but the fundamentals remain identical. Interests, passions, language, episodes, everything looks the same. The people of that time have come back to life today. Our own self-styled Montagnards are a caricature, indeed a very poor copy, of the Girondins.

Like the Girondins, they claim to be democrats, republicans, revolutionaries and whatever else. Like them, they speak of ‘Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!’, they wear the cockade and other popular symbols, they shout the popular rallying cries. These are nothing but lies and tricks to deceive the credulous multitudes who are led with honeyed words and hollow posturing!

What do we mean by Revolution?

The destruction of the existing social order, the elimination of the bourgeois yoke, the complete emancipation of the people, the advent of equality.

Is this also, by any chance, the programme of these Revolutionary-republicans? Let February [1848] provide the response.

They were unable to do anything, you say – No! They did not want to do anything! They do not want to do anything. They have nothing but contempt for us. Status, honours, the spoils of victory – these are their goals. Get out of my way, I am taking your place! This is their one guiding principle, their only gospel. They may sack a few civil servants, but they will always maintain an inviolable respect for the prevailing order of things! To tamper with it would be to destroy their inheritance. But this is an inheritance that they can only enjoy for a passing day, and that will return tomorrow into the hands of its former owners, its true owners; for the same social order inevitably gives rise to the same masters. An apple tree only yields apples.

Do we dream, then, of exterminating all the bourgeois? Not at all; that would be suicidal. The bourgeoisie contains an elite minority, an indestructible phalanx – enthusiastic, zealous, ardent: this is the essence, the life, the soul and spirit of the Revolution. It is from this incandescent core that ideas of reform or renewal incessantly arise, like little bursts of flame that ignite the population.

Who planted the proletarian flag? Who raises it up again after every defeat? Who are the promulgators, the apostles of egalitarian doctrines? Who leads the people into combat against the bourgeoisie? Members of the bourgeoisie.

Without this sacred battalion, indefatigably rallying the masses in the wake of every rout, the latter would have long since slumped into servitude. Through their heroic tenacity, the resolve and constancy of this small troop saves the masses from discouragement and despondency. It also recruits some of its members from those workers educated and trained in their broad school, and who become, in turn, leaders in their own right. This group will not give up until it has led the Revolution to the achievement of Equality.

Now what is the watchword inscribed on its banner? Democracy? No! Proletariat: for the soldiers are workers even if the leaders are not. Doctrines, interests, passions – they all come from the people. In vain does the ingenious slogan, ‘Neither proletarians nor bourgeois’, seek justification and support from within the ranks of this generous minority! The sophism is too flagrant. Is it a scandal to find some [bourgeois] suits amidst the ranks of those wearing labourers’ smocks? Is there any shortage of smocks in the pay of those wearing suits? Despite this, the war is still between the bourgeoisie and the people, between revenues and wages, between capital and labour. In 1789 there were also priests and nobles who sided with the Revolution: should one therefore conclude that the Revolution was not primarily against the nobility and the clergy? It is the forces of ambition and cupidity that seek to lend some credibility to this equivocal and perfidious slogan. How many schemers, donning a bonnet rouge, come looking for wealth and riches amongst the baggage of the popular army? And it is not easy to distinguish these errant knights from genuine allies. They make the loudest noise once a breach has been made, and no-one appears more zealous or boisterous. Then, when it comes to taking power, they are the first ones into the public square; they seize control of it, they consolidate their position there – and then suddenly turn into conservatives and oppose the wretched people, who lose their nerve and their courage when they see their former generals turn into new oppressors. This play has now been performed on our political stage, across all its vicissitudes and upheavals, for more than sixty years.

Is it not time for it to end?

  1. Source: Undated fragment from 1850-52, which may be an initial draft of the June 1852 letter to Maillard, or a related text; it is recopied in MSS 9582, ff. 76-79 and 9584(2), ff. 116-20.
  2.  A reference to the rising bourgeois class that in 1789, thanks to forceful popular mobilisation, began to displace the aristocracy as the dominant social force in France.