Proudhon on Representative Democracy

The following excerpts are taken from Proudhon‘s 1848 pamphlet, The Solution of the Social Problem. Written shortly after the February 1848 French Revolution, before Proudhon’s  election to the National Assembly in June, these excerpts set forth Proudhon’s critique of representative or parliamentary democracy. Proudhon argued that the people cannot be represented, but must act for themselves. He defined the “ideal republic” as “an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth. Here, every citizen is king; for he has plenitude of power, he reigns and governs. The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order.” What Proudhon meant by this is made clear in subsequent works, such as The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851), where he argued that government functions would be dissolved into industrial organization, a position similar to that later adopted by anarcho-syndicalists.

Heaven, listen; Earth, lend an ear: the Lord has spoken!

Thus cried the prophets when, their eyes gleaming and mouths foaming, they proclaimed punishment to liars and apostates for their sins. Thus spoke the Church in the middle ages, and mankind, prostrate with fear, crossed itself at the voice of the pontiff and the injunctions of his bishops. Thus it was by turns with Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Mohammed, Luther, all the founders and reformers of religions, each new modification of dogma claiming to emanate from divine authority. And always the masses of humanity were seen prostrating themselves at the name of the Most High, and receiving submissively the discipline of the bearers of revelation.

But finally a philosopher said to himself, if God has spoken, why have I heard nothing?

This word of doubt sufficed to shake the Church, nullify the Scriptures, dissipate the faith, and hasten the reign of the Antichrist!

Like Hume, I do not want at all to prejudge either the reality or the possibility of a revelation: how can one reason a priori about a supernatural event, a manifestation of the Supreme Being? For me the issue is entirely one of the empirical knowledge of it that we can attain, and I reduce the religious controversy to this single point, the authenticity of the divine word. Prove this authenticity, and I am a Christian. Who then would dare dispute with God, if he were sure that it is God who speaks to him?

It is the same with the People as with the Divinity: Vox populi, vox Dei.

Since the beginning of the world, since human tribes began to organize themselves into monarchies and republics, oscillating between the one idea and the other like wandering planets, mixing, combining in order to organize the most diverse elements into societies, overturning tribunes and thrones as a child upsets a house of cards, we have seen, at each political upheaval, the leaders of the movement invoke in more or less explicit terms the sovereignty of the People…

The most prominent spokesman of the Bourbon monarchists would tell us still, if it dared, that law results from the consent of the People and the enunciation of the prince: Lex fit consensu populi et constitutione regis. The sovereignty of the nation is the first principle of monarchists as of democrats. Listen to the echo which reaches us from the North: on the one hand, there is a despotic king who invokes national traditions-that is, the will of the People expressed and confirmed over the centuries. On the other, there are subjects in revolt who maintain that the People no longer think what they did formerly, and who ask that the People be consulted. Who then shows here a better understanding of the People-the monarch who would have it that they are unchangeable in their thinking, or the citizens who suppose them changeable? And when you say the contradiction is resolved by progress, meaning that the People go through different phases before arriving at the same old idea, you only increase the difficulty: who will judge what is progress and what is retrogression?

I ask then, like Rousseau: If the People has spoken, why have I heard nothing?

You point out to me this astonishing revolution in which I too have taken part-whose legitimacy I myself have proven, whose idea I have brought to the fore. And you say to me:

There is the People!

But in the first place, I have seen only a tumultuous crowd without awareness of the ideas that made it act, without any comprehension of the revolution brought about by its hands. Then what I have called the logic of the People could well be nothing but recognition of past events, all the more so since once it is all over and everyone agrees on their significance, opinions are divided anew as to the consequences. The revolution over, the People says nothing! What then! Does the sovereignty of the People exist only for things in the past, which no longer interest us, and not at all for those of the future, which alone can be the objects of the People’s decrees?

Oh all you enemies of despotism and its corruption, as of anarchy and its piracy, who never cease invoking the People- you who speak frankly of its sovereign reason, its irresistible strength, its formidable voice, I bid you tell me: Where and when have you heard the People? With what mouths, in what language do they express themselves? How is this astonishing revelation accomplished? What authentic, conclusive examples do you cite? What guarantee have you of the validity of these laws you say issue from the People? What is the sanction? By what claims, by what signs, shall I distinguish the elect delegated by the People from the apostates who take advantage of its trust and usurp its authority? When you come right down to it, how do you establish the legitimacy of the popular Word?

I believe in the existence of the People as I do in the existence of God.

I bow before its holy will; I submit to all orders coming hence; the People’s word is my law, my strength, and my hope. But, following the precept of Saint Paul, to be worthy my obedience must be rational, and what a misfortune for me, what ignominy, if, while believing myself to be submitting only to the People’s authority, I were to be the plaything of a vile charlatan! How then, I beg of you, among so many rival apostles, contradictory opinions, and obstinate partisans, am I to recognize the voice, the true voice of the People?

The problem of the sovereignty of the People is the fundamental problem of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the first principle of social organization. Governments and peoples have had no other goal, through all the storms of revolutions and diversions of politics, than to constitute this sovereignty. Each time that they have been diverted from this goal they have fallen into slavery and shame. With this in mind the Provisional Government has convened a National Assembly named by all citizens, without distinction as to wealth and capacity: universal suffrage seems to them to be the closest approach to expressing the People’s sovereignty.

Thus it is supposed first that the People can be consulted; second, that it can respond; third, that its will can be authentically ascertained: and finally that government founded upon the manifest will of the People is the only legitimate government.

In particular, such is the pretension of DEMOCRACY, which presents itself as the form of government which best translates the sovereignty of the People.

But, if I prove that democracy, just like monarchy, only symbolizes that sovereignty, that it does not respond to any of the questions raised by this idea, that it cannot, for example, either establish the authenticity of the actions attributed to the People or state what is the final goal of society: if I prove that democracy, far from being the most perfect of governments, is the negation of the sovereignty of the People and the origin of its ruin-it will be demonstrated, in fact and in right, that democracy is nothing more than a constitutional despotism, succeeding a different constitutional despotism, that it does not possess any scientific value, and that it must be seen solely as a preparation for the REPUBLIC, one and indivisible.

It is important to clarify opinion on this point immediately, and to eliminate all illusion.

The People, the collective being-I almost said rational being-does not speak at all in the true sense of the word. The People, no more than God, has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mouth to speak. How do I know if it is endowed with some sort of soul, a divinity immanent in the masses, as certain philosophers hypothesize a world soul, and which at certain moments moves and urges it on; or whether the reason of the People is none other than pure idea, the most abstract, the most comprehensive, the freest of all individual form, as other philosophers claim that God is simply the order in the universe, an abstraction? I am not getting involved in the investigations of esoteric psychology: as a practical man I ask in what manner this soul, reason, will, or what have you is set outside itself, so to speak, and makes itself known? Who can serve as its spokesman? Who has the right to say to others, “It is through me that the People speaks”? How shall I believe that he who harangues five hundred applauding individuals from atop a soapbox is the People’s spokesman? How does the election by citizens, nay even their unanimous vote, have the faculty of conferring this sort of privilege, to serve as the People’s interpreter? And when you show me, like a coterie, nine hundred personages thus chosen by their fellow citizens, why ought I believe that these nine hundred delegates, who do not all agree among each other, are prompted by a mysterious inspiration from the People? And, when all is said, how will the law they are going to make obligate me?

Here is a president or a directory, the personification, symbol, or fabrication of national sovereignty: the first power of the State.

Here are a chamber, two chambers-one the spokesman of conservative interests, the other of the instinct for development: the second power of the State.

Here is a press, eloquent, disciplined, untiring, which each morning pours out in torrents millions of ideas which swarm in the millions of brains of the citizenry: the third power of the State.

The executive power is action, the chambers-deliberation, the press-opinion.

Which of these powers represents the people? Or else, if you say that it is the whole thing which represents the people, how is it that they do not all agree? Put royalty in place of the presidency, and it is the same thing: my criticisms apply equally to monarchy and democracy…

And what do we hear from the platform? And what does the Government know? Not so long ago it was escaping its responsibilities by denying its own authority to make decisions. It did not exist, it claimed, in order to organize work and give bread to the People. For a month it has received the demands of the proletariat; for a month it has been at work-and for a month it has had the official gazette publish every day this great news: that it knows nothing, that it discovers nothing! The Government divides the People; it arouses hatred between the classes that compose it. But to organize the People, to create that sovereignty which is simultaneously liberty and accord, this exceeds the Government ability, as formerly it exceeded its jurisdiction. In a Government which calls itself instituted by the People’s will such remarkable ignorance is a contradiction: it is apparent that already the People is sovereign no longer.

Does the People, which is sometimes said to have risen like a single man, also think like one man? Reflect? Reason? Make conclusions? Does it have a memory, imagination, ideas? If in reality the People is sovereign, it thinks; if it thinks, doubtless it has its own way of thinking and formulating its thought. How then does the People think? What are the forms of popular reasoning? Does it proceed by means of categories? Does it employ syllogism, induction, analysis, antinomy, or analogy? Is it Aristotelian or Hegelian? You must explain all that; otherwise, your respect for the sovereignty of the People is only absurd fetishism. One might as well worship a stone.

Does the People call upon experience in its meditations? Does it bear in mind its memories, or else is its course to produce new ideas endlessly? How does it reconcile respect for its traditions with its needs for development? How does it finish with one worn-out hypothesis and go on to try another? What is the law of its transitions and its movement from one idea to the next? What stimulates it, what defines the course of its progress? Why this moving about, this instability? I need to know all this-otherwise the law you impose on me in the name of the People ceases to be authentic: it is no longer law, but violence.

Does the People always think? And if it does not, how do you account for the intermittent character of its thought? If we suppose that the People can be represented, what will its representatives do during these interruptions? Does the People sleep sometimes, like Jupiter in the arms of Juno? When does it dream? When does it stay awake? You must teach me about all these things; otherwise, the power you exercise by delegation from the People being only interim, and the length of the interim being unknown, this power is usurped: you are inclined toward tyranny.

If the People thinks, reflects, reasons, sometimes a priori, according to the rules of pure reason, sometimes a posteriori upon the data of experience, it runs the risk of deceiving itself. Then it no longer suffices, for me to accept the People’s thought as law, that its authenticity be proven to me; it is necessary that the thought itself be legitimate. Who will choose among the ideas and fantasies of the People? To whom shall we appeal its will, which may be erroneous, and consequently despotic?

Here I present this dilemma:

If the People can err, then there are two alternatives. On the one hand, the error may seem as respectable as if it were true, and can claim complete obedience despite the error. In this case the People is a supremely immoral being, since it can simultaneously think, will, and do evil.

On the other hand, ought we find fault with the People in its errors? There would then be, in certain cases, a duty for a government to resist the People! Who will tell it: You deceive yourself! Who will be able to set it to rights, to restrain it?

But what am I saying? If the People is liable to err, what becomes of its sovereignty? Is it not evident that the People’s will should be taken into consideration all the less as it is more formidable in its consequences, and that the true principle of all politics, the guarantee of the security of nations, is to consult the People only in order to distrust it? Cannot all inspiration from it hide immense peril as much as immense success, and its will be only a suicidal thought?

Doubtless, you will say, the People has only a mystical existence. It manifests itself only at rare intervals, in predestined epochs! But for all that the People is no phantom, and when it rises, no one can fail to recognize it…

Now if the People has, in all historical epochs, thought, expressed, willed, and done a multitude of contradictory things; if, even today, among so many opinions which divide it, it is impossible for it to choose one without repudiating another and consequently without being self-contradictory-what do you want me to think of the reason, the morality, the justice, of its acts? What can I expect of its representatives? And what proof of authenticity will you give me in favour of an opinion, such that I cannot immediately make a claim for the contrary one?

What astonishes me in the midst of the confusion of ideas, is that faith in the sovereignty of the People, far from dwindling, seems by this very confusion to reach its own climax. In this obstinant belief of the multitude in the intelligence which exists within it I see a sort of manifestation of the People which affirms itself, like Jehovah, and says, “I AM.” I cannot then deny, on the contrary, I am forced to confess the sovereignty of the People. But beyond this initial affirmation, and when it is a question of going from the subject of the thought to its object, when in other words it is a question of applying the criterion to acts of Government, let someone tell me, where is the People?

In principle then, I admit that the People exists, that it is sovereign, that it is predicated in the consciousness of the masses. But nothing yet has proven to me that it can perform an overt act of sovereignty, that an explicit revelation of the People is possible. For, in view of the dominance of prejudices, of the contradiction of ideas and interests, of the variability of opinion, and of the impulsiveness of the multitude, I shall always ask what establishes the authenticity and legitimacy of such a revelation-and this is what democracy cannot answer.

But, the democrats observe-not without reason-the People has never been suitably called to action. Never has it been able to demonstrate its will except for momentary flashes: the role it has played in history up to now has been completely subordinate. For the People to be able to speak its mind, it must be democratically consulted-that is, all citizens without distinction must participate, directly or indirectly, in the formation of the law. Now, this mode of democratic consultation has never been exercised in a coherent manner: the eternal conspiracy of the privileged has not permitted it. Princes, nobles and priests, military men, magistrates, teachers, scholars, artists, industrialists, merchants, financiers, proprietors, have always succeeded in breaking up the democratic Union, in changing the voice of the People into a voice of monopoly. Now that we possess the only true way of having the People speak, we shall likewise know what constitutes the authenticity and legitimacy of its word, and all your preceding objections vanish. The sincerity of the democratic regime will guarantee the solution to us…

According to the theory of universal suffrage, experience should have proven that the middle class, which alone has exercised political rights of late, does not represent the People-far from it, with the monarchy it has been in constant reaction against the People.

One concludes that it is up to the entire nation to name its representatives.

But won’t it be only an artificial representation, just the product of the arbitrary will of the electoral mob, if the representatives come from one class of men who provide the free, upward flight of society, the spontaneous development of sciences, arts, industry, and commerce, the necessity of institutions, the tacit consent or the well-known incapacity of the lower classes, one class finally whose talent and wealth designates them as the natural elite of the People? Won’t it be thus with representatives chosen by electoral meetings of varying completeness, enlightenment, and freedom, and which act under the influence of local passions, prejudices, and hatred for persons and principles?

We shall have an aristocracy of our own choice-I have no objection-in place of a natural aristocracy; but aristocracy for aristocracy I prefer, with Mr. Guizot, that of fatality to that of arbitrary will: fatality puts me under no obligation.

Or, rather, we will only restore, by another route, the same aristocrats; for whom do you want named to represent them, these working stiffs, these day labourers, these toilers, if not their bourgeoisie? Unless you only want that they kill them!

One way or another, preponderant strength in government belongs to the men who have the preponderance of talent and fortune. From the first it has been evident that social reform will never come out of political reform, that on the contrary political reform must come out of social reform.

The illusion of democracy springs from that of constitutional monarchy’s example-claiming to organize Government by representative means. Neither the Revolution of July [1830] nor that of February [1848] has sufficed to illuminate this. What they always want is inequality of fortunes, delegation of sovereignty, and government by influential people. Instead of saying, as did Mr. Thiers, The king reigns and does not govern, democracy says, The People reigns and does not govern, which is to deny the Revolution…

Since, according to the ideology of the democrats, the People cannot govern itself and is forced to give itself to representatives who govern by delegation, while it retains the right of review, it is supposed that the People is quite capable at least of having itself represented, that it can be represented faithfully. Well! This hypothesis is utterly false; there is not and never can be legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit: to know one is sufficient to pronounce the condemnation of all.

Take the example of the Provisional Government [just established].

Its system pretends to be universal, but whatever it does, in the entire electoral system there will always be exclusions, absences, and votes which are invalidated, erroneous, or unfree. The hardiest innovators have not yet dared to demand suffrage for women, children, domestic servants, or men with criminal records. About four-fifths of the People are not represented, and are cut off from the communion of the People. Why?

You fix electoral capacity at twenty-one years’ age; why not twenty? Why not at nineteen, eighteen, seventeen? What! One year, one day makes the elector rational! A Barra or Viala is incapable of voting discerningly while the Fouchés and Héberts vote for them!

You eliminate women. You have thus resolved the grand problem of the inferiority of the sex. What! No exception for Lucretia, Cornelia, Joan of Arc or Charlotte Corday! A Roland, a Staël, a George Sand will find no favor before your manhood! The Jacobins welcomed the revolutionary women who sat knitting at their meetings; no one has ever said that the presence of these citizenesses weakened the courage of the citizens!

You set aside the domestic servant. You are saying that this sign of servitude does not cover a generous soul, that in the heart of a valet beats no idea which will save the Republic! Is the race of Figaro lost? It is the fault of this man, you will say: why, with so many abilities, is he a servant? And why are there servants?

I want to see, I want to hear the People in its variety and multitude, all ages, all sexes, all conditions, all virtues, all miseries: for all that, this is the People.

You claim that there would be grievous trouble for good discipline, for the peace of the State and tranquillity of families, if women, children, and domestic servants obtained the same rights as husbands, fathers, and masters, that in addition the former are adequately represented by the latter through their solidarity of interests and the familial bond.

I acknowledge that the objection is a serious one, and I do not attempt to refute it. But take care: you must, by the same reasoning, exclude the proletarians and all workers. Seven-tenths of this category receive the aid of public charity: they will then go on to vote themselves government jobs, salary increases, labour reductions, and they will not fail in this, I assure you, if their delegates represent them ever so little. In the National Assembly the proletariat will be like the officials in Mr. Guizot’s Chamber, judging its own cause, having power over the budget and putting nothing there, creating dictatorship by their appointments, until, with capital exhausted by taxation and property producing nothing any longer, general bankruptcy breaks apart this parliamentary beggary.

And all these citizens who, because of work, sickness, travel, or lack of money to go to the elections, are forced to abstain from voting, how do you count them? Will it be according to the proverb, “Who says nothing, consents”? But, consents to what? To the opinion of the majority, or indeed to that of the minority?

And those who vote only on impulse, through good-nature or interest, through faith in their republican committee or parish priest: what do you make of them? It is an old maxim that in all deliberations it is necessary not only to count the votes, but to weigh them. In your committees, on the contrary, the vote of an Arago or Lamartine counts no more than that of a beggar.

Will you say that the consideration due men for their merit is secured by the influence they exercise on the electors? Then the voting is not free. It is the voices of ability that we hear, not that of the People. One might as well preserve electoral suffrage based on qualification by ownership of property…

I pass over in silence the material and moral impossibilities which abound in the mode of election adopted by the Provisional Government. It is completely devoted to the opinion that in doubling the national representation and making people vote for inseparable lists of candidates, the Provisional Government wanted the citizens to choose not men but principle, precisely in the manner of the former Government, which also made people vote on the system, not on the men. How is one to discuss the choice of ten, twenty, twenty-five deputies? How, if each citizen votes freely and in knowledge of his cause, are the votes of such elections-by-list to be counted? How are such elections brought to a conclusion, if they are serious? Evidently it is impossible.

I do not discuss, I repeat, the purely material side of the question: I keep to issues of right. What formerly was obtained through venality, today they extort from impotence. They say to the elector: Here are our friends, the friends of the Republic; and there are our adversaries, who also are the adversaries of the Republic-choose. And the elector who cannot appraise the abilities of the candidates votes out of confidence!

Instead of naming deputies for each district, as under the fallen regime, they will have them elected by province. They wanted, by this measure, to destroy the spirit of localism. How wonderful it is that the democrats are so sure of their principles!

If the deputies, they say, are named by districts, it is not France which is represented, but the districts. The national Assembly would no longer be representative of the country; it would be a congress of 459 separate delegations.

Why then, I reply, don’t you have each elector name the deputies for all France?

It would be desirable, you answer, but it is impossible.

I observe first that any system which can be true only in conditions themselves impossible seems to me a poor system. But to me the democrats here appear singularly inconsistent and perplexed by mere trifles. If the representatives ought to represent not the provinces, nor the districts, nor the towns, nor the countryside, nor industry, nor commerce, nor agriculture, nor special interests, but only FRANCE!-then why have they decided that there should be one deputy per 40,000 inhabitants? Why not one per 100,000 or 200,000! Ninety instead of nine hundred-wouldn’t that suffice? Couldn’t you in Paris, cut short your list of candidates, while the conservatives and the various royalists cut short theirs? Was it more difficult to vote on a list of ninety names than on one of fifteen?

But who does not see that deputies thus elected apart from all special interests and groups, all considerations of places and persons, by dint of representing France, represent nothing; that they no longer are mandated representatives, but legislators set apart from the People; and that in place of a representative democracy we have an elective oligarchy, the middle term between democracy and royalty.

There, citizen reader, is where I want to bring you. From whatever aspect you consider democracy, you will always see it placed between two extremes each as contrary as the other to its own principle, condemned to oscillate between the absurd and the impossible, without ever being able to establish itself. Among a million equally arbitrary terms, the Provisional Government has acted like Mr. Guizot: it has preferred that which appeared to it to agree best with its democratic prejudices. Of representative truth, as of government of the People by the People, the Provisional Government has taken no account…

In order that the deputy represent his constituents, it is necessary that he represent all the ideas which have united to elect him.

But, with the electoral system, the deputy, the would-be legislator sent by the citizens to reconcile all ideas and all interests in the name of the People, always represents just one idea, one interest. The rest is excluded without pity. For who makes law in the elections? Who decides the choice of deputies? The majority, half plus one of the votes. From this it follows that half less one of the electors is not represented or is so in spite of itself, that of all the opinions that divide the citizens, one only, insofar as the deputy has an opinion, arrives at the legislature, and finally that the law, which should be the expression of the will of the People, is only the expression of half of the People.

The result is that in the theory of the democrats the problem consists of eliminating, by the mechanism of sham universal suffrage, all ideas save one which stir opinion, and to declare sovereign that which has the majority.

But, perhaps it will be said, the idea that fails in such an electoral body will triumph in another and, by this means, all ideas can be represented in the National Assembly.

When that is the case, you would have only put off the difficulty, for the question is to know how all these ideas, divergent and antagonistic, will concur on the law and be reconciled thereon.

Thus the Revolution, according to some, is only an accident, which should change nothing in the general order of society. According to others, the Revolution is social still more than political. How can such obviously incompatible claims be satisfied? How at the same time can there be given security for the bourgeoisie and guarantees for the proletariat? How will these contrary wishes and opposed inclinations come to be mixed together in a resulting community, in one universal law?

Democracy is so far from being able to resolve this difficulty that all its art, all its science is used to remove the obstacle. It makes appeals to the ballot box; the ballot box is simultaneously the level, the balance, the criterion of democracy. With the electoral ballot democracy eliminates men; with the legislative ballot, it eliminates ideas…

What! It is one vote that makes the representative, one vote that makes the law! With a question on which hangs the honour and health of the Republic, the citizens are divided into two equal factions. On the two sides they bring to bear the most serious reasoning, the weightiest authorities, the most positive facts. The nation is in doubt, the Assembly is in suspension. One representative, without discernible motive, passes from right to left and turns the balance; it is he who makes the law.

And this law, the expression of some bizarre will, is supposed to be the will of the People! It will be necessary for me to submit to it, defend it, even kill for it! By a parliamentary caprice I lose the most precious of my rights, I lose liberty! And the most sacred of my duties, the duty to resist tyranny by force, falls before the sovereign noggin of an imbecile!

Democracy is nothing but the tyranny of majorities, the most execrable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, nor on a nobility of blood, nor on the prerogatives of fortune: it has number as its base, and for a mask the name of the People…

If universal suffrage, the most complete manifestation of democracy, has won so many partisans, especially among the working classes, it is because it has always been presented on the basis of an appeal to men of talent, as well as to the good sense and morality of the masses. How often have they not brought out the offensive contrast of the speculator who becomes politically influential through plunder and the man of genius whom poverty has kept far away from the stage!…

In the end, we are all electors; we can choose the most worthy.

We can do more; we can follow them step by step in their legislative acts and their votes; we shall make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we shall indicate our will to them, and when we are discontented, we shall recall and dismiss them.

The choice of abilities, imperative mandate, permanent revocability-these are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.

Now democracy, no more than constitutional monarchy, does not sustain such a deduction from its principle.

What democracy demands, like monarchy, is silent deputies who do not discuss, but vote; who, receiving the order from the Government, crush the opposition with their heavy and heavy witted battalions. These are passive creatures, I almost say satellites, whom the danger of a revolution does not intimidate, whose reason is not too rebellious, whose conscience does not recoil before anything arbitrary, before any proscription…

In every kind of government the deputy belongs to the powerful, not to the country… [It is required] that he be master of his vote, that is, to traffic in its sale, that the mandate have a specified term, of at least a year, during which the Government, in agreement with the deputies, does what it pleases and gives strength to the law through action by its own arbitrary will…

If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it: the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty…

[ Because theorists] have taught that all power has its source in national sovereignty, it has valiantly been concluded best to make all citizens vote in one way or another, and that the majority of votes thus expressed adequately constitute the will of the People. They have brought us back to the practices of barbarians who, lacking rationality, proceeded by acclamation and election. They have taken a material symbol for the true formula of sovereignty. And they have said to the proletarians: When you vote, you shall be free, you shall be rich; you shall enact capital, product and wages; you shall, as another Moses did, make thrushes and manna fall from heaven; you shall become like gods, for you shall not work, or shall work so little that if you do work it shall be as nothing.

Whatever they do and whatever they say, universal suffrage, the testimony of discord, can only produce discord. And it is with this miserable idea, I am ashamed for my native land, that for seventeen years they have agitated the poor People! It is for this that bourgeoisie and workers have sung the “Marseillaise” in chorus at seventy political banquets and, after a revolution as glorious as it was legitimate, have abandoned themselves to a sect of doctrinaires! For six months the opposition deputies, like comedians on tour, travelled through the provinces, and for the fruit of their benefit performance what have they brought back to us, what? A scheme for land redistribution! It is under this schismatic flag that we have claimed to preserve the initiative of progress, to march at the forefront of nations in the conquest of liberty, to inaugurate harmony around the world! Yesterday, we regarded with pity the peoples who did not know as we have how to raise themselves to constitutional sublimity. Today, fallen a hundred times lower, we still are sorry for them, we shall go with a hundred thousand bayonets to make them partake with us of the benefits of democratic absolutism. And we are the great nation! Oh! Be quiet, and if you do not know how to do great things, or express great ideas, at least preserve common sense for us…

In monarchy, the acts of the Government are an unfolding of authority; in democracy they constitute authority. The authority which in monarchy is the principle of governmental action is the goal of government in democracy. The result is that democracy is fatally retrograde, and that it implies contradiction.

Let us place ourselves at the point of departure for democracy, at the moment of universal suffrage.

All citizens are equal, independent. Their egalitarian combination is the point of departure for power: it is power itself, in its highest form, in its plenitude.

By virtue of democratic principle, all citizens must participate in the formation of the law, in the government of the State, in the exercise of public functions, in the discussion of the budget, in the appointment of officials. All must be consulted and give their opinions on peace and war, treaties of commerce and alliance, colonial enterprises, works of public utility, the award of compensation, the infliction of penalties. Finally, all must pay their debt to their native land, as taxpayers, jurors, judges, and soldiers.

If things could happen in this way, the ideal of democracy would be attained. It would have a normal existence, developing directly in the sense of its principle, as do all things which have life and grow. It is thus that the acorn becomes an oak, and the embryo an animal; it is thus that geometry, astronomy, chemistry are the development to infinity of a small number of elements.

It is completely otherwise in democracy, which according to the authors exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work. It becomes AUTHORITY. Authority was the idol of Mr. Guizot; it is also that of the democrats.

In fact it is not true, in any democracy, that all citizens participate in the formation of the law: that prerogative is reserved for the representatives.

It is not true that they deliberate on all public affairs, domestic and foreign: this is the perquisite, not even of the representatives, but of the ministers. Citizens discuss affairs, ministers alone deliberate them.

It is not true that each citizen fulfills a public function: those functions which do not produce marketable goods must be reduced as much as possible. By their nature public functions exclude the vast majority of citizens…

It is not true that citizens participate in the nomination of officials; moreover this participation is as impossible as the preceding one, since it would result in creating anarchy in the bad sense of the word. It is power which names its subordinates, sometimes according to its own arbitrary will, sometimes according to certain conditions for appointment or promotion, the order and discipline of officials and centralization requiring that it be thus…

Finally, it is not true that all citizens participate in justice and in war: as judges and officers, most are eliminated; as jurors and simple soldiers all abstain as much as they can. In a word, hierarchy in government being the primary condition of government, democracy is a chimera.

The reason that authors give for this merits our study. They say the People is outside the state because it does not know how to govern itself, and when it does know, it cannot do it.

EVERYBODY CANNOT COMMAND AND GOVERN AT THE SAME TIME; it is necessary that the authority belong solely to some who exercise it in the name of and through the delegation of all.

Ignorance or impotence, according to democratic theory the People is incapable of governing itself: democracy, like monarchy, after having posed as its principle the sovereignty of the People, ends with a declaration of the incapacity of the People!

This is what is meant by the democrats, who once in the government dream only of consolidating and strengthening the authority in their hands. Thus it was understood by the multitude, who threw themselves upon the doors of the City Hall, demanding government jobs, money, work, credit, bread! And there indeed is our nation, monarchist to its very marrow, idolizing power, deprived of individual energy and republican initiative, accustomed to expect everything from authority, to do nothing except through authority! When monarchy does not come to us from on high, as it did formerly, or on the field of battle, as in 1800, or in the folds of a charter, as in 1814 or 1830, we proclaim it in the public square, between two barricades, in electoral assembly, or at a patriotic banquet. Drink to the health of the People and the multitude will crown you!

Oeuvres completes de P-J. Proudhon (Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie., 1867-70). VI, 1-87. Translation, pp. 35-40, 42-44, 46-58, 60, 62-67.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Simply to thank you for posting Proudhon on Democracy. In my sectarian ignorance I had not tripped over this wonderful rant. Enjoyed it immensely. And the failure to critique and go beyond the profound limitations of representative democracy continues to haunt us.

  2. Golden! Timeless. I do hope that one day we move beyond the ills of representative democracy, and this critique becomes an anachronism.

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