Opening Session of the National Assembly

Le Représentant du Peuple

5th May 1848

Translator: Paul Sharkey

The National Assembly has been forged against a backdrop of cannon fire, drums and fanfares, wrapped up in all of war’s pomp and circumstance.

In these ties when the imagination is seduced by the senses and the heart swept along by the imagination and reason overwhelmed by sentiment; when the mind believes itself infinite because it is empty, the soul’s only weakness is for the blandishments of sensibility and the mirages of hope. Considered thought seems to have lost its status and judgement set aside its authority. These are the days of Lamourette kisses,[1] the times of treacherous reconciliations.

But enthusiasm soon abates; sentiment evaporates like a caress; and in place of empathetic feelings, reason returns to pose here formidable questions.

Well then, what is this National assembly, so laboriously nurtured and so impatiently awaited and upon which so many contradictory hopes are staked going to do? Are our deputies out-and-out republicans? Are they socialists? Are they firmly resolved to overhaul the old edifice of society from top to toe? And the provisional government which has just handed its powers back to them, has it the credibility to transform these in the light of revolution?

Why not have them take an oath?

Would you like to know what the National Assembly is going to do?

For a start, it will verify its powers, appoint its speaker, fill its offices, answer a speech by the crown with an address, lay blame, endorse, upbraid and recriminate! Being unable to rescind across the board, at a stroke and without exception, every one of the acts of the provisional government and turn things back to where they were on February 25th! That would be the surest, simplest, most expeditious, most rational course of action and the only useful one. But the censure coming from the National Assembly will not be so forceful.

And then the National Assembly will turn its attention to the Constitution.

It will talk about presidency, veto, accountability, separation of powers, centralisation, municipalities, etc. It may even be disposed to vote, after a reading, without debate or amendment, as one man, resoundingly and enthusiastically for the first constitution put before it. If such a constitution is to last and if it is to be good value for money the National Assembly could not proceed too quickly. These representatives cost 25 francs a day and the people are not working!

After that, the National Assembly, will talk business.

That is to say, in the name of political economy, it will deal with domestic economics, the application of huckster economics to the State, the way they have been doing in England, in France and everywhere else for the past forty years. It will distribute the land in Algeria and elsewhere: it will set up agricultural banks; it will legislate about manufacturers’ labels; it will overhaul taxation, insurance, the mines, etc., etc: it will deliver itself up to all manner of dark, entangled, scabrous and squalid speculations. — May the Republic’s representatives skip over these discussions as they would over a fire! Matters of business have a deadly impact on the conscience of the deputy: think back to the railways![2]

And finally the National Assembly will turn its mind to philanthropy.

Crèches, towers, asylums, hospitals, people’s convalescent homes, poor relief, savings funds, rewards for virtue, sponsorship for artists, model farms, prison systems, lending banks for workers, industrial, trade, business and agricultural schools will come in for the most respectable attentions. And to prove its entire goodwill to the people, it will even advance Monsieur Considérant 4 millions and a plot of land for an experimental phalanstery. How happy it would be if only the Republic could rid itself of socialism at that price!

But the social question! — you will say. — The real social question! Might it be in the minds of the revolution’s representatives to dodge the issue? What have a phalanstery and the social question got to do with each other?

The social question!

My advice to you is to write if off from the outset. The social question is not going to make it on to the agenda of the National Assembly.

And is that assembly likely to stare privilege in the face?

Has it the strength and the calibre to lay hands on that sacred cow?

Has it the gumption to do away with the last remnant of royalty, the mere abolition of which will make dynasties impossible, namely, the royalty of gold?

Is the National Assembly likely to pronounce a death sentence upon the old society?

Might it, in the wake of its immense political, economic and philanthropic undertakings, grasp that social reform spells the abolition of politics? That political economy is the very opposite of domestic economics? That philanthropy is a corollary of poverty?

No, the National Assembly can do nothing, seeks nothing and knows nothing!

It can only turn into something and do the work of the revolution insofar as it will be so invited, provoked or compelled by some power outside of itself that seizes the initiative and sets things rolling.

A legislative assembly lays down statutes about things: it does not bring them about. In other words, the organisation of labour must not emanate from the powers-that-be; it ought to be SPONTANEOUS. Which is why we are repeating here the proposal that we put yesterday:

“That a provisional committee be set up to orchestrate exchange, credit and commerce between workers;

“That said committee liaise with similar committees set up in the main cities of France.

“That, under the aegis of these committees, a body representative of the proletariat be formed in Paris, imperium in imperio, in opposition to the bourgeoisie’s representation.

“That a new society be founded in the heart of the old society.

“That a labour charter be written into the agenda forthwith and its main articles set out with minimal delay.

“That the groundwork for republican government be laid down and special powers delegated to the workers’ representatives.”

That is the only way that we are going to be able to stand firm against the reaction: and to ensure the wellbeing of the Republic and the emancipation of the proletariat.

End Notes

[1] A reference to a famous episode of the French Revolution: in 1792, the Abbé Lamourette, lamenting the bitter factionalism dividing the Legislative Assembly, implored the representatives to put aside their differences and kiss one another – which they did, in a display of ostentatious fraternity that was forgotten the next day. (Editor)

[2] This refers to a scandal typical of the corruption of Louis-Philippe’s reign when it was discovered that all the members of the majority, including a number of ministers, had been shareholders in the very railway companies the legislators had awarded construction contracts to. (Editor)