Social Wealth Must Belong to
Those Who Created It
by Louis-Auguste Blanqui | 1834
If we examine the source of social wealth, we find that it resides exclusively in intelligence and labour. Indeed, it is through labour and intelligence that society lives and breathes, grows and develops, and if these two forces were to withdraw from it for even a single moment it would immediately dissolve and all its members would perish as if through a sudden catastrophe.
But these two forces can only act on the condition that a third element, inert in itself, serves as an instrument to sustain the life of society in the hands of the men of intelligence and labour. This element is the land. It would seem, then, that the land should belong to all members of society equally, who, through their combined efforts, would be able to exploit the wealth it holds in its depths. But this is not the case. Through deceit and violence, some individuals seized this common land that we walk upon. Declaring themselves to be the exclusive owners of this land, they established through law that it will forever remain their property and that this right to property shall form the basis of the social order. They declare that their right to property shall dominate all the rights of humanity, and that, if need be, it may absorb them all – so that, for example, it may infringe upon the right to life that every man acquires at birth, if this right, which is the right of all men, in any way conflicts with the right to property of a privileged few. After the land, this right to property was then applied to other instruments of labour linked to the land without being an integral part of it, to which we can give the generic name of capital [capitaux]. Now since land and capital are sterile in themselves and only acquire value [de valeur] through labour, and since they are also the raw materials that the active forces of society must put to work, the result is that the immense majority of citizens, who are completely excluded from the distribution [partage] of these materials, find themselves forced to toil on land whose produce they do not reap, and to enrich through their labour an idle minority that gathers up everything. And so neither the instruments nor the fruits of labour belong to the working masses but to a usurping aristocracy that consumes and does not produce. The sap of the trees is absorbed by an abundance of gluttonous leaves and twigs to the detriment of the fertile branches that languish and wither. The honey produced by the bees is devoured by hornets.
Such is our social order, an order founded on conquest and which divided the population into two categories, the victors and the vanquished, reserving the exclusive ownership of the land for the former while transforming the latter into vile cattle destined solely to work and manure the land of these monsters. The logical consequence of such an organisation is slavery, and we can see that the principle of property, established in accordance with it, has not failed to bring about that very consequence. Indeed, since land only derives its value from labour, the result has been that from the right to own land the privileged have also assumed the right to own those who make it fertile, considering them to be, in the first instance, the complement to their material property, and, in the final analysis, as personal property completely independent of the land. However, the principle of equality, which slowly works to destroy all forms of exploitation of man by man, dealt the first blow to this sacrilegious right to property by bringing an end to domestic slavery. Privilege thus had to limit itself to no longer owning men as chattel but merely as an immovable good or asset that belonged to the property and not to the property owner, to be passed on with the property and not separated from it. Even so, we saw the right to property reappear in the fifteenth century in all its barbarism with the reestablishment of absolute slavery for Negroes, and it has been maintained ever since as a permanent affront to humanity. For today the inhabitants of a territory, which is said to be French, own men in the same way they own a horse or a coat – that is, by virtue of the right to property.
Moreover, there is not as great a contradiction as first appears between the social conditions of the colonies and our own. After eighteen centuries of a constant struggle undertaken against privilege and for the principle of equality, slavery could certainly not be re-established in all its naked brutality at the very heart of the country that bears the brunt of this struggle. But if it does not exist in name, it exists in fact, and the right to property, while more hypocritical in Paris than in Martinique or ancient Rome, is neither less insolent nor less aggressive. Servitude does not mean being the transferable slave of a man, or being a serf attached to his land [glèbe]; it means being completely dispossessed of the instruments of labour, and then being put at the mercy of those privileged groups who usurped them, and who retain through violence their exclusive ownership of these instruments that are indispensable to the workers. This monopolisation [accaparement] is thus a permanent despoilment. From this it becomes clear that it is not one or another political form of government that maintains the masses in a state of slavery, but rather the usurpation of property presented as the fundamental basis of the existing social order. For from the moment a privileged caste passes on land and capital through inheritance, all other citizens, though not condemned to remain slaves of any given individual, nevertheless become absolutely dependent on that caste, since their only remaining freedom is the choice of which master will rule over them.
It is apparently in this sense that today the rich are said to provide workers with employment. Yes, undoubtedly they employ them, just as the Romans employed their slaves and the colonisers employ their Negroes, so as to nourish their all-consuming idleness from the sweat of these workers. Even if they agree to leave their victims just enough bread to spare them from death they do so only out of self-interest, just as one might add a few drops of oil onto the cogs of a mechanism to prevent rust from causing it to break down. Moreover, it is in the interest of the wealthy that the workers are able to perpetuate their miserable flesh so as to bring into the world the children of the slaves who are destined one day to serve the children of the oppressors, and thereby continue from one generation to the next this dual, parallel inheritance of opulence and poverty, of pleasure and pain, that constitutes our social order. When the proletarian has suffered enough and has provided replacements to suffer after him his only remaining task it to go and die in a hospital so that his desiccated corpse can serve to teach doctors the art of healing the wealthy.
From where, I ask, does this horrific degradation of a great people originate, if not from the principle of property that confers on an idle aristocracy the exclusive and hereditary ownership of the instruments of labour which should belong only to those who use them to work? Even the most laborious work barely provides the masses with what they need to live from one day to the next, and never enough to make provision for the days ahead. For if through a surge of anger or fear the property owners decide to prevent them from using the instruments of labour their lives immediately suffer. And what does it matter to the privileged! They lack for nothing; they can wait. The working population would have died of hunger ten times over before the privileged could be forced to go to its aid. This could be seen after the July Revolution, when through either a spirit of vengeance or through selfish fear the capitalists suddenly tightened their grip on their capital, thereby sacrificing the enormous profits they draw from the worker’s labour simply for the pleasure of depriving him of even that meagre share of the fruits of his labour that must otherwise be relinquished to him. We saw these new barons of hoarded wealth [ces féodaux du coffre-fort] withdraw into their Dutch cheese to contemplate impassively the anguish of the people they decimated through hunger, as recompense for the selflessness with which the people had devoted themselves to serving their own hatred and envy against the nobility and clergy.
Non-violent reprisals and a war of deferral [une guerre de temporisation] are impossible against an enemy who has such abundant resources behind it. To appreciate the incapacity of the workers to fight against the allied forces of capital one need only consider the findings of the most recent experiment carried out in Lyon, where sixty thousand men were forced to submit to the will of a few hundred manufacturers who subdued them through famine. It is indeed a miracle that there were writers who so much as considered serious resistance to oppression, and that the workers attacked their true enemies en masse. No small amount of misery was necessary before these simple men were able to grasp its real cause. However, this is not a typical case; most of the impoverished classes still misunderstand the source of their ills. Profound ignorance is the first and most deplorable consequence of their enslavement; it almost always makes them the docile instruments of the wicked passions of the privileged. How could the destitute, eternally bent beneath an exhausting task, with no guarantee of a piece of bread at the end of their daily fatigue, cultivate their intelligence, enlighten their reason, and reflect on social phenomena in which they play only a passive role?
Doomed to a bestial existence, and all too happy to receive what their masters deign to leave them of the products of their own labour, as if this were an act of charity, all they see in the hand that exploits them is the hand that feeds them, and they are ready to persecute at their master’s signal the men of devotion who attempt to show them a better future. Alas! Humanity has always marched with a blindfold over its eyes, and only briefly raises it, from time to time, in order to discern and rejoin the road it most often blindly follows. Every step humanity takes on the path of progress crushes the guide who clears the way, and it must first make victims of those it will later consider heroes. The Gracchi were torn to pieces on the streets of Rome by a mass of plebeians stirred up by the words of patrician families. Jesus Christ atoned on the cross amidst the joyous cries of a Jewish mob incited by priests and Pharisees. The most generous defenders of freedom in our first Revolution climbed the scaffold because of the ingratitude and cowardice of the people. The people allowed its cruellest enemies to condemn the memory of these defenders to be cursed through an execrable concert of calumnies and, still today, every morning, wretches teach the French to spit on the tombs of these martyrs.