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The theologians answer:

All justice comes from God

That is true; but we know no more than before.

The philosophers ought to be better informed: they have argued so much about justice and injustice! Unhappily, an examination proves that their knowledge amounts to nothing, and that with them — as with the savages whose every prayer to the sun is simply O! O! — it is a cry of admiration, love, and enthusiasm; but who does not know that the sun attaches little meaning to the interjection O!

That is exactly our position toward the philosophers in regard to justice. Justice, they say, is a daughter of Heaven; a light which illumines every man that comes into the world; the most beautiful prerogative of our nature; that which distinguishes us from the beasts and likens us to God — and a thousand other similar things.

What, I ask, does this pious litany amount to? To the prayer of the savages: O!

All the most reasonable teachings of human wisdom concerning justice are summed up in that famous adage: Do unto others that which you would that others should do unto you; Do not unto others that which you would not that others should do unto you.

But this rule of moral practice is unscientific: what have I a right to wish that others should do or not do to me? It is of no use to tell me that my duty is equal to my right, unless I am told at the same time what my right is.

Let us try to arrive at something more precise and positive.

Justice is the central star which governs societies, the pole around which the political world revolves, the principle and the regulator of all transactions. Nothing takes place between men save in the name of right; nothing without the invocation of justice.

Justice is not the work of the law: on the contrary, the law is only a declaration and application of justice in all circumstances where men are liable to come in contact.

If, then, the idea that we form of justice and right were ill-defined, if it were imperfect or even false, it is clear that all our legislative applications would be wrong, our institutions vicious, our politics erroneous: consequently there would be disorder and social chaos.

This hypothesis of the perversion of justice in our minds, and, as a necessary result, in our acts, becomes a demonstrated fact when it is shown that the opinions of men have not borne a constant relation to the notion of justice and its applications; that at different periods they have undergone modifications: in a word, that there has been progress in ideas. Now, that is what history proves by the most overwhelming testimony.

Eighteen Hundred years ago, the world, under the rule of the Cæsars, exhausted itself in slavery, superstition, and voluptuousness.

The people — intoxicated and, as it were, stupefied by their long-continued orgies — had lost the very notion of right and duty: war and dissipation by turns swept them away; usury and the labor of machines (that is of slaves), by depriving them of the means of subsistence, hindered them from continuing the species.

Barbarism sprang up again, in hideous form, from this mass of corruption, and spread like a devouring leprosy over the depopulated provinces.

The wise foresaw the downfall of the empire, but could devise no remedy. What could they think indeed? To save this old society it would have been necessary to change the objects of public esteem and veneration, and to abolish the rights affirmed by a justice purely secular.

Rome has conquered through her politics and her gods; any change in theology and public opinion would be folly and sacrilege.

Rome, merciful toward conquered nations, though binding them in chains, spared their lives; slaves are the most fertile source of her wealth; freedom of the nations would be the negation of her rights and the ruin of her finances.

Rome, in fact, enveloped in the pleasures and gorged with the spoils of the universe, is kept alive by victory and government; her luxury and her pleasures are the price of her conquests: she can neither abdicate nor dispossess herself.

Thus Rome had the facts and the law on her side. Her pretensions were justified by universal custom and the law of nations. Her institutions were based upon idolatry in religion, slavery in the State, and epicurism in private life; to touch those was to shake society to its foundations, and, to use our modern expression, to open the abyss of revolutions.

So the idea occurred to no one; and yet humanity was dying in blood and luxury.

All at once a man appeared, calling himself The Word of God. It is not known to this day who he was, whence he came, nor what suggested to him his ideas.

He went about proclaiming everywhere that the end of the existing society was at hand, that the world was about to experience a new birth; that the priests were vipers, the lawyers ignoramuses, the philosophers hypocrites and liars; that master and slave were equals, that usury and every thing akin to it was robbery, that proprietors and idlers would one day burn, while the poor and pure in heart would find a haven of peace.

This man — The Word of God — was denounced and arrested as a public enemy by the priests and the lawyers, who well understood how to induce the people to demand his death.

But this judicial murder, though it put the finishing stroke to their crimes, did not destroy the doctrinal seeds which The Word of God had sown. After his death, his original disciples travelled about in all directions, preaching what they called the good news, creating in their turn millions of missionaries; and, when their task seemed to be accomplished, dying by the sword of Roman justice.

This persistent agitation, the war of the executioners and martyrs, lasted nearly three centuries, ending in the conversion of the world.

Idolatry was destroyed, slavery abolished, dissolution made room for a more austere morality, and the contempt for wealth was sometimes pushed almost to privation.

Society was saved by the negation of its own principles, by a revolution in its religion, and by violation of its most sacred rights.

In this revolution, the idea of justice spread to an extent that had not before been dreamed of, never to return to its original limits. Heretofore justice had existed only for the masters; it then commenced to exist for the slaves.

Nevertheless, the new religion at that time had borne by no means all its fruits. There was a perceptible improvement of the public morals, and a partial release from oppression; but, other than that, the seeds sown by the Son of Man, having fallen into idolatrous hearts, had produced nothing save innumerable discords and a quasi-poetical mythology.

Instead of developing into their practical consequences the principles of morality and government taught by The Word of God, his followers busied themselves in speculations as to his birth, his origin, his person, and his actions; they discussed his parables, and from the conflict of the most extravagant opinions upon unanswerable questions and texts which no one understood, was born theology, — which may be defined as the science of the infinitely absurd.

The truth of Christianity did not survive the age of the apostles; the Gospel, commented upon and symbolized by the Greeks and Latins, loaded with pagan fables, became literally a mass of contradictions; and to this day the reign of the infallible Church has been a long era of darkness.

It is said that the gates of hell will not always prevail, that The Word of God will return, and that one day men will know truth and justice; but that will be the death of Greek and Roman Catholicism, just as in the light of science disappeared the caprices of opinion.

The monsters which the successors of the apostles were bent on destroying, frightened for a moment, reappeared gradually, thanks to the crazy fanaticism, and sometimes the deliberate connivance, of priests and theologians.

The history of the enfranchisement of the French communes offers constantly the spectacle of the ideas of justice and liberty spreading among the people, in spite of the combined efforts of kings, nobles, and clergy.

In the year 1789 of the Christian era, the French nation, divided by caste, poor and oppressed, struggled in the triple net of royal absolutism, the tyranny of nobles and parliaments, and priestly intolerance. There was the right of the king and the right of the priest, the right of the patrician and the right of the plebeian; there were the privileges of birth, province, communes, corporations, and trades; and, at the bottom of all, violence, immorality, and misery.

For some time they talked of reformation; those who apparently desired it most favoring it only for their own profit, and the people who were to be the gainers expecting little and saying nothing. For a long time these poor people, either from distrust, incredulity, or despair, hesitated to ask for their rights: it is said that the habit of serving had taken the courage away from those old communes, which in the middle ages were so bold.

Finally a book appeared, summing up the whole matter in these two propositions: What is the third estate? — Nothing. What ought it to be? — Everything. Some one added by way of comment: What is the king? — The servant of the people.

This was a sudden revelation: the veil was torn aside, a thick bandage fell from all eyes. The people commenced to reason thus: —

  • If the king is our servant, he ought to report to us
  • If he ought to report to us, he is subject to control
  • If he can be controlled, he is responsible
  • If he is responsible, he is punishable
  • If he is punishable, he ought to be punished according to his merits
  • If he ought to be punished according to his merits, he can be punished with death

Five years after the publication of the brochure of Sieyès, the third estate was everything; the king, the nobility, the clergy, were no more.

In 1793, the nation, without stopping at the constitutional fiction of the inviolability of the sovereign, conducted Louis XVI to the scaffold; in 1830, it accompanied Charles X to Cherbourg. In each case, it may have erred, in fact, in its judgment of the offence; but, in right, the logic which led to its action was irreproachable.

The people, in punishing their sovereign, did precisely that which the government of July was so severely censured for failing to do when it refused to execute Louis Bonaparte after the affair of Strasburg: they struck the true culprit. It was an application of the common law, a solemn decree of justice enforcing the penal laws.

The spirit which gave rise to the movement of ‘89 was a spirit of negation; that, of itself, proves that the order of things which was substituted for the old system was not methodical or well-considered; that, born of anger and hatred, it could not have the effect of a science based on observation and study; that its foundations, in a word, were not derived from a profound knowledge of the laws of Nature and society.

Thus the people found that the republic, among the so-called new institutions, was acting on the very principles against which they had fought, and was swayed by all the prejudices which they had intended to destroy.

We congratulate ourselves, with inconsiderate enthusiasm, on the glorious French Revolution, the regeneration of 1789, the great changes that have been effected, and the reversion of institutions: a delusion, a delusion!

When our ideas on any subject, material, intellectual, or social, undergo a thorough change in consequence of new observations, I call that movement of the mind revolution.

If the ideas are simply extended or modified, there is only progress.

Thus the system of Ptolemy was a step in astronomical progress, that of Copernicus was a revolution. So, in 1789, there was struggle and progress; revolution there was none.

An examination of the reforms which were attempted proves this.

The nation, so long a victim of monarchical selfishness, thought to deliver itself for ever by declaring that it alone was sovereign.

But what is monarchy? The sovereignty of one man.

What is democracy? The sovereignty of the nation, or, rather, of the national majority.

But it is, in both cases, the sovereignty of man instead of the sovereignty of the law, the sovereignty of the will instead of the sovereignty of the reason; in one word, the passions instead of justice.

Undoubtedly, when a nation passes from the monarchical to the democratic state, there is progress, because in multiplying the sovereigns we increase the opportunities of the reason to substitute itself for the will; but in reality there is no revolution in the government, since the principle remains the same. Now, we have the proof to-day that, with the most perfect democracy, we cannot be free.

Nor is that all. The nation-king cannot exercise its sovereignty itself; it is obliged to delegate it to agents: this is constantly reiterated by those who seek to win its favor.

Be these agents five, ten, one hundred, or a thousand, of what consequence is the number; and what matters the name?

It is always the government of man, the rule of will and caprice.  I ask what this pretended revolution has revolutionized?

We know, too, how this sovereignty was exercised; first by the Convention, then by the Directory, afterwards confiscated by the Consul. As for the Emperor, the strong man so much adored and mourned by the nation, he never wanted to be dependent on it; but, as if intending to set its sovereignty at defiance, he dared to demand its suffrage: that is, its abdication, the abdication of this inalienable sovereignty; and he obtained it.

But what is sovereignty?

It is, they say, the power to make laws.

Another absurdity, a relic of despotism. The nation had long seen kings issuing their commands in this form: for such is our pleasure; it wished to taste in its turn the pleasure of making laws. For fifty years it has brought them forth by myriads; always, be it understood, through the agency of representatives.

The play is far from ended.

The definition of sovereignty was derived from the definition of the law.

The law is the expression of the will of the sovereign:

  • under monarchy, law is the expression of the will of the king;
  • in republic, law is the expression of the will of the people.

Aside from the difference in the number of wills, the two systems are exactly identical: both share the same error, namely, that the law is the expression of a will; it ought to be the expression of a fact.

Moreover they followed good leaders: they took the citizen of Geneva for their prophet, and the contrat social for their Koran.

Bias and prejudice are apparent in all the phrases of the new legislators.

The nation had suffered from a multitude of exclusions and privileges; its representatives issued the following declaration: All men are equal by nature and before the law; an ambiguous and redundant declaration.

Men are equal by nature: does that mean that they are equal in size, beauty, talents, and virtue? No; they meant, then, political and civil equality.

Then it would have been sufficient to have said: All men are equal before the law. “Sovereignty,” according to Toullier, “is human omnipotence.” A materialistic definition: if sovereignty is anything, it is a right not a force or a faculty. And what is human omnipotence?

But what is equality before the law?

Neither the constitution of 1790, nor that of ‘93, nor the granted charter, nor the accepted charter, have defined it accurately. All imply an inequality in fortune and station incompatible with even a shadow of equality in rights. In this respect it may be said that all our constitutions have been faithful expressions of the popular will: I am going, to prove it.

Formerly the people were excluded from civil and military offices; it was considered a wonder when the following high-sounding article was inserted in the Declaration of Rights:

All citizens are equally eligible to office; free nations know no qualifications in their choice of officers save virtues and talents.

They certainly ought to have admired so beautiful an idea: they admired a piece of nonsense.


The sovereign people, legislators, and reformers, see in public offices, to speak plainly, only opportunities for pecuniary advancement.

And, because it regards them as a source of profit, it decrees the eligibility of citizens.

For of what use would this precaution be, if there were nothing to gain by it? No one would think of ordaining that none but astronomers and geographers should be pilots, nor of prohibiting stutterers from acting at the theatre and the opera.

The nation was still aping the kings: like them it wished to award the lucrative positions to its friends and flatterers. Unfortunately, and this last feature completes the resemblance, the nation did not control the list of livings; that was in the hands of its agents and representatives. They, on the other hand, took care not to thwart the will of their gracious sovereign.

This edifying article of the Declaration of Rights, retained in the charters of 1814 and 1830, implies several kinds of civil inequality; that is, of inequality before the law:

  • inequality of station, since the public functions are sought only for the consideration and emoluments which they bring;
  • inequality of wealth, since, if it had been desired to equalize fortunes, public service would have been regarded as a duty, not as a reward;
  • inequality of privilege, the law not stating what it means by talents and virtues.

Under the empire, virtue and talent consisted simply in military bravery and devotion to the emperor; that was shown when Napoleon created his nobility, and attempted to connect it with the ancients. To-day, the man who pays taxes to the amount of two hundred francs is virtuous; the talented man is the honest pickpocket: such truths as these are accounted trivial.

The people finally legalized property. God forgive them, for they knew not what they did! For fifty years they have suffered for their miserable folly.

But how came the people, whose voice, they tell us, is the voice of God, and whose conscience is infallible, — how came the people to err?

How happens it that, when seeking liberty and equality, they fell back into privilege and slavery?

Always through copying the ancient régime.

Formerly, the nobility and the clergy contributed towards the expenses of the State only by voluntary aid and gratuitous gift; their property could not be seized even for debt, — while the plebeian, overwhelmed by taxes and statute-labor, was continually tormented, now by the king’s tax-gatherers, now by those of the nobles and clergy. He whose possessions were subject to mortmain could neither bequeath nor inherit property; he was treated like the animals, whose services and offspring belong to their master by right of accession.

The people wanted the conditions of ownership to be alike for all; they thought that every one should enjoy and freely dispose of his possessions his income and the fruit of his labor and industry. The people did not invent property; but as they had not the same privileges in regard to it, which the nobles and clergy possessed, they decreed that the right should be exercised by all under the same conditions.

The more obnoxious forms of property — statute-labor, mortmain, maîtrise, and exclusion from public office — have disappeared; the conditions of its enjoyment have been modified: the principle still remains the same. There has been progress in the regulation of the right; there has been no revolution.

These, then, are the three fundamental principles of modern society, established one after another by the movements of 1789 and 1830:

  • Sovereignty of the human will; in short, despotism.
  • Inequality of wealth and rank.
  • Property — above justice, always invoked as the guardian angel of sovereigns, nobles, and proprietors; justice, the general, primitive, categorical law of all society.

We must ascertain whether the ideas of despotism, civil inequality and property, are in harmony with the primitive notion of justice, and necessarily follow from it, — assuming various forms according to the condition, position, and relation of persons; or whether they are not rather the illegitimate result of a confusion of different things, a fatal association of ideas. And since justice deals especially with the questions of government, the condition of persons, and the possession of things, we must ascertain under what conditions, judging by universal opinion and the progress of the human mind, government is just, the condition of citizens is just, and the possession of things is just; then, striking out every thing which fails to meet these conditions, the result will at once tell us what legitimate government is, what the legitimate condition of citizens is, and what the legitimate possession of things is; and finally, as the last result of the analysis, what justice is.

Is the authority of man over man just?

Everybody answers

No! The authority of man is only the authority of the law, which ought to be justice and truth.

The private will counts for nothing in government, which consists, first, in discovering truth and justice in order to make the law; and, second, in superintending the execution of this law.

I do not now inquire whether our constitutional form of government satisfies these conditions; whether, for example, the will of the ministry never influences the declaration and interpretation of the law; or whether our deputies, in their debates, are more intent on conquering by argument than by force of numbers: it is enough for me that my definition of a good government is allowed to be correct.

This idea is exact.

Yet we see that nothing seems more just to the Oriental nations than the despotism of their sovereigns; that, with the ancients and in the opinion of the philosophers themselves, slavery was just; that in the middle ages the nobles, the priests, and the bishops felt justified in holding slaves; that Louis XIV thought that he was right when he said, “The State! I am the State” and that Napoleon deemed it a crime for the State to oppose his will.

The idea of justice, then, applied to sovereignty and government, has not always been what it is to-day; it has gone on developing and shaping itself by degrees, until it has arrived at its present state. But has it reached its last phase? I think not: only, as the last obstacle to be overcome arises from the institution of property which we have kept intact, in order to finish the reform in government and consummate the revolution, this very institution we must attack.

Is political and civil inequality just?

Some say yes; others no. To the first I would reply that, when the people abolished all privileges of birth and caste, they did it, in all probability, because it was for their advantage; why then do they favor the privileges of fortune more than those of rank and race? Because, say they, political inequality is a result of property; and without property society is impossible: thus the question just raised becomes a question of property. To the second I content myself with this remark: If you wish to enjoy political equality, abolish property; otherwise, why do you complain?

Is property just?

Everybody answers without hesitation, “Yes, property is just.”

I say everybody, for up to the present time no one who thoroughly understood the meaning of his words has answered no. For it is no easy thing to reply understandingly to such a question; only time and experience can furnish an answer.

Now, this answer is given; it is for us to understand it. I undertake to prove it.

We are to proceed with the demonstration in the following order: —

I. We dispute not at all, we refute nobody, we deny nothing;

we accept as sound all the arguments alleged in favor of property, and confine ourselves to a search for its principle, in order that we may then ascertain whether this principle is faithfully expressed by property.

In fact, property being defensible on no ground save that of justice, the idea, or at least the intention, of justice must of necessity underlie all the arguments that have been made in defence of property; and, as on the other hand the right of property is only exercised over those things which can be appreciated by the senses, justice, secretly objectifying itself, so to speak, must take the shape of an algebraic formula.

By this method of investigation, we soon see that every argument which has been invented in behalf of property, whatever it may be, always and of necessity leads to equality; that is, to the negation of property.

The first part covers two chapters: one treating of occupation, the foundation of our right; the other, of labor and talent, considered as causes of property and social inequality.

The first of these chapters will prove that the right of occupation obstructs property; the second that the right of labor destroys it

II. Property, then, being of necessity conceived as existing only in connection with equality, it remains to find out why, in spite of this necessity of logic, equality does not exist. This new investigation also covers two chapters: in the first, considering the fact of property in itself, we inquire whether this fact is real, whether it exists, whether it is possible; for it would imply a contradiction, were these two opposite forms of society, equality and inequality, both possible. Then we discover, singularly enough, that property may indeed manifest itself accidentally; but that, as an institution and principle, it is mathematically impossible. So that the axiom of the school — ab actu ad posse valet consecutio: from the actual to the possible the inference is good — is given the lie as far as property is concerned.

Finally, in the last chapter, calling psychology to our aid, and probing man’s nature to the bottom, we shall disclose the principle of justice — its formula and character; we shall state with precision the organic law of society; we shall explain the origin of property, the causes of its establishment, its long life, and its approaching death; we shall definitively establish its identity with robbery. And, after having shown that these three prejudices — the sovereignty of man, the inequality of conditions, and property — are one and the same; that they may be taken for each other, and are reciprocally convertible, — we shall have no trouble in inferring therefrom, by the principle of contradiction, the basis of government and right. There our investigations will end, reserving the right to continue them in future works.

The importance of the subject which engages our attention is recognized by all minds.

“Property,” says M. Hennequin, “is the creative and conservative principle of civil society. Property is one of those basic institutions, new theories concerning which cannot be presented too soon; for it must not be forgotten, and the publicist and statesman must know, that on the answer to the question whether property is the principle or the result of social order, whether it is to be considered as a cause or an effect, depends all morality, and, consequently, all the authority of human institutions.”

These words are a challenge to all men of hope and faith; but, although the cause of equality is a noble one, no one has yet picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the advocates of property; no one has been courageous enough to enter upon the struggle. The spurious learning of haughty jurisprudence, and the absurd aphorisms of a political economy controlled by property have puzzled the most generous minds; it is a sort of password among the most influential friends of liberty and the interests of the people that equality is a chimera! So many false theories and meaningless analogies influence minds otherwise keen, but which are unconsciously controlled by popular prejudice. Equality advances every day — fit aequalitas. Soldiers of liberty, shall we desert our flag in the hour of triumph?

A defender of equality, I shall speak without bitterness and without anger; with the independence becoming a philosopher, with the courage and firmness of a free man. May I, in this momentous struggle, carry into all hearts the light with which I am filled; and show, by the success of my argument, that equality failed to conquer by the sword only that it might conquer by the pen!