The Worlds Famous Orations. Continental Europe (3801906). 1906.
In the Debate on Socialism with Jaurès
Georges Clemenceau (18411929)
Born in 1841; elected Mayor of Montmartre, and then for many years a Deputy in the French Chamber, where he became the leader of the Radical party; prominent during the administrations of Gambetta (1882). Ferry (1885), and Brisson (1886); active against Boulanger in 1885; defeated in 1893, he devoted himself exclusively to his newspaper, La Justice, advocating among other things a revision of the action against Dreyfus; returning to public life, he served as Minister of the Interior, and in October, 1906, became Prime Minister.
I WISH1 at the outset to render full homage to the noble passion for social justice which so magnificently animates the eloquence of M. Jaurès. In an irresistible impulse of idealism he wishes the happiness of all humanity and we are witnesses that he would spare nothing to assure this happiness. To the chords of his lyre Amphion modestly erected the walls of Thebes. At the voice of M. Jaurès a still greater miracle is accomplished! He speaks, and all the historical organizations of human societies suddenly crumble.
All that man has ever conceived of a social order, all that he has ever wished, all that he has realized of justice, commencing in pain, in sorrow, in blood, since the day when he burst from his caverns to the conquest of his earth, all the secular effort for a better life, all the progress acquired at the price of a labor figured perhaps by millions of yearsvictory! all that resolves itself into dust; all that enshrouds itself in smoke, and if your eye wishes to follow this smoke into the heavens you there behold a new prodigy; for in sumptuous clouds enchanted palaces rear themselves, whence is banished all human misery. There remains only to fix them in the air and to seat their foundations among us in order that the work of Genesis be reformed for ever.
The social evil that Jehovah could not eliminate from His work shall disappear. There shall remain to us only the evils of human conditionssufficient, in all conscience. Alas! while this pompous mirage unfolds itself before the charmed gaze of the new creator, I, vacillating mortal that I am, labor miserably in the plain, even in the far depths of the valley, struggling with an ungrateful soil which doles we out a niggardly harvest. Hence the difference between our points of view that his good will pardons me so hardly.
M. Jaurès, indeed, paid me the compliment of some floral offerings; but I soon discovered that when he did so it was for the purpose of immolating me more pompously upon the altar of collectivism, after having pronounced upon we a pitiless condemnation. But I do not pride myself in being one of that noble category of resigned victims, who stretch out an innocent neck to the sword of Calchas. I writhe, I struggle, I revolt, and when M. Jaurès explains to me that he has conceived a most unfavorable opinion of my policy, I appeal from this judgment to a superior judgethis Chamber, the exponent of a republican country.
I had thought that my acts would speak for me; I had thought that the hour would come when in this very place I could explain myself regarding them, face to face with my adversaries. That hour has come, and I take advantage of it to say at the outset that in my view those who act against the working class are those who encourage it in the crazy idea that wherever there is a workman who will respect neither the law nor the right there you have the working class; these are they who represent to him as his enemy the government charged with the maintenance of order.
I say that those who act against the working class are those who encourage it to believe that it can do no wrong, and that it suffices for it to visit upon others the oppressions from which it has itself suffered.
I say that those who act against the working class are those who thus retard its education, because education is not by words, as pedagogs profess and believe, but is achieved by deeds. We shall know that the working class is worthy to govern the democracy, as you desire and as I myself heartily wish, on the day when of its own free will it shall conform its acts to the right it demands.
Without doubt, M. Jaurès, you dominate me from all the heights of your socialistic conceptions. You have the magic power of evoking fairy palaces with your wand, while I am as some modest laborer on a cathedral who obscurely carries a stone to the august edifice he shall never see. At the first puff of reality the fairy palace will vanish, whereas the republican cathedral will some day rear its spire into the skies.
Individual property, I assert, will be evolved for a long time to come; I assert that the relations of individual property and of social property will not remain as they now are; and when I say that I say nothing that any one can not approve. So much is understood, the question is open, we shall discuss it as fully as you please; in the meantime I wish to brand the sophism upon which you have founded your right of expropriation. You have shown us both extreme wealth and extreme poverty; you have promised us that in six months you would find the means to remedy the evil you point out, and you have concluded: Would not this society be better, juster, humaner? Reply, ere we launch the anathema!
M. Jaurès, there are more than two hypotheses to submit to this Chamber; between the society of to-day and yours there are an infinite number of social conceptions which may be developed. You underestimate the task. Admitting even that your criticisms are well founded, that present society is as bad as you say it is (and I am not of those who pretend that it is very good, as you well know) ; admitting further that the society which you have conceived is actually realizable, you have still omitted a point which is worth the trouble of considering, and that is that we have not alone to choose between the society which you promise and society as it is. There are an infinite number of other hypotheses, and when I shall later on speak to you of the projects of social order which this much-abused middle-class Republic has nevertheless brought to success, I shall show you without difficulty that the social régime of to-day is not the social régime of twenty years ago, and that it is in truth founded upon absolutely different principles.
I can not, therefore, admit that you give us choice only between these two hypotheses, and that you have said the last word when you say to us: Take care; if you do not accept my project the human mind is bankrupt. M. Jaurès, you must not confound the bankruptcy of the human mind with the bankruptcy of the mind of Monsieur Jaurès!
You are carrying it, permit me to say, a little too high with the men who until this day have been your collaborators. You show us the spectacle of those divinities of Hellenism who, upon the Acropolis of Athens, struggled one day for the accomplishment of a prodigious task: with your imperious scepter you strike the earth, you cause to emerge from it the type of the new societythese are your wordsand you, turning toward us, say to us: Do as much. Very good; it is not certain that this challenge can not be taken up. The alchemists sought the philosophers stone: you have found it; you hold in your hand the magic formula which ought to solve everythingI do not say which will solve, since we do not yet know that it willwhich ought to solve in six months the social question.
That is all very good, but the clear, critical spirit of modern France, which you do not appreciate because it inconveniences you at the present moment, has preserved us up to this time from these dreams. It is, however, natural that at the historical hour when the social question presents itself in all its amplitude that imaginations should give themselves full play. So much is necessary to men who dare not look destiny full in the face: it is necessary to replace the lost religions which promised eternal happiness by the illusion of prophecies, by the terrestrial paradise about to be. Prophesy on; the generations who sleep far away in the future will not rise up from the ground to confound you.
In 1848 the Republic believed itself on the eve. of the great day, and we saw many builders of future cities. Do you remember the sittings of the Constituent and of the Legislative Assemblies where Pierre Leroux, where Victor Considérant, where Proudhon detailed, as you are shortly about to do, plans of the new society? A very great number pronounced themselves in favor of the suppression of individual property. Long before them Thomas Morus, at the commencement of the sixteenth century, had condemned individual property in terms more definite than those which you could employ. These men were not inferior to you. Where are they now? Where? You have replaced them, as others will shortly replace you.
The truth is that we must distinguish, in the social organization, two things: the man and the environment. It appears more simple to theoretically reform the environment; every one goes about that at his pleasure, but if you consider that the environment of the social organization is, and can be only the product of successive human conceptions, you will see that to arbitrarily modify the social organization without troubling to find out if man is in a state to adapt himself to it can lead only to the most pronounced disorder. Thus even for those who pretend to remake the social organization all in the first instance turns upon the primordial reform of the individual. If you reform the individual, if you apply yourself, I do not say wholly but principally, to the reform of the human personality, man will be able to find for himself the form of organization which best suits him without troubling himself with your theories, without troubling himself with the prophecies you have made and which certainly can not be realized because you can not, unless you are a divinity yourself, foresee the result of human evolution.
In any case your conceptions are fatally defective in one point, and that is that the man whom you need for the realization of your future society does not yet exist, even tho your theories might be realized; and when this man shall exist, if he ever should exist, he will employ his own intelligence in his own way without troubling himself with the path which you have taken upon yourself to trace out for him. You pretend directly to construct the future, while we construct the man who will construct the future, and in so doing we are achieving a phenomenon much greater than your own. We are not constructing a man already made for our city; we take the man such as he is, still imperfectly cleared from his primitive dens, in his cruelty, in his goodness, in his egoism, in his altruism, in the pathos of the evils which he endures and the evils to which he himself subjects his kindwe take him fallible, contradictory, grouping toward he knows not what better things, and we enlighten him and we enlarge him, we mitigate the evil of him and fortify him in the good, and we liberate him and we justify him and, partaker of the bestial règime of force as he is, we lead him toward an approximation greater and still greater of a superior justice. And every day marks a little more of disinterestedness, a little more of nobility, of goodness, of beauty, and of a new power over himself and over the external world.
Note 1. In this reply to Jaurès the brilliant and caustic Clemenceau, while minister of the interior, championed the cause of democracy and sought to dissipate the theories and disprove the claims of the new society as expounded by the Socialist leader. As summed up by LAurore, M. Jaurès professes the German philosophy of what may be; Clemenceau holds to the English philosophy of what is. As Clemenceau had previously not spoken in the French Chamber for thirteen years, his oration was awaited with intense interest, and accorded at times great outbursts of enthusiastic applause. He lost no opportunity for indulging in the biting wit and faculty for stinging retort for which he is celebrated. When Jaurès took the tribune to speak again, he described himself as all bristling with barbs, launched at me by a hand, skilful and always young. M. Clemenceaus speech occupied the greater part of the session of June 18 and 19. Abridged. Translated by Scott Robinson. [back]