Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1789
Let me begin with a hypothesis, one I’d like to think Henri might agree with: revolutionary citizenship is not a right: it has to be taken, recreated anew, struggled for – not rubber-stamped. For revolutionaries, for people concerned with real social change, with changing societies, with inventing new urban life, we might say the rights question got buried in 1848, destroyed by bourgeois gravediggers. The above hypothesis compels us to consider that we no longer have rights, shouldn’t expect any, should wise up to the fact that nobody in power or authority is ever going to acknowledge our rights, grant us those rights we thought were ours, thought would become enshrined in our culture, especially after the 1789 French Revolution. But they didn’t get enshrined.
In 1791, we had Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and of the Citizen kindle our hopes of such popular enfranchisement. And then, after overthrowing the French Monarchy, Robespierre, in 1792, tried to uphold these ideals, tried to endorse them at the National Convention, the first revolutionary assembly of “popular will”, run by left-leaning bourgeois Jacobins. Robespierre took positions of great virtue and astonishing courage concerning human rights. He was against martial law, against the death penalty, against slavery in the colonies; he was for universal suffrage, for the right to petition, for freedom of the press, for civic rights of actors and Jews. But the 9th Thermidor backlash in 27 July 1794, the right-swinging counter-revolution against Jacobin liberal democracy, trampled over hopes of any Bill of Rights, hopes that capital and labour might establish a just social contract, that an emergent industrial working class, together with artisans and peasants, might one day find societal harmony with a progressive bourgeoisie.
Between 1794 and 1848, working class people in Europe retained these hopes. The workers’ movement of 1830 tried again to consummate these hopes; it failed. In 1848, between February and June, a new generation of workers, still demanding their rights, took to the streets en masse, across all Europe as well as in France; again they failed, again they found their rights bloodied in the streets. This fraught era from 1830 to 1848 tried to reset the balance between bourgeoisie and worker. It made a last-ditch effort to salvage the rights issue, to fulfil the latent promise of The Rights of Man and of the 1789 revolution. The “June Days” of 1848 were the last popular reaction to Thermidor reaction. In a way, insurgents back then still played a bourgeois game, still somehow believed in the rules to this bourgeois game. And yet, again, the movement failed: the promise of bourgeois citizenship was drowned in the icy waters of conservative recidivism. The awful truth: the promise of liberal-bourgeois rights had been a big lie all along. Now everybody knew it, everybody who had to know it. “The revolutionary storm of 1848”, Engels wrote in 1890, in an added footnote to the Communist Manifesto, “swept away this whole shabby tendency”. It had “cured its protagonists”, Engels said, “of the desire to dabble further” in speculative beliefs of “eternal truths”.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that 1848 was the year when the Communist Manifesto appeared. With stirring, thunderous prose, Marx declared the holy profane; no matter what we thought, no matter what we were demanding, there were no longer sacred ideals, no longer rights to shelter behind, to invoke to protect ourselves; there was nobody to whom “we,” the people, could appeal, especially when brutalized, especially when that brutality was actually lawful, actually an intrinsic feature of (capitalist) society’s everyday functioning. Hitherto sentimental notions, hitherto time-honoured beliefs, hitherto respected occupations – all of them, Marx said, had been “stripped of their haloes.” “In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions,” the bourgeoisie “has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” “All that is solid melts into air”, Marx wrote, famously, “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. Could it be, then, that “sober senses” means having no illusions about rights, that they’ve melted into air, that we should now face up, unflinchingly, to our real conditions of neoliberal social life?