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Portents of the day

Karl Marx

Paris, March 11, 1858

At Chalons-sur-Saone, on the night of Saturday, March 6, there was a Republican outbreak on a small scale; on Wednesday night, March 10, there was a seditious gathering in this city; since the 24th of February, the tenth anniversary of the Revolution of February, wholesale arrests have been carried on in such an Algerian razzia style[494] that, as The London Punch says, there will soon be left but two classes in France, prisoners and jailers[a]; there has appeared a semi-official pamphlet, "Napoleon III. and England,"[b] and at the same time the Moniteur published extracts from the correspondence of Napoleon I[c]; and, lastly, half Paris has been on its legs to make sure of places to witness Orsini's execution, which has not yet taken place. Commencing with the concluding article in this Imperial bill of fare, it ought to be remarked that by a concurrence of circumstances, not generally known, the question of Orsini's "launching into eternity," as the cynical Cockney phrase runs, has assumed proportions more fatal than even the execution of the Buzançais rioters in Louis Philippe's time[495]. In the latter case, a storm of popular indignation was roused because that bloody act, although judicial and in accordance with all the formalities of French law, laid bare the most disgusting features of Louis Philippe's hypocritical reign. The Duke of Praslin had poison administered to him, in order to spare him the ignominy of a felon's death[496], while these émeutiers of famine, half-starved peasants who had committed manslaughter in an affray caused by the export of grain, were mercilessly surrendered to the executioner. Orsini, on his part, has manfully avowed his participation in the attempt, and taken all the responsibility upon himself[d]. He has been condemned according to law, and whatever sympathy the mass of the Paris population may feel for him, there can be nothing in his doom, considered in itself, particularly damaging to the second Empire. Yet the whole face of the affair is completely changed by the circumstances accompanying it. Throughout the whole of the judicial proceedings, the curiosity of Paris was stirred by their exceptional management, unheard of in the annals of French political trials.

In the act of accusation, mild and moderate expressions were used. The facts elicited by the Juge d'Instruction were only vaguely alluded to, while the long and repeated interrogatories of the police authorities, which used to play a principal part in that sort of trials, were altogether dropped. The less you say of them the better, seemed the prevailing notion[e]. For the first time, a prisoner was decently treated in an Imperial court of justice. There was, as an eye-witness says, "little or no bullying, brow-beating or attempt at declamation." Jules Favre, Orsini's advocate, was not even called to order when he ventured to give vent to this sentence:

"I hate force when not devoted to the service of right. If a nation existed miserable enough to he in the hinds of a despot, the poniard would not sever its chains. God, who counts them, knows the hours of the despot's weakness, and reserves to tyrants catastrophes Inure inevitable than the dagger of the assassin."[f]

Neither did the low murmur which approved this passage afford occasion for a legal ebullition on the part of Mr. Delangle, the President. This was not all. It oozed out that the letter written to the Emperor by Orsini[g] was carried to the Tuileries by Jules Favre himself, examined by the Emperor, who is said to have struck out two phrases of it, and allowed to be published. Hardly, however, had sentence been passed on Orsini, when the extremest severity was shown to him, and, on his asking permission to "set his papers in order," he was answered by the immediate application of the camisole de force.[h]

It thus becomes evident that an infernal double game was here played. Orsini had revelations to make, and had made them to Piétri, relating to Napoleon's participation in Carbonarism, and the positive pledges which, even after the coup d'état, when still undecided in the course to follow, he had given to the Italian patriots[497]. In order to give Orsini an interest in his own moderation, and thus prevent a great public scandal, promises of pardon were held out to him which were never meant to be kept. This manner of proceeding is no novelty in the annals of the second Empire. The reader will perhaps recollect the trial of Berryer, the son of the celebrated French advocate and legitimist. The question then at issue was frauds committed in regard to a joint-stock company enterprise—the Docks Napoléoniens. Well, Berryer, the father, had his hands full of documents proving Prince Napoleon and Princess Mathilde to have been the gainers largely by the same swindling tricks that had dragged his son to the criminal's bench. If Berryer, the greatest artist in the French way of oratory—a way altogether dependent on the action, the tone, the eye, and the gesticulation of the performer, which turn words, that appear dull when glanced at in print, into speaking flames, into electric strokes when heard—if he had produced these documents and commented upon them, the Imperial throne would have tottered. Accordingly he was induced to abstain from so doing, by the interference of those nearest about the Emperor, who offered him his son's certain acquittal as the price of his silence. He yielded; his son was condemned, and father and son were duped. The same maneuver has been repeated, and with the same success, in Orsini's case. But this is not all. He was not only induced to spare Bonaparte a fearful scandal, but to break his silence and commit himself in Bonaparte's interest. He received intimations of the Emperor's secret leanings for Italian liberty, and was thus instigated to write his letter. Then the scene with Jules Favre was enacted. Orsini's letter was inserted in the Moniteur. Austria was to be frightened into compliance with Bonaparte's demands by showing her, unmistakably, how Bonaparte might still wield the patriotic aspirations of the Italians. She was even offended. Orsini's head is to soothe her anger, and in payment for it she is to make herself still more detested in Italy, and to stifle the feeble germs of the liberty of the press at Vienna. Such, whether true or false, is the general interpretation put on the case of Orsini.

As to the Chalons émeute, it is but a premonitory symptom. If even all manhood was extinct in France, from a mere sense of self-preservation, men would resort to insurrection. To die in a street fight, or to rot at Cayenne[498], is the alternative left to them. The pretexts on which the imprisonments are carried on—and every arrest may lead to Cayenne, as every road leads to Rome—may be exemplified by one single instance. It is known that some time ago three Paris lawyers were arrested[i]. The bar, or rather the council of the advocates, took up the business, and applied to the Minister of Justice[j]; the answer was, that no explanations could he given, but that these three gentlemen were taken up for "intrigues and maneuvers" during the late Paris elections, ten months back. If the Chalons émeute appears, therefore, fully due in the natural course of things, the behavior, on that occasion, of the officers of the garrison hardly tallies with the frantic addresses which the French army was ordered to send to the Moniteur[k]. The barracks are situated on the right bank of the Saone, while the officers mostly live in lodgings on the left bank, where the rising took place. Instead of rushing to the head of their men in defense of the Empire, they cautiously adopted some diplomatic movements in order to ascertain whether or not the Republic was proclaimed at Paris. Even the Moniteur dares not altogether suppress the fact. It says:

"The officers of the garrison, who had hastened to the sub-prefecture to obtain some information relative to the rumors already in circulation, forced their passage sword in hand."[l]

The Patrie tries to turn the awkward incident that way, saying that those curious officers wanted "to arrest the sub-prefect, in case he should side with the Republic;"[m] but the fact is that they ran to the sub-prefect to ask him if it was true that the Republic was proclaimed at Paris. It was only on his denial that they thought fit to exhibit their professional zeal. Castellane has already started from Lyons to investigate their behavior. In one word, the army shows symptoms of disaffection. The manner in which it was paraded in the Moniteur, and made the laughing-stock of Europe, then to be simply thrown overboard out of deference to John Bull; Bonaparte's breaking it up into five armies, for fear of abdicating its supreme command into Pelissier's hands[499], who has now become cold toward his master; the disdainful letters in which Changarnier and Bedeau have declined the permission to return to France[n]; the raising of L'Espinasse, generally detested in the barracks since the Dobrodja affair[500], to a post of exceptional trust; and lastly, that dark presentiment of an impending turn in the tide which has always distinguished the "intelligent bayonets"[501] of France; all this has contributed to estrange the calculating chiefs of the army. Beside the Chalons affair, there is Gen. M'Mahon's conduct in the French Senate to bear witness to this strange and rather unexpected change. His remarks on the loi des suspects[502] were most outspoken, and his was the one adverse vote among Bonaparte's embroidered liverymen.[o]

Written on March 11, 1858
First published unsigned in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5285, March 30, 1858
Reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1341, April 2, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] "A Bad Look Out", Punch, March 13, 1858.—Ed.

[b] [A. La Guéronnière,] L'Empereur Napoléon III et l'Angleterre.—Ed.

[c] Napoleon I, "Correspondance de Napoléon Ier", Le Moniteur universel, Nos. 66, 70, 71, 73 and 78, March 7, 11, 12, 14 and 19, 1858.—Ed.

[d] F. Orsini's testimony at the court session on February 25, 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 57, February 26, 1858.—Ed.

[e] "Cour d'assises de la Seine. Audience du 25 février 1858. Attentat du 14 janvier. Acte d'accusation", Le Moniteur universel, No. 57, February 26, 1858.—Ed.

[f] J. Favre's speech before the Jury on February 26. 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 58, February 27, 1858.—Ed.

[g] F. Orsini, "À Napoléon III, Empereur des Français, 11 février 1858," Le Moniteur universel, same issue.—Ed.

[h] Straight jacket.—Ed.

[i] "(Correspondance particulière de L'Indépendance belge.) Paris, 4 mars", L'Indépendance beige, No. 65, March 6, 1858.—Ed.

[j] Paul de Royer.—Ed.

[k] See addresses of the French army men, Le Moniteur universel, Nos. 26 and 27, January 26 and 27, 1858, and also the following issues.—Ed.

[l] "À, Châlon-sur-Saône, dans la soirée...", Le Moniteur universel, No. 68, March 9, 1858.—Ed.

[m] Quoted from L'Indépendance belge, No. 71, March 12, 1858.—Ed.

[n] Changarnier's letter to the editor of L'Indépendance belge of March 1, 1858, L'Indépendance belge, No. 61, March 2, 1858; Bedeau's letter to the editor of L'Indépendance belge of March 3, 1858, L'Indépendance belge, No. 65, March 6, 1858.—Ed.

[o] MacMahon's speech in the French Senate on February 25, 1858. Le Moniteur universel, No. 57, February 26, 1858; also quoted in L'Indépendance belge, No. 59, February 28, 1858.—Ed.

[494] An allusion to the atrocities committed by the French colonialists on the Arab tribes during the war in Algeria.

[495] In the spring of 1847 at Buzançais (department of the Indre) the starving workers and the neighbouring villagers looted storehouses belonging to profiteers, which led to a clash between the population and troops. Four of those who took part were executed and many others sentenced to hard labour.

[496] In August 1847 Altarice-Rosalba-Fanny, the Duchess of Praslin, was found murdered in her home. Suspicion fell on her husband, the Duke of Praslin, who was arrested and who poisoned himself during the investigation.

[497] In the latter half of the 1850s several attempts were made on the life of Napoleon III, including one by the Italian patriot Orsini (see Note 464↓). In European circles some of these actions were ascribed to the desire to punish Napoleon III, who was member of the Italian Carbonari organisation in 1,831, for breaking his commitments to it.

[498] Cayenne—a reference to French Guiana, where political prisoners were sent for penal servitude.

[499] Under Napoleon III's decree of January 27, 1858 the whole of French territory was divided into five military districts, with Paris, Nancy, Lyons, Toulouse and Tours as their capitals and Marshals Magnan, Baraguay d'Hilliers, Bosquet, Castellane and Canrobert as their .commanders. Marx calls these districts pashaliks (a comparison earlier used by the French republican press), to emphasise the similarity of the unlimited powers of the reactionary Marshals and the despotic power of the Turkish pashas. Pélissier's proposed appointment as marshal general in 1858 remained unrealised.

[500] In July 1854, during the Crimean war (1853-56), Marshal Saint-Arnaud ordered to organise an expedition under General Espinasse against the Russian troops in Dobrudja. However, having taken no military actions (except minor skirmishes with the retreating Cossacks) and having lost over half of the expeditionary corps due to epidemics of cholera and malaria among the soldiers, Espinasse returned to Varna.

[501] The expression "intelligent bayonets" (baïonnettes intelligentes) is ascribed to the French general Changarnier. When in 1849, Marrast, President of the Constituent Assembly, felt . a threat on the part of the Bonapartists and requested Changarnier to call up troops for the defence of the Assembly, Changarnier refused to do that with the remark that he did not like baïonnettes intelligentes. In this way he made it clear that the army should not be guided by political motives in its actions. Marx Is alluding ironically here to the pro-Bonapartist French army which, in fact, played a considerable part in the policy of the Second Empire.

[502] A reference to La loi relatif à des mesures de sûreté générale (Law on Public Security Measures) known as La loi des suspects (Suspects Law) adopted by the Corps législatif on February 19 and promulgated on February 28, 1858. It gave the emperor and his government unlimited power to exile to different parts of France or Algeria or to banish altogether from French territory any person suspected of hostility to the Second Empire.

[464] On January 14, 1858 the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini made an attempt on the life of Napoleon III, thus hoping to provoke revolutionary actions in Europe and intense struggle for the national unification of Italy. His attempt failed, and Orsini was executed on March 13, 1858.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.472-476), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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