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The Prosecution of Montalembert

Frederick Engels

Paris, Nov. 6, 1858

The very first man of any note in France to adhere to Louis Napoleon's coup d'état was Count Montalembert. Under Louis Philippe, he had represented the Catholic party in the Chamber of Deputies; under the Republic, he belonged to that reactionary party in the National Assembly[80] which, composed of Orleanists and Legitimists, seemingly accepted the Republic, in order the better to undermine it, and which, in the hopes of working for either the one or the other branch of the Bourbons, in, reality worked for that very same Louis Bonaparte who, one fine morning, had them all arrested and dispersed, and took hold of absolute power by the grace of a drunken soldiery. Involved in this forcible dispersion, and himself by his antecedents an Orleanist, Montalembert was the very first, and, with the "one base exception" of M. Dupin, still is the only, man of parliamentary notoriety in France, who has passed over into the Bonapartist camp. In the political syncope which at that time had overcome all France, this desertion of Montalembert was a fact of importance; it was a great fact for the new Government, still isolated from all France by the wall of soldiers which formed its protecting barrier. Montalembert had been bribed by the specifically Catholic turn which Louis Napoleon's Government took. Rumor adds that more substantial bribes, too, changed hands. For a while, Montalembert supported the Government as a member of the Legislative body; he fawned upon and flattered the man who had placed military dictatorship in the place of parliamentary debate; he was base enough to count it an honor to be one of those dummies whom the successful usurper deputed to vote laws and supplies at his dictation—to vote, and not to talk, or else to talk nothing but his praise. But he got no reward for thus debasing himself; he had done his work; he was estranged forever from his former political friends; he was forever compromised; he could never again be a dangerous opponent; he was sucked out like an orange—why any longer treat him with ceremony? Montalembert, neglected, found out that the manner in which Louis Bonaparte had saved and continued to save France, by having it all his own way, was not the thing, after all. He could not help comparing his position in the Deputies' Chamber with the one he used to occupy in that same building, ten or twenty years ago; and he began gradually to oppose the Government. This he was allowed to do to a certain amount; the first two or three of his speeches[a] were even permitted to be published. Since that time, he, the few Republican deputies who have taken the oath of allegiance, and a few discontented Bonapartists, form a sort of Opposition in this miserable Assembly—an Opposition quite as miserable as the body to which it belongs.

This opposition to further Imperial encroachments appears to have gained to M. Montalembert a slight and sickly kind of popularity among a certain portion of the middle classes; and he has apparently waited for an opportunity to follow up this advantage by some bold and sudden stroke. He was connected with The Correspondent, a periodical belonging almost, exclusively to the Broglie family, and accordingly Orleanist in its politics. Profiting by their absence from Paris, he carried the insertion of an article of his: "A Debate on India in the British Parliament," which would not have been admitted in its present form, if the cautious and timid Broglies had been present to exercise their influence. In this article, Montalembert tries to make the amende honorable[b] for having embraced the Bonapartist cause; by exalting to the skies the Parliamentary government of England, he most unmistakably condemns the present system of government in France.

"When my ears are dinned sometimes with the buzz of the antechamber chroniclers, sometimes with the clamorings of fanatics, who believe themselves to be our masters, or of hypocrites who fancy us their dupes; when I feel stifled with the weight of an atmosphere loaded with servile and corrupting effluvia, I hasten away to breathe a purer air and take a life-bath in the ocean of the liberties of England.... If among those who have opened these pages there be any under the dominion of that [the Bonapartist and absolutist] fashion, I say to them, without ceremony: cease reading, go no further; nothing that I am going to write can please or interest you; go and ruminate in peace among the fat pastures of your contented repose, and do not envy them who, unenvying you, enjoy the right of remaining faithful to their antecedents, to the anxieties of thought and to their aspirations after liberty.... I came first from this grand spectacle (the debate in the House of Commons) full of emotion, as might any man who looks to a government as something above a lacquey's waiting-room, and who seeks in a civilized nation something better than a flock of sheep only fit for the shears or to be led to nibble in silence under the shadow of an enervating security."[c]

This sounds extremely well, and, indeed, is sonorous. John Bull, accustomed lately to get nothing but hard words and sneers from the French press, is of course exceedingly thankful for the wholesale flattery which Montalembert has poured out over him, so thankful that he has quite neglected to look into those "antecedents" to which Montalembert says he has remained faithful. It is a fact that it was by M. de Montalembert's own free will that he associated with those antechamber chroniclers, with those fanatics and hypocrites whose buzz and clamor now din his ears; he has but himself to blame if he dived down, determinedly and knowingly, into that atmosphere loaded with servile and corrupt effluvia, whose weight now stifles him. If it be "the fashion of the day in France to express repugnance for anything having the semblance of a remembrance or a regret for a past political life," M. de Montalembert was one of the first to get up that fashion when he passed over, drums beating and banners flying, into the very camp which proclaimed a new era, based upon the total and final destruction of "past political life." As to the men who are satisfied to ruminate in peace among the fat pastures of their contented repose, Montalembert cannot blame them. The coup d'état was made under the very pretext of putting down political passions and initiating this very peace and contented repose; and if Montalembert did not adhere to the coup d'état on this very ground, on what ground did he adhere at all? Surely, whatever may be said against Louis Napoleon, he cannot be accused of having disguised his policy or his intentions after the coup d'état. There could be no mistake—nor was there any—that he intended to turn the French people into a flock of sheep, only fit for the shears, or to be led to nibble in silence under the shade of an enervating security. Montalembert knew this as well as the rest of the world. If he then raises himself up to his full fight, and calls upon us to admire him as a man who, not envying his late Bonapartist friends, remains faithful to his antecedents, we have to ask him: Which antecedents do you mean, M. de Montalembert? Your antecedents of the monarchial chamber, where you used to speak and vote in the interest of reaction, repression and priestly fanaticism? Or your antecedents of the Republican assembly, when you plotted, with a lot of your old Parliamentary friends, to restore the monarchy, when you voted away, piece by piece, the liberties of the people, the freedom of the press, the right of meeting and of association and when you yourselves forged the arms for that same adventurer who, with those very arms, turned you and your associates out of doors? Or lastly, your antecedents of the Bonapartist Legislative body, where you ate humble pie before this same successful adventurer, and made yourself, willfully and deliberately, over to him as one of the lackeys in his waiting-room? Which of these three antecedents, M. de Montalembert, contain your aspirations for liberty? We are inclined to think it would take most people a great many "anxieties of thought" to find it out., In the mean time the Government of Louis Napoleon have retaliated upon their unfaithful adherent by a prosecution, and the trial is to come off some time this month. We shall have an opportunity to compare the virtuous indignation of M. de Montalembert, with the virtuous indignation of a Bonapartist procureur; and we may say, even now, that as far as sincerity is concerned, they will be both about on a par. The trial itself will create a deal of sensation in France, and, whatever its result may be, it will constitute an important fact in the history of the Second Empire. The very fact of Montalembert having considered it necessary to break thus conspicuously with the existing Government, and to provoke a prosecution, is a significant proof that political life is awakening among the middle classes of France. It was the total apathy—the politically used-up, blasé state of mind—of these classes which allowed Louis Napoleon to establish his power. Having against himself the Parliament only, unsupported by either the middle classes or the working classes, he had the passive assistance of the middle classes and the active support of the army for himself. The Parliamentarians were defeated in an instant, but the working classes not until after a month's struggle, carried on all over France[81]. The middle classes for a long while have obeyed grumblingly, but they have obeyed and looked upon Louis Napoleon as the savior of society, and therefore as an indispensable man. Now, it appears they have gradually changed their opinion. They are longing for the return of the time when they, or at least a fraction of them, governed the country, and when the tribune and the press resounded with nothing but their own political and social concerns. They are evidently beginning again to feel confidence in themselves and their ability to govern the country, and if that be the case, they will find means to express it. Thus we may expect, in France, a middle-class movement corresponding to that which is now going on in Prussia, and which is as certain a forerunner of a new revolutionary movement as the Italian middle-class movement of 1846-47 was the herald of the revolutions of 1848. Louis Napoleon seems to be fully aware of this. He said at Cherbourg to a man whom he had not seen for many years:

"It is a pity that the educated classes of the country will not go with me; it is their own doing; but I have the army with me, and I do not care."

He will, however, very soon find out what becomes of the army, and an army officered and generaled like his, too—as soon as the mass of the middle classes are in open opposition. At all events, stirring times appear to be in store for the Continent of Europe.

Written about November 2, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5489, November 24, 1858


[a] Charles Montalembert's speeches in the French Legislative Assembly on June 22, 1852, Le Moniteur universel, No. 176, June 24, 1852, and on June 26, 1852, Le Moniteur universel, No. 180, June 28, 1852.—Ed.

[b] Due apology.—Ed.

[c] Ch. Montalembert, "Un débat sur l'Inde au parlement anglais", Le Correspondant, new series, Vol. IX, October 1858, pp. 205-06, 261.—Ed.

[80] The party referred to is the Party of Order which united the rival monarchist groups—the Legitimists, Orleanists and Bonapartists—and supported Louis Napoleon. The Legitimists and Orleanists, exponents of the interests of the elder and the younger branch of the Bourbons, hoped with Louis Napoleon's aid to pave the way for the restoration of the monarchy. Their hopes, however, proved fruitless: the Bonapartist coup d'état of December 2, 1851 put an end to the activities of the Party of Order.

For details on this see Marx's work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (present edition, Vol. 11, pp. 99-197).

[81] This refers to the republican uprisings which broke out at the end of 1851 in Southeast, Southwest and Central France in response to the Bonapartist coup d'état. Their main participants were artisans and workers of small towns, local peasants, traders and intelligentsia. The uprisings involved some twenty departments, but being local and isolated they were soon put down by the police and troops.

By a decree of January 9, 1852, sixty-six republican deputies of the Legislative Assembly, including Victor Hugo, were banished from France.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.91-95), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
MarxEngles.public-archive.net #ME1096en.html