1989: VOLTAIRE AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Written at the time of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, but as far as I recall never published.
Every great revolution is prepared, not only by profound social and economic processes, but by intense ideological struggle. There would have been no October 1917 without the patient and systematic battle of ideas waged by the Bolshevik Party. The French bourgeoisie before 1789 had no revolutionary party, but the Revolution was nonetheless preceded by a hundred years of bitter struggle against the world-view that propped up the old order.
In the movement of ideas that prepared the Revolution Voltaire played a key role. Not because he was the most radical figure – many went further than he did in challenging existing assumptions – but because his prolific production and his gifts of expression made him one of the most widely read and influential figures of the age. To this day Voltaire is still read and quoted – and significantly misquoted – as a representative figure of his age.
Voltaire was not a conscious revolutionary; he never envisaged a revolutionary solution to the problems of society, and had he seen the events of the 1790s he would undoubtedly have deplored them. But as the literary and philosophical representative of a revolutionary class, Voltaire developed a view of the world that was authentically revolutionary, although at the same time marked by the limits and contradictions imposed by his historical situation.
Francois-Marie Arouet, subsequently to be known as Voltaire, was born in 1694. His father was a notary and later a government official, coming from a family of cloth merchants and tanners; his mother’s family belonged to the lower nobility. So, in the last years of Louis XIV, when the bourgeoisie and nobility were jostling rather than contending for power, Voltaire grew up on the margins of the two classes – close enough to commerce and administration to sympathise with progressive ideas, but sufficiently well-placed to have no desire for social disorder. Voltaire’s father owned eight hundred ounces of silver; at school he rubbed shoulders with the d’Argenson brothers, subsequently to become ministers of Louis XV.
From his youth Voltaire had two potential careers before him – on the one hand he could remain within his own social milieu and become a literary figure proficient at the conventional literary forms of the age; on the other he could become a relentless critic of the established order, continually on the very edges of legality. Ultimately Voltaire chose the latter option, but for many years he tried to defer the choice, keeping one foot in either camp. It ws only when he was well over the age of fifty that he finally abandoned the attempt to make a career within the system.
The society that Voltaire lived in was brutal and corrupt. The ostensible ruling class of the ancien régime, the nobility, was a bankrupt class in a historical dead-end, which had no solutions to the problems of society. In 1725 the authorities’ only answer to famine in Paris was to parade the casket of St. Genevieve through the streets. A combination of the evasion of taxes by the wealthiest, and the misappropriation of those taxes that were collected led to growing state debts and budgetary deficits.
The Marquis d’Argenson, Voltaire’s old school-friend, tells a story that illustrates both the misery of the ancien régime and the pig-ignorance of the ruling class:
Last Sunday (September 1739) the King, going to Choisy through Issy, to visit the Cardinal there, passed through the Saint-Victor suburb. The fact became known: the people assembled and cried, not Long Live the King, but poverty, famine, bread! The King was mortified by this, and when he got to Choisy he sacked the workmen working in his gardens; which he did out of the kindness of his heart, horrified at making any extraordinary expenditure while such poverty prevailed.
Fortunately Cardinal Fleury persuaded him to reinstate the gardeners, pointing out that otherwise they would have no means of subsistence. The fact that two hundred years later public spending cuts are still offered as a solution for economic crisis takes away none of the force of the anecdote.
Such a regime was necessarily brutal in the way it dealt with its political opponents. Book-burning is not an invention of the twentieth century; it was commonplace in the France of the ancien régime. Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters (in which he praised England, a post-revolutionary society that had dared to chop off its king’s head) was sentenced to public burning in 1734. (199 years later, in May 1933, when the Nazis organised their first book-burning, Voltaire’s works went into the flames along with those of Marx and others.)
But the very incompetence of the regime meant that censorship could not be effective. Ignorant spies and corrupt officials could hardly hold philosophy in check. Book-running was a well-established international practice. Books were smuggled by land and sea, pamphlets were packed inside ecclesiastical histories and smuggled in cardinals’ carriages. When Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters was burnt, a public official burnt a copy of another work, and placed Voltaire’s text in his own library.
And if philosophical literature was a legal hazard, it was also a profitable commercial proposition. A Paris book-seller was recorded as saying:
I’d like to have Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Diderot all in my attic, all three without breeches. I’d feed them, but I’d make them work.
Voltaire realised that literary activity could be, not only financially rewarding, but an excellent way of spreading revolutionary ideas. He noted sardonically that for every person who read the philosophy of Locke, there were a hundred who read The Arabian Nights. So he drew the logical conclusion and began to write philosophical tales (of which Candide is the finest example), recognising that if political propaganda is to be effective, it has to adopt popular and attractive forms. (The communard Jules Vallès recalls that he made himself unpopular among Paris Republicans in the 1850s by preferring Voltaire to the more politically ‘correct’ Rousseau; Valles retorted : ‘If I have to be bored to death to be a revolutionary, then I’ll hand in my resignation.’)
Voltaire did not see himself as a class-fighter for the bourgeoisie (indeed on occasion he used the term bourgeois as an insult). Rather he saw himself as committed to Reason and human Progress. But the values for which he fought could be achieved only by the success of a bourgeois revolution. Whatever his subjective intentions, Voltaire was a revolutionary thinker – so revolutionary that in the post-revolutionary era his message has often been misquoted or misinterpreted to make it less radical.
Voltaire’s best-known work, still widely read and quoted today, is his short novel Candide. The hero Candide is trained by a philosopher, Pangloss, who insists that they live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’. In a series of rather implausible travels around the world Candide encounters such evidence of human suffering and human folly that he abandons this belief and settles down in a small community with the motto ‘We must cultivate our garden’.
Voltaire had good reason to attack the kind of optimism embodied by Pangloss. Ideas of divinely-created harmony were still widely current in eighteenth-century France. The German theologian Lesser, whose Theology of Insects was published in France in 1742, attributed the creation of vermin to divine goodwill, because it encouraged bodily cleanliness. And the abbé Pluche, author of a nine-volume theological best-seller, claimed that God had not merely created the tides to make it easier for ships to get into port, but had even coloured leaves in various shades of green to make them more restful to the eye.
The pernicious nature of such arguments is obvious; if Nature is inherently good, then it is neither necessary nor possible to change the world. So Voltaire introduced into his story a real historical event, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which some thirty thousand people died. The point is a neat one; only Pangloss is fool enough to carry on debating philosophical causes and effects while his companion lies covered in rubble.
But it would be quite wrong to interpret Candide as a statement of pessimism. For pessimism is as consoling to the conservative mind as optimism; if things are always prone to go disastrously wrong, then it is futile to try and change the world. But Voltaire was not obsessed with natural disasters; on the contrary, he saw the main source of human suffering as lying in human society: as he wrote ‘You must admit…that opinions have caused more ills on this little globe than plague or earthquakes.’ Despite the striking earthquake scene, Candide devotes far more space and attention to war, slavery, oppression, intolerance and ignorance than it does to natural disasters.
For Voltaire Nature is neither good nor bad; nothing can be expected of it except what human beings can get from it by their own efforts. If human beings and human society are the main source of evil, then a transformation of society is both necessary and desirable.
Hence it is very important not to misunderstand the conclusion of Candide. The famous phrase ‘We must cultivate our garden’ can all too easily be used to conjure up the image of a complacent bourgeois putting slugdeath under the rose-bushes and not worrying about anything on the far side of the garden hedge.
In the context of the story such a view becomes impossible. The garden is not a flower-garden but a vegetable-garden, and the gardeners are engaged in agricultural production. In 1759, when Voltaire published Candide, he had himself begun to farm on his estate at Ferney on the Swiss border, and his correspondence was full of praise for agriculture and contempt for abstract speculation.
Yet the notion of production is double-edged. Nothing is more in keeping with bourgeois values that the notion of production for production’s sake; yet if production is the supreme value, those who produce become the most important in society. ‘Wealth’, wrote Voltaire in a letter of 1759,’consists in the soil and in labour.’ Not yet the labour theory of value, but an insistence on the role of labour that could not be wholly comfortable for the post-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
But perhaps the most famous of all quotations from Voltaire is something that he almost certainly never said. No campaign against racists or fascists is complete without some semi-literate Member of Parliament intervening to ‘quote’ Voltaire to the effect that : ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ There is no evidence that Voltaire said any such thing; certainly it would contradict his views as expressed on many other occasions.
In a pamphlet of 1768 on the banishing of the Jesuits from China, Voltaire presents a Chinese Emperor explaining why he will not allow Jesuit missionaries in China. After a long attack on the absurdities of Christianity, the Emperor concludes: ‘I am tolerant, and I am driving you all out, because you are intolerant.’ It is this view, that intolerance cannot be tolerated, and if necessary must be physically opposed, that recurs time and again in Voltaire’s writings. He rejoiced at the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759; and he himself played a part in getting a Jesuit driven off some land near his estate at Ferney.
No serious revolutionary can advocate freedom of speech in the abstract; that is a luxury reserved for those who live in situations where what people say is quite disconnected from what they do. For Voltaire the defence of tolerance is always related to the concrete necessities of the struggle.
For Voltaire the idea of religious toleration is a necessary corollary of the idea that all men were equal in the eyes of the market. In the sixth of his Philosophical Letters Voltaire describes the London Stock Exchange, where men of many faiths come together to trade. In their spare time they commit absurdities – adult baptism, circumcision, wearing hats in church – but as traders it is only the bankrupts who are known as ‘infidels’. For Voltaire tolerance was always linked to economics; ‘freedom of conscience and freedom of trade…are the two axes of a state’s wealth.’ he wrote.
Voltaire is justly celebrated for his intervention in 1762 in the case of Jean Calas, a Toulouse Protestant who had been executed on a false charge of murdering his son because the latter had wished to become a Catholic. After three years campaigning by Voltaire the innocence of Calas was officially recognised.
But while Voltaire’s sincerity and courage are not in doubt, he was swimming with the economic stream. In 1762 the Seven Years’ War was drawing to its close; France had suffered economically and militarily at the hands of the Protestant powers; money was being borrowed from the Genevan Protestants, and in January 1762 a Protestant, Tronchin, was a appointed a fermier-general (one to whom the right to collect taxes was sub-contracted). The pragmatic case for tolerance was converging with the moral case, and Voltaire’s struggle against localised bigotry was able to bear fruit.
But if Voltaire was an authentic revolutionary, he was not a consistent one. The contradiction lay not inside his skull, but in the objective situation of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie. Even before it had taken power, it was waging a war on two fronts – not only against the old nobility of the ancien régime but also against the emergent working class.
The working class still formed only a part of broader mass of the ‘people’ which also included the peasantry and the urban poor. But the working class already presented the most intractable problem. The reforming bourgeois could look forward to a future in which agriculture would be modernised and thus more productive, in which the state would take effective measures for distributing grain to provinces afflicted with famine, in which the unemployed mobs of the towns would be found useful work. But no future for capitalist development could be foreseen which did not include the growing concentration of industrial workers. The Lyons silk industry had triumphed over foreign competition because of the concentration of workers in the city; but the city was also notorious for repeated strikes which on occasion reached insurrectionary proportions.
Radical thinkers thus often felt anxious that ideas intended for a minority might take on new implications if they were allowed to circulate beyond the charmed circle of the bourgeoisie. As the novelist Restif de la Bretonne lamented:
In recent times the working people of the capital have become impossible to deal with, because they have read in our books truths too potent for them.
Voltaire was only too well aware of this contradiction; hence his savage attacks on the ‘rabble’, whom, on occasion, he saw as the main obstacle to the progress of enlightenment:
If you seek the source of so many humiliations and misfortunes on the one hand, and of so much audacity on the other, of so many horrible things held to be sacred, and so many princes sacrificed to religion: you will see that the sole origin lies in the rabble; it is the rabble which gives the impetus to superstition.
Voltaire’s desire to spread reason comes into head-on collision with his recognition that the bourgeois order must always be based on exploitation. Thus he wrote to Damilaville:
I think we are in disagreement on the question of the people, whom you consider worthy of instruction. I mean by people the rabble which lives by its hands alone. I doubt whether this kind of citizen will ever have the time or the capacity for education, they would die of hunger before becoming philosophers. It seems to me essential that there should be ignorant beggars…it isn’t the labourer who should be educated, it’s the good bourgeois, the townsman, this is quite a big enough task.
And in another letter he argued that unskilled manual workers could not aspire to more than High Mass and the public-house, two places where they could sing.
Voltaire was quite unambiguous about the need to preserve private property and the whole pattern of exploitation:
Liberty and property is the English cry…it is the cry of nature…We need men who have only their hands and their good will. But these very men, who seem to have been rejected by fortune, will participate in the happiness of others. They will be free to sell their labour to whoever will pay the most for it. This freedom will take the place of property for them.
Thus wage-slavery becomes a form of property in the eyes of nature. Voltaire’s awareness of the threat from below also accounts for his acceptance of monarchy. He saw no need for the bourgeoisie to rule directly in its own name; far better that an ‘enlightened’ monarch should be persuaded to pursue the policies dictated by Reason.
But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Voltaire was forced by awareness of the threat from below into being soft on religion. While he had spent a good part of his life attacking the absurdities and barbarities of organised religion, he became in his last years very anxious that the spread of atheism might lead to the lower classes getting out of hand. In his story L’Histoire de Jenni (1775) Voltaire presents a diatribe against the dangers of atheism. While conceding that rich and educated atheists might live harmoniously, he insists that
…the atheist who is poor and violent, and sure of impunity, will be a fool if he doesn’t murder you to steal your money. Thereupon all the bonds of society are broken, and the earth is flooded with every sort of secret crime…the lower classes will be no more than a band of brigands…they spend their wretched lives in inns with abandoned women, they beat then and fight among themselves; they fall down drunk amid their leaden pint mugs with which they have broken each others’ heads; they awake again to steal and murder; each day they start afresh on this abominable round of brutalities.
The fear and horror of an unleashed people found in this passage equals almost anything to be found in the conservative and counter-revolutionary literature of the century after 1789. Voltaire’s argument with the atheists is not an intellectual wrangle; it is based on a lucid grasp of the explosive potential of atheism.
Voltaire was therefore less than wholly enthusiastic about those who could be described as the ideological representatives of the propertyless masses. While there was nothing that could be described as consistently socialist thought in eighteenth century France, there were many thinkers who were groping towards socialist ideas. Babeuf did not spring from nowhere, but drew on a whole tradition of radical social thought, for example Morelly’s Code of Nature (1755), which argues that nature points inexorably towards sociability. Voltaire’s attitude is often very much that of a right-wing reformist bureaucrat concerned that his left-wing want to go too far too quickly.
Perhaps the most striking example is Voltaire’s ambiguous attitude to the atheist priest Jean Meslier (l664-1729). Meslier lived his life as an obscure country priest, in intimate contact with the sufferings of the peasantry in the last years of Louis XIV. Only after his death was his Testament discovered, containing an explosive mixture of atheism and socialism. Meslier does not flinch from a final revolutionary vision; he hopes for the day when ‘all the great on earth and all the nobles may be hung and strangled with the guts of priests.’ He advises the common people who perform all the labour on which the rich and powerful depend to withdraw their services utterly; perhaps the first floating of the idea of a revolutionary general strike.
Voltaire’s response to the discovery of such a strange and revolutionary figure was ambiguous. To one correspondent he said he had ‘shivered with horror’ at reading it; to another he said that it should be ‘in the hands of everyone’. Voltaire was largely instrumental in establishing Meslier’s reputation by publishing, in 1761, extracts from his Testament; yet when the full version of the Testament was finally published in 1864, it was possible to see just how far Voltaire had gone in distorting Meslier’s ideas; not only was the socialist aspect of his thought largely suppressed, but his intransigent atheism was diluted into a deism more acceptable to Voltaire. For Voltaire, politics came a long way ahead of intellectual honesty.
But despite his contradictions – perhaps even because of them – Voltaire was able at times to pursue ideas beyond the limits of his own century. Because he was not directly involved in political activity, he was able to follow through the logic of a position unemcumbered by tactical considerations.
One example is his attitude to internationalism. The rising bourgeoisie was internationalist; it wanted to spread the market beyond national boundaries, selling to the highest bidder regardless of race or creed. Yet in practice the triumph of the bourgeoisie was to mean imperialism, racism and war. Because Voltaire lived in the age of the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, he was able to develop an internationalism that would be inconceivable from a bourgeois thinker in a later age.
Thus Voltaire produced some of the most savage denunciations of war ever written; few passages in literature compare with chapter three of Candide as an indictment of the brutality and sheer absurdity of war. Yet the contradictions always remain; in 1757 – just two years before Candide – Voltaire was touting round a rather gruesome invention – a chariot with scythes fixed to the wheels intended to mow down enemy infantry in battle. (Fortunately he found no buyer.)
Racism, likewise, Voltaire saw as quite simply absurd and irrelevant. In his story The Journeys of Scarmentado the hero is captured by black pirates, the leader of whom tells him:
You have long noses and we have flat ones; your hair is straight and ours is curly; your skin is the colour of ashes and ours the colour of ebony; as a result we must, by the eternal laws of nature, always be enemies.
The simple but powerful way that Voltaire stands the traditional racist cliches on their head has lost none of its force today.
Slavery likewise could find no justification in Voltaire’s eyes:
We tell them that they are men like us, that they have been redeemed by the blood of a God who died for them, and then we make them work like beasts of burden: they are fed worse; if they try to run away, they have a leg cut off, and when they have been given a wooden leg, they are made to turn the shaft of a sugar mill by hand. After that we dare to speak of human rights.
Among those who followed up Voltaire’s critique of slavery was the abbé Raynal, in his Histoire des Deux Indes (1770), a work which was to inspire the young Toussaint L’Ouverture.
But perhaps the most striking expression of Voltaire’s internationalism came in the article ‘Native land’ in the Philosophical Dictionary:
A young pastrycook’s boy, who had been at college, and who still knew a few phrases of Cicero, one day affected to love his native land. ‘What do you mean by your native land?’ a neighbour asked him. ‘Is it your oven? Is it the village where you were born, and which you have never seen again? Is it the road where your mother and father lived, who are ruined, so that you’ve been reduced to putting little pies in the oven to earn a living? Is it the Town Hall, where you’ll never be a district magistrate’s clerk? Is it the church of Notre-Dame, where you didn’t manage to become a choir-boy, while a ridiculous man is archbishop and duke with an income of twenty thousand gold louis?’
The pastrycook’s boy didn’t know what to say. A thinker, who was listening to this conversation, concluded that in a country of any size there were often several million men who had no native land.
Irresistibly these lines recall the Communist Manifesto: ‘The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.’
But if Voltaire had a vision that extended beyond the limits of his own epoch, he was no Utopian. He was interested, not in abstract principle, but in the material means of transforming the world. And he recognised quite clearly that only collective action could in fact change the world. Thus, on reading one of Condorcet’s books, he noted regretfully: ‘You need a hundred thousand men at your command to write things like that.’ And to d’Alembert he wrote: ‘The philosophers should form a brotherhood, like the free-masons, they should assemble together, support each other and be faithful to the brotherhood.’
What is clearly emerging here is the idea that the philosophers should form a vanguard party, an active minority to collectively organise their work of propaganda and agitation. Of course the philosophers did not form a party in the modern sense, but they were groping towards the idea of some sort of party organisation. It was in the writings of Voltaire and the other philosophers of the French Enlightenment that the word ‘party’ came to be used in something like its modern meaning.
Voltaire invested great hopes in the Encyclopaedia being edited by Diderot and d’Alembert. In 1758 he learnt that, following official attacks on the Encyclopaedia, d’Alembert had withdrawn from the enterprise. Voltaire promptly wrote to d’Alembert in the following terms:
I should like you and M Diderot, and all your associates, to protest that they will indeed abandon the work if they are not free, if they are not preserved from calumny…But for you alone to renounce this great work, while others are carrying on; for you to offer your unworthy enemies this unfortunate triumph and let them think that you have been forced to give up: that I will never accept, and I earnestly beseech you to persevere.
D’Alembert did not take Voltaire’s advice; he and Diderot continued to disagree, and history has undoubtedly justified Diderot’s dogged heroism in continuing alone and completing the Encyclopaedia. But what is noteworthy in this first letter is the quality of Voltaire’s advice: firstly, the claim that a collective withdrawal, a form of strike action, might achieve something; secondly, his firm rejection of individual gestures and insistence on the need to act as a disciplined collective. It may sound bizarre to attribute ‘trade union consciousness’ to a man of Voltaire’s epoch. But effective practice is always collective, and one as committed as Voltaire to changing the world could not fail to grasp this truth, at least in a half-knowing way.
Voltaire, then, was an ideological representative of his class, and as such he displayed both its revolutionary potential and its historic limits. His honesty, his clarity, his intellectual audacity were worthy of a revolutionary class, and in reading him we can get some sense of the process of ideological transformation that precedes any great historical revolution.
Today’s bourgeoisie has no Voltaires. To set Voltaire alongside the twentieth-century defenders of the bourgeois order is to get some measure of the difference between a class preparing to transform the world and a class obstructing its necessary transformation. To depict Voltaire as a lover of rose-bushes or a defender of Nazis is to travesty the past. The bourgeoisie dares not live with its own revolutionary traditions; only the revolutionary proletariat can make those traditions a part of its own.
 Mémoires du Marquis d’Argenson, Paris, 1825, p 326
 S Mercier, Tableau de Paris, Paris, 1947, p 68
 letter to Elie Bertrand, 5 January 1759
 No edition of Voltaire’s complete works has been published this century; they would amount to some hundred volumes, plus another hundred volumes of letters. So I must admit to not having made a thorough check for the famous sentence. But I have never seen a reference given for it.
 I use the word advisedly; there is no evidence that Voltaire would ever have approved admitting women to the Stock Exchange.
 letter to Dupont de Nemours, 16 July 1770
 N Hampson, The Enlightenment, London, 1968, p 138
 Essai sur les Moeurs, chapter 46
 letter to Damilaville, l April 1766; letter to Linguet, 15 March 1767
 Philosophical Dictionary, article ‘Property’
 See M Dommanget, Le Curé Meslier, Paris, 1965
 letter to d’Alembert, February 1762; letter to Damilaville, 8 October 1764
 Essai sur les Moeurs, chapter 142
 letters of 17 August 1774 and 20 April 1761