Hugo and Economics

Part II:  The Worker


Geoffrey Barto


The below is from a dissertation in process.  It is copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2000-2002.


If Hugo's advocacy of patent laws showed an interest in workers as creators and innovators who added a value to work beyond the time spent, his reaction to the Ateliers Nationaux makes clearer his belief that the dignity of workers was earned, not inherent, and that a healthy society was not to help workers by passing out jobs - i.e. the state directing the means of production - but by fostering a climate in which industry could thrive and be rewarded at all levels:

Hugo's personal view of the Ateliers Nationaux is recorded in the Choses vues, but it is his public view that is most noteworthy.  This view was given in a speech to the Assemblé Nationale on June 20, 1848.  However the speech is less remembered for its content than its part in what we now call the June Days.  The Ateliers Nationaux were created under the direction of Louis Blanc, an ardent socialist whose consolation for not receiving a post in Lamartine's government was their creation and direction.  It was intended that the unemployed would go to the workshops to work on government projects.  However, while projects lay dormant in the countryside for want of workers, 100,000 workers in Paris were being paid to do nothing, even as the Republic collapsed under its own financial weight.  In debate about the workshops, Hugo found himself caught in the middle, even as he had been in February - he was sympathetic to the aims of the left, but felt they had pushed to far; he distrusted and disliked the right but saw the logic of their arguments.  Hugo would brag that he had no political party to answer to, only the people of France.  But the boast was problematic:  while it enabled him to hold the trust and admiration of the people of Paris, it hampered his ability to act on their behalf.  On 20 June, it left him unable to rally the Assembly to a reasonable position, but perfectly capable of giving those he opposed the ammunition to carry out their plans.  In Hugo's speech, he denounced the workshops as a waste of money and talent, but worst of all as a threat to the dignity of workers and the value of honest work:

Les ateliers nationaux sont un expédient fatal.  Vous avez abâtardi les vigoureux enfants du travail, vous avez ôté à une partie du peuple le goût du labeur, goût salutaire qui contient la dignité, la fierté, le respect de soi-même et la santé de la conscience.  A ceux qui n’avaient connu jusqu’alors que la force généreuse du bras qui travaille, vous avez appris la honteuse puissance de la main tendue ; vous avez déshabitué les épaules de porter le poids glorieux du travail honnête, et vous avez accoutumé les consciences à porter le fardeau humiliant de l’aumône.  Nous connaissions déjà le désœuvré de l’opulence, vous avez créé le désœuvré de la misère… (144).

Hugo wanted to encourage the workers to find work in the countryside while the disgrace of the workshops was ended.  So did the right, which he opposed.  Hugo’s position, however, was motivated by concern for, not hostility to, the workers; such was not the case with the right. 

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Hugo was at odds with his friends on the left especially in means, however:  Even as Hugo called himself "socialist," he stood opposed to the idea of the class struggle, to the leveling of income and property, to the aims with which we today associate socialism.  Hugo did not believe in the inherent dignity of being a worker - or even a human being; this dignity was a thing to be earned through labor and accomplishment; it was not the government's job to provide a wage, but to foster an environment in which workers could thrive and prosper.  To that end, Hugo explicitly rejected the idea of revolution, and of seizing private property, warning that the poor would not become rich because the rich were made poor, and stability would not come to the marginalized because the well-placed were upset.  Describing the results of destabilizing revolts, Hugo says:

En un mot, faire descendre la richesse.  On a fait le contraire ; on a fait monter la misère (147).

His proposed solution ?

Le calme dans la rue, l’union dans la cité, la force dans le gouvernement, la bonne volonté dans le travail, la bonne foi dans tout.

…Depuis quand la misère du riche ?  Dans un tel résultat je pourrais bien voir la vengeance des classes longtemps souffrantes, je n’y verrais pas leur bonheur (147).

On every count in his speech, Hugo was betrayed:  The right took his critique of the Ateliers as justification for closing them down, making use of his opposition for political cover.  At the same time, the left took the closing of the workshops as an excuse for a new revolution, not an indication that they needed a new approach to achieving the aims the 1848 Revolution had already failed to satisfy.  As with February (when the left would not join Hugo in moving for change within the July Monarchy), the left may have even been initially glad for the excuse to revolt.    However, in short order their hopes for a new order would be shattered.  Indeed, Cavaignac restored order brutally but quickly and found himself almost as quickly in power; by the end of the year, he would be replaced by Louis-Napoléon.  Hugo, always seeking stability, was incensed by the actions of the left and did his duty as an Assemblyman in helping suppress the revolts, even as he had earlier defended the monarchy and regency.


* * *

We have hear already considered Hugo’s very public pronouncement on the workshops and questioned its socialist character.  We should however further consider his private comments:

Hier, rue de Bellechasse, à ung affiche des Ateliers nationaux, un passant avait ajouté, au crayon, un R.  Cela faisait : RATELIERS NATIONAUX. 

Il est impossible que les braves et généreux ouvriers qu'on égare avec des mots ne finissent pas par réfléchir, et le jour où ils réfléchiront, ils s'indigneront (1847-1848 : 333).

Hugo, mindful of the threats to the worker, was here also fearful that though the workers had been had for the moment, would soon figure out that the joke was on them.  This, to Hugo, was as great a threat to order and stability as the closing of the workshops would have been.  Graham Robb’s description of Hugo’s speech as a “moderate success” that would become a “personal disaster” is accurate (His family’s safety was threatened, his apartment damaged, even as he was left to help suppress revolts in another quarter; after, Mme. Hugo would insist on moving and Hugo would find himself living with his wife, of course, but only a few blocks from two mistresses).  But in Hugo’s mind, the damage might have been less since disaster was inevitable regardless.

* * *

The two sides of Hugo’s approaches to work from 1847-1848 do not show a socialist, but neither do they show a simple capitalist leaving all to the market.  Instead, they reveal a complex perception of the way the world ought to work.  Inherent in them is the belief that all can be lifted up – or ought to be lifted up – by the fruits of their labors.  It is a complex story – it took Hugo more than a thousand pages to tell it in Les Misérables – but is an important one, showing again the thought of an author constructing an ideal world, not that of a politician constructing a program.  Hugo was perhaps aware of this; in his June 20, 1848 speech, he noted:

Représentants, la question est dans le peuple…la question est dans ceux qui souffrent, dans ceux qui ont froid et qui ont faim.  La question est là (147).

He then noted that, “socialiste, moi-même, c’est aux socialistes impatients que je m’adresse,” in calling on them to not further upset things.  On December 8, 1848, Hugo would again situate the problem in the people, and note that government action would have to be directed toward uplifting the people indirectly, not directly:

Il importe, messieurs, de remédier au mal ; il faut redresser, pour ainsi dire, l’esprit de l’homme ; il faut, et c’est là la grande mission, la mission spéciale du ministère de l’Instruction publique, il faut relever l’esprit de l’homme, le tourner vers Dieu, vers la conscience, vers le beau, le juste et le vrai, vers le désintéressé et le grand.  C’est là, et seulement là, que vous trouverez la paix de l’homme avec lui-même, et par conséquent la paix de l’homme avec la société (179).

It is this program of action that Hugo described in Les Misérables, but with its invocation of God, its call for the renewal of man, it is a not a socialist program, making some homo novo or Soviet man, it is a call for redemption and for creating the educated citizens of Jeffersonian democracy; in short, it is socialism because it ameliorates the condition of man in the social sphere.

What Hugo foretold in Les Misérables, has come to pass in its own way.  The sort of patent and copyright law he favored are the basis today for Bill Gates’ Microsoft, Ross Perot’s EDS and countless other innovations by entrepreneurs allowed to use their vision to transform the world in the same way that Jean Valjean/M. Madeleine transformed Montreuil sur Mer.  His call for the dignity of workers and improvement of the lot of man have in many ways come to pass.  And yet the statements he made about paying workers to drink coffee could appear in a modern welfare debate in any of the nations leading democracies.  Yet what Hugo sought was a means of bettering society by allowing people to better themselves; the government program to make them better was only to be effected indirectly.  And so, as in so many cases, Hugo stands as either a visionary or a failed politician.  His speech of June 20, 1848, especially, called less for a new political program than for a new narrative for France; the speech stands as ineffective, helping to set in motion a disaster for France instead of the legislative moderation and pragmatism it called for.  And yet, it stands along side Les Misérables as well as numerous other speeches as a call to a new social order which has gradually come to pass in ways great and small.  And it appears that in resolving the question of whether Hugo was a visionary or a failed politician, the answer is surely:  both.