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Works of Karl Marx 1851

The Constitution of the French Republic Adopted November 4, 1848

Source: MECW Volume 10, p. 567;
Written: between May 24 and June 8, 1851;
First published: in Notes to the People No. 7, June 14, 1851.

1848 Revolution

The article “The Constitution of the French Republic”, printed in the organ of the revolutionary wing of the Chartist party, Notes to the People No. 7 for June 14, 1851, was to be the first of a series of articles dealing with the constitutions of European states, as shown by the general heading-"The Constitutions of Europe, Compiled from Original Sources; with the Assistance of Leading Continental Democrats”, written above the title of the article. That it was Marx who wrote this article is proved by letters written to Marx by Ernest Jones, the editor of the journal, on May 23, 25 and 30, 1851, as well as by its ideological kinship with Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The article may have been translated into English by Engels, since Marx did not know English well enough at the time. One more article from this series appeared in the Notes to the People under the title “The Prussian Constitution”, but it was not written by Marx.

A rhetorical preamble introduces the Constitution, in which the following passages deserve notice:

1. France declares itself a republic. 2. The French republic is democratic, one and indivisible. 3. Its principles are Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and its foundations are Family, Labour, Property, and Public Order. 5. It respects the independence of other nations, and will make its own respected also. It will undertake no aggressive war, and will never employ its force against the liberty of any people. [Rome![409]]

Before the Insurrection of June, the National Assembly had drawn up a constitution, which contained among many other recognitions of the rights and duties of man, the following articles.

Art. 6. The right to education is the right possessed by all citizens to the means for the full development of their physical, moral, and intellectual faculties, by a gratuitous education at the hands of the state.

Art. 7. The right of labour is the right of every member of society to live by labour. Therefore it is the duty of society to supply with work all able-bodied persons who cannot otherwise obtain it.

Art. 9. The Right to support is the right of the orphan, the infirm and the aged to be maintained by the state.

After the victories of June 1848 had given courage to the middle-class, they erased these three articles from the Constitution, which now stands as follows:—

Cap. I. [§ 1.] Sovereign power rests in the entirety of French citizens. It is inalienable and eternal. No individual, no fraction of the people has the right to its exercise.”

Cap. II. [§2. ] Rights guaranteed by the constitution: — No one can be arrested or imprisoned, except as prescribed by the laws.”

“§ 3. The residence of every one on French territory is inviolable — and it is not allowed to enter it otherwise than in the forms prescribed by law.”

Observe here and throughout that the French constitution guarantees liberty, but always with the proviso of exceptions made by law, or which may still be made! and all the exceptions made by the Emperor Napoleon, by the restoration, and by Louis Philippe, have not only been retained, but, after the June Revolution, immeasurably multiplied. Thus, for instance, the law of the 9th August 1849, relative to the State of Siege, which the Assembly, and during its prorogation, the President can enact, and which gives to the military authorities the right of bringing all political offenders before a court-martial. It further grants them the power to enter and search any house by day or night, to seize all arms, and to remove all persons not having a domicile in the place declared under a state of siege.

As to strangers, the only “right” they enjoy on French soil, is to be arrested and driven out of it, as often as the police authorities think proper.

As to Frenchmen, any French citizen can be arrested, if a single functionary issues his mandate to that effect!

“§ 4. No one can be judged by others than his natural judges. Exceptional tribunals can be formed under no denomination or pretext.”

We have already seen that, under “the state of siege”, a military tribunal supersedes all others. Besides this, the Assembly established an “exceptional tribunal”, called the “High Court”, in 1848 for a portion of the political offenders; and, after the insurrection in June, transported 15,000 insurgents without any trial at all!

“§ 5. Capital punishment for political offences is annulled.”

But they transport to fever-stricken settlements, where they are executed, only a little more slowly, and far more painfully.

“§ 8. Citizens have a right to associate, to meet peacefully and unarmed, to petition, and express their opinions through the press and elsewhere. The enjoyment of these rights has no other limit, than the equal rights of others, and the public safety.”

That the limitation made by the “public safety”, takes away the enjoyment of the right altogether, is clearly shewn by the following facts: —

1. The liberty of the Press. — By the laws of August 11, 1848, and of July 27, 1849, not only securities for newspapers were redemanded, but all the restrictions made by the Emperor Napoleon, and since, were renewed and made more stringent.

The law of July 23, 1850, raises the security-money! and extends the enactment of all weekly journals, magazines, periodicals, etc.[410] Besides which it demands that every article be signed by the name of the writer, and reintroduces the stamp for newspapers. Not contented with this, it imposes a stamp on the feuilleton roman, the mere literary pamphlet, as well; and enforces all this under the penalty of enormous fines! After the enactment of the last-named law, the revolutionary press disappeared altogether. It had long fought up against persecution: week by week, paper after paper and pamphlet after pamphlet, were accused, fined, suppressed. The middle-class sat in the jury-box, and they crushed the working-man’s press.

The climax was put on the system by the law of July 30, 1850, which restored the censorship of the drama. Thus freedom of opinion was banished from its last literary refuge.

2. The right of association and public meeting. — By the decrees of July 28, to August 2, 1848, the clubs are subjected to a mass of police regulations, denying them almost every liberty. For instance, they are not allowed to pass resolutions in a legislative form, etc. By the same law, all non-political circles and private reunions are thrown entirely under the supervision and caprice of the police.

By the law of June 19-22, 1849, government is authorised, for the period of one year, to suppress all clubs and meetings of which it may not approve. By the law of June 6-12, 1850, this power is granted to government for another year, and actually extended to those reunions and meetings relative to the election of Deputies, that may displease the government! The result is that, virtually, since July, 1848, all clubs and public meetings have ceased, with the exception of the Royalist and Bonapartist cercles.

By the law of November 29, 1849, imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months, and a fine to an amount not exceeding 3,000 francs, is decreed against all working-men who may unite for a rise in wages. And, by the same law, these working-men are subjected to five years’ surveillance of the police (which means beggary, ruin, and persecution) after the completion of their sentence.

So much for the right of association and of public meeting.

“§ 9. The right of tuition is free. The freedom of tuition shall be enjoyed on the conditions fixed by law, and under the supervision of the state.”

Here the old joke is repeated. “Tuition is free”, but “under the conditions fixed by law”; and these are precisely the conditions that take away the freedom altogether.

By the law of March 15, 1850, the whole system of tuition is placed under the supervision of the clergy.

At the head of this branch of government stands a conseil superieur de l'instruction publique, presided over by four French archbishops. It subjects all the provincial schoolmasters, although elected by the common councils or parochial councils, to the will of the recteurs, or rectors. The teachers are placed in a state similar to military subordination and discipline, under the rectors, mayors, and parsons, and the freedom of education consists according to the law already quoted, in this: that no one has the right to teach without the permission of the civil and clerical authorities.

“ § 11. The rights of property are inviolable.”
“ § 14. The national debt is guaranteed.”
“ § 15. Taxes are levied only for the public service. Every citizen contributes according to his property and ability.”

Cap. III. — On the Authorisation of Office

This Chapter affirms —

“ 1. That all public authority is derived from the people, and cannot be made hereditary.”
“ 2. That the division of powers is the primary condition of a free government.”

Here we have the old constitutional folly. The condition of a “free government” is not the division, but the unity of power. The machinery of government cannot be too simple. It is always the craft of knaves to make it complicated and mysterious.

Cap. IV. — On the Legislative Power

The legislative power is vested in a single assembly of 750 representatives, including those of Algeria and the colonies. Any assemblies that may be called to revise the constitution must consist of 900 persons. The electoral system is based on the population. Four paragraphs now follow, which it will be requisite to give in full:

“§ 24. The electoral franchise is direct and universal, the form of voting, secret.”
“§ 25. All Frenchmen, 21 years of age, in possession of their political and civil rights, are electors without reference to any electoral census.”
“§ 26. All electors, 25 years of age, are eligible to be elected as representatives, without domiciliary limitation.”
“§ 27. The Electoral Law will ascertain the causes which can deprive a French citizen of the right to elect and to he elected.”

The above articles are conceived in exactly the same spirit, as all the rest of the constitution. “All Frenchmen are electors, who enjoy their political rights” — but “the electoral law” is to decide what Frenchmen shall not enjoy their political rights!

The electoral law of March 15, 1849, reckoned under this category all criminals, but not political offenders. The electoral law of May 31, 1850, added not only the political offenders, all those who had been convicted of “offending against old-established opinions”, and against the laws regulating the press, but it actually established domiciliary restrictions, by which two-thirds of the French people are incapable of voting!

That is what “the electoral franchise, direct and universal”, means in France.

“§ 28. No paid public functionary can at the same time be a representative of the people. No representative can become the holder of a paid function dependent on the constitution during the continuance of the legislative assembly.”

These two provisions have been limited by later decisions, and are, virtually, almost nullified.

“§ 30. The elections take place by departments, at the principal place of the district, and by means of voting tickets.”
“§ 31. The National Assembly is elected for three years, when a new election must take place.”
“§ 32. Its session is permanent, but it is empowered to adjourn, and must then name a commission as its representatives consisting of 25 Deputies, and the members of the bureau of the assembly. This commission is empowered to summon the assembly in cases of emergency.”

§§ 33-38. The representatives are re-eligible. They are not to be bound by any fixed instructions, they are inviolable, and cannot be prosecuted or convicted for the opinions they may express in the assembly, and they receive a salary which they are not permitted to refuse.

As to the “inviolability of the representative”, and his “freedom of expressing his opinions”, the majority passed a new règlement after the 13th of June, empowering the president of the National Assembly to decree the censure against a representative, to fine him, to deprive him of his salary, and temporarily to expel him — thus utterly annihilating the “freedom of opinion”. In 1850 the assembly passed a law by which representatives can be arrested for debt even during the session of the house, and if they do not pay within a given time, forfeit their functions as representatives.

Thus neither the freedom of debate nor the inviolability of the representative exists in France — but only the inviolability of the creditor.

§§ 39-42. The sittings of the assembly shall be public. Nevertheless, the assembly can resolve itself into a private committee, at the request of the requisite number of representatives. To make a law valid, it must be voted by one more than the half of the representatives. Except in pressing cases no bill can be passed that has not been read three times, with an interval of five days between each reading.

This form, borrowed from the English “constitution”, is not observed in France on any important occasions — indeed, on those on which it might be supposed most requisite. For instance, the electoral law of May 31 was passed after one reading.

Cap. V. — On the Executive Power

§§ 43-44. The executive power is entrusted to a president. The president must be a born Frenchman, at least 30 years of age, and must never have lost his qualification as a French citizen.

The first president of the French republic, L. N. Bonaparte, had not only lost his qualification as a French citizen, had not only been an English special constable[411], but was a naturalised Swiss.

§§ 45-70. The president of the republic is elected for four years, and not re-eligible till after four years from the expiration of his term of office. The same restriction applies to his relatives to the 6th degree inclusive. The election is to take place on the second Sunday in May. Should the president have been elected at any other time, his powers cease on the second Sunday in May, in the fourth year after his election. He is elected by secret vote, and by an absolute majority. If no candidate has more than half the number of recorded votes, but at least two million, the national assembly may elect the president out of those five candidates who have polled the largest number.

The president must swear fealty to the constitution, may submit propositions to the assembly, through his ministers, can dispose of the army, without commanding it in person, is not allowed to cede any portion of the French territory, nor to dissolve or prorogue the assembly, neither may he suspend the authority of the constitution. He negotiates and ratifies all treaties, which, however, do not become definitively binding till sanctioned by the assembly. He is not allowed to undertake any war without the consent of the assembly — may exercise the prerogative of pardoning, but is not allowed to grant an amnesty. Those condemned by the Haute Cour can be pardoned only by the national assembly. The president may postpone the promulgation of a law, and demand that the assembly deliberate thereon again. But such deliberation then becomes definitive. He appoints ambassadors and ministers, and may suspend, during three months, the mayors, departmental councils, national guards, etc., elected by the citizens. All his decrees must be countersigned by the ministers, with exception of the dismissal of the ministers themselves. The president, ministers, and public officers are severally answerable in their own departments for every act of the government. Every act whereby the president may influence, delay, or prevent the due exercise of the functions of the assembly, is an act of high treason. By such an act the president is at once deprived of his authority — it becomes the duty of every citizen to refuse obedience to his mandates, and the power of his office devolves forthwith on the assembly, the judges of the Haute Cour de Justice are to meet without loss of time, and to summon the juries to a given place, to judge the president and his accomplices.

The president has the use of an official residence, and an annual salary of 600,000 francs, or £24,000. [He now receives 2,160,000 francs, or £86,400] The ministers have a seat ex officio in the national assembly, and may speak as often as they choose. The national assembly elects a vice-president of the republic, out of three candidates which the president may name within one month after his own election. The vice-president takes the same oath as the president, must not be a relation of the president, takes the president’s place where the latter is prevented from acting, and officiates as president of the Council of State. If the presidential chair becomes vacated through death, or any other cause, a new election is to take place within one month.

Cap. VI. — The Council of State

§§ 71-75. The Council of State is merely a deliberative body, for considering the propositions to be submitted by the cabinet — and those that may be forwarded from the assembly.

Cap. VII. — The Internal Administration

This chapter deals with the clergy, the principal magistrates, the common and provincial councils. The only article of consequence, and one that is made use of to the fullest possible extent, is the following:

§ 80. The general councils, the cantonal councils, and the common councils, may be dissolved by the President with sanction of the Council of State.

Cap. VIII. — On the Judicial Power

Generally speaking, this chapter merely reproduces the enactments of the Emperor Napoleon. The following additions are, however, deserving notice:

“§ 81. Justice is exercised gratuitously, in the name of the French people.”

This is so little the case, that one is not even beheaded for nothing!

§§ 91-100, treat of the Haute Cour de Justice, which is alone empowered to judge the President, before which the ministers can be arraigned, and all political offenders the National Assembly may think proper to send before that tribunal.

This “High Court” consists of five judges that the court of Cassation (the highest tribunal of France) elects out of its own members, and of thirty-six jury-men taken from the general councils of the departments, by an entirely aristocratic body. The only individuals hitherto tried by this tribunal, are the accused of May 15, 1848 — (here the names of Barbès, Blanqui, and others rise up in judgment!) and the deputies compromised on June 13, 1849.

By the law of August 7, 1848, all those who cannot read and write are erased from the jury list, thus disqualifying two-thirds of the adult population!

Cap. IX. — Of the Armed Power

The entire of the old military law is left in existence. The crimes of the soldier are not cognisable before the civil tribunals. The following paragraph illustrates the spirit of this constitution.

“§ 102. Every Frenchman is liable to military service, and to serve in the national guard, with exception of those cases provided by the law.”

Every man having money, can absolve himself from the obligation of service.

The working classes are entirely excluded from the ranks of the national guard, by the law now under consideration, the second reading of which has been already carried! Moreover the President has the right to suspend for one year the national guards of every parish — and, actually, throughout half France, the national guard has been dissolved!

Cap. X. — Special Enactments

“§ 110. The National Assembly confides the Constitution to the vigilance and patriotism of the entire people”

— and confides the “vigilant” and “patriotic” to the tender mercies of the Haute Cour! — June 13!

Cap. XI. — On the Revision of the Constitution.

“§111. Should the Assembly, at the close of its session, express a desire for a total or partial change in the Constitution, the revision shall be proceeded with in the following manner: — The wish expressed by the Assembly cannot become law till after three successive debates, which must take place after the interval of one month between each, and can be carried only by three-fourths of the votes, those voting being not less than 500 in number. The assembly called for the purpose of the revision is elected for only three months, and must not, except in very pressing cases, entertain any other question.”

Such is the “Constitution of the French Republic”, and such is the manner in which it has been used. The reader will at once see that from beginning to end it is a mass of fine words, hiding a most treacherous design. From its very wording, it is rendered impossible to violate it, for every one of its provisions contains its own antithesis — utterly nullifies itself. For instance: — “the vote is direct and universal”, — “excepting those cases which the law shall determine”.

Therefore it cannot be said that the law of May 31, 1850 (disfranchising two-thirds of the people) at all violates the Constitution.

The Constitution constantly repeats the formula, that the regulation and limitation of the rights and liberties of the people (e. g., the right of association, of the Franchise, the Freedom of the Press, of Tuition, etc.) shall be determined by a subsequent organic law, — and these “organic laws” “determine” the promised freedom by destroying it. This trick of granting full liberty, of laying down the finest principles, and leaving their application, the details, to be decided by subsequent laws, the Austrian and Prussian middle-classes, have borrowed from their French prototypes, the same thing had been done in the French Constitution of 1830 — and in those previously enacted.

People! Make up your minds as to details[413], as well as to principles, before you come to power. Therefore the struggle was fought in the English convention on this very point!

The only clauses in the whole constitution that are positive and definite, are those on the election of the President (§ 45) and the Revision of the Constitution (§ 111). These are the only provisions that can be violated, for they are the only ones that do not carry their own contradiction with them.

They were aimed by the Constituent Assembly of 1848, directly against Bonaparte — whose intrigues for the presidential office alarmed the deputies.

The eternal contradictions of this Constitution of Humbug, show plainly enough, that the middle-class can be democratic in words, but will not be so in deeds — they will recognise the truth of a principle, but never carry it into practice — and the real “Constitution” of France is to be found, not in the Charter we have recorded, but in the organic laws enacted on its basis, an outline of which we have given to the reader. The principles were there — the details were left to the future, and in those details a shameless tyranny was re-enacted!

The excess of despotism reached in France will be apparent by the following regulations as to working men.

Every working man is supplied with a book by the police — the first page of which contains his name, age, birthplace, trade or calling, and a description of his person. He is therein obliged to enter the name of the master for whom he works, and the reasons why he leaves him. But this is not all: the book is placed in the master’s hands, and deposited by him in the bureau of the police with the character of the man by the master. When a workman leaves his employment, he must go and fetch this book from the police office; and is not allowed to obtain another situation without producing it. Thus the workman’s bread is utterly dependent on the police. But this again, is not all: this book serves the purpose of a passport. If he is obnoxious, the police write “bon pour retourner chez lui” in it, and the workman is obliged to return to his parish! No comment is needed on this terrific revelation! Let the reader picture to himself its full working, and trace it to its actual consequences. No serfdom of the feudal ages — no pariahdom of India has its parallel. What wonder if the French people pant for the hour of insurrection. What wonder if their indignation take the aspect of a storm. They were merciful in 1830, they were merciful in 1848; but since then their liberty has been trafficked away, their blood has been shed in torrents, every prison in France is crowded with life-long captives, — 15,000 were transported in one mass and the dreadful despotism we have described rests on them now. What wander that the middle-class should fear the people, and that they should strain their last nerve to keep the hour of retribution in abeyance. But they are divided among themselves. They have too many conflicting ambitions, and foremost on the cards stands

The Game of Napoleon.

The question now is, shall the presidential powers be prolonged, and shall the constitution be revised. Napoleon cannot be re-elected, without an open breach of the constitution for 1stly, he cannot be re-elected until after a period of four years from the expiration of his term of office; and, 2ndly, the constitution cannot be revised except by a majority of two-thirds. Such a majority in favour of that question does not exist, therefore, a constitutional re-election is not possible.

The only alternative for Bonaparte is, therefore, to defy the constitution, take up arms, and fight it out, or a legitimate surrender of his functions at the time prescribed. In the latter case Cavaignac will become President, and the republic of the middle-class will be perfected. In the former the issues are more complicated.

The game of Napoleon, therefore, now is, to work on the discontent of the people. The middle-class are the enemies of Napoleon, — the people know it, and there is one bond of sympathy between them. He, however, shares the odium of oppression jointly with the middle-class; if he can cast it off his shoulders entirely on theirs, one great obstacle will have been removed.

This he is endeavouring to do — as proved by his recent speech at Dijon, where he says:

“Every bad law has been enacted by the assembly, every good law that I proposed has been rejected or mutilated by that body. They have thwarted me in every attempt to better your condition, and raised obstacles against improvement where none existed.”[414]

Thus he is endeavouring to guide the lightning, from his own head on to that of the assembly. Meanwhile, the army are more with him than with the latter body, — and such is the misery of the people that almost any change would be for the better in the estimation of the many, while the enlightened are but the minority.

Therefore, supposing the middle-class to risk the struggle under Cavaignac, on finding Bonaparte determined, the people would certainly fight against them — and Bonaparte would be fighting with the people. Combined, they would prove too strong for the assembly. But then would come the critical time; the assembly finding that the people were about to conquer, would prefer the lesser of two evils. They would prefer an Empire or a Dictatorship of Napoleon, to a Democratic and Social Republic, and would, therefore, come to terms with the President. The latter dreading, as much as they, the democratic power, would accept their aid. The army, or a portion of it at least, would have become still more attached to Napoleon by the excitement, peril, and “glory” of strife; and the struggle would then assume a new aspect, that of the army and the bourgeoisie against the People. The issue depends on the courage, sense, and union of the latter. The game of Napoleon, is, first to play off the People against the middle-class. Then to play off the middle-class against the people and to use the army against them both.

The future is pregnant with great events, and the present of France is one of the most interesting studies history affords.

Footnotes from MECW


409 Marx is referring to the intervention against the Roman Republic undertaken by the French Government in 1849.


410 The reference is to the French press law adopted on June 9, 18 19. Under this law, the amount of security-money to be invested by various periodicals depended on the frequency and place of their publication.

Under the law of July 23, 1850, the previous high rates were extended to publications printed in Lyons and the Rhone department. (This law was originally adopted on July 16, 1850, but it appeared in the press with Article 22 missing, which led the National Assembly to adopt on July 23 a decision to publish it once more. This was done in Le Moniteur universal No. 205, July 24, 1850.)


411 In 1832, Louis Bonaparte took Swiss citizenship in the canton of Turgau; during his stay in England in 1848 he volunteered as a special constable (the constabulary was a civilian police reserve); together with the police, special constables dispersed the workers’ demonstration organised by the Chartists on April 10, 1848.


413 By details the English revolutionary Chartists meant, in their agitation, points 2-6 of the People’s Charter: annual elections to Parliament, salaries for M.P.s, a secret ballot, equal constituencies and abolition of the property qualification for candidates. They believed these demands would guarantee the implementation of universal suffrage, which was the first point of the Charter.


414 This passage was omitted from the official publication of the speech made by Louis Bonaparte in Dijon on June 1, 1851 (Le Moniteur universal No. 154, June 3, 1851) as was pointed out in the newspaper Le National of June 3. It was included, however, in an interpellation addressed to the Minister of the Interior in the National Assembly (Le Moniteur universal No. 155, June 4, 1851). The full text of the speech appeared in Le National on June 4. English and German papers quoted this passage directly or indirectly. It is not yet known which source was used by Marx.