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The following letter was written and addressed by Victor Hugo to "The Rich"
I Am asked what has been the lesson of my life, which I have learned in my years of living to bequeath as my most precious legacy to humanity. I reply that my soul has two messages of council, of promise and of threat to deliver. One to the rich and the other to the poor. The two contain the sum of human wisdom.
TO THE RICH.
The poor cry out to the wealthy. The slaves implore the rulers. And as much now as in the days of Spartan Helots. I am one of them and I add my voice to that multitude that it may reach the ears of the rich. Who am I ? One of the people. From whence come I ? From the bottomless pit. How am I named ? I am Wretchedness. My lords, I have something to say to you.
My lords, you are placed high. You have power, opulence, pleasure, the sun immovable at your zenith, unlimited authority, enjoyment undivided, a total forgetfulness of others. So be it. But there is something below you. Above you, perhaps. My lords I impart to you a novelty. The human race exists.
I am he who comes from the depths. My lords, you are the great and the rich. That is perilous. You take advantage of the night. But have a care ; there is a great power, the morning. The dawn cannot be vanquished. It will come. It comes, It has within it the outbreak of irresistible day.
You, you are the dark clouds of privilege. Be afraid. The true master is about to knock at the door.
What is the father of privilege ? Chance. What is his son ? Abuse. Neither chance nor abuse is enduring. They have, both of them, an evil to-morrow.
I come to warn you. I come to denounce you in your own bliss. It is made out of the ills of the others. Your paradise is made out of the hell of the poor. I come to open before you, the wealthy, the grand assizes of the poor-that sovereign who is the slave, that convict who is the judge. I am bowed down under what I have to say. Where to begin ? I know not. I have picked up in the cruel experience of suffering, my vast though struggling pleas. Now what shall I do with them ? They overwhelm me and I throw them forth pell mell before me.
I am a diver and I bring up from the depths a pearl, the Truth. 1 speak because I know. I have experienced. I have seen. Suffering ? No, the word is weak, O masters in bliss ! Poverty-I nave grown up in it; winter-I have shivered in it; famine-I have tasted it; scorn-I have undergone it; the plague-I have had it; shame-I have drunk of it.
I felt it requisite that I should come among you. Why, because of my yesterday's rags. It was in order that my voice might be raised among the satiated, that God commingled me with the hungered. Oh! have pity ! Oh '.you know not this fatal world, whereunto you believe that you belong. So high, you are outside of it. I will tell you what it is.
Abandoned an orphan, alone in boundless creation, I made my entry into this gloom you call society. The first thing I saw was law, under the form of a gibbet; the second was wealth- your wealth-under the form o? a woman dead of cold and hunger ; the third was luxury under the shape of a hunted man chained to prison walls ; the fourth was your palaces beneath the shadow of which cowered the tramp.
The human race has been made by you slaves and convicts, you have made of this earth a dungeon. Light is wanting, air is wanting, virtue is wanting.
The workers of this world whose fruits you enjoy live in death. There are little girls who begin at eight by prostitution, and who end at twenty by old age. Who among you nave been to Newcastle-on-Tyne ? There are men in the mines who chew coal, to fill their stomach and cheat hunger. Look you in Lancashire. Misery everywhere. Are you aware that the Harlech fishermen eat grass when the fishery fails ? Are you aware that at Burton- Lazers there are still certain lepers driven into the woods, who are fired at if they come out of their dens ? In Peckridge there are no beds in the hovels, and holes are dug in the ground for little children to sleep in ; so that, in place of beginning with the cradle, they begin with the tomb.
Mercy, have mercy for the poor! Oh, I conjure you, have pity ! But no, you will not. I know ye all. Devils bred in hell, an-d dogs with hearts of stone. Upward to your golden throne for ages has gone the cry of misery, the groan of hunger, and the sob of despair, and ye needed it not. What mercy hast thou given shall be meted out to you in turn.
Bear in mind that a series of kings armed with swords were interrupted with Cromwell with the axe.
Tremble ! The incorruptible dissolutions draw near; the clipped talons push out again ; the torn-out tongues take to flight, become tongues of flame scattered to the winds of darkness, and they howl in the Infinite. They who are hungry show their idle teeth, Paradises built over hells totter. There is suffering and that which is above leans over, and that which is below gapes open. The shadow asks to become light. The damned discuss the elect. It is the people who are oncoming. I tell you it is Man who ascends. It is the end that is beginning. It is the red dawning on Catastrophe. Ah! This society is false. One day, and true society must come. Then there will be no more lords; there will be free, living men. There will be no more wealth, there will be an abundance for the poor. There will be no more masters, but there will be brothers. They that toil shall have. This is the future. No more prostration, no more abasement, no more ignorance, no more wealth, no more beasts of burden, no more courtiers-but LIGHT.
-July 27, 1887. *
Victor Hugo, a little while before his death, made the following appeal to the poor :
Shall I now speak to the poor after having in vain implored the rich ? Yes, it is fitting. This then have I to say to the disinherited. Keep a watch upon your abominable jaw. There is one rule for the rich-to do nothing, and one for the poor- to say nothing. The poor have but one friend, silence. They should use but one monosyllable : yes. To confess and to concede-this is all the "rights" they have. " Yes " to the judge. " Yes " to the king. The great if it so pleases them give us blows with a stick ; I have had them ; it is their prerogative, and they lose nothing of their greatness in cracking our bones. Let us worship the scepter which is the first among sticks.
If a poor man is happy he is the pickpocket of happiness. Only the rich and noble are happy by right. The rich man is he who being young has the rights of old age ; being old, the lucky chances of youth ; vicious, the respect of good people ; a coward, the command of the stout-hearted ; doing nothing, the fruits of labor.
Carriages, poor slaves, exist. The lord is inside ; the people are under the wheel ; the wise man makes room.
The people fight. Whose is the glory ? They pay. Whose is the magnificence ? The king's. And the people like to be rich in this fashion. Our ruler, King or Croesus, receives from the poor a crown piece and renders back to the poor a farthing. How generous he is ! The colossal looks up to the pigmy superstructure. How tall the manikin is ! He is on my back. A dwarf has an excellent method of being higher than a giant ; it is to perch himself upon the other's shoulders. But that the giant should let him do it, there's the odd part of it; and that he should admire the baseness of the dwarf, there's the stupidity. Human ingenuousness.
The equestrian statue reserved for kings alone is an excellent type of royalty. Let us be frank with words. The capitalist who steals the reward of labor is a king as well as the man of blood. The king mounts himself on the horse. The horse is the people. Sometimes this horse transfigures himself by degrees. At the beginning he is an ass ; at the end he is a lion. Then he throws his rider to the ground and we have 1643 in England and 1789 in France; and sometimes devours him, in which case we have in England 1649 and in France 1793.
That the lion can again become a jackass, this is surprising but a fact.
What happiness to be again ridden and beaten and starved. What happiness to work forever for bread and water ! What happiness to be free from the delusions that cake is good and life other than misery ! Was there anything more crazy than those ideas ? Where should we be if every vagabond had his rights ? Imagine everybody governing ! Can you imagine a city governed by the men who built it ? They are the team, not the coachman. What a godsend is a rich man who takes charge of everything. Surely he is generous to take the trouble for us ! And then, he was brought up to it; he knows what it is ; it is his business. A guide is necessary for us. Being poor we are ignorant ; being ignorant we are blind ; we need a guide. But why are we ignorant ? Because it must be so. Ignorance is the guardian of Virtue ! He who is ignorant is innocent! It is not our duty to think, complain or reason. These truths are uncontestable. SOCIETY reposes on them. What is "society" ? Misery for you if you support it. Be reasonable, poor man. you were made to be a slave.
Not to be a slave is to DARE to Do.
Aug. 2. 1887. *
Source: Albert Kimsey Owen, Integral co-operation at work, Issues 1-2, John W. Lovell company, 1890, pp 143-146.
* The dates above are the dates the translations of the letters appeared in Albert Owen's newspaper, Integral Co-Operation at Work. Victor Hugo died in May of 1885.