Victor Hugo Explains Trump and Bernie

In the summer of 1832, Paris experienced the republican, anti-monarchist June Rebellion. It was quickly snuffed out by the government, and it may have ended up a somewhat more obscure event if not for Victor Hugo getting caught up in the action. From Graham Robb’s biography,

On June 5, 1832, Victor Hugo was writing a play in the Tuileries Gardens when he heard the sound of gunfire from the direction of Les Halles. The Gardens were deserted and the park-keeper had to unlock the gates to let Hugo out. Instead of hurrying home, he followed the sounds through the empty streets, unaware that one-third of Paris had already fallen to the mob. The area around Les Halles was choked with barricades. Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre. Then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, and at last turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (World’s End Street). Halfway down the alley when the grilles at either end slammed shut. Hugo flattened himself against the wall, between the forces of order and anarchy. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways down the alley.

A couple decades later he would immortalize the fighting in the novel Les Misérables. Before describing the action, he tries to figure out what it all meant. He wonders if the republicans in the barricades represented a riot, an insurrection, or an émeute. Emeute is used in France today as riot is used in the Anglosphere. Emeutes are what you saw happening across France in 2005-06.

The word in Hugo’s time, however, had different connotations. According to Merriam-Webster, “from Old French esmeute act of starting, from feminine of esmeut, past participle of esmovoir: to start.” It meant more of an uprising, rebellion, insurrection.

Leading up to the 2016 election, America is not on the brink of the ’05-’06 riots or a June Rebellion. But in Hugo’s pondering of the meaning of the events of 1832, I think we are seeing some of the same forces bubbling up to the surface and expressing themselves as the upsurge of popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the Republican and Democrat parties. Neither man will win the presidency, so what to make of their moment in the spotlight?



The Surface of the Question

What constitutes an émeute, a riot? Nothing and everything. An electricity gradually released, a flame suddenly leaping forth, a drifting force, a passing wind. This wind brushes heads that think, dreaming minds, suffering souls, burning passions, howling miseries, and sweeps them away.


Almost anywhere. Across the state, across laws, across the prosperity and the insolence of others.

Irritated convictions, sharpened enthusiasms, aroused indignations, repressed instincts of war, exalted young courage, noble impulses, curiosity, the taste for change, a thirst for the unexpected, that feeling of pleasure in reading the poster for the new play, and hearing the welcome ringing of the prompter’s bell at the theater; vague hatreds, spites, disappointments, every vanity that blames destiny for its failure; discomforts, empty dreams, ambitions shut in by high walls, anyone hoping for a way out of a downfall; finally, at the very bottom, the rabble, that mud which catches fire – such are the elements of the riot.

The greatest and the smallest; the creatures who prowl around outside of everything, waiting for any opportunity, bohemians, people without an occupation, street corner idlers, those who sleep at night in the open with no other roof than the cold clouds of the sky, those who seek their bread each day by chance and not by labor, the anonymous ones of misery and vacancy, the barefoot – they belong to the riot.

Whoever harbors in his soul some secret revolt against any act whatsoever of the state, of life or of fate, borders on the riot, and as soon as it appears, it begins to quiver, and feel lifted up by the whirlwind.

The émeute is a sort of waterspout in the social atmosphere that suddenly takes form under certain thermal conditions, and in its whirling rises, runs, thunders, tears up, razes, crushes, demolishes, uproots, dragging with it the great spirits and the paltry, the strong man and the feeble mind, tree trunk and straw.

Woe to those it sweeps along, as well as to those it strikes! It shatters them one against the other.

It communicates to those it seizes a mysterious, extraordinary power. It fills the first comer with the force of events; it makes projectiles of everything. It makes a bullet of a pebble and a general of a dockhand.

If we may believe certain oracles of crafty politics, from the governmental point of view, a modicum of émeute is desirable. Theorem: the émeute strengthens those governments it does not overthrow. It tests the army; it concentrates the bourgeoisie; it stretches the muscles of the police; it determines the strength of the social framework. It is a gymnastic training; it is almost hygienic. Power is healthier after a riot, like a man after a rubdown.

[…] For everything there is a theory that proclaims itself “common sense”; Philinte against Alceste; mediation offered between the true and the false; explanation, admonition, a somewhat haughty extenuation, which because it is a mixture of blame and excuse, thinks itself wisdom and is often mere pedantry. An entire political school, called the school of compromise, has sprung from this. Between hot and cold water, this is the party of tepid water. This school, with its pretended depth, wholly superficial, that dissects effect without going back to the causes, chides the agitations of the public square from the heights as a demi-science.

The Essential Question

There is émeute, there is insurrection; they are two different angers; one is wrong, one is right. In democratic states, the only governments founded on justice, it sometimes happens that a faction usurps power; then the whole rises up, and the necessary vindication of its right may go so far as armed conflict. In all questions springing from collective sovereignty, the war of the whole against the faction I will call insurrection; the attack of the faction against the whole is émeute […]

The sound of the advancing right is recognizable, it does not always come from the quaking of the overthrown masses; there are foolish rages, there are cracked bells; every tocsin does not sound with the ring of bronze. The clash of passions and ignorances is different from the shock of progress. Rise, if you will, but to grow. Show me which way you are going. There is no insurrection but forward. Every other uprising is evil; every violent step backward is an émeute; to retreat is an act of violence against the human race. Insurrection is the truth’s outburst of rage; the paving stones that insurrection tears up throw off the spark of right […]

Hence, if insurrection in given cases may be, as Lafayette said, the most sacred of duties, émeute may be the most deadly of crimes.

There is also some difference in the thermal intensity; the insurrection is often a volcano, the émeute is often a straw fire.

The revolt, as we have said, is sometimes on the side of power…insurrection is sometimes resurrection.

Since the solution of everything by universal suffrage is an entirely modern occurrence, and all history, for four thousand years before that, filled with violated rights and the suffering of the people, each period of history brings with it such protest as it can. Under the Caesars there was no insurrection, but there was Juvenal […]

All this is the past; the future is different. Universal suffrage is admirable in that it dissolves the riot in its principle and, by giving a vote to insurrection, disarms it. The vanishing of war, street war as well as the war of the frontiers, such is inevitable progress.

However, insurrection, riot – in what way the first differs from the second – the bourgeois, properly speaking, knows little of these nuances. To him, everything is sedition, rebellion pure and simple, revolt of the dog against the master, attempt to bite that must be punished by chain and kennel, barking, yelping, till the day when the dog’s head, suddenly enlarged, stands out dimly in the darkness with a lion’s face.

Then the bourgeois cries, vive le peuple! 

With this explanation given, what for history is the movement of June 1832? Is it a riot? Is it an insurrection?


Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – Riot? Emeute? Insurrection?


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