Jean Grave: Against the Law (1893)

Jean Grave (1854-1939) was a prominent anarchist communist active in France. He became editor of the anarchist paper, Le Révolté, in 1883 after Kropotkin was imprisoned following the Lyon trial of the anarchists (see the Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon, 1883, previously posted). Grave changed the name of the paper to La Révolte in 1887. That paper was suppressed and Grave imprisoned by the French authorities in 1894, shortly after Grave published Moribund Society and Anarchy in 1893, from which the following excerpts are taken. The translation is by the American anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The anarchist rejection of the ideology of the so-called “rule of law” was something that distinguished them from other revolutionary currents. Grave’s critique is reminiscent of the earlier critique developed by William Godwin (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 51), although it is doubtful that Grave was familiar with Godwin’s work. Kropotkin developed a more sophisticated analysis of law in a variety of publications, including his essay, Law and Authority (excerpted as Selection 52 in Anarchism, Volume One), where he argues that for the ideology of the “rule of law” to be widely accepted, the law must incorporate certain accepted social mores, such as prohibitions against murder, in order for specific laws benefitting the ruling classes to be accorded any legitimacy.

The Magistracy

Authority, as we have seen, springs from that right which arrogates force to itself.  But man having widened the field of his thought it became necessary for this authority to justify its existence. Combining with religious sentiment and the support of the priests, it claimed to be of divine origin, assumed the form of an exclusive caste, and eventually succeeded in resisting the brutal power of the king and the nobles: thus the magistracy was founded. And when the bourgeoisie seized power, in 1789, they took care not to destroy this pillar of social order. (Moreover, did not the nobility of gowns belong much more properly to the bourgeoisie than to the nobility of the sword?) They were thus relieved of the task of searching for a mode of recruit more in accord with the new aspirations.

Divine right having gotten a powerful shock in the decapitation of Louis XVI, the magistracy could not continue to lean upon the said right without the risk of likewise passing under this equalizing leveller.  Hence they invented, or rather deified, the “law.” The magistracy was constituted its guardian and incorruptible administrator, so-called. The trick was done; the most redoubtable and necessary institution for the defence of privilege succeeded in preserving itself, and becoming the priestess of this new entity, the law, created by the new masters. The submission of France to the regime of the “law” is, in fact, one of the conquests of ’89 whose benefits the bourgeois historians are exceedingly fond of setting forth. The codification of authority, according to these, its censer-bearers, had the immediate effect of legitimizing the most shameless arbitrariness. From then on Frenchmen were all to be equal; the people no longer had anything to demand. Thereafter there was to be but one master, before whom, it is true, all had to bow, which had the effect of equalizing their situations. This master was the “law.”

But we who are not satisfied with words, when we try to find out what the workers have gained by this transformation, see that they have got  just one more duping. In fact, in the time of the absolute monarchy, when the king and the nobles constrained the peasant to serve them, there was no way of deceiving oneself about it; the formula “for such is our good pleasure” showed whence they derived their rights: they claimed them by the right of the sword only, counting much more upon that than the divine will; consequently it was upon force that their claim was based.  Their orders were obeyed, their claims were submitted to, but because the people were in no condition to resist them. There were at least no imbeciles to come and say to us – repeating the phrases of the interested – that we must obey because it is “the law,” and it is the duty of everyone to conform thereto until it be changed.

If it be admitted that the law may change it is thereby presumed that the law may become retrogressive; and to acknowledge that is to admit that from its very nature it may injure someone, for there are always individuals in advance of their generation. The law, then, is not just; it has not that respectable character with which men have sought to invest it.  If this law injures my interests or violates my liberty why should I be compelled to obey it, and what is the unalterable compact which can justify these abuses? In scientific matters when the savants after great research and labour at length formulate what is called a natural law, it is not because a majority or “chamber,” composed of persons believing themselves superior to the rest of us mortals, has decided, by virtue of its members’ will, that natural forces were ordered to conform to such or such a mode of evolution. We should laugh in the face of the imbecile who would make such a pretence. When a natural law is proclaimed, it is because it has been discovered that if a certain phenomenon be produced, if a certain chemical combination had been effected, it is by virtue of such and such a force, or the existence of such and such affinities; the environment in which the phenomenon took place being given, it was impossible for it to be otherwise. Given forces set in motion under given conditions produce given results; this is mathematical. Therefore the newly-discovered law does not come upon the scene to govern the phenomenon, but to explain its causes, these laws may be discovered, doubted, and even denied; the divers substances which compose our earth will none the less continue to combine according to their properties or affinities, the earth will turn, without any force being needed to protect the evolution thereof, or punish those who might want to “violate the laws.”

In our society it is otherwise. These laws seem to be made to be violated; because those who made them consulted only their personal preferences, the interests of those whom they represented, and the average degree of moral evolution in their epoch, without taking into account the character, tendencies, and affinities of those who were to submit to them — which, moreover, would be impossible, the diversity of individual character and tendencies being given. Each estate has its laws; nor can there be any single and universal law in sociology, as there is in physics, under penalty of its becoming arbitrary and inapplicable.  In fact there is not, in our society, a single law which does not injure some of its members, either in their material interests or their ideas; not a single law which each triumphant party has not been able to turn against its adversaries.  Power once obtained, every illegal party becomes legal, for it is that party which, through its creatures, administers the “law.”   We may then conclude that the law being nothing but the will of the strongest, one is obliged to obey it only when too weak to resist it; that nothing really legitimizes it, and that this famous “legality” is only a question of more or less force. So when these rogues oppose the workers with their supreme argument, “legality,” the latter may laugh in their faces and ask if anyone ever came to consult the toilers about the making of those laws. And even if the people should have adhered to these laws for a time, the latter could have no effectiveness except so long as those who accepted them continued to believe them useful, and were willing to conform to them. It would be funny if under the pretext that at a given moment of our life we had agreed to a certain line of conduct, we were forced to adopt it for the rest of our existence, without being able to modify it, because to do so would be to displease a certain number of persons who, for one cause or another finding profit for themselves in the existing order, would like to crystallize their present condition. But what is more ridiculous still, is the desire to subject us to the laws of past generations, the pretence that we should believe we owe respect and obedience to the fancies which it pleased certain nincompoops to codify and set up as laws fifty years ago! The presumption of wanting to enslave the present to the conceptions of the past!

At this point we hear the recriminations of all the makers of laws and those that get their living out of them; they naively fall into line and cry out with the others that society could not exist if there were no longer any laws; that people would be cutting each other’s throats if they had no tutelary authority to keep them in fear and respect of acquired rank and condition. Later we shall see that, in spite of law and coercion, crimes continue to be committed; that the laws are powerless to repress or prevent them, since they are the result of the vicious organization which governs us; and that, consequently, we must not seek to maintain or to modify the laws, but to change the social system.

But what makes us still more indignant is that certain persons are audacious enough to set themselves up as judges of others. So long as authority leaned upon its divine source, so long as justice passed for an emanation from God, we can understand that those invested with authority should have believed themselves peculiar beings, endowed by the divine will with a portion of its omnipotence and infallibility, and should have imagined themselves fit to distribute rewards and punishments to the herd of vulgar mortals.  But in our century of science and free criticism, when it is recognized that all men are kneaded out of the same dough, subject to the same passions, the same caprices, the same mistakes, today when an agonizing divinity no longer comes to animate with its breath the ever fallible reason of mortals, we ask ourselves how it comes that there are men ignorant enough, or presumptuous enough, to dare to assume in cold blood and with deliberate intent the terrible responsibility of taking away another man’s life or any portion of his liberty. When in the most ordinary affairs of daily life we are most of the time unable to succeed in analyzing not only the causes which prompt our immediate neighbours to act but very often the true motives of our own acts, how can anybody have the self-sufficiency to believe himself capable of disentangling the truth in an affair of which he knows neither the beginning, nor the actors, nor the motives which prompted their actions, and which comes before the tribunal only after being magnified, commented upon, distorted by the misrepresentations of those who participated in it in any way whatsoever or, more frequently, have heard of it only through the repetitions of others?

You, who pose as severe and infallible judges of this man who has killed or robbed, do you know the motives which prompted him? Do you know the circumstances of environment, heredity, or even chance, which influenced his mind and led him to commit the act with which you reproach him? You, the implacable men that hurl your anathema against the accused whom public force has brought before your bar, have you ever asked yourselves whether, if placed in the same circumstances and surroundings under which this man acted, you would not have done worse? If, even, you were the impeccable, austere, and stainless men you are supposed to be, you, who with a word pitilessly cut off human life and liberty, you would not dare to utter your decisions if you had thoroughly reflected on human frailty; were you conscious of what you are doing, you would recoil appalled before your task!  How could you help being troubled with nightmares! How could your dreams help being peopled with spectres of the victims which your pretended justice creates every day!  Were it not for that official unconsciousness which stupidity and habit give, you would end by succumbing to the weight of remorse and the haunting of phantoms evoked by your judgments.

Our epoch of criticism and positive science no longer admits the principle of distributive justice, nor recognizes the legitimacy of a superior authority rewarding the good and chastising the wicked. Against this ancient doctrine, which the conceptions of the age during one period of humanity’s evolution rendered logical, we promulgate the opposite idea.  We no longer see actions as good or bad, except as they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, and in consequence act accordingly. We approve or become enthusiastic, defend or attack, according to the benefit or injury received by our interests, our passions, and our conceptions of the ideal. The common need of solidarity which leads people subjected to the same attacks to unite for their defence is to us the guarantee of a future social order less troubled than our own. We do not judge, but work and struggle; and we believe that universal harmony will result from the free action of all men, when once the suppression of private property no longer permits a handful of persons to enslave their fellows.

Hence we cannot admit that, six weeks or six years after an act has been committed, a group of persons supported by armed force should assemble to judge, in the name of some entity or other, and reward or punish the author of the act. That is hypocrisy and cowardice. You reproach a man with having killed, and to teach him that he was wrong you have him killed by the executioner, society’s hired assassin!  The executioner and you have not even the excuse of having risked your own necks, since you proceed under cover of an armed force which protects you. We are at war with the ruling caste: recognize, gentlemen of the magistracy, that you are its retainers, and let us alone with your big words and fine phrases.   Maintain the privileges whose care is confided to you, use the force which ignorance concedes to you, but leave justice in peace; she has nothing to do with you!

That you might be able to judge appreciatively of the ignominy of your role in beating down others, we would like, O judges, that it might happen to you that, being innocent, you should fall into the clutches of your fellows, to be judged in your turn. In such a situation you might learn what anguish and terror they have had to pass through who have filed before your bar, and whom you have tortured, you, magistrates, as the cat tortures the mouse.  With the floods of eloquence from the prosecuting attorney pleading against you rolling about your ears, you might see passing before your eyes the spectres of those unfortunates that, during your career, you have immolated upon the altar of social vengeance; you might ask yourselves then, with terror, if they also were not innocent. Oh yes, we would heartily wish that there might be one among you falsely accused, who should go through the terrors of those that come before your bar. For if, his innocence being one day admitted, he were reinstated in his functions, it is strongly to be presumed that he would re-enter his place in the tribunal only to tear his robe and apologize for his criminal life as magistrate, judging haphazard and trafficking in human lives.

Jean Grave, Paris 1893

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  1. [...] *Peter Kropotkin: Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners (1886) *Jean Grave: Against the Law (1893) [...]


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