Elisée Reclus: Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel

In October 1885, the anarchist revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin, was in a French prison, having been condemned in 1882 for being a member of the by then defunct International Workingmen’s Association. Of course, the real reason for his imprisonment was that he was directly involved in reviving the French anarchist movement after ten years of state repression following the defeat of the Paris Commune. Kropotkin was the major contributor to the manifesto that he and his co-defendants issued during their trial. While in prison, his friend, the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus, put together a collection of Kropotkin’s essays under the title, Words of a Rebel. Here I reproduce Nicolas Walter’s translation of Reclus’ introduction. I previously posted some of Walter’s translations of Kropotkin’s preface to the 1904 Italian edition and the post-script to the 1921 Russian edition.

Preface to Words of a Rebel

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS Peter Kropotkin has been in prison, cut off from the society of his fellow-men. His punishment is hard, but the silence imposed on him concerning the things he cares about most is much harder: his imprisonment would be less oppressive if he were not gagged. Months and years may perhaps pass before the use of speech is restored to him and he can resume interrupted conversations with his comrades.

The period of forced seclusion which our friend has to undergo will certainly not be wasted, but it seems very long to us! Life quickly goes by, and we sadly watch the weeks and months running out when this voice-so proud and honest among the rest–cannot be heard at all. In its place, how many common places will be repeated to us, how many lying words will afflict us, how many biased half-truths will ring about our ears! We long to hear one of those sincere and forthright tongues which boldly proclaim the truth.

But if the prisoner of Clairvaux no longer has the freedom to speak to his comrades from the depths of his cell, they can at least remember their friend and recall the words he spoke before. This is a task which I am able to perform, and I have devoted myself to it with pleasure. The articles which Kropotkin wrote from 1879 to 1882 in the ‘anarchist’ paper Le Révolté seemed to me ideal for publication in book form, especially because they did not run after chance events but followed a logical order. The vigour of the thought gave them the necessary unity.

Faithful to the scientific method, the author first explains the general situation of society, with its scandals and defects, its elements of discord and war; he studies the evidence of collapse shown by states, and shows us the cracks opening in their ruins. Then he pushes the experience offered by contemporary history in the direction of anarchic evolution, indicates its exact significance, and draws the lessons which it teaches. Finally, in the chapter ‘Expropriation’, he sums up his ideas, which derive from both observation and experience, and appeals to men of good will who want not just to know, but also to act.

I do not wish to sing the author’s praises here. He is my friend, and if I said all the nice things I think about him I might be suspected of blindness or accused of partiality. It would be enough for me to report the opinion of his judges, even his jailers. Among those who have observed his life, from far or near, there is no one who does not respect him, who does not bear witness to his high intelligence and to his heart which overflows with kindness, no one who does not acknowledge him to be truly noble and pure. Anyway, is it not because of these very qualities that he has known exile and imprisonment?

His crime is to love the poor and weak; his offence is to have pleaded their cause. Public opinion is unanimous in respecting this man, and yet it is not at all surprised to see the prison gates closing remorselessly on him, so that it seems natural that superiority has to be paid for and devotion has to be accompanied by suffering. It is impossible to see Kropotkin in the prison yard and to exchange greetings with him without wondering: ‘And what about me, why am I free? Could, it be perhaps because I am not good enough?’

However, the readers of this book should pay less attention to the personality of the author than to the value of the ideas he expresses. These ideas I recommend with confidence to honest people who do not make up their minds about a work before opening it, or about an opinion before hearing it. Clear away all your prejudices, try to stand aside temporarily from your interests, and read the pages simply looking for the truth without bothering for the time being about its application. The author asks only one thing of you – to share for a moment his ideal, the happiness of all, not just of a few privileged people.

If this desire, however fleeting it may be, is really sincere, and not a mere whim of your fancy, an image passing before your eyes, it is probable that you will soon agree with the writer. If you share his yearnings you will understand his words. But you know in advance that these ideas will bring you no honour; they will never be rewarded with a well-paid position; they may well bring you instead the distrust of your former friends or some cruel blow from your superiors. If you seek justice, you can expect to suffer injustice.

At the time when this work is being published, France is in the middle of an election crisis. I am not so naive as to recommend the candidates to read this book – they have other ‘duties’ to perform – but I do invite the electors to take a look at Words of a Rebel, and I would particularly draw their attention to the chapter called ‘Representative Government’. There they will see how far their confidence will be justified in these men who are springing up on all sides to solicit the honour of representing their fellow-citizens in Parliament.

At the moment all is well. The candidates are omniscient and infallible – but what about the deputies? When they at last receive their share of the kingdom, will they not be fatally afflicted by the dizziness of power and, like kings, be deprived of all wisdom and all virtue? If they decided to keep all those promises which they made so lavishly, how would they maintain their dignity in the midst of a crowd of petitioners and advisers? Even supposing that they went into Parliament with good intentions, how could they emerge without being corrupted? Under the influence of that atmosphere of intrigue, they can be seen turning from left to right, as if they were impelled by an automatic mechanism-clockwork figures who come out looking proud and strike noisily in front of the clock face, then soon afterwards go round and disappear ‘pathetically into the works.

Choosing new masters is no solution at all. It is we anarchists, enemies of Christianity, who have to remind a whole society which claims to be Christian of these words of the man whom they have made a God: ‘Call no man Master, Master! Let each man remain his own master.’ Do not go to the offices of bureaucrats, or the noisy chambers of parliaments, in the vain hope for the words of freedom. Listen rather to the voices which come from below, even if they come through the bars of the prison cell.

Elisée Reclus

Clarens (Switzerland), October 1, 1885

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  1. […] Originally published by Robert Graham. […]


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