Elisée Reclus on Anarchy

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) was one of the leading 19th century exponents of anarchy and anarchism. Like Kropotkin, he was a geographer. He advocated anarchy from an early age, but only in the 1870s did he begin to play a prominent role in the emerging anarchist movement, as the anarchists in the First International reconstituted the International along anti-authoritarian lines immediately after the expulsion of Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International by Marx and his allies at the 1872 Hague Congress. The anti-authoritarians represented the majority of the International’s sections. Reclus took an active role in the “anti-authoritarian” International, and was instrumental in convincing many involved in the International to adopt anarchist communism as their goal. The following excerpts are taken from Reclus’ well known essay, “An Anarchist on Anarchy,” which was first published in the Contemporary Review, and then republished by Benjamin Tucker as a pamphlet in 1884.

An Anarchist on Anarchy

We are not among those whom the practice of social hypocrisies, the long weariness of a crooked life, and the uncertainty of the future have reduced to necessity of asking ourselves — without daring to answer it — the sad question: “Is life worth living?” Yes, to us life does seem worth living, but on condition that it has an end — not personal happiness, not a paradise, either in this world or the next — but the realization of a cherished wish, an ideal that belongs to us and springs from our innermost conscience. We are striving to draw nearer to that ideal equality which, century after century, has hovered before subject peoples like a heavenly dream. The little that each of us can do offers an ample recompense for the perils of the combat. On these terms life is good, even a life of suffering and sacrifice — even though it may be cut short by premature death.

The first condition of equality, without which any other progress is merest mockery — the object of all socialists without exception — is that every human being shall have bread. To talk of duty, of renunciation, of eternal virtues to the famishing, is nothing less than cowardice. Dives has no right to preach morality to the beggar at his gates. If it were true that civilized lands did not produce food enough for all, it might be said that, by virtue of vital competition, bread should be reserved for the strong, and that the weak must content themselves with the crumbs that fall from the feasters’ tables. In a family where love prevails things are not ordered in this way; on the contrary, the small and the ailing receive the fullest measure; yet it is evident that dearth may strengthen the hands of the violent and make the powerful monopolizers of bread. But are our modern societies really reduced to these straits? On the contrary, whatever may be the value of Malthus’s forecast as to the distant future, it is an actual, incontestable fact that in the civilized countries of Europe and America the sum total of provisions produced, or received in exchange for manufacturers, is more than enough for the sustenance of the people. Even in times of partial dearth the granaries and warehouses have but to open their doors that every one may have a sufficient share. Notwithstanding waste and prodigality, despite the enormous losses arising from moving about and handling in warehouses and shops, there is always enough to feed generously all the world. And yet there are some who die of hunger! And yet there are fathers who kill their children because when the little ones cry for bread they have none to give them.

Others may turn their eyes from these horrors; we socialists look them full in the face, and seek out their cause. That cause is the monopoly of the soil, the appropriation by a few of the land which belongs to all. We Anarchists are not the only ones to say it: the cry for nationalization of the land is rising so high that all may hear it who do not willfully close their ears. The idea spreads fast, for private property, in its present form, has had its day, and historians are everywhere testifying that the old Roman law is not synonymous with ethanol justice. Without doubt it were vain to hope that holders of the soil, saturated, so to speak, with ideas of caste, of privilege, and of inheritance, will voluntarily give back to all the bread-yielding furrows; the glory will not be theirs of joining as equals their fellow-citizens; but when public opinion is ripe — and day by day it grows — individuals will oppose in vain the general concourse of wills, and the axe will be applied to the upas tree’s roots. Arable land will be held once more in common; but instead of being ploughed and sown almost at hazard by ignorant hands, as it has hitherto been, science will aid us in the choice of climate, of soils, of methods of culture, of fertilizers, and of machinery. Husbandry will be guided by the same prescience as mechanical combinations and chemical operations; but the fruits of their toil will not be lost to the labourer. Many so-called savage societies hold their land in common, and humble though in our eyes they may seem, they are our betters in this: want among them is unknown. Are we, then, too ambitious in desiring to attain a social state which shall add to the conquests of civilization the privileges of these primitive tribes? Through the education of our children we may to some extent fashion the future.

After we have bread for all, we shall require something more — equality of rights; but this point will soon be realized, for an individual who needs not incline themselves before their fellows to crave pittance is already their equal. Equality of conditions, which is in no way incompatible with the infinite diversity of human character, we already desire and look upon as indispensable, for it offers us the only means whereby a true public morality can be developed. An individual can be truly moral only when they are their own master. From the moment when they awaken to a comprehension of that which is equitable and good it is for them to direct their own movements, to seek in the their conscience reasons for their actions, and to perform them simply, without either fearing punishment or looking for reward. Nevertheless their will cannot fail to be strengthened when they see others, guided like themselves by their own volition, following the same line of conduct. Mutual example will soon constitute a collective code of ethics to which all may conform without effort; but the moment that orders, enforced by legal penalties, replace the personal impulses of the conscience, there is an end to morality. Hence the saying of the Apostle of the Gentiles, “the law makes sin.” Even more, it is sin itself, because, instead of appealing to humanity’s better part, to it’s bold initiative, it appeals to it’s worst — it rules by fear. It thus behooves every one to resist the laws that they have not made, and to defend their personal rights, which are also the rights of others. People often speak of the antagonism between rights and duties. It is an empty phrase; there is no such antagonism. Whoso vindicates their own rights fulfills at the same time their duty towards their fellows. Privilege, not right, is the converse of duty.

Besides the possession of an individual’s own person, sound morality involves yet another condition — mutual goodwill, which is likewise the outcome of equality. The time-honoured words of Mahabarata are as true as ever: “The ignorant are not the friends of the wise; the man who has no cart is not the friend of him who has a cart. Friendship is the daughter of equality; it is never born of inequality.” Without doubt it is given to some people, great by their thoughts, by sympathy, or by strength of will, to win the multitude; but if the attachment of their followers and admirers comes otherwise than an enthusiastic affinity of idea to idea, or of heart to heart, it is speedily transformed either into fanaticism or servility. Those who are hailed lord by the acclamations of the crowd must almost of necessity attribute to themselves exceptional virtues, or a “Grace of God,” that makes them in their own estimation as a predestined being, and they usurp without hesitation or remorse privileges which they transmit as a heritage of their children. But, while in rank exalted, they are morally degraded, and their partisans and sycophants are more degraded still: they wait for the words of command which fall from the master’s lips; when they hear in the depths of their conscience some faint note of dissent, it is stifled; they become practiced liars, they stoop to flattery, and lose the power of looking honest individuals in the face. Between those who command and those who obey, and whose degradation deepens from generation to generation, there is no possibility of friendship. The virtues are transformed; brotherly frankness is destroyed; independence becomes a crime; above is either pitying condescension or haughty contempt, below either envious admiration or hidden hate. Let each of us recall the past and ask ourselves in all sincerity the question: “Who are the individuals in whose society we have experienced the most pleasure?” Are they the personages who have “honoured” us with their conversation, or the humble with whom we have “deigned” to associate? Are they not rather our equals, those whose looks neither implore nor command, and whom we may love with open hearts without afterthought or reserve.

It is to live in conditions of equality and escape from the falsehoods and hypocrisies of a society of superiors and inferiors, that so many men and women have formed themselves into close corporations and little worlds apart. America abounds in communities of this sort. But these societies, few of which prosper while many perish, are all ruled more or less by force; they carry within themselves the seed of their own dissolution, and are reabsorbed by Nature’s law of gravitation into the world which they have left. Yet even were they perfection, if humans enjoyed in them the highest happiness of which their nature is capable, they would be none the less obnoxious to the charge of selfish isolation, of raising a wall between themselves and the rest of their race; their pleasures are egotistical, and devotion to the cause of humanity would draw back the best of them into the great struggle.

As for the Anarchists, never will we separate ourselves from the world to build a little church, hidden in some vast wilderness. Here is the fighting ground, and we remain in the ranks, ready to give our help wherever it may be most needed. We do not cherish premature hopes, but we know that our efforts will not be lost. Many of the ignorant, who either out of love of routine or simplicity of soul now anathematize us, will end by associating themselves with our cause. For every individual whom circumstances permit to join us freely, hundreds are hindered by the hard necessities of life from openly avowing our opinions, but they listen from afar and cherish our words in the treasury of their hearts. We know that we are defending the cause of the poor, the disinherited, the suffering; we are seeking to restore to them the earth, personal rights, confidence in the future; and is it not natural that they should encourage us by look and gesture, even when they dare not come to us? In times of trouble, when the iron hand of might loosens its hold, and paralyzed rulers reel under the weight of their own power; when the “groups,” freed for an instant from the pressure above, reform themselves according to their natural affinities, on which side will be the many? Though making no pretension to prophetic insight, may we not venture without temerity to say that the great multitude would join our ranks? Albeit they never weary of repeating that Anarchism is merely the dream of a few visionaries, do not even our enemies, by the insults they heap upon us and the projects and machinations they impute to us, make an incessant propaganda in our favour? It is said that, when the magicians of the Middle Ages wanted to raise the devil, they began their incantations by painting his image on a wall. For a long time past, modern exorcists have adopted a similar method for conjuring Anarchists.

Pending the great work of the coming time, and to the end that this work may be accomplished, it behooves us to utilize every opportunity for rede and deed. Meanwhile, although our object is to live without government and without law, we are obliged in many things to submit. On the other hand, how often are we enabled to disregard their behest and act on our own free will? Ours be it to let slip none of these occasions, and to accept tranquility whatever personal consequences may result from doing that which we believe to be our duty. In no case will we strengthen authority by appeals or petitions, neither shall we sanction the law by demanding justice from the courts nor, by giving our votes and influence to any candidate whatsoever, become the authors of our own ill-fortune? It is easy for us to accept nothing from power, to call no one “master,” neither to be called “master” ourselves, to remain in the ranks as simple citizens and to maintain resolutely, and in every circumstance, our quality of equal among citizens. Let our friends judge us by our deeds, and reject from among them those of us who falter.

There are unquestionably many kind-hearted individuals that, as yet. hold themselves aloof from us, and even view our efforts with a certain apprehension, who would nevertheless gladly lend us their help were they not repelled by fear of the violence which almost invariably accompanies revolution. And yet a close study of the present state of things would show them that the supposed period of tranquility in which we live is really an age of cruelty and violence. Not to speak of war and its crimes, from the guilt of which no civilized State is free, can it be denied that chief among the consequences of the existing social system are murder, maladies, and death. Accustomed order is maintained by rude deeds and brute force, yet things that happen every day and every hour pass unperceived; we see in them a series of ordinary events no more phenomenal than times and seasons. It seems less than impious to rebel against the cycle of violence and repression which comes to us hallowed by the sanction of ages. Far from desiring to replace an era of happiness and peace by an age of disorder and warfare, our sole aim is to put an end to the endless series of calamities which has hitherto been called by common consent “The Progress of Civilization.” On the other hand, vengeances are the inevitable incidents of a period of violent changes. It is the nature of things that they should be. Albeit deeds of violence, prompted by a spirit of hatred, bespeak a feeble moral development, these deeds become fatal and necessary whenever the relations between people are not the relations of perfect equity. The original form of justice as understood by primitive peoples was that of retaliation, and by thousands of rude tribes this system is still observed. Nothing seemed more just than to offset one wrong by a like wrong. Eye for an eye! Tooth for a tooth! If the blood of one person has been shed, another must die! This was the barbarous form of justice. In our civilized societies it is forbidden to individuals to take the law into their own hands. Governments, in their quality of social delegates, are charged on behalf of the community with the enforcement of justice, a sort of retaliation somewhat more enlightened than that of the savage. It is on this condition that the individual renounces the right of personal vengeance; but if they be deceived by the mandatories to whom they entrust the vindication of their rights, if they perceive that their agents betray their cause and league themselves with the oppressors, that official justice aggravates their wrongs; in a word, if whole classes and populations are unfairly used, and have no hope of finding in the society to which they belong a redresser of abuses, is it not certain that they will resume their inherent right of vengeance and execute it without pity? Is not this indeed an ordinance of Nature, a consequence of the physical law of shock and counter-shock? It were unphilosophic to be surprised by its existence. Oppression has always been answered by violence.

Nevertheless, if great human evolutions are always followed by sad outbreaks of personal hatreds, it is not to these bad passions that well-wishers of their kind appeal when they wish to rouse the motive virtues of enthusiasm, devotion, and generosity. If changes had no other result than to punish oppressors, to make them suffer in their turn, to repay evil with evil, the transformation would be only in seeming. What boots it to those who truly love humanity and desire the happiness of all that the slave becomes master, that the master is reduced to servitude, that the whip changes hands, and that money passes from one pocket to another? It is not the rich and the powerful whom we devote to destruction, but the institutions which have favoured the birth and growth of these malevolent beings. It is the medium which it behooves us to alter, and for this great work we must reserve all our strength; to waste it in personal vindications were merest puerility. “Vengeance is the pleasure of the gods,” said the ancients; but it is not the pleasure of self-respecting mortals; for they know that to become their own avengers would be to lower themselves to the level of their former oppressors. If we would rise superior to our adversary, we must, after vanquishing them, make them bless their defeat. The revolutionary device, “For our liberty and for yours,” must not be an empty word.

The people in all times have felt this; and after every temporary triumph the generosity of the victor has obliterated the menaces of the past. It is a constant fact that in all serious popular movements, made for an idea, hope of a better time, and above all, the sense of a new dignity, fills the soul with high and magnanimous sentiments. So soon as the police, both political and civil, cease their functions and the masses become masters of the streets, the moral atmosphere changes, each feels themselves responsible for the prosperity and contentment of all; molestation of individuals is almost unheard of; even professional criminals pause in their sad career, for they too, feel that something great is passing through the air. Ah! if revolutionaries, instead of obeying a vague idea as they have almost always done, had formed a definite aim, a well-considered scheme of social conduct, if they had firmly willed the establishment of a new order of things in which every citizen might be assured bread, work, instruction, and the free development of their being, there would have been no danger in opening all prison gates to their full width, and saying to the unfortunates whom they shut in, “Go, brothers and sisters, and sin no more.”

It is always to the nobler part of humanity that we should address ourselves when we want to do great deeds. A general fighting for a bad cause stimulates their soldiers with promises of booty; a benevolent individual who cherishes a noble object encourages their companions by the example of their own devotion and self-sacrifice. For them, faith in their idea is enough. As says the proverb of the Danish peasants: “His will is his paradise.” What matters is that he is treated like a visionary! Even though his undertakings were only a chimera, he knows nothing more beautiful and sweet than the desire to act rightly and do good; in comparison with this vulgar realities are for him but shadows, the apparitions of an instant.

But our ideal is not a chimera. This, public opinion well knows; for no question more preoccupies it than that of social transformation. Events are casting their shadows before. Among individuals who think is there one who in some fashion or another is not a socialist — that is to say, who has not their own little scheme for changes in economic relations? Even the orator who noisily denies that there is a social question affirms the contrary by a thousand propositions. And those who will lead us back to the Middle Ages, are they not also socialists? They think they have found in a past, restored after modern ideas, conditions of social justice which will establish for ever the brotherhood of man. All are awaiting the birth of a new order of things; all ask themselves, some with misgiving, others with hope, what the morrow will bring forth. It will not come with empty hands. The century which has witnessed so many grand discoveries in the world of science cannot pass away without giving us still greater conquests. Industrial appliances, that by a single electric impulse make the same thought vibrate through five continents, have distanced by far our social morals, which are yet in many regards the outcome of reciprocally hostile interests. The axis is displaced; the world must crack that its equilibrium may be restored. In spirit revolution is ready; it is already thought — it is already willed; it only remains to realize it, and this is not the most difficult part of the work. The Governments of Europe will soon have reached the limits to the expansion of their power and find themselves face to face with their increasing populations. The super-abundant activity which wastes itself in distant wars must then find employment at home — unless in their folly the shepherds of the people should try to exhaust their energies by setting the Europeans against Europeans, as they have done before. It is true that in this way they may retard the solution of the social problem, but it will rise again after each postponement, more formidable than before.

Let economists and rulers invent political constitutions or salaried organizations, whereby the worker may be the friend of their master, the subject the brother of the potentate, we, “frightful Anarchists” as we are, know only one way of establishing peace and goodwill among women and men — the suppression of privilege and the recognition of right. Our ideal, as we have said, is that of the fraternal equity for which all yearn, but almost always as a dream; with us it takes form and becomes a concrete reality. It pleases us not to live if the enjoyments of life are to be for us alone; we protest against our good fortune if we may not share it with others; it is sweeter for us to wander with the wretched and the outcasts than to sit, crowned with roses, at the banquets of the rich. We are weary of these inequalities which make us the enemies of each other; we would put an end to the furies which are ever bringing people into hostile collision, and all of which arise from the bondage of the weak to the strong under the form of slavery, serfage, and service. After so much hatred we long to love each other, and for this reason are we enemies of private property and despisers of the law.

Elisée Reclus, 1884

Advertisements

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/2018/10/28/elisee-reclus-on-anarchy/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. […] via Elisée Reclus on Anarchy — Robert Graham’s Anarchism Weblog […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: