Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 9

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Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 9

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





     I WENT first to Neuchâtel, an then spent a week or so among the watchmakers in the Jura Mountains. I thus made my first acquaintance with that famous Jura Federation which for the next few years played an important part in the development of socialism, introducing into it the no-government, or anarchist, tendency.

     In 1872 the Jura Federation was becoming a rebel against the authority or the general council of the International Workingmen's Association. The association was essentially a workingmen's movement, the workers understanding it as such and not as a political party. In east Belgium, for instance, they had introduced into the statues a clause in virtue of which no one could be a member of a section unless employed in a manual trade; even formen were excluded.

     The workers were, moreover, federalist in principle. Each nation, each separate region, and even each local section had to be left free to develop on its own lines. But the middle-class revolutionists of the old school who had entered the International, imbued as they were with the notions of the centralized, pyramidal secret organizations of earlier times, had introduced the same notions into the Workingmen's Association. Beside the federal and national councils, a general council was nominated at London, to act as a sort of intermediary between councils of the different nations. Marx and Engels were its leading spirits. It soon appeared, however, that the mere fact of having such a central body became a source of substantial inconvenience. The general council was not satisfied with playing the part of a correspondence bureau; it strove to govern the movement, to approve or to censure the action of the local federations and sections, and even of individual members. When the Commune insurrection began in Paris, -- and "the leaders had only to follow," without being able to say whereto they would be led within the next twenty-four hours, -- the general council insisted upon directing the insurrection from London. It required daily reports about the events, gave orders, favored this and hampered that, and thus put in evidence the disadvantage of having a governing body, even within the association. The disadvantage became still more evident when, at a secret conference held in 1871, the general council, supported by a few delegates, decided to direct the forces of the association toward electoral agitation. It set people thinking about the evils of any government, however democratic its origin. This was the first spark of anarchism. The Jura Federation became the center of opposition to the general council.

     The separation between leaders and workers which I had noticed at Geneva in the Temple Unique did not exist in the Jura Mountains. There were a number of men who were more intelligent, and especially more active than the others; but that was all. James Guillaume, one of the most intelligent and broadly educated men I ever met, was a proof-reader and the manager of a small printing-office. His earnings in this capacity were so small that he had to give his nights to translating novels from German into French, for which he was paid eight francs -- one dollar and sixty cents -- for sixteen pages!

     When I came to Neufchatel, he told me that unfortunately he could not give even as much as a couple of hours for a friendly chat. The printing-office was just issuing that afternoon the first number of a local paper, and in addition to his usual duties of proof-reader and coeditor, he had to write the addresses of a thousand persons to whom the first three numbers were to be sent, and to put on the wrappers himself.

     I offered to aid him in writing the addresses, but that was not practicable because they were either kept in memory, or written on scraps of paper in an unreadable hand. "Well, then," said I, "I will come in the afternoon to the office and put on the wrappers, and you will give me the time which you may thus save."

     We understood each other. Guillaume warmly shook my hand, and that was the beginning of a standing friendship. We spent all the afternoon in the office, he writing the addresses, I fastening the wrappers, and a French communard, who was a compositor, chatting with us all the while as he rapidly set up a novel, intermingling his conversation with the sentences which he was putting in type and which he read aloud.

     "The fight in the streets," he would say, "became very sharp " . . . " Dear Mary, I love you " . . . " The workers were furious and fought like lions at Montmartre " . . . "and he fell on his knees before her" .. . "and that lasted for four days. We knew that Gallifet was shooting all prisoners, -- the more terrible still was the fight," -- and so on he went, rapidly lifting the type from the case.

     It was late in the evening when Guillaume took off his working blouse, and we went out for a friendly chat for a couple of hours; then he had to resume his work as editor of the " Bulletin " of the Jura Federation.

     At Neuchâtel I also made the acquaintance of Malon. He was born in a village, and in his childhood he was a shepherd. Later on, he came to Paris, learned there a trade, -- basket-making, -- and, like the bookbinder Varlin and the carpenter Pindy, with whom he was associated in the International, had come to be widely known as one of the leaders of the Association when it was prosecuted in 1869 by Napoleon III. All three had quite won the hearts of the Paris workers, and when the Commune insurrection broke out, they were elected members of the Council of the Commune, each receiving a large vote. Malon was also mayor of one of the Paris arrondissements. Now, in Switzerland, he earned his living as a basket-maker. He had rented for a few coppers a month a small open shed, out of town, on the slope of a hill, from which he enjoyed, while at work, an extensive view of the lake of Neuchâtel. At night he wrote letters, a book on the Commune, short articles for the labor papers, and thus he became a writer.

     Every day I went to see him, and to hear what the broad faced, laborious, slightly poetical, quiet, and most goodhearted communar had to tell me about the insurrection in which he took a prominent part, and which he had just described in a book, "The Third Defeat of the French Proletariat."

     One morning, as I had climbed the hill and reached his shed, he met me, quite radiant, with the words: "Do you know, Pindy is alive! Here is a letter from him: he is in Switzerland." Nothing had been heard of Pindy since he was seen last on the 25th or 26th of May at the Tuilleries, and he was supposed to be dead, while in reality he had remained in concealment in Paris. And while Malon's fingers continued to ply the wickers and to shape them into an elegant basket, he told me in his quiet voice, which only slightly trembled at times, how many men had been shot by the Versailles troops on the supposition that they were Pindy, Varlin, himself, or some other leader. He told me what he knew of the deaths of Varlin -- the bookbinder, whom the Paris workers worshiped -- and old Delécluze, who did not want to survive that new defeat, and many others; and he related the horrors which he had witnessed during that carnival of blood with which the wealthy classes of Paris celebrated their return to the capital, and then the spirit of retaliation which took hold of a crowd of people, led by Raoul Rigault, which executed the hostages of the Commune.

     His lips quivered when he spoke of the heroism of the children; and he quite broke down when he told me the story of that boy whom the Versailles troops were about to shoot, and who asked the officer's permission to hand first a silver watch, which he had on, to his mother, who lived close by. The officer, yielding to an impulse of pity, let the boy go, probably hoping that he would never return. But a quarter of an hour later the boy came back, and, taking his place amid the corpses at the wall, said: "I am ready." Twelve bullets put an end to his young life.

     I think I never suffered so much as when I read that terrible book, "Le Livre Rouge de la Justice Rurale," which contained nothing but extracts from the letters of the "Standard," "Daily Telegraph," and "Times" correspondents, written from Paris during the last days of May, 1871, relating the horrors committed by the Versailles army, under Gallifet, with a few quotations from the Paris "Figaro," imbued with a bloodthirsty spirit toward the insurgents. I was seized with a profound despair of mankind as I read these pages, and I should have retained that despair, had I not seen afterwards, in those of the defeated party who had lived through all these horrors, that absence of hatred, that confidence in the final triumph of their ideas, that calm though sad gaze directed toward the future, and that readiness to forget the nightmare of the past, which struck one in Malon, and, in fact, in nearly all the refugees of the Commune whom I met at Geneva, -- and which I still see in Louise Michel, Lefrançais, Elisée Reclus, and other friends.

     From Neuchâtel I went to Sonvilliers. In a little valley in the Jura hills there is a succession of small towns and villages, of which the French-speaking population was at that time entirely employed in the various branches of watchmaking; whole families used to work in small workshops. In one of them I found another leader, Adhémar Schwitzguébel, with whom, also, I afterwards became very closely connected. He sat among a dozen young men who were engraving lids of gold and silver watches. I was asked to take a seat on a bench, or table, and soon we were all engaged in a lively conversation upon socialism, government or no government, and the coming congresses.

     In the evening a heavy snowstorm raged; it blinded us and froze the blood in our veins, as we struggled to the next village. But, notwithstanding the storm, about fifty watchmakers, chiefly old people, came from the neighboring towns and villages, --- some of them as far as seven miles distant, -- to join a small informal meeting that was called for that evening.

     The very organization of the watch trade, which permits men to know one another thoroughly and to work in their own houses, where they are free to talk, explains why the level of intellectual development in this population is higher than that of workers who spend all their life from early childhood in the factories. There is more independence and more originality among the petty trades' workers. But the absence of a division between the leaders and the masses in the Jura Federation was also the reason why there was not a question upon which every member of the federation would not strive to form his own independent opinion. Here I saw that the workers were not a mass that was being led and made subservient to the political ends of a few men; their leaders were simply their more active comrades, --- initiators rather than leaders. The clearness of insight, the soundness of judgment, the capacity for disentangling complex social questions, which I noticed among these workers, especially the middle-aged ones, deeply impressed me; and I am firmly persuaded that if the Jura Federation has played a prominent part in the development of socialism, it is not only on account of the importance of the no-government and federalist ideas of which it was the champion, but also on account of the expression which was given to these ideas by the good sense of the Jura watchmakers. Without their aid, these conceptions might have remained mere attractions for a long time.

     The theoretical aspects of anarchism, as they were then beginning to be expressed in the Jura Federation, especially by Bakúnin; the criticisms of state socialism -- the fear of an economic despotism, far more dangerous than the merely political despotism -- which I heard formulated there; and the revolutionary character of the agitation, appealed strongly to my mind. But the egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura Mountains, the independence of thought and expression which I saw developing in the workers, and their unlimited devotion to the cause appealed far more strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week's stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled. I was an anarchist.

     A subsequent journey to Belgium, where I could compare once more the centralized political agitation at Brussels with the economic and independent agitation that was going on among the clothiers at Verviers, only strengthened my views. These clothiers were one of the most sympathetic populations that I have ever met with in Western Europe.

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January 21, 2017 17:28:04 :
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