Part 6: Western Europe, Section 4

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 4

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

Part Six

Section IV

     Of all the towns of Switzerland that I know, La Chauxde-Fonds is perhaps the least attractive. It lies on a high plateau entirely devoid of any vegetation, open to bitterly cold winds in the winter, when the snow lies as deep as at Moscow, and melts and falls again as often as at St. Petersburg. But it was important to spread our ideas in that center, and to give more life to the local propaganda Pindy, Spichiger, Albarracin, the Blanquists Ferré and Jallot were there, and from time to time I could pay visits to Guillaume at Neuchâtel, and to Schwitzguébel in the valley of St. Imier

     A life full of work that I liked began now for me. We held many meetings, ourselves distributing our announcements in the cafés and the workshops. Once a week we held our section meetings, at which the most animated dis cussions took place, and we went also to preach anarchism at the gatherings convoked by the political parties. I traveled a good deal, visiting other sections and helping them.

     During that winter we won the sympathy of many, but our regular work was very much hampered by a crisis in the watch trade. Half the workers were out of work or only partially employed, so that the municipality had to open dining-rooms to provide cheap meals at cost price. The cooperative workshop established by the anarchists at La Chauxde-Fonds, in which the earnings were divided equally among all the members, had great difficulty in getting work, in spite of its high reputation, and Spichiger had to resort several times to wool-combing for an upholsterer, in order to get his living.

     We all took part, that year, in a manifestation with the red flag at Bern. The wave of reaction spread to Switzerland, and the carrying of the workers' banner was prohibited by the Bern police, in defiance of the constitution. It was necessary, therefore, to show that at least here and there the workers would not have their rights trampled underfoot, and would offer resistance. We all went to Bern on the anniversary of the Paris Commune, to carry the red flag in the streets, notwithstanding the prohibition. Of course there was a collision with the police, in which two comrades received sword cuts and two police officers were rather seriously wounded. But the red flag was carried safe to the hall, where a most animated meeting was held. I hardly need say that the so-called leaders were in the ranks, and fought like all the rest. The trial involved nearly thirty Swiss citizens, all themselves demanding to be prosecuted, and those who had wounded the two police officers coming forward spontaneously to say that they had done it. A great deal of sympathy was won to the cause during the trial; it was understood that all liberties have to be defended jealously, in order not to be lost. The sentences were consequently very light, not exceeding three months' imprisonment.

     However, the Bern government prohibited the carrying of the red flag anywhere in the canton; and the Jura Federation thereupon decided to carry it, in defiance of the prohibition, in St. Imier, where we held our congress that year. This time most of us were armed, and ready to defend our banner to the last extremity. A body of police had been placed in a square to stop our column; a detachment of the militia was kept in readiness in an adjoining field, under the pretext of target practice,--we distinctly heard their shots as we marched through the town. But when our column appeared in the square, and it was judged from its aspect that aggression would result in serious bloodshed, the mayor let us continue our march, undisturbed, to the hall where the meeting was to be held. None of us desired a fight; but the strain of that march, in fighting order, to the sound of a military band, was such that I do not know what feeling prevailed in most of us, during the first moments after we reached the hall,--relief at having been spared an undesired fight, or regret that the fight did not take place. Man is a very complex being.

     Our main activity, however, was in working out the practical and theoretic aspects of anarchist socialism, and in this direction the federation has undoubtedly accomplished something that will last.

     We saw that a new form of society is germinating in the civilized nations, and must take the place of the old one: a society of equals, who will not be compelled to sell their hands and brains to those who choose to employ them in a haphazard way, but who will be able to apply their knowledge and capacities to production, in an organism so constructed as to combine all the efforts for procuring the greatest sum possible of well-being for all, while full, free scope will be left for every individual initiative. This society will be composed of a multitude of associations, federated for all the purposes which require federation: trade federations for production of all sorts,--agricultural, industrial, intellectual, artistic; communes for consumption, making provision for dwellings, gas works, supplies of food, sanitary arrangements, etc.; federations of communes among themselves, and federations of communes with trade organizations; and finally, wider groups covering all the country, or several countries, composed of men who collaborate for the satisfaction of such economic, intellectual, artistic, and moral needs as are not limited to a given territory. All these will combine directly, by means of free agreements between them, just as the railway companies or the postal departments of different countries cooperate now, without having a central railway or postal government,--even though the former are actuated by merely egotistic aims, and the latter belong to different and often hostile states; or as the meteorologists, the Alpine clubs, the lifeboat stations in Great Britain, the cyclists, the teachers, and so on, combine for all sorts of work in common, for intellectual pursuits, or simply for pleasure. There will be full freedom for the development of new forms of production, invention, and organization; individual initiative will be encouraged, and the tendency toward uniformity and centralization will be discouraged. Moreover, this society will not be crystallized into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, evolving organism; no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration.

     None of us minimized the importance and magnitude of the change which we looked for. We understood that the current opinions upon the necessity of private ownership in land, factories, mines, dwelling-houses, and so on, as the means of securing industrial progress, and of the wage-system as the means of compelling men to work, would not soon give way to higher conceptions of socialized ownership and production. We knew that a tedious propaganda and a long succession of struggles, of individual and collective revolts against the now prevailing forms of property-holding, of individual self-sacrifice, of partial attempts at reconstruction and partial revolutions, would have to be lived through, before the current ideas upon private ownership would be modified. And we understood also that the prevalent ideas concerning the necessity of authority--in which all of us have been bred--would not and could not be abandoned by civilized mankind all at once. Long years of propaganda and a long succession of partial acts of revolt against authority, as well as a complete revision of the teachings now derived from history, would be required before men would perceive that they had been mistaken in attributing to their rulers and their laws what was derived in reality from their own sociable feelings and habits. We knew all that. But we also knew that in preaching reform in both these directions, we should be working with the tide of human progress.

     When I made a closer acquaintance with the working population and their sympathizers from the better educated classes, I soon realized that they valued their personal freedom even more than they valued their personal wellbeing. Fifty years ago, the workers were ready to sell their personal liberty to all sorts of rulers, and even to a Cesar, in exchange for a promise of material well-being; but now, this was no longer the case. I saw that the blind faith in elected rulers, even if they were taken from among the best leaders of the labor movement, was dying away among the Latin workers. "We must know first what we want, and then we can do it best ourselves," was an idea which I found widely spread among them,--far more widely than is generally believed. The sentence which was put in the statutes of the International Association "The emancipation of the workers must be accomplished by the workers themselves," had met with general sympathy, and had taken root in minds. The sad experience of the Paris Commune only confirmed it.

     When the insurrection broke out, a considerable number of men belonging to the middle classes themselves were prepared to make, or at least to accept, a new start in the social direction. "When my brother and myself, coming from our little room, went out into the streets," Elisée Reclus said to me once, "we were asked on all sides by people belonging to the wealthier classes: 'Tell us what is to be done? We are ready to try a new start.' But we were not yet prepared to make the suggestions."

     Never before had a government been as fairly representative of all the advanced parties as was the Council of the Commune, elected on the 25th of March, 1871. All shades of revolutionary opinion--Blanquists, Jacobinists, Internationalists--were represented in it in a true proportion. And yet, the workers themselves having no distinct ideas of social reform to impress upon their representatives, the Commune government did nothing in that direction. The very fact of having been isolated from the masses and shut up in the Hotel de Ville paralyzed them. For the success of socialism, the ideas of no-government, of self-reliance, of free initiative of the individual,--of anarchism, in a word,--had thus to be preached side by side with those of socialized ownership and production.

     We certainly foresaw that if full freedom were left to the individual for the expression of his ideas and for action, we should have to face a certain amount of extravagant exaggeration of our principles. I had seen it in the nihilist movement in Russia. But we trusted--and experience has proved that we were right--that social life itself, supported by a frank, open-minded criticism of opinions and actions, would be the most effective means for threshing out opinions and for divesting them of the unavoidable exaggerations. We acted, in fact, in accordance with the old saying that freedom remains still the wisest cure for freedom's temporary inconveniences. There is, in mankind, a nucleus of social habits--an inheritance from the past, not yet duly appreciated--which notmaintained by coercion and is superior to coercion. Upon it all the progress of mankind is based, and so long as mankind does not begin to deteriorate physically and mentally, it will not be destroyed by any amount of criticism or of occasional revolt against it. These were the opinions in which I grew confirmed more and more in proportion as my experience of men and things increased.

     We understood at the same time that such a change cannot be produced by the conjectures of one man of genius, that it will not be one man's discovery, but that it must result from the constructive work of the masses, just as the forms of judicial procedure which were elaborated in the early mediæval period, the village community, the guild, the mediæval city, and the foundations of international law were worked out by the people.

     Many of our predecessors had undertaken to picture ideal commonwealths, basing them sometimes upon the principle of authority, and, on some rare occasions, upon the principle of freedom. Robert Owen and Fourier had given the world their ideals of a free, organically developing society, in opposition to the pyramidal ideals which had been copied from the Roman Empire or from the Roman Church. Proudhon had continued their work, and Bakúnin, applying his wide and clear understanding of the philosophy of history to the criticism of present institutions, "built up while he was demolishing." But all that was preparatory work only.

     The International Workingmen's Association inaugurated a new method of solving the problems of practical sociology by appealing to the workers themselves. The educated men who had joined the association undertook only to enlighten the workers as to what was going on in different countries of the world, to analyze the obtained results, and, later on, to aid them in formulating their conclusions. We did not pretend to evolve an ideal commonwealth out of our theoretical views as to what a society ought to be, but we invited the workers to investigate the causes of the present evils, and in their discussions and congresses to consider the practical aspects of a better social organization than the one we live in. A question raised at an international congress was recommended as a subject of study to all labor unions. In the course of the year it was discussed all over Europe, in the small meetings of the sections, with a full knowledge of the local needs of each trade and each locality; then the work of the sections was brought before the next congress of each federation, and finally it was submitted in a more elaborate form to the next international congress. The structure of the society which we longed for was thus worked out, in theory and practice, from beneath, and the Jura Federation took a large part in the elaboration of the anarchist ideal.

     For myself, placed as I was in such favorable conditions, I gradually came to realize that anarchism represents more than a mere mode of action and a mere conception of a free society; that it is part of a philosophy, natural and social, which must be developed in a quite different way from the metaphysical or dialectic methods which have been employed in sciences dealing with man. I saw that it must be treated by the same methods as natural sciences; not, however, on the slippery ground of mere analogies such as Herbert Spencer accepts, but on the solid basis of induction applied to human institutions. And I did my best to accomplish what I could in that direction.

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January 21, 2017 17:37:05 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 4 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:45:59 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 4 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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