Part 6: Western Europe, Section 12

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 12

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

Part Six

Section XII

THE anarchist movement had undergone a considerable development in France during the years 1881 and 1882. It was generally believed that the French mind was hostile to communism, and within the International Workingmen's Association "collectivism" was preached instead. It meant then the possession of the instruments of production in common, each separate group having to settle for itself whether the consumption of produce should be on individualistic or communistic lines. In reality, however., the French mind was hostile only to the monastic communism, to the phalanstère of the old schools. When the Jura Federation, at its congress of 1880, boldly declared itself anarchist-communist, - that is, in favor of free communism-anarchism won wide sympathy in France. Our paper began to spread in that, country, letters were exchanged in great numbers with French workers, and an anarchist movement of importance rapidly developed at Paris and in some of the provinces, especially in the Lyons region. When I crossed France in 1881, on my way from Thonon to London, I visited Lyons, St. Etienne, and Vienne, lecturing there, and I found in these cities a considerable number of workers ready to accept our ideas.

By the end of 1882 a terrible crisis prevailed in the Lyons region. The silk industry was paralyzed, and the misery among the weavers was so great that crowds of children stood every morning at the gates of the barracks, where the soldiers gave away what they could spare of their bread and soup. This was the beginning of the popularity of General Boulanger, who had permitted this distribution of food. The miners of the region were also very precarious state.

I knew that there was a great deal of fermentation, but during the eleven months I had stayed at London I had lost close contact with the French movement. A few weeks after I returned to Thonon I learned from the papers that the miners of Monceau-les-Mines, incensed at the vexations of the ultra-Catholic owners of the mines, had begun a sort of movement; they were holding secret meetings, talking of a general strike ; the stone crosses erected on all the roads round the mines were thrown down or blown up by dynamite cartridges, which are largely used by the miners in underground work, and often remain in their possession. The agitation at Lyons also took on a more violent character. The anarchists, who were rather numerous in the city, allowed no meeting of the opportunist politicians to be held without obtaining a hearing for themselves, storming the platform, as a last resource. They brought forward resolutions to the effect that the mines and all necessaries for production, as well as the dwelling-houses, ought to be owned by the nation; and these resolutions were carried with enthusiasm, to the horror of the middle classes.

The feeling among the workers was growing every day against the opportunist town councilors and political leaders, as also against the press, which made light of a very acute crisis, while nothing was undertaken to relieve the widespread misery. As is usual at such times, the fury of the poorer people turned especially against the places of amusement and debauch, which become only the more conspicuous in times of desolation and misery, as they impersonate for the worker the egotism and dissoluteness of the wealthier classes. A place particularly hated by the workers was the underground café at the Théâtre Bellecour, which remained open all night, and where, in the small hours of the morning, one could see newspaper men and politicians feasting and drinking in company with gay women. Not a meeting was held but some menacing allusion was made to that cafe, and one night a dynamite cartridge was exploded in it by an unknown band. A worker who was occasionally there, a socialist, jumped to blow out the lighted fuze of the cartridge, and was killed, while a few of the feasting politicians were slightly wounded. Next day a dynamite cartridge was exploded at the doors of a recruiting bureau, and it was said that the anarchists intended to blow up the huge statue of the Virgin which stands on one of the hills of Lyons. One must have lived at Lyons or in its neighborhood to realize the extent to which the population and the schools are ;till in the hands of the Catholie clergy, and to understand the hatred that the male portion of the population feel toward the clergy.

A panic now seized the wealthier classes of Lyons. Some sixty anarchists - all workers, and only one middle-class man, Emile Gautier, who was on a lecturing tour in the region - were arrested. The Lyons papers undertook at the same time to incite the government to arrest me, representing me as the leader of the agitation, who had come on purpose from England to direct the movement. Russian spies began to parade again in conspicuous numbers in our small town. Almost every day I received letters, evidently written by spies of the international police, mentioning some dynamite plot, or mysteriously announcing that consignments of dynamite bad been shipped to me. I made quite a collection of these letters, writing on each of them "Police Internationale, " and they were taken away by the French police when they made a search in my house. But they did not dare to produce these letters in court, nor did they ever restore them to me.

Not only was the house searched, but my wife, who was going to Geneva, was arrested at the station in Thonon, and searched. But of course absolutely nothing was found compromise me or any one else.

Ten days passed, during which I was quite free to away, if I wished to do so. I received several letters advising me to disappear, -one of them from an unknown Russian friend, perhaps a member of the diplomatic staff, who seemed to have known me, and wrote that I must leave at once, because otherwise I should be the first victim of the extradition treaty which was about to be concluded between France and Russia. I remained where I was; and when the "Times" inserted a telegram saying that I bad disappeared from Thonon, I wrote a letter to the paper, giving my address. Since so many of my friends were arrested, I bad no intention of leaving.

In the night of December 21 my brother-in-law died in my arms. We knew that his illness was incurable, but it is terrible to see a young life extinguished in your presence after a brave struggle against death. Both my wife and I were broken down. Three or four hours later, as the dull winter morning was dawning, gendarmes came to my house to arrest me. Seeing in what a state my wife was, I asked permission to remain with her till the burial was over, promising upon my word of honor to be at the prison door at a given hour; but it was refused, and the same night I was taken to Lyons. Elisée Reclus, notified by telegraph, came at once, bestowing on my wife all the gentleness of his golden heart; friends came from Geneva; and although the funeral was absolutely civil, which was a novelty in that little town, half of the population was at the burial, to show my wife that the hearts of the poorer classes and the simple Savoy peasants were with us, and not with their rulers. When my trial was going on, the peasants used to come from the mountain villages to town to get the papers, and to see how my affair stood before the court.

Another incident which profoundly touched me was the arrival at Lyons of an English friend. He came on behalf of a gentleman, well-known and esteemed in the English political world, in whose family I had spent many happy hours at London, in 1882. He was the bearer of a considerable sum of money for the purpose of obtaining my release on bail, and he transmitted me at the same time the message of my London friend that I need not care in the least about the bail, but must leave France immediately. In some mysterious way he had managed to see me freely, -not in the double-grated iron cage in which I was allowed interviews with my wife, -and he was as much affected by my refusal to accept the offer as I was by that touching token of friendship on the part of one whom, with his excellent wife, I had already learned to esteem so highly.

The French government wanted to have one of those great trials which produce an impression upon the population, but there was no possibility of prosecuting the arrested anarchists for the explosions. It would have required bringing us before a jury, which in all probability would have acquitted us. Consequently, the government adopted the Machiavellian course of prosecuting us for having belonged to the International Workingmen's Association. There is in France a law, passed immediately after the fall of the Commune, under which men can be brought be. fore a simple police court for having belonged to that association. The maximum penalty is five years' imprisonment; and a police court is always sure to pronounce the sentences which are wanted by the government.

The trial began at Lyons in the first days of January, 1883, and lasted about a fortnight. The accusation was ridiculous, as every one knew that none of the Lyons workers had ever joined the International, and it entirely fell through, as may be seen from the following episode. The only witness for the prosecution was the chief of the secret police at Lyons, an elderly man, who was treated at the court with the utmost respect. His report, I must say, was quite correct as concerns the facts. The anarchists, he said, bad taken hold of the population ; they had rendered opportunist meetings impossible, because they spoke at each meeting, preaching communism and anarchism, and carrying with them the audiences. Seeing that so far he had been fair in his testimony, I ventured to ask him a question: 11 Did you ever hear the International Workingmen's Association spoken of at Lyons?

"Never," he replied sulkily.
When I returned from the London congress of 1881, and did all I could to have the International reconstituted in France, did I succeed?
"No. They did not find it revolutionary enough."
"Thank you," I said, and turning toward the procureur added, "There's all your prosecution overthrown by your own witness!"

Nevertheless, we were all condemned for having belonged to the International. Four of us got the maximum sentence, five years' imprisonment and four hundred dollars' fine; the remainder got from four years to one year. In fact, they never tried to prove anything concerning the International. It was quite forgotten. We were simply asked to speak about anarchism, and so we did. Not a word was said about the explosions; and when one or two of the Lyons comrades wanted to clear this point, they were bluntly told that they were not prosecuted for that but for having belonged to the International, - to which I alone. belonged.

There is always some comical incident in such trials, and this time it was supplied by a letter of mine. There was nothing upon which to base the accusation. Scores of searches had been made at the houses of French anarchists, but only two letters of mine had been found. The prosecution tried to make the best of them. One was written to a French worker when he was despondent. I spoke to him in my letter about the great times we were living in, the great changes coming, the birth and spreading of new ideas, and so on. The letter was not long, and little capital was made out of it by the procureur. As to the other letter, it was twelve pages long. I had written it to another French friend, a young shoemaker. He earned his living by making shoes in his own room. On his left side he used to have a small iron stove, upon which he himself cooked his daily meal, and upon his right a small stool upon which he wrote long letters to the comrades, without leaving his shoemaker's low bench. After he had made just as many pairs of shoes as were required to cover the expenses of his extremely modest living, and to send a few francs to his old mother in the country, he would spend long hours in writing letters in which he developed the theoretical principles of anarchism with admirable good sense and intelligence. He is now a writer well known in France and generally respected for the integrity of his character. Unfortunately, at that time he would cover eight or twelve pages of note paper without one single full stop, or even a comma. I once sat down and wrote a long letter in which I explained to him how our written thoughts subdivide into sentences, clauses, and phrases, each of which should end with its appropriate period, semicolon, or comma, and so on, - in short, gave him a little lesson in the elements of punctuation. I told him how much it would improve his writings if he adopted this simple plan.

This letter was read by the prosecutor before the court and elicited from him most pathetic comments. "You have heard, gentlemen, this letter" -he went on, addressing the Court. "You have listened to it. There is nothing particular in it at first sight. He gives a lesson in grammar to a worker. . . . But" - and here his voice vibrated with accents of a deep emotion -- "it was not in order to help a poor worker in getting instruction which he, owing prob ably to laziness, failed to get at school. It was not to help him to earn an honest living. No! gentlemen, it was written in order to inspire him with hatred for our grand and beautiful institutions, in order only the better to infuse into him the venom of anarchism, in order to make of him only a more terrible enemy of society. Cursed be the day when Kropótkin set his foot upon the soil of France!"

We could not help laughing like boys all the time be was, delivering that speech; the judges stared at him as if to tell him that be was overdoing his rôle, but be seemed not to notice anything, and, carried by his eloquence, went on speaking with more and more theatrical gestures and intonations. He really did his best to obtain his reward from the Russian government.

Very soon after the condemnation the presiding magistrate was promoted to the magistracy of an assize court. As to the procureur and another magistrate, - one would hardly believe it, -the Russian government offered them the Russian cross of Sainte-Anne, and they were allowed by the republic to accept it! The famous Russian alliance, thus had its origin in the Lyons trial.

This trial -during which most brilliant anarchist speeches, reported by all the papers, were made by such first-rate speakers as the worker Bernard and Emile Gautier, and during which all the accused took a very firm attitude, preaching our doctrines for a fortnight -had a powerful influence in clearing away false ideas about anarchism in France, and surely contributed to some extent to the revival of socialism in other countries. As to the condemns. tion, it was so little justified by the proceedings that the French press - with the exception of the papers devoted to the government - openly blamed the magistrates. Even the moderate "Journal des Economistes" found fault with the verdict, which "nothing in the proceedings before the Icourt could have made one foresee." The contest between the accusers and ourselves was won by us, in the public opinion. Immediately a proposition of amnesty was brought before the Chamber, and received about a hundred votes in support of it. It came up regularly every year, each time securing more and more voices, until we were released.

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January 21, 2017 17:40:58 :
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