Élisée Reclus: the making of a Communard
- March 18, 2021
Paris Commune 150
The experience of the Paris Commune had a profound impact on the thinking of Élisée Reclus and inspired him to develop his extensive philosophy of freedom.
Élisée Reclus (1830-1905) is known as the foremost French geographer of his age and as a major figure in the world anarchist movement. However, particularly at this moment of commemoration, he also deserves recognition as a notable participant in the Paris Commune, and as one of the most important interpreters of that world-historical event.
On the eve of the Commune, Reclus was already well-known internationally as both a geographer and a revolutionary. He joined the IWMA, the First International, in the early months of its existence, and became increasingly influential in its affairs in the late 1860s. During this period, he also participated in the cooperative movement and co-edited a journal, Coopération, with his brother Élie. In 1867, he joined the radical faction within the League for Peace and Freedom, and the next year he co-founded, with Bakunin and others, the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy.
In addition to engaging in this phrenetic political activism, Reclus was an indefatigable researcher and writer. Following years of prolific publishing in geography journals, the two volumes of a major geographical work, La Terre, appeared in 1868 and 1869. His popular History of a Stream also came out in 1869, and in 1870 he published the first volume of Terrestrial Phenomena, another geographical work,
In late 1870, Reclus and many other Parisian radicals and revolutionaries enrolled in the National Guard, as Prussian troops began to encircle the city in preparation for the Siege of Paris and their imminent victory over the French. With the collapse of the Empire and the establishment of the Commune in March of 1871, these dissidents became the armed defenders of both the city and the popular revolution.
On April 4, Reclus’ battalion was attacked by government troops and he was captured. He would be sent to numerous different prisons, and then condemned to transportation to France’s most distant penal colony in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. However, his sentence was reduced to ten years of exile in response to an international petition signed by scientists (including Darwin and Wallace) and other supporters.
Reclus’ powerful experience of both the Commune and its aftermath was a crucial turning point in both his life and thought. He reports that it was not long before the specter of defeat and retribution began to loom over the Communards, especially as the revolt failed to spread successfully across France. He claims that they understood almost from the outset that they were risking their lives to promote the cause of liberty. He writes in L’Homme et la Terre of the atmosphere of “serene gravity” and “majestic grandeur” that pervaded Paris in view of the “nobility of devotion” and the “breadth of the ideas” of the Communards.
The Triumph of the Commune
Reclus’ political views were deeply affected by this convulsive history of triumph and tragedy. In some ways it accelerated the direction in which he was moving politically and radicalized his outlook. In particular, it greatly increased his faith in the capacity of workers and citizens to organize themselves freely, cooperatively and democratically.
As late as January of 1871, Reclus still vacillated over presenting himself as a candidate for the National Assembly — his name in fact appeared on two candidate lists in Paris. However, through his experience of the Commune, he developed a total opposition to traditional electoral politics. He advocated instead evolutionary and revolutionary organization through voluntary mutual aid and radical direct democracy at the base, and free federation at every other level.
Reclus’ hopes for humanity and for revolution were intensified by the contagious revolutionary spirit of the Commune. He cites in L’Evolution, La Révolution et L’Idéal Anarchique the thousands of government troops who were stranded in Paris and “were disarmed by the people and easily converted to its cause.” In effect, the Commune became the charismatic community that could arouse a kind of revolutionary loyalty capable of vanquishing the old regressive allegiances to church, state, or any other authoritarian institution.
Reclus contended that the Commune possessed “an ideal that was far superior to those of all the preceding revolutions.” He says that it gave a new meaning to the word “Commune,” connoting not only the liberated community but “a new humanity made up of free and equal companions, who pay no attention to the old borders, but aid one another peacefully,” he wrote in an essay at the end of the century. The commune represents for him the concrete universal, the simultaneous realization of both particularity and universality, embodied in a historical movement.
Reclus argues that the destruction of the Vendôme Column, the symbol of French imperial power, showed that the International’s idea of universal solidarity had become a living reality for the Communards. This act was in his view an expression of “their fraternal sympathy toward the brothers who had been driven against them, and their feelings of loathing for the masters and kings who on both sides had led their subjects to the slaughter,” as he wrote in L’Evolution, La Révolution.
He saw in the Commune the seeds of an even more revolutionary future. He points to the Commune’s actions of abolishing conscription, breaking ties with the Church, returning pawned possessions, and canceling fines, fees, and rent payments. He saw in all these moves “the beginnings of communist society.” Furthermore, he saw the ideas of the Commune beginning to spread around the world.
As evidence of the Commune’s power of example, Reclus notes its influence in Spain the following year. He contends that for a certain period, “the general movement that was developing in most of the provinces and municipalities” took on “an essentially communalist character,” as he wrote in L’Homme et la Terre. Moreover, “the principle of Federation,” which he judged to be “inscribed on the very soil of Spain, where each natural division of the country retains its perfect geographical individuality,” seemed to be “on the verge of triumphing.”
The Tragedy of the Commune
Another effect of Reclus’ experience of the Commune was to intensify his critique of domination, and to reinforce his belief in the importance of deep, multi-level social transformation as a precondition to successful revolution. This led him to question and even criticize strongly certain aspects of the Commune, despite his profound admiration for its achievements.
He argues in L’Evolution, La Révolution, for example, that just as the Revolution of 1848 was doomed to failure because of an absence of the necessary degree of both revolutionary commitment and revolutionary organization, the Commune’s revolutionary project also “could obviously not prevail.” He explains that even though it was “perfectly justified, indeed necessitated, by the circumstances,” it was carried out by only half of Paris and had the support across France of only the industrial towns.” It seems difficult to question his contention that the revolution could not succeed without the active support of a large proportion of the French populace.
Reclus applies to the Commune the ideas that he developed over the years in his writings on evolution and revolution. He believes that many of the revolutionaries were still too much under the influence of traditional centralist, authoritarian politics to create a new, radically libertarian order. He contends that Paris remained too centered on itself as the great metropolis, rather than as “simply the Commune of Paris calling for a free association with other communes, towns and rural areas,” as he put it in L’Homme et la Terre.
Reclus argues that faced with an increasingly probable future of “merciless repression,” the Communards should have used the brief period of relative calm before the storm to create a legacy of “great and unprecedented examples” that would show the true nature of a future society “delivered from hunger and the scourge of money.” He believes that this approach was impossible in large part because of the ideological diversity of the Communards. Some, he says, were swept up in “Jacobin Romanticism,” others had “honest revolutionary instincts,” but little more, and only a minority realized “the necessity of proceeding methodically with the destruction of all the institutions of the state and the abolition of all the other obstacles that stand in the way of the spontaneous association of the citizens.”
For Reclus, the creative spontaneity of the people that is manifested in revolution can only emerge as the result of extremely careful and wide-ranging work to create its preconditions. For a successful revolution, it would have been necessary for the citizens to have developed “a common will toward social renewal” that they would have “imposed on their representatives.” He concludes that “the principal error of the Commune … was precisely that of being a government, and of substituting itself for the people by force of circumstances.” In his view there should have been more emphasis on the creative power of the people in their neighborhoods and workplaces, and less on the initiatives of the Council, as virtuously revolutionary as these sometimes were.
Evolution, Revolution and the Communal Ideal
In Reclus’ developed political philosophy, he saw four levels of community and association as crucial to social transformation and to the liberated world of the future. His experience of the Commune profoundly shaped the contours of his vision.
The first is the socially primary community which we might identify with the affinity group as the micro-community of liberation. He discovered this reality early in life in his large and unusual family, influenced by a father who “was a precursor of anarchism” and inspired the family to “put communism into practice” in its daily life, according to Reclus’ nephew and biographer, Paul Reclus. As early as 1859 Reclus referred in a letter to his sister to “little republics within ourselves and around ourselves” that will “come together” and “form the great Republic” and much later, in his correspondence with Clara Koettlitz, he stressed the necessity that “friends who live and act in the same way” should form “small loving associations” from which “the great fraternal society will be formed.”
It was specifically during the Commune that Reclus came to a realization that the next, and politically most crucial level of social organization, must be the autonomous commune. As the previous discussion has suggested, the power of the idea of the commune for him can hardly be overestimated. In a letter to Alfred Dumesnil in March, 1871, he went so far as to say that “March 18 [the founding of the Commune] is the greatest date in French history since August 10 [the turning point of the French Revolution]. It is at once the triumph of the Workers’ Republic and the inauguration of the Communal Federation.”
From that time on he was committed to the idea that a radicalized version of the commune must be the primary form of political organization. Such a commune would practice radical direct democracy in which the power of the people could be delegated, but never represented or alienated. For larger purposes it would act in solidarity with all other communes through free federation.
The third essential level of social organization for Reclus is that of the workers’ International, acting through its local sections. Though Reclus’ political vision is focused on the political form of the commune, he in no way neglected the momentous, world-historical significance of the unity and solidarity of all of humanity as workers. He saw many of the revolutionary advances of the Communards to be clearly the fruit of the educational and organizational efforts of the International. In L’Evolution, La Révolution he went so far as to claim that “since the discovery of America and the circumnavigation of the earth, no achievement was more important in the history of man” than the International, in which all workers could “join together to form a single nation, in defiance of all their respective governments.” Reclus believed that to succeed, the revolution must be carried out both at the communal level and at the level of the vast majority of humanity, united and mobilized. To achieve this, the International was necessary.
Finally, the goal of such a local and global revolution is to make possible a fourth level of association, the Universal Republic, the most expansive expression of human community and solidarity. This Republic will be based on the free federation of autonomous communes on every level, from the regional to the global. The concept of the Universal Republic was an important one for the Commune. For example, the manifesto of the Federation of Artists of Paris concluded with the aspiration that this “will contribute to our regeneration, to the inauguration of communal luxury and the splendors of the future, and to the Universal Republic.” The Elections Commission, in deciding that foreigners could be elected members of the Council, cited the fact that the flag of the Commune is that of the Universal Republic. This discourse of the Communards must certainly have reinforced Reclus developing idea that the form of the revolutionary future would be a world of autonomous communes, united through federation into a Universal Republic.
It should be added that in addition to all four levels of human community must be added the ultimately most universal level of the entire Earth community. Reclus’ problematic of social evolution and revolution increasingly became identical with a problematic of global social and ecological regeneration.
The (Reclusian) Legacy of the Commune
Reclus went on to develop an extensive philosophy of freedom inspired in many ways by his experience of the Commune. He launched one of the most extensive critiques of domination, analyzing the role of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, authoritarian religion and technology, in addition to human domination of nature. He also presented a vision of a free, communitarian anarchist society based on mutual aid and solidarity, in which values of love, beauty and imagination were central to everyday life. Moreover, his analysis of the dialectic of evolution and revolution contributed to an understanding of how we might ultimately make the difficult passage from the realm of domination to the realm of freedom.
Reclus’ reflections on the enduring significance of the Commune offer a powerful message concerning the fundamental ways in which we have wandered astray in our voyage of liberation.
There exists today an imaginary space which the ideas of the Commune, the International and Universal Republic once occupied. As part of its legacy, the Commune bequeaths to us the project of filling that imaginary space. This can only be achieved, first, through the rebirth of what Reclus called “the spirit of full association,” of l’entre’aide, a spirit that was once ubiquitous in traditional and indigenous communities, and second, through the patient evolutionary work of social creativity that is needed on the level of the person, the community and the whole Earth, of which we are an expression.
Reclus believed that this regenerative work would provide us with the collective force and inspiration necessary to take on the daunting but necessary task of social and ecological revolution. Our problem is ultimately the problem of the real. It includes the challenges of facing the power of the real, and of confronting the gap in the real. Our great work, according to Reclus, is the creation, at every level, of a powerful revolutionary reality that persistently resists domination, so that we can find a rich and abundant life beyond resistance to domination.
This evolutionary-revolutionary vision was very much a product of what was revealed to Reclus through his tragic and transfigurative experience of the Commune.
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