Joseph Déjacque and the First Emergence of “Anarchism”

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[From Contr’un, July 25, 2016]

One of this week’s tasks was to finally go back and take a closer look at  how Joseph Déjacque used the language of anarchy in his writings. I finally assembled a couple of text files of all the articles from Le Libertaire and worked through the required keyword searches. That process led me to focus on some pieces that I admit I had never read, or read closely, before and produce some new translations. I think the results are interesting and pose some new interpretive challenges.

Déjacque is notable for using the conventional anarchist vocabulary much more than most of his contemporaries, but I have been particularly interested in his use of the term anarchisme. I have made much in recent years of the lag between the emergence of anarchy as a keyword in 1840 and the eventual adoption of anarchism by various anti-authoritarian currents in the late 1870s, but there have always been potential problems with that account, chief among them the first emergence of anarchism as a keyword during Proudhon’s lifetime. It seems certain that some of that part of the story is still to be told. We find an entry for anarchisme in the 1853 Dictionnaire universel, with a reference to Proudhon (“Voir l’Anarchie de P.-J. Proudhon, l’éminent publiciste chef de cette école.”) But there are no references to self-proclaimed anarchists using the term and the dictionary provides very little clarification about the beliefs of Proudhon and his “school.” In a period when so many isms were coined, the term would perhaps have seemed obvious to a lexicographer, even if it had not really seen much use. My own searches have still revealed no clearly anarchist uses of the term prior to its appearance in Le Libertaire on August 18, 1859, in the third part of Déjacque’s “La question politique,”

This section, “Le Catholicisme. — Le Socialisme,” is a fine example of Déjacque in ranting mode. He has, for example, just identified himself as a “revolutionary Satan,” with “an infernal snicker for an amen,” when he first deploys the now-famous keyword:

The time is coming. Jesuitism and Anarchism, the extremes will meet. But it is by marching to meet one another, by clashing mortally like bulls who compete for a heifer. Which of the two will take possession of Humanity? — The old are the old and the young are the young: To the old the Past, to the young the Future!!…

So, there you have it: anarchism may well have emerged first into the world “like a bull who competes for a heifer.” More importantly, of course, anarchism emerges as one of two fundamental forces in a Manichean struggle for the possession of Humanity. And that is the tone for the rest of the essay:

If, on their side, the Jesuits have the belfry of Saint-Barthélemy, we, anarchists, have the tocsin of revolutions. To arms! in the two camps. To arms! and let the idea cross with the idea and the iron with iron! — To arms! We fight for oppression, they say. — To arms! We, we fight for deliverance! And do not forget that those we have to combat are those who have said: “Kill, always kill…” Only, this time, it is not “God” but Humanity that will recognize its own!!

But you, bourgeois and protestants, what will become of you in this colossal brawl? There is no place for you, poor vagabonds, between the two enemy camps, that of anarchic Liberty and catholic Authority. You will be crushed, like caterpillars, beneath the feet of the terrible principles in battle. Men of the happy medium, you no longer have a reason to exist. Political constitutionalism, like religious constitutionalism; all the schisms, all the mixed heresies; the bastard reforms, part liberal, part religious; the protestant superstition and the representative superstition; everything apart from the extremes; everything that is a corruption of radical Good or radical Evil; everything that is not exclusively one or exclusively the other, pure-bred libertarian or pure-bred authoritarian; everything, finally, that has been brought into the world by a coupling of which nature disapproves, is destined for death without posterity, like the mule, that sterile product of the donkey and the horse. Your last hour has sounded, bourgeois and protestants, mules incapable of reproduction. Whether it is Jesuitism or Anarchism that triumphs, that is it for you, your elimination is assured. For neither cannot tolerate you any more than the other. — Jesuitism does not want intermediaries between it, — the sacred consumer, the holy and blessed and privileged caste, — and the immense mass of the taxable and exploitable people, the profane beast of burden, the servile and gigantic producer. Every other profession of faith but its own is a hanging offense. Anarchism, it wants no more parasites: it denies God in the heavens and on the earth; it leaves no pretext for the existence of religious or governmental superstitions; no vestige of a chance to the exploiters of all sorts; it is the envoy of equality and solidarity among men. — It is death, death for you, see it well, — whether by Authority or by Liberty. You can no longer find salvation except in metamorphosis, in transformation. — With the Anarchists, you must deny God, deny religion, deny government, deny property, deny the family, affirm the right to work, the right to love, the right to individual autonomy, to social fraternity, to all the rights of the human being; make yourselves socialists, finally. Or, with the Jesuits, you must affirm God, the Father-Master; divine right; the seigniorial rights of the clergy, the rights of jambage and aubaine pour the reverend catechizers; pay the tithe, furnish the corvée, be beaten and… content ; deny progress; deny the sciences, deny the arts and letters; cast Voltaire and the curé Meslier, Luther and Calvin in the fire; make an auto-da-fé of all the liberal writings, of all the reformist books; and, at the least leaning towards independence, you expect to have your bones ground by torture or you flesh toasted on the pyres; finally make yourselves good catholics,… — It is all one or all the other. There is no middle ground: choose…

And admit that it is you, Bourgeois and Protestants, who have made this situation for yourselves!… Ah! How you have earned your punishment!

Who restored the Pope to his temporal throne in 1815, if not you, bourgeois protestants of England? Who restored him again in 48? Who exiled and put to death the socialists in June and in December? You again, voltairean bourgeois of France.

And what will be your recompense, bourgeois and protestants of England? — To be eliminated by those you wanted to restore!… And you, bourgeois and voltaireans of France? — To be exiled and put to death by those you wanted to eliminate!!… And do not hope to flee to America or elsewhere: — either Catholicism or Anarchism will pursue you there. There is no longer a stone on the globe where you could safely rest your head. Like Adam and Eve at the end of the terrestrial Paradise, you will be reduced for your sins to wandering naked and cursed in a vale of tears!

So metamorphose yourselves, transform yourselves, bourgeois voltaireans and bourgeois protestants. From conservative parasites become revolutionary workers: “revolutions are conservations.” Remember the time, no far gone, when you were the avant-garde of Progress; when, — in the sciences and in the realm of letters, in the parliaments and in the public square, — you marched to conquer liberty. And if your disposition is no longer to occupy the first rank, know that there is still a place for the best of you in the rearguard. Do not wait to be forced by the Revolution to submit to it; for to your judaical support at the last hour, the Revolution could respond, as to all the Powers too slow to submit to it, all the deposed Powers: it is too late!!!

And we, the Proletariat, we the anarchists, we the revolutionary flesh and idea, will be let ourselves be butchered or bound in chains without defending ourselves? — Isn’t it the tool that makes the bayonet? And what we have made, could we not break?… So let us rise up! And, in passing, in order to achieve it, on the guts of the emperors, it’s proconsuls, let us prove to Catholic Rome that the Proletarians of today are the equals of the Barbarians of the past!!

Hurrah!! For the liberation of men and women!!!

Hurrah!! For Liberty, — individual and social liberty!!!

There are some obvious references to Proudhon here. “Revolutions are conservations” is a nod to the “Toast to the Revolution,” where Proudhon said:

Whoever talks about revolution necessarily talks about progress, but just as necessarily about conservation. From this it follows that the revolution is always at work in history and that, strictly speaking, there are not several revolutions, but only one permanent revolution.

But it is a rather partial nod, I think. There are moments, in similar contexts, when Proudhon drew stark battle lines similar to those we see here. “La question politique” starts with a discussion of Louis Napoleon’s imperial ambitions and end up, by the sort of circuitous route we expect from Déjacque, at the oppositions of “catholicism — socialism” and “jesuitism — anarchism.” Proudhon’s responses to Louis Napoleon include some of his most stark oppositions: the choice “anarchy or Caesarism” in the conclusion of The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat and the choice of “archy or anarchy, no middle ground” in the posthumously published Napoleon III. These, however, are theoretical lines drawn in the sand, marking clearly distinct tendencies, but not, I think we have to admit, armies in some final showdown between “radical Good” and “radical Evil.”

The other obvious nod here is to Ernest Coeurderoy, who published Hurrah!!! or Revolution by the Cossacks in 1854. According to the program of that work, the first part of a projected trilogy, the birth of a new world of freedom would begin only with the destruction of Europe by Cossack invasion. I suppose we might think of it as an early accelerationist text, with the accelerating events being precisely the sweeping away of the very possibility of any middle ground.

There is a good deal else here that would deserve comment, from the invocation of “good versus evil” to the reference to “judaical” adherence to the revolutionary cause. References to sterile couplings as those “of which nature disapproves” can be added to our list of indications that perhaps Déjacque was not as clear an alternative to Proudhon where sex, gender and sexuality were concerned. We’ve yet to really do justice to Déjacque’s thought, but it’s probably useful not to wander too far afield right now.

In the next issue of Le Libertaire (No. 17, September 30, 1859), the term anarchism appears again, in much the same context:

So, men of small liberties or great, you the lukewarm and the hot, rally, all of you, to Liberty, to complete, unlimited liberty, for apart from it there is no salvation: Liberty or death!… Rally to the only true principle. Together let us oppose radicalism to radicalism, anarchism to jesuitism, so that what the cross-bearers and sword-bearers, the bravos of the autocratic and theocratic Authority provoke as a Riot (which they strive to drown in blood and drag around in irons) responds to them by growing to the level of the circumstances, by declaring Revolution!!! — So much for the general question.

In the essay on “Ideas” (Le Libertaire 18, October 26, 1859), there is a bit more explanation of the idea itself:

If the ideas of the Past, uprooted ideas, still give, alas! their dead leaves, the ideas of the Future, living ideas deep-rooted in the Present, give their green buds. The fibers of Anarchism, finally feeling the atmosphere heat up around them, breaking the nets that hold them captive. They rise from their torpor, they overrun the reawakening branches of Humanity and vigorously unwind there their progressive spiral, spreading their growing veins on the brows of new generations. The ideas of twenty years ago, of even ten years ago, seem like the ideas of another century, so much has the movement of revolutionary thought, of public opinion, advanced. It is not only the form of the Royalty of the Divinity tat are attacked today, but Authority in its principle; it is Divinity and Royalty in itself and in all its metempsychoses: Duality, Paternity, Delegation, Capital; Religion, Family, Government, Property. The insurrection of ideas against the monarch of the heavens or the monarchs of the earth is no longer political; it is social! It is now no longer a revolution of paradise or palace that is necessary, it is a radical revolution, the substitution of full and complete Liberty for full and complete Authority. It says: Down with the idlers, down with the parasites; down with all who produced without consuming. Down with the heavenly master, exploiter of worlds! Down with the terrestrial masters, the exploiters of men! — What is the universal God? Everything. — What must he be? Nothing. — What is universal matter? Nothing. — What must it be? Everything. — And, fraternal insurgents, the ideas proclaim universal autonomy, the autonomy of each, the government of worlds and men by themselves, Life being Movement, Movement being the producer of Progress, and Progress being solidary and infinite in its attractions.

The term then appears again, after a hiatus of several issues, in the last two numbers of Le Libertaire. In the third section of “The Organization of Labor,” it is once again a question of a clash between anarchy and authority, but there has been a fascinating change in Déjacque’s presentation of that conflict. Back in No. 15, he had begun an essay on “Direct and Universal Legislation,” which begins with the caution:

As libertarian or anarchist as we may be, we must still live in our own century and deal with contemporary populations. We can catch a glimpse of the great and free human society [cité], the city of the future, but we can reach it only by passing over the bodies of several generations.

This essay, which ran simultaneously with the material already cited, was then continued by “The Organization of Labor,” which began with a reiteration of the defense of that “direct and universal legislation” as a transition to anarchy, followed by some reassuring words to those who fear the possible outcomes of this course of action:

I have said in the preceding articles, the universal and direct vote (not to be confused with universal and direct suffrage, which is about men and not things), the vote on measures of public necessity by each and all is, still in our days, for the individual as for the commune, as for the nation, the instrument of social revolution; it is the logical and inevitable transition from authority to an-archy. The review of the thing being voted on being permanent, and the element of progress spreading more and more each day in the masses by the exercise of the vote and the discussion that accompanies it, by the rise of insights and the generalization of acquired knowledge, it naturally follows that we will distance ourself more and more each day from authority, in order to approach more closely each day to an-archy. Woe to the proletariat if, on these triumphant barricades, it does not know how to seize this lever of emancipation, the legislative scepter, and establish itself in a universel and provisional government. Woe to it, if it allows a new partial power to be established, a new representative dictatorship on the ruins of the one that it has overturned, though that power or dictatorship might be the most well-intentioned. The people can only progress on the revolutionary path if they are invested with a revolutionary function; every man and every woman, every infinitesimal fraction of the people must come into immediate possession of their equal part of universal sovereignty and fully enjoy their right to participate directly in the use of the common weal. Doubtless, in a milieu as corrupt and as ignorant as our own, it would be necessary to submit, to a certain degree, to the heavy pressure of a great number of the blind; but it would be necessary to submit to that pressure only conditionally, while making a constant effort to project light where darkness still reigns, and to destroy, by a philosophical propaganda, authoritarian prejudices, political and religious superstitions. If we who call ourselves anarchist-revolutionaries are really conscious of the truth of our principle, we should not fear, with this transitional system, which clings to the past through legal arbitrariness and to the future through the fraternitarian, egalitarian and libertarian exercise of our moral and intellectual faculties, to be led back to absolutism; all the odds, on the contrary, are for anarchism. It is not in the destiny of the human being to march backwards, when Progress, spreads its wings to launch it forward.

This is perhaps not a clean break with the climactic conflict narrative, as the opposing sides still seem quite distinct, but it is hard not to think of this transitional program as a bit of a mule. That it is eventually doomed seems overshadowed by the assertion that it is essential in its specific role as “logical and inevitable” transition.

This is probably where we should review the essay on “Scandal” (Le Libertaire No. 4, August 2, 1858), in which Déjacque declared that there are two different approaches to promoting social change, both of which “are good and useful, depending on the sorts of listeners we encounter along our way.” The key passage is probably this:

Two manners of acting present themselves to those who want to become propagators of new ideas. One is calm, scientific discussion, without renouncing anything of principles, to report them, and comment on them with a fine courtesy and firm restraint. This process consists of injecting truth drop by drop into minds that are already prepared, elite intelligences, still beset by error, but animated by good will. Missionaries of Liberty, preachers with smiling faces and caressing voices, (but not hypocrites,) with the honey of their words they pour conviction into the hearts of those who listen to them; they initiate into the knowledge of truth those who have a feeling for it. The other is bitter argument, although scientific as well, but which, standing firm in the principles as in a coat of mail, arms itself with Scandal as with an axe, to strike redoubled blows on the skulls of the prejudiced, and force them to move under their thick covering. For those, there are no words blistering enough, no expressions cutting enough to shatter all these ignorances of hardened steel, that that dark and weighty armor that blinds and deafens the dull masses of the people. All is good to them–the sharp sting and the boiling oil—in order to make these apathetic minds tremble to their heart of hearts, under their tortoise shells, and to make resonate, by tearing at them, these fibers which do not ring out. Aggressive circulators, wandering damned and damnators, they march, bloodthirsty and bleeding, sarcasm on the lips, the idea before them, torch in the hand, across hatreds and hisses, to the accomplishment of their fateful task; they convert as the spirit of hell converts: by bite and fire.

Ultimately, however, it will probably take a closer examination of the arguments in the more “scientific” essays to determine if Déjacque’s general position shifted. What we probably can say safely right now is that he associated anarchism with both parts of the project.

The final appearance of anarchism is in the final issue of Le Libertaire, in the first section of an essay “On Religion” that remained unfinished when the paper ceased publication. The essay begins:

What is Religion? What must it be?

What is Religion today? It is the immutable synthesis of all errors, ancient and modern, the affirmation of absolutist arbitrariness, the negation of attractional anarchism, it is the principle and consecration of every inertism in humanity and universality, the petrification of the past, its permanent  immobilization.

What must it be? The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences,  gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, it’s permanent revolution.

Perhaps here we have some partial resolution of the questions just raised, if “attractional anarchism” is a principle of movement, a universal tendency that explains and “consecrates” that “permanent revolution” that we cannot help associating with Proudhon. But I’m inclined to think that at this stage, so early in the evolution of this part of the anarchist vocabulary, we are likely to find, even after we dig much more deeply into the remainder of Déjacque’s works, that not all of the pieces fit neatly together.

But perhaps that should be no surprise, as it is unclear that the second emergence of anarchism was ever any more successful in reconciling all the tensions that emerged along with it.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.