Claude Pelletier — “A Clear-Headed Socialist” — (1816-1880)

Readers of this blog and The Mutualist should already know the name Claude Pelletier from my in-progress translation of The Socialist Soirées of New York (1873) and some mentions of his Socialist Dictionary. (I’ve also started a translation of his 1848 Solution of the Problem of Poverty.) Pelletier was one of that small, but important group of French anarchists who published much of their work while in America, and, like Joseph Dejacque, he was a member of the International Association of 1855-59. He was essentially a mutualist anarchist in his politics, though he preferred a series of terms of his own choosing, including adjuvantism and atercracy. He was not, in some ways, the sort of anarchist who is particularly pleasing to modern sentiments, because he did not hold to (and largely came before) the particular programs which we have come to expect. But he’s a fascinating figure, and one associated with aspects of our history that remain largely unexplored. For that reason, I was very pleased to find this account of his life in New York, during the period when he was writing his major works.

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The foreign notabilities resident in New York if gathered together in one room would make a most interesting assemblage. In the recent articles published in THE WORLD on the French Communistic and German Socialistic elements in the population of this city, some account was given of notorious foreigners who had been concerned in revolutionary movements in the Old World and who are still seeking to create revolutionary movements in the New World. Something remains to be said of men formerly active in political affairs abroad, but now settled down in New York quietly pursuing their business avocations. Perhaps the most remarkable of this class is Claude Pelletier, at one time a well-known Socialist and politician of the extreme Radical wing in France, and a member of the Corps Legislatif from 1848 to 1851. He was born in 1816, at Arbresle, in the Department of the Rhone, the son of an innkeeper, he went to Paris while very young, and lived in great poverty until after the revolution of 1848, when he went home and became a candidate for the Assembly, to which he was elected by 45,000 votes. He was a strong partisan of La Montagne and an active worker in the Radical cause. He was reelected in 1850 by 71,000 votes, and was still in office when, on December 2, 1851, he was arrested by the order of Louis Napoleon and subsequently banished by the decree of January 9, 1852, as “dangerous to the public peace.” So much Vapereau’s Dictionnaire des Contemporains tells us; for the rest let Pelletier speak for himself.

M. Pelletier lives in Wooster street, near Canal, in a little three story building, where he has for many years carried on the business of a manufacturer of artificial leaves and flowers. His office is in the back room on the first floor, and there he superintends the work of a dozen girls engaged in folding the leaves and flowers. The adjoining front room is used as a sitting room and library; it is comfortably but plainly furnished, and much space is occupied by bookcases containing the works of Voltaire, Moliere, Rossi, Washington Irving, Kant, Comte and others. The walls are hung with photographs of Garibaldi and Mazzini, bearing the autographs of those distinguished men. There are a few oil paintings of merit and several line engravings of classical subjects. In this room M. Pelletier, in the dress of a French artisan, received the writer. He is a distinguished looking old gentleman, with white hair and beard, a face denoting great intelligence and the most polished manners. He readily consented to speak of his past life and present views, adding, however, that he must “long since have ceased to be of interest to the public.”

It appears from M. Pelletier’s story that he first imbibed his Socialistic theories while living at the inn kept by his father, where, as he remembers, in 1829, he saw King Louis-Philippe on his way to Lyons. At the inn he came in contact with people of all sorts and all opinions, and as he became impressed with the cruel misery of the vast majority of the people, was filled with a desire, amounting to a mania, to aid them. Full of this desire, he went, to Paris, where, however, he was unable to get work, and had to sell his books and his clothes and to rely upon the goodwill of his acquaintances to get the means of bare subsistence. But, during this time, his discontent with the prevailing social system and his ambitious projects of contributing towards its reform grew stronger every day. Then came the revolution of 1848, which he speaks of as “a terrible showing of the frightful effects of the cowardice of the people.” The revolution produced a great effect upon him; “to this day,” he said to the writer, “I cannot drive out of my mind or from before my eyes the horrible doings of that period; it opened my eyes wide to the terrible nature of men made mad with grief and trouble, of men made beasts in time of danger by cowardice.” He continued, as though thinking aloud: “Oh, my God those scenes back of the Hotel de Ville! Talk of the Commune of ’71! It was child’s play compared to that. I tell you the most terrible thing to see is a man thoroughly a coward. Be rather afraid of a cowardly friend than of a bold enemy in times of revolution! How I saw men killing each other in perfect frenzy, how I saw crowds behind the Hotel de Ville crazy with fear, trampling the dead and dying, stabbing at corpses and wallowing in the blood of comrades they knew not why! Ah! I have never forgotten those scenes from hell; they come to me again and again, and I ask, What has become of the manliness of men?”

In the election following the revolution M. Pelletier was elected to represent the. Department of the Rhone and the great city of Lyons, and for two years that followed he labored in time and out of time, with men whose names have since become famous, to put into practice his theories for the alleviation of the distress of his fellow men. But the coup d’état that carried Louis Napoleon into power proved the death-blow to his schemes; he was arrested and imprisoned, and, as Victor Hugo relates in his “Histoire d’un Crime,” he was with sixty-two other Deputies sentenced to banishment. His fellow exiles included Victor Hugo himself; Lafon, now or recently in New-Orleans, and Jules Leroux, now settled in Corning County, Iowa. Of these sixty-three exiles only about twenty are now living.

After leaving France Pelletier went to England, as he says, “with a heart heavy with the feeling that the alleviation of the distress of the French people and of humanity was further off than ever, since in the shadow of the Bonapartist republic we had the substance of a worse despotism than France had yet seen. How my views proved to be prophetic all the world knows.” In 1855 M. Pelletier came to the United States, poor and friendless. It occurred to him, as he says, that he should prove himself more competent to aid others, when occasion served, if he could now manage to aid himself. He therefore sought and obtained employment as a vender of artificial flowers, and became half a canvasser, half a peddler.

His industry and intelligence were a help to him and he prospered. In a short time he was enabled to open a store of his own; then he became a manufacturer, and is reputed today to be one of the most successful men in his business. One of his business rivals said to the writer recently, “How does Pelletier stand? Why, he stands like the Bank of England; his word is good for all he will ever ask for!” But, engrossed in business as he has been. M. Pelletier has not at all given up his Socialistic views: all his leisure for a dozen years has been devoted to the writing of a Socialist dictionary for the instruction of the masses in the practical methods of enforcing Socialist views. This work is entitled “Dictionnaire Socialiste—Indiquant les Voies et Moyens de Résoudre le Problème Sociale.” (Socialist Dictionary, Indicating the Ways and Means to Solve the Social Problem.) up to this time two volumes have been printed, and constitute a clear, concise and judicial exposition of Socialist theories. M. Pelletier will not publish the work until it is complete. He hopes to leave it finished at his death, as he says, “for a legacy to the people and for the cause to which I was so willing to consecrate my life but so little able to serve.”

Since he has been in America M. Pelletier has studiously avoided all publicity and refrained from taking part in any of the so-called Socialistic movements of other foreigners in this country. He explained the reason of this by saying: “I am not conversant with the English language and therefore I could not, if I would, take part in politics here. I have often been solicited to do so by countrymen of mine who make a practice of interfering in matters that they do not understand, and if I consented I might, perhaps, have much influence with them. But I think that the politics of America should be left to people who understand the American people. From what I see of American Socialism, I am afraid it has started in the wrong way. The American Socialists want to work less and to be paid more, forgetting that men will not employ labor if it does not serve them, and that there is nothing to be gained by increasing the antagonism between labor and capital which already exists. There is no doubt that the workmen here are greatly distressed, but there is a relief for them. Just as the politicians insure against crime, fire, &c., let them insure against involuntary idleness, which is a still greater evil. Let all men work and eat. In a republic like this we should have Government workshops in the large cities to give work to those who want it: let the Government advance men wages on their labor to meet their necessities as the commission merchant advances moneys to the producer on his produce to meet his expenses. Communism sounds terrible, and Socialism sounds little better, but worse than either is a country where the few feast and the many starve, and the Government cannot relieve the distress and can only wait expectantly for an outbreak and suppress it at a cost much larger than would have been required to prevent it.”

As to Mégy and his fellow Communists, M. Pelletier said: “Mégy means well, but he is young, he is younger than his age. He has a good heart that has suffered, and he has become an extremist. But these people have no influence with the American working-man—the French Commune has no place here. If a revolution broke out here tomorrow you would not even hear of Mégy. These people are the apostles of ideas only, very honest and sincere, but having no business with the present state of labor affairs in America. “In regard to the state of American politics, M. Pelletier said: “Corruption is its name and its blame. In Europe the politicians are honest at least; if they are wrong they are conscientiously wrong. Corruption has no access to them; they are proud to be honest rather than rich. Our justice in Europe is honest, too, until it touches political matters, and then it is worse than it is here. Your trouble in the United States is with an aristocracy of office-holders apparently elected by the people, not to serve them but to grow rich at their expense. While one sees suffering all around and one asks in vain for its relief we see two or three men invested with absolute power of imposing heavy taxes, regardless of the general distress, because to regard that distress would be to decrease the taxes, and to decrease the taxes would be to decrease the official salaries which alone make office-holding desirable. These views are common among thinking men, and the danger of this country lies not in the Commune nor in Socialism, but in the arrogance and greed of the public officials, who are slowly but surely breeding a revolution of which they may be the first victims. For myself, I take no active part in public affairs; the memories of the past and my present work in behalf of humanity in the future occupy all my time.”

In conclusion M. Pelletier spoke of Mazzini and Garibaldi, with whom he was formerly well-acquainted. He said that Mazzini’s dream had been fulfilled in the unity of Italy and that Garibaldi had lived to see the realization of many of his hopes. As to Church matters he would not speak; he was of opinion “that the Socialists and the Communists make too much of the Church in their abuse of it. They could not harm it more than by leaving it severely alone.”

Source: New York World. April 30, 1878. 7.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I guess he didn’t share Proudhon’s view of the unification of Italy.

    though he preferred a series of terms of his own choosing, including adjuvantism and atercracy

    I bet he was a piker compared to Andrews, though.

  2. I think you have to consider Andrews in an entirely different league. After all, he invented his own language.

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