Claude Pelletier, Preface to “The Revolutionary Socialist Heretics of the 15th Century”

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Claude Pelletier was in exile in the United States in 1867, when he wrote The Revolutionary Socialist Heretics of the 15th Century, a five-act play that transplanted the concerns of the French revolution of 1848, and the thought of some familiar figures, onto the events of the Hussite rebellion. Here is his explanation of the work, which I will probably translate in full at some point:

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As the 19th century is called to resolve the problem of the proletariat by putting into practice the ideas of the modern Revolutionaries and Socialists, I have thought it would be useful to call the attention of the public to them and to present those ideas to them in a dramatic form, in the simplest and clearest manner: by stripping them of all the erudition that ordinarily accompanies them, and putting them in the mouths of various characters, charged, in my composition, with explaining them and putting them into practice.

I have chosen the dramatic form because it is the only one, in my opinion, that allows every writer to show his work in action, and also to be read when his book is published; for as bad as a drama may be, it is so short that it is rare that the reader who begins it does not finish the work.

You may find my book poorly conceived, carelessly written, too long or too short. That is of little importance and does not concern me. But read it and reread it; that is what is essential. For I hope that it will rub off on my readers, that it will make them reflect more and even invite them to imitate me by doing more and better.

As much as possible, I have made each situation, each scene serve in the exposition of one idea.

I wanted to show the Revolution in its progressive march, beginning with a petition to a king, then growing, passing on to the demand of a right, then growing again as far as struggle, then as far as triumph.

After its material triumph, I wanted to show it coming to grips with the difficulties of a past that never disappears as quickly as we imagine and desire, and concerning itself, by mean of a revolutionary committee, with the application of the ideas of social transformation for which the people have risen.

I have borrowed my subject from the civil, political and religious revolution of the Hussites of the fifteenth century. This is the historical setting that, to my mind, is most favorable. It was the fine book of Consuelo by Mme. Sand, the first chapters of the excellent history of the French Revolution by Louis Blanc and the notes that Henri Martin has inserted into his remarkable history of France, that have given me the idea. Moréri, Lenfant, Beausobre, etc. etc., furnished me with the rest.

Regarding the characters that I have placed on stage, the majority of whom are historical, I have not always made them speak like people of the XVth century; on the contrary, I have given them the ideas of 1848, of which they certainly could have only had an inkling.

Thus, the majority of what I have given to Pierre Dresden to say about religion and solidarity, and to Coranda about the philosophy of history, I owe, in part, to my old friend and teacher Pierre Leroux. What Pierre says about God, the creation, and the periodic revolutions of the globe, I have borrowed from the Encyclopédistes of the last century and the savants of our own, whose books enjoy a well-earned reputation.

I have made Jacobel the kingpin of the socialist reconstruction of the Revolution; and it is to my late, lamented colleague and friend Proudhon that I owe him. It was the application of his revolutionary and economic ideas that I had in mind when I wrote the part of Jacobel.

I wanted to portray in Nicolas Ganz, bourgeois republican of Prague, the depth of character of three-quarters of the members of the Constituent Assembly of 1848.

Writing the role of Ziska, I often thought of what I have heard Ledru-Rollin say and what Garibaldi has done at Naples and in Sicily.

With the role of the archbishop, I wanted to portray the ambition of the leaders of the clergy, their irascible pride, their power of will and the blind hatred that they have for everything that disturbs their selfishness.

I made the character of the judicial magistrate miserable and vile, because I have never seen them otherwise in politics. If I am mistaken, so much the better; but it would be very difficult to make me reconsider the deep scorn that I have for them in general, and I am sure that everyone who has seen their work up close thinks like me; only they do not dare say it, so fashionable is it to pretend to honor these gentlemen.

For love of truth, Coranda, like Lamennais, separated from Rome to join the Revolution; for her it is the era of reparation for the sins of the past, the coming of the kingdom of justice among men.

I wanted to make Dulcin the type of the selfish rich man capable of any and all infamies;

Jean the Premonstratensian is the type of the enthusiastic and courageous man, who knows no danger;

The Minister is that of the complaisant lackey.

Walter represents the determined revolutionary regicide, resolved to preserve the Republic at all costs, certain that the means he proposes to destroy the kings will spare human blood: a type much less rare among the people than we generally believe.

As for the Emperor Sigismund, if I had portrayed him as he was in history and as Ziska describes him in the fifth act of my composition, I would have made him only a cruel and vulgar bigot, not very interesting for the reader.

In making him take up the sword against the Hussites, whom he knows have been slandered, despite his love for Marguerite, the sister of the leader of the Hussites, despite the fact that the latter had aided him in a moment of danger, I wanted to establish that a monarch, however individual his will, is always, finally, only the executor of the selfish passions of his entourage.

Now, if you want to know what I wished to demonstrate and prove, here it is:

I wished to demonstrate that there is no revelation properly speaking;

That justice is immanent in us;

That solidarity is called to replace all religions;

And that from now on, in order to direct human societies, there must no longer be masters, nor government, nor cracy of any sort; but simply an administration of oversight and temporary initiative to guide them.

I wished to prove:

That the artisan disappears from the current society;

That, by the division of labor and the power of his machines, industry no longer has in independent place for him;

That he is obliged to beat a retreat before the capitalists who make him pass beneath the grindstone of the salariat, a situation that strips all independence from him;

And that he must hurry to change all the relations of interest in the production, exchange and distribution of wealth, as I make Jacobel say in the fifth act, if he wants man to be free, equal and the brother of other men.

I also wanted to show that the Revolutionaries and Socialists serve the same cause, and that they should not attack one another nor appear divided in the eyes of the world, since each of them labors according to his strength, intelligence and judgment, at the same social work, the same transformation.

My reader will judge if, through the idea that I recommend and the means I indicate, we can succeed.

New-York, October 31, 1867.

C. Pelletier.


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