Octave Mirbeau, Preface to Moribund Society and Anarchy


Voltairine de Cleyre translated Jean Grave’s Moribund Society and Anarchy (1899; first published in French in 1893 as La Société mourante et l’Anarchie), though she admitted she was not in complete agreement with it.

“As to the principal object of the work,” she said in her Preface, “that of furnishing an inclusive criticism of the institutions of our moribund society and the necessity of its speedy dissolution, I think any fair-minded reader will be convinced that it has been pretty thoroughly done. As to the “What next?” it is far less certain. With this, however, Jean Grave,—sturdy, patient, indomitable Jean Grave, sitting today in his fifth-floor Parisian garret, untouched by his imprisonment, convinced as ever, steadily writing, writing to the workers of the world, casting forth images of the “Future Society,”—would not agree. He is sure of his remedy—Communism; I, of his criticism, Anarchy.”

I have a similar response to Grave’s work, but my admiration for the critical elements of the work have made Moribund Society something of a priority for a Corvus reprint edition. For various reasons, I hadn’t got around to completely preparing the text until last night—when, while constructing the table of contents, I noticed that the original preface by Octave Mirbeau, had not been included in the translated edition. A quick skim made it clear that it was worth the time to work through, and here’s a working translation (which I’ll probably give a week or so of tinkering before I get back to printing and binding the work.)

[to Jean Grave,  Moribund Society and Anarchy]

I have a friend who shows a strong desire, a truly touching desire, to understand things. Naturally, he aspires to that which is simple, great and beautiful. But his education, fouled with the prejudices and lies inherent in all the education called “higher,” almost always stops him in his dash towards spiritual deliverance. He would like to free himself completely from traditional ideas, from the ancient routines where his mind is bogged down, despite himself, but he cannot. Often, he comes to see me and we have long talks. The doctrines of anarchism, so maligned by some, so misunderstood by others, greatly concern him; and his honesty is great enough, if not to embrace them all, at least to understand them. He does not believe, as so many people believe in his circles, that those doctrines consist solely in blowing up houses. He glimpses, on the contrary, in a fog that will perhaps dissipate, some beauties and harmonic forms; and he takes an interest in them as we do in a thing that we like, but which seems still a bit terrible to us, and which we dread because we do not understand it well.

My friend has read the admirable books of Kropotkin, and the eloquent, fervent and wise protestations of Elisée Reclus, against the impiety of governments and societies based on crime. Of Bakunin, he knows what the anarchist journals, here and there, have published. He has labored through the uneven Proudhon and the aristocratic Spencer. And recently, the declarations of Etiévant have moved him. All of that sweeps him along, for a moment, toward those heights where the intelligence is purified. But from those brief excursions through the realm of the ideal, he returns more troubled than ever. A thousand obstacles, purely subjective, detain him; he loses himself in an infinity of ifs, ands and buts, an inextricable forest, from which he sometimes asks me to extricate him.

Just yesterday, he confided in me the torment of his soul, and I said to him:

— Grave, whose judicious and manly spirit you know, is going to publish a book: Moribund Society and Anarchy. This book is a masterpiece of logic. It is full of light. This book is not the cry of a blind and narrow-minded sectarian; nor is it the tom-tom beat of an ambitious propagandist; it is the considered, reflective, reasoned work of one who is passionate, it is true, of one “who has faith,” but who knows, compares, questions, analyzes, and who, with a singular lucidity of critique, glides among the facts of social history, the lessons of science, the problems of philosophy, in order to reach those infrangible conclusions of which you are aware, and of which you can deny neither the greatness nor the justice.

My friend sharply interrupted me:

— I deny nothing… I understand, indeed, that Grave, whose ardent campaigns I have followed in La Révolte, dreams of the suppression of the State, for example. Myself, I do not have all his boldness, but I dream of it too. The State bears down on the individual with a weight that is greater, more intolerable each day. Of the man it unnerves and exhausts, it makes only a bundle of flesh to tax. His sole mission is to live for it, as a louse lives on the beast on which it has fixed its suckers. The State takes from the man his money, pitifully acquired in this prison: work; it filches from him at every minute his liberty, already shackled by the laws; from his birth, it kills his individual and administrative faculties, or it distorts them, which amounts to the same thing. Assassin and thief—yes, I am convinced that the State is indeed this sort of double criminal. As soon as a man walks, the State breaks his legs; as soon as he stretches out his arms, the State busts them; as soon as he dares think, the State takes his head, and tells him: “Walk, take, and think.”

— Well? said I.

My friend continued:

— Anarchy, on the contrary, is the winning back of the individual, it is liberty of development for the individual, in a normal and harmonic sense. We can define it, in short, as the spontaneous utilization of all the human energies, criminally squandered by the State! I know that… and understand why all sorts of young artists and thinkers, — the contemporary elite — look forward impatiently to rising to that long-awaited dawn, where they glimpse not only an ideal of justice, but an ideal of beauty.

— Well? said I anew.

— Well, one thing concerns and troubles me, the terrorist side of Anarchy. I detest violent means; I have a horror of blood and death, and I want anarchy to await its triumph from the coming justice alone.

— Do you believe then, I replied, that the anarchists are drinkers of blood? Don’t you feel, on the contrary, all the immense tenderness, the immense love of life, with which the heart of a Kropotkin swells. Alas! Those are struggles inseparable from all human struggles, and against which we can do nothing… So!… do you want me to give you a classical comparison? The earth is parched; all the little plants, all the little flowers are burned by a blazing, by a persistent, deadly sun; they blanch, wilt, and they will die… But then a single cloud darkens the horizon, it advances and covers the blazing sky. Lightning and thunder burst forth, and the waters stream over the shaken earth. What matter if the lightning has broken, here and there, an oak grown too tall, if the little plants that would have died, the little plants watered and refreshed, straighten their stems, and again raise their flowers in the newly calm air?… We should not, you see, be moved too much by the death of the ravenous oaks… Read Grave’s book… Grave has said, in this regard, some excellent things. And if, after having read this book, where so many ideas are turned over and clarified, if after having thought through it, as befits a work of such intellectual stature, you cannot manage to reach a stable and calm opinion, you would be better off, I warn you, to give up becoming the anarchist that you want to be, and remain the good bourgeois, the inveterate and hopeless bourgeois, the bourgeois “despite himself,” that perhaps you are. . .

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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