Elisée Reclus: On anarchist colonies

As a complement to our last post, the essay “The limits of community” by Ruymán Rodríguez, we share the first of two essays, among others cited by Rodríguez, that help to further understand the bases of his reflection.  The first essay, by Elisée Reclus, is “On anarchist colonies” and is posted, in english, on libcom.org.

In this article published in 1900 in Les Temps Nouveaux, Elisée Reclus opposes the formation of isolated anarchist colonies and instead calls upon anarchists to immerse themselves in the wider world, where the “subterranean labors” of propaganda bear fruit under unexpected circumstances, even “in the world of the enemy”, and, insisting that anarchists do not “constitute a party separate from society”, he proclaims that “our ambition is to conquer the entire planet for the truth”.

On Anarchist Colonies

Not long ago I had the pleasure of attending a performance of “La Clairière”, by Lucien Descaves and Maurice Donnay,1 which filled me with joy in a way that I have not felt for years in the theater, and this time, truly, less from the work itself than from the spectators, who seemed to me to have been deeply moved emotionally, and not just with respect to the paradisiacal, but all feelings in general. With profound sympathy, with trembling eagerness, they beheld the anarchist Clairière, so unlike, at least in dreams, the pestilential working days or the irresistible appeal of the tavern in which the life of this society is consumed; everyone elevated their ideal towards a decent and honorable society, and the more noble and more dignified the words spoken on stage, the more they seemed to understand them. For a few hours, the bourgeois, the jaded, and the timid, were transported far from their old worries and their moral stupor; they shed the man of the past.

I will not critique the play; I will not point out its merits or its defects: many comrades have already done so with meticulous good judgment and with sympathy towards the authors; for my part I do not feel any need to subject my pleasures to subtle analyses: what I am interested in is the event itself, which so profoundly affected its entire audience. It is clear that it has disappeared from sight like a desert mirage, but will it ever reappear in a more durable form? In the midst of this evil, blatantly irrational society, will we be able to group together the various good microcosms, and constitute them as harmonious phalanxes, as Fourier wished, so that the satisfaction of individual interests coincides with and adapts perfectly to the common interest, harmonizing their passions in a whole that is simultaneously powerful and peaceful, without anyone undergoing even the least suffering as a consequence? In a word, will the anarchists create Icarias for their own particular use of the bourgeois world?

I don’t think so, nor do I think it would be a good thing.

Our enemies advise us with good will and bad intentions that we should separate ourselves from bourgeois society and put the Ocean between us and that society; they encourage us to undertake new utopian experiments in countries where they hope to kill two birds with one stone by getting rid of us and exposing our new failures to ridicule: it has reached the point where it has been seriously, and indeed formally, proposed that all self-declared anarchists should board ships and sail to an island in the Ocean, which would be given to them, on the condition that they never leave it and that they should become accustomed to seeing a warship that would always have its guns aimed at their encampment.

Thank you so much, kind citizens! We will accept your “Isle of the Blessed”, but on the condition that we can go there whenever we please, and that we can in the meantime remain in the civilized world, where, evading your persecutions as well as we can, we shall continue to conduct our propaganda campaign in your factories, workshops, estates, barracks and schools; we shall prosecute our work where our sphere of action is most extensive, in the big cities and in densely-populated rural areas.

But even though we are not thinking of withdrawing from the world in order to found a kind of “City of the Sun”, inhabited exclusively by the elect, there can be no doubt that over the course of our centuries-long struggle against oppressors of every category, we shall encounter repeated opportunities to temporarily unite our efforts, practicing the new ways of mutual respect and complete equality. It will often happen that the unforeseen vicissitudes of the struggle will ineluctably bring us together, and in these cases it would be impossible for our associations not to be constituted in conformance with our common ideal.

I could cite, as an example, the “Commune of Montreuil” or various other experiments that would serve as powerful inspirations. The unforeseen will never cease to come to our aid on new and favorable occasions, and thanks to the growing collective power conferred upon us by our numbers, initiative, moral fortitude, and clear understanding of events; thanks also to the gradual penetration of our logical ideas into the world of the enemy, we shall see projects of every kind being set in motion with increasing frequency: schools, associations, collective projects that will bring us closer to our dreamed-of ideal. You would have to be blind not to see the subterranean labors being carried out and crystallizing, as a fait accompli, in the libertarian sense, in every family and in every group of individuals, whether legally registered or spontaneously formed.

Furthermore, it costs us nothing to admit that, up until the present, almost all the formal attempts to establish anarchist colonies in France, Russia, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, etc., have failed, like Descaves and Donnay’s “La Clairière”. Could it have been otherwise, when the outside institutions, legally-recognized fraternal and other organizations, the subordination of women, individual property, buying and selling, and the use of money, had penetrated the colony like bad seeds in a field of wheat? Sustained by the enthusiasm of a few, by the very beauty of the overarching ideal, these enterprises might last for a while, despite the venom that will slowly consume them; but in the long run the disintegrating factors will do their work, and everything will collapse under its own weight, without the need for external violence.

Even if the disorganizers introduced into La Clairière by the two authors—the drunkard, the thief, the idler, the sceptic, the adulterer, the merchant, and the snitch—had not been counted among the original partners, this still would not have prevented us from predicting the downfall of the colony, after a longer or shorter period of decline and inertia; for isolation does not go unpunished: the tree that is transplanted and put under glass, runs the risk of losing its sap, and the human being is much more sensitive than a plant. The wall that surrounds him, in the form of the limits of the colony, is lethal; becoming accustomed to his cramped environment, the colonist, who was previously a citizen of the world, gradually shrinks down to the minimum dimensions of an entrepreneur; the concerns of the collective business enterprise that is in his hands narrow his horizon; in the long run he becomes an insignificant money-maker.

In the era when the revolutionaries themselves sheltered under the mantle of the Catholic Church, monks who had rebelled against the world of the oppressors openly deserted that world in order to deliver themselves over to labor and to participate fraternally in the poverty of the people; it is a general and absolute rule, however, that the monasteries founded by fanatics of justice and truth never preserved their initial enthusiasm and zeal, and always ended up becoming a refuge of parasites, just like all the convents.

Therefore, on no pretext and for no reason whatsoever should we ever shut ourselves off from the world: it is necessary to remain in the wider world, in order to receive from it all of its impulses, in order to take part in all its vicissitudes and to learn all its lessons. For a handful of friends to withdraw to the countryside to take walks and talk about things eternal like the disciples of Aristotle, is to abandon the struggle, and, as Lucretius said, it is to unleash the positivity of life only in order to take hold of it as a fiction.2 Our friends in “New Icaria” in the western United States seem to have understood this perfectly: as the heirs of the communist traditions of the old Icaria, they fortunately understood that the zealous old rules and all the hairsplitting of statutes and laws only serve to create enmity and resentment and, declaring that they were anarchists, “they did as they pleased”, that is, they worked fraternally for the common good, and at the same time for their own personal benefit; but their campaign, as sweet and as good as it might have been for the older comrades who were tired of fighting and who were desirous of repose, only seemed insipid to the passionate younger comrades, who needed to get their hands dirty in the practical side and the raw experience of life, in the conflicts that mould character and that make men what they are. So they cheerfully departed, to immerse themselves in the world, always consoled by the knowledge that if adversity dogs their footsteps and poverty has them in its grip, they can return to their old friends, where they will have bread, fresh air and friendly words from which they can obtain moral and material comfort.

In fact, those of our comrades who are seduced by the idea of withdrawing from the world into some walled-off paradise, have fallen prey to the illusion that anarchists constitute a party separate from society, which is absolutely false. We take pleasure and engage passionately in the practice of what we deem to be egalitarian and just, not only among our comrades, but amidst everyone in the world. Humanity is much bigger than anarchy in its most elevated ideal. How many things that are presently unknown will be revealed to us by the profound study of nature, by kindly solidarity with all men, with all the unfortunates who have like us suffered from the influence of the irrational environment that we seek to restore under its harmonious form! In our plan of existence and struggle, it is not the little chapel of the comrades that interests us, it is the whole wide world. Our ambition consists in conquering the entire planet for the truth, with friends and enemies, even those who, subjected to a terrible education, all the atavism of caste, and the virus of the churches, have been regimented and armed to be set loose like wild beasts against the truth.

Elisée Reclus
1900

Originally published under the title of: “Les Colonies anarchistes”, Les Temps nouveaux, Vol. 6, No. 11, July 7-13, 1900, pp. 1-2.

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