Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/January 1894/Elisée Reclus and his Opinions

PSM V44 D300 Jacques Elisee Reclus.jpg





IT is strange how sometimes two men distinctly different seem to reside in the same person. Who would believe it at first sight that Elisée Reclus, the eminent geographer, the careful, accurate, and scientific writer, should also be an anarchist of the most pronounced and uncompromising type—the man who actually regards Ravochal, the perpetrator of the outrage last winter at the Café Very at Paris, as a great man who died for his principles without betraying his friends? This great, large-brained enthusiast and kindly human being has unfortunately got this bee in his bonnet, a moral twist, that hinders him from seeing that the wrongs of mankind can not be righted by laws or lawlessness, but are inherent in the very constitution of our globe and of our imperfect organization. In a perfect world, with perfect inhabitants, a perfect society, perfect conditions would follow as a necessary corollary. But when a great man goes astray it is always interesting to try and discern the why and wherefore. It is on this account that in this article we deal rather with Reclus the theorician than Reclus the eminent geographer, whose fascinating books on geography have vivified a science too often presented in dull and lifeless shape before the world. As great a geographer as Humboldt, he surpasses him in the fact that, like all Frenchmen, and unlike most Germans (and Humboldt was no exception), he is a fine stylist. His eloquent, graceful periods make even dry dissertations pleasant reading. Had he not held such extreme opinions he might have attained even greater fame, if this be possible. In any case we might have had more scientific books from his pen had he not given so much time to writing and speaking on his hobby. As this hobby reveals the man, may we expose it in these pages, without, however, on that account committing ourselves to any idea that we share them or wish to commend them to our readers. But a psychological study is always worth making, especially when the subject is so eminent and world-known. Before laying before our readers Reclus's mature opinions, let us cast a glance over his past.

Elisée Reclus is the son of a French Protestant minister, one of twelve children, of whom several have distinguished themselves in various departments. With a father so overweighted with an enormous progeny it is obvious that Reclus early made acquaintance with the pinch of poverty, for to maintain such a family in luxury would drain even the resources of purses deeper than those of French Protestant pastors. Elisée was educated in Rhenish Prussia, and his university studies were made at Berlin. It was no doubt in that city that he became inoculated with revolutionary ideas, for his student life fell in the time of ferment that preceded the uprising of 1848. Owing to his extreme democratic opinions, he left France after the coup d'état of December 2, 1851, and for several years traveled through Europe and America. It was on his return from these that he first wrote for the Revue des Deux Mondes and other periodicals the account of his journeys and geographical researches, which at once placed him in the forefront of all living geographers. But side by side with these geographical studies he continued to take an interest in social politics. It was he who was the first to point out in France the rights and wrongs of the American war of secession. It was he who helped to enlighten French public opinion concerning the cause defended by Lincoln. In consequence, the minister of the United States in Paris proposed that, as an acknowledgment of the great services rendered by Reclus, a considerable sum of money should be presented to him. This money the young learned man indignantly refused, although at the time he was in great pecuniary straits. He stated that he wrote entirely that right and liberty might triumph, and not for pecuniary personal recompense. Soon after this he published his magnificent work on physical geography, entitled La Terre; and about the same time, to mark his disapproval of the despotism of the empire, he enrolled himself in the ranks of the International. During the siege of Paris he assisted M. Nardar, the well-known aëronaut, in sending communications out of the city, and also fought bravely in the National Guard. When the insurrection of March 18, 1871, broke out, Reclus, after publishing an eloquent appeal to his countrymen in favor of conciliation, flung in his lot with the Commune, and was taken prisoner by the Versailles troops. He was sentenced to transportation for life, after having been retained prisoner for seven months at Brest, where he occupied himself with giving lessons in algebra and mathematics to his fellow-prisoners. Meantime, however, the scientific world of Europe was roused to indignation at the condemnation to perpetual exile of so eminent a man; and when peace was once more restored in France, a number of eminent men, among whom figured the names of Darwin, Wallace, Lord Amberley, and others, sent in a petition to the head of the French Government, begging him to consider that in sentencing so eminent a man to transportation for life he was depriving science of great and incalculable services. Their petition was listened to, and M. Thiers commuted the sentence of transportation into one of banishment. Reclus in consequence went to live in Italy, where he resumed his labors, and where after a short time he had the sorrow to lose his young wife, whom he ardently adored, and who had shared his exile. After this he resided for a time in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, working alternately at his geographical and communistic studies. He refused to return to France before all the prisoners of the Commune should have been amnestied, an amnesty was not granted till 1879. Thus it will be seen that his scientific labors and his humanitarian endeavors have ever gone hand in hand, nor is it so very long since he returned to France. Scarcely had he come back than he gained for himself fresh notoriety as the frank initiator of the anti-marriage movement.

He lives in Paris in the greatest retirement, and is in his person a very modest and refined man who hates notoriety above all things, and dislikes even the idea of being spoken of in a newspaper or a review; and nevertheless he is perpetually acting and writing in a manner that must necessarily draw public attention to him. He is a friend in heart and idea of Prince Kropotkine, the celebrated Russian anarchist, and he too styles himself an anarchist in the true sense of the word as he would explain it—that is to say, not the man who blows up houses and murders innocent women and children, but one who wants to change society and objects to every form of government; who has no feeling for country or patriotism, but only for humanity. Practically Reclus never meddles with politics, he cares only for social questions—outside, of course, the range of his geographical work. He holds that the Revolution of 1789 destroyed the privileges of the nobles, but that humanity has not advanced at all, nevertheless, because the bourgeoisie has disadvantageously taken the place of the aristocracy and usurped their privileges; hence, that the people are rather more unfortunate than formerly, because they know now that they are so. He considers that the state of society in which there are only what he calls "les satisfaits" and "les misérables" is a most abominable state of things, and he and his friend ardently hope that their doctrines will prevail sooner or later and change the face of things entirely. From every point of view Reclus is a most sincere, good, and excellent man, who would not hurt a worm, but would not budge an inch from his opinions. He has two daughters, and, as he considers marriage a bondage, he has united them himself to the men they loved. They were married by him in his own fashion, without any religious or civil ceremony, in the presence of witnesses. They have children who bear the father's name, as they also bear it themselves, but it does not appear that any steps have been taken to legitimize these children according to the laws of the state. Rumor has it—but for the accuracy of this rumor we can not vouch—that Reclus has had to suffer for his departure from the recognized social forms, for it is said that recently one of these illegal husbands abandoned the wife thus given to him.

In order that his ideas may be spread among the masses, for whose instruction they are primarily intended, Reclus has written a little pamphlet, which is included in the publications of La Révolte, a weekly communist anarchical organ published in Paris. Among the contributors to this series we find Louise Michel and the German Most, whose pamphlet bears the uncompromising title The Plague of Religion. If Reclus, who is now no longer young, and who less and less likes to be disturbed in his life of retirement, is asked to explain his ideas on social subjects, he has of late invariably referred his interlocutors to this little booklet, saying that if any one would know exactly what he thinks about the present state of things, and what he hopes for in the future, they must read what he has written there, and also read the contribution to the same series of his friend Prince Kropotkine, for he entirely shares his views. Evolution and Revolution is the title of Reclus's pamphlet; Anarchic Morality, that of Prince Kropotkine. The price of these small pamphlets is ten centimes. They are bound in a glaring pink cover and printed on villainous and utterly abominable paper, making us feel that, if this be a specimen of the æsthetics of the future, we rejoice to think that that future will not be ours. The matter is in both cases, fortunatelly, greatly superior to appearances. Though we may differ a whole sky's breadth from each of the writers, we can but acknowledge the ability displayed by both. Reclus writes in a style so pure, so limpid, so exquisite, that we find ourselves reading on and on for the mere pleasure of reading, almost without pausing to analyze the meaning of what we read. Prince Kropotkine's way of writing, on the contrary, is bold, almost rough, sharp, and incisive, extremely well calculated to impress his meaning on the memory of his readers. Both works are the very reverse of reassuring in their tendency. Reclus's fundamental idea is that "evolution and revolution are by no means contradictory terms; in fact, that the first includes the second as a greater includes the less." "Evolution," he says, "the symbol of gradual and continued development in custom and ideas, is ever represented as if it were the contrary of that terrible thing revolution, which implies change of a more or less brusque description. Men discuss the history of evolution, the history of the gradual development of feeling and intelligence in the depths of cerebral cells, with apparent and perhaps even sincere enthusiasm. But woe if some one mention to them the abominable theme of revolution, which issues out from the depths of thought into the street, accompanied by the roar of crowds and the crash of arms! But evolution implies revolution, because those classes of society which possess the advantages which revolution is calculated to destroy oppose themselves to the peaceful march of evolution, and thus are the cause of those same violent movements which they deplore." In melodious tropes Reclus describes these phenomena. Both evolution and revolution, he says, have two faces, one benignant and one harmful. Religions, which from his point of view are most undesirable plagues, invented to keep the human mind in bondage, are but springs ever welling up afresh from the relics of the past. Thus, Christianity uprose from the relics of paganism. The American and French Revolutions were the moments in history when at last the rights of man were proclaimed, but their utterance proved barren, for a new privileged class established itself on the ruins of the old. "It may be said that until now no revolution has been absolutely spontaneous, and therefore none has been completely successful. All the great movements that have occurred up to the present, without exception, have been more or less directed, and have in consequence only been successful for the man or class directing; hence each has had its morrow of reaction. Now, however, the effects of social science are recognized by all, and the study of social movements must lead to the logical and instructive progress of the human race." How a revolution undirected is to succeed does not appear. "We can only arrive at social peace," says Reclus, "by a profound study of the laws of history. The chessboard is before us—we have but to win the game." In eloquent pages he then sets forth the objects of the great general revolution he longs for. Religion, war, and marriage are denounced in fervent terms; even universities and engineers come in for the general denunciation. Some one must suffer in such a general disturbance—let it be the rich, say some agitators; not so, says Reclus, there must be no suffering class. There will come a day when wisdom shall be stronger than power, but to this end all bonds must disappear, and patriotism among the rest. He points out in one passage how the present French revolution has but assumed the arms and the ways of the Government it succeeded, and is a despotism in all but in name. Anarchy, the human ideal, can never come from the republic, which is a form of government. Science itself has become the ally of power: witness anthropometry, which he holds is turning the whole of France into a prison. Hereupon follows a tirade in praise of the International, with allusions to the eight-hour movement and the 1st of May. **So the great days approach; evolution is finished, revolution will not lag far behind. Is it not accomplished from day to day before our eyes? The time will come when evolution and revolution will succeed each other, when we shall pass from desire to action, from the idea to the realization; it is thus that life works in a healthy organization, be it man or the world."

Thus far the thinker Reclus leads us, leaving us at last with this oracular prediction. The frank, outspoken sentences of Prince Kropotkine have a less melodious but more powerful and awakening ring: "Why should I be moral?" he asks. "Why is one line of conduct good and another bad? All the motives which were placed before us in the past have gone away." He is as iconoclastic as his companion—nay, more so. None of the old rules have any force for him, yet even for him there exists a right and a wrong—the right and wrong of the hive and of the anthill, in which he sees the only fundamental rule of right and wrong; in this not differing at all from Christian thinkers, who also hold that that which is good for the human race, which in effect produces or permits the human creature to obtain the largest amount of pleasure and to submit to the smallest amount of pain, is good, while its reverse is bad. Very paradoxical is this Russian prince. Thus, he maintains that in some forms of society even cannibalism is a virtue, especially the devouring of the aged and infirm. He is decidedly unjust to Christianity, which enjoins the doing to others as we would they should do unto us, crediting that system only with an order to abstain from doing to others that which we do not desire should be done to us. It seems as if he really anticipated with desire and appreciation a state of social existence resembling that of the bees and the ants, though how this is to be reached through the entire and unchecked development of every human creature, no matter what his propensities or passions may happen to be, he does not explain. We will not be governed, he cries; but should this not also mean we have no wish to govern? Like Elisée Reclus, he aspires toward the so-called perfect state of society—the state of things, as painted by them, which the unillumined intellect can but look upon as most outrageously and abominably dull, not to say tyrannical. Where in their human anthill or hive would be the place for such distinguished and brilliant intelligence as their own? Not even by the help of Richter's delicious skit. The Social Democratic Future, can one realize what a society founded upon absolute equality would become. Equality, says Prince Kropotkine, is equity; but he forgets that his models, the bees, destroy one class of their number, and that the ants are as warlike as the Zulus. In the model society of Reclus and Kropotkine the person who has the largest number of moral habits is the superior, if one may use such a word when the fact is no longer supposed to exist. They hold that the immensely large proportion of humanity, if left uncontrolled, would act in a manner useful to their fellow-creatures. It is only the fatal effects of war and religion which have warped them from this tendency. This wonderful faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity is exceedingly touching. Both Reclus and Kropotkine would be willing to risk trying the experiment of removing all restraint from the actions of mankind, and it is this perverted, childlike faith that makes such good men dangerous to society as at present constituted. Leave men entirely free, they say; fear not their passions. In a society entirely free they offer no danger; yet in the same breath they say: "Defend your own liberty, do not let yourselves be enslaved. Oppose your social passion to the antisocial passion of your antagonist. The great causes of deprivation—capitalism, religion, law, government—must cease to exist. The source of morality is the conviction of one's own strength. Life can only exist on condition of spreading and growing. Be strong; overflow with passionate and intellectual energy, and you will shed over others your intellect, your love, your power of action. Behold to what all moral teaching is reduced when freed from the hypocrisies of Oriental asceticism!" "Fallen cherub to be weak is miserable," says Milton's Satan. "Every one," says Kropotkine, "has his ideal, and to act in disaccord with this ideal is to be wretched. Make the good of humanity your ideal, and morality follows as a matter of course." Such are the ideals of these studious dreamers—a dreamer's ideals, and realizable only in a dream.