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Paris and the Anarchists

Paris and the Anarchists: Aesthetes and Subversives During the Fin de Siecle by Alexander Varias. 208pp. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Paris and the Anarchists is at times an engaging, at other times a diffident, portrait of the anarchist movement in fin de siècle Paris. At its best, the book presents a kind of social ecology of the Parisian anarchist movement at the end of the nineteenth century, situating various anarchist strands within their own specific social milieus and neighbourhoods, demonstrating the degree to which their concerns reflected the changing social, aesthetic and political circumstances of Paris as it prepared to enter the twentieth century.

The most intriguing and successful part of the book is the first chapter on anarchist "enclaves" in Paris, in which Varias reviews the fin de siecle anarchist scene neighbourhood by neighbourhood, introducing readers not only to the myriad of anarchist groups in Paris at the time but also to the districts in which they lived.

There is the bohemian, student and working class Latin Quarter, home to the "Pope" of rue Mouffetard, Jean Grave, the working class anarchist intellectual whose publications included contributions from such artists as Camille Pisarro, Paul Signac and Adolphe Rette.

Poverty stricken Belleville is the site of the Pere Lachaise cemetery, where the last of the insurgent communards were gunned down by the Versailles troops in 1871. Varias describes how anarchists in Belleville adopted a resolutely revolutionary stance, consciously in the footsteps of the enrages of the French Revolution, debating issues in their own local clubs, including the "legitimacy of work," a topic which continues to spark debate among anarchists to this day (not that Varias notices the similarity; to the contrary, he seems perplexed that anarchists would debate such a topic in an area of high unemployment).

Then there is Montmartre, home to bohemians, avant-garde artists and revolutionary artisans, who would later provide support to the syndicalist movement in France, spurred on by that master of populist propaganda and working class agitation, Emile Pouget. Pouget, despite his emphasis on the revolutionary role of the workers, was apparently the first anarchist journalist to employ artists. He was adept at using Parisian slang to communicate anarchist ideas, giving voice to the more radical elements in the French working class with his vivid use of street language.

Two covers to his best known publication, Pere Peinard, drawn by the anarchist artist Maximilian Luce, are reproduced towards the end of the book. One shows a worker giving a capitalist a good boot in the ass, with the capitalist's coins spilling out on the floor. The other shows a worker using a bourgeois head for an anvil. Varias describes this as "artisanal revenge in its most basic form." To me it appears more like an affirmation of the workers' power to liberate themselves from oppression and exploitation through their own actions once they become aware of that power. On the other hand, I can appreciate that many workers would like to give a capitalist a very literal boot in the ass, and would probably enjoy doing it.

Another habitue of Montmartre was the anarchist champion of the avant-garde, the art critic Felix Feneon, a kind of cultural "terrorist" who may have been involved in terrorist acts of a less literary nature (one of his biographers claims he actually bombed a restaurant). Incredibly, Feneon was a bureaucrat in the War Ministry by day, bohemian dandy and anarchist art critic by night.

Monmartre was also home to the anarchist group, Les Naturiens, who attacked accepted notions of civilization and rejected modern technology. Their views, which Varias finds puzzling and self-contradictory, have obvious contemporary resonance. The debate between Jean Grave, the anarchist communist, and the Naturien, Henri Zisly, on whether machines are inherently authoritarian could have been lifted from the Fifth Estate.

Generally, Varias treats these various debates and personalities with a mixture of perplexity and incredulity and occasionally some grudging respect. The least satisfactory part of the book is the section in which he tries to come to grips with anarchist ideas. He seems to have some sympathy for them, but not to fully understand them. He sets up contrasts and contradictions which I did not find very convincing.

Unavoidably, he has had to rely on police records from their spies regarding the goings on at anarchist meetings. Cops and snitches are not usually the most perspicacious or understanding recorders of events, particularly when those events involve unorthodox ideas and personalities.

The section on art and anarchy tries to bring out the tensions between artistic freedom and the demands of the anarchist movement, but Varias does not clearly distinguish between Kropotkin's concept of the politically committed artist and authoritarian socialist concepts of politically acceptable art. Just because Kropotkin thought artists could play a positive role in the revolutionary movement does not mean that artists should be subordinated to the demands of that movement, much less forced to produce politically correct art.

Fin de siècle Parisian anarchism was a complex and intriguing gaullimaufry of groups with varying and sometimes competing conceptions of anarchism, the echoes of which can still be heard today. This book provides a tantalizing glimpse back into that lost world and the debates and concerns which animated it.