Some Anarchist Portraits
No. CCCXXXIII. NEW SERIES.—SEPTEMBER 1, 1894.
SOME ANARCHIST PORTRAITS.
I AM an anarchist. I have known intimately most of those who have carried on the propaganda by word of mouth and by writing, and also by deed: and if I disallow the epithet of “anarchist,” as applied to certain acts of equivocal individuals, I am not the less convinced that social problems need, at certain moments, to be solved by force, when other means are ineffective. I love and admire Vaillant, for instance, just as some English republicans love and admire Cromwell, who also was a regicide. But I do not believe that rascality has anything to do with an agitation which is intellectual as well as revolutionary, and I feel indignant when ignorant journalists bestow upon all my co-religionists the title of “miscreants.” I will endeavour in the following pages to remove some popular misconceptions regarding the true meaning of the word “anarchist,” by giving some account of the anarchists who have lately been attracting the attention of Europe.
A few days ago the French Assizes pronounced certain men, whose very appearance contradicted the imputation of vulgar crime, to be “affiliated to an association of malefactors.” One of them, Jean Grave, a shoemaker, who was first a printer and then a publicist, is one of the most astounding logicians of our time; another, Sebastian Faure, is a most talented orator; others, like Fenelon and Chatel, are young writers gifted with biting pens. As the English and French newspapers were only able to give very summary and incomplete, and in some cases even inaccurate, information about them, I believe that it may interest the reader to have a sketch of their true physical and moral being.
Men have talked of Marat’s cellar: history shall speak one day of Grave’s garret. To reach this “malefactor” you had to go down the plebeian Rue Mouffetard, lately inhabited chiefly by rag-pickers, and to stop before a high, narrow house; then you had to climb four very steep staircases, and finally, take a “branch-line,” as it were, leading to a fifth, which was in the way of convenience very like the famous ladder of Jacob. You did not ring—because there was no bell—but opened the door (the key was always in the lock); you entered a room, which was furnished with a table and two chairs, and found yourself in the presence of a man of about thirty-five years of age, short but robust, slightly stout, with a gentle, rather sad face, who was invariably dressed in a long black blouse. This was Grave, the workman-philosopher, the director and soul of the Révolte, the organ of Elisée Reclus and Kropotkine. He lived there, in the midst of innumerable collections of pamphlets and newspapers, simple, silent, indefatigable. Outward life did not seem to reach him, so much was he absorbed in the labour of thought. I often said to myself, “ He is a hermit of the Middle Ages, who forgot to die eight hundred years ago.” And yet this hermit in his garret fulfilled for twelve years a task of administration from which many of our ronds-de-cuir would shrink aghast.
Horace, had he lived again in our age, would at once have recognised the type of his vir Justus ac propositi tenax in Jean Grave, who has all the firmness and immobility of the rocks of Auvergne, his native country. Though gentleness itself in private life, the workman-sociologist has raised many storms by the extreme dogmatism of his reasoning. We once engaged in a furious controversy on a purely theoretical question, and the intercession of Sainte Pelagie, patron-goddess of revolutionary writers, was needed in order to bring about a frank reconciliation. It is a strange fact that this morose-mannered logician never unbent so much as when in prison, where he gained the love and esteem even of the governor.
How different in physical and moral attributes, though allied in ideas, is Sebastian Faure! At the time of the great Revolution he would have been a Girondin with Vergniaud and Barbaroux. He is, indeed, a Girondin by birth as well as by his physical and mental characteristics. Between thirty-five and thirty-six years of age, he is above middle height, is prematurely bald, dresses irreproachably, has very lively black eyes, with a smiling face, elegant manners, and oratorical powers of the first rank. He always used to carry his audience with him, especially the women, a success he did not disdain, for he was the Lovelace of anarchy. The harmonious and caressing voice, in which he poured forth artistic periods, and clothed ideas, often of an abstract nature, with a fascinating charm, ravished the musically-gifted among the bourgeois, some of whom accepted the subject matter because of the form in which it was delivered, whilst others applauded the anarchist lecturer as they would have applauded an excellent tenor. Faure had less hold on the working-men, who were chiefly preoccupied with the terre-á-terre questions of their syndicates.
By the side of these two men, the gentleman-orator and the working-man writer, were others who were accused of rash criticisms of the social state. None of these so-called criminals had a stain on their character or honour; but a half-dozen individuals were coupled with them who were accused of vulgar crimes, such as burglary and picking pockets—perhaps wrongly: at any rate, only two of the latter, who, it must be said, denied their guilt to the last, were found guilty. The obvious intention, however, was to attempt to degrade men of intellect, who, whatever judgment the public may pass on their ideas, have none the less enunciated a new philosophy and a new morality, by associating them with robbers of strong-boxes.
In order to give a more complete study of anarchist personalities, or rather characteristics, I shall now proceed to discuss, not the theorists, but the men who have of late acquired a blood-stained notoriety by their acts; I mean Ravachol, Vaillant, Henry, and Caserio. The three first constitute a kind of moral trilogy, in which Ravachol represents especially force of character, Vaillant that emotional sentiment which was so common among the revolutionists of 1848, and Henry intellectuality. As for Caserio, whom I did not know personally, he seems to have been a special type.
To begin with the first in date. The bizarre Boulangist movement, which was half-democratic, half-conservative, disconcerted and dislocated the various authoritative socialist groups, that had already been thrown into confusion by the electoral struggles; Boulangism then died away, and gave place to a clerical agitation, veiled under a pretext of anti-semitism, when some anarchists, weary of waiting indefinitely for the hour of revolution, took the offensive. On the 1st May, 1891, Decamps, a man of great energy and strong convictions, gave the signal for a working-man’s demonstration headed by the red flag, at Levallois-Perret, near Paris. An attack was made upon them by the police and gendarmerie, and, after an obstinate defence, Decamps and two of his companions were made prisoners. The handling they underwent at the police-station was an outrage upon humanity; they were, besides, condemned to several years’ imprisonment. But in the shadow of the future stood their avenger, Kœnigstein-Ravachol.
There are strange coincidences. To French or even to Latin ears the three syllables, Ra-va-chol, sound menacingly, and one may say, symbolically; they seem to breathe revolt and hatred. In physical appearance, he was a man about thirty years old, of good and muscular figure, with an energetic, proud expression of face, a well-formed forehead, and deep-set, resolute eyes. The whole impression produced was that emphatically of a man, if not refined, at any rate intelligent. Most of the real terrorists, and even of the anarchist agitators—not those wretched persons who make an idea serve as a veil to conceal their selfish and interested acts—have resembled one another physically by the peculiarity of their gaze, which is as piercing as a blade of steel, and is illumined by the inner radiance of a strong conviction that is liable to degenerate into fanaticism.
Born at the lowest depth of the proletarian stratum, with German blood in his veins, as his other name of Kcenigstein indicates, Ravachol was one of those disconcerting and astounding personalities who, according to the epoch in which they live and the sphere in which they move, may leave behind them the reputation of a hero or a bandit. His first acts provoked the wrath of the Revolte, a journal whose morality was the more relentless in that its source was derived, not from social conventions, which are often hypocritical, but from the inmost depths of conscience. Ravachol, after a rough life as a manual labourer, had gained by robbery the means denied him by regular work; he had manufactured counterfeit coin, had plundered the hoardings of an old hermit, and even strangled the unfortunate man—involuntarily, he said—whilst endeavouring to stifle his cries; he had, moreover, violated a tomb in search of jewellery. How could the party of social renovation, the party of the philosopher Kropotkine, of the illustrious geographer, Reclus, of the jurist, Merlino, have done otherwise than indignantly repudiate such acts and those who committed them?
I remember the feeling aroused about the beginning of 1892, when the Retolte exposed the early deeds of Ravachol, and stigmatised him a robber and murderer. A young man, nineteen years old, who, with all his seriousness and determination of manner, had still something of the schoolboy about him, came to see me that day, and, pointing to the journal that lay open on my desk, said, “ We should make an end of these people who dishonour our party; robbers are too cowardly ever to become revolutionists; they want to exploit others and live comfortably in bourgeois style, they don’t think of sacrificing their lives for ideas.” And as he spoke with suppressed passion in his tones, his great black eyes flashed fire.
Some time passed; the explosions of the Boulevard St. Germain and the Rue de Clichy occurred. The name of the audacious terrorist, who attacked the houses of the magistrates, by whom Decamps and his friends had been sentenced, was already in everybody’s mouth. The same young man, who had repudiated Ravachol as a common criminal, also blamed him formally as a dynamiter. “Such acts,” he peremptorily declared, “ do us the greatest harm with the masses, who know nothing about our own journals, and only know what the ordinary newspapers say. A real anarchist, like Padlewsky, goes and strikes his particular enemy down; he does not dynamite houses where there are women, children, workmen, and domestic servants.” The name of the young man? . . . . Emile Henry! He justified the prediction of one of my friends, “Emile has the temperament of a Nihilist; he will perpetrate some terrible deed and end on the scaffold.” The intellectual Emile Henry, who rejected Ravachol as a coreligionist with such vehemence was destined, in a few months’ time, to follow in the footsteps of that illiterate enthusiast.
The fight for and against Ravachol was a hot one; there were only a few of us who reserved our judgment till we had full knowledge of the facts of the case. Without denying the sensation produced by an individual act, which is often useful to the propaganda, we never concealed from ourselves the fact that it far from sufficed to bring about a desirable transformation of society; we had quite different ideas from those of Ravachol as to the proper tactics to be pursued in the struggle. Still, we did not think we had a right to insult a man, however dubious his deeds might be, who seemed to have acted from conviction and disinterestedness, and who was about to pay the penalty with his head.
We afterwards congratulated ourselves, for, as we soon heard from sources beyond suspicion, Ravachol, the robber and murderer of the hermit of Chambles, the coiner of base money and violator of tombs, had never kept for himself the money he had appropriated. Instead of settling down in some far-off unknown spot, and living as a respectable bourgeois, which is the dream of so many vulgar miscreants, he used the money exclusively for the relief of the unfortunate poor, and for the propagation of ideas which he believed to be just; thus risking his life in order to upset the social scheme, like Samson, who pulled down upon himself the temple of the Philistines.
This appreciation of Ravachol, which is not inspired in the least by any sentiment of idolatry for the man, may perhaps seem like the perverted judgment of a rank demagogue. I confess, however, that without going so far as the poet Paillette, and beatifying Ravachol under the name of “Ravachol-Jesus,” I much prefer this uncultured proletarian, who was perfectly sincere in his savage revolt, to a good prince like Titus, who caused one hundred thousand Jews to be massacred or sold; or to a hero, like Turenne, who ravaged the Palatinate with fire and sword; or to a brave general, like the Marquis de Galiffet, whom everyone salutes, although his hands are stained with the blood of the Federal prisoners he killed at La Sluette. Others, such as Pallas, Vaillant, and Caserio, may attract me more; but it is not for me to show myself more pitiless towards a man who died with sincere faith in his own righteousness than the anti-revolutionary writers, to many of whom Ravachol no longer seems a mere brigand.
“But how about the hermit of Chambles?“ I one day asked Ravachol’s most intimate friend.
“He had no intention whatever of killing him; he had even chosen for his deed the hour of noon, when he supposed the old miser would have gone as usual to beg in the town. Unfortunately, the old man had kept to his bed either from illness or his great age, and, on perceiving the intruder, began to cry out. Ravachol was taken by surprise and lost his head; he rushed upon the hermit to make him keep quiet, and gripped his neck—a little too hard. He made no scruple about taking away the money of a parasite, who lived by exploiting the public stupidity; but fate would have it that in spite of himself he should become an assassin. After this accidental murder, he was for a long time very taciturn—quite a different man.”
“Ravachol,” continued his friend, “had curious ideas about many things, especially about work and robbery. He held it to be a cowardice to submit for ever to work, when it does not suffice to give the workman a certain amount of well-being, but to abandon work definitively for robbery he thought lowered the social rebel to the level of the exploiter, and he wished for a combination of the two. ‘We should take from the rich,’ he used to say, ‘as much as we need in order to escape living like brute beasts, but we should not go further; let us remain workers.’” Proudhon, who proclaimed, after Brissot, that “property is robbery,” had, doubtless, not foreseen the existence of such a disciple.
Here, too, is a specimen of Ravachol’s written thought: “If a man, when he is in work, is without the necessaries of life, what can he do when he is out of work? His only course is to die of hunger. In that case, a few words of pity will be uttered over his corpse. Let others be content with such a fate. I could not be. I might have begged. It is cowardly and degrading. It is even punished by law, which regards misery as a crime. I preferred to turn contrabandist, coiner of counterfeit money, and murderer.”
Observe once more that he did not keep the stolen money for his personal use, though he might have been able to live well on it. It is characteristic of all anarchist terrorists that they are both sober and continent in every respect; they are too strongly possessed by the passion of the idea to linger over vulgar pleasures. Ravachol did not even smoke; he was fond of reading, and used sometimes to write down his impressions in a hesitating hand, with many mistakes in the spelling. There was much feeling expressed in them.
This may appear strange. But it was so. The man of terror poured forth his soul in effusions and emotions which were not discoverable in Emile Henry, the refined youth who was incomparably his superior from the intellectual point of view. Chaumartin, who was the accomplice of Ravachol in his dynamite exploits, and subsequently turned informer, said of him: “He was very kind. He taught my little children to read, and cut out figures to amuse them.” At Montbrison, when Ravachol was tried for the murder of the hermit, he was confronted with the son of his mistress, who sobbed at seeing him.
“Was he in the habit of beating you?” asked the president.
“Never! he was very gentle with mother and me.” And as he listened Ravachol, who up till then had not shown a moment’s weakness—Ravachol, who died holding his head high and menacingly—fell to weeping, as he thought of the past, and perhaps of the fate in store for this child he loved so well.
In conclusion, I will quote a little-known incident typical of the man. About two months before his arrest, Ravachol, who had just given away three-quarters of the contents of his purse to help a common cause, came upon a poor little girl in the Rue Rochechouart. He stopped, struck with pity at seeing her so scantily clothed. Her shoes were in the most wretched plight; they were old pumps, drilled with holes, from which the naked heel protruded. The murderer of the hermit went up to the little girl, took her by the hand, brought her to a shoemaker, and bought her a pair of boots for seven francs. He himself was left without a sou, but he was happy at heart, and smiled with content as he watched the child’s delight.
Such traits as these, which were not rare in the life of Ravachol, explain why, after he had been denounced by certain anarchist philosophers, he was not only absolved but actually crowned with glory even by writers belonging to the bourgeoisie, and why also anarchists, who had contemplated a quite different course of action for their party, and conceived a practical programme, consisting in movements of the masses in conjunction with individual efforts, did not level anathemas at the rebel, who had suffered much before dying at the hands of the law.
The rough-hewn personality of Ravachol was succeeded by the more tender though energetic Vaillant. Vaillant, whose character inspired sympathy in the hostile press itself, which declared in favour of his reprieve, was applauded in our camp without recrimination or reserve. His deed was accomplished with such clearness and precision of purpose, was so free from all ambiguous or painful consequences, that we all joined in a chorus of praise.
Auguste Vaillant was born at Mezieres on the 27th of September, 1861, the son of Josephine Rouyer, a poor working-woman, and an insipidly handsome gendarme, who was fickle in his amours, and too much a man of order to trouble himself about the bastard he had brought into the world. He had the generosity, indeed, to give the child his name—but nothing more. The father of the anarchist is at the present time an official receiver at Olizy, a small township in the department of the Aisne; and, although married, he is fond of telling the boobies, who admire his handsome presence and victorious moustache, about the bonnes fortunes of his younger days. When the son he had abandoned was struggling in the most dreadful misery, and when later on he had revolted against the social order which was crushing him, and was finally condemned to the scaffold, his father showed no trace of pity or even of interest in him. It is not with impunity that a man becomes a gendarme!
I remember Vaillant as if he were standing before me now, instead of lying beheaded in the cemetery of Ivry. I can see him with his gentle, even somewhat timid look, and his manner, which was easy and familiar as soon as he felt a reciprocal sympathy, but never coarse. His figure was well-knit and erect, a little above the middle height; and the slightly military cut of his chestnut hair, his moustache and beard, combined to lend his kindly face an expression of manly strength. His voice was singularly beautiful, and was heard at its best in some sentimental ballad or thrilling revolutionary hymn chanted in the company of his comrades.
The future anarchist grew up in misery, and he never escaped it up to the last day of his life. He received a gratuitous education, which he bettered later on by dint of reading. Astronomy, in particular, attracted him. This science of immensity, which reduces to a futile nothingness both our globe and the human insects crawling over its surface, was later on to inspire the dynamiter with the following peroration to the defence he read before the tribunal which presently condemned him to death:—
“And now, gentlemen, whatever may be the punishment to which you condemn me, I care not; for as I gaze upon this assembly with the eyes of reason, I cannot help smiling when I see you, mere atoms lost in the sum total of matter, that reason because you happen to have a prolongation of the spinal marrow, wishing to arrogate to yourselves the right of judging one of your kind. Ah, gentlemen, of how little account are your assembly and your verdict in the history of humanity, and of how little account, too, is humanity in the vortex which is carrying it through immensity, where it is doomed to vanish, or rather to be transformed, in order to recommence the same history and the same acts, by reason of the eternal play of the cosmic forces which are renewed and transformed to infinity!”
Vaillant’s will contained this clause:—
“As I have always in my lifetime done my best to render service to science in particular and to humanity in general, let it be the same at my death. Let my body be handed over for medical purposes as soon as possible after my execution, in order that the semi-vital phenomena which disappear immediately after the disaggregation of the molecules may be studied in proper time.”
Vaillant, who was a hard worker, followed a number of trades, without getting rich in any. One day, however, being without either work or bread, he asked for alms, and the future rebel was condemned for begging. The same self-satisfied persons who cried shame at Ravachol for stealing when he was without bread, heaped insults upon Vaillant for asking alms when he was without work and dying of hunger. But patience! he did not always beg for his bread. The first time he begged humbly and constrained his rebellious pride to silence, because his straightforward mind did not yet cherish any doubt as to the rightfulness of the social order: the cruel misery he endured seemed to him as it were inevitable, inherent in the lot of sad humanity, and irremediable. Later on, he found himself in a situation no less awful, even more so, because he had a woman for his companion, and a child whom he saw to be on the verge of death. But by that time the brain of the proletarian had developed, his anarchist education had been completed. He no longer supplicated, he hurled a bomb at the rulers of the republic, at those he considered responsible for the disturbance of the social equilibrium.
Among other professions, he was once a grocer’s assistant. It was about this time that, with his inquiring and sentimental turn of mind, he went over to socialism, which was then free from the political struggles in which it is foundering to-day, and which proclaimed the principle of universal happiness and the advent of a new morality. He took up the cause with all his soul, as eighteen hundred years earlier he would have taken up Christianity. He was not yet acquainted with Proudhon, Karl Marx, Spencer and Kropotkine, the great sociologists; he had only read and repeatedly re-read some popular pamphlets which he purchased for a few sous, and which fertilised his eager brain with ideas as yet unknown to him, and made his loving heart beat fast. From that time forward Vaillant felt all the ardour of a propagandist: he wished to initiate his brothers in misery into the truths which had just been revealed to him. He left his little berth, the fixed salary attaching to which was enough, however, for him to live on, and undertook the business of a broker. His only prospect was that of a commission on business transacted. “What is the worth of bread without the life of the heart and mind?” he used often to say.
He had chosen this work because it enabled him to spread the new evangel among those he visited under the pretext of offering them coffee and other food-stuffs. At the houses of those who showed themselves averse from sociological controversy he left, as if he had forgotten them, pamphlets of propaganda, such as La Loi des Salaircs, or advanced newspapers like Le Cri du Peuple. The eighteenth arrondissement, which is inhabited partly by working people, partly by artists, and is accessible to all criticisms of the social order or proposals of reform, was the principal scene of his efforts. “It is true I have only earned twelve francs in my week,” said Vaillant one day to a comrade of cooler temperament, who was trying to convince him that his zeal was hurtful to his interests, “but I made three ‘adepts.’” The whole man is in that phrase; it is the same man who, on the 8th December, 1893, when he had become an anarchist, and was on the eve of perpetrating the deed which cost him his life, wrote to a friend: —
“It is almost impossible for me to escape to-morrow, nor will it require much time to institute the necessary legal proceedings and to condemn me. I should be much astonished if I saw the budding of another spring. I confront death with a tranquil mind; is it not the refuge of the disillusioned? But at least I shall die with the satisfaction of having done what I could to hasten the approach of the new era; and there is only one thing I wish for, that on the dissolution of my body all my atoms may be diffused throughout mankind and transmit to them the anarchist virus, in order to hasten the coming of the society of the future.”
It is difficult to unite for a long time the cult of subversive ideas with that of debit and credit. Vaillant made some proselytes and very few clients; the alternatives were to die of hunger or to seek other employment.
About the year 1886 the gendarme’s son was a credulous socialist, believing in the absolute good faith of the chefs de chapelles, who dissemble a boundless ambition under an appearance of humanitarianism. He revered Malon, admired Jules Guesde, waxed enthusiastic over the revolutionary disciples of Blanqui, and vaguely divined that Reclus was a great philosopher. When a short-lived weekly paper was started, with the misleading title of L’Union Socialiste, Vaillant, who was happy to see brothers united who had long been hostile to one another, at once set to work for it industriously without remuneration, and offered to undertake the editorship, although the only prospect was that he would be put in prison. The erstwhile impetuous director of the paper subsequently sobered down; he became a municipal councillor, will be a deputy to-morrow; and to fill up the interval between now and the time when he will have them shot down, he preaches resignation to those whom he once excited to revolt.
Vaillant’s frank and loyal nature made him a valuable subordinate for those who, under the pretext of wishing to concentrate forces, chiefly desired to drill the electors into voting regiments. He saw no evil purpose in it himself, and imagined that the delay in the fusion of the different socialist groups arose from simple misunderstandings, whereas, though in name they were certainly socialist, in point of fact they were aiming at absolutely different ends, the one party at the dictatorship of a Fourth Estate, the other at the complete independence of the individual. Quite in the natural course of events he became secretary of “La federation des groupes independants.” It was then that I made his acquaintance.
A wine-merchant’s saloon, which has since become famous, but was then very little known—the Salle Horel—situated in one of the narrow, densely populated streets of the quartier du Temple, was the social seat of the “ Federation.” At the bottom of the long, narrow, badly-lit room, which was furnished with some twenty benches, was a small platform with a table and chair; that was the official desk. Vaillant, who did not yet contemplate individual action, used to sit there with a serious and modest air; he was even rather embarrassed at being more conspicuous than the others; he spoke little—he liked to talk among intimates, but was not an orator—and devoted his whole energy to the writing of a work, which was as fastidious as it was futile. Few of the French socialists and even anarchists have escaped the cacoethcs scribendi. About forty groups had declared their adhesion to the “Federation,” which gave a good sum total of members on paper; but as soon as the first fire was over, the greater part of them, with a peculiarly French mobility of mind, had begun thinking of other things, and did not even see to their being represented at the meetings. Only about twenty socialists, among whom were two or three veterans of the Commune and some intending candidates, continued to attend.
“We will now call over the names of the groups present, fellow- citizens,” Vaillant announced, after patiently waiting a good hour for the laggards. And he began calling out the names, which, as a rule, smacked strongly of metaphor: “La Sentinelle ... la Barricade . . . les Communistes libertaires . . . les Egaux . . . les Cosmopolites.” Scarcely half of them replied “Present.” Then, giving way to some good speaker, the secretary listened with the rapt attention of a neophyte, or bravely busied himself in a complicated calculation as to the subscriptions due from the different groups. It would have been as easy to fill the cask of the Danaids as to make that budget balance!
When the Cosmopolite group, which we had just created, entered the Salle Horel one evening, represented by the greater part of its members, Vaillant was at first filled with exultation and then alarmed. He exulted, because he saw young and enthusiastic recruits joining the cause of emancipation and solidarity which he loved. He was alarmed because the new-comers seemed to him possessed of a restless activity, which, by diverting the groups from their regular circle of routine, might break up the apparent homogeneity, which he made it his earnest task to maintain. The latter feeling prevailed with him. He was afraid of being involved in an adventurous but unprofitable course of action; so the future dynamiter, who later on was to throw all the theoretical anarchists into the shade by a fait accompli, ended by sending in his resignation.
He was a brave man, as his behaviour at the scaffold abundantly proved, but he was also profoundly humane. He abhorred useless violence—a sentiment which appears even when, tired of struggles and sufferings, he prepared for the deed which cost him his head. At the last moment his intention was not to kill but to warn, and, instead of bullets, he only put nails in his bomb. How different from this sentimental proletarian was young Emile Henry, who was of bourgeois extraction. He treated Vaillant as an imbecile, and coolly informed the judges, who stood aghast at his audacity: “As for me, I wanted to kill!”
I saw Vaillant again later on in another assembly hall at the Cafe de la Cigogne, where Socialist and Anarchist lecturers used to wage wordy warfare before an audience, not altogether derived from the working-classes. By this time, after an unhappy marriage, the issue of which was a daughter, and a voyage to America, where he had only met with deception and disappointment as the reward of ceaseless toil, the ex-editor of the Union Socialiste had evolved into an anarchist. He was not one of the noisy kind, nor did he ever make a speech, but he followed all the debates attentively.
It was about this time that he put to paper the following verses, under the title of “Reves etoiles.” If they do not reveal a poet of the first rank, at any rate they give expression to noble sentiments.
- “Ami, pourquoi douter, car l’aurore s’enflamme,
- Les peuples vont briser le joug des oppresseurs.
- Hourrah! cent fois hourrah! le genre humain proclame
- Les frontieres has et les nations soeurs.
- “L’Autorite n’est plus, l’Humanite s’avance,
- Guides en son chemin par la saine raison,
- La Science fournit a l’homme l’abondance,
- L’on n’entend dans les airs que rires et chansons.
- “Aliens, rejouis-toi, car voici l’Harmonie,
- Le regne de justice et de fraternite,
- La terre heureuse, enfin, dans sa course infinie,
- Emporte son bonheur parmi l’immensite.”
It would take too much space to follow Vaillant in his travels and his trials. Vaillant was no more able to make a fortune in America than in England. He had not the necessary qualities; he had a scrupulous conscience, which his extreme sensibility rendered yet more tender. His wife, tired of a life of struggle and privation, abandoned him. On his return to France he made the acquaintance of the woman who, without sharing his convictions, became his devoted companion and a loving mother to little Sidonie.
The bitter struggle for life then began again, more bitter than ever. The unfortunate man “did the impossible” in order to support the two beings who were dear to him. He worked for two weeks at the Lebaudy refinery, and earned three francs a day by carrying burning sugar-loafs against his chest. “There’s too much of this exploiting,” he said in exasperation to the workmen who listened to him dumbfoundered; “how is it you don’t blow up this dungeon?” Nevertheless, he went on working, the more wretched for the activity of his thought, and accepted every kind of task and pay in order to keep those he loved from dying of starvation. He worked with one master for twenty francs a week. He said at his trial in court: “I threw myself at his feet, entreating him on behalf of my dear ones who were dying of hunger; he answered that he had only taken me into his service, not my wife and my daughter. I had no longer any shoes; I wore an old pair of galoshes I had picked up in the street.”
At length Vaillant, weary of the struggle and suffering—Vaillant, who felt the very soul of all the disinherited throbbing within him, who cried to his judges: “The explosion of my bomb was not only the cry of the rebel Vaillant, but that of a whole class claiming its rights.”—Vaillant rose up and smote society at its head. The proletarian placed himself on a plane with the regicides by attacking the rulers of the republic. On the 9th December, 1893, a bomb exploded in the Chamber of Deputies.
Of all the anarchist attempts, committed within the short period of two years, that of Vaillant alone was unrestrictedly approved by the masses, the easily-moved, simple-natured masses that blindly follow their instincts, that hate and despise their masters, without having the courage to overthrow them. On the occasion of each new parliamentary scandal—and they were not a few!—you heard men, without a suspicion of anti-governmental tendency exclaim openly, “ Is no one going to blow them up?” and when they heard what had happened they contentedly murmured, “At last!” Very different was the impression produced two months later by the deed of Emile Henry.
Vaillant was taken in charge and tried. Even when about to be executed his delicacy of feeling was conspicuous. He wrote to excuse himself for having in a private letter, which had become public property, called by her Christian name the wife of an anarchist who had done him a service. Finally, he was executed, in spite of the attempt to rouse a strong public feeling in his favour. On the same day his tomb was covered with flowers, whilst the Duchess d’Uzes contended with obscure plebeians for the honour of educating the young Sidonie.
Ravachol and Vaillant, born deep down in the stratum of the disinherited, represented the one force of character, the other sentimentality. A third was about to appear, of a very different order. Theirs were simple-hearted natures, his was purely intellectual. Unlike his predecessors, although he fought against the bourgeoisie, to which by birth he belonged, he felt much more disdain than love for the people.
Emile Henry was born in the environs of Barcelona, at Saint Martin de Provensal, on the 26th September, 1872. He was therefore only twenty-one years old when he was guillotined on the 21st May, 1894: twenty-one years! the age of love, ambition, golden dreams! He was the youngest of all the propagandists by deed who ended on the scaffold; the others had reached their thirtieth year, the revolutionary age, at which Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, and Babeuf died.
Fortuné Henry, Emile’s father was once a member of the Commune. He was condemned to death by default and lived therefore in exile. His child learnt from his lips the unforgettable scenes of the Année Terrible: the first siege of Paris, which was so long and so sad; the hunger, the cold, the weakness and treachery of the Government; the capitulation; the wrath of the masses and their indignation when the ruraux of the National Assembly threatened to add to their misfortunes by the restoration of the monarchy; the second siege of Paris by the same French troops as had lowered their arms before Prussia; the fight at the barricades, the fires, the fusillades, the twenty thousand prisoners of both sexes and all ages, the greater part of whom had not even fought, who were massacred by the victors, thirty-three thousand who were sent to the hulks, six thousand who were transported to New Caledonia, the overflowing prisons and order established, as at Warsaw, with streams of blood. How could the son of a man thus condemned to death do other than “see red,” or, like so many other sons of Communists, cherish in his young heart the idea of revenge?
The father of Emile was a man of sensitive nerves, who had suffered from brain fever; his mother was a Spaniard, with the temperament of her race. From them their son inherited a refined nature with an indomitable will apparently belied by a frail form. The future dynamiter was gifted with superior abilities and a burning enthusiasm for lofty ideas combined with an unbridled imagination. The thirst for knowledge fevered his young brain. His success at school was remarkable. At sixteen years of age he brilliantly passed the examinations for the baccalaureat des sciences, and was admitted to the examinations for the Ecole Polytechnique, in which he only failed through the vindictive temper of a professor. The professor’s course of lectures had been interrupted by one of the young men throwing small bombes puantes full of assafoetida. Emile Henry was wrongly suspected of this schoolboy’s joke, but was too proud to denounce the author of it, and was consequently prevented from entering the Ecole Polytechnique. It is well to note this little fact, which had a decisive influence on the destinies of the young man, by launching him into the struggle for life, and perhaps putting the idea of a bomb into his brain.
This insatiable enthusiast for science, who, by overworking his brain, caught a terrible fever when a child, and remained blind for three months, plunged into the most perplexing philosophic speculations. What is matter? What is mind? Are psychical phenomena regulated by universal law in the same way as the physical? Is death the annihilation of the Ego? The result was that Emile Henry lost his footing and fell into the abyss of Spiritualism, even became a “medium of incarnations,” and wasted his health unhesitatingly in exhausting experiments, because he longed for knowledge. But his good faith rebelled against the frauds he discovered; he left the Spiritualists, though he did not discontinue his investigations into the unknown. Edgar Poe was one of his favourite authors; he launched into occultism, argued about telepathic and table-rapping phenomena, the truth of which he admitted, though not their supernaturalism, and frightened the sceptics who listened to him by his extraordinary faculty of insight. He still believed in 1892 in the influence of the stars on human destiny.
“Come, come, Emile,” I sometimes said to him, “don’t let us return to the Middle Ages.”
“But nothing is less bound up with ignorance and blind faith than the real occultism,” he used to retort. “Look at the marvellous powers of the Indian fakirs, which are inexplicable for the great mass of savants, and yet very real.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Jacolliot gives an account of them.”
“I should prefer to see them myself.”
“Some savants, like Crookes and Gilbert, who are more independent than the rest, admit these phenomena to be true. Believe me, esotericism does not contradict science, but anticipates it “
As Henry spoke thus, his countenance would become radiant with that exaltation which a vulgar nature never experiences, and which may lead to madness or to some stroke of genius.
In spite of everything, the young man was forced by straitened family circumstances into a profession the least in harmony with his tastes. He entered the shop of a large linen-draper, and expended his keen intellectual faculties, and his mathematical science, on keeping the accounts. He was then earning 120 francs per month, forty of which he sent his mother who, now a widow, was living together with his two brothers. Emile Henry’s dinner was a meagre meal, and he did not have a dejeuner every day. He was very proud, rarely borrowed money, and then only from his most intimate friends, and he always paid back the loan.
Stendhal, in his famous novel, Le Rouge et le Noir, has sketched a proud character, a social rebel, too, Julien Sorel, with whom Emile Henry had some points of resemblance. He was the very type of the intellectual man, as was evident at the first glance. He was short, thin, hut well set-up, and possessed of surprising nervous energy, pale, thin-lipped, with a straight nose, a high, broad forehead, framed in with chestnut hair, and energetic, deep-set black eyes—his two brothers have also splendid eyes; taken altogether, the son of the Communist, without being exactly haughty, appeared rather cold.
It would be inaccurate to say that Emile Henry was born without sensibility; his nervous system was too refined and too delicate not to have a very lively perception of all physical and moral impressions. Young as he was, he had shown some traits of a good heart, which were related at his trial by witnesses who were little suspected of sympathy for the anarchists; he had shared his salary with his less fortunate fellows; had lent his little room for several weeks to a poor houseless family. Lastly, quite in the manner of a young man, he fell in love with a married woman; his love, though passionate, was none the less platonic.
What a lovely retreat for dream and repose is the quiet little house at Brevannes, where the old mother and the two brothers of the dynamiter are still living! Around it spread deep thickets, in front of which a she-goat used to browse and some hens peck for food. Emile, when he made a Sunday excursion into the country, sometimes invited his friends to his mother’s house. How many afternoons he spent in the garden, lying on the grass at the foot of the coquette he loved, gazing on her in silence, like a true believer on his idol! But with this young man, as with many others, the intellectual side of his character, developing more and more, absorbed the sentimental. Towards the end of 1891, a certain anarchist group sprang into being, of an exclusive kind, exclusive because we were tired of the noisy, vapid, and often dubious individuals who invaded the open groups and paralysed all activity. I introduced Henry, who was the youngest of all, and showed himself one of the most active. He would spend his whole night with us, as soon as his working-day was over, and go to his office the next morning with his face pale from want of sleep.
On one occasion we were discussing, a long time in advance, the proper attitude to assume for the 1st May, 1892. To counsel the workers to take up arms against Capital and Power without the least chance of success would have been senseless and criminal; on the other hand, a mere interview with the public authorities, after the fashion of simple socialists, was out of the question. “Why!” said Henry, “let the working-men go themselves and visit their masters, and come to an arrangement with them, as if the government did not exist.” The idea, which relieved us from the dilemma of being either senseless or opportunist, surprised us. It was very simple; but in France, where centralisation strangles individual initiative, solutions of social problems apart from state intervention are scarcely dreamt of. The attempts of Ravachol, which surprised every one, us more than any, soon began to give the social struggle an entirely different stamp.
In contrast to Vaillant, who loved the people, Emile Henry only loved the idea. He felt a marked estrangement from the ignorant and servile plebs, a feeling distinctive also of a small number of literary and artistic anarchists. The plebs, who are ignorant of science and careless of letters and art, who patiently endure the tyranny they complain of, who are always engaged in overturning one set of idols in order to raise others in their place, who assuage their bestial fury at the Saint-Barthelemy no less than at the September massacres, who join the hue and cry against all who revolt on the score of religion, philosophy, or the social order, and jeer at the name of heretic, provided there is a stake kindled for their entertainment—do such creatures even deserve to live?
This aristocratic feeling which was originally latent in Emile Henry but was developed by frequent intercourse with the romanticists of anarchy, who are more vehement in words than in deeds, exercised a deplorable influence on his high character. It engendered a contempt for human life which Vaillant never felt, and Ravachol at any rate confined to the privileged classes. These proletarians had logically enough directed their blows against the representatives of power and authority whom they were fighting; whilst Emile Henry, though much the superior of either in intellectual culture, was the author of the inconsequent attempt at the Cafe Terminus.
A year and a half previously he had struck a more successful blow, thanks to luck. A bomb, which he had manufactured and deposited in front of the offices of the Mining Company of Carmaux, had been discovered and taken to the commissariat of police in the Rue des Bons-Enfants, where it exploded, killing the secretary and five police agents. The police is the natural enemy of revolutionary and even of inoffensive Parisians, and this notorious attempt, which took place in the interval between those of Ravachol and Vaillant, excited no regret except in high official circles and among the relations of the victims.
The last time I saw Henry was in London in the interval between his two attempts. I had not seen him for a long time. How changed he seemed to me! The bombs of Barcelona hypnotised him; the only thing he thought of was to strike a blow and die. “To-day is the anniversary of the dancing-lesson,” he said, alluding to the explosion in the Rue des Bons-Enfants.
The young anarchist was proud of himself. The thought that he had been by himself the means of exterminating six enemies, and the comments he heard on this act, the author of which was unknown, filled him with a proud satisfaction. He grew in his own eyes, he said to himself that his role of destroying angel had only just begun. A year passed, during which he travelled, working as a manual labourer in Belgium, whither the expectation of the social revolution had attracted him, and earning a livelihood in various places with difficulty. When Vaillant’s head fell into the basket, Henry, who had by then returned to France, thought the moment had come to answer terrorism by terrorism.
“What matters a wave more or less in the ocean!” asks a decadent poet. Emile Henry, influenced by the sophists and romanticists, who had thrust themselves into the anarchist party, as has happened in all revolutionary parties, doubtless said to himself that the “human waves,” through their stupidity and inertia, were a greater obstacle to progress than the actual rulers. He was without money, and obliged every day to change his abode in the great city which was being continually searched by the police. He had not been able to use the bomb he had just manufactured with infinite science against the men in power: they were too well protected: so he decided, in order to have done with the bomb which seemed to burn his hands, to throw it into a place of public resort.
Then took place the attempt of the Cafe Terminus, the most unintelligible of all, although perpetrated by the most intellectually developed of the dynamiters, an attempt which cost the lives of two persons, but which, as Mirbeau wrote, struck a blow at anarchy more than anything else. The sincere friendship we felt for the dynamiter, our admiration of his courage and loyalty to his memory, do not modify our opinion in this regard. But the whole story must be told. When Emile Henry had been arrested, after a desperate defence, his attitude was such that even those who were disposed to condemn him could not help admiring him, and those of his co-religionists who had most deplored his act said: “He is redeeming it.” Lepine, the prefect of police, made a very typical mot apropos of Poisson, who arrested the young anarchist. He cried: “ Luckily we shall be able to decorate him!” thus implying that the antecedents of most French policemen are such as to prevent them from aspiring to an honourable decoration.
Ravachol represented the vigorously-cast, primitively simple- minded man, who, plunged in darkness and suddenly catching a glimpse of a light, marched towards it, his eyes yet troubled, without stopping at the obstacles that barred his way. Vaillant represented the man of heart who had been driven to extremities and yet remained humane even in his attempt. Emile Henry appeared before his judges—some persons whose names are already forgotten—as Saint-Just would have appeared before Monsieur Prudhomme. He was supreme in his cold hauteur, his audacity, and his irony. He made stinging retorts and sarcastic mots. He was a terrible and splendid figure in the trial. His whole defence, or rather his whole speech for the prosecution, which it really amounted to, is worth quoting. He died, bravely compelling his frail body to carry him to the place of execution. He was impassible to the last, and cried out as loudly as his delicate frame would permit, “Courage, comrades, long live anarchy!”
I cannot end this series of portraits without saying a few words about another man with whom I was not personally acquainted. Caserio, who was only a few months older than Henry, seems, according to the information I have been able to gather, to have been the very type of the regicide. Perhaps he most resembled Emile Henry among the French dynamiters in his imagination and moral characteristics. But his act, however terrible it may be considered, was logical; it may even be said that he was impeccable from a revolutionary point of view. By sacrificing his own life in order to kill the chief of the State, this young man, with the shapely round head and the charming smile, was no more a common murderer than Harmodius, Aristogi-ton, and Brutus, whom schoolboys are taught to admire.
In the town of Milan, the “moral capital” of Italy, Caserio developed ideas to the realisation of which he devoted his whole time and efforts as a sober and continent young working-man. He lived the inward life alone. I have seen some of his letters: they are full of mistakes in spelling, but they reveal an astonishing power of logic and stability of idea. The baker’s boy, obeying a mental reaction which tends to detach certain anarchists, chiefly the Italian, from the realistic writers and to bring them back to the romanticists, read Victor Hugo a great deal in his leisure hours. Perhaps, when he thought of the execution of Vaillant, whose bomb had only wounded a few persons, he was inspired by the verse:
“... Harmodius! c’est l’heure: Tu peux tuer cet homme avec tranquillitS.”
Such were the men of summary action, who took lives but also sacrificed their own, in a party that includes philosophers and sociologists, savants and artists. Even in Ravachol, the most debated of these terrorists, we find fine moral traits. There is blood involved, certainly, in their deeds, but sincere conviction too, and new societies are founded on conviction as well as with blood when the old societies are decaying. “Malefactors!” men shout at us. Was it not eighteen hundred and sixty-two years ago that the men of order and government nailed to a cross a “malefactor,” whose teaching, unhappily degraded by his followers, has yet conquered half the world?