The Responsible Parties



The Responsible Parties:

Concerning the Anarchist Duval[1]

I do not approve of the theory of theft—or better said, I do not understand it. It disturbs me because it seems to be the kind of thing that pushes away the undecided, intimidates the naïve and frightens the timid. But in spite of my confusion I still feel that it is the most distressing social problem that has ever shaken up the world…and I remain undecided, I suspend my judgment.

Someone said to me, “You preach collective theft and call it restitution. But you spit on individual theft and call it a crime. Why?”

Yes, why?


I have too much loathing for pompous doctrines, school catechisms and sectarian grammars to argue and go into endless details about the act of a man whose head is already in the hands of the executioner and whom everyone has the right to insult and condemn—except for us!

We spend our lives telling the humble people (it is our conviction and our duty) that they are being robbed, exploited and slowly murdered; that their bodies are machines, their daughters are playthings and their sons will be used as cannon fodder. We fuel their anger, set their minds on fire, burn their souls and in the name of supreme Justice and sovereign Equality we make citizens out of the outcasts and rebels out of the defeated.

We tell them, “The Revolution is at hand. It will free you and give you your daily bread and the dignity of being free. Be patient, poor people! Hold on and put up with everything! Wait for the right time, gather your sorrows and bundle up your bitterness and hopes—and have confidence in the Social Revolution for a few years of grief and sacrifice.”

The stubborn and persistent understand. They notch their belt around their empty bellies and get back to the social work dreaming of the harvest to come.

But the others? The impatient and impassioned who are dying of hunger and hatred, who have suffered, struggled and endured too much, who have too many children in their homes or too much fury in their heads, with their minds impervious to any idea of discipline and organization, who listen to us but do not hear! The sound of our words enters their brains, but the meaning does not stick in their minds. And these madmen of misery, these neurotics of revolt get drunk on our venomous hostility like on too much wine.

And then they do something crazy or criminal…

Bourgeois society jumps up, grabs hold of the man and tortures him… and we excommunicate him. We come down on him hard, cruel and heavy like the last rock at a stoning.

Oh, no, not that! Everyone…except for us!

The road we have chosen presents us with grave dangers, not the least of which are these disturbing “compromises”, but we have to accept them with our heads held high, like good people with enough honor to lend some of it to the unfortunates who are dishonored because they misunderstood us. All responsibility falls on us, the educated and the leaders of the crowd—they deserve leniency and pity.


So, turn to history and look at the past. There were always adventurous and deranged people who “compromised” the cause. And there were always blind puritans who branded these misfits with public condemnation. Babeuf was guillotined by the Republic; Proudhon was dishonored by the republicans; the rebels of June were defamed by Pelletan; and after ‘71 how many slanders were there against once fellow fighters![2]

And always, always this word “thief” tossed by one democrat at another. Babeuf, thief! Proudhon, thief! The June workers, thieves! The Communards, thieves! This or that opponent, thief! This or that, dissident, thief!

If the accusation is false, let us come to his defense; if it is true, let us sympathize! We other socialists have no other role in humanity. We are not judges. We are defenders!

I spoke of the legend of socialism, but you can take the legend of Christianity, its ancestor. A boy from Bethlehem, weak in body but strong in mind, gathered around him some workers whom he talked to quietly and simply about their great misery. They became staunch friends with him and left everything to follow him when he went to travel around Palestine. Like the vagrants of our day they had no occupation. They slept in the streets like our homeless. They held demonstrations on graves like us others and meetings like the unemployed in every Champs de Mars where they met.

There were twelve of them. Now there are a hundred. Tomorrow there will be a thousand!

Like a snowball turning into an avalanche, the group got bigger as it went along. Everyone whom the country considered prowlers, lost girls, bandits and brigands followed this young man who preached Equality. Since they had to live they foraged around and got what they could where they could. The bourgeoisie closed their doors in terror before this “army of crime” made up of the rejects of society.

The province was disrupted and the government went into action. Jesus was arrested for inciting people to pillage and to hate one another. They judged him along with a thief. It was the thief who got pardoned. Then Barabbas turned away from his co-defendant in disgust and said, “Take this criminal away.”

Jesus was executed amidst a laughing, booing and spitting crowd. The drunken soldiers had a great time while he was dying and he breathed his last breath between two thieves on the infamous gallows. Beneath him wept an old craftswoman, his mother and a poor prostitute who loved him…


This “criminal” was resurrected—and now he has reigned over the world for nineteen centuries!

The whole strength of this religion is drawn from the shame of torture, from the humility of the tortured, from its contact with the poor, from its solidarity with the guilty. He was judged by the Pharisees and denied by his apostles and he loved his ignorant, criminal people enough to be glad to take upon himself all their slanders and then die like the worst of beggars.

How can you, Social Pharisees, not know the deep significance of this legend and the thought of this pale orator nailed like the first socialist poster on the tree of Golgotha?

It would be too easy, really, to give only one’s life to the cause, to want only glorious punishments, brilliant martyrs, Millière at the Pantheon or Delescluze at the barricade[3].

So, let’s go!

You heard me right, we have to give everything: honor, reputation, prejudices, and misgivings. Follow the people on the road and follow them to their cells.

With the poor at all times—despite their mistakes, despite their faults…despite their crimes!

[1] Le Cri du People, January 30 1887 (included in Pages Rouges).

[2] François Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf (1760-1797), anarcho-communist ahead of his time and one of the leaders of “The Conspiracy of Equals”; Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), anarchist and pacifist; Eugène Pelletan (1813-1884) and the bloodily repressed uprising of 1848; reference to the Paris Commune of 1871.

[3] Jean-Baptiste Millière and Charles Delescluze were shot dead during the Bloody Week of May 1871.


4-Propaganda By Deed



On the night of October 22 1882 a bomb exploded in the restaurant of the Bellecour Theater in Lyon, killing a waiter and causing considerable damage. The next day another bomb went off at an army recruitment center but resulted only in material damage. The investigation was naturally focused on the anarchists. Fearing a huge conspiracy by the “anti-authoritarian” International, the government rounded up the “leaders” all over France and brought them to Lyon to face the law. This famous Trial of the Sixty Six began on January 8 1883 against defendants who were divided into two categories: the first “to have, for 3 months, in Lyon or other parts of the French territory, been affiliated with or performed acts affiliated with an international society and with the goal of provoking the suspension of work, the abolition of the rights of property, family, country and religion, and having thus committed an attack against the public peace”; the second group for supporting and instigating such acts by publishing and circulating propaganda in favor of them. Stiff sentences ranging from six months to several years in prison were handed down to the likes of Peter Kroptkin, Elisée Reclus, Emile Gautier (who would later abandon anarchism) and many others. Antoine Cyvoct, a young anarchist journalist was sentenced to death for the Bellecour bomb[1] based solely on circumstantial evidence—in fact, they never even established that it was an anarchist attack. Nevertheless, thus began the Era of Dynamite and the government’s absolute intolerance of the anarchist movement.

In that same year of 1883 Karl Marx died in London and Jules Vallès launched Le Cri du Peuple in Paris. In following his dream to have a newspaper open to all cries of revolt, not just to one school or one theory, Vallès had welcomed Jules Guesde onto the editorial staff. Guesde would brag that he had met Karl Marx in person and was the guardian of orthodox revolutionary dogma. Séverine, being deeply, thoroughly libertarian[2], felt an immediate, instinctive dislike of him. She feared that with Guesde the authoritarians had set up house at Le Cri. Her distrust was well founded. For a while Séverine and the doctrinaires lived a difficult co-existence—a great big family that may not have liked but tolerated each other—until the question of anarchy came between them. And it was Clément Duval who caused the rupture.

Clément Duval was in court in January 1887 for robbing and setting fire to an affluent house and later stabbing (not fatally) the police sergeant Rossignol who tried to arrest him. The incident would likely have been relegated to the police blotter if Duval had not defended his act as an anarchist attack—he did not steal but put into action the theory of individual reclamation of capital, a “just restitution made in the name of humanity”. He stole not for his own benefit but to support the Revolution. It earned him a death sentence. The anarchist companions got to work right away to save him from the guillotine. Louise Michel spoke at one meeting where Séverine had the opportunity to meet her, the heroine of the Commune, the legend, who had written for the original Le Cri du Peuple. Today, however, the new staff of Le Cri (save Séverine) thought the anarchists were too damaging to the cause. The conflict that would last for decades to come was waging between propaganda by word and propaganda by deed, which not only pitted socialists against anarchists but also anarchists against each other.

“I have the conviction that the time of grand theoretical discourse, printed or spoken, is over… The time for ideas is over. It is the time now for deeds and action,” Mikhail Bakunin had said in his farewell speech in 1873[3]. Paul Brousse, in his article “Propaganda by Deed” in 1877, tried to show how much more effective action was compared to theoretical propaganda—it is the realization, the materialization of the idea. As the government became more repressive and corrupt and the workers became more downtrodden and poorer, many revolutionary militants became more radical and violent. When the Communards returned to France under the amnesty of 1880, so too did a renewed energy for anarchy, fiercer than ever. And it inaugurated a new era in the struggle against oppression.

There was no official anarchist party in France at the time. The anarchists called each other “companion” and formed only local groups with little or no links between them, adopting such provocative names as the Rebels, The Outraged, The Gun in Hand, The Starved, The Terrible, The Hatred. One group founded in 1886 was called the Anti-Owners: it was made up of “Midnight Movers”, who would skip out on rent; it had no rules, no statutes, no office, no headquarters; it counted around fifty active members who helped anyone who wanted to relocate without paying their debts. Another group was The Panther of Batignolles. On the agenda of its first meeting was the item “How to fabricate homemade bombs.” The soon to be famous Clément Duval was one of its founding members.

They practiced propaganda by deed, the idea first justified by Proudhon and then encouraged by Bakunin: “to destroy is to construct”. Everything from insurrection to explosives, from riding the train without a ticket to counterfeiting money, all forms of revolt, as insignificant as they might seem, were worth the effort. But substituting deeds for words, action for speech gave the anarchist movement a bad reputation and was not welcomed by all companions and certainly not by their socialist comrades, especially because of the crackdown by the law like in Lyon following the bomb attacks. With Duval’s defense, however, a new “crime” was being given significant attention. Later, Vittorio Pini, an Italian anarchist in France, with his better education would defend the theory of individual reclamation better than Duval[4], but with Duval’s death sentence, completely disproportionate to the crime—the government wanted to make an example of him—the libertarian theorists were forced to take a stand.

See, Clément Duval was making noise, a lot of noise. And the people, the workers were not unaware that he, at least, had not stolen from them. While a number of rebels were trying to create unions to help the unemployed and injured, others like him acted alone. Exasperated by misery, they could not wait for the future revolution. They cried out their desperation and struck. They put theory into practice. Some anarchists like Jean Grave, while justifying the action, denied any real value to theft. Others, like Sébastien Faure and Elisée Recluse, approved of the right to steal. To some he was just a criminal; to others he was a hero; to others again he became a martyr. No one could just stand on the sidelines.

Séverine took up the cause and championed Duval. She did not justify his action but rather decried the reaction. Justice was not equitable. There was one for the rich and another for the poor—it did not judge the facts, it judged the classes. And worse than this, who were all these socialists who judged him? Where did they get their right to condemn him without his right to appeal? She did not condone the theft, but she sympathized with the convicted. For her, the individual always took precedence over the category—humanity trumped doctrine. As Montaigne (3.2) said, “Man regards theft as a dishonest deed; and he hates it… but less than he hates poverty”.

Jules Guesde considered her articles a declaration of war. The staff rose up against her. Who was this woman who pretended to give lessons to the holders of the correct political line, who dared to contradict their dogma? It was the break. Marxists, blanquists, republicans, independents, all left en bloc. They quit, Séverine said. We were fired, they said. And the paper would die. Was it worth it?

Duval was defended by Fernand Labori, a young lawyer committed to his office, making his first appearance before the high court. He would go on to defend (along with his own life) Pini and Auguste Vaillant and the famous Captain Dreyfus, along with Emile Zola. All the uproar and popular support saved Duval’s head: his sentence was commuted to life of hard labor in the dry guillotine, as they called the penal colony. After fourteen years in hell and countless failed escape attempts Clément Duval (“one of the most dangerous men that anarchy ever unleashed against our social state”[5]) finally managed to reach New York in 1901 to die there at the age of 85 in 1935.


At the same time across the Atlantic the Haymarket Affair in Chicago was causing shock waves : A bomb exploded during a labor demonstration for the eight-hour workday on May 4 1886 and the police reacted by firing indiscriminately into the panicked crowd, killing and injuring a number of people. No bomber was ever found, but eight anarchists were arrested and convicted despite no proof of a conspiracy. Four of them were sent to prison and the four others sentenced to death: one of them committed suicide in jail and the three remaining were hanged on November 11 1887. The injustice was an international scandal. In commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs, it was first proposed in 1890 at the Second International in Paris and then formally recognized internationally in 1891 that May 1st be celebrated as International Workers Day. Today May Day continues to celebrate the Labor Movement all over the world except in the USA and Canada, which officially celebrate Labor Day in September so as to forget its origins.

[1] His sentence was commuted to hard labor on Devil’s Island in French Guiana until he was finally pardoned in 1898.

[2] Libertarian understood in the traditional, European sense, i.e. nearly equivalent to anarchist, and not in the American sense, i.e. free-market capitalist.

[3] Bulletin de la Fédération jurasienne, n. 27, October 12 1873.

[4] The two became friends in the hellish penal colony of French Guiana. See Outrage: An Anarchist Memoir of the Penal Colony by Clément Duval (translated by Michael Shreve), PM Press, 2012.

[5] Flor O’Squarr, Les coulisses de l’anarchie, 1892.