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Book Review

The Geography of Freedom:
The Odyssey of Elisée Reclus

by Marie Fleming

Reviewed by:
John Clark


This biography by Marie Fleming is highly recommended as a comprehensive, readable survey of the life and ideas of Reclus. The book is a revised and improved edition of Fleming's earlier The Anarchist Way to Socialism: Elisée Reclus and Nineteenth-Century European Anarchism, which was already the best source of information on Reclus in English. While the only other extensive study in English, Dunbar's Elisée Reclus: Historian of Nature is useful for those interested in Reclus as a geographer, Fleming's work is far superior as a presentation of Reclus as a complex human being and a fascinating historical figure. She gives the events of his life a rich context in nineteenth-century European history, in the radical milieu of that period, and, most particularly, in the events and ideas of the anarchist movement of the epoch. Where the work is weakest is in the area of theory. Fleming hardly mentions Reclus' most important work of social theory, L'Homme et la Terre, an impressive six-volume study, and she makes only a few brief references to other theoretical discussions.

Yet, Elisée Reclus is without doubt one of the greatest theorists in the history of anarchism. Unfortunately, his theoretical contributions receive little notice today, and he has been known more as a great geographer who happened to be an anarchist, or as a moderately important figure in the anarchist movement. Fleming notes the failure of Reclus to make the "list of major figures" of anarchism. (p. 20) She blames this on a lack of appreciation of his importance by historians. However, the failure of mainstream historians to appreciate his contributions does not explain the surprising degree of neglect of Reclus by anarchists and writers on anarchism. He was certainly a better person, a better thinker, and a better anarchist than major "canonical" figures like Proudhon and Bakunin, who remain in the anarchist pantheon despite qualities like sexism, anti-semitism, vanguardism and occasional megalomania -- not to mention their theoretical incoherence. He also had the intense political engagement and the concern for issues of personal life of an Emma Goldman, while lacking her sense of self-importance. And he was a more profound thinker and a more consistent anarchist than even Kropotkin, perhaps the most deserving of the revered few.

The neglect of Reclus as an anarchist has resulted, I think, primarily from the fact that his major writings are extensive geographical studies (often running to thousands of pages) in which his political philosophy appears either in widely dispersed commentary and analysis or, more significantly, as an underlying theoretical orientation that is not intruded conspicuously into every discussion. To appreciate his insights, one must read carefully his quite extensive works concerning human society and nature. Anarchists have usually been in a hurry to change the world, and a tract by Bakunin or Kropotkin has been a more convenient source for a quick injection of ideology. And strangely, Reclus' most profound and striking social and political analysis does not appear in his more explicitly political works, which are rather heavy on inspiring rhetoric, stirring exhortation and vague generality. Thus, those few of his works that have been reprinted as movement tracts do not reveal his qualities as a major thinker.

Yet, in the totality of his work Reclus towers above most figures who are accorded vastly greater attention and recognition as anarchist theorists. His discussions of social and political issues have a depth and breadth unequaled in anarchist thought, and he is by far the greatest scholar in the history of anarchism. Furthermore, his ideas are of much more than historical interest. Above all, his synthesis of anarchism and social geography makes him an important precursor of ecological anarchism and social ecology -- a thinker from whom all who are interested in these currents have much to learn.

The Exemplary Life of an Anarchist

It is said that Reclus once exclaimed to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, "Yes, I am a geographer, but above all I am an anarchist." (p. 20) This describes him well, for though his life work encompassed magnificent achievements in social geography, the pursuit of the anarchist ideal was his life itself. At an early age he developed a deep faith in freedom and equality that later received full expression in his anarchist political theory.

Reclus was born into a Protestant family on March 15, 1830, in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a small town on the Dordogne in southwestern France. His independence of thought and his quest for the ideal, just community were no doubt influenced by his heritage of religious dissent. Indeed, his anarchism can be seen as the ultimate Protestant revolt against the dominant religions of the Modern Age: capitalism and statism. He studied at the Moravian School in Neuwied, Germany, the Protestant College of Sainte-Foy, from which he received the Baccalauriat, and the the Protestant University in Montauban. By age 17, he had already developed an interest in radical political ideas and was becoming increasingly rebellious against his conservative Calvinist environment. Despite his restlessness, he managed to return to the school at Neuwied, where he taught briefly, after which he completed his formal education with a short period of study at the University of Berlin, where he attended lectures on geography that stimulated greatly his enthusiasm for the subject.

Already, during his student years, Reclus' political ideas were quite advanced. In an essay of this period entitled "Développement de la Liberté dans le Monde," the 21-year old summarizes a view which defined his future anarchism and its underlying basis. "For each particular man," he asserted, "liberty is an end, but it is only a means to attain love or that which appears to be its equivalent, to attain universal brotherhood." (p.34) His lifelong concern with the ideals of freedom and solidarity is already evident, and he has already reached an anarchist position in regard to the state. He describes the "destiny " of humanity as "to arrive at that state of ideal perfection where nations no longer have any need to be under the tutelage of a government or any other nation. It is the absence of government; it is anarchy, the highest expression of order." (p. 36)

By this time, both Elisée and his brother Elie had become interested not only in advanced ideas but also in radical political politics. They were enraged by Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of December 2, 1851, and participated in an apparent plan to seize the mairie (town hall) of Orthez. Though the affair was a fiasco that threatened nothing, the reaction by the autorities led the Reclus brothers to flee France for the greater tolerance then prevailing in England. For Elisée, this flight began over five years of foreign travel, and affected profoundly his future vocation as a geographer.

By early 1853, Reclus had crossed the Atlantic and was living in Louisiana. He spent several years as a tutor at a plantation fifty miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans. One of the strongest impressions that he gained from his experience of the much romanticized plantation society of the Old South was of the cruel inhumanity of slavery. His repulsion by the slave system was largely responsible for his decision to leave Louisiana and helped form his views concerning racism and domination in general. Reclus saw racism as one of the most pernicious forms of oppression and domination. He believed that the resulting problems of social conflict and exploitation could only be solved ultimately through the intermingling of races. Racism, he concluded, was based on a false view of social hierarchy and division that contradicted his fundamental principles of human equality and the acceptance of social diversity. In his view, humanity is always strengthened by the creative diversification resulting from the blending of cultures and races.

Another consequence of Reclus' visit to Louisiana was the strengthening of his belief in the inhumanity of capitalism. While his experiences in Europe led him to abhor the evils of economic inequality and exploitation, he discovered in America an economistic mentality that far surpassed that of more traditionalist European cultures. He concluded that the spirit of commerce and material gain had deeply infected American culture and poisoned it. As he wrote to his brother Elie, he believed the country to be a "great auction hall where everything is sold, slaves and owner into the bargain, votes and honour, the Bible and consciences. Everything belongs to the one who is richer." (p. 44) His loathing for the virtues of free enterprise continued throughout his lifetime.

When Reclus returned to France, his beliefs concerning the blending of races and cultures were put into practice in his personal life when he married Clarisse Brian, the mulatto daughter of a French father and a Senegalese mother. The marriage was a happy one, but ended after only a few years with Clarisse's death shortly after the birth of their third child, who also died. A year later, Reclus married an old friend, Fanny L'Herminez, according to anarchist principles, without the sanction of either church or state. This alliance proved to be his closest and most valued relationship, profoundly affecting him for the rest of his life. Although no other relationship ever reached the depth of that with Fanny, after her death he entered into another "free" and happy marriage with his third wife, Ermance.

In general, Reclus' biographers have agreed that his egalitarian and cooperative ideas were practiced admirably in his personal life. His fundamental principles of solidarity and mutual aid were much more than political slogans. This is true of his relationship not only with his wives, but also with other members of his family and his wide circle of friends. He was noted for his great sense of humility. While he became well known as both a scientist and a political writer and activist, he vehemently rejected the idea of having followers or of placing himself in a position of superiority. As he once wrote to a young woman who presented herself as a would-be disciple: "For shame....Is it right for some to be subordinated to others? I do not call myself 'your disciple.'" (p. 192)

During the 1860s, Reclus published a great many articles on geography in the Revue des deux mondes and other journals, and he completed the first of the three great geographical projects of his life. This vast work, La Terre: description des phénomènes de la vie du globe, established him relatively early in his career as an important figure in the field of geography. Several other geographical works followed, but Reclus' scholarly work was interrupted abruptly in 1871 by the events of the Paris Commune and its aftermath. He participated both in the politics of the Commune and in the defense of Paris. His column of the Paris National Guard was taken prisoner by the Versailles troops and he spent the next eleven months in fourteen different prisons. He was sentenced to deportation to New Caledonia, but despite his refusal to submit to the new regime, and largely because of his prestige as a scientist and intellectual, his friends and supporters succeeded in having his sentence reduced to ten years' exile. As a result, he was allowed to emigrate to Switzerland, where he began his association with the anarchists of the Jura Federation and developed close ties with the major anarchist theorists Bakunin and Kropotkin.

Reclus' views concerning social transformation were profoundly affected by his participation in the First International, and by the influence of Bakunin. Bakunin, the foremost figure in the international anarchist movement for many years, was a great admirer of the Reclus brothers. Reclus' admiration for Bakunin was also great, although he was in no sense a "follower" of the charismatic and often manipulative Bakunin. While Reclus and Bakunin opposed one another at various times on several issues, including the role of secret societies, the influence of the latter was responsible in part for Reclus' development of a firm belief in the necessity of social revolution. He participated in such Bakuninist revolutionary organizations as the International Brotherhood and the Alliance for Social Democracy, and in Bakunin's efforts to move the nonrevolutionary League for Peace and Freedom in a more radical direction. Reclus was also a member of Bakunin's International Brotherhood -- the secret society of dedicated Bakuninist revolutionaries -- from 1865 on. He attended the meetings of the General Council of the First International in 1869 and defended the anarchist (majority) position in the world's first great working-class organization.

It was also in Switzerland that he began his greatest geographical work, the Nouvelle géographie universelle, consisting of nineteen volumes published between 1876 and 1894. Reclus remained in Switzerland until 1890, heavily occupied with both scholarship and political activity, after which he returned to France. In 1894 he began a new phase of his career when he accepted an invitation to become a professor at the New University in Brussels. He had some reservations about this undertaking, having remained outside the academic world until quite late in life. However, he was a great success, achieving renown as a teacher and winning the enduring admiration of many students. During this period he also completed his last great work and his most important work of social theory, L'Homme et la terre. This impressive study ran to six volumes and reinforced his reputation as a major figure in the history of geography.

Reclus died in the countryside at Thourout near Brussels on July 4, 1905. It is reported that his last days were made particularly happy by news of the popular revolution in Russia. He expired shortly after hearing of the revolt of the sailors on the battleship Potemkin.

The Enduring Importance of Reclus' Ideas

Reclus made a number of important contributions to anarchist thought. Though Fleming does not devote much attention to the details of his theoretical analysis, one can gain from her book an idea of some areas of theoretical importance. She points out that he devoted some attention to anarchist organization, and that he was highly skeptical of such approaches as utopian communalism and the establishment of cooperative enterprises. His arguments on these topics often seem rather weak, since he dismissed such forms of organization without much analysis as destined to either irrelevant marginality or voluntary cooptation. But though Reclus focused primarily on opposition to institutions of domination, he also made an important contribution to discussion of immediate, creative forms of self-organization. In his view, the anarchist should "work to free himself personally from all preconceived or imposed ideas, and gradually group around himself friends who live and act in the same fashion. It is step by step, through small, loving and intelligent societies that the great fraternal society will be established." (p. 20) Reclus was thus, as early as 1895, arguing for the centrality to the process of personal and social transformation of what became widely known in anarchist practice and theory as the "affinity group." Though he fails to offer a vision of how anarchist values could be expressed through a growing community of cooperative groups and institutions, he has an unusual grasp of the importance of transforming the closest personal relationships.

In addition, Reclus made some significant contributions to defining the anarchist goal for the future. Fleming points out that Reclus' vision of a cooperative society goes beyond both the collectivist principle of distribution according to labor (advocated by Bakunin and his followers) and the communist principle of distribution according to need (supported by Kropotkin and others). For Reclus, the concept of distribution according to each person's need still preserves a somewhat backward, egoistic view of the individual and society. According to Fleming, his principle of solidarity implied a concept of social need, "the fulfillment of one's own needs within the context of the needs of others," and it therefore "represented a harmony between the individual and society, and consequently a higher level of humanity." (p. 175) He thus began to move beyond the simplistic concepts, rooted in the ideology of economistic individualism, that limited the outlook of most of the classical anarchists.

An area in which Reclus' ideas have had some continuing importance in anarchist thought has been on the topic of revolutionary and evolutionary change. He saw certain slowly developing but pervasive changes in society moving it toward a future of freedom and justice. While he argued for the need for periodical violent revolutions, he believed that these events only marked the culmination of gradual changes that were taking place over long periods of time. He notes the (apparent) decline in belief in certain scientific absurdities and religious superstitions, and the waning power of traditional hierarchical and deferential attitudes. In effect, he argues (contrary to Marxist materialism) that changes in consciousness can precede and give rise to changes in the "material base" of society as long-term evolutionary transformations produce more apparent revolutionary upheavals.

One of the most controversial of Reclus' principles was the right of the workers "to partial recovery of the collective products" by means of the individual's "personal recovery of his part of the collective property." (p. 151) Reclus means, of course, the kind of activity that is usually labeled "theft." While some were shocked by this gentle man's advocacy of such actions, he argued that their horror is misplaced. He asks why we should echo the dominant culture's hypocritical condemnation of the efforts of the oppressed to improve their miserable position in society through such reappropriation. To him, the truly abhorrent form of theft is that practiced by the rich and powerful, who much more successfully confiscate the product of the labor of others. The troubling question of the possible corrupting effects of this "reappropiation" process on those who carry it out in sovereign moral isolation was apparently not pondered very deeply by Reclus. Furthermore, his contention that "everything is theft" (p. 152) has rather disturbing implications. On the one hand, it demonstrates an admirable awareness of one's own implication in a system of domination and injustice. On the other hand, it implies a moral equivalency of all actions "before the revolution" that threatens to create a nihilistic rather than an anarchistic ethos. If all is theft, all is deceit, all is exploitation (since we participate in corrupt systems in which these evils are ubiquitous), then "everything is permitted." This is a laissez faire that unfortunately implies unfettered egoism as much as liberatory social practice.

Perhaps even more upsetting to Reclus' critics was his apparent approval of acts of "propaganda by the deed." During the 1880s and 1890s, attacks on political officials, bankers and industrialists, and even any random bourgeois, became increasingly common. The names of terrorists such as Ravachol, Vaillant and Henry became well-known to the public. Many of the enemies of the established order began to invoke anarchist principles in defense of their violent deeds, causing a crisis of conscience for anarchist theorists. While some disassociated themselves from these acts, and others, like Kropotkin, adopted an ambiguous position, Reclus refused to condemn the terrorists. In his opinion, violence is a necessary result of a cruel and inhumane system of oppression, and blame should not be focused on those victims who act out of desperation. Reclus has been justly criticized for overlooking several crucial points, such as the fact that the terrorists' victims were also innocent to varying degrees, not having personally created the social system and all its injustices, and the fact that such actions were, in any case, a disastrous failure that did not promote authentic social transformation and often only created reaction. However, Reclus did have one quite valid argument on this topic: those who hasten to condemn the occasional violent acts of desperate individuals while complacently accepting the enormous system of violence embodied in unjust social institutions, are guilty of the worst form of hypocrisy. While Reclus' ideas sometimes remain within the narrow limits of nineteenth-century revolutionary optimism and oppositionism, there are areas in which his thought transcends its age and has an enduring relevance. One of the strengths of anarchism is that it has often diverged from the mainstream of Western thought and practice in being more conscious of the place of humanity in the natural world. While the anarchist tradition has been profoundly affected and, indeed, distorted, by humanity's alienation from nature and the quest to dominate nature, it has also had some notable success in seeking to uncover the roots of that alienation and in beginning to see beyond the project of domination. It is instructive that anarchist theory at the beginning of this century was strongly influenced by the social geography of Kropotkin, while at the end of the century it is often inspired by the social ecology of Bookchin. What is not often noticed is that it is Reclus, much more than Kropotkin, who introduced themes later to be developed in social ecology.

George Woodcock, in his introduction to Fleming's book, notes that "modern environmental concerns are eloquently anticipated" in Reclus' statement that a "secret harmony exists between the earth and the people whom it nourishes, and when imprudent societies let themselves violate this harmony, they always end up regretting it." (p. 15) However, Reclus' greatest contribution to ecological thought concerns not these "secret harmonies," but rather his laborious analysis of the complex interrelationship between human society and the rest of the Earth, with which we are in constant and intimate interaction. Reclus sounds most strikingly in accord with modern ecological thinking when he not only depicts nature as a delicately balanced whole, but also proceeeds to explore the detailed relationship of economic, political, technological and cultural institutions to this larger context. Like contemporary social ecologists, he emphasizes the importance of humanity's integral place in nature and its responsibility for maintaining or upsetting the balance of nature.

Reclus also touches on topics of contemporary ecological relevance when he writes of our relationship to other species. His approach goes far beyond a limited "animal rights" or moral extensionist perspective. He believes an understanding of our relationship to other animals to be important for us both theoretically and morally. He contends that a greater understanding of animals and their behavior "will help us penetrate deeper into the science of life, to increase both our knowledge of the world and our capacity to love." (p. 191) His ethical vegetarianism testifies to his belief in the unity of knowledge and moral judgment. It also shows once again the centrality of the concept of love (not as an abstract ideal but as a practical reality) to his worldview and forms an integral part of his pursuit of a morally coherent life.

For Reclus, greater knowledge of the earth and its inhabitants offers an expanded scope for identification: identification with our own species, identification with all the inhabitants of the planet, and finally, identification with the planet itself. As Reclus expressed at the beginning of L'Homme et la Terre, humanity is "la nature prenant conscience d'elle-même" --nature becoming self-conscious. In this insight, Reclus anticipated the most profound dimensions of contemporary ecological thinking.

 

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