A look at late 19th century French socialist thought

A review by Heath Row of the book The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant.

Patsouras, Louis. The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003. Paperback, 207 pages, $24.99.

Louis Patsouras, formerly a history professor at Kent State University and the author of two previous books about the French anarchist and socialist, is perhaps the primary booster of Jean Grave, an otherwise unsung compatriot of Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Elisee Reclus. Having penned several relatively slim volumes about the editor of La Revolte and Les Temps Nouveaux; including the 1978 “Jean Grave and French Anarchism,” the 1995 “Jean Grave and the Anarchist Tradition in France,” and this now decadeold largely biographical book; Patsouras has done much to keep the memory of Grave’s life and work alive—even if very little of Grave’s writing is available in English translation.

One of few prominent socialist thinkers born into a working-class family, Grave was the son of a miller who later turned shoemaker. Moving to Paris in 1860, Grave went to Catholic school and apprenticed with master workmen before getting involved with the professionally oriented revolutionary Blanquists and the Paris Commune. After the fall of the Commune, Grave became involved in an anarchist group, helped form the Social Study Group, and became more involved in anarcho-communist journalism and propaganda, as well as propaganda by deed.

In 1883, Grave became the editor of La Revolte, which had been founded by Kropotkin in 1879. Grave saw the widely influential paper through the introduction of a literary supplement that became embroiled in an intellectual property dispute as the result of republishing writers’ works without paying them and a name change to La Revolte before he was imprisoned for inciting mutiny and violence through his writings. The editor was also a principal in the Trial of the Thirty, which targeted criminals and terrorists as well as political activists, conflating propaganda by deed with the political philosophies that inspired it.

Upon his release from jail, Grave founded a new weekly, Les Temps Nouveaux. With the help of contributors such as Kropotkin and Reclus, Grave’s journalism and pamphleteering continued to advocate for anarcho-syndicalism and mutual aid in opposition to individualism until World War I, during which he emerged to the surprise of many as prowar. The prolific but heavily censored scribe contended that the primary issue was not war per se, but foreign domination, which should be fought. Grave was also anti-communist.

In addition to offering a laudable biographical sketch of Grave, Patsouras considers the French anarchist’s support of progressive art and literature as well as politics; the utopian underpinnings of his work; parallels to bourgeois contemporaries, as well as later writers such as Simone Weil, Albert Camus, and Jean- Paul Sartre; and his ongoing relevance in the current day. The last six chapters of the text, which largely provide contextualization rather than biographical detail, feel a little disjointed and ill-fitting. Regardless, it is incontestable that the work of Grave still has value, and the book is worth reading for the first 10 chapters alone.

This book, along with Patsouras’s preceding efforts, is important, but inadequate to fully shed light on Grave’s thoughts, ideals, and contributions to later anarcho-syndicalist discourse. What’s sorely needed are English translations of Grave’s writings as primary source: the memoir “Quarante ans de propagande anarchiste,” the novel “La Grande famille,” the propaganda by deed primer “Organisation de la propagande revolutionnaire,” and the theoretical text “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie.” Shawn P. Wilbur’s recently inactive blog “Working Translations” offers a partial translation of Grave’s fiction for children “The Adventures of Nono,” and Robert Graham’s “Anarchism Weblog” provides excerpts from “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie,” but full-text translations appear to be unavailable.

Fellow Wobblies: Who’s up to the task of translating these materials?

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)