Paul Brousse (1844-1912)

Paul Brousse
Paul Brousse

A look at the ideas of Paul Brousse who moved from anarchism to possibilist socialism.

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 12, 2019

“…a young doctor, full of mental activity, uproarious, sharp, lively, ready to develop any idea with a geometric logic to its utmost consequences; powerful in his criticisms of the State and State organisation;finding enough time to edit two papers, in French and in German, to write scores of voluminous letters, to be the soul of a workmen’s evening party; constantly active in organizing men with the subtle mind of a true southerner”.(Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist Vol 1, p.200)

Born into a well-off family Brousse had first become active within republican opposition groups in Montpellier towards the end of Napoleon III’s reign in 1869. The Paris Commune and the ensuing massacre greatly radicalised Brousse. However the International was not immediately banned and the worker Emile Digeon, who had himself taken a leading role in the aborted Narbonne Commune, toured southern France and attempted to develop a regional organisation of the International. At a meeting in Beziers a provisional committee was set up on 17th December 1871 to create a radical newspaper to counter monarchism. Digeon served as its president with Brousse as its secretary. This led on to Brousse joining the International sometime in 1872.

Brousse took the side of the anti-authoritarians against the General Council controlled by Marx and his coterie, allying himself with Jules Guesde. When repression fell on the southern French sections of the International from December 1872 Brousse was sentenced to four months imprisonment in absentia at a major trial of Internationalists in Toulouse. He had gone into hiding and had fled to Barcelona in early 1873. He now allied himself more firmly with the anti-authoritarian wing and joined the Jura Federation. This was almost certainly because of his expulsion from the Montpellier section by followers of Marx. He never forgot his treatment by the Marxist coterie.

The anti-authoritarians blamed the centralisation pushed by Marx and the General Council for the collapse of the sections in the Midi. As Guesde was to say in a letter to the Jura Bulletin: “What comes out of the Toulouse trial, is not solely the infamous role of the authorised powers of Marx and the General Council, but a condemnation of the authoritarian system which Marx and the General Council support”. This had permitted Dentraygues, as a representative of the Council, and seen as a police informer by Guesde and co, to hand over the organisers of the International to the police on a plate. He went on to say: “Let the working class, in every country, organise themselves anarchically, in its best interests and Dentraygues are no longer possible” because workers in each locality would not be exposed to someone who could betray them, and if there was a betrayal, only that section would be implicated. “The autonomy of the sections, of the federations, is not solely the spirit of the International but its security”.

Brousse met up with the French workers Camille Camet and Charles Alerini in Barcelona. These two were very much in the Bakunin camp and Brousse himself became influenced by Bakunin, but never simply a “Bakuninist”. When Pi y Margall was appointed head of the Spanish government in 1873 he was unable to push through his cantonalist programme due to Carlist opposition. This led to a number of insurrections throughout Spain in summer 1873. These all failed due to lack of coordination and popular support.
Brousse and others Internationalists seized the Town Hall in Barcelona on 20th June. However like the previous attempt with Bakunin and the aborted Lyons Commune it turned into a debacle. The Internationalists were simply ignored and had to vacate the town hall. An attempted general strike a month later also collapsed.
The unstable situation in Spain had given the anti-authoritarian Internationalists high hopes of revolution there, which would be a spark for a conflagration that would spread to France and Italy. The failures in Spain and with the Communes in France led to much disillusionment in their ranks. Bakunin himself was to remark that “The events of France and Spain have given our hopes, our attempts a terrible blow”(Memoire Justificatif (1874) in Nettlau, L’Internationale en Espagne, p. 101, note 42).

It was these failures and the turmoil within the International itself, which inclined Bakunin and others to advocate exaggerated deeds to act as a goad to arouse the somnolent masses. Propaganda by the deed was what this became known as, a misunderstood expression that is often wrongly supposed to mean individual acts of assassination and bombings rather than attempts by a small number of revolutionaries to act decisively within a social context seen as ripe for insurrection. The term has been attributed to the Italian revolutionary Errico Malatesta who first used it in a letter to Carlo Cafiero in 1876, following the failed insurrection in Bologna two years before. But it was Brousse who first developed the theory in the pages of La Solidarite Revolutionnaire, the Internationalist French-language paper in Barcelona. “Revolutionary propaganda is not made only by the pen and the word, by books, pamphlets, public meetings and newspapers; revolutionary propaganda is made above all on the public square, among the cobblestones piled up in barricades, the days when the exasperated people give battle to the mercenary forces of reaction”.

The article went on to outline the nature of this propaganda, firstly the distribution of easily understood propaganda, and then following on from that the establishment of an active minority whose task was to help overcome the powerlessness and apathy of the masses through a third phase, what could be nowadays labelled as direct action. What was implied was that a revolution with a successful outcome was not at that moment possible but that a conscious grouping of activists had to maintain such a hope through exemplary actions.

Brousse, like many French members of the International, looked back to Proudhon for the concept of federalism, and saw a future society based on the autonomy of the individual, the autonomy of the Commune and the autonomy of the industrial grouping or trades. However Brousse rejected the mutualism of Proudhon, looking towards collectivism like Bakunin and other Internationalists. Strangely enough, the concept of the general strike was not included in this theoretical elaboration as Brousse had been much disillusioned by the failure of the Barcelona strike in 1873. Instead, looking at recent examples in France, Brousse advocated the Commune as a “vehicle of revolution”.

The commune is the basic municipal unit of French governance, although the Commune of Paris during the French Revolution, controlled by the sans-culottes, also has a certain significance. For those who were to develop the ideas of anarchism, the Commune was increasingly seen as the basic political unit, the building block, for the new society. If the advanced sections of the working class could form a revolutionary majority within such a unit, read a locality, they were in a position to bring about the Revolution. Brousse saw these Communes as being based in large cities. As soon as the revolutionary majority has seized control: “All that is in the commune, the army, finances, properties, would become ours, we would apply our principles and experience would inform the details”. This would only be the beginning: “The autonomous Commune, there you have the means, but not the end”.

Brousse saw workers combinations and organisations as merely spheres of influence where workers could begin to realise their own strength but could not take the place of revolutionary action within the Commune.
After the fall of Pi y Margall Barcelona was no longer a haven for revolutionaries and Brousse eventually ended up in Switzerland, along with Alerini and Camet. Here he became a leading light in the Jura Federation. Unlike other French exiles active in the Federation, he had not been involved in any of the Communes of 1871 and thus not in the subsequent recrimination over who was to blame for their failures.

The French exiles were organised as a section of the International, the Section de Propagande et D’Action Revolutionnaire Socialiste with Guesde and Nikolai Zhukovsky as its leading lights. The latter had had a key role in spreading the ideas of Bakunin in Switzerland. Others who joined them were the Communards Benoit Malon and Gustave Lefrancais, Jules Montels et al. It sent delegates to the Sonvillier Congress of November 1871 where the Jura Federation was officially established. Malon and Lefrancais had attempted to reconcile the “anti-authoritarians” with the General Council section but were expelled from the Geneva section controlled by the General Council in December of 1871.

At the Congress of Geneva of the International in September 1873 Brousse argued strongly against the idea of the General Strike which was being advanced as a means to social revolution: “If the general strike is a practical means in certain countries, elsewhere, in Italy and in France for example this means cannot be employed. Why not, in France, where the general strike is impossible, make the revolution under the form of a communalist movement?”

In doing so Brousse came up against both Guillaume and Cesar de Paepe but also those who were closest to him in other respects, Alerini and Costa, who supported the general strike as a tactic.

This disagreement appeared slight at the time but was later to take on far more important proportions, with Guillaume representing one wing of the movement on one hand and Brousse the other.

Brousse further elaborated his ideas in a pamphlet which appeared after the Geneva Congress. L’Etat a Versailles et dans L’Association Internationale des Travailleurs. Here Brousse attacked both the State and electoralism. “Thus then, by official Education is prepared the electoral body in respect of authority; by the exercise of the suffrage principle it is given itself an authority, maker of laws; a magistrature which judges it, a public force which beats it. It is this All which crushes under the pretext of civilising, this All which kills it, if it revolts, this cortege of institutions that one calls the State”. Brousse looked back in this pamphlet to Saint Simon’s idea on administration replacing authority and on Proudhon’s an-archie where industrial organisation replaces political organisation. Brousse reiterated his argument that society had to be based on the worker, the organisation of the workers and on the Commune. All the basic functions of society could be fulfilled through the workers organisations with production and the Commune with consumption and exchange. He affirmed Bakunin’s call for the destruction of the State. He went on to castigate the General Council controlled by the Marx coterie. He described the imposition of what he described as a governmental apparatus at the 1871 Congress of the International by a sect which tried to force an official line upon the organisation.
“…one does not declare a Revolution like one declares war, and when by good luck it breaks out, one cannot direct it in the same fashion. Serious movements are not born on command, in other terms one does not make a revolution. No General Council, no revolutionary committee can attain an end as unreasonable… A revolution is prepared lengthily in the collective intelligence of the masses and the most often its explosion is due to secondary circumstances. It is always any way autonomous by nature, borrowing from the country, from ideas and from circumstances, a special character which is the gauge of its success. One can by socialist propaganda unite with a long hand the aspirations of the masses, give to efforts at the moment of struggle a practical direction and a form to the results, but there ends the action of human activity on these collective phenomena of social life”.

It can be seen that Brousse became an Anarchist Communist at least by 1877. In that year with Andrea Costa he pushed the concept at the Congress of the International at Verviers. However he was willing to compromise with Morago and Garcia Vinas, who still supported old-style Bakuninist collectivism, moving an amendment that “we must split the question, immediate and far off” and that Anarchist Communism should only be seen as the second stage of Revolution.

Brousse was key in spreading anarchist ideas to the German-speaking workers in Switzerland. As a result fifty of the five hundred copies of the Socialdemokratischer Bulletin went clandestinely into Germany, the first anarchist propaganda to be spread there. In September 1876 the Socialdemocratischer Verein which had emerged as a result of the bulletin, and in which Brousse had a strong influence, joined the Jura Federation. Subsequent to this was the appearance of Die Arbeiter-Zeitung, a paper edited by Brousse with the assistance of the Germans Emil Werner, Otto Rinke, and August Reinsdorf. This was committed to Anarchist Communism and propaganda by the deed.

Brousse built up a successful organisation of both French-speaking and German-speaking workers in Berne. On the other hand he was firmly opposed, as were Costa and Montels, to conciliation with non-anarchist components of the European socialist movement.

This came to a head with his clash with Guillaume, the leading Jura activist. The advocacy of propaganda by deed advanced by Cafiero and Malatesta at the Berne Congress of 1876 reinforced Brousse’s views on the subject, views that he had already developed three years before in Barcelona. Brousse pushed for a demonstration in Berne on 18th March 1877, much against the advice of Guillaume, who regarded this as a make-believe parade which would have damaging results, with the red flag being captured and torn to shreds as had happened at a previous demonstration in Berne the previous year, or with a bloody victory, which would have detrimental results. Kropotkin for his part, who had only arrived in Switzerland the month before, was an enthusiastic supporter of the demonstration. “As to me”, he wrote to Paul Robin in London, “I approve entirely of this mode of acting… this will be the propaganda with blows of casse-tetes (head-breakers) and revolvers if necessary”.

The demonstration numbering a few hundreds was attacked by the police. They met stiff resistance, and the demonstration, reinforced by a large crowd, was able to gain the release of two arrested demonstrators. The result was a massive amount of publicity, although overwhelmingly hostile. A subsequent inquiry led to the trial of 29 participants in August. Guillaume, who had taken part reluctantly in the demonstration was now to admit that his scepticism had been partly misplaced, but as he wrote to Kropotkin, he felt the overall impression produced was bad rather than good. Robin took the side of Guillaume, raising grave concerns about the unity between activists in the Federation.

Brousse waxed lyrical about the effects of the demonstration and became the leading protagonist of propaganda by deed outside of Italy. He was reinforced by Costa, who had fled to Switzerland after the Benevento affair. In July 1877 Guillaume had to take sick leave from editing the Bulletin of the Jura Federation. On 5th August an article appeared on Propaganda by The Deed, most likely written by Brousse but with Kropotkin’s cooperation which argued that if the worker was too tired or apathetic to read propaganda, then deeds must illuminate. What had popularised the idea of the Commune most was the Paris Commune itself. “The men who have taken part in these movements, do they hope for a revolution? Do they have illusions in believing in success? No, obviously. To say that that was their thought would be to know them badly, or, knowing them, to calumniate them. The deeds of Kazan, of Benevento, of Berne, are, completely simply, acts of propaganda”.

Unlike Malatesta, Cafiero and co., who had believed they were operating in a potentially revolutionary situation when they took action at Benevento, Brousse believed that such actions were propaganda solely, with the acceptance that a revolutionary situation did not exist.

Brousse, as we have seen, took an increasingly intransigent attitude to non-anarchist elements within the broad socialist movement, in contrast to the conciliatory outlook of Guillaume and de Paepe. As a result the International began to be transformed more and more into a purely anarchist organisation, distant from the original aim of uniting the mass of the working class, or at least its advanced sections, on an international level. As Brousse was to admit much later, but without mentioning his own role: “The Marxists were defeated… but we, anarchists, who we find among the victors, we loyally committed a comparable error. We tried to encase all of the International in the narrow frame of our doctrine: we defeated, at the Geneva Congress, the governmentalism of Eccarius, of John Hales: at that of Berne, the statism of de Paepe; we stayed masters in the International, yes, masters, but isolated and impotent, in the face of the bourgeois masses in coalition against the working class that the spirit of the sects had so unfortunately divided. Dating from this day, the International was dead.”(Le Marxisme dans L’Internationale, p.15).

Just before the annual congress of the Jura Federation in July 1877, Brousse argued against conciliation with other currents like the Belgians, who whilst not adopting an anarchist outlook, had rebelled against the Marxist coterie. He argued that now anarchist groups had been set up in Germany, how could there be conciliation with the already existing Social Democrats there? It seemed to him that there was no such spirit of conciliation amongst Social Democrats either in Germany, and from his own direct experience, in Switzerland. The establishment of the Volksstaat (People’s State) or Etat Ouvrier put forward by Social Democrats and other socialists would be bound to end in discord with the anarchists.

The Congress of the International at Verviers in Belgium on 6th September was later described by Guillaume in 1910 as the beginning of a split between what he called the “extreme left” and the Jura Federation, a split which he felt was in the main provoked by Brousse.

Brousse brought out the newspaper L’Avant-Garde which first appeared on 2nd June 1877, with an international column written by Kropotkin. It was sold in Switzerland with underground sales in France, as well as among the French exiles in London, Belgium, Spain and Germany. In 1878 it merged with Le Travailleur of Geneva, to replace the Bulletin of the Jura Federation. From the first the paper was noticeably for violent insurrection. In its third issue an article, La Commune par L’Insurrection (The Commune Through Insurrection) stated: “The ballot boxes must be deserted and the barricades peopled, and for that, one must organise…. Throughout history, the Commune has always been first of all the means of realising in the city, that intellectual foyer so favourable to the blossoming of the idea, the material form of the new idea: it has been after that the insurgent who has struggled to generalise this idea, to make it exit the walls that surround its cradle, and to generalise it throughout the territory”. However what at first seems eminently revolutionary in the pages of L’Avant-Garde metamorphoses into a concern for socialist control of municipalities where the benefits of such administrations can be contrasted with clerical domination and poverty in the countryside. After two years such examples would win the working class and the peasantry away from reactionary parties.

The Jura Federation was now in crisis. The investigations over the Red Flag demonstration in Berne had meant that thirty demonstrators now came to trial, leading to terms of sixty days for two, forty days for the unfortunate Guillaume, thirty days for Brousse and ten days for others. On top of this were crippling costs and damages, whilst foreign militants were banished from the Berne Canton for three years.

The prison sentence, where Brousse had insisted on sharing a cell with common criminals, had a serious effect on his health. He now began to adapt his ideas. In a speech at Berne on 24h December 1877, whilst still calling for electoral abstention and against an International uniting different currents, Brousse began to hedge his bets in relation to propaganda by the deed, saying that such tactics should only be employed “in serious conditions”. He also called for the establishment of socialist parties. By this he did not mean political parties but more effective organisation within the anarchist movement, a concern that was being taken up by others.
Brousse went on from this to question abstention from all electoral activity at the meeting of anarchist sections at Neuchatel on 9th June 178. He couched this in terms of intermediate stages between the present society and the desired future society. Parts of the anarchist programme had to be made immediately possible. The full Anarchist-Communist programme could not be immediately implemented, it was necessary to be occupied with the autonomy of the Commune, the collectivisation of land and the instruments of labour. Whilst agreeing that the vote was “nearly always dangerous” he suggested that it could be used as a form of propaganda. Rudolf Kahn strongly contradicted Brousse in the general discussion that followed, rejecting the stages theory of the adoption of the Anarchist Communist programme. Brousse countered by citing the example of Blanqui’s candidature to the French Chamber of Deputies, which was linked to the amnesty campaign for Communards. When Blanqui was elected, he argued, the Chamber would almost certainly invalidate the ballot and reveal the true nature of the French State. “The use of the vote can also sometimes be useful. One should not then through abstentionist orthodoxy proscribe this means of action in an absolute fashion”. It was interesting that the majority of delegates supported Brousse on this, with its reformist conclusions, but came to no decision because of Kahn’s opposition.

Strangely enough, it was the question of assassinations that were to lead to Brousse’s departure from Switzerland. A wave of assassinations and attempted assassinations had broken out throughout Europe, on various monarchs and police chiefs. The populist Vera Zasulich had shot the chief of the St Petersburg police on 5th February 1878, and there had been two attempts on the Kaiser, one on Alfonso of Spain and one on the King of Italy. L’Avant-Garde was suppressed because of its supposed support of these attentats. In actual fact the paper was level-headed in it approach. It refused to join the general press outrage and denounced the attitude of the German Social Democrat Liebknecht vis a vis the attempts by Hodel and Nobiling on the Kaiser’s life (Liebknecht had called Hodel a madman).

The paper stated that certain forms of murder were justified such as regicide, or the killing of a factory owner by a worker in conditions of severe industrial oppression. However how valuable were the acts to the social struggle? Hodel’s attempt was deemed valueless: “as to the anarchist party the death of the Emperor furnishes no advantage to it”. It was NOT propaganda by the deed, which was described by Brousse as being a collective effort. Far better as propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune itself. These acts were of limited value, reflecting a “republican” rather than a socialist attitude, although under certain circumstances assassinations could possibly bring about a revolutionary situation.

Two years later writing in the Paris paper Le Citoyen, Brousse wrote that : “ In the France of our period the moment of the attentat seems to give place to a larger action, the raising of the shields of an entire class”.
Writing later, Max Nettlau was to state: “Kropotkin, who at that time knew Brousse more intimately, asserted that Brousse was also weary and was looking towards France, and that especially when the attentats began believed he saw the beginning of a struggle of which he did not wish to become the victim. His rhetoric continued, but his faith had gone. In addition Brousse and Kropotkin were very much involved with the beginning of the French workers’ movement and began to devote their propaganda activities to it… Brousse, whose revolutionary will exhausted itself in words, was genuinely pleased to be able to participate in the working class movement in a less exposed way”.

L’Avant-Garde was suppressed in December 1878 as a result of the articles. Brousse was tried in Neuchatel on 15th-16th April. He was found guilty on only one charge concerning the article on assassination, thanks to his spirited defence. He was sentenced to two months imprisonment, ten years’ banishment and a 200 france fine and costs. At the end of his sentence he went to Belgium, and from there to London. By now Brousse was drastically revising his ideas. By June 1880 he had made a decisive break with revolutionary anarchism. His return to France that year thanks to the political amnesty saw him completely abandoning anti-electoralism. In 1883 he wrote: “the ideal should be divided into several practical stages; our aims should, as it were, be immediatised, so as to render them possible”. Brousse had evolved the doctrine of Possibilism, where gradual reforms could be won through control of the municipalities, a reformist adaptation of his revolutionary theory of the Commune as a vehicle of revolution, as David Stafford says a move from the Commune as a vehicle of revolution to the Commune as a lever of pragmatic reform. In fact the Possibilist current became for a while an important current in France, co-existing for some time with the current led by another erstwhile anarchist, Jules Guesde, within the new French Socialist Party. Unlike Guesde, Brousse remained resolutely anti-Marxist.
For Brousse, socialism in the municipality would spread to socialism throughout society. In many ways he prefigured the ideology of libertarian municipalism that was evolved by followers of Murray Bookchin, like Janet Biehl, et al. Brousse’s subsequent career graphically illustrates the fallacy of this long march through the institutions, which would lead to a new socialist society. This reformist trend has now manifested itself at least twice in relation to Anarchist Communism.

In 1899 the Socialist Auguste Millerand entered the centre-left government of Waldeck-Rousseau. Not only did he take a seat alongside General Gallifet, one of the militarists responsible for the massacres of many Communards, but he broke with the idea that compromise could never be parleyed with bourgeois administrations. This produced one of the first great rifts within the parliamentary socialist movement. Jean Jaures took the side of Millerand, whilst the Guesdists maintained Marxist purity and the Blanquists followed suit, the Allemanists split down the middle, and of course Brousse and the Possibilists supported Millerand. After all, Millerand’s outlook was more or less the same on the national scale as Brousse’s at the municipal level. Brousse provided frequent contributions to Millerand’s paper.

In 1905 as President of the Paris Municipal Council he was part of the municipal delegation to the London County. He was present at the official opening of Kingsway and the Aldwych by Edward VII and was received at Buckingham Palace and Mansion House. On Alfonso XIII’s visit to Paris in the same year he provided municipal hostility. This was the last straw for James Guillaume, who had maintained some contacts with his erstwhile comrade.

Possibilism very shortly became a current that was played out within the French socialist movement and Brousse a forgotten figure. Far from bringing about profound change within two years, as Brousse had asserted in 1877, a fiery revolutionary had been reduced to a purveyor of piecemeal and ineffectual reforms, and to craven complicity with some of the worst enemies of the working class.

Nick Heath

The above is a chapter in the forthcoming book The Idea: Anarchist Communism, Past Present and Future



4 years 11 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 10, 2019

Admins: in fact all of my articles are now solid blocks of text. I've corrected a few changing it to full html but I can't do all of them and it may well apply to other authors on here too!

Mike Harman

4 years 11 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Mike Harman on May 10, 2019

We tried to fix a different issue, but introduced this one while doing so. It should be sorted now and I've switched this one back to the usual format (and it looks OK).