Élisée Reclus, anarchism and atheism

This was just going to be a short blog entry but it’s got a little out of hand.
I studied human geography and as part of that I looked at anarchist geographies. Naturally enough Élisée Reclus turned up and so I knew of him and liked his work. The other day I was walking in the 7th arrondissement and I found myself on the Avenue Élisée Reclus.

You’ll see that the explanation of his past is given as a “geographer”. He was quite a geographer and is rightly acknowledged as such but his important role as an anarchist philosopher is not recognised, at least not on this sign.

Since I’m here in Paris and I regard anarchism as the most advanced and mature mechanism of organising society, in theory at least since anarchist communes are hard to find where they are not continually harassed by the forces of the systems that they reject, then I thought I ought to at least write something, for my own edification if nothing else.

So, Élisée then. He was born in 1830 in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a town to the east of Bordeaux. His father was a Calvinist pastor who, given his perhaps more mystical leanings, shortly afterwards, renounced his official pastor’s position and chose to live off the charity and generosity of his congregation in Orthez.


Given this rather precarious position, Élisée was shipped off to his grandparents where he lived until he was eight. He then lived with his parents again until he was sent off to study with the Moravians, a Protestant community in Neuwied, Germany.

And here I start to take a diversion for a short while, since there are interesting precursors to the modern anarchist tradition to be found among religious communities if not, generally, among the more “organised” religions.

Around the time of the English Civil War [in the middle of the 1600s, but of course you knew that], there was, as you would expect, a fair degree of civil unrest. This wasn’t just in Britain but across Europe. To be honest, there had been a fair amount of unrest for years and years but hey ho, the main groups I’m highlighting turned up around now. Out of these times such groups as the Diggers, the Levellers, the Puritans, the Anabaptists, the Ranters and the rather marvellously named Grindletonians appeared.

All of these different factions had their roots in Protestantism, the church that was also associated with the Calvinists and the Moravians which so influenced Reclus in his early years.

Some of these groups were focussed on the responsibility of the individual and some, particularly in the case of the Diggers and the Levellers, were interested in political activities as well as religious ones. The Levellers were so called because of their interest in the “levelling” the hedges planted during the land enclosures and the Diggers were pretty much agrarian communists.

There was a fair degree of millenarian thinking behind these movements and often some xenophobic utopianism in there too. Just for good measure. As you do. The English movements believed that, prior to the Norman Conquest, England was a peaceful idyll in which everyone had lived happily and Johnny Bloody Foreigner had corrupted us. [This may not have been the language that was used at the time]. There was also the more traditional language of “the Fall” of Adam and Eve, used to express the perfect state of humankind and which was being strived for again by the believers of some sects, such as the Adamites, a Northern European sect of stern stuff who practiced religious naturism. Either way, these groups no longer believed in being subservient to the earthly powers, whether it be the government or the church [often entwined], that appeared to be ranged against the group’s own interests and struggled for their own independence and philosophy of life.

For more on Millenarian movements I can only recommend that you read Norman Cohn’s book “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages”. I accept that the title is somewhat dry but the book is a marvellously fascinating read.

When compared to the quite widely accepted anarchist thinking, summarised by Auguste Blanqui as “No gods, no masters” [sometimes extended to include “no husbands” and “no countries”] it is quite clear that these movements were philosophically based in the Protestant religion and that they were not truly anarchist, since they espoused subservience to a god or a set of religious teachings, allegedly provided by the god. From this it is fair to say that anarchism is inherently closely linked to atheism although there are still anarchists with religious leanings and there are also [small] movements of Christian atheists in which the existence of a god or supreme power is denied but the teachings of Jesus are adhered to.

It is also interesting to note that in some ways Buddhism is an atheist religion since there is no god in Buddhism. Some of its philosophies run parallel with the scientific method but then it goes and spoils it all with its theories of reincarnation and karma.

Since no one can prove the existence or otherwise of their god and I cannot prove its non-existence in such a way that would convince a believer, the argument over whether there is a god is pretty much a futile one. And if someone wants to believe that there is a supreme power and live according to a perceived set of rules outlined by this power or one of its prophets then so be it. The only things I ask is that this person doesn’t require others to subscribe to these rules for the same reason. Ultimately, my philosophy is that you shouldn’t delegate your responsibilities for your life and self-governance to others, supreme power or otherwise and nor should you be obliged to live by the rules of others, particularly when you have not been able to engage in the development and creation of those rules. Maybe one day I will write down my thinking on this but I suspect that it will be for my own benefit alone.

Anyway, my diatribe ends here. Back to Reclus.

Elisée and his brother returned to France for further education, particularly in theology and in languages, and they also encountered anarchist and socialist ideas for the first time. Thanks to the political interests, they were expelled in 1849. Reclus returned to the Moravians to work as a “master-repeater”. His father’s influence was still strong here and it was Reclus’ father’s preference that he was to be become a pastor.

Masters repeaters were responsible for ensuring discipline and supporting the delivery of classes, particularly at the elementary levels. They also delivered some classes where teachers were unable to attend. They had to take help and participate in service rehearsals, lectures and exams.

Reclus continues his engagement and interest in politics and aged 21, he publishes his essay “Development of Liberty in the World,” and we can begin to see the development of his thinking. Reclus argues that

“For each particular man liberty is an end, but it is only a means to attain love, to attain universal brotherhood.” His early ideas of anarchist thought also appear, “Our destiny is 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.”

Reclus then begins to study in Berlin under the great geographer Carl Ritter. It is at this time that he explains to his mother he can no longer study theology:

“I’m determined not to follow [….] the voice of my conscience. For me who accepts the theory of freedom in all and for all, how could I accept the domination of man in a heart that belongs to God alone?”

It is quite clear that Reclus has not renounced his belief in god but has seen a system in which freedom is denied to many, and he sees this as being the greatest issue. In conversations with his sister [documented by Federico Ferretti], Reclus makes the point that he is a Christian Socialist and that the basis of his socialism is Jesus Christ.
After protesting against Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Reclus is forced into exile in London. Despite the UK’s current repressive attitude to radical activists, it is worth remembering that London was once a haven for such activists and radical thinkers, such as Karl Marx, Louise Michel, Petr Kropotkin, Josef Peukert, Errico Malatesta, Rudolph Rocker and Émile Pouget. The idea of asylum had been a long tradition in the UK since the reformation but the idea and the right was one that was eroded and attacked until we are left with what we have today; very little.

Next up [when I have written it] will be more on his later life and writings

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One thought on “Élisée Reclus, anarchism and atheism

  1. […] other day I posted a rambling blog about Elisée Reclus.  Here’s the text from an article he wrote for Emma Goldman’s journal “Mother […]

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