The Paris of Discontent

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

“ IN the whole class of socially disturbing topics,” writes Mr. John Graham Brooks, “the freest and deepest opinions are not usually printed in a book.” Among the few exceptions which may be cited as proving the rule, surely the most notable is Mr. A. F. Sanborn’s Paris and the Social Revolution.1 After “ reverently ” dedicating his book to the proletariat of America, the author describes himself as “ a conservative of conservatives only prevented from being a reactionary by the fact that reaction is but another form of revolution and the most hopeless and faith-exacting of them all.” Is this humor of the Mark Twain brand, or does it represent a deficit in that self-knowledge which the Greek philosopher thought, a desirable adjunct to human character ? If the confession is to be taken seriously, the writer must be congratulated upon attainment of that objectivity of judgment which is the first requirement of scientific investigation. Nothing is here distorted by that emotional bias which most of us find it difficult to resist.

The book seems to me of marked and permanent interest. It shows us quite another Paris than the radiant city to which good (and of course well-to-do) Americans have been said to make posthumous pilgrimage. It more resembles a Paris which I looked upon one December day more than fifty years ago. Standing upon a boulevard, I saw the raising of a barricade by men with fire in their eyes and patriotism in their hearts, bound to resist, unto death if need be, the coup d’état which created the second empire. Already I had listened to individual voices bitter with disappointment, opposition, and hatred. Now they were combined into one fierce battle-shout, as the Gymnase Theatre and the buildings about it were pillaged for materials to intercept the approaching troops. The same forces of revolt which I then saw superficially, Mr. Sanborn has studied exhaustively. Circumstances have changed; but discontent and aspiration persist. The prayer for the French republic then went up to the heavenly powers. At length it has been granted, and — to reverse the incidents in the fable — the bourgeois king log is quite as objectionable as his predecessor, the imperial stork.

Suppressed for the moment is the Paris of anarchy, of arrogant vision, of honest discontent, which is revealed in these pages; yet there it quickens beneath the dazzling surface seen from the windows of the cosmopolitan hotel, or from the banqueting-hall of some American millionaire who has found relief from the comment and criticism of his countrymen. Is the stability of the present order overestimated ? Are the sudden forces leagued against it underestimated ? Some approximate answer to these questions must be attempted by the reader of this book. For he is permitted to hear in its harshest note the cry for human betterment which can never be suppressed, and which, freed from the conditions of locality, concerns every nation upon earth. We are shown the demand of anarchy and its upward pressure by spoken word and printer’s ink; we hear its defiance of the bourgeoisie as represented by its presidents, generals, and police prefects. And then comes that propagande par le fait which we may permit ourselves to admire in the dim historical distance of Harmodius and Aristogiton, provided we shake our heads doubtfully at the nearer Cromwell, and condemn in honor when Vaillant throws the bomb into the French Chamber or Bresci kills King Humbert of Italy. By no such diabolism, it is safe to say, can the collective superiority of numbers supersede the individual superiority — whether manifested in statesmanship, cunning, or unscrupulousness — which has hitherto ruled the world.

Yet the literature of revolt as outlined and cited by Mr. Sanborn must be received, if not with sympathy, with a certain respect. Much of it is good of its kind, and burns with the earnestness of intense conviction. It ranges from anathemas delivered with the force of the Hebrew prophets to recommendations of slaughter and theft which are held to be justified by the oppression of judges, priests, and army officers. Human government is declared to be what Cobden called the British Constitution, “a thing of monopolies, church - craft, and sinecures.” If any ameliorations have been brought to pass since this exhaustive condemnation, they are either not worth considering, or make the situation less endurable. And so nothing remains but to echo the cry of Shakespeare’s murderer, “Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale!” Among those who would turn our existing civilization upside down are some who, in conventional language, may be called thinkers, — even though their thoughts run in channels as narrow as any marked out by traditional prejudice for the reflections of the favorites of fortune and opportunity. There are poets, also, who run their complaint into vigorous stanzas, or throw out stirring verse which has the ring of the John Brown chant or the Marseillaise. Mixed with the motley throng of agitators are those whose hearts are full of divine sympathy for the victims of the wrong and oppression which at present seem a necessary part of the evolutionary process. And perhaps there are more whose altruism is of the egoistic brand, — the career they wished and knew that they deserved has failed to open before them, and satisfaction is found in battering the doors of privilege which were shut in their faces.

La Révolution Sociale recognizes the value of art as preparing the way for the final triumph of arms. It has produced works of genuine merit by artists of reputation, and the clever drawings of the caricaturists offer means of grace to the unconverted. And then, as potent images de propagande, there is wide-scattering of portraits of the martyrs whose blood has been shed in the sacred cause. A paper for children has recently been added to the half-suppressed efforts of journalism, and, as literature for adults, the writings of Darwin and Spencer are permitted to pass the censorship, — they are supposed to favor anarchy when read between the lines. The methods of tradesunionism are looked upon with distrust; their members tacitly recognize the degradation of wages, and seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of government by imploring its assistance in improving the condition of the workers. Nevertheless, the members of these associations sit, as it were, upon “the anxious seats,” and prayers for their conversion will not long be ineffectual. Necessarily anarchists of fame and ability, like Kropotkin, Grave, or Reclus, do not share the belief in a sudden and impressive overturn which stimulates the activity of their followers. To labor vigorously and then to wait patiently is a grace given to exceptional men. Even the Christian apostles might not have suffered so nobly and preached so convincingly without their persuasion that all would be fulfilled during the lifetime of some before whom they stood.

The reader is not enviable whose blood takes no warmth from the fires of emotion which glow through this book. Our eyes are opened to much that concerns us outside the limits of our narrow specialisms. Certain as we may be that chaos would follow a removal of the restraining hand of government, we feel no less assurance that its interference is often clumsy, and sometimes immoral. We may condemn as heartily as the anarchist that detestable spirit of militarism which drains the people of the wealth they have created and spoils or sacrifices their lives. Socialism, which is more in evidence on this side of the water, is sometimes regarded as “the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,” which anarchy will kindle at the end of the route. The vision of a City Council — or even a Board of Aldermen — engaged in prescribing the work and apportioning the pay for every citizen suggests an Inferno to which that of the Florentine poet might well seem preferable. But no movement for human betterment should be judged by the logic of its ultimate demand; it may force a higher reach of civic thought as the juggler forces a card upon a defiant spectator. It is well to taste the sour ingredients which mingle with the existing civilization. Our naïve confidence in education and democracy is put to the test; they have awakened a spirit that cannot be crushed into the moulds of the past. We must straighten the crooked line upon which we move toward the future. If we cannot join our brothers in working for what they think is the best, we can at least help them to a second best, — which, indeed, is the best now attainable. We cannot dispense with governments, but we can do something to lift them to the level of the best private lives. Absolute justice is the last term of a constant series of efforts; it is the end of evolution, the terminus of the road. But we are marching on. Men are still breathing who were alive when seven British bishops voted to retain the death penalty for a petty theft. And now we are asking governmental protection for the weak in the unequal battle of competition, and the problem of distribution challenges our satisfaction in the wonders of invention and the increase of production. Mr. Sanborn’s book thus offers a study in psychology, while it reveals a phase of contemporary history too little considered in the fever-pace of American life.

  1. Boston : Small & Maynard. 1905.