A Reminiscence [of James Guillaume]

Peter Kropotkin

“Un souvenir”, La Vie ouvrière : revue bi-mensuelle, 20 February 1914

I met James Guillaume in 1872. Disgusted with what I had seen in the Romande Federation in Geneva, where the Marxists, led by the Russian [Nikolai] Utin, were working to divert a great workers’ movement which was grouped around the Temple Unique onto the parliamentary path – disgusted to see this, I went to find the “Bakuninist” Joukovsky and asked him to give me some recommendation for the Jura Federation. He sent me to James Guillaume in Neuchâtel.

There, I found myself in a completely different environment.

In Geneva, they were small committees of leaders who plotted in their secret meetings and spoke in the name of the workers. Thus, at the moment when a general strike was being prepared amongst the building workers, the leaders of the Temple Unique were working to prevent it, to smother it. – “A strike, you understand,” Utin told me, “would compromise Amberny’s candidacy.” Now, Amberny was a radical lawyer, for whom the interests of the building workers offered as little interest as last winter’s snow; but with him, they told me, they got their foot in the door! It was therefore necessary to sacrifice the interests of the workers.

In Neuchâtel, it was quite different. You found James Guillaume – the one who was called at the Temple Unique “the leader of the Jura Federation” – in a smock, working as a supervisor in a printing press. That day he was correcting the last proofs of a new little newspaper which was to published by that printing press, and writing on strips the addresses of the people to whom the newspaper was to be sent. – “Today, I won’t have an hour or half-an-hour off until eleven o’clock tonight,” he said, showing his work. “And it will be the same for three days.”

I offered to write down the addresses, so that he could give me an hour of discussion. But it was not possible. He wrote them from memory, or else by taking them from a sheet covered with cabalistic signs: “G. m. b S., N. f r. C., R. N.”, etc., which meant for those trained in watchmaking: Giraud, assembler of boxes, Sonvilliers; Nicollet, spring maker, Chaux-de-Fonds; Albert Robert, Neuchâtel”, and so on. What could an outsider understand?

“And this afternoon,” added Guillaume, “we will have to fold the newspaper and package it.”

A solution presented itself. I hastened to grab it.

“That, for example, I can do as well as you. I’ll do it.”

And here I am with a stack of newspapers, the wrappings and the glue pot. Beside me, a comrade doing the typesetting, and Guillaume who wrote on the wrapping, exchanging a few remarks or a joke with the typesetters from time to time.

What a contrast! I could not believe it.

That evening we had a lively conversation with Guillaume, which familiarised me with the international movement in Europe. And the next day, I went “into the mountains” of the Bernese Jura, to Sonvilliers and Saint-Imier, where I found the same spirit of equality, the same independence, the same fraternity.

It was a hive, where new ideas were being developed which would one day allow the proletarians to build a new society.

I did not return to the West until four years later, in 1876.

The first letter I wrote when I landed in England was to James Guillaume. It was on the eve of the Bern Congress, during which, Guillaume wrote to me, it was hoped to establish, on the still fresh grave of Bakunin, an agreement, or at least a modus vivendi, between the Federalist International and the German Social-Democrats. Guillaume thought it possible, he worked hard on it. Vain illusions, as we know.

I found myself in the Jura a few months later, in Neuchâtel and in Chaux-de-Fonds, and I stayed there all winter, in continuous contact with Guillaume, and then I formed a deep friendship with him.

He is sometimes portrayed as a fanatic – stern, abrupt, obstinate. Nothing could be more fanciful. When it is necessary to work for the cause, he is a serious toiler, hard working, like all good workers. When it is necessary to answer an adversary, he is a sharp polemicist. But when it comes to seriously discussing the course of action to be taken, or some step to take, one could not be more conciliatory, more ready to seek a practical, acceptable solution, provided that the essential principles remain intact. His deep sincerity has always struck even his adversaries. It shone in his eyes.

But above all he had to be seen in an informal evening amongst the workers. Always ready to respond with a joke, to sing one of those revolutionary songs in which he excelled, or to discuss with a comrade a question of principle or of action. You had to see him there to understand the egalitarian, deeply popular spirit that drove him.

Like Bakunin, like Elisée Reclus, like Errico Malatesta, James Guillaume had come to the labour movement – not to lead it, but to offer it his skills, his knowledge, his enthusiasm. And he thereby contributed, for his part, to giving it the egalitarian character of mutual relations and the spirit of anti-authoritarian aspirations which is absolutely lacking in political movements, from the Girondins of 1792 to the social-democratic Girondins of the twentieth century.

I write these lines, and I know that a socialist-politician reader will not understand why I attribute so much importance to this “populist” trait.

“Are we not all democrats?”, he will ask.

Well, there is something infinitely more important that “democracy” in this “populist” character which the International took on in the Latin countries, especially after the Congress of Ghent in 1872, and which Guillaume and his Latin friends personified so well.[1] It is the awakening of the proletarian spirit.

For the Social Revolution to succeed, it will have to create new forms of social life, and this creative force can only come to it from the popular masses – from those who themselves forge and plough, transform with their arms raw materials and constitute the hive of the producers.

It cannot come from books. Books are the past. They can sometimes arouse the spirit of criticism and of revolt. But they are worthless for foretelling the future. For that, we must ask life itself for suggestions. The best books just relive the past. Fourier’s phalanx, the collectivist State of Vidal, Pecqueur and the Marxists is still Plato’s Republic, without even excluding slavery, which they revive in the form of wage-labour. And what is good in Fourier is still taken from the popular surge of Year II of the Republic, when the French people wanted to socialise the exchange of products necessary for life.

“But you are a long way from our friend, James Guillaume!” you will tell me. I do not believe that. But if so, he will forgive me. To say that he was, by all his nature, the turn of his mind, his hatred of all authority, one of those who helped to awaken the constructive genius of the working masses, he knows that I could not give better praise to a friend.

Peter Kropotkin

End Notes

[1] Kropotkin seems to have got his congresses mixed up here. The 1872 Congress of the Federalist International took place at St. Imier while there was a World Socialist Congress held in Ghent in 1877, which a number of anarchists attended. He is presumably referring to the former Congress, given its significant place in the history of revolutionary anarchism. (Translator)