Liberty, Equality, Geography: An Interview with John P. Clark on the Revolutionary Eco-Anarchism of Elisée Reclus

by Alyce Santoro
March 4th, 2014

Social geography is the study of how landscape, climate, and other features of a place shape the livelihoods, values, and cultural traditions of its inhabitants (and vice versa). Frenchman Elisée Reclus (1830 – 1905), a progenitor of the discipline, believed strongly in the rights and abilities of people to manage themselves in relation to their local bioregion, free from rule by a remote, centralized government. His approach to anarchy was unique in its emphasis on the environment – Reclus understood that a mindset that encourages one person or people’s domination over another must, in the race to profit from natural “resources”, also foster domination over nature. Like the social ecologists who have succeeded him, Reclus believed that solutions to ecological crises must involve restoring balance, equality, and a sense of interrelationship between humans and other humans, and between humans and the biosphere.

The first half of the recently-published Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus, edited and translated by John Clark and Camille Martin, forms a comprehensive critical survey of Reclus’ philosophy and political theory,including biographical information and historical context. The “modern” manifestations of oppression (including the concentration of wealth and power, surveillance, racism, sexism, and ecological degradation) that concerned Reclus in late-1800s Europe, the United States, and Central and South America are indeed still strikingly – infuriatingly – present. The second half of the book consists of translations of several pieces from Reclus’ extensive oeuvre, some of which have never before appeared in English translation.

AS: Can you describe how anarchy – specifically the kind based in mutual aid and environmental responsibility in service to a greater good illuminated here by Reclus, and by you in your book The Impossible Community, differs from other conceptions (or misconceptions) of anarchy, and how it might (as contrasted with other ideologies) be useful to us now?

John P. Clark: The world is rife with misconceptions about anarchism.

The most historically and theoretically grounded definition – the one that goes back to classical figures like Elisée Reclus – is quite simple: anarchy consists of the critique of all systems of domination and the struggle to abolish those systems, in concert with the practice of free, non-dominating community, which is the real alternative to these systems. Anarchy is the entire sphere of human life that takes place outside the boundaries of arche, or domination, in all its forms – statism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, racial oppression, heterosexism, technological domination, the domination of nature, etc. It rejects the hegemony of the centralized state, the capitalist market, and any hybrid of the two, and seeks to create a society free of all systematic forms of domination of humanity and nature. It envisions a society in which power remains decentralized at the base, decision-making is carried out through voluntary association and participatory democracy, and larger social purposes are pursued through the free federation of communities, affinity groups, and associations.

Anarchism is not merely about a transformation of social institutional structures, however. As further discussed in my book The Impossible Community, it also encompasses a fundamental transformation of the social imaginary, the social ideology, and the social ethos. Communitarian anarchism assumes that social transformation, to be successful, must encompass all major spheres of social determination. It recognizes that there are ontological, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of anarchy or non-domination. According to Reclus and other communitarian anarchists, these are not just vague ideals to be achieved in some future utopia; rather, such a transformation is immediately realized here and nowwherever love and solidarity are embodied in existing human relationships and social practice. Anarchism is strongly committed to “prefigurative” forms of association, and to the idea of “creating the new society within the shell of the old.” In fact, the communities of liberation that we create here and now do more than “prefigure” the ultimate goal; they are actual “figurations” of our ideals, actually giving a form, or a face, to them in the present.

By demonstrating that the most deeply rooted social order arises not out of coercion, oppression, and domination, but out of mutual aid and cooperation, communitarian anarchism is a truly revolutionary project. In working to regenerate community at the most fundamental level, it seeks to reverse the course of thousands of years of history in which relations of solidarity have been progressively replaced by market relations, commodity relations, bureaucratic relations, technical relations, instrumental relations, and relations of coercion and domination. The ecocidal and genocidal effects of such relations compel us to consider whether we will remain on history’s present catastrophic course, or seize the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the flourishing of both humanity and the whole of life in the biospheric community. In the work of Reclus we find universally accessible, immediately implementable alternatives.

Reclus cites some of the anarchic forms of human community that have made up much of world history, and remarks that “the names of the Spanish comuñeros, of the French communes, of the English yeomen, of the free cities in Germany, of the Republic of Novgorod and of the marvelous communities of Italy must be, with us Anarchists, household words: never was civilized humanity nearer to real Anarchy than it was in certain phases of the communal history of Florence and Nürnberg.” Today we can add the names of many movements that span the century since Reclus: the collectives in the Spanish Revolution; the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement; the global cooperative movement; the rich history of libertarian intentional communities; the Zapatista Movement; radical indigenous movements throughout the world; the global justice movement; and recently, the “horizontalist” practice of the Occupy Movement.

AS: In his 1898 essay “Evolution, Revolution, and the Anarchist Ideal” Reclus reflects on “the spirit of the strike” and various kinds of cooperative associations (such as bartering of goods and services, collaborative communities, and consumers’ associations) as effective ways to build solidarity. He claims that it is “in struggling for a common cause” together that we form the bonds necessary for the ongoing project of social revolution. In an 1895 letter to Clara Koettlitz he advises the aspiring anarchist to “work to free himself personally from all preconceived or imposed ideas, and gradually gather around himself friends who live and act in the same way. It is step by step, through small, loving, and intelligent associations that the great fraternal society will be formed.” Can you speak on the transformative power of the process itself? Can you recommend some constructive immediate steps for today’s revolutionaries?

JPC: The spirit of the strike, which means essentially the spirit of active and creative resistance, has enormous significance in the everyday life of any person who is committed to liberatory social transformation. In our present epoch of looming ecocidal and genocidal catastrophe, each person must make a basic decision. It is a “living, forced, momentous option,” to use William James’s famous terms. Each must answer the question, “Am I a resister or am I collaborator?” This is as true for us today as it was for anyone living in Vichy France in the early 40s. We must decide either for solidarity with humanity and nature or for betrayal of both in the struggle against domination. For this reason we might say that authentic anarchists are not merely an-archists but anti-archists. To be an “an-archist,” one who is “not an archist,” might imply something like “domination just isn’t my thing,” or “I’m not comfortable with domination.”  But the true spirit of anarchism, that is, anti-archism, implies that “domination is an intolerable thing,” that “when I see domination in any form I become indignant.”

I agree with Reclus’ contention that “small, loving and intelligent associations” are thekey to breaking out of the cycle of social determination and regenerating free community on the larger social level. Such micro-communities are “small” in the sense that they are the locus of primary, intimate, face-to-face relationships, they are “loving” in that they are founded on the practice of solidarity, mutual aid, compassion, and cooperation, and they are “intelligent” in that they are self-consciously transformative, awakened to their own meaning and purpose, the primary social space in which theory and practice converge. As primary communities of solidarity they are the only basis on which a solidarity economy and a larger solidarity society can be created. Reclus believed that these “small, loving and intelligent associations” should not isolate themselves, but on the contrary should develop their lives together in close relationship to their larger communities, always considering their role in the evolution of the whole society toward “the great fraternal society” of the future.

While ambivalent towards, and even skeptical of, the role of small cooperatives and intentional “communes” or “colonies” separate from the local community, Reclus believed that an indispensable part of the process of social transformation is the creation of institutions that embody a growing spirit and practice of solidarity at the most basic levels of society.He stressed the importance of the development of a “spirit of full association” in which local communities collectively take on many cooperative projects. He looked to already-existing practices of mutual aid and cooperation as a kind of material basis on which further developments could be grounded.The Reclus family’s life, which was pervaded by love and cooperation, was described by Elisée’s nephew and biographer Paul Reclus as “putting communism into practice.” Thus, Reclus’ own family was in effect a libertarian communist or communitarian anarchist affinity group, his most immediate evidence of what is possible in a future society.

In The Impossible Community, I refer to “communities of liberation and solidarity,” but these have gone under many names, notably, the “affinity group” in the anarchist movement, the “base community” in Latin American social justice movements, and the “ashram” in the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement. In all of these cases, the fact that they have been integral parts of transformative social movements has helped protect them from the pitfalls of self-obsession and self-marginalization that Reclus saw in some intentional communities. Rather than one-sidedly turning inward, they turn both inward and outward simultaneously, and act as the foundation for larger federative activity. We might call them the material and spiritual base for social evolution and social revolution.

Reclus’ insights into the “spirit of full association” are desperately needed by today’s anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and all those who are concerned with liberatory social transformation.  On the one hand, many of those who have the most far-reaching visions of social change remain trapped in marginal projects and relatively isolated subcultures. On the other hand, almost all those who are most actively engaged with local communities are in the end co-opted into single-issue politics and innocuous reformism. Reclus urges activists, (who must be, he says, at once “evolutionists” and “revolutionists”) to become deeply engaged in the struggles of actually-existing communities, focusing on the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, while at the same time helping to create new expressions of communal solidarity that are a revolutionary challenge to the existing system of domination.

AS: The caption to an illustration of the globe being held up by two hands that appears in the preface to Reclus’ 3,500-page masterwork L’Homme et la Terre (reproduced in this edition of Anarchy, Geography, Modernity) contains one of his best-known maxims: “L’homme est la nature prenant conscience d’elle-même” – translated here as “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious.” Do you think (or might Reclus have thought) that humans are the only biological creature that is an artifact of nature becoming conscious of itself?

JPC: Human beings are certainly not the only form of nature’s consciousness. Of course, all consciousness is nature’s consciousness, and since the objects of this consciousness are also nature, there is a sense in which all consciousness is nature’s self-consciousness, as I’m sure Reclus would agree. But the idea that humans are self-conscious nature in a strong sense means that not only do we possess consciousness,we are capable of knowing that we have this quality and guiding our actions accordingly. There is a degree of self-consciousness that makes possible a sense of wonder at the natural world and a sense of responsibility concerning it. It is this self-consciousness that makes possible a narrative understanding of our place in the natural world.

We are only now beginning to see the way in which Reclus’ thought made a major contribution to the dawning awareness of humanity’s place within a larger story of the earth. His conviction that “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious” belongs to certain wide-ranging tendencies in Nineteenth Century thought. On the one hand, German idealist philosophy (Hegel, Schelling) and Romantic literature (Wordsworth, the transcendentalists) reinterpreted all of reality as aspects of a Universal Spirit that encompasses humanity and nature, and was becoming conscious of itself in history. But these insights stayed largely on an idealist and aesthetic level, and Spirit remained largely divorced from scientific and material realities. Marx’s historical materialism contributed much of what was lacking in such idealist accounts, in that it interpreted history as the story of the alienation of humanity from its own life activity and productive processes, and of the overcoming of this split and the ideologies that mystify it. This account was in many ways a great advance, in that it was grounded in material reality and took seriously the insights of modern science. Yet it tended toward a reductionism that ignored many of the dimensions of nature and spirit that idealism and Romanticism uncovered. Reclus’ thought was the first attempt at a real synthesis and transcendence of these two perspectives. In his work, Hegel’s story of “Spirit” and Marx’s story of “Man” are raised up (aufgehoben) to the level of the “Earth Story”, a narrative in which humanity is seen as developing in dialectical relation to nature, and in which the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome…or, minimally, that the project of overcoming it is posed seriously.

Prior to the late twentieth century,broad, encompassing, synthesizing conceptions of the global and of “globalization” had not pervaded the general consciousness. Yet, well before the end of the Nineteenth Century, Reclus had already begun developing a theoretically sophisticated historical and geographical conception of globalization, one that encompasses the geological, geographical, ecological, political, economic, and cultural spheres. Reclus is thus a crucial figure in the emergence of a conception of globalization that remains more advanced than the ones that predominate even today. He urged us, long before this language even existed, to overcome the “centrisms” that have doomed us. He attacked the egocentrism that raises one individual above others and the anthropocentrism that subordinates the natural world to humanity. But not least of all he challenged his age to overcome Eurocentrism and adopt a truly global perspective. He asks, “Hasn’t it become obvious to members of the great human family that the center of civilization is already everywhere?” [AGM, p.  222]. In the end, Reclus is a visionary and prophet of earth-consciousness and world-consciousness in their deepest senses, senses that are still only beginning to dawn on humanity.

Reclus summarizes his project in his two great works, The New Universal Geography and Humanity and the Earth (which together run to nearly 20,000 pages) as “the attempt to follow the evolution of humanity in relation to forms of life on earth, and the evolution of forms of life on earth in relation to humanity.” [Élisée Reclus, Leçon d’ouverture du cours de Géographie comparée dans l’espace et dans le temps. Extrait de la REVUE UNIVERSITAIRE, Bruxelles, 1894, p. 5, my translation]. It is for this reason that he deserves recognition as a founder not only of social geography but also of social ecology. In fact, his rich, detailed development of social ecological analysis makes most of what has gone under that rubric since his time seem amateurish in comparison. We need to reinvigorate social ecology today with the kind of scientific and historical grounding found in Reclus but with a theoretical rigor that goes far beyond his efforts.

Reclus’ announcement that “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious” is a quite momentous one, and is certain to become even more fateful as global climate catastrophe accelerates and as we move more deeply into the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on Earth.We need to ponder what is at stake today in the question of whether humanity can actively assume its role as self-conscious nature. Reclus was confident that it would succeed in doing so, and in the process demonstrate that another world is possible beyond the limits of domination. Today, in our much less optimistic age, it is much more difficult for many to believe that such an “other world” is at all possible, despite the fact there are ever stronger indications that the present one is becoming less possible day by day. This world’s ultimate impossibility, even if it is inevitable, remains implausible. For its productive powers, imaginary powers and ideological powers are all seeming testimony to its insuperable reality, and these powerscontinue to expand.  In reality, we have good reason to ask whether, if another world does not rapidly become possible, any world at all will remain actual. The impossible community, the Reclusian community of love and solidarity, is a practical and dialectical answer to this more than theoretical, more than rhetorical question. In the midst of a world-destroying epoch, the impossible community presents itself as a world-making and world-preserving community. In the midst of egocentric cynicism and moral paralysis, it is a charismatic community of gifts and of the gift. It is an ethos that inspires and reawakens the person, sweeping him or her into a new realm of deeper reality and more compelling truth. It is our ultimate hope for the world.

Alyce Santoro’s interview with John P. Clark on his book The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism published in Truthout on June 9, 2013 can be found here.

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