Joseph Dejacque: Letter to Vesinier
By Better Worlds, Brighter Futures
Author: Joseph Dejacque
Date: February 20, 1861
Publication: N/A (Personal correspondence)
Note: We are very thankful for the work of Mitchell Abidor for translating this letter in 2008 from the original French.
Joseph Dejacque was an early and radical French anarchist-communist. Going beyond even the necessity of individual ownership of the product of one’s labor, Dejacque famously stated that, “it is not the product of his or her labor that the worker has a right to, but to the satisfaction of his or her needs, whatever may be their nature.” Such a statement recognizes that one’s labor, while useful and efficient, may still not lead to the satisfaction of needs for that individual, and that one may have skills that benefit others more fully than themselves, potentially leaving the needs of such an individual unmet.
The following letter was translated by the kindness of Mitchell Abidor in 2008 from the original French. We are still greatly appreciative that he was kind enough to indulge us in translating this piece, at a time when there were far fewer writings of Dejacque available in English than exist today. More information on Mr. Abidor can be found at the Marxist Internet Archive and Jewish Currents.
Dejacque’s letter is remarkable in several ways. Firstly, it was written by a French radical during his stay in the United States, and offers a foreign and radical perspective of the culture of the United States at that time. Secondly, it was written only months before the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States. Finally, it offers perspective on the abolitionist John Brown and his execution. For all of these reasons, it is an interesting and historical document.
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LETTER TO PIERRE VÉSINIER
Your opinion of America must have changed since your letter. The events occurring here show you how far this country is from being an abode of liberty. As on the old continent, there exist revolutionary elements, but in a latent and scattered state. Men of a militant libertarianism are a tiny minority. John Brown, one of these courageous exceptions was, as you know, hung to the applause of the slave owners and, what is even sadder, denied by the vast majority of the party that passes for abolitionist. The revolutionary socialist movement will not rise up from here; it is Europe that will set America in motion. Only then will it leave behind its political and religious cretinism and be initiated in the Social Science. America is literally a nation of grocers, or retail and wholesale shopkeepers who have only one thing in their heads and hearts: commerce, exploitation. Political faith, like religious faith, is nothing but merchandise they speculate in for the benefit of their mercantile interests. The American has only one sentiment, that of his venality and the venality of others. This sentiment is the tare that stifles every grand idea in him. I don’t know the language of this country; I don’t know how to speak it, write it or read it. It’s a bit my fault, but it is also very much the fault of its inhabitants. The repulsion they inspire in me is so powerful and the attraction so weak that it is impossible for me to study the language in America. I would rather learn it at a distance, in Switzerland or Belgium. From afar I would perhaps see some quality that would attract me to this people; from up close I see nothing in their entire tiny persons that doesn’t repel me. Even if they spoke French I would be just as embarrassed in trying to understand them or they me. The streets of New York, planted with indigenous and exotic passersby, are more deserted than the forests of the West, peopled with trees and rocks; I would be less alone, I think, in those vast solitudes than in that heavily populated city, nursery of Americanized men and women. I say this with more humility than sadness (for in the end, these idiots are my brothers; they are molded of the same clay as me) but here, except for rare exceptions, I frequent no one with pleasure, and no one seriously likes my company.
All those who step foot on American soil shortly become stupid, if they weren’t already before coming here, some by sacrificing to the god Pluto, others by sacrificing to the god Bacchus, usually by sacrificing to both. Few and far between are those who preserve in their brains and hearts, in their consciousness, the religion of humanity. Those of you who are in Europe: stay there. It’s the best you can do; it can’t possibly be more horrible to live there than in America. By changing continents all you will do is, like St Lawrence, turn yourselves on a grill. The New World is not the new society, and men of progress are as much, if not more, martyrs than anywhere else. All that prospers here is the spirit of civilizational preservation, of the political and religious ideas imported from the old world. With institutions as with fashion, America receives the tone, it doesn’t set it; it’s always a year or a century behind European fashion and revolutions.
This preamble will show that I am in no position to inform you about the various things you ask me. In the first place, as concerns the bookstore, not knowing how to speak English I charged a certain Debuchy from Lille, proscribed after December, to see the booksellers.
As for the bookstore affair, the New York booksellers answered in the negative. Nevertheless, I charged someone else to take care of it. It’s a young man named Gerard, former correspondent of the “Libertaire” in London. He now lives in New York and a bookseller he saw should be giving him an answer. I’ll give it to you in a postscript. Due to the crisis the circumstances aren’t favorable. There are very few French readers. There are only bestsellers, like “Les Miserables” I suppose, that have a chance to sell, and even that’s not certain. What’s more, as you must have thought, the booksellers here have arrangements with French publishers. Once a new one is received the pirated editions arrive too late.
I would have first spoken to Tassillier so that he could take care of this, even though he speaks little English. But he, too, was suspect. I hasten to say that it’s not that I have any proof that he belongs to the Company of Jesus; on the contrary, it appears that he always conducted himself well in Cayenne; his fellow escapees grant him that, but he has a Jesuitical air. He’s from the school of the new conspirators… from that stratum of agitators who are more political than socialist, more inflexible than energetic, more poseurs than imposing. Since I couldn’t any less address him than I did the first time, I recently informed him of the contents of your letter. He too thinks that the time isn’t propitious for an affair of this type and that it’s a waste of effort to work on this now. As for information on Cayenne and Algeria, he has published what he knows in his column in the “Revendicateur.” You doubtless don’t know that Tassilier was its principal founder and up till now the sole editor. The birth of this newspaper was surrounded by maneuvers that are unclear to me. Its first godfathers were workers who called themselves socialists who placed their children and the children of others in religion. Whatever the case, the program wasn’t bad; the issues that follow the sample are worth less. But I didn’t want to comment on them after what I wrote in the 26th issue of the “Libertaire.” The petty revolutionary big men here are so envious of each other that they wouldn’t have failed to attribute the conscientious expression of my ideas to a low motive, for example the spirit of denigration. Far from wanting to harm the new newspaper I want it to live. Everyone having the right to be a shareholder in it at the cost of one dollar, and every shareholder being by rights an editor, it’s up to those who call and believe themselves men of progress to pay it the tribute of their ideas for socialist articles. Unfortunately, our men are lazy and insouciant. Lacking social pride, they don’t even have the courage of their vanity; any work frightens them.
As for the escapees from Cayenne, I wrote to one of the escapees, a young man of good will named Dime, who has in his hands many documents that he arranged to have delivered to the press. He excerpted a summary for you, selecting what he thought was unknown to you, given that his work is quite lengthy and can hardly be transcribed in a letter. If you were present it would have made him happy to put it at your disposition in its entirety. I’m afraid that you won’t find all you hoped for in this excerpt. He hurt his hand and I had to write on his dictation the notes he had begun to copy and that you’ll find attached.
As for the notes on John Brown I have separately sent you all I could obtain. I can’t send you more since I lack the knowledge necessary to dig through the publications in the language of the country. There are even issues of the “Courrier [des Etats-Unis]” relating to his last moments which are missing from the collection I’m sending you, as well as another where there is mention of the words Brown spoke in his cell repudiating the assistance of priests. The “Revue de l’Ouest” didn’t report them.
John Brown was one of those natures that is highly developed as concerns sentiments, but whose knowledge was more limited. If the civilized newspapers are to be believed (and all of them in America are, belonging to one tendency or another) he still believed in God in heaven and a constitution on earth. His God and his constitution: he certainly wanted them the best possible, but the truth is that he hadn’t gone beyond this. After his sentencing and the ignoble treatment that preceded and pursued him, he was Christian enough to pardon his assassins and to thank them for their brutal offenses, which he had the magnanimity or the feebleness of spirit to qualify as “good proceedings.” Doubtless some cowardly and traitorous friend had whispered these deplorable words to him, for in every other circumstance, from the first sessions of the trial up to the trap door of the scaffold, he showed himself to be firm and intelligent, worthy of his past and the great cause for which he sacrificed himself. If you write about him be sure to explain this small moment of straying by the too great goodness of his heart, by his evangelical kindness. Don’t forget that it was after his condemnation and by pure charity or courtesy that he expressed himself in this way. Before this he had only spoken to his inquisitors as if they were the enemy, defeated but indomitable and proud before his cowardly and bloody conquerors. Finally, that if in doing this he committed a sin, it was through excess and not lack of courage. There are enough grand and noble ideas in this glorious martyr to bring out so that this holdover of Christianity won’t cast a shadow on his portrait and obscure the light. The act of the slave mother and her children accompanying him as confessor is one of those touching originalities that testify to a great and kind heart and to a free and intelligent mind. His impassive and valiant firmness at the hour of death, on the way to and at the place of execution, attest to all that was holy and generous in the blood that flowed in the veins of this robust old man; everything there spoke of strength, of convictions in the breast and skull of that audacious humanitarian.
By now you doubtless know that the “Revue de l’Ouest” is publishing “Les Mystéres du Peuple” as a serial; this is yet another reason that you aren’t able to place the volume here. In any case, among the proletariat money is scarce, and this kind of publication is not destined for the patricians. To tell the truth, five francs the volume seems a high price for a work that should be sold as cheaply as possible.
I definitively ceased publication of the “Libertaire,” no one any longer wanting to subscribe to it. And since I’m out of work and consequently have no money I disposed of the few pieces of gold I’d set aside in reserve (with the aim of settling my account with the “Bien-Etre Social”) and with this gold I paid for the publishing of my last issue. Please inform Citizen Beaujoint of this, and I have no doubt he will approve of my acting as I did, since the B.E.S., my fraternal creditor, had ceased to appear. Assure Citizen Beaujoint of my sincere sympathy for the former editor of the B.E.S., cordially shake his hand for me and tell him that I ardently hope that he can find the means to found a new paper and to thus fill the void in socialist propaganda that exists since the disappearance of the organ he edited. I don’t personally know either he or you, Citizen Vésinier, but it’s not impossible that I will pay you a visit during the spring. It is at least my intention to get closer to France if I can find the occasion to leave aboard a steamboat without loosening my purse strings, since, as for obtaining the money for the passage, there’s no possibility. I will first go to Belgium and if possible I’ll continue on to Switzerland. I’m tired of living like a hermit here in the middle of the crowd. I think I’d find more affinity of ideas in countries where they speak French. I’m nostalgic not for the country I was born in, but for the country I have only glimpsed in dreams, the Promised Land, the land of liberty beyond the Red Sea. As you see, how I’d love to flee the soil where the destiny of the moment has enchained me, to run to seek happiness on another continent. Poor first socialists that we are, declassed men in Christian civilization, we move about like suffering intelligences, ever hoping to find a corner where we’ll be less outside of our natural sphere, and we can’t find this corner because it is not of this world, that is, of this century!
I don’t know if this letter will reach you, given that the police can confiscate it en route. But if it reaches you try this economical method for answering me: write in pencil between the lines of a newspaper and place the newspaper in a band addressed to me. I’ll do the same on my side.
You know that I’m a paperhanger and housepainter. If you can inform me of the chance I would have of finding work in Geneva or Brussels I’ll wait for this small service from you. I know that work is less well paid in Europe than in America but I will perhaps find work more easily, given that, due to my ignorance of the language, I am forced to work here exclusively for French bosses, and they are neither the most numerous nor the least exploitative. If I leave America before having received an answer from you I’ll let you know by the means I indicated.
Calvat joins with me in shaking your hand and fraternal greetings.
p.s. February 27
The bookseller who had promised a response has just answered in the negative. So don’t count on America for the selling of your volumes.
The newspapers concerning John Brown won’t be following; they are missing. But something to be noted is that the “Courrier des Etats-Unis” is a pro-slavery newspaper. So don’t always accept what they say to the letter, especially since it’s often contradictory; and know how to recognize the truth under the veil of falsehood with which they seek to cover it.