The delights of exile: French anarchists in Victorian and Edwardian London

Their numbers were small but France’s revolutionary exiles were to have a significant impact on international politics, says Dr Constance Bantman, author of The French Anarchists in London, 1880-1914, now published in paperback.

The history of the French anarchists exiled in London between the late 1870s and 1914 has long been treated like a footnote in the history of the French anarchist movement. Looking at numbers alone, this may be considered hard to dispute, since these groups added up to about 500 individuals over three decades (with a peak around 1885-1895), many of whom remain largely unknown. What this book shows, however, is that these seemingly marginal groups and this apparently anecdotal period of exile in fact had very significant impact on the internal politics of French and international anarchism at the time, on public opinion, and even in high politics and diplomatic exchanges. This, in turn, shows how much we can glean from anarchists in understanding the functioning of social movements operating across borders: the book’s introduction locates it in the transnational scholarship on anarchism, a field which has continued to evolve apace since the book’s publication in 2013. Many other titles in LUP’s Studies in Labour History series testify to this, from Pietro Di Paola’s The Knights Errant of Anarchy (2013) to Máire Cross’s recent biographical study of Flora Tristan, and the edited volume Transatlantic Radicalism. Socialist and Anarchist Exchanges in the 19th and 20th Centuries (2021).

Locating these exiled anarchists from a socioeconomic, cultural and political perspective is the focus of the book’s first two chapters. Chapter 3 examines their political activismin exile, paying close attention to their publishing endeavours, solidarities and disputes, as well as the opportunities for practical internationalism opened up by being in London, alongside radicals from Britain, Italy, Spain, Russia, and many others. Chapter 4 unpacks the countless myths and moral panics crystallized by these French ‘dynamitards’ and their suspected terrorist activities, exploring the various incidents which shook these London groups and public opinion at the peak of the anarchist movement’s dalliance with the doctrine of propaganda by the deed. The legacy of these London years is the focus of the last two chapters. Chapter 5 shows that the anarchists acted as a catalyst for a watershed revision of extradition and asylum laws in Britain, at a time when the mass immigration of Jewish workers from Eastern Europe galvanized a ‘restrictionist’ movement, leading to the 1905 and 1914 Aliens Acts and breaking up with almost one century of free entry into Britain. The final chapter grew out of a single sentence by Jean Maitron, in his authoritative Histoire du Mouvement anarchiste en France, where he noted that it was in London, in 1894, that the exiled journalist Emile Pouget became interested in trade unionism, and subsequently evolved towards syndicalism. What I uncovered by following this lead was a range of transnational discussions between French, British, Italian and US anarchists and syndicalists, over more than three decades, through which the doctrine of syndicalism was elaborated, shared and reinvented (and, quite rarely, even put into practice). 

Charles Malato, wrote about his time in London in The Delights of Exile (Les Joyeusetés de l’exil).

And then there is all the humour and eventfulness that one might expect from anarchists playing cat and mouse with the authorities and bickering among themselves in the late-Victorian metropolis, reinventing their politics and sometimes just forgetting about them: the hilarious chronicler of these London years, Charles Malato, making banana wine to kill the time, the writer Zo d’Axa wooing English women but also expressing his contempt for his host country in the most cutting terms, anarchists playing tricks on snitches and all the agents sent from Paris to infiltrate their groups… Charles Malato’s memoir of his London years was sarcastically called The Delights of Exile (Les Joyeusetés de l’exil, 1897) and I for one agree, albeit without any sarcasm!

Dr Constance Bantman is a Reader in French at the University of Surrey. She is the author of The French Anarchists in London, 1880-1914: Exile and Transnationalism in the First Globalisation, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013 – now available in paperback.