Jean Grave, print culture, and the networks of anarchist transnationalism: An interview with Constance Bantman
by John-Erik Hansson
John-Erik Hansson: Let's start with a few introductory questions. Very broadly, who Jean Grave and why should we study him? What does he stand for? Does the book present a general case for studying minor figures in the history of anarchism, as Jean Grave is no longer necessarily so well known?
Constance Bantman: Jean Grave was a French anarchist—he was really quite famous until his death in 1939. He was mainly known as the editor of three highly influential anarchist periodicals. First of all, Le Révolté, which was set up in 1879 in Geneva by Peter Kropotkin and a few others, chiefly Elisée Reclus. It was handed over to Grave around the 1883 and he kept it going until 1885, when the paper was relocated to Paris. It was eventually discontinued and relaunched in 1887 as La Révolte, which was forced to close in 1894, in times of really intense anarchist persecution in France. It was relaunched again in 1895 as Les Temps Nouveaux, which more or less ceased business in 1914 when the war started. Grave was also involved in several other publications post-war and until his death. So Grave is primarily known for being a newspaper editor, one might say one of the most influential editors in the global anarchist movement.
And he was really quite well known at the time, and was also a theorist in his own right. That's one aspect of his work that completely sank into oblivion. I think you'd really struggle to find anyone reading Grave nowadays. There might be somebody popping up on social media every now and then, but that's about it! But at the time, he was a really influential theorist of anarchism, not quite on par with Kropotkin or say Malatesta or Reclus, but people did read him. His work was translated into numerous languages and published in multiple editions. He was a theorist of anarchist communism very broadly speaking. He was interested in education, and educationalism. It's hard to assess the specificity of his work, really. I would say educationalism within the broader anarchist communist framework was important. He was quite critical of syndicalism, and he was, as we’ll discuss later, pro Entente during the war.
He is worth studying not only because he was influential person, but also because of his remarkably long career in anarchism. He became a politicised at the time of the Paris Commune, when he was a teenager. I think his father was quite political and the young Grave was distantly involved in the commune—he was 17 at the time. By the late 1870s, he was politically active, and he never stopped until his death. His long political career mirrors the history of French and international anarchism, and the place of anarchism within the French Third Republic. Grave wrote his autobiography with the title Quarante Ans de Propagande Anarchiste [Forty Years of Anarchist Propaganda], and when I wrote the book, I was thinking, “maybe I could call it Seventy Years of Anarchist Propaganda?”, because that's more accurate. Grave was being quite humble.
Concerning your question about the relevance of studying minor figures, I think there is something interesting in resurrecting figures who have fallen from grace—Grave especially because of his position during World War One. But I think Grave was an intermediary, not quite a minor figure, because he was so well known and the time. These intermediaries, who were really close to highly influential historical figures, allow us to get new historical insights into figures like a Kropotkin, who was a really close friend of his, or Reclus, with whom he sparred quite a lot. They also allow us to piece back together the social history of anarchism, to shed light on the history of ideas in many different ways, and to reflect on more canonical history as well.
JEH: Your book is a biography of Grave but it's also a biography of his periodicals, especially La Révolte and Les Temps Nouveaux. What led you to that focus? What brought you to take that angle on Grave and on anarchism more generally?
CB: That's also related to your first question—which was “why study Grave?”. One of the main drivers of my study was a reflection on the concept of anarchist transnationalism, which I’ve been interested in for a long time, like many historians have. My work to date was focused on exile and I was absolutely fascinated with Grave who pretty much never left Paris at a time of intense anarchist forced mobility. Lots of French anarchists went into exile and there was a great deal of labour migration. But Grave was pretty much always in Paris, and yet, he was everywhere. If syndicalism was being discussed in Latin America, you could be sure that Grave would be part of that conversation. Same in Japan, same in discussions of political violence in the UK, where there were many French anarchists. What I realised is that Grave presents us with what we might call an example of immobile or rooted transnationalism and the fact that it was absolutely fine or feasible for somebody to be sedentary and to stay in Paris whilst having global influence. The reason for this, what solves the problem, is print culture and the mobility of print in this period.
So that's how I came to be interested in the papers, because they were agents of circulation of mobility. As Pierre-Yves Saunier, an influential historian of transnationalism, wrote, for the international circulation of ideas to happen, you don't necessarily need personal mobility, you need connectors. The papers were the great connectors.
In addition to that, the papers are absolutely fascinating. They are remarkable cultural documents, because one of Grave’s salient features was that he was connected with so many writers and visual artists. He was really adept at enlisting the support for the movement, and the papers really reflect that. The papers had a supplément littéraire, which was sometimes illustrated and many illustrations were sold for charity purposes, alongside the paper, by artists who are nowadays extremely famous for some of them (for instance Grave’s friend Paul Signac), or by illustrators. So there was this really lush visual and literary culture associated with the papers, which was just pleasant to study as well.
JEH: This is a great segue into the next set of questions. You’ve emphasised the importance of print culture throughout the book and in your answers up to now. So, how would you characterise the relationship between anarchism and print culture in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries?
CB: Well, I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think I would use the term symbiotic. I think it was a very symbiotic relationship, they fed off and into each other. There are many ways in which this imbrication of anarchism with print culture functioned. A few examples: print culture existed through periodicals, in particular, but also pamphlets which were sold and printed separately. All of these were the sites where anarchist ideology was elaborated and constructed dialogically.
These publications were fora, there was a great deal of discussions within and around the papers and other publications. Print culture was the prime place of ideological elaboration. It was also the key place for the dissemination of ideology. We've discussed illustrations—and Grave’s papers were famously very dry, very theoretical—but if we think of papers like the Père Peinard, a really engaging contemporary publication, there was a language, there was also a visual style, which was incredibly effective in conveying very complex, occasionally dry ideas to their target audiences. So that's another aspect in this relationship between anarchism and print culture. Because, precisely, there was no party framework, the press was the main forum.
Another aspect is also that the press and owning anarchist print was regarded by the authorities as the ultimate sign of anarchist belonging. This was very much acknowledged that the time, and this was a way of self-identification as well. The historian Jean Maitron has written extensively about anarchist being a very bookish culture in this respect, and this notion of print ownership as a sign of anarchist belonging is striking when you look at police records. This idea that owning and reading anarchist material was a sign of being an anarchist is really important.
Print culture had other functions as well. For instance, I've mentioned the global influence of Grave, it was also through the press that anarchism was developed as a global movement. The press also facilitated the daily organisation of anarchist circles, connecting activists with one another. So, there are so many practical, organisational, ideological and cultural ways in which print culture made anarchism possible. In return, anarchism fostered this absolutely remarkable print culture, which is one of our main sources today in documenting the history of the movement.
JEH: When I was reading the book, I was fascinated by the discussion of the formation of an anarchist identity alongside that of an anarchist ideology. I was wondering if you could comment, a little bit about the kind of dynamics of the relationship between the formation of an anarchist identity and at the same time, the formation of an anarchist ideology.
CB: Yes, I think that's such an interesting approach, because at the moment the great buzzword among historians of anarchism is “communities”, which makes me think that this notion of anarchist identity is somewhat under-explored. Paradoxically, we tend to think about anarchist identity through the collective prism of community and they’re not quite the same thing. Of course, the biography is a good entry way into these questions. Grave was somebody who was interested in ideas, but being an anarchist was a praxis as well. It was about taking part in gatherings in ‘Cercles’ or local groups, it was very much a sociability; it fed on this social identity and that's how it developed in the aftermath of the Second Industrial Revolution. Grave’s own itinerary shows that anarchism was very much a place where new identities, individual and collective, were created.
It's been a matter of debate, to what extent anarchists actually identified with the ideology or recognised it, or were well versed in it. For many people, it was more practical—if we think about the many sorts of petty criminals that the police identified as anarchist were probably not particularly familiar with Kropotkin’s ideas or say Stirner’s, but to somebody like Grave, Kropotkin—and more generally, ideas and theories—were, of course, very important.
JEH: To continue at the intersection of identity and ideology, bringing print culture back in, one of the things that struck me when I was reading your book is how you show the way in which different editors of anarchist papers interacted with and responded to one another. There is this debate between Jean Grave and Benjamin Tucker taking place throughout the pages of Liberty and La Révolte—mirroring the broader debate between anarchist individualists and anarchist communists. Yet, they maintained a veneer of unity as anarchists and actively sought to continue collaborating. This seems to have been common, especially before 1900, but it that changes over time, and you are able to track the subsequent process of ideological reconfiguration and division. So, I was wondering, firstly, what you thought this could tell us about anarchism at the time, and secondly, why you think things changed in the early 20th century.
CB: It's a striking story to follow. What we can see with anarchism, in particular through periodicals in the 1880s, is the case of an ideology emerging and constituting itself as a social movement. There is a sense of shared identity and affinities between, say Tucker and Grave—occasionally there are bitter fallouts, but still the sense of commonality of interests, for instance in the face of repression, is quite important.
In the late 1890s, post ‘propaganda by the deed’, it's quite established that there is a transition, which Jean Maitron has called “la dispersion des tendances” [the scattering of tendencies]. We can see that things become a bit more ideologically polarised especially, I think, because of the advent of new brands of anarchist individualism and lifestyle experiments which more conservative anarchists like Grave were horrified by. Vegetarianism, women's emancipation, free love colonies—all that was an absolute nightmare for them. And then you have les gueulards [the loudmouths] of La Guerre Sociale who also have a lot of misgivings and hostility towards figures, especially like Grave, who claim to have so much power and ascendancy in the movement.
At this stage, it becomes quite fixed and this feeling of unity dissolves. Then the war exposes deep ideological rifts. I’ve never quite thought of it in those terms, but it’s also absolutely striking to see such a condensed history of a highly influential social movement from emergence, unity, to the shattering blows of the First World War.
JEH: And in this way, I think what you show in the book is how periodicals help us track and reflect on these processes of ideological formation ideological differentiation which take place in a very short amount of time. Anarchism, then, can be seen as a microcosm for the study of ideological differentiation more broadly.
CB: Absolutely, that is really interesting. There’d have to be a comparative study to really identify the specificities of anarchist print culture. In the case of anarchism, the main ideological debates play out in major periodicals. The doctrine of syndicalism was elaborated, if you look at Europe, in the dialogue between a number of publications: Freedom in London, Le Père Peinard and then La Sociale when Pouget comes back to Paris, La Révolte, Les Temps Nouveaux, the Italian publications coming out in London, Italy, and the US at the same time. These debates and discussions unfold the big theoretical pieces as well as pamphlets, but what is also interesting is how it plays out in the paratextual elements of the periodicals—in one footnote you might find a commentary, or the report of a meeting where these questions were also being discussed
I find that one of the joys of studying that press is how they argue with each other. Conflicts between Grave and, say, Émile Armand (L’Anarchie) were such that they could be really vile with each other, and it could go on for weeks—the squabbling and the pettiness and “you said that…” and “the spy in London was doing this…”, all of which might be echoed by placards and manifestoes… These are arguments reflected in various elements of print culture to which we might not necessarily pay attention, but which were really important in this process of differentiation.
JEH: Thinking about another dimension of anarchism and thinking about Grave’s practice as an editor and publisher. In anarchism it's common to say that prefiguration, prefigurative politics are central. Anarchists want to enact the kinds of social relations they would like to see in a revolutionary future as much as possible in their day to day lives. How do Jean Grave and his publications fit that? How does he enact—or does he enact—the kind of anarchist relations that presumably he would have wanted to see in a revolutionary society?
CB: That's a very problematic area for Grave. The papers were notorious—perhaps unfairly so—for being places where Grave shared his point of view, and allowed people with whom he agreed to share their point of view. So, you might say, if we go with a prefigurative hypothesis, that his vision of an anarchist society was very much ‘everybody does what Grave has said should be done’. He was infamously nicknamed the Pope on rue Mouffetard [the place where his publications were printed] by the anarchist Charles Malato, in reference to this alleged dogmatism.
That’s one aspect which I’ve tried to correct in the book. The papers were actually quite collective, collaborative endeavours. I've mentioned syndicalism and Grave’s defiance toward syndicalism, and yet the pro-syndicalism anarchist and labour activist Paul Delesalle had a syndicalist column there for a very long time, and Grave really engaged with it. More broadly, if we look at some of his archives, his letters, he did reject some material submitted to the paper. For the literary supplement, I remember one letter where he says “I can’t publish this, the quality of the verse is insufferable, I’m not going to publish this!”. He was also prone to excommunication and personal quarrels but in the broader milieu of anarchism this was not specific to Grave. When things soured, relationships could become quite embittered and then individuals would be kicked out of groups… But I don't think Grave was necessarily as intolerant of personal and ideological difference as he's been portrayed. As I’ve mentioned, the papers were dialogic spaces: there were letters, and I must really emphasise again the paratextual elements, which allowed many voices and different currents into the paper. The last two pages were announcements for local meetings, book reviews written by different people… The contributions are very dialogic in that space, and I think that's one of the reasons why there was successful—and this was very much a deliberate approach on Grave’s part.
And another aspect of this is the place where the papers were produced: his attic in the Rue Mouffetard. That was famously really, very open, including to spy infiltration. There was a limit to how many people could be there, because the attic was really small, but this was a very open space. There are so many stories shared by Grave or others of intruders, spies trying to infiltrate this space, there was a bit of dark tourism around it, but so many contemporary commentators stressed the openness of this place, and it seems clear that this shows a certain pedagogical outlook on what anarchism should be, and how important dialogue was to its construction.
JEH: And I suppose it also fits in with the discussion about anarchist identity and what it meant to be an anarchist publisher in that in that period. Moving on to the theme of personal connections. One of the things that seems to be key to your study of anarchism through Jean Grave is the way in which his personal connections as well as his material position—his work, his way of working and his networks—made it possible for him to not only be a theorist of anarchism, but also a kind of unavoidable character at the time in the reconfiguration of anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th century. How important do you think investigating networks of personal relations is to the study of anarchism specifically or political ideologies more broadly?
CB: I think it is really important. To take the example of Grave, one obvious aspect which has been under-explored is his friendship with Kropotkin, although there is a good deal of social history around Kropotkin at the moment—it’s the centenary of his passing. But looking at networks really allows us to show different sides of the movement and its protagonists, and the great deal of dialogue and collaboration that existed in anarchism. This is not specific to my research. Fairly recently, Iain McKay has studied how important these French periodicals were for the dissemination and elaboration of Kropotkin’s ideas. So, if you bypass the friendship with Grave and the editorial partnership, which was so central and completely ignored until a few years ago, you really do miss on a really important aspect of the creation and diffusion of anarchist communism. It’s the same between Grave and Reclus: looking at egodocuments and less formal sources (typically letters and autobiographies), you can uncover many arguments about violence, and also debates about ivory tower anarchism, of which Grave was repeatedly accused. These seemingly casual discussions and letter exchanges shed light on the big debates which form the more official intellectual and political history of anarchism.
With Grave, I became really interested in the course of my research in his second wife, Mabel Holland Grave. She was an absolutely fascinating character in the anarchist movement, in the fine British tradition of upper middle-class women’s anarchism. She comes a bit out of nowhere, after Kropotkin introduced them, with no clear journey to anarchism, for instance. She came from a very affluent background, was boarding-school educated, which was not necessarily a given even for a privileged woman in this period, and she became a regular partner of Grave, both personally and politically. She collaborated with him and contributed to the paper. Anarcha-feminism was not something Grave really engaged with at all, but then we look at the praxis and the way he dedicated a book to her, stressing that they’d worked on it together, for instance, the fact that she was clearly a partner and the beautiful illustrations which she contributed, along with her editorial input… You could say that’s even worse: he used and silenced the labour of his wife. However, that's not the way I interpreted it. I thought that it was interesting how, in his daily life, so if we talk about prefiguration, he seems to have been far more progressive than his writings might have let on.
So, I do think these networks are crucial. And here I'm really talking about private life—but there are so many ways you can look at this: friendship, casual acquaintances… I loved reading Grave’s memoir, how he wrote about bumping into people in the street—activists he knew, anarchist or not—and how they would discuss this or that. That's the daily life of a social movement. And I think for anarchism this is so important. If you're looking at a movement—perhaps like Marxism, where the doctrine is elaborated in conferences, basically where there is a sense of strict sense of orthodoxy, where there are formal institutions at various levels and gatekeepers often occupying official roles, it's far more problematic. The same was probably true of the socialist parties emerging at the time. This is about the frameworks of political creation and channels of political dissemination. Anarchists did not have parties, and rarely had binding official documents. And so this allowed that kind of flexibility, whereby informal interactions become essential. For historians, this means that the social history of politics is immediately essential. This is true of any political movement, of course, but the because of the predominantly (an-)organisational character of anarchism, the social milieu is more obviously relevant.
JEH: This is nicely tied to the next question I wanted to ask, which returns to prefigurative politics and the way in which personal connections and networks are linked to prefiguration. As you show, it's these networks and personal connections that put Grave on the map. It's because he is able to create and foster these connections that he is a key figure in late 19th-century anarchism. How does this role as a kind of rhizome, as a node in the network sit with anarchist politics? Does it lead to the kind of problems you were talking about, like gatekeeping? How does it fit with anarchism’s argument in favour decentralisation and the diffusion of power?
CB: Yes, that's a very problematic point and is one of the things I really set out to investigate with the book. I've come to the perhaps generous conclusion that Grave was primarily genuinely interested in sharing knowledge and sharing anarchist ideas—sharing his own vision, one might say, but I don't think that's necessarily true. I think really the emphasis for him was on enabling discussion and spreading anarchist communism. I have come across discussions with Kropotkin where he says, “have you seen the number of ads we have in the paper this week?”, and that’s of course not commercial advertising but ads where people communicate and share information about local organisations. That was on the national scale, and Grave would also advertise meetings internationally.
Grave was conscious of the authoritarian potential of centrality. He was definitely aware of the criticism that was levelled at him, and he does say this autobiography: “I did this because, basically, I was quite certain of what I was saying, and I had my vision and the paper had a special place in the global anarchist movement…”, that was his argument in upholding what might be considered a very dogmatic approach to anarchism and its daily politics. But, alongside this, and there was so much effort towards diffusion, toward sharing the paper, reporting on and encouraging local movements.
The suspicion levelled at Grave, that he was focused on spreading his own, somewhat narrow conception of anarchism is obviously what we would call know diffusionism—this idea that French anarchism shone all over the world, from Paris, from the attic on the rue Mouffetard, and occasionally from London but that's about it. But there are discussions, in particular from Max Nettlau, that are absolutely staggering in how contemporary they sound in their critique of such diffusionist assumptions. There are records of Nettlau expressing that “sending a few dozen copies of La Révolte to Brazil is not going to bring about revolution in Brazil, you need to adjust your ideas a little…”. He was quite aware that sharing print material was not enough, and was also fraught with ideological assumptions.
However, what is interestingly being discussed by historians of anarchism working on non-European areas—I'm thinking of Brazil and Asia, in particular—is the great effort that went into and adapting anarchist material to local circumstances. You can see from Grave and others that there was a great deal of effort spent in seeking information about international movements, to reflect their activities in the paper, but also to have the knowledge to discuss their situations. I think it's far more nuanced and horizontal vision that appears. This is really interesting for us, as contemporary historians looking at these circulations in the light of all the discussions about provincialising Europe, and I would say the anarchists didn't do too badly actually.
JEH: Indeed, one of the other points that struck me when reading your book was how you seek to challenge the diffusionist narrative even as you focus on a Paris-based node for the circulation of anarchism. Do you think that the study of someone like Grave and his periodicals—who are, as you’ve said, connectors—and of anarchist print culture, more generally, may lead us to rethink the way in which anarchism circulated and reconfigured itself at the transnational and global levels? How can studying anarchist print culture help us provincialise Europe and European anarchism?
CB: What is really great at the moment is that there are so many studies from a non-European perspective, discussing all of this. I'm thinking, for instance of and Nadine Willems’s work on Japanese anarchism and Ishikawa Sanshirō, but also Laura Galián’s work on anarchism in a range of (post-)colonial contexts in the South of the Mediterranean. This is really fascinating work in showing different anarchist traditions, exploring new areas, showing how they've engaged with these European movements, but also questioning the very notion of anarchism. Of course, when French anarchism is exported, say to Argentina, where a book by Grave might be translated, its meaning changes automatically through this change of context. So, the more empirical data we have, the more studies we have, then the more we can start revising and understanding what happens in translation, and in a variety of cultural contexts. Print culture is a very good way of entering this because print was the prime medium for the global circulation of anarchism. And if you had people being mobile, they would set up or import papers, most of the time, so print culture is probably the best source that we have to study this. This also includes translations of major theoretical works and the international sale of pamphlets—these aspects are less well-known, for now at least, but can really help us understanding processes of local appropriation.
 Iain McKay, "Kropotkin, Woodcock and Les Temps Nouveaux", Anarchist Studies 23(1) (2015), 62ff.
 Nadine Willems, Ishikawa Sanshirō's Geographical Imagination: Transnational Anarchism and the Reconfiguration of Everyday Life in Early Twentieth-Century Japan (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2020); Laura Galián, Colonialism, Transnationalism, and Anarchism in the South of the Mediterranean, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).