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McKINLEY, C. Alexander. "Illegitimate children of the Enlightenment: Anarchists and the French Revolution"
Article published on 25 September 2007
last modification on 9 March 2008

by r-c.
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Brandeis University, 2005, 323 p.

The fin-de-siècle anarchists saw themselves as the inheritors of Rousseau and Diderot, the most radical elements of the Enlightenment, and as the continuators of a very specific tradition of the French Revolution, the Enragés, Babeuf etc. They refered to their ideas and their revolutionary rhetoric as they hoped to establish their political legitimacy.

Author’s summary

"What did the French anarchists make of 1789? A hundred years after the
storming of the Bastille, how did a powerful French movement,
chronically reluctant to look to the past, come to terms with the event
that every other major movements had never stopped arguing about, "The
Great French Revolution?" My research project aims to illuminate the
relationship of the French anarchists in the fin-de-siècle to their
forerunners in Paris a hundred years earlier. In the Revolution, they
saw glimmers of hope, precursors to their own movement, an effective
means to present their message to wider audience, and even some models
to imitate.

This project investigates the relationship of the nineteenth and
twentieth century anarchists to their eighteenth century predecessors of
the French Revolution. My research finds that the anarchists saw
themselves as a part of the French Revolutionary tradition, but a very
specific part of that tradition. They argued that they were the natural
inheritors of the most radical elements of the Enlightenment and the
sans-culottes. Rousseau, Diderot, Hebert, the Énrages, Babouf, and the
people of streets who made the Revolution were their predecessors, not
the Bourgeois Third Republic’s. They hoped to capitalize upon this
inheritance in pushing their own political agenda. The individuals,
events and ideas of the Revolution, presented the anarchists a
historical legitimacy and political tool to promote their own ideas and
to criticize the current regime.

My source base consists of published works (including books, pamphlets,
newspapers, song sheets, and propaganda posters), which I found at the
Musée Sociale and Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and archival records
from the Archives de la Préfecture de Police for Parisian groups, the
Archives Nationales, which hold reports on the anarchists sent to the
Ministry of the Interior, and the Institute Français de la Histoire
Sociale (of the Archives Nationale).

My dissertation shows that the anarchists resorted the revolutionary
language, symbols and other forms of discourse of the eighteenth century
in the pursuit of that violent and immediate social revolution."


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