Think Piece

Reconciling with Rupture: The Impact of Exile on Revolutionary Thought

by guest contributor Atlanta Rae Neudorf

By Atlanta Rae Neudorf

In his reflections on migration in the twentieth century, Edward Said characterized the intellectual exile as a “political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages” (p. 332). This state of being – in which the individual is trapped between a new homeland and a “lost world” (p. 53) that still influences the present – is a state of contradictions. While the experience of exile throughout history has often been one of anguish and profound loss, it was able to produce, in some instances, stimuli that paved the way for new ways of thinking. Nowhere is this more evident than in the literary output of intellectual émigrés in the long nineteenth century. Frequently referred to as the Age of Revolutions, this period has been recategorized by one modern scholar as le siècle des exilés (‘the century of exiles’). Emerging out of the volatile political atmosphere of Europe, tens of thousands of political refugees from repressive or revolutionary states sought asylum in the liberal havens of Switzerland or Great Britain across this period of upheaval.

One such refugee was Félix Pyat, the revolutionary French political activist and ex-representative of the National and Legislative Assemblies of 1848-1849. A former playwright whose works had focused on the plight of the noble poor, Pyat was a prominent member of the left-wing Mountain party (p. 85) after the February 1848 revolution whose outspokenness on social issues was frequently ridiculed by his contemporaries. Following the French government’s decision to send troops to attack Italian nationalists in Rome in spring 1849, he penned an impassioned plea to the French people claiming that the government violated the new constitution of 1848, and so called them to arms. This agitation led to the disastrous radical unrest of June 13, 1849 against the government in Paris, which forced Pyat to flee France to avoid prosecution.

Like many of his fellow proscrits, he settled in Switzerland for a time – first in Lausanne and then Geneva – and then, after the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte on December 2, 1851, Pyat sailed for London. Here he joined a diverse community of political refugees from across the Continent who had fled in defeat after the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’; these included Giuseppe Mazzini, Lajos Kossuth, and Pyat’s former companions in the Mountain, Louis Blanc, and Alexandre Ledru-Rollin. In London, Pyat remained politically active in left-wing circles, analyzed the causes for the defeat of the revolution of 1848, plotted violently against the ‘tyrant’ Napoléon III, and elaborated upon revolutionary designs for a future ‘universal’ republic in France, to be established through the dismantling of the current state. No longer able to participate in French political life, with a long prison sentence awaiting him should he return, how did he articulate the paradoxes of being both internally bound to and externally separated fromFrance?

A common historiographical trope suggests that defeated revolutionaries tend to lose their fervor for drastic political transformation. In characterizing those cases where they do not, scholars once tended to explain away their continued commitment to the cause as mindless imitation, the endless repetition of inherited revolutionary tropes that remain static in the face of a changed socio-political reality. Pyat had previously been dismissed as a “1793 Jacobin superimposed on the political conditions of the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 334). As more recent scholarship has demonstrated, revolutionary defeat need not always signal ideological decline. In their critique of François Furet’s conceptualization of the death of the French Revolution, for example, Rosa Mucignat and Sanja Perovic invert this notion, reconfiguring the experience of defeat into a creative stimulus, where failure “enable[s] the revolution to be re-conceptualized and re-mobilized towards new ends” (p. 141).  Barred from taking any direct political action in France, Pyat did precisely this, shifting his attention entirely to literary agitation and penning numerous manifestos for the political society he founded in London the summer of 1852, the Commune Révolutionnaire (p. 210), which outlined his recalibrated political vision and aims.

France’s nineteenth-century battles were still being fought between the forces of reaction and revolution yet for Pyat, it became solely through epistolary means. In recognizing that he could no longer speak for the French people, as he believed himself to have done as an elected representative in the Assemblies of 1848-1849 or agitate within France due to the recent censorship laws, Pyat sets out a new set of aims for his new modus vivendi, caught between Paris and London, with no true possession of his liberties either. Pyat’s manifestosfor the Commune, particularly those from 1852-1855, articulated his increasingly violent revolutionary ideology, but notably, when taken in sum, reveal the ways in which Pyat engaged in a serious process of ideological synthesis, consciously readjusting his worldview and political aims in light of his present situation and the current state of France.

Pyat firmly establishes his separation from his countrymen his earliest exilic manifesto, the Lettre au Peuple of autumn 1852. Addressed to “our fellow citizens” in France and in exile, it immediately sets out an assessment of the exiles’ authority to be speaking out, arguing that “we do not believe… that we represent France, which can only be represented by itself alone” [nous ne croyons pas… représenter la France qui ne peut être représentée que par elle] (p. 4). Pyat immediately situates himself along the radical political spectrum in his disavowal of representative authority speaking on behalf of the sovereign people. Pyat had spoken on this issue in the National Assembly on October 5, 1848, arguing that France had no need of a President because elected and revocable committees could do the role. However, rather than simply repeating his earlier argument, the Lettre clearly recognizes his and the other exiles’ estrangement from the very people being addressed: “separated members of the body,” perhaps even forgotten, he writes, “we can only express [our] wishes” on behalf of the French people.

Yet Pyat clearly also envisions the exiles as remaining inherently connected to the French people, writing that “we think its thoughts, we speak its words” like a “distant but faithful echo” [nous pensons sa pensée, nous parlons sa parole… nous sommes un écho lointain, mais fidèle] (p. 4) thus bestowing upon the Commune (and by extension, himself) the authority with which to make pronouncements in the best interests of the French people. By presenting himself as a member of an imagined, international community of Frenchmen, bound together by their love of the nation and the republic, he can elevate his ideology to a level at which it is still applicable despite his banishment. Furthermore, while the wellbeing of the French people was at the heart of Pyat’s political worldview, and he refers time and again to the necessity of solidarity not just within France, but beyond its borders. Across Pyat’s addresses to the exiles in this period, he suggests that this should thus be a future aim, for example in 1855 in his Lettre aux Proscrits: “we know what we have to do and what we have not done: the universal Republic” (printed in the exilic newspaper L’Homme, 28 March 1855). However, he presents France as the ideal site from which this fraternal commitment should emanate in the future which reveals the tensions between his devotion to France on the one hand, and to international fraternity on the other.

Pyat also recognizes a counterintuitive reality of exile in these texts, namely that his physical separation from France permitted an escape from the Second Empire’s repressive measures against the freedoms of the press and association. Despite commiserating with his fellow exiles about their lack of agency by comparing their situation to imprisonment, he counsels on numerous occasions to make the most of the current circumstances: “it is necessary to welcome exile and take advantage of banishment” [il faut… se féliciter de l’exil et bénéficier de la proscription] (p. 5). In this spirit, he decrees: “it will not be without profit that we have been cast into a foreign land, where at least the press is free” [ce ne sera pas sans profit que nous aurons été jetés sur une terre étrangère, où du moins la presse est libre] (p. 4). In the Lettre aux Proscrits , he goes as far as to suggest that the revolutionary exiles were destined to be banished from France so that they could be unified in a better understanding of their cause. Therefore, “since the voice of the expelled is the only free one at this hour” (p. 5) Pyat and his Commune will continue to agitate despite the distance separating them from the rest of the French people, imparting their vision in the hope that it will be enacted in their absence.

Pyat’s desolation at the defeat of February 1848 can be attributed to his state of between-ness, that “estrangement” that allows the exile to view the world as “a domain of questions rather than of answers” (p. 52). Lamenting the failures of past revolutions in his address to his fellow exiles, in the Lettre aux Proscrits, he criticizes his contemporaries of several years before for their failure to act in a unified manner or to act in solidarity with other nations. Of the defeat of the aspirations of 1848 he writes: “it is our fault!” “The republican party of ‘48 dared nothing more” than simply French liberty, he argues, yet “it is not enough to free oneself, one must also free others,” as “any revolution concentrated on itself devours itself: in ‘93 Gironde and Montagne, in ‘48 bourgeois and socialists” (Lettre aux Proscrits). It is evident in the consideration of these criticisms both of his earlier inspirations the Jacobins and his own contemporaries that Pyat is not mindlessly repeating old revolutionary models, but rather adjusting them to current circumstances and demonstrating an ability to move beyond inherited traditions. In the same passage, he explicitly condemns the republicans of 1848 for failing to do just that when he argues that they “did not expand the vision of ‘93” but held on to it, and formulated their manifesto “exactly based on the Conventional pattern.” Elaborating further, he argues that the republicans failed to see that “the Revolution had progressed by more than fifty years, that it had proceeded from ‘93 to ‘48… from the particular to the general, from one people to all peoples, from France to the world… from the nation to humanity” [il ne vit pas que la Révolution avait progressé de plus de cinquante ans, qu’elle avait procédé de 93 à 48… du particulier au général, d’un peuple à tous les peuples, de la France au monde… de la patrie à l’humanité], echoing his own realisations of exilic retrospection.

Pyat elsewhere differentiates between the achievements of 1793 and 1848, characterizing 1793 as “proclaim[ing] the unity of man… with his countrymen” and 1848 as having suggested, “the unity of man with all mankind” (12). However, he argues that 1848 produced a legacy of solidarity rather than actually implementing it, attributing to this the last revolution’s failure. He also, in the Lettre aux Proscrits, extends this reason for failure back to 1793, noting that in “the entire policy of the Convention, speeches, declarations, Constitution… Solidarity does not stand out” [Prenez ainsi toute la politique de la Convention, discours, déclarations, constitution… l’idée de Solidarité ne ressort pas]. Referring to these earlier mistakes, he reiterates the importance of this theme: “Who then, can fail to recognize Solidarity? It is a law of nature, not only between those of the present, but also between all those of the present, the past, and the future” [Qui peut donc méconnaître la Solidarité? C’est la loi de nature, non seulement centre ceux du présent, mais encore entre tous ceux du présent, du passé, et de l’avenir]. This reference to what lies ahead links the analysis of past mistakes with the new methods he goes on to propose in later manifestos.

In this manner, Pyat viewed past revolutionary moments not just as representing future successes, but as directly influencing them across the present, a further indication of the dynamism and creativity of his political thought while in exile. His understanding of and devotion to the future universal republic shaped his intellectual trajectory in this early phase of exile, enabling him to extend his thinking from London back towards the continent, where it encompassed both France and the other repressive regimes of the post-1848 era.

N.B. All texts by Pyat and his Commune that are quoted in this piece have been translated from French to English by the author.

Atlanta Rae Neudorf is a PhD candidate in the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. Her work explores the revolutionary political thought of French republican exiles in London after the 1848 revolutions with a particular focus on the writings, activism, and transnational networks of Félix Pyat (1810-1889).

Featured Image: Honoré Daumier, Félix Pyat, 1849. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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