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Zo d'Axa's Heresy

     According to the etymology of the word, a heretic is one "who chooses"., choice meant in the strongest of its accepted meanings, as active decision, certainly not in the bland dress of adjustment. A heretic is no one who limits himself to belonging, approving, following. Nor is he even one who is content to study, learn and repeat. A heretic is not one who knows the old answers by heart, but rather one who loves to formulate new questions. The heretic does not demand approval, but rather critique; he does not want to maintain, but to change. If the heretic usually doesn't go very far, a reproach that is often made against him, it is because he spends his time opening new paths rather than going down all too well-trodden ones.

     There's no need to point out that heretics are not just found in religion. They are everywhere. So much so that one can confidently say that where the beacon of certainty shines in any field, there the shadow of doubt grows longer. Even social movements have often been shaken by the presence of heretics. A terror to the guardians of ideology, individuals of this kind are insulted, defamed and banished precisely like all other heretics. If they do not end up being burnt at the stake of the Inquisition, their names still get blacked out from most people's memories. And their merits have been hard to recognize, except in a few particular instances, many years after their deaths. As everyone knows, there is always time to raise a statue to Giordano Bruno in the public square.

     Very few heard Zo d'Axa speak even among anarchists in whose movement he fought for years. He was barely known in France, his country of origin, and was nearly unheard of in the rest of the world. Aside from fragmentary bits of news (like his family ties to famous personalities) or the translation of some brilliant phrase (perhaps in favor of abstentionism) nearly nothing has reached us up to now. Zo d'Axa, you see, was a heretic, a heretic of the anarchist movement that has not always known how to practice that absolute freedom that it intended to realize, sometimes getting stuck in a thick web of dogmas, precepts and norms.

     Zo d'Axa's name is linked to that of the weekly he founded and of which he was the managing editor. The journal was called L'Endehors (Outside). It's motto was: "The one who no one governs and who is guided exclusively by an impulsive nature, this passional whole, this outlaw, this alien to every school, this loner who seeks the elsewhere, isn't he indicated in the term: Outside?" It was published in Paris from May 1891 until February 1893--years when the name of anarchy came to be associated with the thunder of dynamite. L'Endhors had some bizarre characteristics for a subversive periodical. It wasn't limited to publishing writings of known anarchists or those who were destined to become so--like Sébastien Faure, Louise Michel, Errico Malatesta, Charles Malato or Emile Henry. Alongside them, there were also writers, poets and journalists, some already known, others just starting--people like Georges Darien, Octave Mirbeau, Félix Fénéon, Saint-Paul-Roux and many more. All "deserters of the bourgeoisie" as d'Axa loved to call them.

     The editors of L'Endehors were, in short, ravished by the temptation to open the communicating vessels between dream and action in a challenge that would provoke great upheavals in the years to come. Not by chance, in defiance of one of Baudelaire's bitter reflections, a great voice shouted from the pages of this weekly that "action is the sister of the dream". More an aspiration than an observation, it's no use to deny it, but no less meaningful for that. What's the use of acting if you don't have a dream to realize? To fall into the sorriest militancy? And what's the use of dreaming if you don't consequently act? To fall into the most innocuous aestheticism?

     The attempt was perhaps the first of its kind to be carried forward in such an organic manner. Unfortunately, it did not give the results hoped for. Several factors contributed to its demise, not least of which was the heavy intervention of the police, who were quick to apply the "black laws" that the French government had passed, which closely resemble the current post-September 11, European [and America] anti-terrorism laws, in their fieriness in dispensing heavy-handed charges of "subversive association" to anyone who doesn't become an accomplice of the state. ("The government decided to take advantage of the emotions caused by the explosions... to include all active revolutionaries in a huge trial against intentions. The minister and his docile prosecutor have ended up holding that certain ideas constitute complicity. The writer who explains how so many of the disinherited are inevitably drawn to theft has himself become a thief simply for expressing these thoughts. The thinker who analyzes the reasons for 'propaganda by the deed' has become the secret accomplice of the one who lit the tragic fuse. The philosopher no longer has the right to declare his indulgence and consider the events without astonishment": is this the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 21st?)

     But perhaps Zo d'Axa's generous effort would have still been destined to drown in the stormy sea of misunderstanding. The greatest obstacle seems to have been precisely an anarchist movement firmly anchored to ideological orthodoxy, which saw such experiments in subversive alchemy as only a waste of time, if not a tool of reaction for diverting the interests of workers from the Just Cause. This refined judgment must have been widespread in the anarchist movement of the time, since it is found again a dozen years later repeated word-for-word in some well-known writings of Luigi Fabbri where the baleful "bourgeois influences on anarchism" are stigmatized as the work of drawing room literati, guilty of exalting acts of violence committed by anarchists. Even the Zo d'Axa's journal is never cited--Fabbri preferred to mention organs of anarchist literature such as, for example, La Revue Blanche, rather than those of "literary anarchy" as L'Endehors was considered--the reference to it was still obvious, since many of the collaborators in the journal end up under the critique of the Romagnolan anarchist. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight--Fabbri's texts were published in 1906-1907--it was easy to lay into those literati who had offered their pen to anarchy in their youth only to pass over to the other side of the barricades (as if this had not also happened to many "rugged militants").

     But what is most striking in Fabbri's interventions, aside from the hysterical tone with which he launches his cry of alarm, is the lack of a substantial foundation for his arguments as well as the inability to even sense the reasons for and potential development of such an experiment. Yes, because if, on the one hand, Fabbri doesn't seem to be aware that the literary panegyrics to the "beau geste" were a consequence of the anarchist attacks that happened in that historical period and certainly not one of their causes (a thing that shows at most that "anarchist influences on literature"), on the other hand, he shows that he knows how, is able and wants to accept only "the anarchy conceived by philosophers, economists and anarchist sociologists". But once reduced to mere speculations, calculations and observations--however much with the militant warranty label--what is left of the passionate content of anarchy, of a world finally free of power? Nothing; since everything else is swiftly liquidates as "bourgeois influence". Once this political anarchism, full of good sense, is only made clear, it is no surprise that Fabbri comes to condemn without appeal "this fever for new things, this spirit of audacity, this mania for the extraordinary that has drawn the most extremely impressionable types into the anarchist ranks" since "these elements contribute the most to discrediting the idea."

     Well then, it is enough to compare such words with those of Bakunin ("There has always been a basic defect in my nature: love of the fantastic, of extraordinary and unheard-of adventure, of undertakings with boundless horizons the outcome of which no one can predict") in order to fully grasp the chasm that had been created in the anarchist movement toward the end of the 19th century, between those who wanted a freedom governed by reason (the sacred church) and those who wanted a freedom without reasons (the heresy). It is into this chasm that Zo d'Axa slid.

     Indeed, L'Endehors, with its ostentatious exaltation of the individual in revolt, could only leave all those revolutionaries who were only capable of understand the mass march perplexed. Jean Maitron, well-known historian of the French anarchist movement, illustrated the embarassment that L'Endehors caused when he describes it as "so nihilistic that it even goes beyond anarchy, while defending its its ideas and people." This also explains another description that accompanied Zo d'Axa to the end of his life, the one that wanted him to be an anarcho-aristocrat.

    But of what did Zo d'Axa's nihilism and aristocratism consist? In a few words, his obstinate refusal to promise paradise to the exploited.

     The problem is not as insignificant as it might seem. There has always been a great portion of the anarchist movement that strives to depict anarchy as a panacea for all the evils that afflict humanity, as a rich arcadia of love, happiness and equality. In the hope of being able to persuade the masses, all too often many anarchists have been compelled to represent the revolution as a redeeming light raised beyond the world in a blaze of blessedness. Zo d'Axa saw such promises as a sham and those who made them as crude hucksters. For him, it was not the desire to achieve a sublime ideal that was the point of departure for the will to affect the real and transform life, but rather the horror in what surrounded him. Any alternative project that aimed based on anti-authoritarian principles was therefore alien to him, because one cannot promise, much less support, what one does not know. It follows from this that his way of expressing himself did without the socio-economic analysis so dear to a certain type of revolutionary propaganda in need of objective confirmations, realistic proposals, efficient results.

     Now, the absence of a prepackaged theory about descriptions of what the future might be certainly can't be defined as nihilism, since this term usually refers to a methodical devaluation of all values. And it is a crude error to think that giving up determining the future a priori means consigning it to the limbo of the void. In reality, Zo d'Axa did not believe that beyond this boorish life made of work money and obedience there would be nothing: he simply did not know what might be there. A world without domination in all its manifestations is impossible to predict. Any attempt to plan it is nothing more than a rite for exorcizing the fear of the unknown.

     When the young child finds himself in the dark, he sings in a high voice to give himself courage. In the same way, many aspiring subversives are accustomed to building hyperbolic theoretical social edifices in order to overcome the panic that grips them when they think about an existence without the securities that the most dreadful habit is still able to furnish to them. But up to what point are these projects of social reconstruction only the echo of the frightened child's lullaby? Worse still, to what extent are these plausible, cautious, rational projects merely the bait with which to attract the consent of the people?

     It is against the lie of propaganda that Zo d'Axa's brutal sincerity lashes out: there isn't any future for which to survive and in which to hope, only a present in which to live and take pleasure. Like the Argonauts, Zo d'Axa knew that the most intense joy consists in living the adventures of the journey--whatever they are--not in the attainment of the Golden Fleece. This is why Zo d'Axa sang of the pleasure of revolt and mercilessly mocked the priests of the happy gospel.

     Obviously, those who aim to convert the greatest number of people to the Ideal, it doesn't matter which one, bear this ironic attitude towards the truthfulness of their advertising slogans poorly. Especially when it comes from their own ranks. In order to defend themselves, many anarchists could find nothing better to do than to brand Zo d'Axa with nihilism, or with being a supporter of nothing. One promises paradise to the exploited as the just recompense for those who have suffered so much, so criticizing paradise is equated with criticizing the exploited as its addressees. And whoever criticizes the exploited--i.e., whoever permits himself to demolish their illusions, whoever dares to mock their gullibility--can only be an aristocrat, a nihilist, in the final analysis, an enemy. There is no need to dwell on the nonsense of such syllogisms.

     Unlike other anarchists who found themselves, in a certain sense, in the same situation (we are thinking of Renzo Novatore in Italy), Zo d'Axa effectively distanced himself from the anarchist movement while continuing to remain outside every herd. How much bitterness in the conclusion he reaches at the end of his story: "Here I am forced to conclude: I am not an anarchist". Surrounded by religious anarchists who were convinced of the necessity of the earthly Eden, the iconoclast Zo d'Axa came to deny his own anarchism. As if to say, if these are anarchists, I could not be one. A conclusion to which the anarchist movement might like to push many of its heretics even today. Later drawn to recuperate them, of course, when a century's distance is considered enough to neutralize their original subversive charge. It then becomes possible to dedicate highly sympathetic articles to them, like that of Charles Jacquier, taken from an official historical review of anarchism. It even becomes possible to give these heretics some retrospective display. There is still time to raise a statue to Zo d'Axa in the public square.

Introductory essay to the Italian translation of  De Mazas à Jérusalem