Sébastien Faure and the La Ruche Experimental School

Sébastien Faure was born on 6 January 1858 into a wealthy Catholic family and was educated by Jesuits, first in Saint-Etienne and then, in 1874, at the age of 16, in Clermont-Ferrand. After 17 months and before he took his vows, his father was stricken by a serious illness that yanked the boy back into secular life. He left college and the religious order to take over the burden of supporting the family following his father's death. He started work in an insurance company and this brought him into contact with life and with the day to day problems of ordinary life. Faure began to take an interest in many issues of a philosophical, political and scientific nature as his mind was opened to fresh and fascinating prospects.

After a rather disappointing time in the army and following a stay in England, he was now ready to embark upon his extraordinary existence as a militant and a revolutionary.

Now the young Faure's real aim and sole interest became social and political activism and after a short-lived membership in the "Guesdist" party, he switched to the anarchist movement. At this point he severed connections with his own family and separated from the wife who found this radical about-turn intolerable.

In 1888 he moved to Paris where he developed his knowledge of anarchism through his reading, particularly of the writings of Elisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin and through frequenting groups and militants of the French anarchist movement.

Endowed with exceptional, not to say extraordinary gifts as a public speaker, he toured France spreading the anarchist idea and especially its critique of the struggle against the state, capitalism, and above all, religion. The titles of his talks were provocative: Twelve Proofs of the Non-existence of God, The Bankruptcy of Christianity, The Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie, Neither Command nor Obey, Parliamentary Putrefaction, etc.

Things were difficult to begin with, but the audiences at meetings, who found him as the main speaker were forever expanding until genuine tours of his own were organised and these registered such success in terms of their drawing power that they turned into matters of great resonance, rather than being merely local affairs. Texts of his talks were turned into propaganda pamphlets and were widely circulated and read. Through his activity he persuaded and opened up many men and women to anarchist ideas and earned the respect and admiration of many of his adversaries. Naturally he also attracted police attention and they regularly searched his lodgings and sent him to jail. A lecture tour that Faure made along with Louise Michel proved especially successful in terms of the numbers it drew.

In 1894 he was indicted in the "Trial of the Thirty". In 1895 he joined with Louise Michel to launch the weekly Le Libertaire and was the first to use the term 'Libertarian' to signify anarchist. After 1898 he committed himself wholly to the defence of the Jewish army captain Dreyfus and to the campaign to defend him.

After launching other anarchist papers elsewhere in France, by the early years of this century he was won over to Neo-Malthusianism. But from 1903 onwards he devoted his entire life, all his energies and efforts to an experiment that he held especially dear: educating children along libertarian lines. In fact he founded "La Ruche" which was in existence from 1904 until 1917, until the implications of the first world war put paid to the extraordinary experiment.

During the war he was actively involved in championing pacifist and anti-militarist ideas.

From 1926 until 1934 he produced the only example of an Anarchist Encyclopaedia with contributions from numerous experts and militants.

During the tragic and heady epic that was the Spanish Revolution his advanced years did not stop him from bringing his active solidarity to the CNT-FAI's fighters for social revolution. He died in Royan on 14 July 1942.

"La Ruche" or The Hive

From January 1904 until February 1917, Sébastien Faure's chief preoccupation and main efforts were concentrated on this experiment in libertarian education which, together with the experiments of Paul Robin, Francisco Ferrer and Leo Tolstoy (to cite only the best-known figures), represents one of the highlights of libertarian achievement in the field of education.

All in all, the main ideas underpinning this successful experiment which survived for thirteen years might be summed up as: preparing children, right from the very earliest years, to take charge of their own autonomy, develop feelings of solidarity and seek their freedom through the practice of freedom so as to build a free and fraternal society; to demonstrate in practice that, placed in an egalitarian libertarian social context, the individual develops egalitarian and libertarian values and modes of behaviour.

Faure leased a 25 hectare tract of land around 3 kilometres outside of Rambouillet (Seine et Oise department). It was known as Le Patis and it held quite a large farmhouse, an orchard, some woods, meadows and arable land. Enormous sums raised by Faure's lecture tours were invested in its upkeep as well as in the overall activities and operations of La Ruche. Money was raised also by the work done by the community itself and from the spontaneous voluntary contributions raised by clubs, associations, trade unions, co-operatives and all the vanguard groups of that day. Initially there were twenty people living in the educational community and eventually this number grew to include around 40 boys (aged from 6 to 13) plus twenty helpers. Every pupil was admitted free of charge on the basis of a voluntary contribution according to his means. Faure inherited the educational materials and equipment from Robin and from the Cempuis school, thereby taking over from the work of the first great libertarian innovator in the sphere of alternative education in a symbolic representation of continuity in ideals and practice. There was a strong emphasis on integral education in an effort to offer every pupil the widest range of experiences and afford each of them to plump later for their particular calling.

His collaborators either lived within the community or outside of it and made their particular services available free of charge. They held weekly meetings, sometimes in the free and informal presence of the boys, to look into the community's problems and controversies and work out the relevant decisions and options. Every aspect of the colony was autonomous. Everyone knew his own talents and voluntarily embraced obligations. The only things governing the responsibility of the individual were his capacity and his conscience.

The aim was to devise an education and training that would produce healthy and balanced, open minded and learned and with manual skills; in short, to produce the men and women of the future. Hence the emphasis on life out of doors, on health care and hygiene, healthy diet, participation in several sports for enjoyment's sake and without competition, on walking and dances. Alongside all of this there was rationalist schooling to nurture a critical faculty and non-dogmatic powers of observation in accordance with the scientific mentality. And there were the discussions between adults and children, sex education and the absence of punishment or reward.

Visitors poured into La Ruche from all over, especially in the summer and this provided an opportunity for swapping ideas and experiences, as well as for raising contributions and seeking out skills to enrich the colony and its residents. During the summer months the children made long, interesting group excursions and members of its choir ventured far and wide to place like Switzerland or Algeria. All of which helped to publicise a novel experiment and libertarian ideas in different regions and foreign lands.

From 1914 on, Faure published a Bulletin that attracted upwards of a thousand subscribers but which survived for only ten issues. By then war was a sad fact of life and in its later years La Ruche survived amid tremendous difficulties until it was eventually forced to close down.


From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli No 10 (December 1997) . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.