A Rebel with Every Cause

The extraordinary insurrections of Gustave Paul Cluseret.

Gustave Paul Cluseret, c.1862. Library of Congress.

On 20 October 1870, George Francis Train – an American adventurer in the middle of a global voyage – disembarked at Marseille and addressed the crowd that had gathered to receive him. France was facing a revolutionary moment. The war with Prussia that had begun months earlier had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III on the battlefield of Sedan. This catastrophe had ended the Second Empire and given rise to a republican regime in Paris which, Train believed, could ‘transform France and the world into a system of communes’. Excited by this prospect, Train declared himself a ‘communist’ and demanded the crowd rise up in order to create a ‘red republic’ in Marseille. Sensing reticence, he assured the mob that success was guaranteed for, that very morning, he would send a request for assistance to the insurgent par excellence of the age, General Gustave Paul Cluseret.

In the field of revolutionary leadership, few seemed a safer bet than Cluseret. Born in Paris in 1823, he had joined the army at the age of 20, serving in the Crimean War, Algeria and in France itself during the revolutions of 1848. These experiences – of mud and misery at Sevastopol, colonial ‘policing’ and battling civilians on the barricades – changed the young soldier. Embittered at the thought of serving monarchs and influenced by republican and socialist ideas, by the 1850s Cluseret had decided instead to fight tyranny wherever he found it by becoming a border-crossing ‘professional revolutionary’.

Assuming this mantle a century before the likes of Carlos the Jackal and Che Guevara, Cluseret’s image as the quintessential freedom fighter was enhanced – like his future counterparts – by sensation-loving newspapers and radical magazines, that, despite their often tragicomic outcomes, were given many reasons to cover his exploits. 

His legend began in 1859, when he joined Giuseppe Garibaldi in the war for Italy’s independence. Two years later, Cluseret pledged himself to the emancipation of slaves by fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, earning the rank of brigadier general. After the conflict, he kept his military title – he loved being known as a general – even while delving deeper into radicalism. 

In 1865 he joined the International Workingmen’s Association and claimed, with typical bombast and to Karl Marx’s chagrin, to be the leader of its ‘American Chapter’. A year later, he aligned himself with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), agreeing to lead a Fenian uprising in England on the proviso that he would have 10,000 men under his command. When, however, Cluseret realised that the IRB had no such army and that the plot had been undone by informers, he promptly abandoned the Fenians.

His radical reputation was well established by 1867 when Cluseret received a hostile welcome in France, which led to him seeking sanctuary in Switzerland. There he added another radical stripe to his jersey by befriending Mikhail Bakunin, the foremost anarchist of the era and, like Cluseret, a man endlessly in search of revolution.

Unsurprisingly, when news of Napoleon’s capture at Sedan reached the pair they believed their time had finally arrived. Crossing the border with a small team of anarchists, they seized control of Lyon and plastered its town hall with posters declaring that ‘the administrative and governmental machinery of the state, having become impotent, is abolished…..TO ARMS!’ These sentiments melted away, however, like Cluseret himself, once National Guards arrived.

It was at this point that Train, seduced by Cluseret’s image, contacted him with the offer to lead the Marseille uprising. Ever confident despite his string of failures, Cluseret agreed, demanding of Train, as he had of the IRB, an army (this time just 2,000 men). Predictably, this revolutionary force never materialised. Moreover, when National Guards descended on Marseille, Cluseret once again vanished, leaving Train to wrap himself defiantly in US and French flags, daring the guards to ‘fire, fire, you miserable cowards!’ 

The disastrous realities of Lyon and Marseille were not enough to shatter the illusion of Cluseret as the must-have revolutionary. Accordingly, when the French government was deposed and the Paris Commune declared in March 1871, Cluseret was appointed the Minister for War, giving him the revolutionary army he had long sought. Although he was now at the pinnacle of his insurgent career, catastrophe, seemingly inevitable for Cluseret, lay ahead. In the grandest of ironies, when he complained that the ideological zealotry of his troops outstripped their fighting ability, he was imprisoned by his brother-Communards on the suspicion of being a reactionary saboteur. In desperation, the Communards released him in May 1871 to join the last stand against the French government’s forces. By then, however, Cluseret had learned how to identify a lost cause. Disguising himself as a priest, he snuck out of the city, leaving the Communards to be put to the sword.

The end of Cluseret’s career was fittingly bizarre. Distrusted by his radical brethren yet still under police surveillance, he participated in one last revolutionary adventure, in the Balkans in 1877, before putting away his pistol and sword and entering the Chamber of Deputies as a socialist. Then, in a final twist, in 1894 the would-be emancipator of the oppressed condemned the suspected spy Alfred Dreyfus. It was a stance that reflected the antisemitic policies he had come to embrace during his time as a politician, which included, but were not limited to, supporting proposals to make naturalised Jewish immigrants ineligible to join the army. When Cluseret died in 1900, however, the nationalistic, chauvinistic side of the man was seldom mentioned in the obituaries. As the New York Times reported, Cluseret’s fame was as ‘a soldier and a revolutionist’ who, despite his blunders, would be remembered as ‘one of the most remarkable figures among the adventurers of the nineteenth century’. With hindsight, it also seems clear that the image of ‘professional revolutionary’ Cluseret cultivated was his true legacy, setting an example that many a ‘freedom fighter’ has followed since. 


James Crossland is Reader in International History at Liverpool John Moores University.