Flora Tristan1 (1803—1844) was one of the earliest socialist-feminists. She was born in Paris, the ‘illegitimate’ daughter of a Spanish nobleman and a returned French refugee. She developed as a thinker, writer, and organizer in response to her experiences and travels.
At the age of 18 Tristan married her employer, a painter and lithographer named André Chazal. The marriage was a disaster but in those days French law did not allow divorce. In 1938 she finally obtained legal separation from her husband but even then she was unable to remarry. Her first political work was an appeal to the French parliament to pass a law to allow divorce.
Flora Tristan left a rich literary legacy. Besides her political tracts and a romantic novel,2 she witnessed the life of her age in three fascinating travelogues:
- In 1833 she sailed to Peru to claim a share in her father’s family fortune. She recounts her adventures en route3 and in the newly independent Andean countries of Latin America in Peregrinations of a Pariah.
- London Journal: A Survey of London Life in the 1830s – the French original is entitled Walks in London – is about her visit to England in 1840 and mainly about ‘the Monster City’ -- London.
- Flora Tristan's Diary: The Tour of France, 1843-44 is her diary of the tour of her native country that she undertook in 1843, when she traveled from town to town to observe the living and working conditions of the working class and try to organize a workers’ union.4
It is interesting to compare Tristan’s London Journal with Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, which appeared soon afterward (1844). Insofar as Tristan focuses on London while Engels writes about Manchester the two works may be regarded as complementary. Although Engels is much the better known of the two authors, Tristan’s portrait of English working class life is much the fuller: she covers many aspects that Engels omits, such as schools, prisons, prostitution, entertainments, and the Chartists.
Reading Tristan and Engels side by side, I was struck by the similarity between their observations. For example, they both remark on how the prosperous façade of main streets conceals from view the abject misery of the alleys behind. Had Engels read Tristan’s book before setting to work on his own? Or was it just a matter of great minds thinking alike?
Marx and Engels never acknowledged being influenced by Tristan. In The Holy Family (1845), however, they included a section on her ‘Workers’ Union’5 and defended her against Bruno Bauer’s charge of ‘feminine dogmatism.’ Engels and especially Marx were temperamentally disinclined to say a good word about anyone; indirect praise of one person in the course of condemning another was the most that could reasonably be expected of them.
The Workers’ Union (1843) was the last and most important of Tristan’s political works.6 Here she urges workers to overcome their internal divisions, including that between men and women, and ‘constitute themselves as a class’ in a union that could give effective voice to their grievances. One of her specific proposals is that the union should hire an educated advocate to represent the working class in dealings with the upper classes.
The extremely moderate and ‘reformist’ nature of this and other proposals seems at odds with the image of Tristan as a ‘revolutionary.’ She was indeed a revolutionary in the sense of looking forward to a fundamentally new society: she sympathized and maintained contact with others who shared the same dream, such as Robert Owen in England. At the same time, she knew that a very long and complex struggle lay ahead for the workers and she did not delude herself concerning what was practicable in the near future. Nor did she believe that the workers had anything to gain by spilling their blood in futile insurrections against the government.
Flora Tristan never completed her planned ‘tour of France.’ The rigors of road travel – the railway was yet to be invented – proved too great for her frail state of health. She caught typhoid fever and died in November 1844 in a boarding house in Bordeaux. Eight thousand workers marched to her grave; later subscriptions were collected to erect a monument in her honor.
There is also a square named after Tristan in Paris, marked with a sign describing her as a ‘woman of letters’ and a ‘militant feminist.’ In general, she seems to be remembered nowadays more as a feminist than as a socialist. The Beiks, for example, call her a ‘utopian feminist’ (see note 2).
Why is this? Although Tristan first became politically conscious as a feminist, in the mind of the mature Tristan the two philosophies were fused in a seamless whole. She sacrificed herself to the cause of the whole working class, without distinction of sex. But if Tristan is not always remembered today as a socialist isn’t that largely because we socialists have neglected her memory and failed to claim her as our own?
Further reading: Dominique Desanti, A Woman in Revolt: A Biography of Flora Tristan (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972), translated by Elizabeth Zelvin.
1. Flora Tristan, the name by which she is best known, was her pen name. Her maiden name was Flora Celestine Therèse Henriette Tristan-Moscoso. Her married name was legally changed to Tristan after her separation from her husband.
2. Extracts from Méphis (1838) are reproduced in Chapter 3 of Doris and Paul Beik, eds., Flora Tristan – Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade (Indiana University Press, 1991).
3. On board ship she was courted by the captain, whom she clearly admired, but such was the stigma attached to marital separation that she could not bring herself to tell him that she could not marry him because she was already married. Instead she resorted to subterfuge to cool his ardor.
4. English-language editions of Peregrinations and London Journal were published by Beacon Press (1987) and Charles River Books (1980), respectively. Substantial extracts from Tour of France are included in Chapter 6 of Doris and Paul Beik, eds., Flora Tristan.
5. Section 1 of Chapter 4.
6. Published in 2007 by University of Illinois Press, translated and introduced by Beverly Livingston.