Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Great Lives - Louise Michel

This from a radio program that runs on the BBC called Great Lives, essentially a series of audio biographies on people chosen by the guests. This episode on the life of Louise Michel was chosen by Paul Mason, this was in 2013 before he reminded us all that he is firmly a social democrat. He the host and the other guest Professor Carolyn Eichner author of Surmounting the Barricades Women and the Paris Commune.

Link https://youtu.be/yIv3P1p47Ro
Its very comprehensive and covers her life from childhood to working as a teacher, to the Commune and her time in exile and her return to France.

Louise Michel

Great Lives

Matthew Paris Show Host:

Our Great Life this week was known as the “Red Virgin of Motmartre” the “Red She-wolf” and “Bonne-Louise”, she’s also been called the “Grande dame of Anarchy”.  And she used the pseudonym Clémence. But she had a name, it was Louise Michel. She was a school teacher, writer, orator, anthropologist, Anarchist and cat lover.

Born 1830 in Haute-Marne, died in 1905 in Marseille. Here’s one of her poems.

I have seen criminals and whores

And spoken with them,

Now I inquire if you believe them

Made as now they are

To drag their rags in blood and mire

Preordained an evil race,

You to whom all men are prey

Have made them what they are today.

Louise Michel has been nominated by the television journalist and writer Paul Mason. Newsnight’s business and industry correspondent, Paul was born in 1960 in Leigh near Wigan, the son of a miner. His books include Live Working or Die Fighting; How the Working Class Went Global, and more recently Why its Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Paul what’s so great about Louise Michel?

Paul Mason:

Well Matthew the Paris Commune of 1871 is probably the most crucial event in nineteenth century working class history, and what happened to women in it is one of the most interesting stories and the woman at the centre of that story is Louise Michel. She was a revolutionary, she was a fighter she fought you know with a rifle in her hand. And to me represents a kind of lost tradition on the left which is about principle, which is about passion and which is also about slight surrealism, her memoirs are full of dream like sequences that you don’t expect to read in the work of somebody whose spent their entire life in and out of jail fighting the system.

Matthew Paris:

Our guest expert is Professor Carolyn Eichner of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, author of Surmounting the Barricades: Women and the Paris Commune. Carolyn let’s set Louise Michel in the context of French History before start to look at her own history. This was a pretty important and strange moment wasn’t it?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, it was, the Paris Commune was a Revolutionary Civil War which came at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The working classes of Paris rose up and threw off a reactionary republican government and were able to keep them at bay for 72 days. And as Paul said it’s an incredibly important moment in working class history of the 19th century, and on the Left it has absolutely been lionised, canonised, considered to be a golden, golden moment and on the Right is considered to be one of the worst historical moments of the century.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s look at her now, she’s right at the centre of all this, and let me ask you Carolyn, what was her background?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne, her mother was a servant in a wealthy home, and her father was most likely the son of the family who owned the chateau. And the owners of the Chateau the Demahis family raised her as their granddaughter. But a marginalised granddaughter, they educated her, they fed her, clothed her, treated her as a granddaughter but she was still the illegitimate child of the family. So, she grew up in a slightly privileged yet marginalised position.

Matthew Paris:

It’s notable Paul, in all the Great Lives I’ve done and I’ve done quite a few now how many the lives of people who- in whose childhood there was some kind of strange disjunction, there was something very odd happened, and this is obviously the case in her life.

Paul Mason:

Yes, I think with Louise Michel her own account of the childhood is very interesting because she’s living in a world of make believe. In this castle that’s gone to seed because the family itself is partly ruined, and the castle is partly ruined. And she kind of wonders around it collecting the skulls of birds, and animals she’s an intelligent young girl, and I think educates herself. She has access through her family to the educated world of the mid-19th century French elite. And so, when she leaves that to become a young teacher, she very quickly was writing poetry at a young adult and sending it to Victor Hugo.

And that and there is evidence that she met Hugo very early on and remained inspired by him, so this is not somebody detached from mainstream French culture, she’s she’s plunged straight into it at the first opportunity.

Matthew Paris:

So, Carolyn she decided to become a teacher, why?

Carolyn Eichner:

There were very few career options available for women in the 19th or most of the 20th century, and becoming a teacher was a way that a woman could support herself and still be considered a legitimate member of society.

Matthew Paris:

And she couldn’t get into a state school because she wouldn’t swear allegiance to Napoleon is that right? The Third?

Carolyn Eichner:

Right, she was opposed to Napoleon III from a fairly early age.

Matthew Paris:

She opened her own school Paul.

Paul Mason:

Yes, she gets to Montmartre, at the time it is a slum in the north of Paris. And Louise Michel opened a series of private schools aimed at the children of the poor. Interestingly she was also one of the few teachers as far as we can tell who was prepared to teach people with severe learning difficulties. And she tried to teach them in the same classes as the kids who were not disabled.

Louise Michel’s classroom must have been an amazing place because she filled it with animals, pictures, music, quite like 1960s Primary school. But very, very different to the rote learning the 19th century French education had become.

Matthew Paris:

One of the things that’s already striking me about her is that she was a woman who from the earliest age took everything from first principles. Not all those kinds of rules and assumptions, do you see what I mean?

Carolyn Eichner:

She really was quite an iconoclast, she lived her life exactly as she thought it should be lived. And that meant that the choice of not marrying, which made her subject to all sorts of speculation about her sexuality. Many critics mentioned her looks and criticised her looks, which was not unusual for women in the public eye to be subjected to rather intensely negative critiques of their appearance. And then the logic that well she must be a revolutionary, an activist, an unmarried person because she’s ugly.

Matthew Paris:

We’ve pictures of her in front of us now, and I wouldn’t call her ugly, you could say it’s a plain face, but it’s terrifically striking. A thin woman, a strong serious face, what do you think of her appearance Paul? What would it say to you?

Paul Mason:

Well, she is a loner, she is a thinker, there’s not a speck of make-up. Her nickname was the Red Virgin, you can see a severity about her, in her face. When she was on trial after the Commune, one of the witnesses described her as being dark-haired, high forehead, quite small. And she objected, she said “In fact I am quite tall”.

Carolyn Eichner:

Later in life she had a female companion Charlotte Vau-velle who she was constantly with for years and of course there was all sorts of speculation about that, but there really is no way of knowing you know whether she would be what we would call a lesbian, a term that wouldn’t have existed then. Or whether she just really felt she was married to the revolution, and to the idea of bringing about social revolution.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s talk about that revolution, let’s talk about the Commune. What were the background circumstances?

Carolyn Eichner:

The Franco-Prussian war preceded the Commune, and this was a situation where the Prussians laid siege to Paris. And ultimately the French government surrendered to Prussia because they were more frightened of the working-class Parisians then they were of the Prussians.

Paul Mason:

And remember at this point one of the things that Napoleon III had done was call up the workers of Paris into a National Guard. Based street by street, so they had their rifles their uniforms and their military training on their doorstep. And when the time came for the Republican Government to say you know we surrendered, so let’s collect all the cannons that the National Guard have bought and um are currently looking after. And that was the moment that the revolution started.

Matthew Paris:

And here is her description of that moment.

I descended the hill

My rifle under my coat

Shouting treason! In the rising dawn

The people heard the alarm

We climbed the hill

Believing we would die for liberty

We were as risen from the earth

Our deaths would free Paris

Between us and the army

The women had thrown themselves on the cannons and machine guns

The soldiers stood immobile

When General Lecomte commanded them to fire on the crowd

A subordinate officer broke ranks and cried surrender!

The soldiers obeyed,

The revolution was made

So on March the 18th 1871 the people in charge of Paris where the Central Committee of the National Guard, they had to decide what to do, they could carry on fighting the retreating army or they could set up their own Commune. Which Paul is what they did.

Paul Mason:

They called elections to a Commune, and let’s remember what Commune meant in this regard. It meant like the GLC of London it was a City Government, and Paris hadn’t been allowed to have a city government under the dictatorship for a very good reason. Everybody knew what the political makeup of that government would be. And within a week the army had cleared out and you have elections and you have basically a city government set up.

Matthew Paris:

Here is her description of that moment.

The proclamation of the Commune was splendid

Their names were announced

An immense cry arose

Vive la Commune!

The drums beat a salvo, the artillery shook the ground

In the name of the people the Commune is proclaimed

Carolyn, these were not revolutionaries in the, in the modern sense of the word, in fact Karl Marx was against the whole idea wasn’t he?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, Marx thought that it was premature, but some of them definitely were revolutionaries. And many others of them were working-class people who were completely fed up with the kind of repression and marginalisation they had faced. And this was very much the case for women also. So, in certain respects it was like a festival, because there was a sense that the working-class government had finally taken power. There was free Opera, there was music in the streets it was very much of a festival kind of atmosphere.

There were public meetings throughout Paris almost daily in which thousands of people attended and really got to practice there opposition to government.

Matthew Paris:

But Paul, what did these people want? Louise Michel was becoming prominent among them, what was her plan?

Paul Mason:

What most of them wanted was what was called the Social Republic, they wanted a democratic republic and they wanted it to have social justice as its key deliverable. So that meant ending starvation, ending poverty, ending the criminalisation of women. They’re thinking they’ll have the Social Republic, that means an anti-clerical Republic, it means one where Cooperatives are set up and facilitated by the state. And one in which there is above all personal freedom, I think the Commune remains, and of course Karl Marx later recognised this, the first experiment in successful self-government by a working-class community.

This is the important thing about it, and of course in the last days and Louise Michel is among the people who do this, as they fought to survive, they did adopt extreme measures that later allowed moderate socialist propagandists to say that well they were crazy, killing priests etc.

Matthew Paris:

What was Michel doing during this period? What was her role?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was involved in the Women’s Vigilance Committee, she was also involved in the Men’s Vigilance Committee, and the vigilance was essential since the city was under siege by the French government. She was involved in some of the political clubs and these were working-class clubs that met in churches, which was a real appropriation of space and power. These were very much grassroots organisations, she fought on the battlefield and then ultimately on the barricades in the final week when there was street fighting.

Paul Mason:

One of the pictures of her is in a man’s uniform, and there’s a reason for that, she wanted to fight. We that before the Commune had even started, she used to go to fairgrounds to do target practice. So, she did fight and she was involved in a number of engagements, one at Clamart station in the south of Paris another one at Issy.

Matthew Paris:

Louise later claimed that during the 72 days of the Commune she never went to bed. She was with the Communards when they made their last stand in the cemetery of Montmartre. After the fall of the Commune she was arrested and she was officially Prisoner Number One.

 Apparently, the noise from the firing squads while other Communards were being killed led to complaints from the neighbours, so the soldiers started bayonetting the prisoners to death instead. Altogether there were about 25,000 men women and children executed. Among them Louise’s dear friend Théophile Ferré.

She dedicated a farewell poem to him. The Red Carnations Oeillets Rouges.

If I go to the black cemetery brother

Throw on your sister as a final hope

Some red carnations in bloom

In the last days of Empire when the people were awakening

It was your smile, red carnation

That told us all was being reborn

Today go blossom in the shadow of the black and sad prisons

Go flower by the sombre captive

And tell him truly that we love him

Tell him that through fleeting time everything belongs to the future

That the livid proud conqueror can die more surely

Than the conquered

Paul you’ve suggested that the ideology of the Paris Commune has been hijacked by historians of the left to explain later developments of Marxism-Leninism. If it doesn’t what does it explain? What’s its real significance?

Paul Mason:

For me Louise Michel and the Commune she was part of almost the sort of uber case study of what happens when workers make revolutions without people like Bolsheviks to help/hinder them. I think the Commune remains because above all of its personal and its sexual politics, so far in advance of the 20th century. You know one of the things we remember Louise for, she fought for the rights of all women.

Paul Mason:

Was she a feminist, do you think Carolyn?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes absolutely, she was absolutely a feminist. And the term feminism did not come into use until the 1880s, but if one defines feminism as a movement for gender equity, Louise Michel was absolutely a feminist.

Matthew Paris:

In December 1871 Louise Michel was brought before the 6th Council of War, charged with offences including trying to overthrow the government, encouraging citizens to arm themselves and herself using weapons and wearing a military uniform. When she was asked if she had anything to say in her defence, she’s said to have replied

Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything

But a little lump of lead I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance

And I shall avenge my brothers. If you are not cowards kill me!

If you are not cowards kill me. That’s an extraordinary speech Paul, do we believe that that is what she said? Is in character?

Paul Mason:

I think it’s what she said and what she meant because she is in a state of grieving. Even reading her memoirs written twenty-thirty years later that grieving never stops. The dreamlike quality of the memoir comes from the fact that she’s seen a massacre. And when we as modern journalists cover massacres, we’re all to aware of what that does to people’s psychology for decades beyond that.

You know there were piles of bodies in the streets, she writes constantly about the Hecatomb, the mass grave. That’s an image that’s in her writing till the day she dies. So yeah, she’s ready to die, she knows what the future holds, and that is deportation.

Matthew Paris:

Why didn’t they kill her? When she said kill me, why was she transported to New Caledonia as her sentence when she was such a leader of the rebels?

Carolyn Eichner:

It’s an excellent question, and most likely because they did not want to make her a martyr. She had such a following which did only grow, but she was charismatic, heroic, mythical and the French state must have recognised that making her a martyr would have been a larger problem.

Matthew Paris:

Then four months in a ship the Virginie on the way to New Caledonia, which is an island off Australia. How long did she spend there?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was there for seven years. Her experience there was that of most of the Communards who were sent to New Caledonia, which was that they were basically dumped there and left to fend for themselves. Including constructing their own habitations, getting their own food, these were urban people, New Caledonia now one would think oh this is a tropical paradise, but when one reads the memoirs of the people who were there it was very hot, there were malarial mosquitoes, dengue fever. The conditions were extremely difficult and brutal, and she was among a small number of women who were sent there and very much left to fend for themselves.

Matthew Paris:

And she did fend for herself, she didn’t just vegetate she ended up teaching the native people the Kanaks, she ended up teaching the children of the colonists, she got to know and respect the indigenous culture. She wrote a rather poetic treatise about their language, their island and their culture and here’s part of it.

It is night, it was hot during the day and the coolness is good.

The tribe stretched out beneath the coconut palms, near the huts

Listens to the tales of the storyteller and the breakers in the distance tell tales as well.

The storyteller half-asleep half-awake tells while dreaming stories that we listen to while dreaming.

One would think that it is the branches of the coconut tree that move in the air

But its fruit bats, let them fly away in peace.

This evening the tribe is not hungry, here come drops of rain,

But they are hot, they feel good as they fall on us lying here on the grass

From which we feel the heat of the earth rise.

The white man’s borders are far away, very far away

This is the land of the Fathers.

Paul I’m fascinated by this completely new chapter. There are three or four lives here aren’t there?

Paul Mason:

Yes, I mean let’s remember why the French state sent people to New Caledonia. It thought it wouldn’t just imprison the Communards it would force them by having to remake their lives amid stone age people to reconsider their ideas. And the effect on many of them was depression, of course many of those people, urban people lived in a tiny neighbourhood of Paris all their lives, suddenly they’re in the wilderness.

Louise Michel fought it by being creative. This is the period where she’s constantly writing novels, plays, all kinds of lost work and she becomes and amateur anthropologist. She sets out from almost day one to engage with the New Caledonian indigenous people. And once she’s done that, she ends up going to their villages, she ends up- she takes her notebook, she writes down their songs and their folktales and publishes -actually while she’s even on the island- the first edition of the Chanson de geste book is published in Paris.

So, she’s doing anthropology but what they don’t know of course is she’s also radicalising them. When the time comes for the Kanaks to revolt, she’s given them her red scarf that she’s kept hidden since the days of the Commune and is one of the few French prisoners who is whole heartedly in favour of the Kanak revolt.

Matthew Paris:

The white man’s borders are far away, very far away she wrote, but she went back to the white man’s borders she returned to Paris in 1880 after an amnesty had been granted to the Communards. She was met at the station by a crowd of about 7,000 people shouting “Vive Louise Michel! Vive La Commune!” How had she become so famous and so popular on the other side of the world during this period Carolyn?

Carolyn Eichner:

Her legacy of the time during the Commune and her activism prior to the Commune just continued to grow and amplify in her absence. And then she was continuing to write and to send her manuscripts back to Paris, things were published and she had become in some ways really transformed by the experience in New Caledonia. Now she had actively advocated anti-imperialism, she continued to push for social revolution, and one other thing that had very much come out of her experience after the Commune was that she had become an Anarchist.

And this sort of transformation had occurred on the boat on the way to New Caledonia. So in New Caledonia she was also thinking and writing about Anarchism and about how the failure of the Commune meant a redirection or real grassroots efforts for revolution. And she had become this enormous personality, thousands of people met her at the station and then even thousands more came to a talk she gave immediately after that. And that sort of set the situation for the subsequent decades.

Matthew Paris:

And she went back to being a revolutionary agitator. So, it was probably inevitable that she would get locked away again. Why? What did she do?

Paul Mason:

In 1883 she leads a bread riot, carrying a black flag now through the streets of Paris, there was violence at the end of that demonstration she is charged and imprisoned for three years. This already a woman who has spent two and a half years after the Commune in a French prison, then seven years on the island and now she’s back in prison.

I think what is important about this though is that by the 1880s you’ve got the emergence of an almost modern style French labour movement. You’ve got unions, you’ve got self help societies, Louise Michel thinks that this is all rubbish. And she wants to carry on the dream of activating the slum dwelling poorest classes. That’s what she’s doing on that bread riot, she sees her task as being to radicalise and ignite the poor.

Matthew Paris:

Paul Lafargue visited her in prison in 1885 and recorded that conversation.

I’m not complaining, to tell you the truth I’ve had to put up with worse.

I’ve found a happiness in prison I never knew when I was free.

I have time to study, and I take advantage of it.

When I was free, I had my classes, 150 students or more, it wasn’t enough for me to live on since two thirds of them didn’t pay me.

I had to give lessons in grammar, music, history a little bit of everything until ten or eleven o’clock in the evening.

And when I went home, I went to sleep exhausted, unable to do anything.

At the time I would have given years of my life in order to have time to give over to study.

Here in St Lazare I have time for myself, a lot of time and I’m happy about this.

I read, I study I’ve learned several languages.

Two years after she was let out of prison, she was shot in a theatre Carolyn.

Carolyn Eichner:

She was giving a political speech, and someone in the crowd stood up and shot her in the head, but it just barely grazed her head. And she recovered fully, and she refused to prosecute the shooter, saying that he was just clearly someone who didn’t understand what she meant, what her intentions were and she wanted to speak with him she spoke with the man and allowed him to go free. And this of course fed into the idea of her as the saintly figure.

Matthew Paris:

She spent some years in London, what did she do in London Paul?

Paul Mason:

We don’t know everything she did in London but she did a lot of philanthropy, she became known as the “good woman” I think she was going around the East End giving away food. She constantly gave away everything that was sent to her actually clothes, dresses, books. But the other thing she did was to form a school with a fellow Anarchist and survivor of the Commune in quite a posh part of London. Recently research has managed to unearth some of the prospectus and syllabus and its quite you know radical.

But surprise, surprise a bomb was found in the school, nobody was prosecuted but the school did close thereafter. We don’t know who put the bomb there, we don’t think it was Louise Michel and her cohorts, it might have been a police sting, or one of their more radical- you know there were lots of radical Anarchists around Louise Michel all the time by the 1880s and 90s.

Matthew Paris:

And she carried on lecturing not just all over France, she went to Algeria, and on a trip to Algeria she fell seriously ill. Back in Marseilles she died.

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, she had wanted to go to Algeria to advocate for an uprising against the French Imperial government. And she managed to do this though she was in ill health she travelled around and spoke against the French government, spoke against religion, spoke against militarism and essentially this tour ended her life. She died shortly thereafter.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s give Louise Michel one more chance to convert us all to Anarchism. In all her writing there’s no paragraph more powerful than this one.

There are millions of us who don’t give a damn for authority because we have seen how little the many edged tool of power accomplishes.

We have watched throats cut to gain it, it is supposed to be the Jade axe that travels from island to island in Oceania.

No! Power monopolised is evil.

Matthew Paris:

Paul, in your book about working-class history you end with a mention of Louise Michel. I’d like you to read that last bit.

Paul Mason:

I have seen the young Louise Michel dancing to a samba band in a field outside Glen Eagle’s summit. Her face was painted and she was wearing pink fairy wings, she still has a lot to learn.

Matthew Paris:

Paul Mason, thank you for sharing with us your enthusiasm for the extraordinary Louise Michel. Carolyn Eichner thank you for joining us. And from me Matthew Paris until next week goodbye.

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