Great Lives - Louise Michel

An audio biography and discussion of the life of Louise Michel.

Submitted by Reddebrek on December 17, 2017

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.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

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.