An audio biography and discussion of the life of 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.
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.
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.
one of her poems.
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?
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.
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?
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
this, and let me ask you Carolyn, what was her background?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
swear allegiance to Napoleon is that right? The Third?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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”.
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.
What were the background circumstances?
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.
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.
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.
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.
modern sense of the word, in fact Karl Marx was against the whole idea wasn’t
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.
which thousands of people attended and really got to practice there opposition
prominent among them, what was her plan?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
shall never cease to cry for vengeance
Paul, do we believe that that is what she said? Is in character?
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.
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.
transported to New Caledonia as her sentence when she was such a leader of the
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.
Caledonia, which is an island off Australia. How long did she spend there?
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.
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.
distance tell tales as well.
that we listen to while dreaming.
in the air
three or four lives here aren’t there?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
was probably inevitable that she would get locked away again. Why? What did she
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.
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.
enough for me to live on since two thirds of them didn’t pay me.
everything until ten or eleven o’clock in the evening.
to give over to study.
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.
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.
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.
went to Algeria, and on a trip to Algeria she fell seriously ill. Back in
Marseilles she died.
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.
to Anarchism. In all her writing there’s no paragraph more powerful than this
have seen how little the many edged tool of power accomplishes.
that travels from island to island in Oceania.
a mention of Louise Michel. I’d like you to read that last bit.
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.
for the extraordinary Louise Michel. Carolyn Eichner thank you for joining us. And
from me Matthew Paris until next week goodbye.