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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out Of The Past

Louise Michel
(May 29, 1830–Jan. 10, 1905)

(30 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 37, 30 May 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Every so often there comes along a person who must inevitably become a revolutionist by the very nature of his being. The pain, the suffering, the hunger of the oppressed are his. Such a person was Louise Michel whose brilliant spirit lit the revolutionary ardor of the French working-class.

Rarely has there been a man or woman more deeply and personally compassionate toward the oppressed and exploited than Louise Michel. A bourgeois paper, writing of her while she was still alive, described her as a “Sister of Mercy without uniform or vow” – under the illusion that comparison with the denizens of the church might be a compliment to her. She was far more than compassionate for she was a fighter too. Against the oppressors, she was savage in her hatred. Force, violence would be needed to oust these monsters of society who rule by might.

The daughter of a serving maid and a landowner’s son, Louise Michel’s life was divided into two sections. “The first,” she wrote, “consisted of dreams and of study; the second only of events.” Outraged by the poverty and the misery of the poor from the very earliest years of girlhood, she sought ways and means of helping them – to find food, to care for the sick, etc. Liberally educated, she qualified as a teacher with excellent grades, but was denied a position in the state school system because she refused to take an oath of allegiance to Napoleon III. When, shortly afterwards, she did become a teacher in a private school, her reputation as a teacher spread quickly. Students sat spellbound as she unearthed the deep meaning of learning for them. This job she eventually lost – the school proprietors found her habit of giving her clothes away to the needy too expensive for them to support.

On the Paris Barricades

But all this was a mere prelude to the work which made her a legend among the Paris workers. When the Paris Commune struck its magnificent blow at tyranny, Louise Michel became one of its leading figures. Tirelessly she worked among the masses – leading the Union of Women, organizing the nursing of the wounded Communards, taking her place with the fighters of the 61st Battalion of the National Guard, urging that all goods and property be made communal for the general use of all. When the Communards made their last stand in the cemetery of Montmarte, Louise Michel (the Red Virgin of Montmarte they called her) was there with them – refusing to leave while others were being slaughtered. Arrested, she was allowed to go home to her mother on the promise that she would return. Return she did – though her jailer had hoped she would break her promise. Her comrades were on trial, were being massacred by the hundreds. Given every opportunity to escape punishment, Louise refused treatment different from that given her brothers. (Not even her persecutors could help admiring the courage of this splendid woman.) And when after six months imprisonment she was brought to trial, she spat at the court:

“I do not wish to defend myself ... I belong entirely to the social revolution, and I accept full responsibility for everything I have done. Since it seems that every heart that beats for liberty has the right only to a lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to shout vengeance on you who have killed my brothers.”

The court sentenced her to life exile in the penal colony of New Caledonia. Hardly had she arrived, when she began to organize classes, and otherwise help the prisoners, often with great hardship to herself. After eight years spent in New Caledonia, she was released in the general amnesty of Communards in 1880.

‘Inciting to Murder’

Back in Paris, the bourgeoisie were willing to cater to the “old woman.” But Louise Michel hurled the insult back into their faces. She resumed her activity – establishing refuges for the politically persecuted, raising funds for relief of impoverished or imprisoned workingmen.

In 1883, the Paris workers clamored for action against the deepening horror of their misery. Louise Michel organized the hungry men and women of Paris and led them in a march to demand bread. Again she was arrested – for “inciting to violence and murder” – and sentenced to six years in jail.

But Louise Michel was as great a danger in jail, as out. The “riff-raff” (that’s what the bourgeois hounds called the hungry and homeless) spoke of her with bated breath. They were inspired to action by the very mention of her name. After three years in jail she was freed, though she at first refused to leave the jail until her fellow-prisoners who were no more guilty than she would be freed.

Thereafter, Louise Michel spent the greater part of her time touring France, lecturing. Her ideas were a compound of Marxian socialism and anarchism. “For myself I am not concerned with the differences, for, let me repeat, I side with all those who are attacking the damnable edifice of our old society: I side with all of them, whether their weapons are pick-axes, bombs, or fire.” Like the anarchists she misunderstood the nature of parliamentary activity, and consequently opposed it. Like the Marxists she rejected with contempt the individualism of the anarchists.

Louise Michel was in Marseilles on a lecture tour when, after a life devoted to the cause of human freedom, she died on January 10, 1905.

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Last updated: 17 January 2016