Louise Michel

Louise Michel (c. 1880). By J.M. Lopez - Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10186336
Louise Michel (c. 1880)

Louise Michel was born in Vroncourt, France on May 29, 1830. Michel was a leader of the 1871 Paris Commune and a founder of anarcha-feminism. As a child, she always empathized with the downtrodden and, particularly, with animals. Indeed, she attributed the origin of her revolt to her horror at seeing animals abused. “I used to wish animals could get revenge, that the dog could bite the man who was mercilessly beating him, that the horse bleeding under the whip could throw off the man tormenting him.”

At age 23, she became a school teacher. In 1865, she opened her own school, which became well known for its progressive methods. Around this time, she started a correspondence with Victor Hugo and began to write poetry. Here’s one of her early 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.

Early Activism

She also took classes in physics, chemistry and law, and got involved in radical politics, working alongside radicals like Auguste Blanqui and Elie Reclus. In 1869, she joined the Society for the Demand of Civil Rights for Women.

In July, 1870, the authorities arrested her for helping cache arms to defend Strasberg against the Prussian army. It was the first of many arrests for Michel. The Prussians released her at the end of September, but arrested her again, two months later, for leading a demonstration. In January, 1871, the Prussians conquered Paris, but allowed the French to elect a new government, which they filled with monarchists.

The Paris Commune

A barricade constructed by the Commune in April 1871 on the Rue de Rivoli near the Hotel de Ville. The figures are blurred due to the camera's lengthy exposure time, an effect commonly seen in early photographs.
. By Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg - This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5855217
A barricade constructed by the Commune in April 1871 on the Rue de Rivoli near the Hotel de Ville
Michel in uniform. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1018523
Michel in uniform

Two months later, the people overthrew that government in the Paris Commune. During the Commune, she was elected head of the Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee. She also participated in the armed struggle against the French government. In her memoirs, Michel wrote the following about her state of mind during the commune: “In my mind I feel the soft darkness of a spring night. It is May 1871, and I see the red reflection of flames. It is Paris afire. That fire is a dawn.” She also wrote “oh, I’m a savage all right, I like the smell of gunpowder, grapeshot flying through the air, but above all, I’m devoted to the Revolution.”

During the Commune, workers took over all aspects of economic and political life. They enacted a system that included self-policing, separation of the church and state, abolition of child labor, and employee takeovers of abandoned businesses. Churches and church-run schools were shut down. The Commune lasted from March 18 through May 28, 1871. Karl Marx called it the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week)

The arrest of Louise Michel in May 1871. By Jules Girardet - http://www.histoire-image.org/site/etude_comp/etude_comp_detail.php?i=50, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4454070
The arrest of Louise Michel in May 1871.

The Commune ended in massacres and mass executions known as Semaine Sanglante, or the Bloody Week. During this time, the French Army entered Paris and quashed the commune. The authorities forced Michel to turn herself in by threatening to kill her mother. She was lucky to have survived. They killed 10,000-20,000 men, women and children. They also arrested over 43,000 people, sentencing ninety-five to death, 251 to forced labor, and 1,169 to deportation. Thousands more fled to avoid prosecution.

The authorities tried Louise Michel in December, 1871 for attempting to overthrow the government, arming citizens, forgery, attempted assassinations, and numerous other crimes. When asked if she had anything to say in her defense, she replied: “I do not wish to defend myself, I do not wish to be defended. . . to oppose the invader from Versailles with a barrier of flames. I had no accomplices in this action. I acted on my own initiative. . . since it seems that any heart which beats for freedom has the right only to a lump of lead, I too claim my share. If you let me live, I shall never stop crying for revenge and l shall avenge my brothers. I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me!”

Becoming an Anarchist

Louise-Michel in 1880, while in exile in New Caledonia. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1018527
Louise-Michel in 1880, while she was in exile in New Caledonia.

They sentenced her to deportation for life and sent her to New Caldonia, where she lived for the next seven years. On the boat ride there, in 1873, she met the communard Natalie Lemel, who taught her about anarchism.

After five years, the French allowed her to start teaching again. She worked with the children of both the colonists and the indigenous Kanak people of New Caldonia. Her ongoing struggle against French colonialism and her support for the Kanak people, including participation in their 1878 revolt against the French colonialists, is remembered today in their local museum of anarchism.

Return to France and Continued Activism

In 1880, the French gave amnesty to commune prisoners and allowed her back into the country. Many of those prisoners could not find work and were starving. Michel helped set up soup kitchens to feed them and devoted herself to writing about strikes and worker protests. On Mach 9, 1883, she led a demonstration through Paris, carrying a black flag. This was the first known use of the black flag to symbolize anarchism. During the march, she led 500 starving workers to bakeries, which they looted, while shouting, “Bread, work, or lead.” They arrested Michel and sentenced her to six years solitary confinement.

Return to Prison

When socialist Paul Lafargue visited her in prison, he seemed distressed by her living conditions.

Paul Lafargue. By German Fehrenbach - Originally: RGASPI. F.389. Op.1. D.99. L.15.Online: КАРЛ МАРКС: К 200-летию со дня рождения Архивные документы и музейные коллекции из фондов РГАСПИ | Возникновение рабочих партий, в том числе социал-демократических (only image), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1650920
Paul Lafargue was a socialist, and a son in-law of Karl Marx. He wrote, “The Right to be Lazy.

“My dear Lafargue,” she said. “There is no other parlor in this hotel where the bourgeois lodge me gratis. I’m not complaining. . . I‘ve found a happiness in prison that 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 music, grammar, 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. . . While waiting to re-conquer my freedom of action, my freedom to propagandize, I write. I wrote some children’s books. I teach them to think like citizens, like revolutionaries, while at the same time amusing them. In novels I realistically paint the miseries of life, and I try to breathe the love of the revolution into the hearts of men.”

Twilight Years

Louise Michel at home in France during her later years. By Historical and Public Figures Collection - New York Public Library Archives, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16259678
Louise Michel at home in France during her later years.

In 1890, she moved to London and opened an anarchist school for European exiles and political refugees. Her teaching was influenced by Paul Robin, who also influenced Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer, and the Modern School movement in Europe and the United States. In 1895, she returned to France, where she cofounded the anarchist periodical “The Libertarian,” along with Sebastiene Faure.

Louise Michel died from pneumonia on January 10, 1905. 100,000 mourners attended her funeral. Thousands more mourned her death throughout Europe. Today, there are streets and parks in France that are named for her.

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