Recherchez les Communards: The Anarchist Struggle of Louis Michel
by Bronwyn Lepore
During her trial before the 6th Council of War on December 16th of 1871, Paris communard and professed anarchist, Louise Michel, accused of complicity in the arrest and execution of Generals Lecomte and Clement Thomas, of fighting in the front lines, of membership in the International, of professing “free thought” in the classroom, etc., etc., though not directly involved in the executions, spoke out before the court: “I do not want to defend myself; I do not want to be defended. I belong entirely to the Social Revolution, and I declare that I accept full responsibility for all my actions…I have been told that I am an accomplice of the Commune, yes; for the Commune wanted, above all else, the Social Revolution, and the Social Revolution is the dearest of my desires.” Michel would have been the first to note that there is something implicitly oxymoronic about the notion of an anarchist hero; though she took an active role in demonstrations and on committees, was known as an outstanding soldier and organizer, ran a school and was responsible for the care of over 200 Communard children, took her turn as a nurse and social worker, was a feminist who recognized that many groups were exploited – the helpless, the poor, the elderly, prisoners, as well as women – was an anarchist motivated by compassion rather than doctrine, Michel saw herself as a revolutionary among revolutionaries. For her role in the Paris Commune – the largest spontaneous urban revolt in modern Western history – she was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment in New Caledonia. On her release, she took up where she had left off, continuing to teach, speak, organize, demonstrate and write, about the necessity of revolution for the liberation of the people from the state, the church, and other authoritarian institutions – despite her time in and out of prison, including 6 years in solitary confinement – until her death in 1905.
So what relevance does Louise Michel have to contemporary anarchism or social change? Why study the Paris Commune of 1871 and those involved? Two brief months of history that began, for the purposes of traditional historians, on March 18th of 1871, with the mostly peaceful takeover over of Paris and its institutions by men, women, and children, forcing the government to retreat to Versailles, the disestablishment of an oppressive church system, the abolishment of the regular army, the police and the bureaucracy and was finally, after a bloody week which witnessed the slaughter of over 20, 000 Communards, stamped out on May 28th. Two months during which an anarchic atmosphere reigned, Vigilance Committees formed, workers’ cooperatives sprang up, equal access to education and the arts was encouraged, night work in bakeries ceased, pawn shop items were returned, and women asserted themselves politically and militarily.
In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Marx writes: “The tradition of all past generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living. At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries…” So why conjure up history now? What is our revolutionary crisis? Can such a thing even be defined, let alone acted upon, given the conditions and structures of such a complex local, national, global web? Does the possibility for spontaneous revolution still exist? Or have such possibilities narrowed? What does it mean to be an anarchist/social revolutionary today as opposed to two centuries ago? Perhaps the weight of history will always accrue as a monkey upon the backs of visionaries like Louise Michel – but she was also a dreamer who acted and who refused to be acted upon, who resisted the paralysis of inevitability.
I was drawn to Michel’s story for a number of reasons: I am teaching the history of Western Civilization parts one and two – a history largely told by, for, and of, wealthy white males, or those under their patronage, and so knowing that women, the poor, the disenfranchised were also alive, doing something, I am compelled to find and tell their stories; I am confused about how to act and what to act on given our current post September 11th state of affairs and I realize that this is a privileged position to be in but I am trying to read and talk and understand the past nightmares as well as the past dreams that have influenced the present for both good and bad, so as to articulate, problematize, and discover openings for possibilities in a very frightening time; I am also writing/thinking about Henry Kissinger, Michel’s antithesis and a horrid representative of imperialism, power, and terrorism, a man who, by some estimates, has been responsible for the deaths of millions globally for the simple reason that he wanted more for himself. And so for me right now, Michel represents the dream of banishing power and the myriad abuses of authoritarianism and Kissinger the nightmare of its continued existence and history; and, well, some days lately, when I’m hearing conversations and looking at the front of newspapers and turning on the news and teaching the Greeks and Romans and the weak always, always, always getting beaten down, and those with money getting to decide, there seems such an inevitable and ongoing struggle between power and resistance to it that I wonder if our human fate already has been written. How is it possible that two such people, such visions, could exist in the same world? But then I read Michel’s memoir The Red Virgin and am merely glad that the one has always existed to oppose the other.
While I have had the thought, I don’t think it’s as simple as gender (though certainly gender has played a large role) differences – woman as life-giver, nurturer of mankind, man as plunderer, destroyer. Michel, like many women during the Commune, fought side by side with male communards – communes and worker’s collectives, where egalitarianism between males and females was, for obvious reasons, more likely to exist, have existed in Europe since at least the 12th century and in all likelihood before in resistance to the authority of the church and state. I like her, in part, because she was not a pacifist, but took care of children, she was a feminist, but empathized with female prostitutes and male burglars equally -“It wasn’t bravery when charmed by the sight, I looked at the dismantled fort of Issy, all white against the shadows, and watched my comrades filing out in night sallies, moving away over the little slopes of Clamart or toward the Hautes Bruyeres, with the red teeth of chattering machine guns showing on the horizon against the night sky. It was beautiful, that’s all. Barbarian that I am, I love cannon, the smell of powder, machine-gun bullets in the air.” Kissinger, on the other hand, is clearly a man of comfort, a sybarite still wined and dined at expensive soirees in Manhattan and D.C. – celebrity of death, power and foreign policy. One who waits and watches and plots in fat White House armchairs making phone calls so that others will needlessly die. (See Christopher Hitchens’ recent The War Crimes of Henry Kissinger). Theirs are two very different forms of violence.
Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who had argued with Marx over the path social revolution should take – Marx preferring/Bakunin (correct, I think, in his argument that the “people can be saved only by themselves”- though this is perhaps one of the larger problems – theoretically and practically – that Anarchists faced then and today) rejecting Statism – saw in the Commune and its destruction, difficulties – “men are not transformed overnight, and can not change their ways at a whim” – as well as possibilities, the communards “proving to a comforted humanity that, while life, intelligence and moral firmness may have deserted the upper classes, they thrive in the fullness of their powers in the proletariat,” the takeover of Paris “a well articulated and daring rebuttal of the state.” Bakuninists perceived in the Commune a firm rejection of state power; Marx, and later Lenin, saw, in the failure of the Commune the necessity for less decency, more ruthlessness, and more disciplined leadership; in other words, Statism must precede Utopianism or collectively run society. Such arguments over the possibilities/conclusions of the Commune, dramatically influenced, certainly in the Soviet Union for the worse, decision-making processes, the result leading away from a people’s dialogue into totalitarianism, but also encouraged the impetus for transformation as witnessed in the Paris Uprisings of 68, and the perseverance of anarchist movements in France and elsewhere.
One of many possible representatives of Bakunin’s praises, who strongly opposed Marxist/Leninist notions of necessary hierarchy, Michel was an intellectual/spiritual Anarchist (not big on theory); she saw any kind of authority as a destructive/inhumane force that should be abolished, yet believed in the inherent goodness of mankind (another theoretical problem – and one that we are confronted with in a very heightened way during times of increased authority – now, for instance – as authority, and obedience to it, can only reflect another side or component – rather than existing “outside”- of mankind). She worked with her comrades on grassroots initiatives in education and the arts as well as worker’s cooperatives; she struggled with the difficulties of organizing, equipping, feeding, and paying an armed citizenry subsisting on minimal means; she met with the Women’s Vigilance Committee and marched with them in the streets to boost morale and discourage slacking. Barely sleeping during the Seige months, Michel journeyed back and forth between men’s and women’s Vigilance Meetings: “I belonged to both committees, and the leaning of the two groups were the same. Sometime in the future the women’s committee should have its own history told. Or perhaps the two should be mingled, because people didn’t worry about which sex they were before they did their duty. That stupid question was settled…The Montmarte Vigilance Committees left no one without shelter and no one without food. Anyone could eat at the meeting halls…it might only be one herring divided between five or six people.” Despite the brutal quelling of the Commune, her subsequent arrests and imprisonments as a rabble-rouser, until her death, Michel believed that the people would eventually prevail; for her it was just a matter of time.
Was hers an idealist’s dream? A martyr’s selflessness? Was the Commune too violent in seizing power? Or not violent enough? A fleeting mirage of unlikely grassroots democracy? A citizen rebellion against a government only possible in the particular historical circumstances of the urban French? What embers of the Commune’s flames still smolder? Have the possibilities for spontaneous revolution ceased to exist, and if so, what is/are the current goals of Anarchism? What can we learn from history?