Louise Michel, (1830 – 1905)

Biography

Born at Vroncourt, near Domrémy, Louise Michel was the illegitimate daughter of a local landowner; her mother was a servant. Brought up by her grandfather, a kindly egalitarian man, she studied widely and became a promising poet. On her grandparents’ death her father returned to the estate and Louise, resented by his wife, was sent to school at Chaumont. She then became a teacher, but lost her post for outspoken criticisms of the Second Empire in 1852. In 1856 she went to Paris, taught, took courses in chemistry and physics and joined secret Republican clubs associated with Blanqui. She also wrote several novels, all with themes of social protest; they included Le bâtard impérial, La claque-dents, Les microbes humains.

During the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) she took part in the Committee of Vigilance of the 18th district and, influenced by her lover Théophile Ferré, became increasingly militant. During the Commune, she took charge of social and educational policies, and fought fiercely on the barricades, being among the last defenders in Montmartre cemetery in May 1871. She gave herself up in place of her mother, to whom she was devoted, and after being imprisoned in Versailles was tried in December and sentenced to life imprisonment in New Caledonia. Ferré was executed. Louise remained in the penal colony until the 1881 amnesty, studying botany, teaching, and writing poetry.

On her return to France she immediately renewed her political activities, speaking at meetings across the country. She was imprisoned in 1882, and in 1883 sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for inciting a mob to break into bakeries during a food riot. After the death of her mother in 1885 she suffered severe depression, but on her release in 1889 resumed political work. In 1890 she led strikes in the Vienne district; she was arrested but fled to London to escape plans to certify her insane. She lived in East Dulwich, with her friend Charlotte Vauvalle, and raised funds for European revolutionary groups. She was a member of the Fabian society and of various anarchist groups, and was visited by many activists, including Emma Goldman.

In 1896 she returned to France, lectured on new developments in Russia, and worked at an exhausting pace until her death in Marseilles in 1905.

Bibliography

Mémoires
La Commune, Histoire et souvenirs

Reading

The Defense of Louise Michel

You accuse me of having taken part in the murder of the generals? To that I would reply yes, if I had been in Montmartre when they wished to have the people fired on. I would not have hesitated to fire myself on those who gave such orders. But I do not understand why they were shot when they were prisoners, and I look on this action as arrant cowardice.

As for the burning of Paris, yes, I took part in it. I wished to oppose the invader from Versailles with a barrier of flames. I had no accomplices in this action. I acted on my own initiative.

I am told that I am an accomplice of the Commune. Certainly, yes, since the Commune wanted more than anything else the social revolution, and since the social revolution is the dearest of my desires. More than that, I have the honor of being one of the instigators of the Commune, which by the way had nothing – nothing, as is well known – to do with murders and arson. I who was present at all the sittings at the Town Hall, I declare that there was never any question of murder or arson.

Do you want to know who are really guilty? It is the politicians. And perhaps later light will be brought on to all these events which today it is found quite natural to blame on all partisans of the social revolution.

But why should I defend myself? I have already declared that I refuse to do so. You are men who are going to judge me. You sit before me unmasked. You are men and I am only a woman, and yet I look you in the eye. I know quite well that everything I could say will not make the least difference to your sentences. So a single last word before I sit down. We never wanted anything but the triumph of the great principles of the revolution. I swear it by our martyrs who fell at Satory, whom I acclaim loudly, and who will one day have their revenge.

Once more I belong to you. Do with me what you please. Take my life if you wish. I am not the woman to argue with you for a moment.

What I claim from you, you who call yourselves a Council of War, sit as my judges, who do not disguise yourselves as a Commission of Pardons, you who are military men and deliver your judgment in the sight of all, is Satory, where our brothers have already fallen.

I must be cut off from society. You have been told to do so. Well, the Commissioner of the Republic is right. 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 I shall avenge my brothers by denouncing the murderers in the Commission for Pardons…

I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me!

Louise Michel and The International School

When Louise Michel came to London she opened a school for the children of political refugees. It was, according to John Shotton, probably the first libertarian school to be founded in Britain – and proved to be popular among the significant numbers of free thinkers in the area.

Michel included a statement by Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist in her prospectus:

All rational education is at bottom nothing but this progressive immolation of authority for the benefit of liberty, the final object of education necessarily being the formation of free men full of respect, and love for the liberty of others.

No subjects were compulsory in the school, teaching was in small groups, there was an emphasis on rational and integral education – on students learning to think for themselves. It was fairly common for groups of children would bring their own ideas to teachers about what to study. The school was closed in 1892 or 1893 after the police were said to have discovered bomb-making equipment in the basement – even though Louise Michel was not implicated.

Compiled by Romano Krauth
Originally published by anarchy-movement.org, which went offline in 2006

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One Response to “Louise Michel, (1830 – 1905)”

  1. […] first he was closely associated with Louise Michel, but he soon became a major figure in his own right, and one of the best-known anarchists in the […]

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