‘Louise Michel: The Heroine of the Commune’ by Henri Barbusse from the Daily Worker. Vol. 5 No. 106. May 5, 1928.

‘Louise Michel: The Heroine of the Commune’ by Henri Barbusse from the Daily Worker. Vol. 5 No. 106. May 5, 1928.

IMAGINE a little country schoolmistress gathering around her like a hen ail the young “chicks” of the village. She is as thin as a lath, with eyes and hair as black as sloes.

In her youth she had had gleams of paradise and visions of angels: it is not certain that she had not heard voices.

Louise Michel at the tribune of the Salle Graffard (Folies Belleville) in Paris, France in 1880.

From the school you saw the belfry of the church of d’ Audeloncourt in Lorraine, which is not very far from that of the church of Domremy, in the shadow of which had grown a shepherd girl not unlike this shepherdess of children. But Joan of Arc had lived in the time of Charles VII, 500 years before, while this Louise lived under Napoleon III.

The honesty of the people who had brought her up, aided by her own strong natural intelligence, had freed her from superstition. She had dismissed the phantoms. She no longer believed in anything but realities— marvellous and terrible.

Her dreams and her pity she exercised upon human miseries.

Her love of the oppressed showed itself at first by her hatred of the potentate to whom France was then enslaved.

At the village church one Sunday the priest saying Mass dropped during a holy silence the consecrated phrase, “O Lord, save Napoleon.” At once there arose a great clatter in the church. All the pupils of the little schoolmistress, their sabots rattling on the flagstones, were fleeing from the church, struck with horror and panic fear, because she had taught them that it was a sin to pray for the Emperor.

The inspectors and prefects rolled furious eyes, summoned her, menaced her. But from the legends of her childhood she had kept the faculty, of not being afraid of demons, even when they manifested themselves in flesh and blood. She continued as she, had begun. But she yearned to go to Paris to teach upon a wider scale.

She went there, being one of those whose dreams come true.

She landed in the City of Light at the time when industry on a great scale was awaking with the formidable concentration of capital, the fever of vast battles of money. Paris was a wild whirlpool of debauch, of enjoyment, of corruption, and of vulgar luxury. Its heart was the Exchange, its lords were, after the financiers (these princes of the blood), courtesans, courtiers, literary and artistic sycophants.

Marie Ferré (1853-1882), Louise Michel (1830-1905) et Paule Mink (1839-1901).

UNDER this surface there was another Paris more devoted, in which serious and grave artists and scholars worked. And still further down another stratum, much more devoted, which hoped and conspired: the Republicans.

In this group the tender-hearted rationalist, the logical mystic, was installed, and cherished her instinct for struggle and revolt.

She led the austere life of a poor schoolmistress, bought old clothes and books at the Carreau du Temple and in the little shops of old clothes dealers. She got into debt because she bought books, and, above all, because she relieved all wretchedness and suffering. If she had any personal feelings beyond her love for her mother, no one ever knew it.

The Franco-German war came; the defeat came, then the fall of the empire. Then the great upheaval of the people: the Commune.

It was then that the faithlessness of the middle-class Republicans (who were “democrats” only so far as they were hostile to the rather ridiculous descendant of Napoleon I.) became apparent.

The little schoolmistress with the black eyes and black dress vowed herself, body and soul, to the Commune. She preached, she organized. She took a gun, dressed herself like a man, went into the trenches, into the mud, facing the machine-gun fire, the volleys of musketry.

Chantiers prison in Versailles women Communard prisoners.. Michel, folded arms, second from right.

She had become the Revolution in person since she had understood the falsehood of middle-class liberalism, and all the hypocritical hideousness of that gesture of Jules Favre, the great middle-class Republican, pressing her theatrically to his heart, together with Ferre, before the crowd —in order to be better able to stifle them both, and all those who were behind them, under cover of this Judas embrace.

Michel in uniform.

She had her share, and more, of the defeat and ruin of the people. It was by a miracle that she escaped from the soldiers of Order, from their muskets, their machine-guns, their bayonets, and from the hordes of drunken “avengers” let loose in Paris, who insulted, assaulted, tortured. and slew at random in the streets. And sometimes even the crowd, poisoned by the infamous creed of the established order, insulted the victims.

SHE pitied these poor deluded creatures, who knew not what they did. She pities also the executioners of the orders of the ferocious government: with the true, wide pity which is born of understanding.

When she saw the pale faces of the Breton militia who were firing on the Communards, she said: “These men do not, know. They have been made to believe that it is necessary to fire on the people, and they believe it; they are believers. At least they are not doing it for money. They will be won over some day by making them believe what is just. Above all, we have need of those who do not sell themselves.”

The arrest of Louise Michel, Jules Girardet. 1871.

She could have escaped, but she gave herself up to the Versaillais in order that her mother might be released.

She knew, like so many of her companions, the hell of Satory, the slaughter-house of the Communards. She was driven there with the herd.

Arraigned before the Versailles Council of War —a tribunal of executioners— she tried to get condemned to death. She had reasoned thus: “I can still be useful to the cause, but it would be more useful to this cause that I should be shot: the execution of a woman will injure the Versailles people with the public.”

She did not make a sonorous, clamorous speech. She made a short confession of faith, full of calm and lucidity, and ended it by saying to the judges: “I have finished. Condemn me if you are not cowards.”

This great spectacle of clear sacrifice forced from some persons, and notably from Victor Hugo, cries of astonishment and admiration. In a flash, they who were on the other side of the barricades comprehended the heroic, super-human simplicity, the mystery, of revolution. But afterwards these all turned their heads away.

Louise Michel in Santoy. by Jules Girardet

Nevertheless, the military judges dared not condemn her to death; they exiled her to New Caledonia. During long years of captivity she carried her gospel to the cannibal and semi-slave Kanakas—teaching them ideals of dignity, morality, and liberty, after having learned with toil to speak their dialects. Between times she applied her active, creative mind to natural science so well that she even made curious and remarkable discoveries.

THEN she returned to France. Working class Socialism and class Syndicalism were just re-awakening. She took her place among the Anarchists, but without ever losing sight of the exigencies of the true revolution, of which she used to say: “If it does not destroy the whole of the old society, it will always have to be begun all over again.”

At one of many stirring and unsettling political meetings she cried to the proletariat “lf you want your place in the sun do not beg for it, do not ask for it; take it.”

She was imprisoned, dragged from prison to prison, ill-treated, and outraged.

In London, where she went preaching to the exploited and oppressed, a fanatic fired at her, but only wounded her in the head.

Still agitating.

She assumed the defense of her clumsy would-be assassin, and begged the court to acquit him. He was not responsible, she said, for the bad instincts which a disgraceful education and an evil order of things had rooted in him.

Once again, this gesture astonished, stupefied—caused some to catch a glimpse of the depths which there are in the cause of the Revolution. But the majority of her contemporaries judged it easier and cleverer not to understand it.

Late in life.

For the rest there was never a human being more unrecognized than this woman. She was too great to be widely understood. Those who could approach her worshiped, revered, and understood; but they vanished completely, for they were humble folk. Scarcely even today is this figure put in its right place so that it can be seen how much—in perplexities and tragedies—she has personified the essence of the proletarian and revolutionary idea, and the agonized cry for equality. She put the people on their guard against the demagogism of the middle-class and of the false “democrats,” and she had the courage and the insight to proclaim that there is no other mean, than violence for breaking the chain of the people.

The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.

Access to PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1928/v5n106-may-05-1928-DW.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s