Louise Michel: A hero of the Paris Commune

Issue 

Louise Michel
Edited by Nick McClellan
Ocean Press, Melbourne, 2004

118 pages, $11.95
Order from <http://www.oceanbooks.com.au>.

REVIEW BY OWEN RICHARDS

In 1871, for the first time in history, the working class "stormed heaven" by taking state power and reorganising French society in the interests of the majority. Among the lesser-known leaders of this radical experiment was Louise Michel, who remained a radical internationalist for the rest of her life. Her example should not be forgotten; this book goes some way to preserving it.

The impetus for the French workers' rebellion was the two-decade-long oppressive monarchy of Louis Napoleon III. In 1870, Napoleon III made aggressive overtures toward Prussia, then led by Otto von Bismarck. Prussia began to defend itself and had soon outflanked the French army, capturing an 80,000-troop battalion and the "emperor" himself.

On October 4, the French people, irreconcilably hostile to the idea of Prussian occupation, rose up en masse and established a republic and a provisional "government of national defence". This government, headed by bourgeois forces under Adolphe Thiers, led the fight against the Prussian troops. The workers were also armed and drawn into the struggle.

However, Thiers' forces were lukewarm in their national defence and began to fear the armed workers more than the Prussian troops, who had by now all but surrounded Paris. On January 28, 1871, Thiers, who, along with the bourgeois forces had fled Paris for Versailles, surrendered Paris to Prussia.

Unperturbed, the workers alone continued to defend Paris, so Thiers sent troops to disarm them by attempting to take away their cannon on the false basis that they belonged to the state. The workers resisted and Thiers' forces mutinied, shooting their officer and joining the workers.

A week later, on March 26, 1871, more than 229,000 Parisians voted for an 80-member municipal council — the Paris Commune.

Michel was a hero of the Commune, mobilising women in active support. She became the chairperson of the Women's Vigilance Committee and was also an active participant in various other women's groups and community associations. She also organised childcare for the 200 children in besieged Paris.

Radicalising in the 1840s through her experience of peasant life in rural France, Michel was swept up into the workers' movement in 1870. The rest of her life was entirely dedicated to the struggle — despite years of prison and exile.

While her actions in the leadership of the Commune established her political reputation, especially in France, her resolute defiance of the Empire for the next 30 years of her life are equally inspiring.

Michel escaped the bloodbath unleashed by the bourgeoisie on the Commune after its defeat. Nevertheless, she was exiled to the South Pacific French colony New Caledonia. There she championed the 1878 revolt of the Kanakas, despite most of her Communard compatriots supporting the French administration.

Michel's anti-racism was uncompromising. In her Memoires she recognised that "The Kanakas were seeking the same liberty we had sought in the Commune".

Unbroken by prison, exile and the mass murder of her comrades, Michel returned to Paris after a general amnesty was announced in 1880. By 1883 she was again in court for leading a workers demonstration through Paris.

This fifth volume in Ocean Press' expanding "Rebel Lives'' library provides a rounded view of the Paris Commune, featuring a collection of articles and extracts from various socialist authors in a roughly chronological fashion. About half the pages are Louis Michel's; the rest are writings of contemporaries of the Commune such as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, while subsequent comment by 20th century socialists ranges from V I Lenin to Paul Foot and Sheila Rowbotham.

A handy introduction to both the Commune and its incendiary heroine, this book suffers at times however from its ambition, coming across as fragmentary in its attempt to give as many possible angles on the Commune in so few pages.

Nevertheless, if the aim of Louise Michel is to whet the readers' appetite for further study of the Commune, it achieves its aim. And what better introduction to the Commune than through the words and example of its inspiring yet little known heroine?

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.

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