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Rebel to the core

Louise Michel

Edited by Nic Maclellan (part of the Rebel Lives series)

Ocean Press, 2004, £9.99

Reviewed by

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

TEACHER, REVOLUTIONARY, lover, writer, fighter, feminist and anti-imperialist are just some of the words that could be used to describe Louise Michel. Living in late 19th century Paris, at a time of turmoil, she seems to have spent every second of her life passionately organising, orating and opposing all forms of oppression.

From setting up day-care for 200 children in besieged Paris to fighting on the barricades to defend the Commune, Michel is certainly one of the heroes of the Paris Commune of 1871 who should be remembered. In France she has streets and stations named after her but I have to admit that I had never heard of her before.

This short book is basically a tantalising taste which whets the appetite for further reading on a whole range of issues from the Paris Commune to the struggle in Algeria to overthrow French imperialism, to the role of women in struggle. It gives us a flavour of life in France in the second half of the 19th century, between the setting up of the International Working Men’s Association, the Paris Commune, and its aftermath.

Michel was a passionate, empathetic character. The immense sympathy she felt, which led to her radical and revolutionary life, started with a hatred of the pain inflicted on animals and their inability to fight back. It developed into ferocious opposition to the oppression of mankind and towards an understanding of the potential of the working class to transform society.

This book is a catalogue of the ideas which influenced Michel from the analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Pierre Proudhon’s anarchistic approach and Michel’s own plans to assassinate Louis Thiers, who was in charge of crushing the Paris Commune before becoming French president – which she was dissuaded from doing. She was a rebel to the core, who challenged and questioned everything. Arrested after the fall of the Paris Commune, Michel faced a military tribunal in December 1871. She taunted the judge, demonstrating her lack of respect for the authority of the court: "Since it seems that any heart which beats for liberty has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I will not stop crying for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins on the board of pardons to avenge my brothers".

Michel also challenged the stereotyping of women. She strove to involve women in the struggle and was a member of both the women’s and the men’s vigilance committees, going from one meeting to the next to ensure she participated in as much discussion as possible. "People didn’t worry about which sex they were before they did their duty", she writes in her memoirs. In an excerpt from Women, Resistance and Revolution, Sheila Rowbotham illustrates the attitude taken by the courts to these revolutionary women: "Unworthy creatures who seem to have taken it on themselves to become an opprobrium to their sex, and to repudiate the great and magnificent role of woman in society… a legitimate wife, the object of our affection".

This is not just a biography but a mix of voices, ideas and formats. Lines from the Berthold Brecht play, The Days of the Commune, are based on the scene where Michel led the women of Montmartre to protect cannon on the hill overlooking Paris. From her memoirs we learn that the cannon had been paid for by the national guard and when the reactionaries from Versailles came for the weapons the women of Paris covered the cannon with their bodies. When the soldiers were told to fire they refused and the cannon remained with the people.

Three verses of the revolutionary anthem, L’Internationale, written by Eugène Pottier in 1871 while he was jailed after the defeat of the commune, are including in this book. Marx, Engels and Vladimir Lenin are quoted, as well as Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. This is a snapshot of Louise Michel – her thoughts and influences, and her passions and compassion – and of this most important historical period. This is truly the life of a rebel.


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