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16 September 2004 Edition

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Louise Michel - revolutionary feminist

Book review
Louise Michel
Edited by Nic Maclellan
Published by Ocean Press (distributed by Pluto Press in Europe)

The Rebel Lives series volume on French anarchist and revolutionary feminist Louise Michel is a valuable introduction to a fascinating woman.

Comparable to a beginners guide it suffers from giving a little too much time to commentaries on the Paris Commune of 1870. Given the lack of available written material on Michel it is disappointing that the book does not devote its pages entirely to its subject.

Louise Michel fought on the barricades of the Paris Commune with the 61st Battalion of Montmartre and was exiled to New Caledonia for her part in the Commune. She had played a leading role in mobilising women in support of the Commune.

The story of Michel's exile in New Caledonia is as interesting as her participation in the Commune. Unlike many of those Communards exiled with her, her support for the native Kanak population in their uprising against the French along with the solidarity she expressed with the insurgent Algerians of the 1871 Kabyle uprising is testimony to her internationalism and her anti-racism. She argued with her fellow communards that the Kanak population was fighting for the same freedom they themselves had fought for on the barricades of Paris. This book, which quotes extensively from her own autobiography, includes her her own words on the Kanak uprising:

"The Kanaks were seeking the same liberty we had sought in the Commune. Let me say only that my red scarf, the red scarf of the Commune that I had hidden from every search was divided in two one night. Two Kanaks, before going to join the insurgents against the whites, had come to say goodbye to me. They slipped into the ocean. The sea was bad and they may never have arrived across the bay, or perhaps they were killed in fighting. I never saw them again and I don't know which of the two deaths took them, but they were brave with the bravery that black and white both have .."

Despite having an independence movement since the late 1960's New Caledonia remains a French colony to this day.

During her exile Louise Michel immersed herself in the history and culture of the Kanak population of New Caledonia and attempted to learn their language. She worked as a teacher, teaching both French settlers and the native population. She returned to France following a pardon in mid 1880 but was arrested again in 1882 and was given a sentence of six years solitary detention in 1883 for her part in a rally of unemployed people. She was released in 1886. Following further run-ins with the French authorities she fled to London in 1890 where she lived in exile for five years. Louise Michel died on January 9th 1905 at the age of 74. A procession of 120,000 followed her coffin trough the streets of Paris.

Michel was condemned by the forces of the establishment not only for her revolutionary activities but for being un-womanly. The reactionaries who crushed the Paris Commune dubbed Michel the "Red Virgin" in an attempt to be sexually derogatory to a woman who did not fulfil contemporary views of femininity. Though this book contains a passage by Sheila Rowbottom on the position of women in the Commune, a more extensive look at Michel's position as a female revolutionary and at the venomous anti-feminist outcry which manifested itself in attacks on her from right-wing newspapers would have added to the book. It might even have contributed to our understanding of why it took French women until 1944 to achieve the right to vote.

A progressive educationalist who founded an international libertarian school during a period of exile in London, Louise Michel believed in the potential of science and the right of all to participate in the arts demanding "Art for all! Science for all! Bread for All!" A contemporary of Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, Louise Michel was immortalised in poetry by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. As well as a revolutionary she was a writer and a poet.

Though too brief to give a real insight into Michel it serves the purpose of a good introductory booklet wetting ones appetite for a larger biography. The booklet includes a useful bibliography and is part of a series which includes volumes on Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría, Sacco & Vanzetti and Helen Keller.

By Caoilfhionn Ní Dhonnabháin


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