If you go to Paris and spend the day in Montmartre, you’ll see the Sacré Coeur, and a small square nearby named after Louise Michel, both of which are intimately connected to the events of the Paris Commune. Louise Michel, described by Emma Goldman as “sublime in her love for humanity”, was one of the most inspirational women in the history of anarchism.
Nineteenth-century Paris was a hotbed of anarchism, socialism and other left-wing ideas. Anarchist theatre, anarchist communes and anarchist terrorism all flourished. The communes on the outskirts of Paris planned full programmes of concerts, country walks and communal meals for working-class families, asking that people gave what they could, and took only what they needed. Anarchist, Marxist and socialist literature abounded to give those who wanted it a political education, but the aim was to embody the ethos of anarchism – Mutual Aid, comradeship and joie de vivre – in the here and now. In the city itself, forms of direct action ranged from releasing rats into bourgeois theatre audience to attempts to bomb the Chamber of Deputies. Everything I assumed started in the 1960s at the earliest turns out to have been in evidence in Belle Epoque Paris.
And in the March of 1870, the citizens of Paris, beginning in Montmartre, rose up against the State. The immediate catalyst was the events of the Prussian siege of Paris, but poverty was widespread and extreme, and anarchist ideas had been gaining traction. The Revolution of 1848 was in living memory for most people. An attempt by the military general Adolphe Thiers to seize the cannons that had been stored in Montmartre to fight the Prussians quickly turned into a revolutionary situation, as the soldiers joined the side of local residents and local militias. The government fled and the Commune was established on March 28th, with a Central Committee democratically elected to run the city of two million.
Louise Michel fought on the barricades and then was one of several anarchist women who threw themselves into the running of the Commune. The Commune gave women the vote, had directly elected representatives subject to immediate recall, set up secular schools and nurseries, and put businesses under the control of workers. Louise Michel wrote of it as the happiest time of her life.
On May 24th, the Communards organised a popular concert in the Tuileries garden, in what used to be the gardens to the Louvre palace, in the district of Paris that we might now call the home of the city’s 1%. But Paris was singing its requiem. That night, Thiers’ troops entered the city and thus began one of the most shameful episodes in European history. They slaughtered not only Communards but anyone suspected of supporting them, killing 40,000 people in one week, with the battle ending in Pere Lachaise cemetery, with the last of the Communards shot again what is now known as the Mur des Féderés (the Federalists’ Wall, in reference to the Communard belief in a federation of communities rather than nation states).
Marx argued that this meant the Communards should have spent less time organising elections, and more time organising a revolutionary vanguard to finish off Thiers’ troops, an opinion whose implications reached their conclusion in the Russian Revolution 50 years later. Louise herself had offered to go to Versailles to assassinate Thiers. When she was captured by his soldiers and lined up against a wall she is rumoured to have told them “Since every heart that yearns for freedom must expect its measure of lead, go ahead and shoot me! For if you don’t I shall spend every moment of the rest of my life seeking my vengeance on you”. They didn’t shoot.
She was instead exiled to New Caledonia for seven years. Thousands greeted her return to Paris, and she spent the rest of her life between London and Paris, educating and agitating, including lengthy spells in jail. “If the equality between the sexes were properly recognised”, she wrote, “it would be a noteworthy exception to the history of human stupidity”.
When offered release, she refused without “amnesty for all”. Anarchism was the guiding principle of her whole life, and even friends criticised her habit of taking in anyone from the street, feeding and clothing them even when she had nothing. “La Bonne Louise” lives on in popular memory as France’s schoolteacher, the stubborn, headstrong woman caught between a burgeoning bourgeois feminist movement, and the internalized misogyny of her anarchist-socialist comrades. As the French say, plus ça change…
So next time you go to Paris, ignore the military victories commemorated by the vainglorious Arc de Triomphe and instead take a walk in Père Lachaise cemetery. In 1870 the gunshots that raged among the Baroque headstones were testament to a battle between two views of what human society is for – co-operation or competition? Human flourishing or the pursuit of profit? The people who believed in the latter won in that round, and went on to lead the country into the butchery of the First World War, and the attendant horrors of the twentieth century. But under the Mur des Féderés you’ll doubtless see a basket of red flowers, not too wilted, placed in memory of the thousands who lost their lives to a belief in a fairer society, and the need to fight for it. Their ideas did not die. La lutte continue.