This small book details the life of Louise Michel, anarchist and revolutionary feminist, who was jailed and exiled for her part in leading the 1871 Paris Commune uprising. It is part of the ‘Rebel Lives’ series, which states that its aim is not to ‘canonise its subjects as perfect political models, visionaries or martyrs, but to make available the ideas and stories of imperfect revolutionary human beings to a new generation of readers and aspiring rebels’. Other books in the Rebel Lives series include subjects as varied as Albert Einstein and Ho Chi Minh.
This is no weighty biography – more a small window into Louise Michel’s life, actions, thoughts and motivations – done by an interesting mixture of her own diary entries, brief factual introductions to each chapter setting the scene, and comments from many sources including Marx, Engels, Lenin, William Morris, Sheila Rowbotham and Paul Foot.
The first chapter provides a short introduction and overview of Louise Michel’s life, from childhood, to schoolmistress, to revolutionary leader of the Paris Commune, exile, imprisonment, and continued struggle on the side of the oppressed until her death at 74 on 9 January 1905.
For me, the beauty of this book lies in the different voices within it, particularly Michel’s own. This allows you to glimpse for a moment the excitement, chaos, atmosphere and struggle of the Paris Commune, as well as the utter fearlessness of Michel herself and her devotion to the revolution. In her memoirs she wrote, ‘I was in love with the revolution!’ At her trial, after the Commune’s defeat, she scorned the authority of the military tribunal and told them, ‘If you are not cowards, kill me.’ She was not killed but sent to New Caledonia with other Communards. There she adopted the anarchist politics she would follow for the rest of her life and took up defence of the indigenous Melanesian population, the Kanaks. Her internationalism was also expressed in her solidarity with the Algerian uprising in 1871. After she returned to France she continued struggling for the rights of the dispossessed, including prostitutes and the unemployed.
The other interesting feature of this book is the many voices it brings together to analyse the impact of the Paris Commune in history. William Morris described the memory of the Paris Commune as ‘a rallying point for all future revolutionaries’. Marx analysed it as ‘the first revolution where the working class were openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle class… capitalists excepted’.
This book is certainly not for those who have already read a lot about the Paris Commune and Louise Michel’s life, as it is very brief. It is, however, a great introduction for anybody who wants to learn about this period in France’s revolutionary history. Above all, it provides the sense that the Paris Commune is part of our revolutionary past which we must learn from, and whose struggles continue in one form or another today.
In Paul Foot’s words, ‘Every strike, every demonstration, every manifestation of revolt carries with it the seed of the revolution.’ We must fight on in the spirit of Louise Michel and her fellow Communards to ensure that next time the people take power for themselves they win.
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