THE RED DEVIL IN PETTICOATS

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The Red Carnation (1871) by Louise Michel:

If I were to go to the black cemetery

Brothers, throw on your sister,

As a final hope,

Some red `carnations` in bloom.

In the final days of Empire,

When the people were awakening,

It was your smile red carnation

which told us all was being reborn.

Today, go blossom in the shadow of the black and sad prisons.

Go, bloom near the sombre captive,

And tell him/her truly that we love him/her.

Tell that through fleeting time

Everything belongs to the future

That the livid-browed conqueror

can die more surely than the conquered.

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The Paris Commune in 1871 is probably the most crucial event in 19th century working class history: women were at the centre of the political struggle, no less than Louise Michel, who fought for her principles with a rifle in her hand, and who spent her entire life in and out of jail, fighting the system with a revolutionary passionate zeal which seems to have all but disappeared from leftist politics in Europe. She was the product of a place and time when people readily took up arms and fought the moral and political corruption of government: the Paris Commune was a French revolutionary civil war which came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War; the working class of Paris rose up and threw off a reactionary Republican government, and Louise is right at the centre of this massive social and political upheaval.

She wasn`t a bona fide working class hero: her mother was a servant of a wealthy family who had become pregnant by the son of her employer; amazingly, she was brought up in the family as a grandchild, although she enjoyed all the benefits of the privileged class she was a marginalized grand daughter, because she was still an illegitimate child. She is very much the product of the French elite: but when she leaves her privileged environment to become a teacher, she very quickly begins writing poetry and sends it off to no less a person than Victor Hugo: so here we have a person who is by no means detached from mainstream, French culture; but becoming a teacher showed up the very limited options available to an educated woman in 19th century society. The teaching profession was almost the only way for a woman to become a legitimate, and respected member of society in her own right: but she couldn`t get into a state school because she refused to swear allegiance to Napoleon III, so she opened her own private schools, aimed at the children of the poor, and was one of the few teachers who was prepared to treat children with severe learning difficulties.

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Her classrooms must have been amazing places: she filled them with pictures, music and animals; so very different from the severe, soul destroying, rote learning found in most other schools. She lived her life exactly the way she thought it should be lived, and not as society demanded: her not marrying led to much speculation about her sexuality; she suffered ( as all women in the public eye do ) from intensely negative critiques on her looks and appearance; this criticism was followed by the assumption that because she was unmarried, didn`t follow the dress fashions, and was not considered very good looking, she must be a revolutionary. Case closed.

The problem for many people was that she was a thinker and a loner who didn`t wear make-up: there was a severity about her face which earned her the nickname, “The Red Virgin”, but this was simply because she didn`t slavishly follow the conventions of the day, and anyone who isn`t considered a part of the human collective hive, is always treated with suspicion and given derogatory labels to hang round their neck.

The Franco-Prussian War not didn`t end well for the French, but Napoleon III had called up the Paris working class to defend the city: this meant arming every single street against the worst eventuality of the Prussians taking the city. When the government surrendered and decided to collect all the cannons and rifles up from the Paris citizen National Guard they received a firm signal to, “Get Lost.”

Following governmental attempts to take back the streets, the barricades were thrown up and the uprising started: Louise Michel describes the moment……

“I descended the hill, my rifle under my coat, shouting, Treason! In the rising dawn, the people heard the alarm. We climbed the hill, believing we would die for liberty. We were as risen from the earth, our deaths would free Paris. Between us and the army, the women had thrown themselves on the cannons and machine-guns. The soldiers stood immobile. When General Lecont commanded them to fire on the crowd, a subordinate officer broke ranks and cried, `Surrender!` The soldiers obeyed, the revolution was made.”

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The Paris National Guard now had to decide whether to fight the retreating army, or set up it`s own commune to govern the city: the city hadn`t been allowed it`s own governing body for a very good reason, because everyone knew what the make-up of that governing body would be; it called for a democratic government with social justice as it`s key deliverable; ending starvation, ending poverty, ending the criminalisation of women; an anti-clerical republic where co-operatives are set up, facilitated by the State; a State of personal freedom. The Paris Commune was the first successful experiment in local government by a working class community: Louise Michel was involved in numerous grass-roots organisations involved in the defence of the city, and stood on the barricades in the final weeks when there was street fighting. After the fall of the Commune, she was arrested, and officially designated as Prisoner No1: in the aftermath of the hostilities the government wreaked it`s revenge by executing some 25,000 men, women and children: the noise of the firing squads disturbed the neighbours of the prisons used for executions so much, that the soldiers went over to bayoneting the revolutionaries instead.

Among them was her dear friend, Theophile Ferre, to whom she dedicated a farewell poem……The Red Carnation:  the personal and sexual politics of the Commune remain far ahead of their time, and show how a working class social and political revolution can progress without the aid/hindrance of middle class Bolshevik and Marxist intervention. Louise fought for the rights of all women, and was undoubtedly a major proto-feminist. When hauled before the courts, she was asked if she had anything to say in her defence………….

“Since it seems that any heart that beats for freedom has no right to ask for anything except a little lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance, and I shall avenge my brothers. If you are not cowards, kill me.”

She served seven years in a penal colony in the South Pacific, and when she returned, seven thousand Parisians turned out to see her home coming. She spent some years in London, where she did a lot of philanthropy and became known as “The Good Woman”, going around the East End giving away food; actually giving away virtually everything that was sent to her: and founded a school with another anarchist survivor in a fairly posh part of London; it`s syllabus was quite radical, but was closed after a bomb was found on the premises. It`s very possible that it was either planted by the police, or one of the many anarchists who circulated around Louise Michel was responsible. Despite this setback, she carried on lecturing all over the place, and while on a trip to Algeria, where she was trying to advocate an uprising against the government, she fell seriously ill, and returned to Marseilles, where she died: Louise had spent her final years travelling around speaking against bad government, religion, and militarism; essentially this was her life, and this “Devil In Petticoats” died living her life`s vocation……Speaking against social, political, and religious oppression and inequality of all kinds.

Louise-Michel

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