Remembering Nathalie Lemel – Revolutionary Communard

Nathalie Lemel

Nathalie Lemel (1827-1921), friend of Eugène Varlin and Louise Michel, was one of the most prominent anti-authoritarian activists in France during the 1860s. She worked tirelessly with Varlin, organizing workers’ resistance societies, strikes, and workers’ co-ops, such as La Marmite, a restaurant for the working poor. She played an active role during the Paris Commune, working in the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded, and helping to write their manifestos, giving the group’s material a noticeably anarchist tinge. Here I reproduce Shawn Wilbur’s translation of an article from 1921, written by Lucien Descaves (1861-1949), a French novelist, soon after Lemel’s death, which provides some biographical details regarding this extraordinary woman’s revolutionary life. I discuss Lemel’s role in the beginnings of the French anarchist movement in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

A Friend of Varlin

Last week there died, at the hospice of Ivry, at 95 years of age, an old revolutionary that I have known well and to whom I owe one of my greatest joys as a man of letters.

One day when I was questioning Martelet, the former member of the Commune, about his colleague [Eugène] Varlin, the finest figure of a worker from those heroic times, Martelet said to me: “You have, practically next door, a woman who fought the good fight beside him in the last years of the Empire. She has preserved his memory. It is Nathalie Le Mel, who was deported, in 1871, with Louise Michel, Rochefort and do many others! Do you want to meet her?”

Did I want to!

So one morning in April, Martelet led me to the home of the citoyenne Le Mel. She lived in the Rue des Gobelins, on the ground floor of a squalid house, a dark and damp room, of a single story with a small paved courtyard, where flourished, miraculously, a thin lilac. The room was only furnished with a bed, two chairs and a sticky table, on which remained in place an alcohol lamp, a bottle of milk and a coffee pot. Mama Le Mel nourished herself on milk and coffee. And what could she have added to this frugal menu? She lived on thirty francs from the Assistance to the Elderly. The husband of his late granddaughter, a brave man, killed during the war, regularly paid her modest rent. The walls of the room were decorated with portraits of Varlin, Louise Michel, Rochefort—and the tenant.

We immediately became excellent friends. I often went to drop in on her, in the morning or late in the afternoon, and brought her some books. We chatted. She was born in Brest in 1826. She was the daughter of merchants and was married to a worker, named Duval, a good gilder, but a bad penny. After holding, for some time, a small trade in books at Quimper, she was separated from her husband. She arrived in Paris in 1861, at 35 years old, and started to work to raise her child. She made the acquaintance of Eugène Varlin, at the seat of the Society of Bookbinders, in the home of a wine-merchant on the Rue de l’Ecole-de-Médecine, and was immediately devoted along with him to the emancipation of the proletariat. The strikes of 1864 and 1865, among the bookbinders, had further tightened the pure links of friendship that united them. She had participated in the organization of the first cooperative restaurant opened in the Rue Mazarine and then transferred, under the name of the Marmite, to the Rue Larrey. Other Marmites were established, later, in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux, the Rue du Château and the Rue Berzélius. The good times! The ardent apostolate! They worked ten hours a day,—happy for the gain of two hours obtained, in 1864, by the strike,—and on often met them, in the evening, here and there, often at Varlin’s home, 33, rue Dauphine, to organize the means of obtaining more and [to] lead the whole working class into the movement.

From 1866, Nathalie Le Mel was affiliated with the International. During the siege of Paris, she took part in the Central Committee of the Union des Femmes, without ceasing to concern herself with the Marmite on the Rue Larrey. May 6, under the Commune, she drafted, with Mme. Dimitrief, a call to arms addressed to the women, and during the bloody week, she cared for the wounded and distributed munitions to the insurgents. Arrested on June 10, she was not held at Saint-Lazare. She remained at Versailles, sick, and appeared, in the month of September, before the 4th council of war, presided over by Lieutenant-colonel Pierre. She was accused of inciting civil war and provoking the construction of barricades.

Here is the impression that she made on the legal reporter of the Corsaire:

“Nathalie Duval, wife of Le Mel, is 46 years of age; she practices the profession of bookbinder. Her appearance is very simple, being that of a worker: a black dress and shawl, and, on her head, a linen cap. The conduct of the accused is as simple as her appearance. However, she expresses herself with a great ease and a truly remarkable purity of language. No grandiloquence, no bravado, no gestures, no cries: truth without pomp.”

Defended by Mr. Albert Joly, Nathalie Le Mel was nevertheless condemned, on September 10, to deportation to a fortified enclosure.

From the prison of Auberive, where she was taken first, she went to rejoin her friends in New Caledonia. On her return, after the amnesty, she worked on the presses of the Intransigeant for Rochefort, who was always fond of her.

All of that interested me, but I stubbornly returned to Varlin; and she had told all that she recalled of him, when one day she spoke to me of his family, originally from Claye, in Seine-et-Marne.

“I do not know,” she added, “if his two brothers are still alive. I knew them well. After the Commune, the younger, who was hemiplegic, was condemned, simply because he was Eugène’s brother, to two years in prison and sent from the prison hulks of Brest to Clairvaux, and from Clairvaux to Embrun.”

I did not have to be told twice! A few days later, I was in Claye, and I found Varlin’s brothers there, in a family house where we affixed a commemorative plaque, on the eve of the war.

Louis and Hippolyte Varlin, Eugène’s brother, have survived that war as well. I returned to see them and speak with them of the hero and martyr whose memory the working class will not fail to glorify on next May 28, the anniversary of his death, under the outrages, as it belongs to an emancipator of men, as well as to their redeemer.

LUCIEN DESCAVES


“A Friend of Varlin,” 45 no. 15998 (May 18, 1921): 1.

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Bourdon & Varlin: Freedom of Education (1866)

The Geneva Congress 1866

The Geneva Congress 1866

This September marks the 150th anniversary of the first policy Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in Geneva, Switzerland (from September 3 to 8, 1866). It was at the Geneva Congress that the Statutes of the International were officially adopted (with the French version fatefully referring to every “political movement” being subordinate to the “economic emancipation of the working classes,” whereas the English version referred to every political movement only being subordinate to economic emancipation “as a means”; Marx later used the English version to argue that anarchism was contrary to the International’s Statutes, which he wrote, no doubt with this arcane distinction in mind). The French delegates were largely Proudhonist in orientation. They presented a report to the Congress that quoted extensively from Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution, one of his most anarchist works. However, the majority of the French delegation agreed with Proudhon’s view that fathers should be in control of their children’s education. Two of the French delegates presented a “minority” report on this issue, Antoine-Marie Bourdon, a Fourierist, and Eugène Varlin, a radical socialist federalist, in which they argued that education is a social responsibility. During the debates at the Congress on the position of women, Varlin also argued in favour of equal rights for women, because the reality is that women must be allowed to earn a living by working, otherwise they would be condemned to prostitution or reliance on charity. Here, I reproduce Shawn Wilbur’s translation of Bourdon and Varlin’s minority opinion on education. I discuss the Geneva Congress in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist movement.

international-journal_ait

Opinion of the Minority of the French Delegation

Finding ourselves in agreement on the obligation to be educated in a society where we profit each day from the insights of other; recognizing the necessity of education being at once scientific and professional, we are radically divided on the means of spreading it: some maintain that this responsibility falls on the family; the others, that it must be borne by society.

The convictions being equally profound on both sides, we believe that we should indicate here the principles that we have taken for a guide in the study of this question. These principles can be summarized in two words: Justice, Liberty. Justice in social relations, equality of rights and duties, equality in the means of action put by society at the disposition of the individual, equality for the individuals in the burdens of society.

Individual liberty, the right for each and the power to employ their faculties, and to use them according to their will.

As long as the individuals could only arrange unequal means of action, the tasks that fall to them will be unequal, and justice will not exist. As long as one constraint prevents the use of the self, liberty will not exist. That said, let us enter into the facts.

The complete incapacity of the human being, at their birth, requires in its favor an advance of services of which it will have to take account, when the development of its faculties will have put it, so to speak, in possession of itself, when it becomes a being capable of action.

With man in the state of nature, a comparatively small amount of services suffices for the child of:

That the mother directs his first step; that the father teaches him to hunt and gather the fruits with which he must nourish himself, and his education is complete. He can live freely and in conditions of complete equality with his fellows. The number of his brothers, even the loss of his parents would not be for him causes of inequality; the bit of demand for such an education is the guarantee that he will receive it from a strong being, whatever it may be.

In the civilized state, it is something else: Man being created for enjoyments, that habit has transformed into needs, in order to satisfy them, he must produce, produce a great deal; muscular strength no longer suffices, he must put intelligence to work. From then on, education becomes complicated; to the physical development is added the intellectual and moral development.

The more the faculties of man will be developed, the more and better he will produce, the more he will be useful and the more he should be happy. The less educated he will be, the less useful he will be and the more miserable, for inferiority is misery.

Now, the advance sum necessitated by an education capable of developing all the faculties of the child and to put him level with science and industry, being considerable, it is no longer a matter of indifference to ask who will furnish it.

It is just that this should be by those who must profit from it; but what is especially important is that all the children are assured of receiving it complete, so that none begin life in conditions of inferiority.

Some say that the responsibility for education falls on the family! Can the family furnish equal means of education to all children? No.

Depending on whether the family has more or less children, it will have more or less resources; and while the father of one could, without depriving himself, give them not only primary education, but also secondary and even higher education, the father responsible for many children will barely give them elementary instruction. The son of the first will become the manager of enterprises for which the children of the second will be the laborer. Inequality for the children in the results, inequality of burdens for the families, and thus no justice.

To shield themselves from these shocking inequalities, the partisans of education by the family propose to found some cooperative insurance societies in order to provide, in equal parts, for the costs of education of their children, whatever their number. That idea is certainly very laudable, but is it capable of guaranteeing the education of all the children? No.

There will always be improvident fathers. Unconcerned for their dignity and the interests of their children, they will not insure it; and, if education becomes too heavy a burden for them, they will neglect it.

Some quantity of children will still find themselves at risk of lacking education, or of only having due to the public or private charity that our opponents energetically reject, as it applies to men who have consciousness of their dignity. But if it is good to guarantee oneself against all protection, all charity, wouldn’t it be better still to destroy them by leaving them no place any longer, no void to fill?

As for us, we do not accept that a single child should be deprived of instruction, that charity finds a single child to instruct. Let society take education under its charge, and the inequalities cease, charity would disappear. Education becomes an equal right for all, paid for by all the citizens, no longer according to the number of their children, but according to their ability to contribute.

Incidentally, who will profit from the education of the child? Isn’t it the entire society, rather than the family? Now, if it is society, let it be society that covers the costs.

But there is not only the question of tasks and expenses; there is also, and especially, a question of direction, and it is to this that the partisans of education by the family cling most.

The fear of the absorption of the individual by the state, the terror of official education, makes them forget all the costs of education, all the social inequalities that inequality of instruction brings about.

Certainly, we can only agree with their criticisms of university education, only applaud the blows struck by them against the monopoly of education, for it is not to us that all that is addressed. We even make this declaration, that if we only had to choose between the monopoly of education in the hands of a despotic, absolute power, of the government of one man or a few men, and the liberty of education as the responsibility of the family, we would opt for liberty.

But when we demand that education be the responsibility of society, we mean a truly democratic society in which the direction of the education would be the will of all.

It will doubtless be objected that everyone will never have the same will and that the minority must be subject to the majority. That will occur even with mutual insurance. But we are allowed to hope that the habits of liberty will lead the citizens to make some reciprocal concessions, and that the programs of study will be formulated according to generally accepted ideas, excluding above all affirmations without proof and accepting only the sciences and reasonable things.

In our mind, the central administration, having formulated a program of study including only the essential notions of universal utility, will leave to the communes the task of adding what seems good and useful to them in relation to the places, manners and industries of the country, and to choose their instructors, to open and direct their schools.

What is more, that education by society will find an excellent corrective in the liberty of education, in the natural right that the individual has to teach what they know, and learn what they don’t know. A right of which we are presently deprived, and that we are all resolved to demand with all our energy.

This right of education would not only allow some teachers to offer courses concurrently with the public schools, either for general studies or more often for specialized studies; but still, by leaving to each the ability to establish courses or conferences critical on the points found incomplete or on flaws in teaching, would permit the presentation of these objections to the students and the public who would [be the] judge. This would force the public educators to hold themselves to the level of science and to the improvements of teaching methods in order to leave the least possible foothold for criticism.

It seems to us that in this manner the parents would have as large a part as desirable in the direction of education; and the children would be assured of all receiving an education as complete as necessary.

But in order for all to be assured of receiving that instruction, there must be an obligation! Should it be real or simply moral? If the obligation is real, it is said, you strike at the liberty of the child and the authority of the father.

As for the liberty of the child, we respond: in order to be free, it must have the enjoyment of all its faculties to be able to suffice for its own existence; now, the child is not free, and to become free, has need precisely of education. In terms of paternal authority, a father does not have a right to refuse education to his child.

Now, society having the duty of safeguarding the interests of its members, in the name of the interest of the child when its father leaves it in ignorance, it should take it and instruct it. We conclude then for education by society, under the direction of the parents and compulsory for all children; but we also demand, whatever happens, the freedom of education.

Antoine-Marie Bourdon and Eugene Varlin

Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, September 1866

 

 

The First International and the Paris Commune

paris_commune

Returning to my series from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, this installment deals with the effect of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune on anarchist theory and practice.

The Paris Commune - Street Barricades

The Paris Commune – Street Barricades

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 had a significant impact on emerging anarchist movements. Bakunin argued that the War should be turned into a mass uprising by the French workers and peasants against their domestic and foreign masters. To bring the peasants over to the side of the social revolution, Bakunin urged his fellow revolutionaries to incite the peasantry “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil and military institution,” to “throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others” and to seize the land. He rejected any notion of revolutionary dictatorship, warning that any attempt “to impose communism or collectivism on the peasants… would spark an armed rebellion” that would only strengthen counter-revolutionary tendencies (Volume One, Selection 28).

Although it was Proudhon who had first proposed an alliance between the workers and peasants, it was Bakunin who saw the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary force. Bakunin and subsequent anarchists did not believe that a social revolution was only possible in advanced capitalist societies with a large industrial proletariat, as Marxists claimed, but rather looked to the broad masses of the exploited and downtrodden to overthrow their oppressors. Consequently, anarchists supported the efforts of indigenous peoples to liberate themselves from colonial domination and the local elites which benefitted from colonialism at their expense, particularly in Latin America with its feudalist latifundia system which concentrated ownership of the land in the hands of a few (Volume One, Selections 71, 76 & 91). In Russia, Italy, Spain and Mexico, anarchists sought to incite the peasants to rebellion with the battle cry of “Land and Liberty” (Volume One, Selections 71, 73, 85, 86, & 124), while anarchists in China, Japan and Korea sought the liberation of the peasant masses from their feudal overlords (Volume One, Selections 97, 99, 101, 104 & 105).

Bakunin argued that the best way to incite the masses to revolt was “not with words but with deeds, for this is the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda” (Volume One, Selection 28). In Mexico, the anarchist Julio Chavez Lopez led a peasant uprising in 1868-1869, in which the insurgents would occupy a village or town, burn the land titles and redistribute the land among the peasants (Hart: 39). In September 1870, Bakunin participated in a short-lived attempt to create a revolutionary Commune in Lyon, proclaiming the abolition of mortgages and the judicial system (Leier: 258). He made a similar attempt with his anarchist comrades in Bologna in 1874.

In 1877, Bakunin’s associates, Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and a small group of anarchists tried to provoke a peasant uprising in Benevento, Italy, by burning the local land titles, giving the villagers back their tax moneys and handing out whatever weapons they could find. Paul Brousse (1844-1912) described this as “propaganda by the deed,” by which he did not mean individual acts of terrorism but putting anarchist ideas into action by seizing a commune, placing “the instruments of production… in the hands of the workers,” and instituting anarchist communism (Volume One, Selection 43).
The inspiration for this form of propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris proclaimed the revolutionary Commune, throwing out their national government. Varlin and other Internationalists took an active part in the Commune. After its bloody suppression by the Versailles government, during which Varlin was killed, several Communards were to adopt an explicitly anarchist position, including Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel.

Paris commune journal

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International supported the Commune and provided refuge for exiled Communards. Bakunin commended the Communards for believing that the social revolution “could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses” (Volume One, Selection 29). James Guillaume thought that the Commune represented the revolutionary federalist negation of the nation State that “the great socialist Proudhon” had been advocating for years. By 1873, the Jura Federation of the International was describing the Commune as the first practical realization of the anarchist program of the proletariat. However, as David Stafford points out, the “massacre of the Communards and the savage measures which followed it (it has been estimated that 30,000 people were killed or executed by the Versailles forces)” helped turn anarchists further away from Proudhon’s pacifist mutualism, which was seen as completely unable to deal with counter-revolutionary violence (Stafford: 20).

Louise Michel (1830-1905) had fought on the barricades when the French government sent in its troops to put down the Commune. The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded issued a manifesto calling for “the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital” (Volume One, Selection 30). At Michel’s trial after the suppression of the Commune, she declared that she belonged “completely to the Social Revolution,” vowing that if her life were spared by the military tribunal, she would “not stop crying for vengeance,” daring the tribunal, if they were not cowards, to kill her (Volume One, Selection 30).

Anarchists drew a number of lessons from the Commune. Kropotkin argued that the only way to have consolidated the Commune was “by means of the social revolution” (Volume One, Selection 31), with “expropriation” being its “guiding word.” The “coming revolution,” Kropotkin wrote, would “fail in its historic mission” without “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings; [and] the return to the community… of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others” (Volume One, Selection 45).

With respect to the internal organization of the Commune, Kropotkin noted that there “is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.” Instead of giving themselves a “revolutionary” government, isolating the revolutionaries from the people and paralyzing popular initiative, the task is to abolish “property, government, and the state,” so that the people can “themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it in common,” and “form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself” (Volume One, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Additional References

Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas, 1987.

Leier, Mark. Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

The First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement

The First International

The First International

In this installment from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the First International and the emergence of a European anarchist movement. I am currently finishing the manuscript to We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, in which I deal with these matters in much more detail.

Paper of the French International

Paper of the French International

The First International

Bellegarrigue, Déjacque and Coeurderoy were dead or forgotten by the time the International Association of Workingmen (the First International) was founded in 1864 (Volume One, Selection 19). It was only after the emergence in Europe of self-identified anarchist movements in the 1870s that Pisacane’s writings were rediscovered. Of the anarchists from the 1840s and 50s, only Proudhon and Pi y Margall continued to exercise some influence, but by then both identified themselves as federalists rather than anarchists (Volume One, Selection 18). Prouhon’s followers in the First International supported his mutualist ideas, advocating free credit, small property holdings and equivalent exchange. They agreed with Proudhon that a woman’s place was in the home and argued that only workingmen should be allowed into the First International, which meant that intellectuals, such as Karl Marx, should also be excluded. They shared Proudhon’s critical view of strikes, regarding them as coercive and ineffective, but in practice provided financial and other support to striking workers.

Within the First International there were more radical elements that gave expression to a renewed sense of militancy among European workers. These Internationalists, such as Eugène Varlin (1839-1871) in France, were in favour of trade unions, seeing them as a means for organizing the workers to press their demands through collective direct action, such as strikes and boycotts. The ultimate aim was for the workers to take control of their workplaces, replacing the state and capitalism with local, regional, national and international federations of autonomous workers’ organizations.

Opposing these “anti-authoritarian” Internationalists were not only the orthodox Proudhonists, but Karl Marx and his followers, as well as some Blanquists, who favoured centralized organization and the subordination of the trade unions to political parties that would coordinate opposition to capitalism and seek to achieve state power, either through participation in bourgeois politics, revolution or a combination of both. Disagreements over the International’s internal form of organization and participation in politics would lead to the split in the International in 1872.

By 1868 the International had adopted a policy in favour of strikes and collective ownership of the means of production. However, collective ownership did not necessarily mean state ownership, as many Internationalists advocated workers’ control of industry through the workers’ own organizations and continued to support other aspects of Proudhon’s mutualism, such as workers’ mutual aid societies, cooperatives and credit unions. Varlin, for example, organized a cooperative restaurant with Nathalie Lemel (who later converted Louise Michel to anarchism). Some Geneva Internationalists proposed that half of the cooperatives’ profits be paid into the workers’ “resistance” funds, with the cooperatives also providing workers with financial aid and credit during strikes (Cutler, 1985: 213, fn. 69).

bakunin_3

Bakunin: “We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it”

Bakunin had begun to articulate a revolutionary anarchist position in the mid-1860s, prior to his entry into the International in 1868. He advocated socialism and federalism based on “the most complete liberty for individuals as well as associations,” rejecting both bourgeois republicanism and state socialism (Volume One, Selection 20). He rejected any “call for the establishment of a ruling authority of any nature whatsoever,” denouncing those revolutionaries who “dream of creating new revolutionary states, as fully centralized and even more despotic than the states we now have” (Volume One, Selections 20 & 21).

“We do not fear anarchy,” declared Bakunin, “we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction.” The new social order will be created “from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center… not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin opposed any attempts to justify the sacrifice of human lives in the name of some ideal or “abstraction,” including patriotism, the state, God or even science. Someone who is “always ready to sacrifice his own liberty… will willingly sacrifice the liberty of others” (Volume One, Selection 20). The revolutionary socialist, “on the contrary, insists upon his positive rights to life and to all its intellectual, moral, and physical joys.” In addition to rejecting any notions of individual self-sacrifice, Bakunin argued against revolutionary terrorism as counter-revolutionary. To “make a successful revolution, it is necessary to attack conditions and material goods, to destroy property and the State. It will then become unnecessary to destroy men and be condemned to suffer the sure and inevitable reaction which no massacre had ever failed and ever will fail to produce in every society” (Volume One, Selection 21).

Bakunin argued that the means adopted by revolutionaries should be consistent with their ends. Accordingly, the International should itself be organized “from the bottom up… in accordance with the natural diversity of [the workers’] occupations and circumstances.” The workers’ organizations would “bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old world. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” Consequently, he rejected the view that the majority of the workers, even within the International itself, should accept the “fraternal command” of those who claimed to know what is best for them, as this would divide the International “into two groups—one comprising the vast majority… whose only knowledge will be blind faith in the theoretical and practical wisdom of their commanders,” and a minority of “skilled manipulators” in control of the organization (Volume One, Selection 25).

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin’s anarchist critique went well beyond attacking property, religion and the state. In addition to arguing against hierarchical and authoritarian organization within the revolutionary movement itself, Bakunin sought to free women from their domestic burdens, with society taking collective responsibility for raising and educating children, enabling women to marry and divorce as they please. Bakunin rejected patriarchy in general, denouncing the “despotism of the husband, of the father, of the eldest brother over the family,” which turns the family “into a school of violence and triumphant bestiality, of cowardice and the daily perversions of the family home” (Volume One, Selection 67).

With respect to education, Bakunin argued that “one who knows more will naturally rule over the one who knows less.” After the revolution, unless differences in education and upbringing are eliminated, “the human world would find itself in its present state, divided anew into a large number of slaves and a small number of rulers” (Volume One, Selection 64). Bakunin looked forward to the day when “the masses, ceasing to be flocks led and shorn by privileged priests,” whether secular or religious, “may take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Bakunin argued against the rule of the more learned, the savants, the intellectuals and the scientists, whether within the International or in society at large. His targets here were the followers of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Karl Marx, with their pretensions to “scientific government” and “scientific socialism.” To confide “the government of society” to any scientific body, political party or group would result in the “eternal perpetuation” of that group’s power “by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently in need of its government and direction” (Volume One, Selection 24). Bakunin was perhaps the first to develop this critique of the role of intellectuals, the “new class,” and their rise to power, either by taking over leadership of the revolutionary workers’ movement or through control of the state bureaucracy, for the “State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: the priesthood, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and finally, after every other class has been exhausted, the bureaucratic class, when the State falls or rises… into the condition of a machine” (Volume One, Selection 22).

Noam Chomsky has described Bakunin’s analyses and predictions in this regard as being perhaps “among the most remarkable within the social sciences” (Volume Two, Selection 68). Subsequent anarchists adopted Bakunin’s critique (Berti, Volume Two, Selection 67) and his suggestion that the inequalities that arise from differences in knowledge can be prevented by “integral education,” which breaks down the barriers between practical and scientific education, and by the elimination of any distinction between manual and “intellectual” or “brain” work (Volume One, Selection 64). In his highly influential book, Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898), Peter Kropotkin set forth practical alternatives to the present “division of society into brain workers and manual workers,” with all its “pernicious” distinctions, advocating, much like Fourier had before him, a daily combination of manual and intellectual work, human-scale technology and the integration of the fields, factories and workshops in a decentralized system of production, providing for “the happiness that can be found in the full and varied exercise of the different capacities of the human being” (Volume One, Selection 34).

Bakunin was instrumental in spreading anarchist ideas among revolutionary and working class movements in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia and within the International itself. According to Kropotkin, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who “established in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (1912).

Robert Graham

The Anarchist International

The Anarchist International

Additional references

Cutler, Robert. Ed. From Out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.

Kropotkin, Peter.  Modern Science and Anarchism (1912). In Evolution and Environment. Ed. G. Woodcock. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995.

Power to the People: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Power to the People

Within the Paris Commune there were numerous groups which advocated and practiced direct action and direct democracy, pushing the Commune towards the social revolution. These sorts of ideas had been advocated by a variety of anarchists during the revolutions of 1848 (see Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Chapter 4), such as Proudhon, Dejacques, Pisacane and Coeurderoy, and were championed within the International by people like Bakunin, Varlin and the revolutionary collectivists associated with them.

The following excerpts are taken from a wall poster and newspaper article by the “Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement,” published at the beginning of April and May 1871 respectively. In the wall poster, the Club urges others to follow their example of taking direct action by using the churches as gathering places for the people. In the newspaper article, the Club emphasizes the need for the people to govern themselves directly, as had Proudhon and other anarchists. The idea that direct democracy is a kind of direct action was developed further by Murray Bookchin.

Anarcho-Syndicalism: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Wall Poster of the Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement

Citizens:

A great revolutionary act has just occurred: the population of the Third Arrondissement has at last taken possession—to serve the political education of the People—of a building that has until now served only the caste that is inherently hostile to any kind of progress.

The coming to power of the Commune has restored all their rights to the citizenry. It is for these citizens to exercise them both to serve the Commune and when necessary, to remind our delegates that their mandate is to save the Nation. This means that they should act energetically and temporarily leave aside much too great a respect for considerations of ‘legality’ — which in effect aids only the forces of reaction.

It is to you, citizens of all arrondissements, that we make this appeal.

Follow our example: open Communal clubs in all the churches. The priests can conduct services in the daytime and you can provide the people with political education in the evenings.

Govern Yourselves! Long Live the Commune!

The Communal Club, constituted at the beginning of May 1871, professes the following aims…

To fight the enemies of our communal rights, of our freedom and of the republic.

To uphold the rights of the people, to accomplish their political education, so that they may be able to govern themselves.

To recall our representatives to first principles, were they to stray from them, and to aid them in all their efforts to save the Republic.

But above all else, to insist on the sovereignty of the people; they must never renounce their right to supervise the actions of their representatives.

People, govern yourselves directly, through public meetings, through your press; bring pressure to bear on those who represent you; they will never go too far in the revolutionary direction.

If your representatives procrastinate or cease to move, push them forward, that we may reach the objective we are fighting for: the acquisition of our rights, the consolidation of the Republic and the victory of Justice.

Long live the Commune!

The Paris Commune

Eugène Varlin and the Rise of Revolutionary Socialism in France

Varlin

After many posts on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, I will now be turning my attention toward the emergence of self-identified anarchist movements from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), founded primarily by French and English workers in 1864, and in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from Proudhon, Bakunin, Louise Michel, Kropotkin and the anti-authoritarian sections of the International in the Chapters on the International and the origins of the anarchist movement, the conflicts within the International, and the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Space limitations prevented me from including anything by Eugène Varlin (1839-1871), an outstanding member of the Paris section, and later federation, of the International, who was a pioneer in the development of a revolutionary socialist current within the International which advocated the abolition of the capitalist state and the creation of an international federation of workers’ collectives, a position he described as “collectivism” or “non-authoritarian communism,” to distinguish it from the state socialism advocated by the Blanquists and Marxists within the International.

Founding of the International

Varlin was a bookbinder by trade, involved in the revived workers movement in France in the mid-1860s. In February 1864, a group of workers, including Varlin, published their “Manifesto of the Sixty,” in which they argued that the workers were “in need of direct representation” from among their own number “in the precincts of the legislative body… the only place where workers could worthily and freely articulate their wishes and stake their own claim to the rights enjoyed by other citizens.” The “Sixty” signatories made a point of distancing themselves from the earlier Proudhon, assuring the Manifesto’s readers that they were not about to adopt Proudhon’s battle cry from the 1848 French Revolution: “What is the worker? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!” For “it is not for us [the workers] to destroy the rights deservedly enjoyed by the middle classes, but rather to secure for ourselves the same freedom to act.” Varlin subsequently adopted a more revolutionary position, seeking to achieve socialism through workers’ self-management.

Varlin and Nathalie Lemel, who later helped convert Louise Michel to anarchism, participated in the bookbinders’ strikes of 1864 and 1865 and were involved in the creation of workers’ credit unions, cooperatives and other mutual aid societies. Both were also involved in creating the Paris section of the International in 1865.

Nathalie Lemel

Varlin was among the French delegates to the 1866 Geneva Congress of the First International. Varlin and Antoîne-Marie Bourdon, an engraver from Paris, advocated equal rights for women in opposition to the more conservative Proudhonists, who argued that a woman’s place was in the home. Varlin and Bourdon also disputed the position of Proudhon and the majority of the French delegation that the patriarchal family should be primarily responsible for the education of children, arguing that education was a social responsibility. For them, access to education should not be limited by existing inequalities in the means of individual families, and the improvidence and caprice of the children’s fathers. They proposed public funding of education, which was to be administered by “truly democratic” communes, because no father had the right to refuse his children an education, while a free and equal society required nothing less.

The growing activity of the International in working class struggles in France resulted in the persecution of the French Internationalists, with 10 members of the Parisian section, including Varlin, being fined 100 francs and sentenced to three months in jail in May 1868. Prior to his imprisonment, Varlin had helped collect funds to assist construction workers in Geneva during their successful strike in March-April 1868 for a 10 hour day and higher wages. He and Lemel had also begun organizing workers’ cooperatives, such as the restaurant, La Marmite (the “Cooking Pot”). The statutes for La Marmite provided for the administration of the cooperative’s daily affairs by a council of delegates elected by the general assembly of the cooperative’s members. These delegates were to be elected for six month terms and subject to recall. The council was to have only administrative powers, with the general assembly making all policy decisions.

Proudhon

Varlin’s position on participation in bourgeois politics changed over time. In May 1869, he was still in favour of participation in bourgeois elections, persuading the Paris section of the International to put forward a slate of working class candidates.

At that time, he referred to the advocates of abstention as “proudhoniens enragés” (prior to his death in 1865, Proudhon had advised the workers not to participate in French elections because “under the regime that has ruled over us since 1852, our ideas, if not our persons, have been, so to speak, placed outside of politics, outside of government, outside of the law”). Varlin, however, argued that putting forward a slate of working class candidates would emphasize the division between “the people and the bourgeoisie.” Varlin believed that “it would be impossible to organize the social revolution while we live under a government as arbitrary” as that of Napoleon III. None of the working class candidates were elected, and the Varlin group had to throw its support behind radical candidates instead.

By the time of Napoleon III’s May 1870 plebiscite to legitimize his political “reforms,” Varlin joined other workers in advocating abstention, for the time had come, in Varlin’s words, for the workers “to disabuse themselves of the representative system” of Napoleon III, the position that Proudhon had advised Varlin and other French workers to take back in 1864.  The Paris federation of the International, which Varlin had helped form in April 1870, issued a Manifesto calling for mass abstentions because this was the method of protest that Napoleon III feared the most. The Manifesto denounced the massacres of striking workers, conscription and the onerous tax burden being imposed on the workers to bankroll Napoleon III’s imperialist escapades abroad.

Varlin agreed with Bakunin that it was through the workers’ own trade union organizations and strike activity that they would create “the organization of the revolutionary forces” of labour necessary to abolish capitalism. This position was endorsed by most of the delegates to the 1869 Basle Congress of the International.

Bakunin speaking at the Basle Congress

At the Basle Congress, Varlin had supported Bakunin’s resolution in favour of the abolition of the right of inheritance, agreeing with Bakunin that, in current conditions, to maintain the right of inheritance was to sanction inequality. Some children would be well provided for from their fathers’ estates, while other children would remain deprived, through no fault of their own. Still less could one justify, from a collectivist perspective, the “right” of someone to transfer “his” property to someone outside of his family, bestowing on them an unearned benefit.

Bakunin and Varlin were consistent in their rejection of patriarchal rights, whether to dispose of one’s “property” or to determine what sort of education should be provided to one’s children. Varlin had argued at the Geneva Congress that education was a social responsibility, a position shared by Bakunin and his associates. At the Basle Congress, Bakunin expressly tied the abolition of the right of inheritance to the need for an “integral” education freely available to all, arguing that “as soon as the right of inheritance is abolished, society will have to take responsibility for all costs of the physical, moral, and intellectual development of all children of both sexes.”

James Guillaume

Toward the end of the Basle Congress, one of Bakunin’s associates, James Guillaume, met with Varlin and described to him the revolutionary socialist program being developed by Guillaume, Bakunin and their colleagues. Varlin told Guillaume that he shared their ideas, and the two agreed to maintain closer contacts. Varlin soon thereafter described the position adopted “almost unanimously” by the delegates at the Basle Congress as “collectivism, or non-authoritarian communism,” which was to be achieved by a “European social revolution.” Varlin supported the vision of the future free society proposed by his fellow Internationalist, Jean-Louis Pindy, at the Basle Congress, with dual federations, one comprising the workers’ trade and labour organizations, the other local and regional areas. As Pindy put it at the Basle Congress, association “on the basis of town or country… leads to the commune of the future, just as the other mode of [trade union] organization leads to the labour representation of the future.”

In December 1869, Bakunin, Guillaume and several other Internationalists met in Lyon, and again in March 1870, resulting in the establishment of a regional federation of Rhône workers affiliated with the International, with Varlin acting as honourary chairman at the founding congress.

In his report on the Basle Congress, Varlin expressed the views of many of the French Internationalists when he wrote that the workers’ own organizations, the trade unions and societies of resistance and solidarity, “form the natural elements of the social structure of the future.” Varlin saw strikes as a “school of struggle” that would unite the workers into a revolutionary force.

In March 1870, Varlin published an article expressing the views of the majority of the Paris Internationalists, in which he called for the authoritarian capitalist state to be replaced by workers’ self-management:

“At present our statesmen are trying to substitute a liberal-parliamentary government (Orleans style) for the regime of personal rule, and hope thereby to divert the advancing revolution that threatens their privileges. We socialists know from experience that all the old political forms are incapable of satisfying the demands of the people. Taking advantage of the mistakes and blunders of our adversaries, we must hasten the arrival of the hour of deliverance by actively preparing the bases for the future organization of society. This will make easier and more certain the task of social transformation which the revolution must carry out.

Up till now, governments have simply been an extension of authoritarian rule and subjugation of the masses — whether republican governments like Switzerland or the United States, constitutional oligarchies like Belgium or England, autocracies like Russia or personal regimes as in France since the Empire… all represent a political authority whose purpose is to keep the working classes in fear of laws that were created for the benefit of the few. This authority may be more or less strict, more or less arbitrary, but this does not in any way change the economic relations that are its foundation: the workers always remain at the mercy of those who hold capital.

Society can no longer permit the arbitrary distribution of public wealth on the basis of birth or success. Since [public wealth] is the collective sum of all productive labour, it should be employed only for the benefit of the collective. In other words, all members of human society have an equal right to the advantages stemming from that wealth.

However, this social wealth cannot provide for the well-being of humanity unless it is put to use by labour.

Consequently, if the industrial capitalist or businessman is no longer to dispose arbitrarily of collectively produced capital, who, then, can place this capital at the disposal of all? Who is to organize the production and distribution of goods?

Short of placing everything in the hands of a highly centralized, authoritarian state which would set up a hierarchical structure from top to bottom of the labour process… we must admit that the only alternative is for the workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production… through co-operative associations in various forms.

Newly formed labour groupings must join with the older ones, for it is only through the solidarity of workers in all occupations and in all countries that we will definitively achieve the abolition of all privileges, and equality for all.”

Varlin was among several prominent Internationalists sentenced to one year in prison in July 1870 for their activities. He escaped to Belgium, where he remained until the fall of Napoleon III’s regime in September 1870, after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In subsequent posts, I will review the events leading up to the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Varlin played a prominent role. He was tortured and murdered during the massacre of up to 30,000 Communards in May 1871.

"The Execution of Varlin" by M. Luce