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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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.

Association of Women: Against Discrimination and Privilege

Women of the Commune

In the following proclamation, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded directly draw the connection between sex discrimination and ruling class privilege. In subsequent publications, they called for capitalism to be replaced by workers’ self-management. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included Louise Michel’s defence of women’s rights, as well as her statement before the military tribunal in which she dared them to put her to death for her role during the Paris Commune.

Louise Michel before the Military Council

Considering:

That it is the duty and the right of everyone to fight for the sacred cause of the people, that is, for the Revolution;

That danger is imminent and the enemy are at the gates of Paris;

That union makes strength; in time of danger all individual efforts must combine to form a collective, invincible resistance by the whole population;

That the Commune—representing the principle of the extinction of all privilege and all inequality—should therefore consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes;

That the success of the present conflict, whose aim is to put an end to corruption, and ultimately to regenerate society by ensuring the rule of Labour and Justice, is of as much significance to women as it is to the men of Paris;

That many among them are determined that in the event of the enemy breaking into Paris, they will fight to the finish in defence of our common rights;

That effective organization of this revolutionary element into a vigorous force for the defence of Paris Commune can only be achieved with concrete aid from the government of the Commune itself;

Consequently, the delegates of the women citizens of Paris request the Executive Commission of the Commune:

1. To order all district town halls to make available in each district a room that can serve as headquarters of the committees;

2. To request that they provide large premises for meetings of women citizens;

3. To have the Commune subsidize the printing of circulars, posters and notices that these committees decide to distribute.

For the members of the Central Committee of Women

The Paris Commune

Revolutionary Women of the Commune: We Want to be Free

Women on the Barricades

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I could have included a whole chapter of writings produced by the revolutionary women’s group, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. The group came together in April 1871, soon after the declaration of the Paris Commune. Its members included André Léo, Natalie Lemel, Louise Michel, Paule Mink and Elizabeth Dmitrieff. All were socialists involved in the International Workers’ Association. After the defeat of the Commune, Lemel helped persuade Michel to become a self-avowed anarchist. For a time, Léo was close to the anarchists, sharing their opposition to Marx’s attempts to assert control over the International. Mink associated herself with the anarchist currents in the French socialist movement, but after the defeat of the Commune advocated revolutionary dictatorship. During the Commune, Dmitrieff appears to have shared the revolutionary socialist and anti-state views of other members of the Association, but remained close to Marx, who had sent her to the Commune at the end of March 1871.

The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris

On April 11, 1871, the Association published the following proclamation, calling for not only the abolition of exploitation but for no more bosses and freedom for all.

A CALL TO THE WOMEN CITIZENS OF PARIS

The fratricidal madness that has taken possession of France, this duel unto death, is the final act in the eternal antagonism between Right and Might, Labour and Exploitation, the People and their Tyrants!

The privileged classes of the present social order are our enemies; those who have lived by our labour, thriving on our want.

They have seen the people rise up, demanding: ‘No obligations without rights! No rights without obligations! We want to work but we also want the product of our work. No more exploiters. No more bosses. Work and security for all—The People to govern themselves —We want the Commune; we want to live in freedom or to die fighting for it!’

Women of Paris, the decisive hour has come. The old world must come to an end! We want to be free! And France has not risen up alone. The civilized nations of the world have their eyes on Paris. They are waiting for our victory to free themselves in their turn.

A Group of Parisian Women, April 11, 1871

Anarchist Feminism