Louise Michel: Why I am an Anarchist (1896)

Louise Michel

The recent death of Ursula Le Guin reminded me of Louise Michel (1830-1905), the French revolutionary anarchist. For one thing, Michel wrote some anarchist science fiction herself in the 1880s, The Human Microbes (1887) and The New World (1888), sharing some similarities with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The New World features a utopian anarchist community in the arctic, an environment equally as inhospitable as the desert moon, Anarres, in The Dispossessed, from which the anarchists aim to migrate into space. Michel also reminds me a bit of Odo, the anarchist feminist sage who inspired the anarchists on Anarres. But Louis Michel, in contrast to Odo, was no pacifist. In this article from 1896, Michel explains why she is an anarchist, and refers to her coming to an anarchist position on her voyage to the French penal colony in New Caledonia after the fall of the Paris Commune. One of the people on that voyage who helped persuade her to adopt an anarchist stance was Nathalie Lemel, who also played an important role during the Commune. I included excerpts from Michel’s defiant speech to the military tribunal that condemned her to the penal colony, and her defence of women’s rights, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Why I am an Anarchist

I am an Anarchist because Anarchy alone, by means of liberty and justice based on equal rights, will make humanity happy, and because Anarchy is the sublimest idea conceivable by man. It is, today, the summit of human wisdom, awaiting discoveries of undreamt of progress on new horizons, as ages roll on and succeed each other in an ever widening circle.

Man will only be conscious when he is free. Anarchy will therefore be the complete separation between the human flocks, composed of slaves and tyrants, as they exist to day, and the free humanity of tomorrow. As soon as man, whoever he may be, comes to power, he suffers its fatal influence and is corrupted; he uses force to defend his person. He is the State; and he considers it a property to be used for his benefit, as a dog considers the bone he gnaws. If power renders a man egotistical and cruel, servitude degrades him. A slave is often worse than his master; nobody knows how tyrannous he would be as a master, or base as a slave, if his own fortune or life were at stake.

To end the horrible misery in which humanity has always dragged a bloody and painful existence incites brave hearts more and: more to battle for justice and truth. The hour is at hand: hastened by the crimes of governors, the law’s severity, the impossibility of living in such circumstances, thousands of unfortunates without hope of an end to their tortures, the illusory amelioration of gangrened institutions, the change of power which is but a change of suffering, and man’s natural love of life; every man, like every race, looks around to see from which side deliverance will come.

Anarchy will not begin the eternal miseries anew. Humanity in its flight of despair will cling to it in order to emerge from the abyss. It is the rugged ascent of the rock that will lead to the summit; humanity will no longer clutch at rolling stones and tufts of grass, to fall without end.

Anarchy is the new ideal, the progress of which nothing can hinder. Our epoch is as dead as the age of stone. Whether death took place yesterday or a thousand years ago, its vestiges of life are utterly lost. The end of the epoch through which we are passing is only a necropolis full of ashes and bones.

Power, authority, privileges no longer exist for thinkers, for artists, or for any who rebel against the common evil. Science discovers unknown forces that study will yet simplify. The disappearance of the order of things we see at present is near at hand. The world, up till now divided among a few privileged beings, will be taken back by all. And the ignorant alone will be astonished at the conquest of humanity over antique bestiality.

I became definitely an Anarchist when sent to New Caledonia, on a state ship, in order to bring me to repentance for having fought for liberty. I and my companions were kept in cages like lions or tigers during four months. We saw nothing but sky and water, with now and then the white sail of a vessel on the horizon, like a bird’s wing in the sky. This impression and the expanse were overwhelming. We had much time to think on board, and by constantly comparing things, events, and men; by having seen my friends of the Commune, who were honest, at work, and who only knew how to throw their lives into the struggle, so much they feared to act ill; I came rapidly to the conclusion that honest men in power are incapable, and that dishonest ones are monsters; that it is impossible to ally liberty with power, and that a revolution whose aim is any form of government would be but a delusion if only a few institutions fell, because everything is bound by indestructible chains in the old world, and everything must be uprooted by the foundations for the new world to grow happy and be at liberty under a free sky.

Anarchism is today the end which progress seeks to attain, and when it has attained it will look forward from there to the edge of a new horizon, which again as soon as it has been reached will disclose another, and so on always, since progress is eternal.

We must fight not only with courage but with logic; that the disinherited masses, who sprinkle every step of progress with their blood, may benefit at last by the supreme struggle soon to be entered upon by human reason together with despair. It is necessary that the true ideal be revealed, grander and more beautiful than all the preceding fictions. And should this ideal be still far off it is worth dying for.

That is why I am an Anarchist.


Liberty (UK), 3, 3 (March, 1896), 26


Ursula Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

Ursula Le Guin

I was sad to hear of the death of Ursula Le Guin yesterday. I heard her speak at an international anarchist symposium in Portland, Oregon back in 1980. She talked about her views on anarchism, buddhism, anthropology, science fiction, creativity and writing, and answered questions about her stories and books. The book that anarchists celebrated was The Dispossessed, about an anarchist colony on a large moon orbiting a planet like Earth. Here I reproduce a dialogue between the main character, Shevek, from the anarchist moon, Anarres, and a rich woman, Vea, living on the Earth-like planet that Shevek has secretly arranged to visit. Shevek expresses the ideas of the anarchists on Anarres, the “Odonians,” while Vea speaks from the vantage point of a cynical female member of the ruling class who cannot accept that the anarchists can live without hierarchy and authority, arguing that they have merely internalized them. It’s a great passage, drawing out some potential issues about life in an anarchist society, while showing that even a cynical “propertarian” (the word Le Guin uses to describe the capitalists) really wants to be free, but cannot see that freedom itself is a kind of relationship, and not something that can be achieved in isolation, or by exploiting others.

The Dispossessed – Chapter 7

[Vea] sat down on a low, cushioned stool near [Shevek], so she could look up into his face. She arranged her white skirt over her ankles, and said, “Now, tell me how it really is between men and women on Anarres.”

It was unbelievable. The maid and the caterer’s man were both in the room; she knew he had a partner, and he knew she did, and not a word about copulating had passed between them. Yet her dress, movements, tone — what were they but the most open invitation?

“Between a man and a woman there is what they want there to be between them,” he said, rather roughly. “Each, and both.”

“Then it’s true, you really have no morality?” she asked, as if shocked but delighted.

“I don’t know what you mean. To hurt a person there is the same as to hurt a person here.”

“You mean you have all the same old rules? You see, I believe that morality is just another superstition, like religion. It’s got to be thrown out.”

“But my society,” he said, completely puzzled, “is an attempt to reach it. To throw out the moralizing, yes — the rules, the laws, the punishments — so that men can see good and evil and choose between them.”

“So you threw out all the do’s and don’ts. But you know, I think you Odonians missed the whole point. You threw out the priests and Judges and divorce laws and all that, but you kept the real trouble behind them. You just stuck it inside, into your consciences. But it’s still there. You’re just as much slaves as ever! You aren’t really free.”

“How do you know?”

“I read an article in a magazine about Odonianism,” she said. “And we’ve been together all day. I don’t know you, but I know some things about you. I know that you’ve got a — a Queen Teaea inside you, right inside that hairy head of yours. And she orders you around just like the old tyrant did her serfs. She says, `Do this!’ and you do, and `Don’t’ and you don’t.”

“That is where she belongs,” he said, smiling. “Inside my head.”

“No. Better to have her in a palace. Then you could rebel against her. You would have to. Your great-great-grandfather did; at least he ran off to the Moon to get away. But he took Queen Teaea with him, and you’ve still got her!”

“Maybe. But she has learned, on Anarres, that if she tells me to hurt another person, I hurt myself.”

“The same old hypocrisy. Life is a fight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words!”

“Your civilization, perhaps. Ours hides nothing. It is all plain. Queen Teaea wears her own skin, there. We follow one law, only one, the law of human evolution.”

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!”

“Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We have only one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

“I don’t care about hurting and not hurting. I don’t care about other people, and nobody else does, either. They pretend to. I don’t want to pretend. I want to be free.”

Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin and the Ecological Imperative

bookchin next revolution

Below, I reproduce some comments by Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin, taken from her preface to a new collection of some of Bookchin’s writings on libertarian municipalism, communalism and direct democracy, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Debbie Bookchin (his daughter) and Blair Taylor. In Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Bookchin’s anarchist writings on ecology, popular assemblies, direct democracy and direct action. Murray Bookchin has been in the news recently as one of the ideological inspirations for the experiment in direct democracy now being undertaken in Rojava in northern Syria, under attack by the Islamic State and threatened by Turkish intervention. Ursula Le Guin is a well known science fiction writer who has often dealt with ecological and anarchist themes in her books, particularly in The Dispossessed, which is about an anarchist society in exile on a moon orbiting an Earth like planet, the strains within that society and the need for a social revolution on the planet below.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Direct Democracy and the Ecological Imperative

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Murray Bookchin spent a lifetime opposing the rapacious ethos of grow-or-die capitalism. The nine essays in “The Next Revolution” represent the culmination of that labor: the theoretical underpinning for an egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society, with a practical approach for how to build it. He critiques the failures of past movements for social change, resurrects the promise of direct democracy and, in the last essay in the book, sketches his hope of how we might turn the environmental crisis into a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system.

Reading it, I was moved and grateful, as I have so often been in reading Murray Bookchin. He was a true son of the Enlightenment in his respect for clear thought and moral responsibility and in his honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope.

Ursula Le Guin