by Erica Rae
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in the March 1985 issue of News & Letters.
Because it is impossible to separate education from the society in which it exists, the Paris Commune of 1871 offers an excellent view of a new kind of education arising in the midst of a blossoming new society. As well, because women have been so completely written out of history, I wish to focus upon the role of women in the uprising of Paris, especially the revolutionary woman educator Louise Michel.
On Sept. 19, 1870, Paris was besieged by the Prussian army. A revolutionary ferment was underway even prior to the Prussian takeover. The government cut off Paris from all its surrounding land, which had never been done before.
Women suffered more than men, as usual, because it was they who stood in line for hours, in mud, in snow, in rain, in the cold, all in a failing attempt to feed their families. Yet the women were also among the most valiant in surviving these conditions. Louise Michel, a schoolteacher at that time, organized a soup kitchen for her students. Another woman, Mme. Poirier, ran a workshop where clothing was made by women. They did not earn a salary, but instead all shared in the profits equally.
Illiteracy was widespread prior to 1871. Workers believed that machines should be used to allow them greater leisure time, both for educational pursuits and to increase political activity. Instead they found they were suddenly bound to the machine.
Prostitution was another problem plaguing the times. Because of the economic situation prostitution was a normal, many times indispensable, means of supplementing wages, of earning a living.
MILKMAIDS OF PARIS
Thus the historic stage was set for something to happen. It did. The Paris Commune began on March 18, 1871. Paris was on the move. The workers, women, children felt it. So did the Bonapartist government. On the night of the 17th of March, General Vinoy, a Bonapartist, was given charge of an expedition against Paris. They were to move cannons from Paris to Versailles. At first it seemed an easy task. The morning was cold, so few people were out to create opposition. However, the milkmaids had awakened, and people began to realize what was happening.
Louise Michel grabbed a rifle, put it under her coat and ran to the line crying, “Treason.” Spontaneously a column of workers, women and youth formed a human barricade against the troops. The women cried, “Would you shoot us, our husbands, our children?” The soldiers hesitated. A sergeant yelled “Put up your arms!” That was it: The soldiers did! The crowd rushed in and then the soldiers arrested their own general! Later he stated:
The women and children came and mixed with the troops. We were greatly mistaken in permitting these people to approach our soldiers, for they mingled among them, and the women and children told them: “You will not fire upon the people…” People were shouting, “Long live the line.”
The Commune’s first act was to abolish the standing army. The second act on the part of the working parliament was to remove the police as part of the armed military forces. On April 9 the guillotine was burned. To a man, woman and child, all were involved in the decisions of the Paris Commune. The Commune’s workshops were totally democratic. Workers appointed their own directors and foremen, who could be dismissed at any time.
Not only were wages and hours and working conditions set, but “above all, a factory committee met every evening to discuss the next day’s work.” If there was a problem causing danger to a person or a complication in production, workers just stopped, took care of it and continued. Production rates actually increased under this method where the workers governed themselves. As Marx said in one of his most famous works, The Civil War in France, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.”
Among the great figures of the Paris Commune was the magnificent activist Louise Michel. As with many revolutionary women throughout history, Louise Michel’s political life affected her personal life. She refused marriage twice because she wanted a relationship based on love where two people were fighting for the same cause.
Since Louise refused to be supported, she had to work. There were few jobs open to women; in 1850 she became a schoolteacher. Louise also loved poetry and corresponded with Victor Hugo. No one is sure of the actual nature of their relationship, but perhaps one episode will help illuminate it.
Louise never cared about money or property. She never bought anything for herself and gave away the little money she had. A friend once noticed Louise had nothing more than a thin horse blanket on her bed. The friend told Victor Hugo, who sent Louise money to buy a warm cover, whereupon Louise promptly spent the money on someone else. Hugo offered to send her more money on the condition she spend it on herself. Her reply was, “Then keep your money, because I won’t keep the promise.”
Louise was not the only woman who took up arms to defend the Commune. The women of the Commune, as a whole, shattered the myth that women’s liberation was a side issue of the class struggle. The two must go hand in hand, inseparable, or none can be truly free.
NEW CONCEPT OF TIME
The Commune is a great example of how a revolution touches and changes every aspect of life. Consider how the conception of “time” changed under the Commune:
Somehow we were always able to find the time to attend courses several days a week. There were lectures on physics, chemistry, and even law. People tried out new methods of teaching too. In addition to listening to others, we found time to give lectures ourselves. I had never understood how time could be so elastic. We didn’t waste a minute, and our days were stretched to fit so that midnight seemed early….A frenzy for knowledge possessed us…The more excited we got about all these things, the more we lapsed into the high spirits of schoolchildren…often we resembled students more than teachers.
I think this is truly what Marx meant when he said, “Time is the space for human development.” The night before the Commune was put down in blood, the Commission for Education moved to increase teachers’ salaries, and, for the first time, the equality of men’s and women’s salaries was declared.
After the destruction of the Commune and her exile to New Caledonia in 1873, Louise Michel taught the Kanakas, natives of the region, and supported their revolt in 1878. She expressed a true sense of cultural relativism, noting that differences in methods of learning are not necessarily deficiencies, when the environment in which one is surrounded affords a different kind of teaching. She wrote of education on a world scale when she stated:
Throughout the world there are too many minds left uncultivated… Between those who know nothing and those who have a great deal of false knowledge—those warped for thousands of generations by infallible knowledge that is incorrect—the difference is less great than it appears at first glance. The same breath of science will pass over both.
Louise Michel did not separate her views on women’s rights and education from her life as a revolutionary. She was always looking to expand the limits of humanity’s creativity and to throw away the fetters which bind men’s minds and women’s bodies. She called for the education of women, not to match the educational rags and tatters which men have produced, but instead to transcend that with a new vision that can be created IF men and women work together to unbind the potential of humanity.
POTENTIAL IN REVOLUTION
On May 21, 1871, the end arrived. The Commune revealed the potential inherent in a revolution. The upper classes could not afford the success of such an experiment serving as a signal for the rest of the world. The troops of Versailles were called in to put down the Commune, which the Communards—men, women and children—defended to the last barricade and gun. The repression hit out not only at the armed fighting men and women but:
Every poor woman was suspect, even more so if she carried a market basket or a bottle; she was a petroleuse, and was executed on the spot. Any expression of grief alongside the common graves in which the Federals were heaped up was proof of complicity. Any weeping woman was an “insurgent female.”
However, what the Paris Commune showed historically cannot be erased and must not be forgotten. Rather than ending with the destruction of the Commune, I wish to end with what Karl Marx wrote in The Civil War in France:
Wonderful, indeed, was the change the Commune had wrought in Paris! No longer any trace of the meretricious Paris of the Second Empire….No more corpses at the Morgue, no nocturnal burglaries, scarcely any robberies; in fact, for the first time since the days of February 1848, the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind…the real women of Paris showed again at the surface—heroic, noble, and devoted, like the women of antiquity. Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris—almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the cannibals at its gates—radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative.
 Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871. Edited by John Hicks and Robert Tucker. University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.
 The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. Edited and translated by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Gunter. University of Alabama Press, 1981.
 The Red Virgin, p. 118.
 Revolution and Reaction, p. 34.