Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and Icaria: Europe's Social Question and the Legacy of French Communalism

By Harison, Casey | Communal Societies, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and Icaria: Europe's Social Question and the Legacy of French Communalism


Harison, Casey, Communal Societies


Introduction

Paris and its revolutionary tradition were a long way from the American Midwest, but female members of the Icarian colony at Corning, Iowa reading newspaper accounts of the amnesty of "Communards" in the 1870s knew quite a lot about the life and work of one of them--Louise Michel. An intuitive utopian and lifelong rebel who first made a name for herself fighting on the barricades during the ill-fated Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, Michel was amnestied with fellow Communards in 1880 before returning to Paris to start the last stage of a life devoted to a utopian "dream" of revolution and human emancipation. There was in Michel's biography and in the larger history of the Commune--this was apparent even as far away as Iowa--a communalist spirit: nascent and unstructured, but nonetheless there to detect for the empathetic observer. The Iowa Icariennes knew about Michel and the Paris Commune because, like others in the Icarian colonies that began in the Midwestern United States in 1849, they closely followed events in France through newspapers and the occasional firsthand report: among the latter, in this instance, from a handful of former Communards who made their way to Corning in the 1870s. (1)

For most of her life, Louise Michel was the strident activist and intransigent ex-Communard whose single-minded devotion to the cause of revolution was one source of her nickname: "The Red Virgin." But in the story of Michel, there were additional elements that sparked the interest of the Iowa Icariennes: her experience as a female "soldier" in the Commune's army; the passion she brought to the cause of worker's and women's rights; and, related to these, a utopian dream and burgeoning communalist spirit borne of her experiences in 1871. These were all personal embodiments of the "Social Question." The Social Question was a widely used phrase that described the gap between the promise of citizenship and improved standard of living coming from the Atlantic and Industrial Revolutions, and the reality of actual conditions of everyday life for most people in nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas. The creation of the first Icarian community in the United States was a response by its founder Etienne Cabet to Europe's Social Question.

While the Iowa Icariennes felt an affinity with Louise Michel that drew upon her advocacy of rights and her role in the Commune, she is not usually included among the well-known French communalists of the nineteenth century--a list that includes Cabet, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Victor Considerant. Yet there is a case to be made that Michel has a place alongside this group, and that the story of the Paris Commune, Michel's role in it and the larger Social Question have a salient, though sometimes forgotten role in the history of communalism. This article explores the nineteenth-century European roots of communalism in the Social Question via the role of Louise Michel and the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Social Question and the Roots of Nineteenth-Century Communalism

The many varieties of communalism have a well-documented place in American and European societies, past and present. (2) In the nineteenth century, virtually all of the best-known American nonreligious communal experiments--those associated with Robert Owen from Great Britain, and Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Cabet from France--had roots in Europe, where they were direct responses to the great social and economic disruptions brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the legacies of the French Revolution. They were, in other words, attempts to address nineteenth-century Europe's Social Question.

The "Social Question" was a widely used phrase that referred to the many transformations that appeared to be overwhelming European life in the first half of the nineteenth century. (3) These transformations especially had to do with the social and economic anarchy associated with the growth of modern capitalism and the free market; the environmental degradation accompanying modern factory production, particularly in cities, which by mid-century were becoming desperately overcrowded and unhealthy; the emergence of new social classes and the growing divide among them; and the unfulfilled promise of political and civil rights coming from the French Revolution of 1789. …

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