Louise Michel's First Article in Le Libertaire (November 1895)

Among the legends that have grown up around Louise Michel,[1] there is one that has her as the co-founder, alongside Sébastien Faure, of the newspaper Le Libertaire on 16 November 1895: this “rumour”, to be sure, was not without some substance … She had arrived (from London) a few days earlier to join him in a talk they were to deliver that evening, a talk that was naturally advertised on page one of the very first edition.[2] Elsewhere on the same page there was an article of hers, reporting what she had seen in England. Poor wretches unable to feed themselves in France any longer and trying their luck over there, only to leave disappointed. The presence of this article on the front page (her signature vouching for its authorship) was also indicative of the paper’s editorial line – and it fitted in perfectly with Louise’s commitments, she having a name for her solidarity with outcasts of every sort: no matter how vital the role of the working class, the social revolution was everybody’s business; and in keeping with her unfailing stance of insisting that women be equal in every regard – and not just rendered lip-service.[3]  Finally, the symbolism behind the article was unmistakable (the path tramped here by one couple would be tramped again by others in some other fashion), but it was the note upon which it ended that mattered: heartless treatment of the human race could not go on forever.

In our own times we have to reckon with a somewhat unforthcoming Anarchist Federation which, in hope of cashing in on a feminism that attempts to lay claim to kindly Louise goes so far as to play down the role of … Sébastien Faure; thus, in 2009, one might have read: “The reader keen to learn about the female founder of the newspaper Le Libertaire, with Sébastien Faure her junior.”[4]

But, as is often the case, the facts largely bear out the legend … As 1895 drew to a close, the new newspaper addressed itself to comrades or sympathisers whose financial resources were not boundless and who already had Jean Grave’s Temps nouveaux and Emile Pouget’s La Sociale to hand … And even though Sébastien Faure’s name was a sound asset, we are within our rights in reckoning that the empathy displayed by Louise Michel will have had a hand in its success.[5]


1, Here see Joël Dauphiné’s interesting La Déportation de Louise Michle. Vérité et légendes (Paris, Les Indes savantes, 2006)  
2, A collection of the paper can be consulted in microfilm format at La contemporaine in Nanterre (Mfm P224). [see also https://archivesautonomies.org/spip.php?article3405]  
3, The battle for a concrete equality rather than equality in principle only can be traced back to the equality to which the “women of 1848” were committed. See our study: Les mêmes droits … face à la misogynie prudhonienne (Mayenne, Jouve, 2016, p. 9)
4, Claire Auzias Louise Michel, une anarchiste hétérogène (Paris Editions du Monde Libertaire, 2009, p. 6 (what an ‘anarchiste hétérogène’ may be, we are not even going to guess – author’s note)
5, Edith Thomas Louise Michel ou la vierge de l’anarchie (Paris, Gallimard, 1971, p. 384)


Le Libertaire, No 1, 16 November 1895

In London one often sees the arrival of tramps, meaning folk with no hearth nor home; not everybody can call upon the Southern railways, Panamas, secret funds, etc., etc., etc., so they have to live by working and when work is in short supply, which is not unusual, in the land of the Resseguiers[6] and everywhere indeed, one must look elsewhere or starve to death.

When one has exhausted one’s resources and spent one’s last few pennies from the recent whip-round raised by comrades, covering the distance by rail is no longer an option, so one musters all one’s courage and off one goes, worn-out shoes on one’s feet, shabby clothing on, ’on the tramp’ and since, when that time comes, one’s face is not at ease, one naturally becomes an ugly customer, wanted by all the world’s police and those are the conditions in which a number of unemployed workers come to England in search of work, that being maybe the only place where arresting them will not be the first option.

Here, without further ado (and minimized rather than exaggerated) are the circumstances in which the new arrivals showed up: a man and a woman, because in such circles, the companion would not know how to leave her husband; the crueller his circumstances the quicker she is to get up and go on the tramp and go hungry with him. She took off without daring to turn her head in the direction of her elderly parents, not having the heart for it; she fights back tears.

Having checked that they have enough for their fares, the man and woman sail for England. Things are looking up, they tell themselves and once we get to London we will find work; France’s employers won’t be able to stop them from employing us over there.

For a short while, they went hungry but, sustained by hope, they have become used to not eating every day in any case. They land in Dover at five o’clock in the morning, marvelling at the sea, never having seen it before, but, weary, they feel heavy and their thoughts reach no further than the waves breaking on the shore-line. But they know that from Dover to London it is terra firma all the way and they will get there on foot, snatching some sleep on the way.

Neither of them knows how to read; they were not brought into the factories while youngsters to learn how to read; their first lesson in geography was learnt on the road, which they follow with bleeding feet and empty bellies. If they know nothing, the fault is not their own. For they commit to memory anything that strikes them as a thing of beauty, songs or poems that they have both collected as best they could; they have a feeling for beauty; they belong to that breed lured by progress as if by a lover. But they are securely fastened to the millstone of poverty.

The man has already had a tough time of it. And this is not her first trial either; while still very young, she witnessed Fourmies[7] and was wounded in the heel – and has sustained others since.

There they are ‘on the tramp’, following the telegraph wires, knowing not one word of English, unable to ask for directions.

It rains and the trees are bent by the wind and they are the only ones out of doors, them and the cattle laying down in the meadows.

Three days they tramp, sleeping by night in the haystacks and resuming their travels before daybreak, for fear of being driven away. What they ate along the way is a lingering problem; they trust to luck. One day, with the woman teetering on the edge of death, the man took a chance at asking for a crust of bread at a farmhouse. That and one green apple saw them through the remainder of the journey. And then, finally, London! They had often feared that they would never get there, when the telegraph wires crossed and they fretted and then trusted to luck, following what they took to be the right wire.

They made their way unwittingly through the first few streets and finally stepped into a railway station where he hoped to snatch some rest under some shed but were sent packing at every turn, before stumbling upon a staff member who pointed them in the direction of the French quarter and allowed the woman to sit in a corner of the station.,

A run of luck! An elderly man who had been in London[8] since back in ’71 and ventured out of a morning to fetch the newspapers came across the wretched newcomer just a short walk away from Charlotte Street,[9] spoke to him, went back with him to fetch his wife as the traveller did not know the name of the railway station and then, eventually, retracing their steps, they arrive and both enjoy a little warmth, but they have no work and that was their first thought.

Feeling themselves again, the woman finds out that there is work for a dish-washer and glass-cleaner in a small restaurant; she works for her keep. He, a member of an international union, discovers that there are glassworks in Castlefort;[10] and off he sets, with the names of the towns along the way and a map with the route between London and Castlefort drawn in ink.

On and on he tramps, happy, in the belief that he is sure to find work.

This time, he has a few farthings and can buy himself some bread, but the rain is still pouring down and the road is long as he shows his scrap of paper, seeking directions along the way. He still cannot read and he is soon drenched through – what is to become of him? Clinging to hope, he has a letter left which he has not read and cannot even understand – a letter in English recommending him to the Castlefort Glassworkers’ Union.

He shows the address to the first person he reckons he can trust; the fellow reads it and throws his arms wide.

Which is how the tramp arrived at the Castlefort Glassworkers’ Union; the letter contained one magical word - Carmeau[11] – and for three days the tramp was pampered, fed as well as he could have asked, only to be escorted back to the railway station, because there was no work to be had there either.

But the comrade was walked back to the station singing and accompanied by the banners of the International Glassworkers’ Union and he was happy in London. Still no work, though, other than his wife’s employment, but she is soon to be a mother, so, in maybe a fortnight she will not be able to work either; they cannot rely on her position.
Which is why the husband and wife turn back for France where at least she has her elderly parents – and from there, if there is still no work, they will be off on the tramp again, three of them this time. The mother will be carrying the little one clutched to her chest for protection against the winter snow swirling around them and maybe their corpses will be discovered in some isolated spot. Will we ever see an end to this?

More notes
6, Albert de Rességuier was a monarchist deputy …
7, The reference here is to the shootings in Fourmies on 1 May 1891, a landmark incident in the crackdown on workers.
8, At that time there was more than one former Communard in London who had not returned to France and even a few old hands from the “generation of 1848”. That was how Max Nettlau first heard tell of Déjacques, the inventor of the word libertaire. He was so intrigued by this character that in 1890 he devoted a lengthy article to him in Freiheit. Hence the second incarnation of the term which seemed to have fallen into disuse: by 1892 there was a Libertaire publishing out of Algiers and in 1893-1894 another one in Brussels.
9, The heart of the “French quarter”, made up of exiled militants (Author’s note)
10, Castlefort: Castleford near Wakefield was home to the International Glass Workers’ Union.
11, Properly, of course, Carmaux in the Tarn department.

From: https://www.academia.edu/38823836/Le_premier_article_de_Louise_Michel_dans_le_Libertaire_nov_1895_. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.