My enthusiasm for anarchism went in all directions. I was at risk of becoming inefficient, spreading my energies too thin. Chance made me cross paths with Louis Lecoin. It was in 1921 that I first met him. From that moment on, I spent most of my time making war to war.
Louis Lecoin was just out from the prison of Albertville after an eight-year sentence for antimilitarism. What stroke me first were his blue eyes which glistened with intelligence, with a touch of mischievousness, but also his goodness, his energy, and his courage. He even courted me for a short while. But, at 20, I thought this great man was too small. This did not stop us from being good friends all our lives.
I was not disappointed, the legend about him seemed justified. I knew him well from what Sébastien Faure, Pierre Le Meillour and other people had told me, with such warmth, such love! I knew all the things for which he had been imprisoned: his refusal, as a young soldier, to march against train workers on strike, and to shoot at them, defying the military machine of which he was a part. His campaign against the war, in 1914, the thousand leaflets he had distributed, his long years in jail, punctuated with hunger strikes to demand the reestablishment of the status of political prisoners, and for it to be granted to the anarchist comrade Jeanne Morand, injustly suspected of intelligence with the enemy.
Louis Lecoin was to us, young libertarians, young syndicalists, an example to follow. He had proven us that we could be at the same time syndicalists, liertarians, and antimilitarists.
When he got out he became the administrator of Le Libertaire, the newspaper of the Union Anarchiste, which did not prevent him from being a militant in his union (the builders’ union) and to intervene energetically and efficiently at the Lille congress in 1921 and Saint Etienne in 1922.
Like most of us, he felt enthusiastic about the Russian revolution, from which we expected great things, and which only brought us disillusions, but he resisted being enrolled into the Communist Party, unlike some other comrades.
In 1921, he led a campaign to avoid the extradition of three Spanish men: Ascaso, Durruti, and Jover, sentenced in Argentina pretendingly for some robbery, but in fact for being anarchists. Their extradition was imminent: a cruiser was coming to get them. He reached out to the highest political and judiciary figures, and, finally, won their case.
He also worked to avoid the deportations of Camille Berneri and Nestor Makhno and managed to save them.
But his biggest case was the Sacco and Vanzetti affair.
[From a French original made availble on Marie-Victoire Louis’ blog http://www.marievictoirelouis.net/index.php?id=327&auteurid=251 originally published in La Fronde, 31/12/1926]
School and War
Mr. Herignhoc, a professor at the Law Faculty in Toulouse, has just written an article, in the journal “Scientia”, about “The Rational Organisation of the Society of Nations”. He would like it to organise, on top of its organisms of direct defence against war, world education, by example by fighting illiteracy.
That is all well and good, but I think we could go further along this path of civilisation.
The mass of workers and peasants is infected with jingoism. To assert this, you only have to try and have a discussion in a foreign language in a workers’ cinema or any other popular setting. Immediately, you will attract disparaging remarks: “What are they mumbling there! Couldn’t they stay in their countries!”, etc.
This xenophobia of the people doesn’t grow unaided; obviously, tradition transmits it, but school, as it is today, only intensifies it.
History should be entirely reformed. It centres, as we know, around wars; we could even say, according to primary school history books, that history is only a succession of wars and treaties.
We must write a history which speaks less of kings, of their ministers and of their generals and more about the people. How people lived in the olden days, how work was organised, what the living conditions of workers and peasants looked like. How people lived, their food, their clothes, their houses, their furniture. What women’s conditions were, how were families organised, what influence religion had, what people did for leisure, etc.
Even for small children in primary school, it could draw an abridged picture of every nation on earth, with their language, their governments, their customs.
To talk about wars would be necessary, but only to condemn them; we could say who made up armies; how recruitment was made; what the life of a soldier, a life of looting, a given death sentence; say how little human life was worth.
After such an education, people would no longer believe that foreigners are savages and that only France is civilised.
In the school courtyard, war-like games would be banned. We could replace them, for example, by something of the same kind, but with a benevolent idea: make kids play firemen, rescuers, etc.
I think it wouldn’t be hard, with a ministerial decree, to ban the selling of any military toy: no more guns, swords, helmets, uniforms or tin soldiers. We could replace tin soldiers with, for example, football players, or athletes doing exercise.
Nothing pops into the brain which doesn’t come from senses.
When all jingoism will be banned from education, it will disappear from people’s mentalities.
Letter to Pierre Monatte1
St. Martin d’Auxy, December 29th, 1914
I just received your manifesto.
I very much agree with you on the mistakes committed by the Confederation Committee. The last one may be the most incredible of all. Do enlightened revolutionaries not know that the working class, more than any other class, are paying for this disaster? Are they not able to understand that a country like Germany cannot be annihilated and that war can only exasperate the faults of its public opinion, supposing that the Germans are more blind than we are? To make the revolution, to free a people from tyranny with cannon fire, this is the whole 1793 ideology which reappears here. We know how this ends. The Germans are good to free themselves; and peace will put better weapons in their hands than war. Let’s do our work which is to develop the organisations of struggle, and let’s leave our neighbours do theirs. People say: “If we do not defeat Germany, we leave it the possibility to take its revenge.” Let’s imagine Germany is defeated (could it be more defeated than France in 1870, and can we prevent a nation which wants to live to be reborn from its ashes?), okay, let’s admit it is. Chances of war will in no way be reduced, they will only be moved: the centre will be at St. Petersburg and London instead of Berlin and Vienna. Capitalist chaos still has bright days to live. And the best, and quickest, despite its extreme slowness, way to avoid wars is to kill capitalist society, to install a social justice regime, where economic rivalries are replaced with international economic calculations.
When I read what L’Humanité makes its readership swallow – but, believe me, they don’t all digest it and people will be held accountable – I moan about this new socialist mentality. It is a return to ancestral brutality: let’s beat them up and kill them to bring them freedom. We can only wonder: is it madness, stupidity, or braggartism?
The duty of workers’ organisation was to do all they could to prepare peace: that will be enough work already. And we shouldn’t have discouraged the neutrals in their effort of working-class humanity and clear-sightedness.
Maybe a neutral who we do not worry about enough, cholera, will come and make everyone agree. And, in the springtime, maybe a peace of cholera will be signed, like the Turks and Bulgarians had to sign. But, then, there won’t be many of our guys left to count.
As for the causes of the war and its responsibilities, it is too soon to tell: they are in the end economic, I know, and each country was carrying its burden. Everything will become clearer after a few years of peace, and our duty will be to inform the working class at large, in order to make people understand that, as always, the awfully tragic joke is on them.
The C.G.T. will need a strong purge. And Merrheim and the others should not follow you; we need, on the inside, some good pilots to parry as best as we can.
Your resignation, as much as it is useful to attract the attention of the groups, must remain an only case; the other comrades will only have to approve your reasons – at least, that’s my advice. Let’s not drown everything, the rescue operation would be impossible.
My best to your wife and yourself. When is this Council? That is the sword of Damocles which just won’t fall…
On the Manifesto of the Sixteen
To the series of considerations on this subject from comrades in the columns of Plus Loin, I would like to add a few words. For several years now this disagreement endured in the anarchist milieu, and neither time, nor events seem to teach anything to either side. Every time we broach the issue, angers flare up again with renewed strength. And yet, wasn’t the importance of this disagreement exaggerated? Do we not amplify it through some kind of self-suggestion, through the habit of arguments, always the same? Let’s remind ourselves of how many of those who later called the signatories of the “Manifesto of the Sixteen” renegades were, in the first days of the war, staunch supporters of resistance against the German army marching on Paris. Let’s recall also that when, in 1912, during the Balkan war, Les Temps Nouveaux published articles by Kropotkin and Tcherkesoff expressing broadly similar opinions to those which were later to raise so much outrage, no one thought of crying treason. It is obvious that it is only much later, and progressively, that the divergence of opinions grew to gigantic proportions in the eyes of comrades.
Can we claim that the outcome of any war – civil wars excepted – is indifferent to us? There are wars the outcomes of which decides the political or national independence of peoples; there are wars in which the victory of an adversary can bring about a strong general reactionary movement. Lastly, here is a very clear example nearer to us: suppose that a power or a coalition of powers now declare war on Russia. Whatever our opinion on the current internal regime of Russia, the Russian revolution, in itself, is of such value that a danger which threatens its conquests cannot leave us indifferent. However, it cannot be contested that such a war would oppose the old world to the beginnings of a new life, although under the form of a conflict between two states and two armies.
Our attitude towards a war therefore varies according to circumstances; we can discuss whether such and such a fighting side is worth defending, if such and such an outcome would be a step forward or backward for humankind, but we must not turn an issue of appreciation or prediction of events into an issue of principle of first importance.
There is yet another aspect of the issue which seems to have been overlooked until now. Yes, there is indubitably a contradiction in the attitude of anarchists who, during the great war, sided with one of the opponents. We should not close our eyes on this. We cannot deny that taking part in a war is a violation of pacifist and anti-militarist principles, that the fact of joining an army and to submit to discipline is an important concession. But isn’t this lack of logic inherent to life itself? Could anarchists escape this contradiction? And didn’t those who held the opposite view fall into as obvious a contradiction, although in the opposite direction? Actually, no one could escape it, since, if taking part in the war violates pacifist and anti-militarist principles, non-resistance to invading armies constitutes at least as great a violation of the principle of resistance to oppression, and at least as great an abandonment of the spirit of revolt. These conflicts are the work of life itself. The most serious one is the one which is faced by the conscience of each revolutionary: on the one hand, the principle of the inviolability of human beings; on the other, the right to insurrection and revolutionary struggle in the name of the emancipation of these same human beings. We must choose, just as we had to choose at the time of the war. And even abstention, inaction are no solution: non-resistance to evil is always, in reality, a service to the stronger side. In one way or another, anarchists were forced to throw their opinion onto the scales. And which one of the two conflicting principles is more general, deeper, more precious: the pacifist and anti-militarist principle or the principle of resistance to oppression? Indubitably, the latter. Anti-militarism is only one particular form of opposition to the state, like war is only one particular manifestation of the capitalist and hierarchical organisation of society. On the contrary, the idea of resistance, of a struggle against a strong power, of the defence of rights and liberties of every social group, of the struggle against reaction in all its forms, is the fundamental idea of the anarchist movement; but it is not under this abnormal aspect that we must picture them in a serious discussion.
Nowadays, actually, it seems that the issue has slightly changed: we mainly focus on the considerations on the results of the war, we discuss on the issue of knowing whether the reaction has grown stronger or weaker, on what things would look like if Germany had won, etc. The current reaction supports the thesis of the opponents to the participation in the war, that is a fact; but if events had gone differently, the reaction which would have followed the victory of Germany would have also supported the opposite view and would therefore have changed the opinion of the anarchist milieu.
In the conditions, the issue loses its importance: it is no longer a matter of the anarchist principles of the authors of the Manifesto, but of their political perspicacity: were they wrong when they thought the game was worth it? But can the question asked this way preserve the importance that we gave it and prevent comrades to work together when they are only kept apart by a different appreciation of the political situation at a given time?
War and Feminism
Our small “Suffragist” was not published during the war.
A wind of madness blew over Europe; men believed they had nothing left better to do than to kill each other.
Cheap authors used, in order to feed hatred, their talents which did not increase for it; scientists worked to discover the product which would kill most assuredly and quickly the largest number of people possible. We achieved to be able to kill you from a three hour train journey away.
What chances did the cry for justice of the individual oppressed by society in the name of a stupid sex prejudice have to be heard?
But wars have proved many calculations wrong, and, at this game, the ruling classes have not won. The proletariat was becoming unruly; throughout Europe, its organisations were growing and the bourgeoisie, worried by nature, had even greater fear than there was danger for them. During a couple of years, war was prepared, and a futile pretence, when compared to its consequences, triggered the cataclysm. The proletariats which had sworn to stand united let themselves be led once more to carnage by their masters. French people shouted “A Berlin!” Germans shouted “Nach Paris!” Guillaume invoked his old God; our priests held mass on the front line and international capitalism salivated, sure that the good old days would come back, with its cheap labour, and workers back on the deserted pews of the Church.
Workers’ demands are now more demanding than ever. The people was shouting, but it was afraid of battle; the bourgeoisie taught it to kill. War overthrew kings, it unleashes social revolution everywhere and obtains for women both fundamental demands of our “Suffragist”: the right to vote and the right to work.
War needed women. In days of old, wars only took from the nation a tiny part of its producers; the need for a labour fore was hardly felt, therefore, wives could use their time tearing sheets to make bandages. This time, whole nations had to be enrolled, and since, even to kill, people must live, eat, be dressed, etc., production demanded from women the contingents it no longer had.
It is certainly with a heavy heart that rulers agreed to it; on this issue, our self-proclaimed avant-garde nation was very inferior to the hated Germany. About driving tramways, people have recycled the old objections of my youth to female medicine students: women have no self-control, they will have accidents, and so on.
Women gave the tempo: the long “Montrouge-Gare de l’Est”, the huge “Malkoff-Les Halles” obeyed the moves of the frail female tramway drivers, graceful hands seized the heavy hands of the signal box and the freeing hook of the famous breakdown.
Those who were believed to be only good to mend rags have forged iron; the turned the heavy bombshells; fearless, they combined picric acid to turn it into the terrible melinite, and passers-by could see them walk the street all in yellow.
Less demanding jobs which men had kept to themselves, not wanting to share the money given by independence, had to be offered to women because of the circumstances. We saw some graceful post-women with their red-brim caps, female gas controllers, delivery girls in the right uniform in department stores. In a hostile society, women conquered their place bit by bit; the female worker succeeded to the housewife and the courtesan.
There are however a couple of dark spots on this encouraging picture. The courtesan is too old not to reappear from time to time under the worker, some hospitals had the appearance of brothels; civil servants spent their work time flirting and powdering themselves, to the great joy of anti-feminists. The female workers, suddenly astonished by fantastic wages, not really knowing what to do with this money which was suddenly available to them, like in fairy tales, spent it any old way: expensive shoes, perfume, silk tights, the old feminine vanity; men would have spent it on gambling or cheap wine. Only the elites are worthy of freedom; the mass, who only knows its instincts, always starts with excesses; in the long run, however, it all balances out. Therefore, we must not focus on these details, as bad as they can seem: only the larger picture matters.
The feminist conclusion of this war, is that women can accomplish in a satisfactory manner any intellectual or manual work. She only has to be freed: she will be, because people will be forced to free her.
The “victorious” murderer
La Revue Anarchiste
It is particularly interesting for women to know how war modified men’s characters. Did it send them back to their lives more violent or more weary? This is the issue that several books published since the end of the war tried to solve, among which, recently, The Pleasure Of Killing, by André Dax.
Put in such general terms, the question is badly phrased: most of the true warriors, violent males driven by their instincts, have died in the war – and that’s for the best – and as for the others, their ability to forget, without which we could not live, gave them back to their partners as they were, quite mediocre.
However, we cannot deny that war imprinted the minds – of those who think, at least – so deeply that many works reminds us of it.
The Pleasure Of Killing is still full, if not of facts of war, of its consequences, my colleague in charge of the book review section will forgive me if I tell I a few words what this book adds to the answer to the earlier question.
War, André Dax proves, wakes up in men its instincts for cruelty, the call to murder remains heard, and the gesture which was a habit during these long years can never be forgotten.
His main character, Michel, after having gotten a taste for women and sex in the tranches, gradually feels the taste for murder rise in him, and, cheated, kills his rival in an almost automatic gesture, as if to pierce the flesh and make the blood of the enemy flow was still something normal and sanctioned by the law.
However, once the crime is committed, he regains consciousness. Should he give himself up to the justice of men? Who is worthy of judging him? But he will expiate his crime by going to the Far East, far away from any civilisation, to live a harsh and difficult life which will redeem himself in his own eyes. Later, the woman he has never ceased to love, as a soldier and as a criminal, will meet him there, and, thanks to love, he will tame the evil beast we all carry within ourselves.
There are in this book many digressions, among other things about the survival of the souls, which, according to Michel, survive generation after generation, offering to men the violent or beneficial heredity of their ancestors.
This book, written in a pleasant if slightly monotonous language is worth to read. André Dax has observed and thought before he wrote. The pages in which he describes the miserable future of Europe, destined to unavoidable decadence, are deep and beautiful. His views on Christianity, which “in nineteen centuries failed its founding goal three times” are right. We can only wish a bit more rationalism from this probably young author, and that, in later works, he base his thesis on more solid scientific grounds.
His theory is right: war brought the old man back to life: these multitudes of heredities which the appearances of civilisation had pushed back deep into our unconscious during this upheaval, like in the aftermath of any exterior and interior turmoil. There is no need for the souls of our predecessors on this earth reincarnate in us to explain this. Soul is a meaningless word. The holdovers from brain and nervous system cells is largely enough, thanks to the heredity of acquired characteristics, to transmit throughout the centuries visions of murder and the aptitude to renew them. This is also accompanied with ancestral terrors which created gods, souls and all metaphysics. As for violent jealousy which André Dax tells us about, how could we be surprised to see it reborn in organisms unbalanced by war, and sent back by it into primitive barbarity?
Among the first men, war, or more precisely fights, between tribes or between animals were intimately linked to the sexual instinct. Carpentier proved this in a thorough study, “War and sexual instinct” – what François de Curel calls the “dance in front of a mirror” is nothing else than the need for the male to look stronger in front of the female he chose. In time of peace, this instinct changes, and it is moral or intellectual supremacy which men aspire to in order to win women over; but, with such violent tremors as those caused by a war of this magnitude, the varnish which Christianity, moralists and philosophers of all kinds tried to apply on the human machine peels off and the old instincts are uncovered.
It would be childish to be surprised or outraged against such obvious facts, we will only ever be poor beings, full of contradictions and doomed by our very nature to sudden returns to the quasi-animality which was our fate.
I know, among the people, women who complain about the unfortunate change that war brought to their partners’ characters. It is as late as it is useless to lament, it would have been much better to prevent and help the future soldier to be a deserter, logically revolted against the cruel and idiotic order which attempted to make him forget the dearly acquired notions of love and gentleness which made lecherous anthropoids into civilised and loving men.
Let’s hope the “next one” won’t find them in the same state.
Midinettes on strike
The small hands, the midinettes, these small bees of the great fashion houses, from where the masterpieces worn by artists and ladies of the Paris and international bourgeoisie come, these young girls who you can meet in squares or at the Tuileries, at lunchtime, sharing their meagre meals with the birds, their friends, are very badly paid, live on very little, dress with almost nothing, but always with taste. The midinettes are known in all of Paris for their laughter, their chicness, and their small artists’ hands.
But there’s a down-side to this. Today, they are on strike. They can no longer manage. Bosses who exploit them shamelessly don’t want to hear anything about granting them a pay increase. So, they take to the streets.
There is a meeting this afternoon at the trade union hall, near République. Our friends Margot, Marie, Mado Ferré are on strike. Thérèse and I decide, in solidarity, to join them, to bring them our support. The room is packed. Girls and women follow one another on the platform, they explain the situation in couture: whether it is in workshops or in rooms, they are exploited all the same. They will not give up, a delegation is chosen to start negotiations with the bosses’ union.
When they leave, it is like sparrows taking flight. They laugh, hail one another. Surprise: we can see several hundred guys from the building industry and road workers who have stopped work to bring their moral and material support to the midinettes. That’s great! They are cheered and even kissed. It is decided to go demonstrate in front of the great fashion houses, and then on the Champs Elysées. He guys give their arms to the girls, and the picturesque and joyous march is ready to flow onto the Grands Boulevards. Suddenly, a squadron of republican guards shows up on the République square, surrounding open carriages. Poincaré1 sits in the front carriage. The rest of the government in the other ones.
“It is Poincaré, you know, ‘the man who laughs in cemeteries’…”
He is simply here to inaugurate a very strange exhibition on the République square. In some sheds, machines have been set up in which we could see photographic sights of life in the tranches, the transport of the wounded, the dead lying on the battlefields, and all the horrors of war. And, on top of this, the Paris public had to pay to see that…
We are at the edge of the pavement, ready to join the march, Poincaré gets off, waving at the crowd who came to salute him. All of a sudden, Mado leaves us, walks towards him, raises her hand and shouts at his face: “Bastard! You came to see your dead!” Immediately she is seized by the guard and handed to the police who rushed to the scene (and so are we as we didn’t want to leave her); there we are embarked for the police station, mistreated and pushed into a corner like thieves, then interrogated by the commissar who gives us such an earful!…
We are thrown into cells and kept overnight. We weren’t proud! What was to become of us? Fortunately this “attentat” was not taken seriously. There was probably an order not to talk about it to the press, in other words to stifle the case.
We got off lightly, but we were furious we had missed the march on the Champs Elysées.