14-The Wicked Laws

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Séverine by Louis Lemercier de Neuville 1895

14 – The Wicked Laws

In 1892 the world was in the midst of an economic depression and as financial and industrial tycoons continued to wrest profits out of manipulated markets, events such as the failure of the La Banque General des Chemins de Fer et Industrie resulting in the manager’s suicide did nothing but aggravate people’s frustrations and resentment. Ravachol’s crimes were seen by many as just compensation. It was a busy year across the Atlantic as well. While Ravachol was being guillotined in France, America saw the bloody Homestead Steel Strike in Pittsburgh followed by the assassination attempt of Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, by Alexander Berkman in retaliation for the murdered steelworkers. The coming years saw both an upsurge in anarchist attacks and an expansion of government repression.

The “companions”, as the anarchists called each other, were no longer satisfied with mere threats. Every sentence or execution by the authorities was answered with an explosion. The abuses and perils of the factory prisons were opposed with more and more force. Anarchist terror met bourgeois terror head-on. In November 1893 a young, broke and out-of-work shoemaker named Léon-Jules Léauthier wrote to Sébastien Faure that “I shall not strike an innocent person if I strike the first bourgeois I meet.” That first person whom he met and stabbed happened to be the Serbian diplomat Georgevitch. He was spared the death sentence but died in the “dry guillotine” of the penal colony. A month later another anarchist named Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. The homemade device full of nails scratched a few political heads, but caused more fear than damage. There were no casualties except for him.

Auguste Vaillant was thirty-two years old, unemployed, desperate and bitter. Like so many other workers of his day he was uneducated and when no work was available he was left without any resources whatsoever. The desperate energy that he would rather have expended in work was then aimed at the callous social system that he blamed for his destitution, particularly at the politicians who were also some of the richest men on France.

Although his bomb killed no one and did very little damage, his act was given a swift reply: within forty-eight hours the Chamber voted in favor of a new set of laws known as the Lois Scélérates, the Wicked Laws, targeting anarchists and the anarchist press while beefing up the Paris police force. Prison for anyone participating in any form of propaganda by deed, for anyone inciting people to do so and for anyone approving of such deeds. At the same time the authorities, wanting to keep a close eye on all possible accomplices of the anarchists, revived Napoleon’s “Cabinet Noir”, whereby they could intercept, open and read people’s mail so that even private correspondence was susceptible to reprisals in court. As to be expected, the anarchists were not the only ones to suffer the brutal effects of these policies that prohibited all revolutionary propaganda, anarchist or not, at a time when the government was being discredited by so many sensational scandals.

Vaillant himself was defended in court by Fernand Labori, who had defended Clément Duval[1] and would become internationally famous for his defense of Dreyfus and Emile Zola[2]. Despite his lawyer’s eloquent pleas, the anarchist was given the death penalty. Most of the newspapers supported the disproportionate punishment; only a very few called for leniency. Of course, it was dangerous now to show sympathy for the anarchists under the Wicked Laws, so the press practiced self-censorship or preferred to stay silent. Would Séverine stay silent? Not likely. And she was not in the habit of mixing water with the vitriol of her words. “People of the Press, open your eyes! The peril is growing!” The peril, the true anarchists, she said, were those who slowly killed, every day, the exploited workers without a sound and without scandal and with the support of a repressive government. Anarchist violence was born out of this legal violence, which was consciously ignored by the politicians and public who were demanding the harshest reactions. The ferocity of the Wicked Laws stripped her of any doubts she had had after the attack in the Véry restaurant at the opening of Ravachol’s trial. She fought with all her energy to save Auguste Vaillant from the guillotine, but in vain.

Séverine had met Vaillant at Le Cri when he was a Marxist and friend of Jules Guesde, who said he had “a good mind.” Now that Guesde was an elected deputy of Roubaix, pursuing the hypocritical ambition that Séverine had always suspected in him, he treated him like an imbecile, denying his old comrade and Séverine along with him. When she called upon the hearts of her readers to help Vaillant’s wife and daughter, as she herself had sent money to them, Guesde pointed to this as proof that she subsidized anarchy. But Séverine was not defending Vaillant’s act per se. She sympathized naturally with all forms of insurrection against injustice but in this particular case she was ardently asking people not to let his daughter, Sidonie, starve to death. She was not alone. A fund was raised for little Sidonie’s support, but very quickly an ugly battle started over the girl’s future upbringing with the Duchess of Uzés coming forward with an offer of adoption. In the face of all the ridiculous wrangling, however, the prisoner himself finally put an end to the drama by appointing Sébastien Faure, the anarchist writer, as her guardian. In the meantime the ten-year girl wrote a personal plea to the wife of President Carnot, supported by dozens of deputies and senators asking for the poor man’s reprieve. President Carnot obstinately refused and Auguste Vaillant was beheaded on February 5 1894, the first person in the 19th century to be executed without actually killing anyone. From then on France slipped into that downward spiral where retaliation for blind repression became more and more violent.

 

Next:  The Death of Valiant

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed.

[2] See 17-19.

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