21-Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks

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5-7-14, manifestation des suffragettes (1)

21—Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks

“I’m a feminist and I’ll remain a feminist until I die, even though I don’t like women such as they are any more than I like people such as they are. The mentality of slaves disgusts me.”

–Madeleine Pelletier

 

Women’s suffrage seemed to be making progress in France when Ferdinand Buisson proposed to give the women the right to vote in municipal elections. As restrictive as this proposal was, at least it was step forward. 291 deputies agreed. But the Senate, the vigilant guardians of tradition, remained unanimously hostile.

     Le Journal started a campaign for the “vote blanc”: Don’t vote for any particular candidate, just say “I want to vote”. To kick off this campaign Séverine is the first they ask because she is a matriarch (at 59 years old). Despite her past reservations because of her anti-parliamentary stand, she is not afraid to evolve. As long as women remain dependent on men and defenseless against all economic exploitation, nothing would ever change.

More than 500,000 women came out and said “yes” on May 5 1914 against 114 “no”. And now what? Wait patiently for the kind deputies to make it official for the next elections in 1918? Not enough. They must continue to press on.

On July 5 1914 6,000 women took to the streets of Paris for the first time in French history. Arm in arm, Marguerite Durand and Séverine led the march to the Institut de France and the statue of Condorcet[1] about whom Séverine gives a speech. Unfortunately they did not count on the madness of men. Less than a month later World War I broke out and shattered their hopes in trenches and massacres. Women would face continual refusals by the Senate for 30 more years before getting the right to vote in 1944.

Along with women, labor was also continuing its struggle for rights, unsuccessfully for the most part. On May 1 1906 the CGT called for a general strike in demand for an eight-hour workday for all industrial workers. It would be the biggest strike, the first general strike in France but only 200,000 workers responded. The government under Prime Minister Clemenceau (and his so-called “Radical Party”) responded in force, declared a state of emergency, arrested the CGT leaders and put Paris under siege—60,000 troops were out patrolling the streets. The violent repression triumphed and the strikers returned to work. Despite the wealth being advanced, working conditions continued to decline and more and more workers were pushed in desperate or even criminal activities.

It seemed that for everyone but the working class this was an era of hope, as they sang on the sinking Titanic in 1912. And it was all being recorded on celluloid as some of the earliest cinema-vérité. Airplanes were flying across the English Channel; Jack Johnson became the first black Heavy Weight Champion of the World; the first neon light was introduced in Paris; and the first electric start was installed in an automobile. And then another automobile invention in France: the getaway car.

The Bonnot Gang threw France into terror and confusion for half a year, a whole period of heroic folly and violent crimes. It started on December 21 1911 when they robbed a bank in Chantilly and escaped in a stolen car, shooting a guard in the process. On January 2 1912 they broke into a house and killed the wealthy owner and his maid during the robbery. The gang continued their spree, their stolen cars outspeeding the police who were on horseback or bicycles. They seemed to be everywhere at once. Four different sightings in the country at the same hour on the same day.

By March a number of their supporters were arrested and their identities were known: Octave Garnier, the founder, Raymond Callemin, René Valet and Jules Bonnot, the driver who gave the name to the gang.

Soon their close accomplices were arrested: André Soudy, Edouard Carouy and then Callemin himself in April. By the end of the month almost 30 accomplices and supporters were in custody. On April 28 Bonnot was cornered in a building in the suburb Choisy-le-Roi. 500 policemen besieged the place before blowing it up with dynamite and shooting Bonnot—he died the next morning. On May 14 it was the turn of Garnier and Valet in the suburb Nogent-sur-Marne. Over 1,000 police and soldiers fought for hours while hundreds of onlookers picnicked during the siege. Again the authorities blew the place up. Garnier died in the explosion but Valet shot it out to death.

The trial started in February 1913. Despite all kinds of contradictory evidence and obvious lies, many of the actors were given harsh sentences: Eugène Dieudonné, Marius Metge and Carouy life sentences for example. Victor Serge five years in solitary confinement for conspiracy. Raymond Callemin, Antoine Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined on April 21 1913.

#

The real fear of this gang came from the fact that they called themselves anarchists and made no apologies for it. The newspapers would talk about their audacious bank robbery and shooting a guard but not about the banker who embezzled hundreds of times more money than they stole. These “Auto Bandits”, as they were called, were not your typical criminals. They wrote poetry, talked philosophy and science and sent mocking letters to the police. But they were anarchists and for decades anarchy alone was criminal to the public and the state. The Illegalists, however, were not mere criminals out to make money and they were not intellectual anarchists only spreading propaganda—they believed in direct action and the immediate need of revolution.

Toiling away for rich employers and completely losing their dignity before getting fired and ending up begging or stealing to avoid starvation—this is what the working class lived. Disenchanted with the defeats of labor strikes and rebelling against this system made the Bonnot Gang working class heroes and the best-known anarchists in France. But most anarchists were still relying on non-violent or syndicalist actions and turned against illegalism. Séverine also had a hard time swallowing their anarchist claims. She wondered whether their individualism was not just a cover for egoism and self-interest. Still she intervened to save some of the accused like Rirette Maitrejean and Antoine Gauzy, minor players in the drama.

Most importantly, perhaps, she refused to reveal the names of informants. Confidentiality was the “honor of the profession.” At a time when spies flooded the streets in hope of collecting the reward money, editors were receiving all kinds of letters and information (some of it planted by the police) about the whereabouts of the gang. Authorities were more than willing to do whatever it took to stamp out the least remnant of anarchism. Refusing to be a snitch was a rebellious act in itself.

In the final count, the bandits had killed 9 people and wounded 10. The police killed 9 of them (the tenth committed suicide before they could kill him) and imprisoned dozens more. Now everything was back to normal.

In hindsight the “outrages” of these bandits (probably more the threat to private property than to actual life) do not seem to deserve the panic that struck the bourgeoisie, especially in the countdown to the historic slaughter of World War I.

 

[1] Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), leader in the French Revolution and advocate of women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, etc.

The Child Martyrs

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enfant de la rue

The Child Martyrs[1]

“The child has been, until now, more abused than an animal, more miserable than a beast.” Jules Vallès, Le Réveil, February 6, 1882.

 

At the beginning of the year 1882—that was 22 years ago, almost a quarter of a century—Vallès, whose disciple I was honored to be for the sincere conviction that he maintained, willfully, in financial difficulties and on the fringes of glory, for the exalted honesty of his conscience that matched his actions to his words, which in him equaled talent, this Vallès, I say, the designated protector of all the little Vingtras[2] run away from their brutal parents, set off to found the League of Children’s Rights.

The memberships flowed in. The first was from my friend Jean Bernard who was then a young lawyer in the court of appeals. In his letter he said, “I do not want to consider whether your project is legal, it is humanitarian and just—that’s enough for me.”

But it was not reason enough for others who were emotional but not rebellious. They wanted to do something philanthropic but without violating the Roman tradition subsisting in our law, without affecting the authority of the pater familias. In spite of everything, a little of Brutus’ soul survived in these good people. Hence the failure of the enterprise, the impossibility of doing anything to create stability out of a jumble of such diverse elements. Didn’t someone dare, at the third meeting, to propose the precondition of asking the Préfecture de Police for authorization, while another, as urgent as he was practical, wanted them to guarantee the reception of the endowment that made up the social fund!

Since then, the Child Rescue Society (10** Rue de Richelieu) has been founded. It does a great service, but has never for a minute had the idea of registering among its honorary members the name of the writer whose work and initiative paved the way for them.

But he was not counting on gratitude. He found his reward in his own efforts, the accomplishment of a duty that he laid out for himself, of a task that he accepted in the dreadful days of his youth—under his mother’s whip and his father’s stick!

Counting on the crowd to storm this other Bastille, he wrote, “I myself had the honor of throwing the first board across the pit to make the bridge and launch the attack. If they demolish the law someday, it is because, like Maillart[3] on July 14, I will have incited men of action and women of heart. But the push to overthrow the iniquity will have been given by everyone.”

“Everyone”, that is to say that public opinion is involved, in fact… but only lackadaisically. But in twenty-five years, for the serious cases, only some parental restrictions have been made. And that’s it.

No forceful action, no great intervention has happened for the torture victims of the nursery. They have not striven to foresee or transform the mentality of parents toward their offspring who are not their property, or to call forth the specter of responsibilities, the guarantee for the victims.

The public sentiment is content to whine and complain every time a “petit Grégoire”[4] is found; they cry, they pity, they scream out in horror at the details of the torture; the neighbors (who did nothing and told no one) send wreaths; the neighborhood goes into mourning; the Parisian smart set of the serial novels follow the funeral—where the authorities are represented—and the press pours out a stream of denial.

Then one fact after another: something else to touch the heartstrings turns up.

And the old Law is still standing, incomplete, primitive, obsolete, fierce toward the weak and mild toward the strong.

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So, after this they are surprised to see us in heated discussion about the present state of the law and about our customs, the question of repopulation conceivable only on the day when all those who are already born are in need of nothing; when the search for paternity will be allowed; and the maternity out of marriage will no longer be a synonym for dishonor and illegality; when, finally, the children unfortunately born outside that natural maternal instinct will be protected against the bad luck of their birth, shielded from the results of the mistake.

Doesn’t the daily record support this argument? I was talking the other day about how there are too many litters that are refused a kennel. Well, then, in the mail yesterday I received a letter from a teacher in Paris. She told me about the case of a family with five kids. The rent was paid, four kids are in school and the last one is just a two-month old baby—and yet they were evicted. “Too many children”, the landlord said. And since the father is sick and the mother (selling fruits and vegetables out of a basket) has to earn a living for seven people and since nobody has agreed to take the clan, the poor woman sees no other choice but to tether her offspring behind her and take the plunge together. This will make a great piece of news. The funeral will be magnificent; big-hearted society will take in the crippled—and it will treat as subversive those, like me, who shake their fists!

Just as tact means being astonished and touched and nothing more by the discovery of Rue Rameau. Hey, it can’t be, another child martyr? Isn’t it over yet? Isn’t the list finished? Do there have to be mean, stubborn people?

Well, yes, but if the man is an alcoholic, if the man is crazy, what recourse does a victim have? Here the butcher is not the father, it is the benefactor. His godfather, on the recommendation of the brothers of the Christian schools of Saint Fraimbault, has entrusted him to the orphanage in Guérin—and Guérin has made this twelve-year old creature into a “beast of burden”!

Why would this be disturbing? It happens all the time, I’ll say again, these dramas in which they destroy the life, health and mind of fragile beings.

I am, you know, from the school of action. More than theories, as noble as they may be, more than advocates, as eloquent as they may be, I appreciate the bold sobriety of an event. It says more in its concrete form than all rhetoric. It is nothing short of an irrefutable lesson, a proof that abolishes contrary arguments. It is the mirror of a time without the varnish of appearances, without the make-up of civilization.

And do you want a clear demonstration?

I won’t go back ages and ages, even though I have before me a file containing ten years of child martyrdom.

Let’s take one, if you want, just from this past year, just from the most memorable cases—and that they deigned to think so, as well as the secondary incidents, for those who have remained unknown, for those portray the neglected torments as scandals brought to light.

It is little Gaspard, a 27-month old baby who headed the parade in 1903. It was “accomplished” for his New Year’s present—and certainly, given the blows received and the food refused, his excellent mother could not have given him a better gift!

Two days later at La Chapelle-Thouarault, they discovered a 17-year old girl, whose mother had kept her locked up almost since birth. The poor child was in such a [bad] state that they had to cut off her toes, which were infected with gangrene; and later it was considered necessary to cut off both of her legs.

February 16 at La Flèche they discovered, in a bag of dirty laundry, something that was wailing. It was the little girl of the couple N… She was 15 years old but seemed like five. They had never given her more than or two sous worth of milk a day. The light of day shone through her skeleton.

March 2 at Rethel, there were two more little girls, two poor “lasses”, ten and six-years old. The younger girl was dead, weighing 25 pounds, her hipbones poking through her skin. The older girl had half an inch of louse in her hair. Panting breathlessly she told how her stepmother—very nice to her own four bambinos—made them sleep almost naked on dry leaves among their own excrement. Once, they went an entire week without eating and without drinking even water. When they were thirsty, they drank their urine.

April 2 in the 11th Court they tried a drunkard woman, the wife of D… Her three children, her three victims, were called to enumerate the abuses they suffered: knife wounds, hot irons, etc. Three years in prison—one year per head! It would not have been so steep if her plight were not so wild and depressing, maybe some alcoholic atavism, some morbid heredity.

In June it was little Eugène F, four years old, whose father and brother (not much older than him) both punished worse than the other. The police had been informed, but there was “not enough proof”. It was finally given in the body of the crime, that is the body of the child swimming in his own blood.

In July, August, September, October, you only had to bend down to pick up the news to add to this already too long list.

In November there is little Albert P., two years old, who had to be taken away from his parents and brought to the emergency in Trousseau. His older brother was pampered, spoiled and loved, but according to the report of Dr. Heick he was “covered in wounds and bruises.” It was his mother who took it out on him.

The same month in Nice they tried the parents of little Anna. One month and three months in prison: what a bargain!

Finally in December in Troyes they dug up the young Lucien C. He had been buried for two and half years—and the corpse spoke through all its festered lesions.

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There you go—a very incomplete record of the year. It says a lot about our social state and proves once again how right Vallès was when he asked the Third Republic to finally recognize and proclaim the Rights of Children!

 

[1] In Séverine: Vie et combats d’une frondeuse, Evelyne Le Garree, L”Archipel, 2009.

[2] Jacques Vingtras was the main character in Vallès trilogy: L’Enfant (1879), Le Bachelier (1881) and L’Insurgé (1886)

[3] Stanislas-Marie Maillard (17-63-1794), revolutionary who participated in the taking of the Bastille on July 14 1789.

[4] From the song by Théodore Botrel in 1898.

Solidarity and Charity

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Hradecky-La veuve-1903

Solidarity and Charity[1]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I pay tribute to the work done today, it is because it seems to me this kind of temporary work is extremely necessary between the past and the future; it is because solidarity is a beautiful word, a new word that has the good fortune to scare no one, at least for the moment; it is because solidarity is the chosen intermediary between charity and justice. (Applause)

Charity—I don’t mean to slander it but it seems to me that it is not something that has vanished or gone out-of-date but it is an historical expression. It had its great beauty, its heroic times at the start of our era, not to go all the way back to Antiquity where it was held in honor and practiced by the philosophers before the coming of religions, at the start of these new religions when the persuaded people, the persecuted and hunted people—Oh, those were the good times! How fortunate the persecuted to whom the future belonged!—when those people went into the catacombs and the arenas they did not have the same idea of charity as we do today. Duty was duty. It was the poor brother. They shared what they had in the name of a distant and beautiful ideal.

It was fraternity being practiced: You are my brother, let’s share.

Since then, charity has curiously transformed and all religious charity has its flaws: it is the principle by which we practice charity for what it gives back. We practice charity to get to heaven. Whether it be a Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist or any other heaven, all religions say the same thing: Do good to receive a reward. And what a reward: an eternity of pleasure and happiness!

Logical minds tell themselves: This charity is really just usury.

It is usury. You give this (a little) to get that (a lot).

It is not charity. It is a business; a speculation on the miseries of the poor world but it is not charity. (Repeated applause)

Charity, I say, is a very beautiful thing when we understand in it not only the giving of the object, which is really a very small thing, but the giving of oneself.

I saw charity practiced by two people who were on opposite poles of belief: one was Cardinal Manning, bishop of London, a man, oh yes, truly of heroic times, who in his ecclesiastical garb went with John Burns, the Irish agitator, during the dock strike to speak with the workers in the bars to learn about their needs, their misery, their suffering. He was truly fraternal, a Christian in the best sense of the word.

The other, who for me was a person of admirable dedication and self-sacrifice, was Louise Michel who could not get a place here today (Applause) and to whom I have to apologize for speaking where she could not.

You see in her only one thing: the legend. Behind this legend, behind this bogeyman there is the most tender, the most fervent, the most dedicated heart you can imagine. She, yes, understood charity like it should be understood. She never had anything for herself; she gave herself by giving what she had; she refused to press charges against the man who shot her, saying that he was misled. There are the sick and the unstable who appear guilty but are not. Just so the penal colonies and scaffolds are made for the unstable. (Repeated applause)

Everything moves on and now this word charity is replaced by solidarity.

It is a very good name you took because it implies the feeling of justice. It walks hand in hand with it.

“You’re weaker than I, lean on me! You have nothing, let’s share! Why are you ashamed of your poverty?”

That’s what those who have nothing should keep in mind: poverty is no more degrading than it is criminal. To have no money is not a loss of pride; it is a circumstance of life and the poor are always equal to the rich. (Enthusiastic applause)

In our present society, which is, let’s say it, so savage and barbarous, where money plays a shameful role, we see all too often how the rich push away the poor, but in your solidarity you simply settle the issue: by going to look for those who are suffering. That’s what must be done: going to look for them.

And I won’t say, “Help one another.” But I will repeat the old saying, “Love one another.”

We can replace many things, but we can never replace this saying.

Love one another, meaning share with those who have nothing, give a little of yourselves, give a little of your heart.

Oh, you who enjoy this privilege, admirable and rare as it is to give, know your obligations and your happiness because to give brings pleasure, a joy that can be won by work and effort, I don’t deny, but do you know if some bad luck, some illness might not keep you from success and if you might some day be in the situation of these poor folk. (Applause)

Thus, you members of the Solidarité are one step ahead of tomorrow’s action, you are ahead of your time, you are reaching justice.

It is a beautiful thing to be the precursors of what will be just tomorrow when the State will finally do what it should. Your initiative makes the first move and I who do not believe that governments lead people but that the feelings of the people push governments to do what they should, I find that you are doing something very great here, very beautiful and very generous. (Applause)

So far as children are concerned you recognize their rights.

Up to recent times, up to thirty years ago, we were not very concerned with them. We are very proud of our scientific progress and we consider ourselves very advanced. And yet fifty years ago children still fell under the old Roman law: they belonged to their fathers; they were his property, his cattle. We condemned excessive abuses but children belonged to their fathers. Unfortunately, no matter what has been done, in a lot of areas we still think a father holds all rights over his child. This is false.

A child is a gift given by nature.

You have brought it to life; you are its debtors. In exchange for this lousy gift you owe it as much happiness as possible and at the very least everything that can guarantee it good health and standing.

Parents are the debtors of children.

When we stray from this principle we see that this poor little creature, thrown into life in spite of himself, asking only to stay where he was, who might bear the terrible defects from an unsuspected atavism, which might date back generations, this poor kid who is going to run all risks and face all dangers has the right to protection, to tenderness, to justice from his parents while waiting for society to do what it should.

This is for children, but society puts a heavy debt on this future man.

We don’t see the obligations that the State has toward adults; it will fulfill them later. It will learn to see that every being, just by being born, has the right to the bare necessities. The adult has to earn the extras, but from the fact that he was brought into this world he has the right to live and he, too, is society’s creditor.

The man to whom it is often said, “You’re fit, earn your living,” and who answers, “Sure, but I’ve got no work,”—we have to give him bread.

No one can say of his brother, “He’s not rich but he doesn’t work.” The man who is here on earth has the right to eat; the extras he can work for. (Applause)

While waiting for this time to come, give to those who have not. Enter into this still young solidarity that has a grand future ahead.

This will be a badge of honor for Beauvais and a shining example for the other cities in France.

What I admire is that this organization bears no complicated statutes or board of directors. There is only a good will committee.

I would make a special appeal to women. Under the pretext of working on those wretched little horrors that they later inflict on their friends, those things that are generally in bad taste (and that those who receive them have to hold onto because they are keepsakes), instead of those frivolous luxuries, do simple things.

A slightly faded dress, clothes that you could make acceptable, honorably, use your taste, your elegance to give joy to others with these things. The needle is light for fingers doing good.

Spend your evenings thinking about the women who have nothing. These things you have to work on, give them away, you will know joy and you are the ones who will be grateful.

You will know the treasure of thankful eyes, of seeing creatures now and again wild become calm because they feel that a kind heart has approached them.

Do good. Not to have (as Hugo said, who is also a great figure but already historical) The almighty prayer of a beggar[2], but to see the hateful eye grow tender, to feel in this woman’s embrace as she hugs and thanks you the purest joy and greatest treasure that a human being can know. (Prolonged applause and cheering)

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On finishing Madame Séverine received the compliments of the committee members and of Dr. Baudon who said this: “I thank the audience and Mr. Bienvenu-Martin, our distinguished president, for his powerful, instructive speech, and Dr. Savoire who gave us a wonderful lesson on childcare and morality.” And he added, “As for Madame Séverine, what can I say? With all your heart you applauded her heart speaking. That’s the best reward for her and for us.”

     On leaving the meeting a collection was made. It was fruitful because everyone wanted to participate in this work of fraternity and love that the committee members want to carry out with all their energy and all their heart.

[1] Speech made on November 8 1903 at Beauvais during a conference organized by the Association Solidarité Familiale et Allaitement Maternel.

[2] From “Pour les pauvres” in Les Feuilles d’automne.