Bourgeois Morality

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Frank Kupka

Bourgeois Morality[1]

We asked our great friend Séverine to give us her opinion on this expired morality whose moral disorder resulting from the war has gone bankrupt and is nothing but dead weight on the new generation. 

It existed… in a world that hardly resembled this one and that I think remains one of its last witnesses.

The Third Estate, that middle class that lays claim to ancient virtues when men appeared honest and women modest, but that inevitably perverted the “Enrich yourselves!” of Guizot[2]—this morality around the end of the Second Empire seemed to be reserved only for the petite bourgeoisie, on the border of the people.

It was fighting against the three defects that long slavery had bequeathed it: ignorance, personal carelessness and drunkenness. Bad conditions to create a morality for its own use or to accept the strict and puritan one of its neighbor.

But time passed. The petite bourgeoisie was in turn won over by corruption, contaminated by love of money, the taste for consumption and the desire to be seen. And what you could have called the bourgeoisie morality, the kind of lay gospel in which the soul-searching of a good part of the country was summed up, disappeared completely.

A Fourth Order had risen up—or better, all of them, once divided into three and whom the wonderful addition of the people unwedged, were split into two halves. Nobility and bourgeoisie melted into a single bloc with almost identical instincts and aspirations: the one a zealotry for the Church and the other declared hostile to it but both agreed to support the military, the protector of traditions, sacristies and safes!

Class struggle. On the other side of the barricade, grouped together, the forces of the past united for the common defense. Over here the people: a people knowing how to read, to write and more obsessed with learning; trained in sports to care for their physical dignity; only rarely offering that spectacle of drunkenness.

What could the poor, former, petty, tidy, nitpicking bourgeoisie morality do among these formidable adversaries? They stuck to the new one, the one coming from the head like a decomposing fish; the one dropped by the decadent aristocracy in the salons of the bankers, the suppliers of the State, the grand merchants, and then little by little spread out into the more modest world of civil servants, departmental officials and retailers to end up winning over the extreme limits of the Third Estate.

Worship of force! Religion of money! Idolatry of rules and regulations as protectors of property!

Faith? Rarely. If, of all the listeners of the mass or the regulars at confession, they needed to trim away the “faithful” who only went out of habit, decorum, the desire not to be different from their peers, worry over relationships or business, fear of public opinion, or even (in the small towns without theaters) the need for distraction, the irresistible desire to show off a new dress or hat à la Paris, if they needed to clear the holy place of all these, there would not be very many people left!

The priests are well aware of this; there are even some who admit it. But the Church, which is clever, also knows that appearance is one of the foundations of reality, that duty creates the system, that number is power—which it is very careful not to exaggerate. It is enough that the building is full and the heads bowed. War has done a great deal for it as it recruits from the grieving.

No, the bourgeois morality today is founded on no ideal.

Furthermore, so that we’re not fooled, God is on the decline, despite all precedents. Otherwise they would never have dared, three months before the war, in April 1914 (a miracle with double vision!) to change in the Catechism of the diocese of Paris the text of the 5th commandment, to transform the simple and formal decree, “Thou shall not kill, [for no reason nor deliberately]”, into a tangled, conditional instruction, [“Thou shall not kill, without right nor deliberately”], where (already!) the defense of the homeland is anticipated. Otherwise, as well, they would not have dared—even with the bishops’ authorization—to force the servants of the “God of Peace” into denying their Master and his doctrine.

Not one refused, by the way. It was among the Protestants, you must know, that “conscientious objectors” rose up—and the judges who yielded.

For the Christ suspected of defeatism, embarrassed by the Gospel (which, by the way, was copiously censored many times) they substituted a lay idol, warlike, renovated, amplified, safe for the old men behind the lines, like Ugolino devouring his children or Moloch demanding fresh meat from the young prey[3]: The Homeland!

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Was it, therefore, this that the bourgeois morality could rest on from now on?

No more than on the ancient divinity. Because “a religion for the people is necessary” they had established this one, put under the Arc-de-Triomphe the remains of an unknown soldier, perhaps a German, perhaps a deserter, suddenly invested (by chance) with all virtues whereas perhaps he had all vices. And it made of this X, with the cooperation of a dependent press, the object of a “new worship”. But besides the dead, what had been the attitude of those who represent their class—seeing that their class does not obligate them to decency?

Two works are surprisingly suggestive here: the Souvenirs de Guerre, the daily writings of the painter Jacques Blanche, caustic, lively, wholly curious; and Bonnet Rose of Georges Michel who, after Epoque Tango, likewise defines the attitude of part of the ruling class. What if we add to this reading the Chercheurs d’or of Pierre Hassye, Rois de Babel of Maurice Verne, and some significant court reports from these last few years—we are completely edified.

I am not judging by generalities. That would be stupid and risk being unjust. But given that only scandals impossible to cover up come to light, by the sheer number of those that do surface we can imagine how many remain in the dark.

When these people weren’t guzzling booze or fox-trotting on the mass grave of Hartmannwillerskopf[4] or elsewhere, they were carving their pound of Shylock’s flesh off the flank of the Homeland; they were trading and selling indifferently with each other, with the ally, with the neutral and with the enemy!

Well… if neither God nor Homeland, what framework does this bourgeois morality have?

Honesty? The system D[5] has dominated maybe even more behind the scenes than out front. Under the flag of the sacred Union, they devoured each other, taking whatever they could. Whoever sold anything dreamt only of exploiting the customer down to the bone, down to the guts! One person’s hunger made another’s fat!

Modesty? Let’s forget about certain establishments where “love thy neighbor” is quite exaggerated. Likewise let’s forget about that kind of hysteria during tragic times that wants to live hard and fast. Let’s stay out of all that. But in the second year, in the secret dances where “honest ladies” would nonetheless go, they had never been so scantily dressed. And the “patriotic” balls that followed were, yes, great scandals. On the street, necklines go down to the waist, skirts are over the knees and blouses (being see-through) leave nothing to the imagination.

Family? There have never been as many divorces. And for good reason! To the point that the most legitimate children cannot recognize their parents. And the parents no more so—and the public even less!

Again, what virtues remain in this shipwreck? What branch can this bourgeois morality grab onto, being that it wasn’t worth much before 1914 and is worth absolutely nothing today?

That there are good families among the bourgeoisie is certain. They mind their manners thanks to an unsoiled heredity, to traditions that good fortune has allowed them to preserve and transmit faithfully. But each, in a way, represents an individual faction, has its special Code that, except for intermarriages (which are most often disastrous for the future of the species), outside influence is bound to dissolve.

In other words, there is no common directive. If any is declared, a secret commentary annuls its effect right away.

They say to a child, “Do not kill!” but right after, “Make War!” They insist he respect the property of others, but they indoctrinate him, for example, to hate the idiots who don’t manage to “get by”, to speculate on the naivety, imprudence or needs of their neighbor. They exhort him to be good but they teach him that the first law of employers is to pay the workers as little as possible and earn triple or quadruple on their labor, fatigue and suffering.

As for the girls, it’s very simple. Given the reduction in the males, the race to a husband has never been so cruel. Well, the mothers, respectable in their own eyes, losing any sense of dignity, dress up their children as seductive as they can and tolerate, when they are not pushing them to it, the little ploys to thwart the competition and assure the “good match”.

These girls, moreover, are very shrewd and maybe this is not a bad thing. Their new eyes are quickly made to see through the norms whose greed and lack of principles the world tries to cover up. It doesn’t matter! All manhunts are the same no matter the ritual. And I sometimes felt more uncomfortable in a “proper” salon among the conspiratorial smiles than I would have been on the stage of the Folies-Bergère[6]. She who is looking to get a dinner seems more innocent to me than she who, well born and well raised, under her family’s protection, plays pretty much the same game to get her dream car!

Is it any better in less high society? Let’s see. Crafts or more precisely manual labor has fallen into disfavor. Based on the novels and films and according to the tales of a few exceptional adventurers, the parents can no longer count on anything but secretarial work to make a future for their daughters, to give them access to a higher world where the kings of the moment marry shepherd girls. On which hand? … They did not think about it enough and maybe, in the end, they didn’t dare to ask themselves too much. Life is so hard!

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The true morality will come from the new world being created in some far-off limbo and will develop through usage and will be valued by what the individual values.

Nothing good can come today from a society that is breaking apart and that is contaminated with the stench of rot and decay. It is up to the people to free themselves from a past burdened with prejudice, superstition, expectation, faith in miracles, deep dark sleep and too short dreams. We can only help it along as best we can, with all our energy and all our courage.

For, already we know that this morality will be just and beautiful, founded on the equality of the sexes, fraternity of peoples, respect of conscience and love of that Justice which is divinity without cathedrals, without altars, without priest and sacrifices—it is the highest human ideal!

 

[1] Clarté, 3 December 1921.

[2] François Guizot (1787-1874), who tried to restrict voting rights to men with property and thus others should “enrich themselves” to climb the social ladder.

[3] Ugolino is placed by Dante in the lowest hell reserved for betrayers (Canto XXIII); Moloch, a god demanding the sacrifice of children.

[4] In the Vosges in Alsace where there is a monument of WWI.

[5] I.e. typical attitude meaning fend for yourself.

[6] Famous for exotic dancing and nude women. It would later feature the celebrated Josephine Baker.

Prayer to the Nameless

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severine10

Prayer to the Nameless[1]

     In your devastated temple, before your forbidden altar, here I am bending my knees in homage, O Divine!, stretching out my hands to call for help, O Venerable!, lifting up my heart as an offering, my whole being filled with ardent fervor, throbbing with ultimate hope, O Protector!

The barbarians passed by here—all the barbarians! They made your mutilated image disappear, snatched away your symbols, pillaged what recalled your influence, your good deeds… and our pious worship. The sacred wood was snatched away by the maddened horde, the sacred birds, with their throats’ cut, sang their final languid song with a death rattle.

And your name was banned, Eternal! It could never again be pronounced except in a whisper between scattered servants, your believers reduced to silence—all those who would keep invincible faith in the secret of their soul. But every voice that tried to whisper it was stifled. Whoever tried to follow your path was despised, struck down with anathema… you became the “enemy”, O Charitable!

A few, however, ventured this far. These flowers that time has dried were brought by women; these slabs of broken text bear witness to the perseverance of some writers; these inscriptions on the walls, clumsy and naïve, say that simple people, at the height of suffering, could not be denied by you, O Comforter!

The marble was broken, the walls cracked under the pounding arms, the doors smashed in and through the fissured dome the waters of heaven fell… And you never looked so majestic and desirable as in this degradation, this distress, this poverty. They gave you, Goddess, the appeal of ostracism, the irresistible allure that persecution bestows. The last flame has not yet burned on your altar. The shadows daring to come to you down hard roads are no longer so stealthy. The mystery of the night is no longer crossed by secret passages. Antigone[2] raises her veil in the nascent dawn to disobey men—and obey the gods!

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Listen, Serenity, to the hymn of a heart that gives its most precious days to you, its blazing summers, its autumns full of splendor. Because it costs dearly to serve you, it allows me to proudly claim my title to disgrace.

I have celebrated you the best I could. And it seems to me today that my words were poor, my efforts frail, my praises weak—seeing that we did not save you, O So Precious! It is only now that we can know what you are, what you are worth, what you represent for mortals in the play of their destinies.

Nothing is without you! The stones of Decalion[3] would not change into humans. The touch of your bare feet made the ground sprout in abundance, prosperity and joy…

Wherever you go, the harvest grows, turns golden, remains whole, without a stalk twisted and without a seed lost… the sacred bread!

Wherever you smile, the vines bend under the weight of grapes, amber colored, scarlet colored, where the daily drops are caught—wine, the comfort of man!

Wherever you sing, the bowers dare to mate, from port to starboard shaking their rosy freight.

Wherever you reign, there is the song of hammers, productive activity, art flourishing, thought soaring, the good fight for the coming of better times, the struggle for truth, the march toward more justice!

They did not know you, Immortal, in that they knew you without understanding, they lived under your reed scepter without appreciating its lightness, without admiring enough your true face, magnanimous and magnificent.

They know now… They know that you are the flavor of fruits, the scent of flowers, the taste of wheat, the bloom of roses, the gold of the sun and the gentleness of night—since nothing of all this would exist without you.

You carry in yourself all the good: the calm of sleep, the security of love, the solidity of home. Outside of you is nothing but insecurity, absence, grief, ruin and death…

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And you are beautiful, oh so beautiful, more than words can say, so white, so pure, so full of gentleness. In you are summed up the mother, sister, spouse, daughter, seeing that by your very presence you ensure the happiness of all tenderness. The smallest, the most innocent sense that your aegis covers them; toward you the baby bird stretches out its beak—it doesn’t see it is under your wings—and the little lamb rubs against your linen robe.

O Goddess, thanks to you the barn is full and the stable stocked, the attic overflows and the cellar is packed. You who take pleasure in marriage bells and baptisms. Divinity of farmers, artisans, lovers and mothers, for those who work, those who love, may you be favorable.

It won’t last forever, your dark exile… They hear, far off in the distant, like a soft, silky flight. Even the stones of the half-destroyed temple are moving and vibrating. Here I am standing—all ears… Is it you who are approaching me? Will you come down soon from the heavenly depths to appear, luminous, to all those who are waiting for you and hoping for you, O Liberator!

 

[1] Journal du Peuple, 1 January 1917, a homage to peace.

[2] Daughter of Oedipus who defied Creon, ruler of Thebes, to bury her brother Polynices.

[3] Son of Prometheus who repopulated the Earth with his wife Pyrrha after a great flood by throwing stones behind his shoulder to form people.

22-Horrors of War

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Ce qu'il faut dire--Censored

22-Horrors of War

In February 1905 Séverine published an article in Je Sais Tout entitled “The Horrors of War” in which she meticulously enumerates the deaths produced by the ensemble of wars in the 19th century. In France and abroad it totaled 15 million casualties during the “century of progress”, more than 400 a day. The battle of Mukden alone (the largest battle fought before World War I) cost 42,000 Japanese lives and 50,000 Russians that would weigh in at 8 million kilos of human meat, including the bones.

Séverine was a pacifist from day one. Over the past ten years her speaking engagements had brought her to many pacifist conferences where her convictions defended the young conscientious objectors and criticized the “Sacred Union.” More than just stupid, war was absurd. How else could the assassination of an exotic archduke in a distant country unleash the infernal machine?   Could anything stem the tide of coming war?

Jean Jaurès, the Socialist leader, was also fiercely antimilitaristic and tried to bring a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Franco-German hostilities. Still stinging from the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, many French were unwilling to back down as the nationalists beat the drums of war. Jaurès declared that in case of war he would call for a general strike. Could such a dangerous opposition be allowed to continue? No, they killed him on July 31 1914, the very day that he had declared, “If the mobilization is made, I’ll be assassinated.” Shot in the back through the window of the brasserie Croissant. That bullet marked the end of all hopes for a peaceful solution and silenced the countless voices that had risen up against the danger. On 3 August the war began. The next day they held the funeral for Jaurès, Séverine sat in the front row before giving her speech. If this man had lived could he have changed the course of history?

Raoul Villain, the nationalist assassin of Jean Jaurès was acquitted on 29 March 1919—an injustice as bleak and blatant as the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States.

Ordinary life in the country stopped. Social activity disappeared, including in the intellectual spheres where all kinds of voices used to shout out against social injustice. The factories went from making satin and lace to making bombs, bayonets and bullets. In 1914 there were 15,000 women working in the factories. By 1918 there were 1,500,000. Séverine wondered if they and all their counterparts in Germany could end the war by just folding their arms and refusing to work. But could they really do that when they had to feed their children as the men (4 million of them) were shipped off to the slaughter?

All revolutionary papers were suppressed at the outbreak of the war and those that remained were censored by the government. Meticulous civil servants armed with scissors haunted the editorial offices dissecting the copy being composed and cutting into it right there. Many words here and there and often entire paragraphs, anything suspicious or dangerous was expunged, especially if it invoked the enemy Germany, as did the horse-drawn carriage called a berlin. The “blanks” that invaded the papers became almost as meaningful as the words. Reading the news became a puzzle game trying to find the missing pieces.

Most journalists submitted without too much of a fight. But Séverine refused to become a spokeswoman for an institutional lie and support the official lunacy. As her bosses rejected her pacifism and refused to print anything subversive, they required her to talk about harmless subjects far from war. On the other hand, she started meeting secretly with others who opposed the war. Professors, lawyers, journalists, in strictly private meetings, embarked on a forbidden adventure almost as exciting as the Padlewski affair[1], trying to bring the bloody slaughter to an end. At 60 years old she began to find her old pugnacity. The stronger the enemy, the more fiercely she fought. And wasn’t she always known as the mother of lost causes.

Some pacifists refused to be silenced or stay in the wings. Hélène Brion was a teacher in Pantin. Militant socialist, feminist, pacifist, she was charged under the law of August 5 1914 for “propaganda destined to favor the enemy and to exercise a harmful influence on the morale of the army.” Likewise, she had expressed “defeatism” by diffusing three socialist brochures. Séverine had only met her once at the anniversary of the Commune in 1912 but appreciated her speech. She was asked to act as witness for the accused alongside Marguerite Durand. She accepted and transformed into a defense lawyer. The verdict was three years of prison and revocation of her post as teacher. For being a pacifist.

Séverine was still wearing the black mourning clothes for the death of her mother in 1913 and will continue to wear them for the millions of dead.

Workers did not stay silent either. In May 1917 the seamstresses went on strike demanding the English workweek and a salary increase for cost of living. On May 18 there were 10,000 of them on the streets, chanting while marching toward the union house. The next days they were joined by all kinds of manufacturing workers. By the end of the month the Parisian strikers numbered more than 35,000 and all their demands were met despite the serious, responsible people saying it was not the appropriate time.

When the war finally came to an end in November 1918, there were nine million dead on the battlefield, 1.5 million for France alone. Repopulation became more crucial than ever, so they gave the women working in factories a bonus for babies: 200 F for a boy and 100 F for a girl. Why the difference? Obviously, Séverine said, it’s for the next war. And with her usual insight she watched the people stretching out their docile necks, ready for the knife.

She had always refused to be elected for prizes, like the Legion of Honor, several times. But on one instance she accepted a nomination. In 1919 her candidature was presented for the Nobel Peace Prize. The jury preferred the American President Woodrow Wilson, a much more diplomatic choice.

[1] See 10-Soldiers and Spies

Rirette

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RIRETTE

Rirette[1]

A nice name, isn’t it? A name right out of another time when the coquettes still wore bonnets, when windmills still had blades and when it was, nonetheless, the bonnets that flew over the windmills. And is it a real name or a nickname given in a good mood during the spring because of that smile that brightens her face?

I thought that was enough because I do not know her. I have never had the chance to meet her, nor any of her friends. I only know her by her pictures, snapshots taken by chance. A sweet, mischievous face, lively eyes, like a little girl—but a girl who is a relative of Gavroche[2], a girl who, after playing well and laughing, loving the sun, drinking cheap wine under the arbor, sighing over slow waltzes, smelling violets at four sous with more enthusiasm than others do a rose at one gold louis, she would die carefree and beautiful… heroically!

Is she from Paris, my neck of the woods? Is she a runaway bourgeoisie or an adventurous worker from a distant province? I know nothing at all. Paris took her, that’s all I know. It fashioned her in its way, gave her its native girls’ zest, their alert grace, that lip turned rosy from Montmorency cherries or Robinson strawberries. There is also the taste for mystery, romance, the unexpected and for risk…

Too much, alas, poor Rirette! Did I tell you that Rirette was in prison? She laughed when they arrested her; laughed in the courts of justice, at the onlookers, the reporters, the photographers; laughed at the light, the free air, the broad daylight! I also did not tell you that Rirette was 22 years old—and with two little girls who were taken away from her.

This alone is serious because this girl loves her girls tenderly and passionately. And yet she condemned herself to never see them again. She accepted being deprived of their arms around her neck, their little mouths on her cheek, their affectionate words that are like hugs. This young mother has cut herself off from her children instead of giving to Justice the little service they demand of her: become an informant.

This was the price, given the levity of the charges weighing on her, whereby she could have doubtlessly obtained her provisional freedom, maybe even an acquittal. The law, for those who bow to it, has a lot of indulgence…

Being serious, this time, she said no. And she repeated it at every attempt, worsening her fate in perfect knowledge of the cause, accepting all charges that her irritating silence brought on.

I mentioned Gavroche… maybe we should speak of Bara[3].

#

What did she do? She did not kill or steal or burn or explode. She was not one of those interesting society women whose guilt or non-guilt is the talk of the town, the subject of controversies and conversations. She is also not a heroine of love: she has harmed no man or woman out of passion.

Her case is less serious and more complex—and therefore more dangerous.

Since her friend has progressive opinions, they reproach her for some suspicious acquaintances. Isn’t that it? Whoever lives in a rather wide and busy circle, should they have to answer for everyone they meet, greet, shake hands with or with whom they happened to be a guest in the same place—which is the case?

Especially when we are talking about the office of a newspaper, a more crowded place than anywhere else in the world! Rirette (I remind you she is 22 years old) was working for a newspaper that was foolhardy enough to rent the space in her name.

“Now, during the search we found two little revolvers in the office of this newspaper and it was established that these guns had been stolen. Possession of stolen property.”

“I’m not a thief!” Rirette shouted indignation. “I didn’t even know that these weapons were stolen.”

“That’s possible,” the judge replied. “But you must have known who had put them there. You were the tenant, legally, and therefore responsible… There could very well be a way to mitigate your responsibility and reduce the charges against you. The thief had no fear of compromising you by dumping stolen goods in a place rented in your name. He had no scruples toward you… why would you have any toward him? Give us a name!”

Rirette looked at the judge, the bailiff, the green walls within which so many unfortunate, so many innocent and guilty had argued. She thought of her little girls, of freedom, of her comrades who remained faithful and whom it would be nice to see walking around the streets of Paris.

The judge waited, thought she was hesitating while she was, in fact, dreaming.

“Come on,” an encouraging voice said.

“No,” Rirette shook her head and her face that had turned pale after so many months in jail. “To denounce someone is a dirty trick! Keep me, condemn me, send me to prison or wherever you want! I won’t do it!”

She was put back in the paddy wagon and back behind bars in that great black house at the end of rue Faubourg Saint-Denis. And if, when the lights are turned out, Rirette is no longer Rirette, if she breaks down and cries, if she calls out to her children, stretches out her arms in the night, nobody will imagine, nobody will know. At dawn she is Rirette like she was the night before, brave and cheerful. If a sparrow alit behind the bars it could chirp, “How are you, little sister?”

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In these times when character is becoming rare, it is interesting to me to show this wisp of a woman rebelling against becoming an informant. So many men (and good ones at that!) turn themselves willingly into informants.

Oh, I forgot! The newspaper is called “L’Anarchie” and Rirette is officially Mme [Mrs] Maitrejean. But these details take nothing away, isn’t it true, from the reality of the facts or the self-sacrifice of the denial.

 

[1] Gil Blas, August 11 1912.

[2] A street urchin in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.

[3] Joseph Bara (1779-1793), young boy who died fighting for the French Revolution.

The Cause of Women

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Hermann Paul4

The Cause of Women[1]

I could have written The Cause of “Feminism” but I did not want to because this suffix, however acceptable, however fashionable today, seems to me just another “ism” among all the others, a link in the chain of all those trials, ordeals and schools of thought that the old world is finally being freed of.

Let them understand me well. And if possible, whether by carelessness or malice, let them not make me say something other than what I want to say in all honesty—and in total freedom.

It is not because I am not “progressive enough” that I don’t get more involved with the present feminist action; it is because I am “too much” of one; it is because the desires of the agitators have long been left behind in my dream on the grand path to the future. When (being reserved for the sole usage of men) universal suffrage, eligibility, the electorate, all the old parliamentary mechanism arouses in me nothing but mocking astonishment, a rather aggressive aversion, I do not really see what miracle would change my view of the same things if applied differently.

Everything crumbles along these lines. Respect remains far if it speeds off at the same pace it started. Trust stumbles after it in hot pursuit. To be a deputy today—though no particular advantage for the individual elevates it—is to be a zero… a zero always doubtful, often harmful. The authority comes more from seniority than from any intrinsic value. The member of the lower Chamber is generally a municipal councilor who has not had any scandals just like the member of the higher Chamber is a deputy who has not faced any obstacles. It is a career, pretty well paid, that starts at a public meeting and ends up in a presidential speech: “My dear public, it is with deep regret that we have learned… distinguished competence… a heartfelt loss… consolation for his family… everyone grieves… the country and the Republic.”

So be it! The old men approve, from tip to chin, bobbing their heads, especially sad about what is to come. And this makes one less of them—and one more!

The very rich might escape suspicion of greed, but who is safe from plotting, from wicked ambition, from the need for domination to which everything is sacrificed? Are there more than ten, are there even ten of these elected from the people who burn with ardent faith, prepared for humility, for sacrifice, the denial of all personal gain, for the health of all and the common interest?

Honest men? Certainly, there are some, in the strict and limited sense of the word. But just as faith that does not act is not sincere faith, so honesty that is content “to be” is not a virtue—it is a habit!

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It is, then, into this that women want to enter? Under the tree of knowledge Eve, when it is her turn, takes back half the apple from Adam… Except that the apple Adam is holding is rotten, gnawed to the core by parasites, stained and poisonous.

I have no taste for these tea parties. And if sharing now is necessary—out of selfishness and man’s ferocity—let’s at least pick a new, healthy and delicious fruit from the branch.

That’s why I am not with the women politicians. That’s why, with all my heart, with all my strength, I am with sensible, intelligent, practical people who strive to improve economically the lot of women, to emancipate them from their present condition—menial, unfair and degrading.

It was very wrong for Jules Bois, in his last article, to reproach me for not getting involved “in this heroic battle”. The sentiment is commendable but the allegation is off the mark. A newcomer, not seeing me in his ranks, he concluded that I was abstaining. The truth is that I have been in the heart of the battle for a long time, long enough that the reinforcements no longer see me!

Oh, in my way I hasten to add: in isolation, independence, not wanting to just change the yoke. But wherever one of my sisters cried out for help, a “victim of her sex”, a single mother alone to bear the sin, an abandoned or battered wife, an employee in a shop or in the administration subject to inhuman regulations, a worker in the same job but paid less than a male counterpart because she’s a woman, even a prostitute suffering shame and hunger, I have highlighted the grievances and taken up arms against the causes of these evils, bringing to light the injustice of our destiny.

What do you want? I believe in the school of actions and that they are the seeds of theories. So much the better if the harvest grows for others; and if others reap it; and if others enjoy the fruit! But don’t come and accuse me of indifference or laziness when I was a worker in the early season, doing my job without expecting any pay.

In seven years of journalism I can count more than 200 articles, almost four volumes, on the condition of women. Is that nothing?

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Ah, I have joked about the women politicians? Yes indeed—fervently! But again that depends on which. Hubertine Auclert, Paule Minck, Madame Potonié-Pierre have always seemed to me courageous and devoted. But how could I take seriously “attack dogs” who, with touching persistence, criticized me daily because after a controversy I wasn’t on the (textual) field or because I went to see the Pope?

These women are laughable… and I laughed! Whereas Madame Schmall and Madame Cheliga-Loevy make me think, interest me, really impassion me by their logic and their constant effort. Scornful, fearful even of the eccentricity that puts off the simple and frightens the timid, not dressing themselves up like clowns, keeping their feminine and maternal grace that the work benefits from, they do good and useful work.

Personally I am aware of collaborating in it, with my pen—and with my example.

Example does not mean model here. I use the word in the sense of proof, in a very technical and modest meaning. It only means that by diligent work and invincible perseverance I managed to make the public admit, through the world of the press (hardly open to feminine competition nonetheless), that a woman could practice this tough profession of journalist, make a place for herself and live honorably.

Alas, many a young brain underneath little blonde curls, behind brown headbands, has been a little soured by an exaggerated success. But still, thanks to this precedent, when a little, trembling woman shows up in an editing room with her article tied with a ribbon, they do not judge her collaboration as ridiculous or impossible.

Of this, I swear, I am very proud and figure that I have earned the daily blue-stockingism[2]. It is one less prejudice—and there are so many to destroy!

That’s why those of my sex who, without going against the tender, merciful role that nature assigned us, want to conquer the right to live beyond servitude and degradation have always and will always be able to count on me.

As for the Bradamantes[3] with their pipes… where are they going?

 

[1] L’Echo de Paris, February 15 1895.

[2] Satirical term for intelligent, learned women.

[3] Famous female knight in legends about Charlemagne.

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.

#

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.