The Broken Mirror



The Broken Mirror[1]

Felix Pyat, who was a great stylist and remarkably learned, loved to tell the Hindu fable that I am going to relate.

Truth, who is a goddess, but who is also a woman, started feeling that staying in the depths of her well was getting a little tedious. Therefore, she decided to go back up to the surface and get back in touch with humans. Maybe they were better after so many centuries when their excesses and depravity had forced her to seek refuge underground? Besides, her curiosity was piqued… everything must have changed a lot? The fashions were obviously not important to her, seeing her traditional suit, but their hearts and minds, their customs and relationships? And what might they think of her after all this time for them to get used to her absence?

She took the risk… When she came over the edge, children greeted her by throwing stones; women heaped insults on her because of her garb, or lack thereof; the village watchman ran up to protest; the priest mumbled exorcisms, slammed the door in her face; the schoolmaster got scared and made all the kids face the wall when she showed up; the men at arms threw an old coat over her and brought her to the city. The judges found her guilty of public indecency and the people jeered her. She faced all sorts of misery and insult, saw lies victorious everywhere and sincerity gagged.

Then she went back to her hole. But before going back down, in anger at the thrashing she had got, she threw her mirror on the ground and broke it.

Her loyal followers patiently gathered up the pieces, then tried to put them together again, to rebuild the symbol. But they never managed to succeed; it is still missing one piece.

Since that time, nobody can boast of possessing the whole truth. Each of us has only a bigger or smaller piece of it, sometimes a few pieces, but disconnected…


Thus the Cri du Peuple of the past, serving one truth, had to become the Cri des Peuples of today by multiplying.

The world was grand in 1871, when in the midst of the tempest Jules Vallès launched what he called a “neighborhood firebrand”. Every nation considered its people special, very distinctive, above all devoted to national industries. They fraternized when the soldiers of the [National] Convention brought up new ideas; they fraternized at a distance in 1830 and 1848; but the insurrection of 1871 produced no echoes except in the still stammering Second International. Even after the Empire was overthrown, we bore the charge, in Europe’s eyes, of having declared war and remaining combative.   As witness, before the Investigative Commission on the causes of the movement, [Adolphe] Thiers’ statement calling it an “explosion of patriotism”.

Every people was full of nationalism.

Now, given that science has reduced space, the world is small. The air has been conquered, the globe is no longer enough for man’s ambitions as they start to dream of other planets that they will try to reach tomorrow. Although the three great races separated by skin color remain so because of climates, their inner subdivisions, despite the rivalries, conflicts and wars, are breaking down every day. Nations are tending to be no more than provinces. Tomorrow let Europe be threatened by the Yellow Peril or the Black Peril and you will see not an alliance but a total, absolute union.


That does it for the big picture. But in the heart of each of the provinces remains a portion of the native or annexed people, caged in obligation and submission, for whom, just like international solidarity is forbidden, so too is it prohibited to stay attached to their origins and traditions, all the more dear the farther they are separated so harshly. They are without a voice just like they are without rights. They are nothing but a piece broken off from the destroyed unity they belong to.

In 1871 the effort could be limited to only one nation. Today all the points of the globe are rising up in protest and calling for justice. The enslaved minorities, national or conquered, have to make a sound; they have to make their demands heard, to express their suffering and hopes.

The treaties of 1918-19 have resolved nothing. They have only shifted the injustice, increased the confusion and the pretexts for conflict. We will not refer to the mirror. We will never know what secret negotiations led to certain break-ups and trickery. But we can study the fractures, gather up the fragmentary truths and try to get those who have been frustrated cynically to know at least some relief in expressing their grievances.

The people cry out with chains around their ankles and chains around their wrists. The rumble is rising from deep in the fortresses, the prisons, from around the gallows and scaffolds. My poor old Cri du people, you would not be up to the task; there are too many! Here now is your descendent picking up the sack and the staff to travel the wide world and on the way, with the shards of the mirror, to collect the groans of the oppressed.


[1] Le Cri des peuples, Issue no.1, May 1928.


They Wanted It



They Wanted It[1]

We said to them:

“Watch out. Can’t you see where you’re headed? We live in a Republic and you forget too much, you who pretend to be its steadfast defenders! What business does Marianne[2] have with the autocrat, the Emperor-Pope, the most absolute, perfectly despotic regime in Europe[3]? What aberration moves you to link this living symbol with the dying, with the wayward corpse that exploits you?

“There are strings on this puppet. Who is pulling them? Who needs our money, not to build roads, bridges and tunnels, not to improve the railways, not to enlarge the public transport system into the wide-open areas, rich in soil but poor in prospects, and not, finally, to extend the empire’s prosperity throughout its territory, but instead to finance the crown’s whims, the grand dukes’ orgies, the courtesans’ luxuries and Rasputin’s demands! You will regret your trust and cry for your savings because the support is illusory and bankruptcy is certain.”

Wasted words! Begging for more and high interest, the people clutch their nest eggs and rush into slavery, kissing the boots of the tsar and footprints of Alexandra Feodorovna[4]. Ooh, ooh, it’s an Empress!

Already you were looking askance at us, mumbling snide remarks. At best if you did not accuse us of being paid by Pitt and bankrolled by England. Because it was England at the time that was the enemy and between the two shores neither side wasted any opportunity to be nasty. Joan of Arc and Napoleon were back in style; you went wild for Michel Strogoff [by Jules Verne], old Krüger, the little queen of Holland [Wilhelmina] and the heroes of Fashoda[5].

My friends Stead, Moschelès and others got beat up at the Guildhall in London while fighting for world peace against English imperialism, so glorified by Rudyard Kipling. The same with us in Paris, pretty much everywhere.

Both they and us were preaching in the wilderness. The spirit of conquest over there, the spirit of revenge here, and even more so the spirit of profit made the crowds deaf, closed off to everything that did not flatter their monomania or their greed.

Betrayed by the Court of Russia, long before the lack of arms, munitions, supplies and the desertion of their troops had forced the Soviet leaders to sign the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty[6], now able to see the misappropriation of funds used for everything but what they were allocated for and finally knowing—it’s about time!—all about the “steamroller”, the French public, especially the supporters of the fine Russians, let loose their criticism, complaints and recriminations.

And the same press for whom the issue of loans was an inexhaustible godsend, who never had enough good things to say about the Franco-Russian Alliance, are trying to cover up the splendid results of its intervention by blaming others for what it and those who used it as a docile tool did.

Blaming us, of course! We who were warning them, predicting the fraud, bankruptcy and collapse!


We told them:

“There’s still time, despite the harm already done. Europe is badly wounded but it can still get better. The bleeding can be stopped. Everything is compromised; nothing is lost. Consider the continual offers of peace. Reason can also sometimes have a say in the matter. Passion has never been a good form of government. Whether you want it or not there exists an economic solidarity between nations, even temporary enemies. You do not triumph over nothingness, a chaos where nothing remains but the winner. This nation you so noisily clamor for, have pity on it, not only for its sacrifices but in its resources, its necessary relations with the rest of the world. Don’t reduce it to a skeletal state to reduce the others to deprivation. Don’t try to make it into the tallest headstone in the graveyard. Have mercy on the survivors!”

They answered us frantically, waving their fists and foaming at the mouth, “To the bitter end! To the bitter end!”


We told them:

“It’s a bad and reckless action. You who clamor for it so frantically are denying four years of official assertions of the “right of people to manage themselves”. The personal affairs of Russia have nothing to do with you: leave them alone; worry about bandaging our own wounds, clearing away our own rubble; it will be much smarter. Our coffers are empty. The little that remains to us ought to be devoted to relieving the great misery that resulted from the conflict. Save the public funds, keep them for real suffering; give a roof to the poor in devastated regions, bread to the Austrian and Russian children who are innocent and beyond reproach.

And finally, listen to the great words of Terence about human solidarity[7], hear the more recent cry of Paul Jouve: “You are all men!” No more money, no more soldiers for the venture! Think of the future. You are doing everything you can to throw Russia into the arms of Germany…”

Our masters replied with the picture of Man-with-knife-between-teeth, which made us French the laughingstock of the world because it influenced the direction of our domestic policy. They answered us by sponsoring, one after another—and with such determination!—the expeditions of Denikin, Yudenich, Koltchak, Wrangrel[8], all the gang leaders who attacked and sacked poor Russia. Millions followed upon millions into the money pit of hatred. The press, feeling fine about the great Russian emigration, dumped cartloads of filth on the sister Republic.

Through the genius of Lenin and his companions, through an effort only comparable to that of France in 1792, Russia, despite the losses from hunger and typhus, has survived and remains free. It is useless and vain to try to massacre and enslave it.

And it is allied with Germany. So, don’t pretend to be surprised, you leaders! It was to be expected, a foregone conclusion, you did everything you could to bring it about! You are the only ones responsible, with your unusual alliance, your fierce protraction of the war, your mad hatred for the Russian Republic that asked you for nothing but brotherhood.

What have you done with the public funds? What have you done with our army? What have you done with our future?


[1] L’Humanité, April 24 1922.

[2] Symbol of the French Republic representing liberty.

[3] Referring to Russia. The Franco-Russian Alliance was formed in the late 19th century to oppose Germany and further their economic and imperialist interests.

[4] Granddaughter of Queen Victoria, wife of Nicolas II, last ruler of the Russian Empire. She was put to death by the Soviets in 1918.

[5] References to anti-revolution or anti-English affairs.

[6] In 1918 that ended Russian engagement in WWI.

[7] Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me — Heauton Timorumenos, Act 1, scene 1).

[8] Reactionary generals commanding the White Army against the Bolshevik Red Army.

Prayer to the Nameless



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!


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…


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


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