Since I’m interested in both socialism and animal rights, historical figures who managed to reconcile the two ideologies fascinate and inspire me. That’s why I find the question of whether the French communard Louise Michel was a vegetarian so interesting.
During the Paris Commune of 1871, she served the working-class uprising as an ambulance worker and militia member. When the rebellion was overrun, Michel was captured and tried. She dared the court to execute her, but ultimately was imprisoned in France for almost two years before being deported.
In her memoirs, Michel wrote that she traced her progressive politics to animal-protectionist feeling. “As far back as I can remember, the origin of my revolt against the powerful was my horror at the tortures inflicted on animals,” she said. “I used to wish animals could get revenge, that the dog could bite the man who was mercilessly beating him, that the horse bleeding under the whip could throw off the man tormenting him.”
She wrote that from an early age she rescued animals and that habit continued into adulthood. “I was accused of allowing my concern for animals to outweigh the problems of humans at the Perronnnet barricade at Neuilly during the Commune, when I ran to help a cat in peril,” she said. “The unfortunate beast was crouched in a corner that was being scoured by shells, and it was crying out.”
Michel believed there was a link between the subjugation of animals and the subjugation of humans. “The more ferocious a man is toward animals,” she wrote, “the more that man cringes before the people who dominate him.” In fact, she credited her opposition to the death penalty to witnessing the slaughter of an animal as a child.
She raged against vivisection, writing, “All this useless suffering perpetrated in the name of science must end. It is as barren as the blood of the little children whose throats were cut by Gilles de Retz and other madmen.”
According to the International Vegetarian Union website, one Louise Michel attended the 1890 International Vegetarian Congress in England. The report of the meeting states she “expressed her views on Vegetarianism. The eating of flesh meant misery to the animals, and she held that it was impossible for men to be happy while animals were miserable.”
And yet, search her memoirs for the term ‘vegetarian’ and you will find nothing. As a very young child, Michel was traumatized by the sight of a decapitated goose. “One result was that the sight of meat thereafter nauseated me until I was eight or ten,” she wrote, “and I needed a strong will and my grandmother’s arguments to overcome that nausea.” This of course suggests she consumed flesh and her memoirs do not immediately mention a later-in-life change in practice.
She also wrote, “Instead of the putrefied flesh which we are accustomed to eating, perhaps science will give us chemical mixtures containing more iron and nutrients than the blood and meat we now absorb.” This could be interpreted as anticipating the in-vitro meat now being developed. But it could also be read as a reflection of her belief that animal-derived foods were nutritionally necessary or superior in her era.
While it seems clear where her sympathies were, I’m unsure if Michel was a vegetarian.
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.