FROM SHEPHERDESS TO REVOLUTIONARY
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JEANNE LABOURBE
But now the French state had a growing colonial empire, and the prospect of a major war with Germany loomed ahead. It would need a large and loyal peasant army. In 1882 compulsory education was introduced, and according to the principle of laïcité – secularism, still a major theme in French political life – the schools were taken out of the hands of the Church and directly controlled by the state. Lessons and text-books were devoted to inculcating military values; boys did military exercises while girls did needlework.
This was the world into which Jeanne (originally christened Marie) Labourbe was born in 1877. Her father was a propertyless agricultural day-labourer, who had to work on other people’s land or do manual work on the railway. They lived in Lapalisse, a town of under 3000 inhabitants, in Allier, in central France. Her father had fought with the Paris Commune at the time of its suppression, so he was not well regarded in the village.
Jeanne was one of the first to benefit from the new compulsory schooling, but she also had to work to earn money for the impoverished family and looked after flocks of sheep. Later she earned her living doing ironing.
Her school results were good, but the teacher noted that her manners were not as good as her academic achievement. Doubtless her family did not have the social graces of the more privileged. But perhaps, too, she had already picked up from her father a sense of rebellion.
But her modest educational prospects gave her the opportunity to leave her native environment. She applied for, and got, a job in Poland, in an area then still part of the Russian empire, as a governess and servant. It was hard work, but it introduced her to a totally new world. She made contact with, and soon became involved in, the left-wing political milieu. She met and became a friend of Rosa Luxemburg, and also met Dzerzhinsky, the future head of the Soviet secret police, and Lenin.
In 1905, enthused by the revolutionary events of the year, she joined the Bolshevik party, the first French person to do so. She also did risky work for the socialist movement, using her French passport to act as a courier between illegal organisations in various countries.
In 1917 she was in Moscow. She was a talented linguist and was teaching French, German and English. Here she and one or two others set up a French Communist group, of which she became the secretary – so there is some justice in calling her the first French Communist, a couple of years before the French Communist Party was founded. World War I was still raging and there was a French military mission in Moscow; the aim of the French Communists was to win over members of the French mission to the revolutionary cause. They had some success; the French envoy Jacques Sadoul was recruited – and as a result was sentenced to death in France.
When the war ended in November 1918 the victorious powers immediately turned their attention to what they saw as an even greater threat than Germany had been – the new revolutionary government in Russia, which was inspiring hope among the oppressed and exploited throughout Europe and beyond. Clemenceau’s French government prepared to send troops and ships to the Black Sea to back up the Russian counter-revolutionaries who were aiming to overthrow the Bolshevik government.
Jeanne was horrified that young Frenchmen, “sons of the communards of 1871”, were being used in this way. Her old friend Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in January, and she knew that the future of the revolution throughout Europe was balanced on a knife-edge. She volunteered to go to Odessa to try to persuade the troops there to refuse to obey orders. She knew the risks and in her last letter wrote: “The path is sown with thorns”.
She arrived in Odessa and with a few comrades began to produce newspapers and leaflets. These called on French soldiers to refuse to participate in the suppression of the revolution, appealing to their sense of France’s revolutionary history. One leaflet explained Bolshevism in terms of a direct appeal to worker and peasant conscripts:
Bolshevism is socialist society in practice. It is the establishment of the power of workers and peasants, of those who have always been the tools of the rich and powerful, of those who have worked unceasingly and without reward in workshops, mills, factories, and in the fields, who have bled for the others in great battles.
She also made direct contact with soldiers wherever possible. Aged 41, she was old enough to be the mother of many of the young conscripts, and she addressed them as “my children”, trying to persuade them to refuse their government’s orders.
The French authorities could not tolerate such a threat. On 2 March 1919 ten armed men arrived at the door of the house where Jeanne and other Communist agitators were living. They were bundled into a car, driven to the nearby Jewish cemetery, and shot dead. There was outrage at the news and a huge crowd (claimed to be 100,000) attended her funeral.
In a speech to the Eighth Conference of the Russian Communist Party in December, Lenin paid tribute to her: “The name of Comrade Jeanne Labourbe, whom the French shot in Odessa for Bolshevik propaganda, has become a slogan for the French working-class socialist press, ….a slogan of struggle against French imperialism, for non-intervention in Russian affairs.”
But her actions had not been in vain. In April the French withdrew the troops from the city. And the revolutionary ideas propagated by Jeanne continued to spread. When ships from the French navy arrived a little later, there were large and successful mutinies. Jeanne and the others had made their contribution to the defence of the new Soviet republic.
It was a long way from the hillsides of Allier, but Jeanne had remained true to the memory of her communard father and her good friend Rosa Luxemburg.
Ian Birchall is a socialist writer and translator. He is on the editorial board of Revolutionary History, and a member of the Socialist History Society, and the London Socialist Historians Group.
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