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This Day in Resistance History: Flying the Black Flag

August 12, 2011

On August 12, 1883, the first anarchist newspaper to be called “The Black Flag” (Le Drapeau Noir) was launched in France by French anarchist and feminist Louise Michel. The newspaper, as well as the use of the flag, had two purposes: to remind people of the workers’ battle and deaths in the Canut Insurrections of 1831-1834, and to stir support for another wave of worker resistance more than fifty years later.

The black flag as a symbol of anarchy had originated in Lyon, where silk workers used it during a series of revolts. Despite the French Revolution and the attempt to eradicate the elite from France, by 1830, the capitalists had the economy under an iron grip again. In Lyon, the major industry was silk weaving. The canuts, or silk crafters, owned their own looms and hired their own assistants. Women as well as men were employed, and apprentices lived in the homes of the canuts. Workshops cooperated with each other to meet order demands and set salaries for their workers.

But this collective system had been overtaken by la grande fabrique: a group of bankers, wealthy landowners, and silk traders. They set the prices for the final product, often forcing the canuts and their shops to work long hours for less and less pay. Finally, in 1831, the situation reached a breaking point during an economic downturn.

On November 22, 1831, workers across Lyon captured a fortress used as a police barracks and military base. They successfully fought off French infantry with stolen weapons, although the soldiers and police managed to kill or wound 600 workers. After capturing the fortress, the canuts raised a black flag over the building. It stood, they explained, for their rejection of a government that had inflicted misery and ignored their pleas for justice. This moment in history has held meaning for the French working class ever since.

Canuts then occupied the entire city of Lyon. King Louis-Philippe sent an army of 20,000 to retake the city. The town was placed under military rule with charges being brought against only 11 of the canuts; the King had ordered there be no executions and minimal disruption to the silk trade. But la grande fabrique still held sway. The economy in France improved, but capitalists decided that the workers’ wages were still too high. Initial attempts to lower them triggered massive strikes and worker resistance.

By 1833, conditions for workers worsened, even though the capitalists were taking in more money than ever before. Wishing to boost their profits even higher, la grande fabrique members appealed directly to the King and the government. The Count d’Argout, the Interior Minister, wrote that the canuts were living in “fabulous prosperity” and were grossly overpaid. The government ordered a further reduction in wages.

The result was a second battle between workers and the army in February of 1834, and this time over 10,000 canuts and their workers were subjected to lengthy prison sentences or deportation. The workers would not give up. On the day that the trial started, another wave of fighting broke out. “The Bloody Week” had started. The black flag of the workers, who had rejected their government and its right to control their craft, was raised again, this time over both Lyon and three neighboring towns.

Although the silk workers’ uprisings ended up failure, anarchist beliefs formed during this 19th Century resistance took root. They inspired the organizers of the Paris Commune of 1871. Louise Michel fought on the barricades during those battles. She was arrested, and told the jury, “If you are not cowards, then kill me!” Instead, she was deported to Canada, where she organized natives there to fight against France’s imperialist policies. When she returned to France, she continued her organizing and social justice work for the rest of her life.

By 1883, unemployment reached record heights across France and particularly in Paris. Michel launched her newspaper so she could detail information about worker resistance efforts. She also reminded readers of the role that the government had played in lowering raises and increasing poverty levels among the working class for half a century.

Michel personally raised a black flag over Paris in 1883 during general strikes that she helped organize to protest state control of wages on behalf of the wealthy elite. She took a black petticoat that she owned, cut it up and sewed it into a flag which she waved as a rallying point for workers during the fighting and protests. Due to Michel’s effective information campaign via Le Drapeau Noir, workers across France and especially in Lyon launched insurrections in solidarity with the Parisian workers.

Today, Lyon’s black flag, which stands for no flag—the complete rejection of nation-states and their corrupting power—has become an important symbol worldwide. As Louise Michel wrote in Le Drapeau Noir, The black flag, with layers of blood upon it from those who wanted to live by working or die by fighting, frightens those who want to live off the work of others.”


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