Tuesday, 19 July 2016



In the late 19th century the French countryside faced big changes. For centuries those who worked the land had lived in deep poverty, doing back-breaking work; they lived in small communities and unless military service was imposed on them, they travelled little and had not much contact with the rest of the world. Even in the later 19th century there are reports of village children who knew the name of their own area, but were unaware that they were French.

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. 

His website is:


Friday, 30 October 2015

"The boy's grave" - Kentford Suffolk

"The Boy's Grave"
1949 Report

During the past 12 months or so I have twice a week had to travel by road between  Cambridge and Newmarket.

But not until I had a sport of car trouble the other day and was forced to store and I noticed the lonely grave by the crossroads just before you come into Kentford,  the grass on the mound was trimmed, the top was fenced finished with an ingenious arrangement of a withes'. at the head was a small cross made of ash and planted on top of the grave flowers were coming up. Artificial flowers were strung among the foliage looking something very real.

I was still looking at the grave when my AA man friend came along, he knows my old car and has more than once rendered first day so he pulled up and asked me if I was all right, "I think I an now" I told him "I was just looking at the grave it is a grave".

"Yes, that's a grave all right, he said and he told me its story.

Something more than one hundred years ago, when this part was more or less open common, a man had a flock of sheep and had a lad to look after them as they grazed
The man was a hard master and his employees were all afraid of him.
One night when the boy rounded up his flock for the night, he counted them and found them one short stop, terrified of the consequence he hanged himself from a nearby tree.
His dead body was found in the morning and so was the missing sheep closely bedded down under some bushes.

Because he had taken his own life the lad was not buried in consecrated ground but at the crossroads near the scene of the tragedy and there his grave has remained, but not neglected.

Cared For

"nobody knows quite who looks after it " my AA man told me that they say it is the gypsies"
It looks like it, i agreed "Those coloured flowers made from split wood are gypsy work "Ive seen them from door to door in Ipswich".

"Yes and the little railings round the top looks like gypsy work too, though I didn't know they were so keen on a cross."

"The boy's grave"  The AA man told me it was always called. 

There's another thing connected with the gypsies" he said they say if there are dark flowers on the grave on Derby Day at dark horse will win but if there are like flowers and a light horse will come in first.

E.M. Barraud
Daily Worker 13 July 1949

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Birthplace of socialist Wales - First SDF Branch

First Social Democratic Party branch in Wales - The village of Waunafon,  between the towns of Brynmawr, Blaenavon

Northampton Social Democratic Federation Banner


Northampton Social Democratic Federation Banner now on display at the

Labour History Museum, Manchester