Flora Tristan: The Beauty of Life as a Feminist Socialist.
Flora Tristan (1803 in Paris – 14 November 1844) was a landmark figure in the history of the labour movement and feminism.
She is all-too little known in the English-speaking world.
In the anglosphere her writings, Peregrinations of a Pariah (1838), Promenades in London (1840), and The Workers’ Union (1843), are not read outside of academic circles. On the left only a few feminists have paid her much attention – though she has always tended to get sidelined, particularly by the liberals who dominate ‘mainstream’ women’s studies and lobbying. This can be seen by her absence in the Wikipedia entry on the history of feminism despite a much longer entry (in English as well as French) on her life in general. That Flora was also a founder of the workers’ movement and socialism may have a lot to do with that.
It is a paradox that it is the free-market liberal and Nobel prize for Literature winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, who has made the most accessible portrait of this wonderful woman’s life. Indeed it because I was reading some of his novels – in the light of this Prize – that I rediscovered Flora and found aspects of her life I knew nothing about.
Llosa’s The Way to Paradise (2004) is a novel with two principal characters. Flora Tristán (the accent to emphasise her half-Peruvian origin) and the painter, Paul Gauguin. The hinge linking them is that Flora was Paul’s grandmother.
With an exhibition of Gauguin’s paintings at the Tate Modern one would normally concentration his tumultuous life – narrated with verve. No doubt many will revel in his “openly scandalous behaviour” in French colonised Tahiti. The density of his artistic sensibility unfolds through word-paintings of his famous tableaux. His idealisation of Tahitian ‘primitiveness’ – under threat from French civilisation – and Gaugin’s sexual indulgence, and descent into racialist anti-Chinese fantasies, holds attention.
Flora, nonetheless, is another in another class to artists behaving badly. Her life was marked by sheer courage and political activism.
The ethical energy of Madame la Colère, her rage against the injustices she met at the hands of men, and her search for a new moral world, is shattering. The details have to be sipped slowly to be grasped: she truly suffered.
And fought back with very fibre of her being.
The tale, as it unfolds, wrapped next to Gauguin’s, is full of the boundless energy that drove Flora. Llosa shows Flora’s discovery of sexual love, with an aristocratic intellectual woman, Olympia. One wonders, yet hopes, that this is a true encounter with warmth. Or true at all.
Her socialism stemmed from the Fourierist and Saint-Simonian utopians, with some influence from Icarian communism. Tristan met the most reasonable of the Fourierists, Victor Considérant (one of the few whose writing still repays looking at). She gained entry to literary circles, and met the romantic socialist novelist George Sand. Cranks (paralleled today by animals rights and vegan greens), such as Saint-Simon’s High Priest, Prosper Enfantin, abounded in this milieu. Perhaps her own emphasis on The Idea (l’Idée) would put her in the same boat.
But Flora was far in advance of well-intentioned utopians.
She visited London and saw the depth of degradation early industrialisation brought. Promenades in London (which French leftists at any rate read) stands muster with the Condition of the Working Class in England, and Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor. This landmark book is not widely known in its English translation. A measure of Llosa’s skill is that he makes it come alive, by making the Capital’s “naked children rolling in filth” and the “stench of the whorehouses of London” spring to substance on the page.
Through encounters with London Chartists Flora conceived the idea of a movement uniting men and women for their liberation and equality: the Workers’ Union. “Bringing women and workers together, organising the two groups into an alliance that would transcend boundaries and could not be crushed by a police brigade, army, or government. Then, heaven would no longer be an abstraction, and, liberated, from the sermons of priests and the credulity of believers, it would become history, the reality of everyday life and all mortals.”
She found, despite sectarian reservations and misogyny, a real echo in the nascent workers’ movement. She learnt humility. Railing at the labourers” ignorance she was told by Gosset, the ‘Father of the Blacksmiths’ , to grasp how they sweated for the cause. He stood by her like a rock.
Flora toured France recruiting for her union. Crippled by illness, she was harried by the authorities, denounced by the Church, and often rejected by the workers. She found the Occitan and Provençal language incomprehensible, and people often not only hard to reach but deliberately unwilling to change.
But she laid the foundations of the socialist movement and met those who treated her with immense love and devotion.
Falling fatally ill in Bordeaux, Tristan was nursed with great kindness by true friends. She died in their, the Lemonniers’, house.
“The funeral procession left the Lemonniers’ house on the rue Saint-Pierre, and wound its way slowly on foot along the streets of Bordeaux to the cemetery, under a grey and rainy sky. Among the mourners were writers, journalists, lawyers, a number of townswomen, and nearly one hundred workers. The later took turns carrying the casket, which weighed almost nothing, The coffin cords were held by a carpenter, a stonecutter, a blacksmith, and a locksmith.”