Today's equivalent to the Paris Commune is a New York in which Zucotti Park did not merely occupy Wall Street but burned it to the ground, hung the bankers, and opened the borders.
What is it about the Paris Commune?
The farther we go from those fateful weeks of 1871, the greater the public fascination with what actually went down on the streets of Paris from 18 March to 28 May of that year.
There are, first of all, the basic facts. France went to war with Prussia in 1870; while the army marched off to do the fighting, a National Guard was recruited from among the workers and citizens to defend Paris in the event it proved necessary (which it did). Prussia’s Kaiser Wilhelm, and his savvy war-meister Otto von Bismarck, made quick work of the French army, which was routed in a disastrous defeat for the French. The French ‘Second Republic’ under Napoleon III rapidly collapsed in the wake of its military defeat, and the ‘Third Republic’ subsequently established under conservative republican Adolphe Thiers, negotiated a surrender and armistice with the Prussians.
The National Guard, however, were incensed at the quick surrender of their leaders, especially after the patriotic build-up they’d used to justify the war with Prussia. Moreover, many of the National Guard were radical and politicised workers, who refused to accept the authority of the new French government. Armed as they were from the recent conflict, they refused to give up their weapons as well (indeed, efforts by the new French government to disarm the National Guard and re-appropriate its cannons is credited with sparking the original Communard revolt). The Communards, as they were later referred to, seized Paris (Thiers and his government, along with the regular Army, fled to nearby Versailles), and proceeded to organize an experiment in socialism and direct democracy, the result of which remains the focus of intense debate still today.
In the end, the Paris Commune, as it came to be known, fell prey to the same forces that provided the space for its rise. Thiers’ isolated national government, nursing its wounds in Versailles after being driven out of Paris, appealed to their recent enemies the Prussians for help. With the aid of Prussian military might (Bismarck, recognizing their two warring countries shared a common enemy in socialism, sped up the release of French prisoners-of-war on the condition they be used to suppress the Commune), the Thiers government retook Paris amid fierce, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood fighting that came to be known as ‘Bloody Week’. Thousands of Parisians were killed, and the bloodbath which followed witnessed the cold-blooded massacre of even more, as the terrified property-owning classes arrested and executed poorer Parisians under the flimsiest of evidence (or none at all) of having been involved in the Commune or supportive of its aims. All in all the Paris Commune’s death toll has been estimated between 20,000-40,000.
But times change: in less than a decade an amnesty was issued to the Communards. Subsequent elections delivered increasingly leftist governments (including some former Communards) and the Commune’s memory began to shift from taboo to pride. Parisians gathered publicly to honour the memory of the slain rebels. The mass graves where bodies of the massacred Communards still lay rotting were rehabilitated -- particularly the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, where hundreds of Communards had made their last stand and been killed or executed -- with plaques and other memorabilia installed to honour their memory.
The Fraught Political History of the Commune
Mere weeks after its defeat, Karl Marx famously wrote of the Commune in his The Civil War in France, extolling the virtues of the Commune as a sort of first stab at communist revolution. “Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” wrote the other half of that dynamic duo, Friedrich Engels, in the introduction to Marx’ book. “Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Other socialist, communist and anarchist thinkers have also written extensively about the Commune, crafting it as a sort of utopian example of the type of society toward which they aspire. Depending on one’s politics, the Commune has been depicted as a terror-state of left fascists committing vengeful murder on property owners and capitalists, or as an idyllic example of anarchist paradise in action, with spontaneously-formed voluntary citizens’ committees assuming the functions of the state and performing them more efficiently, and equitably, than the state has managed either before or since.
Historian Paul Avrich, in his 1988 study Anarchist Portraits, offers the rose-tinted summary of its accomplishments:
Given its brief existence and its overriding preoccupation with food and defense, its measures of reform were impressive. Rents were suspended and the payment of debts spread out. Free schools were opened and an artists’ council established… Essential public services -- post, sewerage, gas, transportation -- were kept running efficiently. In the field of labor and industry the reforms were particularly remarkable. Fines were abolished in the factories. Night work was abolished in the bakeries. The ten-hour day was introduced in some shops. Above all, the Commune showed that ordinary workers were capable of running their own affairs. The stonecutters inaugurated a program of insurance. Unemployed women set up cooperative workshops. Trade unions and factory councils sprang up in every district. Factories abandoned by their owners were occupied and converted into workers’ cooperatives…
Donny Gluckstein, another scholar of the Commune, quotes in his 2006 study The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy an on-the-spot correspondent in the newspaper Le Vengeur: “I have seen three revolutions and never have women been involved with such determination… It seems that they see this revolution as precisely their own, and in defending it they defend their own future.”
Of course, the conservatives had their own interpretations. Maxime Du Camp, a journalist and writer who supported the anti-Commune government of Thiers, wrote scathingly in opposition to proposals for an amnesty for the Communards. He is quoted in Roger Williams’ 1969 work The Commune of Paris, 1871 which offers contrasting interpretations of the Commune’s legacy:
The insurgents of 1871, who were driven by motives beyond accepted morality and were unconcerned for patriotism, who revolted against constituted authority and won an iniquitous victory, bringing into power slick and cruel windbags, tried to destroy a Paris they could no longer control… There is not one of them who has not been seized by the demon pride and who does not think himself cut out to build a model civilization. Their arrogance is extreme; they think of themselves as Christopher Columbuses embarked on the discovery of a new world… These men whose work we have judged, for whom kerosene has been the final argument and massacre the last word in reason, regard themselves as innovators, as prophets and saints, as the Gods in Genesis to whom humanity comes in order to find its definitive form. They have no regrets for what they have done… Confronted by both history and morality, [the Communards] will forever be what their actions made them: traitors to their wounded country, arsonists, and murderers.
This fraught political history has contemporary relevance. In his 2012 book Rebel Cities David Harvey draws parallels between the historical vilification of Communards and the contemporary vilification of protestors in the UK. He remarks on how Daily Mail editorials denounced London’s police-battling protestors of 2011 as “nihilistic and feral teenagers”.
“The word 'feral' pulled me up short,” he writes. “It reminded me of how the communards in Paris in 1871 were depicted as wild animals, as hyenas, that deserved to be (and often were) summarily executed in the name of the sanctity of private property, morality, religion, and the family.”
For others, the Commune defies simplistic pigeon-holing within mainstream narratives. Literary scholar Kristin Ross was inspired, in the wake of the Occupy movements in America and elsewhere, to re-examine the legacy of the Commune and in particular its demand for ‘communal luxury’. The phrase, coined by Communard poet Eugene Pottier, serves as an apt rebuke to champions of both capitalist and communist forms of austerity alike. The Communards advocated neither the individual pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, nor the collective pursuit of mediocrity at the expense of personal dignity. Their demands echo rallying cries of more recent decades: ‘We Want It All!’ and ‘We Want Everything!’
Ross’ fascinating 2015 study, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, explains that the Communards’ claim to ‘communal luxury’ defied the propaganda of their enemies who claimed that redistribution of wealth would leave people poor and miserable. “’Communal luxury’ countered any notion of the sharing of misery with a distinctly different kind of world: one where everyone, instead, would have his or her share of the best,” she writes.
Harvey, a scholar of cities and urbanism, observes that the Paris Commune was born of both backward-looking nostalgia and forward-looking utopianism. The rebel Communards were inspired both by their yearning for the rapidly disappearing era of citizens’ collective control over their city (before cities became cosmopolitan capitalist monstrosities inhabited by disempowered and fragmented populaces) which had driven the 1848 revolutions in Europe; while other Communards were driven by a forward-looking desire to test new models of social organization (socialist, communist, anarchist). The fragile unity of the Communard movement wove together both the advocates of socialist centralized control, as well as the anarchists calling for decentralized populism. Indeed, says Harvey, it was the failure of the Commune which precipitated the split between anarchists and Marxists that has lingered to this day, with each blaming the other for the Commune’s defeat.
The Commune has left not only a political legacy, but an artistic and cultural one as well. The famous left anthem ‘The Internationale’ was penned by Communard poet Eugene Pottier (who had been elected to the leadership of the Commune) in the wake of the uprising. Mere weeks after its defeat, Victor Hugo published a poignant poetic tribute titled Sur une barricade, which told the story of a 12-year-old Communard rebel executed by the French government. The Commune has been featured in numerous other novels, films and plays.
The Last Communard
A spirited new contribution to the history of the Paris Commune is Gavin Bowd’s short historical sketch The Last Communard. Bowd’s short study (an extended essay, really) explores the life of the man who was purported to be the last surviving Communard, Adrien Lejeune. Bowd tries to crack through the myths that arose around this figure, who was appropriated in his final years as a fighting symbol -- the last surviving member of the Paris Commune -- by the Soviet Union (where he spent his final years) and by Communist parties in France and elsewhere.
Lejeune’s actual role in the Commune, Bowd argues, was in fact a “minor role”. He was a supporter of radical and progressive organizations like the Freethinkers from his early days as an apprentice herbalist in France, and he was clearly involved in the Communard uprising in some capacity (he seems to have been its cheerleader in his small and then-mostly conservative home village of Bagnolet), but hardly played a central role. He would later be extolled by his Soviet hosts (and others) as having fought to the end on the final barricades, but of this there is no proof; his own court testimony from the period suggests he was trying to flee Paris in the final days. Imprisoned with thousands of others, his testimony to the courts reveals none of the heroically defiant rhetoric of Communard leaders (many of whom were subsequently executed); instead he denies personal involvement in the Commune and gets family and friends to try to back up his alibi.
By fluke and fortune Lejeune managed to avoid execution during the initial wave of reprisals, and seems to have been imprisoned for about five years. Little is heard of him thereafter until the '20s. He joined the French Communist Party when it was founded, and then following the death of his wife in 1926, he donates his savings to the French communist newspaper l’Humanite and moves (around 1930 -- the date is disputed) to the Soviet Union, to spend his remaining years in the so-called socialist republic he believed to have brought to life the vision of the Communards.
The reality turns out to be much different. While he was treated generally pleasantly and regularly given centre stage as a hero of the proletariat, thanks to his revolutionary legacy (the propaganda value of the last Communard, especially after his more militant and well-known fellow Communards died of old age, was quite a coup for the Soviet Union), Bowd’s research reveals a more ambivalent slow decline. After 1936 Lejeune was bounced between Soviet old age homes, with officials arguing over whose responsibility he was. Officials tasked with looking after him complained that he felt lonely and alienated, with no one to speak French with and no familiar food or personal effects of the sort an aged French worker would enjoy (his letters to friends in France frequently plead for wine and chocolate).