The Sustaining Lure of the Paris Commune

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).

The Revolution Incarnate

Eventually the Second World War broke out, and Lejeune was evacuated from Moscow ahead of the Nazi advance. The evacuation was grueling on the nonagenarian, and it appears his nurse finally put her foot down and ordered a stop to the journey in Novosibirsk, in Siberia. There he remained until he finally succumbed in January of 1942, aged 94.

[The Paris Commune] is Taksim Square before the Turkish coup and counter-coup; it’s Tahrir Square before the revolution devolved into totalitarianism.

It was his legacy, however, that refused to die. His story — both before and after his death — was promoted for its propaganda value for the resistance in France, which was occupied by Nazi Germany (the parallels with the Paris Commune, in which Communards rose up in response to their government’s defeat and surrender to Prussia, was widely exploited).

When the war ended, initial efforts were made to secure the repatriation of his remains, but discussions were quickly sidelined as the Cold War escalated between the Soviet Union and the West. Not only was the last Communard sidelined during this period, but another contender for the title popped up: Alexis Truillot, who as a child had served as a courier for the Communards during the uprising and was still alive and well in 1960 (Truillot offered a remarkable living link to France’s revolutionary past: his childhood nurse claimed to have witnessed the execution of Louis XVI during the French Revolution of 1793).

It was only as relations thawed, and the centenary of the Commune approached, that the discussion over Lejeune’s fate bore fruit and his ashes were brought in 1971 to rest in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, commemoration site of the other slain Communards. It was a fraught moment in French politics, so soon after the 1968 protests, and tens of thousands turned out to honour his repatriation, with various factions of left-wing organizations vying for prime visibility.

To the Barricades!

Bowd’s telling of Lejeune’s story offers a fascinating exploration of the myth-making that’s transpired around the Commune. It illustrates not only how difficult it is to filter fact from fiction in this history, but also how activists of all persuasions and political agendas have sought to appropriate the history and lessons of the Commune for their own use. The Last Communard does not, however, offer a broad history of the Commune for those who are not already familiar with it; some experience with the book’s subject matter is useful.

For a basic introduction to the Commune, another recent work may prove more helpful for the novice neo-Communard. In The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, gender studies scholar Mary Talbot teams up with her husband, award-winning comics artist Bryan Talbot, to offer a biography of French revolutionary Louise Michel — ‘the Red Virgin of Montmartre’ — in graphic novel form. Published by Dark Horse Books, the short and beautifully illustrated bio-piece takes the form of a conversation between pioneering feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and mutual friends in Paris, on the occasion of Louise Michel’s funeral procession. They reminisce about her history, and the bulk of the book’s flashback remembrances focus on the Paris Commune, which catapulted Michel to public prominence.

Despite her militant revolutionary fervour during the uprising and on the barricades (in Bowd’s book, her defiant denunciations of the victorious regime are counterpoised against Lejeune’s own efforts to deny involvement and save his skin), Michel avoided execution for her role in the Commune. Perhaps it was her public prominence that saved her. It certainly wasn’t her legal strategy — she demanded the courts execute her and allow her to join her murdered comrades. “Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance!” she reportedly told the court.

In the end, she shared the fate of thousands of other Communard prisoners: deportation. She was exiled to a French penal colony on New Caledonia for nearly a decade. There she turned her energies in a variety of directions. She wrote poetry, studied the island’s natural history and ecology, and quickly befriended the island’s indigenous population. She learned their language and documented their history and customs. It was here that she became a committed anarchist, convinced that any form of institutionalized power inevitably led to oppression, corruption and suffering.

She also befriended Algerian prisoners on the island, who had been imprisoned there for fighting against French colonialism in their homeland (despite their shared state of exile, other white prisoners from France tended to stay aloof from indigenous populations and Algerians; Michel would have none of this). When an indigenous revolt broke out against the French during her stay, indigenous youths visited her on the eve of their (ultimately doomed) rebellion, and she divided her revolutionary red scarf among them as a token of her blessing and hopes.

When the amnesty for the Communards was announced, Michel returned to France, where she threw herself back into organizing. She fought for a range of causes throughout her life, from women’s rights to anti-colonialism to education for children. Prison became a familiar stomping ground for her, but she refused to relent. In 1888 an assassination attempt was made on her life by a man who shot her after hearing one of her speeches; she not only survived but refused to press charges against him, and even arranged for his legal defense (she believed he was a victim of the bourgeois clerics he claimed had put him up to it). She even travelled to Algeria to support the anti-colonial struggle there; an arduous journey on the return from which she fell ill. On 22 January 1905 — the same day the 1905 Revolution broke out in Russia 00 she died.

If the story of Adrien Lejeune is marked by the taint of political cynicism and opportunism, Michel’s life — especially in the Talbots’ telling of it — is a counterfoil of idealism and hope. Louise herself was a font of idealism, obsessed with science fiction and the hope that humanity would eventually evolve beyond its faults and eradicate poverty and oppression. The Red Virgin offers a glowing tribute — beautifully drawn and meticulously researched and referenced — to the irrepressible rebel, whose life was indelibly shaped by the experience of the Commune.

The Lure of the Commune

Long after its military defeat, the Commune continued to exert its fascination on idealists of various iterations. In Russia, the Bolsheviks pointed to the Commune’s defeat as justification for their brutal retaliatory measures against their enemies and so-called counter-revolutionaries. If the Communards had been as ruthless, went the idea, they might have prevailed. Lenin famously did a little victory dance in the snow on the day his Bolshevik Revolution had outlived the Commune. Even in China, notes Bowd, the Shanghai Commune during the bloody and brutal Cultural Revolution drew on the memory of the Paris Commune in its organization and structure.

But the Commune has attracted less ruthless aspirants as well, particularly in the post-Occupy era. The memory of the Commune does still tantalize, with its murky and malleable history. Just as its defeat was used to justify the deployment of Bolshevik terror-squads decades later, so its elusive lesson also inspires the notion that protest politics can bridge the chasm between gutter, barricade and political power. The Commune is more than just a memorial site in Paris: the fact that it was brought to an end before it had time to turn into the reactionary terror-state of so many of its successors means that it holds for many a valuable model of revolutionary potential.

Indeed, it’s the revolution incarnate, unsullied by stultifying co-optation or reactionary terror. It’s 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. It’s Taksim Square before the Turkish coup and counter-coup; it’s Tahrir Square before the revolution devolved into totalitarianism. It was, if not the first, certainly the largest and most successful of the ‘movement of the squares’ in the modern era, and its defeat meant that it went down with its revolutionary and solidaristic integrity (more or less) intact.

So much for its attraction. But what lesson does the Commune hold for us today? Harvey points out that the Commune was not an agrarian revolution, nor a revolution of factory workers. It was a revolution of urbanites, those who produce the city yet had been dispossessed by it, uniting together despite their diversity: “There is, for this reason, a dissident and influential view of the Commune that says it was not a proletarian uprising or a class-based movement at all, but an urban social movement that was reclaiming citizenship rights and the right to the city,” he writes in his 2012 review of urban rebellion, Rebel Cities.

It was, he observes, the revolution of a type of worker who’s all too often ignored by revolutionary intelligentsias; a type which bears remarkable resemblance to the precarious worker of today.

“The Paris Commune can then be reconceptualised as a struggle of that proletariat which produced the city to claim back the right to have and control that which they produced. This is (and in the Paris Commune case was) a very different kind of proletariat to that which much of the left has typically cast in a vanguard role. It is characterized by insecurity, by episodic, temporary, and spatially diffuse employment, and is very difficult to organize on a workplace basis.”

These “hordes of unorganized urbanization producers” are the sort that produced the Paris Commune, he argues, and in the wake of the collapse of other conventional proletariats (factory workers, unions, peasants) it is these who have the capacity to lead the banners of contemporary revolutionary politics. Kristin Ross acknowledges the parallels between Communards and today’s precariat, as well.

There is little need to spell out in detail how the way people live now under the contemporary form of capitalism — with the collapse of the labor market, the growth of the informal economy, and the undermining of systems of social solidarity throughout the overdeveloped world — bears more than a passing resemblance to the working conditions of the laborers and artisans of the nineteenth century who made the Commune, most of whom spent most of their time not working but looking for work.…The way people live now — working part-time, studying and working at the same time, straddling those two worlds or the gap between the work they were trained to do and the work they find themselves doing in order to get by, or negotiating the huge distances they must commute or migrate across in order to find work — all this suggests to me, and to others as well, that the world of the Communards is in fact much closer to us than is the world of our parents.

Would ‘the last Communard’ have recognized his world in our own? Would Michel have been enthralled by the 21st century, or appalled that humanity has failed to use its technological advances to substantively fight back poverty and oppression? All the above, no doubt. But both would have drawn hope from the fact that 145 years later, the Paris Commune has not been forgotten and continues to drive the intellectual, social and utopian aspirations of a still imperfect world.

The Red Virgin is bookmarked by the tragic story of Franz Reichelt, who died while testing a prototype of the modern parachute (he leapt from the Eiffel Tower in 1912). It’s an odd way to begin and end the book, but makes sense after some reflection. Reichelt died while trying to realize a dream of flight which others scoffed at as impossible; and although he failed, that wouldn’t deter others from following in his footsteps. Eventually, of course, they succeeded. It’s a homage to the spirit of utopianism, and the aspiration that even impossible-seeming ideals can be achieved if one keeps trying. Or in the words of Samuel Beckett, quoted in the book’s opening: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”