The Life and Afterlife of the Paris Commune

The Life and Afterlife of the Paris Commune

The Experiment

The life and afterlife of the Paris Commune.


We generally don’t see Paris as a city scarred by war. It is not like London and Berlin, where the drab modern architecture of the urban centers offers silent reminders of past aerial bombardment. It is not like Warsaw and Frankfurt, where the “old towns” are modern re-creations, erected over cleared fields of corpse-filled rubble. Despite revolutions, sieges, World War I shelling, and World War II bombings, Paris still possesses a remarkable architectural unity. The city’s center looks much as it did in the late 19th century. But while the scars are not immediately visible, they are there, and the worst of them are self-inflicted: the product of a single hideous week in May 1871. This was the week that the Paris Commune died.

The Commune was one of the most radical political experiments in European history, but it was also tragically short-lived. At the start of 1871, France’s fledgling conservative republican government signed an armistice with Prussia, which had defeated the armies of Emperor Napoleon III (leading to the collapse of his regime) and subjected the French capital to a grueling siege. In mid-March, the city’s radical National Guard challenged the government’s authority and set up a revolutionary municipal administration that called itself, echoing French Revolutionary terminology, the Commune. With thousands of rank-and-file soldiers supporting this new body, the national government withdrew to the nearby town of Versailles, the residence of France’s monarchs under the pre-1789 ancien régime. There followed two extraordinary months in which the Commune passed a host of egalitarian and anti-clerical measures, including a postponement of debt and rent obligations, a curtailment of child labor, the expropriation of church property, and the secularization of schools. Although it did not grant women the right to vote, women took on important political roles and militated for expanded rights. The socialist red flag flew over city hall (the Hôtel de Ville).

But the experiment lasted just two months. The national government, led by the veteran centrist politician Adolphe Thiers, declared the Commune illegal and planned a counterattack. On May 21, its armed forces entered Paris, and there followed a week of slaughter and fire. The “Versaillais” carried out large-scale summary executions, while the “Communards” desperately tried to stop them. In a final attempt to block the enemy advance, they even torched major monuments, including the Hôtel de Ville and the Tuileries Palace (which stood between the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre). As fires burned out of control throughout the city, the Commune’s defenders made a hopeless last stand in the cemetery of Père Lachaise. In the end, 147 were lined up against the cemetery wall by the national government’s forces and shot—part of a death toll that probably exceeded 20,000.

The Paris Commune received more worldwide media attention than probably any other event of the period except the American Civil War. A city that had served as a glittering showcase for modern consumer capitalism after its reconstruction by Napoleon III had been taken over by radical revolutionaries and then, horrifically, became a battlefield. Conservatives around the globe denounced the Communards as bloodthirsty savages and saved their worst venom for the so-called pétroleuses—women arsonists supposedly armed with watering cans full of kerosene. (They were mostly a propaganda invention.) The worldwide left, meanwhile, hailed the Commune as a beacon of hope and mourned its slain supporters as martyrs. Karl Marx called it “the glorious harbinger of a new society.” One of its flags later accompanied Lenin to his final resting place in Red Square.

Few things generate more powerful legends than martyrdom and massacre, and for historians, it has sometimes been hard to crawl out from under the legends of the Commune. Up until its 150th anniversary last year, which saw a profusion of innovative new studies (notably one by Quentin Deluermoz on the global resonance of the Commune), the temptation to refight it on paper has often ended up obscuring its complexity and ambiguities. It took a very long time to recognize that, despite the red flag, the social reforms, and Marx’s paean to a “working men’s government,” the Commune was in no simple sense either socialist or proletarian. A majority of its governing council came from the lower bourgeoisie, and the best indicator of whether Parisians supported it was not their social class but their neighborhood. The recent rebuilding of the city had driven poorer Parisians from the center into peripheral areas like the former village of Belleville, and in doing so had nurtured strong local solidarities and resentment of the central administration. But the Commune could never count on the support of all Parisians, and by the end, much of the exhausted and anxious city population actually welcomed the arrival of the Versaillais.

Finally, the Commune government itself was uncomfortably divided among several distinct factions: followers of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who prioritized establishing dictatorial rule by a tight-knit revolutionary socialist party; socialist internationalists, who wanted to implement broad egalitarian reforms as soon as possible; and Jacobin republicans, who believed in at least a limited right to private property. As a result, the Commune’s social policies remained limited in scope. If a single political cause united the factions, it was anti-clericalism, not socialism.

It is all the harder to know what to make of the Commune because it changed so much over the course of its brief life. In its last, desperate days, its governing council shut down opposition newspapers and created a Committee of Public Safety—a name deliberately resonant of the French revolutionary Reign of Terror. On May 15, 1871, representatives of the socialist internationalist group charged that “the Paris Commune has abdicated its power into the hands of a dictatorship.” Nine days later, over the opposition of many of the same figures, the council ordered the execution by firing squad of clerical hostages, including the archbishop of Paris. Was the Commune, under the influence of the hard-line “Blanquists,” moving toward the sort of government by terror that would characterize too many self-proclaimed socialist regimes in the 20th century? Or might the moderate internationalists have prevailed? (Indeed, in one of the Commune’s tragic ironies, a prominent leader of the moderates, the bookbinder Eugène Varlin, was lynched on May 28, partly in revenge for the archbishop’s death.)

In light of these ambiguities, it would be easy to consign the history of the Paris Commune to the same gray limbo of memory in which so many left-wing revolutions now reside: honored for their ideals but damned for their sometimes monstrous betrayals of them. Yet in our own increasingly unequal age, there is a reason to look back to the Commune that does not involve its internal quarrels, its uncertain trajectory, or its dreadful conclusion. This is the sense of equality, of humane treatment of all people, that it briefly but powerfully summoned up. It is precisely this quality that Carolyn J. Eichner emphasizes in The Paris Commune, her short but informative and moving new history. In the book’s opening vignette, she describes a concert given in the Commune’s last days in the Tuileries Palace, where Napoleon I and Napoleon III had both lived. The Commune opened it up to some 10,000 ordinary Parisians, who crammed in to partake of free food and drink and to hear some of the most famous musical performers of the day. A member of the Commune government commented that the people “seemed to say, ‘Finally we are in our house, in our palace! We have driven out the tyrant, and now can use this place as we please.’”

Eichner previously wrote the influential study Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune, and in her new book she pays particular attention to the extraordinary and innovative roles played by feminists in the event. Women spoke out forcefully in political clubs, often chiding male Communards for political timidity. “Men,” charged one, “are like monarchs softened by possessing too much authority…it is time for woman to replace man in directing public affairs.” The Commune government refused to grant women many formal rights, but it worked closely with the Union des Femmes, founded by a young Russian emigrée named Elisabeth Dmitrieff, which fought against the marginalization of women’s labor.

The journalist and novelist known as André Léo (a pseudonym created from the names of her two sons), who had cofounded the Society for Women’s Rights and written its most important manifesto, became one of the Commune’s most eloquent radical and militant voices. A similar trajectory was followed by Louise Michel, the so-called “Red Virgin” of the Commune, who consistently argued for aggressive action against the Versaillais and threatened personally to assassinate Thiers. Both of them argued that women should serve as soldiers, although the Committee of Public Safety refused to go along.

Eichner also expertly summarizes the Commune’s attempts to end economic exploitation and to transform education and culture in the city. In terms of the first, many of the Commune’s far-reaching plans never had a chance to come to fruition. A women’s labor organization, for instance, called for limits on repetitive manual labor and on working hours, as well as equal pay for women and men and the confiscation of property abandoned by bourgeois who had fled the city. Other radicals proposed taking over the national bank and abolishing the hated pawnshop network, which was filled with items sold by the desperate poor. The Commune government did not take these steps, but it did allow Parisians to retrieve low-cost items from the pawnshops, passed a decree taking over abandoned workshops and factories, and issued its measures on debt and rent relief and child labor. The council never abrogated private property rights in general, although that did not stop conservative journalists from asserting that it had. As one of them wrote: “The government is passing from those who have a material interest in the conservation of society, to those completely disinterested in order, stability, or conservation.”

Meanwhile, under the leadership of the realist painter Gustave Courbet, a new Federation of Artists began to develop ambitious plans for freeing the art world from government control, opening museums to the public free of charge, subsidizing theaters, and breaking down barriers between artists and workers through free classes and free library access. Along with proclaiming the formal separation of church and state at the start of April and the confiscation of church property, the Commune charged a new Education Commission with developing “a plan to render instruction free, mandatory, and entirely secular.” On May 16, the Commune demolished the 145-foot column in the Place Vendôme that had been erected by Napoleon I (and topped by his statue) to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz. Two years later, the legislature of the Third Republic voted to rebuild it at Courbet’s expense and seized all his property. (Courbet fled to Switzerland, where he died, a ruined man, in 1877.)

Eichner does not disguise her sympathy for the Commune and her horror at its bloody suppression. That sympathy and horror are understandable, but as a result she does not fully acknowledge how greatly the Commune’s popular support had ebbed by May 1871, thanks to its own internal divisions, the increasingly repressive tactics of the Blanquists, and the sheer exhaustion of the Parisian population after eight months of war, siege, and civil war. She also characterizes the Commune’s opponents a little too quickly and broadly as social elites greedily defending their privileged status. At the time, even many liberal republicans had a sincere and principled opposition to a number of the Commune’s policies. They recognized the awkward fact that Paris in 1871 was a political island in a much more conservative country where a majority of the population still worked the land and where the Catholic Church retained considerable popularity. Did not democracy require coming to terms with the will of the majority—even a supposedly unenlightened one? This is one reason why a prominent liberal republican like Léon Gambetta, a man deeply committed to the French revolutionary tradition, abhorred and denounced the Commune. Similar ambivalences, of course, have continued to plague Western democracies—very much including our own—down to the present day.

Eichner concludes her history with the observation that the Commune “persists as a guide to multiple radically democratic goals” and mentions commemorations that have stretched down to the Occupy movement and beyond. For my part, I would also mention one of the greatest ironies of the event, namely that the Third Republic, which so brutally destroyed the Commune, ended up realizing many of its goals. In the 1880s, it took public education out of the hands of the Catholic Church and created a mandatory system of free primary education. In 1905, it decreed a formal separation of church and state. Despite the violent repression that accompanied its birth, the Third Republic soon evolved into a moderate democracy with substantial freedom of speech and other protections for individual rights—although far less for women, who, for instance, could not publish without their husband’s consent, a restriction that stayed in place until the 1960s. French society remained anything but egalitarian, and socialists railed against the “two hundred families” who were said to control the commanding heights of the economy. Still, left-wing parties increasingly agreed to play the political game, entered into government, and eventually helped pass important social welfare measures, including paid vacations, a minimum wage, old-age pensions, the right to strike, and public works programs. Despite a merry-go-round of unstable government coalitions, the Third Republic became the longest-lasting French regime since the Revolution of 1789 (70 years, as opposed to the current Fifth Republic’s 64), and it fell only as a result of military defeat in 1940.

But would these progressive reforms have come about without the example of the Commune and the threat to an overly rigid social order that it continued to symbolize, even in defeat? I suspect the answer is no. The ghost of the Commune continued to haunt the regime that had killed it and helped to push the Third Republic and future regimes in the more progressive direction they eventually took. For all of the contradictions that accompanied its short life, the Commune, as Eichner insists, played a key historical role.

The events of 1871 had, in fact, not yet slipped below the horizon of living memory when another European city underwent a strikingly similar experience: republican Barcelona, at the start of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. There, too, different political factions jostled for control, including the anarchists of the POUM and the hard-line Communists, the Blanquists of their day. There, too, the experiment was constantly under dire threat from better-armed enemies: the soldiers of Francisco Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini. But there, too, for a brief moment, an extraordinary spirit of equality and revolutionary energy prevailed, as brilliantly described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Seemingly every building was festooned with flags and posters; all traces of servility disappeared from social relations, indeed from the very language; strangers treated each other as brother and sister. There, too, the experiment was achingly brief and ended tragically. But the moment itself gleams as a sign of hope and possibility. As Orwell wrote: “All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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