Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871 
by John Merriman.
Yale, 324 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 0 300 17452 6
Show More
Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune 
by Kristin Ross.
Verso, 148 pp., £16.99, March 2015, 978 1 78168 839 7
Show More
Show More

Lenin,​ it’s said, danced in the snow once the Bolshevik government had lasted a day longer than the Paris Commune. He was in awe of the Communards, and his tomb is still decorated with red banners from the Commune, brought for his funeral by French communists. Though it lasted only 72 days, the Commune was a defining moment for the European left, though not an uncontroversial one. Marx praised it in The Civil War in France (1871) – ‘Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class’ – but in 1872 in a new preface to The Communist Manifesto he wrote: ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose.’ The Communards, he believed, had made a crucial error by seeking to reform, rather than abolish, the state. Engels agreed, calling the Commune the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a state run by workers in their own interest. The argument about its political nature still hasn’t been settled 144 years after the Commune itself was crushed. Some see it as the first self-consciously socialist uprising: a popular rebellion, unlike the liberal and nationalist Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Others describe it as one among many manifestations of French republicanism.

The Yale historian John Merriman’s new book concentrates on the chain of events that created the Commune, and the main players behind its formation. He opens with a description of Paris in 1870: its western side a playground for the rich, the east an overpopulated slum. The class divide was deep and class consciousness entrenched. In July that year, Napoleon III, desperate for military glory, declared war on Prussia, his generals having assured him that France would win easily. They were wrong. As soon as the fighting started, Prussian troops routed the French and on 2 September captured the emperor together with 100,000 troops in Sedan. There were mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris demanding the overthrow of the empire, and its replacement with a democratic republic. Moderate republicans were terrified and on 4 September established a new republic. The s0-called Government of National Defence promised not to cede an inch of territory to the Prussians; but it feared the radicalised working class in the capital even more, and decided that it would be wise to surrender to Bismarck as soon as possible. Secret negotiations were opened soon after the Prussians laid siege to Paris on 19 September.

As the weeks went by, hostility to the new government grew. On 28 October, news reached Paris that the 160,000 soldiers at Metz had surrendered. On 31 October, 15,000 demonstrators gathered at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris calling for the resignation of the government and the establishment of a Commune and a Committee of Public Safety, such as there had been in 1792. Food was running out and so was money; on 29 January the government surrendered, as it had been planning to do since the beginning of the siege.

The right-wing député Adolphe Thiers was appointed president by the National Assembly and given a mandate to accept and implement the harsh terms imposed, which included ceding Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia. In March, the Prussians paraded through Paris. They occupied part of the city for two days, then withdrew. The surrender to the Prussians and the threat of monarchist restoration led to a transformation of the National Guard. A Central Committee of the Federation of National Guards was elected, comprising 215 battalions, equipped with 2000 cannons and 450,000 firearms.

Thiers’s new government embodied a conservative brand of republicanism. He had been prime minister under Louis-Philippe’s July Monarchy in 1836, 1840 and 1848, and was later a fierce opponent of Napoleon III. He was far from being the kind of leader the Parisian militants wanted in power. Thiers had promised the conservative députés in the National Assembly that the monarchy would be restored. His first task was to undermine the newly empowered National Guard, which had the militants’ support and controlled the city’s 2000 cannons. For Thiers and the national army amassing in Versailles, this represented a grave threat to the new order. On 18 March Thiers ordered his troops to seize a large number of the cannons, but the Parisians were determined to keep them and dragged them to the top of the Butte Montmartre in the northern part of the city. A confrontation between the troops and the crowd ensued, and the mob captured and shot two generals. The troops retreated without the cannons and the Commune was proclaimed the same day.

On 19 April 1871, the Commune authorities published a declaration. The short text outlined the aims of the new government, which were to assure ‘to each one his full rights, and to every Frenchman the full exercise of his faculties and abilities as man, citizen and producer’. The authorities were to take charge of the communal budgets, receipts and expenses, the fixing and collection of taxes, the direction of public services, the organisation of the magistracy, internal police, the National Guard and education. ‘Individual freedom and freedom of conscience’ would be guaranteed and ‘a new era of experimental, positive, scientific politics’ would bring about ‘the modern revolution, the most fecund’ in the history of humanity.

Merriman doesn’t spend long on the Commune’s decrees. His account is, broadly speaking, sympathetic to the Communards, pointing out that the Commune had a strong – though ill-organised – social justice agenda. He describes in detail the active role played by local authorities in distributing food and fuel to the poor, and in promoting equality between the sexes. But his focus is on the battle between the Versaillais, under the leadership of Thiers, and the people of Paris. Half of his 300 pages are devoted to the ‘semaine sanglante’ of 21-28 May during which the national army retook control of the capital after slaughtering as many as 25,000 civilians and combatants. He gives a vivid and grisly account of the street fighting, including the army’s use of machine guns to perform mass executions. Hatred of the proletariat, and a determination to avenge their humiliation at the hands of the Prussians, prevailed among the army’s officers. The Versaillais regarded the Communards as common criminals or worse – ‘vermin’, ‘beasts’, ‘wild animals’ – and were bent on ‘purifying’ the streets of Paris.

The greatest merit of Merriman’s book is the attention he gives to the crimes perpetrated by the new ‘republican’ regime. But his focus on the fighting is also limiting. The Commune was one of only a few collective attempts to construct an egalitarian society: it has influenced every socialist movement in the world. In Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune Kristin Ross argues that the spirit of the Commune is alive today among, for instance, the Indignados in Spain and inside the Occupy movement. Ross discusses the ‘political imaginary’ that both fuelled and outlived the Commune. She looks at encounters between activists and intellectuals in Europe and how they led to the consolidation of a socialist ideology and culture, paying close attention to their approaches to education, work, the arts and the environment. She examines the way the ‘Commune mindset’ came into existence before 1871, and how it persisted through to the 1880s, when Communards in exile met other revolutionaries, among them Marx, Kropotkin and William Morris. The book’s title is taken from the Artists’ Manifesto proclaimed by the Commune’s Artists’ Federation, which promised a world in which ‘everyone would … have his or her share of the best.’

Ross sets out to define ‘Communard thought’ and the two interpretations of it that have predominated – for the Soviet Communists and their followers the Communards were martyrs of a failed socialist revolution; for French republicans, the Commune facilitated the creation of a new republican regime – and suggests that the essence of the Commune as a political project lies beyond both interpretations. She points out the differences between the Commune and the USSR, with its state-managed economy and centralised, authoritarian organisation, while also doubting that it constitutes a ‘heroic radical sequence’ in the forward march of French republicanism. The Parisian insurgents didn’t fight to ‘save the new Third Republic’, but to create a Universal Republic based on solidarity and co-operation between men and women across the world, whatever their nationality. Ross’s point – one that would be controversial for large segments of today’s French left – is that ‘far from implying a return to the principles of the bourgeois 1789 revolution, the slogan “Universal Republic”, when uttered by the Communards, marks their break from the legacy of the French Revolution in the direction of a real working-class internationalism.’ The Communards believed that the universal rights proclaimed by the revolutionaries in 1789 would be meaningless if they couldn’t be translated into economic and cultural provision for more than just the bourgeoisie.

Gustave Courbet captured the Commune’s universalist aspirations when he declared: ‘Paris has renounced being the capital of France.’ Elisée Reclus, an anarchist, summed up its ambition: ‘Everywhere the word “Commune” was understood in the largest sense, as referring to a new humanity, made up of free and equal companions, oblivious to the existence of old boundaries, helping each other in peace from one end of the world to the other.’ The insurgents saw themselves as free people, not just free French people, and were forming a genuine Internationale – a federation of free men and women. In the words of one Communard it was ‘an audacious act of internationalism’.

Marx was aware of the Commune’s anti-authoritarian and individualistic spirit: what mattered was not its ideals, or its policies, but its ‘working existence’. As Ross puts it, the Commune was a ‘working laboratory of political inventions’, a largely improvised project. The Communards had little time for ‘Jacobin posturing and rhetoric’, reckoning they were all about ‘big talk and little action – the scene of words, not deeds’. The French republican tradition – that is, in its revolutionary left and reformist conceptions – has always been ideologically ‘Jacobin’. Mainstream Jacobins hold a strong belief in representative democracy as opposed to popular democracy; in a ‘unitary’ and ‘indivisible’ nation; in centralised institutions and a top-down approach to power and politics. John Stuart Mill, who didn’t think much of this ‘abstract republican mind’, described it as proceeding ‘from an infirmity of the French mind, which has been one main cause of the miscarriages of the French nation in its pursuit of liberty and progress; that of being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power.’

The experience of the Commune radically changed some of the Communards’ worldviews. Reclus ended up violently rejecting the Third Republic he had initially defended. Following the downfall of the Commune, the republic seemed to him to be ‘opportunistic’, a ‘hopeless mirage’, an assembly made up of ‘Messieurs the gunmen’. He declared himself an anarchist communist and totally renounced French nationalism. Gustave Lefrançais, a revolutionary anarchist, who was elected to the Council of the Commune for the fourth arrondissement, also bade farewell to the French republic in the most unambiguous manner: ‘The proletariat will never be truly emancipated unless it gets rid of the Republic – the last form, and not the least malevolent – of the authoritarian governments’. Eugène Pottier – the author of ‘The Internationale’ – dedicated the song to Lefrançais in 1871.

Three​ important symbolic acts marked the way to the universal republic: the burning of the guillotine on 10 April, the establishment of the Women’s Union on 11 April, and the destruction of the Vendôme Column (built to glorify Napoleon I’s conquests) on 16 May. Women were very active during the Commune. Louise Michel, a schoolteacher, medical worker and anarchist, treated those injured on the barricades and joined the National Guard. Elisabeth Dmitrieff, the daughter of a tsarist official, was a co-founder of the Women’s Union. She was also representative of the Commune’s internationalism: she established a kind of ‘transversal’ relationship between Marx – with whom she had been in almost daily contact in London for three months before the Commune – and the Russian socialist thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Dmitrieff is said to have drawn Marx’s attention to some of Chernyshevsky’s ideas, notably the creation of a socialist society based on the old peasant commune. ‘The social revolution,’ Citizen Destrée declared, ‘will not be realised until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.’

The Communards were devoted to free, compulsory and secular education. Free education meant schools accessible to all children, whatever their social background, and free from religious interference. In April 1871, a commission headed by Edouard Vaillant and including the songwriter Jean-Baptiste Clément (composer of ‘Le Temps des cerises’, the greatest of the songs associated with the Commune), the writer Jules Vallès and Courbet set about closing down all Catholic schools and removing religious symbols from the premises. The idea was to undo the stranglehold the Church had over schooling in Paris, where a third of children went to religious schools and another third didn’t go to school at all. Joseph Jacotot’s ‘pedagogical vision of politics’ set the agenda. Teaching was seen as forming the society of the future: education was a pre-condition for the formation of political judgment, and therefore crucial to becoming a citizen.

Artists also played an active role. The Artists’ Federation was set up with the stated aim of ‘free expression of art, released from all government supervision and all privilege’. On 14 April, more than four hundred people answered the ‘Call for Artists’. Eugène Pottier read out the Artists’ Manifesto rallying all ‘artistic intelligences’ – that is, non-professional as well as professional artists.

Marx felt that the Commune might have saved itself had it dealt more harshly with its political opponents and centralised all powers and institutions in the hands of a revolutionary organisation. After 1871, this was the issue that divided Marxists and anarchists. Lenin’s militarist conception of political action and the vanguard party was at odds with the anarchist approach, which advocated a general strike followed by the immediate dismantling of the state by decentralised workers’ councils. In this respect the Commune was far more in tune with anarchist culture than with orthodox Marxism. Marx, Engels and Lenin criticised the Communards for failing to take over capitalist institutions – for instance, the assets of the French banks were not confiscated – and thought they showed ‘excessive magnanimity’ in dealing with counter-revolutionary agents, saboteurs and spies. They also believed the Commune paid too little attention to military training and discipline.

The philosophy that prevailed among the Communards had more to do with Rousseauian ideas of freedom and true democracy. Although the Commune only lasted 72 days, it shouldn’t be regarded as a political failure but as a time of intense solidarity – an aspect the Marxist interpretation tends to underplay. In fact, the Communards were the first genuine internationalists: Reclus, Lefrançais, Verlaine, Vermersch, Rimbaud, Vaillant and Lafargue were exiled to London or Geneva and met with like-minded supporters. Their influence spread via journals, theoretical elaborations and debates. Ross contends that the movement constituted a kind of ‘globalisation from below’ – a successful combination of local democracy and open internationalism. It could also be argued that it developed an original brand of ‘libertarian communism’ that tried to free itself from the power and authority of a centralised or Jacobin state. It was an experiment based on the principle of communal autonomy and envisaged a loose association of communes established across France in which the ideas of communism would be able to come to fruition.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences