What can we learn from the Paris Commune?

By Keith Reader

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, whose short-lived moment of triumph and brutal suppression have ensured it an abiding place in the political imagination of France, and indeed beyond. What was the Commune, and how might it be relevant to us today?

To understand this we need to grasp a crucial difference between the political cultures of the UK and France. The history of France over the past two-hundred-years-and-counting tends to focus on a series of crucial dates involving revolutionary social change, actual or potential – 1789 (the French Revolution – the first thus called but not the only one), 1815 (Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon restoration), 1830 (the ‘July Revolution’ which installed Louis-Philippe), 1848  (the coup led by Napoleon’s nephew), 1852 (the anti-monarchist insurrection in Paris during which much of Victor Hugo’s vast novelistic fresco Les Misérables is set),  1871 (defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the reestablishment of the Republic), in the following century 1940 (the fall of France), 1958 (de Gaulle’s advent to power and the foundation of the Fifth Republic), and 1968 (the tumultuous if unbloody May events which indirectly provoked the downfall of de Gaulle). So turbulent and sharply-punctuated a history contrasts vividly with the constitutional calm, for better and for worse, of the United Kingdom – relatively undisturbed even by the bombshell of Brexit.

The Commune came about as a reaction to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which brought an end to the Second Empire. The Third Republic installed in 1871 had at its head the veteran political operator Adolphe Thiers, who negotiated the withdrawal of German troops from French territory but was insufficiently radical for the population of Paris. This led to the brief installation of arguably the most left-wing local government France has known – the Paris Commune, whose name is indicative of its founding socialist principles.

I shall be focusing on Paris here but it is worth noting that similar movements took place in large provincial cities such as Lyon and Marseille. Thiers, having lost control of the capital, fled to Versailles, but alas, his defeat was only temporary. Within a few months the army had recaptured the city, and the consequent repression was sanguinary, with more than six thousand dead on the revolutionary side – estimates differ wildly – and many more taken prisoner or forced into at least temporary exile. One of the most moving sights in Paris is the Communards’ Wall – in French Mur des Fédérés – in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where 147 Communards were shot and flung into an open grave. What might UK activists today learn from this long-ago but still highly charged, indeed mythical historical moment?

Clearly it is important to bear in mind fundamental divergences in political organization and culture. Socialism is, endemically international, but that does not permit it to ignore or even minimize national differences. That is easy enough to recognize in an intercontinental perspective – hence the widely-disputed ‘critical support’ of much of the left for movements that in one way or another may leave a great deal to be desired – but perhaps more problematic closer to home. France is the United Kingdom’s nearest neighbour, yet its political culture could scarcely be more different from that of these islands.

Revolution on this side of the Channel has by and large been deemed undesirable not to say perilous, rather than a legitimate route to social change. The last English revolution, after all, dates back to 1688.  The long-standing British ambivalence towards France – instanced by the very title of Robert and Isabelle Tombs’s major study That Sweet Enemy – owes much to that land’s revolutionary heritage.  France’s geographical proximity may even serve to emphasize its cultural difference, nowhere more marked than in the political domain, and in large measure traceable back to the revolution of 1789. The title of the academic journal Modern and Contemporary France may appear to the casual reader an unnecessary duplication, but the two adjectives refer to different periods – ‘modern’ is understood as referring to the period since 1789, ‘contemporary’ to the present day, however defined. No single date in the history of the UK carries anything like so much mythical and symbolic weight.

The three revolutions which succeeded it, however, might more accurately be described as counter-revolutions, successively restoring the Bourbons, installing the no less reactionary Louis-Philippe and finally, after a three-year period of something like constitutional monarchy, conferring quasi-dictatorial powers on Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoléon aka Napoleon III. France’s defeat in 1870 led to the collapse of his regime, the Second Empire, and the return to a republican model of government.  Revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding – and in France that has rarely been in short supply – that model has remained the norm ever since, save for the four years of the Vichy régime when the Republic’s institutions were notionally still in place but no official document mentioned the ‘R-word.’

In that historical perspective the Commune may thus appear as an aberration – the last gasp of a revolutionary political culture that has long since been superseded. The doyen of Marxist literary theorists, Terry Eagleton, observes: “There are those who overlook one of the most significant points about the Paris Commune, the fact that it failed.”

 Yet for Karl Marx, whose The Civil War In France was published in London only a fortnight after the Commune was overthrown, it was the first incidence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That notion is seldom heard nowadays, but the fact that a German exile in London should have proffered such (for the time) rapid and penetrating analysis of a French political phenomenon surely points to one of the Commune’s most important lessons for today – its internationalism. This was emblematized by its adoption of the socialist red flag in preference to the French republican tricolour and further marked by the fact that its military commander towards the end was the Polish Jaroslaw Dąbrowski.  The presence of authoritarian right-wing nationalist régimes in Poland and Hungary today, along, in a very different way, with the recrudescence of an often benighted nationalism here post-Brexit, makes that dimension all the more ironically crucial.

Women played a vital role in the Commune, for all that they were not to get the vote until decades later, in June 1944. The Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded – a nicely androgynous title, bringing together as it does combativeness and nurturing – was founded by a French woman bookbinder and a Russian émigrée.

Its demands included gender and wage equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education, and professional education for girls, along with suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, and between legitimate and illegitimate children. They further advocated the abolition of prostitution – a demand which remains unmet to this day. A leading figure was the anarchist Louise Michel – whose name is today borne by a left-wing discussion group based in Paris but counting among its supporters Tariq Ali and Ken Loach along, less illustriously, with the present writer.

Anarchists, often influenced by the philosopher, and sometime friend of Marx, Proudhon for whom anarchy was ‘order without power,’ played a prominent role in the Commune, notably in implementing binding mandates for delegates who would be subject to recall at any time – almost like a prefiguration of debates within the Labour Party decades later.  Paris back then was, manifestly and rightly, ahead of the game – at least showing the path to take, even if it were a difficult and perilous one. The Commune here appears as an example to be followed (with of course all due diligence) – not simply a glorious failure, but a blueprint for a fairer and more equitable society.

The terms ‘Commune’ and ‘Communard(e)’ have pervaded French cultural as well as political discourse for a century-and-a-half-and-counting. The great naturalist novelist Émile Zola set much of his La Débâcle of 1892 during the period. The title refers to France’s humiliating defeat by Prussia, but also to the crushing of the Commune, in the course of which the central character mortally wounds his best friend, who is among the insurgents.

And it is not only in France that it has been influential. The British film-maker Peter Watkins, best known for his anti-nuclear The War Game of 1965, commissioned by the BBC who proceeded to bottle out of screening it, and  now resident in France, made a six-and-a-half-hour film – though the theatrically-released version runs for ‘only’ three-and-a-half – La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000). It reconstructs the events using a largely non-professional cast, many of them North African immigrants, who often knew little of the history before embarking on the film. This is surely symptomatic of the Commune’s marginalization in “mainstream” French historical culture.

 Pop singers Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles formed a duo entitled the Communards which was active between 1985 and 1988, though much of their material was markedly less radical than their name might suggest, consisting as it did often of covers of US hits. That said, their album Red (1987) featured For A Friend and Victims – two of the earliest pop songs to deal with AIDS.

It is even possible, at least in France, to drink a Communard. This is a less widespread variant on the popular white-wine-and-crème-de-cassis apéritif known as a kir, replacing white wine with red. I find it a rather indigestible beverage, perhaps unconsciously influenced by its name, which it owes to the fact that it is ‘tout rouge’/’all red’ – evoking the movement’s ideological radicalism but also its sanguinary repression.

Given that your local pub, even were it permitted to open, would be unlikely to serve this drink, what possible implications might the Paris Commune have for us today? A movement not a party, it was and remains a striking example of workers’ self-organization, inspiring Lenin to dub it “a superb example of the great proletarian movement of the nineteenth century.” For all that it was far from ‘Leninist’ in the sense in which the term has generally been used – and is now, by-and-large, discredited.  

Its internationalism and the significant role played by women indeed prefigure modes of organization that seem far more pertinent today than the ‘Leninist’ traditions which long served as matrix for many on the left. Glorious failure can sometimes appear almost baked-in to a certain leftist mythology, especially at times such as that at which I am writing this piece, but there are lessons to be drawn from it, in its glory and its failure alike. The need for ever-changing and self-renewing types of organization;  that, concomitant, for an internationalist perspective and dimension; above all perhaps the simultaneous imperative at once to take account of local differences, even peculiarities, and to move beyond them – these remain as relevant as they have ever been. Vive la Commune!

Keith Reader is Visiting Emeritus Professor at the University of London Institute in Paris. His books include The Marais: The Story of a Quartier (LUP 2020) and The Place de la Bastille: The Story of a Quartier (LUP, 2011).

Image: Paris 13e arrondissement – Place de la Commune-de-Paris. Author: Ordifana75, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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