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See You at the Barricades! Three Books That Revive the Memory of the Paris Commune

Radical comics editor Paul Buhle explores the history of street fighting Parisians and the lasting legacy of Communards.

A barricade in the Paris Commune, March 18, 1871. (Photo: Hachette Biblio College, Les Miserables)

For socialists and communists of over a century, the Paris Commune was a defining event. From March 18 to May 28 in 1871, following the collapse of the French Republic and the Prussian siege of the capital, the Communards swore to defend Paris until they were overwhelmed by the French army itself. Karl Marx himself called the temporary self-government of the population the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It will come as a surprise to many Irish enthusiasts, in the aftermath of the global centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising of 1916, that martyred socialist leader James Connolly carefully studied the urban warfare of the Paris Communards before launching the blow that unseated British confidence in their future rule of Ireland. For Connolly’s generation, the temporary triumph and lessons of the Paris Commune of 1870 and 1871 were close in time and thought.

A century-and-a-half has passed since the original organization of the Paris Commune, and we are in danger of forgetting the meaning of this earthshaking event. Marx regarded the Commune as the first proof of socialism breaking through, because masses of ordinary people had replaced the existing state apparatus rather than creating a reform movement within it. New Yorkers held a vast parade in the year following, with free-love advocate and former presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull at its head. Decades passed, and Lenin studied the Commune closely. By 1963, I was sitting around at a picnic table in an Oakland park with comrades from an antique socialist organization, vividly discussing the red shadow that the Commune had bequeathed to the future of socialist movements. These old comrades are now long gone, but the memory of the Commune has not died, and several new books bring assorted aspects of the Commune back to us again.

A History of the Barricade by Eric Hazan offers some of the freshest material, for me at least, because it becomes clear that courageous if poorly armed (and ultimately defeated) uprisings in the streets of Paris had a long history before 1870. Going back to the 16th century, French royals and would-be conquerors from abroad had attempted to subdue Paris … and it wasn’t easy. The year 1588 saw the very first Parisian barricades, deployed by students and others against the entrance of foreign troops to create something then unprecedented, a military garrison in the city. This time the invading King Henry III with his Swiss Guards was actually expelled, although by 1594 so-called “order” had been restored and the rebellion drowned in martyrs’ blood.

A pattern had been established for the following centuries. In 1648, a hero — Pierre Broussel — once again emerges, lionized by masses of ordinary working people who risk their lives to preserve him, the representative of their cause. Again, barricades are constructed from anything at hand, but especially furniture, paving stones, barrels and so on, with the population at large doing the manual labor. Author Hazan tells us that, this time around, the uprising was almost spontaneous, certainly leaderless, as news and plans spread by word of mouth, neighborhood to neighborhood. They were crushed once more, until the next time.

That next time was the French Revolution itself, although barricades came in at the end of the overturn in 1793, seeking without success to recover the achievements of the revolution and the Thermidor. And then things fell silent until 1831 and 1832 (under the motto, “Live Working and Die Fighting”) and once more, in 1848. The author’s description of mass movements in the street, of inventiveness of the seemingly anonymous crowds, and of the bourgeois classes’ public satisfaction at mass murder in the restoration of order, makes A History of the Barricade a compelling read, chapter by chapter. In passing, the author describes the barricades elsewhere in Europe of 1848, the famed spectre of Communism haunting the continent (in the opening phrases of the Communist Manifesto). He returns to Paris for 1851, when Louis Napolean, a later favorite of mainstream historians, directed a butchery equaling any of the past. Sadly, by the 20th century, the broadening of streets made barricades problematic defensive measures, although the idea of the barricades certainly continued into Paris 1968, and continues even today.

The treatment of 1870 and 1871, including the famous Communards’ stand behind the barricades, occupies surprisingly little space here, unless we consider that the masses’ accomplishment was not military. They bravely tried to resist the invading Prussian army without real hope of success. In some neighborhoods, he notes, simply owning a watch was enough to prompt murder, from soldiers “thirsting for blood and pillage.” In the 20th century and after, the barricades have mostly been police barricades, although the mass uprising, in Paris of 1968 or Paris of the present, is very much alive, and on this side of the ocean, we have seen something like it from Occupy to Black Lives Matter.

The literal “last Communard,” the subject of Gavin Bowd’s small book, lived long enough to celebrate the Russian Revolution and its own Thermidor, in Stalinism. Bowd’s research effort to separate myth from reality is carried out step by step, with many an apparent near-mishap along the way. Which version of this or that is true? In the end, the old revolutionary’s own recollections turned out, at the very least, to be badly flawed. Adrian Lejune proved a loyal French Communist during the 1920s and 1930s, offering a most useful symbol to the Party and to Moscow. Relocating from France to Russia was his great error and misfortune. He remained too valuable to disappear in the purges, but he may very well have died in Siberia. Or perhaps not.

The larger meanings, of course, are to be found in the Paris Commune itself. Kristin Ross’ work on ideas and culture within and then shaped by memories of the Commune is most clearly shaped by the uprisings of the 21st century. “Communal luxury,” a favorite phrase of the author, refers not to material wealth but to the sheer luxury of collective, autonomous economic and social life during the short 72 days of the Commune’s existence. Free association, active cooperation and a joyful plunge into a possible new world set a standard so high that we have not since reached such a point again.

The call for a “universal republic” did not originate with the Commune, nor even the word “Commune,” a seeming vestige of an earlier uprising’s calling card. The Russian revolutionary theorist Chernyshevsky, within his national section of the First International, set the tone for a century of socialist hopes to skip over capitalism, insisting that the “communal” nature of peasant society could provide a framework for the future order. Marx and Engels themselves dwelt upon this thought, in their later years. Theorists as distant in time as Pan Africanist CLR James in the 1950s-70s expressed what turns out to be an undue confidence that yesteryear’s forms of village social relationships could overcome the multiple legacies of colonialism. Thus did the impact of the Paris Commune find new forms and meanings. Meanwhile, the very internationalism of the real Communards became, in the eyes of conservatives and liberals alike, proof of subversive, anti-French content, a kind of Cold War charge that survives in anti-immigrant sentiments today.

As a historian, Ross is more interested in the positives, including the artistic expressions that raised up the aspiration of every worker becoming an artist, and every artist becoming, at least in theory, also a worker. Naturally, this thinking extended into the education of children, an effort begun in the Commune with equal pay for male and female schoolteachers, and with a curriculum urging children to be taught a love for justice. A pedagogy of freedom, an extension of art to include, at least, the skilled craftsmen and high artists, led to or at least encouraged the destruction of the massive war memorial, the Vendome Column. The great artist Gustave Corbet, accused of taking part in this destruction, was persecuted by the French government until his dying day. According to Ross, the destruction had been properly seen as “clearing the way for communal luxury.”

Among the celebrants of this creative destruction, Ross points to William Morris, the English poet, defender of nature (also of historic architecture) and socialist. Obsessed with returning skills to the makers of manufactured objects, Morris simultaneously turned his eyes northward toward pre-modern culture surviving in Iceland, and then back home to the struggles of British workers in the 1880s. His poem “Pilgrims of Hope,” considered one of the stirring lyrics of the era, at once intensely romantic and social, grew out of an immersion in detail inspired by the Commune but not limited to the Commune. Published in his own newspaper, Commonweal, in 1885, it placed the celebration of the Commune as the “duty” of the labor and socialist movements. Thus has the Commune as reality and myth remained vital, for anarchists as well as socialists, in Chicago as well as London, Moscow, Rome — by the twentieth century in distant zones of Africa, Asia and Latin America — as well as mother Paris.

The final chapters of Communal Luxury strike me as a little weak. The self-direction of the Commune points away from the all-powerful State, of course, and in some ways, toward ecological self-sufficiency of agricultural/industrial regions finding their own sustainable, democratic ways forward. The rest is a matter of speculation. But perhaps Ross is correct in the most important way: Every possibility of free association has a kernel in the social republic of achieved and then lost. Hail the Paris Commune!

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