Corpses in Their Mouths
During the Paris Commune of 1871 — one of the first and still one of the greatest attempts by ordinary people to throw off the rule of priests, bosses, and money-men and take control of their own lives — a group of Communards, mostly workers and craftsmen, set off towards the great cathedral of Notre Dame. It was, they believed, the ultimate symbol of a false and oppressive religion, a grotesque monument to the manipulative power of the lying priests they were trying to overthrow; they intended to burn it to the ground. But once they arrived, they encountered another group of Communards, mostly poets and artists, as well-armed and as determined as they were, and that group intended to preserve Notre Dame at all costs. It was, they believed, the ultimate symbol of beauty and human potential, a transcendent monument to the aesthetic power of the common man they were trying to glorify. The two groups faced each other down with a combination of passion and caution. The first group felt the cathedral had to go, because it was made and managed by the people the revolution was attempting to unseat; the second felt the cathedral had to stay, because it was a thing of unique greatness, and the revolution had nothing to do with eradicating art and artistry. Neither side knew quite what to do. They each believed passionately in their ideals, and they both were reluctant to fight against their own comrades. In the end, after a brief and bloodless skirmish, the artists prevailed; the workers retreated and the cathedral remained unharmed. You can still visit it today; I have done so on two occasions. Both times, I could not stop thinking of that confrontation that took place over a century ago. The first time I heard about it, I could not decide whose position I favored. I still can’t.
This week has seen an explosion of student protests at Yale and at the University of Missouri. The provocations for each were different — at Yale, it started with reports of women of color being turned away from a Greek party and was exacerbated after a faculty member wrote an e-mail questioning the administration’s stance on Halloween costumes, and ended with outraged students demanding the resignation of that faculty member and her husband. At Missouri, it began with racist messages being directed at a black student and ballooned into widespread protests, including a strike by the school’s football team, that forced the resignation of its president. In both cases, though, commonalities were seen: the protesters were young — some of color and some not, but in all cases identified with the social justice movement; the protests took place amongst an ongoing backdrop of racial discrimination and marginalization of women and students of color; and in both occasions, observers on the left and right were taken aback by what they perceived as illiberal, extremist, and heavy-handed actions by the protesters — behaviors and language that seemed to suit a censorious and reactionary attitude more than it did the actions of a group of earnest young leftists.
In the Yale case, the problem was the seeming overreaction of protestors to the faculty member’s e-mail. Her communication, as well as the defense of it by her husband (also a faculty member), was, to most readings including my own, extremely moderate in both its language and its message, and the idea that two apparently capable and dedicated educators should be driven from their jobs because they dared to disagree with a bunch of 19-year-olds with extremely nebulous complaints is, indeed, pretty obnoxious. At Missouri, the protests were far more concrete and their grievances far more clearly articulated, but during a public gathering at the university, the press was barred from covering them; and, at one particularly damning moment, a professor (of mass media, no less) was captured on camera calling for “muscle” to prevent reporters from getting too close.
There were plenty of excuses offered for this behavior. At Yale, it was noted that a history of racial provocation backgrounded the protests, and that any overreaction on the part of the students was far outweighed by the suffering against which they were set. At Missouri, the initial defense of strong-arming the press was that they are all too often an instrument of the same white supremacist structure that the protests aimed to eradicate. These are all fair and legitimate claims; and those, including myself, who have bristled that these are students who have mistaken college for real life must remember that for them, for now, college is real life, and that it is not a sin but a virtue to think of your environment as the world in miniature. The events of May 1968 — Paris’ other great, failed revolution and also one of the one of the greatest attempts by ordinary people to throw off the rule of priests, bosses, and money-men and take control of their own lives — may have ended up as a nationwide revolt by everyone from plumbers and policemen to disc jockeys and teachers, but it started out as one young student accusing school administrators of fascism because they wanted to shut down a co-ed swimming pool.
A humble, even trivial, beginning is no strike against a revolutionary movement. But the humbleness must be at the beginning, not at the ending. I had cause to remember, when all this was going on, the case a few months back of the Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted a Bernie Sanders rally. All their explanations for going after a candidate who, at first glance, seemed to be more an ally than an enemy made a good deal of sense, but the one that troubled me the most was the defense that they didn’t go after Hillary Clinton because she had better security. It’s hard to imagine a true revolutionary saying something like that; the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Which brings up the vital question: what is the endgame here? It it simply an easier path to the bourgeois world? If it’s that, then their goal is easier to see, but their methods are harder to defend. Is it, rather, a true revolution, an attempt to change an irredeemably corrupt status quo? If so, none of their heavy-handed measures need to be explained, but their abbreviated and sporadic program most certainly does.
Remember those artists who battled the workers over the fate of Notre Dame in 1871 Paris? Their victory was short-lived. Like their comrades, they died in droves when the armies of empire finally retook the capital, their blood gushing into the holy ground they tried so hard to save. Almost a hundred years later, a handful of Situationists — Attila Kotányi, Raoul Vaneigem, and the great Guy Debord — penned their own thoughts on the Commune. These three would be key figures in the massive and near-miraculous events of May 1968; their protests, it should be noted, did not seek the ouster of educators or journalists, but sought to bring them into the great ludic revolution that was being made. Writing six years before that astonishing summer, they spoke of La Commune as a struggle of which “the last word has yet to be said”; they pointed out that it was easy to make justified criticisms of its shortcomings, but much more vital to look at it as a positive success “whose whole truth has yet to be discovered and fulfilled”. But, they warned, it “succumbed less to force of arms than force of habit”, and the burning of Notre Dame — contested when the Commune was in power and impossible when they lost it — was a great opportunity that went unrealized. (Another was the failure to seize the national bank, “defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property”.) The greatest territory ceded to our enemies, they wrote, is in our minds, and until we learn to think like revolutionaries, we cannot act like revolutionaries. The poets’ appreciation for the grand aesthetics of the cathedral ended up leaking out of the bullet wounds in their bodies. “Those who make revolution half way,” said the Situationist hero Saint-Just, “only dig their own graves”.
Perhaps I ask too much of these young men and women. Perhaps I want them to be too perfect too soon, to express a clarity of purpose they do not yet possess, to demand more than they really want. But if this is so, it is only because I think their generation is so pivotal to the future of the American ideal, so critical an element to derailing the triumph of capitalism within and without, so important in articulating a new way of thinking about race, sex, gender, and human potential. And if they are stumbling as they try to figure these things out, then I must forgive them, and ask that they forgive me too for questioning their methods and their goals, for I am stumbling too, as I try to figure out the same things. The Paris Commune failed, and Debord said that its failure was also its most promising success. But I do not want you to fail, you who want so much and start from so little. I want you to succeed for all of us. If you make mistakes, make them worth making. Do not go so far and far enough. Go further.