L’Ideé est Debout
This year, I made the decision that all the non-fiction I would read would be about two events, separated by a century but bonded in the blood: the Paris Commune of 1871 and the revolts that spread across France in May of 1968. Both are events that have had a gigantic place in my revolutionary imagination and have influenced my political development and my vision of a better future. They echo one another immensely; as I recalled from the final chapter of the first book of this project, John Merriman’s Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, some of the most intense protests and demonstrations of 1968 took place in front of the Wall of the Fédérés in Père Lachaise Cemetery, where hundreds of Communards were killed by the conservative forces of Versailles.
Merriman’s book, written in 2014, is a curious place to begin, but in some ways, it is the most appropriate. The author is greatly sympathetic with the cause and the people of the Commune, but it is not a book about its origins or its functions. Massacre is about its end: the total destruction of the Paris Commune at the hands of the Versaillais troops under the contemptible Adolphe Thiers, the ‘protector’ of Napoleon III’s empire. It is depressing, but deeply instructive, to start at the finish, to learn about the Commune and its triumphs and mistakes through its culmination in the Bloody Week of late May, because it contains so many parallels to the situations faced by revolutionaries ever since, so many scenarios eerily familiar to us today, and such an invaluable lesson about what awaits those who would stand up to to power of state and capital. It’s no exaggeration to say that the end of the Commune set the tone for the horrors that governments inflicted on their own populations in the 20th century; it was the first great democidal horror of the modern era.
The style of Merriman’s book is casual and non-academic, focused less on the politics and historical background of the Commune than on the human stories that came out of it. But his sympathies are clear; he is unsparing in his distaste for Thiers (never trust a national leader named Adolph, folks — we should have learned the first time) and the wealthy men and women of Paris who were so indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens. At the time of the Commune, Paris had already suffered enormously; it had been besieged by Prussian forces for months following an ill-advised war backed by Thiers. Most of the National Guard who fought to defend the Commune were veterans of the siege, and unlike their aristocratic officers, they had no interest in the chauvinistic and showy patriotism of empire; they only wanted decent pay, fair treatment, and a piece of the good life so many of them had given their lives to defend in an imperial war. The Commune was massively popular amongst Parisians, as shown by the elections held just beforehand; after it fell, the city would see no real democracy again for decades.
It’s easy to forget how truly international and earth-shaking the Commune was at the time. All eyes were on France; it had been wracked with revolt and revolution, yet its great wealth, military strength, and relative unity made it a massive power to be reckoned with. People from all over the world were there for the attempted revolution, from the Polish general and martyr Jaroslov Dombrowski to British correspondents and businessmen, from a Frenchman who had fought for the Union against slavery in the American Civil War and come home to become a leader of the Commune to Élisabeth Dmitrieff, the Russian feminist and co-founder of the Women’s Union, who had been sent there as Karl Marx’s personal eyes and ears. No revolutionary movement in history had been so integrated racially and sexually: women played a tremendous part in forming and defending the Commune, and blacks and Arabs from the colonies fought for a city they thought might finally give them equality with their former masters. For their troubles, the propaganda machine of Versailles reduced them all to the same base level: white Frenchmen who fought for liberation were denigrated as “more savage than Negroes”, and women were slaughtered alongside their husbands.
The story of the Commune was short, but it was also exhilarating. During its brief existence, the city functioned better than anyone thought possible; despite constant sabotage, deprivation, and threats from police spies, an incredibly ambitious program in civic reform, communal responsibility, and public education was carried out. Many wealthy people tried to flee the city with mixed results (a process that would be echoed with much more grim outcomes when the Communards tried to escape the Versaillais troops), but what is striking about the revolutionaries is how kind they were, how reluctant they were to inflict cruelty on the bourgeoise, and how much they refused to play the bloody game Theirs and his men had begun. When Thiers began executing Communards without trial, they took hostages, but refused to kill them until the very end; they didn’t seize the assets of the Bank of France; and they passed up several chances to aggressively defend the city or take the fight to Thiers. This would ultimately prove their undoing, and the slipshod state of the National Guard is almost certainly what led to the Commune’s doom.
This is Massacre‘s ultimate lesson. When the reckoning came for the Commune, it was unsparing. Men, women, and children alike were butchered without pity or remorse. Dehumanized and delegitimized, tens of thousands of Parisians were murdered by the Versaillais troops, regardless of whether or not they had taken part in any hostilities. Trials were infrequent and unfair, and the Versailles propaganda rags cranked out constant falsehoods about the Communards to turn public opinion against them. Countless French men and women were slaughtered by their countrymen for no greater crime than wanting a decent life. Bloody Week was the greatest massacre to take place in Europe in the whole of the 19th century, and, as Merriman reminds us, “Nothing would come close…until the atrocities against the Armenians in 1915 during World War I, and such language would not be heard again until the Nazi Holocaust.”
There is much more to learn about the Commune, one of the great human dramas of our time and an unforgettable effort by working men and women to remake their world into something better. But the unblinking truth of Massacre is that those who do so must be prepared: in every country, in every age, those who have tried to do what the Communards did were faced with unsparing, unceasing, unthinkable brutality and violence. The rich will never give up their power willingly, and as soon as they have the chance to get back at those they perceive as threats to their dominance, they will happily paint the streets red with blood. I hope you will join me as I look farther at the near-miracle that was the Paris Commune of 1871; but I hope, too, that you will remember how it ended, and consider that power has hardly become more timid since then. If we want a better world, we will have to fight to keep it. I hope we can.