March 20, 2021

When I was a student in Paris, I would spend every 18 March walking the streets of Montmartre, where the Paris Commune was born. I would visit the side street in eastern Paris where the last barricade fell, the Mur des Fédérés against which Communard prisoners were executed, as well as the stones in the Luxembourg Gardens pitted by the bullets of the firing squads.

Sentimental, I know. I think what I found moving was that the Communards, including most of their leaders, were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Here was a crisis not of their making or choosing, but one they seized nonetheless.

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At the crack of dawn on 18 March 150 years ago, the French government sent troops to repossess a large number of cannon in the possession of the Paris National Guard, the citizen militia. Crowds of Parisians turned out to stop the troops and, in a panic, the government, the army, the police and the senior civil service fled. Paris was left in the hands of its people.

A week later, they elected a city council, the Conseil de la Commune. Soon after that, clashes with government troops began in the suburbs, and intensified over the following six weeks. On 21 May, soldiers climbed over the city walls, and there followed a week of fighting which left whole streets in ruins, major public buildings in flames, and the streets strewn with corpses. Many hundreds of people were summarily executed, 40,000 were marched away as prisoners and over 4,000 were subsequently exiled to penal camps in New Caledonia. The Paris Commune seemed utterly defeated.

That the Commune and the “Communards” should still be remembered by so many people, however vaguely, is itself something of a mystery. Nineteenth-century Europe was not short of urban uprisings and bloody massacres. But only specialists recall the Warsaw rising of 1830, the revolts in Vienna and Prague in 1848, or the Roman Republic of 1849.

Part of the reason must be that it concerns Paris. But apart from Delacroix’s painting of Liberty Leading the People and Les Misérables, most know nothing of the half-dozen other Parisian uprisings of the century. Marx wrote importantly about the Commune, which must be another part of the reason. But then he wrote importantly about the June 1848 revolt and the December 1851 coup d’état, without that being enough to place them within popular folklore. So is it the name “Commune” which resonates both with hippy dreams of anarchic togetherness and with Communist narratives of history?

For Marxists (although Marx was privately unsure) the Commune was a political and theoretical breakthrough: “the form at last discovered”, he wrote, “for the emancipation of the working class”. The Communards, he argued, had hit on a non-oppressive and yet fully revolutionary way of exercising power, by abolishing all oppressive institutions — army, church, police — and giving power directly to the people themselves.

Marxists took it for granted that the industrial proletariat of Paris must have been the most dynamic and forward-looking element. Engels elaborated further by defining the Commune as the first “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the transition to a classless society. Lenin (whose body was to be shrouded in a Communard flag) was more critical: it was the Commune’s defeat that was really significant. It had failed because it did not have the leadership of a disciplined party, and because it was insufficiently ruthless in combatting class enemies. So the Communards were retrospectively enrolled for nearly a century as pioneering ancestors in the long march to Communism.

But a heretical counter-explanation emerged in the 1960s in the work of a young French historian, Jacques Rougerie: the Commune was not the first of a new kind of revolution, he said, but the last of an old one. Rougerie was brutally attacked by the Communist Party for his suggestion that the Communards were the descendants of the sans-culottes of the 1790s. Not an industrial proletariat, but skilled workers in traditional industries (engravers, joiners, cobblers), small businessmen, shopkeepers, clerks. Not looking forwards to Communism, but backwards to self-managed workers’ cooperatives and the republics of 1848 and 1792: they officially adopted the revolutionary calendar, which placed them in the Year 79. So, concluded some historians, the Commune was really the last gasp of the French Revolution.

But historians have a weakness for pioneering movements, which after all give their research projects extra glamour. A popular view in the Swinging Sixties was that the Commune was a bit like May 1968, a carnival of anarchy, even a “total revolution, as one historian suggested fancifully. Or was it a revolution to take back control of space that had been appropriated by bourgeois urbanism?

Particularly in the United States, it was reinvented as an act of feminism. It was the women of the Commune, the notorious pétroleuses, who made it unique. This had once been a label of shame for the (mythical) women who supposedly went round setting fire to buildings. Now it became a title of honour. Communard women not only spoke up for themselves and their collective interests, it was argued, they actually fought on the barricades.

For some American historians, it was their organised use of violence that was the significant novelty of 1871: emancipation by the gun. The most recent reinterpretation is that the Commune was an event in global history, the most fashionable historiographical trend.

Old? New? Leninist? Anarchist? Feminist? Urban? Global? There are plenty of reasons for commemorating its 150th anniversary. But there are also simpler explanations for why the Commune is still remembered by many as inspiring and meaningful.

First is that it was short: two months. As Marx noted, this was only enough to indicate what might have been — and, of course, that includes almost anything. So it is easy to project things onto the Commune, things we would like to imagine as possible. And it also means that it didn’t have time to go really wrong. Yes, there were plenty of errors and some sinister aspects, but compared with the 1793 Terror or Stalinism, the Commune was innocent. It didn’t have time either to moderate into bourgeois banality, or to start devouring its own children. So always unfulfilled, its promise undiminished, it remains (in the words of a famous song written by one of its leaders) “le temps des cerises” — the cherry time.

The other reason it is remembered, as Marx also noted at the time, is because of the ferocity with which it was crushed during the last lurid “Bloody Week” of barricade fighting amid a city in flames. Around 7,000 people were killed — a unique bloodbath for the 19th century. This turned its followers into martyrs, and created a heroic legend.

There is still an annual pilgrimage to one of the killing sites, the Mur des Fédérés in the Père Lachaise cemetery. But the intention was commemoration, not repetition: in future, the French Left would fight at the ballot box, not on the barricade. Quite a number of prominent Communards returned as elected politicians or city officials. Two lived to be ministers in the French national unity government of 1914. Put all these elements together, and you get a powerful if enigmatic memory which can serve a range of purposes, including sentimental nostalgia.

But is this all the Commune can tell us 150 years later? I think there is something else, something that is not so often celebrated: namely, that the Commune was fundamentally about popular democracy. Today, we might even call it “populist”.

France since the implosion of the Revolution in the mid-1790s had lived under a succession of oligarchies, whether under republics, emperors or kings: a roundabout of elites. But the defeat by Germany in 1870-71 had discredited both mainstream Left and Right, and created a political vacuum. It looked as though this would end in another period of monarchy — rule by another section of the elite, with nothing to offer except repression spiced with paternalism.

But the Communards said no: this time the people themselves would rule. Of course, their defeat in war marked a far more dramatic break than anything we have so far experienced in the West. But today’s impatience with politicians, technocratic bureaucracies and establishment “experts” certainly invites some comparisons. Certainly, too many progressives today seem to prefer the elite: they have abandoned the idea that people who are poor, or even those who do ordinary jobs or who have not been to university, have ideas and experience of their own, and an equal right to a political voice.

Populism is feared and denigrated as reactionary. Yet the most basic principle of the Communards was that power should be shared as equally as possible, and that every person (well, every man) had an equal right to make decisions. Office holders at every level would be elected, and if they failed in their duty their electors would dismiss them: not just politicians but officials and magistrates, too. Wherever possible, citizens would perform public duties themselves — for example, as members of the National Guard, they would be their own police force. The aim was freedom and emancipation: to be treated as adults.

This was the purpose behind the secularisation of schools and a widespread demand for technical education: so that, wrote a Communard newspaper,  “those who can handle tools can also write books”. It lay behind the aspiration to workers’ cooperatives for women and men. The multiplication of political clubs across the city showed a thirst among ordinary people to have their say on political and social matters, often speaking for the first time in public.

The pithiest expression of the Communard spirit is the famous Internationale, written by a member of the Commune, Eugène Pottier. It includes this: “there are no supreme saviours, not God, not emperors, not politicians … let’s save ourselves; … enough of languishing as dependents, equality demands other laws.”

It is, of course, easy to pick holes in this. Not much was put into practice in seven weeks of civil war, and if it had been it wouldn’t have worked for long: what normal person wants to spend all their evenings in political meetings, sitting on local committees, or patrolling the streets in National Guard uniform chasing prostitutes and bakers illegally working at night (two of the Commune’s slightly eccentric reforms)? Besides, there were plenty of Communards who were a bit too keen on repressing opinions they didn’t like, persecuting harmless priests and nuns, and dreaming of a return to the Jacobin Terror.

Nevertheless, the Communard leadership were reluctant to introduce censorship, disliked locking people up and refused to use the death penalty: the guillotine was fetched from its shed and publicly burnt. Yes, in the end a number of hostages were killed, some even nastily lynched: mainly gendarmes and priests, including the Archbishop of Paris. But this was done in the last desperate days, as Communard prisoners were being slaughtered by the army, and it was never officially sanctioned. As the writer and Commune member Jules Vallès put it, even in defeat they wanted to go down in history “unstained by the filth of the abattoir”. How many revolutionary leaders can say the same? Lenin’s conclusion was that they were fools who were defeated because their “excessive magnanimity” held them back from the “implacable extermination” of their class enemies —not a weakness he ever yielded to.

The Commune was doomed anyway. No government was going to permit that level of democracy. If the French army had not defeated it, the German army, which was still camped outside the city, would probably have done so. Or it might well have collapsed of its own accord: as one of its members lamented, they were really just “a talkative little parliament” and they were haemorrhaging support. As we have seen over and over again in history, most people sooner or later (and often sooner than later) want to get back to normal boring life.

But had the Communards anticipated Lenin’s retrospective advice, or followed the example of Robespierre’s Terror, the Commune would not have left the enigmatic but positive legacy it has — this wistful, always unfulfilled aspiration to true democracy.

There remains something profoundly moving in that aspiration; moving enough for me to make my annual journey up to Montmartre. For on the whole the Communards did their best, according to their lights, for democracy, for their city, and for their fellow citizens. They were people for whom Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were more inspiring than Censorship, Identity and Victimhood. In that sense, at least, their actions still resonate today.