The desperation with which the ruling class continue to distort the legacy of the Paris Commune is a testament to its potency as a symbol. After all, one cannot destroy an idea with a firing squad.
Reading what’s circulating on the web these days one is benumbed by the boldness of the lies. Astonishingly, a British university professor insisted that “Despite the ravages of the fires that broke out during the semaine sanglante of 21–28 May 1871, Paris escaped remarkably unscathed.”
It should come as no surprise that this great moment in working class history should be the target of bourgeois distortions, yet their absurdity nevertheless astounds. The above quote is a propaganda two-fer as it suggests that the assaults were not really so bad, and that what damage occurred was the result of fires–and everyone knows those were set by the Communards–and not the respective armies. Neither postulation is remotely true.
Lessons from the experience of the Commune were drawn by figures across the political spectrum. When Maxime Weygand and Philippe Pétain advocated an armistice in June 1940, fears of a socialist revolution following defeat, in a replay of 1870–71, figured in their thinking. Above all the Commune was appropriated by the socialist movement as a founding myth…
Simpson then channels the loathsome bourgeois distorian (that’s dis-historian) Maxime du Camp’s execrable account of the event:
Wilson draws our attention to the explanatory notes Du Camp chose to add to the completed volumes that call attention to the devastation wrought by the Commune, from material ruin to the destruction of the judicial documents and archives. For Du Camp the destruction of the records of births, marriages and deaths held at the Hôtel de Ville destabilised the very identity of the city. The final volumes allowed Du Camp to expand on the impact of the siege and the Commune on the Parisian working class who fell prey to alcoholism and mental illness – their ‘pétrolomanie alcoolique’ resulted in the destruction of city.
Shameless. It is the Commune which brought about the devastation of the city, not its attackers; it was the Communards who destroyed the documents at the Hotel de Ville (city hall) and not the bombardment; and it was at least in part the impact of the Commune which caused the working class to fall prey to alcoholism and insanity, and it was this Commune-induced stupor that produced the conflagrations. Here we have the truth stood on its head.
The extensive damage the city suffered was not caused by its inhabitants; the working class was the Commune; and the fires were strategically set against the movements of the encircling armies. They do not reflect alcoholism nor insanity, just siege induced desperation.
As Wilson demonstrates, Du Camp’s method was indebted to that of Taine; a debt that extended to his use of medical and scientific metaphors (the Commune as a diseased prostitute) and his readiness to fall back on his own imagination. Tendentious and unreliable though it was, Du Camp’s Convulsions ‘fulfilled a need in the hearts and minds of the reactionary and monarchist elite’ (p. 123) and ‘served to consolidate the constructed anti-Communard memory of Paris and the Commune’ (p. 125). Du Camp’s reward came in the shape of his election to the Académie Française in 1880.
Here Simpson acknowledges that du Camp’s account cannot be trusted yet he uses Convulsions to support his own views as described above. This he does in an article which purports to be critical of its author’s role in the state-sponsored creation of a defamatory history of the Commune. Simpson derides du Camp for deliberately creating a public distaste for the Commune, often employing “imagination” in the process, yet Simpson uses these same arguments advanced by du Camp in route to the same conclusion.
In what has been called the greatest magazine that ever was, we find more of the same trash. In a brief history of the Commune, a staff writer insists:
In Paris, a left-wing Communard government, protected by the National Guard, rose up and seized power, and for about two months that spring tried to rule on radical principles. It made various feints at self-organization, and offered statements of purpose that still seem prophetically advanced—particularly the boldly feminist ones. It also insulted the clergy and the few remaining rich people, and committed mostly disorganized acts of looting and reprisal against its ancient political enemies…
Not quite. There was no “seizure” of power. When the government fled the city, elections were held. The winners comprised the Commune’s government. The Communards did rule on radical principles, and did much more than feint at self-organization. It separated church and state, if that is an insult then the U.S. Constitution also insults the clergy. It did no “looting” as it was the duly constituted government, and most if not all of the expropriated businesses had been deserted by the fleeing bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is a modern and not ancient enemy.
Merriman relates the story of the Commune’s brief rise and brutal fall in tight detail, with hour-by-hour intensity, and draws all the drama out of the tale—even though the story is unavoidably sad, because the practical ambitions of the Communards were so incoherent. There is something suicidal about it, an Occupy Paris movement destined to become an urban Masada in the middle of the Belle Époque. The Communards had no tactics for spreading the principles of the Commune, any more than members of the New Left in late-sixties America had a plan for how, exactly, the working class would convert to their politics. The most the Communards seemed to have was a vague hope that communal-syndicalist organization would spread outward from central Paris into the provinces. (The Francophile and radical John Stuart Mill had noted, not long after the Commune fell, in a letter to an English union leader, “an infirmity of the French mind”—that of “being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power.”) The Communards could scarcely build a barricade in an organized military manner, and the barricades they did build were neatly circumvented by the Versaillais, who climbed the stairs of the surrounding buildings and fired down at the defenders.
The Communards were not suicidal but died at the hands of their class enemies. Here is a message from the Versaillais to the Communards:
You shall perish, whatever you do! If you are taken with arms in your hands, death! If you use them, death! If you beg for mercy, death! Whichever way you turn: right, left, back, forward, up, down, death! You are not merely outside the law, you are outside humanity. Neither age nor sex shall save you and yours. You shall die, but first you shall taste the agony of your wife, your sister, your mother, your sons and daughters, even those in the cradle! Before your eyes the wounded man shall be taken out of the ambulance and hacked with bayonets or knocked down with the butt end of rifles. He shall be dragged living by his broken leg or bleeding arm and flung like a suffering, groaning bundle of refuse into the gutter. Death! Death! Death!
The Communards devised novel ways to spread their principles including hot air balloon. They encouraged rebellions in other French cities, the colonies, and worldwide. This assertion to the contrary is simply untrue, and is a crude attempt to make them seem infirm of mind. More bourgeois nonsense.
The Commune banned all religious teaching, and removed the crucifixes from classrooms. In the ugliest episode of the Commune, Rigault and his confederates took the Archbishop of Paris hostage, held him in prison, and then killed him and his adjutants, even though the fight by then was almost over.
The Commune guaranteed freedom of religion. It did bring the Catholic monopoly on education to an end and created public schools. Parochial schools continued to exist and no effort was made to shutter them.
It is true that the Commune, in it death throes, did execute a bishop and a handful of others. What the author neglects to mention is that the Versaillais was executing its prisoners as a matter of policy, and from day one. The Communards had tried throughout to arrange prisoner swaps but Thiers refused.
The order to execute the bishop was given by Theophile Ferre, not Rigault, who by then had been removed from his duties.
As much as Merriman humanizes his Communards, he summarily dismisses—with an indifference surprising in an academic historian—their opponents as categorical types, using derisive expressions like “fancy folk” or “elegant Parisians” or simply the “bourgeoisie.”
These descriptions do not dehumanize and are not dismissive. How should Merriman refer to the bourgeoisie?
But these people—small shopkeepers, the clergy, and the rest of the mercantile and professional classes—were, after all, simply other Parisians who valued their lives and their traditions. They were “ordinary people,” too, with the same right to political expression as the Communards who frightened them. At another moment, Merriman sneers at Thiers weeping when he learns that the Commune is about to destroy his home, along with his art collection: “Thiers, one could easily conclude, loved objects, not people.” But is there any man, of any political allegiance, who would not be heartsick to hear that his house and goods were about to be destroyed by his enemies? And one may be as anti-clerical as Voltaire and still be nauseated by the pointless murder of the Church hostages.
The Commune made no attempt to stifle political expression. Bourgeois neighborhoods elected bourgeois representatives and these people were not prevented from taking their seats (although a great many declined to participate).
These beloved bourgeois traditions included 16-hr work days at subsistence wages for their employees. And as noted above the clergy had monopoly power over education and were an arm of the state. They were staunch supporters of the 16-hr workday etc. And they were not prevented from practising their religion.
Adolphe Thiers ordered the execution of tens of thousands.
The execution of the bishop was not pointless. It was an attempt to get Thiers from routinely murdering Communards.
Merriman is certainly right to insist that the Versaillais massacred far more people than the Communards did, but all the evidence is that this is because they won, and had more people to massacre. When the Communards had helpless people at their mercy, they killed them, too.
For nine of the ten weeks of its existence the Commune executed no one while Thiers was killing Communards every day. The Commune had millions of people “at their mercy,” they killed less than a dozen. The Versaillais, during and after the Commune, killed an estimated 30,000.
A “people’s” revolution the Commune may have been—but never a popular one. For if one thing is certain it is that the Commune did not claim the allegiance of anything like a majority of Frenchmen. The previous legislative elections had been overwhelmingly monarchist, and there is no reason to doubt that they represented what the majority of the French thought.
An unpopular “people’s” revolution? It seems it’s the author and not the Communards who suffers from wishfulness and infirmity of mind. There is every reason to doubt that those results reflected the will of the French people as it was organized by the occupying Prussian army. They conducted the election and supervised the counting of the votes.
The experience of the Commune became one more warning—the Terror had already supplied a good one—of what a movement for social justice and liberty without an accompanying sense of political pluralism could cost. Jaurès, like his fellow-radical Gambetta, grasped that a social revolution without popular legitimacy was not a social revolution at all but yet another coup, sure to insure the next in the opposite direction.
Sure to insure? Doesn’t the New Yorker have editors any more?
Political pluralism, by which the author means cross-class collaboration, is necessary to effect the social revolution. That’s the punch line folks, the point of all these noxious lies. The Commune failed to achieve social justice and liberty because it was to hostile to the ruling class.
About 150 years later, the legacy of the Commune still riles our tormentors.