Returning to the Commune of Paris

Lissagaray’s seminal history is reissued – but why now?

Since its brief existence from March to May 1871, the Commune of Paris has inspired a novel by Émile Zola, films by Grigori Kozintsev and Peter Watkins, and constant analysis by socialist thinkers, starting with Karl Marx’s Civil War in France, of what its short-term successes and overall failure could teach its successors about how to reorganise society. Indeed, the only correction that Marx and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto sprang from the Commune, which, they said, demonstrated that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machine and deploy it for their own purposes".

The narrative of the Commune became deeply ideological as soon as the Third Republic’s troops, still furious about France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the punitive settlement of January 1871, crushed it. Now, Verso have reissued ex-Communard Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s seminal History of the Commune of Paris of 1871, first published in French in 1876 whilst Lissagaray was exiled in Belgium, and translated into English in 1886 by his lover Eleanor Marx. With this highly detailed text, Lissagaray intended to combat the "bourgeois slanders and lies" that followed the Commune’s suppression, to draw lessons and set the terms for future histories. But if, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Marxist parties, the Commune no longer forms a paradigm for a revolutionary "dictatorship of the proletariat", as Engels and Lenin claimed, what can contemporary readers take from Lissagaray?

The word "commune" suggests communism, but it was long used to refer to the city council as autonomous local authority. It had roots in the French Revolution, with a commune existing in Paris between 1789 and 1795, which, under Jacobin control, refused orders from central government after 1792. The Commune of 1871 followed the Prussian siege of Paris, which began in September 1870, after the collapse of Napoléon III’s Second Empire. In preparation for an attack, France’s National Guard was opened to Paris’s working class population, who elected their own leaders to the Guard’s Central Committee. These were often radicals, Jacobin republicans or socialists, especially in the radical North, who later became the Commune’s leaders.

The Parisians aimed to defend against Prussian entry and the restoration of monarchy, especially after the National Assembly elections of February 1871 returned a monarchist majority. Increasingly radical, the National Guard stockpiled cannon; on 18 March 1871, Adolphe Thiers, recently elected "Executive Power" of the new government and fearful of the consequences of leaving Paris armed, ordered troops to reclaim munitions from Montmartre. The Parisians rebelled, killing two of the generals; Thiers withdrew his administration to Versailles, leaving a power vacuum that the Guard’s Central Committee filled.

It was the Commune’s birth under siege conditions, which made the redistribution of food, money and weapons an urgent necessity, as well as the working class composition of the Committee and its controversial decrees that made the Commune of such interest to Marx and his followers. Although it separated church and state, remitted rents owed during the siege, abolished night work in bakeries and interest on debt, and allowed workers to run abandoned businesses, the Commune was not formally Socialist – Marx’s ideas had not penetrated the French left, and utopian theorists such as Charles Fourier had fallen out of fashion by 1871. Louis-Auguste Blanqui, whose attempted coup of October 1870 had lasted half a day and who was arrested the day before the unsuccessful raid on Montmartre, was the most influential thinker – hence the Communards’ repeated attempts to trade him for priests that they had taken hostage, all rebuffed by Thiers.

Not many of the Communards, however, shared Blanqui’s desire for a dictatorship of the proletariat, preferring to elect officials to the Committee and the new Executive Council, and perhaps the biggest of the many problems identified by Lissagaray was the Commune’s lack of ideology and organisation. Its elections returned radicals, moderates and conservatives, with no party line behind any of the Commune’s activity, and its leaders spent precious time arguing amongst themselves when what was needed was action against Thiers’ mobilisation from Versailles.

Lissagaray hints at the split between the radical and parliamentary Left, with the latter ultimately siding with Thiers, on his first page; his exasperation with this disunity becomes clear as the Commune’s Central Committee and Executive Council grow opposed to each other, in part over the Committee’s failure to capture the Banque de France. "The coffers … contained 4,600,000 francs" laments Lissagaray, ‘but the keys were at Versailles and, in view of the movement for conciliation with the mayors … [Central Committee delegates Varlin and Jourde] did not dare to force the locks.’

That decision became the single most criticised in subsequent revolutionary histories. It was clearly one that Lissagaray deeply regretted: here, he wrote, the Commune’s government showed itself to be ‘weak towards the bank’, which epitomised its wider failures of being "trifling in its decrees … without a military plan, without a programme … and indulging in desultory discussions". Eventually, this chaos – captured in the urgent feel of Lissagaray’s text, and the difficulty which the reader may have in understanding his documentation of the Commune’s constantly changing structure, led to dictatorship. Soon, the newly-formed Committee of Public Safety overruled the Council, which made the mistake of not admitting the public to its meetings, so appearing paranoid and undemocratic, and took responsibility for Paris’s defence.

Thereafter, the Commune was at the mercy of its military leaders, whose negligence and outmoded tactics – particularly in installing barricades, useless after Baron Haussmann’s reorganisation of Paris in the 1860s – condemned it to defeat. The reprisals were fierce: 3,000 Parisians were killed or wounded in the battles of May 1871, and Lissagaray estimated that 20,000 died before mid-June – three thousand more than the government’s chief of military justice admitted. Many more were imprisoned, either in France or one of its colonies, with no amnesty granted until July 1880.

In their Theses on the Paris Commune, published in March 1962, Situationist theorists Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi and Raoul Vaneigem sought to separate the experience of the Commune from earlier attempts to extrapolate a theory of how the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ might work. Here, they wrote that ‘It has been easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune’s obvious lack of a coherent organisational structure. But … it is time that we examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism … but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled.’

Perhaps each generation, faced with different crises of capitalism than those before, will identify different lessons from the Commune, but many of the errors documented by Lissagaray – in particular the Left’s focus on internal divisions rather than right-wing opposition – were repeated throughout the twentieth century, notably during the Spanish Civil War, and remain far from resolution. Today, The History of the Commune of Paris 1871 remains a powerful warning against allowing horizontal systems of power to be co-opted by dictatorial figures, and even if globalisation has made the Commune’s federal localism far harder to replicate, it also provides a reminder of how a government that does not follow strict Marxist principles but includes the interests of the working class might be constituted.

Barricades in front of the Madeleine during the Commune of Paris. Image via WikiCommons

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

NICOLA TYSON, COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ, LONDON
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Dave Haslam's history of venues makes nightclub walls talk

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues reveals the ghosts of hedonism past.

“If these walls could talk . . .” The cliché owes its force to the notion that buildings are sentient – the suggestion that what happens inside them leaves a trace element. We feel the power of this idea in very different ways as we tour, say, Versailles or Dachau. It’s an idea very much at play in the best passages of this book.

There is a wonderful moment early on when the author tours the Dean Street Townhouse building in Soho, central London, along with a few young members of staff. The location is now an upscale hotel and restaurant but, as Haslam explains to them, back in 1978 the basement hosted Billy’s nightclub. Billy’s was run by Steve Strange and played host to the burgeoning New Romantic movement, with the likes of Boy George and Spandau Ballet all trooping down the steps off Meard Street. Later on, in 1982, the ultra-hip original Goth club the Batcave opened its doors on the top floor of the same building, and the elevator would have ferried the likes of Robert Smith of the Cure and Marc Almond skywards.

The twentysomething staff don’t seem altogether sure who these people are, but Haslam goes further as he tells them (no doubt to further head-scratching) that the building has in fact been a nightclub since the 1920s, when it was called the Gargoyle. The people who danced and partied there over the decades would have included Henri Matisse, Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire and Noël Coward, he says.

It is a fantastic example of the deep vein of hedonism you sense thrumming behind the walls of many buildings in such areas as Soho, and Haslam extends this approach throughout the book as he travels across Britain, digging into the history of the likes of the Leadmill in Sheffield, the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, the Cavern in Liverpool and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, often tracing the origins of the venues back to Victorian times. It makes for a fascinating read, especially if you have ever stood in an old music venue and wondered (as I have often done) about the many previous generations whose fights, fashions, frugs and frocks have played out on the very boards you are treading.

Along the way, there are in-depth, illuminating interviews with figures as diverse as the novelist David Peace (on Goth clubs in Leeds) and James Barton, the co-founder of Cream (on the problems of running a nightclub in a city rife with gang warfare), as well as less familiar names such as Hyeonje Oh, the current owner of the Surakhan restaurant on Park Row in Bristol. Haslam explains to the amiable Mr Oh (in a wonderful scene reminiscent of that visit to Dean Street Townhouse) that, back in the mid-Eighties, the basement of his restaurant played host to the Dug Out club, where the careers of Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper began. None of this means very much to the restaurateur, until Haslam points out that Nellee Hooper has worked with Madonna. Mr Oh has heard of Madonna.

On occasion, the book slides into potted histories of the youth movements that came out of the nightclubs it is documenting. So we get a few pages on the emergence of punk rock, a few pages on the rise of acid house – nothing, frankly, that anyone with a passing interest in music or youth culture wouldn’t already know. I’m not sure we need to hear again that “one of the people energised by the Sex Pistols [at the Manchester Free Trade Hall] was Tony Wilson, who arranged for the band to premiere their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single . . . on his Granada TV show”, except in a book aimed at the most general reader (which a book with the subtitle of this one surely is not).

Haslam is on much more interesting ground in the basement of a Korean restaurant that once throbbed to the heavy dub reggae whose influence shaped a generation of music performers and producers. Or when he describes the progress of the Coliseum in Harlesden, north-west London, from cinema in 1915, to fleapit punk rock venue in the Seventies – where, in March 1977, you could have seen the Clash (along with three other bands, and a couple of kung fu films) for £1.50 – to the Wetherspoons pub that stands on its site today. In these pages he asks you to imagine Daddy G of Massive Attack working the decks where the crates of produce are now stacked, to see Joe Strummer’s right leg pumping just inches from where office workers now sip discounted Sauvignon. In these pages, he makes the walls talk.

John Niven is the author of the novels “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill Books) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

Life After Dark: a History of British Nightclubs and Music Venues by Dave Haslam is published by Simon & Schuster (480pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war