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.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism