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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

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