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Returning to the Commune of Paris

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

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

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.