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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times