Why do people still fight about the Paris Commune?
By Adam Gopnik

Fighting Over the Paris Commune | The New Yorker

The Communards pulled down the statue of Napoleon in the Place Vendôme. The Communards pulled down the statue of Napoleon in the Place Vendôme. Credit Photograph from Corbis

The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the four great traumas that shaped modern France. It stands alongside the 1789 Revolution, the ascent of Vichy, in 1940, and (odd though it seems, given how nonviolent and small-scale they were) the Events of May, 1968. Other, more outward-bending crises—the Napoleonic campaigns, the two World Wars, the battle for Algeria—made as much noise and cost far more lives, but they now belong to the settled, archival past. That Napoleon was a bad man but a big figure, that the Great War was a valiant folly, that the war in Algeria could have ended only with Algerian independence: these are easy to assent to now. The four civic crises belong to the available, still contested past, the one that hangs around and starts living arguments. People ask whether the Revolution, with a little luck and better leadership, could have avoided the Terror and Bonaparte’s subsequent dictatorship, just as they argue over whether May of ’68 was a long-overdue assertion of liberty against hierarchy or the beginning of an infantile appeal to pleasure over value.

The what-exactly-happened of the Commune can be summed up briefly. In 1870, the French Imperial government—the Second Empire, under Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon’s posturing, dandyish nephew—stupidly provoked a war with Bismarck’s rising Prussia for the usual reasons that demagogic governments stupidly provoke wars: because bashing the nasty next-door neighbor seemed likely to boost the boss’s prestige, and because the government’s generals assured the government that they would win, no sweat. The Prussians were happy to have the war; Bismarck thought, correctly, that it would help further unify the German states, while his generals were, correctly, reassuring him. The war started, and the German generals routed the French ones, capturing the Emperor himself at Sedan and besieging Paris. What was left of the French government retreated to Bordeaux and accepted terms of surrender from the Prussians; the terms are always called “humiliating,” but all terms of surrender are humiliating—that’s what makes it a surrender. (They at least excluded the occupation of Paris.) The Prussians eventually retreated with their war loot, having reclaimed the northern regions of Alsace and Lorraine as German territory.

Then, in February of 1871, new legislative elections were held throughout France, and a majority returned in favor of an as yet ill-defined form of republican royalism. The Assembly, led by the aging statesman Adolphe Thiers—a politician under the Second Republic, who had been don’t-poke-the-bear wise about the war with the Germans before it started—soon declared itself the Third Republic. The people of Paris, always farther to the left than the rest of France, feared that the new republic would be republican in name only, and began organizing their own, alternative regime in the capital. A confrontation between what remained of the regular French Army, the Versaillais, and Paris’s popular militia, known as the National Guard, ended with the death of two generals, and the royalist-minded government fled Paris for Versailles, the old seat of the French kings. In Paris, a left-wing Communard government, protected by the National Guard, rose up and seized power, and for about two months that spring tried to rule on radical principles. It made various feints at self-organization, and offered statements of purpose that still seem prophetically advanced—particularly the boldly feminist ones. It also insulted the clergy and the few remaining rich people, and committed mostly disorganized acts of looting and reprisal against its ancient political enemies, including tearing down Thiers’s house and toppling the Place Vendôme column with its statue of Napoleon. (It’s back.)

The Versaillais then invaded Paris and, with minimal military difficulty, though at maximal human cost, reconquered the city. The Communards, as they were crushed by the advancing and brutal Versaillais, set fire to much of the city, including the Tuileries Palace, which burned to the ground, though whether all the fires were the result of a deliberate nihilistic policy set by sinister female “pétroleuses,” proto-suicide bombers, or a largely accidental result of the general chaos and violence is one of the many things that are still, violently, debated.

“Massacre” (Basic) is the Yale historian John Merriman’s vivid account of all this, and it’s proof of just how passionately present the trauma remains that this new book could be among the most passionate accounts of a distant historical episode that the reader is likely to encounter from an American academic. Merriman, whose earlier books include an eye-opening study of nineteenth-century anarchist violence, “The Dynamite Club,” is pro-Communard, emphatically so, and this gives his book both its great virtues and its real faults.

Its greatest virtue is the way Merriman particularizes the people of the Commune. For almost the first time in the vast scholarly literature on the topic, they are complicated individuals who come alive, rather than set-piece proletarian heroes or mere faces in the “mob” or “rabble” of right-wing imagination. Two figures especially stand out. There is “the Red Virgin,” Louise Michel, of the working-class Eighteenth Arrondissement, a militant Communard (“I descended the Butte, my rifle under my coat, shouting: Treason! . . . Our deaths would free Paris”) and a staunch feminist, who welcomed even prostitutes into the corps of women nursing injured fighters (“Who has more right than these women, the most pitiful of the old order’s victims, to give their lives for the new?”). The feminist aspect of the Commune—Merriman’s work here draws on Carolyn Eichner’s “Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune” (2004)—is one of its most appealing features: women like Michel played a central role, building barricades and chairing committees and generally raising hell. One Citoyenne Destrée declared, “The social revolution will not be realized until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.”

If Louise Michel represents the forward-looking aspect of the Commune, Raoul Rigault represents the backward-looking aspect—he is a kind of Danton reborn. A socialist polemicist of appetite and charm, he became, in effect, the head of the Commune’s police force. “In their free moments, they downed food, wine, and eau-de-vie, having moved one of their favorite brasseries from the Boulevard Saint-Michel into the prefecture of police,” Merriman writes. One day in May, Rigault breakfasted on Chateaubriand aux truffes; a few days later, the fare included bottles of Pommard, Veuve Clicquot, and Nuits-Saint-Georges. His taste for Burgundy and champagne was perhaps political in nature, Bordeaux presumably being judged too reactionary, especially given that the retreating Imperial government had gone there to give up. (This general taste for the good life among the Communards, though the material of Versaillais propaganda, is one of the things that make them so sympathetic.)

Merriman relates the story of the Commune’s brief rise and brutal fall in tight detail, with hour-by-hour intensity, and draws all the drama out of the tale—even though the story is unavoidably sad, because the practical ambitions of the Communards were so incoherent. There is something suicidal about it, an Occupy Paris movement destined to become an urban Masada in the middle of the Belle Époque. The Communards had no tactics for spreading the principles of the Commune, any more than members of the New Left in late-sixties America had a plan for how, exactly, the working class would convert to their politics. The most the Communards seemed to have was a vague hope that communal-syndicalist organization would spread outward from central Paris into the provinces. (The Francophile and radical John Stuart Mill had noted, not long after the Commune fell, in a letter to an English union leader, “an infirmity of the French mind”—that of “being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power.”) The Communards could scarcely build a barricade in an organized military manner, and the barricades they did build were neatly circumvented by the Versaillais, who climbed the stairs of the surrounding buildings and fired down at the defenders.

What united the Communard front wasn’t economic theory, or even socialism; it was anti-clericalism. Indeed, one has a strong sense that the deepest unifying element on both sides involved attitudes toward religion. There were very few on the Versailles side who would have been announced atheists. There were almost none on the Communard side who went to church. The Communards hated the ideological dictatorship and royalist sympathies of the Catholic Church, and transformed one Paris church after another into a community “club.” The Commune banned all religious teaching, and removed the crucifixes from classrooms. In the ugliest episode of the Commune, Rigault and his confederates took the Archbishop of Paris hostage, held him in prison, and then killed him and his adjutants, even though the fight by then was almost over.

If the chief virtue of Merriman’s book is that, taking the Communards seriously as people, he humanizes their resistance to power, its chief fault is its single-minded advocacy. Merriman treats all Communard atrocities as the result of provocations and a misguided effort at self-defense—the Archbishop was taken hostage partly to protect the life of the left-wing leader Blanqui, then in a Versaillais prison—while atrocities committed against the Communards were, in his account, solely the consequence of an evil campaign of reactionary terror. Any horror story about the Versaillais is immediately credited; we are told that, during the defeat of the Commune, the “well-dressed ladies” of Paris used their parasols to strip off the caps and cloths placed over the eyes of the executed Communards. Would “well-dressed ladies” really do this? But parallel stories about a Communard pétroleuse being caught with fuse lines in her pocket are rejected, perhaps rightly, as incredible.

As much as Merriman humanizes his Communards, he summarily dismisses—with an indifference surprising in an academic historian—their opponents as categorical types, using derisive expressions like “fancy folk” or “elegant Parisians” or simply the “bourgeoisie.” And this despite Sarah Maza’s demonstration, in one of the most revelatory books of recent French history, “The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie,” that the term, pursued to its particulars, does not describe even a roughly identifiable social grouping but is always a “social imaginary,” some shifting, ugly Other, “bourgeoisie” being the mirror image of the “mob” and “rabble” beloved of right-wing history. Merriman quotes with apparent approval one Élie Reclus, a Communard, who, walking through the Seventh Arrondissement as the Commune began to collapse, saw the “secret jubilation of all the concierges, shop owners, merchants of holy articles, and the religious men and women who make up the base of the population there,” and whose “eyes follow you so that they can denounce you.” But these people—small shopkeepers, the clergy, and the rest of the mercantile and professional classes—were, after all, simply other Parisians who valued their lives and their traditions. They were “ordinary people,” too, with the same right to political expression as the Communards who frightened them. At another moment, Merriman sneers at Thiers weeping when he learns that the Commune is about to destroy his home, along with his art collection: “Thiers, one could easily conclude, loved objects, not people.” But is there any man, of any political allegiance, who would not be heartsick to hear that his house and goods were about to be destroyed by his enemies? And one may be as anti-clerical as Voltaire and still be nauseated by the pointless murder of the Church hostages.

It’s significant that Léon Gambetta, the greatest radical parliamentary leader of the era—who escaped from the Prussian siege of Paris in a balloon (really) but remained in exile in Spain throughout the crucial period that followed—never had a good word for the Commune, though its apparent goals were close to his own. He thought of 1871 as “a horrific adventure.” But then Gambetta’s father had been a grocer, and he knew that the Communards perceived the small merchants as class enemies. When it comes to actual people in nineteenth-century France, social classes are slippery. Thiers’s father was a provincial locksmith; Louise Michel was the illegitimate but acknowledged and well-educated daughter of a serving girl and, probably, the son of the lord of the manor where she worked; and so on. Gambetta rejected the Commune for the same reason that Camus rejected sentimental approbation of the Algerian independence fighters, knowing that his French-Algerian mother, counted as an evil colonist, was simply a domestic, a cleaning woman, with no more “colonial privilege” than Gambetta’s grocer dad had class privileges.

Merriman is certainly right to insist that the Versaillais massacred far more people than the Communards did, but all the evidence is that this is because they won, and had more people to massacre. When the Communards had helpless people at their mercy, they killed them, too. (The violence began with the lynching of a cop, thrown, hands tied, into the Seine and watched as he drowned.) The hatred between the two sides was implacable as it can be only in a fraternal dispute. There are many instances in Merriman’s account of people being saved by accident or by the act of a charitable and decent individual. But there is scarcely an incident of a principled humanity, where one side or the other refused to massacre captured civilian prisoners or hostages on the ground that it was the wrong thing to do, rather than impolitic at that moment.

A “people’s” revolution the Commune may have been—but never a popular one. For if one thing is certain it is that the Commune did not claim the allegiance of anything like a majority of Frenchmen. The previous legislative elections had been overwhelmingly monarchist, and there is no reason to doubt that they represented what the majority of the French thought, just as the mini-Commune of ’68 was followed by a right-wing electoral victory. The Commune was a putsch in the capital, but there was no chance of winning a larger civil war with the right wing, because the right wing was not a small concentration of fancy folk but the majority of France’s peasants and merchants and country people. This did not make the Parisians (as the disgusting, and often implicitly anti-Semitic, propaganda had it later) “less French” than the others. But it did not make the others less French than the Communards.

Historians from the right can sometimes write as though the nineteenth century did not take place; historians from the left can often write as though the twentieth century never happened. The abuses, the mass immiseration, the ever-present threat of renewed monarchical absolutism—all these things were very real in France in 1870, and so the great radical and revolutionary socialist movements were moved by real suffering and oppression, not utopian schemes. But Merriman writes as if what happened later on the planet, when violent left-wing Communards did take power, with results that we know, would somehow magically not have happened in some other, earlier luckier moment. This time is different, or else that time would have been—we convince ourselves that the Commune would not have become another Terror or another Bolshevik October coup, brutal, intolerant, and absolutist in itself. There seems little evidence for this confidence: the Communard leader Rigault, to take one small instance, may be a life-affirming man of appetite, but he was as bloodthirsty as his predecessors, stopping, even as the Versaillais invaded Paris, to personally arrange the execution of a fellow-Communard—an old friend with whom he was feuding—long after it could possibly have any political point. (Lenin is said to have danced with delight the day his coup lasted longer than the Commune.)

There had to be a better way, and the French found it. It was called the Third Republic. The defeat of the Commune was the last victory of the royalists, but the first battle toward a real republic. The right in France learned, in the eighteen-seventies, that it could rule only by abdicating royalism completely—even though the Thiers government had been elected on a royalist cast.

What the Communards fought and died for was, fifty years later, achieved, as France moved toward a modern welfare state, and firmly separated Church and nation. What the royalists killed for—and died for, too—was over, and for good. The real winner was the republic as it would become. The path from the death of the Commune to true republicanism was extremely knotty, but, by the end of the eighteen-seventies, France was on it. (Even Louise Michel was amnestied, and came home, to resume her career as an unapologetic provocateur.) The responsible left came to embrace legislative Republicanism single-mindedly, not out of fear but out of wisdom—knowing that the only way to maintain the real revolution was to accept in permanence the truth that rejecting the legitimacy of the opposition could end only in violence, real liberal republicanism being no more than the understanding that there are legitimate ideas about shaping the future of the nation other than your own.

Jean Jaurès—a founder of the social democrats, and the greatest left-wing populist hero France has produced—embraced the Republic, and all its exhausting parliamentary maneuverings, because he understood the unimaginable costs that renewed civic warfare would bring. The right had to be opposed, not eliminated. The experience of the Commune became one more warning—the Terror had already supplied a good one—of what a movement for social justice and liberty without an accompanying sense of political pluralism could cost. Jaurès, like his fellow-radical Gambetta, grasped that a social revolution without popular legitimacy was not a social revolution at all but yet another coup, sure to insure the next in the opposite direction. (That a coup could seize the government and then enforce its will by terror, if it was willing to conduct terror on an unimaginably large scale, was a Leninist possibility not yet revealed to them.) The practical radical Gambetta eventually came to captain a political grouping that called itself Opportunist Republicans. Surely no political movement in history has ever borne a less inspiring name. But its central insight was sound: that the future lay with coalitions of different estates, petty bourgeois and peasantry and proletariat mixed up, not with a Commune committed to one.

Perhaps the Commune continues to resonate as well because of its place in the smaller world of canvas and frames. Against all normal historical logic, the rise and fall of the Commune presaged not a period of repression and misery but one of the brightest and most pleasure-celebrating periods in the long history of culture: the blossoming of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in Paris in the eighteen-seventies and eighties, an explosion of light that continues to illuminate our lives today. The first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, on one of the barricaded boulevards of the Commune, while the ruins of the Tuileries Palace lay smoldering next to the Louvre. Even if the imagery of that pleasure is partly a myth, it is hard to square with the repressive brutality that was its forerunner. And all the more because, as Merriman shows, some of the leading painters of the group, including Manet, were broadly sympathetic to the Communards; Manet made two devastating graphic images of the massacre of Communards by the regular Army, all the more painful for their cool detachment.

The art historian Kirk Varnedoe used to give a lecture on the ruins of the Tuileries and their absence from advanced painting—most unforgettably, he gave it in the months after 9/11—and asked why the avant-garde painters, hardly lacking in courage or originality, almost entirely ignored them as a subject. Why did they turn their backs on the visible ruins, right in the traditional heart of Paris, to paint the new boulevards? (One can just see a piece of the ruins, near where the Pyramide of the Louvre now stands, on the left-hand edge of a single Monet.) It wasn’t because they were afraid of enraging conventional opinion. The Impressionists, with painters from the left, like Manet and Pissarro, and painters from the right, like Degas, broke later, over the Dreyfus affair, but at the beginning they were a model of opportunistic Republicanism in paint: they hung together, because they knew that the pursuit of artistic liberty evaded the usual ideological paths. They wanted to escape the cycle of violence between right and left that had disfigured the history of their city. It was better to build on the ruins than to make another.

This was not escapist or apolitical— the insight that one is not obliged to enroll in a perpetual cycle of violence and reprisal is not apolitical or escapist. When Renoir painted even a seeming chocolate-box cover such as the “Moulin de la Galette,” of 1876, a scene from a working-class Sunday evening in Montmartre, he was painting young people dancing whose families must have been around during the Commune. (Galettes are pancakes, cheap fast food, popular eats.) He paints them not as victims or ideological puppets but as resilient, active participants in pleasure-seeking. The peculiarly punitive kind of Puritanism favored by American art historians sometimes sees this as putting a smiley face on a horrible reality, again for the benefit of those bad bourgeois. But Renoir, who was a son of the working classes, though artisanal rather than industrial, wasn’t avoiding the political reality. If a vote could have been taken, the young men and women in his pictures would probably all have voted socialist, as their parents did. Renoir looks apolitical, but he grasped instinctively that the same kids whose families supported the Commune weren’t going to have their lives or pleasures defined by other people’s hatreds. Dancing, they were voting, in every sense, with their feet.

The Impressionists were witnessing the reconstruction of a civil society, canvas by canvas and frame by frame, capturing, and so creating, values that were better than what was on offer. They were showing a reality that ideology evades. There is always another way to envision modernity, a way that the violent categories of the political moment deny. Envisioning the other way is one of the things that artists are there to do. The fires of Paris gave rise to Paris light, just as the Commune eventually gave rise to the Third Republic, which fell only when the Nazis invaded. The postwar Fourth and Fifth Republics, though formally different, were essentially a continuation of it. Out of the ruins of the Commune, a very precarious kind of pluralism bloomed. It blooms, precariously, still. ♦