18 March marks the anniversary of the start of the 72-day lifespan of the Paris Commune of 1871. On the morning of 18 March 1871, groups of Parisian National Guards, women and children joined forces to prevent the seizure of cannon – which they believed belonged to the National Guard, having been paid for by subscriptions from the people of Paris – by soldiers acting on the orders of Adolphe Thiers, head of the government of the Third Republic, then based at Versailles. When the soldiers began to ‘fraternize’ with supporters of the National Guard, joining in the rebellion against the government of the republic, Thiers withdrew to Versailles with any remaining troops to regroup and plot their assault on Paris. The Central Committee of the Parisian National Guard took control of the city, immediately arranging for elections to a ‘Commune’ to be held on 26 March. On 28 March, the Commune de Paris – the Paris Commune – assumed power. They held it until the shocking violence of the ‘Bloody Week’, or Semaine sanglante, of 21 – 28 May 1871 wiped them out.
In the late 1990s, Robert Tombs suggested that the Commune was no longer a politically contentious event. While the memory of the Commune may have lost the political power it wielded in the late nineteenth century and after, this does not mean that it has ceased to be remembered. Of all the major revolutionary events that occurred in France in the nineteenth century, the Commune occupies a position in popular memory, especially on the left in France and beyond, that the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 can only dream of. ‘The Commune’ is far better known than either of these revolutionary events. It is often spoken of in isolation from the revolutionary tradition and socialist movements that preceded and so clearly shaped it. The ‘official’ exhibition held by the Mairie de Paris at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to mark the 140th anniversary of the Commune in 2011 skipped breezily over the role of 1848, in particular, in influencing the Communards. The caption accompanying a set of photographs of the Commune’s main leaders (some of whom were veterans of 1848) informed visitors that the Commune’s main influences were the First Republic of 1792 and the First International, formed in 1864. ‘1848 – forgotten again’, I thought to myself. Last summer, I noticed graffiti in a Parisian street that read:
This genealogy of French socialism, culminating in the election of François Hollande on 6 May 2012, saw the Commune as its founding event – forgetting, in the process, the crucial developments in socialism and republicanism that had gone before. I took a photo and felt another bit of silent indignation on the part of the forgotten.
The Commune’s continuing power to fascinate is proven by the annual demonstrations organised in March and May by the group Amis de la Commune de Paris (Friends of the Paris Commune), whose headquarters are appropriately located near the ‘Place de la Commune de Paris’ in the Butte-aux-Cailles district of southern Paris. Each March the Amis mark the beginning of the Commune with events usually organised in the centre of Paris, and in May they process like so many before them to the Mur des fédérés in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, where around 150 Communards were executed during the Semaine sanglante. In March 2011 I watched the commemorative events as they took place on the rain-soaked square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, where the Commune had been based in 1871 (and which they burned to the ground as they retreated in May). Dressed in black and carrying red flags, members of the Amis recited poems, performed short tableaux, and belted out Eugène Pottier’s ‘Elle n’est pas morte’, a song about the memory of the Commune. At the time, its chorus – ‘In spite of all that, Nicolas/The Commune is not dead!’ – felt like a deliberately pointed jibe at the then-president of the French Republic.
The Amis were back on the streets of Paris this week. The 2013 commemorations to mark the beginning of the Commune consisted of a march from the Assemblée nationale to the French Senate at the Luxembourg Palace. The Amis’ website explained that this route was chosen in order to ask France’s elected representatives to respond to a petition demanding the ‘rehabilitation of the Commune and the Communards’. The petition asks for three things: that the Commune be appropriately recognised in school programmes and curricula; that the Commune be included in the national programme of commemorations; and that the names of Communards be inscribed ‘on the walls of the ministries, mairies [town halls] and administrative buildings where they held positions of responsibility’. Thus far, the Amis say, over 10,000 people have signed the petition.
In the weeks prior to 18 March I happened to be working on the Commune with my students. In our classes it rapidly became apparent that, even outside of France, the event still had an immediate power to fascinate – and to get people talking. We discussed the Commune’s meaning, how ‘revolutionary’ or ‘socialist’ it really was, whether it was – as Karl Marx famously claimed in The Civil War in France – ‘essentially a working-class government’. But we also explored why the Commune’s memory remained so powerful (and occasionally controversial) when other nineteenth-century revolutions did not. Was it down to its duration: long enough to make some concrete changes, as one student pointed out, but short enough to avoid a kind of corruption? Does the Commune retain its allure as a ‘festival of the oppressed’? Or is it the violent and traumatic manner of its demise that continues to capture the imagination?
And what of the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Commune? If the event has lost its politically contentious qualities, surely rehabilitation is now possible (if it hasn’t already happened, to some extent). Discussing this topic in class highlighted the complexities of this demand. In particular, the idea was raised that rehabilitation and inclusion in ‘official’ history – be that in school curricula or national commemorations – might, from a left-wing perspective, actually do the Commune a disservice.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with his conclusions, in his recent downward revision of the death toll from the Semaine sanglante (£) Robert Tombs argues that, while work on the Commune’s memory has dominated recent historiography, many of the hard facts of the Commune have yet to be pinned down. On-going discussion of the Communards’ reputation and their ‘rehabilitation’ – whether on the streets of Paris or in a classroom – also proves that the place of the Commune in France’s ‘official’ historical narrative remains deeply problematic.