Globalisation before Globalisation

Philippe Marlière

  • Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871 by John Merriman
    Yale, 324 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 17452 6
  • Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross
    Verso, 148 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 78168 839 7

Lenin, it’s said, danced in the snow once the Bolshevik government had lasted a day longer than the Paris Commune. He was in awe of the Communards, and his tomb is still decorated with red banners from the Commune, brought for his funeral by French communists. Though it lasted only 72 days, the Commune was a defining moment for the European left, though not an uncontroversial one. Marx praised it in The Civil War in France (1871) – ‘Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class’ – but in 1872 in a new preface to The Communist Manifesto he wrote: ‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose.’ The Communards, he believed, had made a crucial error by seeking to reform, rather than abolish, the state. Engels agreed, calling the Commune the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a state run by workers in their own interest. The argument about its political nature still hasn’t been settled 144 years after the Commune itself was crushed. Some see it as the first self-consciously socialist uprising: a popular rebellion, unlike the liberal and nationalist Revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Others describe it as one among many manifestations of French republicanism.

The Yale historian John Merriman’s new book concentrates on the chain of events that created the Commune, and the main players behind its formation. He opens with a description of Paris in 1870: its western side a playground for the rich, the east an overpopulated slum. The class divide was deep and class consciousness entrenched. In July that year, Napoleon III, desperate for military glory, declared war on Prussia, his generals having assured him that France would win easily. They were wrong. As soon as the fighting started, Prussian troops routed the French and on 2 September captured the emperor together with 100,000 troops in Sedan. There were mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris demanding the overthrow of the empire, and its replacement with a democratic republic. Moderate republicans were terrified and on 4 September established a new republic. The s0-called Government of National Defence promised not to cede an inch of territory to the Prussians; but it feared the radicalised working class in the capital even more, and decided that it would be wise to surrender to Bismarck as soon as possible. Secret negotiations were opened soon after the Prussians laid siege to Paris on 19 September.

As the weeks went by, hostility to the new government grew. On 28 October, news reached Paris that the 160,000 soldiers at Metz had surrendered. On 31 October, 15,000 demonstrators gathered at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris calling for the resignation of the government and the establishment of a Commune and a Committee of Public Safety, such as there had been in 1792. Food was running out and so was money; on 29 January the government surrendered, as it had been planning to do since the beginning of the siege.

The right-wing député Adolphe Thiers was appointed president by the National Assembly and given a mandate to accept and implement the harsh terms imposed, which included ceding Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia. In March, the Prussians paraded through Paris. They occupied part of the city for two days, then withdrew. The surrender to the Prussians and the threat of monarchist restoration led to a transformation of the National Guard. A Central Committee of the Federation of National Guards was elected, comprising 215 battalions, equipped with 2000 cannons and 450,000 firearms.

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