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Revolutions are materialist events in their essence. The explosive outgrowth of specific circumstances in specific places at specific times, the product of a specific history and a specific society, they are also, paradoxically, the bearers and result of what the philosopher Georges Sorel in his Reflections on Violence called “myths.” As Sorel explained, without myths it impossible “to provide an intelligible exposition of the passing of principles into action.”
A myth, according to Sorel, “serve[s] to embody certain essential principles,” thanks to which “the men who participate in great social movements imagine their future activity in the form of battles assuring the victory of their cause.” As the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand wrote, for Sorel, “the share of myth that pervades class consciousness is present in one form or another in all historical consciousness. Which means not only that any revolutionary politics oriented towards the future is always steeped in mythology, but the same holds for any historical narrative examining the past.”
Myths around political and social movements are thus factors of mobilization, and Sorel insisted that “one must not seek to analyze such systems of images in the way we decompose a thing into its elements; one must accept them en bloc as historical forces.”
The Paris Commune of 1871, which lived only seventy-two days from March 18 to May 28, and whose sesquicentennial is being celebrated, is a particularly pertinent example of Sorel’s theory. The Commune was the direct result of the French defeat in the war against Prussia. As the first workers’ state, it became an event that, through its embodiment of the myth of a cataclysmic seizure of power, has mobilized and inspired people around the world for a hundred and fifty years. But before becoming a myth in its turn, the Commune was itself the product and heir of an earlier French myth: the purified republic of the French Revolution, specifically the rule of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.
Though opponents of the Second Empire had been agitating among the masses since the establishment of Napoleon III’s imperial government, following the coup d’État of 2 December 1851, the spontaneity of the Commune’s outbreak demonstrates Sorel’s observation that “one can speak indefinitely of revolts without ever provoking any revolutionary movement, so long as there are no myths accepted by the masses.” These myths have no need to be intellectually expressed or understood—they “are almost pure.” Myths are purely and simply “the expression of wills.” “Intellectualism results in movements calling for reform … while our current myths lead men to prepare themselves for combat with the goal of destroying what exists.” The destruction of the Ancien Régime by the revolutionaries of the 1790s sets the template for the myth the Communards would enact.
The Commune’s connection to the myth of the French Revolution permeated its existence, and the result was a popular uprising that from its inception was inspired and carried out in the name of a radical patriotism.
Revolutionary republican sentiments modeled on those of the soldiers who defended the nascent French republic from the coalition of royalist forces were present before the declaration of the Commune. Auguste Blanqui—an indefatigable conspirator for whom the revolution was always a week from Thursday, and the leader of a large faction of members of the Commune’s elected Council—is described by Philippe LeGoff in his introduction to the first English language collection of Blanqui’s writings as having been “inspired by the most radical aspects of the French Revolution [and is] perhaps best understood as a neo-Jacobin communist or a forward-looking sans-culotte.” Blanqui’s political vision grew from Gracchus Babeuf’s failed Conspiracy of Equals: namely in its methods and its barracks socialism. His fidelity to the memory of the glorious days of the Revolution is demonstrated clearly in the name of a newspaper he published for a period in 1870, La Patrie en danger, a reference to the rallying cry the Legislative Assembly issued in July 1792 when Prussia joined Austria in the war on Jacobin France.
This same war would also serve as the inspirational myth for the Parisian branch of the First International when, in January 1871, it called for the establishment of the Paris Commune. In this declaration, widely known as “L’Affiche rouge,” the Government of National Defense was condemned for “refusing the levée en masse,” yet another reference to the French Revolution. This method of raising an army turned the Revolution’s war against the allied monarchies into a people’s war, and the same was hoped for by the rebels of 1871.
The very name of the Commune, which the people took up enthusiastically, bore mythic qualities, as it was a reference to the body that ruled Paris between 1789 and 1795. It was this body that, among other things, was responsible for the arrest of the moderates of the Revolution and, in September of the same year, for the massacres carried out in the prisons of Paris of men and women arrested for opposition to the regime.
The myth of the Revolution was carried into all aspects of the Commune’s activity. “Citoyen” once again became the preferred form of address. The population of Paris showed its attachment to the Revolutionary myth by electing as the majority of the Commune’s Council two factions heavily influenced by the French Revolution: the “neo-Jacobins” and the Blanquists. Gaston DaCosta, a member of the latter faction and the deputy prosecutor of the Commune, said of the Blanquists—who occupied many key posts in the Commune’s commissions, as its ministries were called—that they “were the only thing they could be: Jacobin revolutionaries rising up to defend the threatened republic.” As in the days of the French Revolution, political clubs were a dominant form of popular activism, and in the Vaugirard quarter there was even a Jacobin club which, like the original, met in a church. The revolutionary calendar, abolished under Napoleon I was revived , the Commune seizing power in Germinal 79.
When, in its final weeks, the Commune’s existence was most threatened, the instincts of the 1790s kicked in to an even greater extent, and leadership was turned over to a dictatorial Committee of Public Safety, the final and most glaring example of the persistence of the myth of the Revolution. As was the case in the 1790s, only this Committee was thought capable of saving the revolution in extremis. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the Committee or its name. Gustave Courbet, head of the Commune’s arts commission, spoke against the Committee and the entire cult of the Revolution:
The titles Public Safety, Montagnards, Girondins, Jacobins, etc. etc. cannot be used by this republican socialist movement. What we represent is the time that has passed from 1793 to 1871, with the genius that should characterize us and which must be an outgrowth of our own temperament … Let us use the terms our revolution suggests to us.
The veteran revolutionary Felix Pyat, a fighter at the barricades of 1848, would have none of this: “Given that the words ‘public safety’ are absolutely of the same era as the words French Republic and Paris Commune, I vote for it.”
That the French Revolution should have held so unshakeable a place in the heart of the working people of Paris is not surprising, since the composition of the social stratum that was the base of the Commune can most accurately be described—like that of the Revolution—as “sans-culotte.” Ninety per cent of the enterprises involved in production in Paris employed ten people or fewer. Even more, many of the owners of ateliers supported the Communal revolution. The red flags with embroidered slogans that National Guard units carried were manufactured by a firm that ordinarily made rugs and carpets, and the destruction of the Vendome column, a hated symbol of Bonapartist militarism, was executed by private contractors.
To describe the workers of Paris as the “industrial proletariat,” as many have done in order to have the Commune fit the Marxist vulgate, is inaccurate. This social composition explains why the decrees issued by the Commune, even those described as “socialist,” could just as well have been applied by the Jacobins eighty years earlier.
An example of this is the prohibition of night work for bakers, which was described by a member of the Commune as “the only truly socialist decree rendered by the Commune,” though it almost exclusively concerned small shops, not large industrial enterprises. Payment of rents and debts were suspended but not abolished; workshops abandoned by their owners were turned over to their workers, but indemnity was to be offered. Despite the myths they have inspired, none of the Commune’s decrees resembled the socialism of Babeuf’s program, much less that of Marx and Engels. They were, like those of the Jacobins, aimed at ameliorating the conditions of the popular classes and establishing a more just order, not necessarily the overturning of class relations.
Even so, celebratory articles, sites, and events scheduled to commemorate the Commune’s anniversary feel free to assert that a “new form of government appeared, direct democracy with elements of the national guard on its side and with the working people of the city behind it, and engaged directly in carrying out reforms in health, education, and establishing an equal status for women”—proof of the strength of the myth of the Commune and the widespread ignorance of its reality.
In the aftermath of the Commune, in France and around the world, the Revolution faded as a dominant myth of the left, with the Commune taking its place. As François Furet wrote, “The French Revolution bid farewell to history amid the flames of Paris.”
There was no shortage of critical accounts of the Commune written by Communards, but the analyses of Marx and Engels elevated the Commune to new heights. Engels described it as the dictatorship of the proletariat that he and Marx invoked. This transformation of the Commune, despite the absence of a proletariat and its determinedly democratic nature, was truly Sorel’s “intelligible exposition of the passing of principles into action.” It is nonetheless the way the Commune is often remembered today. As a journalist says in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And the legend ranged widely.
In January 1918, Lenin is said to have danced in the snow when the new Bolshevik state outlived the Commune. Though they admired the Commune for its intentions, both Lenin and Trotsky criticized it bitterly for its failure to take the harsh measures necessary to hold onto power no matter what. The Cheka, the Bolshevik banning of parties and opposition press, the summary executions—all can be seen as a twisted implementation of the Commune’s myth. Post–World War I revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and China were inspired by the Parisians of 1871 and, like their forebear, were drowned in blood. But it is the power of myth that failure does little to cast doubt on its truth. In truth, as the historian of the Commune Jacques Rougerie wrote, it was a “twilight, not a dawn.”
The 1930s were a prime moment for the myth of the Commune, with the city of Barcelona in 1936 reenacting the events in Paris. But it was in France that its myth became forever anchored among leftists of all kinds. The May Day march on May 1, 1936, took place just days before the victory of the Popular Front headed by Lon Blum. Its participants headed into Père Lachaise cemetery, where legend has it that the last of the Communards made their final stand. Bearing images of heroes of the Commune, the crowd took nine hours to file past the Mur des Fédérés, where sixty-five years earlier hundreds of Communards had met their deaths before a firing squad. The annual montée au mur became and remains—though to a far lesser extent today—a ritual of the French left.
A central image of the Commune is its barricades: high, solid, and defended by armed workers. Barricades were not unique to the Commune, but even so are a synecdoche for everything its fighters represented. The images of the barricades of May ‘68 in the Latin Quarter were a physical manifestation of the myth of the Commune as well as the greater, overarching myth of the cataclysmic uprising—proof that the students were revolutionaries. That barricades are of no use in the contemporary world against forces of order intent on smashing them and those behind them (which was not the case in 1968), is obvious. As the Commune’s crushing defeat shows, the nine hundred barricades constructed by the Communards were also of limited use. Had the CRS batons been replaced with tanks or air power, the barricades on rue Gay-Lussac would have been immediately shown to be the derisory piles of stone they actually were. But in the mind’s eye of anyone involved in making what they consider to be a revolution there exists the ideal image of revolution, the inspirational and sustaining myth.
In many ways, May ‘68 has now taken on the mantle and myth of the Commune, and every new mass movement, from Nuit debout to the gilets jaunes, is described as “a new May.” This was foreseen by Sorel, for a myth “is, at bottom, identical to the convictions if a group, the expression of its convictions in the language of movement.”
In the society of the spectacle image is all, and Sorel reminds us that “above all, one must avoid comparing accomplishments with the images that had been accepted prior to the action.” The Commune, which in dying young left a relatively unsullied memory and few actual accomplishments, made avoiding this comparison between image and reality simple. It is pure image, pure myth. This provided it with its lasting force; this was its ultimate victory.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.
This article was originally published in Tocqueville 21.