Paris Burning The ill-fated, short-lived revolution of leftist myth-making gets a dramatic look.

Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871

John Merriman (Basic Books, 2014) 360 pages with notes and index

The Paris Commune occupies an important position in the leftist imaginary. Celebrated as an episode in which the have-nots wrested power, albeit briefly, from the haves, the Commune is remembered as a golden “What if?” moment in the history of radical politics. In power for just 64 days, the Commune was spared the kinds of challenges that revolutions eventually face. There was no opportunity for substantive infighting to develop with factions wrestling over policy. The Commune simply did not survive long enough to risk being adulterated by the compromises that would have been necessary to assuage the many Parisians (to say nothing of the French outside of Paris) who did not support the more radical elements of the new government. And so the Commune can live on in the imagination, as a placeholder for all that was possible, but not tested, within the context of the late 19th-century radical left.

The veneration of the Commune was established almost immediately upon its demise. Communard Eugène Pottier penned “The Internationale,” a song that quickly became synonymous with working-class struggle. Having attempted their own revolution a decade later, the condemned Haymarket radicals (George Engle, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, and August Spies) sang “La Marseillaise” in solidarity with their Parisian working brothers and sisters as they mounted the scaffold in Chicago. Last, but not least, Karl Marx himself held the Commune up as a sign of more successful revolutions to come: “Workingmen’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators, history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all of the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.” By the turn of the century, the Commune had been transmuted into myth.

John Merriman’s Massacre follows in this tradition, presenting the Commune as a Foucauldian heterotopia in which ordinary people temporarily enjoyed the freedom to decide their own fates before they were brutally cut down by the authoritarian hand of the state. As one of the foremost authorities on French history writing today, Merriman has spent much of his career speaking for ordinary people. His first books, The Agony of the Republic (1978) and Red City (1985) detail respectively the repression of the 1848 revolution and the development of working-class politics in 19th-century Limoges. It should come as no surprise therefore that his latest effort once again takes up the cause of the radical left. In less capable hands, this book might have veered dangerously into the territory of hagiography. But given Merriman’s command of the material, along with his ability to bring this story to life by way of well developed characters and vividly portrayed episodes, Massacre is a must read for anyone interested in the Paris Commune.

Merriman devotes the first few chapters to providing historical context for the emergence of the Commune. Domestically, thanks to flagging popularity, Louis Napoleon introduced several important reforms, most notably the legalization of strikes and, then, of political associations. A new generation of activists cut their teeth in the last days of the Second Empire, protesting the divide between the well-heeled west and the working-class east, a divide that had been made all the more conspicuous under the renovations of Baron Haussmann. As described by Marx, wealth and immiseration announced themselves in stark contrast on the new boulevards of Haussmannized Paris: “Its industry and commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; financial swindling celebrated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set off by a shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious, and debased luxury.”

Internationally, the French found themselves in a precarious situation, under threat from Bismarck and without the support of its allies. In one of the most foolish mistakes in diplomatic history, Louis Napoleon went to war against the Prussians thinking that a quick victory would repair his failing reputation at home. Instead, he was forced to flee into exile, and the residents of Paris, cut off from supply chains by the Prussian siege, were left to eat zoo animals, horses, and rats. Between the increasingly politicized working population of Paris and the spectacular failure of the war, France was once again ripe for revolution.

Merriman skillfully toggles back and forth between street-level depiction of what was happening in Paris and conceptual analysis of the issues driving the action. Mobilizing the senses to bring the Commune to life, Merriman describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the uprising, from the sounding of the tocsin and the ever-present canon fire to the stifling smoke and the stench of rotting corpses. Readers witness portly aristocrats dining on sumptuous meals, desperate Communards frantically looking for cover once the Versaillais have taken over Paris, and an unexpected and thoroughly delightful run-in between fugitive Raoul Rigault and Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the forests of Fontainebleau.

Indeed one of the highlights of the book is the carefully drawn characters who propel the action. Rigault is clearly one of the heroes of the narrative. A committed radical with an impressive rap sheet already under his belt when the Commune was declared, Rigault was both a wine-drinking bon vivant and a ruthless executor of revolutionary justice: “Rigault’s café life, interrupted by short spells in jail, brought him premature corpulence. He was of average height, with ‘prying eyes’ peering from behind his pince-nez. Dressing as shabbily as possible and carrying his snuffbox, Rigault welcomed visitors with a shower of spit that flew from his mouth as he harangued and coughed. Some drops caught on his bristly, thick, chestnut-colored beard, which complemented long, unruly hair.” In passages like these, Merriman gives us access not only to the thoughts and actions of his characters, but to their embodied experience as well. This attention to physicality, along with the mobilization of the senses and ground-level, thick description, make it possible for a reader to insert herself into the vivid three-dimensional world of mid-century Paris.

Merriman’s close attention to character detail is matched by his ability to encapsulate for his readers the larger historical developments that were at work behind the scenes. From the difficult toll that Haussmannization took on the French economy to the political in-fighting that shaped both the Versaillais and the Communards, Merriman provides context for both the birth of the Commune and its ultimate demise. Here the role of the Catholic Church is of particular importance. Merriman devotes an entire chapter to the anti-clericalism of the Commune (“The Commune Versus the Cross”) and then another to the execution of the Archbishop Darboy (“Death Comes for the Archbishop”). In revisiting the difficult 19th-century history between church and state, from the seizure of church lands during the Revolution (1789-1799) to the quiet rapprochement of the Second Empire (1852-1870), Merriman provides the backstory necessary to understand the severity of the Communard attack on the church.

While the Communards “battled courageously,” the “murderous” Versaillais commanders “were gunning down Communards right and left.” It is all but impossible to walk away from this book feeling anything but disgust for the Versaillais and deep compassion for the Communards.

While Merriman lauds the heroes of the uprising and vilifies the reactionaries who put it down, he portrays the Archbishop Darboy in a more ambiguous light. He presents him as bookish and meek: “Darboy’s intense study and quest for personal perfection took a physical toll, leading even to suffering, a kind of private calvaire (ordeal), that would bring him grace in the mission of saving himself and others. Pale and small, the priest had a reserved, nervous, pensive, and even melancholy aspect. His hair, greying prematurely, as if drained of color by worry, hung down limply over very narrow temples.” Kidnapped and held hostage by the Communards, hoping to use him as leverage to bargain for the release of Auguste Blanqui, Darboy was a pawn in a larger game. The depiction of his execution, along with the other hostages, is sympathetic. Weakened by his time in captivity, Darboy had trouble remaining upright for the firing squad. When asked which party he belonged to, he replied, “The party of liberty.” But the firing squad, enraged by the executions of Communards at the hands of the Versaillais, showed no mercy.

In general, the book might have benefited from a more even approach. While the rules of the game for trade publications are more flexible than those for academic works, the regular use of modifiers leaves little room for more rigorous analysis. While the Communards “battled courageously,” the “murderous” Versaillais commanders “were gunning down Communards right and left.” It is all but impossible to walk away from this book feeling anything but disgust for the Versaillais and deep compassion for the Communards.

For the generation of historians who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the Commune is on par with May ’68 when it comes to nostalgic feeling. As a new generation of historians emerges, it will be interesting to see how the Commune is reimagined. Several reviews of Merriman’s book, for example, cite the Occupy movement as an historical analogue. But in my view, this misses the point. Like the Occupy movement, the Commune was an instance of class revolt in which the have-nots dared to invade the halls of power, and as a class revolt it will continue to inhabit the imaginary of the left. Yet, as the culmination of a hundred years’ worth of political turmoil and debate, the Commune was also much more than this. The French Revolution had exacerbated already existing rifts between the Catholic and the secular, the urban and the rural, the aristocratic and the republican. All of these rifts came boiling up again through the Second Empire and the Prussian War, only to explode with the Commune. It was the final battle in a hundred years’ war, and the end result was the founding of a stable secular republic that recognized the power of the rural vote.

Merriman’s boldest claim, however, situates the Commune at the start of the 20th century, rather than at the end of the 19th: “If the Paris Commune of 1871 may be seen as the last of the 19th-century revolutions, the murderous, systematic, state repression that followed helped unleash the demons of the 20th-century.” For Merriman, the Commune foreshadows the genocides that would follow, and he goes so far as to draw a direct link between the execution of the Communards and the Holocaust: “State violence was organized and systematic, as the cruel, bloody events of the 20th century would demonstrate to an even greater degree…. Anti-Communards shouted, ‘The brigands! We must exterminate them to the last one!’ One dreamed of an ‘immense furnace in which we will cook each of them in turn.’ Nothing would come close to the slaughter perpetuated by the Versaillais until the atrocities against the Armenians in 1915 during World War I, and such language would not be heard again until the Nazi Holocaust and other genocides, including the tragic events in the Balkans during the 1990s.”

Merriman’s boldest claim, however, situates the Commune at the start of the 20th century, rather than at the end of the 19th: “If the Paris Commune of 1871 may be seen as the last of the 19th-century revolutions, the murderous, systematic, state repression that followed helped unleash the demons of the 20th-century.”

Coming in the final pages of the book, this claim is provocatively stated rather than robustly argued, leaving readers with more questions than answers. The genocides of the 20th-century were often perpetrated against racial others, while the massacre of the Commune was rooted in class and politics. The Jews of Germany did not violently establish an alternative state and promise to bring revolution to the nation. The Communards were rebels, fighting for control of the capital, the center of economic and political power. The Commune was in fact declared in the aftermath of the execution of Versaillais soldiers, who had attempted to retrieve the canons of the National Guard. Surely, this puts them in a different category than that occupied by the Jews and the Armenians? Moreover, it is far from obvious that the French state of 1871 can be compared to the Ottoman Empire or the German state of 1933. Why not compare the Commune to the English Civil War instead? Or to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre? The 20th-century state does not hold a monopoly on “organized and systematic” killing.

However, the success of Massacre does not hinge on this final argument. The book as a whole is a wonderfully vivid depiction of the Paris Commune that alternates deftly between humor and heartbreak. The general overview of the larger political, social, and economic issues of the 19th century makes this a great introduction to the Commune, while the detailed descriptions of Communards trying to escape Paris encased in slabs of meat and fat cats dining at their local clubs while the city went up in flames, create a thoroughly engaging read for those already familiar with the field.