When the revolution came of age

Paris Libre, 1871Paris Libre, 1871 by Jacques Rougerie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No one knows more about the Paris Commune than Jacques Rougerie, and no one has done more balanced and meditated research. This small book is an excellent synthesis and overview of his investigations of some of the most debated aspects: Was it the last flare-up of the sans-culottes, or the first socialist proletarian revolution? Or (as its enemies maintained) just an opportunity for wanton pillage by the "dangerous classes"? And what was it really about?

Rougerie's starting point was to ask, Who were the activists and what did they want? To find out, he pored through the records of the trials of suspected communeux in a pioneering statistical study, classifying them by age, sex, origin (many were born far from Paris), and — especially important for class analysis — occupation. This is not a fair sample of all those who fought for the Commune, both because so many had been killed and because the government accusers snatched up any suspect, often on no more evidence than a denunciation by a frightened or jealous neighbor. But it's a very long list, and the best sample we have. His conclusion: most were workers, though many were also employers and almost all in very small shops.

Who were their enemies? Here evidence comes not just from official declarations by the Commune, but also popular songs, the popular scandal sheet Père Duchène, and reports by observers of the political clubs. The main enemy by far was the Catholic church, including the clergy and the whole ecclesiastical establishment; next, the grocers, for hoarding and high prices; and finally, the landlords, demanding exorbitant rents. Big industrialists and financiers were not part of this list.

What did they want? Mostly, liberté, égalité, fraternité, with no clearer idea, but also cooperatives where workers would themselves make the rules and earn the full product of their labor. They would work with existing capitalist owners who were willing to cooperate, but if reluctantly they had to take possession themselves (reluctance due to the complexities of running an industry if you've never done it before), they had no doubt that they would compensate the owner for his fair share.

This analysis, the main part of the book, was originally published in 1971, but here he adds a preface written in 2004, critiquing certain points in the light of more recent research. These include greater emphasis on the active role of women and women's organizations, and a de-mythicizing of the military campaign. The communeux did not everywhere defend every barricade down to the last cartridge; neighborly relations and traditions determined the tenacity of their defense, fiercest in the "red belt" in the easternmost and southeastern arrondissements; the massacres by the invading Versaillais was not the work of crazed or fanatical soldiers uncontrolled by their commanders, but rather a deliberate strategy and the result of a wholesale remaking of the French army after its disastrous defeat in the war against Prussia and its ineffectiveness in the first days of the Commune.

Was it socialist? Rougerie thinks, yes, but socialism as understood in 1871 — which was not explicitly "anti-capitalist" but strongly for "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" in the new conditions of incipient industrialization. And it enjoyed a brief but glorious, even festive moment as a "free city", launching (but without time to complete them) advanced reforms in education, industry and local government that would later become standards for revolutionaries everywhere. Yes, he thinks, it was the last of a certain kind of mass urban uprising by people of various social classes united only by anger against poverty and injustice, but also a forerunner of more modern, class-oriented revolts.

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