Two months that changed the world

Histoire de la commune de 1871Histoire de la commune de 1871 by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the one essential book on two months that changed the course of European history and set new patterns for 20th century revolutionary struggle worldwide.

Lissagaray first gives us the political background of the 1870-71 crisis, when the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, or "Napoleon III" destroyed itself in a disastrous war with Prussia, during which extreme conservatives created a new government elected mainly by rural constituencies. The revolt of Parisian ouvriers and petits bourgeois began as outrage against that disgraced government, successor of the emperor, that not only had failed to defend them against Prussian siege and bombardment but now expected them to pay (through rent increases and taxes) the huge indemnization demanded by the Prussians.

The insurrection broke out without plan or clear leadership when on 18 March 1871 that conservative government sent troops to seize the cannons of the Paris Garde nationale. Populace and Gardes quickly mobilized to prevent the seizure, and the government troops, bewildered and unprepared for such action, fraternized with them. Two generals, already notorious for earlier bloodletting, were murdered by the mob, and now Paris was in open revolt. The reactionary government, led by the aged Adolphe Thiers, then withdrew from the city and established its new capital in nearby Versailles. In the next weeks the citizens of Paris had to organize all urban services, while simultaneously defending themselves from infantry and bombardment of Versailles while the Prussian army hemmed them in on the north and east. Revolutionary reforms in education, work hours, women's rights and opportunities followed in quick succession — but despite spirited, though woefully disorganized, defense by Parisians and foreigners such as Dombrowski and Wroblewski, Versailles troops finally broke through and began the systematic destruction and massacres of la semaine sanglante, the "bloody week" of 21-28 May, 1871, followed by mass executions, rigged trials and deportations that very nearly wiped out the whole of Paris' working class — 30 or 40,000 killed, more thousands imprisoned and/or deported, others fled to exile in Belgium, Switzerland or England.

Lissagaray was a young radical journalist in 1871, not an elected official nor with any formal responsibility in the Commune, but committed to its cause and ultimately, in the last desperate days, a combattant and eye-witness of the semaine sanglante. He escaped, ultimately to London, and spent the next five years reading every available document, interviewing and corresponding with survivors, and writing his great history, which was published in Belgium in 1876. In 1886, the book appeared in English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (youngest daughter of Karl Marx and Lissagaray's one-time fiancée). In 1896, five years before his death, Lissagaray re-issued his history with a new postscript, where he predicts that the socialist goals of the Commune would be realized in Germany. Things didn't turn out that way, but the Commune's influence on the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and others would later be decisive for another country.

There have been many more studies since Lissagaray, and there are other contemporary accounts with important additional information — those by Louise Michel and Jules Vallès deserve special mention. Some of Lissagaray's value judgments may be challenged, and there are aspects he didn't know about that are important for understanding how this massive revolt emerged and developed, but this big, careful study (with numerous notes and appendices) is our most valuable single account. (I read the Kindle version of the 1896 edition.)

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