Birth of the Commune

The Paris Commune grew out of the radical debating clubs of the collapsing French Empire

The following is an excerpt from Kristin Ross’ Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, which comes out next week from Verso books. As this excerpt opens, she has just described a moment at the barricades during the Commune’s last days, in which Louise Michel and an unnamed African communard discuss their visions of the commune’s achievements

The prehistory to this scene can be found in the waves of dust and enthusiasm, the fever that took hold inside the popular reunions and club meetings across Paris during the final two years of the Empire. Commune veteran as well as its first and most influential historian, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, never placed much stock in the popular reunions, viewing them as dens of Jacobin posturing and rhetoric, big talk and little action—the scene of words, not deeds. Perhaps for this reason all major historical accounts of the Commune have followed Lissagaray’s lead in beginning and anchoring the story of the Commune on March 18, 1871 with a deed (or rather a failed one): with what Marx called Thiers’ “burglarious” attempt to confiscate the cannons of Montmartre, cannons that belonged to the National Guard, and that had been paid for by local, neighborhood subscription. Working-class women fraternized with the soldiers, who refused the order to fire into the crowd. Frank Jellinek, Stewart Edwards, Henri Lefebvre, most recently Alain Badiou—virtually all histories or analyses of the Commune are built on the edifice of a prominent chapter entitled “The 18th of March.” Thus the Commune begins with bungling overreach on the part of the state and the reaction it provokes; its origins are spontaneous and circumstantial, growing out of the particular circumstances of the Franco-Prussian War, and they are motivated by strong sentiments of national defense on the part of Parisians. With this last point even Thiers, who would refer to the Commune as “misguided patriotism,” or “patriotism gone awry,” would agree.

But if we begin with the state, we end with the state. Let us begin instead with the popular reunions at the end of the Empire, the various associations and committees they spawned, and the “buzzing hives” that were the revolutionary clubs of the Siege. Then we see a different picture. For it was the reunions and the clubs that created and instilled the idea—well before the fact—of a social commune. What developed in the meetings was the desire to substitute a communal organization, which is to say a direct cooperation of all energies and intelligences, for a government composed of traitors and incompetents. The police at the time, numerous Communards, as well as a minority strain among subsequent historians of the Commune, knew this well. “It is the clubs and the associations that have done all the harm … I attribute all of the events which have just come to pass in Paris to the clubs and the reunions … to the desire of those people to live better than their condition allows.”

A police official of the Government of National Defense in 1872, cited in Robert Wolfe, “The Origins of the Paris Commune: The Popular Organizations of 1868–71,”
In his dictionary of the Commune, anti-Communard Chevalier d’Alix defines “clubs” and public reunions as “the Collège de France of insurrection.” Historian Robert Wolfe writes, “If one had to trace the origins of the Commune back to a single starting point, one could do worse than to choose June 19, 1868, the date of the first unauthorized public meeting in Paris under the Second Empire.”

But I would choose a different starting point, a few months later. The scene is the same: the evening meeting in the Vaux-Hall ballroom at Château-d’eau. By then Parisians had already taken possession of their right to gather and associate and had been meeting together for a few months. In the first reunions veterans of 1848, old and experienced orators, met together with young workers from the Paris section of the International Workers’ Association and with refugees from London, Brussels, and Geneva. Those who spoke did so “with decorum, tact, often with some talent, and showed real knowledge of the questions they addressed.” The topic, for several weeks, had been women’s labor and ways of getting their salaries increased. Two months of such meetings had ensued: they were orderly, statistical exposés on women’s salaries to which the press paid little attention and to which the government sometimes forgot to send its police spies. But one evening in the autumn a certain Louis Alfred Briosne, forty-six years old and a feuillagiste (artificial flower and leaf maker) by trade, took the podium amidst an atmosphere of fairly generalized boredom. Neither his less-than-average stature nor the fact that his body was ridden with the tuberculosis he would soon thereafter succumb to, prevented him from dropping a bomb into the room:

There arrived at the dais a short man leaning on the podium, as several people observed, as though he were about to swim out into the audience.

Up until then, orators had begun to speak with the sacramental formula: “Mesdames et Messieurs…” This speaker, in a clear and sufficiently vibrant voice cried out an appellation that had been deeply forgotten for a quarter century: “Citoyennes et citoyens!”

The room erupted in applause. The man who had been welcomed in this fashion did not, perhaps, go on to say anything more interesting than any of the others had—what does it matter? By throwing out his “citoyens,” he had evoked—whether purposely or not, who knows?—a whole world of memories and hopes. Each person present gave a start, shivered … the effect was immense and its reverberation spread outdoors.

Communard Gustave Lefrançais, whose account this is, links the resonance of the words immediately to their last moment of common usage a quarter of a century earlier—sacred words of the revolutionary vocabulary widespread in 1789 and again in 1848. “Citoyens” was among the appellations that date back to 1789 and that were kept alive thanks to secret societies and revolutionary traditions— “patriots,” another such word, had, for example, gone out of fashion with young socialists and was nowhere to be found in 1871. But the particular force of its use by Briosne in the Vaux-Hall meeting has less to do with a hearkening back to the past than it does with the way that “citoyen,” in this instance, does not connote membership in a national body but rather a cleavage therein, a social gap or division affirmed in the heart of the national citizenry, a separation of the citoyen from what at that precise moment becomes its antonym, the now ghostly departed mesdames and messieurs—the bourgeoisie, les honnêtes gens. And “connote” is the wrong word to use, for the words perform a forcible inscription of social division, an active, self- authorizing assertion of disidentification—from the state, from the nation, from all of the customs and phatic politesses that make up middle-class French society. The words citoyen, citoyenne no longer indicate national belonging—they are addressed to people who have separated themselves from the national collectivity. And because the words are an interpellation, a direct second-person address, they create that gap or division in a now, in the contemporary moment constituted by the speech act; they create a new temporality in the present and, essentially, an agenda—something that all the speeches presenting well-meaning statistical data about women’s labor could not have begun to create. They allow an understanding of the present, in its unfolding, as historical, as changing. Paradoxically, perhaps, in this instance, it is the unspoken words “Mesdames, messieurs” which, when they are spoken and repeated, create the space/time of the nation and not citoyen. For the repetitive temporality created by the “sacramental formula” “Mesdames, messieurs” is the saturated time of the nation—a spatialized time, in fact, in keeping with Ernst Bloch’s observation that there is no time in national history, only space. “Thus, nationhood,” he writes, “drives time, indeed history out of history: it is space and organic fare, nothing else; it is that ‘true collective’ whose underground elements are supposed to swallow the uncomfortable class struggle of the present…” The name “citoyen,” on the other hand, may well be old and originate in another moment of the political past, but its iteration in this instance creates the now of a shared political subjectivization, “the uncomfortable class struggle of the present.” It interpellates listeners to be part of that present. Citoyen, citoyenne summons, then, a subject predicated on any number of disidentifications—from the state, the Empire, the police, and the world of the so-called “honnêtes gens.” The words are not addressed to the French national citizen. They conjure up an ideal of la femme libre, l’homme libre, a non-nationally circumscribed being, and are addressed to and responded to by such listeners accordingly.

What went on in the reunions and the clubs verged on a quasi-Brechtian merging of pedagogy and entertainment. An entry fee of a few centimes to pay for the lighting was charged. Club meetings provided instruction, though to what pedagogical end was open to debate. They were “schools for the people,” frequented, according to Communard Elie Reclus, by “citizens, who, for the most part, had never talked to each other until then”; they were “schools of demoralization, disturbance and depravity,” in the words of another contemporary observer. At the same time the nightly evening meetings had, in effect, replaced the theaters that had been shut down by the government since before the Siege, and some regular orators were known for their flamboyant theatricality. Shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard, according to Maxime du Camp, gave as many as forty-seven speeches between November 1868 and November 1869, often wearing a red Phrygian bonnet. Before September 4, certain topics were policed and subject to censor, and considerable suspense was generated by speakers who at any moment might venture into forbidden territory and cause the proceedings to be shut down amidst the din of roared opposition.

Often, though, government censorship of topics related to politics and religion had the paradoxical effect of enabling vaster, more imaginative speculation to take place. It was forbidden, for example, to denounce particular government hacks but discussions about how to bring about an end to all inheritance could proceed unchecked. Skirting the narrow parameters of what the Empire deemed political allowed a more thoroughgoing vision of social transformation to come into view. One could not speak against the emperor or his various functionaries but one could advocate for an end to private property, or as one speaker put it: “Individual ownership of land is incompatible with the new society.” Hatred of capitalism, along with denunciation of bourgeois “vampires” or “cannibals,” was a regular topic, and a particular favorite of speakers like Gaillard père. “The big question [in the clubs] is that of bread, which is to say, property: whatever subject appears to be addressed, it’s really about that.” In the public meetings, where anyone was free to speak but the public shouted down those they had had enough of, no one political faction or generation could dominate. After September 4, as the reunions transformed themselves into clubs with more distinct ideological positions, certain speakers became “regulars” associated with certain clubs. But there were always “orateurs de hasard,” amateurs speaking for the first time, as well as “orateurs ambulants” like Gaillard fils, performing a kind of colportage of different discourses and working to disseminate strategies from club to club. The entire club presided over by Blanqui, the Club de la Patrie en danger, was itself ambulatory, meeting from week to week in different hastily scheduled venues scattered across the city.

From the first months of 1869, demands for the Commune could be heard in all of the reunions, and “vive la Commune” was the cry that opened and closed sessions in the more revolutionary clubs in the north of Paris: Batignolles, Charonne, Belleville, Villette. Accounts of club proceedings, which by now clubists were publishing themselves in order to combat bourgeois misrepresentation of their doings, reveal a kind of crescendo of feverish anticipation around “the burning question of the Commune.” As a slogan, the Commune melted divergences between left factions, enabling solidarity, alliance, and a shared project:

We will have it, surely, our Commune, our grand democratic and social Commune … the light will descend from the heights of Belleville and Ménilmontant, to dissipate the dark shadows of the Hôtel de Ville. We will sweep away the reaction like the janitor sweeps the apartment on Saturdays [prolonged laughter and applause. A great tumult at the back of the room as a citizen who was found dishonoring the inlaid parquet floor of the hall is violently thrown out]. -Gustave de Molinari, Les Clubs rouges pendant la siège de Paris

Ambulatory orators helped revolutionary clubs to federate with each other, in the now familiar structure shared by all of the embryonic organizations that preceded the Commune but which were in many ways indistinguishable from it. That structure, a kind of decentralized federation of local, independent worker-based committees organized by arrondissement, had been adopted by the Paris section of the International, some 50,000 members strong in the spring of 1870. It was also the structure of the National Guard, which had, by that point, in effect “federated itself.” Members of the International organized the early Vigilance Committees out of people chosen in the public reunions; these then chose their delegates to the Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements, installed in a room on the Place de la Corderie lent to them by the International. All these embryos or x-rays of the Commune testify to the presence of a strong decentralized revolutionary structure, organized by arrondissement and tied to popular concerns like food and hatred of the clergy, with its “luxe oriental” and its exemption from fighting. “Let’s strip them [priests and seminarians] to their chemises and march them to the ramparts!”

By shifting our attention away from the Hôtel de Ville, both before March 26 and after, when the Commune government had more or less established its residency there, I am trying to make visible another social and political geography in the city which included the clubs that met throughout the city, as well as the Place de la Corderie, with its triumvirate of the International, the Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements, and, after early March, the Central Committee of the National Guard. It was here, for example, at the Place de la Corderie, that the furniture-maker Jean-Louis Pindy came when he was released from prison on September 4, homeless, knowing he could find a bed. And it was here that Elisabeth Dmitrieff came directly when she landed from London on March 28, a special correspondent sent by Marx to report back about the Commune for the International. At the Place de la Corderie, more than at the Hôtel de Ville, the questions in the early months of 1871 are not national questions, properly speaking. There is just the larger struggle of the Revolution, in the form of the free union of autonomous collectives, against the state.