In the wake of a plethora of colonial and imperial monument ceremonialized destructions, the demolition of the Vendôme Column by the Paris Commune appears as paradigmatic. Joachim Ben Yakoub reflects on this key event, and on three recent artworks inspired by it.
In 2021, we are not only commemorating 150 years of the Paris Commune, but also 10 years of re-emerging planetary revolts. In the same way the story of Communards cannot properly be told without mentioning the fall of the Vendôme Column, the tale of the most recent upsurges of revolt cannot properly be told without mentioning the intensification of what Bhakti Shringarpure called a “rage against monuments” (Warscapes, 2012). An archipelago of decolonial rage is spontaneously bursting out worldwide, targeting public statues that until today glorify the legacy of slavery, imperialism and colonization. From the settler colonial states of South Africa, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia to the heart of the Empire in France, Belgium, and England, recent protests broke the polis in two. The national heroes sculpted in bronze revered by some, seem to represent contempt, injustice, oppression and clear cut genocide for others, rendering visible a deep societal antagonism, going beyond the classical “left-right” binary opposition.
It is in this light paramount to question, what is still left of the left and how to reconstruct from this monumental debris new caring forms of planetary alliances, solidarities that could prefigure new ways of inhabiting the world in freedom and dignity. As we will see, finding answers to this urgent question will require a decisive dose of what Houria Bouteldja calls “revolutionary love” (2016). To understand what is at stake when implicitly criticizing the coloniality of the left, we will look at the various ways present-day visual artists are returning to the orchestrated fall of the Column exalting Napoleonic imperialism during the Paris Commune, rearticulating international solidarity into possible forms of translocal solidarity. We will do so by speaking nearby Édouard Glissant, as he recurrently stated that each one of us needs the memory of the other in the lucid process of what he called Relation, or in his own words “if we want to share the beauty of the world, if we want to be in solidarity with its sufferings, we must learn to remember together” (Une nouvelle région du monde, 2006).
But let us first start by contrasting the internationalist spirit of the Paris Commune with a very sharp but loving critique by one of the main political philosophers of the anti-colonial struggle: Frantz Fanon. After the Vendôme Column was toppled in Paris in May 1871, official Communards cheerfully announced the celebrating crowd “Vendôme Square”will henceforth be named “International Square.” This short lived toponymic reversal marked a rupture from the inheritance of the French Revolution towards a real working-class internationalism. As reminded by Kristin Ross in her remarkable book Communal Luxury (2015), according to Communard Benoît Malon, the destruction of the Vendôme Column fundamentally questioned the supposed inevitability of imperial wars. It promoted a spirit of anti-nationalism and international fraternity. The Paris Commune was more apt to relate to an international constellation of insurgency than to a nationalist imaginary, including the Indian revolt against British racial capitalism, the uprisings during Black Reconstruction in North America, rebellions in Ireland, Hungary, Poland, and the freedom struggle of the serfs in Russia, or the simultaneous Kabyle uprising in Algeria.