The Paris Commune and the World: Introduction



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Chrono-cartography of the 1871 Paris Commune. The black dotted line indicates the former outline of the limit of Paris until 1860. The darker avenues indicate the radical urban transformations of Haussmann. The black rectangles indicate the Commune’s barricades. The white path and arrows indicate the course of the Versailles army during the Bloody Week (May 21-28). The hatched grey areas indicate blocks where buildings have been put on fire, either by the Versailles bombardment or by arson from the Communards. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2014, updated in 2021).

Welcome to the 34th issue of The Funambulist. For it, we have decided to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. If you live in France, you will know that we’re far from being the only ones to have this idea: many new books are being published and events being organized. What might make our proposition original, besides the fact that our texts are published in English, is the sidestep we decided to make. Indeed, we wanted to associate the months of March, April, and May 1871 in Paris to other space-time — whether they have been explicitly influenced by the Paris Commune or not — to decenter not just France from the Commune but also, to some degree, Paris itself. None of our nine contributors are specialists of the Paris Commune. Yet, they have generously accepted to share with us how they perceive some aspects of it — its political function, its spatiality, its relationship to women, its destruction of monuments, etc. — through their own expertise on these other space-time with which we wanted to associate the Commune.

First things first though. What is the Paris Commune? This introduction will merely synthesize some aspects of it — drawing from the countless publications that have been written about it from Karl Marx’s Civil War in France (1871), all the way to the wave of new books published for its 150th anniversary. On September 2, 1870, the Emperor Napoléon III was made captive by the Prussian army in Sedan, France, after two months of war. Two days later, Parisians invaded the Parliament and forced the declaration of the Third Republic — which ended 70 years later with the Nazi occupation and the active collaboration of the Vichy Regime. Two weeks later, when the news was announced in the Carribean colony of Martinique, an insurrection began in the South of the island, led by those who were still enslaved by the French Empire 22 years earlier (see Jacqueline Couti’s article in this issue). Meanwhile, the German army was besieging the city of Paris, where food and resources are starting to lack. Despite four months of extreme hardship, Parisians nevertheless interpreted the surrendering treatise signed by the French government on March 1, 1871 as treason. Ten days later, the Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers ordered to move the French capital from Paris to Versailles fearing a proletarian insurrection — a common fear for the authorities throughout the 19th century. On March 18, the National Guard was prevented by a crowd led by women from capturing the 227 canons financed by Parisians themselves. The Guard refused to obey orders and, instead, fraternized with the people of Paris, joining them. It was the beginning of two months and ten days of a proletarian rule over a city detached from the French nation state: the Paris Commune.

Among the Commune’s immediate decisions were: the separation of church and state, the implementation of compulsory, secular, free schooling for children, the transformation of factories abandoned by their owners into workers-owned companies, etc. But, as Marx himself pointed out, “the greatest achievement of the Paris Commune was its actual working existence.” Indeed, the Commune transformed the very form of sovereignty by creating hyper-local forms of government (to the scale of the neighborhood, of the arrondissement…) that take precedence over the centralized form of power. This model (which precedes the Commune, of course) thus instils what we may call an “archipelagic sovereignty” in which each island operates a territorialized form of government, which also belongs to a larger communal identity (see the interview with Geo Maher about Venezuelan communes in this issue). If the Commune would have succeeded in perpetuating its existence at a bigger scale of time, it would have surely integrated rural islands, as well as other communes (other cities in France, such as Toulouse, Marseille or Saint Etienne also attempted to create their communal existence).

The relationship of the Commune to space, architecture, and monuments is important to present here. When the Commune was declared, Paris had just experienced
17 years of radical transformations of its urban fabric following the design of Napoléon III and Georges Eugène Haussmann. Working-class neighborhoods had been gutted by large avenues, forcing thousands to move out from them. While the newly built bourgeois buildings ensured the replacement of population, the avenues pierce proletarian neighborhoods, preventing their insurrectional defense while maximizing the movement of the counter-revolutionary troops and its artillery. This weaponized urbanism proved deadly during the “Bloody Week” (May 21-28, 1871) as shown on the map on the left page.

The space of the neighborhoods themselves was necessarily affected by this other paradigm of sovereignty: arrondissement town halls were made available to the resident associations, neighborhood political and festive gatherings were frequent if not daily and, when the time of defense came, each street was defended by its own barricade — a strategy that will prove its limits during the final assault by the Versailles army as Charlotte Grace explains in her contribution. The prolific dimension of this deliberative, constructive, and defensive space is well depicted in Peter Watkins’ 6-hour-long movie soberly called La Commune (Paris, 1871). But the architecture of the Commune consists often less in an architecture of addition than one of subtraction. This is what the Situationnists (who were never afraid of superlatives) called “positive holes,” which, according to them, allows to characterize the Commune as “the only realization of a revolutionary urbanism” (Internationale Situationniste, 1962).

One most spectacular instance of such architectural subtraction from the empire’s enforcement is the ceremonialization of the destruction of the Vendôme Column on May 16, 1871. In front of a gathered crowd, the cylindrical monument dedicated to the Napoleonic conquests and at the top of it, the first Emperor himself, fell dramatically into a pile of manure (see Joachim Ben Yakoub’s text in this issue for more). But “positive holes” go beyond the symbolic, and fierce debates occurred within the Commune when it came to dismantle the imperial and theocratic infrastructure of the city. For example, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, promised to a prophetic fire, was finally spared by the artists of the Commune. In the final week of the Commune, some buildings were the target of strategic arson. The imperial residence, the Palais des Tuileries, was methodically set on fire, followed by the Council of State, the Ministry of Finances, the Court of Audit, the City Hall, the High Court, and the Prefecture of Police. After the Versailles army conquered Paris during the Bloody Week, massacring between 6,000 and 30,000 Communards, all but the Palais des Tuileries was rebuilt. The famous Sacré-Coeur Basilica was also subsequently constructed on top of the Montmartre hill to formalize the divine return of “moral order.” Ninety years later, the rebuilt Prefecture of Police will be one of the sites of another massacre at the core of Paris: the October 17, 1961 police murders of over 200 Algerians demonstrating against a racist curfew taken against them by the infamous Prefect of police Maurice Papon towards the end of the Algerian Revolution.

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Official order of deportation to Kanaky of Communarde Louise Michel.

This intensive spatial reading of the city of Paris, reading the geological layers of history, in particular its colonial history — as we propose to do with Mogniss H. Abdallah and Hajer Ben Boubaker in this issue — is however insufficient as merely an account of the many ways through which coloniality is taking place in the Commune’s neighborhoods. We need to go further and observe how the Commune is itself taking place in a worldwide colonial continuum. I briefly mentioned the insurrection of Southern Martinique preceding the Commune of a few months. The news of the formation of the Third Republic also triggered large revolts in Algiers but, in this case, from the lower classes of European settlers,  who formed what would later be called “the Algiers Commune.” The fact that the colonial status of this “Commune” never seems to be addressed is indicative of the striking blindspot of Communards who, for most of them, do not think of their conditions and political project in opposition to the French colonial empire.

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Official order of deportation to Kanaky of Kabyle anti-colonial insurgent Boumzrag el Mokrani (brother of the Sheikh el Mokrani who initiated the rebellion).

Yet the opportunity for such solidarities however, has always been in reach. Indeed, just two days before the beginning of the Paris Commune, the Kabyle Cheikh El Mokrani and the Sufi brotherhood Rahmaniyya initiated an anti-colonial insurrection in Algeria. For nine months, the Kabyle rebels challenged the occupation of Northern Algeria by the French State. Their fate ended up being the same as the Communards. Thousands were executed and the tribes that participated in the great revolt are fined, pushing them into decades of poverty. Prisoners are judged and, like Communards, are deported to the two French penal colonies built on Indigenous lands in South America (Guiana) and Oceania (Kanaky, aka New Caledonia). The few forms of fraternization between Communards and Algerians happened much too late, and on the terms of the colonial authorities. Worse, in 1878 Kanaky, both groups of detainees were offered by the colonial authorities to join the counter-revolutionary effort against the Indigenous Kanak revolt led by the Great Chief Ataï; the biggest since the French invasion of the Melanesian archipelago 25 years earlier. Those who accepted were given a piece of stolen Indigenous land and became settlers. Only a few of them refused the deal and expressed their solidarity with the Kanak fight — among these few, the anarchist Communarde teacher Louise Michel. One of the first Kanak independence organizations created in 1969 is named as a tribute to her: the Foulards Rouges (Red Scarves) refers to the scarves that Louise Michel had offered to her Kanak comrades in the 1870s. In 1975, the other main independence organization of the time, the Groupe 1878 (named in reference to the great revolt), published a text in homage to the Paris Commune under the title “Once Upon a Time, There was a Great City” (Nouvelles 1878 no. 27).

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Bus stop on the east coast of Kanaky’s Great Earth. The painting represents the Great Chief Ataï, who led the 1878 indigenous Kanak insurrection against the French occupation. Communards and Algerians were asked to fight with the counter-revolutionary colonial forces. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Indeed, these three seemingly disparate groups of revolutionaries had met in one of the folds of the French colonial continuum. As the participation of most deported Communards and Kabyles to the settler colonial counter-revolution against Kanak fighters has proven, this type of encounter rarely brings retrospective fantasies of internationalist solidarity that we would want to see materialized. Similarly, the anti-colonial aspirations of Communards are too scarce to represent anything else than individual virtuous exceptions. This issue’s aim is not to convince anyone otherwise or to invent a genealogy between the Commune and revolutionary constructions in Syria, Mexico, or Tunisia. Rather, the ties created throughout the pages of this issue constitute attempts to create a dialogue that places the Paris Commune outside of the traditional white eurocentric left, where it is usually confined. Instead, we would like to make the Commune one of many productive space-times contained within internationalist imaginaries, toolboxes, and pantheons. With this in mind, I wish you an excellent read. ■