Saturday, February 17, 2007

Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871 by John Hick and Robert Tucker

(Book Review)

This book on the Paris Commune begins with the following words: “The history, the psychology, and the improvisations of the Commune will be compelling in the present period for any American reader disturbed by signs of constitutional crisis in the United States: to persons who see a century’s growth in the scope and power of the presidency approach monarchical or fascistic proportion in the police, espionage, and war-making powers of that office; who see effected an unprecedented practical independence of the executive branch of government from the safeguards of traditional checks and balances by Congress and no less by the press; who see the role and responsibility of the elected representatives of the people gravely diminished as a great discussions of war and purse are veiled from concurrent public discussion; or who ask…how can a citizen make his government accountable to the nation’s primary values and responsive to critics both internally and publicly.”

The catch is that this book was released for the 100th anniversary of the Commune, and those words were written in 1971. So this book is either a bit dated, or frighteningly relevant again, depending on how you look at it.

This book contains 21 short articles on the Commune by 21 different authors, differing widely in content, focus, and quality. And as is often true with these collaborative books, I don’t have the energy to review every article separately, and yet it is hard to focus them as a whole.

As this was 1971, many of the articles compare the Commune to the May 68 revolution. Also a lot is made of the Commune’s ideological importance in Soviet Russia and communist China. (If any of my friends who live in China are reading this, I’d be interested in knowing if the anniversary of the Paris Commune is still a national holiday in China).

All of the articles in this book can be described as generally left of center, although within that designation they differ widely, from unapologetic revolutionary sentiment to an article on “The Failure of Revolution”. (“The students and their followers were just strong enough to provoke their enemies into repressing them, thus assuring a stronger power base for the state they had hoped to destroy.”)

Some of these articles were extremely interesting, like one about the reaction to the Paris Commune in the United States. (Did you know that in 1871, the Paris Commune received more headlines in the United States Press than any other issue, save governmental corruption?) Other were pretty boring, like “The Paris Commune, and Marx’s conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.

And some were down right rot, like “Images of the Paris Commune in Contemporary Chinese Marxist Thought.” I think any attempt to take the Cultural Revolution as a serious ideology is in itself a waste of paper, much less to attempt to relate it to the Paris Commune.

Most interesting for me were the reprinted primary sources. Such as an interview Marx gave to the New York World in July 1871. Or a defense of Gustave Courbet.

For me the best part of this book, which alone makes it worth picking up, is the complete text of Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Days of the Commune”. I’d often seen this play referenced, but never the whole text before. It’s a short, but really great play.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
When Doonesbury ran the names of soldiers who had died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, conservative commentators accused Garry Trudeau of using the American dead to make a profit for himself, and again demanded that the strip be removed from newspapers.
After many letter writing campaigns demanding the removal of the strip were unsuccessful, conservatives changed their tactics, and instead of writing to newspaper editors, they began writing to one of the printers who prints the color Sunday comics. In 2005, Continental Features gave in to their demands, and refused to continue printing the Sunday Doonesbury, causing it to disappear from the 38 Sunday papers that Continental Features printed.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Iran, Iraq, and the Rest of the World

Revolution and Reaction: The Paris Commune 1871 by John Hick and Robert Tucker: Book Review


Chris Powell said...

hey there, sorry i havent stopped by for a while. Had lots of shit going on at home. Some good and some bad. Anyway, hope u r well.


Anonymous said...

I was reading up on the Commune a little and found it particularly interesting how short-lived the movement was. Although it seems that the moves made by those in charge were generally positive, I'm forced to ask if they could have been sustained over the long-term. Many of the criticisms leveled at the Commune from the left seem to imply that they were not hard enough, kind of implying that if the Commune went further and harder they could have achieved the kind of society later seen in Russia and China. But is that a good thing? Is the "dictatorship of the proletariat" really a realistic idea without the kind of dictatorships that later arose in Russia and China? I'd like to read more about that.

Joel Swagman said...

Chris, good to hear from you as always. NO apologies needed, just keep in touch when you can.

Guam, there's no lack of material on Marx's concept of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and it's relation to the Paris Commune. 10 authors will tell you 10 different things, but what strikes me is how Marx made a big deal of how the electors could recall their elected officials at any time under the Paris Commune constitution, which I think would lead towards more democracy, and less authoritarianism. To ask what would have happened if the Commune had been allowed to succeed is to get lost in the "what ifs" of history question. We know that revolutions sometimes have a tendancy to eat their own, but I agree with you that the initial platform of the Paris Commune looks very positive.

Read Marx's "The Civil War in France" for a jumping point on what Marxists find appealing about the Paris Commune structure

Anonymous said...

I personally love the "what if" strand of history because it allows people to judge history from both the reality and the subsequent imposition of idealism. It seems altogether too easy to assume a positivist attitude toward the Commune, including its ideals, without balancing that with the reality of both its own context and the reality of later Communist or left-wing revolutionary movements.

Let's take your point about the proletariat recalling elected officials at any time. Idealy such an idea seems to be very progressive. However, later history will show that it is fairly easy to manipulate with a strong, charismatic leader "helping" the people make up their mind about elected officials who are recalled. Where is the imposition of law in the Paris Commune? Or, does the dictatorship of the Proletariat become the law? And in so doing, does it simply become open to the whims of those who would and could take advantage of it?

I haven't commented on your blog nearly as much as you have on mine, so I think this is a good start. =)

Joel Swagman said...

Indeed I do appreciate your comments.

As we have said, Marx's interpretation of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat has been in debate. Does it mean Dictatorship over the proletariat by the communist party, or does it simply mean the proletariat as a class is in a position of control?

All this is somewhat of a moot point because Marx himself had much influence in shaping the legend of the Paris commune, but little influence in the actual event. If it were up to him, the whole thing wouldn't have happened in the first place, as he warned the Paris radicals previously that the time wasn't right for revolution.

The paris commune was made up of Proudhinist, Blanquist, Jacobins, Bakuninists and a few Marxists, so its hard to apply a theoretical consistency to their programs at large, but I think generally they were on the right track in creating a more democratic city state, perhaps along the lines of old Athens, were all the citizens have a direct voice in their own government.

Of course, demagagoury could be a problem. But then, it is hard to identify a political system in which it hasn't been.