Friday, April 27, 2007

History of the Paris Commune by Prosper Oliver Lissagaray

 (Book Review)

This book is regarded by Marxists as the official history of the Paris Commune. The author, Lissagaray, participated in the Paris Commune and fought on the barricades although, in his own words, he was “neither member, nor officer, nor functionary of the Commune”.

Following the fall of the Commune, Lissagaray was one of the lucky ones who escaped the massacre and he spent the next 6 years writing his “History of the Paris Commune.” In exile in England, Lissagaray became part of Karl Marx’s inner circle. The English edition of “History of the Paris Commune” was translated into English by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx, and Karl Marx himself expanded and corrected some of the analysis for the English edition.

(Interestingly enough, although Karl Marx approved of Lissagaray’s historical work, he strongly disapproved of Lissagaray personally, and was greatly distressed when his daughter Eleanor became engaged to Lissagaray. Among other books, “Karl Marx: A Life” by Francis Wheen provides a fascinating look at the intense drama this doomed engagement caused the Marx family.)

It is for this reason that the publisher’s introduction recommends that for full effect this book be read in combination with Karl Marx’s “The Civil War in France”. However, having read “The Civil War in France”, I think I can safely say that the reading of one is not essential to the understanding of the other by any means, although it is interesting to see occasionally some of the exact same phrases in both books.

I do recommend, however, that Lissagaray’s work not be read as an introduction to the Paris Commune. It was written only 6 years after its fall, and as a contemporary history assumes the reader is familiar with many of the names and events in the book, and is seeking only a greater analysis of what happened.

The ideal reader of this book is already familiar with at least the basics of the Paris Commune and its place in history. Some knowledge of the geography of Paris is a plus (although I was able to struggle through without any). The ideal reader is also interested in both military and social history. He or she wants to know exactly what ideological issues divided the members of the Paris Commune as well as what order the barricades fell during the Versailles invasion.

This is not a light read, but for the historically minded willing to put in the effort to engage it, it will yield a wonderful treasure of knowledge that will take the reader directly into the meetings of the Communard government and also right into the thick of the street fighting. It is hard to find a more detailed work on the Paris Commune, and Lissagaray even goes so far as to explore in detail the short lived Communard uprising that rose up in French provinces at the same time, a subject usually neglected by contemporary histories.

The lessons to be drawn from the book are numerous, and the book is just as heavy with analysis as with details. The reader learns very quickly that in Lissagaray’s vocabulary being called a “leftist” or a “liberal” is not a compliment. Right from the September 4th republican revolution, where Lissagaray begins his history, he shows how the left had no courage at all, and the men who claimed to represent the Paris working people (Louis Blanc, Leon Gambetta) consistently betrayed them. This theme is carried throughout the book, and Lissagaray demonstrates again and again how the left not only abandoned the people, but also the bourgeois liberal representatives in Versailles actively supported many of that government’s atrocities.

However if the bourgeois left is crucified in Lissagaray’s writings, the radicals and representatives of the Paris Commune do not always come off better. Although an obvious partisan of the Paris Commune, Lissagarary’s purpose in writing was not to enshrine the members of the Paris Commune in revolutionary saint hood, but provide an unflinching look at where they erred. As Lissagaray writes in his introduction, “The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.”

Some members of the Paris Commune are criticized more than others. Most of Lissagaray’s venom is directed against Felix Pyat and Gustave Cluseret. Felix Pyat is shown as a loudmouth who is more concerned with scoring points against his political rivals inside the Paris Commune than protecting the revolution against Versailles. In fact Lissagaray lays the blame for most of the divisions among the Communards at the feet of Pyat. At one point in the book, another member of the Commune tells Pyat, “You are the evil genius of this revolution.”

Cluseret, charged with the defence of the Commune, is portrayed as being incredibly arrogant and criminally negligible, and personally responsible for many of Versailles early victories.

Other members of the commune are treated with much more respect, (although no one completely escapes criticism). Charles Delescluze emerges as one of the heroes of the commune, and his heroic death on the barricades is reported with great reverence and apparently even witnessed by Lissagaray himself.

The great tragedy of this book, also emphasized again and again by Lissagaray, is that the Paris Commune did not have to fail. If the Commune leaders had been able to better defend Paris, or if the Commune uprisings in the provinces had been better organized, the revolution could have succeeded. It was not for lack of popular support, either in Paris or in the provinces, that the revolution failed, but as a result of first the leftists betraying the people, and secondly the radical leaders bungling the task.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the fall of the commune, the mass execution of the communards, the kangaroo trials of the survivors, and the fate of the exiles in New Caledonia. The vicious cruelty of the bourgeoisie displayed here in these chapters almost has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated. Lissagaray shows very clearly how little the life of the working poor is worth, and contrasts the moderation and humaneness of the Commune with the massacres sanctioned by Versailles. The Commune did execute 62 hostages, but this was an act of desperate mob fury not sanctioned by the Commune government. The Versailles government engaged in a planned systematic massacre of the proletariat of Paris. Lissagaray also demonstrates how the priests and nuns of Paris approved and aided in this massacre.

The English edition of this book is not currently in print (although it can be found easily enough on Amazon). It has also been posted on-line in its entirety at this link here, but as it is a lengthy book I personally much prefer having a hard copy in hand.

(I've also sent this review into Media Mouse's website)
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