Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Insurrectionist by Jules Valles

(Book Review)

This book is the third part of Jules Valles Roman-a-clef autobiographical Jacques Vingtras trilogy, in which he describes his participation in the workers movement of the 1860s, and his role in the Paris Commune.

Jules Valles was elected a member of the Paris Commune, and later appointed Minister of Education under the Commune, during which time he created free and undenominational public schooling. After the fall of the Commune, he was condemned to death, but escaped to Belgium and later England.

Partly owing to the politicized nature of his work, Jules Valles has long been regarded as one of the French Literary cannon’s minor writers. However like many overlooked writers, Valles’s works are periodically rediscovered by different generations and thrust back in the limelight every now and again.

During the May 1968 Revolution in France there was renewed interest in Jules Valles. He was found quoted by student graffiti on the walls of Paris during the student rebellion, and his works were republished in both French and English.

The English edition of “The Insurrectionist”, is not currently in print, but thanks to amazon.com it is easy enough to find used books these days, and I was able to order a copy, and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you have an interest in social history, and you ever find you cross paths with one of Jules Valles’s books, I can’t recommend it enough.

The story begins with Jules Valles in 1857 having gone against his morals and accepted a job as a teacher after living on the streets for many years. His former friends criticize his cowardice and hypocrisy, but after years of starving himself he is unable to resist the lure of steady meals and a paycheck. However his new found security is not to last long. Valles loses his job after telling the students never to pay attention to anything they are taught in school.

He then briefly becomes a government clerk, and loses that job after giving a seditious speech at one of the clubs. He struggles to find work in journalism. He participates in several anti-government demonstrations, but he and his colleagues are never able to mount a serious challenge to the Napoleonic Empire.

Jules Valles was recruited by his socialist friends to run against the moderate republican Jules Simon in the governmental elections. Although Jules Simon was the leader of the republican opposition to Napoleon at the time, some of the socialists thought it was important to provide a socialist alternative in the election. Others thought the candidacy would take votes away from Jules Simon and strengthen Napoleon. Jules Valles ended up being caught up in the middle of this debate. Of course since these strategic electoral issues are still debated by radicals today, the candidacy of Jules Valles and the debate around it should still be of interest.

Then the Franco-Prussian war begins, and Jules Valles is beat up while participating in a peace demonstration. Since he is beat up not by police but by workers, the very people he had spent his whole life trying to help, he feels particularly discouraged.
“I regret my sacrificed youth, the life I have given to starvation, the pride I have given to the dogs, the future I have spoiled for a mob I thought had a soul, a mob I wanted to honor by giving it all the strength I had so painfully amassed.
“And now I see that very same mob sucking up to soldiers, dogging the steps of regiments, cheering colonels whose epaulets are still still sticky with the blood of December, shouting “Kill them!” when we say we want to silence the trumpets by ramming rags down their bells. It is the greatest disillusionment of my life.”

However as every historian knows, the initial war euphoria soon gave way to anger and disillusionment when the French army started loosing. Valles chronicles in his book first the republican revolution of September 4, next the failed socialist uprising of October 30, and finally the Paris Commune.

Although he sat as a member of the Commune, Valles work offers almost no insight into the ideological struggle behind the Commune, although he does describe some of his personality clashes with other members. It is for this reason that Valles is frequently accused of adventurism by Marxist critics, but in “The Insurrectionist” Valles is much more interested in chronicling the experience of revolution than the ideology behind it.

“The Insurrectionist” repeatedly deal with the intersection of the political with the personal, probably the most striking example of which is the following scene from the fall of the Commune, in which Valles witnesses an accused spy about to be executed:

Another one denied being a traitor and asked to be led “before the proper authorities.” He spoke as a coupon clipper from Le Marais. “I’ve never been mixed up in politics.”
“That’s why I’m killing you,” replied a fighter who’d been hit in the left paw one hour before, and was using his right paw to aim a revolver at the man in the grip of the crowd.
And he was about to shoot when it was decided that people perhaps should not be executed without proof and that this man should be led to Public Safety the “authorities” he was begging for as often as his sobs would allow.
“The committee’ll let him go….as sure as I’ve lost five fingers,” grumbled the wounded man, shaking his red stump. “Not mixed up in politics!…They’re the biggest cowards of all. I hate that kind of a son of a bitch! They wait until after the slaughter to see who to spit on and who to suck up to!”

Valles himself can probably be classified as an anarchist, although he belonged to the generation of anarchists more influenced by Proudhon than Bakunin. He was part of the Proudhonist minority on the Paris Commune which was consistently outvoted by the Jacobin majority, but once again Valles prefers to describe this in terms of personality instead of politics:

“I hate Robespierre the deist, and I don’t think we should ape Marat, the galley slave of suspicion, the lunatic of the terror, the maniac of the bloody age. My curses join with [the majority] when they attack [the reactionists]…but more sacrilegious than they, I also spit on Robespierre’s vest.”
Almost no time is given to the Commune’s deliberations, but Valles gives a lot of space to the fall of the Commune and bloody week. Most of the Commune’s members were killed, and Valles barely escapes himself by disguising himself as an ambulance driver.

Both the massacre of civilians by the Versailles army and shooting of hostages by the commune horrifies Valles, and he makes a vain attempt to save some of the hostages. If there is a consistent ideological thread to Valles’s work, it is the horror of cruelty and killing, and yet he is not without his mixed feelings about the necessity of violence in a revolution as revealed by this exchange following the execution of a spy.

A man came up to me. “Citizen, do you want to see what a traitor’s corpse looks like?”
“Someone’s been executed?”
“Yeah a baker, he denied it at first, then he admitted it.”
The federal saw me turn pale.
“Maybe you would have voted for acquittal-Jesus God! Can’t you see that to smash in one Judas’ head saves the heads of a thousand of your own men! Blood horrifies me, and my hands are covered with it; he grabbed me and held on when I shot him! But where would you be if you couldn’t find anybody to kill spies?”
Someone intervened in the debate. “That’s not all! You want to keep your paws clean for the time when you stand before the court or posterity! And we’re the ones, the poor, the workers, the ones who always have to do the dirty work….So everyone can spit on us later, right?”
That angry man was speaking the truth. Yes, you want to stay clean for history and not have slaughterhouse filth attached to your name.
Admit that to yourself, Vingtras, and don’t consider it a virtue that your face turned white before the dead baker.

One final note: for those with a historical interest, “The Insurrectionist” is also delightful for the first hand description we get of other famous French radicals, such as Blanqui, Rigault, Varlin, Vermorel, and Michelet. However for those unfamiliar with French history, there can be a lot of strange names and references to keep track of, so be forewarned.

Extra note: As stated before, in an effort to fool myself into thinking I'm being productive politically, I am sending all of my politically related book reviews to Media Mouse with slight edits (ie-removing all the bloggy type stuff and self-referential links). They've printed it here.

Link of the Day
You tube video: Noam Chomsky - Questions about Anarchism
Barry Pateman of the Emma Goldman Archives interviews Noam Chomsky, who discusses the anarchist principles that have guided him since he was a teenager and that lie behind the social and political analysis he's been producing for the last four decades

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