Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne

(Book Review)

A couple summers ago I was back home for my brother's wedding. Since this was a backyard wedding, my sister's bookcase was taken outside and converted into a bar. During the clean-up, my brother and I carried the bookcase back up to her room and restocked her bookcase. At this point we discovered many of the books that filled this bookcase actually belonged to us.

Being possessive, we naturally began re-claiming what was ours.

"The Fall of Paris" was one of the books on that bookcase. It seemed like something that was probably mine, but I couldn't remember clearly. So I decided to go by the old siblings code: if in doubt, claim it as your own.
"Oh, I don't care, go ahead and take it," my sister responded.

I brought it back to Japan with me, and a couple years later read through it.

In the end, I decided it probably wasn't my book. I certainly didn't remember reading any of it before. But I enjoyed reading through it now, so, thanks for the book sis.

This book, originally published in 1965, is considered one of the classics on the Paris Commune. It is always cited in the bibliography of any book that came after it, and even now is still sold in bookstores. (This is probably why the book seemed very familiar to me when I saw it in my sister's bookshelf, even though I couldn't remember if I had read it or not.)

And, this book is a classic for good reasons. Alistair Horne is one of those few historians gifted with the ability to write well. This is one of those great armchair history books that reads more like a story than an academic thesis. Horne writes in clear easy to understand prose, and he gives lovingly detailed and almost literary descriptions of all the principle characters.

This is important, because for the average reader, keeping track of all the principle characters involved in the siege of Paris and the Commune is a bit difficult. Paris had 4 different governments between September 1870 to March 1871.
First there was the Empire under Napoleon III, then the Government of National Defense, then the Legislative Assembly, and finally the Paris Commune.

I have read many books on the Paris Commune (several - of - them - I - have - reviewed - on - this web-log, many more I read long before I got this book review project going), and this was the only book in which I felt like I had a clear idea of who everyone was.

For example, in his book on the Paris Commune, Marxist historian Lissagaray begins with a vehement attack on the "left" and the "liberals" who deserted the people and failed to support the commune. Lissagary is talking about the mainstream opposition under the Empire and the Government of National Defence But for someone without a detailed knowledge of 19th century French politics it is difficult to know who exactly he is referring to. In Horne's book however we know exactly who all these people are.

Whenever Alistair Horne introduces a new person in his book, he always takes care to give them a proper introduction, usually giving about 2 pages of background. He then treats each historical personage as if they were a character in a play, focusing on their unique personalities and habits.
Just like in a good novel, you naturally remember who all the characters are based on the way they act, and I wasn't flipping back to the index every 2 seconds to try and keep track of who everyone was.

The Paris Commune is an important part of radical history, and traditionally a polemical topic for historians. Alistair Horne, it is worth noting, is no radical. Salon magazine recently featured an article on him in which was headlined "Bush's Favorite Historian" and in which Horne was described as "to the left of Genghis Khan but to the right of Margaret Thatcher".
[Although if you actually read the article (link here) as well as Horne's own writings on Bush (link here) you'll find that he was far from an uncritical supporter of the former president. ]

Alistair Horne, as he freely admits in his introduction, is more interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the Paris Commune. This book grew out of a series of books he was planning on military history in which he wanted to trace Franco-German relations ("the root of all evil in the world I grew up in") through three wars. In his research on the Franco-Prussian war, he found himself becoming more and more interested in the siege of Paris, and as a result he became interested in the Commune.

This book is about both the Siege of Paris, and the Commune which grew out of it, and it's notable that the the Commune doesn't even begin until the book is over halfway done (page 376 out of 575).
The first half of the book reflects Horne's pre-occupation with military history. Horne frequently compares the Franco-Prussian war with World War I and the battle of Verdun. The siege of Paris itself is frequently compared with the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
Although I'm not a big military history nut, I've got to admit that here too Alistair Horne writes in a clear, concise style which makes all these big battles and military maneuvering easy to follow.

As Horne repeatedly emphasizes in this book, the Franco-Prussian war and the uneven peace that Bismark forced upon France would later lay the groundwork for two world wars, so it is a story worth telling.
And, as Horne quotes, many people realized this even at the time. Karl Marx, for example, way back in 1870 was able to predict that the uneven peace would eventually lead to a new war with France and Russia united against Germany, and that this new war would "act as the midwife to the inevitable social revolution in Russia" (Marx quoted in Horne p. 230--Also see this quote here).

As for the section on the Commune: as someone who is not a trained professional historian, I'm very hesitant to pronounce judgement. Yet in my amateur opinion, I thought it was fair.
He cites Commune historian Lissagary frequently, and calls him a "usually reliable source". He also quotes from Karl Marx's "Civil War in France" which he says, "must be rated on of the all-time classics of journalism. His facts are astonishingly accurate; but he [Marx] then proceeded to distort them for his own dialectic ends."

Horne is neither a supporter of the Commune, nor of the government that suppressed it, crying out for a pox on both of their houses.
And yet, perhaps I'm just reading my own views into Horne, but I thought the Commune came off as sympathetic. He acknowledges the moderation of most of their demands, realizes that the mob violence was not sanctioned by the official Commune government, and recognizes the various splits within the Commune. For example, his writings on the Majority and Minority faction:

"The most fundamental split in the Commune so far had taken place, and henceforth its Assembly would consist of a Majority and Minority faction; the one, controlled by Jacobins, wanting to exercise dictatorship and terror--the methods of '93--and blaming the failures of the Commune upon the sentimentality of the Socialists; the other desiring to govern by reasonably democratic methods, to observe moderation in order to leave, as Rochefort put it, 'the door at least half open to conciliation'. In the light of twentieth-century history, it seems perhaps ironical that the exponents of democracy and moderation should have been chiefly the Internationalists, the forefathers of Lenin's Bolsheviks."

Whether Lenin's Bolsheviks were the legitimate heirs of the largely Prodhounist section of the 1871 French International is perhaps debatable. But at least Horne goes out of his way to acknowledge their chiefly democratic aims.

Many of Horne's portrayals of Communard members are similar to Lissagaray's. Felix Pyat comes off as the same pompous windbag in both books. Cluseret comes off slightly better in Horne, but is portrayed as incompetent in both books.
By contrast, Communard figures like Delescluze, Dombrowski, and Varlin come off as good and noble in both books.

The real villains of Horne's book are Raul Rigault and Theophile Ferre, who were responsible for the organizing and carrying out the terror during the Commune's final days.

In closing: if you only read one book about the Paris Commune, it should probably be this one. It's easy to read, well written, and, because it requires absolutely no back ground knowledge, it works great as an introduction. Like a skilled story teller, the author tells you everything you need to know to enjoy the story.

However, as with anything you read, you should always try and keep in mind the biases of the author. And, if anyone has the time or inclination to read 2 books on the Commune, this should probably be supplemented with another book like "The Civil War in France" by Karl Marx or "The History of the Paris Commune" by Prosper Oliver Lissagaray

This book sat on my shelf for a couple years before I read it cover to cover, and I used it as a reference. That's why I had previously mentioned it twice before in different posts before actually reading the whole thing.

Link of the Day
Obama, Cigarettes and Marijuana with Noam Chomsky

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