May 26, 2021
From Spectre Journal

When Theirs’s government turned against Paris and tried to seize the National Guard’s two hundred fifty cannon on the eighteenth, therefore, this spirit of unanimity carried over to the defence of the cannon and the declaration of the Commune. But, as the city busied itself with preparing for Communal elections and making the social revolution that followed from Paris’s proletariat being in charge of the whole city, it also turned inwards. They did not even shut the city’s gates. The Journal Officiel in Versailles called it civil war, but Paris did not notice. The Commune “did not see” that it was now engaged in “a life-and-death struggle with the Assembly of Versailles.”10

“Holy autonomy” and its discontents

As a consequence, despite the heady excitement of the first weeks of the Commune’s existence, a shadow hung over everything. The Central Committee set Communal elections for the twenty-sixth, but there had been few public meetings to establish the mandates of those elected. There was no process of public opinion formation or any setting of aims. “Instead of voting for a programme,” therefore, the people of Paris “voted for names.”11 In place of the Central Committee, “unadorned with great men” and devoted to a simple and single purpose, the new Council of the Commune “abounded in chapels, groups, semi-celebrities, and hence endless competition and rivalry.”12

The thing about a clear minimal programme is that it allows people to set aside all their other differences for the sake of the common project. You are not asked to agree about very much, which means that the costs of cooperation to your self-perception and your other concerns are low. The alternative, though, is what Lissagaray saw take hold in Paris. Valuing voluntary associations above all else, the Communards sought out or created groups in which they could enjoy the greatest possible agreement and pursue the most fully articulated projects of reform and transformation. They dreamed of autonomy, and meant to enjoy what they had of it while it lasted.

But “holy autonomy, which forbade interfering with the autonomy of one’s neighbour,” thereby also forbade arming the neighbouring communes in order to attack Versailles.13 National Guard battalions were left alone, each to do what it willed with whatever resources it could muster. And people defected left and right. The Commune may have had 60,000 men under arms in late March. By the time the real fighting began, they had only about 20,000 men and women doing the fighting.14 The voting rolls dropped precipitously as citizens fled, especially but not exclusively those from the wealthier neighbourhoods.15 Since everything depended upon self-identifying with the Commune and its affiliated associations, self-dis-identification sapped the Commune of its strength.

Lissagaray thought that the only chance was for the Commune to appeal to the rest of France. The city needed the provinces in order to survive, and the provinces needed the city in order to be free. The Commune fights for the Republic, he proposed, and the Commune’s enemy — the central government, with its taxes and its bureaucrats and its coalition of monarchists eager to reinstate one royal house or the other — is also the enemy of the peasant. Thus, the Commune did not want to impose Paris’s dream of workers’ cooperatives and social revolution on the peasants, but to join them in removing the obstacles to their dreams. The Council of the Commune, though, made no such appeal. Instead of pledging to fight for the liberty of the provinces, they declared that “Paris works and suffers for all France,” and that the provinces had a duty to fight for Paris, their saviour.

Lissagaray’s lessons

We might condense and generalize the practical lessons Lissagaray drew from the Commune under four headings.

First, social movements for liberation should expect resistance, and should plan for the eventuality of opposition. Armed civil war may be forestalled or avoided altogether, but not by pretending it can’t happen. The current social order has, by definition, powerful constituencies in favour of its continuance in perpetuity. Real interests are threatened by any substantial effort to change the world, and no one should expect those real interests to evaporate in the light of one’s moral example.

Second, therefore, the forces of revolution must agree to agree on a minimum program that can unite as broad a coalition as possible. Robin D.G. Kelley is certainly right that “the conditions and very existence of social movements enable” what he calls freedom dreams, imagined worlds of possibility.16 But those freedom dreams are going to remain heterogeneous to one another, and counting on a shared dream holding the movement together in the face of committed opposition is bound to fail.

Third, any revolution will need aid and assistance from non-revolutionaries, just as the Commune needed aid and assistance from the French provinces if it were ever going to survive. The enemies of any movement of liberation will also have other enemies. The movement, to have any hope of success, will have to both appeal to those “enemies-of-my-enemies” and do so in full cognizance that they are not, thereby, “my friends.” It can hope to do so by saying repeatedly and loudly how the liberation it seeks will also free these non-revolutionary segments of the population to live as they wish.

Finally, the surest sign that any movement of liberation is strong and healthy is that it is pushing to the fore previously unknown figures. Lissagaray damns those who fail to “recognize the force manifesting itself through unknown men,”17 and measures the vitality of the Central Committee and the Council by the extent to which l’inconnus predominate in their makeup. The reliance on the previously unknown both keeps the movement close to the grassroots and indicates the strength of the popular mandate behind the minimum program. As “semi-celebrities” come to dominate the movement, so to do cliques and contests among personalities.

Making history means making mistakes

These practical lessons of the Communards should be recalled today, alongside the more familiar melancholy regarding their martyrdom and celebration of their utopian imaginations.

Lissagaray’s History certainly celebrates and heroizes the Communards, especially the obscure men and women who populated the meetings, built and defended the barricades, and proposed and discussed the mandates binding their delegates to the Council. In  this regard, it ought to be regarded as a founding document in the tradition of “history from below.” The everyday workers and shopkeepers of Paris were not passive victims of historical circumstance, according to Lissagaray, but active makers and shapers of their own history.

In contrast to the social histories and “microhistories” that came to dominate historical attention to the agency of the common people, however, Lissagaray portrays the working classes of Paris as the agents of revolution, not as the agents of cultural production, or of resistance, or of self-fashioning. And in making history by making a revolution, they also made mistakes. Movements for liberation create freedom dreams, but not necessarily the means of realizing them. The risk of focusing only on the beauty of the dreams or the agony of the loss is that we lose sight of the fact that the Communards were trying to do something and they failed. Their failure, too, is part of the history they made. If we don’t want to fail, too, then we have to heed Lissagaray: “There might be something more terrible than the defeat: to misconstrue or to forget its causes.”18