April 23, 2021
From ROAR Mag

In 1870s London, at 67 Charlotte Street, there was a grocery shop called le Bel Épicier, run by the Frenchman Victor Richard. Here, a London shopper could find French coffee, mustards, pâtes, cornichon and wines — particularly those from Richard’s native Burgundy. As well as providing much-needed epicurean relief, Richard’s shop was “for many years a head centre, where political refugees, as they arrive from the Continent, go for advice and help in finding lodgings or work, and where, of course, the continental police agents also flock so as to spy upon the land.”

Richard was a prosperous and entrepreneurial grocer. He was also a member of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), a socialist and a Communard; his relocation from Paris to London was the result of his militant defense of the Paris Commune of 1871. Arriving as a political refugee in London in June 1871, Richard became a very well connected and locally celebrated revolutionary; apparently his shop sold only red beans, not “reactionary” white ones.

The British press described Richard’s shop as a “shady haunt” within which you could find refugees of the Paris Commune “discussing the crises of the bourgeoisie and… the vengeance which will one day fall on that obnoxious class of society.”

Just down the road from Richard’s shop, also in Charlotte Street, Elisabeth Audinet ran a restaurant where homecooked French food could be obtained for a reasonable price. “A home of rascals and ruffians,” as one aggrieved French secret police agent put it, Audinet’s was a favored revolutionary meeting place, and one often frequented by Karl Marx and his Communard sons-in-law, Charles Longuet and Paul Lafargue. Throughout the 1870s, Audinet hosted several banquets celebrating the anniversary of the Commune and she was particularly associated with the Blanquist Communard refugees — she lived with one and another married her daughter.

Following the defeat of the Commune in May 1871, thousands of Communards fled France to avoid deportation, imprisonment, or death. As a result, and due in large part to Britain’s liberal asylum policy at the time, around 3500 refugees (circa 1500 Communards, plus their families) arrived in Britain in the early 1870s. These political exiles made Britain their temporary home, with the vast majority settling in London. Most exiles were relatively young, relatively skilled workers and artisans — jewelers, lace-workers, dressmakers, engineers, mechanics, shoemakers — as well as journalists and teachers.

Despite the hardships of exile, refugee Communards in Britain found an eclectic mix of fellow travelers with whom to share space, ideas and friendships. The places in which Communards gathered — the pubs, the restaurants and the shops — were community centers, places with practical purposes that served newly arriving or struggling refugees. But they were also political places; meeting spots for planning and discussing and making connections.

At end of the 19th century, parts of London were teeming with revolutionary and socialist groups and individuals, all experimenting with ideas from across the radical political spectrum, and from across Europe and beyond. As a reporter at the Sheffield Independent noted: “all of these bodies work for themselves, but are connected with each other and with their English brethren…The next anniversary of the Paris Commune will bring them all together.”

In other words, the Commune continued to connect these different radical intellectual strands long after the refugees of the Commune had returned to France. The revolutionary atmosphere bestowed by the exiled Communard lingered in London and was vital in informing the internationalist impulses of late-Victorian British socialism.

Around the corner from Audinet’s restaurant, at 6 Charles Street (now Mortimer Street), Communard exiles would crowd into the Spread Eagle pub, a favorite haunt, and one used regularly by the Communard’s largest and most comprehensive society, La Société des Réfugiés de la Commune à Londres (SRCL). The SRCL offered practical relief, comradery and political solidarity to all those who had “fought for the Commune.” The society created commissions toot distribute aid and to coordinate efforts to find work for arriving refugees.

As more exiles arrived in the autumn of 1871 the functions of SRCL were expanded: subscriptions were introduced for those who had found work. These small sums, supplemented by donations from the English Positivists and from the IWMA, went towards the establishment of a cooperative soup kitchen in Newman Passage — La Marmite:

Situated on the top floor of so wretched a building that there was not space for a staircase, but the room was reached by means of a ladder with a very greasy rope that served in the stead of a balustrade. But here any refugee who could prove that he had fought for the Paris Commune was able to obtain a meal for twopence.

La Marmite was located in the heart of the Communard community in London. The largest concentration of refugees from the Commune, and certainly the political center of much Communard activity in London, was in the area now known as Fitzrovia — the small area bounded by Oxford Street to the south, Euston Road to the north, Great Portland Street to the west, and Tottenham Court Road to the east. Here Communard exiles lodged, worked, established organizations, published political addresses and newspapers — the most successful of which was the Qui Vive! — and expanded some of the mutual aid networks and organizations established by earlier French communities in London — those who had been banished by the Second Empire in the mid-century.

The Communards were later joined in some of these streets — particularly the area around Charlotte Street, Rathbone Street and Newman Street — by German socialist exiles expelled by Bismarck in the late 1870s, and many Communard meeting places later became the pubs and places that were central to the transnational anarchist communities of the 1880s and 90s.

The French anarchist Charles Malato famously described 1890s Fitzrovia as “a small anarchist republic.” Socialists from Norway and Sweden established their Scandinavian Club on Rathbone Place; German and Austrian anarchists met in Stephen’s Mews, just south of Charlotte Street; Berners Street, two streets west of Newman Street, became home to the Jewish anarchist club; and a small community of Flemish and Dutch socialists met in the pubs along Tottenham Court Road.

The 1880s also marked the founding of organized socialism in Britain, and many of its proponents were attending meetings and socializing in and around Fitzrovia. The Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian society, the Freedom Group and the Socialist League all launched their socialist platforms in these years. By the mid-1880s these British socialists had all but abandoned the central tenets of republican radicalism. They no longer traced social crises to purely political sources. Instead, socialist activists became more insistent on the need for social revolution. And the Commune represented an important part of this new identity.

In part because the Commune itself had been such a laboratory of political experimentation, there were innumerable intellectual strands on which all manner of British radicals, socialists and republicans could pull for inspiration. The Commune could be understood as the defense of true Republicanism; as a vision of decentralized municipal democracy; as a beacon of internationalism for those appalled by imperial wars; as an expression of French patriotism in the face of ascendant Prussian militarism; or simply as an example of the self-rule of the oppressed.

At the time of the Commune, the Communards’ chief champions in Britain were the English Positivists. Followers of the intellectual teachings of French philosopher Auguste Comte, the English Positivists were the only organized body in Britain to defend the Commune while it lived. The IWMA was silent through the Commune — Karl Marx’s Civil War in France was not published until early June, after the Communards had been defeated. But week by week through the spring of 1871, the English Positivists, particularly Frederic Harrison and Edward Spencer Beesly, consistently defended the actions of the Commune and attempted to distill its social and political aims for a British audience.

Organized Positivism in England never boasted more than a few dozen committed members, but its key propagandists were prolific and boasted disproportionately wide networks. Frederic Harrison, a lawyer by training, and Edward Spencer Beesly, a historian at University College London, were firm supporters of British labor movements in the mid and late Victorian period.

Beesly chaired the first meeting of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, he was a member of the Committee for the Benefit of Miners, and he risked his career and reputation in defending the perpetrators of the Sheffield Outrages in 1865-66. Harrison, too, consistently defended workers’ movements and was a prolific contributor to radical papers. He taught at the Working Men’s College and acted as the workers’ representative on the Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867 which led to the legalization of unions under the Trade Unions Act of 1871.

“The present movement in favour of self-government for Paris agrees with the teachings of Auguste Comte,” declared Beesly in early April 1871, “and is probably largely due to it.” Parisians’ desire to make their own government and “to withdraw a large part of the administration of the towns from a central authority, and vest it in ‘communes’,” was to Beesly exactly what Comte had had in mind when he spoke of decentralizing France into 17 mini Republics around the 17 major towns. Harrison agreed: “The genius of France, recoiling from beneath the iron strokes of Germany, has again resumed her task of moulding the society of Europe.”

The English Positivists saw the Commune as “the finest political conception of our age…the most striking phase as yet of the whole revolutionary period.” They believed the Commune to be a living example of Comte’s social republic; it was a movement for municipal democracy and one that could reorganize the social as well as the political conditions of France.

A particularly striking part of the Positivists’ analysis of the Commune was their understanding of the events of 1871 as a spatial revolution: as a radical reclamation of space by those excluded from the lavish splendor of the Second Empire. In the 21st century, the Commune’s memory has been powerfully deployed as part of global critiques of unfettered capitalism and urban dispossession. The English Positivists’ instant history of the Commune, written in the spring of 1871, shows an attentiveness to the local spatial dynamics of Paris, but also, importantly, to the spatial dynamics of class struggle more generally.

In the Fortnightly Review Harrison suggested that the ferocious response of the Versaillais to the Communards stemmed from a violent indignation that the poor of Paris would dare lay any claim to their city:

That wretched workmen should set foot on the Elysian Fields of luxury; that they should disturb the very gaieties of the season; that, in the pursuit of a more moral and just world they should disarrange the charm of the pleasantest city in Europe — all this, in the eyes of the silken puppets who call themselves Society, was an outrage worthy of death.

In agreement, Beesly defended the attempt by the dispossessed of Paris to reoccupy those streets from which they had been expunged by Haussmann’s aggressive sanitization project the previous decade. The workers, he wrote, “have no elegant mansions in Champs-Elysees. The splendors of Paris have meant nothing for them but higher rent and dearer food, and probably they will not break their hearts over some damage to Baron Haussmann’s long drawn vistas and stately facades.”

As refugee Communards began to arrive in London in early June, 1871, the English Positivists defense of the Commune was forced off the page and unto the streets. They were among the most generous in contributing their time and energy to relief organizations. The Positivists offered financial support to the Communard soup kitchen and they established evening classes in Francis Street where French refugees could access free English language tuition.

Beesly utilized his friendship with Karl Marx to aid the safe passage of exiles from France to Britain. The two men had met when Beesly chaired the first session of the IWMA in 1864, and they shared a mutual respect for one another as individuals, despite their doctrinal differences. “I regard you as the only Comtist, both in England and in France, who deals with historical turning points (CRISES) not as a sectarian but as an historian in the best sense of the word,” Marx wrote to Beesly — a rare compliment to an Englishman from the German philosopher.

Marx and Beesly shared contacts and worked with the International’s relief committee in order to exploit any possible connections that could ensure a Communard made it safely out of France. “A woman friend of mine will be going to Paris in three or four days. I am giving her regular passes for some members of the Commune who are still hiding in Paris. If you or one of your friends have any commissions there please write to me,” Marx wrote to Beesly in June 1871.

In early 1872 Harrison wrote several letters to The Times, calling on its affluent readership to offer employment to the Communard refugees. He appealed to readers’ humanitarian impulses and attempted to depoliticize the arriving exiles. Harrison was very aware of the sensationalized anti-communist rhetoric in the tabloid press, and so assured his readers that the French arrivals “naturally belong to very different schools; but, as far as I know, hardly any of them to that of Communism.” He repeatedly refers to those exiles he had met as “cultivated,” “honorable,” “literary,” “true gentlemen,” and made an allusion to the 17th-century Huguenot refugees from France suggesting that the artisan Commune refugees who had already found work were “enriching this country as it was enriched by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.”

Harrison’s plea in The Times seemed to have had some success — “Oxford men want a Communist by the next train to live with them. Well to do people offer a home and their friendship. An M.P sends £100, an ‘old housekeeper’ sends £5,” an excited Harrison wrote to his friend and editor, John Morley, in February.

The Positivists and the International had some success in stimulating financial and practical assistance for the arriving Communards. However, practical support was short-lived, and the philanthropic interest that Harrison had aroused began to dry up as the refugees of the Commune were displaced by new charitable causes. Harrison himself suffered a fairly swift disillusionment upon meeting the reality of the Commune. His defense of the Commune had been based on a Utopian idealization of the Parisian working classes that no reality could match. After elevating the Communards of Paris to such a lofty pedestal, Harrison felt himself aloof from the real-life refugees that arrived. He also felt that he could never make up for the crimes of his class:

to most of [the Communard refugees], and certainly the socialists, I fear that I was nothing but a Bourgeois with a fad, whose help could not repay one thousandth part of the miseries which the class to which I belonged had caused.

The gulf that Harrison felt separated him from the refugees of the Commune has contributed to a characterization of the Communard exiles in Britain as an insular community. Attempts to find meaningful links between Communard organizations and British organizations paint a fairly bleak picture. There were some official expressions of solidarity, short-lived fundraising efforts and attempts to form collaborative institutions — the International Labour Union established in 1877, for example — but most of these initiatives had little tangible success.

These efforts, though, show that the impulse for creating alliances and expressing solidarity was there, but that the institutional preoccupations of both Communard organizations and British radical and trade associations often precluded them from pursuing common cause. However, the institutional record can only tell us so much. Instead, it was often through more diffuse means that the Commune made its mark on Britain.

Source: Roarmag.org