The defiance of Pottier’s poem is matched only by its futility; the Commune was, and remains, dead.
‘Though they killed Varlin…’
Eugene Varlin made his last stand at the barricades. He was captured on May 28, screamed ‘Vive la Commune!’ and was immediately shot. His body was dragged through the streets and kicked and spat upon until his left eye dangled from its socket. Eugene Varlin died in Monmartre and only meters away from where there would soon be erected that great symbol of re-conquest; Sacré-Coeur.
The official website of Sacré-Coeur makes no mention of the Commune and instead traces its history to the ‘spiritual’ causes of national defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This historical revisionism is staggering and the National Assembly decree of July 1873 clearly spelt out that the church would be built to ‘expiate the crimes of the Communards’. The crimes it referred to were – we can imagine – numerous, but included not least the separation of church and state and the execution of the Archbishop of Paris. Evidently the Church wanted revenge.
As the army secured Paris at the end of May, noted royalist writer M. Georges Bernanons triumphantly congratulated them for ‘God’s victory’ and in having ‘conquered Paris for religion’. Four years later the first stones of Sacre-Couer were laid. If we can speak of ‘God’s victory’ this was how it materialised itself, an all-engulfing edifice to reaction that both towered over and symbolically reclaimed Paris. All good communists still spit on the steps of the Basilica.
‘Flourens, Duval, Milliere,
Ferre, Rigault, Tony Moilin,
filing the cemeteries.’
Flourens and Duval were the first to go. Whilst attempting a ‘grand sortie’ against Versailles on April 3rd they were captured and executed. Ferre, Rigault and Moilin all perished in the butchery of Bloody Week.
At 15.00 on 21st May Versailles troops entered Paris at the Point du Jour gate and four hours later the Communal Council was informed. The inhabitants of Paris were officially notified the morning of the 22nd and by the afternoon 70,000 soldiers had streamed into the capital and the tricolore flew over the Arch de Triomphe. The next week was one of barricades, bullets and burning. The last Communal proclamation was on the 27th but by then it was all over; the western and northern quarters were long under government control and by the next day only one barricade remained. The Paris Commune was no more.
Le Figaro summed up moral imperative of the re-conquest when it spoke of the need to ‘purge Paris’ of ‘moral gangrene’. General Valentin, the Prefect of Police took this one step further and he explained that to him ‘Paris’ referred to everyone who had been there for the last three months. In his view ‘everyone there is to blame and if I had my way everyone there would be punished’. For 30,000 the punishment was immediate death at the hands of the army. The killing was so widespread that even trivial aspects of personal appearance became death sentences. It is rumoured that anyone with grey hair was shot as they could have been a part of the 1848 revolution and it is well known that any woman with messy hair or men’s clothing was treated as a peteroleuse. The ease at which bullets were let loose is all the more startling when it is compared to the legal process that followed.
During her trial Louise Michel had heroically declared ‘if you are not cowards, kill me’, but the government had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Bloody Week had already produced enough martyrs and they were not interested in breeding any more. Exile was a far easier solution – if at the same time more costly and time consuming, the French navy finding itself occupied for a year with back and forth trips to the New World. 4,000 Communards – alongside 10,000 family members – were banished to New Caledonia and many thousands more were left in self-imposed exile in various European states; the overriding theme being that they could neither be mourned not could they organise future revolt. They were, to all intents and purposes, neither dead nor alive.
Back in Paris the city was decapitated. Haussmanised boulevards had proved their value and stretched through the capital like so many gleaming tentacles. The city remained under martial law until 1876 and it’s elected roles abolished. The first Parisian Mayor after the Commune? Jacques Chirac.
Jules Vallès survived Bloody Week and fled Paris. Having penned a successful novel detailing his experiences he eventually died in 1885. Around 60,000 people accompanied his coffin to Pere Lachaise Cemetery where he was interned just yards from the Mur des Fédérés. For Pottier, that there were Communards among the 60,000 was sign enough that the Commune was not dead. There is, however, a sad irony to it all.
The funeral procession for Vallès had only been allowed to take place following the amnesty of 1880 and the attempt to further banish the memory of the Commune. Speaking in support of the amnesty Gambetta put forward the strongest argument:
‘You must close the book on these last ten years, you must place the tombstone of oblivion over the crimes and vestiges of the Commune, and you must tell everyone – those whose absence we deplore and those whose contrary views and disagreements we sometimes regret, that there is one France and one Republic’
The Amnesty was passed, the exiles began to trickle back and at long last there was indeed ‘one France and one Republic’. In 1871 the reality had been very different.
When Thiers and MacMahon had led the slaughter in Paris it has been at the head of an infant state fraught with internal dispute. Within ten years the monarchist challenge had been defeated and the Republic was secure. Leading figures had in previous years emphasized the role of Bloody Week so as to prove their ability to ruthlessly ensure stability but it was now a sore spot in history. While Courbet had once led legions of painters to pick up rifles, artists now became forces of reaction. Impressionists painted picturesque – yet notably empty – Parisian streets and in doing so symbolically recreated the social hierarchies that had been disrupted by 1871. Eventually commemorations were allowed, set-piece affairs of an ever-ageing memory. The Third Republic was safe but never forget how it was built: upon a foundation of 30,000 corpses.
‘and in a short while they’ll know…’
The socialist movement was ripped apart by 1871. For France it was a literal collapse and tens of thousands were either dead, exiled or in hiding. The heyday of Proudhonists, Blanquists and all kinds of co-operative dreams, had long passed. The International was made illegal and in a telling moment at the 1876 Parisian Trades Congress, only two delegates had been active prior to the Commune. Meanwhile in the wake of Bloody Week anarchists and communists irreparably split in two – black flags began to appear where previously there had only been red and a host of figures queued up to pass judgment on the lessons of the Commune.
If the Commune did not die it returned zombie like in so many 20th Century experiments; invoked by brutalizing industrialistion in Russia and likewise by agrarian communes in China. By Situationists pulling grand pianos behind barricades and by atomised dogmatists on Hyde Park corners.
For Bakunin it had been the negation of the state, for Engels the dictatorship of the proletariat and for Marx ‘the political form at last discovered’. Like all those who would follow, they were both right yet equally wrong at the same time. For if the Commune was merely political form it would not have led thousands to throw furniture out their windows to build barricades they knew were futile, it would not have seen school teachers fighting alongside prostitutes they had previously shunned, and it would not have produced so many ordinary people willing to fight, die, bleed and stand.
In Le Temps des Cerises, the popular song that became later associated most with the Commune, the singer laments the loss of the time of the cherries, the childish time when you are in love and full of dreams. It’s unsurprising that those Communards that remained, either hidden in European barns or working on New Caledonian fields, saw the two and a half months of 1871 in this way.
The Paris Commune truly was the time of the cherries; childish, wild, romantic and foolish, but for a brief while everyone was in love and anything was possible.
Le Temps des cerises is a song written in France between 1866 and1868, with words by Jean-Baptiste Clément and music by Antoine Renard. The song was later strongly associated with the Paris Commune, during which verses were added to the song, thus becoming a revolutionary song.
The “Time of Cherries” is a metaphor regarding what life will be like
when a revolution will have changed social and economic conditions. It
is believed to be dedicated by the writer to a nurse who fought in the Semaine Sanglante (“Bloody Week”) when French government troops overthrew the commune