The Commune, a world event

The Paris Commune is one hundred and fifty years old. Quentin Deluermoz offers a global history, which explores its global impact in space and time.

Quentin Deluermoz’s book is among the centerpieces of a hundred and fifty years of the Commune which is already rich, both empirically and theoretically. The “(s)” of the title indicates the common thread of the investigation: the plurality of the Commune in its spaces and its temporalities, before, during and after its progress, from March to May 1871. The overall rereading of the Commune is particularly salient; it allows both to put into perspective and to underline the singularity and the international impact of a revolution whose power of fascination beyond spaces, eras and partisan affiliations cannot be denied.

The Universal Republic

After a stimulating methodological introduction, the work is divided into three main parts: A Global Commune, The Living Commune and The Transformed Commune. The first section analyzes the perceptions and international ramifications of the sequence which extends from July 1870 to April 1871; it begins with a quote from the Chinese interpreter Zhang Deyi, who, being in Paris on March 18, 1871, heard the cannon shots which marked the start of the insurrection. This opening immediately underlines the international character of the Commune, which is at the heart of this part and of the book. The mobility of “cosmopolitan fighters” flocking to France in 1870-1871 was followed by popular unrest in China and Algeria, revealing “cracks in the French imperial nation-state” (p. 51). The world’s media views on the events of 1870-71, essential in a period of massive expansion and diffusion of print, are visualized using maps measuring textual circulations. Contrary to a “diffusionist” narrative, which would focus solely on the effects of the Commune or take its revolutionary influence for granted, the analysis of the way in which the Commune is perceived in space, on multiple scales, comes full circle. this part: it can be read for example in the fledgling diplomatic relations of the young regime, or in its efforts to federate communes.

Taking the global character of the Commune as a starting point, this opening brings about a shift that is both obvious and striking. It stands out because of the Commune’s place in the long sequence of international social and republican mobilizations of the 1850s-1860s, which also includes the revolutionary symbolism of the Parisian site. Deluermoz shows the multiple resonances and local reinterpretations of the ideal of the “universal Republic” which inspired the revolutionary uprisings of this period, but also their ambiguities. This change of perspective is no less striking, even disorienting, even if transnational type work on the Commune has multiplied over the last two decades, in particular around exile, international fighters and radical movements. At XIXe century. Despite many ongoing projects, denationalizing the historiography of revolutions, including that of the Commune, is a long-term task.

The second part examines the communard experience in its most concrete modalities, always highlighting the dialectic of the local and the global, of the individual and the collective, in a mosaic of insurrectional (and repressive) configurations, both connected and different. The scale and diversity of the communal movement in which the Parisian insurrection is integrated are underlined, from the uprising in Martinique to the Commune of Algiers which precede the Paris Commune, then from the city of Thiers (Puy-de-Dôme) to Lyon, animated by the same revolutionary republican dynamic, but also by different chronologies and ideological legacies. We thus move from the very brief communalist protest of Thiers to the Lyon insurrection, the high point of a century of workers’ protest in this city, marked by the intervention of the International Workingmen’s Association (AIT) and Michel Bakunin. In Martinique, the aspiration for an egalitarian Republic prevails, against the post-slavery order.

Revolution around the corner

In the middle emerges the Paris Commune, an “exceptional experience” and a true revolutionary break. The evocation “from below” of the Parisian Commune is part of an approach already well established in social history and also illustrated by the recent publication of the Maitron volume edited by Michel Cordillot, The Paris Commune 1871which places the actors, practices and their reinvention at the centre, while the centenary of the Commune had focused on ideological differences and institutional aspects. Deluermoz places the emphasis here on perceptions: the transformation of space-time and the sensory experience of the city (colours, smells, statuary, language and circulation of information for example), which construct a space imbued with political meanings. He chronicles the irruption and brief installation of the extraordinary in the daily life and administration of the revolution, for example in the army and economic relations.

Far from being anecdotal, this approach shows the way in which the daily life of this “lively Commune”, in the diversity of its practices, reinvents social relationships; it also reveals the specificities of the Commune as a revolution. Thus, the future horizon of his work and his projects, manifest in language practices, can explain the modernity that was attributed to him retrospectively; but the Commune is also “a revolution whose actors know relatively early that its outcome will be terrible” (p. 203). Above all, the attention paid to practices and experiences revises the traditional verdict of a Commune poor in achievements: in fact, underlines Deluermoz, the local prism, the transformation of social relations and historical experience or even institutional innovations initiated are all signs of a revolution in progress.

Resurgences and resonances

The third part is devoted to the closing of this Commune moment, to its shift in history and memory in the years 1871-1880 and to its multiple resurgences in the following decades. The Bloody Week initiated a restoration of order, implemented by executions, trials, military councils, but also the reappropriation of urban space and new media discourses. Deluermoz draws up the panorama of the reconstruction of a return to normality that is at once political, legal, symbolic, familial, social, administrative and gendered. The erection of the Commune as a “new specter of revolutionary deviance” (p. 275) is paralleled by the inevitable term “European civilization” to be protected and the “strengthening of the liberal State” precipitated by the Commune, which is manifested in the formalization of international law, civilizational rhetoric and the maintenance of free trade. Surveillance practices within and between states also developed in response to revolutionary trauma, which also led to a consolidation of metropolitan power, particularly in Algeria. In many ways, these were earlier trends, precipitated by 1871 and its local impacts.

The last word nevertheless belongs to the extraordinary historical power of the Communard “flame”, to its intermittent and constantly adapted and reinterpreted reappearances. It is a heritage that is both theoretical and practical, which takes shape in the analyzes of Marx and Bakunin and the Marxist and anarchist traditions, themselves diverse and contested, which result from them, as much as in the Spanish cantonalist movement, then in Cuba, Italy or Egypt. 1917 and the installation of theUSSR constitute another important rewriting, in a dynamic that is still very much alive today, for example with Nuit Debout (2016). As much as its universalist meaning and the way in which it determines new conceptions of the nation and class, Deluermoz emphasizes, the global resonances of 1871 are the logical consequence of the already global character of the Commune itself. It is moreover on the contemporary meanings of the Commune and its “ever renewed hope of changing the world as it is” (p. 333) that the book ends, at the end of a conclusion on the stakes of the event and its reception and the place of the Commune in the century of revolutions.

A transnational rereading of the revolutionary fact

If the expression “at ground level” reading of the event and its repercussions, used by Quentin Deluermoz to describe his approach, well reflects the remarkable archival work accomplished and the emphasis placed on the experience of the Commune, its very broad geographical and interpretative angle, as well as the richness of its historical and theoretical questions, are just as striking.

One of the main challenges of the investigation lies in the very fine reconceptualizations proposed by the book, whether in its overall argument or in its micro-analyses. Its power of conviction lies in particular in the fact that it does not affirm or nuance, starting with revolutionary messianism and nationalism: the place of France in the agitations connected to the Commune is thus defined as “an important pole, but one among others, acting within other dynamics, and worked by them” (p. 118), far from any revolutionary Francocentrism, but without ignoring the weight of power relations, notably colonial. This makes possible a rigorous transnational and global history, both in the examination of sources and in its conceptual apparatus, which is notably served by the use of an abundant historiography in English often unknown in France. Inventive borrowings from sociology, anthropology or the historiography of other periods (religious wars in particular) illuminate the analysis. The gray areas, the causal gradations, the cases of indifference, misunderstanding, reinterpretation, contradiction are highlighted, offering an evaluation of the multiple and constantly shifting meanings and potentialities of the Commune, which avoids any dogmatism or constraining system.

The contribution of this transnational rereading and, more generally, of the conceptual framework proposed by Deluermoz, is partly due to the skill and precision of his style. In addition to its well-designed maps, the book offers a hypothetical essay on the temporalities of the Commune at the end of the second part, or the montage of quotes on the Bloody Week which deconstructs media rhetoric and restores raw perceptions of repression (p. 231 ). The constant anchoring in the sources makes it possible to avoid any purely theoretical digression, and above all to restore the event and its perceptions in their depth and their polysemy, due to the very interpretations which are proposed to put the archives into perspective and render their depth to the event and its multiple facets.

Research on the Commune is enriched here by a study that is as original as it is rigorous. This “crossing of worlds in XIXe century”, to use the subtitle of the book, also keeps its double promise of chronological and spatial exploration, through the second XIXe century and the transnational dimensions of the revolutionary fact.