The long march to freedom

How does Montmartre, 1871 compare with Tahrir Square and Tunis, 2011? Alex Butterworth explains what the Paris Commune can teach us about the Arab Spring

In the first flush of the Arab Spring many attempts were made to draw historical parallels with previous revolutions. Some looked back to the spring of 1848, when a wildfire of revolt swept through Europe, starting in Sicily but leaving few countries untouched. Those of a more optimistic disposition invoked the more successful velvet revolutions of 1989, when the countries of Eastern Europe shook off communist rule and began their faltering journey to a free market and Western-style democracy. The most anxious commentators, however, have implicitly looked to 1917, with al-Qa'ida in place of the Bolsheviks, and a second, "October Revolution" somewhere on the horizon.

The Paris Commune of 1871 offers another revolutionary precedent that deserves consideration, and not only for the accident of its 140th anniversary this year. The Commune represented for many in France the realisation of those ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that had been repeatedly disappointed during the century since the Revolution of 1789. As with the Middle East today, the origins of discontent lay in a long period of autocratic rule, in which political cronyism had prevented the government from addressing the impact of economic problems on the working population.

In the previous summer of 1870, a failed French invasion of Germany had been swiftly driven back, leaving Paris under siege by the Prussian army. The French government was a new one. Twenty years after Louis-Napoleon III had seized power in a coup, proclaiming himself Napoleon III of the Second Empire, defeat by the Prussians had brought an end to his dictatorial rule and he had fled into exile. The declaration of a Third Republic had seen widespread jubilation.

Yet a winter under siege, experiencing harsh privations, tempered this joy for the citizens of Paris. Frustrated in their demands for the government to raise a citizen army, the more radical socialist groups demanded a more profound social revolution. In January 1871, angry meetings spilled over into armed resistance by the citizen's National Guard. Then, at dawn on 18 March, a confrontation over the control of the city's artillery saw the wholesale flight of the government and its army to nearby Versailles. What followed in Paris were ten weeks of popular rule: a first truly socialist Republic.

So, how do the two revolutions reflect each other? The use of Twitter during recent insurrections prompted me to commemorate the Commune by tweeting the voices of the participants on both sides. And hearing the echoes across time has led me to wonder whether the present cannot inform our understanding of the past, as much as the other way around.

It was a thought that struck me first during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square when, in the wake of soldier's fraternising with the people on the street, the Mubarak regime belatedly ordered the army's withdrawal, and was then obliged to accept its return as a neutral force. One area of historical speculation regarding the Commune has long been whether the attempt by the French government to seize the National Guard's artillery in Montmartre using a regiment prone to desertion was intended to provide a pretext to decisively confront the revolutionary elements. Twenty years earlier Adolphe Thiers, the head of the government, had proposed just such a strategy of withdrawal from Paris in order to crush an earlier revolution. Was he now carrying out a long-cherished plan? Watching Mubarak's desperate attempts to hold on to power, I felt more inclined to heed the words of one of Thiers's generals that "had we spent another 24 hours in Paris we would not have been able to bring a single regiment out", and accord greater weight to cock-up than conspiracy.

By the same token, the extreme disorganisation that has characterised the insurrection in Libya continues to shed light on the situation that pertained in Paris after 18 March 1871, of which one leading socialist would remark: "Never had a revolution taken the revolutionaries so much by surprise." The likely leader of an uprising, Auguste Blanqui, had been imprisoned only days earlier, and Victor Hugo, the novelist, a possible figurehead, only recently returned from a long exile, could only huff from the sidelines – "Paris governed by nobodies, it's impossible!" – while a series of ineffectual stand-ins failed to provide firm direction.

The impossible challenge of leading the National Guard, a force fighting for the cause of equality, was dramatised for me by news scenes from eastern Libya in the early days of the insurrection, where the armed men joined in ousting Gaddafi seemed incapable of agreeing on much else. The result of their squabbling has even since been played out along the route of the "Highway of Death" on which they stood arguing; every advance attempted along it has been driven back. Likewise around the perimeter defences of Communard Paris, fighting fervour was constantly undermined by poor discipline. More than once, attempts to improve matters saw National Guard officers punished for their perceived reactionary inclinations.

At least, in Libya, the foreign intervention has so far been for the protection of civilians. In Paris in the spring of 1871, the situation was more akin to that in Yemen or Bahrain. Like the Saudi or Pakistani forces invited in to reassert order, the Prussians, still encamped around Paris, readily lent their gun emplacements to Thiers's army and freed French prisoners of war to join his forces. Meanwhile, Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian leader, suggested that, unless Paris's example of revolution was speedily quelled, he would have to enforce compliance.

To understand what so terrified the international guardians of established order, one need only bring to mind those Libyans interviewed in Misrata who, only just rid of Gaddafi's rule, express their love of freedom in the same breath as acknowledging that if his men returned they and their families would be killed. A similar incaution infected the Communards who lived as if hoarding memories for a bleaker future. They drank in the cafés and attended charity concerts in the theatres of Paris even as shells fell around them.

Meanwhile, the Commune's elected representatives introduced a programme of new legislation. Education and the rights of workers and women featured prominently: a ban on night bakeries; the introduction of technical schools; nursery provision to allow women to work. Most of the policies are the familiar stuff of 21st-century social democracy; indeed, opportunist echoes of their language of Proudhonist anarchism may even be detected in the rhetoric of Cameron's Big Society. To the autocratic rulers of 19th-century Europe, however, they could hardly have been more threatening: papal encyclicals would not far fall short of calling such socialism, diabolical. Today's Middle East despots may have rather different sensitivities, but they are no more tractable.

When, from late April 1871 onwards, the defences of Paris began to fail, the retribution was terrible. During the final "Week of Blood", from 20 May, upwards of 20,000 Communards were killed, some on the barricades but many more mown down by machine guns in the liquidation centres around the city. If the battle for Paris had left much of the city looking like Grozny or Fallujah, the massacres far surpassed the horror of Srebrenica. Bodies lay in mass graves, for example in the chalk mines of the Parc Monceau: few who look at Impressionist scenes of blossom, painted there only a few years later, realise the wilful act of forgetfulness they represent. To draw such approximate comparisons with the fate of Grozny or Fallujah is not comfortable but nor is it idle.

In my exploration of revolutionary terrorism, The World That Never Was, the story of the Commune occupies only the first two of 24 chapters. What follows shows how the consequences of its brutal defeat shaped the 50 years following 1871: how it inspired revolutionary movements elsewhere, haunted a younger generation who turned to terrorism, and prompted some, Lenin most notably, to draw the ruthless lessons that would allow the Bolsheviks to succeed where the Communards failed.

The radicalisation caused by the destruction of Grozny and Fallujah more than a decade ago is already being felt and its impact may increase in years to come. Western intervention in Libya has so far prevented the massacres that might otherwise have occurred, but there, in the Gulf States and elsewhere, we may only have witnessed the beginning of the civil strife.



Alex Butterworth is the author of 'The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents'. You can see the story of the Commune unfold by following his tweets @TheCommunards @TheVersaillais and @Communehistory

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