A flame that can't be extinguished

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Jacob Richter
A flame that can't be extinguished

http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/105213

 

By Daniel Payne

 

They take the past seriously in Paris.

Even as cars and vans were weaving in and out of the narrow road and the rain was falling steadily on the queues outside, those waiting to be let into the Hotel de Ville's exhibition on the Commune continued to line up patiently.

And as the throng of visitors slowly filed into the hallway ushers barked "Silence, please!" as some of the curious entrants immediately started chatting amid the warm and dry surroundings of the exhibition.

It's proved hugely popular, attracting over 50,000 visitors in its first seven weeks.

The two-month expo at the French capital's "city hall" has been marking 140 years since the short life of the Paris Commune of 1871.

This was the momentous decision by the city's left-wing authority effectively to declare independence from the rest of the country.

This owed as much to indignation at France's performance and defeat in the war against the newly formed German empire as to the worsening conditions for industrial workers.

Inside the exhibition there's something for everyone - newspaper cuttings, diary entries, copies of actual proclamations by the Commune and even sketches of dead bodies by Edouard Manet.

The impressionist painter was one of the highest-profile supporters of the Commune, albeit a cautious and critical one.

In its two-month life the Commune, which was fully democratically elected by all its citizens, passed a raft of progressive and far-reaching laws aimed at improving the lives of its mostly industrial-working population.

Among its reforms were the separation of church and state, pensions for widows and children of dead soldiers and measures to boost workers self-management.

The problem with such high-minded idealism was that it flew in the face of the wishes of the centre-right French government, led by Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers.

On his orders the government had decamped to Versailles rather than take on the Commune when it was declared on March 18 1871.

While the Commune issued declarations and proclamations - and argued with itself - Thiers mobilised an army to crush it, and did so bloodily in the last week of May, killing over 20,000 people in the process.

It's worth pointing out that those running the Commune were themselves no angels.

Before they were brutally quelled in what became known as La Semaine Sanglante - Bloody Week - they executed hostages including the archbishop of Paris in retaliation for the French government's refusal to release their own leader Pierre-Auguste Blanqui.

The first day of the Commune was marked by the horrific lynching of two generals who had served in the Franco-Prussian War.

"It was the most destructive event in the city's history," says Pierre Casselle, the Hotel de Ville's head librarian. "Paris's monuments didn't suffer so much during any of the country's wars."

There have even been similar Commune 140-themed events in other French towns.

In St Pierre des Corps, near Tours a local historian has set up a public exhibition of his own, displaying various documents, sources and memorabilia from the event.

Some of it is quite shocking.

In one framed drawing a young boy is shown in front of a barn door while a firing squad prepares to shoot him.

According to the story behind the image, the boy asked the soldiers permission to go and tell his mother first.

They allowed him to do so, then he returned and they shot him as planned.

But while the popularity of occasions surrounding the events of 140 years ago is undeniable, the controversy over what it all represents continues.

Popular historian Jacques Rougerie is among those in France who feels the story of the Commune has been whitewashed. "The Paris Commune was an example of full democracy," he said in a 2008 interview. "Deputies were elected by the people and could be dismissed by the people at any time. In modern France we are governed by a political class that doesn't serve the interests of the people."

Patrick Fonteneau, the organiser of the St Pierre exhibition, feels what the history books concentrate on is quite telling: "They tend to talk more about the deaths of hostages and the destruction of monuments than they do about the reasons why the Commune was set up."

Yet Pierre Casselle takes a different view: "There has been criticism of history teaching in schools and colleges in France from almost everyone for many years," he says. "Changes in the school curriculum have led to entire pages of French history disappearing or reappearing, but I don't think the Commune has particularly suffered because of this."

The legacy of the Commune resonated far beyond the shores of France.

Marx and Lenin studied the events closely throughout their lives.

Marx thought the Communards should have seized the Banque Nationale instead of asking it politely for money, while Lenin, Stalin and Mao reckoned the Commune died because it failed to match the savagery of its enemies - an opinion that was to have lethal consequences for millions of people in the years to come.

Nonetheless, where the Commune succeeded was inspiring generations of people in the belief that they could collectively take control of their lives and change things for the better.

Whatever you think about it, the Paris Commune was to all intents and purposes an actual realisation of the ideal aspired to by Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg just eight years before - government of the people, by the people, for the people.

It also arguably bequeathed to the left in France a self-confidence and eloquence rarely seen in Britain.

The weekend before the St Pierre des Corps exhibition was set up, a mass rally was held in Tours, attended by supporters of various trade unions and the Socialist Party.

Banners and speeches railed against the policies of President Sarkozy and offered a six-point programme aimed at getting France more speedily out of recession, before the protesters launched unashamedly into a rendition of the Internationale.

Perhaps the last word belongs to another great impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. No friend of the Commune - he narrowly escaped death at the hands of a gang of some of their armed supporters - he once said: "They were madmen, but they had in them that little flame that never dies."

It's a fair bet that no amount of leadership squabbles or sex scandals can douse that flame.

 

Unionist

Beautiful - thank you, Jacob.