Review of John Merriman’s “Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune”

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Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, John Merriman, Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University, presents a powerful narrative history of the Paris Commune that provides readers with more insights into the death rather than the life of this 1871 radical experiment in which the Parisian working class seized control of the city’s economic and political direction before being ruthlessly crushed by Adolphe Thiers and what would become the Third French Republic. Drawing upon French primary source documents, Merriman has written an engaging history addressed to the general reader which poses important questions regarding working-class autonomy, class conflict, and state-sponsored terrorism which resonate in the contemporary world.

Merriman begins his account with an examination of France under the rule of Louis Napoleon during the Second Empire. According to Merriman, the extravagant spending of the Emperor on monuments to his rule contributed to the growing economic inequality in Paris and the nation. The incompetence of the Emperor was most evident in the disastrous performance of the French army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 in which the population of Paris suffered through a siege by Prussian forces. Following the abdication of Louis Napoleon and military defeat, Thiers assumed the leadership of the National Assembly in Versailles, while the Parisian working class and urban radicals formed the Paris Commune.

Essentially deserted by the French ruling class, Merriman describes how the common people of Paris took charge of their own lives and formed the Commune whose supporters included artisans and craftsmen, construction workers, day laborers, and domestic servants in addition to small shopkeepers and liberal professionals such as lawyers. Merriman especially notes the participation of women in the Commune with approximately 70 percent coming from the textile and clothing trades. These women and their children suffered a great deal during the siege and demanded a voice in governance. The Commune introduced popular economic reforms such as national workshops to provide employment as well as rent controls and limitations on pawn shops. Merriman writes that overall the Communards respected private property, and rather than taking over the Bank of France, the Commune instead applied for a loan. Despite the less than radical economic measures taken by the Commune, Merriman observes that the city’s bourgeoisie did not trust the Communards, and many fled to Versailles. Those who remained in Paris wanted to protect their property from the poor and also served as spies when the army from Versailles invaded the city.

However, much of the Commune’s time was spent on providing security rather than focusing on fundamental reform of French society. The Commune was dependent upon a citizen army, the National Guard, in which officers were elected by the soldiers. Perhaps too much faith was placed in the National Guard when they successfully repulsed a premature effort on March 18, 1871 by the Versailles government to seize cannons belonging to the forces of the Commune. Despite the noble experiment of organizing the Guard from the bottom up, Merriman bemoans the lack of discipline and organization within the ranks. This especially proved troublesome when the Thiers government renewed its assault with better trained troops. In response to desertions, the Commune directed that all Parisian males between ages twenty and forty be conscripted to defend the city; however, Merriman documents that many male citizens, including members of the working class, shirked their obligations. The lack of manpower, nevertheless, was somewhat alleviated by the number of women who rushed to the defense of the commune—not only serving as nurses and constructing barricades but taking up arms to preserve the revolution. Sectarian infighting also took its toll on the effectiveness of the city’s defense. As the situation became dire, Jacobin elements insisted that a Committee of Public Safety be formed to save the Commune by any means necessary. Other Communards, remembering the legacy of Robespierre and the French Revolution, resisted the imposition of dictatorial powers. Still others wasted valuable time arguing abstract principles while Paris was burning. The radical Raoul Rigault assumed the duties of Prefect of Police and spent considerable energy searching for spies, but these duties did not interfere with his consumption of wine and food.

In fact, it was Rigault’s decision to arrest and later execute the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, that provided the justification for the slaughter of the Communards by the Versailles troops. Merriam, however, points out that the execution of Communard commanders Emile Duval and Gustave Flourens preceded the death of Darboy and other priests. The Commune insisted that its fighters were “belligerents” who were entitled to the protections specified by the Geneva Convention of 1864. On the other hand, Thiers and his government maintained that the Communards were rebels and insurgents not subject to the protection of international law. The George W. Bush administration would adopt a similar approach to prisoners captured during the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan. Prisoners were terrorists and taken to Guantanamo Bay, beyond the reach of international legal principles.

Merriman places the imprisonment of Darboy within the contents of the anticlericalism of the Commune reacting to the church’s wealth, monopoly over education, and support of the Second Empire. Women whose voices were silenced by the church proved to be vociferous critics of the clergy. The Commune introduced lay teachers and opened churches to political meetings; many of which were convened by female opponents of clericalism. There was also confiscation of ecclesiastical property and wealth, but Merriman observes that generally religious property was respected. Rigault originally believed that Darboy could be ransomed in exchange for the aging radical Auguste Blanqui, who was imprisoned by the Thiers regime. Thiers, however, refused to negotiate with the Commune; insisting that Blanqui was a dangerous terrorist whose release would strengthen the forces of radicalism. Merriman, however, argues that the elderly radical could have done little to resurrect the fate of the Commune, and Thiers could have saved the Archbishop’s life. As troops from Versailles closed in on the prison of La Roquette, where Darboy and his associates were being held, Rigault ordered their execution.

The death of Darboy was employed to denounce the Communards as murderers who deserved no quarter, but Merriman well documents that the massacre of Communards was well under way before Darboy’s death. In graphic detail, Merriman describes the slaughter of National Guardsmen by the French army. In addition to the killing of prisoners, the soldiers shot anyone who might have supported the Commune. Thus, in many quarters of the city it was a death sentence to be a member of the Parisian working class. And the massacre also included women and children as well as the mutilation of bodies. The mass killing was encouraged by members the French bourgeoisie who returned to Paris with the soldiers or were no longer afraid to leave their homes and enter the streets. Merriman chronicles an unmitigated class warfare that sought to crush the Parisian working class. The author tells the story of a man who was executed on the suspicion of being a member of the National Guard. When his wife and young son attempted to embrace the dying man, the soldier shot them. A doctor then sought to aid the wounded boy, and the physician was killed. Merriman concludes that the massacre was not simply the actions of overzealous soldiers, but rather a policy of class warfare pursued by Thiers. The response by Thiers to the uprising was also disproportionate as the Commune murdered perhaps some sixty prisoners, while the French army massacred approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Communards; although with the employment of mass graves it is almost impossible to say with any certainty how many perished in the massacre.

Merriman’s sympathies are clearly with the Commune as he denounces the executions carried out on the orders of Thiers which cut short the progressive reforms sponsored by the Commune. In conclusion, Merriman is reluctant to make too many parallels with contemporary international politics, but this detailed account of how the Paris Commune was suppressed certainly makes clear the deadly force and potential of state-sponsored terrorism. The lessons which the Commune offers for today’s global capitalism is perhaps best addressed in the avant-garde six-hour film La Commune (2000) directed by British filmmaker Peter Watkins in which nonprofessional actors and young activists embrace the example of the Paris Commune for encouraging participatory democracy and resistance to class exploitation. The publication of Merriman’s Massacre provides an opportunity for contemporary readers to revisit the Commune and consider its legacy—for global capitalism has failed to provide the ending of history and dawning of a new age of prosperity following the collapse of the Soviet Union.    

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