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Mainstream, VOL LX No 4, New Delhi, January 15, 2022

Rethinking the Paris Commune of 1871 | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 14 January 2022, by Arup Kumar Sen

On the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871, historian Laura C. Forster has raised fundamental questions about commemorating the great insurgency and what happened in its wake (See Laura C. Forster, ‘Radical Commemoration, the Politics of the Street, and the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 92, Autumn 2021). The questions raised and observations made by Forster illuminate our historical imagination.
Forster characterized the Paris Commune of 1871 as “a radical experiment in government”. To put it in her own words: “...Paris democratically elected a Commune council in March 1871. The Commune governed Paris for seventy-two days and passed measures such as the abolition of night work, free secular education, the separation of Church and State, and the cancellation of rent arrears accrued by starving Parisians during the Siege of Paris the year before. In May 1871 the Commune was brutally defeated during a week of bloodshed. More than ten thousand Communards were killed”. (ibid.)

In fact, the Paris Commune of 1871 symbolized a protest against the bourgeois modernization of Paris: “The Communards themselves were rallying against the redevelopment and sanitization of revolutionary Paris. In the two decades before the Commune, Paris was restructured — narrow cobbled streets were destroyed to make way for wide boulevards that could be better policed and controlled if threatened by popular uprisings - in a massive urban renewal programme undertaken by Georges-Eugene Haussmann at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III. The radical social and political geographies and ecosystems of revolutionary Paris were diminished by these architectural transformations. Haussmann’s project was a deliberate attempt to remove from Paris those elements deemed unsavoury by the ruling elite. The Commune, therefore, was in part a violent reaction against the physical and political violence of Haussmannization”. (ibid.)

Forster reminded us how the governments of the Third Republic attempted to erase the memory of the Commune: “Immediately after the suppression of the Commune, the ‘state obliteration’ of its memory began. The early governments of the Third Republic attempted to eradicate the memory of the Commune through rigorous censorship. They wanted to leave the horrors of 1870-1 in the past, and refashion Paris as the capital of healthy, hygienic modernity.” (ibid.)

Laura C. Forster’s reading of different political dimensions of the Paris Commune enriches our understanding of the ‘prose’ of 1871-Insurgency:

The Commune itself was rooted in the local — it relied on neighbourhood-centred associational cultures and networks. It was a revolution in municipal autonomy and social relations that was intimately tied to the places of Paris but connected trans-locally to battles against imperialism and centralization elsewhere. In many ways the Commune was a battle for place as much as for people...The Paris Commune of 1871 has a lot to offer us — plans for political revolution, ideas of internationalism, and dreams of municipal utopias — if we can only set its message to a twenty-first century frequency. (ibid.)

The spectre of the Paris Commune will haunt the neo-liberal political regimes, particularly in the context of gigantic urbanization and modernization projects being undertaken by them, in different parts of the world in the 21st century.

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