Modern Europe Journal: The Paris Commune of 1871

Our last Modern Europe Journal entry for the semester comes from Tom Keefe, one of our History/Social Studies Education majors. (See his earlier post on family history and immigration.) Here he takes us through his process in researching the influence of the Paris Commune of 1871 on 20th century Communist revolutionaries like V.I. Lenin and Mao Zedong.

For my final research project, I wrote a paper entitled, “The Paris Commune of 1871: How a Brief and Ambiguous Political Event Became a Source of Motivation and Hope for Communists in the 20th Century.” The Paris Commune of 1871 was a political movement that took place in the French capital in the spring of 1871. It is often viewed of as a continuation of another type of “Commune” government that briefly took power during the French Revolution from 1789-1797.

Adolphe Thiers, the leader of the Nationalist, provisional government.
Adolphe Thiers, the leader of the Nationalist, provisional government.

In this case, though, the Communards gained power due the continued influence and respect for revolutionary ideals in France, the failure of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the ineptitude of the provisional nationalist government that was put in place, led by Adolphe Thiers. Thus, now with control of the capital in France, the Communards began to make preliminary changes to alter Paris, at least temporarily. After seventy-two days of limited social and political reform, the French military entered Paris and brutally ended the uprising through what became known as “Bloody Week.”

When this history of the Commune was first briefly mentioned during a lecture, I was incredibly intrigued by the story. I guess the American revolutionary ancestry deep inside of me still roots for a disillusioned group rising up against “oppressors,” but due to time constraints in class we were unable to delve into the event in any significant way. The only point that was mentioned in detail was the aforementioned “Bloody Week.” Upon the arrival of the French military in Paris, 20,000 Communards were killed and relative “order” restored as the 5th French Republic took over following the fall of this temporary government.

A depiction of executions that took place during "Bloody Week," May 1871.
A depiction of executions that took place during “Bloody Week,” May 1871.

I was hooked, and became even more intrigued when preliminary research seemed to indicate that many influential men in history seemed to look to this event as an inspiration of sorts. It appeared as if Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, both incredibly influential communist leaders during their times in power, had looked to the Paris Commune as an example of what they desired their governments to be.

From here, I derived a research question and embarked on my journey of deciphering the extent of a connection with the Paris Commune of 1871 and with significant communist movements of the 20th century. Within the first portion of my formal exploration though, I ran into some major conflicts which did not seem to support my a strong connection between the two events. The first issue was that the Commune was by no means a “communist” government. Although the Communards did rise up against their oppressors, many of the revolutionaries were not members of what Karl Marx would call the “proletariat.”

A depiction of Parisians rebelling against the Nationalist Government in March 1871.
A depiction of Parisians rebelling against the Nationalist Government in March 1871.

In addition, the government did not necessarily achieve any “communist”-type reforms. Rather, their social reform seemed to be instilled with liberal ideals, rather than strictly Marxist ones. Furthermore, I was discouraged by the fact that some historians I encountered did not put any stake in the connection between the Paris Commune and the rise of communism in the 20th century. Needless to say, I was relatively demoralized, and ready to completely alter my research.

Then, I encountered historian Stewart Edwards, whose comments helped to shape and focus my analysis of the impact of the Commune on the rise of Communism in the 20th century.

The seventy-two days from 18 March to 28 May 1871…though too short to carry out any permanent measures of social reform, were long enough to create the myth, the legend, of the Commune as the first great workers revolt…which was to inspire communists in the period up to, and even after, the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Stewart Edwards, The Communards of Paris, 9).

This statement allowed me to see the influence of the events in Paris in a whole new light. I later encountered rhetoric from both Lenin and Mao (paragraph 9) who made explicit references to the Commune early in their political careers. They both desired that in some way, the governments they led would come to resemble those seventy two days in Paris. At this point, I was encouraged by the potential connection, but also extremely confused. Why would these men aspire to a government whose reign lasted less than three months, and ended in the death of thousands?

A portrait of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.
A portrait of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.

Something clicked as I began to again look through the perceived “failures” of the Commune. Despite its un-Communist nature, 20th century communists could still look into those seventy two days in Paris and dream. Despite the obvious truth that the government was not a communist one, many factors added to this desire. The brief time of the government, the limited geographical influence (it never got outside of Paris), and the brutal, (and in the minds of communists) unjustified end to the Commune created a mystique surrounding the Commune. This, in accordance with aspects of the government such as anti-clericalism and voting practices, which communists saw a a good model, produced a sentiment which elevated the influence of this brief government in France.

A portrait of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
A portrait of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

Although the government did not necessarily accomplish anything politically or socially significant, within this mystique of the Commune lies its historical significance. It was by no means the sole primary reason or motivation for Lenin and Mao rising to power in their nations. Yet, through their fondness of the event, the Commune needs to be a recognized factor in the rise of the influence of communism in the 20th century.

Therefore, through the careful investigation of many historians and historical figures, it is evident that there exists a connection between the brief and ambiguous nature of the Commune and arguably the most influential political movement of the 20th century. The Paris Commune of 1871 did have an impact on communist movements in the 20th century. Although it was not as significant as I had initially hoped or imagined, the tantalizing effect of the Commune persisted into the 20th century, making it a time  to be remembered in history. This brief time in Paris helped to inspire a dream that would be pervasive and significant in the world in the 1900’s.

– Tom Keefe

WORKS CITED

Stewart Edwards, ed. The Communards of Paris, 1871, (London: Thames and Hudson LTD, 1973), 9.

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