From the Ballot to the Barricade in the Paris Commune

On 2 September 1870, Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussian army at the Battle of Sedan. The emperor’s defeat toppled the Second Empire and, for conservatives like Edmond de Goncourt, marked “the end of the greatness of France.”1 Liberal politicians like Léon Gambetta and Jules Favre proclaimed the Third Republic in the ensuing vacuum of sovereignty. Constituting a provisional “government of national defense,” they promised to continue the war. However, they organized an ineffective defense, and, within weeks, Bismarck’s army laid siege to Paris, starving the city. By February, Prussian forces compelled the French government to capitulate and agree to humiliating concessions. To compound matters, national elections that month populated the new assembly with an overwhelming conservative majority, threatening the fledgling republic. Stung by the shame of national defeat and unpersuaded by the republican credentials of its newly elected government, radical republicans and socialists declared Paris independent on 18 March by proclaiming the Paris Commune. Adolphe Thiers, head of the national government, withdrew municipal functionaries from the city. For the next two months, Paris engaged in an extraordinary social experiment while waging civil war with the national government. The Commune empowered workers’ associations, replaced economic competition with social cooperation, separated church and state, legislated equal pay for teachers of both sexes, and reinstated divorce. It put a moratorium on uncollected rent during the Prussian siege and abolished interest on outstanding debts. In the name of the Universal Republic, it opened its communal council to election by foreigners and fostered a culture of direct, participatory governance. Yet, after two months, this experiment in emancipation ended in mass graves. Led by Patrice de MacMahon, a man trained to exterminate in the Armée d’Afrique, the Versaillais army invaded Paris and killed upward to 20,000 workers.2 Thousands more were imprisoned or exiled.

Like all events of its kind, the Commune meant different things to different people: the greatest monument to working class radicalism in the nineteenth century, a founding myth of subsequent communist revolutions, a criminal riot instigated by foreigners, even a modern recapitulation of the fall of Rome by proletarian barbarians.3 Its example opened several conflicting trajectories for political thought on the left, “a kind of afterlife” that Kristin Ross argues is “part and parcel of the event itself.”4 Participants like Louise Michel claimed the Commune “could have belonged to allies of kings, or to foreigners, or to the people. It was the people’s.”5 She would defend its democratic achievement against liberal attempts to pathologize the Commune for decades.6 Zéphirin Camélinat, the Commune’s director of the mint, would become a leader of the future Parti communiste français and its presidential candidate in 1924.7 Other communards carried their radicalism abroad as exiles. Armand Roussel, police captain for the district of Père Lachaise, went to London to preach socialism, whereas Adrien Lejeune, “the last communard,” traveled to the Soviet Union to offer the Commune’s imprimatur to the home of the October Revolution.8 Friedrich Engels forecast the most well-known trajectory opened by the Commune: “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”9

If the Commune’s example opened up new revolutionary vistas, its demise nevertheless closed others. For whatever else it was, the Commune was also the culmination of socialists’ long-standing ambition to regenerate the French social body. It is often observed that “the French Revolution’s heroic and epic struggle to regenerate society had resonance with the Communards.”10 Indeed, the Commune’s 19 April 1871 declaration to the French people proclaimed that their “combats and sacrifices” would prepare France for its “intellectual, moral, administrative and economic regeneration.”11 Since the July Monarchy, however, French socialists had also articulated this aspiration in new, distinctive terms: la République démocratique et sociale. Under these watchwords, socialists called for a regeneration of everyday life—the family, the workplace, the neighborhood—that would counteract market competition’s disintegrating effects on the social body. They dreamed of going beyond 1792’s political republic by founding a “social republic,” the incarnation of une société sociale and a redeemed Humanity. As the journalist Jules Vallès saw it, Napoleon’s defeat provided the occasion to finally create “the Social Fatherland, the only possible salvation for the Classical Fatherland.”12 The Commune’s massacre all but extinguished such hopes. Afterwards, republicanism in France would be reshaped into an elitist, state-driven ideology organized around parliamentary politics and official repudiation of the Commune.13 Mainstream French socialism would shed its utopian attachment to “revolutionary temporality,” underline its scientific commitments, and enter the parliamentary system.14 The National Guard, that exemplary incarnation of popular redemptive violence since the French Revolution, would be permanently abolished.15

This chapter analyzes socialist aspirations for social regeneration as they evolved from the 1840s to the Commune. It aims to show that, like Jacobins and liberals before them, many Communards grafted their hopes for a regenerated society onto an image of popular redemptive violence.

This point might seem intuitive. Nineteenth-century French socialism has long been recalled as an insurrectionary tradition, both in its commemoration and in its historiography.16 Its memory is summoned in shorthand through dates like 1792, 1830, 1848, and 1871. Its mission is recalled in personalities from Gracchus Babeuf to Auguste Blanqui, protagonists of what Patrick Hutton calls the “cult of the revolutionary tradition.”17 That tradition continues to be venerated by Paris’s municipal council, which since 1908 has honored slain communards in Père Lachaise and Montparnasse each year.18

Yet, as we will see, many socialists were not convinced that insurrectionary violence could bring social regeneration during the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, many socialists before 1848 were steadfast pacifists. They believed the route to a new humanism passed not through insurrectionary violence but through the peaceful reorganization of work and universal manhood suffrage. “Violent methods are good for overturning, for destroying,” Henri de Saint-Simon preached in the 1820s, “but that is all they are good for. Peaceful methods are the only ones which can be used to build, to construct, in a word, to establish solid constitutions.”19 Attachments to pacific methods persisted into the 1870–1871 siege of Paris. Demanding a Commune in September 1870 meant demanding a municipal government elected by universal manhood suffrage. And as late as 20 March 1871, the newspaper La Commune identified the communal revolution with “the age of violent revolutions closed and civil war rendered impossible.”20 There was nothing self-evident about André Léo’s ode to redemptive violence in April: “No, humanity is not degenerate. . . . This generous blood which flows today, the blood of a popular martyr impoverished by misery but rich in impalpable elements . . . fertilizes the furrow of the great harvest.”21 If the Commune’s bloody end led its defenders like Louise Michel to believe that “the songs of the new epoch were war songs,” such a conclusion had been anything but forgone.22 Viewed through the wider aperture of midcentury socialist pursuits of social regeneration, communard appeals to a language of redemptive violence were a contingent concession.

This chapter therefore shows Communards achieving their own image of popular redemptive violence, but it also underscores how that violence was only one possible answer to their anxiety over social disintegration. Communards did not turn to redemptive violence as a logical entailment to their dream of social regeneration or a catechistic recapitulation of Jacobinism. They did so as a response to the real failures of electoral democracy to deliver on the promise of a redeemed Humanity.

To defend these claims, this chapter draws our attention to a conceptual mutation within midcentury French socialism: redemptive violence displaced what we might call a redemptive image of the ballot. Two kinds of defeat produced this displacement: a longue durée context involving socialists’ disenchantment with universal male suffrage and the immediate difficulties of creating the Commune through elections in 1870–1871.23 Before the Commune, revolutionaries in 1848 had already attempted to found a social republic. Their efforts failed when Napoleon III weaponized universal male suffrage to abolish the republic in 1852: French citizens elevated Napoleon to emperor in a plebiscitary referendum by almost ten to one. The democratic death of this “democratic and social republic” undercut republican and socialist beliefs in the transformative power of electoral democracy.

The shadow of 1848 intersected with a more immediate problem for Communards: they were the first “minoritarian” revolution in the French republican tradition. Previous revolutions, like those in 1789 and 1848, tacitly spoke for a downtrodden national consensus against an aristocratic and economically powerful elite. But in the months following the September 1870 proclamation of the Third Republic, a numerical majority of Parisians withheld support for the communal movement and the revolutionary socialist organizations which led it. Even as Paris radicalized under the siege, the city’s revolutionary movements were defeated in elections, time and again, between September and March. In this context, Paris’s revolutionary socialist movements could not presume to speak on behalf of the people. Their democratic credentials had to be earned rather than presumed.

To claim the mantle of democracy after being denied electoral legitimation, many Communards redefined who the people were: the true people were not “the electorate,” but “the people in arms.” Participants like Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, Louise Michel, and Jules Vallès turned to the moral significance of spontaneous popular violence to compete with the state’s authority—indeed to embody the people’s will even more directly than the latter’s elections. Cannons, chassepots, and petrol conveyed the will of the people in ways the ballot could never do. This image of the people in arms was rooted in both classical republicanism and the revolutionary wars of liberty, and Communards put it to work to secure their own democratic credentials.24 In so doing, they transformed the Commune from an elected body to one that Gustave Tridon declared “revolutionary, illegal, and violent.”25

This redefinition, however earnest, exacted a price: it bonded socialist dreams of a regenerated, cooperative society to a language of republican militarism. Aspirations for communal freedom moved away from dreams of perpetual peace and merged with heroic images of the Garde nationale and francs-tireurs. Civil war between Paris and Versailles became, not a war between democracy and its critics, but a conflict between two conceptions of the democratic social body: the electorate and the people in arms. Civil wars, David Armitage reminds us, always turn out to be “conceptually generative.”26 Thus it was with the Paris Commune. Its conflict with Versailles led its best thinkers to sever the resolution of the social question from the expansion of the suffrage. The agent of social regeneration would henceforth be the people armed rather than the people enfranchised.

In short, the dialectics of struggle and defeat torqued communard thought into a language of redemptive violence. To insist on that fact is not to criticize it. Instead, it is to try to think together two things which the historiography has recently pried apart: the Commune as an experiment in equality and the Commune as a war measure.27 The former cannot be quarantined from the latter for the two came to be understood as a common project. Communards understood the all-important lesson of the French Revolution: democratic authority is rooted not in right, but action. As they struggled to regenerate society, they put that lesson to work. Lissagaray conceded afterward that the Commune “was a barricade, not a government,” but that had been the point.28

The Rise of the Social Question

French industrialization proceeded more gradually than its Western European counterparts, especially Great Britain. Popular classes in mid–nineteenth-century France resisted full-scale industrialization by defending traditional forms of employment. Urban trade guilds continued to export luxury goods rather than invest in modern production techniques.29 Agriculture remained the vital sector of the economy, and most people did not enjoy the increasing consumer purchasing power typical of industrializing societies until the 1880s.30 Nevertheless, it was already obvious during the July Monarchy that the nature of work in France was moving in new directions. The rise of urban markets and the expansion of wage labor were redrawing the country’s demographic landscape. Male workers migrated to cities for seasonal employment.31 The construction of thousands of miles of canals accelerated the migration of peoples and commodities. In 1822, France was connected to England by steamship. It built its first short railway in 1828.32 The rise of mechanization led social critics to coin the term révolution industrielle to analogize these broader trends to the French Revolution.33

Workers responded to these changes. Gathered in cities like Paris and Lyon, they formed voluntary associations.34 They created journals such as Le Globe, La Phalange, and La Démocratie pacifique which were read by an increasingly literate male working class. They organized mutual aid societies to protest wage suppression and demand price controls. Lyonnais silk workers rose up in the “Canut revolts” of 1831 and 1834.35 In 1833, a strike wave hit all of France, with at least 54 between September and December alone.36 These large-scale patterns of migration and social dislocation were also thought to be causally linked to urban squalor, sexual immorality, and poverty.

“The social question,” in other words, had come to France.37 How can the poor be integrated into the social contract? How can the damage of economic competition be mitigated? Like similar questions in the nineteenth century, the social question in France subsumed discrete phenomena under a single sign and imperative mood. Holly Case has argued that such questions are best viewed as a “structuring tendency,” the formulation of which compels its querists to choose between progress and reaction, science and tradition, community and individual in an era where equality ruled in theory but was violated in practice.38 This was certainly true in the 1840s. The phrase linked social problems like inequality, pauperism, alcoholism, and commercial competition under a single framework. Answering the social question became something more than resolving a technical problem of governance. It pointed the way to a new society and the resolution of some of modernity’s fundamental antinomies.39

French intellectuals in the July Monarchy gave competing accounts of the origins of the social question: psychic breakdown, distributive injustice, the repression of human desire, atheistic materialism, too much state centralization, or too little state centralization.40 Yet most agreed that it involved social disintegration. Henri de Saint-Simon, father of utopian socialism, provides a case in point. A wealthy aristocrat and avid social reformer, he believed “the social question” arose from atomizing economic competition, and he advocated economic planning to restore social solidarity. Modern social theory, Saint-Simon believed, had shown English liberalism’s atomized conception of society to be empirically mistaken. The latter had misrecognized society’s essentially corporate nature, which Christianity correctly grasped. “In every good national government,” he explained, “the patriotism which is part of each individual changes into an esprit de corps or corporate will the moment the individual becomes a member of it.” Ideally, “this corporate will” provided “the soul of government, which unifies all its actions and harmonizes all its movements.”41

The social question was never reducible to economics for Saint-Simon. Industrialization was at bottom a moral disorder rooted in the social body’s disintegration. It called for answers at once scientific and religious. Violence would have to be disavowed.42 Educated elites would need to seize the reins of government—finances, law, the military, and public functions. These elites would employ their expertise while also attending to “the part played by religious sentiment in society,” to acknowledge “the predominance of morality over the law,” and to proclaim “the great aim” of social policy to be “improving as quickly as possible the condition of the poorest class.”43 Rather than repudiate Christianity, Saint-Simon insisted that mending the social bond depended on a religious reawakening.

The more society progresses morally and physically, the more subdivision of intellectual and manual labour takes places. . . . The result is that, the more society progresses, the more necessary it is that the form of worship should be improved; for the purpose of the form of worship is to remind men, when they assemble periodically on the day of rest, of the interests common to all members of society, of the common interests of the human race.44

Saint-Simon concluded that morality was the queen of the sciences: “there is a science much more important for the community than physical and mathematical science—the science on which society is founded, namely ethics.”45

Younger socialists influenced by Saint-Simon continued to emphasize the social question’s moral dimensions We see this in their continued use of a heterodox Christianity, like Pierre Leroux’s “Doctrine of Humanity,” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s early Christian socialism, and popular representations of Jesus as a worker.46 We see it in Auguste Comte, usually remembered as the father of positivism and a crass scientism, but who demanded a “New Religion of Humanity” for an age of atomistic materialism.47 We see it, too, in Victor Considerant, one of the best known utopian socialists and whose work decried “free competition” as a form of “industrial feudalism.” Economic competition did not lead to mass freedom but mass servitude; it was a “negative and abstract” democracy. Socialism’s task, Considerant believed, was to complete 1789, establish a “concrete” democracy based on “rational, equitable, Christian industrial organization,” and “joining all members of the human species.”48

True to their positivist inclinations, most socialists were not content to abstractly demand social regeneration. They also mapped out paths to it through stadial social theories. For Charles Fourier, answering the social question required evolving from “Civilization” to “Harmony” as outlined in his “Table of the Progression of Social Movement, Succession and Relation of its 4 Phases and 32 Periods.” For Comte, “disorganization” needed to yield to the sacralization of society, “Humanity as the True Supreme Being,” and the Positivist Church.49 For Louis Blanc, the task was to transcend “concurrence” into “cooperation” under centralized expert leadership. In Pierre Leroux’s eyes, the transition from egoism to social harmony entailed an acknowledgment of the progressive interrelatedness of all life forms, achieved as each person was reincarnated 405 times throughout history. Still others appealed to new visions of technological vitalism: steam power, energy conversion, printing presses, energetic matter and nature worship, and (again) mesmerism. Michel Chavelier, the Saint-Simonian most involved with setting French commercial policy abroad, crooned that “the railroad [was] the most perfect symbol of universal association.”50 He spoke on behalf of a generation: industrial progress could repair the moral, associative bases of social cohesion.

These twin goals of social equality and moral regeneration gave the 1848 revolution its distinctive political culture, its “euphoric sympathy” with the people.51 The 1848 revolutions were the high point of nineteenth-century democracy, a “springtime of peoples” that touched the whole European continent.52 Dreams of national independence, international cooperation, universal solidarity, and the social question’s resolution inspired utopian beliefs that the world was undergoing a renovation as fundamental as that of the French Revolution.53 The editors of Le Peuple captured this millenarianism in their 2 September 1848 manifesto. For them, 1848 in France was more than a regime change. It also uncovered the transcendent within man and the sacred within society.

Yes, we want revolution: but make no mistake. Religion, for us, is not symbolic: it contains within it the symbolic word. To discover the true religion, it is necessary to begin our exegesis, to show philosophically and with the aid of new social data, the supernaturalism in nature, heaven in society, God in man. That is when civilization will appear to us as a perpetual apocalypse, and history as a miracle without end.54


Figure 3.1 Frédéric Sorrieu, “La République universelle démocratique et sociale” (1848).

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Frédéric Sorrieu captured this “perpetual apocalypse” and “miracle without end” at the level of visual culture in his 1848 tableau dedicated to the “Universal Democratic and Social Republic” (Figure 3.1). Europe’s nations march together toward a socialist and republican future. France leads the way as Christ surveys humanity’s progress, proclaiming “FRATERNITY” a cosmological law. Underneath the people’s feet lie smashed the accoutrements of monarchy. Sorrieu’s tableau captures 1848’s polyvalent significations: peaceful, internationalist, republican, and millenarian. Divine grace infused the march of socialism as it progressively abolished the divisions between classes and forged anew the bonds of a united, redeemed Humanity.

These apocalyptic visions of disintegration and redemption paralleled earlier Jacobin and liberal anxieties. As in 1789, the social bond appeared on the cusp of dissolution, this time threatened by the abstraction inherent in contractualist economic citizenship. As Michael Behrent has argued, socialist thinkers “occupied a distinct ideological space on the French left, defined by the conviction that republicanism required a far denser conception of society than that which could be elicited from the social contract or individual rights alone.”55 Leroux, who coined the term socialisme, put it thus: “We wanted it [the new government] to stand at the head of progress; and not to let society, momentarily united in heroic sympathy, scatter and dissolve again.”56

Regenerating the People as the Electorate

Critics defined the social question as a problem of social disintegration, so it should be no surprise that many reformers turned to associational answers. Traditional artisans protected their mutual aid societies and voluntary associations.57 Utopian socialists like Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin formed intentional communities that promoted free love, social minimums, and emotional harmony.58 Others, like Flora Tristan, took the first bold steps toward working class internationalism, “the universal union of working men and women.”59

What is more surprising is how many reformers turned to universal manhood suffrage. It is surprising, because the expansion of the franchise seems to exemplify the atomism socialists decried: a single vote for a single citizen. “The citizen, endowed with one vote,” Pierre Rosanvallon observes, is often seen as “a pure individual, symmetrical with all other individuals and stripped of all specific characteristics.”60 Today, that view is commonplace.61 Yet, during the July Monarchy and Second Republic, socialists across the spectrum conscripted universal manhood suffrage into their programs for moral regeneration and social cohesion. They did so, I argue, because they viewed the suffrage in light of a redemptive vision of the ballot.

We see pieces of this redemptive vision in Alexandre Ledru-Rollin. Editor of La Réforme and a visible leader of the left, Ledru-Rollin spent the 1840s advocating for the right to work and universal manhood suffrage. He believed both were key to creating the social republic. In his 1844 “Manifeste aux travailleurs,” he argued that “every citizen must be an elector; the deputy must be a man of the nation rather than fortune.”62 During his political campaigns, he repeatedly insisted that universal suffrage would invite an era of perpetual peace. “Why [civil war],” he argued, “when you have in your hand, by the suffrage, the means to make your will prevail?”63 His persistent advocacy for universal suffrage anchored his reputation as the “father of universal suffrage.”

We see aspects of this redemptive vision among ordinary workers, too. At an afternoon banquet on 17 October 1848, a worker, Citoyen Charpentier, gave the following toast to universal suffrage:

Citizens, friends and enemies know that the day when the right to the vote was acquired by all [men] was a grand day on earth and in the heavens. It was as if a divine trumpet had announced to tyrants that their reign had come to an end, and that the reign of God had begun. . . . Brothers, let us be united; tighten our ranks; the end of the great drama approaches! . . .

To the universal vote, the image of heavenly lightning placed into the hands of men to pulverize and reduce all aristocrats into nothing!

To the universal vote, a living whip that servants have seized to hunt down their incapable and indignant masters!

To the universal vote, which permits us to clutch to our breasts this cry, symbol of the future:

Vive la République démocratique et sociale!64

An “image of heavenly lightning,” a “living whip,” a call for tightened ranks and universal brotherhood: this was an image of universal suffrage as social revolution. According to this redemptive vision, voting incorporated a person into a common body. After all, in the nineteenth century, voting occurred publicly in assemblies rather than privately in a booth.65 Presiding officers were nominated and selected, often by popular acclamation, at the beginning of electoral assemblies.66 The public character of voting, and the assembly context in which it was conducted, gave voting a corporatist meaning. It did not present an individualistic form of political participation but bound a person to an assembly’s esprit de corps. Voting, in other words, was an activity of association.67

This redemptive vision of the ballot was compelling enough to touch thinkers on opposite ends of the French left. Consider, for example, Louis Blanc. The decade’s most important republican socialist, Blanc’s 1840 Organization of Work attacked competition for bringing society “to the point of dissolution,” namely familial breakdown and civil war.68 “Competition” was “for the people a system of extermination” and an “anti-social education.”69 Hence Blanc proposed “double reform.” Double reform involved “a profound moral revolution,” one that would “bring about in one day more conversions than all sermons of preachers and all speeches of moralists could in a century.”70 It also involved handing the reins of governance to state technocrats.

The government ought to be considered as the supreme regulator of production and endowed for this duty with great power. This task would consist of fighting competition and of finally overcoming it. . . . [In] our system, the State would constitute itself, by and by, as a master of industry and in place of monopoly we have obtained, as the result of success, the subversion of competition: association.71

Blanc’s prescriptions have led some historians to recall him as an unabashed Jacobin statist indifferent to participatory democracy or individual rights.72 And, indeed, he pressed hard for top-down associational solutions to the social question. Yet Blanc, technocratic by temperament, nevertheless accorded universal suffrage a place in his vision of reform. In the Organization of Work, he believed there was nothing to fear in “questions of universal suffrage, of the real sovereignty of the people.”73 In an 1850 letter, he took his stand: “Universal Suffrage or civil war: we must choose.”74

Consider also Louis Auguste Blanqui. The nineteenth century’s personification of “the art of insurrection,” Blanqui spent his life conspiring to overthrow the government or sitting in jail for doing so.75 His goal was nothing less than the revolutionary implementation of equality, which “unites and brings men together,” “kills selfishness,” and “[heals] the hideous wounds inflicted by privilege,” which “produces nothing but hatred and isolation.”76 To this end, he preferred secret societies to “the dull buffoonery that is pompously called our institutions” because he believed secret societies could spark revolution: “a people does not make revolution without a great purpose. A powerful lever is needed for it to arise.”77

The “powerful lever” of a secret conspiracy rather than “the dull buffoonery” of institutions, Blanqui says. So much the more conspicuous, then, that he can be found defending universal suffrage as a means for social revolution. At his trial in 1832, he called for the “French people to choose the form of their government . . . through universal suffrage.”78 In 1835, he wrote, “we have in mind less a political change than a refoundation of society.” From that perspective, “the extension of political rights, electoral reform and universal suffrage may be excellent things, but only as means, not as ends.”79 If Blanqui sees universal suffrage as a means, what is important is that he can consider it an “excellent thing” for creating “unity and fraternity” at all. Universal suffrage did not produce atomism or function as a handmaiden to the laissez-faire economy. Rather, it could convey us to the reign of equality, understood as the supersession of “hatred and isolation.”

Even if it happened in different ways and to different degrees, social critics across the spectrum invested the ballot with the hopes of the age: perpetual peace, moral improvement, social cohesion, unity and harmony, political and social equality. In this way, the ballot acquired regenerative powers usually ascribed to the people’s redemptive violence. “The Republic, which excludes none of its sons, summons you to political life,” the Bulletin de la République wrote of universal suffrage in April 1848. “This will be for you a new birth, a baptism, a regeneration.”80 With the redemptive vision of the ballot, universal suffrage became one possible solution to the social question. It manifested the unity of a people ready to seize the reins of society from those who sought to divide and impoverish it. Armed with the vote, the multitudes would be reborn as an electorate, conceived not as a quantitative aggregate of competing preferences but instead as a qualitative unity bound by a common power capable of remaking society itself.

* * *

The fate of the 1848 revolution is well known. Throughout January and February, Louis-Philippe’s government sought to ban public banquets because they offered fora for critics like Ledru-Rollin to demand reform. The cancellation of the 21 February banquet provoked fierce street demonstrations and barricades. Louis-Philippe abdicated three days later. His July Monarchy yielded to the Second Republic, and universal manhood suffrage was implemented the next month. With the franchise enlarged, the republic elected its first and only president, Louis Napoleon. The electorate handed him an enormous popular mandate. Immediately, Napoleon’s political repression of the left began: the President banned the “Marseillaise,” invited the clergy back into secondary education with the Falloux Laws, and intensified press censorship. Blanqui was jailed, and both Blanc and Ledru-Rollin went into exile. To break the power of the left, the President briefly restricted the franchise again in May 1851, only to restore it with his coup d’état on 2 December. Twelve days after he restored universal manhood suffrage, the President organized a national plebiscite which returned support for his government by ten to one. The following year, the Republic would officially be replaced by the Second Empire upon the president’s crowning as Emperor, to popular acclamation. A democratic revolution was defeated by the politics of democracy itself.81

The philosophical defeat that Bonapartist plebiscitary dictatorship presented for French democracy is difficult to understate.82 As Marx bitterly remarked, “Universal manhood suffrage seems to have lasted just long enough to make its own testament in the eyes of the world and to declare in the very name of the people: ‘What’s worth building is worth demolishing.’ ”83 Given the redemptive power ascribed to the suffrage, Napoleon’s coup could only appear as a direct expression of popular sovereignty. His election appeared to transcend the mediations of political representation itself. As Marx put it, unlike individual representatives who “merely represents this or that party, this or that city, this or that outpost . . . He is the elect of the nation, and electing him is the trump card which the sovereign people plays once every four years.” As a result, his election embodied the height of direct democracy. Unlike the elected assembly which “stands in a metaphysical relation to the nation,” Marx lamented, “the elected president stands in a personal one . . . the president is the spirit of the nation incarnate. As opposed to the assembly, he has a kind of divine right, he is president by the people’s grace.”84 Marx understood that Bonapartism was a crisis for the left precisely because it was democratic, even revolutionary. Its world-historic precondition was the belief in the people as the ultimate source of public authority.

Bonapartist plebiscitary democracy tarnished the redemptive promise of universal manhood suffrage. It disoriented the left, and progressive thinkers drew widely different conclusions from the defeat. Some abandoned the terrain of electoral politics to focus on social solutions to the social question. Blanc spent his exile years in London developing his theory of the “social individual” and rediscovering the sources of change in social contexts rather than top-down political engineering.85 For Blanqui, the experience encouraged him to temper his commitment to spontaneous revolution and increase his focus on nonviolent means of social revolution. The revolution failed, Blanqui believed, because the masses had not yet received sufficient “enlightenment.” The task of revolutionary socialism therefore involved educating the masses so that they would be prepared next time.86

Proudhon drew the most influential lesson: the left must abandon electoral politics and “the mystification of universal suffrage” altogether.87 In places like his 1848 “Solution of the Social Problem,” he attacked the suffrage, or democracy—for Proudhon, the two were the same thing.88 His objections to universal suffrage were manifold and haphazardly expressed. Broadly, he was concerned to show that socialists were mistaken to believe universal manhood suffrage voiced the will of the people. For one, since the people do not literally have a mouth, voting was an act of representation rather than immediate voice. It could only approximate the vox populi by producing a “personification, symbol or fiction of national sovereignty,” incarnated as the state.89 For another, the decisions reached by universal manhood suffrage were not universal at all, but majoritarian, a “disguised aristocracy.” Even worse, because most elections concerned representative offices, the suffrage actually amplified the voice not of the people but of those socially powerful enough to get elected. Thus, “There is not and never can be,” Proudhon concluded, “legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit.”90

None of these critiques was as devastating, however, as his objection that the suffrage recapitulated the atomism socialists were trying to ameliorate. The objection held a special persuasive power in light of ongoing anxieties over social disintegration. According to Proudhon, voting was neither associational nor incorporating. Instead, it individuated. Universal manhood suffrage merely aggregated preferences. It could never voice the qualitatively distinct will of the people, because that was indivisible.

Universal suffrage is a kind of atomism through which legislators, who cannot make the People speak as a unit about their essence, invite citizens to express their opinions one-by-one. . . . It is political atheism in the worst meaning of the word. As if adding up some quantity of votes could ever produce unified thought!91

Like most socialists of his generation, Proudhon believed the moral bases of social cohesion had to be reasserted against the fractured conception of peoplehood normalized by economic competition. Yet Proudhon denied the suffrage a place in his program of regeneration. Universal manhood suffrage was not evil because it expressed a misguided will of the people—say, because they were uneducated or misled by oppression. Instead, universal suffrage was dangerous because it gave voice to the wrong conception of peoplehood in the first place: the electorate. “The individual vote, with regard to government, as a means of observing the national will, is exactly the same thing as a new division of land would be in the political economy,” he explained. “It is the agrarian law transported from the soil to authority.”92 Universal manhood suffrage reproduced politically what was occurring economically: individual private enclosure. It was not a solution to social disintegration, but symptomatic of it.

For Proudhon, a better solution to the social question than “democracy” was its opposite: the Republic.

In the republic, everyone reigns and governs; the People think and act as one person. Representatives are plenipotentiaries with the imperative mandate and are recallable at will. The law is the expression of the unanimous will: there is no other hierarchy besides solidarity of functions, no other aristocracy besides labour’s, no other initiative besides the citizens’. Here is the republic! Here is the People’s sovereignty!

The problem with electoral representation, Proudhon wants to say, is that the subject of representation is a self-interested individual. Where universal suffrage aggregated individual preferences, republicanism articulated the unified will of the people. Where the former voiced a fragmented people in subjection to the state, the latter expressed “the People . . . as one person” legislating for itself. The former produced a social body abstractly represented through the calculus of votes; the latter produced a social body incarnated through the “solidarity of functions.” Just as the complementary cooperation between husband and wife, artisan and peasant, or merchant and banker threaded together a thick social fabric, the republic organically generated its unity out of the social division of labor. That was why the Republic incarnated a unified people concretely rather than abstractly or quantitatively.

The Second Republic’s demise seemed to vindicate Proudhon’s arguments. Future communards echoed his prescriptions. In 1871, they repudiated the general will by reimplementing the mandat impératif. They endorsed the idea that popular sovereignty expressed “unity in power” achieved through complementary social differentiation. And they denounced any gap between representative and represented. Unlike the democratic atomism of merely adding up votes, in the Republic, everything had be “thinking and acting as a single man.”93 It had to be a concrete rather than symbolic or “insubstantial” collective subject.94 And, in contrast to representative democracy, the Social Republic had to incarnate a society ruling itself without the state’s mediation. As the editors of Le Peuple reminded their readers in September 1848, “Socialism is a science, politics is an art; Socialism has principles, politics has only fantasies; Socialism knows only humanity, politics knows only individuals.”95 So much the worse, then, for political answers to the social question.

From the Electorate to the People-in-Arms

Imperial censorship drove debates over the social question underground after 1852. Booming economic modernization bolstered Napoleon’s prestige. This was the time of Paris as “the capital of the nineteenth century,” an era when French cultural expression defined European intellectual life.96 In a context of imperial economic and cultural supremacy, it was up to underground networks of Blanquists and freemasons to preserve the memory of 1793 and 1848.97

The social question would not return to public prominence in France until the 1860s, when economic contraction forced France into a depression. The glamor of Haussmanization, gas lamps, arcades, and bourgeois boutiques lining the Champs-Élysées appeared in unacceptable contrast to urban working men and women scraping by on five-sous dinner specials, purchased on credit. Together with press censorship, the economic contraction turned liberals against the Empire.98 Napoleon responded by liberalizing his rule, expanding the right to strike, freedom for the press, and legislative power for parliamentary bodies. But these reforms backfired. The partial restoration of the right to association and a free press empowered opposition groups instead of consolidating support for his regime. In particular, the relaxation of laws on public assembly in the late 1860s gave birth to a flourishing “public meetings” movement.99

The social question resurfaced in this environment. However, engaged workers and intellectuals did not return to the political culture of 1848 uncritically. Exaltation of work, technological utopianism, and faith in positivism all reappeared, but much of the revolutionary left now appeared indifferent toward the suffrage and the political process. Within the vocabularies of dissent that prevailed in the Empire’s final days, Citoyen Charpentier’s heavenly lightning of universal suffrage no longer offered a compelling weapon of revolutionary democracy.

This disillusionment pointed to a real conceptual mutation in midcentury socialist thought. Universal manhood suffrage existed under the Second Empire, but everyone knew its existence was de jure and constrained to a preordained plebiscitary function. Suffrage under the Empire did not amount to the fullness of electoral popular sovereignty. Yet, rather than reclaim the redemptive vision of the ballot against plebiscitary dictatorship, many socialists abandoned it wholesale. When the conservative publisher Edouard Dentu surveyed the public meetings of 1870, he found “heroes of barricades, professors of social science, doctors of communism and the parceling of property, blue-stockings from the womens’ clubs . . . all of the personnel of the Terror” advocating for total moral anarchy. Here was the “wreckage of 1848” demanding “atheism, regicide, civil war, spoliation, the communalization of property, the abolition of the family.”100 Yet Dentu’s list of the wreckage of 1848 contains a conspicuous absence: electoral popular sovereignty. Every progressive shibboleth appeared, but there was no mention at all of voting, elections, or the suffrage.101

This absence was the point. Louise Michel worked as a schoolteacher in Paris during the public meetings movement. Her memoirs recount men and women prophesizing a post-scarcity utopia of communal plenty. On the other side of history, they believed the downtrodden would enjoy “chemical mixtures containing more iron and nutrients than the blood and meat we now absorb” from the “putrefied flesh we are accustomed to eating.” After the social revolution, men and women would be regenerated as sensual, self-making creatures. “We were all poets, a little,” even if imperial rule tried to erase that fact.102 Yet, for Michel, electoral politics had little, if any, role in the coming utopia. Amid talk of engineered food, public art, and educational reform, she accorded no place for elections. As she put it, “politics is a form of that stupidity” which causes worldly evils. It is thus “incapable of ennobling the race.”103 Indeed, “the issue of political rights is dead.”104 Revolutionaries had learned that “the attempt to work through parliaments has been going on for a long while, but parliaments, standing as they do in the midst of rottenness, can no longer produce anything worthwhile.”105

Disaffection persisted deep into the siege of Paris. At the Club démocratique des Batignolles on 9 December 1870, clubists denounced a report in which a reactionary “openly announce[d] his plan to confiscate the Republic by means of universal suffrage.”106 During a debate on the social question at the Club de l’école de médecine on 28 December, a citizen Armand Levy proposed reestablishing corporatism and reorganizing it on the basis of universal suffrage. Some audience members were skeptical. One clubist replied, “it is true that you introduce universal suffrage; but have you thought carefully about the consequences of applying universal suffrage to industry?” Indeed, “was not the Empire the government of universal suffrage par excellence?”107 Michel and other future communards were resuscitating 1848’s dream of a redeemed humanity in 1870, but they were leaving behind the redemptive vision of the ballot.

The fall and winter of 1870–1871 eroded whatever remaining faith socialists held in elections. On 31 October, Blanquists led an insurrection which failed, and four days later the provisional government held a plebiscite. Jacobins and Blanquists campaigned hard to convince Paris to support revolutionary socialist organizations. Yet, out of more than 300,000 voting Parisians, only about 54,000 voted in favor of the communal movement. In February, elections to the new National Assembly propelled monarchists and conservatives into power with the sanction of a national majority. Paris was virtually alone in electing radicals into the government, and, even there, the left’s victory was uneven, concentrated in working class neighborhoods.108 If the people were the electorate, it was simply impossible for Parisian revolutionary socialist movements to speak on their behalf. Michel bitterly remarked that the “unthinking crowds” of Paris behaved like “the great herd that bares its back for the whip and holds out its neck to the knife.”109

These electoral defeats compounded the shadow of 1848, and they pushed revolutionary communards toward a minoritarian model of revolution. At the end of December 1870, one future communard argued that “the revolutionary method is the only one which could today be put at the disposition of the people. Governed for a long time by conspiratorial monarchic minorities, we must today be guided by a minority devoted to the interests of the people.”110 As organizers prepared the Red Poster campaign in early January, Arthur Perion announced that “This time we will go to the Hôtel de Ville and we will install the Commune. For that, we will not have recourse to universal suffrage.” That was because “even though democrats are in the minority, we must try to establish the Commune, because for too long we have let ourselves be disunited by the Bourgeoisie.”111 A few days later, on 10 January, at the Club de la Reine-Blanche, another speaker pressed the same point again. The debate concerned the proposition that “the Republic cannot be separated from universal suffrage without becoming an oligarchy or dictatorship.” This revolutionary insisted,

Well, then, let us proclaim the Commune; we don’t have a day, an hour to lose. We’re told about elections, about universal suffrage. . . . Universal suffrage will be good when France will have stopped being raised by petits frères, when everyone will have received free and obligatory education; but where we are now, what we need to save ourselves is the revolutionary Commune.112

In the eyes of many clubists, universal suffrage had forfeited its decisive role in replacing the Empire with a Republic. This retreat announced a break in the chain of identifications between the Republic, democracy, and universal manhood suffrage that prevailed in the 1840s. Those who did not have the vote still valued it, but Napoleon’s plebiscitary methods and the left’s electoral defeats persuaded many of its impotence. Another solution would be needed for realizing the regenerated society they craved. The situation was dire: “France, suffering for centuries, has arrived at this last period of the malady, where it is necessary that the patient recover or die,” Odilon Delimal warned in La Commune. “If the soul of the people still has enough energy, if the social body has the power to resist the embraces of corruption, that is salvation. But if the will weakens, if the body staggers, that is death.”113 Either France could die of the social question, or it could be reborn. But to find salvation, a new language of democratic agency would be needed, something other than the ballot.


Figure 3.2 Horace Vernet, La Bataille de Valmy (1826).

The National Gallery.


Figure 3.3 François Rude, “The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792,” Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France.

* * *

The image of “the people in arms” possessed a long republican pedigree. Machiavelli praised the popular armies of the Roman consuls, arguing that, unlike foreign mercenaries, citizen armies were empowered by glory and love of country.114 Rousseau insisted in Considerations on the Government of Poland that every citizen should be a soldier, not by trade but by duty.115 After Year II of the Revolution, the people in arms became one of French republicanism’s most enduring motifs.116 They came to name the people in their most concrete, virtuous, and felicitous personality. The battle of Valmy on 20 September 1792 immortalized them as an invincible power, capable of throwing back the united armies of monarchical Europe against all odds.117 At Valmy, the people had been armed with the true source of military might—not numbers, but republican unity and morality (Figures 3.2 and 3.3).

The people in arms functioned as a revolutionary image in at least three ways. First, it symbolized universalism. It crystallized the dream of a people taking responsibility for its self-defense directly rather than a section of society doing so on its behalf. “This not only gave moral force to what the armies were required to do,” Alan Forrest argues, but also helped define “the wider project of revolutionising society.”118 It enacted equality in the arena of violence. Second, the image signified voluntarism. In practice, conscription into the revolutionary armies had sometimes been compulsory. Military difficulties, for example, had forced Jacobins to forfeit the idea of a volunteer army for a proportionate quotas system in the spring of 1793. In theory, however, the people in arms were volontaires, citizens who expressed their freedom and equality by answering the lévee en masse. Their voluntarism made their violence a powerful reagent of moral regeneration; it expressed virtue.119 Third, the people in arms contributed to the idea of a continuous revolutionary tradition stretching from 1792 to 1871, because it blurred different types of violence and actors into iterations of a single democratic phenomenon. The volunteers at Valmy became the same people responsible for striking down the king’s tyranny on 10 August with a thunderous flash of their unmediated, catastrophic agency. Both groups of actors participated in a single collective subject that happened to incarnate across different bodies. The people in arms therefore never named a brute fact. It interpellated heterogeneous acts and agents into a single living symbol, one which reappeared across generations in a way that seemed to be genetically French (Figure 3.4).120


Figure 3.4 Decree for the abolition of the Expiatory Chapel of Louis XVI by the Paris Commune’s Committee on Public Safety. The broadside is dated for the Year 79 of the Revolution.

Courtesy Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Their image comes into sharper focus when contrasted to the imperial standing army. In 1868, the Empire extended active service for the imperial army to five years. The reform sought to improve the wartime viability of conscripts, but it confirmed that the imperial army stood apart from civil society as a hierarchical professional cadre.121 In contrast, the people in arms were ordinary citizens culled from the commercial classes or skilled trades. They were one another’s equals, regardless of trade, class, social standing—and sometimes sex. The contrast also signified an opposition between the organic and the inorganic. “The people in arms was,” Arthur Waldron observes, “a natural phenomenon. It was what society would do if freed from artificial, inorganic constraints” like bureaucratic rules for conscription and promotion.122 They were, Daniel Moran argues, imagined as a literal “force of nature.”123 That was why they expressed an altogether different conception of collective agency than the Empire’s standing army: not the careerist ambitions of professional soldiers, but the natural instinct for republican citizenship among ordinary people.

Communards appropriated this mythical image to become the government of the true people: the people in arms rather than an electorate. It allowed them to claim the mantle of the people even when the majority did not side with them in elections. Appreciating this fact underscores why it is a mistake to construe, as many critics have done, the Commune’s minoritarian revolutionary model as “betraying” its deeper, “plebeian” democratic ambitions.124 It is a mistake because it naturalizes the electorate as the true body of the people at a moment when the proper shape of that body was under dispute. It also makes it more difficult to explain the central, overriding feature of communard thought: though they waged a minoritarian revolution, they still believed they waged a democratic revolution. To understand how that was possible, we have to appreciate how communards drew their authority from an alternative incarnation of the people’s body than the one underwriting the French state.

We can see this redefinition of the people from an electorate to a people in arms in three participant accounts of the Commune: Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s L’histoire de la Commune de 1871, Louise Michel’s Mémoires, and Jules Vallès’s L’Insurgé. These authors belonged to different organizations within Paris, and their accounts provide different vantage points on the Commune’s history. Yet all fought on the barricades, and all dramatized the same point: the Commune was self-government by the people in arms.

Lissagaray published L’histoire de la Commune de 1871 five years after the Commune. Karl and Eleanor Marx helped him translate it into English in 1886, after he escaped to London. In this book, Lissagaray did not seek the meaning of the Commune in his first personal experience of it. He sought it in its history. And for Lissagaray, the Commune’s history was above all a story concerning Paris’s passage from military passivity and moral weakness to insurrectionary politics and moral enthusiasm—a story, in other words, of redemptive violence.

Lissagaray’s history opens with a charge: the provisional government never intended to activate the people in arms to save France. The Empire collapsed with Napoleon III’s military defeat to Prussian forces at the battle at Sedan on 2 September 1870. In Paris, a confused but enthusiastic republican movement seized the Hôtel de Ville and proclaimed the Republic as a war measure. At first, that provisional government invoked the people in arms and Valmy’s example. On 5 September, Louis Arago, the mayor of Paris, exhorted that “Just as our fathers did in 1792, so I call on you today: Citizens, the fatherland is in danger!” “The Republic was victorious in 1792,” and today “the Republic has once more been proclaimed. . . . Citizens, watch over the polity that is confided in you: tomorrow, with the army, you will avenge the patrie.” Gambetta, now Minister of the Interior, echoed the mayor’s allusions to Valmy. “Today is 21 September,” he wrote. “Sixty-eight years ago on this day our fathers founded the Republic and took an oath, faced with a foreign invader who defiled the sacred soil of the fatherland, that they would live in freedom or die in combat.”125 These appeals to Valmy and the people in arms encouraged leaders of the extraparliamentary left to cooperate with the provisional government. On 6 September, Blanqui joined his fellow conspirators Gustave Tridon and Émile Eudes in declaring his support. He encouraged others to do the same in the first issue of La Patrie en danger.

Hindsight lets Lissagaray see the blustering parliamentary rhetoric as merely that. “The people instinctively offered their help to render the nation unto herself” after Napoleon’s defeat. Yet “the Left repulsed them, refused to save the country by a riot,” thereby allowing “the fettered nation [to sink] into the abyss in the face of its motionless governing classes.”126 Echoing familiar denunciations of parliamentary politics as mere chatter, Lissagaray reports that the parliamentary left “exhausts itself in exclamations.” Gambetta cries, “We must wage Republican war,” and then promptly “sits down again,” unmoving.127 Jules Favre demands a Committee of Defense; he is rebuffed and concedes without argument. Prussian forces defeat the French army at Metz—something the government denies but newspapers are reporting—but no deputy asks after the discrepancy. Prussian armies rapidly approach Paris, but no evacuation is implemented, no casting of cannon and ammunition systematically initiated, no earthworks and defense fortifications built.128 Readers must conclude, Lissagaray insists, that the provisional government intended to capitulate from the beginning. There was never a sincere effort to call the people to arms.

In Lissagaray’s view, the provisional government’s true sin lay in this inaction. The people in arms laid dormant within the bodies of Paris, but they were not invoked. “In every Parisian mechanic there is the stuff of a gunner. . . . Paris swarmed with engineers, overseers, foremen, who might have been drilled as officers. There lying wasted were all the materials for a victorious army.”129 Napoleon’s defeat represented a defeat of a professional corps standing independently from society. It did not signify the defeat of the French people. Rather than draw out the latent “victorious army” in Paris, however, the national government “up to the last hour refused to utilize it.”130 “Were they to give in,” Lissagaray cried, “their arms intact?”131 Apparently so. On 28 January, Paris capitulated to Prussian forces.

According to Lissagaray, the politicians of the left were not the only culpable men. Paris, too, was guilty. Communards believed Paris held a right to self-defense, but Parisians apparently did not want to exercise it. Lissagaray had already observed to his dismay that when Blanquists earlier marched through Belleville to the cries of Vive la République! Death to the Prussians! “No one joined them. The crowd looked on from affair, astonished, motionless.”132 During the winter, mass demobilization persisted. As the provisional government refused the levée en masse and fumbled in its defensive maneuvers, Parisian everyday life under the siege was characterized above all by inertia.

All is silent. Save the faubourgs, Paris was a vast sick chamber, where no one dared to speak above his breath. This moral abdication is the true psychological phenomenon of the siege. . . . If they [the parliamentary left] dread the giddy-headed, the fanatics, or compromising collaborators, why do they not take control of the movement into their own hands? But they confine themselves to crying, “No riots now we are faced with the enemy! No fanatics!” as though capitulation were better than an insurrection; as though 10th August 1792 and 31st May 1793 had not been insurrections in the face of the enemy threat. . . . And you, citizens of the old sections of 1792–94 who supplied ideas to the Convention and the Commune, who dictated to them the means of safety . . . do you recognize your offspring in these gulls, weaklings, jealous of the people, prostrating before the Left like devotees before the host?133

France needed the memory of 1792–1794 more than ever, but Paris remained inert. The “true psychological phenomenon of the siege,” Lissagaray emphasized, was the people’s “moral abdication,” their reluctance to exercise their own power. Etiolated, degenerated, and exhausted, Paris was a shadow of its revolutionary self.

For Lissagaray, 18 March provided a turning point. That morning, the French national government tried to disarm Paris by seizing its cannons, paid for by the subscriptions of the National Guard. It dispatched soldiers under Generals Clément-Thomas and Lecomte to reclaim artillery from neighborhoods like Belleville and Montmartre. Short on horses, the soldiers struggled to cart the cannons away. The neighborhood women rang the tocsin and shielded the cannons by climbing atop them or obstructing the path. Platoon leaders ordered their soldiers to shoot the gathering crowds, but they turned their rifle butts up. In the afternoon’s chaos, the National Guard arrested Lecomte. An angry crowd soon executed him. Minutes later, crowds identified and killed Clément-Thomas as well. Adolphe Thiers responded to these executions by ordering the city abandoned. He withdrew Paris’s functionaries from its markets, telegraphs, and hospitals.

Upon the government’s withdrawal of the city’s logistical infrastructure, the cannons’ defenders in the streets filled the vacuum of authority. When members of the parliamentary left tried to ensure that General Lecomte was given a military trial, the crowds murdered him on the spot instead. When officers of the National Guard asked the people to “Wait for the Committee! Constitute a court-martial!” for Clément-Thomas, they were answered with his immediate execution: “Twenty muskets levelled at him battered him down.”134 In short, on 18 March, “the people, so long standing on the defensive, had begun to move.”135 The Commune was born, and its violence had not waited for legal niceties.

Hayden White reminds us that histories are never just chronological records. Their explanatory power depends on their emplotment. “Significance” and “explanation” are formal effects of establishing hierarchies among events and the sequences used to connect them.136 From this point of view, what is telling about Lissagaray’s emplotment is how he plots the Commune’s origins on 18 March—and not its official election on 26 March. The latter could have been invoked to provide an origin for the Commune. Yet it is rarely, if ever, invoked as its founding date, by either Lissagaray or any other historian of the Paris Commune. Indeed, when Lissagaray discusses 26 March, it is as an episode in a military campaign, “a life and death struggle.” On election day, Lissagaray writes, “a hundred battalions thronged the square, and piled their bayonets, lit up by the sun, in front of the Hôtel-de-Ville.” Battalions lined the streets, and red banners “[symbolized] the advent of the people.” In the square, bands trumpeted the “Marseillaise” and the “Chant du départ”—songs commemorating the volontaires of 1792—while “the cannon of the Commune of 1792 thundered on the riverside.”137

The festival’s occasion may have been the Commune’s election, but its results were not at center stage. It was the festival itself, visual proof that “the people has the right to convoke itself” directly and “in moments of great peril.” Paris had “restored the circulation to her paralysed limbs,” “resuscitated” with a “new life.” She was ready “to begin a new existence with the regenerated Communes of France” in her wake, earning “a youthful aspect,” happy to have “escaped from death or great peril.” “Those who had despaired a month before,” Lissagaray observed, “were now full of enthusiasm.” Indeed, the contagious enthusiasm abolished the space between citizens and fused them together with a common humanity, “for indeed we were not strangers, but bound together by the same faith and the same aspirations.”138 The porcelain decorator Gabriel Ranvier proclaimed the Commune’s election, and “the quick reports of the cannon, the bands, the drums, blended in one formidable vibration.”139

One formidable vibration of artillery and drums, the cannon of the 1792 Commune thundering on the riverside: that was the “magnificent spectacle of a people recovering their sovereignty.” The undivided sovereignty of the people is an abstract axiom, to be sure. Yet on 26 March, just as on 18 March or 21 January 1793, it became possible to believe that it was something seen and heard, experienced in the harmonizing vibration of drums and cannon. “This lightning would have made the blind see,” Lissagaray boasted. The meaning of the Commune’s election was not gleaned from its election results, its quantitative ratio of the tallied ballots. What mattered was the candescence of common power, that “invaluable force in this time of universal anaemia,” “one of those great historical turning-points when a people may be remoulded.”140

Lissagaray’s portrayal of the Commune’s election day was not a stylistic quirk. Vallès did not even bother calling 26 March a victory for an electorate. It belonged to a “victorious republican army”: “This clear, warm sun gilding the mouth of the cannon, this smell of bouquets, the ripple of the flags . . . these lights, these brass fanfares, these bronze reflections,” Vallès wrote, are “all intoxicating the victorious republican army with pride and joy.”141 In that day’s Le Cri du peuple, Vallès requested the National Guard be organized as Paris’s sole armed force. After all, it was thanks to their “spontaneous and courageous effort” that the revolution of 18 March was successful.142 Three days later, the newly elected Commune abolished the professional standing army in favor of the National Guard, to which all French men were now asked to join. Vallès responded, “The act of popular sovereignty was accomplished in a city bristling with men in arms. . . . In the midst of this military paraphernalia it voted, serene and threatening, deposing its cannonballs in the ballot box.”143 On 30 March, he summed up his interpretation: “The Commune is proclaimed. She leaves the ballot box triumphant, sovereign and armed.”144

In the hands of both Lissagaray and Vallès, 26 March became victory fanfare for 18 March. Its purpose was not to announce election results but to crown the violent creation of the Commune. Lissagaray in particular plots the day as consummating the supremacy of the National Guard. And it is worth recalling that virtually every document demanding the Commune made that request. When broadsides like the “Red Poster” of 6 January itemized the French state’s wrongs, they did not focus “on the national” government’s suppression of Paris’s participatory political culture. They objected, instead, to the government’s refusal of the levée en masse, its failure to mobilize the National Guard, its hesitation to throw the full brunt of popular power against the enemy. The government failed to call the people in arms into being. That was why proclaiming the Commune was a war measure. Its willingness to call for armed insurrection became the basis of its competing claim to popular sovereignty against the French state.

Lissagaray’s response to the Commune’s recreation of the Committee on Public Safety underlines this point best. At the end of a council meeting on 28 April 1871, Jules Miot, a veteran of 1848, called for the committee’s creation. Communard sorties were disorganized and ended in embarrassing retreat. Paris lost Fort Issy to Versailles at the end of April, opening the city to imminent invasion. For Miot, it was time to recreate the Committee on Public Safety. The Commune needed an organ that could wield executive authority over its scattered, decentralized commissions. It needed a source of energy, initiative, and centralized action in place of paralyzing deliberation.

The Council’s majority voted in favor of Miot’s proposal on the first of May, but not before acrimonious debate. Gustave Courbet worried that “We are reproducing to our detriment a terror that does not belong to our times.”145 Creating a new Committee on Public Safety trapped the communal revolution in the shadow of Robespierre, St. Just, Hébert, and Babeuf. Raoul Rigault, in contrast, insisted that working within that shadow was the point. Infamous head of the Commune’s Prefecture of the Police, Rigault already styled himself the reincarnation of Hébert; the Commune, a reincarnation of its regicidal 1793 antecedent.146

The Council’s dispute turned on the nature of republican dictatorship. In his recounting of it, Lissagaray chastised “the minority” like Courbet and Tridon for voting against the Committee on Public Safety. Though sympathetic to them on philosophical grounds, Lissagaray believed “these men could never understand that the Commune was a barricade, not a government.” These men “strained the reaction against the principle of authority to the verge of suicide,” jeopardizing the Commune’s survival with their unconditional antiauthoritarianism.147

Lissagaray’s assessment is revealing. A Commune that was afraid of authority was not a commune at all because communalism was never just an anti-authoritarian experiment. Its mission was to reconstitute democratic authority outside the state. And if the authority of the state was conferred from elections, the authority of the Commune would be conferred from elsewhere: by the people armed. For Lissagaray, “the minority” protesting the Committee on Public Safety misunderstood the matter at hand. The Commune was a democracy because it was at war.

Lissagaray was thus relieved to report that, despite the divisive debate, members reunited over the most important value of all: “no one, even in the thick of the peril dared to utter the word capitulation.”148 Capitulation was more than a military concession. It was the defeat of the Social Republic and its dream of social regeneration. In the end, if one was to find the “social society” of which socialists dreamed, one had only to look at the “smoking ramparts” of Paris rather than the halls of representative government.

Do you at least recognize this Paris, seven times shot down since 1789, and always ready to rise for the salvation of France? Where is her programme, say you? Why, seek it before you, and not at the faltering Hôtel-de-Ville. These smoking ramparts, these explosions of heroism, these women, these men of all professions united . . . do they not speak loudly enough our common thought, and that all of us are fighting for equality, the enfranchisement of labour, the advent of a social society?149

* * *

Louise Michel was a combatant of the Commune and an active participant in the public meetings movement. She was also a member of the Commune’s Union de Femmes and the Eighteenth Arrondissement’s vigilance committee. Like Lissagaray, she loathed Paris’s passivity after the Second Empire’s collapse: “the city should have cleansed itself by bathing in the blood of the Empire.”150 On 18 March, she protected the cannons with the crowds of Montmartre. In her Mémoires, Michel echoed Lissagaray’s choice to plot the insurrection as the Commune’s origins.

On this day, the eighteenth of March, the people wakened. If they had not, it would have been the triumph of some king; instead it was a triumph of the people. The eighteenth of March could have belonged to the allies of kings, or to foreigners, or to the people. It was the people’s.151

Michel knew first hand that 18 March could not self-evidently speak for the people, either of France or Paris. She participated in the failed popular insurrections prior to March, including the 30 October takeover of the Hôtel de Ville (in response to the Government of National Defense’s announcement of negotiations with Prussians) and the 22 January insurrection with the National Guard. The failure of the first led to Blanqui’s arrest; the second saw Breton mobile guards kill several protesters in a crowd much too small to threaten the provisional government.

These failures of popular action led Michel to distinguish between two collective subjects in her memoir: a demobilized, unarmed crowd and “the people.” Recounting her indignation at Paris’s refusal to spontaneously rise up, she wrote,

One holiday I was going to Julie’s when I encountered a vast multitude of people on the boulevard. With the hopes I held, I believed the hour had come, but it was a carnival, in the midst of which the old republican Miot was being taken to prison. . . . It was a joyous crowd on a day of mourning, but they weren’t really the people. They were the same crowd you see at public executions, but which you can never find when you need to rip up paving stones to build barricades. They are the same unthinking crowd that bolsters up tyrannies and cuts the throats of people trying to save them.152

Michel’s claim that a demobilized crowd “weren’t really the people” goes beyond distinguishing a pacific people with an armed one. By excluding a demobilized crowd from “the people” at all, Michel was suggesting that armed mobilization was essential rather than accidental to peoplehood. It was not one among many activities the people could engage in; it was the people’s defining activity. One was simply a “useless mouth” otherwise.153 “The people,” Michel implies, emerge through a special kind of collective agency—insurrectionary violence—and that is what differentiates them from Bonapartism’s “electorate,” “the same unthinking crowd that bolsters up tyrannies.” True popular agency is expressed not through the ballot but at the barricade.

For Michel, the people in arms is the true subject of history. Individual lives are simply segments of its larger impersonal existence, one particular instantiation of its life in a specific time and place. The people in arms is a collective subject transcending any particular body because its body is that of the Revolution itself. Michel directly participated in Bloody Week; she defended the barricades of Montmartre. Yet her memoirs disavow her own agency and that of her comrades. Time and again, the memoirs describe the Commune as the work of a supra-personal agency. Lecomte and Clément-Thomas were not killed by any one person but by the Revolution itself, which “will strike for many others, without the Revolution pausing in its course.”154 Again, at the barricades, her violence is not her own.

Some people say I’m brave. Not really. There is no heroism; people are simply entranced by events. What happens is that in the face of danger my perceptions are submerged in my artistic sense, which is seized and charmed. Tableaux of the dangers overwhelm my thoughts, and the horrors of the struggle become poetry. It wasn’t bravery. . . . It was beautiful, that’s all. Barbarian that I am, I love cannon, the smell of powder, machine-gun bullets in the air.155

Her courage at the barricade was not sourced in personal will or moral conviction but in her being “entranced” or “submerged” in the arresting aesthetic experience of combat, “the smell of powder, machine-gun bullets in the air.” If Michel’s account is autobiographical, she is not its protagonist. Individually, they were “nothing,” but in taking up weapons, they entered into a larger revolutionary drama, not as themselves, but as the latest instantiation of a collective subject that predated their individual biological births. “My life is not mine to live,” she insisted like a catechism. “One person is nothing and yet part of that which is everything—the Revolution.”156

For Michel, part of the regenerative power of the people in arms lay in the fact that it included women. “Louise Michel is a woman,” she wrote of herself, and as a woman, she “has the villainy to insist” that “All inequalities . . . will collapse when men and women engage in the common battle together.”157 “Beware of [women]!” for “when they are sickened by all that is around them and rise up against the old world,” Michel warned, “On that day the new world will begin.”158 Michel was articulating a view common among the most radical women of the Commune. “For the citizen who defends his right and his home,” André Léo argued, “the presence of the woman is a joy, a force . . . she doubles his courage and enthusiasm.” Indeed, “The woman on the field of battle . . . is the soul of the city saying to the soldier: I am with you. Do it right.”159 Enfranchised women may be good, but armed women are even better. That is the real transgression, the proof that a new society and new equality has arrived.

Consider again how 18 March was an insurrection of women, just like the 1789 March on Versailles. Michel writes elsewhere of her rush to protect the cannons that day,

Montmartre awoke, the rappel beat. . . . In the dawn that was rising, we heard the tocsin, we ascended quickly. . . . We thought of dying for liberty. It was as if we were lifted from the earth. We die, Paris lifts itself up. At certain times, the crowds are the avant-garde of the human ocean.160

To face death, she says, is to feel one’s feet lift off from the earth, indeed to lift oneself up. The reader is reminded of Edmund Burke’s portrait of Marie Antoinette: “surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning star.”161 Marie Antoinette hovers above the ground because she comes from above; she is power devolved from the majesty of the state, a gift from on high. Michel hovers, too, but she is Marie Antoinette inverted. She is “lifted from the earth,” not descended from heaven. Her transcendence is not that of power dignified, but the elation of those “dying for liberty.” She does not live “above the horizon,” but belongs to this “human ocean” answering the tocsin, the call to arms. To convoke the people, Michel wants to say, “prose and verse and music”—the warp and weft of utopian socialism—is not enough. Economic cooperation is not enough. Women have to be seized and charmed by the whistle of bullets.

Michel is echoing Lissagaray on the form of the true people. When it comes to social revolution, the redemptive vision of the ballot needs to make way for the people in arms. As in 1789, that includes women. Free lectures on physics, chemistry, law, music, and pedagogy might be liberating, but, as the new dawn approaches, it is violence that women must take up. “The Revolution was rising, so what good were dramas? The true drama was in the streets, so what good were orchestras? We had cannon.”162

The last two years before 1871, the rue Hautefeuille was a hotbed of intellectual women. . . . But prose and verse and music disappeared because we felt so near the drama coming from the street, the true drama, the drama of humanity. The songs of the new epoch were war songs, and there was no room for anything else.163

However much an associational political culture can make life under capitalism more livable, it does not make a people sovereign. Orchestras are beautiful, but not as beautiful as war songs. What the Social Republic needs, what “the drama of humanity” requires, are women with guns.

* * *

Jules Vallès was a combatant of the Commune like Lissagaray and Michel. A familiar critic of the Second Empire and editor of Le Cri du peuple, Vallès was also a member of the Communal Council. His autobiographical recounting of the event, L’Insurgé, actually bills itself as a novel. However, except for naming the main character Jacques Vingtras, the novel is barely fictionalized. L’Insurgé recounts Vallès’s life (as Vingtras) from the Second Empire to the fall of the Commune. Unlike Lissagaray and Michel, Vallès plots the Commune’s origin a bit earlier than 18 March—although, like them, that origin will be violent. According to Vallès, the incipient spirit of the Commune was discovered at the funeral of Victor Noir on 20 January 1870. Noir had been shot and killed in a duel with Napoleon’s cousin, and his funeral became the focal point of a Blanquist conspiracy to instigate an uprising against the Second Empire. Unfortunately, armed soldiers dissolved the procession.

Despite the insurrection’s failure, Vallès tells the reader that Noir’s funeral showed the people to be on the cusp of reincarnating as the people in arms. Procession members were “fragments of an army seeking other fragments, shreds of a Republic stuck together by a dead man’s blood . . . all held to the body by a single idea.” Under the cloak of each worker was a weapon at the ready: “Their hearts were swollen with the hope of battle—their pockets were swollen as well.”164 They moved as an absorptive, organic unity. During the procession, a fellow journalist came to Vallès, presuming him the leader. Vallès rebuked him. “No one’s in command, get that straight! Not even Rochefort and Delescluze, who would soon be completely forgotten if some street orator produced a dazzling flash of lightning, even if he just made the sun break through the cloudy sky.” The Empire received its dazzling warning. In the face of the people’s reawakening, the Empire “better hurry if they want . . . to drown the fire of the mob as the sound of thunder is a signal that the murderous electricity has died in the earth.”165 Once the Empire heard the thunderclap of the people, it would already be too late.

Of course, Napoleon threatened to dupe the people once more. He declared war against the Prussians, redirecting the people’s ire away from himself. Vallès despaired. “But can’t you hear the ‘Marseillaise’?” someone asked him. “I am appalled by your ‘Marseillaise’ and what you have made of it. It has become a State Hymn. It does not inspire volunteers, it leads flocks of sheep.”166 (Michel: “Have you ever seen sheep lift their throats to the knife?”)167 The juxtaposition ought to be read as a juxtaposition between the people in arms, free and spontaneous, and the imperial army, hierarchical and professional. Vallès stumbles on a group of soldiers preparing for the war and a drill sergeant shouting “Left, Right, Left, Right!” and he seethes. “Do you think that men maintain the proper distance and wield bayonets like those metronomes when, after suddenly meeting the enemy, they find themselves in the heat of battle in some meadow, field or cemetery?”168 The imperial army was a machine that moved without will or consciousness. “Left, Right, Left, Right!”

To Vallès’s euphoria, the Empire’s collapse lifted the ideological fog, and the people instinctively sought the Social Republic. The day after the Third Republic was proclaimed, Vallès observed that “Everyone had come there out of instinct, no plans had been made.” In the rain, he and other artisans “[wandered] about, looking for one another and talking of the Social Fatherland.”169

Vallès came to agree with Lissagaray and Michel that the Social Fatherland could not be founded through elections. Communards were learning that authority could not be generated through institutional channels or bestowed from above. It was generated spontaneously from below through readiness to fight. The Commune appointed Vallès a commander to a battalion of the National Guard, and he was given a military coat with epaulets to symbolize his authority. The guard members rebuffed him. The occasion taught Vallès that conferral of an official rank in the guard diminished rather than bestowed authority. Vallès tore off his epaulets.

I quickly ripped off my four pitiful little stripes, faded, pinkish, cruddy . . . and I was free! Now I could be the real leader of the battalion. Oh, you must never accept regular commands in the revolutionary army! I thought rank conferred authority—it removes it. You’re nothing but a cipher before the companies. You truly become a hero only in combat, when you’re the first to leap into danger. Then, since you’re in front, the others follow. And for that the baptism of the ballot is useless. All that counts is the baptism of fire.170

Stripped of the symbols of rank, “he presided over the deliberations of every group without being the president of any.”171

This scene repudiates the redemptive vision of the ballot. Historically, officers of the National Guard were elected, not appointed. Yet those elections, Vallès understood, were not appropriate means for distributing authority. Authority had to be distributed by participation in collective armed struggle. The scene points to the extraordinary distance travelled between 1848 and 1871. According to Ledru-Rollin, universal manhood suffrage was the heart of revolutionary democracy’s arsenal. But, in 1871, Vallès confronted an altered theoretical terrain. On one side now stood the state, the electorate, and the political republic built on bourgeois rights; on the other lay antistatism, the people in arms, and the social republic built on the primacy of society. In the context of these conceptual realignments, it was futile for Gambetta, Favre, and other leaders of the Provisional Government to reassert parliamentary authority. They were nothing but false prophets, men “who wanted to play the thundering Jupiter.”172

In the weeks connecting the funeral of Noir to 18 March, Vallès would discover the violent sources of democratic authority time and again. In between jail stints and reading Proudhon, Vallès remarked, “I could feel the storm brewing nonetheless, I could see the horizon darkening. Let the people be made to lose patience—and let the first thunderbolt explode!”173 Just like Lissagaray and Michel, that thunderbolt exploded for Vallès on 18 March: “two generals had their brains blown out this morning.” Upon hearing the news, Vallès shouts, “Well! It’s the Revolution! So here it is, the moment hoped for and awaited.”174 Vallès regretted ever doubting that the people would take up arms. “Cowards that we were,” he lamented, “we were already talking of leaving you and going far away from your streets, which we considered dead. Forgive us! Fatherland of honor, city of salvation, bivouac of the Revolution! No matter what happens, even if we are to be conquered once more, even if we die tomorrow, our generation will have been consoled.”175 The events of 18 March redeemed their generation. Like their forefathers, they, too, would incarnate the legendary collective subject of the Year II.


Figure 3.5 Barricade of the Paris Commune in the Rue de la Paix (1871).


As the Versaillais breached Paris’s gates, Vallès observed the spectacle of the people in arms building barricades (Figure 3.5).

Where was my head! I thought the city was going to play dead before being killed, and now women and children are doing their part. . . . Fever everywhere, or rather health. No one shouting, no one drinking. Just from time to time a trip to the bar, and, quickly, lips are wiped with the back of the hand, and man gets back to business. “We’re going to do our damnedest to put in a good day’s work,” one of this morning’s whiners tell me. “You had doubts about us a while ago, comrade. Drop by when things get hot, you’ll see who’s a coward!” The poppy harvest is waving in the wind . . . they can die now.176

Here at the barricade was Proudhon’s “Republic.” The social division of labor added up to an organic unity in combat. Fraternity and equality materialized as citizen-defenders cooperated on the barricade. Men, women, children, and workers of all trades worked together in unison to prepare for battle. This was the legendary people in arms whose agency had a restorative, regenerative effect on the social body. Not “fever,” but “health,” “a good day’s work,” everyone “doing their part.” The moral language of the shop floor had been transposed to the barricade.

The French state had orders for systematic murder. Veterans of the colonial theater led the invading forces; Joseph Vinoy and MacMahon had both participated in the capture of Algiers. Vallès, however, looked back on the Commune’s final hours and believed he glimpsed something immortal: its redemptive image of spontaneous insurrection, “an invincible weapon . . . the tool no one can break, the tool rebels will from this moment pass on from hand to hand along the road to civil wars.”177 So long as the future inherited this language of violence, the people in arms could be reincarnated time and again.


Choosing to ground popular sovereignty in republican war rather than universal suffrage was a constrained choice. Revolutionary republicanism passed down few alternative languages of popular sovereignty. Even if political thinkers had tried to invent a new idiom, it probably would have been unconvincing to a population whose pride and self-definition had become so entangled with the historical memory of its military achievements. Nor was more liberalism an option. After all, it was liberalism’s shortcomings—its unconvincing account of the social, its economic attacks on the moral economy, its normalization of individualism—that motivated the generations of 1848 and 1871 to pursue the Social Republic in the first place.

Constrained as it was, the choice to privilege republican war was more than an inherited habit or a strategic response to necessity. I have tried to plot the path that led communards to commit to a specific personification of popular agency. But however much context and circumstance might have been responsible for turning communards away from the suffrage, communards found in insurrectionary violence something more than a necessary tactic. It was a vocabulary of action that incarnated the very form of the people they had pursued since 1848. Barricades were not only obstructions. Actually, they were generally ineffective on that front.178 Instead, they became the objects around which a cohesive people formed. It was a place where one’s sense of individuality could be subsumed under an absorptive aesthetic of violence (Michel); it was the fiery site out of which a “social society” could emerge (Lissagaray); its construction elevated Parisians from sickness to health, passivity to unified cooperation (Vallès). In short, insurrectionary violence was not a means to the end of a social republic—or at least not only that. It was the activity by which the democratic subject of the social republic was created.

It can be tempting to view the people in arms as a rhetorical figure. But in this age of positivism, they were viewed as the most concrete and natural manifestation of the people possible. Their activity of violence enacted their sovereignty. The “concreteness” of this conception of the people was not grounded in any demographic characteristics, but in the activity of insurrection itself. It was not bound by a physiological conception of the social body, but demarcated by participation in a language of redemptive violence.

Redefining the people from an electorate to the people in arms imposed real costs on communards. Substituting war for the suffrage meant forfeiting the commitment to nonviolent revolution that characterized many social republicans of the 1840s. It also placed communards in a uniquely disadvantageous position to respond to popular demobilization. When a political tradition designs its commitments to sovereignty around the moral authority of spontaneous collective action, it earns the right to claim popular sovereignty against the state’s channels of legitimation. That is its weapon when it is speaking from the margins. At the same time, it compels its thinkers to grow dependent on the fact of continuous mobilization when in power. As Lissagaray conceded, popular demobilization becomes interpreted not as a lull in popular sovereignty but its “moral abdication” altogether. It was for this reason that French thinkers once again found their aspirations for everyday egalitarianism creating room for instruments like the Committee on Public Safety, which appeared as a means to institutionalize popular insurrection in the face of spontaneity’s inevitable exhaustion. Only a tradition that places a premium on spontaneity makes demobilization a crisis of popular sovereignty itself.

In this way, the Paris Commune hewed closely to the postrevolutionary French tradition of identifying the republic as both an experiment in social regeneration and a democracy at war with its enemies. Circumstances helped braid the two facets together, but the outcome was a familiar theoretical language. To usurp the authority of the state, the Commune needed the language of redemptive violence. However important the ballot had come to be, more than universal suffrage was needed to make a people. What was needed, Michel said, were “war songs.” Posterity remembers how seriously the Communards took up that prescription; it was the Communard Eugène Pottier who gave us the “Internationale.”

Let us wipe out the past. Crowd of slaves, arise! Arise! The world is changing its foundations, We are nothing, let us be everything! . . . It’s the final struggle, Keep together, and tomorrow, the International will be the human race . . . There are no supreme saviors, Neither God, nor Caesar, nor Tribune, Producers, let’s save ourselves! Let’s decree salvation for all!179

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