Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne

The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne
1965, 433 pp.

Alistair Horne, the eminent historian of the Algerian War, has with his histories of Verdun and the Paris Commune firmly established himself as perhaps the foremost expert on late nineteenth and early twentieth century French history. Perhaps only Georges Lefebvre is his rival in the history of modern France, but the assiduous socialist will more often find himself in need of Horne's subject matter than that of Lefebvre.

Though the Commune has been the cornerstone of the Marxist mythos for a century and a half, it is not so well known today as it ought to be. A brief summary of events will therefore be profitable.

In 1870, Bismarck, having recently established Prussian dominance over the German Confederation by beating Austria in the war of 1866, was ready to both establish a unified Germany and to assert Germany's hegemony in Europe. He skillfully provoked the blundering, ineffectual Napoleon III into declaring war over a diplomatic trifle. At this point, the Prussian army was the most experienced, efficient, and dangerous in Europe; the French army was a paragon of preposterous incompetence. Within six weeks, the Prussians surrounded Napoleon III at Sedan, where he surrendered with his entire army in what may still be the worst military debacle in history. Furious citizens of Paris established a republic under the leadership of one Louis Trochu to continue the war. The Prussians laid siege to Paris for 130 days, during which time Trochu tried three times to break out, each ending in absolute disaster. Finally the Prussians grew impatient and began indiscriminately shelling the city. A combination of military failure, destructive bombardment, and dwindling food supplies led the republican government to sue for peace. The government fell under the fury of the Paris mob, to be replaced by Adolphe Thiers, forty-year veteran of French politics. The conscripted soldiers of the National Guard, feeling betrayed and marginalized, seized a number of heavy guns and stockpiled them in Montmartre. The Guard had been organized by the Republican government, but had been trained and armed insufficiently to make an actual fighting force—just enough to make the most potent revolutionary force of the 19th century. Trochu had recognized this and bled the Guard deliberately during his third breakout attempt around Buzenval. Unable to control the mob or the Guard, Theirs (who represented the "Better Bismarck than Blanqui" faction of the bourgeoisie) removed his government to Versailles and in his absence, a number of leftist leaders, freed from prison by the mob, proclaimed the Paris Commune. While the leaders of the Commune dithered for 13 crucial days, Thiers wasted no time regrouping and assaulting Paris. After a second siege of two months, his forces broke through Paris' defences and a bitter two weeks of street fighting ensued. Paris burned, and Thiers executed every Communard he could lay hands on. By the time the last bands of Communards were captured or killed, some 20-25,000 Parisians had been executed by their countrymen, in one of the grimmest and most merciless government massacres in history up to that time. That it occurred in the streets of Paris, the City of Lights and center of the world, left an irrevocable scar in the French psyche: the war, the siege, and the Commune largely set the stage for the next half-century of European politics and struggle.

The Fall of Paris is closely focused on the long siege of Paris in the winter of 1870-1871, then on the rise and fall of the Commune which resulted. The conduct of the Franco-Prussian War is truncated to just one swift chapter (though to be fair, it was quite a swift war) partially to the detriment of historical context. Likewise, the book is decidedly Francocentric: there is little attention paid to the Prussians or to the general balance of power in Europe. For comprehensive diplomatic analysis, Horne poses no threat to the continuing reign of the great A.J.P. Taylor. A few of Horne's chapters seem to take up more time and attention than their subjects warrant: there is a stage-setting chapter on the Exposition Universelle of 1867, one on foreigners living in Paris, one on hunger, and so forth. These chapters are liberally studded with quotations from diaries, mainly of Americans and Brits living in Paris, and although it is sometimes easy to lose the narrative thread, taken in sum these chapters convey a portrait of everyday life which would otherwise be left out of a purely political or military history. The role of aeronauts carrying news and letters in primitive hot-air balloons is almost certainly the most interesting and entertaining example, and of course no discussion of the Siege is possible without lurid stories about eating rats and zoo animals. However, Horne's extensive use of primary source documents written by non-French people living in Paris at the time of the Commune allows him to stand aside from the pervasive Marxist vs. bourgeois conflict over the historiography of the Commune. It is quite difficult to find sources of any degree of objectivity on the subject, so Horne's decision here was a shrewd and profitable one.

Like histories of the Spanish Civil War, reading about the Paris Commune is a depressing process. Often in American history there is a sense of the good guy winning out in the end: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and both World Wars ended rather in the way a reasonable person would wish. Not so here, and the hopelessness of doomed soldiers, outmaneuvered generals, ill-informed radicals, and falsely exuberant workers takes on a downright Aeschylean air. It is particularly cruel that the first half of the book consists largely of blunders and stupidities on the part of the Republican leadership, which the reader endures uneasily in the knowledge that ultimately tens of thousands of Parisians will pay the price in blood. Horne, with his expertise on the two World Wars, continually draws parallels to the Western Front and to the Siege of Leningrad, which frames the Commune as the first in an exponentially-growing series of European barbarities. This is less a matter of adding to context and analysis, and more a matter of making thematic comparisons, and it does not always help Horne's narrative.

And to be sure, the narrative is the point of the book. The setting of the mood and descriptions of quotidian detail seem to be Horne's primary objective, followed closely by a brisk, almost novelized story, with analysis coming in a very distant third. Consequently, The Fall of Paris is an excellent introduction to the subject: the reader will come away knowing who did what and when and will have a keen mental image of the whole affair, but probably will not gain any theoretical insights. It is an effective book, but not an exhaustive or definitive one.

A final point should be made about the place of the Commune in the history of Marxism. Contrary to the popular view, the Commune had little to do with Communism: the name was derived instead from the Revolution of 1793, and the International had nothing to do with its establishment. Marx himself was against the idea, and did not hold any illusions about its chances for success. Instead his genius was in recognizing the utility of the Commune for propaganda purposes: the legend of the Commune is the one that Marx built, largely in his rapidly-produced pamphlet The Civil War in France, which is probably second only to the Manifesto for rhetorical fire. Lenin was a keen student of the Commune, but both he and Stalin took the wrong lesson from its failure: they considered the Commune "an incomplete dictatorship" and rather than observing the strength which came from a rather Luxemburgist spontaneous organization and from the power of working with the alienated middle class, they saw only that the Communards were not as brutal as their opponents. In a piece of historical irony, it was the Jacobin majority in the Communard government which wanted dictatorship and terror, and the Socialist minority which did not: precisely the opposite of the 1917 October Revolution. Certainly the failure to attack Thiers in Versailles was a blunder, as was the constant bickering and backbiting of the Communard government, but that was due mainly to the utter absence of any competent leader whatsoever, not to an absence of repression. Regardless, the Commune is still the first rallying cry of the class struggle, and its place in the development of our thought should not be overlooked.

No comments: