The Paris Commune in Global Urban History

By Quentin Deluermoz, Université Paris 13

Translated from the French by Cecilia Terrero Fernández

Although the Paris Commune is considered a major event in the history of the modern world – just think about how the Russian and Chinese revolutions made use of its memory – it does not, at first glance, seem like a “natural” subject of global or of global urban history. The aim of my current research project is precisely to reexamine this event from a global perspective. Looking at the relevant historiographies available may help to offer a better understanding as for why this perspective has been avoided so far and why it is important to include it.

Soviet stamp

Soviet Stamp Commemorating the Commune

Paradoxically, the Commune has first been the subject of a form of international history: In studies of the workers’ movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a Marxist motivation (in the broad sense), the Commune is seen as the last urban revolution of the nineteenth and the first socialist revolution of the twentieth century. This interpretation, which was supported by numerous studies, began to fade roughly twenty years ago, for a number of well-known reasons. The questioning of its teleological narrative, a generational shift in the academic world, and the consequences of the global upheavals after 1989, all conspired to render this international-history approach to the Commune less common, no doubt wrongly so.

At the same time, the Commune remained a subject of French history. This was notably the case with regard to questions linking revolutions to the slow emergence of the Republic, topics that are still treated in a fairly nation-centered manner in France despite some evidence of change.[1] Moreover, a ground-level approach inspired the most important works on the Commune and these have a tendency of framing it as a very conjunctural and above all Parisian event: be it that the Commune is understood as a reaction to Haussmannian “modernity” or that it is approached as an experience that belongs to the revolutionary history of the French capital, namely as a resurgence of the “democratic and social republic” of 1848.

tardi5

The Commune as Seen by Jacques Tardi (“Le cri du peuple”), 2002.

Global history, for its part, builds on a different perspective. This field has been strongly interested in the nineteenth century, as have revolutionary and urban history. But while the period between 1860 and 1880 is considered a turning point in the reorganization of the balance of power and concerning industrial or commercial development, these two decades, contrary to the 1880-1914 period, remain less studied from a global perspective.[2] Significantly, certain works see the Commune as a “hapax,” a unique and distant consequence of the post-1848 European political movements. In addition, due to the organization of the field of global history, empirical studies deal mainly with developments in Britain and North America, in some cases with Germany, or, in line with the intellectual impetus of this project, with extra-European colonial and non-colonial spaces.

Thus in the case of the Commune, the logics of the historiographic traditions of urban history, French history, and global history don’t render this interrogation obvious– a situation that certainly is not unique to this kind of subject. However, the Commune should be anything but a blind spot for global urban history. In 1870-1871, Paris was, together with London, one of the world’s most important cities, in terms of population as well as political and economic power. Paris housed the second most important stock market of the time, dynamic journalism enterprises, and the political institutions of one of Europe’s biggest powers and its second colonial empire. Ultimately, the “capital of the nineteenth century” represents a large symbolical challenge, whether historians consider the “myth of Paris,” the image of modernity (according to Haussmann’s projects), or the romantic epic of its great revolutionary impetus. The presence of the First International adds to this larger dimension: Despite the fact that it did not match the power that people attributed to it earlier and at the moment of the event, it created a connection between movements of social and political struggle and evoked fear well beyond the borders of France. Considering all these points, how is it possible to imagine that after the change of the regime and the defeat by Prussia, a revolution in this city could not have had an impact on a European and global scale? It is this impact that this research aims, in a first step, to clearly identify and study.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-K0408-0301-001,_Berlin,_Namensgebung_Straße_der_Pariser_Kommune 1971

Renaming of the former Fruchtstraße, East Berlin, 1971

This enquiry, then, does not consist of highlighting the “mistakes” of past analyses. Rather, based on these previous studies, it wants to continue their analysis by adding its methodology and its analytical insights. The project thus allows, in turn, asking whether the global dimension had any effect on the revolutionary moment itself or on the way the power of Versailles handled the insurrection. This blog post is not the place to present conclusions concerning these questions, but two points can be emphasized, taking up two different avenues for research:

First, a study like this demonstrates that the “classical” questions of social, urban, and political history can be of great interest to the field of global history: it underlines a shortcoming in this historiography regarding some “poles,” “nodal points,” or important relational frameworks, such as France or Paris; it demonstrates the relevance of studying a revolutionary event within this framework, as it reveals the very tangible relation between urban and global history; in the same way, it complements the work on the global history of revolutions.

Chinese CAFA Poster of 1971

Chinese Propaganda Poster Commemorating the Commune, 1971

Second, global history allows to situate the event in its rightful place and to overcome a nation-centered or Eurocentric perspective on Paris: Global history fosters a redefinition of the spatial and temporal framework of analysis – for instance, the enquiry must begin with the war against Prussia and integrate “Communes” in other cities, in the metropole (Lyon and Marseille) as well as in the colonies (Algiers is of particular interest here); this approach moreover recalls the necessity to articulate the levels of analysis and to highlight the disjunctions between them; finally, global history allows for a better understanding and analysis of the Paris Commune’s impact on the imaginary and the practices of governments as well as popular and working-class resistance after 1871.

In this way, the Paris Commune becomes visible as a rather important moment of global urban history; it therefore should be studied as such.

 

Quentin Deluermoz is associate professor of history at Université Paris 13. His research focuses on the social and cultural history of order and disorder in the nineteenth century and in particular on the relationship between the police and the state in Western and colonial capitals, and on the 1871 Paris Commune.

 

 [1] See, for example, the working group “histoire transnationale et globale de la France.”

[2] There are again some changes: see the conference “The Global 1860s;” and the SSHA session (2015) “How Globalization Made State: Public Authority, Private Capital, and Local Networks in the Nineteenth Century” (with N. Delalande, Q. Deluermoz, S. Sawyer).

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One Response to The Paris Commune in Global Urban History

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