The Archive Box #4: The Worlds of the Paris Commune

By Quentin Deluermoz*, University of Paris

The Archive Box is a series featuring global urban historians reflecting on their archival experience, and on the practical and theoretical challenges they faced while working with a variety of archives in different cities across the world.

150 years on, the Paris Commune continues to exercise a magnetic pull over the representation of revolutionary movements. From the Parisian barricades to the Kabyle insurrection that same year, Quentin Deluermoz takes us through a discovery of the local and global archives of this momentous event, and argues in favor of a history that embraces different methods and approaches, to do justice to intense events reverberating across multiple scales.

The purpose of my recently-published book, Communes, 1870-1871. Une traversée des mondes au XIXème siècle (Seuil, 2020), is to renew our perspective on the Paris Commune. This may seem curious, considering the vast amount of scholarship that already exists on this world-historical event. And yet, new meanings and interpretations of it continue to emerge, a testament to its persistence in our collective imaginaries. This book combines a transnational and global history of the Paris Commune with a “history from below” of the event, approaching the question of political crisis and revolution from a social sciences perspective.

The most canonical historiography of the Commune is the Marxist one, and its internationalist bent has tended to focus on the event’s international echoes, but always in a diffusionist perspective. In reaction to that, a new historiography emerged in the 1980s, replacing Paris at its center, arguing that it was neither a global nor a national event, but a specifically Parisian one. Against the aporia of pitting one scale against the other—local, national, global—my objective was to do a multi-scalar analysis: all the scales combined together shed light on each other. The Commune creates a Parisian identity, it has also a primordial national relevance as the French state builds itself against it, and it is all together a global moment, insofar as it roots itself in an imperial world, echoes in the colonies, and represents a major global media event. Each scale reverberates into the other. In my opinion, the idea is not to place the Commune in any particular grand narrative, but to understand what are the temporal and spatial threads that you can grasp from it. As such, I wanted to show that the debate between local and global history is not a very productive one.

Essay made by an officer of the National Guard, Nestor Rousseau, Service historique de la défense (SHD-France), Ly36

In this work, I used sometimes very classical, but differently interpreted sources. I have been helped by Jacques Rougerie, one of the foremost historians of the Paris Commune, because this event has produced an enormous amount of archives. The reason for this was that the population was more alphabetized than in 1789 or 1848, in particular workers. And the state was stronger, with people more used to dealing with administrative and legal documents, notwithstanding the vast criminal investigation that was done after the Paris Commune. In fact, most of the papers and discourses produced were kept for the subsequent trials, and I found all the reports of the Commune’s police commissioner, a source that has never been studied before. The most important sources are the judicial archives, as forty thousand people were sentenced in what was the most important criminal investigation in the nineteenth century. The project of the State—apart from criminalizing revolutionaries— was to show that they followed legal procedures meticulously, which leads to a very significant paper trail. All of this, along with the revolutionary archives, supported me in writing a very granular history. You can examine in great detail the bourgeois 17th arrondissement [district], or the 11th, more working class, and witness the extreme heterogeneity of the situation.

Report of the Commune’s Police commissionner of the “quartier de la gare”, april 1871, SHD, Ly 19

With regards to the global history of this revolution, one of my objectives was to avoid a view of the global that would be too impressionistic, and rather approach it through concrete inquiries. Finding out and following the international volunteers present in Paris was not very difficult, as I was able to consult the very rich archives of the Service Historique de la Défense, through which one can follow these trajectories. In addition, I studied diplomatic archives in France, but also in England and Spain. Another important international site of investigation was Algiers, linked to the Parisian revolt by the understudied “Algiers Commune” and the Kabyle insurrection of 1871—the largest of the nineteenth century. A revealing anecdote from the colonial archives are letters that I found from Arab insurgents, calling to arms and revolt, translated into French by the colonial army. However, an Arabic-speaking historian who is a friend of mine told me all the translations were wrong, and thus gave me the right ones. The discordances between the two translations were a generative topic of study, and help better understand the Kabyle insurrection.

A major tool for this global history was the study of press sources, the media coverage of the Commune and its interpretation from March 18th, 1871 onwards. A statistical examination of Reuters archives at the time helps realize the transcontinental magnitude of the event. One way to do that, drawing on Gordon Winder’s work, is to measure the number of words circulating about an event, in what was the most important media network of those times. In the week of the beginning of the Paris Commune, 75% of the total number of words related to it—a proportion higher than the news of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Beyond this statistical study which may suggest the Commune was one of the biggest global media events of the nineteenth century, it was productive to look at different types of writing for global audiences. Because of the telegraph, the Paris Commune was followed by the hour throughout Europe, but also in India or Australia, for example. These perspectives represent direct and indirect connections, can be convergent or discordant, but put in conversation they paint the picture of a global moment of the Commune. This is related to the magnitude of the event, but also to its location: Paris is at the time the capital of the second most important imperial power, and a city charged symbolically. The capital of revolutions, but also the capital of modernity. Finally, it is also linked to structural conditions emerging from the 1860s, namely the rise of media coverage and the development of means of communications.

Reuters Telegram on the Paris Commune, May 29th 1871, Telegraph Books, 1871, Reuters Group Archives, (Great Britain).

In the global political landscape in which the Commune emerges, it is interesting to note it does not come with a wave of revolutions, like its 1848 predecessor. One could undoubtedly find links with La Gloriosa revolutionin Spain in 1868, or the Irish Fenian rising in 1867, without forgetting the importance of the First International and of the International Workingmen’s Association. Although its role in the Commune was not as important as Marxist historians have written, it played a major part as a relay of the revolution beyond Paris. In fact, Parisians were very attentive to how the world viewed them, and published all the support they received, as this uprising became anchored to all the liberal, republican, and socialist struggles of the post-1848 era. To that end, each group appropriated the Paris Commune differently: in Romania, it was seen as a profoundly liberal event, whereas in the United States it was read along the lines of debates about the post-Civil War era.

There is a vast scholarship about the circulation of political ideas in the first half and at the end of the nineteenth century, yet a gap exists between 1848 and 1880, and I have a hard time understanding why. Studying the Paris Commune helps witness the intensity of its circulation. The history of the workers’ movement has inscribed it exclusively in a socialist perspective, but with this transnational approach you can see how it is part of republican history, of debates on federalism, but also as part of what historian Ilham Khuri Makdisi has called “global radicalism”—ideas around associationism, mutualism, etc. The Commune reverberates through all these worlds in the 1870s and beyond.

How can we grasp the both local and global impact of founding revolutionary moments? How can we understand the temporalities surrounding such intense moments of political crisis? For this, I use a “relational and comprehensive” perspective. I tend to prefer an ethnographic approach to sources and archives, to produce a whole world from the complexity of societies. I love being a historian because it helps me understand something about the past that was evading me. Besides maintaining the pleasure of archival work and writing history, I believe historians should always explain what kind of methods they are using, and with which sources they are working. For example, my book combines qualitative and quantitative methods, and proposes different historical lenses—cultural history, global history, history from below. It is difficult to compare results of a cultural examination with statistical methods, but it is better for the analysis to try doing it while admitting how difficult it is than to dismiss one approach or the other as uninteresting.

A graffiti in Montmartre, Paris during the Yellow Vests protests. Photo credit: KatyushaRyzh.

When I began to work on the Paris Commune about ten years ago, its echoes in the present were largely muted. In the meantime, however, it has come back in a large number of revolts. In France in the Yellow Vests movement, or in the Nuit Debout mobilisation, but also in the Comuna de Oaxaca in Mexico. In the United States, the Oakland Commune emerged from the Occupy movement. Syrian revolutionary Omar Aziz, who died in prison in 2013, had developed the idea of communes for insurgent regions of the country, and had declared before his arrest in 2012: “We have done better than the Paris Commune. They resisted seventy days, while we have been holding on for one year and a half”. As such, the Commune is a true global memory, and this “vivid past” is able to traverse contexts, and be appropriated by different groups. If in the 1970s it was linked to class struggle and urban revolts, now it is also related to popular sovereignty more broadly, or to anarchist autonomous territories. Each of these instrumentalization of the Paris Commune is both true to the event and completely off the mark, it captures something but not everything. That is natural, because such a monumental event keeps producing meanings, and its ability for such a short event to traverse time and space is a testament to its continuous relevance for historians and social scientists.

*as told to Ayan Meer.

Quentin Deluermoz, Professor of History at the University of Paris, is a specialist of orders and disorders in the nineteenth century (France, Europe, empires), and of the epistemology of history and social sciences. His publications include: Commune(s), 1870-1871. Une traversée des mondes au XIXe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2020; with P. Singaravelou, Pour une histoire des possibles. Approches contrefactuelles et futurs non advenus, Paris, Seuil, 2016 (forthcoming, A Past of Possibilities : a History of what it could have been, Yale UP, 2021); Le Crépuscule des révolutions, 1848-1871, Paris, coll. « Histoire de France Contemporaine », T. III, Seuil, 2014; Policiers dans la ville. La construction d’un ordre public à Paris (1854-1914), Paris, Editions de la Sorbonne, 2012.  With other colleagues he also created in 2015 the interdisciplinary review Sensibilités, Histoire, Sciences Sociale et critique.

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