Massimiliano Tomba | The Paris Commune and the Poetry of the Unknown

By Massimiliano Tomba

On the centenary of the Paris Commune, Pierre Sorlin published an article in the Journal “Études” in which he itemized the new tasks for the historiography of the Commune.[1] Sorlin invited historians to stick to its essential importance. And the essential importance was that the proletarians “practiced their political and social responsibility and the ruling class, resolute in not wanting to relinquish any of its privileges, preferred massacre instead of negotiation.”[2] The massacre has been widely investigated. But who and what were massacred with so much violence? What had frightened the ruling classes so much as to provoke such a reaction? What ‘natural order’ had been violated in such a way as to justify that massacre? And, principally, what social and political forms violated that order, while contemporaneously showing alternatives to it? We know that the banking and business worlds were pushing Thiers to end things with Paris.[3] We know that the repression was fierce. Sorlin wrote that the Communards were killed mechanically, almost industrially, as if to remind people that there were no alternatives to the time and place of the capital.[4] As soon as it had finished dealing with Paris, the Versailles government could concentrate its troops against another insurgency, which was taking place in Algeria. Indeed, the “uprising of the Paris Communards was closely linked with the revolutionary events in Algeria of 1870-71, and coincided with the big national liberation uprising of 1871.”[5] Surprisingly, the vast literature on the ParisCommune has often disregarded the link between the events in Paris and those in Algeria.

The Arab and Berber insurgency headed by Mohammed el-Mokrani, the ruler of the Kabyle region of Medjana, began on March 14, 1871. In April, the insurgency spread to peasants and nomads united in the religious brotherhood of Rahmaniya. At the same time, the Republican Association of Algeria claimed that “power in Algeria should be vested in the elective municipalities-communes, and that Algeria should be a federation of such municipalities-communes.”[6] When the news of the institution of the Commune in Paris arrived in Algeria,the Republican Association of Algeria sent delegates to France and published the declaration of La Commune de l’Algérie:

“Algeria’s delegates declare on behalf of their mandatories that they completely adhere to the Paris Commune. The whole of Algeria claims communal freedoms.

Oppressed for forty years by the double concentration of the army and the administration, the colony has understood that the complete emancipation of the Commune is the only way to achieve freedom and prosperity.”[7]

The document, dated 28 March, bears the signatures ofLucien Rabuel, Louis Calvinhac and Alexandre Lambert, who went to Paris as delegates of the Algerian Commune and joined the Paris Commune. But if Alexandre Lambert expressed enthusiasm for the Paris Commune, his position towards the popular uprisings in Algeria was certainly different. Lambert publicly distanced himself from popular local uprisings.[8] While he was ready to challenge the domestic political order along with the Communards, Lambert was not ready to question the colonial order. Like other Communards, Lambert was not free from orientalist prejudices of the time: “Although the members of the Republican Association admitted Arabs to their ranks, however, at best they remained indifferent to the native population’s struggle for national liberation.”[9] Despite the inability of the Algerian radicals and the mouvement communalisteto find common political ground with the national liberation uprising of 1871,[10] these events were, however, united by a tragic destiny: as soon as Adolphe Thiers had suppressed the Paris Commune in blood, he dispatched troops to Algeria where they “burnt villages, drove away the cattle, destroyed wells and murdered women and children. The guerillas of Kabylia, however, courageously continued the unequal fight for another six months.”[11] Six French military columns were mobilized againstinsurgents.  “The Versaillists cynically stated that they had dealt with the Algerianinsurgents in the ‘Parisian manner.’”[12] The methods of colonial violence and those of repressive violence of the state against the working class overlapped. In different forms, the Commune and the peasants and nomads of the uprising had questioned a trajectory of modernity. The dominant one. And for this they were repressed. Those who were not massacred were imprisoned and sent, together with the Communards of Paris, to New Caledonia.

In New Caledonia there was Louise Michel,  among the few to pay attention to the spread of communal forms in the French colony, who cited the Declaration of the Algerian Communein her memoirs.[13] And Michel would be among the few to support the 1878 revolt against French colonization by the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia, where she had been deported. Other former Communards deported to New Caledonia, sided with France against the insurgents. If the Commune did not have time to test its new institutions, it had even less time to give rise to a new subjectivity, freed not only from the forms of external dominion but also and especially from the internal ones formed by prejudices of the time. The Commune was an experiment of this kind. Far from being a legal-political model to be realized, the Communewasa political practice that sought to define a new institutional fabric and a new subjectivity. Or better yet, a new subjectivity that could only be born in the practice of the new institutions and forms of life.

“I am not the only person caught up by situations from which the poetry of the unknown emerges. I remember a student (…). He had a volume of Baudelaire in his pocket, and we read a few pageswith great pleasure when we had time to read. What fate held for him I don’t know, but we tested our luck together. It was interesting. We drank some coffee in the teeth of death, choosing the same spot where three of our people, one after another, had been killed. Our comrades, anxious about seeing us there at what seemed to be a deadly place, made us withdraw. Just after we left a shell fell, breaking the empty cups. Above all else, our action was simply one of a poet’s nature, not bravery on either his part or mine.”[14] This episode recounted by Louise Michel shows the poetic nature of the actions of the Communards. It is not the reading of Baudelaire in itself which renders that moment poetic, but the pleasure of reading it together with an unknown young man and putting the moment of this human relationship above the fear of death. Michel’s poetry is not the aesthetics of death, but of a life that rises above the fear of death. Modern theory of the state cannot disregard the anthropological assumption of the fear of violent death. It is from this premise that Thomas Hobbes shows the need of the state to ensure individual security. And that is why the state, to legitimize itself, must constantly play with security and insecurity.

The Commune, as the “political form at last discovered,”[15] created something new. But this novelty needs to be clarified. The politics of the Communards defied the state in the sense that it challenged the dogma of the indivisibility of national sovereignty and the monopoly of state power. Obviously, questioning the monopoly of state power also meant giving up the pivotal functions of modern sovereignty: security and neutralization of conflict. This was not for the sake of chaos, but because the Commune was dismantling the grammar of Leviathanwhich, starting from the Hobbesian anthropological assumption of the fear of violent death, demonstrates the need to renounce the use of force in favor of the state. The Communards were not afraid to die. They courageously faced the brutal executions carried out by the army of Versailles. Therepression was extrememly fierce not only for its spirit of revenge, but also becausetheydared to place justice higher than the preservation of life. Without this reversal of the anthropological paradigm of modern politics, they would not have been able to experience the democratic excess, in which conflict is a dimension of politics, and not something to be neutralized. The Communards were not only experimenting with new institutions but, as it were, they were also experimenting with themselves. Just as they were dismantling the state, so too were they dismantling their own subjectivity by testing a different political anthropology, a more mature one because it could handle the anxiety that comes from the instability of politics. In practice, they were somehow responding to Kant’s question on the Enlightenment, and with their actions they were showing the way out of the condition of self-incurred immaturity, including the immaturity of not beingable to cope with the anxiety of the conflict that accompanies politics. Political maturityis also the ability to face the instability of an experiment with democracy. This is the difficult task: the combination of the political and social change of external circumstances with self-transformation.

The Communards instead experimented politics beyond the state, which does not mean against the state, but beyond the binary opposition between state power and counterpower or constituent power.[16]  In order to practice politics beyond the state, the Communards created new institutions.[17] I assume the definition of “institution” provided by the Italian jurist Santi Romano: “A revolutionary society or a criminal association does not constitute law from the viewpoint of the State that they try to subvert, or whose laws they violate, just as a schismatic sect is considered antilegalistic by the Church; but this does not imply that in the above case there are not institutions, organizations, and orders which, taken per se and intrinsically considered, are legal.”[18] Through their new institutions, the Communards experimented new forms of life and subjectivity. That is where their poetry of the unknown begins.


[1] Pierre Sorlin, “La Commune. Cent ans après,” Études, vol. 334 (1971), pp. 707-718.

[2] Ivi, p. 715.

[3] Henri Guillemin, L’avènement de M. Thiers et réflexions sur la Commune, Gallimard, Paris 1971, p. 139.

[4] Sorlin, “La Commune”, cit., p. 715. Volker Hunecke, “La Comune di Parigi del 1871,” in Primo Maggio, Nr. 2 (1974), pp. 57-72.

[5] Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky, Modern History of the Arab Countries, Progress Publisher: Moscow 1969, p. 266.

[6] Lutsky, Modern History of the Arab Countries, cit., p.268.

[7] Journal Officiale de la Commune, March 29, 1871.

[8] Actes du Gouvernement de la Défense Nationale(Du 4 Septembre 1870 au 8 Février 1871), vol. 3, Paris: Librairie des Publications Législative 1876, p 205.

[9] Lutsky, Modern History, cit., 269.

[10] Claude Martin, La Commune d’Alger (1870-1871), Paris, Èditions Heraklès, 1936.

[11] Lutsky, Modern History, cit., 273. Mohammed Brahim Salhi, “L’insurrection de 1871” in Abderrahmane Bouchène at al., Histoire de l’Algérie à la période coloniale, Paris, La Découverte, 2014, pp. 103-109.

[12] Lutsky, Modern History, cit., 273.

[13] Louise Michel, La Commune, Editions Stock: Paris 1971, p. 278.

[14] Louise Michel, The Red Virgin. Memoirs of Louise Michel,écrits par elle-même, Alabama: TheUniversity of Alabama Press 1981, p. 66.

[15] Marx, The Civil War in France, in MECW 22, p. 334.

[16] Antonio Negri, Insurgencies. Constituent Power and The Modern State, Minneapolis-London, University of Minnesota Press 1999.

[17] On today’s need for institutions, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 38 and 289.

[18] Santi Romano, L’ordinamento Giuridico. Studi sul Concetto, le Fonti e i Caratteri del Diritto, Pisa: Tipografia Editrice Cav. Mariotti, 1917, p. 42.

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