January 2015

Matt Hartman


Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune by John Merriman

With the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, and now the protests surrounding the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the idea (and the censure of the idea) of resisting structural inequality, oppression, and the abuse of political power is central to popular political discourse. It's in this light that John Merriman's recent book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, begs to be read. Merriman's account of the formative and short-lived Parisian experiment in revolution highlights a prime example of popular revolt, and one senses that Merriman, a professor of history at Yale, hopes to provide an account that can edify, though his refusal to spell out exactly what that edification consists of is both the benefit and the limit of his work.

The connections between the Paris Commune and contemporary political circumstances are hard to ignore, despite the many significant differences. Merriman explains how "people of means, living in relative ease in the beaux quartiers of western Paris" were uneasy about the "dangerous and laboring classes." As Paris grew in the mid-1800s, Napoleon III looked to Baron Georges Haussman to modernize the city, embarking on a number of large-scale projects that displaced poor residents. "Rather than staving off class war," Merriman says, "the rebuilding of Paris accentuated the contrast between the more prosperous western arrondissements and the poor eastern and northeastern quartiers, the so-called People's Paris."

In addition, political repression under Napoleon III's Second Empire, inflation, and resistance to the power of religion all contributed to a Paris that was primed for action by early 1870. Then, the emperor's cousin was acquitted of a crime after shooting a man dead. "The acquittal did not surprise members of the Left," Merriman explains, "instead, it galvanized them." That is, until the Commune ran up against the power of State repression.

The vast majority of Massacre focuses on the Commune itself. Merriman takes care to explain its origins, from the Franco-Prussian War that brought Napoleon III's reign to an end and the beginning of Adolphe Thiers's government, through the initial stages when residents in working class neighborhoods refused to let the army take control of cannons stored there, eventually ending in the execution of two generals.

Merriman then describes the day-to-day operations of the Commune for the short but energetic seventy-two days it existed. The Commune was, at its most ambitious, an attempt to offer a new form of government built on radical democracy that the Communards hoped to spread to the rest of France. But Merriman is careful to show how those experiments also contributed to the Commune's inability to defend Paris, leading to the bloody end that gives the book its name.

Merriman's narrative is detailed, drawing from historical records to provide context, but building mostly from the personal accounts of those who lived the Commune. He balances letters, memoirs, and other primary sources from soldiers, residents, government officials, revolutionaries, priests, and the well-off, and in doing so is able to give an account that details the experience of the Commune for each of the different classes of participants.

Merriman presents the events in a number of contexts, focusing on the military maneuvers in the battle between the Commune and Thiers's Versaillais forces, the role of women throughout the weeks, and the fight against the church. However, he makes clear that, at the bottom, the Commune is to be understood as a class issue. For example, he states that, for the Communards, "The clergy and the bourgeoisie were one and the same."

Merriman's account, therefore, makes clear the discrepancies between what the Communards and their working class supporters faced and what the elite experienced. This issue is made most clear, and the resulting contrast most telling, when Merriman describes the way the Versaillais army took Paris. "Paris might be suffering under siege," Merriman writes, "but [Gustave des E., a Parisian elite] found it drôle that he could still eat so very well."

Merriman's focus in the book's conclusion rests upon the nature of the Commune's defeat, when Thiers's army marched through the city in a manner of days, executing thousands of men, women, and children "for their defense of the Commune ... workers' attire, remnants of a Parisian Nation Guard uniform, or manner of speaking." Drawing from the accounts he relates in the chapters before, Merriman aims to elucidate a social situation that led to the summary execution of thousands. He takes care to draw from the first-person material so that he can show how "the notion of battle against an inferior people, so present in the emerging colonial discourse, became an increasingly common trope of 'the war on Paris' and its insurgent plebeians."

For example, Merriman quotes from one account: "Well-dressed ladies, some carrying parasols 'in order to protect their complexions from the bright sunshine... approach the corpses... lying about, and with the tips of their parasols deliberately removed the caps or clothing placed over the faces of the dead,'" refusing to grant the Communards and their working class supporters even such a small dignity in death.

With these details, Merriman concludes that the destruction of the Paris Commune "anticipated the demons of the century to follow." He claims that the public memory of the events shifted from the "mass murder" the Communards committed when they killed sixty-six or sixty-eight hostages to the 17,000 the Versaillais executed without trial. "[State violence] is sadly perhaps a greater legacy of the Paris Commune than the experience of a movement for freedom undertaken by ordinary people," he says.

However, Merriman offers no argument for that fact other than placing the Paris Commune adjacent to the (unstated) common understanding of our recent past. Though the connection seems simple enough, the lack of details in this area seems to run against the very drive of Merriman's profession. On the other hand, it leaves as the focus of the book the story of the Commune itself, in the words of its supporters, witnesses, and critics. The effect Massacre will have on its readers will be nothing more and nothing less than the sympathies they have for the plights of the individuals that Merriman shows us.

As such, Merriman leaves open the question of what Massacre can teach; whether it should provide an ideal to strive for, a warning against utopian thinking, or a search for the origin of the police tactics protestors are still protesting is not something Merriman offers an opinion on. But it is to Merriman's credit that the cogent account he gives of the Paris Commune brings it to life, so that even if he fails to convincingly put it into the modern context he claims for it, the event itself can stand on its own.

Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune by John Merriman
Basic Books
ISBN: 978-0465020171
360 pages