Aux morts de la Commune, Mai 21-28, 1871
Laughter alone, the eternal prerogative of man, survives, splendid, invincible, in a world in ruins.
Villiers de I’Isle-Adam, Paris, May 1871
A day like yesterday in Paris a hundred and forty two-years ago, the French state was finishing off the massacre of 30,000 men, women, and children who had dared to challenge the hierarchies of the global order. When the people of Paris rose up demanding equality and took control of the city for over two months, the state responded with swift ferocity and turned the city into a field of rubble and mass graves. All the global elites from the United States to Argentina had demanded the massacre in the press, and cheered at the slaughter of those "feral" creatures. The corpses were buried, the city was rebuilt, and Paris became, once again, the global capital of bourgeois splendor, as it is still seen today. The difference is that today Paris competes in glamour with the hyper-vertical, aggressive masculinity of Dubai’s skyscrapers, the new material pinnacle of what Walter Benjamin aptly called the capitalist phantasmagoria. These new neoliberal "evil paradises" in the petro-states of the Gulf, as Mike Davis calls them, are also built, like Paris, upon the disregard for destruction, clear in that those fetishized totems of capitalism are built by the quasi-slave labor of South Asian workers.
Next May, now that my book Rubble is coming to an end (it enters production with Duke in a week), I hope to begin an ethnographic research on the afterlife of the Paris Commune in today's Paris. I want to explore what the Paris commune created in the texture of the city and to what degree Paris is haunted by the revolutionary event that once destroyed it. But the Paris Commune also reveals, in a totally different context, some of the main arguments I have tried to make in Rubble about ruins, destruction, affect, and the ways in which destruction is disregarded through forms of ruin-fetishization that make massive piles of rubble and mass graves invisible. This essay draws from a section of the conclusions of Rubble that reflects on the intimate relation between revolution, rubble, and the elite fear of ruins.
The Commune took place not just anywhere but in Paris. It cannot be overemphasized what a radical political rupture the appearance of a powerful insurrection in the heart of Paris was at the time. This was the place that Benjamin saw as the phantasmagoric world capital of the bourgeois dream-world, today constellationally entangled with the verticality cultivated in Dubai or New York. This is a phantasmagoria that fears the broken objects and cracks that may erode the impression that these are full, positive objects. In tacit response to the elite fear of their own ruptured places, Spanish Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti said in 1936 in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, before he was killed in Madrid by a Stalinist sniper: We aren’t afraid of ruins. His disregard for ruins was an assertion of the defence of the life of those who were already living amid rubble. "We are not afraid of ruins" was the implicit cry of the Paris Commune, as it was slaughtered by the class that fears ruins the most.
As Benjamin documented, in the nineteenth century Paris was made, destroyed, and remade by a violent duel between barricades built by the working-class and boulevards built by the bourgeoisie. The number of barricades peaked in the 1848 insurrection, when 3,000 saturated the medieval, narrow, and winding streets of working-class Paris and made state repression slow and costly. In the 1850s, the Second French Empire responded to this spatial-political threat with Baron Haussmann and the most ambitious project of counter-revolutionary spatial engineering ever sought. Haussmann’s goal was to radically change the form of the whole city. Hundreds of urban blocks were demolished to create an urban space that was easier to police: smooth space without major obstacles built on straight and wide strips that facilitated the movement of troops and expanded the range of artillery. This was a military gesture: an attempt to master the terrain of future combat by changing its form. This also reveals that the terrain is a material plastic, whose form is permanently modified. The boulevards were born. Benjamin wrote, “The true goal of Haussmann’s projects was to secure the city against civil war. He wanted to make the erection of barricades impossible for all time” (Paris, capital of the 19th century). But the boulevards also played a key affective function: these were to be the positive places that would impress and dazzle. The places of bourgeois spectacle were formally made. This rendered the in-doors arcades obsolete. Commodities were now displayed in the flow of the streets. The World Exhibition of 1867 turned Paris into the world capital of the booming, dazzling capitalist-imperial spectacle: the cultural, ideological, and affective core of global capitalism and European imperialism.
The appearance of the Paris Commune shattered the phantasmagoria of the commodity-fetishism that Haussmann had rendered in stone. It was an abrupt awakening from the bourgeois dream triggered by the humiliating French defeat in the hands of the Prussian army at Sedan in September 1870 and the subsequent collapse of the Second Empire. With Paris under siege by German troops and most of the population feeling betrayed, the French national guards protecting the city rebelled against the state in alliance with the local population, especially after the failed attempt by the French government, led by Thiers, to capture the canons held by national guards on the hill of Montmartre on March 18, 1871. While Thiers fled to Versailles, the Commune made itself as constituent power through elections held a few days later. Marx wrote, “The great social measure of the commune was its own working existence” (The Civil War in France, p. 65). This was sovereignty that asserted itself from the bottom-up: through universal suffrage and a military force made up of working men, the national guards.
Under control of an armed insurgency, the form of Paris changed. Multitudes permanently claimed and occupied the streets and saturated them with red flags, the new symbol of universal emancipation and anti-imperialism. Witnesses described that a non-hierarchical effervescence took over the city, “the carnival of the oppressed.” Barricades went up all over Paris as federal troops began surrounding the city in collaboration with German troops. As a communard put it, the barricades were not shelters but intentional striations of space: material obstacles “to prevent the enemy forces from circulating, to bring them to a halt” (Edwards, The Communards of Paris, p. 167). These barricades were not just numerous: they were the largest ever built in the history of Paris. Benjamin wrote, “The barricade is resurrected during the Commune. It is stronger and better secured than ever. It stretches across the great boulevards, often reaching a height of two stories” (The Arcades Project, p. 12). The form of the barricades adopted and colonized the form of the boulevards. The members of the Commune also altered the form of the city by destroying monuments that celebrated bourgeois-imperial oppression. The Vendome Column, built by Napoleon I to celebrate imperial conquest overseas, was brought down to the cheers of large multitudes. Claiming continuity with the French Revolution, communards tore down the Chapel of Atonement built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI. Yet they also negated Jacobin terror by publicly destroying the guillotine. The communards did not see the guillotine as a tool of revolutionary justice but for what it really was: an instrument of terror and state oppression.
Benjamin made clear why the Commune was key to this investigation of nineteenth-century Paris: it was a collective awakening from the nightmare of the dream-world. The people of Paris reduced the bourgeois phantasmagoria to rubble. Lefebvre and The Situationist International went further: what made the Paris Commune an extraordinary historical event is that it created a radically new, previously-unseen type of urban space: an egalitarian, participatory, and resonant “carnival of the oppressed.” Class and gender hierarchies collapsed, women asserted a powerful leadership role in the organization of space, and the very idea of “public space” was dissolved because the streets were democratized and turned festive. All observers noted the festive resonance that dominated Paris during the Commune. “Our laughter comes easily. We feel quite at home in our childish and dangerous world of make-believe” (Edwards, p. 14). The effervescence did not subdue even when, by early May, people knew that the Commune was besieged, doomed, and about to be crushed by the federal army. Villiers de I’Isle-Adam published the following lines in one of the papers of the Commune, Le Tribune du People, right before the slaughter was unleashed on Paris: “Would you believe it? Paris is fighting and singing! Paris is about to be attacked by a ruthless and furious army and she laughs!” Villiers concluded, “Laughter alone, the eternal prerogative of man, survives, splendid, invincible, in a world in ruins” (Edwards, p. 141-142). This is a Nietzschean laughter: celebrating the joyful and “invincible” power of life even amid the negativity of widespread destruction.
On May 21, troops began to enter the western areas of Paris. Many communards put up a fierce resistance. But many others preferred to engage in acts of self-immolation rather than killing or surrendering. There were many cases of national guards killed when they were trying to speak to soldiers and convince them to join them. Women took a leading role in performing self-less assertions of control over their life. Many federal soldiers were shocked in facing the same sight in many parts of the city: women who calmly climbed to the top of the barricades to make themselves killed. Marx wrote, “The Paris people die enthusiastically for the Commune in numbers unequal in any other battle known to history. … The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives at the barricades and on the place of execution” (p. 76). Self-destruction, Deleuze wrote in his book on Nietzsche, is the most affirmative form of negation: the moment when the negative illuminates and “shoots out like lightning.”
Amid the generalized wave of massacres known as “the bloody week,” the flames engulfed Paris for several days. The federal troops led by Thiers executed close to 30,000 men, women, and children. Dozens of thousands were sent to prisoner camps and 7,000 were deported to the Pacific. Marx noted that in order to find a massacre of similar proportions in a large European city one needs to go back to the times of the Second Triumvirates in the Roman Empire. The main difference, he said, is that the massacres in Paris, unlike those in Rome, were done “in the name of civilization” (1998:75). The Argentine ruling classes were greatly inspired by the civilizing violence that the French elites unleashed on those feral savages. Their goal would soon afterwards be to turn Buenos Aires into “the Paris of South America,” looking up to the city built upon the rubble of the Commune. In those days, President Sarmiento was dealing with the feral creatures of the deserts of the Gran Chaco and Patagonia with equal savagery.
The smoldering ruins of Paris in late May 1871 marked, first, the destruction of a revolutionary city that for over two months had created a qualitatively novel type of place. This destruction added to the destructive production of a bourgeois city begun two decades earlier by Haussmann’s boulevards. Benjamin aptly wrote, “The burning of Paris is the worthy conclusion to Haussmann’s work of destruction”. The rubble and mass graves of the Commune were thereby the ruins that the French and global elites celebrated. Marx noted that Bismarck, who defeated the French army in 1870 only to collaborate with it to crush the Commune, “gloats over the ruins of Paris” (p. 79). Shortly before the Commune was obliterated, The New York Herald pleaded, “Make Paris a heap of ruins if necessary, let its streets be made to run rivers of blood, let all within it perish…” (Gluckstein 2011:158). Thiers complied and said after the slaughter, “The ground is strewn with their corpses. May this terrible sight serve as a lesson.”
Yet the ruins of Paris were also the ruins of two cities folded into one and thereby also the rubble of bourgeois Paris. The elite that disregarded the blood-drenched rubble of the Commune was thereby horrified by the destruction of the positive architecture of its city, the capital of the nineteenth century. Marx was quick to point out this hypocrisy, and emphasized that the bourgeois veneration of the integrity of objects is directly proportional to the bourgeois contempt for life: “The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, it convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!” (1988:77). Notably, Marx identified the profoundly affective and bodily nature of the bourgeois reaction at the sight of its own ruins, which triggered a horror that made elite bodies “convulse” at their fear of the void.
The prompt reconstruction of the bourgeois city and its boulevards was thereby founded upon the erasure of the fact that Paris was once reduced to rubble amid a powerful anti-capitalist revolution that was brutally destroyed. This elite fear of ruins demanded making the mass graves invisible. It also required treating the Commune, as Trouillot said of the Haitian Revolution, as a “non-event”: as something that never took place. Some of the largest mass graves are currently underneath splendid areas of Paris like Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Gardens; others are at the cemeteries of Montparnasse and Père Lachaise, where the last 147 communards were executed against a wall. This wall holds a plaque “To the Dead of the Commune, May 21-28, 1871.” On the last Saturday of May, every year the plaque becomes a bright object that attracts a multitude of several thousands who come to pay tribute to the human debris of the Commune buried underneath. The foot of the plaque is showered with flowers and messages of thankfulness to those executed in the streets of Paris.
In May 2012, I talked in Paris with activists from The Association of Friends of the Paris Commune. Their actions and voice resonated with my experience at the foot of the Argentine Andes. They highlighted, first, that the Commune was not dead but alive. And not unlike the Wichí leaders of Santa Rosa in the heart of the Argentine Chaco, they were trying to mark the ghostly presence of invisible mass graves in space, attracted by a material brightness of vast fields of bones that official narratives had turned dim and dark. For now, activists in Paris are placing plaques to bring the negativity hidden in the petrified architecture back to life. The plaque they placed behind the Hôtel de Ville, steps away from Notre Dame, now informs the largely indifferent passerby that underneath those placid sidewalks the materiality of the city is made up of mass graves that contain between 2,000 and 3,000 bodies. Back in May 1871, those bodies had helped turn Paris into a city that resonated to an assertive, life-affirming disregard for rubble.