But this choice — between dying and dreaming, between the unimaginable and imagination itself — did not always define the memory of the Commune. The first history of the Commune, published in Belgium a short five years after the events, was Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s L’Histoire de la Commune de 1871. Translated into German the next year — under the careful and very active oversight of Karl Marx4See Daniel Gaido, “The First Workers’ Government in History: Karl Marx’s Addenda to Lissagaray’s History of the Commune of 1871,” Historical Materialism (2021): 1-64 (DOI: 10.1163/1569206X-12341972). — and into English in 1886 — in a translation by Eleanor Marx5See Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), chapters 7 & 15. — Lissagaray’s History is a classic. Robert Tombs, one of the foremost revisionist historians of the Commune, admits that Lissagaray’s work “is still after more than a century arguably the best general history of the Commune.”6Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune,1871 (New York: Longman, 1999), p. 203.
Those who turn to this work will not find, in the first instance, either communal luxury or massacre. Instead, they will find an effort, impressive in scope and precise in detail, to explain the rise and fall of the Commune, its operations and its failings, its organization and its disorganization.
Lissagaray was a life-long journalist, and his History is a grand work of rapportage. He believed that it was his duty to tell the truth about the Commune, both to combat the slanders heaped on it by the victorious Third Republic and to give a true accounting to those who were inspired by the Commune and sought to make it again and make it better. “The children have the right to know the reasons for their parents’ defeat,” he wrote, and this means resisting not only the victors’ history but also the “false revolutionary myths” and “sensational stories” of those who are attached in some way to the loss.7Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, trans. Eleanor Marx (London & New York: Verso, 2012 ), p. 5.
This insistence on the factual truth of words spoken and things done, of the what and the why, is a valuable counterweight to both the sensationalism of the Commune’s horrific end and the mythologizing that attends efforts to recover its disclosed possibilities.
The inevitability of civil war
Lissagaray took for granted that a revolutionary uprising by the proletariat, and a consequent remaking of the social and political world by that same class, is both desirable and on the agenda. For this reason, his History treats the course of events in Paris as a failed attempt to do what is to be done, and thus as a source of practical lessons, both positive and negative. Lissagaray was not a great tactician — as he proved with series of rather disastrous political maneuvers within the French Marxist scene in the 1880s — but he was a sharp observer of the dynamics that hobbled and undermined the Commune from its first few weeks of existence.
What Lissagaray saw, above all else, was that the citizens of Paris did not take seriously the inevitability of civil war. In his words, they “could never understand that the Commune was a barricade, not a government.” “This was the general error,” he wrote, “the superstitious belief in their governmental longevity.”8Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune, pp. 194-95.
At first, this did not seem true. The first official act of the Central Committee of the National Guard — the agency that would declare the Commune on the eighteenth of March — was to order barricades built around the parts of the city through which the victorious Prussian army was to parade on the first of March. The point was to keep the Prussian soldiers and the Parisian guardsmen isolated from one another. They saw that any attack on the Prussians by Parisians “would result in the immediate overthrow of the Republic” by Bismarck. As much as the National Guard hated and distrusted the new government of France — led by Adolphe Thiers and controlled by a majority of monarchist representatives — they understood that a Prussian-installed government would be worse. They held their fire.
At this initial stage — before the Commune was declared — the National Guard operated “as an insurance company against a coup-d’état,” and its Central Committee was, therefore, merely “a sentinel.”9Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune, p. 61 (translation modified). For precisely this reason, it could draw on very broad support, both within and beyond the National Guard battalions. Paris was the stronghold of republican sentiment, so a near consensus on that question united broad swaths of the population who would not have been able to agree on any more positive set of aims.