The Voice of the People

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This book is a historical novel based on the Paris Commune. It may be compared with The Debacle by Emile Zola, although only the last quarter of The Debacle actually dealt with the Paris Commune (the rest of the book being about the Franco-Prussian war that preceded it.)

In The Voice of the People the rise and fall of the Commune plays a much more integral part to the story. The very first scenes of the book take place on the first day of the Commune uprising on March 17th, and the very last scene deals with the fall of the Commune. Numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune also make appearances and interact with the book’s fictional characters.

The plot is a bit complex and slightly Victor Hugo-esque. Grondin is an ex-convict prisoner who has escaped from his past and become a police commissioner under an assumed identity. He seeks revenge on Tarpagnan, who he believes killed his heir. Tarpagnan is a former army officer who turns over and joins the Paris Commune on the March 17th Revolution. He also falls in love with Gabriella Pucci, who is the mistress of the most powerful crime underlord in Paris. The three paths eventually converge on the barricades during the fall of the Paris Commune (okay, maybe that’s more than slightly Hugo-esque).

The first confrontation between Grondin and Tarpagnan is cleverly woven in with the historical March 17th uprising on the Butte Montmarte. The final scenes are again interwoven flawlessly with the collapse of the Commune and the fighting on the barricade.

Although the book starts with a bang and finishes with a bang, it lags a little in the middle as the plot turns towards the Paris criminal underworld, and moves under the radar of the politics of the Paris Commune. I suppose the meeting rooms of the Central Committee and the Paris Commune government debates don’t make for as exciting a back drop as the barricade scenes, but it would have been nice if the book had explored a little more about life under the Commune rather than simply using the rise and fall of the Paris Commune as a way to book end the plot.

Nevertheless numerous historical characters from the Paris Commune pop up during the book. Louise Michel is prominent at the beginning of the book during the initial uprising, and she is referenced repeatedly throughout the story. Dombrowski, the Polish general who was in charge of the defense of the Paris Commune (and became a symbol of the Commune’s internationalism) is also featured in this book and fights alongside the fictional Tarpagnan. Gustave Courbet, the Communard artist who was accused of organizing the destruction of Napoleon’s Vendome Column, pops up as another friend of Tarpagnan.

But of the historical Communards it is Jules Valles who figures most prominently in this book as a kind of mentor to Tarpagnan.

Jean Vautrin has obviously read Valles’s memoirs, and at times seems to be trying to show off his knowledge by cramming to many biographical references into all of Valles’s conversations. This book provides a fictional explanation for why Valles chose to write his memoirs under the roman-a-clef name Jacques Vingtras, although that part is also slightly overdone. It should have just been a throw away joke, but it is really over emphasized as if the author is afraid we won’t catch the reference.

Valles also seems to serve as a mouthpiece for Vautrin’s own views about the Commune. Although most of the views Vautrin puts in Valles’s mouth fall short of profound analysis and are are more vague and cryptic. When describing the reasons for the fall of the Commune, for example, Valles answers, “It’s because philosophers and artists confuse their dreams, their cigar smoke and the range of their spectacles with the hopes of hands distorted by toil!”

On the whole though, Valles comes off more or less how I pictured him after reading his books, and his dramatic escape from the massacre at the end of the Commune is also integrated into this story.

While this book may fall short of analysis about the Paris Commune, it does attempt to give it a fitting eulogy. Vautrin laments the slaughter of the poor by the Versailles army. He has several scenes depicting the slaughter, and even integrates Victor Hugo’s famous poem about a Communard boy who asks to return his watch to his mother before being executed. That said, I’m not sure he entirely succeeds in this either. Maybe I’m just unromantic, but I thought the systematic listing of the Versailles atrocities by Lissagary in his “History of the Paris Commune” made the massacres seem a lot more real than Vautrin’s or Hugo’s poetic interpretations.

Stylistically the book is a bit confusing. I’m not sure if it is the author’s fault or the translator’s fault, but here is a typical example:

“Thirty-six years old, a townsman born and bred, he was along pallid beanpole of a man, dressed in dark blue and at present giving a fair imitation of a heron being mobbed by rooks. He was sticking his head out from behind the timber piling.”

This is further compounded by Vautrin’s aversion to using the same name for a character twice on the same page. Vautrin might refer to a character once by his given name, once by his family name, once by his rank or position, and then once by his height, hair style, or home town before he feels comfortable reverting back to the proper name again. It’s a bit confusing at the beginning remembering who is who, but it got better as I read through the book. The style also grew on me as I progressed through the book.

All in all, a good read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It requires a bit of patience at first, but if you stick with it you do get caught up in the story and forget about the clunky prose. Also it should probably be supplemented with a non-fiction history of the Paris Commune.

Jean Vautrin, The Voice of the People, (Phoenix House, 2002).

Louise Michel

Louise Michel was one of the leading figures in the Paris Commune, and afterward became one of the leading figures in the early anarchist movement.

Because of her polemical role in history, Louise Michel is one of those historical figures always made out to be either a demon or a saint by biographers, but seldom given a balanced treatment.

Which is why Edith Thomas offers a refreshing take on the life of Louise Michel. Although Edith Thomas is sympathetic to Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and the anarchist tradition, she fortunately does not believe in hagiography or making saints out of revolutionary heroes. Edith Thomas comes down very hard on Louise Michel on a number of points.

Edith Thomas’s criticisms vary from the trivial to the serious. On the trivial side, she notes that throughout her life Louise Michel consistently lied about her age. (“Whether sparring with the judicial system or providing biographical data under calmer circumstances, Louise consistently claimed to have been born in 1836, rather than (as was the case) 1830. This is a traditional practice on the part of beautiful women, but a curious indulgence by a plain woman who–as we shall see– was never preoccupied by affairs of the heart).

Another recurring theme throughout the biography is Louise Michel’s graphomaniac nature, and her compulsion to constantly write poems and novels. And no literary critic could be harder on Louise Michel than Edith Thomas. (She calls Michel’s novels unreadable.)

On the more serious side, Edith Thomas points out that Louise Michel, despite her romantic dreams of revolution, really understood very little of the socialist or anarchist economics she dedicated her life to.

And, like many political celebrities, Louise Michel could be a bit of a sensationalist seeker, and loved the media lime light a little too much.

And yet in spite of all this, it is impossible not to admire Louise Michel when reading Thomas’s biography. Louise Michel always gave away everything she had. She worked herself tirelessly for the anarchist cause even after the onset of old age. When a crazed rightest tried to kill her during a speaking engagement, she forgave her attempted assassin and even intervened in the courts to save him. And until her death all the European governments were so frightened of this little old lady that she had an escort of police spies follow her everywhere. (The only exception being England, which she much preferred because the government at the time had a much more relaxed attitude towards political refugees and radicals).

Although Louise Michel is most famous for her role in the Paris Commune, the entire Paris Commune ordeal (from the initial revolution, to the final trial of the revolutionaries) occupies a comparatively small part of the book. Over half of the book deals with Louise Michel’s life after she returned from exile and became a leader in France’s anarchist scene.

(As Edith Thomas notes in the introduction, one of the things that makes Louise Michel such a fascinating figure is that old age never seemed to slow her down. She continued leading demonstrations and speaking in political clubs until her death at close to 80.)

Therefore this book may be somewhat disappointing for those interested in a detailed history of the Paris Commune, but it does provide an interesting look at the anarchist movement in Europe in the 1880s and 90s. Although the author never takes her spotlight off Michel, glimpses are given of the first May Day demonstration in France (at which Louise Michel was prominent) the anarchist era of dynamite in the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair, and how it split the anarchist community in France, and the Russian revolution of 1905, and the excitement it caused among all European radicals. Figures like Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin also make small appearances.

Louise also had several friends in more mainstream politics, such as writer and politician Victor Hugo (with whom Louise had a rumored sexual liaison. Thomas explores this rumor in the book).

And George Clemenceau (later to become prime Minister of France during World War I) who supported Louise financially several times throughout her life.

I have two quibbles with this book, and both have to do with the publisher rather than the author.

First of all there is no index, which makes it hard to keep track of some of the characters wandering in and out of Louise Michel’s story.

Secondly the translator for this book chose not to translate any of the poems in English. (This is a bigger deal than it sounds like, considering how many of Louise Michel’s poems are quoted in the book. Not to mention poems about Louise by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.) I can’t tell you how much I hate this kind of thing. If I could read French, I wouldn’t have bought the translated version of this book.

(To add insult to injury, the translator has an introduction in which she apologies for translating street names into English, and adds: “I have based my own [translation choice] on one simple assumption: most people who read a translation do so because they do not speak the language of the original publication”…And then she leaves untranslated verse on pretty much every page of the text).

Originally published 1971 in France, English Translation: Edith Thomas (trans. Penelope Williams), Louise Michel, (Black Rose Books, 1980).

History of the Paris Commune

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This book is regarded by Marxists as the official history of the Paris Commune. The author, Lissagaray, participated in the Paris Commune and fought on the barricades although, in his own words, he was “neither member, nor officer, nor functionary of the Commune.”

Following the fall of the Commune, Lissagaray was one of the lucky ones who escaped the massacre and he spent the next 6 years writing his History of the Paris Commune of 1871. In exile in England, Lissagaray became part of Karl Marx’s inner circle. The English edition of History of the Paris Commune was translated into English by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx, and Karl Marx himself expanded and corrected some of the analysis for the English edition.

(Interestingly enough, although Karl Marx approved of Lissagaray’s historical work, he strongly disapproved of Lissagaray personally, and was greatly distressed when his daughter Eleanor became engaged to Lissagaray. Among other books, Karl Marx: A Life provides a fascinating look at the intense drama this doomed engagement caused the Marx family.)

It is for this reason that the publisher’s introduction recommends that for full effect this book be read in combination with Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France. However, having read The Civil War in France, I think I can safely say that the reading of one is not essential to the understanding of the other by any means, although it is interesting to see occasionally some of the exact same phrases in both books.

I do recommend, however, that Lissagaray’s work not be read as an introduction to the Paris Commune. It was written only 6 years after its fall, and as a contemporary history assumes the reader is familiar with many of the names and events in the book, and is seeking only a greater analysis of what happened.

The ideal reader of this book is already familiar with at least the basics of the Paris Commune and its place in history. Some knowledge of the geography of Paris is a plus (although I was able to struggle through without any). The ideal reader is also interested in both military and social history. He or she wants to know exactly what ideological issues divided the members of the Paris Commune as well as what order the barricades fell during the Versailles invasion.

This is not a light read, but for the historically minded willing to put in the effort to engage it, it will yield a wonderful treasure of knowledge that will take the reader directly into the meetings of the Communard government and also right into the thick of the street fighting. It is hard to find a more detailed work on the Paris Commune, and Lissagaray even goes so far as to explore in detail the short lived Communard uprising that rose up in French provinces at the same time, a subject usually neglected by contemporary histories.

The lessons to be drawn from the book are numerous, and the book is just as heavy with analysis as with details. The reader learns very quickly that in Lissagaray’s vocabulary being called a “leftist” or a “liberal” is not a compliment. Right from the September 4th republican revolution, where Lissagaray begins his history, he shows how the left had no courage at all, and the men who claimed to represent the Paris working people (Louis Blanc, Leon Gambetta) consistently betrayed them. This theme is carried throughout the book, and Lissagaray demonstrates again and again how the left not only abandoned the people, but also the bourgeois liberal representatives in Versailles actively supported many of that government’s atrocities.

However if the bourgeois left is crucified in Lissagaray’s writings, the radicals and representatives of the Paris Commune do not always come off better. Although an obvious partisan of the Paris Commune, Lissagarary’s purpose in writing was not to enshrine the members of the Paris Commune in revolutionary saint hood, but provide an unflinching look at where they erred. As Lissagaray writes in his introduction, “The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.”

Some members of the Paris Commune are criticized more than others. Most of Lissagaray’s venom is directed against Felix Pyat and Gustave Cluseret. Felix Pyat is shown as a loudmouth who is more concerned with scoring points against his political rivals inside the Paris Commune than protecting the revolution against Versailles. In fact Lissagaray lays the blame for most of the divisions among the Communards at the feet of Pyat. At one point in the book, another member of the Commune tells Pyat, “You are the evil genius of this revolution.”

Cluseret, charged with the defence of the Commune, is portrayed as being incredibly arrogant and criminally negligible, and personally responsible for many of Versailles early victories.

Other members of the commune are treated with much more respect, (although no one completely escapes criticism). Charles Delescluze emerges as one of the heroes of the commune, and his heroic death on the barricades is reported with great reverence and apparently even witnessed by Lissagaray himself.

The great tragedy of this book, also emphasized again and again by Lissagaray, is that the Paris Commune did not have to fail. If the Commune leaders had been able to better defend Paris, or if the Commune uprisings in the provinces had been better organized, the revolution could have succeeded. It was not for lack of popular support, either in Paris or in the provinces, that the revolution failed, but as a result of first the leftists betraying the people, and secondly the radical leaders bungling the task.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the fall of the commune, the mass execution of the communards, the kangaroo trials of the survivors, and the fate of the exiles in New Caledonia. The vicious cruelty of the bourgeoisie displayed here in these chapters almost has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated. Lissagaray shows very clearly how little the life of the working poor is worth, and contrasts the moderation and humaneness of the Commune with the massacres sanctioned by Versailles. The Commune did execute 62 hostages, but this was an act of desperate mob fury not sanctioned by the Commune government. The Versailles government engaged in a planned systematic massacre of the proletariat of Paris. Lissagaray also demonstrates how the priests and nuns of Paris approved and aided in this massacre.

Prosper Oliver Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, (New Park Publications, 1976). *

* While this book is out of print, is available from numerous online used book sellers. It can also be read in its entirety online.

The Insurrectionist (The Jacques Vingtras Trilogy)

Jules Valles, a life long rebel, activist, and anarchist, is famous for his role in the Paris Commune and for his Jacques Vingtras trilogy. Jules Valles was elected a member of the Paris Commune, and later appointed Minister of Education under the Commune, during which time he created free and undenominational public schooling. After the fall of the Commune, he was condemned to death, but escaped to Belgium and later England.

It was in England that he began his autobiographical work under the pseudonym of Jacques Vingtras. Although Jules Valles does take some advantage of the Roman-a-clef nature of fiction to change some of the chronology and minor details, the Jacques Vingtras trilogy is frequently used by historians as if it were a memoir.

Partly owing to the politicized nature of his work, Jules Valles has long been regarded as one of the French Literary cannon’s minor writers. However, like many overlooked writers, Valles’s works are periodically rediscovered by different generations and thrust back in the limelight every now and again.

During the May 1968 Revolution in France there was renewed interest in Jules Valles. He was found quoted by student graffiti on the walls of Paris during the student rebellion, and his works were republished in both French and English.

After the 68 generation, Jules Valles has been largely forgotten again, although recently the New York Review Books has republished The Child, the first book in the Jacques Vingtras trilogy.

“The Child” chronicles Jules Valles’s childhood from hell caught in between the middle class cult of respectability and the traditional bourgeois classical education. The book begins with the words: “I dedicate this book to all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.” Although this story is certainly anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, it is of limited direct political value. However, it has been described as one of the funniest books in French literature, and can be recommended as a fun read to anyone (activist or otherwise) looking for a light book.

The second book in the series The Graduate, describes the 1848 Revolution, the 1851 coup by Napoleon III, and the struggle of Jules Valles and his friends to keep the socialist movement alive during the repressive period of the second empire. It has, to the best of my knowledge, never been translated into English. Or at least, a search of the Internet reveals neither current nor used copies available for sale.

The Insurrectionist, which describes the workers movement of the 1860s culminating in the Paris Commune, is of the most interest to the activist. The English edition is not currently in print, but can be found at some libraries, used bookstores, and Internet booksellers.

The story begins with Jules Valles in 1857 having gone against his morals and accepted a job as a teacher after living on the streets for many years. His former friends criticize his cowardice and hypocrisy, but after years of starving himself he is unable to resist the lure of steady meals and a paycheck. However his new found security is not to last long. Valles loses his job after telling the students never to pay attention to anything they are taught in school.

He then briefly becomes a government clerk, and loses that job after giving a seditious speech at one of the clubs. He struggles to find work in journalism. He participates in several anti-government demonstrations, but he and his colleagues are never able to mount a serious challenge to the Napoleonic Empire.

Jules Valles was recruited by his socialist friends to run against the moderate republican Jules Simon in the governmental elections. Although Jules Simon was the leader of the republican opposition to Napoleon at the time, some of the socialists thought it was important to provide a socialist alternative in the election. Others thought the candidacy would take votes away from Jules Simon and strengthen Napoleon. Jules Valles ended up being caught up in the middle of this debate. Of course since these strategic electoral issues are still debated by radicals today, the candidacy of Jules Valles and the debate around it should still be of interest.

Then the Franco-Prussian war begins, and Jules Valles is beat up while participating in a peace demonstration. Since he is beat up not by police but by workers, the very people he had spent his whole life trying to help, he feels particularly discouraged.

“I regret my sacrificed youth, the life I have given to starvation, the pride I have given to the dogs, the future I have spoiled for a mob I thought had a soul, a mob I wanted to honor by giving it all the strength I had so painfully amassed. And now I see that very same mob sucking up to soldiers, dogging the steps of regiments, cheering colonels whose epaulets are still sticky with the blood of December, shouting “Kill them!” when we say we want to silence the trumpets by ramming rags down their bells. It is the greatest disillusionment of my life.”

However as every historian knows, the initial war euphoria soon gave way to anger and disillusionment when the French army started loosing. Valles chronicles in his book first the republican revolution of September 4, next the failed socialist uprising of October 30, and finally the Paris Commune.

Although he sat as a member of the Commune, Valles work offers almost no insight into the ideological struggle behind the Commune, although he does describe some of his personality clashes with other members. It is for this reason that Valles is frequently accused of adventurism by Marxist critics, but in The Insurrectionist Valles is much more interested in chronicling the experience of revolution than the ideology behind it.

The Insurrectionist repeatedly deals with the intersection of the political with the personal, probably the most striking example of which is the following scene from the fall of the Commune, in which Valles witnesses an accused spy about to be executed:

Another one denied being a traitor and asked to be led “before the proper authorities.” He spoke as a coupon clipper from Le Marais. “I’ve never been mixed up in politics.”

“That’s why I’m killing you,” replied a fighter who’d been hit in the left paw one hour before, and was using his right paw to aim a revolver at the man in the grip of the crowd. And he was about to shoot when it was decided that people perhaps should not be executed without proof and that this man should be led to Public Safety the “authorities” he was begging for as often as his sobs would allow. “The committee’ll let him go, as sure as I’ve lost five fingers,” grumbled the wounded man, shaking his red stump.

“Not mixed up in politics! They’re the biggest cowards of all. I hate that kind of a son of a bitch! They wait until after the slaughter to see who to spit on and who to suck up to!”

Valles himself can probably be classified as an anarchist, although he belonged to the generation of anarchists more influenced by Proudhon than Bakunin. He was part of the Proudhonist minority on the Paris Commune which was consistently outvoted by the Jacobin majority, but once again Valles prefers to describe this in terms of personality instead of politics:

“I hate Robespierre the deist, and I don’t think we should ape Marat, the galley slave of suspicion, the lunatic of the terror, the maniac of the bloody age. My curses join with [the majority] when they attack [the reactionists] but more sacrilegious than they, I also spit on Robespierre’s vest.”

Almost no time is given to the Commune’s deliberations, but Valles gives a lot of space to the fall of the Commune and bloody week. Most of the Commune’s members were killed, and Valles barely escapes himself by disguising himself as an ambulance driver.

Both the massacre of civilians by the Versailles army and shooting of hostages by the commune horrifies Valles, and he makes a vain attempt to save some of the hostages. If there is a consistent ideological thread to Valles’s work, it is the horror of cruelty and killing, and yet he is not without his mixed feelings about the necessity of violence in a revolution as revealed by this exchange following the execution of a spy:

A man came up to me. “Citizen, do you want to see what a traitor’s corpse looks like?” “Someone’s been executed?” “Yeah a baker, he denied it at first, then he admitted it.” The federal saw me turn pale. “Maybe you would have voted for acquittal-Jesus God! Can’t you see that to smash in one Judas’ head saves the heads of a thousand of your own men! Blood horrifies me, and my hands are covered with it; he grabbed me and held on when I shot him! But where would you be if you couldn’t find anybody to kill spies?” Someone intervened in the debate. “That’s not all! You want to keep your paws clean for the time when you stand before the court or posterity! And we’re the ones, the poor, the workers, the ones who always have to do the dirty work. So everyone can spit on us later, right?” That angry man was speaking the truth. Yes, you want to stay clean for history and not have slaughterhouse filth attached to your name. Admit that to yourself, Vingtras, and don’t consider it a virtue that your face turned white before the dead baker.

One final note: for those with a historical interest, The Insurrectionist is also useful for the first hand description we get of other famous French radicals, such as Blanqui, Rigault, Varlin, Vermorel, and Michelet. However, for those unfamiliar with French history, there can be a lot of strange names and references to keep track of, so be forewarned.

Jules Valles, The Insurrectionist, (Xs Books, 1988).

Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution

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Both from the title and the opening dedication of the book to the deceased singer of the legendary punk band The Clash, it is clear that Mark Steel’s <Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution is not going to be a stale and overly academic history of one Europe’s great revolutions. Steel is writing not to bemoan the deaths of the royal family and their supporters, as so many historians do, but rather to examine how both how the revolution was led “from below” by the poor and how it has been portrayed in histories since. Steel describes how the period is regularly portrayed as a period to be hated, yet he finds inspiration in the actions of ordinary French citizens who realized that their collective power could topple a regime that was believed its power came from God. He examines all the “major” events of the period while also exploring the minor events that have been frequently ignored, especially focusing on events and activities that challenge the prevailing interpretations of the French Revolution. He writes with the passion that writing about a revolutionary movement demands, eschewing the dispassionate and stale rhetoric that so often characterizes how history is written and instead brings to the front the inspiration that the study of revolutionary movements should give to contemporary activists.

Having received a degree in history and having an interest in pedagogy and its relationship to social movements, I found Steel’s comments and analysis on historiography of the period to be one of the most interesting aspects of his book. While never focusing any significant time on the French Revolution while in college, the topic was addressed briefly in the compulsory “World History” courses (renamed from “Western Civilization” in order to attempt to mask the fact that they were in reality primarily histories of “great” white leaders). The courses presented the French Revolution in a generally vague and convoluted manner, ignoring the specifics of what happened to focus on “key” aspects such as King Louis XVI lavish spending, the “unfortunate” status of the lower classes (with little analysis of why people were starving), the storming of the Bastille, the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the reign of “Terror,” and the rise of Napoleon. The brief overview had an underlying sympathy for the royal family, essentially suggesting that while there were significant problems with inequality, revolution was not a solution. Of course, in a system where the King’s power is believed to derive from God, there really is no other option, but such is the use of history when it is taught in a manner that promotes an ideological adherence to capitalism. People can, occasionally, organize in “official” ways, such as demanding the right to vote or asking for legal equality, but once they begin to challenge the underlying basis of society, they are forever seen as “extremists” in “official” histories.

Throughout the book, Steel weaves in an analysis of other histories of the French Revolution, but it is his two introductions (one to this US edition and the other to the original British version) in which he provides the bulk of this analysis. Steel argues that the French Revolution has been portrayed as a “dreadful episode with no redeeming features.” This has been aided by popular films and novels, which have advocated an idea that most of the revolutionaries were bloodthirsty and unthinking. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the influential histories of the period have advanced similar assertions, with books such as Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, containing numerous personal attacks on leaders of the revolution, especially Jean Paul Marat. Other books, including The French Revolution and Its Legacy, have gone so far as to say that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were the “heirs of the French Revolution.” At the same time, other historians have advanced an interpretation that the French Revolution had no lasting impact. In both interpretations, the Terror is played up as being a defining feature of the revolution, while the efforts to create a society based on fairness, equality, and democracy have been minimized.

Vive la Revolution is an entertaining book that is both easy to read and useful in illuminating one of the more misunderstood periods in European history. For those who have relied on their basic western civilization textbooks to learn about this period or even those who have undertaken a more detailed study of the period using more scholarly sources, they have likely seen the revolution portrayed as an uncoordinated and horribly violent attack on “order” that resulted in a “dark” period of European history. In an amusing and lucid way, Steel rejects such interpretations and shows that it had components that constituted a “revolution from below” and argues that it is possible to find inspiration for contemporary struggles within the French revolution. Steel ends the book by discussing how the French Revolution shows that when “peasants, slaves, postmen and washerwomen” get together they can change the world because “there are more of them than there are nobles, priests and kings.” He relates this to the present by pointing out that the 360 richest people in the world own the same amount as the poorest 2 billion, suggesting that the current system is vulnerable if organizing brought together the 2 billion.

Mark Steel, Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

Love in the Days of Rage

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I was pleased to find this book, a fictional account of two lovers living in France during the revolutionary period of May-June 1968. One of them is an anarchist banker, with all the contradictions that such a title implies, and the other is a professor at L’Acadamie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Much of the book traces the tension between different views of how one best can participate in and support the revolutionary students.

I have to admit, the primary reason I enjoyed this book was its setting–I find the May-June events to be fascinating. The book captures the spirit of the events pretty well, including many of the famous graffiti slogans that were found on Paris walls, incorporating many of the events that took place, and relaying the overall context of the events quite well. As a piece of historical fiction, it works well and for people who are familiar with the events, it is an entertaining read–I found myself reading it in one sitting (it’s short at 118 pages), eagerly turning the pages to see how Ferlinghetti would work in the various philosophies present in May-June 1968.

However, like most works of fiction, there are some errors. The most striking error is found in a passage where Annie, the professor, finds herself marching in the middle of a group of International Situationist marching under the banner of philosopher Henri LeFebvre, who had planted the early seeds of revolt among his students in Strasbourg with his manifesto “on the misery of student life.” While there is no date given to verify the accuracy of this statement, it seems highly unlikely as the Situationists had a falling out with LeFebvre in the early 1960s and the “manifesto” being referred to is most likely the Situationists’ own pamphlet, On the Poverty of Student Life.

Even with a few errors, this was an entertaining and fast read, one that will be especially enjoyable for people who are fascinated by France in May-June 1968.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Love in the Days of Rage, (E.P. Dutton, 1988).

French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968

During my senior year in college, I attempted to write an intellectual history of the Situationist International, a group of radical theorists in France who published scathing critiques of the capitalist system and consumerism, while seeking to find a new revolutionary praxis. The paper was an ambitious project to be sure, attempting to cover a group as complex as the Situationist International in only 25 pages is probably not possible, especially for a student who is unfamiliar with the history of Marxism and radicalism in France.

Nevertheless, I was able to place the Situationists within the context of their contemporaries and thus was able to explain why they rejected the policies of the majority of the Marxist left. In order to do that, I had to rely on a variety of different works, including a couple by the scholar Tony Judt, working slowly to make sense of a political milieu that was completely unfamiliar. After reading French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968, I realize that there was a lot more I could have addressed within the paper.

The French Communist Party Versus the Students is essentially a history of the French Communist Party (PCF) and their relationship to both the student movement as well as other radical parties in France during the 1950s and 1960s. The book examines how the party was structured and how it functioned, a necessary study if one is to consider the PCFís role in the May-June events of 1968. Granted, most of this book is a rather dry history of a party that by the 1960s had lost most of its radicalism, and indeed has little contemporary relevance. While it lacks the sense of immediacy as well as the readability of Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, a book that covers the way in which the PCF and other “radical” parties acted as counter-revolutionary forces, The French Communist Party Versus the Students explores the role of the PCF in a broader historical context and is an important book for people wanting to understand the Communists role in May and June of 1968.

Richard Johnson, French Communist Party Versus the Students: Revolutionary Politics in May-June 1968, (Yale University Press, 1972).