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The Uncivil Servant: Myths of the Paris Commune

Mitchell Abidor
August 2, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Last Communard, by Gavin Bowd. Verso Press, 2016, 182 pages.

Barricade_Voltaire_Lenoir_Commune_Paris_1871BECAUSE OF ITS PURITY, because it lived so briefly and gloriously and died so bravely and brutally, the Paris Commune has been enveloped in a nimbus of admiration and myth. It was the first time the working class seized power anywhere, and was also, according to Engels, the dictatorship of the proletariat made flesh. Yet Marxists must overlook the fact that Marxists and Marxism were nonexistent in France at the time of the Commune, and the members of the First International in Paris, and on the Commune, were more Proudhonian than anything else.

The Paris Commune was also admired by anarchists as the great libertarian struggle because, like the Spanish anarchist forces in the Spanish Civil War, the officers of the French National Guard were elected (though this predated the Commune), and because the members of the Commune’s elected body were subject to recall (while at the same time meetings of the Commune were closed to the public). Of course, anarchist admirers are also forced to ignore that the Commune functioned as a regular government, with elected representatives, departments, and a legislature that ran according to parliamentary rules.

And though it was advanced for its period on the woman question, and though women had their own revolutionary organizations, it was not feminist by any stretch of the imagination, as it did not allow women to vote or to serve in the National Guard. Those women who fought on the barricades did so as individuals in spot situations, for the most part serving as nurses and support for the men at the front lines.

If the Commune as a whole was so ripe for mythologizing, it can be no surprise that as time went on, Communards themselves would become mythical creatures. Communards were living embodiments of the revolutionary tradition and, as such, were ripe for use for those parties that wanted to embellish their revolutionary credentials. One exemplary case of this is examined in Gavin Bowen’s brilliant The Last Communard.

There is an irony in the very title of the book, for its subject, Adrien Lejeune, who fought for the Commune and died in the middle of World War II a resident of the Soviet Union, was not, in fact, the Last Communard. But his story and his dedication to the PCF and the Soviet Union were simply too good for the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Soviet Union to allow facts to interfere with the needs of the cause. As the famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

THE LEGEND is a simple one: Young man fights bravely for the Commune; is arrested and tried after its defeat; is sentenced to prison and then deportation to New Caledonia, remaining there until the amnesty of 1880; returns to France, joins the PCF upon its founding, moves in 1926 to the Soviet Union, leaving his savings and investments to the Communist Party newspaper; lives out his days surrounded by the love of the heroic Soviet people; dies in Siberia; and his remains are repatriated to France in the centennial year of the Commune, where he is buried at the great lieu de memoire of the French left, the section of Père Lachaise cemetery near the Mur des Fédérés, where the final fighters of the Commune made their stand, and where the great figures of the French left, and of the Communist Party in particular, are buried.

Yet the legend is rife with errors, and Bowen, through research in Soviet and French archives, in a short volume of 182 pages, accomplishes an amazing feat of historical detection and rectification.

The legend of Lejeune would be spread by PCF leader Jacques Duclos on the centennial of the Commune, as well as in the Communist and Communist-led CGT press, all of it an edulcorated version of his activities during the Commune, all based in part on Lejeune’s own account. Never claiming to be more than he was, “just a man in the rank and file,” he recounted his fights in the final days of the Commune, when despite the obviousness of impending defeat, Lejeune would say of himself: “We fought on, falling back from barricade to barricade, extracting a heavy price for our lives.”

Arrested at a barricade, he said, he escaped immediate execution and appeared before a military tribunal. There, the story went, an ingenious lawyer praised Lejeune’s character and the fact that he was “a model son and an excellent worker.” But what ultimately swayed the judges was the lawyers exclaiming: “But how can this young man be an enemy of property when he is himself a property-holder?” This clinched the case, and Lejeune was sentenced to five years in prison, which he served in full.

The Communists would later embellish this tale, adding a deportation to New Caledonia after finishing his prison term, and having Lejeune allowed to return to France with the amnesty of Communards in 1880. As Bowd writes, this elaboration was necessary, for “in the Communist imagination, the Last Communard, a precious relic of their implacable struggle against the ruling class, could not be freed before the final amnesty; he had to embody the full Calvary of these revolutionary martyrs.”

BOWD ISN’T SATISFIED with this account and investigates the events around Lejeune’s days fighting for the Commune as they appear in his trial record, and the picture is considerably more ambiguous. The Last Communard was, in fact, a member of a unit from his native suburb of Bagnolet, which had been dissolved. While in Paris for business on May 22, early on the Bloody Week that ended the Commune, he was arrested and held for five days, but not by the enemy based in Versailles, but rather by the force defending the Commune, the National Guard! He was released on May 27, the next to last day of the Commune, at which point he, in as he said at his trial, “was given a rifle and stationed on a barricade in the rue Ménilmontant. I did not fire, I put down my rifle, and I ran away to Belleville.” And so, as Bowd points out, “[r]ather than the ‘revolutionary audacity’ he claims to have displayed…Lejeune is on record protesting that he was coerced into taking part in the insurrection, denying his voluntary involvement in order to avoid punishment.”

Given the current state of the records of the Commune, it is impossible to tell whether the story Lejeune told in court was the true one or if he was simply telling a tale that would save his life. Bowd correctly places Lejeune in the context of the discoveries of the great scholar of the Commune, Jacques Rougerie, who said of the trials of Communards that “These contradictory trials almost all turned into a rout. It was about who could dodge their responsibilities.” But Bowd fairly concludes that Lejeune “does not seem to have fought completely voluntarily…The records of Lejeune’s revolutionary acts are as mixed as the rest of his life, combining idealism, myth-making and all-too-human frailty.”

The Commune would assume an ever-larger role in the establishing of a revolutionary continuity to which the PCF considered itself the local heir, while the Soviet Union claimed it had fulfilled the failed dreams of the Commune.

AFTER HIS WIFE’S DEATH in 1926, Lejeune decided “to hand over to L’Humanité 4,626 francs of annuity,” making these annuities property of the paper, “on condition that the said society ensures me an annual income corresponding to that yielded by my securities.” Such hardheadedness would continue during the twelve years Lejeune lived in the USSR (Communist accounts usually have him making the move in 1926; the above-mentioned document, written before his departure, is dated May 22, 1930.) And Lejeune regularly asked for money, wines, and chocolate, requests that the PCF and the USSR usually made every effort to accede to. As Bowd says of Lejeune, “this living symbol was voracious.”

He would write occasionally for the Communist press, always in the langue de bois -- the wooden language -- of the communist movement, writings so lacking in life that one can only assume they were written for him by apparatchiks.

If there is one person who comes out of The Last Communard unstained, it is, of all people, André Marty, the PCF leader notorious for his arrogance and brutality during the Spanish Civil War, when he was the political commissar of the International Brigades. Marty (who was unsparingly portrayed in For Whom the Bell Tolls) never ceases doing all he can to ensure that all of Lejeune’s requests are met, even going so far as to write to George Dimitrov, final head of the Comintern, to complain of Lejeune’s living conditions.

Ultimately, after the Nazi invasion, the Parisian revolutionary was removed to Novosibirsk for his safety, where, shortly before his death, he wrote (or “wrote”) to wounded Red Army men, “I am the last one of those who fought, seventy-two years ago, on the barricades of the Paris Commune, for the freedom of mankind. Then I was young and courageous like you and hated tyranny. Today my country is again under the German-Fascist yoke, but revolutionary traditions and the French people are not dead…Long live the glorious Red Army! Long live the Paris Commune!”

He would die a few days later, and on May 24, 1971, almost a hundred years to the day after the fall of the commune, Lejeune’s ashes were sent to France, and he was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Even so, Bowd reminds us, Adrien Lejeune was not the Last Communard. Alexis Truillot had been born in 1863 into a radical family. Though only 8 years old, he had met two of the great figures of the Commune, the journalist Jules Vallès and Jean-Baptiste Clément, author of the song, “Le Temps des Cerises.” More importantly, Bowd writes, he had “served as a courier for the Communards. Truillot recalled watching the guillotine burn on the place Voltaire, helping to build barricades, and, finally, helping Communards to escape bloody Versaillais repression.” He was still alive in 1960, but had retired from politics long before, concentrating on Roman archaeology. “His commemorative ‘use’ was therefore limited.” He was, though, the real Last Communard.

But the PCF had printed the legend.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.