The Paris Commune and the Poetics of Martyrdom


On 30 November 2016, Le Monde, and several other French newspapers, reported that the National Assembly had voted posthumously to rehabilitate the victims of the repression of the Paris Commune. Jean-Marie Le Guen, the Minister of State for Relations with Parliament, supported a text that ‘promotes the transmission of the memory’ of the Communards, whom the document refers to as ‘patriots’ and ‘insurgents’ whose values ‘inspired the Republic’. As the Fifth Republic teetered on the brink of full-throated authoritarian populism, and from within the midst of an ongoing state of emergency, one might regard it as an unusual moment at which to exonerate thousands of revolutionaries who aspired to overthrow the established order of rival nation-states in proposing a vision of international, working-class solidarity that cut across national boundaries. In part, the gesture of rehabilitation was little more than an opportunistic electioneering ruse on the part of an embattled neoliberal Socialist Party. Yet it was also very much in keeping with what Enzo Traverso, in his recent book Left-Wing Melancholia, has characterised as the ‘currently dominant humanitarianism that sacralises the memory of victims, and mostly neglects or rejects their commitments’, thereby stifling a more active politics of remembrance and mourning. How, then, might this belated gesture of accommodation on the part of the French state, at the very moment of its profound structural crisis, illuminate and speak to those more fugitive and transitory acts of remembrance through which generations of revolutionaries have sought to keep alive the memory, and to reactivate the political legacy, of the Communards?

The French historian Georges Haupt has pointed to the way in which the Commune, after its suppression, lived on as both symbol and example for the emergent socialist movement across Europe. In an essay entitled ‘The Commune as Symbol and Example’, he comments that ‘[t]he transformation in the reception and projection of the images of the 1871 insurrection interwoven with the general evolution of ideology, are in themselves a historical phenomenon which deserves careful study’. The kind of documents that fall within the scope of Haupt’s study include ‘pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, songs, plays, and poems, as well as a considerable iconography’. He focuses on the French and German context, paying particular attention to the disputes over the Commune’s legacy that took place between Marx and Bakunin, and later between Lenin and Kautsky.

During the 1880s socialist revival in Britain, a number of poems dedicated to, or otherwise concerned with, the martyred Parisian Communards appeared in fin de siècle socialist periodicals, including the monthly journal, To-Day, edited by Ernest Belfort Bax, and the revolutionary socialist newspaper, Commonweal, edited by William Morris between 1885 and 1890. According to Elizabeth Miller, ‘the political value of the poetry’ that appeared in such fin de siècle radical periodicals was not identified with ‘formal innovation’, but lay, rather, in its ‘capacity to draw together readers of the radical press into an alternative culture made familiar by appeals to the past and brought to life by oral poetic forms’. The Commune provided one of the predominant reference-points for such politicised ‘appeals to the past’.

The regular poetry column is one of the most immediately noticeable features of the Commonweal – the official organ of the Socialist League. Jostling against the closely-printed propagandistic articles, branch reports, and notes on the news of the day, the numerous poems and marching songs stood out, first and foremost, in visual terms, simply by virtue of being written in verse. Catherine Robson has referred to this visual identity of poetry in the periodical press as being bound up with the ‘aura of unmarked space’ that functions to delimit ‘the presence of a poem on a densely printed page’. In this respect, the Commonweal continued a tradition of radical periodical print culture, which can be traced back to the Chartist newspapers of the 1830s and 1840s (most notably The Northern Star), in which poetry featured as a prominent part of the cultural life of a wider political movement. During the course of Morris’s tenure as editor, a wide range of different poets appeared within the pages of Commonweal. Between 1885 and 1887, over thirty poems by Ferdinand Freiligarth, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Pfau, Georg Herwegh and Karl Beck appeared in translations by James Leigh Joynes, the ex-Eton master and member of the Socialist League. Joynes later collected his translations of these German poets, whose work was strongly identified with the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, in a volume entitled Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch (1888). Other frequent contributors to the poetry column included the journalists Fred Henderson and Reginald A. Beckett, the anarchist David Nicoll, the trade-union organiser Tom Maguire, as well as Morris himself, whose long narrative poem about the Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, was serialised in Commonweal between February 1885 and July 1886.

Fred Henderson published his first volume of poetry at the tender age of sixteen, and published a more substantial volume, Echoes of the Coming Day: Socialist Songs and Rhymes, in 1887. In his third and final volume, By the Sea, and Other Poems (1892), Henderson included the poem ‘A Song for To-Day’, which begins as follows:

Who will sing us the song of to-day?

The lance is broken and knights are dead:

Their sun went down over France blood-red,

And the last of them all was long since clay;

Sung and resung, let them rest at last

With fame full writ in their own dead past:

Come – who will sing us the song of to-day?

Henderson does not explicitly identify ‘blood-red’ France with the brutal suppression of the Commune by the Versaillais during the ‘Bloody Week’ of May 1871, but this opening stanza nevertheless gestures towards a certain kind of exhaustion with a poetics of martyrdom and commemoration familiar from, say, Morris’s Pilgrims of Hope. In the final section of Morris’s poem, which appeared in Commonweal in July 1886, the speaker, after telling the tale of the Commune’s defeat at the hands of Adolphe Thiers’s ‘war machine’, finds solace in the fact that, ‘Year after year shall men meet with the red flag over head,/And shall call on the help of the vanquished and the kindness of the dead’. Henderson’s speaker, by contrast, implies that the singing and re-singing of the deeds of those whom Morris elsewhere referred to as the ‘valiant dead’ might somehow block, or forestall, the emergence of a genuinely contemporary and present-oriented radical poetics. The anxiety to which Henderson here gives voice has been articulated more recently, in a different context, by Alain Badiou, who remarked in discussion of the Commune on the way in which a certain form of ‘commemoration also happens to proscribe its reactivation’.

Henderson had written to Morris in 1885, enclosing some of his youthful verses, only to receive a rather indifferent response. Morris wrote to Henderson that: ‘you feel strongly and poetically, you think you have expressed your feelings in your verses, but you have not done so, because you have not compelled others (sympathetic people of course), to feel with you’, before adding: ‘Pray don’t be down-cast because you have tried to write poetry and failed’. In light of this correspondence, it is not too fanciful to imagine Henderson nursing a poet’s sense of wounded vanity, and meditating a response to Morris. In ‘A Song for To-Day’, Henderson’s speaker proceeds with an attempt to answer the rhetorical question posed in the first stanza of the poem, by offering a series of injunctions to would-be poets concerning the appropriate subject-matter for the songs of to-day projected in the title. ‘Tell of keen war with the devil’s throngs’, ‘Tell of the cause of the poor who sink’, ‘Tell of the women and men grown gray/With lonely labour and scant delight’, ‘Tell of the children that swarm and die/In loathsome dens where Despair is king’, and so on. The seemingly naturalistic impulse to focus on the depredations of contemporary capitalism jars against the vocabulary of Morrisian romance, introduced at the outset with the reference to the heroic deeds of dead knights, whose bodies lie mouldering in the grave, and which Henderson would rather consign to the realm of the ‘dead past’.

Yet the poetics of martyrdom which found expression in poems about the Commune was not exclusively identified with Morris. We might, for example, turn to a short poem by Packenham Thomas Beatty, the Anglo-Irish poet and friend of George Bernard Shaw, that appeared in the journal, To-Day, in May 1886. Beatty’s poem is entitled ‘The Last Barricade of the Commune’, and recounts the narrative of a child being shot on an abandoned barricade. The opening lines follow a group of Versaillais soldiers in the ‘plying of their bloody trade’ up until the point where they

                     […] swore

Sullenly that no more blood was to spill.

Then marched; but when they reached the barricade

We had abandoned last, a little head

Lifted its golden curls, and a child said:

‘Vive la Commune’ – and then stood still and smiled,

Folding his little arms across his breast –

Until one beast, more beast-like than the rest,

Suddenly raised his gun and shot the child.

In describing the barricade of the title as that which ‘We had abandoned last’, the speaker identifies with the anonymous collective of murdered Communards, thus framing the narrative that follows within clearly defined parameters of sympathy for the defeated, and repulsion at the cruelty of their suppressors. Indeed, that telltale ‘we’ is the only pronoun in the poem that indicates any sense of the speaker’s perspective, or position in relation to the events narrated, thereby suggesting that the speaker, singly or with others, occupies an impossible position of witness, even after all the barricades have been abandoned, and their other defenders apparently shot. In recounting the child’s gesture of innocent defiance, and the abrupt brutality of the response it elicits, Beatty fights shy of tear-jerking sentimentality, provoking moral indignation instead, the function of which is to consolidate a solidaristic kind of commemoration amongst the readership of the journal To-Day: Monthly Magazine of Scientific Socialism, to give it its full title.

Four months after the appearance of Beatty’s poem in To-Day, Morris published a poem in Commonweal by the thirty-four-year-old American poet, Charles Edwin Markham, in remembrance of the Commune. Markham would later become known as the Poet Laureate of Oregon between 1923 and 1931. He gained notoriety with his 1898 ekphrastic poem, ‘The Man with the Hoe’, which was inspired by Jean-François Millet’s 1862 painting of that name, and which called attention to the plight of agricultural labourers. Markham’s poem for Commonweal, entitled ‘The Song of the Workers (Remembering the Martyrs of the Commune)’, deploys a performative language of remembrance that relies upon tropes and motifs of romance familiar from Morris’s socialist chants and his wider oeuvre. Markham’s speaker asserts that:

We’ll not forget, O comrades, how ye met the ravening
hordes –

How shone out over all the earth the splendour of your

How they lit up all the Future, all the golden years to

When the burden shall be lifted and the worker shall
be free.

We’ll remember how ye rallied, faced the ancient
Wrong in wrath,

How your swords that lie in ruins cut the centuries a

We’ll not forget your forms that loomed upon the

Nor how ye looked from silent eyes when laid asleep
with spades.

Markham here adopts the slightly clunky heptameter couplets that Morris had used in his 1875 translation of The Aeneids of Virgil. Markham also signals an awareness of the wider visual, and particularly photographic, culture surrounding the Commune. His reference to ‘silent eyes […] laid asleep with spades’ cannot but evoke the series of ‘“morgue” photographs’, which, as Jeannene Przyblyski suggests, ‘provide a vision of grim finality to the Commune’s embrace of a spurious, photographic aestheticism’ in numerous images of barricades. The deathly after-image of the slaughtered Communards provides a ruthless reminder of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just’s reputed maxim: ‘Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau’ – those who only half-make a revolution dig their own graves. For Markham, although the Communards’ figurative swords may ‘lie in ruins’, to be replaced by the spades of their gravediggers, the heroic defeat was not in vain. On the contrary, the speaker asserts that the ‘splendour of [their] swords/[…] lit up all the Future, all the golden years to be’, giving confidence to the Commonweal readership that the historical agency of the proletariat was not only assured, but actively on the wing. Markham articulates the kind of active, future-oriented memory characteristic of the nineteenth-century socialist movement, and which Traverso suggests has been rendered inoperative, even impossible, in our present conjuncture.

On 16 March 1889, Reginald A. Beckett’s poem, ‘The Eighteenth of March’, was published in Commonweal. Beckett’s title alludes to the date on which the people of Montmartre prevented government troops from confiscating National Guard cannons, shooting generals Lecomte and Thomas in the process. The official proclamation of the Commune came later on the 28 March, but the 18 March passed over into legend as the originary moment of the insurrection. Beckett, whose poems appeared regularly in Commonweal, imagines a dialogue between a ‘rich man’ and a ‘workman’, each of whom couches his attitude towards the Commune – respectively hostile and sympathetic – in terms of a struggle for his children’s well-being. The ‘workman’, moreover, appears with ‘sword in hand, his life at stake’, echoing Markham’s deployment of a Morrisian rhetoric of heroic valour. Beckett’s speaker rallies readers with a call to remembrance in the face of indifference or forgetfulness:

Brothers, they fought our battle; yet, O shame!

We know them not, or spurn their dust with scorn;

How then shall we make good that glorious claim

For which they longed amid their lives forlorn?

Yet when we share their ardour and their aim

The life they died to bear us will be born.

Beckett and Markham both faced the problem of finding a language in which the Communards’ ‘ardour’ might be reactivated, but they did so in the absence of a political conjuncture that might allow for such a process to take place. It is unclear in Beckett’s poem, for example, whether the imagined moment of shared ardour will arrive as a result of a voluntaristic assertion of will on the part of the reader, or whether a more far-reaching and revolutionary shift in the balance of social and class forces would first be necessary. Much like Beatty’s position of impossible witness, Beckett’s poem cannot, in and of itself, embody or manifest that shared ‘ardour’ and common ‘aim’ without asserting a premature claim to the birth of the ‘life they died to bear us’.

The final Commune poem that I want to discuss appeared in Commonweal after an internal realignment within the Socialist League, and it is not even immediately obvious that it is a poem about the Commune. The Socialist League’s anarchist faction ousted Morris as editor of Commonweal in May 1890, whereupon David Nicoll took over the editorship. In the issue for 19 July, Nicoll published Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire’. This is a poem with a somewhat complicated publication history. Whitman had first published the poem in an earlier version, under the title ‘Liberty Poem for Asia, Africa, Europe, America, Australia, Cuba, and The Archipelagoes of the Sea’, in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, and he subsequently reprinted it as ‘To a Foil’d Revolter or Revoltress’ in the 1860 and 1867 editions of Leaves of Grass. By the time of the 1871 edition of that much-revised and reordered text, Whitman had changed the title again, such that the poem now appeared as ‘To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire’, grouped under the new section heading ‘Songs of Insurrection’. To make matters yet more complicated, Nicoll used the revised version of this poem that appeared in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, by which point Whitman had grouped the poem in the cluster entitled ‘Autumn Rivulets’, along with thirty-seven other poems, including ‘O Star of France’ – a poem which is more explicitly concerned with the events of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. Although the date of Whitman’s decision to revise the poem during the early 1870s is not certain, it is reasonable to assume that he recast the poem in light of recent events in France.

The poem lends itself to such recontextualisation, not least because of the speaker’s central declaration that

What we believe in waits latent forever through all the

Invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and
light, is positive and

composed, knows no discouragement,

Waiting patiently, waiting its time.

The speaker addresses the defeated revolutionary without specifying the precise contours of the defeat that has taken place, such that the opening injunction – ‘Courage yet, my brother or my sister!’ – is left curiously indefinite; indeed, the fact that the speaker does not seem to be sure exactly who is being addressed, ‘my brother or my sister’, is indicative of the potentially collective identity of the titular addressee, as if the poem were to be declaimed at a rally or mass demonstration. Yet, at the same time, this indeterminacy suggests a more furtive, fugitive uncertainty about whether the poem will be heard or received at all, given that it also describes a situation in which ‘[t]he great speakers and writers are exiled, they lie sick in distant lands,/ The cause is asleep, the strongest throats are choked with their own blood’. The speaker identifies with the projected beliefs of the addressee, without specifying the content of ‘[w]hat we believe in’ beyond a generalised commitment to the ‘idea of liberty’. Given the temporal determination of this belief as ‘latent forever’, Whitman’s ideal of revolutionary commitment sounds remarkably similar to Badiou’s communist hypothesis, which he characterises as a transhistorical invariant. As Betsy Erkkilä has commented, Whitman’s earlier versions of the poem ‘focused on the struggle over slavery’, but, in 1871, the poem was ‘redirected to European revolutionaries and heavily revised to link the “war” for democracy in America with the on-going popular struggles in France, Europe, and elsewhere’. Initially written with the revolutionary risings of 1848 uppermost in Whitman’s mind, the poem took on new resonance in the wake of the Commune. Here are Whitman’s closing lines, first added in 1860.

Did we think victory great?

So it is – but now it seems to me, when it cannot be help’d,

that defeat is great,

And that death and dismay are great.

Whitman’s speaker also intimates that When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,/[…] Then only shall liberty or the idea of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth’. The commemoration of ‘heroes and martyrs’, the speaker suggests, is crucial to the preservation of a political ideal of liberty in a period of reactionary retrenchment and ostensible defeat, but the only memories that are invoked are memories without subjects to inhabit them, projected into an imagined (and presumably bleak) future of obsolescence. Encountered by readers in the post-1871 context of a British revolutionary socialist periodical, some of whose contributors delineated the outlines of a poetics of martyrdom with specific reference to the Commune, Whitman’s assertion of the greatness of defeat and dismay, and even death, speaks forcefully in a new context.

How then might Whitman’s valorisation of defeat speak to Fred Henderson’s desire to let the clay-like bodies of dead martyrs lie undisturbed in the grave? Aside from being a potential riposte to Morris, what else might Henderson’s implied exhaustion with the socialist movement’s poetics of martyrdom have to express? In 1874, Engels responded to Blanquist commemorations of the Communards with a criticism. ‘What lack of critical spirit there is in literally sanctifying the Commune!’ According to Georges Haupt, Engels’s comments can partly be put down to his frustration that ‘the insistence on the idealised reality … of the Commune was likely to push the movement back towards the outlooks of the Romantic socialism’ of the earlier nineteenth century. The work of commemoration, Haupt suggests, even when it is undertaken in a spirit of militancy and solidarity, can nonetheless forestall a more critical discussion of a movement’s limitations and blind-spots. In his Commonweal review of Eleanor Marx’s 1886 translation of Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871, Ernest Belfort Bax commented in a similar vein.

We wish that every true Socialist at heart whose head is led astray by disintegrative tendencies would read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the important lessons of this volume. The cause was wrecked in 1871, in great part at least, … because of well-meaning conceited, faddy, cantankerous persons, who wasted time in long-winded speeches about personal matters, etc., and who would neither do any work themselves nor let any one else do it.

Far from consolidating a poetics of martyrdom, Bax’s prosaic honesty foregrounds a critique of the Commune’s political failure, in order to guide the strategic direction of ‘Socialist organisations … in existence to-day’. In seeking to draw ‘lessons’ from the Commune’s defeat, Bax looks to the Commune as an imperfect example, in Haupt’s terms, rather than a symbol in need of retroactive perfection.

Writing in a similarly dyspeptic and critical mode, the rightward-moving Fabian George Bernard Shaw commented with reference to ‘an anniversary celebration of the Paris Commune of 1871’ that he was

struck by the fact that no speaker could find a eulogy for the Federals which would not have been equally appropriate to the peasants of La Vendée who fought for their tyrants against the French revolutionists … Nor could the celebrators find any other adjectives for their favourite leaders of the Commune than those which had recently been liberally applied by all the journals to an African explorer whose achievements were just then held in the liveliest abhorrence by the whole meeting. The statements that the slain members of the Commune were heroes who died for a noble ideal would have left a stranger quite as much in the dark about them as the counter statements, once common enough in our newspapers, that they were incendiaries and assassins.

Shaw’s 1891 book on The Quintessence of Ibsenism, in which these remarks appeared, had its origin as a contribution to a series of talks hosted by the Fabian Society in the Spring of 1890, and ‘put under the general heading “Socialism in Contemporary Literature”’. The context for Shaw’s iconoclastic assault on the socialist movement’s martyrology, which he condemned as insufficiently specific in its content, was bound up with his attempt to position himself as a pragmatic gradualist, in opposition to the revolutionary politics of the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation. Shaw directed his criticism against the perceived inadequacy of the rhetoric of socialist commemoration, yet even Morris, who frequently spoke from the platform at such anniversary celebrations, shared similar reservations. He wrote to his daughter Jenny on the occasion of the 1887 commemoration. ‘I have to speak, which I don’t quite like; because although it is proper & right to celebrate the day, one has by this time said all one has to say on the subject’. Morris, like Henderson and Shaw, privately acknowledged discursive exhaustion, or rhetorical fatigue, as a danger for this kind of repeated, public performance of moral indignation.

As Morris’s remarks attest, the problem of how to relate to, and retrospectively valorise, the Commune’s failure created a tension in the socialist periodical press between the motivational need to celebrate such a heroic defeat, in order to justify sacrifices both past and present, and the evaluative need critically to assess the reasons that underlay the defeat. Traverso characterises Marx’s response to the suppression of the Commune as a part of a ‘dialectic of defeat’, such that the particular defeat itself constituted a single moment in a larger, more multi-faceted pattern of expansion and development. ‘The dimension of such a defeat was overwhelming, but did not shake the faith of Marx in the historical growth of socialism. Three decades later, mass socialist parties existed in all European countries.’ Paying careful attention to the history of this period of emergence is just one of a number of more or less pressing critical tasks for the contemporary conjuncture. In the narrow selection of texts under discussion here, the poems of Beatty, Markham, Beckett, Morris and Whitman accentuate the Communards’ heroism, imbuing the Commune’s suppression with an aura of martyrdom that makes critique, if not proscribed, then certainly difficult to negotiate – and all the more so given the appearance of exhortatory articles by ex-Communards, such as Édouard Vaillaint, in the pages of the very same Commonweal newspaper. Bax, Henderson and Shaw, by contrast, articulate a certain frustration with this discursive construction of the Commune’s afterlife. Their engagements are still oriented towards the future (or the future as it bears upon the present), but differently so. Vaillaint, meanwhile, invoked the Commune as ‘the first act of the universal drama … that will not end until every chain, social and political, has been broken by popular strength’ (the June days of 1848 being a mere ‘prelude’). Circa 2017, the metaphor demands more careful scrutiny, not simply because the fourth wall of the world-historical stage of revolution has long been broken, but because we are still not much further beyond the closing scenes of that first act, and the rest of the script hasn’t even been written.


This article was originally published in Salvage Magazine.

Owen Holland teaches literature in the English department at UCL. He is the author of William Morris's Utopianism: Propaganda, Politics and Prefiguration (Palgrave, 2017) and he recently edited a selection of Morris's political writings (Verso, 2020). His next book, Literature and Revolution: British Responses to the Paris Commune of 1871, is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.

Related Books

  • 0
Paperback with free ebook
$19.95$13.9630% off
224 pages / November 2020 / 9781788736916
November 2020 / 9781788736930