Stammers on Deluermoz (2020)

Deluermoz, Quentin. Commune(s) 18701871: une traverse des mondes au XIXe siècle. Seuil, 2020, pp.448, ISBN 978-2-02-139372-9

Quentin Deluermoz’s superb new book represents the most original contribution yet to rethink the place of the Commune in the global history of the nineteenth century. His study seeks to explain how this short-lived experiment of just seventy-two days fits into broader trends and processes, both in its originswith strong roots in the transnational activism of 1848, the remaking of urban space, the socialist dream of workers’ self-governmentbut also its reception. The Commune, he underlines, was a global media event, whose fascination for audiences around the world was inseparable from the age of transatlantic telegraph cables and international news syndicates like Reuters. In the spring of 1871, Paris was “le centre du monde médiatique” (84), the subject of massive press coverage, and often horrified reflection, from the United States to Romania. At the same time, he also draws out what was singular about the Commune, the way that it escaped from the governing assumptions and habitual patterns to reveal instead “un autre XIXe siècle, ou d’autres XIXe siècles” (325), a moment of political possibility whose bloody and premature suppression by the Versailles government only reinforced its status as a future waiting to be fulfilled. Just as François Furet once observed about the great Revolution of 1789, the Commune ruptured conventional ideas of historical change, blasting open a strange interval in political realities; “il s’agit d’un événement certes fugace, mais ouvert et profond” (228).

Instead of recounting yet again the events of the Commune, Deluermoz produces twelve interconnected essays which conceptually dissect the parameters of space and time in relation to which the crisis of spring 1871 should be situated. Of course he is not the first to stress the importance of the spatial dimensions of the Commune, but unlike Roger Gould and Kristin Ross, his geographical focus is not metropolitan activism, but rather France’s place within an international and imperial order. He critically evaluates the role of transnational actors in the Commune, whose numerical presence was far outweighed by their cultural visibility, showing how for individuals like Gustave Paul Cluseret and Jaroslaw Dombrowski the insurrection fitted into broader patterns of political soldiering. Equally, he considers the crucial role of international law in Jules Favre’s diplomatic efforts to gain recognition for the national government (and later extradite alleged offenders). The uprising in Paris belongs to a wider constellation of self-governing and democratic initiatives in Marseilles, Lyon, Toulouse, Creusot, the small town of Thiers in the Puy-de-Dôme, and the “commune colonial” in Algeria, which Deluermoz seeks to rescue from historians’ condescension (135).

Deluermoz is careful not to overstate the Commune’s direct impact on other geographical arenas, and he rejects any lazy diffusionism; his story is also one of asymmetries and lags in the relay of information, noting where the story failed to resonate. Inspired by ventures in “connective” history, Deluermoz traces the unexpected entanglement between events in Paris and those elsewhere in the world, such as the massacre of missionaries in Tianjan (Tientsin), China, which earned the Commune the sobriquet “cette Tchapking français” (56). In reality, any link to events in France owed more to the problems of imperial authority following the shocking defeat of the Second Empire, and the feverish circulation of metaphors, rather than to any plausible analogy in the political situation. Beyond his incisive analysis of the similarities and differences between the crises in France and Algeria in 187071, putting the repression of the Kabyle revolt into conversation with la semaine sanglante, Deluermoz pays special attention to the ramifications of the Commune within the Hispanic world, where it coincided with the period known as the Sexenio Democrático, including the federalist spirit behind the Cantonal rebellions of 1873 and the first war for Cuban independence.

Beyond its geographical extension, it is the chronological extension of the Commune that is most refreshing. Deluermoz takes seriously how the Communards pulled together symbolic resources that stretched back centuries to include not just the ubiquitous allusion to 1793 but the medieval city-states and Christian traditions of brotherhood. Frequently resorting to spectral metaphors, in which certain unassimilated pasts haunted the present, Deluermoz acknowledges “la collision des temps peut être grande” (197). By identifying the precise moment of radicalization, under the savage conditions of war, siege and revolution, Deluermoz offers fresh insights into the changing forms of political subjectivity, when these submerged references were reactivated, and inspired the millenarian fantasies that led thousands of individuals to identify with, and die for, the Commune. To that extent, the book represents a valuable addition to the study of revolutionary time, and its consequences for political action, examining how the seeming normality, even mundanity, that came with the rebels’ appropriation and reproduction of government offices, co-existed with a powerful sense of the extra-ordinary, and of human destiny beginning anew. Deluermoz’s sensitive reconstruction of the hopes, fears, and hatreds of individuals both famous and anonymous, as revealed by testimony found in many different archives, suggests how emotional textures were inflamed and intensified for participants on the micro-level, creating “véritable cellules affectives” (169). In turn, such extreme emotions dictated how its detractors and champions alike narrated the Commune in the decade after its defeat.

Deluermoz is uninterested in giving a new master narrative of the Commune; indeed, his chosen metaphor for its significance is the Deleuzian “rhizome” (316), since his analysis is anti-linear, anti-hierarchical, and dispersive in its mode of argumentation. But by resituating the Commune(s) in space and time, and subjecting these struggles to the latest historiographical approaches, in part derived from the social sciences, his book is essential reading for all scholars of nineteenth-century political modernity. Moving beyond the martyrology and Eurocentrism that dominate many existing accounts, he comes closest to showing how and why the Commune, despite the horror of its final days, remained available for imaginative repurposing by radicals around the globe. Claiming that its principles were immortal and indestructible, one Mexican newspaper, tellingly entitled La Comuna Mexicana, affirmed in 1874: “ La Commune est vivante en France comme au Mexique, aux États-Unis comme en Allemagne, en Chine ou en Arabie” (306).

Thomas Stammers
Durham University