In 1871 a revolutionary takeover of Paris created a vision of a new society and inspired socialists everywhere. Today in Cape Town so-called occupiers have turned the Cissie Gool House in Woodstock into a working commune, creating a vibrant communalism. The City is trying to evict them and shut down the house.
Living in England in the mid-1980s and mentioning the Communards in certain settings would often elicit enthusiastic approval of the British pop duo Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles, whose Don’t Leave Me This Way was the top-selling single of 1986. Given that the original Communards were intended it was a case of biting one’s tongue, intoning mentally “Do leave me this way” and trying oneself to exit as swiftly as possible.
The real Communards were supporters of the Paris Commune proclaimed on 18 March 1871. In essence the Commune was a municipal government elected on 26 March and run on communalistic principles until its bloody overthrow on 28 May that year. More pointedly, it was a revolt by the workers, radicals, students and socialists of Paris against the national government, then seated in Versailles, with the broader agenda that every city or district should be governed independently by communes.
How had the capital of France come to be ranged against its own government? First, the French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, signing an armistice on 28 January 1871. The newly constituted National Assembly ratified the peace terms on 12 February. The crafty political survivor Louis Adolphe Thiers was named Chief of the Executive of the French Republic. When, a month later, he sought to take away from the National Guard guns they had seized to keep them from falling into Prussian hands, a revolt erupted. Far from claiming the weapons, units of the regular French army instead fraternised with the Guard. Thiers fled Paris, moving the nominal government of France to nearby Versailles.
The Central Committee of the National Guard, itself a fledgling, commanded Paris, a quarter of a million armed men and the support of most Parisians. Astonishingly, rather than rule by diktat, the committee set up elections on 26 March for a Commune de Paris. The most vivid contemporary account was that of Karl Marx, in the last of his great pamphlets, The Civil War in France. Writing as events unfolded from September 1870 to May 1871, Marx caught the sweep of history and the significance of the Commune, which was not what it achieved but what it prefigured: a workers’ revolution and a proletarian government that worked.
In one of the greatest first drafts of history combined with prescience, Marx delivered his words to the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association on 30 May, just two days after the Versailles army’s last bloody acts that ended the Commune.
Marx noted, tellingly, “When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands, when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the Government privilege of their ‘natural superiors’, and, under circumstances of unexampled difficulty, performed their work modestly, conscientiously, and efficiently … the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hôtel de Ville.”
True, it lasted just 72 days, but even that paltry number became a marker of great import in the October Revolution in Russia, when Lenin celebrated the day that the Bolsheviks had lasted longer than the Commune.
The greatest of the Symbolists
There was a writer who got even closer to the Commune than Marx, an eyewitness who was also to become one of the greatest poets in any language. A 16-year-old boy, not for the first time, ran away from home in Charleville after the February armistice. He made for Paris, wandering its streets, seeing the Prussian army make its triumphal procession down the deserted Champs-Élysées on 1 March and was there also when the Commune set up against the government of the old order in Versailles.
The boy was Arthur Rimbaud, destined to die at 37, to write poetry for the shortest of seasons, a couple of years, and yet to be acclaimed as the greatest of the Symbolists. He left Paris later in March 1871, returning home to write angry, incendiary, illuminating poems about the Commune. Here are three verses from one of the most famous, Parisian War Cry (Chant de guerre parisien), translated by Paul Schmidt.
Never, never now will we move back
From our barricades, our piles of stone;
Beneath their clubs our blond skulls crack
In a dawn that was meant for us alone.
The city’s paving stones are hot
Despite the gasoline you shower,
And absolutely, now, right now, we’ve got
To find a way to break your power!
Bourgeois, bug-eyed on their balconies,
Shaking at the sound of breaking glass,
Can hear trees falling on the boulevards
And, far off, a shivering scarlet clash.
Reading about the old-regime antics of the Western Cape provincial government, run by the DA, puts one in mind of the Versailles government versus the Commune. Calling in the brutal Red Ants to boost already violent and heartless evictions shows the party of neoliberalism has plumbed its lowest moral depths. Although DA premier Alan Winde is as yet a cartoon villain when set against Thiers, give the glove puppet time: absolute power of the kind that the DA seeks to exercise in the Western Cape will corrupt absolutely.
The most eloquent instance of a latter-day Commune in Cape Town is a working commune, in Cissie Gool House, the abandoned Woodstock Hospital. Here, so-called occupiers have become residents and contributors to a vibrant communalism, run by its members for its members. They have shown that oppressed, neglected, exploited and impoverished people can organise better than the City of Cape Town, which is why the unloving and uncaring City, embarrassed and shown up, is trying to evict them and shut down the house.
Athol Fugard wrote a searing and moving play in 1963, at the height of grand apartheid. Its title doubles in 2021 as a reminder to Winde and the DA gang in city hall: People Are Living There.
(This article first appeared in New Frame)