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paris-commune-800x500LUMPENPROLETARIAT—On today’s edition of free speech radio’s Letters and Politics host Mitch Jeserich spoke with Dr. John Merriman about the Paris Commune, the radical socialist and revolutionary government, which ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871.  Dr. Merriman is the author of numerous books, including Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, which was published in 2014 by Basic Books.  Listen (and/or download) here. [1]

UPDATE—[5 DEC 2016]  On free speech radio’s Against the Grain broadcast for Monday, 5 DEC 2016, co-host Sasha Lilley aired an interview with Dr. John Merriman about The Life and Death of the Paris CommuneListen (and/or download) here. [2]



LA TIMES—[5 DEC 2014]  Review: ‘Massacre’ a sobering chronicle of the Paris Commune

Wendy Smith

The Paris Commune was a defining moment for the European left: the first self-consciously socialist uprising — as opposed to the liberal nationalist revolutions of 1830 and 1848 — that aimed to put working-class people in control of industry and government.

The Commune’s savage suppression in May 1871 by France’s fledgling Third Republic buttressed the international socialist movement’s contention that bourgeois democracies were as hostile to workers’ rights as any monarch. Because the Commune enabled activists at the local level to assert considerable political and social authority, it remains an icon to contemporary free-form movements like Occupy Wall Street that seek to avoid hierarchies and let power flow from the grass roots.

Yale historian John Merriman briefly covers the Commune’s attempts to help ordinary Parisians in his new book, “Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune,” which mentions decrees improving working conditions, establishing cooperative workshops with elected leadership and forbidding evictions for nonpayment of rent. He tips his hat to this “time of big dreams,” when women claimed equality with men and citizens played an active role in local governing bodies distributing food and fuel to the poor.


Learn more at LA TIMES.


WASHINGTON POST—[2 JAN 2015]  Book review: ‘Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune‘ by John Merriman

Mary McAuliffe

The uprising that Victor Hugo so vividly commemorated and romanticized in “Les Misérables” was in fact a small affair, overshadowed by other eruptions that shook the City of Light during the 19th century.  The last of these, the Commune uprising of 1871, was by far the bloodiest and the most dramatic.  Yet despite the deaths of thousands of Communards and their supporters, this bloodbath has slipped into the shadows of history.  John Merriman, the Charles Seymour professor of history at Yale University, impressively rescues this revolution from obscurity in “Massacre,” his devastating account of the Commune uprising.

Merriman, whose many books include the classic “A History of Modern Europe” and the more recent “The Dynamite Club,” featuring turn-of-the-century French anarchists, provides the reader with welcome context, from the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War to the miseries of everyday life for Parisian workers.  By the time the Commune uprising broke out, Paris and Parisians had suffered enormously, and those who suffered the most were, as always, the poor.




[Working draft transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Letters and Politics.]

LETTERS AND POLITICS—[22 JAN 2015]  (synopsis)  “John Merriman, author of Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune.  Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “This is Pacifica Radio’s Letters and Politics.  On today’s show:

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  Traditional, you know, lefties, like Marx and Lenin looked back to the Paris Commune because it seemed to be the moment when ordinary people had thrown away the chains, the chains of the equivalent of wage slavery.

MITCH JESERICH:  “A conversation on the Paris Commune of 1871, a seminal moment in leftist history.  Our guest is John Merriman, author of the book Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune.

“Then, later, Letters and Politics producer Elizabeth Proehl speaks to journalist Jonathan Eig about the history of birth control.”

JONATHAN EIG:  Our understanding of human reproduction was very crude.  People used to believe that the baby grew from the semen, which is in part why the Catholic Church is so strongly opposed to even something like masturbation, because they believes that the semen contained the soul.

MITCH JESERICH:  “Jonathan Eig is the author of the book, The Birth of the Pill.  That’s next on Letters and Politics.  But first the news.”

[KPFA News Headlines (read by Cameron Jones) omitted by scribe] [3]  (c. 6:30)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Good day and welcome to Letters and Politics.  I’m Mitch Jeserich.  It was known as Bloody Week, from May 21st to May 28th, 1871.  The French Provisional government’s army killed anywhere between 15 to 25 thousand people living in Paris.  It would be the end of what was known as the Paris Commune.  For the previous two months, socialists, anarchists, republicans, and everyday workers overtook the city in an attempt to create a new world in which the working class would control the reins of power.

“After its suppression, the Paris Commune would live on through the ideals of leftist revolutionaries ever since and would become a seminal moment in the history of the left.  Today, we’ll be in conversation about the Paris Commune.  My guest is John Merriman.  John Merriman is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University and author of the book Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune.

“John Merriman, it is my very good pleasure to welcome you to our programme.”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Thank you.  It’s nice to be with you.”  (c. 7:23)


[snip] (c. 59:59)


[This transcript will be expanded as time constraints, and/or demand or resources, allow.]


[Working draft transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Against the Grain.]

AGAINST THE GRAIN—[5 DEC 2016]  The Death and Life of the Paris Commune  (synopsis)  “In 1871, the lower classes of the city of Paris rose up and established a worker-run government.  They flew the red flag, championed the rights of women, and separated church and state.  The Paris Commune had little time to put into place many of the Communards’ ideals before it was violently crushed by the French state.  The bloody repression was meted out on a massive scale, and—historian John Merriman argues—foreshadowed the state violence, that was to mark the 20th and 21st centuries.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “Today on Against the Grain, 145 years ago the City of Paris rose up and established a worker-run government.  They flew the red flag, championed the rights of women, and separated church and state.  The Paris Commune had little time to put into place many of the Communards’ ideals before it was violently crushed by the French state.  The bloody repression was meted out on a massive scale, and—historian John Merriman argues—foreshadowed the state violence, that was to mark the 20th and 21st centuries.

“I’m Sasha Lilley.  I’ll speak with him after these News Headlines with Aileen Alfandary.” (c. 1:54)

[KPFA News Headlines (read by Aileen Alfandary) omitted by scribe]  [4]  (c. 5:44)

SASHA LILLEY:  “From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.

“In the spring of 1871, for a fleeting period of time, the workers of Paris rose up and launched a remarkable experiment in self-rule.  It inspired radical movements, including those of May 1968 in France and remains an inspiration for many, who believe another way of organising the world is possible.

“But the experience of the Commune left a mark in a different, much bleaker, way, my guest argues, prefiguring in its repression, the intense state violence, that characterised the 20th century.  Historian John Merriman argues that in the nearly century and a half since the Commune, various myths have sprung up, foremost being that the Communards burned much of Paris and provoked the violence against them.

“In his book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, published by Basic Books, he documents the vastly disproportionate violence of the French state in stamping out the Commune.

“John, I wonder if we could start by talking about the context, in which the uprising, that led to the Paris Commune took place.  Who ruled France?  What kind of rule was it?  And what impact did the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which had started the previous year, have on French society?”  (c. 7:22)

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Well, France is ruled by an empire, the Second Empire of Napolean III.  And they get swept away in the war against Prussia and some of its German allies.  And they’re replaced with a very conservative provisional government.  And when the provisional government wants to take the cannons back, of the Parisians, of the Parisian National Guard, that begins what’s known as the Paris Commune, which began in Montmartre on March 18th, 1871.

“And, so, the Provisional Government was in Versailles, run by a guy called Adolphe Thiers.  And its assembly was packed with monarchists.  And many Parisians had wanted to continue the fighting against Paris during the siege.  And the Commune begins when Thier sends the French regular army up to Montmartre to try to take the cannons back.” (c. 8:14)

SASHA LILLEY:  “So, what was life like for most Parisians in, obviously, quite a divided society in 1871 when the Paris Commune is established?”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Well, I mean they’d just gone through the Siege [of Paris].  And the Siege has lasted from early September [1870] until late January [1871].  And it was a time of coffins taking elderly people to their final destination, and young children and babies, who were most apt to not survive malnutrition.  It was a time of not much to eat and of diminishing hope in a very cold winter in which even the sand froze.

“So, these were tough times.  And lots of—particularly difficult in the more proletarian neighbourhoods, that had been—that they’d changed their own [indeed small(?)] district numbers in 1860 when the inner suburbs were [annexed(?)] to Paris for tax reasons and policing reasons.

“And, so, basically, the north-eastern quadrant was people, we would call People’s Paris.  It included lots of people kind of expelled by high costs from Paris during the rebuilding of Paris, the plumbing, sewers, and boulevards in the 1850s and ’60s and the newly arrived workers from the countryside.  And that would be the basis of the support for the Paris Commune.  It would be, now, what are known as the 12th [arrondissement], well, the 13th on the other side of the river and the—above all, the 17th, the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements, or districts, People’s Paris.  So, it was a neighbourhood action.”  (c. 9:56)

SASHA LILLEY:  “So, what was the political culture amongst those sort of people, that part of Paris before the Commune was established?  Because, presumably, nothing, you know, comes out of the blue.”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Yeah, well, these were people who were republicans during the Empire, or socialists during the empire.  And they had been mobilised by a law, that the Empire had promulgated in 1868, that allowed public meetings.  So, there sort of apprenticeship of the Republic was learning and debating about the kind of political world and social world, that they imagined in which they would have rights as citizens and many women would have rights as women and as female citizens in some future regime.

“So, it was a place associated with contentious politics and with support for, basically, a radical republic, a radical socialist republic for many, in which Paris would have the right to have its own municipal government.” (c. 11:00)

SASHA LILLEY:  “How did these people seize power?  You gave us kind of a quick sketch of the events, that led up to the Paris Commune.  But how, in fact, did these workers take control of the capitol city of France?”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Yeah, well, it started with women because women in Montmartre were going to the market, hoping to find something they could afford to buy.  And they see these French troops wearing their bright red pants.  So, that would stop in 1914 ‘cos the Germans could pick them out through the fog.  But they wore bright red pants.  And they were up there with an inadequate number of horses to take back the cannons of the National Guard.  So, they went home and woke up the menfolk, and with children helping, too, basically, stopped the descent of the cannons down to [what], for the Versailles government, would be a safer location.

“And, so, the Commune began in Montmartre, you know, above Paris in the 18th arrondissement and spread to the rest of the proletarian neighbourhoods.  Thier takes his army outside of Paris.  And a second, and more horrible, siege began for the Parisians.  So, that’s how it happened.”  (c. 12:10)

SASHA LILLEY:  “How did the Communards establish power in the fleeting period of time when they actually had it, a mere ten or so weeks?  How did they self-organise?  It was—the Paris Commune has come down to us as this sort of remarkable experiment in worker self-organisation, and in—”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “It was that.  Yeah.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “—and in an attempt to establish a more egalitarian society.  So, what did it actually look like?”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Okay.  Well, there were two—there were, you know, what they called during the Russian Revolution, dual sovereignty sort of existed, that the people of Paris, the men only could vote.  The role of women was terribly important in the Commune was terribly important.  They vote for an organisation called La Commune, the Commune.

[snip]  (c. 43:10)

SASHA LILLEY:  “How did the experience of the Commune affect the kind of radicalism, the radical ideas, that were held by people in Paris and in France in the subsequent years?  You mentioned Émile Henry.  and his father being a Communard—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—and how he responded by becoming very, very critical of the state—”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “And also very violent.  He was a killer.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “—and, obviously, targeting the state, it sharpened a kind of anti-statist view.  Obviously, the, um, range of radical ideas would be why.  But I wonder to what degree can you see currents of thought, that were influenced by that.  And, also, around the question of kind of spontaneous self-organisation, uprising by workers; and any reflection on the power of the state to sort of repress—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—these sorts of—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—experiments?”

DR. JOHN MERRIMAN:  “Yeah.  Well, the Communard—the anarchists began—attempted to organise an increasing number of their faithful by organising with the communidades(sp?); that is by neighbourhood.  So, that’s important.  But let me not leave anyone with the impression that the Commune was a radical experiment in creating this socialist state.  I mean stuff that the Commune the stuff that the Communards want are stuff that []  ”

[snip] (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.

[This transcript will be expanded as time constraints, and/or demand or resources, allow.]


[1]  Terrestrial radio transmission.

Also see:

  • La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) directed by Peter Watkins, a historical drama film directed by Peter Watkins about the Paris Commune.  A historical re-enactment in the style of a documentary, the film received much acclaim from critics for Watkins’ direction and political themes.

[2]  Terrestrial radio transmission.

[3]  Summary of KPFA News Headlines for 10:00 PST, 22 JAN 2015:

  • U.S. foreign policy:  John Kerry and ISIS
  • U.S. foreign policy:  Boehner, Netanyahu on Iranian nuclear issue
  • U.S. domestic policy:  Annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
  • Yemen:  Al Jazeera reports President Has Resigned
  • Argentina:  Death of Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center was not a suicide, as previously reported
  • U.S. foreign policy:  U.S.-Cuban relations update, moves toward normalising relations

[4]  Summary of KPFA News Headlines for 12:00 PST, 5 DEC 2016:

  • Local SF Bay Area:  Vigil tonight for art collective building ‘The Ghost Ship’ fire on Friday night, 2 DEC 2015 during a dance party kills at least 30 people.
  • 2016 Presidential Election:  Vote Recounts have begun, Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein leads the process
  • Washington, D.C.:  Fake news story compels North Carolina man “to self-investigate the online conspiracy theory” of a child sex ring being led by Hillary Clinton.  The man fired a rifle in a restaurant, but no one was injured.  [This news report is reminiscent of the post-FBI investigations of former Special Agent In Charge and head of the Los Angeles FBI Ted Gunderson before his death in 2011.]


[Image of a barricade during the Paris Commune by source, used via Fair Use.]

[5 DEC 2016]

[Last modified at 02:37 PST on 6 DEC 2016]