As we mark the 150th anniversary of the French proletariat’s heroic first attempt to set up La Commune in Paris, let us examine Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of this great event in his play The Days of the Commune.
The Commune broke out spontaneously on 18 March 1871. War with Germany, hardship, unemployment, and anger against the upper classes, among other things, drove the population of Paris to revolution and placed power in the hands of the working class, and the petty-bourgeoisie which had joined it.
However, only the French proletariat stood by their government; deserted by their allies, the Commune was doomed. The French bourgeoisie came together in a coalition supported by Bismarck. On 21 May the army stormed Paris and killed thousands. On 28 May 1871 the army had defeated the Commune.
In 1948–49 Brecht adapted a play, The Defeat, dealing with the same subject and written by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg on his return from the Spanish Civil War. The political situation having significantly changed after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Brecht wanted to focus on the lessons from the defeat of the Paris Commune.
Brecht tells the story of the community around the seamstress Madame Cabet, who becomes involved in the revolution simply to survive. The people within the commune briefly experience a new form of social existence. The plot reveals both the achievements and the mistakes of the revolution. The people around Madame Cabet perish with the commune. The new way of life is destroyed by the bourgeoisie’s use of merciless terror, which the commune hesitated to use against its enemy.
Brecht’s play opens with the situation before the rising, on 22 January 1871. The bricklayer Papa, the watchmaker Coco and the seminarian François realise that the bourgeoisie are profiting from rising prices, while the National Guardsmen are dying in defending Paris from the Prussians. The social conflict requiring the proletariat to take over the state becomes obvious.
The plot shows the steps the Communards take to begin a new life. A cannon acquired from army stocks to defend the working-class districts becomes a symbol of the armed working class. Madame Cabet in the Rue Pigalle takes charge of it. The community guard it against attempts to remove it from them.
After the election of the Commune, Papa and others are persuaded that the people have triumphed. At its first meeting the Commune proclaims the principles of its future work: replacing the standing army with the armed people, the separation of church from state, no night work in bakeries, all factories that had been abandoned by their owners to be handed over to workers, the salaries of civil servants not to exceed the average working wage.
But the Commune lacks the resolution to march on Versailles or to occupy the Bank of France, the symbolic strongholds of power and capital; they do not fully understand the necessity of doing so. And so Versailles unleashes a civil war on the Communards
In the Rue Pigalle the people build a barricade to defend their lives and the Commune. Scenes involving the community of the Rue Pigalle are at the heart of the plot. They show the old order replaced with new human relations yet stressing: “Never expect more of the Commune than you expect of yourselves.” Work and enjoyment are no longer divorced. The people as legislators see themselves as both working and enjoying life; they have adopted a new attitude to life. Bread and roses too.
The Communards, who have known nothing but violence and exploitation, wish for peace. They spare their enemy, because the new era seems incompatible with terror. Yet history necessitates unequivocal assumption of political power, under penalty of defeat. The Communards are faced with this contradiction, and Brecht shows how they grapple with it, and how they are destroyed.
This play could hardly be more topical now than it was when the socialist world was forming in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was immensely significant in 1970 in Tanzania, where my father, Jack Mitchell, studied and performed the drama with his students, less than ten years after independence. And today we witness the full and frequently military attack of the military-industrial complex on the peaceful working people of the world. As Brecht said, “The womb is fertile yet from which that crept.”
Resolution of the Communards
Realising that the roar of cannon Are the only words that speak to you, We must prove to you that we have learned our lesson, In future we will turn the guns on you.
Extracts are from the translation of Clive Barker and Arno Reinfrank, The Days of the Commune (Methuen, London, 1978).