Remembering the Paris Commune

On the 150th anniversary of the instigation of the Paris Commune, rs21’s Art Group presents a video project to commemorate the world’s first working-class revolutionary government.

Although the Commune was crushed by the united brutality of the French and German ruling classes, no amount of repression could ever quell the liberatory dreams that it inspired. William Rowe presents below a short look at Eugène Pottier, worker-poet of the Commune, who used the weeks following the crushing of the Commune to write The Internationale, soon to become the anthem of working-class insurrection around the world.

Eugène Pottier is the author of ‘The Internationale’, probably the most powerful of all socialist songs. He wrote it in hiding, four weeks after ‘The Bloody Week’, in which some 30,000 Communards of the 1871 Paris Commune were slaughtered. The Internationale is a call to internationalist revolutionary struggle, a river of fierce song that can’t be stopped.

Pottier was a worker-poet. He was born in Paris in 1816 and wrote his first song, ‘Vive la Liberté’, in 1830, in response to the July Revolution. Later, he took part in the 1848 Revolution. He became a shop worker and later a textile printer. His songs were well known among the Paris working class: when he was elected to the Commune’s council, he received more votes than anyone else. Song and poetry come together in his compositions; they do the same work of communicating suffering, anger and confidence in the working class. They belong to the streets more than to books; they carry collective voices through the air, explosive sounds of revolt. They have the power to stand visually on walls and barricades: rather than paper, that’s the surface on which they were written.

His poem-songs call to a different world than that of Bourgeois dreams of mythological landscapes and individual illumination. Jules Vallès, also a communard, wrote, ‘They don’t perch on manes atop helmets or on the crests of clouds; they remain on the street, on the streets of the poor.’ Pottier wrote this:

They killed the wounded in their hospital beds,
and the blood,
flooding the sheets
flowed under the door.

But none of this changes anything,
Nicolas,
for the Commune isn’t dead!

(‘For the survivors of the Bloody Week’, translated by Mitchell Abidor; Creative Commons).

In another poem he says to Dante, You’ve never been in Hell, come and see, it’s here. Through the eyes of the masses, he sees the bourgeoisie as vultures, eaters of human flesh:

I am the ancient eater of humans
All dressed up as society;
Look at my hands all red with blood
Look at my eye injected with lust.
I’ve lots of corners in my lair
Piled with carrion and bones;
Come and see! I’ve eaten your father
And next I’ll eat your kids.

(‘The Cannibal’, my translation, as elsewhere).

A large part of the Paris working class were migrants dispossessed from agricultural subsistence:

The Commune is a lightning-flash,
And Paris can be proud of it;
This worried world smells its powder
Just as if it were yesterday.
Defeated, awaiting its revenge, […]
The Commune has passed by there!

The fight has unpaved the street
and decimated battalions;
Equality puts the plough to work
To dig the heart of furrows.
It was a vast massacre;
But everywhere the blood flowed
We see the sprouting of the seed…
The Commune has passed by there! […]
Let’s remove the idle class
The Commune has passed by there!
(‘The Commune Has Passed By There’).

Religion had to be replaced by the confidence of the exploited in their own force:

Most Holy Trinity, it’s you who rob us!
Priest, money-lender, thug, on earth, in three persons
Lying, thievery and murder are God.

The ‘three persons’ are religion, property and order. Here are some more lines from ‘The Cannibal’ (‘L’Anthropofage’):

I am the old cannibal
Dressed up as society;
I’ve got two masks on my face:
Family and Property.

After escaping the slaughter, Pottier went into exile. Some of his later poems were written in America. He returned to live in Paris in 1886 and died in poverty in 1887. The first verse of the Internationale, in more literal words than the version we are used to, says this:

Arise! you damned of the earth
Arise! you prisoners of hunger
Reason in its crater now thunders
It’s the irruption of the end.
Let’s clear away the past
Enslaved masses, arise! arise!
Earth’s foundations are now for changing
We are nothing, then let’s be all.

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