Review | Léo Frankel, life of a Communard

Ian Birchall reviews a new French biography of Léo Frankel. As Commissioner for Labour and Exchange in the Paris Commune and for his later relations with major figures in the Second International Frankel’s story deserves to be more widely known. 

​​A portrait of Paris Communard Leo Frankel

Julien Chuzeville, Léo Frankel (Montreuil: Libertalia, 2021) 277 pp. 15€.


For better or worse, the Paris Commune had no revolutionary party, no dominant figure like Lenin. Its leadership came from a group of activists from a variety of political backgrounds, and to understand its strengths and weaknesses we need to look at those activists. So we should welcome this new study of Léo Frankel by Julien Chuzeville. Chuzeville has previously written on the early years of the French Communist Party, undermining some of the myths created by both Stalinists and anti-Communists.

Born in Hungary and raised in a Jewish family (though later a lifelong atheist), Frankel became a goldsmith. Like many craft workers, he travelled around Europe to improve his skills. As Chuzeville notes, ‘he was able to observe all that there was in common in the life of workers, despite frontiers’. This experience was at the heart of the intransigent internationalism that characterised his entire political life.

Settling in Paris, he joined the IWA (International Workingmen’s Association), later known as the First International. He was involved with organising migrant workers and helped to establish a branch of the IWA for German-speaking workers of various nationalities. He wrote to the German press seeking support for striking French miners at Le Creusot. As a statement of the Paris IWA put it: ‘Labour no longer has any frontiers’.

In 1871 he was elected a member of the Commune. Objections that he was not a French citizen were soon overruled; the Commune saw itself as an international body, not limited to the French state and declared ‘the flag of the Commune is that of the universal Republic… every city has the right to give the title of citizen to foreigners who serve it.’ The IWA had significant support in the Commune, but did not try to impose its leadership, working constructively within the movement.

Chuzeville does not romanticise the Commune. Many of us have accepted Karl Marx’s statement that ‘public service had to be done at workman’s wage‘. In fact members of the Commune voted themselves a daily payment of 15 francs – three times an average worker’s wage.​​​​ Jules Vallès proposed to reduce this to 10 francs and Frankel unsuccessfully advocated a compromise between the two. Not that he became a fat cat. His only luxury was to drink four or five cups of hot chocolate per day – which he scrupulously recorded and paid for.

As Chuzeville points out, the Commune was always on the brink of military confrontation. This limited its achievements, and Frankel was concerned at the development of an authoritarian current among some of its supporters.

The Commune’s brief life allowed no more than a few glimpses of a possible future. Frankel became head of the Commission for Labour and Exchange. One significant measure was the ending of night work in bakeries. This was a not a reform from above, but a response to a long-standing demand by workers; Frankel had attended a union meeting a year earlier which raised this demand. Frankel called it ‘the only truly socialist decree’ of the Commune – though some of his fellow Communards argued that they should not take sides between employers and workers! To ensure the measure was carried out, it was decided that if any bakery employer continued to enforce night work, the bread would be confiscated for distribution to the needy.

Frankel was also in charge of workshops that had been abandoned by their owners. He aimed to get these productive again, ‘with the cooperative association of workers who had been employed there’. Chuzeville sees this as a tendency towards ‘autogestión‘ (self-management, workers’ control), though only a very tentative first step. And he was particularly concerned about unemployment among women workers, and proposed setting up workshops to give them employment.

When the Commune was crushed, Frankel escaped with his life (though sentenced to death in his absence). He went to Switzerland, then London, where he became a part of Karl Marx’s circle. Chuzeville has unearthed some of his correspondence with Marx. He was briefly a suitor of Marx’s daughter Eleanor (he would have made a better partner than Edward Aveling).

His main concern was to try and rebuild the movement, so it would be better equipped to fight next time round. He worked in the IWA, cooperating with Marx. But he had an independent mind. When Marx and Engels proposed to transfer the IWA to New York, which effectively killed it, Frankel voted for it to stay in London, hoping it could be rebuilt.

Above all he aspired to a united movement. Writing of the French left, divided into different currents – Marxists, Blanquists, ‘possibilists’ (reformists) – he argued that they should work together within a single organisation. ‘I understand that there are disagreements, and even that publications are produced to express these disagreements… but I shall never understand why that means leaving a workers’ organisation and declaring war on it.’ Such arguments still have an echo today. Later he represented Hungary at the founding congress of the Second International in 1889.

Frankel particularly recognised the importance of involving women within the movement. He stressed the importance of women’s equality. ‘All the objections to the equality of men and women are of the same order as those expressed against the emancipation of the black race, of the working classes etc.’

In 1875 he returned to Hungary, and was active trying to build a socialist organisation; he spoke at least four languages. He was imprisoned for twenty months. But he never lost his sense of defiance. He had visiting cards printed reading ‘Léo Frankel – Prisoner of the Kingdom of Hungary’.

Later he moved back to France. He continued to write prolifically; Chuzeville has collected a number of his articles and letters. He had a powerful polemical style. On one occasion he compared debating with enemies of the Commune to discussing aesthetics with pigs. In a speech on religion he said that the only paradise was one to be built on earth; ‘we shall leave heaven to angels and charlatans’.

He had many contacts on the international left, providing a link between the generation of the Commune and those who would build the movements of the twentieth century. He corresponded with the Italian Marxist Labriola and Russian Georgi Plekhanov, had long discussions with anarchist Rudolf Rocker and wrote in support of William Morris’s Socialist League. Clara Zetkin thought highly of the journal Ère nouvelle (New Era), with which he was involved.

But his health had been undermined by a tough life, and he died of tuberculosis aged only fifty-two. His funeral was attended by hundreds, including Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde, who would lead the French Socialist Party in the years before 1914.

The Commune was crushed, but it was those like Frankel who devoted their lives to rebuilding the movement who ensured that a new and stronger movement would emerge in the following decades.

The cover of the book Leo Frankel by Le Chuzeville



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