Leslie Cunningham reviews a new piece of political fiction, imagining Karl and Jenny Marx visiting the Paris Commune. Marx in Paris provides a great introduction to both the Commune and its political significance for socialists today.
Olivier Besancenot and Michael Löwy, Marx in Paris. Todd Chretien, Trans. (Chicago: Haymarket Books. 2022) 100pp. £12.99 RRP.
This short work (100 pages) purports to be a “found document”, a blue notebook discovered in a trunk containing items which belonged to Jenny Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter. It details a top-secret visit made by Jenny and her father to Paris in April 1871, when the Paris Commune was at its height. In the book’s Postface, it is revealed that Marx in Paris is, in fact, a work of “political fiction”. The notebook never existed. Instead, the aim of the authors was “to bring to life and make tangible, through our imaginations, Karl Marx’s passionate interest in the Commune of 1871 and its protagonists, as well as his extraordinary ability to learn from the event. For Marx, the Commune was a living exercise in socialist theory and practice that he would put down on paper in one of his greatest works, The Civil War in France.
Marx in Paris is to be praised for bringing vividly to life the sort of discussions and debates which took place between those experiencing the first ever instance of workers not only overthrowing an autocratic regime (as in the Haitian and French Revolution, as well as subsequent uprisings in 1830 and 1848), but also consciously striving to create a new type of society. The anti-colonialist and internationalist spirit of the Commune is highlighted, as is the leading role taken by women, and their refusal to be limited to the traditional “female sphere” of supporting and caring for the men who were conducting the armed defence of the Commune against the disgraced French ruling class and terrified bourgeoisie, who had fled to Versailles.
The fact that two of the eight chapters are entitled “Elisabeth Dmitrieff and the Women’s Union” and “Meeting with Louise Michel” indicates the authors’ recognition of the leading role played in the Commune, not just by an anarchist in her early twenties and a formidable schoolteacher, but by all the women involved in “the festival of the oppressed”. It is tempting to suggest that if the female Communards had had more power over the course of events (they were still denied the right to vote), more decisive actions might have averted the bloodbath which followed the defeat of the Commune in May.
Other prominent figures engaged in conversation by Karl and Jenny (who, encouragingly, does not often defer to her father when it comes to debating political issues) include Charles Longuet, Eugene Varlin, and Leo Frankel, a Hungarian revolutionary with whom Karl and Jenny stay until their adventure is cut short by a piece of black propaganda from Versailles that the Machiavellian Karl Marx is pulling the strings of his puppets, the Communards.
Given the premise, much of Marx in Paris is taken up with the necessity for secrecy and disguise, for example, Jenny persuades her father to dye his hair and shave off his beard. This no doubt explains the relative lack of direct conversational interaction between Karl and Jenny Marx and the “ordinary” people involved in the Commune, which would have made the book less focused on the “big names”, and, perhaps, a little less overwhelmingly serious in tone. The majority of humorous moments were due to some errors in translation or sub-editing.
Given the popular cry, “La Commune ou la mort!” (The Commune or death!), it is understandable that Marx in Paris rarely deviates from a somewhat reverential approach to what, after all, is one of the most significant and inspiring events in international working-class history. Hopefully this short political fiction will help more people come to know and celebrate the Paris Commune. It is worth reading this book for that reason alone.