22 May 2023

An Interview with Historian Carolyn Eichner: Commemorating the Paris Commune and the Lives of French Socialist Feminists

Carried out by Jason Dawsey

Carolyn Eichner

More than 150 years later, the Paris Commune of 1871 continues to inspire critical thought and praxis on the Left. As one of the truly defining moments in the history of the struggle for socialism, the heroism, innovativeness, defiance, and sacrifices of the Communards have especially shaped the Marxist tradition. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky were deeply marked by the Commune’s emergence and destruction. As Marx expressed it so vividly in The Civil War in France, the working class understands that “in order to work out their own emancipation and along with it that higher form to which the present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.” With yet another anniversary of the Commune approaching, and global capitalism rent by serial crises and metastasising authoritarianism, I reached out to historian Carolyn Eichner, the author of several superb works on the Paris Commune and socialism and feminism in nineteenth-century France.

Eichner is Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, specialising in modern France and empire, gender, race, political radicalism, and the politics of names. A 2022-2023 Fulbright Research Scholar (Paris), and a Spring 2023 Camargo Foundation Fellow, she has also held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Eichner’s publications include Feminism’s Empire (Cornell University Press, 2022),The Paris Commune: A Brief History (Rutgers University Press, 2022), andSurmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (Indiana University Press, 2004), translated asFranchir les barricades: Les femmes dans la Commune de Paris (Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020) (Prix Augustin Thierry 2021 finalist). My interview with her was conducted via email in February and March 2023.

For many years, the Paris Commune has been central to your work in modern French history? What drew you to study the Commune?

I “discovered” the Commune in a course on 19th-century Europe in my first semester of graduate school. Fascinated by the revolutionary nature of 19th-century France, I was particularly intrigued by the Commune because of its radically democratic ideals, intensely committed participants, short duration, and tragic end. Already committed to feminism and progressive politics when I encountered the Commune, I thought “there must have been women involved.” The limited scholarship then available on women – Edith Thomas’s 1963 bookLes Petroleuses, two articles by Eugene Schulkind, plus very few others – inspired me to write my Master’s thesis on theUnion des femmes, and then a dissertation that eventually became my first book,Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (Indiana University Press, 2004).

Unlike most historians of the Commune, you see women’s participation and gender as central to its operation. What led you to focus on this?

I came to the Commune with an interest in women’s participation, which developed into an understanding of the gendered nature of the revolution. The roles of women, and of feminist politics, undoubtedly comprise central elements of the Commune. Ignoring or minimising either of them presents a distorted picture of the event and its gendered context. Through political clubs, vigilance committees, labour organisation, planning commissions, journalism, military brigades, aiding the wounded, provisioning soldiers, rounding up deserters, and fighting on the barricades, women engaged in nearly every aspect of the Commune. They faced gendered resistance in a number of these undertakings, especially those related to the battlefield.

The Commune government itself excluded women from formal political participation: the leadership maintained women’s long-term disenfranchisement and political marginalisation. Despite their revolutionary commitments to radical equality, Communard leaders perpetuated the sexist hierarchisation of previous oppressive regimes. Formal power was gendered male. But Communard women chose not to contest this formal exclusion. They understood the elected Commune government as transitional, merely a first step on the route to an egalitarian world. The elected Commune government, however, constituted only one of several centres of power within the revolutionary milieu. Communard women, many of whose politics can be described as socialist feminist, seized this revolutionary moment and enacted radical citizenship, upending both gendered and class hierarchies. The Commune cannot be understood without recognising women’s engagements and the gendered nature of power within and around the event.

Roughly 100 pages in length, your “brief history” of the Paris Commune is broken into three chapters (“Illumination,” “Fluorescence,” and “Explosion”). Could you describe your approach to conceptualising and condensing the story of the 72 days of the Paris Commune into this tighter, more accessible framework?

When Kristin Ross asked me to write a short history of the Commune for her new Rutgers University Press series, “Reinventions of the Paris Commune,” I decided to create chronological narrative that would rely on the voices of revolutionary participants. I like the clear logic of a “before, during, after” structure, and fire metaphors made sense. I think of the period before the uprising, “Illumination,” as “lighting up” the multiple elements that together ignited the Commune; the Commune itself as a luminescent emission, “Fluorescence”; and “Explosion” unmistakably fits the aftermath. In “Illumination,” I consider each of the factors contributing to the insurgency as vital “sparks” – “The City,” “Politics,” “Public Meetings,” and “The International,” together with “The Empire Extinguished” and “The Republic Born in Fire,” creating the “Illumination” that led to the revolt.

The Commune consisted of more than one revolution. To address this multiplicity, I divided the chapter on the event itself, “Fluorescence,” into the power structures the Commune upended: “Politics,” “Economics,” “Sociocultural.” The political revolution comprised a melange of ideologies: anarchism and socialism, anticlericalism, feminism, and the heritage of the French Revolution and 1848. The economic insurgency involved the undermining of capitalism, the centring of association and cooperation, and the gender- and class-based revaluation and reorganisation of labour. And the sociocultural revolt aimed to transform other inequities: terminating the discriminatory category of “illegitimate” for natural children; introducing mandatory, secular, gender-equal education; legitimising free unions as equal to legal marriage. It also took measures to democratise literature, journalism, and the arts.

The final chapter, “Explosion,” addresses the key factors of Bloody Week and the Commune’s legacy. It shows the city-wide reaction to the French army’s invasion, as women, men, and children fought on the barricades, and both Communards and the French National Army set fire to the city. Investigating the repression of the insurgency, I underscore not only its class-based motivations, but also its specifically gendered nature. With the world watching, France’s leaders undertook a viciously brutal storm of murder and rape, with the intent of deterring any future such uprisings. The book then turns to the deportation of 4,500 Commune veterans to France’s penal colony in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. I address this much more extensively, and specifically Louise Michel’s experiences and anti-imperial activism there, in my book Feminism’s Empire (Cornell University Press, 2022). The final section, “Resurrection,” makes clear the failure of the French government’s desire to control and define the Commune’s legacy.

I chose to trace the engagements, words, and ideas of three male and three female Communards – Elisabeth Dmitrieff, André Léo, Louise Michel, Léo Frankel, Théophile Ferré, and Eugène Varlin – as threads to weave together the book’s temporal sections. While my first book (Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune) uses the lives of three women as lenses through which to examine the Commune and the subsequent decades of socialist feminisms,The Paris Commune: A Brief History more directly follows the event. Activist lives, voices, and politics provide readers first-hand perspectives and humanise the uprising, drawing the reader into on-the-ground revolutionary experiences.

What was the influence of Marilyn Boxer, a historian of French feminist socialism, on your earlier book, Surmounting the Barricades, and on The Paris Commune: A Brief History? What do you want leftists to know about this tradition of French radical women in the nineteenth century who were already active politically before 1871? 

I was extremely fortunate to have Marilyn Boxer as a mentor. When I was turning my dissertation into Surmounting the Barricades, Boxer generously shared with me her ground-breaking, unpublished dissertation, “Socialism Faces Feminism in France: 1879–1913” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1975). Her meticulously researched and incisive scholarship on feminism and socialism, and especially on Paule Mink, deeply influenced my research. She revealed both the vital contributions of socialist feminists to leftist political activism, as well as the male-dominated socialist movements’ relentless marginalisation of women and feminism. As Boxer has demonstrated, understanding mid-nineteenth century French radical women’s activism is essential to comprehending the period’s leftist history. From a contemporary scholarly perspective, this underlines the gendered nature of power relations on the Left.

French feminisms in the pre-1871 developed from two revolutionary sources: the liberalism of 1789 and the radicalism of 1793. Liberal, or republican, feminism grew from Enlightenment thought. Claiming women’s civic and individual rights, it became the intellectual basis for feminisms seeking suffrage and legal equality, including republican socialist and liberal feminisms. These feminists pursued change within existing political frameworks. The more radical thread, which traced its legacy to the revolutionary women of 1793, advocated systemic overthrow. Among these were the utopian socialist feminists of the 1830s and ‘40s, and the revolutionary women of 1848. In the 1860s, the final decade of France’s repressive Second Empire, many feminist politics melded. Even socialist women who would later oppose the suffrage struggle as insufficiently radical, including Paule Mink and Louise Michel, supported rights-based feminism as a means toward ameliorating women’s marginalised status. With the rise of the Commune, these women abandoned rights-based feminist politics in favour of more revolutionary programmes.

These political histories shed vital light on the Commune’s emergence. In differing ways, I have centred the complex and often contradictory intersections of leftist gender and class politics not only in Surmounting the Barricades andThe Paris Commune, but alsoFeminism’s Empire. Marilyn Boxer and her work have contributed substantially to my career-long interest in socialist feminisms.

You capture so many of the radical-democratic aspects of the Commune and the extremely complicated connections between socialism and feminism in that experiment in working-class government. Could you unpack what you mean by “hierarchy,” a category that appears a number of times in your book? How do you assess the efforts of the Communards to abolish forms of “hierarchy”?

By “hierarchy” I mean strata of power. Hierarchies exist across social, political, economic, and cultural life. Communards addressed forms of hierarchy they understood as inequitable. This primarily meant class. For feminists, it also meant gender. Within these broad categories, some Communards attacked hierarchies of politics, religion, and education. In political clubs, for example, grassroots activists enacted radical democracy, rejecting dominant assumptions that elected politicians held greater authority than the people assembled. Many Communards also rejected religious hierarchies. Political clubs met in Catholic churches, appropriating space within often ornate and majestic buildings historically controlled by church elites. Clubistes often aggressively denied church and clerical authority. The Commune also confronted education hierarchies, jettisoning the idea of education as the purview of elites, takings steps towards universal mandatory, secular instruction for all children. This opposition to hierarchy ties together the multiple goals of the Commune. It sits at the core of the Commune’s egalitarian objectives. many of which those only interested in formal government or economics, for example, ignore or sideline.

One can point to a series of revolutionary changes carried out by the municipal government of Paris (e.g. gender equality, rent and debt payments, limiting capital’s control over labour, city elections, education, defence policy). What do you take to be the lasting achievements of the Paris Commune? What do you think were its greatest failings?

I think it’s important to differentiate the measures taken by the Commune Council (the municipal governmental body) and other centres of power. The Commune Council’s separation between church and state, and several labour-related measures – the termination of the regulation of sex work, the banning of bakers’ night work, and the introduction of equal pay for female and male teachers – stand among its most influential actions. The Council also approved a plan proposed by the extra-governmental organisation Education Nouvelle to radically reform pedagogical methods, content, and goals. Most significantly, however, was the example of the Commune as a functioning experiment in radical democracy, one with multiple power centres (including and beyond the Commune Council). It modelled potentials for revolutionary change, presenting myriad possible routes toward justice and equity.

Political infighting and the perpetuation of gender inequities constitute the Commune’s greatest failings. Unfortunately, those continued to be replicated within left-wing movements, to various degrees, for over a dozen decades.

For many who study the Paris Commune, there is always the question of whether it was doomed, militarily, from the beginning? What about the uprisings that occurred in other French cities in late winter and spring of 1871? Was there ever really much of a chance for the Commune to endure?

Few of the Commune’s leaders wanted to fight Thiers and the French national army. The Parisian National Guard, the “people’s army,” while passionate and committed, had limited training, inferior weaponry, and few resources. Recognising this, Commune leaders attempted to negotiate with Versailles in the days after March 18. But Thiers refused, deeming the Communards “criminals” rather than military opponents. His interest lay in dramatically crushing the insurgency while the world watched. Militarily, the Commune faced significant obstacles to long-term triumph. It undoubtedly could have endured longer, however, had not the particular circumstance of an unguarded gate and a Versailles sympathiser allowed the army to stream into the city.

Liberatory ideals held enormous, wide-spread power during this period. The emergence of Communes in cities across France – including Marseille, Narbonne, and Le Creusot – exemplified the strength and widespread urban appeal of the Paris Commune’s ideologies and goals. The Paris Commune occurred in the context of other insurrections across metropolitan France and its colonies. Activists in Marseille and Lyon rose up in response to the September 1870 fall of the Second Empire and rise of the republic; revolutionary republicanism also inspired Black Martiniquan women to lead an uprising against white colonists; Indigenous Algerian Kabyle revolted against French colonialism in March 1871; and French colonists in Algiers formed a Commune that same month. The latter neither supported the Kabyle nor opposed imperialism.

The question of the Commune’s organisational endurance inextricably links the martial capacities and motivation of both militaries with the hope, persistence, sacrifice, and commitment of the Communards, and the arbitrariness of luck. It’s an unanswerable question. But the historical survival of the Commune remains incontestable.

In his book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, the late John Merriman contended that Bloody Week (21-28 May 1871), the butchery unleashed by Thiers and Gallifet inside Paris, rehearsed some of the worst aspects of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust. What do you make of this claim?

In titling the book Massacre, Merriman centred the French state ferociously slaughtering its own citizens for political reasons, an undertaking that he termed: “State violence … organized and systematic” (p. 256). Often subsumed, minimised, or erased within analyses or narratives of the Commune, this massacre, to Merriman, took a particularly modern form. He posited this as the core of the contradictory legacy of the Commune. To me, France’s ferocious suppression of the Commune provided only one of multiple models of calculated state violence that twentieth-century repressive states would draw upon.

Intertwined with this bloodbath, Merriman asserted that the revolt’s aftermath holds a persistent loss of liberatory potential, hanging as a spectre across the decades. He ended the book with Thomas Wolfe’s elegiac “Oh lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again” (pp. 257-58). While Massacre documented the French government’s atrocities committed against Parisians, making clear the intentionality and retributive goals behind their violence, it simultaneously tells a human and wistful tale. Merriman beautifully wove together these two fundamental elements of the Commune’s story. But ending on this melancholy note, in my view, overshadows the Commune’s positive legacy in highlighting loss over rich inheritance.

Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France has long been one of the most influential exegeses of the Commune. How do you evaluate Marx’s interpretation of the “heaven-storming” creativity and defiance of the Communards?

I agree with Marx’s view of the Communards’ creativity and defiance. He lauded the Communards’ confidence, ingenuity, and optimism in the ways in which they seized and wielded power. Focusing on the working class forming a government and leading a labour-based class struggle, Marx expressed enormous enthusiasm and optimism in how the Communards enacted these politics. To “storm heaven” implies going for the ultimate goal, reaching beyond the expected or logical limits. Heaven is mythical. The idea of the Communards “heaven-storming” reflects the ways in which they stretched beyond historical models and previous paths taken, working to create what they understood as an ideal world.

In your evocative treatments of André Léo, Elisée Reclus, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Paule Mink, and Louise Michel, you steer clear of taking sides in the long battles between Marxists and anarchists over the legacy of the Paris Commune. What about the Commune still speaks to a twenty-first century Left undergoing a decisive moment of reconstitution?

The Commune persists as a revolutionary ideal, a capacious prototype suggesting multiple routes to egalitarian potentials. This commodiousness has allowed leftists of many stripes to see in the event paths to their desired goals, leading some to claim the insurgency as their own. The left is proud of the Commune – it did the impossible in taking over a global capital and upending its inequitable hierarchies. It exists as an ideal. But it is an ideal based on a historical incident. This distinctive positioning, the combination of ideal and documented event, continues to intensify its force in the left imaginary.

The Commune stands as both a unifying template, and an illustration of the perils of intra-left conflict. In writing The Paris Commune, I intended to present a clear, concise telling of the revolution and its context, illuminating both its positive and negative aspects. Most people on the Left know of the Commune as a golden, but tragic, historic moment. Many know bits and pieces of various interpretations of its history. Through interrogations of its internal power structures, its politicised and gendered inclusions and exclusions, its successes and failures (although such categorisations have to be seen tentatively, given its short life and brutal end), the Commune can provide a historical example with contemporary resonances. While conflicts among left factions provide a clear warning, the development of radically democratic governance, in which power emerged in multiple locations, underscores the value of cooperation across progressive politics. The particular situation of the elected Commune Council governing while simultaneously creating its form of government, and doing so under military siege while conducting a civil war, undoubtedly weakened central authority and enabled the formation of alternative power centres. Yet, the ways in which activists and organisations seized – and shared – this revolutionary moment, advancing an exceptional array of egalitarian agendas, constitutes one of the Commune’s strongest legacies. Those egalitarian projects survived the Commune. Adapting and evolving, they endure today.

Jason Dawsey is Research Historian at The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, where he writes about the history of anti-Nazi resistance movements and the Holocaust. He co-edited (with Günter Bischof and Bernhard Fetz) The Life and Work of Günther Anders: Émigré, Iconoclast, Philosopher, Man of Letters (Studien Verlag, 2014). Dawsey is also the author of “Marxism and Technocracy: Günther Anders and the Necessity for a Critique of Technology,”Thesis Eleven (2019), “Rethinking Red Vienna at a Moment of Transition,”Contemporary Austrian Studies (2022), and “Production and De-Humanization: Herbert Marcuse, Günther Anders, and the Marxian Response to Automation,” in(De)Automating the Future: Marxist Perspectives on Capitalism and Technology, eds. Johannes Fehrle, Marlon Lieber, and J. Jesse Ramírez (Brill, forthcoming in 2023).