Rise of the Communist Party
Nationalism, Reparations, Imperialism, Socialist split, Communist Party, Class against Class to Popular Front – in progress
Nationalism, Reparations, Imperialism, Socialist split, Communist Party, Class against Class to Popular Front – in progress
Numbers: 14, 39, 49, 62, 71
The road was named ‘Brittany’ after a never completed project of Henry IV to build a great square into which several streets would run, each with the name of a different province. After two streets were merged in 1851 the road is nearly half a kilometre in length. The even-numbered side of the road was demolished in 1920 to widen the road to its present width.
No. 14 was where the first issue of the centre-left newspaper Libération was prepared and published on April 18 1973.
The oldest covered market in Paris at No. 39, the Market of the Red Children (Le marché des Enfants Rouges), was established in 1628 near an orphanage whose children were dressed in red, the colour of charity). During the ‘Bloody week’ at the end of the Paris Commune in May 1871 the market was fortified and defended.
On January 2 1910 Lenin attended a revolutionary ‘goguette‘ – a kind of drinking + sing-song / poetry-and-literature dinner with roughly 20 people – organised by La Muse Rouge in a room on the first floor of No. 49. We don’t know if he was accompanied by Krupskaya or Inessa.
The venue (shown in the photograph above taken in the 1910s) was the Third arrondissement’s communal building. At the time there were hundreds of these goguette events being organised regularly in Paris. The Muse Rouge theatre group was expelled by the PCF in 1925.
By 1921 the building included the office of the Paris Federation of the SFIO (Socialists) and this was where Breton and Aragon came to apply to join the new French Section of the Communist International, less than a week after the majority of socialists had voted at the Tours Congress to affiliate to the Third International.
In 1922 the cooperative workers’ restaurant and café La Famille Nouvelle based at No. 49 was visited by many leftists including Ho Chi Minh. Many left events took place, including monthly dinners of the Revolutionary Esperantists, who were entertained by the Socialist Federation’s choir.
On September 1 1939 Palmiro Togliatti was arrested by the French police and taken to the Police Station at No. 62. They didn’t find out his true identity and he was jailed only for holding false papers and finally released in February 1940.
In the bloody week of May 1871 a barricade across the road at No. 71 defended by the 86th National Guard battalion mounted strong resistance to the Versaillais troops. This was also the address where Sylvain Maréchal, who drafted the Equality Manifesto of April 1796 is supposed to have lived.
Numbers: 12, 16
In the 17th century it was called ‘The rubbish dump path’ (chemin de la Voirie), but when in the 18th century it graduated to being a road it was given the name of the Cadet family who owned some of the land it crossed.
On March 15 1917 the first issue of a new literary review founded by Pierre Reverdy appeared in Paris called ‘North-South‘. Its title indicated a rapprochement between the artistic and literary colonies in the Montmartre and Montparnasse areas, connected directly by the metro.
The review’s first office was at No. 12, and virtually all the later surrealists and Dadaists wrote for and/or attended meetings there: Aragon, Breton, Éluard, Tzara and Duchamp. Georges Braque and Fernand Leger also produced drawings for it.
The Lodge of France’s oldest, traditional liberal Masonic order, the Grand Orient of France, was based at No. 16. This was where many political events took place. These included the founding of the League for the Rights of Man in 1888 and the first show in 1933 of the October Group’s play supporting the Scottsborough Boys, the young black men wrongly found guilty of rape in 1931.
French Masonic orders were banned in 1940 under the German Occupation , and the offices of the Grad Orient taken over by the French police’s intelligence unit tracking down secret societies. One hundred agents worked there under the direction of the Gestapo. On August 11 1941 a second law was added to permit the seizure and sale of all Masonic temples and goods belonging to individual Masons. The photo of the entrance to the Lodge above was taken in 1941.
After Jules Vallès gave a lecture on Balzac at the Casino Hall at No. 18 on January 15 1865, Vallès was fired from his job in the Vaugirard Town Hall for having criticised the Second Empire.
Numbers: 42, 53
The road was named because it used to lead up to the former small Château du Maine that was finally demolished in 1898. The eastern part of the road, with numbers between 2 and 80, also appear to have been demolished roughly a century later.
Around 1867 when the International Association of Working Men was banned by Napoleon III, its supporters, including Nathalie Le Mel launched several cooperative restaurants. La Marmite (cooking pot) at No. 47 was one of these, part;y acting as a cover for continued political organisation.
South of Montparnasse station it was a working class street with cheap rents and poor quality housing (see picture above from the 1900s), most of which was pulled down if it didn’t fall down towards the end of the 29th century.
The Bar du Chateau at No. 53 was a regular meeting place for the surrealist group. This (largely male) group included André Breton, Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Raymond Queneau and Max Morise were among those attending. One meeting on March 11 1929 saw three members including Roger Vailland breaking away after rejecting the supportive line for Stalin taken by a majority.
From 1924 to 1928 the poet Jacques Prévert lived in a creative colony at No. 54 with Yves Tanguy in a flat belonging to Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel sold it in 1928 to Louis Aragon, who moved in and was joined by Elsa Triolet in January 1929.
Two resistance fighters lived at No. 114 with their daughter in 1943. Olga Bancic was a 32-year-old Romanian Jewish Communist. She was captured on November 6 1943 and sentenced to death with the others in the Manouchian group.
10, 11bis, 33, 35
Named after Jean-Baptiste Delambre, the French astronomist and mathematician who was director of the Paris Observatory, it was first built up on land sold off by Paris hospitals in 1839 and then given its current name in 1844.
In the 1920s, today’s Auberge de Venise at No. 10 used to be called the Dingo Bar. It was a favourite drinking haunt of many of the ‘Lost Generation’ of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, who met Scott Fitzgerald there in 1925, and John Dos Passos.
On the other side of the street, the Rosebud at No 11bis was a bar Sartre was often at in 1937.
The reason for Sartre’s presence was that Simone de Beauvoir lived for a few months at the hôtel des Bains at No. 33 in 1937.
Next door, in what was the hôtel des Écoles and is now the Delambre Hotel at No. 35, André Breton lived for a year from October 1920 after giving up his medical studies. There is even a rare leftist plaque on the wall remembering him.
Numbers: 47, 127, 163
Hospitals often have strange stories to tell. The former gunpowder factory and prison that became the Salpêtrière hospital at No. 47 was where Joseph Ignace Guillotin practised his ‘more humane’ method of execution (than hanging or shooting) on the hospital’s dead bodies on April 15 1792.
Six months after Dr Guillotin was there, 35 women common prisoners held there were murdered in the panic of the September massacres to which the revolutionary Jacobin leaders turned a blind eye.
Much further along the Boulevard, on March 25 1920 the future Ho Chi Minh attended an anti-colonial conference based on Lenin’s support for national independence at No. 127.
In the interwar years the Communist Party organised many meetings at the Trade Union Centre at No. 163 of groups such as the Women’s Union, the Humanity Defence Committee and the Red Campers.
The Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière at No. 47 was requisitioned by the Germans in 1940, and was where they used to bring tortured resistance fighters or their dead bodies.
The statue of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot erected outside the hospital on December 4 1898 was melted down for guns in 1942 to help the German war effort, as were 100 others under the law of October 11 1941 passed by the Vichy Government.
The Boulevard was the route taken by the 9th company of Leclerc’s 2nd battalion on its way into Paris on 24 August 1944. Among the troops were 130 Spanish republicans whose armoured vehicles had been given names like Guadalajara, Teruel and Guernica.
Much later, this was where France’s first artificial heart was implanted in 1986, nearly twenty years after the first heart transplant in France took place there.
Numbers: 2, 8, 9, 19, 22, 30
One of the ‘Great Boulevards’ in a wealthy part of Paris, it was built on the allotments outside the city when in 1670 Louis XIII’s wall around Paris was declared obsolete. Initially called the ‘New Boulevard’ and then the ‘Depot Boulevard’ (after the 1764 regimental arms depot there). It was finally named after the Italian Theatre built there in 1783 that is now occupied by the Comic Opera.
Even numbers are in the Ninth arrondissement, while odd numbers are in the Second.
From December 1919 to 1923 Louis Aragon and André Breton with other surrealists used to meet regularly in the Café Certà at No. 2. This address was in the ‘Passage de l’Opéra‘ – two parallel galleries of cafés and shops first built in 1822 and demolished in 1925.
Ironically, on the other side of the Boulevard, at No. 9, in 1942 to 1943 the Vichy government tried unsuccessfully to recruit French workers to work voluntarily in Germany.
Arlette Laguiller, who became the first woman to stand for President of France as a candidate of the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvriere sect in 1974, led a strike and occupation in 1968 at the Credit Lyonnais headquarters at No. 19 in 1968. The building had been the first in Paris to be lit by electricity in 1876.
Louis Blanc lived above the Tortoni café at No. 22 for a period.
No. 30 was the site of a bomb left by the anarchists Action Directe against the Israeli Leumi bank on 13 April 1985.
The very short road was opened and named in 1912 after the engraver, Jacques Callot, who lived for about a year in Paris in 1629. It was built on an old alley-way to the Pont Neuf opened in 1823.
Its principal feature is the Café La Pallette (shown above) whose second back room is decorated with ceramics from the 1930s. Close to the Beaux-Arts de Paris institution the doorway next to it at No. 16 included the office of the review Le Paria edited by Ho chi Minh who, in respone to the police watching him, wrote to the Minister of the Colonies in August 1922 telling him what he was doing there.
In the early 1920s No. 16 was also the address of the literary review, Clarté, founded in 1919 by Henri Barbusse.
In the Spring of 1926 Breton and Aragon and Naville opened the Surrealist Gallery in the former office of the Clarté. And in December that year Pierre Naville described Breton bringing Léona Delcourt (Nadja) there at the end of Breton’s relationship with her.
Number: 10, 26, 38
For centuries before 1881 its name was the New Road of the Mathurins (rue Neuve-des-Mathurins) after a farm that had belonged to Mathurin monks who took the name of the 4th century martyr, Mathurin of Larchant. This Saint was very very popular in the Middle Ages, supposedly because of his prowess in healing madness and anxiety, and was the patron saint of clowns.
Daniel Stern, author of the History of the 1848 Revolution, was Marie d’Agoult. Under the July monarchy (1830-1848) she used to host a salon at No. 10 that was frequented, among many others, by Victor Hugo.
George Sand was living at the Florence private house at No. 26 with Baron Casimir Dudevant when she gave birth to her son, Maurice, on June 30 1823. At the time it was owned by the former head chef of Napoleon. It is now a 3-star hotel called George Sand.
The Michel Theatre founded by Michel Mortier was in the basement of No. 38.
Numbers: 7, 10, 12, 22
The gently climbing slope from the crossroads with the Boulevard St Germain up to what is now called the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, was opened up in 1779 as the rue du Théâtre Français. The theatre at the southern top of the slope was built between 1779 and 1782 in the garden of the huge Hôtel de Condé private house, owned by a junior branch of the Bourbons.
Thanks to the opening of the theatre, in 1782 the road was the very first in Paris to be given pavements with gutters running next to them. It was given its current name in 1797 under the Directorate.
The surrealist poets André Breton and Louis Aragon first met each other in 1917 at No. 7, the bookshop called ‘The Friends of Books’ (Maison des Amis des Livres). This bookshop was also frequented by Jacques Prévert. On March 19 1918 Breton and Aragon launched their magazine, Littérature, from there. Among the other literary left figures who wrote for it were André Gide and Paul Valéry.
The bookshop’s owner, Adrienne Monnier, held a launch party at No. 7 for James Joyce‘s novel Ulysses on December 7 1922.
No. 10 was where Thomas Paine lived from 1797 to 1802, when, describing Bonaparte ‘as the biggest charlatan the world as ever seen’, he took the opportunity of a brief peace with England to leave Paris for America.
Next door was another famous bookshop. No 12 was the first site of the English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Owned by an American, Sylvia Beach, it became a major draw for radical writers living in Paris in the interwar years such as Hemingway, James Joyce and Simone de Beauvoir.
Further up the street, on March 31 1794, this was where at No. 22 rue du Théâtre Français that Camille Desmoulins was arrested. He had lived there since 1782. He was executed with Danton on April 5. His wife, Lucile, was executed a week later. They had married in 1790 with Robespierre a witness who in 1792 became their son’s godfather.
Place du Panthéon: 9, 10, 12, 17
The Panthéon dome (actually three in one like a Russian doll) is one of Paris’ landmarks. Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Church of Saint-Genevieve on the hill to the South of the River Seine was built on a grand scale between 1755 and 1790 – and being completed only shortly after the French Revolution began.
Almost immediately the National Constituent Assembly decided to use the model of the Roman Pantheon and to install statues of great Frenchmen in it.
The slogan, ‘A grateful nation honours its great men‘, was put over the entrance and on April 4 1791 Mirabeau became its first brief resident (his ashes were taken away on November 25 1793), followed by Voltaire (July 11 1791), Rousseau (October 11 1794) and then several executed revolutionaries, including Jean-Paul Marat (September 21 1794 – and then thrown into the gutters by the Muscadins on February 26 1795).
Under Napoleon Bonaparte who gave it back to the Catholic Church, its crypt was stuffed with 41 mainly military figures. After the July Revolution it reverted to being a secular Pantheon on August 26 1830, but no more ‘great men’ were inserted there under Louis-Philippe who kept the crypt closed.
The square in front of the Panthéon became the meeting place for hundreds of demonstrations and pitched battles in the 19th and 20th centuries. One riot under a black flag started there on 21 December 1830 in protest against the light sentences given to the reactionary government ministers of Charles X.
On 22 February 1848 a student demonstration against the banning of university courses by Quinet and Michelet left from there for the Madeleine. Soon after the Panthéon was renamed ‘The Temple of Humanity’, with the intention of turning it into a monument to human progress. The Law School at No. 12 hosted the revolutionary Soufflot Club in March 1848.
On June 22 1848 the square was the meeting place of thousands of workers protesting the closure of the National Workshops who then organised the building of barricades and the call for an armed insurrection. It was one of the three main centres of resistance, with the barricade at the Rue d’Ulm being one of the most important.
The National Guard used canon to burst through the doors of the Panthéon on 25 June 1848 to dislodge the workers inside.
Following Louis Napoleon’s 1852 coup-d’état the building was returned to the Church again, now the ‘National Basilica’, and the surviving bits of the nun Genevieve’s 1,350-year-old corpse stuck together in a new tomb.
From September 4 1870 the Town Hall of the 5th Arrondissement at No. 21 became the recruiting office for the National Guard defending Paris. with 12 separate offices interviewing recruits. Between 200 and 300 summary executions of Communards took place there on 24 May 1871.
The Panthéon itself was shelled during the Franco-Prussian war and became the scene of a major battle between the Communards and the Versaillais army. On 31 March 1871 a red flag was attached to the sawn off wooden cross that had been erected on top of the building on the orders of Napoleon III. Jean Allemane spoke on the steps supporting the raising of the red flag.
The Law School at No. 12 was where the ‘Democ-Socs‘, the 5th arrondissement’s Democratic-Socialist Club was based in 1870-1871. Many were massacred here on May 24 1871 as the Army burst through to attack those defending the Panthéon via a side door.
Before the ‘Bloody Week’ of the Commune a communist and atheist newspaper l’Éducation républicaine was published at No. 9, being used by a revolutionary club called ‘The Democratic Association of Masters of Study‘.
The Panthéon finally returned to its role as resting place for the ‘great men’ of France on June 1 1885, after the government inserted Victor Hugo‘s body into the crypt.
The Ste Geneviève Library where Lenin researched ‘Materialism and Empiro Criticism’ in 1908, was based at No. 10.
In 1920, as part of the celebration of the German defeat, Sicard was commissioned to produce an altar dedicated to the National Convention that declared the First Republic in 1792.
On July 16 1942 the Police Station based in the Town Hall at No. 21 was used at a primary collection point for Jews being arrested for deportation by the Paris police in the entirely French-run exercise called ‘The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup‘ (Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver).
29, 31, 39-86, 39-41, 66-68, 98, 172, 182, 228, 248, 254
A lengthy 3 kilometre-long street, it was initially opened under Bonaparte in 1802 and 1804 and then extended by Haussmann between 1852 and 1860 to provide a major east-west axis for troop movements – as well as to attract high-priced speculative building developments.
It was first created and named in 1804 after Napoleon Bonaparte’s success over Austria at the January 14 1797 battle of Rivoli in Northern Italy and runs the whole way alongside the Louvre Palace and Tuileries Gardens.
The road’s most significant building is the Paris Town Hall at No. 29, the Hôtel de ville de Paris, which on several occasions over the last 250 years has also doubled as the location of the French government.
Blanqui’s headquarters on October 31 1870, when he unsuccessfully attempted to capture the Town Hall virtually opposite, was the National Guard’s Café, then called the Café du Gaz at No. 31.
His second, equally unsuccessful attempt on January 22 1871 was also headquartered at the same Café du Gaz. Under the Commune this was also the meeting place of the Central Committee of the National Guard.
An important barricade was built across the street between Nos. 39 and 86 when the Versaillais troops entered Paris. The area saw considerable fighting on May 24 1871. In its aftermath some 200 Communards were shot without trial, and many were buried in quicklime at the Lobau (or called the Napoleon) barracks at Nos. 39-41.
Where Nos. 66-68 stand today another barricade was erected in June 1848 on the now demolished Rue de la Tixanderie. The fighting there saw the Garde Mobile’s General, Duvivier, mortally wounded, as he defended the Hotel de Ville against workers protesting the government’s closure of the unemployed workshops.
On May 22 1871 there were some 900 barricades in Paris. This one, built in a day at No. 98, was 6 meters high, part of the defence of the Town Hall.
Perhaps in order to make detection less likely, two meetings of the National Resistance council took place at No. 182 in the spring of 1944 after the assassination of Jean Moulin and after several other resistance leaders had been arrested.
On the railings of the Tuileries gardens opposite No. 228 there is a plaque that marks the location of the National Assembly that met in the Salle du Manege (the riding school) there through the revolutionary days from 1790 to 1794.
Ironically, No. 228 was also from 1848 to 1854 the home of Harriet Howard, the English red-haired mistress and financial backer of Louis Napoleon who, when he was Emperor, was given the title of Comtess de Beauregard, and ownership of the accompanying chateau.
During the Occupation of Paris the Hotel Meurice at No. 228 was also the headquarters of the German High Command. It was besieged briefly on August 25 1944 before its commander, Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered.
On November 26 1941 the Youth Battalion of the French Communist Party exploded a bomb outside the offices of the German military bookshop at No. 248.
Among the first barricades built in both June 1848 and May 1871 were at the corner of No. 254 with the Rue St Florentin. Under the Commune it was one of just 18 that had canon defending them, and it was the only one not taken from behind.
While anarchism may contain extreme individualism, in France it emerged as a bottom-up collective ideology alongside communist thought as a major mutualist strand within early French socialism.
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) suggested anarchism emerged out of the ‘naturalist philosophy’ of the enlightenment.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) considered that in putting individual human rights at the legal heart of the social order, the French Revolution itself was the start of doing everything differently. Justice became possible in political, economic and social life within a peaceful transition to an anarchist world he described as ‘Anarchy is Order Without Power’.
Proudhon, who many see as the ‘father’ of anarchism, regarded property as a means of exercising authority. He rejected it, god and government – whether elected or imposed by revolutionaries. He opposed both reformists and utopians.
For Proudhon, only the workers themselves could achieve freedom. And they could only do so through exercising direct control over their daily work.
Proudhon, Perry Anderson (The New Old World) reminds us, also believed in a European confederation of federations – a bottom-up association of mutually supportive workshops.
In the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon’s writings reached a wide audience among the growing numbers of skilled French workers, who often found themselves in workshops alongside their working employer. The French delegates to the First International, founded in London in 1864, were largely Proudhonist, without their belonging to a specific anarchist organisation.
The suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune killed (literally) the Proudhonist collective bottom-up dynamic.
It took the return of the amnestied Communards in 1879 and 1880 for anarchism to re-emerge. But its form was then quite different.
No more flags dyed red with the blood of our soldiers. I will carry the black flag to mourn our dead and all illusions.
In 1884 in a regular meeting place, the Salle de la Réunion, at 8, Rue de Lévis, the anarchist grouplet, the ‘Batignolles Panther‘ (la Panthère des Batignolles) held one/two meetings that ended in street battles with the police and monarchists. This was a period of rising monarchist agitation. Either on 23 November or 7 December 1884, or on both dates, the meetings included speakers such as Louise Michel, Jules Favre, Henri Rochefort and Léon Gambetta.
Propaganda by the deed
Many anarchists reflected their frustration with the conservatism of the strongly liberal and anti-socialist Third Republic by turning to what became called ‘Propaganda by the Deed’.
Breaking with Proudhon’s moderation as well as with Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) anti-authoritarianism, the new generation of libertarians increasingly considered that a social revolution could only occur if sparked by insurrectional acts.
At the right moment, the ‘spirit of revolt’ inherent in the working masses would spontaneously lead to a revolution.
This ideology justified violence directed against individual capitalists and their supporters on the grounds that capitalism itself was founded on violence. ‘Individual seizures’ of bourgeois goods and possessions were justified as helping to destabilise the bourgeois order.
The ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchists denounced attempts to create lasting organisations, as well as strikes (reforming the system) and any joint work with the socialists.
Their public presence grew, as their ideas attracted many intellectuals and artists who detested the authoritarianism and conformity of 1880s French society.
Felix Fénéon (1861-1944) and some of his artistic and literary friends like Maximilien Luce started attending anarchist meetings. Anarchism also attracted younger workers angry at continuing massive poverty and inequality.
Anarchist papers were selling 20,000 copies a week in Paris by the mid-1880s. The papers edited by Jean Grave (1854-1939), successively le Révolté, La révolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times) and supported by Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, were the most influential.
On the same day at another demonstration at Clichy in Paris three anarchists were arrested and badly beaten up after the police decided to seize the red flag at the march’s head. Gunfire was exchanged. One anarchist and some police slightly wounded.
Two of the anarchists were jailed by the judges for five and three years.
As an individual act of reprisal for this injustice, the 32-year-old François (Koenigstein) Ravachol then bombed the homes of two judges involved in the Clichy trial. He was caught and guillotined on 11 July 1892.
On November 8 1892, five days after the end of the 10-week Carmaux miners’ strike in the south of France, Émile Henry, the 20-year-old son of a Spanish communard, planted a time-bomb at the Carmaux company’s Paris office. It was found and taken to a police station where it exploded killing five gendarmes.
On 9 December 1893 August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies from the public gallery in protest against political corruption. It wounded 20 deputies and Vaillant was guillotined on 3 February 1894.
Nine days after Vaillant’s execution, the 22-year-old Henry carried out a revenge bombing at the Café Terminus at the Paris Gare St Lazare. It killed one man and wounded another 19. Henry was caught at the scene and guillotined on 21 May 1894.
Under new anti-anarchist laws passed in December 1893, 426 anarchists were rounded-up in April 1894 of whom 30, including Fénéon, the anarchist journalists Jean Grave and Émile Pouget (1860-1931), and a burglar, Philippe Léon Ortix, were also put on trial in August 1894 for ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The prosecution aimed to prove that the anarchist anti-capitalists were working closely with known criminals. After Fénéon’s brilliant appearance in the dock, and Bernard Lazare ‘s committed legal defence, only three were finally jailed.
Later in 1894 a few anarchists, including Bernard Lazare and Fénéon, were among the first to denounce the silence on the left in front of the national anti-Semitic lynch mob atmosphere after Captain Dreyfus was arrested for alleged treason on October 29.
Earlier that year Lazare had published Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes, and Lazare became the key figure in exposing the framing of Dreyfus with a pamphlet published in November 1896.
Criticism of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ ideology, the repression targeting anarchist newspapers and individuals, as well as the clear failure of these terrorist acts to stimulate revolution, led many anarchist sympathisers to turn towards trade union and socialist alternatives.
As early as 1893 Michel, Kropotkin and others in the Avant-Garde group of anarchists began to argue against the individualist-isolationism of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and for a return for anarchism to the workers’ movement as a component of socialism.
Their object, inside the trade unions and socialist sects, was to attack the advocates of state socialism through parliament and to argue for extra-parliamentary action, particularly the general strike as a means of achieving emancipation. Entering unions that were only legalized in 1884 and working with the socialists there would end the isolation fueled by the failures of ‘propaganda by the deed’.
It would also dovetail with the understandings of the very small numbers of trade unionists. They rationalised their minority status in relationship to their fellow workers as proving their responsibility was to lead by example. If a minority took direct action on an important issue, then the majority might join in.
‘Direct action’ was thus democratic – it offered workers the possibility of participating in their own liberation – and it did not involve a dependency upon either the state or the employers. Neither party politics nor collective bargaining could be relied on to improve workers’ conditions; workers could only rely on what was gained through direct action.
In September 1895, albeit paradoxically, the founding conference of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union centre at Limoges voted to ‘stay outside of all political schools’. The paradox is that this apolitical stance was adopted by the majority of delegates made up of Jean Allemane supporters, anarchists and Blanquists in order to scupper the influence of Jules Guesde‘s French Workers’ Party.
‘Revolutionary syndicalist’ trade unionism tended to place a greater emphasis upon the ‘general strike’ for longer-term goals of social transformation and internationalism, and to stress the importance of generalising actions against the employing class as a whole. It took a deep hold on the unskilled worker activists whose uncertain, irregular and very low paid work meant they were effectively excluded from the widespread state-supervised mutual savings societies (mutualités) with the requirement of regular payments before benefits could be accrued.
Revolutionary syndicalists were sometimes politically close to the still sizeable body of anarchists. They often came from smaller firms and trades where the prospects of reactionary paternalist employers ever agreeing to trade union recognition and collective bargaining were highly remote.
They defended direct action, confrontation with the employers, the General Strike and sabotage such as ‘go slows’. In the CGT’s 1906 agitation for the Eight Hour Day, it therefore called neither for legislation on working time nor for negotiations: its aim was to have enough workers take strike action to convince everyone to simply impose the eight hour day on the employers.
The anarchist Émile Pouget (1860-1931), author of Le Sabotage (1898), became Joint-General Secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1908. In 1906 he helped draft the Amiens Charter that is still a cornerstone of much French trade unionism with the cobbler, Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922).
It was largely thanks to Griffuelhes’ organizational talents as General Secretary that the CGT grew from around 100,000 members in 1901 to the near 500,000 claimed when he was forced by the 1908 reformist coup to resign.
World War 1
Anarchism, like the whole revolutionary left, took a big hit in 1914. All belief that class interests would trump national interest crashed. Worse still for the anarchists than for the social democrats who wanted to win state power, and had already seen some former socialists move into ministerial positions, Kropotkin and Grave and a handful of other leading anarchists argued that workers should support the Entente alliance against the greater evil of German militarism.
The 1917 Russian Revolution was experienced by the revolutionary syndicalists as an emotional roller-coaster. Revolutionary inspiration turned quickly to the sad confirmation of their greatest fears and predictions about the consequences of a single party state.
Anarchist insistence that workers could and would seize a revolutionary opportunity to overthrow the state was shattered. The defeat of the 1919 German revolution and the arrival of the successful fascist counter-revolution in Italy added to their demoralisation.
The shrinking numbers of anarchists began to see anarchism as first needing to educate the masses and even to organise to ensure this happens.
The ‘anarchist summer’ of 1936 in France and particularly in Spain, with agricultural collectives being formed bottom-up across whole regions, and with revolutionary syndicalists dominant in the trade union refuelled the anarchist belief that they could make history and not just be subjected to it.
Yet by November 1936 the choice between making the revolution and defending the Spanish Republic had to be made: the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union confederation decided to enter the Spanish Republican government and was backed by the Iberian Federation of Anarchists (FAI).
After World War Two
In the 1940s and 1950s some French libertarians tried to resuscitate anarchism from its identification with violence by renaming it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘libertarian humanism’. Most kept defending the earlier anti-state mantra, and failed to support growing anti-colonial struggles.
The most prominent sympathisers in this period, like the surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) and poet/singer George Brassens (1921-1981), remained individualist rather than collectivist. Brassens was one of the editorial collective behind the revival of Le Libertaire, which resumed production in December 1944 and came out on a weekly basis until 1956, when the fragmenting anarchist movement suspended its production.
A libertarian renaissance started in the early 1960s, inspired partly by the experiments in self-organisation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and in Ben Bella’s (1916-2012) Algeria.
May 1968 saw an explosion of radical libertarianism. Spontaneous and anti-authoritarian it denounced the bureaucratised trade unions and Communist Party.
For a time a black flag was raised over the Odéon Theatre. This was occupied by the students, and became a centre of debate about the future of the movement. My step-mother recalled how the teargas used by police in 1968 to end the occupation wafted up into the flat 50 metres from the theatre that I’m now lucky enough to be able to use to follow the footsteps of the French Parisian left.
May 1968 generated a new mass feminist movement in France. It relaunched the ecology environmental movement. It led to the formation of hundreds of experimental self-governing collectives and a large squatting movement.
Among those radicalised by 1968 were many French anarchists. A journal, Camarades, was launched in 1974. It was influenced both by increasingly the militaristic Italian ‘Autonomous Workers’ organization (of whom many members fled to France in 1979) and by Spanish anti-Franco activists in the Groupes d’action révolutionnaires internationalistes (GARI) who believed it necessary to continue an armed struggle against the state.
In 1976, Jean Bilski, an anarchist acting alone, murdered the chief executive of the giant Credit Lyonnais bank, and then killed himself. In 1977 a group of Maoists belonging to the Armed Units for Mass Self-organisation (Noyaux armés pour l’autonomie populaire) carried out 7 bombings on their own and another series of attacks on nuclear targets with anarchists belonging to GARI.
The first ‘General meeting of Parisian self-organised groups’ (Assemblée générale parisienne des groupes autonomes – AGPGA) is held in October 1977, after the July 31 brutal police attacks on the anti-nuclear demonstration in the ‘Battle of Malville’. Some of those there created a loose ‘internal armed political coordination network’ within the wider group.
A month later on the night of 19 November 1977, 23 coordinated attacks (bombings, Molotov cocktails) on the French electricity company (EDF) and the nuclear industry took place across France.
While most French anarchists considered the time was not ripe for mounting similar attacks and robberies to those associated with the Red Brigades in Italy from 1975 to 1979, a tiny minority clearly did.
Some of them formed Action Directe, borrowing the name from the revolutionary syndicalists. This group’s first action was on May Day 1979. They machine-gunned the headquarter offices of the Patronat (the largest French employers’ organization, then called the Conseil national du patronat français).
The group followed this up with another 80 bombings, bank robberies, acts of sabotage, machine-gunning and assassinations over a nine-year period. In 1987 its four remaining leaders were jailed for life. The last one, Jean-Marc Rouillan, aged 66 was released in May 2018 after spending 28 years in prison, of which ten were in isolation, and then published his account of Ten years of Direct Action.
Most ‘new’ anarchists resumed involvement in the major struggles of the late 20th century – against racism, for equality, against unjust laws, and even for workers’ rights. In the 1970s and 1980s a ‘workers’ control’ movement appeared.
Many are involved in ‘alternative world’ movements, often working closely with radical environmentalists. Eco-anarchists, following Élisee Reclus, generally argue that mankind should stop attempting to dominate nature.
Some are involved in the small revolutionary syndicalist organisations. A small trade union exists called the CNT (Confédération Nationale du Travail) française. Still smaller groups are l’Union des Anarcho-Syndicalistes (UAS), le Syndicat intercorporatif anarchosyndicaliste (SIA) et le Groupement d’Action et de Réflexion AnarchoSyndicaliste (GARAS).
These groups usually stress key libertarian themes such as direct democracy, task rotation, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity and federalism.
The black and red flag of French anarchism is now mainly carried by a few hundred young men at the margins of demonstrations. They are often primarily interested, it would seem, only in confronting the police or in being attacked by them.
Yet the conviction that a radically different way of organizing economic and social relations to contemporary capitalism is both possible and necessary remains alive and kicking. And French anarchism reminds us that this cannot be achieved without also ensuring individual freedom.
What is shared between those who define themselves or are defined by others as ‘communist’? And how may ‘Communism’ be distinguished both from French anarchism and French socialism, with which it shared much common history and ground?
The 1795 Paris revolutionary ‘Manifesto of Equals’ inspired by François-Noel Babeuf and rescued from oblivion by Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837) summarised what remained (and remains) common to nearly all those who described themselves as communist across the following two hundred and some years:
‘We need not only that equality of rights written into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; we want it in our midst, under the roofs of our houses… We lean towards something more sublime and more just: the common good or the community of property! No more individual property in land: the land belongs to no one. We demand, we want, the common enjoyment of the fruits of the land: the fruits belong to all.
We declare that we can no longer put up with the fact that the great majority work and sweat for the smallest of minorities. Long enough, and for too long, less than a million individuals have disposed of that which belongs to 20 million of their kind, their equals.
Let it at last end, this great scandal that our descendants will never believe existed! Disappear at last, revolting distinctions between rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and ruled.’
After agreeing to this general statement of belief, communists had much more to disagree with each other upon.
We have divided the considerable history of Communism in France into five periods:
Those referenced will include 20th century leftist writers (novelists, poets, song-writers, philosophers such as: Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Victor Serge, Ernest Hemingway, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Brassens, Marc Bloch, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Andre Gorz, Daniel Bensaid, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Benoite Groult, Andre Malraux as well as many 19th century republicans and socialists such as Victor Hugo, Daniel Stern, George Sand, Flora Tristan, Alphonse de Lamartine, Emile Zola, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme …