La Commune (2000)

La Commune

Peter Watkins

Review by Kate Devlin

Karl Marx regarded the Paris Commune (March-May 1871) as one of the two most important events of the 19th century. (the other one being the US Civil War). The French working class, long suffering under exploitation and oppression, had been in the vanguard of the French revolutions of 1789, 1793, 1830, and 1848. While these revolutions, by transferring power from the landed aristocracy to various factions of the bourgeoisie class paved the way for the development of industrial capitalism, the working class had been cheated out of any meaningful gains. The Jacobins of the first revolutionary period enacted the Le Chapelier law, outlawing workers organizing to better their conditions. The Revolution of 1848 was started by the Parisian working class. This revolution however was subverted by the industrial and financial elites. Worker’s organizations such as cooperative workshops were bloodily suppressed and thousands of working class activists were deported. The resulting bourgeoisie republic was highly unstable. Power struggles between factions of the bourgeoisie, as well as ruling classes continued fears of the lower middle classes and the urban working class, led to the 20 year rule of the corrupt comic opera regime of Louis Bonaparte, a process Marx described in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”.

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Louis Napoleon led France into the disastrous Franco-Prussian War in 1870. France long had a huge gap between rich and poor. The working class of Paris had suffered under appalling living conditions. Fearful of unrest, the ruling class of France severely limited democratic municipal government in Paris. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the siege of Paris the working class experienced famine, massive unemployment, and bombardment from the Prussians. Discontent was rife.

For self defense the people of Paris were organized into 260 largely self governing National Guard battalions. Adolphe Thiers, the head of the provisional government which had taken power after the ignominious flight of  Louis Napoleon, grew fearful of the Parisian worker’s unrest. Thiers sent elements of the army to seize the National Guard cannon. These were fought back by women from the working class Montmatre district.This triggered the event known as the Paris Commune. Many soldiers refused to fire on the people and joined the rebellion. Workers began seizing government office buildings and several widely hated generals and officials were seized. The Thiers government, in a panic, relocated to Versailles, about 20 miles from Paris. In Paris the city was reorganized along socialistic lines, giving workers control over their lives. There were enormous gains for women’s rights, education, and social protection. There were  moves towards worker control of industries and business.

La Commune

La Commune by the Canadian director Peter Watkins, is a “living history” recreation of this event. The events of the Paris Commune are not presented so much as past history but as part of a process which is still continuing in our own time .The entire film was staged in an abandoned factory outside Paris., The film is documentary style, with filming and interviews done by imaginary television crews, first for “Commune TV”, and then as the Commune faces defeat, by a pro-Versaillais TV station. The actors are non-professional and many are North African immigrants. Actors, sometimes breaking out of character, or as the characters they are portraying, discuss issues of class conflict, poverty, and oppression in our own time. In one scene a woman breaks out of character to discuss how burnt out she is by her job and that her work on the film makes her want to break from watching passive entertainment on TV and reread “State and Revolution” by Lenin. In another scene an actor begins discussing how he feels NGOs can be effective in fighting poverty in the Third World. A debate on this and similar issues ensues with his fellow “Communards”.

La Commune is 5 hours 45 minutes long. Its one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen and is certainly worth investing the time watching it.

The Commune was brutally suppressed, with between  30,000 and 50,000 people killed, including tens of thousands of workers who were summarily executed. Over 7,000 Communards were deported, mostly to remote French colonies in the South Pacific.

The Commune was the first case in modern history of the working class taking power and attempting to create a more humane society. Peter Watkins on his website said that one of his motivations for making the film was that the Paris Commune is severely marginalized in the French educational system. Its legacy, seldom discussed in today’s corporate media, has been an inspiration to the workers movement ever since. Watkin’s film is an excellent tribute to and recreation of this heroic event.