Monthly Archives: August 2009

A Terrible Purgation

More detritus from my dissertation. Here’s a passage discussing the Paris Commune and its impact in the United States.

Originally written by Brace in 1872, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Among Them argues that the most dangerous of all classes are “the ignorant, destitute, untrained, and abandoned youth: the outcast street-children grown up to be voters, to be the implements of demagogues, the ‘feeders’ of the criminals, and the sources of domestic outbreaks and violations of law” (26). Published only a year after the 2nd Orange Riot and the “terrible Communistic outbreak in Paris” of 1871, The Dangerous Classes warns American upper and middle classes that without some effort to reform social conditions New York itself might detonate into class war, a civic chaos “which might leave [the] city in ashes and blood” (29).5 Brace underscores the probability of such general mayhem by reminding his readers of the 1863 Draft Riots, when “the better streets were filled with a ruffianly and desperate multitude” of underclass brutes, “creatures who seemed to have crept from their burrows and dens to join in the plunder” (30). Fifty years later in Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury would embroider upon such animalizing, subterranean rhetoric: “the human sweepings of European cities” deposited in New York and left to fester in its slums, formed mobs who in the summer 1863 came “swarming from their holes at the first indication of trouble” (Gangs 111).

Of particular horror to Brace, surely thinking of the mythical petroleuses said to have firebombed the houses of the bourgeoisie, was the fact of “how much women figured in these horrible scenes” of destruction during both events, an inversion of patriarchal gender hierarchies more disturbing and subversive than any lumpenproletarian insurrection. And while Brace, like many of his contemporaries, rightly included attacks on Black New Yorkers as among the most vicious manifestations of the earlier revolt, he failed to account for them or indeed to see how the “Orange riot” and the Draft Riots differed at all. From his perspective as a bourgeois reformer he could understand the Paris uprising only as an irrational spasm– the European counterpart of the confused violence that a decade earlier racked New York– and as a likely doom. An event that was for his contemporary Karl Marx both “a thoroughly expansive political form” and evidence of “the constant anarchy and periodic convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production” appeared to Brace the fate of a sickening society (Marx 61). According to this view two discrete historical events were roughly equal, and their equivalence was a portent, a forecast, a probable destiny. Yet more important for Brace were those who would be the vanguard of this potential catastrophe: the young. The Parisian communards Marx hailed in Miltonian terms as an army “storming heaven” were for Brace the “riotous and ruffianly masses” of 1863 displaced onto the boulevards of Paris, and in the end all of these ragged insurgents were “simply neglected and street-wandering children who have come to early manhood” (Brace 30).

Yet, his statement, despite its oversimplification, was true; youth, children and young adults alike, participated in both upheavals. After several days of rioting had passed, the New York Times claimed that “three-fourths of those who have been actively engaged in violence have been boys and young men under twenty years of age, and not all subject to Conscription” (quoted in Asbury 109) while according to eyewitness accounts at Monmartre in the moment General Lecomte was to give the National Guard the order to fire upon communards a “crowd of women and children massed at the entrance of Rue Muller…. threw themselves in front of the infantrymen shouting, ‘Don’t fire!’” (Communards 64).

The young not only played a practical role in each of these historic events; their significance was interpreted by radical intellectuals and bourgeois journalists in terms of youth itself as an abstract characteristic. For its Social-Democratic critics, the spontaneity of the Commune indicated its prematurity as a revolutionary moment, even as the American press, reflecting respectable fears of popular revolt, demonized communards by ejecting them from the sphere of western modernity altogether, accusing them in one instance of “an ignominy so colossal that future generations will be compelled to ransack the records of Mohammedan fanaticism for [any] parallel.” Premature revolutionaries or alien primitives motivated by an inscrutable creed: in both cases the Communards were thrust into a temporality out of synch with present realities.

The presence of women and children in the ostensibly masculine, adult business of armed struggle motivated many of these responses by abrogating traditional notions of modernity’s proper political subjects. The uncorroborated story of 12 year old Robert Lowe, described in the Times as an “enfant terrible” whose “fierce and bloody opposition to the entry of the French troops into Paris” resulted in their “slaughter”, is a case in point. Lowe’s resistance to Thiers’s soldiers is colored as treacherous, even monstrous, by virtue of his extreme youth. Eight years earlier the Times had professed its shock that during the burning and looting of New York City’s Colored Orphans Asylum “able-bodied laborers broke in the doors and stood guard, while the women and boys carried off the carpets and furniture and other valuables.” The putative criminality of such events seemed to depend less on the actions themselves than the perception that the identities of their agents violated gender and age-related norms.

As Samuel Bernstein notes, in the early weeks of the Commune “American newspapers and periodicals aligned themselves with Versailles against Paris” (171). This loyalty to the Thiers government produced “four main conclusions” regarding the Commune, including the ideas that the working classes and petty bourgeois of France were incapable of self-governance; socialism itself was a violent phenomenon; all Communards were communists in the service of foreign interests; and that “their ruthless suppression should be welcomed for the commune might happen” in the United States (172). These condemnations of the Commune were expressed in forceful language, a rhetoric of political demonology notable for its lurid and paranoid style. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette deemed Paris a “’den of wild beasts’” (171) while the New York Times described the Communards variously as a “’savage mob’”, “’fanatical ruffians’”, and “’political bohemians’” (172). Emmeline Raymond, a stringer for Harper’s Weekly, denigrated the Commune’s leaders as cannibals, dwarves and brutes. (quoted in Katz 45). Even the New National Era, Frederick Douglass’s publication, “accused the Communards of mobocracy, vandalism and terrorism” and likened its events to to the worst excesses of the Reign of Terror in 1792 (171).

As the Commune crumbled and “Bloody Week” commenced, reports of civilian massacres and summary executions gave American newspaper editors, with some notable exceptions, little pause. “The beast has been conquered,’” Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune exulted. As over 25,000 Parisians were murdered and many more thousands condemned to prison and transportation, the majority of the bourgeois press clamored for punishment. The New York Standard called for a “terrible purgation” of Paris (quoted in Bernstein 175). The Star wrote that the Communards “’must not hope for mercy’” (176). The Times, in a poetic excess of political astrology, argued that the defeat of the Commune was part of “a history of retribution, as plain as if it were written on the midnight sky in miracle letters of fire.’”

Several years later, in Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, strike-breaker and security industry pioneer Allan Pinkerton echoed such claims, remarking that the “lesson” of the Commune “is not one for Paris, or even France alone. It is one for the entire civilized world” (78). A Scottish cooper who had taken up the Chartist cause in the 1830s, Pinkerton was forced to flee to the United States as a young man when a warrant was issued for his arrest. In the years that followed his immigration, Pinkerton’s views on social justice seemed to capsize, and his famous detective agency, its reputation enhanced by apparent early successes such as the neutralization of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln and the prosecution of the Reno Case, became famous as a potent weapon in the defense of extant property relations. Though the House of Representatives concluded that no such plot on the president’s life in fact existed, the private detective agency’s fame for ruthlessness and efficiency– and a series of ghostwritten novels telling of Pinkerton’s exploits– lifted the firm into national prominence and valorized the figure of the professional detective who employed scientific methods of investigation in the service of the modern social order. Like Brace, Pinkerton saw in the French uprising of 1871 a clear historical analogy with the current antagonisms threatening to disintegrate American society. “Looking back over the great strikes of ’77,” he writes

the recklessness and desperation [of the communards] are everywhere visible. The same inveterate hatred of society was shown in the spirits and actions of American Communists. Fire, pillage, murder were their object and aim…. That the horrors of the Paris Commune were not repeated here is only because the pestilential spirit was not so deeply rooted as there. Give it time and let it alone, and it will lift its red hand with all the savage ferocity with which it struck Paris (79).

In From Appomattox to Monmartre, Philip M. Katz notes the “probably apocryphal” story of a young boy taken prisoner with the defeated Communards and facing immediate execution (78). The anecdote relates that just as the boy is to be shot he begs an officer of the Versailles army to allow him to return a borrowed pocket watch and promises that he will come back. Already inclined to spare one so young from death, the officer sends him away. Incredibly, the boy dispenses with his task and returns. Touched by his integrity the officer lets the boy go free.

Such a narrative bears the marks of didacticism and easily converts into fable. The stalwart purity of the character, his boyish honor, evokes similar figures, such as the young hero of Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” who valiantly goes down with the burning ship or even the myth of the precocious Spartan child who would not cry out as the fox he concealed under his cloak disemboweled him. Parallel tales of the bravery of children abound. As for this particular iteration, Katz traces its origin to Le Figaro from which it was copied by an American journalist and sent to the United States via the trans-Atlantic cable where it appeared and was quickly reprinted in periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly and Appleton’s Journal. From these newspaper accounts poems were written, and in due course the story was incorporated into dime novels and popular histories.

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A still photo from Peter Watkin’s remarkable “documentary” of the Paris Commune, La Commune.