Eric Cavaterra, La Banque de France et la Commune de Paris, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998, pp334

PROFESSOR Margairaz writes in his preface that Eric Cavaterra has succeeded in ‘writing something new about the Paris Commune in 1998’. It is easy to agree with him. The Bank of France and the Paris Commune (1871) — and not the reverse, as the author makes clear (p23) — is the subject and the title of this new study.

Why? ‘It has been assumed that the facts were known’ (p17), and as always, it was wrong to make such assumptions. The subversive, destructive work which is the ultimate basis of the historian’s craft has been carried out in a remarkable fashion. Alfred Jarry explained that even ruins must be destroyed. Accepted ideas, counter-revolutionary lies, ‘errors and falsehoods’ (p22), and the miserable banalities of the Stalinists are pervasive in the scenery of a history which is battered and impoverished, and peopled by caricatures of soulless characters. It is this ‘demythologisation’ which was necessary.

In reconstructing the Bank of France in 1871, the author draws on evidence, which turns out to be complementary rather than contradictory, from Marx, Proudhon and Zola (pp28-9). He reminds us of the central rôle played by the Governor General Rouland, the former procureur général (Attorney General), who made known that he was obsessed with ‘hunting down Socialists everywhere’ (p36). We must make clear that these are the Socialists of 1871, not of today.

After the insurrection of 18 March 1871, the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government, needed money. But as a collectivity it balked at attacking the Bank of France. What was the reason? The collective ideological weakness of the leaders of the Commune. The reactionaries were aware of the risk: ‘The real danger lies in the Bank being occupied by the Central Committee.’ (p59) The Commune hesitated: ‘the delays of the Commune came up against the determination and certainties of the board of directors of the Bank’ (p69). The central characters are the deputy governor, de Plouec, and the Commune delegate, Beslay, a Proudhonist, who has been made by unfavourable legend into the person solely responsible for the failings of the Commune. Cavaterra gives a long (and necessary) account of the political biography of Beslay and his ideas. No other leader of the Commune proposed any alternative to Beslay’s policy of conciliation and ‘respect’ (to use Engels’ term) for the institution. This is proved by the fact that his terms of reference were vague (which, by definition, is the very opposite of what terms of reference should be), and the Commune spent very little time discussing the Bank of France, whereas the Bank pursued a policy of systematic obstruction. Only the Blanquist Raoul Rigault tried to stand up to it.

Cavaterra sets out both precisely and clearly (terms which don’t always go together) the conflicts between the Bank and the Commune, as well as the hesitations of the latter at a time when it could have ‘grabbed Versailles by the testicles’ to use Lissagaray’s colourful words (p253).

The author gives an extensive bibliographical account of the witnesses, actors and historians, and recalls what Marx and Engels wrote about it. For example, he quotes a collective work by historians from the French Communist Party which refers to the ‘extreme timidity’ of the Paris Commune, and gives as an example of this alleged timidity its ‘refusal’ to nationalise (p301). But the Bolsheviks only nationalised the factories in June 1918, more than six months after taking power... So their timidity must have been three times as great as that of the Communards. We can see here how Stalinist historians (if we may use such a contradiction in terms) are willing to slander both the Commune and October 1917.

Jean Marc Schiappa