Henri Lefebvre

‘Occupy Wall St.’ protesters in Zuccotti Park, New York City, September 2011.

Indian migrant workers resting between shifts on rented cots in New Delhi (metro population 22 million), 19 December 2011.

São Paulo (municipal population 12 million, metro population 21 million).

London’s central financial district, known tellingly as ‘the City’.

Bernie Sanders phone banking and rally at Zuccotti Park, March 2016.

‘Occupy Melbourne’ protest broken up by police, 21 October 2011.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras declares victory at the January 2015 Greek elections, seen here hailing supporters in central Athens. Syriza was re-elected in 2015, with Tsipras continuing as Prime Minister.

Migrant laborers on a demolished residential site in central Shanghai, with the new metropolis seen gleaming in the background (municipal population 24 million, metro population approximately 40 million), 5 September 2012.

A still from the end of Novyy Vavilon/The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, USSR, 1929).

Present-day Montmartre, beloved of tourists.

The Hôtel de Ville today, which continues to house Paris’ central government.

Paris’ 11th arrondissement today, one of the city’s more densely populated and less tourist-oriented inner areas.

Sacré Cœur looming over the city skyline, seen from central Paris.

Part I.
Updating Lefebvre and the city

Henri Lefebvre’s irreconcilable modernity

Henri Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher whose diverse and voluminous work spanned the 1920s up to his death in 1991. Lefebvre had a substantial influence within France, due in part but not limited to being the most high profile intellectual closely associated with the Parti communiste français (PCF, or French Communist Party). From 1928 to 1958 he was a member of the Party but was also an internal and subsequently external critic thereof.[6] [open notes in new window] Upon its eventual but very partial translation, his work has been selectively important for Anglophone scholarship in the areas of sociology, architecture, geography, urban studies, and literary criticism. Such disciplinary incorporations are rather at odds with the multiple interests addressed within even a single text by Lefebvre, not to mention his work’s consistent critique of academic specialization. In addition to the above subject areas, a single article or book by this writer offers discussions of political science, philosophy, avant-garde art, and more. When English translations of his writing gradually began to appear in the 1960s and 70s, cross-disciplinary research and overall philosophical discussion of such diverse fields was often looked down on within the traditional Anglophone scholarly world. Meanwhile, within the context of 1960s and 70s then-extensive radical Marxist academic culture itself, Lefebvre’s work was also often ignored or dismissed as representing a humanist, Hegelian Marxism decidedly out of vogue—as opposed to the structuralism of Louis Althusser and Roland Barthes, the favoured models for rigorous “updated” Marxist theory.[7] Suffice to say, poststructuralist theorists found little use for his work either. The result was that during his lifetime, Lefebvre was never as well known or fashionable in the Anglophone world as other prominent post-war French intellectuals.[8]

        The year of Lefebvre’s death saw the emergence of two translations that would see an important if still rather selective upsurge in his work’s impact on English-language scholarship: the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life (originally published in French as Critique de la vie Quotidienne, 1947) and The Production of Space (originally La Production de l'Espace, 1974). Upon complete eventual translation the Critique of Everyday Life trilogy (the second and third French-language volumes originally published in 1961 and 1981 respectively) have perhaps had most impact on sociology and more politically engaged cultural studies, while The Production of Space has had substantial influence within urban studies, architecture, and geography, as well as some of the humanities. Nonetheless, despite Lefebvre’s relative posthumous salience, Stanley Aronowitz suggests that the decidedly late and piecemeal Anglophone engagement with his work remains “a classic case of mis-recognition” for being a determinedly separate, discipline-bound understanding of a philosophical writer whose treatment of a variety of subjects “transgressed the disciplines, especially the relation of philosophy to the social sciences and art.”[9]

        In The Production of Space, Lefebvre’s various philosophical, historical, cultural, and overarching political interests coalesce around the central figure of urban space. “The overriding theme” of this magisterial book, writes Aronowitz before quoting from it,

“is Lefebvre’s contention that space is not an ether, a container that has the force of nature. The idea that space is pre-given is vehemently denied. Space is social as well as a property of the natural world but in the slow course of historical (capitalist) development, ‘everything in terrestrial space has been explored and nearly everything has been occupied and conquered.’”[10]

Such a cross-disciplinary study of space, with sustained attention given to cities, would appear highly relevant to academic film studies. Yet although we have seen significant film scholarship on the close relation between cinema and the modern city for many years now, and most extensively within cinema history itself, The Production of Space and Lefebvre’s other writing on space—both urban and rural—has on the whole enjoyed surprisingly little sustained application.[11]

        Pulling together Lefebvre’s extensive thinking and writing about the city going back at least to the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life (written immediately after World War Two), The Production of Space offers a sustained overview of the transformation of space in the 20th Century throughout France and Europe, essaying its conceptual and philosophical as well as political and social ramifications and complexities. While the book has had some real influence within various academic disciplines, Lefebvre’s big-picture address can easily bypass such selective appropriation. Its philosophical starting point is the description of modernity as characterized by the irreconcilable twin narratives provided by Marx and Nietzsche. This amounts, he writes, to a “historicity driven forward by the forces of productive… revolutionary rationality”—the Marxist legacy—butting up against “the cyclical, repetitious space-time of death and life”—the Nietzschean element. Highlighting the stark opposition, Lefebvre continues:

“Nietzschean time, as theatre of universal tragedy, as the cyclical, repetitious space-time of death and life, has nothing in common with Marxist time—that is, historicity driven forward by the forces of productive and adequately (to be optimistic) oriented by industrial, proletarian and revolutionary rationality.”[12]

        Both in Lefebvre’s work and arguably within Western intellectual and political culture itself, this irresolvable tension would never become a new “thesis” by which to achieve further progress (in this sense having more in common with Theodor Adorno’s “negative dialectic” than more traditional “Hegelian” dialectical models[13]). In Part II ahead, I will explore the notion that a viable sense of revolutionary possibility may, while never overlooking such apparent irreconcilability as described by Lefebvre, be kept uniquely alive within the quintessentially modern and “virtual” form of the cinema as forever attuned to and engaged with the multi-layered currents of real, ongoing history—a modern history inevitably itself fundamentally affected by and refigured through 120 years of audiovisual culture. In our times enjoying renewed “real world” investments and connections, revolution both on screen and beyond can be seen afresh as a forever-returning motivating dream, yet as handed down by the perennially doubt-inducing moving sound-image—be it a “film” such as La Commune or today’s 24-hour television and diverse online coverage of global events. This is a dream, I argue, with which it is difficult to confidently assert our own individual relationship and possible role within.

        Lefebvre himself was mindful of how revolutionary change and the militarized capitalist state that resists it both participate in the fundamental shattering of belief so central to the political and cultural dimensions of Western modernity. While most clearly a Marxist, here lies the less obvious importance of Nietzsche’s crucial legacy to Lefebvre seen as a modern philosopher. If ultimately irreconcilable, these two 19th Century philosophers’ work provides the crucial background for the account of power and its resistance found in Lefebvre’s writing. He states in The Production of Space,  

“the violence of power is answered by the violence of subversion. With its wars and revolutions, defeats and victories, confrontation and turbulence, the modern world corresponds precisely to Nietzsche’s tragic vision.”[14]

Completing a key passage, Lefebvre goes on to apply this Nietzschean figuration in predicting revolutionary uprising as the inevitable correlative of state oppression:

“State-imposed normality makes permanent transgression inevitable. As for time and negativity, whenever they re-emerge, as they must, they do so explosively. This is a new negativity, a tragic negativity which manifests itself as incessant violence. These seething forces are still capable of rattling the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space, for differences can never be totally quieted. Though defeated, they live on, and from time to time they begin fighting ferociously to reassert themselves and transform themselves through struggle.”[15]                                 

Such writing—the tenor and language of which again gets close on the surface at least to more globally influential work by Lefebvre’s infamously “pessimistic” German near-contemporary, Adorno[16]—sets the philosophical scene by crystallizing his work’s particular relevance to my topic and concerns. Just as violent, oppressive political forces, both national and transnational, brought about an earlier “rattling [of] the lid of the cauldron of the state and its space” in the case of the Paris Commune, as I will go on to address, we can see important connections to events over recent years in our global cities, and even through recent electoral politics. As I will argue in Part II, La Commune demonstrates cinema’s unique ability to provoke such trans-historical connections with uncommon force.

Reappropriating the city,
revolution’s impossible ground

Since 2010, the interconnected fields of urban-based and online discourse around the theme of revolution have returned to prominent mainstream attention with striking international impact, albeit often via superficial mass- or social-media narration. There remains, of course, understandable scepticism about what “revolution” means in an era when state-enforced capitalism dominates the ideological position of all large political parties and media outlets in the West, especially when the same institutional discourses sometimes claim to condone it—only in non- or “anti”-Western countries, of course. Nevertheless, and no matter how unlikely it seemed a decade or so ago, recent events spanning the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond, have featured urban space as a prominent site for the staging and performance of diverse but at least in part genuine revolutionary fervor. In country after country, major urban centers have been host to public expressions of disgust at a national and global status quo.

Protesters occupying Tahrir Square in central Cairo, January 2011.

        Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the totemic site invoking a revolutionary mood in the Middle East and North Africa soon dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by Western media, particularly when 18 days into their January 2011 occupation of the square Egyptian protesters were successful in demanding that Hosni Mubarak – the dictator who had ruled Egypt with US support for 30 years – finally relinquish power. Urban-based revolutionary activity erupting in the West later the same year had a more explicitly socioeconomic focus. Inspired by recent anti-austerity activism in Spain, the self-named ‘Occupy Wall St.’ protests began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park during September 2011 before spreading to other major US cities and beyond. These sizable demonstrations focused on escalating inequality resulting from mainstream political parties’ long collusion with global capital and ongoing imperial militarism. With more than half the world’s people now living in big cities, it is not surprising that such disquiet would be expressed within nations’ symbolic, political, economic, and increasingly demographic centers. In the process we have witnessed an escalation of sporadic attempts at reappropriating urban space itself.

        If the shape and political identity of any would-be revolutionary change over the last half decade is now less clear than ever, urban spaces provide a necessary real-world stage, with online social networking and media—both “alternative” and corporate—the necessary “virtual” agent. Yet these spaces are increasingly disconnected from the city’s more centralized pre-21st Century incarnations. With their radically expanded dimensions, major cities have become so spatially and demographically reconfigured that the current population’s experience—notably for a vast majority living far from the traditional center—has little connection to the experimental and romantic-modernist cultural heritage of city life in earlier periods. This heritage was famously extolled and encapsulated by writers like Walter Benjamin in the 1920s and ‘30s and before him, most important of all, Charles Baudelaire in the 19th Century.

Paris in the 1860s, here Boulevard de Strasbourg and Porte Saint-Martin after Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s rebuilding of the city into one featuring avenues and light.

        Today, experience of the city is increasingly disconnected and dispersed, stemming from the economic realty that most people now can’t even conceive of living in historic, often gentrified inner regions, and may never visit such spaces. At the same time, our diverse experience of urban culture becomes exponentially globally networked via different online mechanisms, which have become an increasingly important ‘virtual’ space transcending centre-periphery models of space and communications.

A map of the world showing primary Internet hubs.

        Many occupants of today’s metropolises, especially in the non-Western world, work in big cities by necessity more than by choice, and they are decidedly non-permanent inhabitants thereof when it comes to official status and basic living situation. This has often been the case throughout history, escalating sharply as national economies became decreasingly agrarian-based. Nevertheless, the city is today a very different beast when it comes to sheer size, design, and functionality, compared to even two or three decades ago. For basic demographic, technological, socioeconomic, and political reasons, the city increasingly holds the key to any possible revolutionary change. This is both despite and due to the fact that most of the 20th Century’s major revolutions were historically non-urban in origin,[17] often for the very same reasons that present day city-based radical movements face apparently immutable opposition. More than ever, exponentially fused state and capital power, which has operated increasingly free of traditional political regulation, permanently occupies and “owns” the heart of our major globalized cities. As the world’s broad urban population continues to explode, the more potential pressure such a huge mass of humanity can potentially apply when it comes to “reclaiming” the reality they live or work within, and often build.

        In Lefebvre’s terms, such a “reclaiming” is expressed through his famous, resonant phrase: the “right to the city.” Such an idea and possible movement, he suggests,

“cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life.”[18]

Strongly influenced by Lefebvre’s work and very responsible for his Anglophone reception as an urban studies theorist, influential British Marxist David Harvey has long been interested in the transforming nature of cities and their potential for revolutionary “reclaiming.” In Rebel Cities (2013), Harvey writes that while the city’s fabled centrality

“has been destroyed… there is an impulse towards and longing for its restoration which arises again and again to produce far-reaching political effects, as we have recently seen in the central squares of Cairo, Madrid, Athens, Barcelona, and even Madison, Wisconsin and now Zuccotti Park in New York City.”[19]

In the three years since Harvey’s book, things have changed once again, reminding us of the absolute precariousness of any revolutionary potential. Zuccotti Park has been silent since being cleared of protesters by police, starting in mid-November 2011 and into early 2012. In early 2016, however, it was home to a ‘phone bank’ for Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, his supporters seeking to cop-opt the ‘revolutionary’ aura of four years earlier for what in the US context amounts to a very unusual ‘socialist’ insurgency inside the USA’s notoriously right-wing two-party system, a campaign the success of which for a long time defied all conventional wisdom.

        But while cities can perhaps be, for a short period at least, sites of potential revolutionary unrest, such episodes remind us that their daily role is to be home base for state capitalism’s political and “security” power, as we saw with the eventual police eviction ordered by city officials of many “Occupy” sites in the United States and elsewhere. Revolutionary potential is always a fragile and ambiguous affair that breathes only so long as the city’s real bosses’ tolerance holds out.[20] Nonetheless, and explicitly following Lefebvre, Harvey suggests that despite yet also due to the apparent ongoing immutability of global cities as home to state capitalism’s power, in whatever form it may take in a given context, the epicenter of potential revolutionary change is increasingly urban space.[21]

        In many respects the results of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements Harvey and many other more famous leftist writers (such as Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek) have gestured toward and loosely supported are far from clear. When it comes to the activism itself, within Anglophone countries there has been a clear dissipation since 2013. However, in south continental Europe things are rather different. Here prominent activism continues, driven by the ongoing impact of extreme “austerity measures” inflicted upon majority populations by national governments seeking to curry favor with Europe’s real economic and political masters immediately to the north, in an extreme anti-Keynesian response to the global financial crisis that began in 2008. In addition, important flow-on effects can be charted between this significant ongoing activism—frequently urban-based and, while quite diverse, most prominently displaying a leftist orientation—and electoral politics itself. Parties and groupings unambiguously more radical in their agenda than Europe’s traditional center-left  “social democratic” parties have had unprecedented recent successes in major opinion polls and increasingly now in national elections. The first sign of this development occurred in Greece. Following early 2015 Greek elections, the left-wing grouping called Syriza formed a national coalition government. This unprecedented victory for such an avowedly leftist force, outflanking the formerly major center-left PASOK party in regards to both policy and overwhelming electoral support, was directly due to Syriza’s unambiguous critique of austerity measures demanded by the “Troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) that had caused such large-scale deprivation for much of the population over recent years. Sustained activism against previous Greek governments enforcing such a program played out very prominently on the streets of central Athens and other major cities. Following the continuation of these EU bailout programs by Syriza itself upon being elected (resulting from decidedly unequal negotiations with Troika representatives and the German Government), in late 2015 such activism escalated again.[22]

       In Spain, for much of 2014 and 2015 opinion polls suggested the country could be on track to vote in its own radical—in this case anarchist-inflected—leftist government led by the Podemos party at late 2015 elections, following real success at European Parliament and municipal levels. Podemos did not pull off the spectacular victory in December that its more hopeful supporters thought possible (despite fluctuating polls), with the governing conservative People’s Party (PP) receiving the most votes but not enough to form government. Even so, for a party with unambiguous activist origins less than two years old, the result—gaining 20% of the vote (nearly as much as the mainstream centre-left PSOE party)—was significant. A second national election in June 2016 again resulted in no clear winner—despite the PP increasing its support overall, while the PSOE stagnated. Despite Podemos having successfully presented itself as the main left opposition party for much of the six months leading up to the second election (helped by the PSOE undergoing internal crises) while the country remained at a political deadlock, and now part of a larger left-wing alliance (including communist elements) called Unidos Podemos, it again received fewer votes than expected (21%, barely an advance from 2015). Perhaps in light of the thus-far failed Syriza experiment leftist Spanish voters, and especially the urban activists who in many respects initially fuelled the early success of these new political organizations, lost faith that even proclaimed anti-austerity parties are capable of reversing policy course—irrespective of whether their intentions are genuine—such is the fundamentally undemocratic reality of the Eurozone. [23] As of September 2016, again no grouping appears capable of forming a stable governing coalition, and a third Spanish election in quick succession remains quite possible.

        In neighbouring Portugal, at October 2015 national elections both new and older leftist parties together won the majority of votes, only for the country’s conservative President to instead invite minority right-wing parties to form a government, prompting much national and global outcry. A month later this new right-wing government was defeated on the floor of the parliament in a no-confidence motion by the majority left-wing members, following which the latter announced a new governing coalition estimated by one conservative news source to be far more radical and anti-austerity than Syriza ever was.[24] The much debated success of Syriza in Greece, a new and more avowedly anti-austerity government in Portugal, and the possibility of a significant role for Podemos in Spain, together make for a common story of political movements with strong activist and radical-left roots going from electoral non-existence or irrelevance to parties enjoying the highest or second total level of support in the country within less than a few years.[25] In all three cases featuring youthful leadership with prominent activist histories, these parties’ escalating popularity has been built directly on the initial, sustained rejection of the Troika-mandated “solutions” to the global financial crisis by long-term protest action starting and often continuing in its most visible form through the extensive occupation of public spaces across southern Europe’s major cities and beyond.[26]

A "March for Change" filling Plaza de Sol in central Madrid, organised by Podemos, 31 January 2015.

Challenging space, history that hurts

Writing in the early 1970s of the enormous challenges facing what he calls the production of space in any kind of potential revolutionary sense, Lefebvre states that up to now the West

“has generalized and globalized violence. Space as locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of the struggle. If it is to be carried through to the end—there is in any case no way of turning back—this gigantic task now calls for the immediate production or creation of something other than nature: a second, different or new nature, so to speak. This means the production of space, urban space, both as product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works. If this project fails, the failure will be total, and the consequences of that are impossible to foresee.”[27]

Escalating with his own move to Paris in the mid 1950s (to take up an academic appointment) and a close but testy relationship with the Situationist International, Lefebvre’s work increased in its focus on the city as a key potential site of the revolutionary reappropriation and production of space.[28] This updated Marxist focus on the city, Harvey writes, put Lefebvre at odds with

“conventional Marxist thinking, which had never accorded the urban much significance in revolutionary strategy, even though it mythologized the Paris Commune as a central event in its history.”[29]

Harvey explains that especially in light of Lefebvre’s own study of the Paris Commune, La Proclamation de la Commune, published in 1965 (not yet translated into English)—which in certain respects closely echoed the Situationists’ March 1962 text, “Theses on the Commune” (leading them to accuse Lefebvre of plagiarism, resulting in a dramatic falling out)—he knew

“that revolutionary movements frequently if not always assume an urban dimension. This immediately put him at odds with the Communist Party leadership, which maintained that the factory-based proletariat, who lived and worked in rural or banlieue areas, remained the vanguard force for revolutionary change.”[30]

        Bill Brown, long-time author of self-described “Situationist inspired” U.S. journal NOT BORED!, argues that as a Marxist focusing on the city, Lefebvre was actually breaking new ground, and that there was “very little in Karl Marx's works—even in the later, ‘mature’ writings—from which to offer a properly Marxist critique of the city.”[31] Suggesting Lefebvre effectively “borrowed” the Situationists’ critique to update Marxist thinking about urban space,[32] Brown goes on to quote from Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la Ville (Right to the City), written during 1967 to mark the centenary of Marx’s Das Kapital:

“Marx did not show (and in his time he could not) that urbanization and the urban contain the meaning of industrialization. He did not see that industrial production implied the urbanization of society, and that the mastery of industrial potentials required specific knowledge concerning urbanization. Industrial production, after a certain growth, produces urbanization, providing it with conditions, and possibilities. The problematic is displaced and becomes that of urban development. The works of Marx (notably Capital) contained precious indications on the city and particularly on the historical relations between town and country. They do not pose the urban problem. In Marx's time, only the housing problem was raised and studied by Engels. Now, the problem of the city is immensely greater than that of housing.”[33]

While Lefebvre may have been at odds with some prominent intellectual and institutionalized Marxism of the time, his work on cities has enjoyed gradually increasing, if still rather corralled and selective, impact outside France. Even so, and despite all the evidence of recent years, Harvey maintains,

“it is still the case that much of the traditional left has had trouble grappling with the revolutionary potential of urban social movements.”[34]

        In light of recent global events and their political ramifications both in the activist and party-political electoral contexts I have described above, in addition to basic demographic and labor force facts, we can see how Lefebvre’s focus on the city was indeed prescient. As Harvey writes,

“In much of the advanced capitalist world, the important and ever-expanding labour of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly done by insecure, often part-time and disorganized low-paid labour. The so-called ‘precariat’ has replaced the ‘proletariat’. …The fading of the urban-rural divide has proceeded at a different pace throughout the world, but there is no question that it has taken the direction Lefebvre predicted. … The mass of humanity is increasingly being absorbed within the ferments and cross-currents of urbanized life.[35]

This mass urban workforce exists across both Western cities, with increasing migrant populations from the “developing,” often former colonial world, and within the much larger metropolises of India and China. With an increasingly global flow of capital and outsourced employment, the common factor among workers is often less a question of what nation-state they live in and more whether they reside in large cities networked via capital’s most powerful hubs. These financial hubs remain largely, though not entirely, in the West, with the East coast of China (the heart of which remains Hong Kong) increasingly important. The working class in Western capital cities is then exponentially made to “compete” with this vast, more poorly paid, global urban workforce.

A map showing the world’s key financial activity hotspots.

        The uniqueness and relevance of Lefebvre’s work in this area, taking in its political and more philosophical dimensions (always interconnected), is made especially clear when we consider the traditional privileging of time found in prominent “modernist” accounts of history and the advent of modernity. In a discussion of Fredric Jameson’s work, for example, media theorist Alexander Galloway argues that thinkers such as Jameson (an influential theorist of modernity and critic of postmodernity with an audience far larger than his Marxism would initially suggest) often emphasize temporality and the pre-eminence of history per se as “classic modern categories” that can be charted from the Enlightenment tradition of Kant through to Marx and beyond.[36] Against this longstanding tendency, three or four decades ago much influential Humanities scholarship in Anglophone countries shifted the focus onto space, in a move often associated with the advent of “postmodernism” as a historical and analytical-theoretical development. Within film studies, while academic culture in some regions during the 1980s and 90s embraced the debatable tenets of postmodernism more than some others, our new century has seen a gradual but definite re-focusing of work around temporality in large part due to Deleuze’s two cinema books, Cinema 1:The Movement-Image and especially Cinema 2: The Time-Image, and—to a large degree thanks to Deleuze—the resurgent influence of Henri Bergson’s philosophy.[37] Like Peter Watkins (as I will discuss), Lefebvre fits into exactly none of these academic flows. A deeply but not at all naively utopian thinker whose work displays precisely no postmodern aspects, his emphasis on space also sits at odds with much Marxism and modernism—the political, cultural, and philosophical traditions with which he is otherwise most properly connected.

        While Lefebvre’s explicit focus remains space, as a Marxist, “history” far from disappears in his work, both in its temporal and material senses. In fact, what Galloway calls “the punchiest line”[38] from Jameson’s 1981 book, The Political Unconscious, applies equally to Lefebvre, the Paris Commune, and La Commune (Paris, 1871), for properly articulating the conflation of temporal and spatial violence: “History is what hurts.’”[39] Galloway writes of Jameson’s “evocative expression” that it means

“two things at once. First, when history is reified or mystified it sets real limits on individual or collective practice. Yet at the same time history is the badge people wear designating the struggle or hurt endured."[40]

One very particular event in the West’s modern story that exemplifies such a multi-dimensional understanding of history is the Paris Commune.[41] Here history “hurts” first of all in the form of the Communards’ own internal and external struggles, both ideological and military, throughout the Commune’s very short life. And its protagonists certainly “hurt” as a result of a military siege and in the vicious reprisals accompanying its violent cessation at the hands of firing squads or through incarceration.

        Official, often state-sanctioned history in France and elsewhere, defined as so often in the West in terms of heroic individual men’s actions, comprises the “reified or mystified” version of past events comprising the narrative of nationalism. Such narratives necessarily evict a literally collective and local yet also decidedly internationalist experiment and experience as the Paris Commune, an exemplary victim of such definitions of history. Surviving Communards and later sympathizers thus wore their own alternative version of history in the form of a mournful and in some ways romanticized “badge” marking the ongoing hurt of a history excised by its official winners. The Communards sought to remind France and the world what really happened, and somehow tried to give the Commune’s central ideas some ongoing life. In her recent book tracing the Commune’s motivating principles and their various subsequent destinations via key figures, Kristin Ross evokes the Commune’s radical implications—then as now—by way of a resonant term: “decentralizing the flow of history.”[42] Scrawled on a wall at the end of Novyy Vavilon/The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, USSR, 1929), the late-silent Soviet film dramatizing the events of the Commune, is a famous and simple yet properly palimpsest-like phrase: “Vive la Commune!” In both New Babylon and La Commune these totemic words are also mouthed by men and women on screen—shouted melodramatically, or muttered quietly—awaiting their likely executions.

        Re-engaging with the Paris Commune offers us a singularly instructive case study through which to prompt, exhibit, essay, and critique Lefebvre’s idea of the production of space in a would-be revolutionary context—its tantalizing possibility and inherent, perhaps intractable problems. The most immediate, complex, and updated means of doing this, I propose, is to focus on the performative audiovisual rendering of such a “history that hurts” as especially alive in time-travelling, palimpsestic form throughout La Commune’s truly expansive, reflexive, yet also strikingly intimate cinematic treatment.

Part II.  
La Commune (Paris, 1871)

The Paris Commune—
a totemic, shrouded, impossible event

The Paris Commune is hugely important in the history of revolutionary politics, and has at times been invoked in relation to the recent urban-based uprisings that I discussed in Part I. Yet the story of “the Commune”—shorthand for the revolutionary uprising and subsequently elected radical left-wing administration than ran Paris from 18 March to 28 May of 1871 in defiance of the national government, and the activities of its diverse supporters—remains perhaps not especially familiar to many present-day readers. Therefore, I will begin Part II by summarizing this shrouded history, including crucial prior and subsequent events, before introducing the director of its most substantial cinematic treatment, Peter Watkins, then La Commune (Paris, 1871) itself. The remainder of the article offers a sustained account of and response to this unique film in light of the historical and theoretical discussion so far.[43]
        Between September 1870 and January 1871 Paris was under siege by German military forces, the drawn-out finale to the Franco-Prussian War. The siege’s deprivations escalated a sharp distinction in France between Paris and other major cities on the one hand, and much more conservative, largely Catholic rural areas on the other. Characterized in its numerous working-class arrondissements (districts) by a combination of increasing left-wing ferment, progressive republicanism, and resistance to the threat of occupation, the French capital was defended throughout the siege by the nearly 300,000-strong forces of the National Guard, rather than the official French Army. Life in Paris was extremely tough with severe shortages of food, firewood, coal, and medicine during a very cold winter, with populations in the many poorer areas resorting to eating rats. The city was virtually cut off from the outside world. With poverty skyrocketing and a 100% increase in the mortality rate during the siege, many of the increasingly jobless population joined the National Guard, earning daily wages that could buy “a lettuce or a dog's brain,” as viewers of La Commune are told via one of its numerous white-on-black text screens.[44] The Guard would soon go on to constitute the Commune’s core military defense and play a significant role in its politics.

        Bitterly opposed to the newly elected and now largely monarchist National Assembly (France’s parliament), the National Guard had its own democratic structure as a federation of elected delegates. The organization’s primary aim, La Commune informs us, was two-fold:

“To defend the Republic against a Prussian invasion or a Monarchist Restoration.”

On 26 February 1871 Chief Executive of the national government, Adolphe Thiers (a conservative Republican, rather than Monarchist), signed the Treaty of Versailles with Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, which stripped France of territory, imposed onerous compensation obligations, and paved the way for German troops to enter Paris. Thiers soon became increasingly concerned at the National Guard’s growing ties with revolutionary political forces in the capital. His fears were confirmed when on 15 March the Guard elected a

“Central Committee, rejecting all Government authority… More than just a military force, it becomes a political power serving a revolutionary ideal.”

        Everyday life was becoming increasingly dire as a result of the very high unemployment rate and serious effects of the siege when it came to basic services and provisions. That situation and the widespread political ferment in the city also lead to a more fundamental structural critique of the inherently unequal socioeconomic system within which the majority working- and under-class population lived. Left-wing militancy escalated via “red clubs” and various revolutionary arrondissement committees, especially in the poorer areas, supported by or including many National Guard battalions.

        On 18 March, three days after official notification that the Guard had refused national government authority, Thiers’ military forces (the remains of the defeated French Army) were sent on a mission to seize its cannon (in the plural, observing the period-appropriate term) but were famously foiled at Montmartre. These weapons were either bought at great expense (thanks to contributions from poor arrondissement residents) or taken by the Guard during battles with Prussian forces on the city’s outskirts. At Montmartre, local women appealed to and fraternized with the soldiers, resulting in Thiers’ troops refusing to fire on the unarmed civilians, symbolically upending their guns. This famous incident accelerated a general insurrectionary mood in the city. National Guard forces soon took over most central arrondissement town halls. Meanwhile, two of Thiers’ military commanders were captured and executed by a combination of mobs, Guard members, and defecting members of his own troops. In light of the escalating situation, the conservative National Assembly decamped to the symbolic space of Versailles (invoking pre-Revolutionary France of the pervious century), soon followed by Thiers and his ministers, along with the remaining military. The film suggests that so hasty was this retreat, “several regiments were forgotten in Paris.”

        The National Guard Central Committee then quickly moved to occupy the abandoned Hôtel de Ville (Paris’ equivalent to City Halls in the United States) and announced imminent municipal elections. On 26 March, various radicals and left-wing Republicans received sufficient total votes to establish a secular, loosely socialist Commune with no single governing political party or coalition. The Commune de Paris was officially declared two days later. Moving into the Hôtel de Ville, this new municipal government proceeded for two months and ten days to administer the capital in line with a radical social and economic agenda in explicit defiance of the National Assembly led by Thiers. Such an already Herculean task was made far harder by a new military siege now enforced by the latter’s troops. It began with sporadic shelling of the city in escalating assaults from the west. (Following their demoralizing retreat from the capital, the government’s military forces had regrouped at Satory, a camp near Versailles, where the national Army was gradually rebuilt. Prior to the final assault on Paris, these forces would be bolstered by returning POWs from the Prussian war.)

        The Paris Commune’s policy agenda included the following:

  • strict separation of Church and State throughout public life (effectively meaning the eviction of the Catholic Church from its previously powerful role in the capital);
  • free, state-run secular education for all children and adolescents of both genders;
  • professional training for women, better enabling skilled employment and financial independence;
  • ongoing general education for the adult population, including in the sciences and arts;
  • establishment of unprecedented welfare provisions, including pensions for unmarried women, and universal child-care;
  • supporting the establishment of worker-operated collectives where business owners have fled;
  • reforming the tax system in line with a fundamentally redistributive model, and other initiatives.[45]

In addition to improving the material quality of life for the majority population, or setting out how to do so, both in its official policy objectives and everyday citizens’ discourse—as amply seen in the film—the Commune stressed the need for citizens to pursue everyday pleasures resulting from increased leisure hours, such as access to art and creative outlets. When it came to children and adults alike, writes Francis Mulhern, the Commune in this sense saw education as a life-long concern, emphasizing development of labour-force skills but also access to the world of culture:

“[T]he ethos would be integralist or ‘polytechnical’, aiming at the harmonious development of the person, developing individuals capable of skilled labor and an active cultural life. ‘He who wields a tool should be able to write a book, write it with passion and talent’, went one statement of the ideal—or at least ‘take a break from his daily work through artistic, literary or scientific culture, without ceasing for all that to be a producer’.”[46]

If the only change brought about by a revolution is in the workplace (which is hard enough to achieve), then the fundamental values upon which everyday life is organized have themselves not been altered. This is a central proposition La Commune suggests throughout—especially in the lengthy discussions featuring everyday citizens, in particular women, which dominate much of the film’s lengthy running time.

        Lefebvre stresses the same principle in his writing on both city and rural space throughout Critique of Everyday Life and elsewhere. Aronowitz succinctly summarizes this important position maintained here and across Lefebvre’s work:

“If the old regime remains in force at the level of the family, personal relations, especially sexuality, and the structure of authority at the workplace, if the routines of repetitive everyday existence are preserved, if life is bereft of pleasure and desire is related to the dream work but is denied in the everyday, nothing much has actually changed. … [A] grim, productivist society in which the individual is ‘over repressed’ almost inevitably becomes a ‘terror society,’ which is exactly what happened to the Bolshevik revolution after the seizure of power.”[47]

        This summary of a fundamental point in Lefebvre’s writing also evokes well the more idealistic aspects of the Paris Commune’s stated principles as well as its impossible challenges, more problematic moments, and highly truncated reality. The Commune’s enormously ambitious program predated by many decades, and in more radical form, the first national welfare-state reforms emerging in Europe over 60 years later. But it was more explicitly claimed—just as Marx prophesized—to inspire the Russian, Chinese, and other 20th Century revolutions and resulting communist regimes, with the Commune's anniversaries regularly commemorated at official levels despite the fact that (unlike Paris in 1871) such revolutions lead to states utterly dominated by single communist parties wielding absolute political and military power. The fragile and ultimately inappropriate papering over of the inherent tension between the Commune’s democratic, non-party-lead nature and these later “official” revolutions and militarized states became somewhat clearer upon the declaration of a “Shanghai People’s Commune" on 5 February 1967 in the full flush of China's Cultural Revolution, when the city’s official Communist adminstration was overthrown. Declaring itself based on the Paris Commune yet also crucially different, due to many key leaders' alliance with Mao and the Cultural Revolution against the majority Communist party (rather than the city itself), the Shanghai Commune lasted less than a month before being killed off by factionalism (a rival ‘New Shanghai People’s Commune’ was soon declared) and finally due to Mao's televised decree on 24 February that it would transform into the ‘Revolutionary Committee of Shanghai’ (and thereby serve what would become the gradual rapprochement between Maoists and China's majority Communist political and military elites).

        Stressing the tension between the Paris Commune's still vital radical utopianism and the future twin 20th-century spectres of moderate (and eventually even more watered down) welfare-statism on the one hand and single-party authoritarianism (and resulting factional warfare) on the other, La Commune strongly evokes the constant threat of its elected government’s slide into centralized power, oppressive security measures, censorship, and the general nightmare of a “terror society” at a time of depravation and civil war. These political conflicts are increasingly palpable throughout the film as it develops. But so, too, is everyday people’s resistance to this threat and their concurrent resilience in discussing how best to liberate themselves, both at work and at home.

        All this was soon brought to a violent end by way of the national state’s very real terror, when on 21 May Thiers’ troops began their final, definitive assault on the city. In what became known as semaine sanglante—“bloody week”—huge numbers of men, women and children were massacred across Paris. The Commune’s leadership abandoned the Hôtel de Ville, setting fire to it as they fled, before temporarily taking up residence in the Town Hall of the 11th arrondissement, the representative working-class district primarily featured in La Commune. Its walls were drenched in blood, the film tells us. Estimated numbers of those who died during these final days range from 10,000 to 30,000, the majority summarily executed on the spot. The last gasps of resistance occurred in the 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements—all majority poor neighborhoods. Communards who escaped the firing squads fled France, were forcibly deported, or imprisoned. Upon the Commune’s successful destruction and its supporters’ mass murder, incarceration, or deportation, a government inquest into the cause of the revolutionary uprising found lack of religious belief a prime factor. Along with the mass executions, the first stage of Paris’ “moral restoration” was completed when 4,500 Communards were sentenced to jail in the French colony of New Caledonia. But while this theoretically expunged the city of its human sinners, the metropolis itself needed to be “exorcized.” The resurgent Catholic Church proceeded to build Sacré Cœur, triumphantly looming over Paris from Montmartre to this day, “to expiate the Commune of its sins.”[48]

      The force of France’s conservative-Catholic restoration was felt far beyond the given historical context and national borders. A late text screen from La Commune sums up the immediate and longer-term ramifications:

“Throughout Europe, the specter of the Commune justifies a repressive policy towards social movements, not only by Bismarck and the monarchies but also by conservative republics, existing and to come.”

Meanwhile, the Commune had received scandalous coverage in the USA, made clear by an unintentionally prescient and chilling New York Times editorial quoted in the film:

“Let Versailles turn Paris into a mass of ruins, let the streets become rivers of blood, let all the population perish, so long as the Government maintains control and demonstrates its power. May they crush all signs of resistance, whatever the costs, so as to give Paris and France a lesson they will remember and enjoy for centuries to come.”

Beyond Europe—then at the height of its colonial exploits, with France a central protagonist—Thiers’ vanquishing of the Commune inspired him to send troops to violently quell local uprisings in the North African colonies that had escalated at the height of the Commune, demonstrating both the Commune’s contemporary global significance and colonial-era context.[49] Following their defeat, Berber prisoners were sent to the same New Caledonia jails housing former Communards. For Thiers’ conservative Republican politics there was, apparently, an even lower level of depravity and potential threat to establishment right-wing France (and Europe) than that represented by the Communards. One purpose of deporting the latter in such numbers to New Caledonia, it appears, was in the hope that they would help “civilize” the native Kanak population.[50] In 1880, most of the revolutionary French nationals received amnesty. The anti-colonial Berber fighters, meanwhile, remained behind bars until 1895.[51]

        In the section devoted to the Paris Commune in Passagenwerk/The Arcades Project (compiled between 1927 and his death in 1940), Walter Benjamin quotes a passage by one F. Mehringl. Looking back in 1896 on the Commune 25 years earlier as the last, and would-be corrective, gasp of the “official” French Revolution of 1789-99 that in the event gave rise to modern “bourgeois” France, Mehringl writes:

“With the fall of the Commune, the last traditions of the old revolutionary legend have likewise fallen forever… In the history of the Commune, the germs of this revolution were effectively stifled by the creeping plants that, growing out of the bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century, overran the revolutionary workers’ movement of the nineteenth century.”[52]

Most subsequent commentators and some from the period have agreed that the Paris Commune was doomed from the start, especially in light of its relative isolation. Most famously, Karl Marx wrote on the subject in The Civil War in France,[53] first published as a 35-page pamphlet in London on the 13th of June 1871, (a cautionary quote from which is excerpted to explain the Commune’s destruction in the Communist Manifesto’s 1872 preface[54]) and subsequently reprinted, later emerging in enlarged book form with additional material by Marx. In spite of its bloody defeat, Marx argued, the Commune was something of a forerunner of hopefully more successful future social revolutions, which would learn from its successes and failures, as would theoretical work on the topic.[55]

        Harvey writes that like many other radical thinkers in the intervening years, Lefebvre also “knew full well” from this history that

“socialism, communism, or for that matter anarchism in one city is an impossible proposition. It is simply too easy for the forces of bourgeois reaction to surround the city, cut its supply lines and starve it out, if not invade it and slaughter all who resist (as happened in Paris in 1871).”[56]

As with mainstream historical awareness and established political commemoration, alongside even the “successful” Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban and Algerian Revolutions, the Paris Commune’s very short lived experiment—despite or because occurring in the West—is rather less familiar to the majority of film audiences than are the French and American Revolutions. This is to be expected for some of the reasons I have discussed. Even so, there exists a lengthy history of not especially well-known films encompassing different lengths, both narrative and documentary in nature (La Commune fits into neither distinction), primarily focused on this event.[57]

        Siegfried Kracauer writes emblematically in From Caligari to Hitler:

“The technique, the story content, and the evolution of the films of a nation are fully understandable only in relation to the psychological pattern of that nation.”[58]

While funded by French and European sources, and featuring extensive collaborative French involvement in the form of its crew and large cast, La Commune is also the product of an expat British filmmaker and thereby in part an outsider’s contribution to a not especially visible historical, political, and filmmaking tradition. Following descriptions of the semaine sanglante massacres, viewers are told via text screen:

“The French educational system—which denied us any financial help—maintains silence on these and other Commune events. This film is dedicated to French filmmakers who were prevented from making films on this subject.”

The Paris Commune is, apparently, barely taught in French schools and enjoys no particular status within the general population. Something of a “repressed” or disavowed national event, it seems, the Commune also continues sporadically to play a totemic role for non-party political activists around the world, particularly those seeking to occupy public space in the interests of fomenting some form of broad revolutionary discourse and change.

        Invoked afresh since 2010 by both Occupy movement participants and older radical supporters from the sidelines (such as Harvey, Chomsky, and Zizek), the Paris Commune nonetheless remains forever in large part a shrouded event: “The Commune as test of the revolutionary legend,” writes Benjamin in summary of his sources in The Arcades Project.[59] Despite being seen—when at all—around the world as alternatively a “failure” or at best an early experiment in developing social policies much later enacted in Scandinavia and then welfare-state Western Europe, or else as a lingering if largely mythic radical inspiration, its lack of prominence in France’s national, republican, and revolutionary psyche is telling.

        The Commune seems to represent an important but awkward moment in both national and global revolutionary history that is impossible to appropriate for modern-day France and the global West.[60] This is increasingly so in recent decades, as states—the official ideology of governing parties typically mattering little—enforce with increasing vigour an ever more unequal socioeconomic system without any apparent alternative. While the Commune remains totemic for world revolutionary history and thinking, the events of Paris in March-May 1871 are thereby without official state recognition for the reason that no remotely powerful present-day political force can lay claim to the Commune’s heritage. However in La Commune, its most substantive cinematic treatment, this crucial event comes to light and life in a truly remarkable, time travelling sense. 

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