When the Commune Came to Britain

After their defeat in Paris in 1871, exiled Communards arrived on British shores. Their time here forged solidarity across the Channel, and left an imprint on British radicalism for decades to come.

(Credit: International Institute of Social History)

In early June 1871, just after the fall of the Paris Commune, the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent reported on ‘The English Ripples from French Communism’. The report began:

When you throw a stone into a pond, the splash is succeeded by a widening circle of ripples over the whole surface. In just the same way the great splash — political, social, industrial, moral — which has been made in France produces effects that are felt and seen, more or less, in every civilised country.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was a radical experiment in democracy which caused waves across the world. Following the Franco-Prussian War of the previous year, and in defiance of Adolphe Thiers’ newly elected provisional republican government (under control of a monarchist assembly), the Central Committee of the Commune governed Paris for seventy two days in the spring of 1871. In the attempts made by the provisional government to regain control of the city, Paris became the battleground of a bloody civil war.

In May 1871, la semaine sanglante (the bloody week) brought the Commune to a brutal close with the deaths of thousands of Communards. For activists in France, and throughout the world, the Commune quickly became a powerful symbol of the possibilities of progressive proletarian government and municipal people power. In Britain, its ripples were certainly felt.

Communards in Britain

Following the defeat of the Commune, thousands of Communards fled France to avoid imprisonment or death — as William Morris described in his 1885 poetic tribute, The Pilgrims of Hope, they ‘scaped from Paris and crossed the narrow sea.’ As a result, and due in large part to Britain’s liberal asylum policy at the time, around 3500 refugees — including 1500 Communards and their families — arrived in Britain in the early 1870s.

(Credit: International Institute of Social History)

These political exiles made Britain their temporary home, the vast majority settling in London. A small number, such as Jules Johannard (who ‘wore a glass-eye, but was nonetheless the best billiard player among the members of the Commune’), Henri Bardout, and Léo Melliet, settled in Manchester, Nottingham, and Edinburgh respectively, but they were among a relatively tiny minority.

Most exiles were relatively young, relatively skilled workers and artisans (jewellers, lace-workers, dressmakers, engineers, mechanics, shoemakers), as well as journalists and teachers. Fitzrovia was the political centre of much of the Communard community in London. Here French exiles, British radicals, and other international refugees created spaces in which to talk politics, swap ideas, and explore the intersections of the distinct political cultures of France, Britain, and beyond.

Fitzrovia had long been established as a dissident neighbourhood. In the second half of the nineteenth century a host of activists — mostly secularists, freethinkers, and members of the Land and Labour League, the Manhood Suffrage League, and other radical clubs — operated their outfits out of the pubs, meeting rooms, and halls of Fitzrovia. The arrival of Communard exiles and later German socialists (outlawed by Bismarck in 1878) as well as other revolutionary refugees did not displace these existing communities, but instead made Fitzrovia a place of radical cross-pollination.

Politicised socialisation in the area shaped fresh alliances and philosophies, and helped to create links between the international assemblage of activists who frequented the same places. Pubs, clubs, shops, and streets became informal political forums, and mirrored some of the associational cultures that had been so important under the Commune itself. As one London Echo journalist put it, revolutionary refugees in London created ‘a veritable realisation of their pet and primary idea — Fraternité’.

Giants of the Movement

Many of the future leaders of late-Victorian British socialism encountered the Commune in this way. Often the personal and the political overlapped: casual meetings, eating, drinking, love affairs, and friendships provided the context for discussions of the politics of the Commune.

The playwright and Fabian George Bernard Shaw engaged in weekly singing sessions with an Alsatian exile of the Commune, Richard Deck — Shaw would sing in French while Deck, a basso profundo, provided the backing vocal. These sessions led to discussions of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the anarchist impulses in the Commune, and helped to sharpen Shaw’s ideas on the perils of private property.

(Credit: International Institute of Social History)

John Burns (a trade-unionist and socialist who would go on to be the Liberal MP for Battersea) was introduced to continental socialism as a young apprentice engineer through his friendship with an exiled Communard colleague, Victor Delahaye. Burns remembered Delahaye as ‘one of the formative influences of my own life.’ When he later went into politics, Burns would playfully make a link between London of the 1890s and Paris of 1871 with his provocatively titled 1892 London County Council tract: ‘The London County Council: Towards a Commune.’

Burns understood the Commune as a municipal revolution which had fought for democratic decentralised government, precisely of the kind that the LCC were advocating in London:

A commune means to me, as it meant to the workers of Paris, a free city in a free country — a community possessing all the powers of a free people for its civic, social, physical, and artistic development, uncontrolled by any power other than that to which it voluntarily consents. [ . . .] The collective, social, imaginative, and artistic instincts of the Paris workmen [ . . .] succeeded in establishing at the barricade, in their protest against Imperial centralised bureaucracy, that revolution in decentralised government and civic control of which by the ballot-box in London an instalment has been secured by the vote of London’s craftsmen.

Eleanor Marx met the Communard Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray at a Commune anniversary celebration in 1872. Their subsequent friendship, sexual relationship, and (failed) engagement saw much intellectual collaboration. Eleanor translated Lissagaray’s authoritative The History of the Paris Commune of 1871, one of the earliest book-length histories of the Commune (and still in print today), and her study of the women of the Commune confirmed for her that ‘when the revolution comes — and it must come — it will be by the workers, without distinction of sex.’

Ernest Belfort Bax, one of the chief theoreticians of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), met the Communards Paschal Grousset and Albert Regnard in the reading room of the British Museum. For Bax, ‘it was the Commune that awakened me [ . . .] to an interest in the Social problem, and the first Socialists that I met were members or adherents of the Commune.’

The list could go on. These friendly and informal interactions helped to shape the intellectual outlook of many fledgling British socialists. Their understandings of revolutionary socialism were encouraged by the ease and informality with which they could enter into political conversations with individuals who had taken part in the events of 1871.

Very often studies of the origin and nature of British socialism stress British exceptionalism. The argument goes that there was no proper organised Marxism in Britain, and currents of British radicalism and socialism were wilfully impervious to developments on the continent. But socialism is not only made by organisations and official programmes. For the soon-to-be-socialists who encountered a Communard in a friendly place at a formative time, the Commune connected them to a wider world and opened up a wealth of imaginative possibilities.

The Return to France

In the 1870s there had not been a decidedly socialist movement in Britain. The majority of Commune anniversary celebrations were organised and attended by exiled Communards and international organisations, with a keen but numerically small number of British positivists, secularists, and radical clubbers. British activists had been involved with Communards — they contributed to celebrations, organised events and talks, and shared political friendships with the exiles — but the memory of the Commune was very much maintained by the living exiles themselves.

In 1880, a general amnesty was granted by the French government to all convicted and indicted Communards. As a result, the vast majority of refugee Communards returned to France. A small number stayed in Britain, but by the early 1880s the diminishing presence of exiles themselves, and the emergence of several explicitly socialist societies in Britain (the SDF was founded in 1881) meant that the mythology of the Commune could now be taken up by British socialists, not just in solidarity with French Communards, but as part of a new British socialist tradition.

(Credit: International Institute of Social History)

In the decade after the French amnesty the language of Commune celebrations in Britain would transform the Commune from ‘your’ Commune to ‘our’ Commune, and Vive la Commune! would become a powerful slogan in British socialism. In other words, in the early 1880s, the Commune was incorporated into the mythology, the canon, of British socialism.

By 1884, the SDF had all but abandoned the central tenets of republican radicalism. They no longer traced social crises to purely political sources. Instead, socialist activists became more insistent on the need for social revolution. Therefore, the Commune came to represent part of this new identity: Vive la Commune! Vive la revolution Sociale! In this transition from radical republicanism into strands of socialism as diverse as economic Marxism and ethical and utopian anarchism, almost all could find in the Commune an agreed-upon fixed point upon which to anchor their (red) flag.

And it was precisely because Britain had been home to Communard exiles in the 1870s that the mythology and symbolism of the Commune was so appealing and useful. The Commune was foreign enough to transcend regional and factional squabbles and bring together often disparate socialist groups in an otherwise rare expression of unity, while the fact that Communards had been in Britain made it instinctive enough for British socialists to claim its heritage as their own.

Socialist Celebrations

Early socialist groups in Britain — the SDF, the Fabian society, the Freedom Group, and the Socialist League — set up branches across Britain and Ireland in the 1880s and 1890s. These local groups often worked in tandem with a wealth of other local socialist organisations that were springing up around the same time and in the following decade — for example, the Scottish Socialist Federation and the Irish Socialist Republican Party.

Most of these groups and branches celebrated the Commune annually, providing a point of convergence between groups across the isles and beyond: speakers travelled to new and unfamiliar constituencies, and celebrations began with messages of solidarity sent to London from Dublin, Norwich, and Edinburgh; to Dundee from Leicester, Nottingham, and Brussels; and to Nottingham from Walsall and New York. As the British socialist movement grew, celebrations of the Commune could be used to showcase growing interest in the activities of these still-young groups.

Socialist institutions and identities were very much characterised by volatility and precarity in this period. Within the Socialist League the growing number of disparate local branches in the years 1885–89, coupled with the deepening internal split between the anarchist-leaning and the socialist-leaning members (the anarchists outnumbered the socialists by late 1890), meant that it was increasingly difficult to pin down a common purpose or establish formal joint campaigns, with each branch seeming to be going in its own direction.

As William Morris wrote wearily to his Scottish comrade John Bruce Glasier, ‘there seems to be a sort of curse of quarrelling upon us.’ But the celebration of the Commune represented one event and one message that brought comrades together for a common purpose every March:

One of the most pleasing things about these commemoration meetings is the great number of old familiar faces one sees. Comrades whose life and work lies apart throughout the year gather together on the occasion of such a meeting as this, and unite in keeping up the annual celebration.

Attracting a broad church of attendees meant that Commune celebrations could also prompt the formation of new groups and alliances. For example, in Leicester, the 1888 celebration led to the formation of what became the Leicester Labour Club, which would unite the various informal groups (chiefly secularists and trade unionists) in the area. What’s more, anniversary events were often a good knees-up. At the 1899 celebration organised by the Irish Socialist Republican Party:

A beautiful supply of eatables and refreshments of a less solid nature were provided all of which suffered a more ruthless dispersion than ever was inflicted on the Communards. [ . . .] The instrumentalist music consisted of harp, violin, fife and clarionette. There were a very large number of songs rendered during the night [ . . .] the proceedings ended about 2.30 a.m. Monday morning.

In preparation for celebrations, socialists were often encouraged to practice their singing, to ensure for successful renditions on the night:

Commune Celebration — At this year’s celebration, the choir will sing the ‘Marseillaise’, ‘When the People have their own again’, and ‘All for the Cause’. All willing to take part are invited to practise along with the Hammersmith choir, which meets every Thursday at 7.30 prompt. A special practice will take place at 13, Farringdon Road, on Tuesday, 26 February at 8 p.m.

The anniversary of the Commune rehear-sed the popular celebration of May Day in Britain: large meetings with speeches and political propagandising, but also with a great deal of emphasis on singing and dancing and drinking. Before May Day emer-ged as a unifying date on the socialist calendar (it was inaugurated as an annual day for labour in 1890), the celebration of the Paris Commune was the annual event at which socialists could meet en masse, reassert their principles, and clearly define themselves against one thing, and in solidarity with another.

As Ernest Belfort Bax put it, ‘the Commune has become the rallying-point for Socialists of every shade. The anniversary of its foundation is the great Socialist festival of the year.’ The celebrations were also a way to publicise the growing strength of domestic socialism: ‘the great number of Commune celebrations this year is a sure sign of the increasing strength of the Socialist parties of this country. Even the would-be silent bourgeois press is compelled to note this.’

It was an Irish socialist, Jim Connell, who wrote the famous socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’ in 1889. Connell’s song became the official anthem of the Independent Labour Party from its founding in 1893. Connell wrote that he ‘was inspired to write “The Red Flag” by the Paris Commune, the heroism of the Russian nihilists, the firmness and self-sacrifice of the Irish Land Leaguers, the devotion unto death of the Chicago anarchists.’

Alongside ‘The Red Flag’, songs from Edward Carpenter’s Chants of Labour (1888), William Morris’s Chants for Socialists (1885), and French revolutionary songs, including the ‘Internationale’, were favourites at Commune celebrations of the late-Victorian period. Commemorative songs and poems wove the internationalist memory of the Commune into British radical tradition, and typify the comfortable cohabitation of native and foreign symbols and traditions within British socialism in this period.

In 1899 John Bruce Glasier, writing notes in preparation for a speech to be given at a Glasgow Commune commemoration, began a list of ‘great illuminating achievements in the emancipation of peoples’. But aside from the Commune (which headed his projected list), Glasier specified only one other illuminating achievement: the Peasants’ Revolt. For Glasier, then, the Commune was part of a radical inheritance that could take in both medieval England and nineteenth-century Paris.

The Legacy

Connell and Glasier’s tributes to the Commune point to a strong emotional and symbolic attachment to its memory. Native radical traditions were hugely important to late-Victorian socialists, but so too were new myths and customs arriving from elsewhere. Acknowledging one does not exclude the other: British socialists’ search for a universal set of symbols to connect them to each other and to comrades in other parts of the world was always pursued in tandem with the articulation of specific national and regional socialist identities.

British socialists infused Marxism and continental socialisms with themes from their national culture, notably radicalism and romanticism. As part of their search for inspiration and legitimisation, and in self-styling their foundation myths as individuals and as part of political communities, British socialists appropriated rituals, ideas, and mythologies from outside of Britain and articulated them as part of an oft-fluid and deliberately vague set of references to historic examples of the workers (or the people, or the ordinary folk) rising up against their common foe. Celebrations of the Commune expressed a powerful sentiment of solidarity and common struggle, and were part of a self-conscious desire to connect British socialism with a heritage from both within and beyond the nation.

Communard exiles, having battled to reshape their city, sought liberty in Britain in the 1870s. In doing so they linked their struggle and their story to a long history of British radicalism. The Commune endowed socialists all over the world with a powerful rallying cry. In Britain, this cry was made all the more germane by the fact that Communards had actually lived there — they had held meetings, swapped stories, and made plans on this side of the Channel. Of course, the realities and nuances of these ideas, plans, and experiences were often lost as the re-tellings grew more frequent. But the legend became all the more compelling as a result: the simple fact remained that the Commune had come to Britain.

Geographically separated from the continent by the narrow waters of the Channel, Britain felt the Commune’s ripples lapping at her shore, and the new and recycled politics, ideas, and symbols that they carried with them could not fail to affect the trajectory of the movement that continues today.