The Paris Commune of 1871 ended mangled and defeated. Its demise was both tragic and predictable. Terrible things happen when impractical idealists stake their lives against the great monolithic institutions of society.
Ever since, leftist activists and revolutionaries have looked on the Communards as heroes for establishing a socialist government that faced the regular army at blood-washed barricades. Some of these later thinkers were Marxists. Some were anarchists, following the ideas of Proudhon: “Property is theft.”
I can’t help but see the bravery of the Communards as intensely pathetic. I’m not inspired by their deeds as much as horrified by their fate. But I dwell for a while on the story of one of this band of radicals, the artist Gustave Courbet, who survived the “Bloody Week” that ended the Commune’s brief rule of Paris, only to be thrown in jail and heavily fined. Authorities blamed him for the Commune’s toppling of the Vendome Column with its statue of Napoleon.
Courbet was an anarchist in the Proudhon mold—in spirit, if not on strict ideological grounds. He was at any rate one who would have delighted in the disappearance of confining social institutions. He knew Proudhon and painted a picture of him with his family.
Courbet had actually proposed that the giant Vendome Column be disassembled, not destroyed, and re-erected at the Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb. It seemed to him that the monument didn’t belong in a large public square. He argued that the column was “devoid of all artistic value” and perpetuated militaristic ideas of the imperial dynasty unsuited to a republican nation. “Citizen Courbet expresses the wish that the National Defense government will authorize him to disassemble this column,” he petitioned.
But the column was knocked over on May 16 with no plan to rebuild it. The massive statue of Napoleon with his pseudo-Roman laurel wreath and toga lay helplessly on its back, gazing up from the cobblestones. It wasn’t the first time the bronze Napoleon had been disrespected. In 1816, after Waterloo, a mob had attached a cable to his bronze neck and tried unsuccessfully to topple him. In the period of the Bourbon Restoration, he was melted down and used in a recast equestrian statue of Henri IV—which had itself been destroyed in the French Revolution. The “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe brought him back to life, clothing him in boots, jacket, and tricorn hat rather than toga. Napoleon III rejected this modest bourgeois dress and reincarnated him in the Roman attire with a sword in his left hand and a globe topped with a statue of Victory in his right. (Any self-respecting emperor can easily juggle this sort of paraphernalia.)
Courbet was held responsible for the heinous deed and sentenced September 2, 1871, to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs.
But when he’d served his time, the authorities still weren’t done with him. In 1873, Patrice de MacMahon was elected president of the newly established Third Republic. A conservative—a monarchist, in fact—MacMahon decided to rebuild the column. In a clearcut case of double jeopardy, Courbet was made a scapegoat for the Commune and condemned to pay the costs. He’d always been disliked by the Establishment. The court didn’t even prove that Courbet was among the crowd that brought down the monument.
It took four years for the cost of restoring the column to be determined. In the meantime, Courbet exiled himself to Switzerland, sick of the publicity and no doubt hoping to avoid the crushing financial obligation. But he was watched by French intelligence officers. On May 4, 1877, the cost was announced: 323,091 francs and 68 centimes. The court would graciously allow him to pay the amount in annual installments of 10,000 francs for the next 33 years—until he was age 91.
Since he left France, Courbet had been drinking heavily. He had to deal not only with the financial burden but also the deaths of his mother, his son, and his sister within a few years. The pace of self-destruction accelerated, and he died of liver disease at age 59 on December 31, 1877, a day before the first installment came due.
He always scorned the institutions that most people rely on for security and comfort. At the age of 50 he said, I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: “He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.”