The Last Communard: Adrien Lejeune, the Unexpected Life of a Revolutionary by Gavin Bowd (Verso, £14.99)
THE COMMUNE, whose radical socialist government ruled Paris from March to May 1871, was an iconic episode in revolutionary history.
For 10 weeks the National Guard, recruited from working-class neighbourhoods, held the streets of the capital while the delegates implemented decrees separating church from state, converting church property to public property and excluding religious propaganda from schools, as well as providing public services for the two million inhabitants.
The Commune ended in a bloodbath with the National Guard disintegrating under attack from the French army and the imprisonment and summary execution of Communards, around 15,000 of whom had defended the barricades.
In The Civil War in France, Marx described the Commune as a prototype for a revolutionary government of the future and Engels praised it as a state run by workers in the interest of workers.
Lenin considered it a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat and his tomb in Red Square was decorated with red banners from the Commune brought to his funeral by French communists.
One man who took part in the Commune was Adrien Lejeune, who fought on the barricades and was then imprisoned for treason.
He was born in 1847 in Bagnolet, a village three miles from the centre of Paris which became part of the capital’s “red belt” in the last century.
After four years of imprisonment, Lejeune disappeared from the record until he joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1922.
He retired to the USSR in 1930 where he lived in the Home for Old Revolutionaries in Moscow, writing his autobiography and receiving support from the PCF.
In 1941, with the nazis approaching Moscow, he was evacuated to Novosibirsk where he died.
In 1971 his ashes were returned to France in time for the centenary commemorations of the Commune, and were interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery.
So Lejeune is remembered not so much for his modest role in the Commune as for his longevity, which enabled him to become the link between the revolutionary spirit of the Communards and the Soviet Union and the PCF in the following century.
Gavin Bowd gives a detailed account of this individual life set within the context of turbulent times in world history.
He aims to show how political forces have sought to employ both the Commune and an idealised image of Lejeune, to support their own causes.
“By excavating the records and getting as close as possible to the real man, I realised how history can be made from the least likely participants,” he writes.
“The story of Lejeune is not just the history of the last Communard but a model of how history itself is made … The way his life and story have been appropriated, sold and resold is as important as the action he took on the streets in 1871.”
Bowd’s separation of the myths from the man makes dramatic reading and the book is a useful contribution to the history not only of the Commune but also the PCF and its relationship with Moscow.