The Paris Commune

The Red Poster

Source: Le Cri du Peuple, January 7, 1884;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor.

I have often heard sailors speak with admiration of a book in which the American Murphy speaks of a circulation of currents in the heart of the ocean in the same way that Harvey demonstrated the circulation of blood in the heart of man.

Before this book, if I can believe what is said, people only worried about the heavens, without thinking about the storms of the deep, without thinking about the murky streets which, thousands of feet below the tumult of the waves, furrow the sea and which at certain moments, rise up like the streets of big cities.

Perhaps they pushed their enthusiasm too far, these ship captains, and we could have pointed out to them the sea serpents stretching themselves out between the foam and the sludge in ancient books, labeled and classified by scholars who had already plunged into this immensity.

But thanks to the new work, those who wore out their eyes on the stars and whose observations rode only on the backs of waves know that they have more to do today: they must investigate the depths and follow the currents in their colors among the mass of water, just as in a multitude we follow a trail of red pants or blue jackets.

There are invisible forces in the crush of the waves, just as there are in the crush of humans.

It is the storm of 1871 that leads me to think of this, and the date of January 6 that, like a piece of debris, brings the memory back to me.

The lighthouses were extinguished; the pilots had lost their way. The commanders, treasonous or cowardly, wanted the vessel of the city of Paris to surrender, and they drowned the powder and supply holds, wanting to force the crew to ask for grace and to bring the ship in.

They failed to take into account that mysterious and masked force, signaled by Thierry and Michelet in the first half of the century, and which would be master of the years this century has yet to live.

They didn’t think that there are eras in which no one holds the lightning in his hands or can cast or extinguish it at will, where the rulers cannot at their whim sell a city and betray a country. If the heavens appear to be favorable to them, there can be found in the crowd a Cato who is against them. This Cato is the consciousness of a people, who quietly rebel and growl. A few men, the first-comers, tighten their ranks in a shared pain, in a shared hope for rebellion.

For every one that is known there are thirty who aren’t. It is these unknowns, those who have no name or past, who only owe it to their conviction, to their instinctive eloquence the fact that they have become leaders of groups, leaders without stripes or epaulettes. It is these people who brought out the public idea, piping hot and healthy as a loaf fresh from the oven. Heroism has its work cut out for it as soon as these obscure figures have decreed that it is better to die than to capitulate.

This decree had been issued by an assembly, the assembly that met on the Place de la Corderie on the fourth floor, where the wind entered through broken windows that they couldn’t repair because they didn’t have the money for it; where there were only a few school benches, a laundry table for a desk, and no rostrum. People planted themselves before the comrades without a pedestal, and they spoke of what was in their hearts.

It was the clubs that had elected this committee, which took the name of the “Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements of Paris.”

Its history is still to be written. March 18 emanated from it. [1]

In any case, it is there that it was decided on January 5 to write a poster that would save Paris’ honor, and which was called “The Red Poster.”

If notoriety didn’t carry much weight in the debates and resolutions in this parliament of the undisciplined, it nevertheless designated those that had a touch of experience in interpreting common thought.

It was agreed that Tridon, Vaillant, Leverdays and I would bring, the next day at 1:00 AM, a proclamation which, if it was accepted by the assembly, would have the honor of being pasted up the following night on all the walls of Paris. They hadn’t found the money to replace the windows or to have some heat, but they had found some to print the poster.

It was a matter of getting it done.

We had to give the people a language both simple and large. In the most terrible of storms, under enemy fire, before history, it had spoken up. We had to think of the fatherland at the same time that we thought of the revolution.

And in the small apartment on the Rue Saint-Jacques where they had locked themselves in, these four men of letters tore out their hair with each line they laid out on the paper, fearful of falling into platitude or declamation.

We were ashamed of ourselves, and every ringing of the clock painfully reverberated in our heads.

The task was finally three quarters finished; it was 5:00 AM.

Tridon, who was ill and who was to die of the illness that was eating away at him, proposed that we take a nap, on condition we worked especially hard in the morning. We both stretched ourselves out on an improvised bed, one that I left to give him more room, the poor man, whose neck was in shreds, his skin in tatters, and who curled himself up in the only sheet that had been left for us, the comrades having taken the other.

His flesh was in agony, but his mind was robust and healthy.

When we got up we heard the cannons thunder with a voice unknown to us. It was the bombardment that was beginning.

And our proclamation was there, as cold as we were.

I can’t begin to speak of our pain. We were afraid we had been unworthy of our people, and the new cannonballs whistled in our ears, like the anger of a disappointed crowd at the theater.

We needed a phrase, only one, but we needed one in which the soul of the people beat. We needed a word as well to take a position in the future.

We dragged ourselves to the Corderie without having finished, not caring about the bombs, and having the secret desire to be killed before arriving.

And then, after an even stronger explosion Leverdays shook himself and, looking at the sky, furrowing his brow, in the frozen air he tried out a phrase, a word...

He'd found it.

The proclamation, read in a solemn silence, was showered with applause. I've forgotten the final sentence, but I remember the final phrase:

“Make way for the people! Make way for the Commune!”

That was exactly thirteen years ago today.

And despite the time that’s passed, after the defeat and exile, I place above all my joys as a writer the honor of having collaborated in this poster of fifty lines that announced the great social drama.

In his novel “L’Insurgé,” which largely repeats the above account, Vallès concludes it with these words, speaking if his having been put on trial for having written it: “ And yet, it wasn’t a call to rebellion; it was a cry escaped from feverish hearts, and less a cry of indignation than a cry of despair.”

1. Date of the declaration of the Paris Commune.