Gustave Courbet and the Vendome Column

More on tearing down monuments.

The French Revolution of 1793 ended in the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, in the 19th Century, the French government, first under Louis Phillipe and then under Napoleon III, built the Vendome Column, a gaudy monument to France’s imperial glory.

What happened to the Vendome Column illustrates how the French left views the Great Revolution of 1789, as part of a larger struggle for radical democracy, not as an event ordained by God that instituted an eternal republic that can never be changed. Americans would do well to heed this advice. The slave owning aristocrats who broke away from King George III were flawed ruling class men, not supermen. The Constitution was designed to protect the wealthy from the threat of too much democracy. It needs to be scrapped and replaced with a new socialist constitution, one that encourages democracy, not suppresses it.

In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, his classic account of the Revolution of 1848, Karl Marx predicted that the election of the little Napoleon, the great Napoleon’s nephew, as dictator would inevitably mean that the revolutionary working class would eventually destroy Bonapartism for good.

But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will come crashing down from the top of the Vendôme Column.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm

 

Twenty two years later, it happened pretty much the way Marx predicted it. Foolishly going to war with the rising state of Prussia, Napoleon III condemned France to a humiliating defeat. That’s pretty much all they teach you in the history books in the United States. But the Franco Prussian War was followed by a far more important event, the Paris Commune, the first revolutionary communist state in Europe.

The painter Gustav Courbet had once argued that the Vendome Column should be disassembled and put into a museum. But in 1871, the leaders of the Commune had a far more radical idea. Just tear it down. Purge France of its authoritarian legacy, of Napoleon I himself. And so they did.

Sadly, after the suppression of the Paris Commune, the new bourgeois French government did exactly what bourgeois governments always do to revolutionaries. They persecuted Courbet, jailed him, and upon his release tried to ruin his life with fines. He died at the relatively young age of 53. One wonders what more he could have produced had he not spent the last few years of his life in poverty.

While the Vendome Column eventually did go back up, France never again put another dictator into power (unless you count Hitler, and that’s a debate for another day).

1870 to 1918

Vendome Column, c. 1890-1900. Vendome Column, c. 1890-1900.

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.

Regular troops man a barricade against the Paris Commune.Regular troops man a barricade against the Paris Commune.

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…

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