Building “our” Commune: exiled Communards in Britain

  • April 23, 2021

Paris Commune 150

After the fall of the Paris Commune, thousands of Communards fled to Britain where they linked their revolutionary struggle to the long history of British radicalism.

In 1870s London, at 67 Charlotte Street, there was a grocery shop called le Bel Épicier, run by the Frenchman Victor Richard. Here, a London shopper could find French coffee, mustards, pâtes, cornichon and wines — particularly those from Richard’s native Burgundy. As well as providing much-needed epicurean relief, Richard’s shop was “for many years a head centre, where political refugees, as they arrive from the Continent, go for advice and help in finding lodgings or work, and where, of course, the continental police agents also flock so as to spy upon the land.”

Richard was a prosperous and entrepreneurial grocer. He was also a member of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), a socialist and a Communard; his relocation from Paris to London was the result of his militant defense of the Paris Commune of 1871. Arriving as a political refugee in London in June 1871, Richard became a very well connected and locally celebrated revolutionary; apparently his shop sold only red beans, not “reactionary” white ones.

The British press described Richard’s shop as a “shady haunt” within which you could find refugees of the Paris Commune “discussing the crises of the bourgeoisie and… the vengeance which will one day fall on that obnoxious class of society.”

Just down the road from Richard’s shop, also in Charlotte Street, Elisabeth Audinet ran a restaurant where homecooked French food could be obtained for a reasonable price. “A home of rascals and ruffians,” as one aggrieved French secret police agent put it, Audinet’s was a favored revolutionary meeting place, and one often frequented by Karl Marx and his Communard sons-in-law, Charles Longuet and Paul Lafargue. Throughout the 1870s, Audinet hosted several banquets celebrating the anniversary of the Commune and she was particularly associated with the Blanquist Communard refugees — she lived with one and another married her daughter.

Following the defeat of the Commune in May 1871, thousands of Communards fled France to avoid deportation, imprisonment, or death. As a result, and due in large part to Britain’s liberal asylum policy at the time, around 3500 refugees (circa 1500 Communards, plus their families) arrived in Britain in the early 1870s. These political exiles made Britain their temporary home, with the vast majority settling in London. Most exiles were relatively young, relatively skilled workers and artisans — jewelers, lace-workers, dressmakers, engineers, mechanics, shoemakers — as well as journalists and teachers.

Despite the hardships of exile, refugee Communards in Britain found an eclectic mix of fellow travelers with whom to share space, ideas and friendships. The places in which Communards gathered — the pubs, the restaurants and the shops — were community centers, places with practical purposes that served newly arriving or struggling refugees. But they were also political places; meeting spots for planning and discussing and making connections.

At end of the 19th century, parts of London were teeming with revolutionary and socialist groups and individuals, all experimenting with ideas from across the radical political spectrum, and from across Europe and beyond. As a reporter at the Sheffield Independent noted: “all of these bodies work for themselves, but are connected with each other and with their English brethren…The next anniversary of the Paris Commune will bring them all together.”

In other words, the Commune continued to connect these different radical intellectual strands long after the refugees of the Commune had returned to France. The revolutionary atmosphere bestowed by the exiled Communard lingered in London and was vital in informing the internationalist impulses of late-Victorian British socialism.

Fitzrovia: “a small anarchist republic”

Around the corner from Audinet’s restaurant, at 6 Charles Street (now Mortimer Street), Communard exiles would crowd into the Spread Eagle pub, a favorite haunt, and one used regularly by the Communard’s largest and most comprehensive society, La Société des Réfugiés de la Commune à Londres (SRCL). The SRCL offered practical relief, comradery and political solidarity to all those who had “fought for the Commune.” The society created commissions toot distribute aid and to coordinate efforts to find work for arriving refugees.

As more exiles arrived in the autumn of 1871 the functions of SRCL were expanded: subscriptions were introduced for those who had found work. These small sums, supplemented by donations from the English Positivists and from the IWMA, went towards the establishment of a cooperative soup kitchen in Newman Passage — La Marmite:

Situated on the top floor of so wretched a building that there was not space for a staircase, but the room was reached by means of a ladder with a very greasy rope that served in the stead of a balustrade. But here any refugee who could prove that he had fought for the Paris Commune was able to obtain a meal for twopence.

La Marmite was located in the heart of the Communard community in London. The largest concentration of refugees from the Commune, and certainly the political center of much Communard activity in London, was in the area now known as Fitzrovia — the small area bounded by Oxford Street to the south, Euston Road to the north, Great Portland Street to the west, and Tottenham Court Road to the east. Here Communard exiles lodged, worked, established organizations, published political addresses and newspapers — the most successful of which was the Qui Vive! — and expanded some of the mutual aid networks and organizations established by earlier French communities in London — those who had been banished by the Second Empire in the mid-century.

The Communards were later joined in some of these streets — particularly the area around Charlotte Street, Rathbone Street and Newman Street — by German socialist exiles expelled by Bismarck in the late 1870s, and many Communard meeting places later became the pubs and places that were central to the transnational anarchist communities of the 1880s and 90s.

The French anarchist Charles Malato famously described 1890s Fitzrovia as “a small anarchist republic.” Socialists from Norway and Sweden established their Scandinavian Club on Rathbone Place; German and Austrian anarchists met in Stephen’s Mews, just south of Charlotte Street; Berners Street, two streets west of Newman Street, became home to the Jewish anarchist club; and a small community of Flemish and Dutch socialists met in the pubs along Tottenham Court Road.

The 1880s also marked the founding of organized socialism in Britain, and many of its proponents were attending meetings and socializing in and around Fitzrovia. The Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian society, the Freedom Group and the Socialist League all launched their socialist platforms in these years. By the mid-1880s these British socialists 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. And the Commune represented an important part of this new identity.

British defenders of the Commune

In part because the Commune itself had been such a laboratory of political experimentation, there were innumerable intellectual strands on which all manner of British radicals, socialists and republicans could pull for inspiration. The Commune could be understood as the defense of true Republicanism; as a vision of decentralized municipal democracy; as a beacon of internationalism for those appalled by imperial wars; as an expression of French patriotism in the face of ascendant Prussian militarism; or simply as an example of the self-rule of the oppressed.

At the time of the Commune, the Communards’ chief champions in Britain were the English Positivists. Followers of the intellectual teachings of French philosopher Auguste Comte, the English Positivists were the only organized body in Britain to defend the Commune while it lived. The IWMA was silent through the Commune — Karl Marx’s Civil War in France was not published until early June, after the Communards had been defeated. But week by week through the spring of 1871, the English Positivists, particularly Frederic Harrison and Edward Spencer Beesly, consistently defended the actions of the Commune and attempted to distill its social and political aims for a British audience.

Organized Positivism in England never boasted more than a few dozen committed members, but its key propagandists were prolific and boasted disproportionately wide networks. Frederic Harrison, a lawyer by training, and Edward Spencer Beesly, a historian at University College London, were firm supporters of British labor movements in the mid and late Victorian period.

Beesly chaired the first meeting of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, he was a member of the Committee for the Benefit of Miners, and he risked his career and reputation in defending the perpetrators of the Sheffield Outrages in 1865-66. Harrison, too, consistently defended workers’ movements and was a prolific contributor to radical papers. He taught at the Working Men’s College and acted as the workers’ representative on the Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867 which led to the legalization of unions under the Trade Unions Act of 1871.

“The present movement in favour of self-government for Paris agrees with the teachings of Auguste Comte,” declared Beesly in early April 1871, “and is probably largely due to it.” Parisians’ desire to make their own government and “to withdraw a large part of the administration of the towns from a central authority, and vest it in ‘communes’,” was to Beesly exactly what Comte had had in mind when he spoke of decentralizing France into 17 mini Republics around the 17 major towns. Harrison agreed: “The genius of France, recoiling from beneath the iron strokes of Germany, has again resumed her task of moulding the society of Europe.”

The English Positivists saw the Commune as “the finest political conception of our age…the most striking phase as yet of the whole revolutionary period.” They believed the Commune to be a living example of Comte’s social republic; it was a movement for municipal democracy and one that could reorganize the social as well as the political conditions of France.

A particularly striking part of the Positivists’ analysis of the Commune was their understanding of the events of 1871 as a spatial revolution: as a radical reclamation of space by those excluded from the lavish splendor of the Second Empire. In the 21st century, the Commune’s memory has been powerfully deployed as part of global critiques of unfettered capitalism and urban dispossession. The English Positivists’ instant history of the Commune, written in the spring of 1871, shows an attentiveness to the local spatial dynamics of Paris, but also, importantly, to the spatial dynamics of class struggle more generally.

In the Fortnightly Review Harrison suggested that the ferocious response of the Versaillais to the Communards stemmed from a violent indignation that the poor of Paris would dare lay any claim to their city:

That wretched workmen should set foot on the Elysian Fields of luxury; that they should disturb the very gaieties of the season; that, in the pursuit of a more moral and just world they should disarrange the charm of the pleasantest city in Europe — all this, in the eyes of the silken puppets who call themselves Society, was an outrage worthy of death.

In agreement, Beesly defended the attempt by the dispossessed of Paris to reoccupy those streets from which they had been expunged by Haussmann’s aggressive sanitization project the previous decade. The workers, he wrote, “have no elegant mansions in Champs-Elysees. The splendors of Paris have meant nothing for them but higher rent and dearer food, and probably they will not break their hearts over some damage to Baron Haussmann’s long drawn vistas and stately facades.”

The Commune arrives in Britain

As refugee Communards began to arrive in London in early June, 1871, the English Positivists defense of the Commune was forced off the page and unto the streets. They were among the most generous in contributing their time and energy to relief organizations. The Positivists offered financial support to the Communard soup kitchen and they established evening classes in Francis Street where French refugees could access free English language tuition.

Beesly utilized his friendship with Karl Marx to aid the safe passage of exiles from France to Britain. The two men had met when Beesly chaired the first session of the IWMA in 1864, and they shared a mutual respect for one another as individuals, despite their doctrinal differences. “I regard you as the only Comtist, both in England and in France, who deals with historical turning points (CRISES) not as a sectarian but as an historian in the best sense of the word,” Marx wrote to Beesly — a rare compliment to an Englishman from the German philosopher.

Marx and Beesly shared contacts and worked with the International’s relief committee in order to exploit any possible connections that could ensure a Communard made it safely out of France. “A woman friend of mine will be going to Paris in three or four days. I am giving her regular passes for some members of the Commune who are still hiding in Paris. If you or one of your friends have any commissions there please write to me,” Marx wrote to Beesly in June 1871.

In early 1872 Harrison wrote several letters to The Times, calling on its affluent readership to offer employment to the Communard refugees. He appealed to readers’ humanitarian impulses and attempted to depoliticize the arriving exiles. Harrison was very aware of the sensationalized anti-communist rhetoric in the tabloid press, and so assured his readers that the French arrivals “naturally belong to very different schools; but, as far as I know, hardly any of them to that of Communism.” He repeatedly refers to those exiles he had met as “cultivated,” “honorable,” “literary,” “true gentlemen,” and made an allusion to the 17th-century Huguenot refugees from France suggesting that the artisan Commune refugees who had already found work were “enriching this country as it was enriched by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.”

Harrison’s plea in The Times seemed to have had some success — “Oxford men want a Communist by the next train to live with them. Well to do people offer a home and their friendship. An M.P sends £100, an ‘old housekeeper’ sends £5,” an excited Harrison wrote to his friend and editor, John Morley, in February.

The Positivists and the International had some success in stimulating financial and practical assistance for the arriving Communards. However, practical support was short-lived, and the philanthropic interest that Harrison had aroused began to dry up as the refugees of the Commune were displaced by new charitable causes. Harrison himself suffered a fairly swift disillusionment upon meeting the reality of the Commune. His defense of the Commune had been based on a Utopian idealization of the Parisian working classes that no reality could match. After elevating the Communards of Paris to such a lofty pedestal, Harrison felt himself aloof from the real-life refugees that arrived. He also felt that he could never make up for the crimes of his class:

to most of [the Communard refugees], and certainly the socialists, I fear that I was nothing but a Bourgeois with a fad, whose help could not repay one thousandth part of the miseries which the class to which I belonged had caused.

The gulf that Harrison felt separated him from the refugees of the Commune has contributed to a characterization of the Communard exiles in Britain as an insular community. Attempts to find meaningful links between Communard organizations and British organizations paint a fairly bleak picture. There were some official expressions of solidarity, short-lived fundraising efforts and attempts to form collaborative institutions — the International Labour Union established in 1877, for example — but most of these initiatives had little tangible success.

These efforts, though, show that the impulse for creating alliances and expressing solidarity was there, but that the institutional preoccupations of both Communard organizations and British radical and trade associations often precluded them from pursuing common cause. However, the institutional record can only tell us so much. Instead, it was often through more diffuse means that the Commune made its mark on Britain.

Associational culture and politicized sociability

Anyone taking the general tone of English public opinion from the “organs” which are popularly supposed to embody it, would have been led to the conclusion that horror and reprobation were the universal feelings in regard to the Commune. But anyone who could have penetrated working class circles, who, let us say, could have sat with men round workshop breakfast stoves, or in workshop dining or reading rooms…would have found, from the talk of the men, that newspaper public opinion was the opinion of a section only; that … the sympathy of the people was with the communists.

The kind of solidarity that Thomas Wright, the “Journeyman Engineer” as he called himself, describes is difficult to measure. Feelings of sympathy and affinity are a powerful part of the history of social movements; encountering an event like the Commune — be that as part of a reading circle, in the workplace, or through a friendship with an exiled Communard — was a formative radicalizing experience for many Victorian activists.

Many British activists encountered the Commune via informal conversations, heated pub debates, intimate gatherings and impromptu neighborhood meetings that characterized radical club life and progressive political culture in Fitzrovia. Doing so allowed them to experiment with ideas emanating from outside of a popular liberal tradition, and to meaningfully engage with continental political ideas brought by exiled Communards.

Fitzrovia had long been established as a dissident neighborhood. In the second half of the 19th century a host of radical activists — mostly secularists, freethinkers, old Chartists, O’Brienites, 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 Hotel de la Boule d’Or, on Percy Street was reputed to be the birthplace of the IWMA prior to its official foundation in 1864. The association later made their headquarters in nearby Rathbone Place.

The arrival of Communard exiles and other revolutionary refugees did not displace these existing radical communities, but instead made Fitzrovia a place of radical cross-pollination. On any given night, the upstairs meeting room of the Blue Posts pub on Newman Street, for example, might have been host to a lecture on rent strikes or coercion in Ireland, or a meeting of land nationalizers, international socialists, Communards, or secularists, many of whom also lived and worked in the area.

Politicized socialization in the streets in and around this part of London shaped fresh political alliances and political philosophies, and helped to create links between British, French and international activists who frequented the same places. The pubs, clubs, shops and streets of Fitzrovia became informal political forums, and mirrored some of the associational cultures that had been so important under the Commune itself.

The Commune was both created and shaped by the political culture of popular organizations. The organization of the Commune was rooted in neighborhoods and relied on the politics of association. The refugee Communards had been clubbers in Paris — they formed, shaped and enacted their politics through club life, both formal and informal. From the countless official organizations such as the Club des Prolétaires, the Cercle des Jacobins and the Association Républicaine which were organized around quartiers, to informal café cultures within which opponents of the Empire socialized, the politics of the Commune were expressed through associationism, which had economic, political and social facets.

In 1871, the Communard exiles carried many of these traditional modes of organizing with them to London. Through political organizations, informal hubs like the shops and kitchens of Fitzrovia, and philanthropic and educational societies, Communard modes of political socialization — both collaborative and Communard-only — could be utilized within the new environment of London, and in doing so gave rise to new diverse communities that combined some of the practices of English Clubbers with the clubistes of the Commune.

In Britain informal club life formed the infrastructure of London radicalism. In a world of shifting political fragments and short-lived organizations, pub and club life bound the movement together. In the 1870s as Communard exiles and radical socialist and republican clubbers crossed paths in pubs and shops in the streets north of Oxford Street, one can imagine a plethora of conversational political exchanges that never made their way into the institutional record.

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 socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw engaged in weekly singing sessions with an Alsatian exile of the Commune, Richard Deck — Shaw would sing to Deck in French while Deck, a basso profundo, provided the bass backing vocal. These sessions led to discussions of the Paris Commune and of how the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had influenced the events of 1871.

John Burns, trade-unionist, socialist and Battersea MP, was introduced to continental socialism as a young apprentice engineer through his friendship with an exiled Communard colleague, Victor Delahaye. The two men worked side by side and were frequently sent on contract work together around London and the South East, affording abundant opportunity for conversation.

Eleanor Marx met the Communard Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray at a Commune anniversary celebration in 1872. Their subsequent friendship, sexual relationship, and — failed — engagement oversaw 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 one of the few still in print today.

The Communard Jules Magny, London correspondent for La Revue socialiste, “achieved distinction in England by making wine from grapes grown in his backyard in the Old Kent Road” and would invite his British activist friends round to sample it and invariably, to talk politics.

Ernest Belfort Bax, one of the chief theoreticians of the Social Democratic Federation — the first Marxist organization in Britain — met the Communards Paschal Grousset and Albert Regnard while working in the reading room of the British Museum, and it was their discussions of the Commune that Bax credited with his interest in socialism. And there were many other known and lesser-known activists who were involved in informal reading groups, sexual relationships, translation projects and supper clubs with refugees of the Commune.

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 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. But 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.

After the amnesty

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 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.

In the 1870s there had not been a decidedly socialist movement in Britain. The majority of Commune anniversary celebrations in the 1870s were organized and attended by exiled Communards and international organizations, 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, organized 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. Yet within the decade after the French amnesty the language of Commune celebrations in Britain would transform the Commune from “their” Commune to “our” Commune, and Vive la Commune! would become a powerful slogan in British socialism.

In other words, in the 1880s the Commune was incorporated into the mythology, the canon, of British socialism. Early socialist groups in Britain all celebrated the Commune annually. 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 Commune was foreign enough to transcend regional and factional squabbles and bring together often disparate socialist groups once a year in an otherwise rare expression of unity.

Communard exiles, having battled to remake their city, sought liberty in Britain, and they found “kindred spirits” within the kaleidoscopic political worlds of late-Victorian London. In doing so they linked their struggle, and their story, to the 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 in Britain — they had held meetings, swapped stories and made plans on this side of the Channel. Of course, the realities and nuances of these ideas and plans and experiences were often lost as the retellings grew more frequent. But the legend became all the more compelling as a result. The fact remained that the Commune had come to Britain, and “the restless sedition-mongers” of Paris irrevocably altered the course of British socialism.

Laura C. Forster

Laura C. Forster is a writer and historian based in Newcastle. She is a lecturer in nineteenth-century British history at Durham University.

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