The Last Communard

The Last Communard: Adrien Lejeune, The Unexpected Life of a Revolutionary
Gavin Bowd
Verson Books  192pp  £14.99

Adrien Lejeune, grocer and apothecary, was born in 1847 in Bagnolet, then just beyond the walls of Paris; he died in 1942 in Novosibirsk, Siberia, but is now buried at the Mur des Fédérés in the Père Lachaise cemetery, which marks the site of execution of Lejuene’s comrades in the Parisian working-class uprising of 1871.

Gavin Bowd’s book is not a biography of Lejeune but rather an attempt to explain his itinerary. We cannot be certain that Lejeune was the last surviving Communard, not just because the mass of rebels remained anonymous but also because Lejeune’s role in the events of 1871 is obscure. When arrested by French government troops, Lejeune claimed to be an unwilling participant. The military tribunal, probably correctly, dismissed this as evasion and sentenced him to five years in prison. Thereafter, Lejeune disappeared from the historical record for half a century: he was not a well-known activist or writer. But he stayed true to this radical politics, joining the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1922, soon after it was founded. This was the beginning of Lejeune’s reinvention as a symbol, which is Bowd’s central topic. 

For the PCF and its Soviet big brother, Lejeune was a living talisman. The Paris Commune mattered in Bolshevik mythology – supposedly Lenin danced in the snow when the October Revolution outlasted its predecessor.  Lejeune’s allegiance was proof that the martyrs of Bloody Week had been avenged in the Soviet Union. Other left-wing groups, such as socialists and anarchists, could claim descent from the Commune, but the Communists had an actual Communard to confirm their entitlement. 

Comrade Lejeune’s move to Moscow in 1930 was so that he might finally enjoy the fruits of the revolutionary struggle that bound together the history of France and Russia. It is hard to say whether he had much to enjoy, even before the Nazi invasion which forced his evacuation to Siberia. Communist literature from the period is expressed in drab formulas and it is difficult to extract much biographical information from such statements as the greeting sent to Lejeune in 1937 by the editors of the Communist newspaper, L’Humanité: What better wish could we send, Dear Comrade, on the occasion of your birthday, than that you may for many years yet admire the gigantic achievements of victorious Socialism in the Land of the Soviets.’ It seems, though, that Lejeune did inspire affection among the French and other exiles who washed up in Russia.  

Even in death Lejeune remained a useful symbol. Unlike other European Communist parties, the PCF remained loyal to Moscow throughout the postwar decades. After 1968 its position was challenged by street-fighting Trotskyists and Maoists, who disputed the mantle of the Commune. The return of Lejeune’s ashes from the USSR, to coincide with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Commune in May 1971, was part of the PCF’s attempt to reassert its pre-eminence on the Left. 

A revolutionary, according to Marxist theory, should be forged on the anvil of experience, but given the confusions and equivocations in the propaganda surrounding Lejeune, one gets little sense of him as an individual. The uses to which he was put offer a fascinating example of political legend-making, but we do not learn what kept the man himself faithful to the revolutionary cause.

David Hopkin is a Fellow and Tutor in History at the University of Oxford and author of Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, 2012).

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