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Battle of Tizi Ouzou (Algeria) during the Mokrani Revolt of 1871

-by Rianna Sull

Although it occurred within the borders of France, the 1871 Paris Commune also bears a connection to French colonial events in multiple ways. Members of the Commune preached that French people were an “ally of all free peoples” and advocated for the “Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity of all peoples.”1 These ideals, however, seem contradictory when one examines the ways in which deported Communards reacted to incarcerated Kabyles who had participated in the 1871 Mokrani uprising against French colonial rule in Algeria.2 Moreover, this connection is also underscored by the fact that many Communard déportés were sent overseas to the penal colony of New Caledonia where those who had participated in the Kanak uprising of 1878 were also incarcerated. Communards experienced extreme loneliness, isolation and nostalgia in the colonies that over time prompted them to re-identify with France and ‘civilization.’ Eventually, as Bullard states, “nostalgia formed an affective assertion of loyalty to France…and to French civilization in competition with, in one déportés words, ‘a people a bit too primitive.’”3 Therefore, the significance of analyzing the Paris Commune through its relationship to French colonial events lies in the fact that many of the interactions Communards had with Algerians in the colonies contradicted the ideals preached by Communards. Moreover, what prevented the communard déportés from finding solidarity with Algerians (who had participated in revolts bearing a similar cause to their own), was their inability to look past race and their ideas of civilization.

Although Communards preached ideals of liberty and freedom while calling themselves an “ally of all free peoples,” these ideals seem contradictory to the ways in which communards who had been deported to penal colonies interacted with Kabyles on the Ile de Pins.4 As Niklas Plaetzer argues, “Communard universalism remained bounded by imperial domination and racialized epistemic frames.”5 The Communards were unable to look past racial barriers and therefore contradicted ideals they themselves had been preaching as part of the Paris Commune.

In addition to their inability to look past race to form solidarity with Kabyles, Alice Bullard also details the ways in which Communard deportés instigated a “destruction of solidarity by [their] decision to affiliate with civilization” rather than other incarcerated Kanaks in the New Caledonia penal colony.6 Their decision to affiliate with civilization over the Kanaks was instigated by severe nostalgia and many Communards “chose to defend themselves through identifying with civilization.”7 Evidently, being deported to French colonies played a significant role for Communards as many “formed an affective assertion of loyalty to France” rather than identify with Kanaks, who they viewed as “too primitive.”8 The Communards chose to identify themselves with the ‘civilization’ of the French state rather than identify with those who had participated in the Algerian revolts. Essentially, they abandoned the ideals of the Commune because they did not want to be identified with the Kanaks they were incarcerated with.

The interactions of exiled Communard’s with incarcerated Algerian insurgents demonstrates the contradictory nature of the Commune’s ideals of liberty and equality when confronted with an uprising represented by a race different than their own. When faced with the Algerian uprisings, which demonstrated strong-anticolonial sentiment and desire for freedom of French colonial rule, a large number of Communard’s chose to withhold solidarity from their cause based on racialized views. Moreover, choosing to identify with the ‘civilization’ of the French nation over the Algerian revolts demonstrates that the ideals of the Commune were abandoned due to the unwillingness of the deported Communard’s to show solidarity with the Algerians. Thus, the Paris Commune bears a strong connection to French colonial and imperial events as deported Communard’s in the penal colony of New Caledonia were not able to demonstrate the ideals they preached when confronted with an anti-colonial Algerian uprising. The colonial uprisings that fought for freedom and autonomy the same way members of the Commune had in Paris could not gain the support of deported Communards solely based on racialized and prejudiced perspectives of the Algerian insurgents.

from the archive

The International Workingmen’s Association publication “To the German People: To the Social Democracy of the German Nation,” illustrates the sentiments supported by the Paris Commune. Several phrases in the document, such as “ally of all free peoples” and “proclaim the Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity of all peoples” indicate that the Commune supports those who fight for freedom and believes in freedom and equality for all.9 Their ideals, however, seem highly contradictory given how deported Communards sent to a penitentiary in New Caledonia interacted with incarcerated Kabyle and Kanaks, imprisoned for taking part in Algerian revolts against French colonial rule. As Plaetzer states, “their revolutionary universalism remained largely bounded by…white ignorance…[a] barrier that…communards were unable to overcome.”10 Therefore, “To the German People” directly contradicts the lack of support and sympathy that Communards demonstrated towards the Algerian revolts.

The Algerian revolts occurred largely due to anti-colonial sentiment and a desire for independence from colonial rule. A specific example is the Mokrani uprising which, as Plaetzer states, “also operated through a claim to universality.”11 Moreover, both the Paris Commune and Algerian uprisings were violently suppressed resulting in many Communards and Algerian insurgents being massacred. The Communards and Algerians who survived the massacres ended up incarcerated in the same penal colony of New Caledonia.12 Although both groups had similar sentiments regarding freedom and universality, the Communard’s largely contradicted themselves by withholding support for the Algerian revolts.

Although some deported Communards did show solidarity with Kanak individuals during the New Caledonia uprising in 1878, majority of Communards continued to “maintain a protective façade of civilization.”13 Therefore, the significance of “To the German People,” is that it prompts one to question whether individuals of the Paris Commune could truly preach ideals of universalism and “proclaim the Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity of peoples” when confronted with the events that transpired in Algeria and the penal colony of New Caledonia.14

  1. International Workingmen’s Association. “To the German People: To the Social Democracy of the German Nation.” The Paris Commune 1870.

2. Niklas Plaetzer, “Decolonizing the ‘Universal Republic’: The Paris Commune and French Empire,” Nineteenth Century French Studies 49, 3-4, (2021): 587. DOI: 10.1353/ncf.2021.0027

3. Alice Bullard, “Self-Representation in the Arms of Defeat: Fatal Nostalgia and Surviving Comrades in French New Caledonia, 1871-1880” Cultural Anthropology 12, no. 2 (1997).

4. International Workingmen’s Association; Plaetzer, 587.

5. Plaetzer, 588.

6. Bullard, 200.

7. Bullard, 200.

8. Bullard, 205.

9. International Workingmen’s Association, “To the German People: To the Social Democracy of the German Nation.” The Paris Commune 1870.

10. International Workingmen’s Association.

11. Plaetzer, 593.

12. Plaetzer. 595.

13. Plaetzer, 590.

14. International Workingmen’s Association.

further reading

Delnore, Jaye Allison. “Empire by Example? Deportees in France and Algeria and the Re-Making of a Modern Empire, 1846-1854.” French Politics, Culture and Society 33, no. 1 (2015): 33-54.

Delnore examines Algerian colonial rebels and Parisian men and women who had been deported for participating in the “Bloody June Days” in 1848. Although this occurred years before the Paris Commune in 1871, this article also details how events in Paris and the colonies were connected as Parisian’s were sent to Algeria and Algerians were sent to France.

Nicholls, Julia. “Deportation, Imperialism, and the Republican State.” In Revolutionary Thought after the Paris Commune, 1871–1885 (Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 209-38.

Nicholls explores the reactions of former Communard’s to the increase in imperialism in the French Third Republic from the 1870s until the 1880s. She also discusses how these individuals analyzed and perceived empire and imperialism and the role it played in their thoughts and beliefs.

Nicholls, Julia. “Empire and Internationalism in French Revolutionary Socialist Thought.” The Historical Journal, 59 no.4 (2016): 1051-1074.

Rather than focus on the deportation of Communards to New Caledonia to study the relationship between the Paris Commune and imperialism, Nicholls chooses to explore the ideas of ex-Communards on empire and colonialism from 1871 until 1885. She argues that the deportees remained indifferent to imperial concerns and focused on gathering ideas while in exile to reignite the revolutionary movement.

3 thoughts on “empire

  1. Great article. I was interested in how the French communards could already have racist views toward Algerians and Kabyle people, but then also develop a more intense sense of French nationalism once deported to Kanak territory in New Caledonia.

    A slight suggestion I might have would be to make it a little more obvious or clear that Kanak people are Indigenous to New Caledonia and Kabyle people to Algeria. Although it is indicated at the beginning of the article, people unfamiliar with the territories and peoples might lose track if they don’t pay close attention at the start.

    I think the following sentence also might have meant to say ‘prejudiced perspectives on the Algerian insurgents’ (of the French communards):

    “The colonial uprisings that fought for freedom and autonomy the same way members of the Commune had in Paris could not gain the support of deported Communards solely based on racialized and prejudiced perspectives of the Algerian insurgents.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post! I’ve often wondered whether the racial boundary is softened in the empire as a result of constant interaction between white and nonwhite persons. I wonder if the punitive and carceral structure of engagement that the Communardes encountered in penal colonies contributed to their realignment with French culture and, well, freedom….


  3. Rianna, you do a nice job of analyzing the contradictions in Communard politics within the context of empire. Your essay makes clear the importance of examining the Commune’s relationship to imperialism, and what it reveals about issues of race within the era’s racial politics.


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