PARIS — It is the misfortune of revolutions to be misunderstood. The significance of the 50 Days of Beijing is yet to be known because its ultimate importance lies in how the future will interpret what happened, and in the consequences that follow from this extraordinary episode.
The most powerful political myth of the late 19th Century was that of the Paris Commune--another case where a city was taken over by its people in defiance of a government, only to have government attack and reconquer. The myth of the Commune affected radical intelligentsia of the time and influenced Vladimir I. Lenin's decisions in the Russian Revolution. Yet that myth was distant from the Commune's reality. The myth, not the Commune, altered history.
When Beijing students occupied Tian An Men Square it could be seen as one of those crystalline moments of spontaneous community, when idealism is incarnate and society seems open to transformation.
This was crushed; but nothing was finished. The 50 Days, even in failing, made a fundamental change. Whatever comes will be affected. The result may be distant: For example, what is now happening in the Soviet Union may have its origin in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Interpreted then as a shattering defeat for Hungarians, it may have planted a potent seed of doubt in the minds of a Soviet elite.
The real effect of such an event emerges from the needs of those who follow, as well as the manipulation of the myth by those who exploit it. In China, the government is doing all it can to refute the notion that the 50 Days were an instance of political innocence. China's leaders understand how dangerous such a myth is. But they cannot control an idea that has acquired global autonomy.
Consider the Paris Commune. Its myth is closer to Beijing's reality than to the actual events of 1871. The myth is of spontaneous liberation and anarchical cooperation--as with the Chinese students who wanted "something perfect." In fact, Parisians in 1871 wanted self-rule. Their demands were more practical than ideological. According to contemporary election results, Parisians were not particularly radical, or even leftist.
The city's citizens resented Paris' lack of self-government and were bitter about the incompetence of the national government that launched a war against Prussia and then lost. The people capitulated only after a four-month siege of the city. They had seen the coronation of a Prussian emperor at Versailles. They regarded the National Assembly, which had accepted surrender and indemnities, as anti-republican.
When trouble broke out between the Paris militia and the regular army, the government fled to Versailles and the Parisians organized. "Commune" was the name chosen by the newly elected municipal council--it referred to the idea of federal government by localities, or communes, not the theory of communism.
Historian Theodore Zeldin wrote that the Commune's "main preoccupation was to feed and defend itself . . . . It had no time to institute, let alone to try out, any far-reaching reforms." Those it did adopt included ending fines in workshops and night work in bakeries. Pensions were given to the common-law wives of men killed in the war. There were gestures at school reform and church was separated from state. Cooperative factories were organized. Socialism was much discussed but little implemented. Appealing to the peasantry outside Paris for support, the Commune offered property--houses and land, with freedom from taxes.
It ended in muddle and death--radicalization when the army attacked, eventually a Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, bloodshed and murder as the army retook the city. Nearly 40,000 Parisians were arrested, 17,000 executed, 5,000 deported.
The myth of the Commune was--for the left--one of spontaneous popular organization, precocious communism, vicious counterrevolution. Lenin's shroud was a Communard flag. For the right, the myth meant radicalism, anarchy, murder. These two myths embittered French politics for decades and contributed greatly to the ideologizing of European politics that gave the world totalitarianism. We are only now getting over it.
A contemporary wrote of Paris, after the army had retaken the city: "The soldiers themselves are silent. Victorious, they are sad; they do not drink or sing. Paris has the atmosphere of a city taken by dumb men." It sounds like Beijing today; and the Chinese are only at the beginning of their ordeal.