City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy, London:Michael Joseph,1997; 496pp.
Marge Piercy, born into a working-class family in Detroit, was an activist against the US imperialist war in Vietnam in the 1960s and a self-declared Marxist. Her 1997 book Paris, City of Darkness, City of Light, a novel covering the entire period of the French Revolution, brilliantly depicts life in France at the time from top to bottom.
Piercy says that both modern feminism and modern politics (such as the notions of “left” and “right”) began with the French Revolution, and the book shows how, unlike the English Revolution of a century earlier, the working class women of Paris were a driving force in the many twists and turns of the English Revolution between July 1789 and October 1795. This is a common feature with the February 1917 revolution in Petrograd.
In those days the price and availability of bread was the main problem for the working masses of France, especially in the cities. It was precisely this same problem which led to the first major protest in Petrograd in February 1917, when the women of the Russian capital marched demanding bread.
Another remarkable similarity with the Russian Revolution is that, even before the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, each working class district in Paris had already formed committees and armed militias with banners, commanders and regular drills.
From the beginning of the revolution the working people of Paris established their own district organisations, predecessors of the Russian worker and peasant soviets of 1905 and 1917.
In one episode the militias march to Les Invalides, the home for injured veterans of the endless wars waged by the French kings and nobles, to obtain guns and gunpowder for the storming of the Bastille. The veterans, whose lives had been destroyed as young men in wars which brought nothing but misery for the common people, willingly allowed the militias to help themselves from the armoury.
The book follows the lives of key figures in the revolution including Robespierre and Danton, as well as those of three women who played prominent roles. It brilliantly depicts the cruel and barbaric nature of life for the poor which can still be seen in parts of Africa and Asia today, when women could be treated like slaves, married off to wealthy men or banished to convents.
It also brilliantly recounts the complex shifts in class allegiances as the revolution moved from a united front to bring down the feudal monarchy towards the eventual supremacy of the bourgeoisie over the young republic.
Piercy shows how Robespierre, a victim of his own limited understanding of politics (remember the teachings of Marx and Engels had yet to appear), transitioned from the dangerous underground revolutionary idolised by the working masses to an unwitting agent of the bourgeoisie.
Thus the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women led by Pauline Leon went from the vanguard of the revolution to being crushed by the very same Robespierre Leon had idolised earlier in the revolution.
One fascinating detail is the popular cult which developed around Robespierre, with prints, paintings, mugs and tea towels bearing his image on sale in every Paris market. Another is the bands of fascistic lower middle class thugs the bourgeoisie deployed to terrorise the working class elements in the later stages of the revolution.
Remarkably, Piercy’s account of the various stages of the revolution closely matches the relevant section of the Soviet Short History of the World published in 1974.
For anyone who loves today’s Paris, Pierce’s masterpiece brings to light the vibrant life and culture of all levels of society, while also depicting the barbaric lives of the exploited and crushed rural peasantry.
We all need literature and culture in our lives along with our facts and theory, and this is a superb historical realist novel which helps satisfy that need.