Another review of “Rabble!”
From Robert (“Bob”) Kolodney in Washington DC, Harvard classmate and active leader of reading groups.
Geoffrey Fox does a marvelous job of making the 19th Century come alive through participants in the ill-fated Paris Commune of 1871.
Following the French loss in the Franco Prussian War, there was a brief chance for working class Parisians to organize themselves into a system that exercised the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood in a meaningful way. Fox portrays the struggles of his characters to make their ways in life at a time when life was hard for most people, when the contrasts in living conditions between the upper class and nascent bourgeoisie and everyone else were extreme. The Second Empire ended with Louis Napoleon a prisoner of war, but the government which succeeded him was not sympathetic to the rights of the common people and suppressed the commune with great brutality..
Soldiers themselves were little more than cannon fodder at that time when new technology was starting to make war particularly savage. It was also a time when printing facilitated political struggles and was even starting to enable books to reach the masses; in “Rabble” we see this evolution through journalists, an apprentice bookbinder, and two idealistic women who founded a school.
In a sense this book is a study of what can happen when there is a political vacuum in a police state, because the lives of Fox’s characters are constrained and controlled by the government and by a rigid social system to a remarkable extent. It took a long time for communism to take hold, but the characters in Rabble are aware of the activities of the first international workers’ movement and the thinking of Karl Marx that animated it.
Unfortunately, in our days of the “unthinkable” Russian War in Ukraine, human nature doesn’t seem to have improved, and despite all of the experiences of the 20th century, the characters who people Rabble, could probably teach us many valuable lessons.