Recently, Richard Cohen published a column in the Washington Post outlining the ways in which Newt Gingrich misuses historical concepts to validate conservative tropes of socialism and secularism within discussions of some of the Obama administration’s programs—the “secular-socialist machine.” In Cohen’s commentary on “socialism” and “secularism” and how they apply to the current U.S. political discussion, he wrote that “[i]f Gingrich wants to see what secularism looks like, he should read a history of France. There, a suffocating state religion produced a nasty sort of secularism that on May 24, 1871, resulted in the execution of Georges Darboy, no less than the archbishop of Paris.” Although Cohen is correct to highlight that the lines between secularists and the church were much more sharply drawn in France than they are in the U.S., his overall use of the execution of archbishop Georges Darboy is problematic—it assumes a prescribed “state religion” during the Paris Commune and fierce laïcité as the catalyst for the execution; not violence during a chaotic period and the greater social and political context.
Georges Darboy was appointed archbishop of Paris in January 1863 under Napoleon III's Second Empire. During the Paris Commune (18 March 1871 – 28 May 1871), along with other “enemies,” which included those of opposing ideological and political persuasions, he was jailed. However, it was not until the final week of the Commune—one of the bloodiest, most chaotic, and most violent periods in French history—that Archbishop Darboy was executed. Priests were the only civilian group taken as hostages during the Commune, and twenty-four of the one hundred twenty arrested were killed. These killings highlight the anticlericalism of the left in Paris (and the anticlericalism of much of the nineteenth century French left) but the archbishop and others were not killed simply because of their positions within the church. The final week of the Paris Commune was a highly charged, desperate situation, and Cohen’s overly simplified rendering of the killing of Darboy does not pay close enough attention to the very complicated social and political context. The execution of Darboy resulted more from the extreme situation in which the Communards found themselves, than it did from any sort of “state religion.” Additionally, although secularization was one of the Commune’s central cultural objectives, it is very difficult to make a claim that “secularism” was state-sponsored or a state religion at that time. The separation of church and state in France did not officially happen until 1905.
Cohen’s quote also seems to inextricably link “socialism” and “secularism” with the Paris Commune—a tie that cannot be easily made if one thinks beyond the standard Marxist narrative of the period. It has been argued that the Paris Commune does not easily fit the Marxist interpretation because, among other reasons, the term “proletariat” does not accurately describe the typical Communard. During the Second Empire, industrial modernization and the expansion of the building trade that occurred as a result of Georges Hausmann’s redevelopment of Paris created a large skilled work force. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether or not the Communards considered themselves a “socialist” institution. Much of the language used by the Communards and used in the Declaration to the French People of 19 April focuses on politics, not economics.
Richard Cohen’s quote implies that the Republic (in this case the newly formed Third Republic, which had only recently had elections for its first National Assembly) created a “nasty sort of secularism” that lead to the execution of Archbishop Darboy. This reading, however, is not accurate. His use of Darboy’s execution to highlight what “secularism looks like” conflates “anticlericalism” with “secularism” and ignores the historical context of the event— most notably the violence during the last week of the Paris Commune and that the commune functioned under a separate governmental structure than that of the Third Republic. It is correct for Cohen to point out Gingrich’s misuse of history, but he himself ought to more closely stick to the record.