It’s September, the sky is blue over the Communist suburbs of Paris, and revolutionary music is pumping from every speaker in Georges Valbon Park in La Courneuve. Someone was making a killing on Che Rebel Spirit energy drink, for which I developed a taste. It packed a big caffeine punch.
The French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français, or PCF) was holding its annual Fête de l’Humanité, a three-day bash to raise money for its daily newspaper. The PCF was a powerful force in France well into the 1970s—sometimes the largest party on the left in national elections. In 1977, at the height of its influence, it controlled 147 municipalities in the Paris urban area. After the Berlin Wall fell, its electoral support collapsed.
Originally, the fete was just for party members and sympathizers. In the 1960s, they flung open the gates to show that Communists were just normal folk. The strategy paid off: it was the music, not the Marxism, that got the crowd hopping. The organizers waved good-bye to the poncho-wearing panpipe player and created a major music festival—one attended, this year, by 600,000 people, many of whom camped outside the park. This year’s attractions included the Molotov Brothers and Skunks’n’Noses.
It’s a culinary festival, too: all of the Party’s 95 departmental federations and local cells have stands offering regional gastronomy. In the Village du Monde, Marxist groupuscules show off Marxist international cuisine, which is just like international cuisine, beneath posters of political prisoners.
I stopped at a booth where they were selling hand-blown Palestinian glassware and asked the revolutionary manning the till what Communism meant to him. He looked unsure, and then said that it was about being different. “You can be a bourgeois, or you can think differently,” he said.
“But I don’t have a choice,” I said. “Marx says I am a bourgeoise.”
“Well, you choose to be. That’s your choice.”
The fete also featured exhibitions, lectures, and debates, including “May 68: The Inexpressible Hope,” “Paris Against Uberization,” and the debut of a cartoon book called The Rich on Trial, about “the naked oligarchy unleashed by Macron’s presidency.” In the children’s section, kids learned to program robots and “crayon cooperatively.” There was a book village; a forum where one could struggle against sexist, homophobic, and transphobic comportment; a booth where one could learn to have an eco-orgasm; and a sports village where, “under the banner of solidarity,” the games—from chess to Zumba—had been “diversified and made accessible to all.”
Leftist luminaries like economist Yanis Varoufakis were expected to attend. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party’s 2017 presidential candidate, had already shown up. France’s most prominent leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, was boycotting the festival, owing to LFI’s feud with the PCF.
I had come with my Franco-American friend Arun, who’d been to the fete a few times in his salad years. We brought our young Turkish-American friend, Esin, who is cynical about revolution, after years working on the Syrian border with an NGO that tries to “strengthen efforts in Syria to build a peaceful and inclusive future.”
La Courneuve is part of the Red Belt, a ring of Parisian suburbs traditionally run by the PCF. When Baron Haussmann renovated Paris in the nineteenth century, he sought to expel from the city center “les classes dangereuses.” Factories later grew outside Paris, and the state erected behemoth public-housing complexes for their workers. This completed the segregation of les classes dangereuses, increasingly made up of immigrants, trapping them in poverty for generations. These decisions were made at the highest levels of government, so the PCF cannot entirely be blamed for La Courneuve’s miserable condition. Nonetheless, it is miserable. According to ville-ideale.fr, its “positive points” are its vast park (ideal for running), its diplomatic-affairs archive, and its proximity to public transportation. Its negative points include incessant crime and vandalism, the stench of the sewers, the ugliness of the project housing, and infernal noise from the scooters and motorcycles.
None of this was notable, though, as we joined the crowds approaching the fete. Clearly, no one from La Courneuve was invited: a ticket at the gate cost 45 euros. Esin and I hadn’t realized that it would be so expensive. Arun was embarrassed. He had banked on finding scalpers. “Usually, there are militants here who sell cheap tickets,” he grumbled. A few approached us, but their prices were too high. A ticket gave you access to all three days, but we were there only for one afternoon, so it seemed ridiculous to pay full price.
“I don’t understand their business model,” Esin said. “Why wouldn’t they have access to cheaper tickets?” She was worried about being scammed.
“Don’t ask questions,” the scalper said.
“If I don’t understand the business model, I’m not buying them.”
We figured it out after watching. The scalpers found other people who just wanted to go for a day as they were on their way out of the festival, bought their tickets, and then sold them to people like us.
“Why don’t the organizers just sell day passes?” Esin said. “You’d think they’d make more money that way.” The place was mobbed.
“Why would they?” I said. “They’re clearly not having any trouble selling them at full price.” Arun was vexed. “Don’t worry about me,” I said at last. “I can expense it.” I figured my ticket would become a cherished collectors’ item at City Journal.
As I waited for Arun and Esin to get their wristbands, I began my research. “Are you a Communist?” I asked a French Territorial Army soldier standing watch on the interior of the fairgrounds. There were two of them, with a few more outside, and they were the only sign I saw that the state took any interest in the event. A harried, roly-poly man with a few wisps of blond hair and ruddy cheeks stood at the gate, wearing a yellow vest that said “Sécurité,” but he’d been privately contracted by the festival. Maybe there were plainclothes cops inside, but I didn’t spot them. The ticket price provided the security, really. If you could afford it—plus the 40-odd euros you’d inevitably spend on Rebel Spirit energy drinks, Humanity Candles hand-poured by marginalized Guatemalan women; ResistⒶnce! and Nous sommes les 99%! T-shirts, hoodies, and tank tops (sweatshop-free, ethically sourced); videos, books, and a lobster with fries for whom the Revolution came too late—you’re not a serious threat to public order.
The soldier’s face creased into a droll smile. “What does Communism mean?”
“Well, that’s what I want to know.”
“I’m neutral. I’m neither for nor against it,” he said, keeping an eye on the crowd.
“Well, what do you think about the French Revolution?”
This question interested him more. “It was necessary. Without it, we wouldn’t be where we are. It got rid of the ancien régime. But they had a revolution and then they colonized Africa, non?” His accent suggested that he had grown up in or near Paris. I didn’t ask where his parents or grandparents were from. I don’t ask rude questions of men who are clearly there to remind me that the state has a monopoly on violence. The two soldiers carried the French territorial army’s standard-issue rifle, the FAMAS. They were friendly, but they, alone, among that vast crowd, looked as if they’d given the idea of killing—efficiently, in large numbers—some thought.
Arun and Esin finally got through the lines and to the Agora of Humanity, where we agreed to meet if we were separated. Next to the Agora stood a massive Che Rebel Spirit energy drink stand. I was thirsty. “Consumed iced, or mixed in revolutionary cocktails, Che Rebel Spirit perfectly combines that ‘Rebel’ feeling with a unique and ‘Delicious’ taste,” said the brochure. “Be the first to discover a new REBELICIOUS energy drink!”
“What does Communism mean to you?” I asked the guy restocking their coolers. He gave me a big shrug, a wide smile, and said what most people did: aucune idée—absolutely no idea. So I asked the kid who sold me an icy Rebel Spirit. “It’s being against capitalism,” he told me. He also told me that the Perrier would be a euro, or I could have Evian for 50 centimes. Or guarana juice: 1.50 euros. Three kinds of beer were on tap, but I wasn’t sure about the toilet situation, so I decided to pass.
Che’s face was on posters, drinks, T-shirts, and tattoos, but Castro was invisible. So was Stalin. So, for that matter, was Lenin. Che was the man. The real Che would have executed everyone at the festival.
We wandered past the Lutte Ouvrière stand. Arun told me that I should make a point of speaking to them. They were a hardcore Trotskyist sect, he said, whose members need the Party’s authorization to marry and have children. Permission was rarely granted, for fear that it would detract from activism.
The two young guys manning the Lutte Ouvrière stand were earnest, warm, and starved for female companionship. The music was so loud that we had to get very close to hear each other. “There’s a crisis of capitalism,” said the first one, as well-fed people walked by, taking selfies to post to Instagram.
I asked the obvious questions: Stalin, Mao, North Korea, gulags, famines, slavery.
“No—for us, Communism has nothing to do, nothing, with those regimes. They were bloody caricatures of a Communist regime.”
“So what does it mean to you to be a Communist?”
“To be a Communist means to defend the idea of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society by the proletariat, to build a world led by the population itself.”
“Isn’t that what they said?”
“Yes, but they didn’t do it.”
“Why do you think you’d do better?”
“It wasn’t the right time—they didn’t have the right kind of society for it yet.”
“Is there any successful model for the kind of Communism you have in mind?”
He shook his head—not yet. “But we can’t keep going this way. Unemployment, economic crises, famine, wars, the exhaustion of resources . . . how can this be?” He was sensitive to suffering.
I made the points I make to everyone, including myself, when I think about the world’s pain. Absolute poverty has massively declined, not risen. Life expectancies have risen. We’ve mastered many epidemic diseases, and we will cure more. All this was because of, not despite, capitalism. Capitalism was the natural human state, I said to him. It was what people did, normally. The only way to stop people from behaving that way was through massive repression—this is why the revolutions were “hijacked.”
“No, it can’t be our natural state. Everyone knows this is wrong.”
“What about the terrible disrespect for the dead, though, when you use all this Communist stuff?” I asked, pointing to the books at his stand with their hammer-and-sickle logos. “Why not stop calling yourself a Communist, and call yourself something else? No one is going to want to hear your ideas for improving the world if you call yourself a Communist. No one wants gulags.”
“Because, no, the idea was right. Marx was right about class conflict, about capitalism’s internal contradictions. You can’t improve capitalism. All you can do is maybe make it bearable enough that the Revolution doesn’t come right away. But you can’t fix it.” Marx was too compelling to abandon. History was unfolding just as he predicted.
“What did Marx say about the Internet?”
“Good question, yeah? Yeah, he didn’t predict that. Right.”
The music was so loud that I could communicate only by getting close and shouting. Otherwise, I would have asked the Trot to come with me to the China booth to see if he could help me figure out why the Chinese believed so firmly that they had had a Communist revolution.
The China booth had mega-screen televisions showing scenes of Chinese parks. They sold panda trinkets and key chains. No one seemed interested in them. I asked a woman selling panda trinkets whether she’d like to teach me about the philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party. “No, no,” she said apologetically. “I don’t know anything about it. I work for the festival.”
North Korea had no booth.
There were quiet areas for lectures and discussions, but the energy didn’t seem to be there; it was in the open field, where the massive crowd was rocking out to the sound of Manu Le Malin. Soon to come, according to the program, was Soviet Suprem: “Soviet Suprem and their dancing revolution are ready to Party! Get ready for a Molotov cocktail of rock, electro, and punk that will leave you with no choice but to salute the stage!”
Almost everyone at the festival seemed to grasp that this was all absurd—that it was impossible to tell where parody began and ended. A glowing-eyed Trotskyist sold me a glass of guarana juice. “But what about the collective farms?” I asked him, beneath a blaring speaker. He had a beautiful smile with perfect white teeth, spiky black hair, and a paunch. “Yes, they will be magnifiques!” he beamed, bouncing to the electro-beats.
Yet some were true believers. “Don’t you see any irony in this?” I asked a young Communist—literally, his T-shirt identified him as a member of the Young Communist Party—working the concessions stand near the concert area.
He gave me a whaddya-gonna-do shrug. “I know. The system is everywhere. We can’t escape it.”
“But why are you trying to? It looks like everyone’s enjoying it.”
“Yes, yes, this is fun, but outside, there are millions of people living in précarité—it can’t go on like this.”
“What’s the alternative to the system?”
“Revolution, of course!”
“When will the Revolution come?”
His eyes grew slightly moist. “It could happen any day. “All of a sudden”—he snapped his fingers, thwap, to show how fast—“people will wake up. They say that before it happens, no one understands how a revolution is possible. But after it happens, no one will understand why it took so long!”
There was no confusion, among anyone I spoke with, about what had happened in Russia, China, and everywhere else that’s had a Communist revolution. The Believers were of one mind: those weren’t real Communist revolutions. The people weren’t ready. They weren’t educated. It was supposed to happen in Germany, not Russia. Wrong place, wrong time. China? “China didn’t even have a revolution,” another Communist told me. “It had a civil war, and the warlord who won called himself a Communist. But China didn’t even have a bourgeoisie.”
They reminded me of the Christian sect members who bet the farm on April 23, packed the kids and the dogs in the car, and drove the family from Maryland to California for the Rapture—only to wake up and discover that the world was just like it was on April 22. The text is inerrant, but the people who read it make mistakes.
Since the Wall fell, the PCF’s platform has changed in almost every aspect. It was once structured as a Leninist revolutionary party. It rejected all criticism of the Soviet Union. After 1994, though, led by Robert Hue, the PCF’s internal organization and ideology were overhauled. Hue rejected the Soviet Union as a “perversion” of the Communist model and unambiguously rejected Stalinism.
In the 1970s, the PCF had vilified homosexuality and feminism as “the rubbish of capitalism.” Now, it stands for gender parity and same-sex marriage. In 1981, the PCF mayor of Vitry-sur-Seine destroyed a refuge for Malian migrant workers because cheap imported labor, he said, was a scam to shaft the working classes. Today, the PCF supports regularizing illegal immigrants.
The one consistency in the PCF’s ideology is its staunch opposition to capitalism, which must be “overcome,” because the “exhausted” system is “on the verge of collapse.” The Party interprets globalization as confirmation of Marx and Engels’s predictions about the inevitable evolution of capitalism, and sees evidence for this in the financial crisis and the Great Recession. It is vague about how capitalism will be overcome and what will replace it, but it fiercely denounces capitalism as leading to “barbarism, domination and hatred,” “savage competition,” and “the devastation of the planet.”
Despite the Communist kitsch, the PCF is essentially conservative—so much so that its members won’t even stop calling themselves Communists. Its members feel sympathy, to be sure, for brotherly movements in foreign lands, but little more than that. Its raison d’être now is to protect established social benefits and traditions in France and to insulate French workers from globalization and technological change. At some level, the Party understands that the real revolution—the one that historians will be debating for millennia—has happened already, in Silicon Valley. The Internet and the smartphone have put all the information in the world in everyone’s hands. The significance of the revolution? Too soon to say. But clearly, it frightens the PCF.
Whenever I asked about the gulags, the reeducation camps, the killing fields, they emphatically denied that their ideology had any connection to that. “We’re not murderers like them—French Communism has never been about murdering people,” said one. He’s right: French Communists have been a moderate force in France, even counterrevolutionary. In May 1968, the Party supported the workers but denounced the revolutionary student movements. Communist-controlled municipalities, according to one 1975 study, spent about 35 percent less than those the other parties controlled.
Communists from abroad who joined the Party here are quite another story. Among them were Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and Enver Hoxha, none of whom entered the annals of history as political herbivores. They stole the revolutions, apparently.
The fete’s biggest attraction really was the food—it all looked so good, it was hard to choose. The Perigord Communists were promoting their terroir with duck breasts, porcini mushrooms, and 1,300 varieties of confit, all 38 tons of it transported from the Dordogne on refrigerated trucks. On Woody Guthrie Avenue, the Communists from Loire-Atlantique were selling oysters by the dozen, accompanied by a glass of Muscadet, and bringing out trays of seafood—lobster, crab, and shrimp—for 60 euros a plate. On Rosa Parks Avenue, the Jura Communists were serving fondue, competing with the Savoie Communists on Karl Marx Avenue, who made their fondue with Savoie tomme. For 30 euros, you could get a Communist entrecôte bordelaise with a foie gras appetizer and cannelés for dessert; the wine, from the nearby stand dedicated to the wines of the region, was separate. It’s a shame that the Venezuelans couldn’t send a representative this year; one would have liked to know more about what they eat.
I listened to part of a panel debate. An Algerian writer, Yahia Belaskri, described his research into the demographic collapse of the colonized Algerian population under the Fourth Republic. I was moved by his description of the cruelty, which is no more a matter of serious historical debate than the cruelty of Communism. Midway through, a young man from the audience walked haltingly to the stage and asked for the microphone. His grandfather, he said, had fought in Algeria—he was a normal man, an ordinary guy, not a monster at all. And “they suffered too, they were machine-gunned,” the young man added. His speech was slightly slurred. He was warmly received. There was an unspoken understanding that the working classes had been pitted against the working classes; there were no heroes or villains in the story. I could see the utility of viewing history this way.
He stumbled off the stage. Esin, who had just sat down beside me, hadn’t heard the speech. “Is he drunk?” she asked.
“No, I think he’s handicapped.”
“Oh.” She rearranged her face to look less judgmental.
It was a warm Indian-summer afternoon. I stopped for a plastic glassful of Liberation Ginger Punch, made, said the man who sold it to me, with hand-grated ginger from Mali. It was too loud for me to ask how flying ginger from Mali to La Courneuve reduced the festival’s carbon footprint.
The PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, deemed a terrorist group by the Turkish government and our own) had at least two booths. The PKK is illegal in France, but we agreed that the French state’s approach—let everyone have their booth, they’re doing no harm—was the right one. There was lots of solidarity with Palestine, Mali, and Algeria. The Turkish and Kurdish Communists got along fine. So did the Moroccan and Algerian Communists. Israelis and Palestinians would have made peace there, had there been an Israeli booth.
I made myself remember the bombs that the PKK had detonated in my neighborhood in Istanbul, and how I hated them for it.
No one at the fete remotely resembled a party to any of the conflicts in question. Everyone looked well nourished, healthy, and French. There was no hint of the blood that had been shed in the name of the revolutionaries whose books adorned the stands and banners. Even the hammers and sickles looked like retro cartoons.
The crowd settled into its cups. One tent, representing the longtime Communist stronghold of Limousin, was playing the Village People: “It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!” Everyone was jumping and dancing.
The sun began dipping on the horizon. A Communist pizzeria was playing “Benalla Ciao”: “Mi son alzato, O Benalla ciao, Benalla ciao, Benalla ciao, ciao, ciao.” A group of happy teenagers came by, belting out the Internationale, a young woman riding piggyback on her comrade’s shoulders. “C’est la lutte finale” . . . . I expected Esin to join me in the chorus. I thought it was an international reflex, like jumping and dancing when you hear “YMCA.” But I realized that she didn’t know the words. “Groupons-nous et demain . . . .”
I told Esin and Arun that they should stay and enjoy the party, but I was getting tired. A little bit of the fete goes a long way. Arun and Esin agreed. They decided to come back with me. The crowds were so thick that it was hard to find the exit. I suddenly realized that Arun was marching determinedly past the Agora of Humanity. “Arun!” I shouted, worried I’d lose him in the crowd. “Come back! We made the revolution.” As I waited for Arun to make the counterrevolution, I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s lines about Universal Civilization: “It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
This was the Universal Civilization. But there was something else. The culture—the equality between men and women, the flirtation, the irony, the sense that it was all an inside joke, the complicity—was unmistakably French. France had taken 600,000 men and women of all ages, sexes, ethnic origins, nationalisms, and murderous political views, thrown them into a park in a suburb everyone knows to be a sewer, and safely policed them with a few men of (probably) West African origin. People had come from every corner of the Empire, and France had turned them all into Frenchmen. Elsewhere, they’d be killing each other briskly, but here they were dancing and reminiscing and eating well, with good local wines. How much more powerful and compelling France was, I thought, as an idea—liberté, égalité, fraternité, gastronomie, ironie—than Communism, which, for all the blood spilled, now means nothing.
On our way out, I saw the same beleaguered security guard in the yellow vest. “You’re still here!” I said with surprise. It seemed a long shift.
“Still here.” He looked exhausted.
“No break? All day? When does the Revolution come for you?”
“Ask the cocos,” he said ruefully, pointing at the tipsy crowd. But they were busy flirting and dancing and singing revolutionary songs. They had forgotten him.
Top Photo: Visitors to the festival’s booths can buy everything from hand-blown Palestinian glassware to Che Rebel Spirit energy drink. (NICOLAS MESSYASZ/SIPA/NEWSCOM)