The fire at Notre-Dame de Paris: capitalism is incapable of preserving the heritage of humanity!

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On 15 April, the spectacular images of Notre-Dame in flames were broadcast throughout the world. A powerful emotion seized hold of all who saw it: this cathedral is one of the most beautiful and impressive masterpieces of Paris, a jewel of gothic architecture which took no less than two hundred years to build and inspired so many artists: Victor Hugo, of course, but also the film-maker Jean Delannoy or the anarchist singer Léo Ferré. The flames destroyed the cathedral spire, the work of Viollet-le Duc, and the striking oak roof structure that dates back to the 12th and early 13th century. The sublime architecture of Notre-Dame has nothing in common with the Sacré-Coeur basilica, that pompous cream cake built in a hurry at the summit of Montmartre to celebrate the repression of the Paris Commune and to exorcise the “misfortunes which have desolated France and the misfortunes which perhaps still menace it”[1] in other words, the “odious” proletarian revolution….

The heritage of humanity under threat from the decomposition of capitalism

The fire had not abated before the politicians, with the government at their head, rushed to the scene, or to the TV studios, crocodile tears in their eyes, to follow the example of Esmeralda in their circus acts in front of the cameras. “Tomorrow we will rebuild everything, stone by stone, beam by beam, slate by slate” declared the former government spokesman (and candidate for the mayor of Paris), Benjamin Griveaux.  “Bruising for us all. We will rebuild Notre-Dame” intoned the flamboyant mathematician (and candidate for the mayor of Paris) Cédric Villani. “Everyone in solidarity faced with this drama” cried the euro MP (and also a candidate for the mayor of Paris) Rachida Dati. At the same moment, the mayor of Paris (and candidate for re-election) Anne Hidalgo hugged the head of state, Emmanuel Macron, who had come with somber mien to play his role as father of the nation: “it’s the cathedral of all the French people, even those who have never been inside it”.

No surprise, the bourgeoisie and its media began looking for scapegoats: who was responsible? Who forgot to turn off their soldering iron? Who didn’t check this or that electrical circuit? Others more clearly denounced the flagrant lack of funding, affirming that the preservation of heritage only represents 3% of the 10 billion euros of the Ministry of Culture’s budget – implying that artists, theatres, concert halls (live spectacles in technocratic terms) are costing too much!

But behind these ardent declarations of love at Notre-Dame and the hunt for scapegoats, the cold reality of capitalism remains. In order to ensure that the national capital remains competitive, the state imposes budget cuts wherever possible: education, hospitals, social benefits, culture…Thus, with the exception of the most visited monuments (ie the most profitable, as well as being the ones most damaged by being visited too much), Macron and his consorts are concerned that all these “old stones” are becoming too expensive to maintain. Since 2010, the already ridiculous budget allocated to heritage preservation has been cut by 15%[2]. This year, the government proposes to devote only 326 million euros to conserving or restoring no less than 44,000 “historic monuments”. Happily, the Jupiter-like president has conferred on the chronicler of royalty, now converted into a historian of shoddy goods, Stéphane Bern, the mission of saving the “patrimony of the French”. A lottery and a few polemics later, the TV presenter raised 19 million euros…a drop in the ocean against what’s needed.

The case of Italy is even more revolting. The exceptional heritage of this country is literally on the verge of ruin following massive budget cuts demanded by the crisis and the sharpening of international competition: the archaeological site at Pompeii is in a decrepit condition, the Coliseum of Rome is showing serious signs of fragility, as is the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Monuments which are not on the tourist highway are simply being abandoned. The fire at the national museum of Rio de Janeiro on 2 September 2018 shows the same attitude by the Brazilian state which is directly responsible for the loss of nearly all the 20 million objects housed by the building, including a 12,000 year old human fossil.

All the specialists who have talked about the Notre-Dame fire, art historians, conservators, heritage architects, have told us that there is a cruel lack of funds and a very worrying degradation of monuments. Didier Rykner, the chief editor of La Tribune de l’Art, denounced the lax security measures at historic sites: “there has already been a series of fires like this. The rules about works done on historic monuments were insufficient…a heritage architect told me that his could have been avoided if certain measures had been taken”[3]. The fire at Notre-Dame is by no means an isolated case: “Not long ago I visited the church of la Madeleine. I took digital photos from all angles. The rules were not at all being adhered to. Tomorrow, la Madeleine could also go up in flames”. In 2013, the Hôtel Lambert and its 17th century décor, situated not far from the cathedral on the Isle Saint-Louis, also burst into flames during renovation work. More recently, on 17 March, fire broke out at the Saint-Sulpice church in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Now a new “great debate” has started: was Macron being realistic when he promised the French people that “their” cathedral would be rebuilt “more beautiful than ever” within five years? Should the roofing be rebuilt as it was, in oak, or in concrete, etc.

The barbarism of capitalism deliberately destroys the heritage of humanity

When it comes to making war, the bourgeoisie spits on heritage. Bombing, deliberate destruction and fires…the ruling class doesn’t lack imagination when it comes to pulverizing the “world’s great treasures” (Trump).

When Macron says that “we have built towns, ports, churches” he forgets to add that they have so often been built on the ashes of what other “building peoples” once erected. For example, the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, which is full of extremely beautiful pagodas, was brutally sacked by French colonialism at the end of the 19th century with the blessing of the Catholic church: the Bao Thien monstery (which went  back to the 11th century) and the Bao An pagoda were deliberately burned down in the name of evangelising the native Buddhist population. Between 1882 and 1886, on the ashes of the Bao Thien monastery, the colonialists erected, on the model of Notre-Dame, the very ugly and dominating Saint-Joseph cathedral, a symbol of colonial France, all of it paid for – irony of history – by a national lottery! The Bao Thien monastery represented 8 centuries of history ravaged by the flames of a criminal act of arson by the French republic!

It was the same with the destruction of the old temple and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, razed to the ground by the Spanish conquistadors on the orders of Hernan Cortes, who put up a church which later became a cathedral designed by Charles Quint but which had little in common with Gothic, roman or baroque works of art.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the allies of the democratic camp bombed the city of Dresden, raining a torrent of iron and fire on one of the most beautiful cities of Germany, “Florence on the Elbe”. Dresden had no strategic interest at the military level and was even called the “hospital city” with its 22 hospitals. Nearly 1300 planes dropped incendiary bombs which killed around 35000 victims and entirely destroyed the old city. Democracy at work against fascism! For the victorious bourgeoisie it was a matter of razing big working class cities like Hamburg or Dresden to make sure that there was no proletarian uprising against the barbarism of war (as had been the case in 1918 with the German revolution).

According to UNESCO, the institution which the UN den of thieves has set up to protect “world heritage”, “the degradation or disappearance of so much cultural and natural heritage is an insidious impoverishment of the heritage of all the peoples of the world”. When the UN’s “member states”  are turning the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen, into a field of ruins, when the great democratic powers like the US, France or Britain are involved everyday in the carpet bombing of the planet, all this hypocrisy is sickening. No one was surprised when Trump, president of the world’s top imperialist power, advocated the use of “water bombers” to extinguish the Notre Dame fire[4]

A new campaign for national unity on the ashes of Notre-Dame

It’s up to us, today’s French women and men, to ensure this great continuity of the French nation” declared Macron the day after the fire broke out. To ensure the “great continuity of the French nation”, on the very first evening of the catastrophe, the government called on the “generosity of the French” and set up a “national collection”.

The bourgeoisie has always had its hands in our pockets and has no scruples about setting up a racket which asks for contributions from the citizens in the name of saving this symbol of the French nation. All the “people” of France, both bourgeois and proletarian, must come together around the reconstruction of the cathedral because that is “our destiny” (Macron). And indeed the wealthiest bourgeois families have indeed been outdoing each other to show off their philanthropy.

The bourgeoisie knows how to exploit emotions to launch a nauseating campaign of national unity where all the people of France are urged to share their tears alongside the Catholic church, the big bosses, the politicians from Sarkozy on the right to Melanchon  on the left. When Macron promises to rebuild Notre-Dame, “and I want it done in five years”, there is only one, chauvinist aim: to finish the work before the Paris Olympics in order to put a shine on the “image of France”.

The working class can only base its revolutionary perspective on the real conservation of the cultural, artistic and scientific heritage of humanity, a heritage which capitalism can only continue to destroy or leave to decay bit by bit. For the proletariat, art is not a juicy market or a lure for tourists. Its aim is to build the first universal and fully human culture in history, a culture in which no monument or work of art will be a symbol of national prestige, because the ultimate aim of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against capitalism is the abolition of national frontiers and states. In the communist society of the future, works of art will all be considered as “wonders of the world”, symbols of the creativity and imaginative power of the human species.

In homage to the great artist Leo Tolstoy, Trotsky wrote: “And though he refuses a sympathetic hearing to our revolutionary objectives, we know it is because history has refused him personally an understanding of her revolutionary pathways. We shall not condemn him. And we shall always value in him not alone his great genius, which shall never die so long as human art lives on, but also his unbending moral courage which did not permit him tranquilly to remain in the ranks of THEIR hypocritical church, THEIR society and THEIR State but doomed him to remain a solitary among his countless admirers”[5].

EG, 22.4.19


[1] Alexandre Legentil, one of the initiators of the building of Sacré Coeur, cited by Paul Lesourd, Montmartre (1973)

[4] Trump is such an idiot that he was not aware that dropping so much water on the fire would have produced a thermal shock resulting in the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral.

[5] Trotsky, “Tolstoy, Poet and Rebel”, September 1908,