On the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune
This article is dedicated to all those who will turn their guns on their officers
‘We revolutionaries aren’t just chasing a scarlet flag. What we pursue is an awakening of liberty, old or new. It is the ancient Communes of France, it is 1703; it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most especially it is the next revolution on which is advancing under this dawn.’ Louise Michel
‘The Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of “governmental” politics as on the level of their everyday life.’ Situationist International
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. This momentous event marked the spectacular and agonising beginning of the period in which the working class has made consistent attempts, through revolutions around the world, to break with the system of exploitation and inequality and to usher in a new society and a new civilisation based on equality and freedom. The forms of organisation developed by the Parisian masses, be they artisans, workers, unemployed, artists and writers, youth and children, women and men, are demonstrated again and again in the revolutions that were to break out throughout the twentieth century and into this one. They are the heralds of a new way of organising socially and of behaving honourably and nobly towards each other. They are an inspiration to all those who wish to clearly break with this society of corruption, brutality, and of the most despicable and venal apologies for human beings running the show. As Louise Michel one of the finest and most magnificent revolutionaries who ever drew breath was to remember of those communards she had survived: ‘To those who in falling, have opened so wide the gates of the future, through which the revolution will pass!’
After the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the adventures of Napoleon III, France was defeated by Prussia. The Prussians advanced to the outskirts of Paris. The National Guard, a sort of home army/militia supported by public subscription refused to countenance the surrender of artillery to the Prussians, as connived at by the new republican government that had replaced the old imperial regime. This government sent in troops to regain the artillery. They were confronted by a crowd that refused to relinquish the guns situated on the heights of Montmartre. The officers barked out orders to fire on the crowd but the soldiers refused and turned their guns on their officers on March 18th 1871. This was the birth of the Paris Commune.
Free elections called by the National Guard followed. They elected a council made up of a majority of old style Jacobin revolutionaries (harking back to the 1789 Revolution) and a minority of working class socialists, mostly left-wing Jacobins, influenced by Auguste Blanqui and those under the sway of Proudhon, who had envisaged a more libertarian and federalist form of organisation. The Commune of Paris proclaimed Paris to be autonomous and called for the creation of a confederation of communes throughout France. The Commune itself was, in theory, recallable, and paid an average workers’ wage. It had a mandate to report back to those who had elected it. At the same time, a whole host of clubs and associations in the Paris neighbourhoods began to develop, concerned both with the administration of the local areas and with visions of how a new society should operate. The anarchist movement, which was developing at this point in history, was enthused by this, as its thinkers had predicted just such a development. The Russian anarchist Bakunin commented at the time, ‘Revolutionary socialism has just attempted its first striking and practical demonstration in the Paris Commune’. The Commune called for the re-opening of workplaces run in a cooperative fashion and by May 1871, forty-three workplaces were operating in this way. The Engineers Union voted at a meeting on 23rd of April that since the aim of the Commune should be ‘economic emancipation’ it should ‘organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility’ in order ‘to suppress the exploitation of man by man.’ Similarly Marx and his followers hailed the coming of the Paris Commune. Marx was to write that the Council of the Commune ‘was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town.’ This majority in the final days of the Commune voted to establish a Committee of Public Safety which would act to defend Paris against the advancing counter-revolution. Those of a more libertarian bent within the Commune opposed this arguing against the dictatorship of this ‘majority’. As the anarchist Kropotkin noted, the Paris Commune did not ‘break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organisation from the simple to the complex it inaugurated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of the Communes… if no central government was needed to rule the independent Communes, if the national Government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal Government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the Commune’.
The Paris Commune faced two ways: backwards towards the old ways of functioning of the 1789 Revolution, with its centralisation, authoritarianism and terror; and forwards to a libertarian, decentralist and humane way of functioning. The old ways as represented by the central administration of the Commune hindered and crippled the new ways as represented in the clubs and associations that had developed at the grassroots level. The State was not abolished and representative government remained in place. As Kropotkin was to note, ‘instead of acting for themselves . . . the people, confiding in their governors, entrusted them the charge of taking the initiative. This was the first consequence of the inevitable result of elections’ with the central council acting as ‘the greatest obstacle to the revolution’. He went on to note that, ‘immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continual contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre – the people – they themselves paralysed the popular initiative’. In addition, again according to Kropotkin, the central council, ‘treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune . . . But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the blood-thirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular Commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field’. The council of the Commune become more and more isolated from the people who elected it, and thus more and more irrelevant. And as its irrelevance grew, so did its authoritarian tendencies, with the Jacobin majority creating a ‘Committee of Public Safety’ to ‘defend’ the ‘revolution’. The Committee proved to be inept and ineffectual and in practice was ignored by the Parisian masses as they fought to defend their gains against the armed forces of the French government which had advanced on Paris. On May 21st, government troops entered the city, and seven days of fierce street fighting followed. The army and armed units of the upper classes roamed the streets, shooting down batches of Communards, women, men and children. At least 30,000 people were killed in the street fighting, many executed after they had surrendered. Their bodies were thrown into mass graves, some of them still alive. Many fled into exile, whilst many others were imprisoned for long periods of time. The appalling massacre of the aftermath of the Paris Commune left deep scars in French society which still exist today. The Paris Commune was the preface to whole chapters of revolution. Let the final words soon be written and let the gates swing wide for the birth of a new, free and fair society!
The above is an updated version of an article written in 2011 by a member of the ACG in 2011, when he was still in the Anarchist Federation. It was originally written to mark the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune.