The Paris Commune – a possible alternative

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Two Whites Between Two Yellows, 1958


The Paris Commune changed workers' consciousness and their collective perception

The burghers of France had always achieved everything. Since the Revolution of 1789, they had been the only ones to get rich in times of prosperity, while the working class had to regularly bear the brunt of crises. But the proclamation of the Third Republic would open new horizons and offer an opportunity to reverse this course. Napoleon III had been defeated and captured by the Germans at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870.

National elections were held, and Adolphe Thiers was appointed head of the executive branch, with the support of a large Legitimist and Orleanist majority. In the capital, however, where popular discontent was greater than elsewhere, radical republican and socialist forces were successful. The prospect of a conservative government that would leave social injustices unchanged, willing to place the burden of war on the most disadvantaged and seeking to disarm the city, triggered a new revolution on March 18. Thiers and his army had little choice but to escape to Versailles.

The Struggle and the Government

To ensure democratic legitimacy, the insurgents decided to immediately hold free elections. On March 26, an overwhelming majority of Parisians (190.000 against 40.000 votes) voted in favor of the candidates who supported the revolt, and 70 of the 85 elected representatives declared support for the revolution. The 15 moderate representatives of the left from maires [party of mayors], a group formed by former presidents of some districts [districts], resigned immediately and did not join the Commune council; shortly afterwards, four Radicals joined them.

The remaining 66 members, who were not easily distinguished due to dual political affiliations, represented a wide variety of positions. Among them were close to 20 neo-Jacobin republicans (including the renowned Charles Delescluze and Felix Pyat), a dozen supporters of Auguste Blanqui, 17 members of the International Working Men's Association (including mutualist followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and collectivists close to Karl Marx, often at odds with each other) and a couple of independents.

Most of the Commune leaders were workers or recognized representatives of the working class, and 14 came from the National Guard. Indeed, it was the Commune's central committee which invested power in the hands of the Commune – the prelude, as it turned out, to a long series of disagreements and conflicts between the two bodies.

On March 28, a large number of citizens gathered in the vicinity of the Hôtel de Ville to commemorate the installation of the new assembly, which was officially named the Paris Commune. Although it lasted no more than 72 days, it was the most important political event in the history of the labor movement in the XNUMXth century, reviving the hope of a population exhausted by months of hardship. Committees and support groups for the Commune sprang up in popular neighborhoods, and every corner of the metropolis was the scene of initiatives to express solidarity and plan the construction of a new world. Montmartre has been called the “citadel of freedom”.

One of the most common feelings was the desire to share with others. Activists like Louise Michel exemplified the spirit of self-abnegation. Victor Hugo wrote that she “did what great free souls do. … She glorified the crushed and oppressed.” But it was not the impetus of a leader or a handful of charismatic figures that brought the Commune to life, its main hallmark was clearly its collective dimension. Women and men voluntarily united to carry out a common project of liberation. Self-government was no longer considered a utopia. Self-emancipation was seen as the essential task.

The transformation of political power

Two of the first emergency decrees to stem rampant poverty were the freezing of rent payments (it was said that “property should contribute its share of sacrifices”) and the sale of items of less than 20 francs by pawnshops. Nine collegiate commissions were also to replace the ministries of war, finance, general security, education, subsistence, labor and trade, foreign affairs, and public services. A little later, a delegate was appointed to head each of them.

On April 19, three days after by-elections to fill 31 seats that became almost immediately vacant, the Commune adopted a Declaration to the French people which contained an “absolute guarantee of individual freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of work”, as well as “the permanent intervention of citizens in common affairs”. He asserted that the conflict between Paris and Versailles “cannot end through illusory compromises”, and the people had the right and the “obligation to fight and win!”.

Even more significant than this text – a somewhat ambiguous synthesis to avoid tensions between the various political tendencies – were the concrete actions through which the Communards they fought for a total transformation of political power. A set of reforms that addressed not only the modalities, but the very nature of political administration.

The Commune ensured the revocability of elected representatives and control of their actions through binding mandates (although this was by no means sufficient to resolve the complex issue of political representation). Judiciary and other public offices, also subject to permanent control and the possibility of removal, should not be arbitrarily assigned, as in the past, but decided following a contest or open elections.

The obvious aim was to prevent the public sphere from becoming the domain of professional politicians. Political decisions were not relegated to small groups of officials, but had to be taken by the people. Armies and police forces would cease to be institutions separate from the body of society. The separation of church and state was also a condition sine qua non.

But the vision of political change went even deeper. The transfer of power into the hands of the people was necessary to drastically reduce bureaucracy. The social sphere had to prevail over politics – as Henri de Saint-Simon had already argued – so that politics ceased to be a specialized function and became progressively integrated into the activity of civil society. The social body would thus resume functions that had been transferred to the state.

Overthrowing the existing system of class domination was not enough, class domination as such had to be extinguished. All of this would have shaped the Commune's vision of the republic as a union of free, truly democratic associations, promoting the emancipation of all its components. It would have contributed to the self-government of the producers.

The priority of social reforms

The Commune considered social reform even more crucial than political change. It was the Commune's raison d'être, the barometer of its loyalty to its founding principles, and the key element that differentiated it from the revolutions that preceded it in 1789 and 1848. The Commune passed more than one measure with a clear class connotation.

Deadlines for debt payments were postponed for three years, without any additional interest charges. Evictions for non-payment of rent were suspended, and an ordinance allowed the requisition of empty dwellings for people without a roof over their heads. There were plans to shorten the working day (from the initial ten hours to eight hours in the future), the widespread practice of imposing illicit fines on workers simply as a wage reduction measure was prohibited under penalty of sanctions, and minimum wages were fixed at a respectable level.

As much as possible was done to increase the food supply and reduce prices. Night work in bakeries was prohibited, and several municipal meat warehouses were opened. Social assistance of various kinds was extended to more fragile sectors of the population – for example, food banks for abandoned women and children – and discussions were held on how to end discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate children.

Todos os Communards they sincerely believed that education was an essential factor in individual emancipation and in any serious social and political change. School activity should become free and compulsory for girls and boys alike, with religiously inspired instruction giving way to secular teaching along rational and scientific lines. The specially appointed commissions and press pages presented many compelling arguments for investing in women's education. To become a genuine 'public service', education had to provide equal opportunities for 'children of both sexes'.

Furthermore, “distinctions on grounds of race, nationality, religion or social position” should be prohibited. Early practical initiatives accompanied such advances in theory, and in more than one borough thousands of working-class children entered school buildings for the first time and received free school supplies.

The Commune also adopted measures of a socialist character. He decreed that workshops abandoned by employers who had fled the city, with guarantees of compensation on their return, be handed over to workers' cooperative associations. Theaters and museums – open to all free of charge – were collectivized and placed under the direction of the Federation of Artists, which was presided over by the painter and tireless activist Gustave Courbet. Around 300 sculptors, architects, lithographers and painters (among them Édouard Manet) participated in this organization – an example considered in the founding of a “Federation of 'Artists'” that brought together actors and people from the world of opera.

All these actions and provisions were introduced in just 54 days, in a city that was still suffering from the effects of the Franco-Prussian War. The Commune was only able to do its work between March 29th and May 21st, in the midst of a heroic resistance to the Versailles attacks which also required a great expenditure of human energy and financial resources. As the Commune had no means of coercion at its disposal, many of its decrees were not applied uniformly across the vast area of ​​the city. However, they revealed a remarkable effort to reshape society and pointed the way to possible change.

A collective and feminist struggle

The Commune was much more than the actions passed by its legislative assembly. He even aspired to redesign the urban space. This ambition was demonstrated by the decision to demolish the Vendôme Column, considered a monument to barbarism and a reprehensible symbol of war, and to secularize certain places of worship, handing them over for use by the community.

It was thanks to an extraordinary level of mass participation and a solid spirit of mutual assistance that the Commune persisted as long as possible. The revolutionary clubs that sprang up in almost every districts played a noteworthy role. There were at least 28, representing one of the most eloquent examples of spontaneous mobilization.

Open every night, they offered citizens the opportunity to get together after work to freely discuss the social and political situation, see what their representatives had achieved and suggest alternative ways of solving everyday problems. They were horizontal associations, which favored the formation and expression of popular sovereignty, as well as the creation of true spaces of brotherhood and fraternity, where everyone could breathe the intoxicating air of control over their own destiny.

In this emancipatory trajectory there was no place for national discrimination. Commune citizenship extended to all those who fought for its development, and foreigners enjoyed the same social rights as the French people. The principle of equality was evident in the prominent role played by three thousand foreigners active in the Commune. Leó Frankel, a Hungarian member of the International Workers' Association, was not only elected to the Commune's council, he also served as its “minister” of labor – one of his key positions. Likewise, the Poles Jarosław Dąbrowski and Walery Wróblewski were generals at the head of the National Guard.

Women, although not yet entitled to vote or to participate in the Commune council, played an essential role in criticizing the social order. In many cases, they transgressed the norms of bourgeois society and asserted a new identity in opposition to patriarchal family values, going beyond domestic privacy to engage with the public sphere.

The Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded, whose origins owed in large part to the tireless activity of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, a member of the First International, who was centrally involved in identifying strategic social battles. Women achieved the closure of licensed brothels, gained parity between male and female teachers, coined the motto “equal pay for equal work”, demanded equal rights in marriage and the recognition of free unions, and promoted exclusively female chambers in trade unions.

When the military situation worsened in mid-May, with troops from Versailles at the gates of Paris, the women took up arms and formed a battalion of their own. Many breathed their last on the barricades. Bourgeois propaganda subjected them to the cruelest attacks, calling them “the arsonists” [“les petroleuses”] and accusing them of having set fire to the city during street battles.

Centralize or decentralize?

The true democracy that Communards sought to establish was an ambitious and difficult project. Popular sovereignty required the participation of as many citizens as possible. From the end of March, Paris witnessed the multiplication of central commissions, local subcommittees, revolutionary clubs and battalions of soldiers, which accompanied the already complex duopoly of the Commune council and the central committee of the National Guard.

The latter had maintained military control, often acting as a real counterpower to the council. While the direct involvement of the population was a vital guarantee of democracy, the multiple authorities at play made the decision-making process particularly difficult and meant that the implementation of decrees was a convoluted affair.

The problem of the relationship between the central authority and local organizations has led to a number of chaotic, sometimes paralyzing, situations. The delicate balance was completely broken when, faced with the emergency of war, indiscipline within the National Guard and the growing inefficiency of the government, Jules Miot proposed the creation of a five-person Public Security Committee, in line with Maximilien's dictatorial model. Robespierre in 1793.

The measure was approved on May 1, by a majority of 45 to 23 votes. It was a dramatic mistake, which marked the beginning of the end of a new political experiment and split the Commune into two opposing blocs.

The first of them, composed of neo-Jacobins and Blanquists, leaned towards the concentration of power and, ultimately, towards the primacy of the political dimension over the social one. The second, including a majority of members of the International Working Men's Association, regarded the social sphere as more significant than the political. They considered that a separation of powers was necessary and insisted that the republic should never call into question political freedoms.

Coordinated by the indefatigable Eugène Varlin, this last block brusquely rejected authoritarian drift and did not take part in the elections for the Committee of Public Safety. In his opinion, the centralization of powers in the hands of a few individuals would categorically contradict the founding postulates of the Commune, since its elected representatives did not possess sovereignty – which belonged to the people – and did not have the right to grant it to a particular body. .

On 21 May, when the minority again took part in a session of the Commune council, a new attempt was made to build unity within its ranks. But it was already too late.

The Commune as synonymous with the revolution

The Paris Commune was brutally crushed by the armies of Versailles. During the bloody week, the bloody week between 21 and 28 May, a total of 17 to 25 citizens were massacred. The last hostilities took place along the walls of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. A young Arthur Rimbaud described the French capital as “a dismal, almost dead city”. It was the bloodiest massacre in French history.

Only 6 managed to flee into exile in England, Belgium and Switzerland. The number of prisoners captured was 43.522. One hundred of these received death sentences after summary trials before military courts, and another 13.500 were sent to prison or hard labor, or deported to remote areas such as New Caledonia. Some who went there sympathized with and shared the fate of the Algerian leaders of the anti-colonial Mokrani revolt, which had erupted at the same time as the Commune and which had also been drowned in blood by French troops.

The specter of the Commune intensified anti-socialist repression across Europe. Overlooking the unprecedented violence in the Thiers state, the conservative and liberal press accused the Communards of the worst crimes and expressed great relief at the restoration of "natural order" and bourgeois legality, as well as satisfaction at the triumph of "civilization" over anarchy.

Those who had dared to violate authority and attack the privileges of the ruling class were punished in an exemplary manner. Women were once again treated as inferior beings, and the workers, with dirty and calloused hands, who had dared to claim to govern, were ushered back into the positions for which they were deemed better suited.

And yet the insurrection in Paris bolstered workers' struggles and forced them in more radical directions. The day after his defeat, Eugène Pottier wrote what was destined to become the most celebrated anthem of the labor movement: “Let us all unite, and tomorrow / The International / It will be mankind!” [“Groupons-nous, et demain / L'Internationale / Sera le genre humain!🇧🇷

Paris had shown that the aim must be to build a society radically different from capitalism. Henceforth, even if “the time of cherries” [The cherry season] (to quote the title of the famous lines from the commonard Jean-Baptiste Clément) never returned to its protagonists, the Commune embodied the idea of ​​sociopolitical change and its practical application. It became synonymous with the very concept of revolution, with an ontological experience of the working class. In The Civil War in France, Karl Marx declared that this “vanguard of the modern proletariat” had succeeded in “uniting the workers of the world to France”.

The Paris Commune changed workers' consciousness and their collective perception. 150 years later, its red flag continues to fly and remind us that an alternative is always possible. Vive la Commune!

Marcello Musto is a professor at the University of York (Toronto). Author, among other books, of the old marx (Boitempo)

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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