The Paris Commune – a flash in history

Josef Albers, Duo K, 1958
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By CAIO NAVARRO DE TOLEDO*

An unprecedented political experience

 “The corpse is buried, but the idea is still standing” (Victor Hugo).

The first workers' revolution in world history lasted only 72 days (March 18 to May 28, 1871). In line with the revolutionary attempts of 1830 and 1848 in France, the Paris Commune was, at first, a spontaneous popular revolt against anti-popular social measures, the prohibition of political freedoms and the harsh military repression imposed by the Government of National Defense, formally republican, instituted on September 4, 1870, shortly after the overthrow of the imperial regime of Napoleon III.

Although insufficiently armed, starving and suffering from disease and epidemics, the workers, together with the National Guard, did not hesitate to defend Paris and France against the invading Prussian army of the Bismarck government and to fight at the same time the government of “national betrayal”, represented by the policy of the chief executive (Adolphe Thiers), and of the National Assembly (recently elected and with a monarchist majority). The seizure of the government of Paris (Hôtel de Ville) by workers and soldiers of the National Guard – preceded by a heroic popular uprising in the streets (March 18, 1871) against troops loyal to Versailles – represented the inaugural act of The Paris Commune; ten days later, March 28, it will be officially proclaimed, with the election of the Commune Council.

An unprecedented political experience

The Paris Commune of 1871 will continue to be the object of reflection and inspiration not only for the significance of its achievements but also for what the generous social expectations and political ideals it aroused represent. The fearless political action of men and women in Paris, in the short period of 72 days, was unprecedented in world history; in the heat of the moment, Marx wrote that the Paris insurgents, because of the boldness and determination of their actions and objectives, launched an authentic “assault on heaven”. Or, as the Communards themselves said: there “they were for humanity”.

In March 1871, for the first time in social and political history, workers and popular sectors – to the scandal and hatred of the ruling classes and their ideologues – dared to lay the foundations of a more just, egalitarian and radically democratic society. The short experience of the Commune sought to materialize invaluable values, ideals and slogans of workers' struggles of all times: substantive (non-formal) political democracy, fraternity, solidarity, sexual equality, internationalism.

Although brief, the democratic experiment of the Paris Commune gives rise to numerous lessons. The Commune is still fully up to date and is a relevant political-ideological framework for the reflection and practice of all socialists.

The first proclamation of the Commune is decisive for the definition and qualification of a truly democratic government: for the Communards, the members of the Municipal Assembly should be under permanent surveillance and control by the voters and the population in general. In this sense, those elected to the Commune could have their positions revocable and should be required to account for their actions.

The affirmation of popular sovereignty was therefore affiliated with the Constitution of 1793, which had proclaimed the “right to insurrection” as “the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties” of citizens. In turn, the condemnation of the delegation of power and the autonomy of public bureaucracy followed in the same direction. Public officials should also be controlled for their administrative actions and responsibilities.

The permanent army was suppressed and a National Guard replaced it as an authentic “people in arms”, since, according to a decree, “all valid citizens were part of the National Guard”; the National Guard also began to elect its own officers and non-commissioned officers. In turn, the new police forces, of a republican nature, ceased to have a repressive role against the workers and poor population of the city.

Constant pressure was exerted on the leaders of the Commune: by trade unions, by neighborhood organizations, by different clubs created, by women's commissions, by sections of the International: in principle, one could speak of a true "ministry of the masses". A concrete episode illustrates well the character of this incipient popular democracy. The bakers – who addressed the General Council of the Commune in order to thank the abolition of night work – were warned by the newspaper the proletarian: “The people do not have to thank their representatives for fulfilling their legal obligations; People's delegates do not do favors, they fulfill duties”.

In short, it was, therefore, a democracy in the strong sense of the term; a “direct democracy” in which citizenship should be fully, intensely and actively exercised. Its limit, however, was its reduced geographic extension (restricted to the plan of a city) and its extension in time. For 72 days, the city of Paris experienced perhaps the most vigorous and consistent democratic experiment that has ever existed in modern social and political history.

The social and economic achievements

The Commune's innovations went beyond the political plane; it materialized at the social and economic level, insofar as it reached the ownership of companies. Under the influence of the workers' unions and the committees of the “Women's Union”, cooperative workshops were created and it was proposed that companies be self-managed. The associated workers, by means of a decree, began to manage the companies abandoned by the bosses who fled from Paris. The minimum wage was instituted; the work of minors was prohibited; the collection of rent debts was postponed; the furniture, domestic utensils and work instruments, previously pawned, were returned to the workers and poor petty bourgeoisie. A shift from bourgeois democracy to popular and workers' democracy was taking shape.

Denying the secular and deeply rooted male chauvinism, women played a decisive role in the Commune: in the creation of workers' cooperatives and women's associations that acted in the reform of education, in pedagogical work and day care centers, in health services, in publishing newspapers and informational pamphlets; many of them went beyond the limits traditionally imposed on the “weaker sex”, because, with weapons in hand and behind the barricades, they defended the libertarian experience of the Commune. In this sense, it can be said that this pioneering feminist movement understood that the struggle for women's emancipation could not be dissociated from the essential claims defended by other oppressed categories and secularly exploited social classes.

The Commune also innovated by breaking with hateful chauvinist prejudices, as it allowed many foreigners to play relevant political and military roles. Another decisive experience occurred in the field of education. Public, free and secular education was instituted; republican ideals began to be practiced in the daily lives of citizens. Political and civil liberties, finally – made a concrete reality for the population of Paris as a whole – showed that the emergence of a “government of the people by the people” was possible. With the exception of conservative historiography, few interpreters question the fact that, until now, few modern States have managed to approach the proposal of popular democracy that was being outlined in the Paris Commune of 1871.

A “Declaration of Principles” of 20 districts of Paris perhaps summarized the ideals of the Paris Commune: “There will be no more oppressors and oppressed, an end to class distinctions between citizens, an end to barriers between peoples. The family is the first form of association and all families will unite in a bigger one, the homeland (...) and this one in a superior collective personality, humanity”.

Final considerations

For 72 days such ideals and expectations were intensely lived by the majority of the population of Paris, particularly the workers. In turn, throughout the European continent, workers and popular sectors had their hearts and minds turned to the Commune. In Paris, a radically transformed society seemed to emerge, in which socialist values ​​and ideals could, for the first time in history, be realized.

Certainly, the Commune was not a socialist revolution. However, as historian Ernst Labrousse has pondered, “the Commune … was to a large extent a workers' power. The Commune did not bring socialism, it did not launch this solemn proclamation that history could have accepted. But if it didn't bring socialism, it carried it within itself. It carried it by nature: by the men who composed it, by the questions it raised (…) It was nothing more than a flash in history”. (In: “Debate on the Commune”, Revista Marxist Criticism, vol. 13, 2001).

In order to defeat the social and political experience represented by the Paris Commune – which revealed the historical possibility of the political and economic emancipation of workers in the capitalist order – the ruling classes of France, strongly supported by Bismarck's Prussian invading army, employed the most brutal physical violence in the destruction of the communal experience. The numbers are eloquent: four thousand men, women and children, during the “bloody week” (23rd to 28th May), were killed in the streets, behind the barricades, and in the shelters where they had taken shelter. Over the next few days more than 20 were summarily executed. Ten thousand managed to flee into exile; four thousand were deported to Algeria, then a French colony in Africa. Among the 38 prisoners tried in January 1875, 1.054 were women and 615 were children under 16. Only 1.090 (out of a total of 38) were released after interrogations.

During the bloody repression, in the USA, an editorial in a New York newspaper, in an impeccable way, summarized the hatred and political determination of the dominant classes around the world in relation to the Paris Commune: it is imperative that Versailles “turn Paris into a mountain of ruins, that the streets turn into rivers of blood, that all its population perish; let the government maintain its authority and demonstrate its power, let Versailles utterly crush – whatever the cost – any sign of opposition in order to teach Paris and all France a lesson that may be remembered and enjoyed for centuries to come.” (Quote displayed in the film The Paris Commune, by Peter Watkins)

The “lesson” that the ideologues and sycophants of the dominant classes wanted to impose on the workers would not be “used for centuries” to come. The “lesson” that the proletarians and their allies, in the following decades, learned about the Commune was another. In October 1917, a proletarian Revolution, to a large extent, aimed at the exemplary case of the Paris Commune. Lenin, one of its most lucid leaders, thus interpreted the Communard experience: “the memory of the combatants of the Commune is exalted not only by the French workers but also by the proletariat of the whole world, because the Commune did not fight only for a local or national objective. narrow, but for the emancipation of all working humanity, of all the humiliated and offended”.

The generous ideals and goals of the Paris Commune did not materialize. Extremely adverse conditions and mistakes made by the leaders of the Commune may explain the defeat. It is not the case to mention and discuss them in this brief text. Without mythologizing the event or commemorating it under the dimension of comforting nostalgia, it is to be recognized that the struggle “in defense of humanity” is still fully relevant and follows its course in history.

In the words of the author of The miserable, “The corpse is buried, but the idea is still standing” (“Le cadavre est à terre, mais l'idée est debout”). The values, ideals and objectives of the Commune will continue to stand and live as long as the iniquitous and oppressive structures of the capitalist and imperialist order prevail throughout the world. A historical flash represented by the Paris Commune of 1871 will always be a reason for reflection, reference and inspiration for those who fight for the radical transformation of the capitalist order around the world.

* Gaius Navarro of Toledo is a retired professor at Unicamp and member of the website editorial committee marxism21. He is the author, among other books, of Iseb: Factory of ideologies (Attica).

Article originally published on the website marxism21.

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