Black storms – federalism and internationalism in the Paris Commune

Josef Albers, Variants, 1942


Commentary on the book by Alexandre Samis.

Alexandre Samis had already published Cleveland: anarchism, syndicalism and political repression in Brazil (Imaginário/Achiamé, 2002) and My homeland is the whole world: Neno Vasco, anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism in two worlds (Free Letter, 2009) before dark storms (Hedra, 2011). This route helps to understand, in part, why the latter constitutes a landmark in historical studies about the Paris Commune.

The work's rigor in dealing with the object is so great that the Frenchman René Berthier – the book's preface and specialist in the classics of socialism – was surprised: “European readers like me are confronted with an approach to which they are not accustomed. ”; the approach of a Latin American “who provides us with his reflections on historical events that we used to consider as strictly French, or European”.

Wallace dos Santos Moraes, professor and researcher, adds: “in short, the book is today the main reference on the study of the Paris Commune ever published in the country”. Such comments are certainly motivated by the wide range of information and arguments presented in the book, in addition to the fundamental theses developed by the author.

Opposing the widespread thesis that the Commune was just a patriotic reaction of the French people against the armistice signed in relation to the conflict with Prussia, Samis defines it as an episode of self-institution of the working class, with roots in the developed federalism within the French popular movement and the International Workers Association (AIT), which was also responsible for boosting the internationalism of social struggles.

The proof of this genealogy of the Commune underlies the structure of the work, which is divided into three major parts. The first, about France in the context of 1848, deals with the crisis, the revolution and the June Days, highlighting the workers' struggles and Proudhon's thought. The second, about the AIT, broadly discusses this experience of the workers that became known as the First International, passing through its congresses and highlighting its main debates.

The third, longer and more detailed, has the Paris Commune as its central object and emphasizes the struggle and the new power established by workers in Parisian neighborhoods, in addition to their representation in government. commonard. It begins with the situation prior to March 1871, dealing with the development of the AIT in France, the Franco-Prussian War and the Lyon Commune, and goes on to the clashes between the rebels and the forces of order and the bloody repression that followed, passing through for the wide range of experiences, which involved labor, decision-making, military, educational, artistic, gender organization aspects, among others.

In the conclusion, the author highlights his fundamental theses, which will be substantiated below.

At least since the 1820s, the French working class has accumulated significantly through the founding of mutual aid societies, economic associations and the carrying out of strikes; such a repertoire, which demonstrated both his ability and his strength. Among the innumerable experiences that accumulated in this sense, the insurrections of the canuts lionesses, silk weavers who, in 1831 and 1834, led uprisings with economic motives that soon became political, putting the alliance between bosses and government in check.

These experiences of canuts served as a basis for the theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; the French socialist, through a dialectical movement, insofar as he was nourished by these experiences of the working class, returned his intellectual production to the class as a whole. The central element present in the French working class – driven by mutualists since 1828, apprehended and theorized by Proudhon, and which, as Samis demonstrates, will have a first-rate impact on the Paris Commune – is federalism.

Federalist practices implied, from their inception, the strengthening of workers' base associations and, through autonomy, their organization around economic needs; advanced over time, even proposing the overcoming of the State and capitalism by revolutionary means and the establishment, “from the bottom up”, of socialism: “Proudhon [...] saw in the economic autonomy of the working class, only possible through control of productive units (factories, workshops, etc.), and in political emancipation, through federalism, therefore against the State, the safest ways to achieve socialism. As a result of this thought, he also rejected the models derived from primitive Jacobinism, the political centralization in the form of the State and the economic subordination carried out by the same, even under the argument of 'popular sovereignty'. Such a conception, he denounced, would be the 'top-down' revolution. He advocated 'bottom-up' revolution. […] For Proudhon, federalism was the possible organic expression of workers' management, its political corollary, the framework that would allow the flow of exchanges and relationships in society whose property statute would become collective due to the transformations operated by workers . […] Proudhon’s federalism was, so thought, inseparable from the class struggle and the overthrow of the capitalist system.” (pp. 71-72; 93-94).

This dialectic relationship between the practices of the French working class and their theorization in Proudhon's work allowed, in 1864, sectors of the French working class, largely influenced by federalism, together with sectors of the British working class, to found the AIT in London. Through its development, made more evident in congressional discussions – Geneva (1866), Lausanne (1867), Brussels (1868) and Basel (1869) –, Samis demonstrates how the influence of the federalist sector, which also incorporated internationalism, prevailed as the hegemonic ideology of the association, at first through mutualism, and later through collectivism, spread, among others, by Mikhail Bakunin.

Through an attentive discussion of the AIT congresses, Samis evidences this development, marked by the radicalization and organic growth of the association, which did not happen without intense disputes between the currents; both between federalists and centralists, and within the federalist camp itself. In general lines, it can be said that in the first two congresses (Geneva and Lausanne) the federalist proposals prevailed, driven by the mutualists, who defended the structuring of the AIT in federated sections, which should be articulated in offices, composed of grassroots delegates with revocable mandates; In strategic terms, these congresses opted for the promotion of production, consumption and credit cooperatives, together with secular, scientific and professional education.

In the two following congresses (Brussels and Basel) the predominance of the Federalists continued; however, it was collectivists, not mutualists, who drove most decisions. The creation and strengthening of resistance associations, strikes and struggles for the reduction of working hours are encouraged; an open struggle against capitalism is assumed, with the aim of ending inheritances and establishing collective property and socialism, which should be based on existing federalist practices. According to Samis, the congressional decisions of the AIT gave it, over the years, an anti-authoritarian, federalist form: “both mutualism and collectivism constituted specific historical forms of the same anti-authoritarian and federalist tradition present in the French labor movement” (p. 150).

In 1871, the Paris Commune incorporates, as Samis demonstrates, a whole repertoire of the French working class that is consolidated in the deliberations that opt ​​for the abolition of the classic division between the three powers, the establishment of a type of federalist “popular power” – emanating from of the worker bases that were in the neighborhoods and articulated by a federated structure of revocable political delegations – and the organization of executive commissions: War, Finance, General Security, Education, Subsistence, Justice, Labor and Exchanges, Foreign Affairs and Public Services.

Among the numerous achievements of the Commune, which benefited the working class, the following stand out: the replacement of the regular army by citizen militias, the separation of Church and State, the abolition of religious cults, the measures concerning work and place of residence ( reduced working hours, salary adjustments and equalization, end of fines, delivery of workshops and abandoned buildings to workers), concession of credit with reduced interest rates, moratorium on debts, return of pledged items, gratuity for public schools, secular and polytechnic education, reorganization legal, confiscation of real estate, protagonism of women and artists.

This new power established by the French working class from the neighborhoods – which made possible the broad achievements of the Paris Commune in its brief 72 days – evidenced a radicalized democracy, built by the people themselves, with no place for bureaucracy. According to Samis: “The Parisian experience provided the opportunity for a glimpse of a new form of political ordering of society. The delegation, which enabled the revocation of mandates, the circumscription of the vote to the neighborhoods, as well as the permanent interference of worker-voters in the daily affairs of public administration, ways of instituting another political culture through practice, had left evidence that the suffrage universal was, to say the least, a timid institution in the face of the demands of popular democracy. […] The new power, based on radical democratic mechanisms, among which the revocability of delegated ownership stands out, in addition to the institution of direct political power in the districts, proved to be hostile to bureaucratic permanencies.” (pp. 351; 354).

The thesis supported by the author in relation to the form of this new power, constituted along clearly federalist lines, is that, despite the greatest political force within the Commune being that of the Jacobins and Blanquists, the revolutionary socialists – certainly influenced by the AIT, which at that time it had 35 sections in France, among which Eugène Varlin stood out –, largely due to the aforementioned accumulation of the French working class, they saw their positions in the Commune spread much more generally than those of the centralist opponents. Samis emphasizes, quoting Bakunin, that, in the Paris Commune, “the majority 'were not exactly socialist'”, but “ended up being dragged along 'by the irresistible force of things'”; “it remained for the Jacobins and Blanquists […] to accept the radicalization of the process towards socialism.” (p. 340).

This process, in which the class as a whole and its repertoire of struggles drew divergent positions and reconciled them around a clearly federalist and internationalist revolutionary project, even involved Karl Marx. As Samis sustains, in another relevant thesis by dark storms, not only did Marx and his work have no influence on the Commune, but The Civil War in France, much more than a link between the past and the future of the German's theories, was characterized as a concession in relation to the reality of the facts: “there is no doubt that the Commune ended up becoming an important point of inflection in the thinking of Marx” (p. 349).

Although Marx was part of the General Council of the AIT, and therefore had the function of corresponding with the sections – among them the French ones –, according to the author, one cannot mechanically associate these contacts with the Marxian influence in the Commune. . The influence of the AIT came, according to Samis, much more from the federalist sector, hegemonic until 1871, than from the centralist sector, of which Marx was one of the main representatives. Finally, this reality of facts constituted by the Commune would put Marx and Bakunin, the greatest representatives of communism and collectivism, on the same side: “The torrent of events, their materiality, dragged the two poles, the collectivist and the communist, into a single vortex. common point. Despite some contradictions, the analyzes did not show antagonism.” (p. 350). The Commune, thus, brought together the admiration and respect of the entire revolutionary socialist camp, and was subsequently claimed by practically all its currents.

Contesting other widespread theses about the Paris Commune, Samis states: “More than the 'last plebeian revolution' or 'the first proletarian revolution', the Commune was an experience of self-institution, an event that has autonomy, not only because of its boldness, but for its singularities. For all that, it became 'a dividing line of times – and, simultaneously, of thoughts, customs, curiosities, laws and languages ​​themselves – establishing a “before” and an “after” that are absolutely antagonistic and apparently irreconcilable. Process in which 'the revolution is a node – simultaneously a result and a mediation for the self-transformation of society to proceed'. It certainly wasn't the end of one cycle, much less the beginning of another; but the frontier, a landmark that does not lend itself to becoming a line of arrival or departure, but which defined in its concrete practices the fundamental elements of popular democracy in the 357th century” (pp. 359-XNUMX).

The Commune, notes the author, cannot be analyzed as a continuation of the revolutionary episodes that took shape during the French Revolution, or in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 in France. Nor can it be considered only as the initial process of the proletarian revolutions of the XNUMXth century. The history of the Commune's antecedents, its legacy of practices that prevailed within the French working class and the development of subsequent revolutions allow us to place it as a link formed from past theories and practices, which would exert significant influences on future theories and practices. .

Through Castoriadis' concept of self-institution of the class, Samis demonstrates that the Commune constituted a revolutionary process that placed the working class at the helm of the class struggle, consciously acting for its own benefit and threatening the domination structures of French society, the from the construction of a new model of power, forged by federalism – a true “popular democracy”.

dark storms it constitutes, finally, a central historical reference for studies on the Paris Commune. In addition to the theses already espoused, the methodology used by Samis stands out, which insists on a story built from the bottom up. It is this reason that distances the book from the historical views constructed in the opposite direction, which make the reading, in the case of the Commune, from those who theorized about it or even from the political instance established as the government commonard. Analyzing this episode from top to bottom would be, in the words of the author himself, to rob the Commune of what is most brilliant about it. The book will certainly contribute to deepening the historical and sociological studies of this very relevant episode in the struggle of French workers in the XNUMXth century.

*Felipe Correa he is a university professor, researcher and editor; he runs the Institute of Anarchist Theory and History (ITHA). He is the author, among other books, of Black Flag: re-discussing anarchism (Prisms).


Alexandre Samis. Black Storms: federalism and internationalism in the Paris Commune. São Paulo, Hedra, 368 pages.


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