The Paris Commune: A Contested Legacy. Lessons of The Commune - The Anarchist Federation of Britain

From Organise No.77----Winter 2011.

Submitted by Rory Reid on April 16, 2018

The Paris Commune: A Contested Legacy. The Paris Commune of 1871 and its Impact.

Here Organise! presents two different Anarchist approaches to the Paris Commune, which flowered briefly one hundred and forty years ago, in the Spring of 1871. The first[the present article below], whilst acknowledging that the Commune was an important lesson in early socialism, warns us not to fall into the trap of fetishising historical events and evaluates what was achieved in the light of subsequent anarchist thinking.

Lessons of the Commune

The Paris Commune of 1871 was an exciting time for the workers’ movement and provided valuable lessons for the class struggle after its fall. However, whilst the event was spectacular and many social reforms occurred and were adopted by the Third Republic that followed it, a lot of it has been exaggerated for lazy historical propaganda purposes to supposedly prove that socialism is possible through these means.

As social anarchists we should analyse it without fantastical generalisations so that we may draw upon the Lessons of the Commune experience of the workers during the Commune and gain understanding for our own future struggles. It does us no good to overstate the importance of any revolutionary event.

The backdrop to the insurrection was the Franco-Prussian war and the German siege of Paris, 1870-1, during which period France underwent a Republican coup deposing Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, ending the Second Empire which had lasted since 1852. A hushed up election in February 1871 brought to power unpopular monarchists and conservatives who signed for peace with Prussia. From this period the National Guard, the organised militia formerly under the command of the French Republic, gained in strength and infl uence and held onto the arms provided to it for the defence of Paris during its siege. By the 3rd March, the proletarian battalions of the Guard, angered by the attempted triumphal entry into their city by the Prussians defected from the government of Adolphe Thiers to form its own Central Committee with elected commanders. This dual military power would not do for the government.

Thiers sent in battalions of regular troops to disarm the Guard on 18th March. Parisian workers famously resisted at Montmartre in the north of the city, where an attempt to seize the cannon of the Guard was halted after the regular army, fraternising with the Guard and local residents, arrested their generals, Clement-Thomas and Lecomte, and had them shot.

Upon hearing of the insurrection, the order was given for the evacuation of the city, although some regular battalions chose to remain. The Guard was not united in its support for the insurrection, however. As a commander from one of the thirty bourgeois battalions had put it to the old commanding officer on the eve of the insurrection, ‘The National Guard will not fight against the National Guard’.

Thus, the Central Committee took provisional control of the city and made plans to organise elections to the Commune, which were held on 26th March. In the few weeks before the Commune was put down, in what came to be known as the ‘Bloody Week’ (21 - 28 May), progressive transformations took place in social, economic and political relationships. But the insurrection was fragile, not least in military terms.

After an agreement was made with the Prussians to release French prisoners of war to aid in the re-capture of Paris, the French army entered from the west of the city taking each district one by one. Workers erected barricades to defend themselves and the Commune executed a few of its hostages in desperation including Georges Darboy, the archbishop of Paris. As the soldiers retook Paris, known and suspected communards were arrested, whilst others swept through the city setting fire to important buildings to hinder the re-occupation of the city by the state.

Those that survived Bloody Week were put on trial. Many were executed whilst others were imprisoned or exiled to New Caledonia. It is unclear how many communards were murdered and executed; the fi gures range from 5,000 to 50,000. Many ex-communards escaped and sought asylum in countries like the USA, Britain and Belgium and continued their political struggle there.
Amnesty was not granted until 1880.

The influence of existing political forms

The 18th March is hailed as the date of the insurrection and has many similarities to the beginnings of subsequent revolutions such as that of Russia 1917, Spain 1936 and Hungary 1956, in that they were spontaneous proletarian events reacting to the conditions capitalists in power had imposed upon them. They were neither planned, nor sparked by the propagandising of political organisations. Mass membership of political organisations was merely representative of the already-existing desire for social, economic and political transformation of society.

In the case of Paris 1871, a report to the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) by the Corresponding Secretary for France on the General Council, Auguste Serraillier, stated that the International was in disarray, its organisation weak and unwilling to act as an association in some cases. It should be noted that the IWA in France was largely of the Proudhonist tradition, being mutualists who believed they could make capitalism irrelevant through supposedly ignoring, undermining and fi nally supplanting the state and business.

The French section was not in a position to exert much political infl uence anyway. The International constituted less than one-third of the political Commune; Jacobin bourgeois republicans, conservative ve and oppositionist held the rest of the seats. Anarchist communists hold that you cannot escape capitalism: it must be abolished. But the Commune overlooked the necessity for the seizure of political power from the bourgeoisie.

Achievements and limitations of the Commune.

This is not to say that the social revolution occurring in 1871 would have inevitably failed simply because the IWA were a minority faction in the political Commune. A strong desire for socio-economic change was held by the population as a whole.

It must be kept in mind that the Commune was a living, and therefore continually developing, example of class struggle and important social questions were being raised in the proletarian quarters of the city as well as by their ‘representatives’ in the political Commune. It was because of the grassroots desire for change that the political Commune enacted its decrees around social reform.

But the political Commune was ultimately built on the legality of the old regime and on the old republican traditions which had dominated French revolutionary thought. It was itself a bourgeois republic, albeit more decentralised. For instance, the Central Committee of the National Guard, originally intending to hold elections to the Commune on 22nd March, had to delay until the 26th after negotiations with the old mayors of Paris who ran the voting lists and had the authority to call elections.

Workers’ cooperatives and economic life

One of the major reforms that leftists and revolutionaries point towards was the April 16th decree requiring that abandoned factories were to be handed to the ‘cooperative association of the workers who were employed in them.’ But in reality, this was compatible with capitalist economics. Worker/producers’ cooperatives exist to this day and are not exempt from being exploiters themselves.

L’Ouvrier de l’Avenir, a newspaper of the time, reported 50 workers’ cooperatives, mainly within the skilled trades, existing in Paris in the weeks before the March insurrection.Indeed, the Government of National Defence, which took over authority from Napoleon III when he was deposed, encouraged the setting up of workers’ cooperatives during the Siege of Paris, through the handing out of large contracts to textile workers to make uniforms for the French army.

During the Commune, attempts were made to seek out the private owners in order to compensate them for the loss of their factory after its expropriaƟ on, and in some cases, the private owners worked hand-in-hand with the cooperatives, receiving rent, lending equipment and offering business advice to the management of these cooperatives.

Although the formation of forty three worker cooperatives is sometimes quoted, there were only two of significant size: the Société Cooperative des Fondeurs en Fer (Cooperative Society of Iron Founders) and the Association des Ouvriers de la Métallurgie (Association of Metalworkers). The latter had its munitions factory in the Louvre. The former had already been set up the day before the 16th April decree at a public meeting of iron founders, and so was not the result of the political Commune itself. The society was in fact set up with the support of the War Delegation on for the purpose of producing armaments for the National Guard, as were many of the other cooperatives founded during this time.

Even though the iron founders received a requisition order for a factory, they chose not to expropriate it from its former master but to rent it from him. The chief organiser, Pierre Marc, was a business owner of eight years standing and was selected to the role because he knew how to run a business. The average wage in the factory was half of what it was before the Commune and half that of the workers in the association at the Louvre.

Even there, the metalworkers’ demand for a wage increase for dangerous work in the front line was rejected; the cooperatives could not compete with private firms for contracts unless they became exploitative themselves. The fact that cooperatives were still employing the wage system as a means of distribution shows their limitation in socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange.

When on the 19th May the Labour and Exchange Delegation called for a meeting of representatives of the cooperatives, only twenty-seven cooperatives were represented out of ninety-three eligible. For the Commune to have been a success, the workers would have had to remove their own political ‘representatives’ and business owners and managers. In a revolution, capitalists and their supporters must not be allowed to re-take any ground. Workers must control and direct the movement of production and distribution within the economy of the new society as a priority and destroy wage slavery and private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Kropotkin also criticised the Commune for failing to expropriate private property, especially factories and the gold that was stored in banks within the Paris city walls, due to ‘prejudices about property and authority’. Many communards seem to have seen economic changes as secondary to political revolution.

However we must learn from the lessons of struggles in the past and see the two as inseparable. The Parisian workers failed to seize their workplaces, control the economy themselves and make irrelevant the power of capital.

Political organisation

While those elected to the Commune were, in theory, recallable, they still had the power to make decisions and were relatively centralized and cut off from the people. They were representatives rather than mandated delegates. The former is familiar to us now; we elect people on the basis of what they say or their declared political allegiance and they then make decisions for us.

Throughout history this form of organisation has led to abuse, corruption and inequality. The latter system, of mandated, recallable delegates is a libertarian form of political organisation. Rather than giving power to make and enforce decisions to a minority, we retain power at a local or workplace level and mandate delegates with the decisions we have made. The delegates are recallable if they go beyond their mandate.

Kropotkin criticised the political organisation of the commune for maintaining a governmental system of representatives, which then became separated from the day-to-day realities of the wider Commune, becoming conservative and paralysed by endless discussion, confirmation of the Anarchist critique of representative systems. However, if representation is the only form of political organisation on experienced or witnessed by the wider class, there is a danger that this is what will be defaulted to during insurrectionary times.

It is therefore vital that we are arguing for, and practicing libertarian forms of organising during these pre-revolutionary periods when we are active in community groups, workplaces, student struggles and tenants’ and residents’ associations, both because they are the best way to organise democratically, and also because this gives confidence and competence in libertarian practices necessary to maintain revolution. In the end, perhaps the biggest problem with the Commune’s political system of representation was its inefficiency.

Only a small number of people were trying to cope with the huge volume of issues, resulting in the representatives being inundated and not able to cope. On the one hand they showed how well ordinary working people can take over the running of things, without needing specialized bureaucrats, but they needed to go further and have autonomous sections of the city run things. Federalism would have been more efficient!

Women and the Commune

Women were involved within the struggle, famously initially confronting the soldiers who had been sent to take back the cannon on the first day. However they faced discrimination both within the Commune and from the victorious Government. Some progressive policies were adopted by the Commune, notably establishing day nurseries, raising the salary of women teachers to be equal to that of male teachers and improving availability and accessibility of education for girls and women. However the commune was too short lived for these initiatives to be brought to fruition and women’s inequality was only partially addressed.

While men gained their suffrage, this wasn’t the case for women. Some women had an active part in the defence of the commune, for example in Place Blanch where one hundred and twenty women erected and defended a barricade. However, the role of women was largely one of domesticity and care, many working as nurses, such as within the Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Care of the Injured. Most women were kept away from the barricades and front lines, but others acted as cantinières, whose official role was to cook, feed and nurse the male troops, although some also fought alongside the men. After the fall of the commune, misogynistic attitudes within Paris and France were exploited in order to discredit the communards with descriptions of ‘petroleusses’ - women setting fire to buildings, to argue why order needed to be restored and to justify the horror of the slaughter that followed. Such imagery of ‘unfeminine’ women, which is rooted in sexist attitudes to what female behaviour should be like, has been used at other times to demonise radical movements often with some success even amongst those who are progressive on other issues.This is just one reason why Anarchists must tackle sexism within our wider class. Radical movements often remain macho and male dominated.

Conclusions and lessons

Although much was spontaneous and unplanned, the influence of Proudhon on the communards gave it some libertarian flavour. However events moved so fast, and decisions and structures developed by necessity so quickly, that there was little time for theoretical arguments.Without the previous discussions, and the libertarian and socialist organising that had been taking place within the working class of Paris, which meant that much radical thought was already understood, the Commune may have looked even less progressive.

However there were still many mistakes made, notably allowing a representative political system to emerge and to fail to carry out an economic revolution within the city walls. Both of these errors are easy to spot if you understand Anarchism, but during an insurrection it is too late! It is vital that libertarian thought and ways of organising are understood and familiar to the wider working class in pre-revolutionary times, so that these same mistakes are not repeated.

Memories of assemblies from previous revolutions gave the Parisians inspiration and models that they could draw upon, just as in Russia the experiences of 1905 meant that the concept of forming soviets within workplaces was familiar to the Russian working class in 1917 and forced the Bolsheviks to adopt the Anarchist slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets’ (although obviously this was soon betrayed by authoritarian centralism).

Finally, it is significant that a festive atmosphere apparently flourished within the city during the period of the Commune. This joy, energy, creativity and high-spirits can be felt in many liberated spaces. Emma Goldman argues that culture, festivity, music and of course dancing are an essential part of revolution.

When we are in a space that feels freed from the shackles of capitalism and authority - even just temporarily such as during an occupation – this flowering of creativity contrasts with everyday life and nourishes the feelings of solidarity, affection and comradeship that is both the natural product of struggling together, and it is that which keeps us going during the dark times.