Chapter 24: The “Districts” and the “Sections” of Paris

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Creation of Communes — Their power — Village Communes — Municipal Communes — Commune of Paris — Soul of Revolution — Erroneous conception of Communes — Electoral divisions of Paris — Districts useful for organisation of Revolution — Varied constitution of districts — Germ of Commune — Lacroix on districts — Independence of districts — Link between Paris and provincial towns — Sections become instruments of federation

We have seen how the Revolution began with popular risings ever since the first months of 1789. To make a revolution it is not, however, enough that there should be such risings — more or less successful. It is necessary that after the risings there should be left something new in the institutions, which would permit new forms of life to be elaborated and established.

The French people seem to have understood this need wonderfully well, and the something new, which was introduced into the life of France, since the first risings, was the popular Commune. Governmental centralisation came later, but the Revolution began by creating the Commune — autonomous to a very great degree — and through this institution it gained, as we shall see, immense power.

In the villages it was, in fact, the peasants' Commune which insisted upon the abolition of feudal dues, and legalised the refusal to pay them; it was the Commune which took back from the lords the lands that were formerly communal, resisted the nobles, struggled against the priests, protected the patriots and later on the sans-culottes, arrested the returning émigrés, and stopped the runaway king.

In the towns it was the municipal Commune which reconstructed the entire aspect of life, arrogated to itself the of appointing the judges, changed on its own initiative the apportioning of the taxes, and further on, according as the Revolution developed, became the weapon of sans-culottism in its struggle against royalty and against the royalist conspirators the German invaders. Later still, in the Year II. of the Republic, it was the Communes that undertook to work out equalisation of wealth.

And it was the Commune of Paris, as we know, that dethroned the King, and after August 10 became the real centre and the real power of the Revolution, which maintained its vigour so long only as that Commune existed.

The soul of the Revolution was therefore in the Communes, and without these centres, scattered all over the land, the Revolution never would have had the power to overthrow the old régime, to repel the German invasion, and to regenerate France.

It would, however, be erroneous to represent the Communes of that time as modern municipal bodies, to which the citizens, after a few days of excitement during the elections, innocently confide the administration of all their business, without taking themselves any further part in it. The foolish confidence in representative government, which characterises our own epoch, did not exist during the Great Revolution. The Commune which sprang from the popular movement was not separated from the people. By the intervention of its “districts,” “sections” or “tribes,” constituted as so many mediums of popular administration, it remained of the people, and this is what made the revolutionary power of these organisations.

Since the organisation and the life of the “districts” and the “sections” is best known for Paris,[96] it is of the City of Paris that we shall speak, the more so as in studying the life of the Paris “sections” we learn to know pretty well the life of the thousands of provincial Communes.

From the very beginning of the Revolution, and especially since events had roused Paris to take the initiative of rebellion in the first days of July 1789, the people, with their marvellous gift for revolutionary organisation, were already organising in view of the struggle which they would have to maintain, and of which they at once felt the import.

The City of Paris had been divided for electoral purposes into sixty districts, which were to nominate the electors of the second degree. Once these were nominated, the districts ought to have disappeared; but they remained and organised themselves, on their own initiative, as permanent organs of the municipal administration, by appropriating various functions and attributes which formerly belonged to the police, or to the law courts, or even to different government depart ments under the old régime.

Thus they rendered themselves necessary, and at a time when all Paris was effervescing at the approach of July 14 they began to arm the people and to act as independent authorities; so much so that the Permanent Committee, which was formed at the Hôtel de Ville by the influential middle classes,[97] had to convoke the districts to come to an understanding with them. The districts proved their usefulness and displayed a great activity in arming the people, in organising the National Guard, and especially in enabling the capital to repulse an attack upon it.

After the taking of the Bastille, we see the districts already acting as accepted organs of the municipal administration. Each district was appointing its Civil Committee, of from sixteen to twenty-four members, for the carrying out of its affairs. However, as Sigismond Lacroix has said in the first volume of his Actes de la Commune de Paris pendant la Révolution,[98] each district constituted itself “how it liked.” There was even a great variety in their organisation. One district, “anticipating the resolutions of the National Assembly concerning judicial organisation, appointed its justices of peace and arbitration.” But to create a common understanding between them, “they formed a central corresponding bureau where special delegates met and exchanged communications.” The first attempt at constituting a Commune was thus made from below upward, by the federation of the district organisms; it sprang up in a revolutionary way, from popular initiative. The Commune of August 10 was thus appearing in germ from this time, and especially since December 1789, when the delegates of the districts tried to form a Central Committee the Bishop's palace.[99]

It was by means of the “districts” that henceforth Danton, Marat and so many others were able to inspire the masses of the people in Paris with the breath of revolt, and the masses, accustoming themselves to act without receiving orders from the national representatives, were practising what was described later on as Direct Self-Government.[100]

Immediately after the taking of the Bastille, the districts had ordered their delegates to prepare, in consultation with the Mayor of Paris, Bailly, a plan of municipal organisation, which should be afterwards submitted to the districts themselves. But while waiting for this scheme, the districts went on widening the sphere of their functions as it became necessary.

When the National Assembly began to discuss municipal law, they did so with painful slowness. “At the end of two months,” says Lacroix, “the first article of the new Municipality scheme had still to be written.”[101] These delays naturally seemed suspicious to the districts, and from this time began to develop a certain hostility, which became more and more apparent, on behalf of part of the population of Paris and the official Council of its Commune. It is also important to note that while trying to give a legal form to the Municipal Government, the districts strove to maintain their own independence. They sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union.

Lacroix says: “The state of mind of the districts . . . displays itself both by a very strong sentiment of communal unity and by a no less strong tendency towards direct self-government. Paris did not want to be a federation of sixty republics cut off haphazard each in its territory; the Commune is a unity composed of its united districts. . . . Nowhere is there found a single example of a district setting itself up to live apart from the others . . . But side by side with this undisputed principle, another principle is disclosed . . . which is, that the Commune must legislate and administer for itself, directly, as much as possible. Government by representation must be reduced to a minimum; everything that the Commune can do directly must be done by it, without any intermediary, without any delegation, or else it may be done by delegates reduced to the rôle of special commissioners, acting under the uninterrupted control of those who have commissioned them . . . the final right of legislating and administrating for the Commune belongs to the districts — to the citizens, who come together in the general assemblies of the districts.”

We thus see that the principles of anarchism, expressed some years later in England by W. Godwin, already dated from 1789, and that they had their origin, not in theoretic speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution.

There is still another striking fact pointed out by Lacroix, which shows up to what point the districts knew how to distinguish themselves from the Municipality and how to prevent it from encroaching upon their rights. When Brissot came forward on November 30, 1789, with a scheme of municipal constitution for Paris, concocted between the National Assembly and a committee elected by the Assembly of Representatives (the Permanent Committee of the Paris Commune, founded on July 12, 1789), the districts at once opposed it. Nothing was to be done without the direct sanction of the districts themselves,[102] and Brissot's scheme had to be abandoned. Later on, in April 1790, when the National Assembly began to discuss the municipal law, it had to choose between two proposals: that of an assembly — free and illegal, after all — of delegates from the districts, who met at the Bishop's palace, a proposal which was adopted by the majority of the districts and signed by Bailly, and that of the legal Council of the Commune, which was supported by some of the districts only. The National Assembly decided in favour of the first. Needless to say that the districts did not limit themselves municipal affairs. They always took part in the great political questions of the day. The royal veto, the imperative date, poor-relief, the Jewish question, that of the “marc silver”[103] — all of these were discussed by the districts. As the “marc of silver,” they themselves took the initiative in the matter, by convoking each other for discussion and appointing committees. “They vote their own resolutions,” says Lacroix, “and ignoring the official representatives of the Commune, they are going themselves on February 8 (1790) to present to the National Assembly the first Address of the Paris Commune in its sections. It is a personal deonstration of the districts, made independently of any official representation, to support Robespierre's motion in the National Assembly against the “marc of silver.”[104]

What is still more interesting is that from this time the provincial towns began to put themselves in communication with the Commune of Paris concerning all things. From this there developed a tendency to establish a direct link between the towns and villages of France, outside the National Parliament, and this direct and spontaneous action, which later became even more manifest, gave irresistible force to the Revolution.

It was especially in an affair of capital importance — the liquidation of the Church property — that the districts made their influence felt, and proved their capacity for organisation. The National Assembly had ordained on paper the seizing of the Church property and the putting it up for sale, for the benefit of the nation; but it had not indicated any practical means for carrying this law into effect. At this juncture it was the Paris districts that proposed to serve as intermediaries for the purchase of the property, and invited all the municipalities of France to do the same. They thus found a practice method of applying the law.

The editor of the Actes de la Commune has fully described how the districts managed to induce the Assembly to entrust them with this important business: “Who speaks and acts in the name of that great personality, the Commune of Paris?” demands Lacroix. And he replies: “The Bureau de Ville (Town Council) in the first place, from whom this idea emanated; and afterwards the districts, who have approved it, and who, having approved it, have got hold of the matter in lieu of the Town Council, for carrying it out, have negotiated and treated directly with the State, that is to say, with the National Assembly, and at last effected the proposed purchase directly, all contrarily to a formal decree, but with, the consent of the Sovereign Assembly.”

What is even more interesting is that the districts, having once taken over this business, also took no heed of the old Assembly of Representatives of the Commune, which was already too old for serious action, and also they twice dismissed the Town Council that wanted to interfere. “The districts,” Lacroix says, “prefer to constitute, with a view to this special object, a special deliberate assembly, composed of sixty delegates, and a small executive council of twelve members chosen by these sixty representatives.”[105]

By acting in this way-and the libertarians would no doubt do the same to-day — the districts of Paris laid the foundations of a new, free, social organisation. [106]

We thus see that while reaction was gaining more and more ground in 1790, on the other side the districts of Paris were acquiring more and more influence upon the progress of the Revolution. While the Assembly was sapping by degrees the power, the districts and afterwards the “sections” of Paris were widening by degrees the sphere of their functions in the midst of the people. They thus prepared the ground for the revolutionary Commune of August 10, and they soldered at the same time the link between Paris and the provinces.

“Municipal history,” says Lacroix, “is made outside official assemblies. It is by means of the districts that the important acts in the communal life, both political and administrative, are accomplished: the acquisition and selling the national estates (biens nationaux) goes on, as the districts had wished, through the intermediary of their special commissioners; the national federation is prepared by a meeting of delegates to whom the districts have given a special mandate. . . . The federation of July 14 is also the exclusive and direct work of the districts,” their intermediary in this case being an assembly of delegates from the sections for concluding a federative compact.[107]

It has often been said that the National Assembly represented the national unity of France. When, however, the question of the Fête of the Federation came up, the politicians, as Michelet has observed, were terrified as they saw men surging from all parts of France towards Paris for the festival, and the Commune of Paris had to burst in the door of the National Assembly to obtain its consent to the fête. “Whether it liked or not, the Assembly had to consent,” Michelet adds.

Besides, it is important to note that the movement was born first (as Buchez and Roux had already remarked) from he need of assuring the food-supply to Paris, and to take measures against the fears of a foreign invasion; that is to say, this movement was partly the outcome of an act of local administration, and yet it took, in the sections of Paris,[108] the character of a national confederation, wherein all the canton of the departments of France and all the regiments of the army were represented. The sections, which were created for the individualisation of the various quarters of Paris became thus the instrument for the federate union of the whole nation.