Chapter 25: The Sections of Paris Under the New Municipal Law

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Commune of Paris — Permanence of sectional assemblies — Distrust of executive power — Local power necessary to carry out Revolution — National Assembly tries to lessen power of districts — Municipal law of May — June 1790 — Impotence of attacks of Assembly — Municipal law ignored — Sections the centre of revolutionary initiative — Civic committees — Increasing power of sections — Charity — bureaux and charity workshops administered by sections — Cultivation of waste land

Our contemporaries have allowed themselves to be so won over to ideas of subjection to the centralised State that the very idea of communal independence — to call it “autonomy” would not be enough — which was current in 1789, seems arrange nowadays. M. L. Foubert,[109] when speaking of the scheme of municipal organisation decreed by the National assembly on May 21, 1790, was quite right in saying that “the application of this scheme would seem to-day a revolutionary act, even anarchic — so much the ideas have changed”; and he adds that at the time this municipal law was considered insufficient by the Parisians who were accustomed, since July 14, 1789, to a very great independence of their “districts.”

The exact delimitation of powers in the State, to which so much importance is attached to-day, seemed at that time to the Parisians, and even to the legislators in the National Assembly, a question not worth discussing and an encroachment on liberty. Like Proudhon, who said “The Commune will be all or nothing,” the districts of Paris aid not understand that the Commune was not all. “A Commune,” they said, “is a society of joint-owners and fellow inhabitants enclosed by a circumscribed and limited boundary, and it has collectively the same rights as a citizen.” And, starting from this definition, they maintained that the Commune of Paris, like every other citizen, “having liberty, property, security and the right to resist oppression, has consequently every power to dispose of its property, as well as that of guaranteeing the administration of this property, the security of the individuals, the police, the military force — all.” The Commune, in fact, must be sovereign within its own territory: the only condition, I may add, of real liberty for a Commune.

The third part of the preamble to the municipal law of May 1790 established, moreover, a principle which is scarcely understood to-day, but was much appreciated at that time. It deals with the direct exercise of powers, without intermediaries. “The Commune of Paris” — so says this preamble — “in consequence of its freedom, being possessed of all its rights and powers, exercises them always itself — directly as much as possible, and as little as possible by delegation.”

In other words, the Commune of Paris was not to be a governed State, but a people governing itself directly — when possible — without intermediaries, without masters.

It was the General Assembly of the section, and not the elected Communal Council, which was to be the supreme authority for all that concerned the inhabitants of Paris. And if the sections decided to submit to the decision of a majority amongst themselves in general questions, they did not for all that abdicate either their right to federate by means of freely contracted alliances, or that of passing from one section to another for the purpose of influencing their neighbours' decisions, and thus trying by every means to arrive at unanimity.

The “permanence” of the general assemblies of the sections — that is, the possibility of calling the general assembly whenever it was wanted by the members of the section and of discussing everything in the general assembly — this, they said, will educate every citizen politically, and allow him, when it is necessary, “to elect, with full knowledge, those whose zeal he will have remarked, and whose intelligence he will have appreciated.”[110]

The section in permanence — the forum always open — is the only way, they maintained, to assure an honest and intellignet administration.

Finally, as Foubert also says, distrust inspired the sections: distrust of all executive power. “He who has the executive power, being the depository of force, must necessarily abuse it.” “This is the opinion of Montesquieu and Rousseau,” adds Foubert — it is also mine!

The strength which this point of view gave to the Revolution can be easily understood, the more so as it was combined with another one, also pointed out by Foubert. “The revolutionary movement,” he writes, “is just as much against centralisation as against despotism.” The French people thus seem to have comprehended from the outset of the Revolution that the immense work of transformation laid upon them could not be accomplished either constitutionally or by a central power; it had to be done by the local powers, and to carry it out they must be free.

Perhaps they also thought that enfranchisement, the conquest of liberty, must begin in each village and each town. The limitation of the royal power would thus be rendered only the more easy.

The National Assembly evidently tried all it could to lessen the power of the districts, and to put them under the tutelage of a communal government, which the national representatives might be able to control. Thus the municipal law of May 27 to June 27, 1790, suppressed the districts. It was intended to put an end to those hotbeds of Revolution, and for that purpose the new law introduced a new subdivision of Paris into forty-eight sections — active citizens only being allowed to take part in the electoral and administrative assemblies of the new “sections.”

The law had, moreover, taken good care to limit the duties of the sections by declaring that in their assemblies they should occupy themselves “with no other business than that of the elections and the administration of the civic oath.”[111] But this was not obeyed. The furrow had been ploughed more than a year before, and the “sections” went on to act the “districts” had acted. After all, the municipal law was itself obliged to grant to the sections the administrative attributes that the districts had already arrogated to themselves. We find, therefore, under the new law the same sixteen commissioners whom we saw in the districts — elected and charged not only with police and even judicial funtions, but also trusted by the administration of the department “with the reassessment of the taxes in their respective sections.”[112] Furthermore, if the Constituent Assembly abolished the “permanence” — that is to say, the right of the sections to meet without a special convocation — it was compelled nevertheless to recognise their right of holding general assemblies, at the demand of fifty active citizens.[113]

That was sufficient, and the citizens did not fail to take advantage of it. For instance, scarcely a month after the installation of the new municipality, Danton and Bailly went to the National Assembly, on behalf of forty-three out of the forty-eight sections, to demand the instant dismissal of the ministers and their arraignment before a national tribunal.

The sections parted with none of their sovereign power. Although they had been deprived of it by law, they retained it, and proudly displayed it. Their petition had, in fact, nothing municipal about it, but they took action, and that was all. Besides, the sections, on account of the various functions they had assumed, became of such importance that the National Assembly listened to them and replied graciously.

It was the same with the clause of the municipal law of 1790, which entirely subjected the municipalities “to the administration of the department and the district for all that concerned the functions they should have to exercise by delegation from the general administration.”[114] Neither the sections nor the Commune of Paris nor the provincial Communes would accept this clause. They simply ignored it and maintained their independence.

Generally speaking, the sections gradually took upon themselves the part of being centres of revolutionary initiative, which had belonged to the “districts”; and if their activity relaxed during the reactionary period which France lived through in 1790 and 1791, it was still, as we shall see by the sequel, the sections which roused Paris in 1792 and prepared the revolutionary Commune of August 10.

By virtue of the law of May 21, 1790, each section had to appoint sixteen commissioners to constitute their civic committees, and these committees entrusted at first with police functions only, never ceased, during the whole time of the Revolution, extending their functions in every direction. Thus, in September 1790, the Assembly was forced to grant to the sections the right which the Strasbourg sections had assumed in August 1789, namely, the right to appoint the justices of the peace and their assistants, as well as the prud'hommes (conciliation judges). And this right was retained by the sections until it was abolished by the revolutionary Jacobin government, which was instituted on December 4, 1793.

On the other hand, these same civic committees of the sections succeeded, towards the end of 1790, after a severe struggle, in obtaining the power of administering the affairs of the charity-bureaux, as well as the very important right of inspecting and organising the distribution of relief, which enabled them to replace the charity workshops of the old régime by relief-works, under the direction of the sections themselves. In this way they obtained a great deal. They undertook by degrees to supply clothes and boots to the army. They organised milling and other industries so well that in 1793 any citizen, domiciled in a section, had only to present him or her-self at the sectional workshop to be given work.[115] A vast powerful organisation sprang up later on from these first attempts, so that in the Year II. (1793-1794) the section tried to take over completely the manufacture as well as the supply of clothing for the army.

The “Right to Work,” which the people of the large towns demanded in 1848, was therefore only a reminiscence of what had existed during the Great Revolution in Paris. But then in 1792-93, it was organised from below, not from above, as Louis Blanc, Vidal and other authoritarians who sat in the Luxembourg from March till June 1848 intended it to be.[116]

There was something even better than this. Not only did the sections throughout the Revolution supervise the supply and the sale of bread, the price of objects of prime necessity, and the application of the maximum when fixed by law, but they also set on foot the cultivation of the waste lands of Paris, so as to increase agricultural produce by market gardening.

This may seem paltry to those who think only of bullets and barricades in time of revolution; but it was precisely by entering into the petty details of the toilers' daily life that the sections of Paris developed their political power and their revolutionary initiative.

But we must not anticipate. Let us resume the current of events. We shall return again to the sections of Paris when we speak of the Commune of August 10.