125 years after the Paris Commune

The Commune of Paris was the revolutionary municipal government of Paris established on March 18th 1871 and ended by slaughter on May 28th 1871.

In March 1871, Parisians reacted to seemingly anti-Parisian acts of the government by establishing an independent government of Paris. Members of the Commune included activists of the First International, Blanquists, Anarchists and Jacobins. It was substantially a proletarian organisation. The National Government reorganised the French army and invaded Paris. Over 3300 were killed then and more were judicially murdered afterwards. Countless others were exiled.

The beginning of it all?

For many on the left the Commune was the beginning of it all. For us it is a critical example of the intricacies of worker organisation, the viciousness of State repression and the heroism of worker resistance. Workshops abandoned by employers were taken over and run by the workers themselves. Elections were direct and delegates were clearly recallable. Trotskyists argue that the problem with the commune was the lack of revolutionary leadership! We see its strength in the efforts of the Communards to prevent the emergence of this leadership! When defeat loomed for the insurrections and the Jacobins and Blanquists suggested the creation of a committee of public safety, the Proudhonists and Internationalists broke away and published a text that was to remain valid long after the commune itself – and because it was forgotten, socialism sank into the blood follies that dominated the Twentieth Century.

Given that the institution of a committee of public safety will have as its essential effect the creation of a dictatorial power that will not in any way enhance the Commune. And it being expected that this institution would formally clash with the political aspirations of the electoral masses whom the Commune represents. And consequently, expecting that the creation of any dictaorship by the Commune would be, on its part, a genuine usurpation of the people’s sovereignty. We vote against – Andrieu, Langevin, Ostyn, Vermorel, V. Clemént, Theisz, Serailler, Avrial, Malon, Lefran¡ais, Courbet, Girardin, Clémence, Arnould, Beslay, Vallé, Varlin, Jouve.

Harsh realities

Maurice Joyeaux, French Anarchist, writing in ‘La Rue’ summed it all up.

The Paris Commune was a cross-roads where the multifarious currents thrown up by men’s hopes in the areas of organisation, religion, liberty, the fatherland, the republic, reason and finally society met. It was an intersection where Romantic Europe and revolutionary Europe crossed, as did the arts, letters, barricades and all of the outlaws who had been roving the world for a decade past, sowing revolt.

The Commune was Courbet and Blanqui, Proudhon and the masonic lodges, the military on half-pay from the Algerian wars, a hardheaded petite bourgeoisie absorbed by manufacture, embittered politicians, bewildered workers, and a latent misery releasing men for adventures, a world being born, another in demise, and classes taking clearer shape. Yes, this was the Commune before and above all straight after 18th March.

But for 10 weeks all of these motley elements were to be swept along by events. Their dreams were to come to grips with the harsh realities of the fray, and it was out of the Commune that Anarchy emerged. Men in prison or exile were to scrutinise the political content of the Commune. Out of this slow maturation of minds were to come Libertarian Socialism and revolutionary Syndicalism.

Underneath all the state socialist veneer, after all attempts to rewrite history, we recognise the genuine attempt of the workers of Paris to organise their own lives. Such times have occurred regularly since – from the Ukraine, Barcelona, Hungary, to the pit villages during the Great Strike of 1984-85. It is our history, one we should study and own.

From: Black Flag 209, (1996).