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(en) Organise #61 - The Paris Commune and Free Communism

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 23 Oct 2003 09:05:22 +0200 (CEST)

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This is the second article on Kropotkin we have printed by Brian
Morris. It forms part of a currently unpublished book. To ensure it
read as an article in itself, we have edited it and removed some
references. Kropotkin's theories on tribal society were discussed in Issue 55.
Kropotkin clearly felt, like many of his socialist contemporaries,
that he was living on the "eve of great events", and that a social
revolution was imminent. The political institutions on which people
had put their trust in the early part of the 19th Century were, he
thought, increasingly being questioned, and that "faith in
parliamentary rule, in suffrage, be it limited or universal, is
disappearing" ). The Paris Commune of 1871 had made a
tremendous impact on Kropotkin and his socialist contemporaries,
and it had generated intense theoretical debate on possible new
forms of political organization. For Marxists this meant the
"dictatorship of the proletariat", a "worker's state"; for the
anarchists the complete abolition of governments and their
replacement by a federation of free communes. Although Kropotkin
was in no sense a historical determinist he nevertheless
interpreted the emergence of mutual aid societies and voluntary
associations at the end of the 19th century, as heralding the
demise of the nation-state, which he felt had "served its time" .
Such free associations, he thought, would supplant both the state
and the capitalist economy, taking over many of their functions.
Education, social order. leisure activities, health, as well as
economic life could all be organized - and would come to be
organized - through communes and voluntary associations. His
reflections on the Paris Commune and on societies of "free
co-operation" are scattered throughout his writings.

The Paris Commune of 1871 has been described as one of the most
important urban insurrections of the 19th Century. It has long been
hailed as both inspiration and model for revolutionary socialists. In
his well-known address "The Civil War in France", written only a
few days after the defeat of the Commune, Karl Marx wrote that it
"will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new
society" (Marx and Engels 1968: 307). Twenty years later Engels
was to describe the Commune as exemplifying the "dictatorship of
the proletariat", and wrote that the state, whether a democratic
republic or a monarchy, was "nothing but a machine for the
oppression of one class by another". Writing almost as a
quasi-anarchist Engels wrote of a time when people would be "able
to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap". Engels
was only referring to the French Empire, for he applauds the
Commune - based on universal suffrage - as a "new and truly
democratic" state (op cit 258).

The Paris Commune lasted only seventy-two days. It was formally
established in the Hotel de Ville on March 28th 1871. It took over
the administration of Paris in opposition to both the German
occupation and the national government under the unscrupulous
Adolphe Thiers. Its membership consisted of around eighty
delegates, about half of whom were manual workers or had been
involved in revolutionary politics, most of them members of the
International Workingmen's Association. Their politics had an
anarchist tinge, for they were largely followers of Proudhon and his
economic theory of mutualism. About a dozen members of the
Commune were Blanquists, advocates of a revolutionary party,
although Blanqui himself had been imprisoned on the eve of the
Commune, and was not released from prison until 1879. The
Commune also included the veteran republican journalist Charles
Delecluze who died on the barricades, as well as the anarchists
Louise Michel, Eliseé Reclus, and Gustav Courbet. After the
bloody suppression of the Commune in May 1871, Reclus and
Courbet were both forced to flee to Switzerland, along with Benoit
Malon. Also a member of the International, Malon later wrote a
history of the commune, and in the following year graphically
described to Kropotkin his experiences of the Commune.

The Paris Commune came to an end after a week of bloody street
fighting, many women participating both in the building of the
barricades and bearing arms on behalf of the revolution. As
Stewart Edwards wrote "Barricades and street fighting, the
traditional warfare of the urban insurgent, were simply the last
resort of the Commune’s struggle for revolutionary
self-government". (1973; 41) Around twenty-five thousand
communards were killed during May 22-28th, compared to 877
government troops, and more than ten thousand were imprisoned.
Many were deported to New Caledonia, a French colony in the
Pacific. There many died under a brutal prison regime. Louise
Michel was not released until 1880. More people were killed in the
bloody suppression of the Paris Commune than during the terror of
the French Revolution.

Although the Paris Commune allowed trade unions and
workers’ co-operations to take over factories, and made a
number of important reforms, it never questioned the rights of
private property. But the very existence of the Commune aroused
the fury and antipathy of the bourgeoisie throughout Europe. When
the army of the French republic crushed the Commune, its chief
executive, Thiers, declared that: "the cause of justice, of order, of
humanity, and of civilization has triumphed". But for socialists
throughout Europe, both Marxists and anarchists, the Paris
Commune became a source of inspiration and a symbol of hope for
a better future.

It is evident that Marx saw state power as an instrument of
society rather than independent of it; it was a necessary
institution, and he saw the Commune as a positive form of "social
republic", one involving the "self-government of the producers".
Marxists, therefore, have always been critical of the idea of
rejecting the centralized nation-state and its replacement by a
federation of autonomous communities. They advocated instead a
"republic of labour" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Lenin
interpreted this as implying the rule of a revolutionary (Bolshevik)
party - a form of politics that is more akin to Blanquism - and it led
Trotsky to be critical of the Paris Commune precisely because it
lacked the central direction of a revolutionary party.

Bakunin, who took a crucial part in the revolutionary uprisings at
Lyon and Marseilles in September/October 1870, was to claim, in
contrast to Marx, that the Paris Commune demonstrated the
bankruptcy of state socialism. It was, he wrote: "a bold, clearly
formulated negation of the state", and though the majority of its
members were Jacobins like Delecluze rather than socialists, the
Paris Commune was seen as inaugurating a new era. It initiated,
Bakunin wrote, a social rather than a political revolution. He
concluded: "Contrary to the belief of the authoritarian communists
that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a
dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political
revolution, our friends, the Paris Socialists, believed the revolution
could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by
the spontaneous and continuous action of the masses, the groups
and associations of the people."

The Paris Commune was of central interest to Kropotkin. He had
met and had engaged in long discussions with many of the
communards - particularly with Gustave Le Francais, Louise
Michel, Eliseé Reclus, Benoit Malon and Andre Bastelica. In
1879 Kropotkin established the anarchist paper Le Révolté
and every March he wrote an anniversary article celebrating the
Paris Commune. The three for 1880, 1881 and 1882 form a single
chapter of Paroles d'un Révolté (Words of a Rebel), published
in 1885.

The revolution of 1871 was, for Kropotkin, above all a popular one,
made by the people themselves. When the people of Paris rose
against the despised government and proclaimed the city free and
independent, "It sprang … spontaneously from within the
masses", he wrote. The overthrow of central power, Kropotkin
continued, took place without the "usual scenes of a revolutionary
uprising; on that day there were neither volleys of shot, nor floods
of blood shed behind the barricades. The rulers were eclipsed by an
armed people going out into the streets; the soldiers evacuated the
city, the bureaucrats hastened towards Versailles, taking with
them everything they could carry. The government evaporated like
a pool of stagnant water in the spring breeze".

Kropotkin suggests that in the years prior to the Commune two
currents of political thought emerged within the International
Workingmen's Association. One advocated a people’s state,
the other anarchy, the free federation of worker's co-operatives.
Kropotkin misleadingly thought of these concept in ethnic terms,
the German Socialists supporting state socialism, while socialists
of the "Latin race" (Spanish, French) advocated the complete
abolition of the state. The socialist state, Kropotkin suggested,
was viewed by the majority of the French Socialists as the worst
of all tyrannies. But unlike Bakunin, Kropotkin did not feel that the
Paris Commune, in spite of its popular character and the heroic
struggles of the communards, was in fact a form of anarchy. The
Commune of 1871 he wrote: "could not be any more than a first
sketch. Born at the end of the war, surrounded by two armies ready
to give a hand in invoking the people, it dared not declare itself
openly socialist, and proceeded neither to the expropriation of
capital, nor to the organization of work, nor even to a general
inventory of the city's resources. Nor did it break with the tradition
of the State, of representative government, and (proclaim) the
independence and free federation of communes".

But Kropotkin felt that had the Paris Commune survived, then
these "two revolutions" might well have occurred, driven by the
force of events. Kropotkin, like other socialists at the time, sensed
that a revolution was imminent. For him a social revolution implied
the abolition of both government (state) and private property
(capitalism), as well as of religious ideology. This meant
overcoming three "prejudices", sustained and advocated
respectively by priests, proprietors and rulers: god, property,

Kropotkin thought there were two inter-related tendencies evident
in the 19th Century, one an ever-growing movement towards
limiting the scope of government, the other a growing tendency
towards free associations or "free communism". Overly optimistic
at times, Kropotkin tended to over-emphasize the social
significance of both these tendencies. Of course, rather than
seeing the demise of the nation-state and the replacement of
capitalism by voluntary associations, the power of these
institutions - the states, business corporations and international
agencies of capital – have continued to expand. "Capital" has
become global and the modern state ever more powerful. Kropotkin
was a perceptive observer of social life and graphically outlined the
many forms of "free agreement" that emerged in the 19th Century.
These included many forms of association established without the
initiative of central governments: railway networks, lifeboat
associations, voluntary organizations like the Red Cross, trade
unions, professional and scientific societies and hospital
associations . From this Kropotkin inferred there was a general
social trend in which the free association of individuals was
supplanting government agencies in the performance of many
social functions. He noted that many of these societies or
associations made decisions at conferences through delegates, but
that they did not institute "laws" but only "agreements". Kropotkin
also emphasized that many public services - museums, libraries,
parks, street lighting - were provided in the spirit of communism,
focussed on personal and social needs without reference to the
value of the services the person may have rendered society.

Although Kropotkin emphasizes the power and intrusive nature of
the modern state, he puts equal emphasis on the fact that much of
everyday social life and many social activities are independent of
the state. Like other anarchists Kropotkin always made a clear
distinction between capitalism and government (the state) and
society, between what Habermans describes as "systems" and the
human life-world. Every day Kropotkin wrote, millions of social
transactions occur without the slightest interference of
government . Kropotkin's idea of revolution was the replacement of
state institutions based on hierarchy and coercion with voluntary
relationships. Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), an anarchist who was
greatly influenced by Kropotkin, put it well when he wrote: "The
state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a
mode of behaviour between men; we destroy it by contracting other
relationships, by behaving differently towards one another ... we
are the state ... until we have created institutions that form a real
community and society of men". For Kropotkin this did not simply
imply forming "temporary autonomous zones" for free spirits within
a rampant capitalism, but creating real social institutions based on
voluntary co-operation that would supplant both capitalism and the

In his study "Mutual Aid', Kropotkin emphasized the "mutual-aid
tendency" that was still evident and, he thought, expanding among
European peoples. In spite of the fact that throughout Europe the
common lands of village communities had been plundered or
expropriated by the landed aristocracy, communal institutions and
habits of mutual support still existed, Kropotkin argued, throughout
many parts of France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the
Scandinavian countries. For example, two thirds of the forests and
alpine meadows of Switzerland were still under communal control
and village communities still maintained customs and institutions
of mutual aid. He noted, too, that wherever the peasants had been
able to resist the plunder of their lands and maintain a "spirit" of
community, peasant associations had been formed, such as the
Syndicates Agricoles in France, although such unions or
syndicates had been forbidden by law in many European states
until the end of the nineteenth century . Contrary to the opinion of
economists, Kropotkin maintained that communal ownership of
land was not incompatible with intensive culture and agricultural
improvement, for many peasant communities initiated the rotation
of crops, drainage and irrigation without land having to be

Equally important, Kropotkin emphasises that outside the rural
setting, mutual aid associations continued to flourish and expand
throughout the 19th Century, with the emergence of varied forms of
association: trade unions, friendly societies, trading guilds (in
Russia, artels), lifeboat association, various clubs that catered for
leisure activities such as alpine climbing and cycling,
neighbourhood associations, scientific, literary and education
societies. All these exemplified enduring social institutions of
mutual aid and support . They also indicated the spontaneous
initiative of ordinary people and, for Kropotkin, the fact that
voluntary associations and local communes or municipalities could
and should supplant state institutions and the market economy.

Kropotkin envisaged a society of "free communism", a society
without a state, where all essential social activities were
organized through voluntary associations and a network of
autonomous federated communes. Kropotkin was not politically
naive and believed that no social life was possible without some
forms of control and authority; it was nonsensical to think of
anarchy as implying the complete absence of power. What he
envisaged was the creation of a society where power was
dispersed, where "repression" was kept to a minimum and where
there were no institutionalised forms of hierarchy or coercive
authority. From his observation and studies of tribal and kin-based
societies Kropotkin recognized that social customs and economic
inter-dependence spontaneously generated mechanisms for
controlling violent and anti-social behaviour. Like Tolstoy, he
disavowed the use of coercion, or that it should be minimized,
suggesting that "society possesses a thousand other means of
preventing anti-social acts".

He suggested that there were three main ways in which human
societies dealt with anti-social behaviour. The first was by
repression or coercion, which Kropotkin repudiated as ineffective
in the long term and contrary to human well-being. He wrote: "Not
only has a coercive system contributed and powerfully aided to
create all the present economic, political and social evils, but it has
given proof of its absolute impotence to raise the moral level of
societies" . Secondly, there was moral teaching, but this was often
ineffective, Kropotkin felt, because of the influence of immoral
teachings stemming from institutional religion. Christianity, he
emphasized, was always in close alliance with state power.
Finally, there were non-institutional controls on anti-social
behaviour, customary norms and the practice of mutual aid, a
concept central to Kropotkin's social philosophy.

But in contemporary Western society face-to-face communication,
mutual aid and voluntary association tended to be restricted and
marginalized by the state: "We live side by side without knowing
one another. We come together at meetings on an election day: we
listen to the lying or fanciful professions of faith in a candidate, and
we return home. The state has the care of all questions of public
interest; the state alone has the function of seeing that we do not
harm the interests of our neighbour. Our neighbour may die of
hunger or murder his children - it is no business of ours; it is the
business of the policeman. You hardly know one another, nothing
unites you, everything tends to alienate you from one another..." .
Prophetic words!

But throughout human history human societies have developed
various institutional forms and diffuse sanctions - ranging from
simple expressions of disapproval to excommunication and
ostracism - that have been utilized to counter anti-social acts.
Kropotkin thought these diffuse sanctions, along with public
opinion and formative habits, would tend, often unconsciously, to
prevent anti-social behaviour . But he also recognized that in
certain circumstances extreme sanctions would have to be applied
to curb unwarranted behaviour in any human community.

It is important to recognize that Kropotkin did not give priority to
the community over that of the individual. He said: "Anarchist
communism maintains that most valuable of all conquests,
individual liberty…… it does not ask the individual who has
rejected god the universal tyrant, god the king, and god the
parliament, to give himself a god more terrible than any of the
preceding - god the community - or to abdicate upon its altar this
independence……. It says to him, on the contrary, "No society
is free so long as the individual is not so".

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