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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation (AF) magazine Organise! #77 - Lessons of the Commune - VIVE LA COMMUNE!

Date Sun, 04 Dec 2011 15:03:46 +0200

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 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 or-
ganised militia formerly under the
command of the French Republic,
gained in strength and influence
and held onto the arms provided
to it for the defence of Paris dur-
ing 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 at-
tempt 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 insurrec-
tion, the order was given for the
evacuation of the city, although
some regular battalions chose to

The Guard was not united in its
support for the insurrection, how-
ever. As a commander from one
of the thirty bourgeois battalions
had put it to the old commanding
officer on the eve of the insurrecti-
on, ‘The Natinal 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 rela-
onships. 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 commu-
nards were arrested, whilst others
swept through the city seting 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 figures range from
5,000 to 50,000. Many ex-commu-
nards 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

The 18th March is hailed as the
date of the insurrection and has
many similarities to the begin-
nings of subsequent revolutions
such as that of Russia 1917, Spain
1936 and Hungary 1956, in that
they were spontaneous proletar-
ian events reacting to the condi-
tions capitalists in power had
imposed upon them. They were
neither planned, nor sparked by
the propagandising of politcal
organisations. Mass member-
ship of political organisations
was merely representative of the
already-existing desire for social,
economic and political transfor-
mation of society. In the case of
Paris 1871, a report to the Inter-
national Workingmen’s Associa-
on (IWA) by the Corresponding
Secretary for France on the Gen-
eral Council, Auguste Serraillier,
stated that the International was
in disarray, its organisa on weak
and unwilling to act as an asso-
ciation 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 capital-
ism irrelevant through suppos-
edly ignoring, undermining and
finally supplanting the state and
business. The French section was
not in a position to exert much
political influence anyway. The
International constituted less
than one-third of the political
Commune; Jacobin bourgeois
republicans, conservative and
oppositionist held the rest of the
seats. Anarchist communists hold
that you cannot escape capital-
ism: it must be abolished. But the
Commune overlooked the neces-
sity for the seizure of political
power from the bourgeoisie.


In the few weeks before the Commune
was put down, in what came to be
known as the ‘Bloody Week’ (21 - 28
May), progressive transforma ons took
place in social, economic and poli cal
rela onships. But the insurrec on was
fragile, not least in military terms.


Achievements and limitations of
the Commune.

This is not to say that the so-
cial 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 popula on as a whole.
It must be kept in mind that the Com-
mune was a living, and therefore
continually developing, example
of class struggle and important
social ques ons 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 politi-
cal 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 decentral-
ised. For instance, the Central
Committee of the National Guard,
originally intending to hold elec-
tions 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

Workers’ cooperatives and economic life

One of the major reforms that
leftists and revolutionaries point
towards was the April 16th de-
cree 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 com-
patible with capitalist economics.
Worker/producers’ cooperatives
exist to this day and are not
exempt from being exploiters

L’Ouvrier de l’Avenir, a newspa-
per of the time, reported fifty
workers’ cooperatives, mainly
within the skilled trades, existing
in Paris in the weeks before the
March insurrection. Indeed, the
Government of National De-
fence, which took over authority
from Napoleon III when he was
deposed, encouraged the set-
ting up of workers’ cooperatives
during the Siege of Paris, through
the handing out of large con-
tracts to textile workers to make
uniforms for the French army.
During the Commune, a empts
were made to seek out the pri-
vate owners in order to compen-
sate them for the loss of their
factory after its expropriation,
and in some cases, the private
owners worked hand-in-hand
with the cooperayives, receiv-
ing rent, lending equipment and
offering business advice to the
management of these coopera-

Although the formation of forty-
three worker cooperatives is
some mes quoted, there were
only two of significant size: the
Société Cooperative des Fon-
deurs en Fer (Cooperative So-
ciety of Iron Founders) and the
Association des Ouvriers de la
Métallurgie (Association of
Metalworkers). The la tier had its mu-
tinions factory in the Louvre. The
former had already been set up
the day before the 16th April de-
cree 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 for the purpose of
producing armaments for the Na-
tional Guard, as were many of the
other cooperatives founded dur-
ing 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 associa-
tion at the Louvre. Even there, the
metalworkers’ demand for a wage
increase for dangerous work in the
front line was rejected; the coop-
eratives could not compete with
private firms for contracts unless
they became exploitative them-

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 coopera-
tives, only twenty-seven coop-
eratives 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 ‘repre-
sentatives’ and business owners
and managers. In a revolution,
capitalists and their supporters
must not be allowed to re-take
any ground. Workers must con-
trol and direct the movement of
production and distribution within
the economy of the new society as
a priority and destroy wage slav-
ery and private ownership of the
means of production, distribution
and exchange.

Kropotkin also criticised the Com-
mune for failing to expropriate
private property, especially facto-
ries 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 Paris-
ian workers failed to seize their
workplaces, control the economy
themselves and make irrelevant
the power of capital.


Kropotkin criticised the poli cal organisation of
the commune for maintaining a governmental
system of representatives, which then became
separated from the day-to-day reali es of the
wider Commune, becoming conservative and
paralysed by endless discussion, confirmation of
the Anarchist critique of representa ve systems.


Political organisation

While those elected to the Com-
mune 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. Through-
out history this form of organisa-
tion has led to abuse, corruption
and inequality. The latter system,
of mandated, recallable delegates
is a libertarian form of political
organisation. Rather than giv-
ing 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 politi-
cal 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 discus-
sion, confirmation of the Anarchist
critique of representative systems.
However, if representation is the
only form of political organisa-
tion 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 liber-
tarian forms of organising during
these pre-revolutionary periods
when we are active in community
groups, workplaces, student strug-
gles and tenants’ and residents’
associations, both because they
are the best way to organise dem-
ocratically, 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 representa-
ves 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 nurser-
ies, 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 fruitition and wom-
en’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 or-
der to discredit the communards
with descriptions of ‘petroleusses’
- women seting 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 behav-
iour should be like, has been used
at other times to demonise radical
movements often with some suc-
cess 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

Conclusions and lessons

Although much was spontane-
ous and unplanned, the influence
of Proudhon on the communards
gave it some libertarian flavour.
However events moved so fast,
and decisions and structures de-
veloped by necessity so quickly,
that there was little time for
theoretical arguments. Without
the previous discussions, and the
libertarian and socialist organis-
ing 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 rep-
resentative 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 un-
derstand Anarchism, but during
an insurrection it is too late! It is
vital that libertarian thought and
ways of organising are under-
stood and familiar to the wider
working class in pre-revolution-
ary 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 fa-
miliar 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, en-
ergy, creativity and high-spirits can
be felt in many liberated spaces.
Emma Goldman argues that cul-
ture, 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 comrade-
ship that is both the natural prod-
uct of struggling together, and it is
that which keeps us going during
the dark times.

“Vive la Commune!”

This article is dedicated to all
those who will turn their guns on
their officers.

‘We revolutionaries aren’t just
chasing a scarlet flag. What we
pursue is an awakening of lib-
erty, old or new. It is the ancient
Communes of France, it is 1703;
it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most
especially it is the next revolu-
on which is advancing under this
dawn.’ Louise Michel

‘The Commune was the biggest
festival of the nineteenth century.
Underlying the events of that
spring of 1871 one can see the
insurgents’ feeling that they had
become the masters of their own
history, not so much on the level
of “governmental” politics as on
the level of their everyday life.’
Situationist International

This year marks the 140th an-
niversary of the Paris Commune.
This momentous event marked
the spectacular and agonising be-
ginning of the period in which the
working class has made consist-
ent attempts, through revolutions
around the world, to break with
the system of exploitation and in-
equality and to usher in a new so-
ciety and a new civilisation based
on equality and freedom. The
forms of organisa on developed
by the Parisian masses, be they
artisans, workers, unemployed,
artists and writers, youth and
children, women and men, are
demonstrated again and again in
the revolu ons that were to break
out throughout the twentieth
century and into this one. They
are the heralds of a new way of
organising socially and of behav-
ing honourably and nobly towards
each other. They are an inspiration
to all those who wish to clearly
break with this society of corrup-
tion, brutality, and of the most
despicable and venal apologies for
human beings running the show.
As Louise Michel one of the finest
and most magnificent revolution-
aries who ever drew breath was to
remember of those communards
she had survived: ‘To those who in
falling, have opened so wide the
gates of the future, through which
the revolu on will pass!’

After the disastrous Franco-
Prussian War and the adventures
of Napoleon III, France was de-
feated by Prussia. The Prussians
advanced to the outskirts of
Paris. The National Guard, a sort
of home army/militia supported
by public subscription refused
to countenance the surrender of
artillery to the Prussians, as con-
nived at by the new republican
government that had replaced
the old imperial regime. This gov-
ernment sent in troops to regain
the artillery. They were con-
fronted by a crowd that refused
to relinquish the guns situated
on the heights of Montmartre.
The officers barked out orders to
fire on the crowd but the soldiers
refused and turned their guns
on their officers on March 18th
1871. This was the birth of the
Paris Commune.
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