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(en) France, UCL AL #312 - Special file Paris 1871, Municipality, neighborhood committees, an aborted dialectic (ca, de, it, fr, pt)[machine translation]

Date Thu, 25 Mar 2021 10:01:29 +0200

The ex-Communards who had become anarchists would reproach the Council of the Municipality a lot for having perpetuated the old forms of political power: elected officials admittedly with integrity, but whose action was too disconnected from that of the district committees, direct expression of the popular action. ---- To what extent was there a popular power under the Commune ? We can say that it was a project tending towards direct democracy, but unsuccessful. For it to succeed, it would have required a real dialectic between the district committees, a direct emanation of the people - or at least of its active fringe - and the Council of the Municipality resulting from the municipal elections of March 26, 1871.

This dialectic hardly existed. In the popular districts, the district committees exercised local management tasks, while at the town hall, the elected officials of the Commune were overwhelmed by the accumulation of administrative, legislative and executive tasks. "We were overworked," Arthur Arnould later told, overwhelmed with fatigue, not having a minute of rest, a moment when calm reflection could occur[...]. As members of the Commune, we sat twice a day[...]. In addition, each of us was part of a commission[...]. On the other hand, we were mayors, civil status officers, responsible for administering our respective districts"[1]... On the whole, the council did not know how to articulate its action with the popular energy driving the revolution, which could have exasperated the grassroots revolutionaries.

Why ra-floor ? We can blame the lack of time - the Commune only existed for two months - and the chaotic conditions of a Paris with a disorganized economy, exhausted by the Prussian siege and threatened by the army of Versailles. We can also regret, at a time when anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism did not yet exist, the absence of an influential organization, endowed with a clear federalist and self-management vision, to influence the course of events. The neojacobins - who were the most numerous - and the Blanquists - the most serious - did not have this conception of things, and their interventionism failed. The Proudhonists were too impolitic, and the activists of the International Workers' Association too divided.

After March 18, the clubs requisitioned the churches to hold their sessions (here in Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs). These places of debate admitted women, in which they were more advanced than the Council of the Commune, elected by male suffrage on March 28.
cc Smeton / BNF
Yet the thirst for commitment was there. Long before March 1871, according to historian Bernard Noël, "committees swarmed in Paris: there were vigilance committees, republican committees, municipal committees ... There were also councils, assemblies, not to mention the clubs[...]. This multiplication was the sign of an intense political life." [2]

popular bubbling
From the fall of Napoleon III, the Parisian section of the AIT had instigated "vigilance committees", soon federated by a Republican Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements. A counter-power therefore but which, contrary to the hopes of the people of the AIT, never went so far as to pose as a competitor of the provisional government, oscillating "between the role of grumbling auxiliary, of moderate opponent or of resolute adversary" . Suddenly, at the base, the district committees were quickly "domesticated" by the mayors [3].

On March 25, on the eve of the municipal elections, the Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements grew bolder and published an appeal leaning towards direct democracy: "The municipality is the basis of any political state[...]. It implies[...]the sovereignty of universal suffrage[...]which can be called together and manifested without delay. The principle of election applied to all officials or magistrates. The responsibility of the representatives, and consequently, their permanent revocability."

As for the clubs, numbering about thirty in Paris, with no specific task to accomplish, they were above all a barometer of popular opinion. It denounced the inadequacies of the Commune, sometimes at the risk of an increasingly exasperated verbal overbidding [4].

And on the side of the Council of the Municipality ? This one, elected by universal male suffrage, had 92 men - minus 16 elected from the bourgeois districts, which did not sit [5] - from the popular classes and the petty bourgeoisie: 33 artisans and traders ; 24 liberal or intellectual professions ; 6 workers.

The decisions of the council were drawn up in nine thematic commissions, ranging from finance to justice, including "general security" and education. An executive commission headed the whole. Was it necessary, as under the French Revolution, for "the people" to be able to attend the deliberations ? It was refused at first, on the grounds of military secrecy. It was not until April 18 that its deliberations were published in the Official Journal . Then, in a "Declaration to the French people", the Municipality proclaimed "the permanent intervention of citizens in municipal affairs by the free manifestation of their ideas, the free defense of their interests"and spoke out for the "permanent right of control and dismissal of magistrates or municipal officials of all kinds" [6]

Scission around the "Committee of Public Safety"

Arthur Arnould (1833-1895),
elected to the Council of the Municipality, took refuge in Switzerland where he militated in the anti-authoritarian AIT. In 1876 he was one of the custodians of the Bakunin archives.
Thinking to overcome the administrative disorder, the Council of the Municipality voted on May 2, by 45 votes for and 23 against, a "Committee of Public Safety" of 5 members endowed with "the most extensive powers" . Reminiscent of the French Revolution, this dictatorial temptation caused a split within the Commune. While neojacobins and Blanquists dominated the majority, we found in the minority - qualified a posteriori as "anti-authoritarian" - most of the militants of the AIT such as Eugène Varlin, Pindy and Ostyn, Arthur Arnould but also the writer Jules Vallès and the sculptor Gustave Courbet. The minority left the assembly after having published a manifesto denouncing the backward-looking illusion of " dictatorial power which will not add any force to the Commune" , a "usurpation of the sovereignty of the people" .

The Committee of Public Safety finally proving to be powerless, the minority resumed sitting on May 21. Analyzing the event, Arthur Arnould estimated that the minority wanted "an original revolution, essentially social and popular, which should complete, but not start again the first Revolution" [7]

Direct democracy is precisely what was lacking, according to Arnould: "The first error of the Commune, the one from which all the others arose, was to constitute itself too much in government, to consider itself too much as an ordinary sovereign assembly, and of wanting to legislate, to act, by virtue of its exclusive initiative, when it should have considered itself only as the executive power of the people of Paris."[8]

Dominique (UCL Angers)

Illustration: "The club at the church", taken from Bertall, Les Communeux. Types, characters, costumes, Plon, 1880.


[1] Arnould, Arthur, Popular and parliamentary history of the commune of Paris, 1878.

[2] Bernard Noël, Dictionary of the Municipality, Mémoire du Livre , 2000.

[3] Jacques Rougerie, "La Première Internationale à Paris 1870-1871", to be found on Commune1871-rougerie.fr.

[4] Benoît Malon evokes a "flood of outraged radicalism" in The Third Defeat of the French Proletariat , Guillaume ed., 1871.

[5] Official Journal , April 2, 1871.

[6] Official Journal , April 21, 1871.

[7] Arthur Arnould, op.cit. ,p 84, 1878.

[8] Ibidem , p 96.

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