A brief history of the first global uprising of the socialist working class. The workers of Paris, joined by mutinous National Guardsmen, seized the city and set about reorganizing society in their own interests on the basis of workers’ councils. However, they could not hold out when more troops retook the city and slaughtered 30,000 workers in bloody revenge.
It is often said that the Paris Commune is the first example of workers taking power. It is for this reason that it is a highly significant event, even if it is ignored in the French history program. On March 18, 1871, after France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War, the French government sent troops to Paris in an attempt to recapture the cannon of the Paris National Guard before the people seized it. . To the great dismay of the French government, the citizens of Paris had seized them and did not want to abandon them. The soldiers refused to fire on their own and instead turned their guns on their officers.
PNG held free elections, and the citizens of Paris elected a council composed mainly of Jacobins and Republicans (although there were also some anarchists and socialists). The council declared that Paris was an independent commune and that France should be a confederation of communes. Inside the Commune, all elected members of the council were immediately recallable, paid an average salary and had a status equal to that of the other members of the commune.
Contemporary anarchists were enthusiastic about these developments. The fact that the majority of Paris had organized without state support and were urging the rest of the world to do the same was quite exciting. The Paris Commune set the example by showing that a new society, organized from below, was possible. Reforms initiated by the Commune, such as the transformation of workplaces into cooperatives, put anarchist theory into practice. By the end of May, 43 workplaces had become cooperatives and the Louvre Museum was a munitions factory run by a workers’ council.
The Mechanics’ Union and the Metalworkers’ Association affirmed “our economic emancipation. . . can only be obtained by the constitution of workers’ associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage-earners to that of associates. They also advised the Communal Commission for the organization of work to support the following objectives: of man by man… The organization of work in mutual funds and inalienable capital. By this, it was hoped that within the Commune, equality would not be an “vain word”: in the words of the most famous anarchist of the time, Mikhail Bakunin, the Paris Commune was a “clearly formulated negation of State “.
However, anarchists argue that the Commune did not go far enough. Those of the Commune did not break with the ideas of representative government. As another famous anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, said:
“if no central government were necessary to govern the independent Communes…then a central municipal government also becomes unnecessary…the same federative principle would do the trick within the Commune”
As the Commune retained some of the old ideas of representative democracy, it prevented people within the Commune from acting for themselves, instead trusting the governors to sort things out for them.
Anarchists argued for federations of directly democratic mass assemblies, as the people of Paris had done just over a hundred years before (it must be something in the water!).
The council became increasingly isolated from those who had elected it. The more he isolated himself, the more authoritarian he became. The council created a “comité de salut public” to “defend [by terror]” the revolution”. This committee was opposed by the anarchist minority in the council and was ignored by the people who, unsurprisingly, were more concerned with defending Paris against the invading French army. In doing so, they vindicated the old revolutionary cliché that “no government is revolutionary”!
On May 21, government troops entered the town and faced seven days of heavy street fighting. The last stand of the communards took place in the Montmartre cemetery, and after the defeat, troops and armed members of the capitalist class roamed the city, killing and maiming at will. 30,000 Communards were killed in the battles, many of them after surrendering, and their bodies thrown into mass graves.
The Commune’s legacy survived, however, and “Vive la commune!” (“Vive la Commune!” was repainted on the walls of Paris during the 1968 insurrection, and it’s not the last time we can be sure…
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