PARIS — Here in Paris, we are living today the 150th anniversary of the Commune, identified by Karl Marx as perhaps the first established workers’ republic in the history of mankind. The commune lasted 71 days, starting March 18, 1871, and ending in a violent crackdown during what was called “cherry season”—the budding of cherry blossoms—in the bloody week of May 21–28.
The commune was a response by Parisians to the end of a war that Emperor Louis-Napoleon had waged to divert French attention from the corruption and neglect that characterized the last stage of his Second Empire. The ill-fated war ended up uniting the German states under Bismarck as the French army, also hollowed out by years of corruption, was quickly defeated.
The German army then became an army of occupation and laid siege to Paris, thinking to starve the city into submission.
The French ruling class, industrialists and remnants of the old aristocracy, led by the Emperor’s minister Adolphe Thiers, left the city and fled to the former king’s palace at Versailles, where they would soon collaborate with the Germans to crush the Commune. Inside the city a new form of government emerged, direct democracy with elements of the national guard on its side and with the city workers behind it, and engaged directly in carrying out reforms in the areas of health, education and the establishment of equal status. for women. Indeed, the face of the Commune that has gone through history is that of the feminist Louise Michel, at the forefront of many of these reforms and, at the fall of the Commune, exiled from France.
The Commune defies the industrialists and launches proclamations after proclamations which push the government of Paris towards the workers’ state. Thiers and the German collaborators he represented were furious and eventually, with the help of the German army, still camped outside the city, moved to put down the rebellion, which he did during perhaps the bloodiest week of state terrorism in French history, other than the Massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Row after row of these workers were lined up and shot. The most sacred place commemorating the Commune is the Mur des Fédérés, the wall of these victims inside the famous Père Lachaise cemetery.
With the Commune in ruins, its supporters dead or exiled, Thiers then proclaimed the birth of the French Republic, putting an end forever to attempts to restore the monarchy after its overthrow by the French Revolution.
Indeed, the French Republicans now proclaim the Commune as a founding moment to establish a representative parliamentary democracy. However, this bourgeois democracy, with the industrialists now firmly back in power, was erected on the bones and coffins of Parisian citizens who had instead instituted a direct democracy in which the people decided together.
The battles around the memory of the Commune continue. Adolphe Thiers is commemorated in the traditional French way by having streets and squares named after him in many French towns and villages. However, no street or square bears his name in Paris, the site of his bloody executions.
The Catholic Church, attacked for its corruption by the Commune as it was during the French Revolution, has allied with the state to anoint the Church of the Sacred Heart, which overlooks the city and stands as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeoisie. However, just below the church, in a way that suggests the old specter of revolution is not dead, stands the Place Louise Michel, with its commemoration of the ruling spirit of the Commune.
Released to coincide with the 150th anniversary is The bloody week (The Bloody Week), a book by French historian Michèle Audin who argues that the account of Thiers’ deaths is vastly underestimated. The official figure is over 6,000 casualties, but checking cemetery records, this new book claims the figure is at least 15,000 and may have been as high as 20,000, with underground mass graves of Communards still uncovered in the 1920s in the building of a line of the Paris metro.
France celebrated the date of March 18 with great fanfare. Yet that celebration quickly gave way to its opposite as the country prepares for the 200th anniversary in May of the death of Napoleon, a symbol of empire and conquest loved by the right and no friend of democracy, whose nephew , founder of the second empire named in honor of his uncle’s self-proclaimed first empire, started the war that provoked the siege of Paris.
Marx’s valorization of the experience of the Commune, a spirit yet to be realised, shows why it remains both a moment of hope for workers and a moment of fear for their new digital masters, whether they be Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, Elon Musk’s Tesla or Emmanuel Macron’s start-up nation:
“The value of these great social experiences cannot be overstated. By deeds rather than arguments, they showed that large-scale production and in accordance with the orders of modern science, can be exercised without the existence of a class of masters; that to bear fruit the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of domination over, and extortion against, the worker [and woman]…; and that, like servile labor, like servile labor, wage labor is only a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before the associates. [fédérés or communal] labor doing his labor with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a glad heart.
This website sur le Mur des Fédérés is full of information, resources, songs from the Commune and photographs.