Black History Month brings to life the long-buried struggles of African Americans for liberation and justice. One of the most moving such struggles took place a century and a half ago during Reconstruction, when a revolutionary uprising in the 1870s led former slaves to gain political power across the southern United States.
A contemporary revolutionary struggle over 4,000 miles shared important characteristics with radical reconstruction. In 1871, French workers seized power in Paris and proclaimed the Paris Commune after the bourgeois government fled the city.
Parallels between Reconstruction and the Paris Commune are then noticed. In the June 21, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune, a Northern Republican rightly warned that “the dangerous alliance of poor Southern whites” and blacks “could single-handedly form such a dangerous party to the interests of the society than the communists of France.”
Of course, the two developments were not identical. Radical Reconstruction was a movement against large landowners by mostly black agricultural workers, joined by small, mostly white landowners temporarily supported by a section of big capital. The Paris Commune reflected urban class struggle and socialist agitation against the expansion of industrial capital. But the parallels are striking.
From war to revolution
Like many revolutions, Reconstruction and the Paris Commune were triggered by military defeats of the ruling regimes. Reconstruction arose after the defeat of Southern slaveholders in the Civil War. The Commune was born after the defeat of France by Prussia and the replacement of the existing empire by a bourgeois republic.
In both cases, the victorious capitalist governments sought agreements with their supposed enemies. These betrayals sparked mass anger that erupted into revolutionary action. The achievements of Reconstruction and the Commune rested on the force of arms.
Enslaved blacks left the plantations in what historian W. E. B. Du Bois called “a general strike.” Nearly 200,000 enlisted in the Union Army and helped break the back of Confederate resistance. The presence of black soldiers encouraged massive land confiscations, and a small part of the “radical” capitalists of the North, to preserve their victory, were forced to support the formation of militias of black soldiers under federal protection.
In Paris, the bourgeois government’s attempt to confiscate the cannons of the National Guard spurred the workers and the poor to rise up and seize power. The Commune they established quickly abolished conscription and the standing army, leaving the people as the sole armed force.
Political mobilizations of the oppressed
Reconstruction and the Paris Commune reflected broad political mobilizations of the oppressed. In the South, although reading was a crime for slaves, political awareness grew rapidly with emancipation. Blacks organized conventions to resist the imposition by former slave owners of racist “black codes”. During the six weeks of the Paris Commune, virtually every city block hosted daily unrest meetings, demonstrations and rallies.
These mass mobilizations were reflected in the ballot boxes. With property qualifications abolished, blacks voted in at least some Southern states in proportion to their population. In South Carolina, they won about two-thirds of the legislative seats, leading Du Bois to hail “the commoner of South Carolina.” Across the South, some 2,000 blacks obtained state and federal positions. Similarly, an extension of the right to vote for the Paris Commune elections has increased the impact of the most populated working-class neighborhoods.
Social reforms won
The Reconstruction and Commune governments aimed to legislate comparable issues, including education. While illiteracy was the legacy of slavery, even in urban Paris only 30% could read and write. Reconstruction Alabama provided more funding to public schools than ever before, and the Commune ensured that all public school education was secular.
Labor issues also received a lot of attention. The Commune abolished night work for bakers and fines for violations for all workers, and it authorized unions to take over disused workshops, form cooperatives and resume production. Reconstruction decrees authorized land seizures, including on the Sea Islands, where 40,000 former slaves administered 400,000 acres of abandoned rice paddies until the land was stolen at the end of reconstruction.
Both revolutions addressed the needs of the poor. Reconstruction governments abolished debt imprisonment and implemented debt relief programs. The Commune cancels the outstanding rents and decrees a three-year moratorium on the payment of the debt.
Women have played vital roles
Women have played a key role in both struggles. Reconstruction governments passed groundbreaking laws to protect women’s rights to divorce and property. Accounts of battles against the emerging Ku Klux Klan speak of black women “carrying axes or hatchets in their hands, their aprons or dresses half concealing the weapons.”
In Parisian clubs, many of the most radical proposals have come from women, who have shown legendary heroism on the barricades.
The socialist and anarchist communards had been trained in internationalism. Without this background, revolutionary Reconstruction found its way there. The National Convention of “Colored” Labor, held in Washington in 1869, supported Cuban independence from Spain and elected a delegate to represent the interests of black workers at the International Labor Congress of 1870. Members of the Black Reconstruction Congresses also advocated aid to the beleaguered Cherokees and opposed restrictions on Chinese immigration.
Counter-revolutionary terror is unleashed
Blacks in the South, like Parisian workers, suffered from a lack of reliable allies. Southern blacks needed the support of poor southern whites—allies with objectively more enduring potential than northern capitalists—and the foundations for such an alliance were laid. The communards needed the support of the French peasantry. But southern whites and French peasants were blinded by the hostility unleashed by the wealthy and became tools of reaction.
Reconstruction and the Commune are drowned in floods of blood. Pro-slavery terrorists murdered tens of thousands of blacks in the South from 1867 to 1877. A white South Carolina terrorist group became the state militia in 1877, reflecting the advertised “compromise” between Northern capitalists and the landowners of the South who put an end to the reconstruction.
More than 15,000 Parisians were killed by French Republican troops in the week after the fall of the Commune alone – five times more than were killed in Paris during the so-called ‘Great Terror’ of 1793-1794 .
The struggles are reborn
But the struggle against racist oppression and capitalist exploitation continued. Just seven months after the fall of the Paris Commune, the Skidmore Guards, a militia made up of black members, formed the front ranks of a march in New York organized by the International Workers’ Association to protest the continued executions of leaders of the Paris Commune.
The truth about Reconstruction was discovered and kept alive by Du Bois and other black historians. The activism of this period was reborn in the civil rights and black liberation movements of the last century. Likewise, analyzes of the Paris Commune by socialists Karl Marx and VI Lenin, as well as the revival of the French labor movement in the 1880s, ensured that the achievements of the Paris Commune would continue to inspire revolutionaries.
Indeed, less than a week after the fall of the Paris Commune, Eugène Pottier, a French revolutionary, wrote the words of the “Internationale”, the socialist anthem, which sums up the spirit of these two great revolutions. on both sides of the Atlantic: “Rise, prisoners of famine, rise, wretches of the earth,… Rise no longer, slaves,… We were nothing, we will all be!
This excerpted article originally appeared in the Workers World newspaper on April 1, 1983.