Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/5.1

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A.5.1 The Paris Commune

The Paris Commune of 1871 played an important role in the development of both anarchist ideas and the movement. As Bakunin commented at the time,

   "revolutionary socialism [i.e. anarchism] has just attempted its first striking and practical demonstration in the Paris Commune . . . [It] show[ed] to all enslaved peoples (and are there any masses that are not slaves?) the only road to emancipation and health; Paris inflict[ed] a mortal blow upon the political traditions of bourgeois radicalism and [gave] a real basis to revolutionary socialism." [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 263-4] 

The Paris Commune was created after France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war. The French government tried to send in troops to regain the Parisian National Guard's cannon to prevent it from falling into the hands of the population. "Learning that the Versailles soldiers were trying to seize the cannon," recounted participant Louise Michel, "men and women of Montmarte swarmed up the Butte in surprise manoeuvre. Those people who were climbing up the Butte believed they would die, but they were prepared to pay the price." The soldiers refused to fire on the jeering crowd and turned their weapons on their officers. This was March 18th; the Commune had begun and "the people wakened . . . The eighteenth of March could have belonged to the allies of kings, or to foreigners, or to the people. It was the people's." [Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, p. 64]

In the free elections called by the Parisian National Guard, the citizens of Paris elected a council made up of a majority of Jacobins and Republicans and a minority of socialists (mostly Blanquists -- authoritarian socialists -- and followers of the anarchist Proudhon). This council proclaimed Paris autonomous and desired to recreate France as a confederation of communes (i.e. communities). Within the Commune, the elected council people were recallable and paid an average wage. In addition, they had to report back to the people who had elected them and were subject to recall by electors if they did not carry out their mandates.

Why this development caught the imagination of anarchists is clear -- it has strong similarities with anarchist ideas. In fact, the example of the Paris Commune was in many ways similar to how Bakunin had predicted that a revolution would have to occur -- a major city declaring itself autonomous, organising itself, leading by example, and urging the rest of the planet to follow it. (See "Letter to Albert Richards" in Bakunin on Anarchism). The Paris Commune began the process of creating a new society, one organised from the bottom up. It was "a blow for the decentralisation of political power." [Voltairine de Cleyre, "The Paris Commune," Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth, p. 67]

Many anarchists played a role within the Commune -- for example Louise Michel, the Reclus brothers, and Eugene Varlin (the latter murdered in the repression afterwards). As for the reforms initiated by the Commune, such as the re-opening of workplaces as co-operatives, anarchists can see their ideas of associated labour beginning to be realised. By May, 43 workplaces were co-operatively run and the Louvre Museum was a munitions factory run by a workers' council. Echoing Proudhon, a meeting of the Mechanics Union and the Association of Metal Workers argued that "our economic emancipation . . . can only be obtained through the formation of workers' associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage earners to that of associates." They instructed their delegates to the Commune's Commission on Labour Organisation to support the following objectives:

   "The abolition of the exploitation of man by man, the last vestige of slavery;
   "The organisation of labour in mutual associations and inalienable capital." 

In this way, they hoped to ensure that "equality must not be an empty word" in the Commune. [The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, Eugene Schulkind (ed.), p. 164] The Engineers Union voted at a meeting on 23rd of April that since the aim of the Commune should be "economic emancipation" it should "organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility" in order "to suppress the exploitation of man by man." [quoted by Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871, pp. 263-4]

As well as self-managed workers' associations, the Communards practised direct democracy in a network popular clubs, popular organisations similar to the directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies ("sections") of the French Revolution. "People, govern yourselves through your public meetings, through your press" proclaimed the newspaper of one Club. The commune was seen as an expression of the assembled people, for (to quote another Club) "Communal power resides in each arrondissement [neighbourhood] wherever men are assembled who have a horror of the yoke and of servitude." Little wonder that Gustave Courbet, artist friend and follower of Proudhon, proclaimed Paris as "a true paradise . . . all social groups have established themselves as federations and are masters of their own fate." [quoted by Martin Phillip Johnson, The Paradise of Association, p. 5 and p. 6]

In addition the Commune's "Declaration to the French People" which echoed many key anarchist ideas. It saw the "political unity" of society as being based on "the voluntary association of all local initiatives, the free and spontaneous concourse of all individual energies for the common aim, the well-being, the liberty and the security of all." [quoted by Edwards, Op. Cit., p. 218] The new society envisioned by the communards was one based on the "absolute autonomy of the Commune. . . assuring to each its integral rights and to each Frenchman the full exercise of his aptitudes, as a man, a citizen and a labourer. The autonomy of the Commune will have for its limits only the equal autonomy of all other communes adhering to the contract; their association must ensure the liberty of France." ["Declaration to the French People", quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, pp. 276-7] With its vision of a confederation of communes, Bakunin was correct to assert that the Paris Commune was "a bold, clearly formulated negation of the State." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 264]

Moreover, the Commune's ideas on federation obviously reflected the influence of Proudhon on French radical ideas. Indeed, the Commune's vision of a communal France based on a federation of delegates bound by imperative mandates issued by their electors and subject to recall at any moment echoes Proudhon's ideas (Proudhon had argued in favour of the "implementation of the binding mandate" in 1848 [No Gods, No Masters, p. 63] and for federation of communes in his work The Principle of Federation).

Thus both economically and politically the Paris Commune was heavily influenced by anarchist ideas. Economically, the theory of associated production expounded by Proudhon and Bakunin became consciously revolutionary practice. Politically, in the Commune's call for federalism and autonomy, anarchists see their "future social organisation. . . [being] carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with associations, then going into the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation." [Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 270]

However, for anarchists the Commune did not go far enough. It did not abolish the state within the Commune, as it had abolished it beyond it. The Communards organised themselves "in a Jacobin manner" (to use Bakunin's cutting term). As Peter Kropotkin pointed out, while "proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle . . . they stopped mid-course" and gave "themselves a Communal Council copied from the old municipal councils." Thus the Paris Commune did not "break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organisation from the simple to the complex it inaugurated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of the Communes." This lead to disaster as the Commune council became "immobilised . . . by red tape" and lost "the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses . . . Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre -- the people -- they themselves paralysed the popular initiative." [Words of a Rebel, p. 97, p. 93 and p. 97]

In addition, its attempts at economic reform did not go far enough, making no attempt to turn all workplaces into co-operatives (i.e. to expropriate capital) and forming associations of these co-operatives to co-ordinate and support each other's economic activities. Paris, stressed Voltairine de Cleyre, "failed to strike at economic tyranny, and so came of what it could have achieved" which was a "free community whose economic affairs shall be arranged by the groups of actual producers and distributors, eliminating the useless and harmful element now in possession of the world's capital." [Op. Cit., p. 67] As the city was under constant siege by the French army, it is understandable that the Communards had other things on their minds. However, for Kropotkin such a position was a disaster:

   "They treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune . . . But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the blood-thirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular Commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field." [Op. Cit., p. 74] 

Anarchists drew the obvious conclusions, arguing that "if no central government was needed to rule the independent Communes, if the national Government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal Government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the Commune." [Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 75] Instead of abolishing the state within the commune by organising federations of directly democratic mass assemblies, like the Parisian "sections" of the revolution of 1789-93 (see Kropotkin's Great French Revolution for more on these), the Paris Commune kept representative government and suffered for it. "Instead of acting for themselves . . . the people, confiding in their governors, entrusted them the charge of taking the initiative. This was the first consequence of the inevitable result of elections." The council soon became "the greatest obstacle to the revolution" thus proving the "political axiom that a government cannot be revolutionary." [Anarchism, p. 240, p. 241 and p. 249]

The council become more and more isolated from the people who elected it, and thus more and more irrelevant. And as its irrelevance grew, so did its authoritarian tendencies, with the Jacobin majority creating a "Committee of Public Safety" to "defend" (by terror) the "revolution." The Committee was opposed by the libertarian socialist minority and was, fortunately, ignored in practice by the people of Paris as they defended their freedom against the French army, which was attacking them in the name of capitalist civilisation and "liberty." On May 21st, government troops entered the city, followed by seven days of bitter street fighting. Squads of soldiers and armed members of the bourgeoisie roamed the streets, killing and maiming at will. Over 25,000 people were killed in the street fighting, many murdered after they had surrendered, and their bodies dumped in mass graves. As a final insult, Sacr� Coeur was built by the bourgeoisie on the birth place of the Commune, the Butte of Montmarte, to atone for the radical and atheist revolt which had so terrified them.

For anarchists, the lessons of the Paris Commune were threefold. Firstly, a decentralised confederation of communities is the necessary political form of a free society ("This was the form that the social revolution must take -- the independent commune." [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 163]). Secondly, "there is no more reason for a government inside a Commune than for government above the Commune." This means that an anarchist community will be based on a confederation of neighbourhood and workplace assemblies freely co-operating together. Thirdly, it is critically important to unify political and economic revolutions into a social revolution. "They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!" [Peter Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel , p. 97]

For more anarchist perspectives on the Paris Commune see Kropotkin's essay "The Paris Commune" in Words of a Rebel (and The Anarchist Reader) and Bakunin's "The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State" in Bakunin on Anarchism.