The Paris Commune

To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point.

Arthur Rimbaud

We share the words and sentiment of Mitchel Abidor, when he writes that the “Paris Commune of 1871 has been a blank screen upon which schools of radical thought have sought to project their interpretation.” (Abidor, Voices of the Paris Commune) This is true of both Anarchists and Marxists, and beyond.

The mistake has been, in its crudest form, to insist on the facts of the event, to relate them, to identify their causes, and to explain the failure of the Commune given these objective circumstances. From the diagnosis follows the prescription of the cure: the lessons for future revolutions.

However favourable to the Commune, some anarchists would see in its defeat a verification of their own belief that no revolution is possible without the destruction of the State and private property.

Alas, the respect for the bourgeois conceptions of law and order, to the sanctity of capitalist property, and faith in the “humanity” of the enemy were soon to turn the great victory of the revolutionary masses into terrible defeat. The first measures of the Commune should have taken was to provide bread for the people. The warehouses were well-stocked, the rich had provided themselves during the war with huge supplies, and the Government and private banks were filled with gold.

But instead of confiscating the accumulated wealth and foodstuffs for the benefit of the starving masses, the Commune made the fatal mistake of wasting precious moments on — elections: instead of acting for themselves and organizing the new order of things, the Communard masses confided in their “leaders”, entrusted them with taking the initiative and let them pass necessary measures. Known revolutionists were elected by great majorities: Jacobins, Blanquists and Internationalists were represented in the Council of the Commune. But even with the best intentions these revolutionary “leaders” did not know what to do with the Revolution. The masses themselves knew their needs and wants, but the Council of the elected simply proceeded to follow established forms of “governing”. They did not even know how to organize the defense of Paris.

Alexander Berkman, The Paris Commune and Kronstadt

For V.I. Lenin, and the tradition that would follow him, the Commune came to ill because of a working class nationalism that blinded it to the revolutionary tasks at hand and because it lacked a proper organisation, a proper worker’s party, to lead it in the struggle against the reactionary government in Versailles.

For the victory of the social revolution, at least two conditions are necessary: a high development of productive forces and the preparedness of the proletariat. But in 1871 neither of these conditions was present. French capitalism was still only slightly developed, and France was at that time mainly a country of petty-bourgeoisie (artisans, peasants, shopkeepers, etc.). On the other hand there was no workers’ party, the working class, which in the mass was unprepared and untrained, did not even clearly visualize its tasks and the methods of fulfilling them. There were no serious political organizations of the proletariat, no strong trade unions and co-operative societies.

V. I. Lenin, On the Paris Commune (April 1911)

Leon Trotsky would read events very much in the same light, only pushing the logic further: the Commune’s “petty-bourgeois” leadership condemned it to disorganisation, political delusion, cowardice, and military incompetence.

The real revolutionary task consisted of assuring the proletariat the power all over the country. Paris had to serve as its base, its support, its stronghold. And to attain this goal, it was necessary to vanquish Versailles without the loss of time and to send agitators, organizers, and armed forces throughout France. It was necessary to enter into contact with sympathizers, to strengthen the hesitators and to shatter the opposition of the adversary. Instead of this policy of offensive and aggression which was the only thing that could save the situation, the leaders of Paris attempted to seclude themselves in their communal autonomy: they will not attack the others if the others do not attack them; each town has its sacred right of self-government. This idealistic chatter – of the same gender as mundane anarchism – covered up in reality a cowardice in face of revolutionary action which should have been conducted incessantly up to the very end, for otherwise it should not have been begun.

Leon Trotsky, Lessons of the Paris Commune (1921)

Of course, the lesson’s to be taken from the Commune cannot simply be read off the facts, for the “facts” themselves are selected, shaped, invented, on the basis of previous “ideological commitments”. The presumed “cure” identifies the “disease”.

Karl Marx’s work on the Paris Commune remains among the richest and most penetrating -, a far cry from the orthodox Marxist interpretations that were to follow. And in an address of May, 1871, to the General Council of the International, published under the title The Civil War in France, he would write of the already evident growing number and conflicting interpretations of the event, the following:

The multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favor [including Marx’s], show that it was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all the previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.

Karl Marx, The Third Address (1871)

It is the idea of the Commune as an “expansive political form” that renders it resistant to any merely ideological appropriation. The Paris Commune was neither Marxist, nor anarchist, nor any other identifiably, exclusive ideological movement. The Commune defied political-ideological hegemony, and herein lay and lies its radicalness: with power falling to the people of Paris, it was made and re-made, in a multiplicity of ways and places; chaotically at times, yes, but openly and creatively, without pre-defined limits. This is what could be called anarchy, without anarchism; but then anarchism is but one possible political form of anarchy, a self-conscious creation from the ground of anarchy.

It is this that Marx called the “great social measure of the Commune”, namely, “its own working existence”. (Karl Marx, The Third Address) The Commune is not to be judged by this or that decision, this or that failure of decision or initiative – we leave that to the “accountants” of history -, nor is it a resource to be mined for “revolutionary lessons” by latter-day armchair rebels.

“A revolution makes possible“, to cite Henri Lefebvre, “a certain number of events, over the course of a vast process of which it was the origin, the decisive element or moment. Each time that one of these virtualities is outlined or realised, it projects retroactively a clarity on the process”. (La proclamation de la Commune: 26 mars 1871) Revolutions create moments of rupture in linear-ordinary-governed time, illuminating the past, revealing it in new ways, showing it to possess meanings formerly unknown, while equally opening up new futures rooted in the rupture or breach. “All revolutions have something of the prophetic and they cannot be explained only by the conditions, the past form which they arose, nor from what they accomplish”. (Ibid.)

For those who lived the Commune from “within”, so to speak, everything was possible. One has only to read the literature of the Communards who survived the violence of the repression to see that this was so. Or as we can read in the Situationists’ Theses on the Paris Commune:

Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement from a divinely omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily demonstrate that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there.

It is not possible to read the Memoires of Louise Michel, for example, and not see, even feel, what was at stake and how far the desires and passions of those who threw themselves into the events did and could take them.

Who am I, Louise Michel? Don’t make me out to be better than I am—or than you are. I am capable of anything, love or hate, as you are. When the Revolution comes, you and I and all humanity will be transformed. Everything will be changed and better times will have joys that the people of today aren’t able to understand. Feeling for the arts and for liberty will surely become greater, and the harvest of that development will be marvelous. Beyond this cursed time will come a day when humanity, free and conscious of its powers, will no longer torture either man or beast. That hope is worth all the suffering we undergo as we move through the horrors of life.

Louise Michel, The Memoires (1886)

Élisée Réclus could criticise the disorganisation of the government of the Commune. But he was also able to see what the Commune set out as a future-present possibility.

According to what my companions told me, I have every reason to believe that in other acts of war our gallant chiefs, at least those who commanded the first sorties, demonstrated the same lack of intelligence and the same negligence. Perhaps the government of the Commune had more capacities in other areas; in any case, history will say that these improvised ministers remained honest in exercising their power. But we asked something else of them: to have the good sense and determination that the situation required and to act in consequence. It was with real shock that we watched them continue all the same errors of official governments: maintaining the whole state governing system while only changing the men, keeping in place the entire bureaucracy, allowing tax agents to function in their booths and protect the money that the Bank of France sent to Versailles? The vertigo of power and the spirit of stupid routine had seized hold of them, and these men, who should have acted heroically and known how to die, had the inconceivably shameful naïveté to address diplomatic notes to the great powers in a style of which Metternich and Talleyrand would have approved. They understood nothing of the revolutionary movement that had carried them through the doors of the Hôtel de Ville.

But what the chiefs didn’t know to do, the nameless crowd did. There were many of them, thirty to forty thousand perhaps, who died around Paris for the cause they loved. There were many as well who, within the city, fell before the machine guns, shouting “Vive la Commune!” We know from the first days of the Assembly in Versailles that this slaughtered people by its attitude saved the republican form of French government. Nevertheless, the present republic, a servant in the service of the Tsar and the Kaiser, is so far from any practice of liberty that it would be childish to be grateful to the Commune for its having saved this vain word for us. But it did something else. It held before us for the future, not through its rulers but through its defenders, an ideal far superior to that of all the revolutions that had preceded it. It commits in advance those who want to continue it—in France and throughout the world—to fight for a new society in which there will be neither masters by birth, titles, or money, nor servants by origin, caste, or salary. Everywhere the word “Commune” was understood in the widest sense, as having to do with a new humanity, formed of free and equal companions, ignorant of the existence of ancient borders, and assisting each other in peace from one end of the world to the other.

(from Mitchell Abidor, Voices of the Paris Commune)

To speak of “a new humanity” is not just to say that the most significant aspect of “the Paris Commune is that it created social forms which in a sense define socialism itself, social forms which serve as yardsticks for proletarian revolutions passed, present and to come.” (Maurice Brinton, The Commune: Paris 1871). It did do that, but social forms are changing and cannot thereby serve as meaningful “yardsticks”.

It also cannot be said lightly, as Berkman did, that the future belongs to the Paris Commune, because no future is today evident. One hundred and fifty years after, we have learned that not only is “history” a battle ground of appropriation and meaning, but that Capital and its attendant Spectacle erase history. We can no longer say with Lenin either, that the …

… memory of the fighters of the Commune is not only honoured by the workers of France but by the proletariat of the whole world, for the Commune did not fight for any local or narrow national aim, but for the freedom of toiling humanity, of all the downtrodden and oppressed. As the foremost fighter for the social revolution, the Commune has won sympathy wherever there is a proletariat struggling and suffering. The picture of its life and death, the sight of a workers’ government which seized the capital of the world and kept it in its hands for over two months, the spectacle of the heroic struggle of the proletariat and its sufferings after defeat—all this has raised the spirit of millions of workers, aroused their hopes and attracted their sympathies to the side of socialism. The thunder of the cannon in Paris awakened the most backward strata of the proletariat from deep slumber, and everywhere gave impetus to the growth of revolutionary Socialist propaganda. This is why the cause of the Commune did not die. It lives to the present day in every one of us.

V.I. Lenin, On the Paris Commune

As with the deceased monarchs of old, Louise Michel could write in her Memoires: “Long live the dead Commune! Long live the living Revolution!” But the ideas and/or movements that would render what she wrote meaningful seem to be absent, in the same way that the families that would assure the meaningfulness of the proclamations, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” have largely ceased to be.

What remains of the Paris Commune today? We cannot assume that it will somehow live forever in the minds of those who struggle against oppression and inequality – it does not. But should this be of concern? Our conviction is and remains that it should be, and not only for historical reasons. It can be argued that the Commune sounded the death nell of monarchist aspirations in france, that, in effect, it saved a certain kind of republicanism. And if it was neither Marxist nor anarchist, these two movements would very significantly define themselves in relationship to it (the divide between “marxists” and “anti-authoritarians/anarchists” would come soon after, with the fracture the First International).

But much more significantly, what the Commune brought forth was anarchy, that condition in which a people can create autonomously their ways of life. “On March 18, 1871, the people of Paris rose against a despised and detested government, and proclaimed the city independent, free, belonging to itself,” wrote Kropotkin. (Peter Kropotkin, The Commune of Paris) And even if this “belonging to itself” merits closer scrutiny (it is not an absolute self-possession, for example, which is impossible), it is that space or place from which free creation can arise. And the latter, in all of its multiplicity and complexity, cannot be the object of exclusive government management. This too Paris lived.

Our Paris friends were right a thousand times over. In fact, where is the mind, brilliant as it may be, or – if we speak of a collective dictatorship, even if it were formed of several hundred individuals endowed with superior mentalities – where are the intellects powerful enough to embrace the infinite multiplicity and diversity of real interests, aspirations, wishes and needs which sum up the collective will of the people? And to invent a social organization that will not be a Procrustean bed upon which the violence of the State will more or less overtly force unhappy society to stretch out? It has always been thus, and it is exactly this old system of organization by force that the Social Revolution should end by granting full liberty to the masses, the groups, the communes, the associations and to the individuals as well …

Mikhail Bakunin, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State

We close with two passages from Henri Lefebvre’s essay on the Commune, already cited above.

The Commune re-actualises itself. It announced the long crisis of the revolutionary movement in the European and industrialised countries; it characterised a historical epoch, that which runs from 1848 to the Spanish War. At the same time, it overflows this period and perhaps proposes, to us, in a naive manner, the most profound, the most durable exigencies of world revolution.

The insurrection of the 18th of March and the great days of Commune that would follow were an unlimited opening up towards the future and the possible, without regard to obstacles and impossibilities which can block the path. A fundamental spontaneity (which does not mean “unconditioned”, because it has the historical and social conditions of the city, of the proletariat) sets aside the sediments deposited by the centuries: the State, bureaucracy, institutions, dead culture. A volcanic effervescence raises the accumulated dross. In this movement generated by negative elements, thus creatures of the existing society – the proletariat -, social practice wants and makes itself free, released from the weight that it bears. In a bound, it metamorphosises itself into community, into communion, at the heart of which work, joy, leisure, the satisfaction of needs – and first, social needs and the needs of sociability – will no longer be separate. In the wake of economic “progress”, human beings will free themselves of the economy itself. Politics and political society will disappear, settling into civil society. The political function, as a specialised function, will no longer exist. Daily life will transform itself into a perpetual festivity. The daily struggle for bread and work will no longer make sense.

The Commune? It was a festival, a celebration, the greatest of the century and of modern times. The most objective analysis discovers in it the impression and the desire of the insurgents to become the masters of their life and their history, not only in what concerns public decisions, but also at the level of everyday life. …

This utopia, this supposed myth, for a few days, will introduce itself among the facts and life. In this sense, the Commune will confound itself, mix with, the very idea of revolution, understood not as an abstract ideal, but as the concrete idea of freedom. This idea contains the meaning of history, or rather the pre-history of humanity insofar as it leads to its true history and to the history of its truth.

The experience of the Commune goes much further therefore than a mere collection of revolutionary images, of political lessons. We willing say of it that it is trans-historical, or even poetic, philosophical and “ontological” (in a renewed sense of these terms). The Parisian masses, on rising up, on unfolding out onto the streets, opened up the largest horizon. Their disorder enveloped a new virtual order. … The Commune anticipated, in act, the possible and the impossible, in such a way that even its inapplicable projects and decisions, remaining no more than political intentions, like the project of federation, maintain a profound significance.

This marks the first of a series of posts dedicated to the memory of the Paris Commune of 1871. Without any pretense to exhausting the subject, we wish to share voices and visions, old and new, of the events that can serve to make the Commune not only a living memory, but an urgent one.

The selection of authors and writings is obviously ours. What we have chosen is not exclusive – and some will criticise neglected texts -, but we believe that what is selected is and remains important.

There is no shortage of literature on the Paris Commune. In addition to the authors that we have chosen for the series, the following is a very short suggested reading list:

by Communards …

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, 1876 (marxists.org)

Élie Reclus, La Commune de Paris au jour le jour 19 mars – 28 mai 1871, Théolib Résistances, 2013.

Gustave Lefrançais, Souvenirs d’un révolutionnaire. De  à la Commune, 1st edition in 1902. Republished in 1972, 2009, and in 2013: preface by  Daniel Bensaïd, La Fabrique, Paris, 2013.

Gustave Lefrançais, Étude sur le mouvement communaliste à Paris en 1871, 1st edition in 1871, read online at Gallica, republished by Ressouvenances, 2001.

Jules Vallès, The insurrectionist, [a novel], 1885.

reflections and analyses

Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune. Paris: La fabrique, 2018.

Alain Badiou, “The Paris Commune: A Political Declaration on Politics”, in Alain Badiou, Polemics, London and New York: Verso, 2006. (online here)

Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. London and New York: Verso, 2015. (For an interview with Kristin Ross, by ROAR editor Jerome Roos, click here)

Massimiliano Tomba, “The Paris Commune and the Poetry of the Unknown”. April 20, 2018 (Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Seminar Series)

online websites with material dedicated to the Paris Commune …

Union Communiste Libertaire, Faisons vivre la Commune, Midi Insoumis, Robert Graham’s Anarchist Weblog, La Commune de Paris (Michèle Audin’s blog)

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