150 years on, the Paris Commune is still divisive

“Long live the Commune?” That is the headline The Guardian chose for a article on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The British newspaper highlights that the Commune is not celebrated by official French history like the bourgeois Revolution of 1789 or May 1968 are. At international level, the Commune also generates more division than agreements.

By Vincent Gaynor

A sign in the powerful railway strike that shook France two years ago read: “We don’t care about May ’68, we want 1871”. Meanwhile, the innocuous proposal of the mayor of Paris to plant a tree commemorating the communards is being received with a wave of rejection by broad sectors of the French political caste.

The initiative is attacked as “provocative” and “apologist of violence”. It is no coincidence that while the most radicalized sectors of the working class vindicate the Commune, French high society continues to condemn the revolutionary experience.

Impossible to assimilate

The French Revolution of 1789 culminated in the rise to power of today´s modern bourgeoisie. Its contradictions are now relativized to make it symbolize the triumph of democracy over tyranny and the rise of humanitarian civilization. The French May has also been largely assimilated. Its most radicalized aspects, and the gigantic general strike that put De Gaulle’s government in check, are hidden or minimized in order to present that process as no more than a necessary intellectual and moral questioning of the most retrograde aspects of the capitalist society of the time.

But the Commune cannot be assimilated. Unlike 1789, which raised the current bourgeois class to power, it revolted against it. Unlike 1968, which only confronted a bourgeois government, the Commune defeated the Third Republic´s government, expelled it from its capital, and took power into its own hands. This is why the Commune is still divisive and bourgeois ideology cannot assimilate it, cannot sterilize it and claim it as its own: because it proved that workers can defeat the bourgeoisie, seize power and govern ourselves.

The first workers’ government

When the government of “national defense” of the nascent Third Republic headed by Adolphe Thiers attempted to withdraw take the cannons that were held by the National Guard in Paris in order to comply with the terms of surrender it had signed with Prussia, the Parisian people revolted. Thiers and his government had to flee the city and relocate to the royalist palaces of Versailles. They were followed by the officers of the regular army and most of the Parisian bourgeoisie.

The city fell in the hands of the workers and their National Guard, who established a provisional government and called for elections to form a Communal Council. What emerged from those elections was the first workers’ government in history. Right from the start, the Commune destroyed one of the biggest lies that bourgeois ideology still reproduces today: that workers cannot govern ourselves, that social stability and state administration can only be sustained by political specialists, lawyers and successful entrepreneurs.

When the Communal Council inaugurated its first session on March 28, 1871, almost half of its members were workers, and the rest were professionals, artisans and small merchants. The majority were radical republicans, neo-Jacobins or independent revolutionaries, as they called themselves. And an important minority was composed of Prudonians, anarchists and socialists affiliated to the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, which had Marx among its main leaders.

The Parisian working class of 1871 was not the numerous and concentrated industrial proletariat that would lead the revolutions of the 20th century. It was scattered among hundreds of small workshops, the larges of which, located on the outskirts of the city, concentratated no more than a few hundred workers. However, at the head of their own revolution, they managed to coordinate, seize power and centralize it in an effective government. Post-modernists who maintain that the dispersion and precarization of today´s working class discard it as the subject of the anti-capitalist and socialist revolution, must dodge this fact.

Storming the heavens

The Paris communards proceeded to implement a series of measures that the dominant ideology and the whole spectrum of today´s reformists and possibilists insist on considering impossible, impracticable or unrealistic.

They absolved the debts of tenants, artisans and merchants; restored the salaries and pensions of the National Guard; abolished night work; established minimum wages and prohibited wage reductions; allowed workers to occupy businesses abandoned by their owners and put them to work. They also fixed the salaries of public officials to that of an average workers’ wage, which Lenin and Trotsky would take up decades later to avoid bureaucratic privileges in the administration of the Russian state after the 1917 revolution.

They were implacable against the Church. The separation of the State and the Church, which even today in many countries appears as something extremely radical, was implemented by the communards concretized in one stroke and comprehensively. They completely disassociated the Church from education, suppressed the salaries that the clergy received from the State and expropriated most of the Church´s properties.

The communards fell short in one strategic point: they did not touch the banks. In particular, they did not expropriate the National Bank of France which, despite being within Paris, remained in the hands of the Thiers government. However, this was due to a political mistake by the Communal Council, not because they would have been unable to do it. Just as wall, the historical doubt will remain as to whether the revolution could have spread if the National Guard had marched against Versailles immediately after the insurrection.

The legacy and relevance of the Commune

Marx wrote of the Commune´s achievements: “The great social measure of the Commune was its very existence, its work. Its concrete measures could not but express the line of conduct of a government of the people by the people.”

The overall experience of the Paris Commune demonstrates, above all, that when the working class rises against bourgeois power and has the will to do so there is no obstacle it cannot overcome. The Commune was the model followed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution and is still today a bright example of how working men and women can exercise power.

The bourgeoisie knows this all too well. Massacring 30,000 Parisians was not enough to crush the latent threat of that example. They had to do what they could to bury its memory. On the hill of Montmartre, where the 1871 insurrection began, the French bourgeoisie built the pompous church of Sacre Coeur. When laying the foundation stone, its architect declared: “The construction of a church on the place where the cannons were snatched for the cause of the insurrection will be a cause for rejoicing”. And to this day, the bullet holes of the execution of 147 communards can be seen on the walls of the Père Lachaise cemetery.

The divisions that the Paris Commune generates today are the correct ones. The recycled arguments of only aiming for what is “possible” or that “the relation of forces are insufficient” were burried by the audacity and revolutionary will of the Parisian masses. Capitalism´s impossibility of assimitaling that challenge a century and a half later reaffirms the validity of its audacious example for those of us who still intend to storm the heavens.