72 days that shook the world

Issue: 111

Chris Nineham

A reviw of Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (Bookmarks, 2006), £14.99

At a time when issues of political power and democracy are widely debated in the movement, a new study of the Par is Commune is very welcome.

The Commune was the result of the first successful working class revolution. It only survived for two months but it was the most democratic and liberating government the world had ever seen. Gluckstein tells the Commune’s dramatic story through a series of analyses of the economics of Paris, the Commune’s social programme, its military defence and the politics of its leaders. He keeps current debates in mind throughout.

The uprising of 18 March 1871 arose from disgust with a bourgeois republican government that had overthrown the Second Empire the previous year but had delivered nothing for workers and the poor.

Like so many insurrections since, it was a product of war. Strangely in this case it was the right that wanted peace and the left that wanted a thoroughgoing war of national defence. France’s war with Prussia had been a disaster, and by mid-1870 the Prussian army was threatening Paris. The republican government that took power in September quickly showed it was more worried by the radicalisation of the Paris people than by the prospect of a Prussian victory. French generals chose their strategy on the basis of how best to destroy the popular militia, the National Guard. Unemployment and republican traditions meant the National Guard had become dangerously democratic and proletarian. By the time the commune was crushed in May, the French and Prussian authorities were working hand in glove.

Despite the usual claims about conspiracies and outside agitators no one planned 18 March. ‘Never had a revolution more surprised the revolutionaries,’ said socialist Benoit Malon. The uprising was the result of an attempt by the national government to seize cannons stationed at the top of the Montmartre hill from the National Guard. Local people responded by charging up the hill, surrounding the cannons and calling on the army not to shoot. The leaders of the charge expected to die for liberty. Instead they won a famous popular victory.

But as Gluckstein explains, the revolution was not entirely spontaneous: there was a relationship between the left and popular initiative. For months the left had been preparing the ground for a more radical government and calling for revolutionary war in its socialist clubs and debating societies.

The spectacular defensive action at Montmartre touched off a revolutionary mood that the left had helped foment. The national government collapsed, a carnival spirit spread throughout Paris and the revolutionaries were swept to power.

The most inspiring thing about the Commune was the sheer nerve of its revolutionary government. Despite the most desperate circumstances, the Commune achieved more in 72 days than most reformist governments do in years of office.

After three quarters of an hour’s discussion in its first session the new Communal Council annulled all back rent and forbade landowners to evict lodgers. Later the council requisitioned all empty properties and hotels as refuges for the homeless. The hated pawnshops were closed and salaries for the national guard were increased, pulling thousands out of poverty.

The Commune showed that working people don’t need an elite of bureaucrats to run a major city. Commune leader Artheur Arnould explained that ‘during the Commune’s short reign not a single man, woman, child or old person was hungry, cold or homeless… With only tiny resources this government not only fought a horrible war for two months but chased famine from the hearths of a huge population which had had no work for a year. This was one of the miracles of a true democracy.’

The secret of the Commune’s success was indeed a completely new form of democracy. The communards broke down the gulf between the state and the people built into capitalist societies. The Commune’s authority and source of power was the national guard, effectively the people in arms. The Communal Council was directly elected and all delegates were recallable. Council members were paid workmen’s wages, so vested interest in government disappeared. So did the distinction between the legislative and executive powers. The council made decisions and then worked out ways to implement them.

It was these features that led Marx to conlude that this was ‘a working class government…the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour’.

Establishing popular power was only the first step. As in all genuine revolutions, controversy raged throughout the Commune’s short lifetime. The first question was how to consolidate power. Followers of Blanqui and the left wing Jacobins argued for an immediate march against the old regime in Versailles. The anarchist followers of Proudhon argued that such bold military action involved too much centralised initiative and leadership. The Commune could only provide a framework for democracy. Social and economic change would win over the rest of the country through example. The resulting stand-off allowed the ruling class time to regroup.

There is not room here to do justice to Gluckstein’s discussion of the reasons for the Commune’s defeat. Perhaps most important for today, he points out that for all its innovation this great experiment was constrained by the politics of the past. The Blanquists were the boldest activists but they still had a conspiratorial approach and failed to build support for their initiatives.

The anarchist wing downplayed politics and underestimated the importance of a centralised challenge to the state. No group managed to overcome the weaknesses of these two extremes and the result was hesitation and confusion. Engels was amazed at the naivety of the Commune’s refusal to take over the National Bank. Thousands of rank and file activists were dismayed by the disorganisation of the defence of the city.

The Paris bourgeoisie was merciless in victory. At least 30,000 communards were massacred in an orgy of revenge. Despite this terror the Paris people rallied to the Commune to the very end.

The Commune taught Marx himself many things. Most famously, it inspired him to add a section to The Communist Manifesto explaining that workers cannot use the existing state machine to transform society. Gluckstein’s book shows there is still lots to learn from the Commune’s history.