The First Workers’ Revolution: Remembering the Paris Commune on its Sesquicentennial

The Commune remained in the memories of many revolutionaries, as an example of how people can spontaneously come together and run society on their terms.

Image courtesy: versobooks.com

On March 18, 1871, the workers of Paris rose against the rulers of France and established the first worker-run society in Europe after the industrial revolution. This is remembered as the Paris Commune. Though it lasted for a short period of 10 weeks it was an important event. It was the first socialist revolution in Europe.

While Utopian Socialists tried to design communes in Europe, Britain, and America, the Paris Commune was different. It was run directly by the people and was a spontaneous development. Members of the Commune would figure things out as they went on. In this sense, it was truly experimental, but it was also surprisingly functional. Workers developed their systems of justice, decision making, and resource allocation. It ended only because it was violently destroyed by the French army. It lives on in memory of later socialist movements.

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Before the Commune

Since the French Revolution, France was a hotbed of revolutionary political activity. In 1848, the workers of Paris attempted a failed uprising. After the uprising, Napolean Bonaparte III took control of the government, abolished elections, and declared himself the Emperor of France. What followed was an authoritarian government. Bonaparte positioned himself as a benevolent leader, who aimed to reduce poverty, increase development, reduce the public sector and open up the economy.

Napolean Bonaparte III / Image courtesy: napolean.org

Bonaparte’s despotism was most obvious in how he dealt with the press. When he became emperor, he passed a law restricting the press’s ability to comment on social or political matters. Penalties would be imposed on members of the press that went against state policy. Many underground groups tried to organize against this tyrannical regime, but they had little success in their time. Despite his despotism, Bonaparte was popular, especially with his hold on the press.

In the 1860s, Prussia rose as an economic superpower. It aimed to unite various kingdoms under a single German government. This put them at odds with Bonaparte’s government, which also wanted to control Europe. Bonaparte did not want to enter into war, but his popularity was tied to him being an imperialist. As a result, he entered into a losing war with Prussia. The wars bankrupted France and weakened Bonaparte’s hold on France. After Bonaparte was captured and exiled from France, France returned to Parliamentary democracy. To retain independence, France had to sign an agreement to disarm its military.

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After the war, many members of the working class of Paris returned. They were armed as part of the National Guard, whose job was to protect France. They were not covered by the agreement with Prussia. These members of the National Guard began to organize the other workers of Paris. They built upon the earlier organizing that happened during Bonaparte’s rule. The new radical wing of the National Guard scared the rulers of France. They tried to recall the armaments of the radical National Guard. When soldiers were sent to recall the arms, they were met by crowds of women from the working class. The army men were ordered to fire on the crowd, but the soldiers refused to fire on the crowd of unarmed women and switched sides.

The result was, that Paris was now a Worker-run Commune.

How the commune functioned

The commune was run through a council, where representatives could be instantly recalled by their constituency and replaced at any time. There was no mayor no political class. Every adult male was a member of the National Guard, though there was no mandatory conscription. The death penalty was removed. The commune abolished child labor and night work. Children were provided free clothing and books for education. The commune also tried to develop a unique system of education that would combine theory and practical work. Workers were given control over the tools they worked with. Interest on debt and rent was abolished. Workers were allowed to collectively take over their factories, including many that were unused before the establishment of the Commune. 43 factories were ruled by democratic means in the commune. The homeless were allowed to stay in unoccupied buildings.

Though the women in Paris led the rebellion, the men of the commune did not grant women the right to vote in the council. However, the democratic ethos of the commune led to the growth of a woman’s movement within the Commune. Though the commune only lasted 10 weeks, women leaders began to gain influence. Occupying abandoned Churches, women formed a union, La Union des Femmes. They demanded equal wages for men and women, equal rights for married and unmarried women, and recognition of all children, be they born in marriage or not. They organized workshops for women and ultimately made their way onto the governing council.

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Women in the Paris Commune / Image courtesy: workersliberty.org

The Commune made many tactical mistakes, that allowed their enemies to regroup and come against them. They did not stop the banks from running, which allowed the ruling class of France to take out loans and rebuild the army. They were unsuccessful in reaching out to people outside of France, and they did not prioritize building up a strong enough military to protect against an invading army. These factors would eventually lead to the Commune’s downfall.

Despite its limitations and tactical mistakes, the Commune ran surprisingly well. It opened up democratic spaces unheard of in Europe.

How the commune ended

The commune was destroyed when the French Government sent in their troops to destroy it. Nearly 2 lakh soldiers were sent in to crush the commune. The fighting power of the commune was still in a nascent stage, not having enough time to train anyone beyond the original members of the National Guard who began the commune, and the French Army was aided by the Prussian government. The army killed thousands of Parisians and arrested nearly tens of thousands more, including hundreds of children. 16,000 prisoners were tried by military tribunals, and 13,000 were found guilty, leading to the death penalty, exile, or imprisonment.

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La Semaine Sanglante / Image courtesy: butte.cailles.free.frThe siege took place over a week and is remembered today as La Semaine Sanglante, the Bloody Week. The Commune remained in the memories of many revolutionaries, as an example of how people can spontaneously come together and run society on their terms. Though battered by decades of an authoritarian regime, living in a country nearly destroyed by war, the working class managed to rise and set up a society with nearly half a million workers.

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