What We Can Learn From The Paris Commune
As we discussed last week, we can’t repeat the past, but we can take inspiration from it. Our current histories justify the status quo, but developing alternative histories that centre different historical moments can help to inspire movements toward a better world. Today, that moment is the Paris Commune.
In the words of Karl Marx, the Commune was “a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class.” Despite being ruthlessly crushed after little more than two months, the history of the Commune and the program it tried to rapidly put into place have served as inspiration to socialist and communist movements ever since.
Marx described what the Parisians did as akin to “storming heaven,” reflecting the material reality of their revolution, but also the mental impact of their act of defiance against the French ruling class. Vladimir Lenin, among those who drew from that historical rupture, wrote, “The sacrifices of the Commune, heavy as they were, are made up for by its significance for the general struggle of the proletariat.”
The Commune emerged from France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Prussians handily crushed the French forces and put Paris under a siege for four months until it surrendered in January 1871. Paris itself was not defended by the French Army, but rather by an armed group of citizens called the National Guard, which came from the middle and working classes and had much more radical political views.
The experience of the siege, and the war itself, had created a sense of solidarity among Parisians, so when the army came to seize the Guard’s cannons, which had been paid for by the working class, the city turned on the discredited establishment.
In March, the French government and army fled to Versailles, and the National Guard took control of the city, declaring the establishment of the Commune. In the following weeks, elections were held through universal suffrage to elect a radical governing body that began altering the social and economic life of Paris in service of the working class.
Given the conditions in which the Commune emerged, there was little preparation for what this radical government would do. Kristin Ross, author of Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, explains that it was “a working laboratory of political inventions, improvised on the spot or hobbled together out of past scenarios and phrases, reconfigured as need be, and fed by desires awakened in the popular reunions at the end of the Empire.”
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In short, they figured things out as they went, and while there were mistakes that socialists have argued over for more than a century, there were also important successes. As I reviewed the history for this issue, I was struck by the continued relevance of many of their policies.
The Commune began the process of dismantling the state apparatus of the previous regime, including the abolition of the standing army in favour of the National Guard, and beginning to pull apart the bureaucratic and legal system that served the ruling class.
It also separated church from state, and reopened abandoned workplaces as cooperatives under worker control, with the salaries of all public officials set at the same rate as the working class. They also implemented a maximum wage of 6,000 francs — I can’t tell you what that would be in today’s dollars.
But what I really want to focus on is the social policies, which have a lot of resonance to the discussions of public luxuries that have occupied this newsletter thus far.
The working class was quite poor already, but then suffered through a war, a siege and then another siege, this time from the French Army itself. Recognizing their financial pain, the Commune waived rents for six months. They also banned pawn shops, which they saw as exploiting the poor in a desperate moment.
But the Communards also had a vision for a better society. Ross explains that they renewed the public libraries that were abused by the elite, and two important women in the Commune — Marie Verdure and Élie Ducoudray — laid out a plan for a public daycare system that became the inspiration for that which operates in France today.
Beyond that, they were concerned with the education of children. As Ross asks, “How does education change, for example, if the community one is being educated for is not the nation but rather the Universal Republic or the Republic of Workers?”
Under the Commune, education was not only free, compulsory and secular, but also concerned with ensuring all children received an “integral education” where they developed their minds and learned manual skills that would serve them in their lives. To this end, teachers were not just trained professors, but “any skilled worker older than the age of 40 who wished to apply.”
Not long before the Commune was brutally suppressed by the French army, the salaries of male and female teachers were equalized as part of a broader effort to give equal rights to women. Lizzie O’Shea, author of Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology, writes that, “Women achieved positions of power in the administration of the Commune that were unprecedented for the period.”
Finally, the Commune also recognized that beauty and luxury couldn’t be the sole domain of the wealthy. Along with empowering artists, the Commune sought to ensure the working class wasn’t just expected to do manual labour, but could participate in the creation of art itself.
Museums were placed under the control of artists and there was a recognition that art should be used to beautify and enhance shared public spaces, “reconfiguring art to be fully integrated into everyday life,” according to Ross. That also meant remaking the public sphere to reflect the norms of the new society. To that end, the Commune tore down the Victory Column that celebrated Napoleon’s wars, which Friedrich Engels called “a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred.”
The achievements of the Commune cannot, however, be separated from the brutality that wiped it out of existence. The French Army re-entered Paris on May 21 and began a slaughter that continued for seven days, killing tens of thousands of Communards, women and children included. Those seven days are now known as the “Bloody Week,” and if you go to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris you can find a plaque commemorating those who died.
In our neoliberal present, even in the midst of this world-shattering pandemic, imagining an alternative way of organizing society can still seem daunting. Despite the pain that people are feeling, there’s still an expectation they’ll pay their bills, go to work and continue being a cog to keep the capitalist machine running, while the meagre social benefits that were instituted are deemed temporary, to be removed once we’re back to “normal” — whatever that is anymore.
But the Commune shows us just how rapidly things can change once people are truly fed up and can come together to make demands. Though, as we’ve discussed, one of the successes of modern capitalists is the separation and alienation they’ve literally built into our cities and towns, and that needs to be overcome.
I’ll end this issue with a quote from Ross, who asserts the inspirational power of the Commune, even all these years later:
More important than any laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions—first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic or intellectual labor. The world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images. When that division is overcome, as it was under the Commune, or as it is conveyed in the phrase ‘communal luxury’, what matters more than any images conveyed, laws passed, or institutions founded are the capacities set in motion. You do not have to start at the beginning—you can start anywhere.
Perspectives from around the world
Davide Mastracci, managing editor of Passage, explains how Chrystia Freeland’s refusal to account for her grandfather being a Nazi collaborator is relevant to her foreign policy stance.
John Clarke, a retired organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, casts doubt on the Liberals’ promise of an economic reset in response to the pandemic.
John-Henry Harter, a lecturer at Simon Fraser University, breaks down the Green Party leadership election and whether they may elect a socialist leader.
Mindy Isser, a Philadelphia-based organizer, makes a personal and political case for the post office.
Xavi Ferrer, Elena Arrontes and the Collective for Global Municipalism, explain how the success of left and green parties in the local municipal elections shows the potential for municipalism.
Tess Pinto, a British historian, explains the rise and fall of Britain’s cooperative movement and the ambitious building projects it left behind. This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to “Resource Radicals” author Thea Riofrancos about the importance of understanding tech’s supply chains and why a more equitable and collective society would be less resource-intensive.