Paris Commune

Paris Commune and the Socialist Revolution

The Paris Commune of 1871 was one of the world's first attempts at implementing the principles of a socialist society. Following on the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, the country collapsed into near anarchy. Paris, in particular, became untenable for the newly constituted Government of National Defense -- an organization with royalist leanings. The French capital, always a focus for new and often radical ideas, was quickly taken over by a government comprised of its own city council, the commune. Together the Communards represented the coming together of the variety of leftist movements and ideologies that had grown up during the course of the Nineteenth Century. In a general sense, Communards were both socialists and anarchists. The socialists were largely inspired by the ideas of Karl Marx, and sought a society of, and for, the workers. The anarchists took these ideas even further, dreaming of an entirely stateless society in which every man and woman would be free to pursue his or her own choices and goals. The Communards sought to replace traditional religious values with those of secular humanism. In particular, certain factions of the Communards favored an overturning of ages-old concepts of marriage, childrearing, and education. Equality of opportunity and an elimination of economic disparity were primary concerns of all groups involved in the short-lived revolution. Those who participated in the Commune saw themselves as continuing the earlier revolution that had begun in 1789. They sought to fulfill the aims of that revolution and to spread them from Paris to the entire world. Ultimately, the Paris Commune of 1871, and the brief, but bloody, civil war it inspired represented a battle between two very different concepts of civilization, one highly traditional, and the other new and controversial.

In a curious way, the Paris Commune and its socialistic and anarchistic ideals was a direct outgrowth of the prior regime of Napoleon III. Louis Napoleon had employed the trick of the plebiscite -- as to some extent had his more famous namesake -- to solidify the control of his regime, and to implement far-reaching changes in the fabric of French life.

Frenchmen became accustomed to voting on the various questions of national life, thus creating a sense that somehow each and every citizen was directly involved in the shaping of that same life. The Commune came to power in reaction to the German intent to stage a triumphal march through the streets of Paris. This celebration of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War stirred deep sentiments of French patriotism, and raised profound questions in regard to French national identity. The Emperor was gone, and now France needed to formulate a new image, and to decide upon its goals for the future. In Paris especially, the people saw itself as both the defenders and representatives of the "real" France. It was they who had held out for months against the German siege, only to watch as their nation went down in defeat. The attempt on the part of the French Government to retrieve the cannons seized by the National Guard only further exacerbated the differences between the opinions of "the people" on the on hand, and "the government" on the other. The people of Paris believed that they had earned the right to govern themselves, and France.

The Paris Commune consisted of a cross-section of skilled tradesmen and white collar workers, with a significant number of women participating. The officials of the bureaucracy and the regular army were absent from the new regime. Conceived of as a genuinely democratic and popular movement, the "Commune," the French term for the basic unit of local government, signified grass-roots democracy, and also consciously recalled the first revolutionary Paris Commune of 1792; it did not imply communism. The red flag and the 1793 revolutionary calendar were adopted…., The cheering, singing and marching crowds believed that "the Free City of Paris" would begin a new era as a "democratic and social republic."

Organization under the Commune quickly became extremely localized in nature. Each of the quarters, or arrondissements, of Paris was soon governed under its own semi-autonomous system. Communards proposed a wide variety of ambitious social reforms, including free public education for all, a complete separation of church and state, and a public order maintained directly by the people themselves. The regular army was abolished and the highly-regimented French civil service was replaced by groups of citizens acting freely in their own interests. As such, the working people of Paris developed a powerful sense of class consciousness, one that did not go unnoticed by Karl Marx in his own study of the France's brief socialist revolution.

The bulk of the changes proposed by the Communards dovetailed almost perfectly with Marx's own ideas on the ideal society. Marx himself was highly interested in understanding the precise pattern of implementation of ideas, and how these ideas were reflected in the Communards' understanding of themselves and their world. He produced a questionnaire that endeavored to discover how the workers viewed themselves, what they saw as their class and class interest, and more specifically, the specifics of their material existences, including wages, number of hours worked, working conditions, and so on.

Leaders of the commune, such as the bookbinder, Eugene Verlin, had participated in the socialist International Working Men's Association. The conditions against which the Commune fought were, Marx believed, representative of the plight of the workingman all over the industrialized world. The General Council of the First International described the Franco-Prussian War as a fratricidal conflict that pitted the workers of one nation against those of another.

The fall of Napoleon III, and his replacement by the Paris Commune was, in Marx's eyes, a first battle in the war to bring the socialist revolution to all the peoples of the world. Marx laid the failure of the old system implicitly at the feet of the forces of bourgeois reaction, as represented by the erstwhile Second Empire. Prussia had performed a crucial role in overturning that corrupt government, but had placed the German workers in the position of aggressors once Prussia had continued its advance into French territory.

In other words, Marx already saw the usefulness of employing the forces of reaction in the cause of furthering the revolution. The concerns of the Communards were universal concerns that would lead to universal changes throughout industrial society. The connections between men like Verlin, and the worldwide socialist movement, guaranteed that the goals of the Commune were kept in line with those of revolutionaries everywhere. Paris would be a proving ground for policies and techniques.

Yet while Marx saw the Communards as laying the groundwork for an authoritative re-working of the existing society, the anarchist movement also laid claim to many of the Commune's goals. Anarchists reacted viscerally to the challenges of the German invasion. Like their socialist comrades, they saw German ambitions vis-a-vis France as an assault on the rights and liberties of individual human beings. Many of the Communards were followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Though already dead by the time of the Paris Commune, Proudhon's ideas echoed through the actions of many its members. Proudhon was for the working man, the small farmer and artisan. He despised the authoritarianism that had been represented by both Louis Napoleon and the German Empire. At the same time, his ideas gave inspiration to the anarchistic elements within the revolution. Whereas Marx saw the need for a firm guiding hand -- one that would use brute force when necessary -- the Proudhonists preferred not only more peaceful means, but also a government that, like that being created by the Commune was, in many ways, not much of a government at all. As stated above, the separate parts of Paris largely went their own way during the months of the Commune, and the formal functionaries that typically mark an actual state apparatus were largely absent from Communard organizations. Still another legacy of Proudhon's brought the socialists and the anarchists closer together: Proudhon had seen the rise of new, unified states in Germany and Italy as threats to France. He also espoused a strong sense of regionalism within France itself, believing in a natural antagonism between the country's various regions, and the capital.

Thus, the Proudhonists were both believers in the universality of workers' rights, and also in the persistent existence of distinct national and regional identities.

As so many of the Communards were people like the painter, Gustave Courbet, it was inevitable that many purely cultural concerns would rise move to the forefront during the months of the revolution. Artists and writers portray not merely the general human condition, but also that which is well-known to them as individuals and members of a particular society or social group. Courbet was one of the leading figures of the realist school, and his works captured the look and feel of the French countryside and people. The emotionalism of many of his portrayals speaks to a deep…