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Remembering the Paris Commune

Zachary Lohnes

March 18, 2013

March 18, 1871 was the beginning of the Paris Commune, the first attempt at worker's democracy. Revolutionary in all regards, the Commune radically redesigned the lives of Parisians, giving the world a glimpse of workers' power and democracy in action.
War and revolution
Under the reign of Napoleon III, France, in 1870, declared war upon Prime Minister Otto Van Bismark and his united Prussian lands. But the French army was soon overcome by the better-trained and better-armed Prussian forces. On September 2, French forces were routed, and soon after, Napoleon and his army were trapped and captured. When news of the surrender hit Paris on September 4, Parisian workers stormed the Palais Bourbon and forced Napoleon's Legislative Assembly to proclaim the fall of the Empire. By that evening, the Third Republic, led by the Government of National Defense, was established at the Hotel de Ville (Paris`s city hall).
Established to continue the war effort against Prussia, the GND, led by a small group of conservative bourgeois politicians, more than anything feared the Parisian peasant and working classes, and were soon drawing up plans to capitulate and leave the Prussians to destroy the workers of Paris. On September 19, two Prussian armies launched what began the long siege of Paris. In the 15 days between the GND coup d’état and the start of the siege, France was able to assemble several army battalions inside Parisian walls. These, combined with the lower class masses of unemployed Parisians (who, desperate for any source of income took up arms with the GDP, one of the few paying jobs left in the city), equaled approximately 300,000.
On January 28, 1871, after four long months of besiegement, the Government of National Defense announced the surrender of Paris. The conservative politician Adolf Thiers came to power, paying five billion francs in indemnities to Prussia while passing an assortment of unpopular laws against the poor majority--including the Law of Maturities (which decreed that all owed rent and public debts within Paris, previously suspended due to the war, were to be paid, in full, within 48 hours).
Worker's power
On March 18, Thiers sent General Lacomte with troops to disarm the workers defending Paris, attempting to seize the National Guard’s cannons that guarded the northern Paris hill Montmartre. Church bells sounded the alarm, and droves of Parisian workers, peasants, housewives and their children mixed with the government soldiers and formed a barricade. When Lacomte gave the order to fire on the crowd, soldiers refused and instead killed him.
Soon after, most of the French bourgeoisie along with Theirs and his national assembly, fearing for their lives, fled Paris for Versailles. Thousands of National Guard troops soon followed, and it is this day, March 18, on which the Civil War began. The Prussians announced its support and protection of the abdicated National Guard parliament, and announced its renewed assault upon Paris.
In contrast though, the masses of Paris became the masters of the city. On March 26, 1871, with the election of a municipal council of workers and soldiers, the Paris Commune--the first workers government in Europe--was elected. A Central Committee of the National Guard (In collaboration the Paris Commune) was elected, proclaming:
“The proletarians of the capital, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking the direction of public affairs into their own hands.…The workingmen, those who produce everything and enjoy nothing, those who suffer poverty in the midst of the accumulation of products that are the fruit of their labor and toil, will they always be exposed to outrage?… The bourgeoisie, their seniors, which accomplished its emancipation three-quarters of a century ago and preceded them in the way of revolution, does it not understand that today the time has come for the emancipation of the proletariat?”
Flying the red flag, the committee began organizing the city's two million people. The new government, instead of taking hold of the old state machinery, created new organs of power based on direct workers’ control--organizing factories as cooperative societies. It separated Church and State, designated a maximum salary for Commune employees, challenged the male domination institutions. As Karl Marx documented in his seminal work "The Civil War in France":
“Having once got rid of the standing army and the police… The whole of the educational Institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it. The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subservience to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.”
Through the remaining days of April, the Versailles army furiously built up its army, all the while continuing its skirmishes with the National Guard forces. Protests demanding an immediate march upon Versailles erupted sporadically, but in the central committee's refusal to face the problem as the people demanded, their downfall grew nearer. As Marx later wrote: "In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers... the Central Committee made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles, then completely helpless, and thus putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers."
On May 21, after several weeks of shelling by troops from Versailles, the anti-revolutionaries began streaming into Paris. Parisian workers and National Guardsmen fought back desperately, but, with no true planned defense of the city, each city quarter was overcome in turn. Any prisoner in possession of a weapon, or suspected of fighting, was summarily executed. With the refusal by Thiers of any negotiations with the Commune, the following seven day's played out as one of the darkest moments in French history. In what became known as the "bloody week", an estimated 25,000-30,000 Parisian working class were slaughtered. With the firing of the last bullet in the late afternoon of May 28 came the bloody cleanup and restoration of Paris. Mass graves were dug across the city. The same ramparts and defense lines that the Parisian population had built up and died upon during the civil war were soon being rebuilt by these same hands, and the city remained under martial law for the next five years.
The grassroots movement that sparked the revolution of 1871 grew out of anger at the abuses of the ruling class and unequal distribution of the wealth. The revolution that established the first worker's state uprooted society in a way never previously known, accomplishing in less than 60 days: dissolving the police and other ruling institutions and replacing them with a democratic commune combining executive and legislative powers, with assemblies of delegates subject to instant recall and paid the wage of the average worker. As one of the Commune members said, "We hear no longer of assassination, theft, and personal assault; it seems indeed as if the police had dragged along with it to Versailles all its Conservative friends.” While failing to challenge the Versailles government and paying the ultimate price, the Commune shows a glimpse of what's possible with worker's power and democracy.

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