The Abolition of the Exploitation of Man By Man
Today is the 144th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune.
One of the most astonishing, inspiring, bitter, tragic, extraordinary, and powerful events in human history, the very nature of the Commune is the subject of intense and violent debate, and has been since its first barricade went up. Conservatives, monarchists, capitalists, and traditionalists cite it as one of humanity’s most grave errors, setting the tone for more than a century of murder and oppression by bloodthirsty Reds; anarchists, socialists, communists, and leftists of every stripe all seem to believe that it was something remarkable, but argue over who it belongs to, whether it was a grand failure or a doomed victory, who was responsible for its downfall and who was to blame for its defeat, and whether or not it represents the ideal embodiment of their chosen ideology or the first and worst perversion of it.
The Commune was a legacy of the proto-anarchist Proudhon; it was a huge influence on the evolving ideas of Marx; and it was a foundational event for Lenin, who is said to have celebrated wildly on the day the revolution he triggered outlasted the lifespan of the phenomenal eruption of March 1871. It is often cited as the very first revolution of the working class, as the first organized and at least somewhat successful attempt by ordinary people to throw off the rulership of both the monarchists and the bourgeoisie. This is not entirely true; other attempts at self-governance had been made before, to varying degrees of success, and Britain, in the days leading up to its Civil War, had seen a number of attempts — by Lollards, Diggers, Levellers, and other like-minded groups — to establish a communal society where the peoples’ will would be the law of the land and establish “a common treasury for all”, where property would be a sin and private profit a heresy.
But while they opposed the hypocrisy and greed of the established church, the Diggers and their kin were essentially Christian in nature, believing their form of utopian proto-socialism to be a matter of Scripture and a manifestation of the true will of God. The Communards held no such illusions, and if they were divided on other matters, they were resolutely anti-clerical. The Church had not just failed them; it had lied to them, held them back, and even murdered them. They no longer believed in pie in the sky. They resented the gaudy, ostentatious wealth of the Church, and they loathed the fact that the only way their children could hope to be educated was at the feet of the priests and nuns who would serve up a rich helping of religious, monarchist, and bourgeoisie propaganda along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The desire to break the Catholic monopoly on education was one of the Commune’s most fascinating and unique properties. From the beginning, it was a primary tenet of the Communards, who organized into self-governing bodies far faster than anyone could have possibly anticipated, putting the lie to theories of expertise and slanders about the incompetency of the working classes. Another vital component was the Commune’s surprising commitment to feminism; at a time when universal suffrage was still a nascent movement and no major nation had granted women the right to vote, the Commune extended the franchise to all women, and they responded by becoming some of the most valiant and fearless advocates of the new world they envisioned. Women took to the streets to spread the gospel of democratic socialism; they manned the barricades, fired guns, loaded cannons, and hurled fire-bombs; they educated children, made clothes, worked in shops and factories, and performed every task required of them, instantly leaving behind twenty centuries of sexual segregation. Louise Michel, “the Red Virgin”, organized prostitutes — “the most pitiful of the old order’s victims” — into a nursing corps, and preached that the participation of women was not an incidental, but an essential, component of the revolution.
As C.L.R. James has pointed out, the most important aspect of the Commune is that it was “first and foremost, a democracy, elected by universal suffrage”. There was no aspect of communal life that was not decided during those three glorious months by the people whose lives those decisions would effect. And this was no democratic abstraction, no republic of easily corrupted representatives who lived and worked great distances from the people they claimed to stand for; this was a direct and immediate democracy of necessity in a city of nearly two million people.
Ravaged by war, impoverished by the machinations of royalty and rich, bereaved, besieged, and taken for granted, the people of Paris — almost entirely without planning, without plotting, with nothing more than a spontaneous manifestation of popular will and a breaking point for the amount of abuse they were willing to take that was finally reached — created the most stunning mass uprising that had ever occurred. Less than ten years after Americans had shed blood by the tens of thousands to establish with finality the question of whether or not human beings could be legally kept as property, the citizens of Paris rose up and declared that all people should have all rights, that there could be no question of inequality of opportunity, education, liberty, or justice based not just on race or nationality, but on birth or class or wealth or station. The Paris Commune demanded the impossible a century before most of the rest of the world made fumbling steps towards civil rights, and they got it.
Did the Commune ask for too much too soon? Perhaps. So did Jesus. But it is to be remembered by everyone who looks at this remarkable event that it did not fail because it was not ready to carry out its own promises. It did not fail because its people had not planned sufficiently, or because they lacked a program to follow or the collective will to follow it. It did not fail because it fell to infighting, squabbling, or greed. It failed because all of Europe, including countries that only weeks before had been mortal enemies, saw that it was entirely possible for ordinary people to govern themselves, meet their own needs, and strip the church, the crown, and the rich of the wealth and power they had held by force for so long. They knew this could not be allowed, and so they did to the Communards what the lords did to the Diggers: struck them down and murdered them where they stood. 25,000 Parisians paid the price with their lives for proving that they could run their city better than anyone.
Today is the day to remember this extraordinary uprising. But today is also the day to realize that it was only exceptional because we let it be exceptional. Every day in every city, a chance is waiting to make the Commune happen again, and to rewrite it with a different ending. The Communards did not fight because they were smarter or stronger or braver than we are. They fought because they made the decision to fight, and while their defeat was bitter, their victory was unimaginably sweet. We have lost the taste of that flavor of victory. I do not hope much for the future anymore, but I still believe that if we taste that sweetness again, we will do great things to keep tasting it.