Pulling down the Vendome Column

28 03 2007

.

On this day (28 March), in 1871 the citizens of Paris proclaimed the first socialist government of this world. The Paris Commune, as it came to be called, was an epoch making effort by the workers and middle classes of Paris to build a new form of government which would be democratic, just and transcend the narrow walls of nationalism. Despite massive popular support, the Paris Commune finally fell fifty five days later on May 21, 1871, to the combined might of the Prussian army of Bismarck and the army of the French right wing based in Versailles.

The establishment of the Paris Commune was an earth shaking event of the nineteenth century. Till then political movements and ideologies which had opposed capitalism had never controlled government or captured State power. The Paris Commune proved that a well organised and motivated working class could actually smash the capitalist, and other class based, States and establish a new form of government based on radically different principles. The Paris Commune, despite its bloody defeat, gave hope to the exploited and oppressed people of Europe and the world that success was possible. It also was a stark warning to the established powers that the threat of communism was not idle chatter.

When we speak of the Paris Commune, it should be remembered that for the majority of the working people conditions in nineteenth century Europe were similar to what working people face in countries like Pakistan and India today. A large majority of people worked long hours in unsafe workplaces with wages barely enough to survive, were dominated by religious superstitions, their children forced to work from a young age without access to education, lacking legal protection and faced with the failure of democracy to improve their lives.

In such contexts, the government of the French “Second Empire”, led by “Emperor” Louis Bonaparte III, attempted an invasion of Bismark’s Prussia (today’s Germany) which proved a disaster. Soon enough the French army was decisively defeated and the Prussian lay siege to Paris. This military failure led Bonaparte III’s fall as French Emperor. The vacuum caused by his fall was filled by a “Government of National Defence” and by worker led committees or Communes all over Paris and some other parts of France in a dyarchy of government power which was to be mirrored, almost half a century later, in 1917 Russia.

When this “Government of National Defence” attempted to cut a deal with the Prussians, the citizens of Paris revolted under the leadership of the Communes. The Paris Commune proclaimed,

The proletarians of Paris, in the midst of the defeats and betrayals of the ruling class, have come to understand that they must save the situation by taking the conduct of public affairs into their own hands… They have realised that it is their highest duty and their absolute right to make themselves the masters of their own fate and to seize the power of the government.

The “Government of National Defence” had to run away from Paris to Versailles and the government in Paris came into the hands of its citizens organised in Communes.

What did these “masters of their own fate” do which set them so apart from other masters?

The Paris Commune “assured the worker the full value of his labor”, made education free and secular and gave “the absolute guarantee of individual’s freedom and freedom of conscience.” It was the first government without a standing army or a fixed bureaucracy. All officials were elected by the Communes, could be recalled by popular vote and were paid workmen wages. It burnt the guillotine and brought down the column of Vendome which it condemned as a symbol of national chauvinism. This column was built in 1808 using metal from the cannons supposedly captured by Napoleon I in his wars. Not only that, by electing foreigners as its officials because, as its proclamation announced, “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic”, the Paris Commune showed that national boundaries were irrelevant to a people’s government.

As Marx wrote later,

It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.

But the Commune was also weighed down heavily by “the traditions of dead generations”. This was most acutely visible in its denial of vote to women as well as the inability to work out a clear road map for militarily defeating its opponents and shoring up its power. Despite the fact that women played a heroic role in the work of the commune as well as in the military fight at the barricades they were denied political equality. Moreover, the Commune could not take decisive action on many of its political proclamations and wavered in taking the war to the enemy (both French and Prussian), remaining content to merely defending Paris. These weaknesses contributed to its eventual defeat and the massacre of tens of thousands of communards by the army of Versailles and Prussia when they re-took the city.

A hundred and thirty six years after the proclamation of the Paris Commune the world has radically changed. In this interregnum governments calling themselves communist and inspired by the ideologies of Marx and Lenin came up in various parts of the world, only to return to the condescending gaze of history. Today, communism is perceived, more often than not, as an anachronism at best or a manifesto of authoritarianism and poverty at worst.

In this context, while it is important to commemorate the victories of the past, it is equally, if not more, important to find answers to the failure of socialism and communism as an alternative form of government on a global scale. This task is specially incumbent on those who claim an affiliation to the ideas and ideals of socialism and communism.

We need to answer why a from of government which started off by guaranteeing the individual’s freedom and freedom of conscience came to be associated with political systems which have been repressive of individual freedom and have denied basic freedom of conscience to its citizens. It has to answer why, even after a century and half, it has not been able to provide a comprehensive manifesto for women’s emancipation. It must answer why it has made prophets out of its leaders who themselves were among the greatest iconoclasts and heretics known to modern times. The left movement must answer why it has allowed itself to be imprisoned so definitively within the narrow domestic walls of nationalism.

When will we socialists and communists of the twentieth century pull down our own Vendome column of coagulated jargon, rituals and formulas and take up Marx’s clarion call,

…It is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

~ ~ ~

A slightly different version of this was published in The Post on 28 March, 2007.

.

 

Advertisements

Actions

Information

5 responses

30 03 2007
Srini

Perhaps the fall of the Paris Commune itself contains the seed of your doubts about the strict “Democratic Centralism” that abound the later revolutionary governments??

Perhaps I should re-read, “What is to be done” and re-understand Leninist notions of democracy.

30 03 2007
Anindya Mukherjee

Tomar Paris Commune nie lekha ta porlam. Khub bhalo laglo.
Khub somoyopojogi.

31 03 2007
unni

Paris Commune had an inherent weakness, it lacked the support of rural peasants, and it was largely an urban insurrection. Marx himself had pointed out this fact. Also the political alliance that lead the insurrection was a motley formation, comprising of all flavors of Anarchism, with Prudhonites forming the majority. It certainly missed the political vision and organization to resist defend the revolution.

Although Paris Commune was brought down, it acted as a beacon for all revolutionaries of the world, henceforth. Bolsheviks learned a great lesson from this incident and the evolution of democratic centralism was certainly an organizational attempt to overcome
the weakness that was manifested in Paris Commune.

You are correct in pointing out that same critical approach should be followed when we analyze the failure of socialist regimes in 21st century. And the major issues consist of enriching the socialist democracy and legality, adherence to internationalism, ways to preempt the emergence of a bureaucracy and coexistence and competition with Capitalist world,at economic front.

In short, its an excellent article with a vision.
Thanks&Salutes Comrade.

31 03 2007
kronstadter

Aniket,

You raised some very valid points, especially when you talk about ruthless criticism.

That said, I have some criticism to present. 😛

You said:

In this context, while it is important to commemorate the victories of the past, it is equally, if not more, important to find answers to the failure of socialism and communism as an alternative form of government on a global scale. This task is specially incumbent on those who claim an affiliation to the ideas and ideals of socialism and communism.

First, the whole idea of socialism “failing” is dangerously close to the Liberal view, which sees socialism as some sort of alternative to capitalism. We, as Marxists, view socialism as the natural result of the class struggle, and consequently, we must analyze its success or failure in terms of the class struggle, not as a system by itself.

When “socialism failed”, and when the Liberals, Conservatives and right-opportunist Social Democrats trumpet that, it merely implies that the ruling-class has won one phase of the class conflict.

The class struggle didn’t stop just because a few socialist states collapsed due to internal coups by the bourgeoisie or external pressure from the imperialist camp. The class struggle still continues, imperialism still exists, exploitation is still very real. We as Marxists have no right to say that “socialism failed” or was “defeated”, because by being pessimistic, we are telling the working-class that it has lost. We simply have no right to do so. If we wish to be defeatists or right-opportunists, it would be better that we never brought such poisonous ideas into the working-class movement. They will find other means to continue the fight.

If the working-class struggle suffered reverses and defeats last century, it was because their leaders betrayed them, and it was because the imperialist camp proved too strong. The revolutionary bourgeoisie itself had to struggle for many decades to seize power in Europe and elsewhere.

Further, you say:

We need to answer why a from of government which started off by guaranteeing the individual’s freedom and freedom of conscience came to be associated with political systems which have been repressive of individual freedom and have denied basic freedom of conscience to its citizens.

No, the dictatorship of the proleteriat doesn’t have to guarantee all individual freedom. While the class struggle continues, absolute freedom cannot exist. Let’s get back to Earth please…we’re talking class WARFARE here.

It has to answer why, even after a century and half, it has not been able to provide a comprehensive manifesto for women’s emancipation.

The feminist movement was taken up by communists from the beginning. Surely you are familiar with the achievements of revolutionary socialism?

The Soviet Union itself was the first country to permit abortion freely, and encourage women to come ahead in every field possible, from science and technology to the military.
Let’s be fair. The working-class movement has been a primary advocate of womens’ rights.

It must answer why it has made prophets out of its leaders who themselves were among the greatest iconoclasts and heretics known to modern times.

I totally agree there.

The left movement must answer why it has allowed itself to be imprisoned so definitively within the narrow domestic walls of nationalism.

Perhaps that statement needs to be explained further. Proleterian internationalism is best served by working for the victory of the working-class in one’s own region/country/nation, and supporting this line abroad.

Isn’t it?

Nationalism was a vital part of the anti-imperialist struggle in the 20th century, and continues to be so. That is understandable.

22 12 2008
Joshua Green

Here is my personal oppinion: Paris Commune had an inherent weakness, it lacked the support of rural peasants, and it was largely an urban insurrection. Marx himself had pointed out this fact. Also the political alliance that lead the insurrection was a motley formation, comprising of all flavors of Anarchism, with Prudhonites forming the majority. It certainly missed the political vision and organization to resist defend the revolution.

Although Paris Commune was brought down, it acted as a beacon for all revolutionaries of the world, henceforth. Bolsheviks learned a great lesson from this incident and the evolution of democratic centralism was certainly an organizational attempt to overcome
the weakness that was manifested in Paris Commune.

You are correct in pointing out that same critical approach should be followed when we analyze the failure of socialist regimes in 21st century. And the major issues consist of enriching the socialist democracy and legality, adherence to internationalism, ways to preempt the emergence of a bureaucracy and coexistence and competition with Capitalist world,at economic front.

In short, its an excellent article with a vision.

And that is my personal authentic oppinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: