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