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Iain MCKAY: The Paris Commune

Monday 14 March 2016

March 18th marks the 130th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The Commune of 1871 played an important role in the development of both anarchist ideas and the movement and so should be remembered and, equally as important, learnt from.

The Paris Commune was created after France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war. The French government tried to send in troops to regain the Parisian National Guard’s cannon to prevent it from falling into the hands of the population. The soldiers refused to fire on the jeering crowd and turned their weapons on their officers. This was March 18th; the Commune had begun.

In the free elections called by the Parisian National Guard, the citizens of Paris elected a council made up of a majority of Jacobins and Republicans and a minority of socialists (mostly Blanquists—authoritarian socialists—and followers of the anarchist Proudhon). This council proclaimed Paris autonomous and desired to recreate France as a confederation of communes (i.e. communities). Within the Commune, the elected council people were recallable and paid an average wage. In addition, they had to report back to the people who had elected them and were subject to recall by electors if they did not carry out their mandates.

Why this development caught the imagination of anarchists is clear—it has strong similarities with anarchist ideas. In fact, the example of the Paris Commune was in many ways similar to how Bakunin had predicted that a revolution would have to occur—a major city declaring itself autonomous, organising itself, leading by example, and urging the rest of the planet to follow it. (See "Letter to Albert Richards" in Bakunin on Anarchism). The Paris Commune began the process of creating a new society, one organised from the bottom up. As Bakunin commented at the time:

"revolutionary socialism [i.e. anarchism] has just attempted its first striking and practical demonstration in the Paris Commune" [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 263]

Free Association

Many anarchists played a role within the Commune—for example Louise Michel, the Reclus brothers, and Eugene Varlin (the latter murdered in the repression afterwards). As for the reforms initiated by the Commune, such as the re-opening of workplaces as co- operatives, anarchists can see their ideas of associated labour beginning to be realised. By May, 43 workplaces were co- operatively run and the Louvre Museum was a munitions factory run by a workers’ council. Echoing Proudhon, a meeting of the Mechanics Union and the Association of Metal Workers argued that "our economic emancipation... can only be obtained through the formation of workers’ associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage earners to that of associates." They instructed their delegates to the Commune’s Commission on Labour Organisation to support the following objectives:

"The abolition of the exploitation of man by man, the last vestige of slavery;

"The organisation of labour in mutual associations and inalienable capital."

In this way, they hoped to ensure that "equality must not be an empty word" in the Commune. [The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, Eugene Schulkind (ed.), p. 164] The Engineers Union voted at a meeting on 23rd of April that since the aim of the Commune should be "economic emancipation" it should "organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility" in order "to suppress the exploitation of man by man." [quoted by Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871, pp. 263-4]

Thus in the commune the theory of associated production expounded by Proudhon and Bakunin became consciously revolutionary practice.

In the Commune’s call for federalism and autonomy, anarchists see their "federative alliance of all working men’s associations" which will "constitute the Commune" and be the basis of "the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces" which will "organise a revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction... [and for] self-defence." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170-1] This can be seen by the Commune’s "Declaration to the French People" echoing anarchist ideas. It saw the "political unity" of society as being based on "the voluntary association of all local initiatives, the free and spontaneous concourse of all individual energies for the common aim, the well-being, the liberty and the security of all." [quoted by Edwards, Op. Cit., p. 218] The new society envisioned by the communards was one based on the "absolute autonomy of the Commune... assuring to each its integral rights and to each Frenchman the full exercise of his aptitudes, as a man, a citizen and a labourer. The autonomy of the Commune will have for its limits only the equal autonomy of all other communes adhering to the contract; their association must ensure the liberty of France." ["Declaration to the French People", quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, pp. 276-7] With its vision of a confederation of communes, Bakunin was correct to assert that the Paris Commune was "a bold, clearly formulated negation of the State." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 264]

Moreover, the Commune’s ideas on federation obviously reflected the influence of Proudhon on French radical ideas. Indeed, the Commune’s vision of a communal France based on a federation of delegates bound by imperative mandates issued by their electors and subject to recall at any moment echoes Bakunin’s and Proudhon’s ideas (Proudhon, like Bakunin, had argued in favour of the "implementation of the binding mandate" in 1848 [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 63] and for federation of communes). Thus both economically and politically the Paris Commune was heavily influenced by anarchist ideas.

Marx and the Commune.

Karl Marx, of course, claimed the Paris Commune as confirmation of his ideas. Indeed, Engels called it the first example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." Marx himself celebrated the Commune as "the political form, at last discovered, under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour," and its use of delegates "at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions)." He did not comment that this had been advocated by Bakunin and Proudhon for years previously. Similarly, Marx mentions the "rough sketch of national organisation" produced by the Commune, yet fails to quote the obviously federalist "Declaration to the French People" directly. Anarchist K.J. Kenafick states the obvious:

"A comparison will show that the programme set out is... the system of Federalism, which Bakunin had been advocating for years, and which had first been enunciated by Proudhon. The Proudhonists... exercised considerable influence in the Commune. This ’political form’ was therefore not ’at last’ discovered; it had been discovered years ago; and now it was proven to be correct by the very fact that in the crisis the Paris workers adopted it almost automatically, under the pressure of circumstance, rather than as the result of theory, as being the form most suitable to express working class aspirations." [Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 212-3]

Similarly, the Commune was not the product of the proletariat (factory workers). Later Marxists argue that only 10 percent of the Paris Workers were working in large-scale factories. The rest were in artisan or semi-artisan workplaces. Indeed, Marx stated in 1866 that the French workers were "corrupted" by "Proudhonist" ideas, "particularly those of Paris, who as workers in luxury trades are strongly attached, without knowing it [!], to the old rubbish." [Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism, pp. 45-46] Five years later, these workers (still obviously influenced by "the old rubbish") created "the political form" of "the economic emancipation of labour." How can the Paris Commune be the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" when 35 members of the Commune’s council were artisans and only 4 or 5 were industrial workers (i.e. proletarians)? Hard to attack anarchists for being "petty-bourgeois" when the Paris Commune was created by people of that class!

In addition the "old rubbish" the Parisian workers supported was very much ahead of its time. In 1869 the delegate of the Parisian Construction Workers’ Trade Union argued that "[a]ssociation of the different corporations [labour unions] on the basis of town or country... leads to the commune of the future... Government is replaced by the assembled councils of the trade bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates." In addition, "a local grouping which allows the workers in the same area to liase on a day to day basis" and "a linking up of the various localities, fields, regions, etc." (i.e. international trade or industrial union federations) would ensure that "labour organises for present and future by doing away with wage slavery." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 184] Such a vision of workers’ councils and associated labour has obvious similarities with the spontaneously created soviets of the 1905 Russian Revolution. These, too, were based on assembled councils of workers’ delegates. Of course they were differences but the basic idea and vision are identical.

However, the development of the Commune is, ironically, relevant in analysing Marxism. As Marx noted, the Commune "was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town." On this issue, anarchists were to criticise it. Towards the end of the Commune, the majority of the councillors voted to establish a "Committee of Public Safety" which would act to defend Paris against the advancing counter- revolution. The Minority of the Commune (which included the libertarian members of the First International) opposed this, arguing that "the Paris Commune has surrendered its authority to a dictatorship" and that the Majority were "hiding behind a dictatorship that the electorate have not authorised us to accept or recognise." Thus, in the so-called first workers state of Marxist myth, the representatives were not under the control of the masses and abused their power. Little wonder, as the state is based on the delegation of power to a minority and so hinders mass participation and control. The Commune showed that the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat" will turn into the "dictatorship over the proletariat" simply because the state is not designed for the masses to use.

Anarchists and the Commune

For anarchists the Commune did not go far enough. It did not abolish the state within the Commune, as it had abolished it beyond it. The Communards organised themselves "in a Jacobin manner" (to use Bakunin’s cutting term). They did not organise "solely from the bottom upwards, by free association or free federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." universal." In other words, by a federation of workers’ councils. By using statist forms, the Commune would inevitably clash with those who had elected it. Only when it is "organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations... organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation", can a revolution "be created by the people, and supreme control... belong to the people" [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 206 and p. 172]

Therefore the Paris Commune did not "break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organisation from the simple to the complex it inaugurated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of the Communes." [Kropotkin, Fighting the Revolution, vol.2, p. 16] In other words, "if no central government was needed to rule the independent Communes, if the national Government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal Government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the Commune." [Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 75]

Instead of abolishing the state within the commune by organising federations of directly democratic mass assemblies, like the Parisian "sections" of the revolution of 1789 through 1793 (see Kropotkin’s Great French Revolution for more on these), the Paris Commune kept representative government and suffered for it. "Instead of acting for themselves... the people, confiding in their governors, entrusted them with the charge of taking the initiative. This was the first consequence of the inevitable result of elections." The council soon became "the greatest obstacle to the revolution" thus proving the "political axiom that a government cannot be revolutionary." [Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 240, p. 241 and p. 249]

In 1936, the Spanish Anarchists made the same mistake. After defeating the army in the streets of Barcelona, the leading militants decided that fighting fascism was the most important thing and so they decided not to mention Libertarian Communism "until such time as we had captured that part of Spain that was in the hands of the rebels." Kropotkin had lambasted those who had argued "Let us first make sure of victory, and then see what can be done." His comments are worth quoting at length:

"Make sure of victory! As if there was any way of transforming society into a free commune without laying hands upon property! As if there were any way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people is not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, in witnessing the arrival of material, moral and intellectual well-being for all! They sought to consolidate the Commune first of all while postponing the social revolution for later on, while the only effective way of proceeding was to consolidate the Commune by the social revolution!

"It was the same with the governmental principle. In proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle... If we admit, in fact, that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of communes between each other, why do we grant its necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups that constitute the Commune?... A government within the Commune has no more right to exist than a government over the Commune." [Words of a Rebel, p. 97]

Kropotkin’s argument was sound, as the CNT discovered. By waiting until victory in the war they were defeated. Kropotkin also indicated the inevitable effects of the CNT’s actions in co- operating with the state and joining representative bodies. In his words:

"Paris... sent her devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville [the town hall]. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continual contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre-the people- they themselves paralysed the popular initiative." [Op. Cit., pp. 97-8]

Which, in a nutshell, was what happened to the leading militants of the CNT who collaborated with the state. Kropotkin was proved right, as was anarchist theory from Bakunin onwards.

In addition, the Commune’s attempts at economic reform did not go far enough, making no attempt to turn all workplaces into co- operatives (i.e. to expropriate capital) and forming associations of these co-operatives to co-ordinate and support each other’s economic activities. As the city was under constant siege by the French army, it is understandable that the Communards had other things on their minds. However, for Kropotkin such a position was a disaster:

"They treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune... But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the blood- thirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular Commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field." [Evolution and Environment, p. 74]

The council of the Commune became more and more isolated from the people who elected it, and thus more and more irrelevant. And as its irrelevance grew, so did its authoritarian tendencies, with the Jacobin majority creating a "Committee of Public Safety" to "defend" (by terror) the "revolution." The Committee was opposed by the libertarian socialist minority and was, fortunately, ignored in practice by the people of Paris as they defended their freedom against the French army, which was attacking them in the name of capitalist civilisation and "liberty." On May 21st, government troops entered the city, followed by seven days of bitter street fighting. Squads of soldiers and armed members of the bourgeoisie roamed the streets, killing and maiming at will. Over 25,000 people were killed in the street fighting, many murdered after they had surrendered, and their bodies dumped in mass graves.

For anarchists, the lessons of the Paris Commune were threefold.

Firstly, a decentralised confederation of communities is the necessary political form of a free society ("This was the form that the social revolution must take—the independent commune." [Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 163]). Secondly, "there is no more reason for a government inside a Commune than for government above the Commune." [Peter Kropotkin, Fighting the Revolution, vol. 2, p. 19] This means that an anarchist community will be based on a confederation of neighbourhood and workplace assemblies freely co-operating together. Thirdly, it is critically important to unify political and economic revolutions into a social revolution. "They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!" [Peter Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 19]

For more anarchist perspectives on the Paris Commune see Kropotkin’s essay "The Paris Commune" in Words of a Rebel (and The Anarchist Reader) and Bakunin’s "The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State" in Bakunin on Anarchism.

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