Paris Commune of 1871 is rarely remembered even among political activists. But the events of the Commune’s 72 days deserve to be read, learnt from and passed on by anyone who has thought that the world we live in needs changing.
In March 1871, the workers and soldiers of Paris rose up and took over their city. Sickened by the Franco-Prussian war, tired of meagre pay and appalling living conditions the ordinary men and women began to try and do things their own way. Often led by the most downtrodden elements of Parisian society, they reinvented democracy and offered their fellow workers unheard of rights and freedoms.
Since the great French Revolution of 1789 had etched Freedom, Liberty and Equality on its banners, the people of France had rarely glimpsed those beliefs. Now, when elections were held, those elected were accountable to the people who elected them – instantly recallable; not elevated to some lofty perch for 4 years on unheard of salaries. Those elected to represent areas of Paris or divisions of the National Guard had to take the average salary.
Those who starved were given food, when previously they’d have been left to die. One writer explained:
During [the Commune’s] short reign, not a single man, women, child or old person was hungry, or cold, or homeless…. It was amazing to see how with only tiny resources this government not only fought a horrible war for two months but chased famine from the hearths of the huge population which had had no work for a year. That was one of the miracles of a true democracy.Women were granted the right to divorce on demand, equal rights for children born out of wedlock and so on, the Commune extended a hand of friendship to people around the globe and society started to be arranged for need not profit.
But it was isolated. The uprising didn’t spread beyond the city walls, and soon the rich, the powerful, those who thought ordinary people shouldn’t be allowed rights vowed to crush it. And crush it they did, in an orgy of violence, men, women, children were massacred. 50,000 loosing their lives.
Donny Gluckstein’s book brings all this to life, describing the Commune’s attempts to found society anew, their successes and the reasons for their failure. It is this last point that I think is tremendously important – the Commune could have done much more, and it needn’t have lost, but weaknesses in it’s organisation and political outlook didn’t help. Writers since the Commune have learnt from their mistakes and drawn conclusions from them. Gluckstein brings these all together in the final chapters to make sure a new generation of activists can learn the lessons as well. His book has great pictures illustrating the barricades and the communards and some useful maps.
When the Paris Commune was drowned in blood, it’s murderers must have hoped that the spirit that drove it – the desire of ordinary men and women for peace, democracy, equality and an end to poverty would die with it.
But the participants in countless uprisings, revolutions and rebellions have carried the flame light by the communards in their hearts. We remember them, not just for inspiration, but for what we can learn so as to make the next time successful.
Merriman - Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune
Marx - The Civil War in France
Ness & Azzellini - Ours to Master and to Own