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Old 4th November 2005, 01:40
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The Paris Commune was neither anarchist nor Marxist nor even socialist. It was left-Republican.

Paris Commune: Myth vs. Reality
by Morpheus

In 1871 the government of Paris made peace with Prussia on harsh terms, having just lost the Franco-Prussian war. During the war the Prussians laid seige to Paris and the French government fled the city. The new French Republic, headed by Louis Theirs, sent troops into the city to take the military arms inside the city to insure they could not be used by the Parisian workers to resist the Germans. This provoked a rebellion by Paris against the national government. They refused to allow the troops to take the weapons and on March 26th elected a municipal council, thus inagurating the Paris Commune. The Commune called for a national rebellion to overthrow the government and reshape France into a Federation of Communes modelled on the Paris Commune. The national government laid seige to Paris and on May 30th suceeded in crushing it. Thousands of inhabitants were massacred, the city remained under martial law for years, anarchism was outlawed and a major crackdown of radicalism ensued. Among revolutionaries around the world a mythology about the Paris Commune was created. It was seen as a source of inspiration, a great socialist rebellion which started to implement a radically egalitarian society. Although it had a radical fringe, overall the Paris Commune was merely a left-Republican rebellion and was no where near as radical as it is portrayed.

Marxists are among the chief purveyors of this myth. Most Marxists claim that the Paris Commune was an example of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," the first time a "workers' state" was implemented. Marx supported the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war. On July 20th, 1870, Marx said in a letter to Engels:

"The French need a thrashing. If the Prussians are victorious the centralization of state power will be helpful for the centralization of the German working class; furthermore, German predominance will shift the center of gravity of West European labor movements from France to Germany. And one has but to compare the movement from 1866 to today to see that the German working class is in theory and organization superior to the French. Its domination over the French on the world stage would mean likewise the dominance of our theory over that of Proudhon, etc."

Marx originally opposed the rising of the Commune, but once it was underway he changed his position and supported it. In 1881 the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis wrote to Marx asking him what measures a workers' state should take if it came to power unexpectedly. Part of Marx's response said:

"Perhaps you will point to the Paris Commune; but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people -- the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc. ... The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present."

This view sharply contrasts from his earlier views expressed in The Civil War in France, published shortly after the defeat of the Commune, where he greatly praised the Commune and emphasized it's radical and revolutionary character. In that work Marx said of the Paris Commune:

"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 economical emancipation of labor. Except on this last condition, the Communal Constitution would have been an impossibility and a delusion. The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labor emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labor ceases to be a class attribute."

It also differs from Engels' and Lenin's claim that the commune was a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Marx's second position of 1881, that the Commune 'was in no sense socialist,' is not entirely correct, but its' closer to the truth than the standard radical left myths about the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune was no where near as radical as most leftists, including many anarchists, make it out to be. Engels later admitted this, telling Bernstein in 1884 that, "The fact that in the Civil War the unconscious tendencies of the Commune are represented as being more or less deliberate plans, was quite justified in the circumstances, perhaps even inevitable." [quoted on Blumenburg, p. 140] These "unconscious tendencies" were just what Marx and Engels wanted to see in the Commune, it was no where near as radical as they portrayed it as.

The idea that the Paris Commune constituted a "dictatorship of the proletariat" can be easily refuted by examining its' class content. Most of the French working class in 1871 were not proletarians in the traditional Marxist sense (factory workers) but were artisans or semi-artisans - what Marx called petit bourgeoise and most of his followers call petty bourgeoise. Only five of the people on the Commune's council were proletarian in the orthodox Marxist sense; 35 were artisans. Thus, if the Paris Commune was the dictatorship of anyone it was the dictatorship of the petit bourgeoisie.

The Paris Commune was really a radical Republican rebellion, not a socialist one. "Commune" in France at the time just meant an administrative area, like "county" in the United States. Most of the people elected to the council were Jacobins. The socialists, mostly anarcho-mutualists and Blanquists, were a minority. The government implemented many reforms but did not seek to completely overthrow capitalism. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April but did not abolish rent. It allowed workers to take over factories which had been closed down by their employers, to get the economy restarted, but only ones closed down by their employers. It made many other reforms but was ultimately just a reformist Republican government. They did not abolish capitalism, nor did the majority have any intention of doing so.

Althoug Marx's 1881 position is much closer to the truth than most far left interpretations he wasn't entirely correct. Even though it was mainly a reformist government, there were a few radical tendencies in the Paris Commune. These tendencies were of a mostly anarchist nature. Marxists were a tiny minority in Paris at the time and did not play a significant role in the Commune. The taking over of factories by workers was something that anarchists had been advocating for a long time and contradicted the idea of centralizing the economy in state hands which Marx had been advocating for a long time. The national program called for the formation of a national confederation using mandated & recallable delegates, something anarchists had been advocating for decades. This would effectively have abolished the national government and created a confederation of republican city-states. Obviously anarchists would take this a step further and abolish the state within the commune as well, but anarchist influences were clearly present. Unfortunetly these radical tendencies were ultimately secondary compared to the reformist nature of the commune.

Many of the things Marx praised in the Commune differed greatly with the centralized policies he advocated both before and after the Commune. It's destruction of bureaucracy, worker takeover of factories, advocacy of decentralization and mandated delegates in a national confederation had many things in common with anarchist theory, but little in common with the program in the Communist Manifesto or his other writings. Some have put forth the theory that Marx was intentionally being deceptive, latching onto the Commune in order to promote his own ideology. Another possibility is that he was simply caught up in the excitement of the moment. Engels was most likely being deceptive, since in 1884 he admitted that Marx represented the "unconscious tendencies" of the Commune as being deliberate plans, yet in his 1891 preface to Marx's Civil War in France he perpetuates the mythology of the Commune by again representing these "unconscious tendencies" as if they were what the Commune was actually planning to do. Bakunin appeared to lean towards the theory that Marx and company were being deceptive, claiming that:

"The picture of a Commune in armed insurrection was so imposing that even the marxists, whose ideas the Paris revolution had utterly upset, had to bow before the actions of the Commune. They went further than that; in defiance of all logic and their known convictions they had to associate themselves with the Commune and identify with its principles and aspirations. It was a comic carnival game, but a necessary one. For such was the enthusiasm awakened by the Revolution that they would have been rejected and repudiated everywhere had they tried to retreat into the ivory tower of their dogma."

The Paris Commune provides evidence in favor of the anarchist theory of the state. "The council of the Commune become 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" [anarcho]. Members of the first international began to complain that the commune was turning into a dictatorship and minority rule. In the later part of its existence the Commune voted to create a "committee of public safety" to "defend" (by terror) the "revolution." If you recall the original French Revolution it was the committee of public safety that went around chopping off the heads of its' opponets - both on the left and on the right. The Commune was crushed before the committee could chop any heads off and these authoritarian tendencies allowed to fully unfold as they did in later "socialist" revolutions.

Looking at the main anarchist analyses of the Paris Commune one finds a better analysis, but one that still tends to overexaggerate the radical aspects of the Commune. Bakunin called the Commune a "blow for Revolutionary Socialism" but acknowledged that the Commune "organized in a Jacobin [Republican] manner," that most of those elected were not socialists and that they did not fully implement a socialist program. But he made up excuses for this and overexaggerated the similarities between his own philosophy and what was implemented in the Paris Commune. There were a few similarities but it was hardly "a bold, clearly formulated negation of the State." Turning to Kropotkin we find a better analysis than Bakunin, although still a flawed one. Kropotkin correctly criticized the Commune's impelementation of representative government, but still tended to overestimate how radical the Paris Commune was. The Paris Commune was just a petty bourgeoie left-Republican uprising. It was no where near as radical as it is made out the be. The ideologies which were furthered by the myth of the radical socialist Paris Commune were themselves far more radical and revolutionary then the Commune itself ever was.

"Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality." - Mikhail Bakunin