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"Glorious harbinger of a new society"
The Paris Commune

June 22, 2001 | Page 13

IN 1871, the working class in Paris rose up against their rulers and proclaimed the Paris Commune.

It was the first example in history of ordinary people taking control of society and running it themselves.

Though it survived for only 72 days, the Commune helped socialists understand the struggle ahead.

And it remains a living answer to the question of what workers' control over society might look like--a society without the rich, without the bosses, without the domination of official religion.

"Workingmen's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society," Marx wrote.

CAMERON STURDEVANT tells the story of the Paris Commune.

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FRANCE'S REVOLUTION of 1848 toppled the country's monarchy once and for all.

But the defeat of the revolution eventually led to Napoleon III--nephew of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, who had ruled France at the beginning of the 19th century--taking power as emperor in a coup.

France's industry developed rapidly under Napoleon III, creating a Paris filled with contradictions--new wide boulevards, fancy stores and massive wealth for the corrupt few, repression and bitter poverty for the many.

In 1870, Napoleon--like so many rulers before and since--tried to divert attention from problems at home by launching a war abroad.

Napoleon hoped for an easy victory in going to war against Prussia--what is today Germany.

Instead, the Prussian army rapidly smashed French forces and advanced on Paris.

When Napoleon abdicated, the people of Paris, disgusted with their leaders' failure, planned their own defense of the city, arming themselves with antiquated weapons and taking collections to buy cannons.

Throughout the winter, the Prussians laid siege to Paris.

The wealthy fled to the countryside, while political leaders set up a national assembly at Versailles.

Ultimately, France's rulers decided that they hated the idea of armed French workers more than the Prussian "enemy."

So they convinced the Prussians to let them send French troops into Paris to retake control.

But when the troops arrived in the early morning hours of March 18, 1871, they were met with barricades.

"We were greatly mistaken in permitting these people to approach our soldiers, for they mingled among them, and the women and children told them: 'You will not fire upon the people,'" one general wrote.

When Gen. Lecomte ordered his men to fire into the crowd, they refused.

News spread rapidly through the capital as more barricades went up.

"It's the Revolution!" wrote revolutionary novelist and journalist Jules Vallès, describing the first day of workers' power.

"So here it is, the moment hoped for and awaited since a father's first cruelty, since the first slap in school, since the first day without food, since the first night sleeping on the streets--here is revenge for school, for poverty, for the coup of December 1851."

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EIGHT DAYS later, all the working men of Paris had a vote in elections to set up a Commune government.

What resulted was far different from parliamentary democracy.

For one thing, the Commune voted to limit the pay of all representatives to that of the city's skilled workers--preventing them from rising above those they represented.

Members were elected without fixed terms to make them more accountable--recallable at the vote of those who sent them.

A series of astounding measures followed.

On March 30, the Commune abolished the draft and the standing army and declared that the National Guard, made up of ordinary citizens, was the sole legitimate armed force of Paris.

Foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office since "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic," the representatives declared.

On April 6, the guillotine was brought out by a battalion of the National Guard and publicly burned.

And in the weeks that followed, the Commune started collecting information about factories closed by manufacturers--with the goal of restoring production under the direction of workers.

There were areas where the Commune didn't go far enough.

For one thing, working women--despite their active involvement at every level of the struggle--weren't allowed to vote.

And fatally, the Commune allowed French troops to leave the city and return to Versailles.

"[T]he committee continued signing, neglecting this traditional precaution--the shutting of the gates--and lost itself in the elections," the revolutionary journalist Lissagaray wrote later in his History of the Paris Commune.

"It saw not--very few saw as yet--that this was a death struggle with the Assembly of Versailles."

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FOLLOWING THE example of Paris, communes were set up in the cities of Lyons, Marseilles and Narbonne.

But none of these lasted more than a few days.

Unable to win the support of the 60 percent of the French population that lived in the countryside, Paris was left alone.

On May 21, the government in Versailles declared war on Paris.

With the cooperation of the Prussians, French troops were again sent in--and this time, they were successful in reestablishing control.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 workers were massacred defending the Commune.

The rulers of France were determined to drown this symbol of resistance in blood.

But despite its defeat, the Commune showed for the first time that workers could take power into their own hands.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made their only significant correction to the ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto based on the experience of the Commune.

In June 1872, they wrote in a new preface to the pamphlet: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune; that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes."

On the 130th anniversary of the Paris Commune, socialists can still take inspiration from the Communards and their heroic effort to make a society worthy of humanity.

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