The bourgeois of France had always come away with everything. Since the revolution of 1789, they had been the only ones to grow rich in periods of prosperity, while the working class had regularly borne the brunt of crises. But the defeat of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War offered an opportunity for a change of course. The prospect of a conservative government that would leave social injustices intact, heaping the burden of the war on the least well-off, triggered a new revolution on 18 March. Adolphe Thiers and his army had little choice but to decamp to Versailles.
To secure democratic legitimacy, the insurgents decided to hold free elections at once. On 26 March, an overwhelming majority of Parisians (190,000 votes against 40,000) approved the motivation for the revolt, and 70 of the 85 elected representatives declared their support for the revolution. On 28 March a large number of citizens gathered in the vicinity of the Hôtel de Ville for festivities celebrating the new assembly, which now officially took the name of the Paris Commune. Although it would survive for no more than 72 days, it was the most important political event in the history of the nineteenth-century workers’ movement, rekindling hope among a population exhausted by months of hardship. Committees and groups sprang up in the popular quarters to lend support to the Commune, and every corner of the metropolis hosted initiatives to express solidarity and to plan the construction of a new world. One of the most widespread sentiments was a desire to share with others. It was not the impetus of a leader or a handful of charismatic figures that gave life to the Commune; its hallmark was its clearly collective dimension. Women and men came together voluntarily to pursue a common project of liberation. Self-government was not seen as a utopia. Self-emancipation was thought of as the essential task.
Two of the first emergency decrees to stem the rampant poverty were a freeze on rent payments and on the selling of items valued below 20 francs in pawn shops. Nine collegial commissions were also supposed to replace the ministries for war, finance, general security, education, subsistence, labour and trade, foreign relations and public service.
On 19 April, three days after further elections to fill 31 seats that became almost immediately vacant, the Commune adopted a Declaration to the French People that contained an “absolute guarantee of individual liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of labour” as well as “the permanent intervention of citizens in communal affairs”. The conflict between Paris and Versailles, it affirmed, “cannot be ended through illusory compromises”; the people had a right and “obligation to fight and to win!” Even more significant than this text were the concrete actions through which the Communards fought for a total transformation of political power. A set of reforms addressed not only the modalities but the very nature of political administration. The Commune provided for the recall of elected representatives and for control over their actions by means of binding mandates (though this was by no means enough to settle the complex issue of political representation). Magistracies and other public offices were also subject to permanent control and possible recall. The clear aim was to prevent the public sphere from becoming the domain of professional politicians. Policy decisions were not left up to small groups of functionaries, but had to be taken by the people. Armies and police forces would no longer be institutions set apart from the body of society. The separation between state and church was also a sine qua non.
But the vision of political change was not confined to such measures: it went more deeply to the roots. The transfer of power into the hands of the people was needed to drastically reduce bureaucracy. The social sphere should take precedence over the political – as Henri de Saint-Simon had already maintained – so that politics would no longer be a specialized function but become progressively integrated into the activity of civil society. The social body would thus take back functions that had been transferred to the state. To overthrow the existing system of class rule was not sufficient; there had to be an end to class rule as such. All this would have fulfilled the Commune’s vision of the republic as a union of free, truly democratic associations promoting the emancipation of all its components. It would have added up to self-government of the producers.
The Commune held that social reforms were even more crucial than political change. They were the reason for its existence, the barometer of its loyalty to its founding principles, and the key element differentiating it from the previous revolutions. The Commune passed more than one measure with clear class connotations. Deadlines for debt repayments were postponed by three years. Evictions for non-payment of rent were suspended, and a decree allowed vacant accommodation to be requisitioned for people without a roof over their heads. There were plans to shorten the working day, the widespread practice of imposing specious fines on workers simply as a wage-cutting measure was outlawed on pain of sanctions, and minimum wages were set at a respectable level. As much as possible was done to increase food supplies and to lower prices. Social assistance of various kinds was extended to weaker sections of the population – for example, food banks for abandoned women and children – and discussions were held on how to end the discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate children.
All the Communards sincerely believed that education was an essential factor for individual emancipation and any serious social and political change. School attendance was to become free and compulsory for girls and boys alike, with religiously inspired instruction giving way to secular teaching along rational, scientific lines. Specially appointed commissions and the pages of the press featured many compelling arguments for investment in female education. To become a genuine “public service”, education had to offer equal opportunities to “children of both sexes”. Moreover, “distinctions on grounds of race, nationality, religion or social position” should be prohibited. Early practical initiatives accompanied such advances in theory, and in more than one arrondissement thousands of working-class children entered school buildings for the first time and received classroom material free of charge.
The Commune also adopted measures of a socialist character. It decreed that workshops abandoned by employers who had fled the city, with guarantees of compensation on their return, should be handed over to cooperative associations of workers. Theatres and museums – open for all without charge – were collectivized.
The Commune was much more than the actions approved by its legislative assembly. It even aspired to redraw urban space, as demonstrated by the decision to demolish the Vendôme Column, considered a monument to barbarism and a reprehensible symbol of war, and to secularize certain places of worship by handing them over for use by the community. There was no place for national discrimination and foreigners enjoyed the same social rights as French people.
Women played an essential role in the critique of the social order. In many cases, they transgressed the norms of bourgeois society and asserted a new identity in opposition to the values of the patriarchal family, moving beyond domestic privacy to engage with the public sphere. The “Women’s Union” was centrally involved in identifying strategic social battles. Women achieved the closure of licensed brothels, won parity for female and male teachers, coined the slogan “equal pay for equal work”, demanded equal rights within marriage and the recognition of free unions, and promoted exclusively female chambers in labour unions. When the military situation worsened in mid-May, with the Versaillais at the gates of Paris, women took up arms and formed a battalion of their own. Many would breathe their last on the barricades.
The Paris Commune was brutally crushed by the armies of Versailles. During the semaine sanglante, the week of blood-letting between 21 and 28 May, a total of 17,000 to 25,000 citizens were slaughtered. A young Arthur Rimbaud described the French capital as “a mournful, almost dead city”. It was the bloodiest massacre in the history of France. The number of prisoners taken was 43,522. One hundred of these received death sentences, following summary trials before courts martial, and another 13,500 were sent to prison or forced labour, or deported to remote areas such as New Caledonia. Passing over the unprecedented violence of the Thiers state, the conservative and liberal press expressed great relief at the restoration of the “natural order”.
And yet, the insurrection in Paris gave strength to workers’ struggles and pushed them in more radical directions. Paris had shown that the aim had to be one of building a society radically different from capitalism. The Commune embodied the idea of social-political change and its practical application. It became synonymous with the very concept of revolution, with an ontological experience of the working class. The Paris Commune changed the consciousness of workers and their collective perception. At a distance of 150 years, its red flag continues to flutter and to remind us that an alternative is always possible.