Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Paris Commune: 18 March to 28 May 1871

The way people, particularly young people, live now resembles in its economic instability the situation of the nineteenth century workers and artisans who made the Commune, most of whom spent most of their time not working but looking for work.
After 2011, with the return virtually everywhere of a political strategy grounded in taking up space, seizing places and territories, turning cities — from Istanbul to Madrid, from Montreal to Oakland — into theaters for strategic operations, the Paris Commune has become newly illuminated or visible, it has entered once again into the figurability of the present.
Its forms of political invention have become newly available to us not as lessons but as resources, or as what Andrew Ross, speaking about my book, called a useable archive.” The Commune becomes the figure for a history, and perhaps of a future, different from the course taken by capitalist modernization, on the one hand, and utilitarian state socialism, on the other. — Kristin Ross
The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. Following the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the French Second Empire swiftly collapsed. In its stead rose a Third Republic at war with Prussia, which laid siege to Paris for four months. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, France’s capital was primarily defended during this time by the often politicized and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. In February 1871 Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.
Soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The regular French Army suppressed the Commune during ‘La semaine sanglante’ (‘The Bloody Week’) beginning on 21 May 1871. Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’”
As for the notorious locution (at least in the Liberal tradition but often beyond that as well), “dictatorship of the proletariat:”
“After the exhaustive researches of Hal Draper and Richard Hunt we have a fairly clear idea of what Marx meant by that phrase—and what he did not mean by it. As these authors point out, and is clear from Marx’s own writings, dictatorship at his time and in his work did not necessarily mean anything incompatible with democracy. Rather it involved a new form of extra-legality, a political rule in breach of the existing constitution. That violation of a constitution need not involve a violation of democracy is easily shown by using as an example the extreme case in which the existing constitution requires unanimity for constitutional change. If a majority of 95 per cent of the population takes matters in their own hands and set up a new constitution requiring only a two-thirds majority [for constitutional change], they act unconstitutionally but hardly undemocratically. I am not suggesting that constitutional guarantees for should never be respected in a democracy…. My point is simply that there must be some correspondence between how difficult it is to change the constitution and the proportion of citizens who want it to be that difficult to change it. If this correspondence does not obtain, there is some need for a political revolution and a new constituent assembly. [….] The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, is characterized by majority rule, extra-legality, dismantling of the state apparatus and revocability of the representatives.” Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985): 447-448
Another and related issue that comes up with regard to Marx’s reflections in the The Civil War in France (1871) follow from his oft-quoted insistence that “the working class cannot simply lay hold on the ready-made state-machinery and wield it for its own purpose. The political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation.” As Elster reminds us, the Critique of the Gotha Programme likewise finds Marx opposed to any “Lassallean attempt to reenlist state aid for the building of socialism.” But this does not exhaust Marx’s thoughts on the use of the state and existing political institutions by workers or would-be socialists, for
“Marx also had to demarcate himself from the anarchists on his left, to steer a middle course between state socialism and the anarchist opposition to all state activities. [In an] article on ‘Political indifferentism’ … he warns against the ideal that any involvement with the state is contrary to the interests of the workers. To prove the falsity of this view, he cites the English Factory Acts as instances of what can be achieved by political means. In his ‘Instructions’ to the Geneva Congress Marx also insists on this idea. In the section dealing with the need for education of working-class children, he first state that under the given circumstances it can only be realized by ‘general laws, enforced by the power of the state.’ He then answers the obvious objection from the left by asserting that ‘in enforcing such laws, the working class do not fortify government power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency.”(Elster: 444-445)
In short, it seems the degree of democratic legitimacy of the state had some bearing on Marx’s views in this respect, as he warned against workers using or relying on existing political institutions “in the authoritarian German and French regimes, but accepted it in the more democratic English system:” “In Germany, Marx was afraid octroyed measures would involve the cooptation of the workers. In France he feared that the state machinery was so strong that, if left in existence, it would end up asserting its own interests and not those of the workers.”(Elster 445) Marx’s attitude toward the state apparatus in democratic countries had thus evolved from an earlier stance in which he was more skeptical about the revolutionary or socialist value of conventional political opposition, his later views entailing even “the possible peaceful transition to socialism,” as evidenced, for example, in “an interview with an American journal in 1871 [in which] he makes a distinction between the countries where the transition to socialism my proceed peacefully and those in which this does not seem possible,” with England and America, and possibly Holland, mentioned as exempla of the former case.
The Paris Commune: Suggested Reading
  • Abidor, Mitchell (ed. and tr.) Voices of the Paris Commune. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015. 
  • Gluckstein, Danny. The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011 (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2006).
  • History of the Paris Commune” page at the Marxist Internet Archive. 
  • Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-71. London: Penguin Books, 2007 (Macmillan, 1965).
  • Lissagaray, Prosper-Olivier. The History of the Paris Commune of 1871. London: Verso, 2012 (first published in French, 1876). 
  • Marx, Karl. The Civil War in France. Peking: Foreign Language Press, 3rd ed., 1977.
  • Merriman, John. Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 
  • Ross, Kristin. Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. London: Verso, 2015.
  • Ross, Kristin and Manu Goswami. “The Meaning of the Paris Commune,” Jacobin, 5.4.15.
  • Sánchez, Gonzalo J. Organizing Independence: The Artists’ Federation of the Paris Commune and Its Legacy, 1871-1889. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.


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