The Paris Commune and the First International

Prussian troops marching through Paris

By March 1871, German troops occupied France and what remained of the national government was dominated by rightwing, bourgeois and monarchist factions led by Adolphe Thiers, a notorious reactionary who had done battle with Proudhon during the 1848 French Revolution. On March 18, 1871, Thiers sent troops into Paris to seize artillery to prevent it from falling into the hands of the people. The attempt was quickly rebuffed, with the result that Thiers was forced to withdraw national government forces from Paris. This marked the beginning of the Paris Commune. The Central Committee of the National Guard, which was more of a popular militia than a government organization, quickly called for the election of a municipal government, the Commune of Paris. Many of the militants in the Paris sections of the International ran for office, issuing the following wall poster in support of their slate of working class candidates. But as the poster makes clear, the Paris Internationalists wanted the Commune to be an organ of popular self-management, not a conventional assembly of elected representatives.

19th century workshop

Notions of worker self-management had originated among working class French mutual aid societies and cooperatives in the 1830s and ’40s. Proudhon had helped articulate these concepts and tried to put them into practice during the French Revolution of 1848. Central to these conceptions of worker self-management is the concept of “worker democracy.” In contrast to parliamentary or representative democracy, worker democracy was direct, with the workers themselves making policy decisions in their own general assemblies. When necessary, in order to coordinate action and to work for common goals, delegates from each functional group would meet with delegates from the other groups, carrying with them “imperative mandates” stipulating the policies and actions that the base group had endorsed. These delegates were also subject to immediate recall if they failed to carry out the mandates that had been given to them. Proudhon and other advocates of worker democracy considered this form of direct, functionally based democracy to be the antithesis of representative government and incompatible with state power. As can be seen below, the majority of the Paris Internationalists were also anti-authoritarians, regarding the “principle of authority” as being profoundly incapable of dealing with social crises or bringing about the emancipation of the working class.

For Workers’ Self-Management & Direct Democracy

When the poster speaks of a “freely discussed social contract” providing the basis of a classless, egalitarian society, the reference is not to the “hypothetical” social contract of Rousseau and the Jacobins, which was meant to provide a justification for political authority, but the revolutionary social contract long advocated by Proudhon. As Proudhon put it in The Principle of Federation (1863), the revolutionary social contract “is more than a fiction; it is a positive and effective compact, which has actually been proposed, discussed, voted upon, and adopted, and which can properly be amended at the contracting parties’ will. Between the federal contract and that of Rousseau and 1793 [the Jacobin conception of the social contract] there is all the difference between a reality and a hypothesis” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 18).

The Commune or Death

Workers:

A long series of setbacks and a catastrophe that could bring about the complete ruin of our country: this is the situation that France has been placed in by the governments which have dominated it.

Recent events [March 18, 1871] have demonstrated the strength of the people of Paris. We are convinced that a fraternal understanding will soon demonstrate their wisdom as well.

The principle of authority from hereon in is incapable of re-establishing order in the streets and getting factory work up and going again and this incapacity constitutes its negation.

The selfishness of vested interests has led to a state of general ruin and to social conflict. Liberty, equality and solidarity are needed if we are to achieve an order based on new foundations with the reorganization of labour being its first prerequisite.

Workers:

The independence of the Commune will mean a freely discussed social contract that will bring class conflict to an end and secure social equality.

We have demanded the emancipation of the working class and the elected Commune will ensure this, for it must provide all citizens with the means to defend their rights, to control effectively the actions of the representatives entrusted with the care of their interests, and to determine the gradual application of social reforms.

The autonomy of each Commune removes any trace of coercion from these demands and establishes the republic in its highest form.

Workers:

We have fought and have learned to suffer for our egalitarian principles. We cannot withdraw as long as we can help to lay the cornerstone of the new social structure.

What have we asked for?

The organization of credit, of exchange, and of production co-operatives in order to guarantee the worker the full value of his labour;

Free, lay, and complete education;

The rights to assemble, to organize and to a free press as well as the rights of the individual;

Municipal administration of police, armed forces, sanitation, statistics, etc.

We have been dupes of those who governed: allowing ourselves to be taken in while they slided, as required, from cajoling to suppressing the various factions whose mutual antagonism guaranteed their power.

Today the people of Paris are far-sighted. They reject this role of a child being directed by a preceptor, and in the municipal election [of March 26, 1871], resulting itself from the action of the people, they will remember that the principle that governs groups and associations is the same as that which should govern society. Therefore, just as they would reject any administration or president imposed by some power from without, they will reject any mayor or prefect imposed by a government that is foreign to their aspirations.

They will affirm their right—higher than the vote of an assembly—to remain masters in their own city and to constitute their municipal representation as they see fit, without seeking to impose it upon others.

We are convinced that on Sunday, March 26th, the people of Paris will consider it a matter of honour to vote for the Commune.

The Federated Council (Paris) of the International and the Federation of Trade Unions, March 23, 1871

Paris Commune: Appeal to the Workers

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