Last year, I posted a series of writings by anarchist and revolutionary socialist participants in the international workers’ movement and the 1871 Paris Commune. This month marks the (142nd) anniversay of the tragic defeat of the revolutionary Paris Commune, which became an inspiration to thousands of anarchists and revolutionaries across the globe. Today, I have created a page setting forth the various writings on the Commune previously posted separately, which you can access by clicking here. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas has a chapter on the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, with writings by Bakunin, Louise Michel and Kropotkin.
When preparing my recent series of posts on the Paris Commune, and posting some of Michael Bakunin’s writings on the church and state in response to the persecution of Pussy Riot in Russia, I noticed that the most internet accessible version of Bakunin’s essay, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State, appears either to be a very loose translation of the French original, or to be based on Elisée Reclus’ initial transcription of Bakunin’s essay, which was corrected in later editions. I thought it fitting then to conclude my series on the Paris Commune with the best English translation of the corrected text, published under the imprimatur of the Centre Internationale de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme on the 100th anniversary of the Commune in 1971. I will begin with the section on the Paris Commune, and then post the introduction, where Bakunin famously answers the question “Who am I?”, and the final section on the relationship between church and state, in subsequent installments.
Bakunin wrote The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State in June 1871, within weeks of the Versailles government’s brutal suppression of the Commune, which resulted in the whole sale massacre of up to 30,000 Communards, and the imprisonment and exile of thousands of others, including leading members of the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris, such as André Léo, Natalie Lemel, Louise Michel, Paule Mink and Elizabeth Dmitrieff. Bakunin pays special tribute to Eugène Varlin, the French Internationalist who championed ideas very similar to those of Bakunin. I included portions of Bakunin’s essay in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The CIRA translation is by Geoff Charlton.
Bakunin: The Paris Commune
I am a supporter of the Paris Commune, which, because it was massacred and drowned in blood by the executioners of monarchic and clerical reaction, has therefore become all the more lively and powerful in the imagination and heart of the European proletariat. I am above all a supporter of it because it was a bold and outspoken negation of the State.
It is a tremendously significant historical fact that this negation of the State should have been manifested particularly in France, which has been until now the country par excellence of political centralization, and that it should have been above all precisely Paris, the historic fountain-head of this great French civilization, which should have taken the initiative. Paris, taking off its own crown and proclaiming its own downfall with enthusiasm so as to give freedom and life to France, to Europe, to the whole world! Paris, affirming once more its historic ability to take the lead, and showing to all the enslaved peoples (and which popular masses indeed are not slaves?) the unique way of emancipation and salvation! Paris, striking a mortal blow at the political traditions of bourgeois radicalism and providing a real basis for revolutionary socialism! Paris, earning once more the curses of all the reactionary gangs of France and Europe! Paris, being buried in its ruins so as to pronounce a solemn contradiction to triumphant reaction; saving by its catastrophe the honour and future of France, and proving to a comforted mankind that, if life, intelligence and moral power have disappeared from the upper classes, they have remained energetic and full of potential in the proletariat! Paris, inaugurating the new era, that of the final and complete emancipation of the masses of the people and of their solidarity, henceforth a matter of fact, across and despite State frontiers. Paris, destroying patriotism and building on its ruins the religion of humanity! Paris, proclaiming itself humanist and atheist: and replacing the fictions of religion by the great realities of social life and faith in science, replacing the lies and injustices of religious, political and legal morality by the principles of freedom, justice, equality and fraternity, these eternal fundamentals of all human morality! Heroic Paris, rational and faithful, confirming its energetic faith in the destinies of mankind even in its glorious downfall and destruction, and leaving that faith much more energetic and lively for the generations to come! Paris, soaked in the blood of its most generous-hearted children—there indeed is mankind crucified by the international and co-ordinated reaction of all Europe, under the immediate inspiration of all the Christian Churches and that high priest of iniquity, the Pope. But the next international and solidaristic revolution of the people will be the resurrection of Paris.
Such is the true meaning, and such are the immense beneficial consequences, of the two months of the existence and the fall, forever memorable, of the Paris Commune.
The Paris commune lasted for too short a time, and it was too much hindered in its internal development by the mortal struggle which it had to maintain against the Versailles reaction, for it to have been able, I do not say even to apply, but to elaborate its socialist programme in theory. Besides, it must be recognized that the majority of the members of the Commune were not strictly speaking socialists and that, if they appeared to be such, it was because they were irresistibly swept forward by the course of events, by the nature of their environment, and by the necessities of their position, and not by their own personal conviction. The socialists, at the head of whom our friend Varlin naturally takes his place, formed in the Commune only a very small minority indeed; they were at the very most only some fourteen or fifteen members. The remainder was composed of Jacobins. But, let it be understood, there are Jacobins and Jacobins. There are the lawyer and doctrinaire Jacobins, like M. Gambetta, whose positivist republicanism, presumptuous, despotic and formalistic, having repudiated the old revolutionary faith and having conserved nothing from Jacobinism except the cult of unity and authority, has surrendered popular France to the Prussians, and later to indigenous forces of reaction; and there are those Jacobins who are openly revolutionary, the heroes and last sincere representatives of the democratic faith of 1793, capable of sacrificing their well-armed unity and authority to the necessities of the Revolution, rather than bow down their consciences before the insolence of reaction. These great-hearted Jacobins, at the head of whom Delescluze naturally takes his place, a great spirit and a great character, wish for the triumph of the Revolution before all things. And since there is no revolution without the popular masses, and since these masses today have pre-eminently a socialist instinct and can no longer make any other revolution but an economic and social one, the Jacobins of good faith, allowing themselves to be led on more and more by the logic of the revolutionary movement, will end by becoming socialists in spite of themselves.
This was precisely the situation of the Jacobins who took part in the Paris Commune. Delescluze and many others with him signed programmes and proclamations of which the general line and promises were definitely socialist. But since, in spite of all their good faith and good intentions, they were only socialists more through external pressure than through internal conviction, and since they did not have the time or the capacity to overcome and suppress in themselves a mass of bourgeois prejudices which were in contradiction with their more recent socialist outlook, one can understand that, paralysed by this internal conflict, they could never escape from generalities, nor take one of those decisive steps which would break forever their solidarity and all their connections with the bourgeois world.
This was a great misfortune for the Commune and for themselves; they were paralysed by it, and they paralysed the Commune; but it is not possible to reproach them for it, as though for a fault. Men do not change from day to day, nor do they change their own natures or habits at will. These men proved their sincerity, in letting themselves be killed for the Commune. Who will dare ask more of them?
They are all the more excusable, because the people of Paris, under whose influence they thought and acted, were themselves socialist much more by instinct than by ideology or considered conviction. All their aspirations are to the highest degree and exclusively socialist; but their ideas, or rather the traditional representations of them, are still far from reaching that level. There are still many Jacobin prejudices, many dictatorial and governmental conceptions, among the proletariat of the large cities of France and even among that of Paris. The cult of authority, a fatal product of religious education, that historic source of all the evils, all the depravities and all the servility among the people, has not yet been entirely eradicated from their minds. It is equally true that even the most intelligent children of the people, the most convinced socialists, have not yet succeeded in entirely delivering themselves of it. Rummage in their conscience and you will still find there the Jacobin, the governmentalist, pushed back into some murky corner and, it is true, become very modest, but he is not entirely dead.
Furthermore, the situation of the small number of convinced socialists who formed part of the Commune was extremely difficult. Not feeling themselves sufficiently supported by the great mass of the Parisian population (the organization of the International Association moreover being itself very imperfect, numbering scarcely a few thousand individuals), they had to keep up a daily struggle against the Jacobin majority. And in what circumstances indeed! They had to give bread and work to some hundreds of thousands of workers, organize them, arm them, and at the same time keep an eye on the reactionary maneuvres going on in a huge city like Paris, under siege, threatened with starvation, and exposed to all the dirty tricks of the reactionary faction which had managed to set itself up and maintain itself at Versailles, with the permission and by the favour of the Prussians. They had to oppose a revolutionary government and army to the government and army of Versailles—that is, in order to combat monarchic and clerical reaction, they had to organize themselves in reactionary Jacobin fashion, forgetting or sacrificing what they themselves knew were the first conditions of revolutionary socialism.
Is it not natural that, in such circumstances, the Jacobins, who were the strongest because they constituted the majority in the Commune and who besides this possessed to an infinitely superior degree the political instinct and the tradition and practice of governmental organization, had immense advantages over the socialists? What one must surely find astounding is that they did not take more advantage than they did, that they did not give an exclusively Jacobin character to the Paris rising, and that they allowed themselves, on the contrary, to be carried on into a social revolution.
I know that many socialists, very consistent in their theoretical ideas, reproach our Paris friends for not showing themselves sufficiently socialist in their revolutionary practice, while all the loud-mouths of the bourgeois press accuse them on the contrary of having followed their socialist programme only too faithfully. Let us leave these ignominious denunciators from that section of the press on one side for the moment; I should like to make the point to the strict theoreticians of the emancipation of the proletariat that they are unjust to our Paris friends. For between the most precise theories and putting them into practice there is an immense distance which cannot be covered in a few days. Whoever had the good fortune to know Varlin, for instance, to name only one whose death is certain, knows how much the socialist convictions in him and his friends were passionate, considered and profound. These were men whose ardent enthusiasm, devotion and good faith could never have been doubted by any of those who came across them. But precisely because they were men of good faith, they were full of mistrust in themselves when faced with the immense work they had devoted their life and their thought to: they counted for so little! They had moreover that conviction that in the Social Revolution—diametrically opposed in this as in everything else to the Political Revolution—the action of individuals counted for almost nothing and the spontaneous action of the masses should count for everything. All that individuals can do is to elaborate, clarify and propagate the ideas that correspond to the popular feeling, and, beyond this, to contribute by their ceaseless efforts to the revolutionary organization of the natural power of the masses, but nothing beyond that. And everything else should not and could not take place except by the action of the people themselves. Otherwise one would end with political dictatorship, that is to say, the reconstruction of the State, of the privileges, injustices and all oppressions of the State, and one would arrive by a devious but logical path at the re-establishment of the political, social and economic slavery of the popular masses.
Varlin and all his friends, like all sincere socialists, and in general like all workers born and bred among the people, shared to the highest degree this perfectly legitimate prejudice against the continual intervention of the same individuals, against the domination exerted by superior personages; and since they were fair-minded above all things, they turned this foresight, this mistrust just as much against themselves as against all the other individuals.
Contrary to that authoritarian communist type of thinking—in my opinion completely erroneous—that a Social Revolution can be decreed and organized, whether by a dictatorship or whether by a constituent assembly resulting from some political revolution, our friends, the socialists of Paris, thought that it could not be made or brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continuous action of the masses, the groups and the associations of the people.
Our friends in Paris were a thousand times right. For indeed, where is that head, however brilliant it may be, or if one wishes to speak of a collective dictatorship, were it formed by many hundreds of individuals endowed with superior faculties, where are those brains powerful enough and wide-ranging enough to embrace the infinite multiplicity and diversity of the real interests, aspirations, wishes and needs whose sum total constitutes the collective will of a people, and to invent a social organization which can satisfy everybody? This organization will never be anything but a Procrustean bed which the more or less obvious violence of the State will be able to force unhappy society to lie down on. That is what has always happened until now, and it is precisely this old system of organization by force that the Social Revolution must put an end to, by giving back their complete freedom to the masses, groups, communes, associations, individuals even, and by destroying once and for all the historic cause of all the violent acts, the power, and the very existence, of the State. The State must carry away in its fall all the injustices of the juridical law with all the lies of the various religions, this law and these religions never having been anything but the enforced consecration (as much ideological as actual) of all the violence represented, guaranteed and licensed by the State.
Michael Bakunin, June 1871
The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris was one of the most revolutionary groups during the Paris Commune (1871). In the following submission to the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange, the Association sets forth a revolutionary program similar to that of the anarchists. Capitalism was to be replaced by the free association of the producers by means of a worldwide strike of labour against capital.
The Association of Women have considered the following:
There is only one way of reorganizing labour so that the producer is guaranteed the product of his own work, and that is by setting up free producer associations which will share out the profits from the various industries.
The establishment of these associations would put an end to the exploitation and enslavement of Labour by Capital, and would at last guarantee the workers the management of their own affairs. It would simultaneously facilitate urgently needed reforms, in both production and productive relationships, to include the following points:
(a) variety of work in each trade—a continually repetitive manual movement damages both mind and body.
(b) a reduction in working hours—physical exhaustion inevitably destroys man’s spiritual qualities.
(c) an end to all competition between male and female workers—their interests are identical and their solidarity is essential to the success of the final world-wide strike of labour against capital.
The Association therefore wants:
Equal pay for equal hours of work
A local and international federation of the various trade sections in order to ease the movement and exchange of goods by centralizing the international interests of the producers.
The general development of these producer associations requires:
Informing and organizing the working masses… The consequence of this will be that every association member will be expected to belong to the International Working Men’s Association.
State assistance in advancing the necessary credit for setting up these associations: loans repayable in yearly instalments at a rate of 5 per cent.
The reorganization of female labour is an extremely urgent matter, when one considers that in the society of the past it was the most exploited form of all.
Faced by the present events, with poverty increasing at an alarming rate, and seeing the unwarranted stoppage in all work, it is to be feared that the women of Paris, who have become momentarily revolutionary in spirit, may as a result of the state of continual privation, relapse into the more or less reactionary and passive position which the social order of the past marked out for them. That would be a disastrous step backwards which would endanger the revolutionary and international interests of the working class, thereby endangering the Commune.
For these reasons the Central Committee of the Association of Women requests the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange to entrust it with the reorganization and allocation of work for the women of Paris, in the first instance providing the Association with production of military supplies. This work will naturally not be sufficient for the majority of working women, so in addition the Central Committee requests the commission to place at the disposal of the federated producer associations the sums of money necessary for the working of the factories and workshops abandoned by the bourgeois and comprising those crafts mainly practised by women…
For the Executive Commission
Three members of the feminist Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot, are facing three years in prison for a brief piece of performance art protesting the Putin regime in a Russian Orthodox Church. Amnesty International is mounting a campaign for their release, and Yoko Ono and Madonna have come out in their support. Originally released without charge, three members of Pussy Riot were rearrested and put on trial after their video went viral on YouTube.
All of this brings to mind another Russian’s critique of the Church and the State. Michael Bakunin, in addition to criticizing the absurdity of religious belief, argued that the Church and the State worked hand in hand in maintaining the servitude and exploitation of the people. The following excerpts are from his well known essay, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State, written in 1871 but not published until 1878, after Bakunin’s death in 1876.
Bakunin: Against the Church and State
It is obvious that liberty will never be given to humanity, and that the real interests of society, of all groups, local associations, and individuals who make up society will never be satisfied until there are no longer any states. It is obvious that all the so-called general interests of society, which the State is supposed to represent and which are in reality just a general and constant negation of the true interests of regions, communes, associations, and individuals subject to the State, are a mere abstraction, a fiction, a lie. The State is like a vast slaughterhouse or an enormous cemetery, where all the real aspirations, all the living forces of a country enter generously and happily, in the shadow of that abstraction, to let themselves be slain and buried. And just as no abstraction exists for and by itself, having no legs to sand on, no arms to create with, no stomach to digest the mass of victims delivered to it, it is likewise clear that the celestial or religious abstraction, God, actually represents the very real interests of a class, the clergy, while its terrestrial complement, that political abstraction, the State, represents the no less real interests of the exploiting class which tends to absorb all the others – the bourgeoisie. As the clergy has always been divisive, and nowadays tends to separate men even further into a very powerful and wealthy minority and a sad and rather wretched majority, so likewise the bourgeoisie, with its various social and political organizations in industry, agriculture, banking, and commerce, as well as in all administrative, financial, judiciary, education, police, and military functions of the State tend increasingly to weld all of these into a really dominant oligarchy on the one hand, and on the other hand into an enormous mass of more or less hopeless creatures, defrauded creatures who live in a perpetual illusion, steadily and inevitably pushed down into the proletariat by the irresistible force of the present economic development, and reduced to serving as blind tools of this all-powerful oligarchy.
The abolition of the Church and the State should be the first and indispensable condition for the real enfranchisement of society which can and should reorganize itself not from the top down according to an ideal plan dressed up by wise men or scholars nor by decrees promulgated by some dictatorial power or even by a national assembly elected through universal suffrage. Such a system, as I have already said, would inevitably lead to the creation of a new state and, consequently, to the formation of a ruling aristocracy, that is, an entire class of persons who have nothing in common with the masses. And, of course, this class would exploit and subject the masses, under the pretext of serving the common welfare or saving the State.
The future social organization should be carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation. It is only then that the true, life-giving social order of liberty and general welfare will come into being, a social order which, far from restricting, will affirm and reconcile the interests of individuals and of society.
It is said that the harmony and universal solidarity of individuals with society can never be attained in practice because their interests, being antagonistic, can never be reconciled. To this objection I reply that if these interest have never as yet come to mutual accord, it was because the State has sacrificed the interests of the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. That is why this famous incompatibility, this conflict of personal interests with those of society, is nothing but a fraud, a political lie, born of the theological lie which invented the doctrine of original sin in order to dishonor man and destroy his self-respect. The same false idea concerning irreconcilable interests was also fostered by the dreams of metaphysics which, as we know, is close kin to theology. Metaphysics, failing to recognize the social character of human nature, looked upon society as a mechanical and purely artificial aggregate of individuals, suddenly brought together in the name of some formal or secret compact concluded freely or under the influence of a superior power. Before uniting in society, these individuals, endowed with some sort of immortal soul, enjoyed complete liberty, according to the metaphysicians. We are convinced that all the wealth of man’s intellectual, moral, and material development, as well as his apparent independence, is the product of his life in society. Outside society, not only would he not be a free man, he would not even become genuinely human, a being conscious of himself, the only being who thinks and speaks. Only the combination of intelligence and collective labor was able to force man out of that savage and brutish state which constituted his original nature, or rather the starting point for his further development. We are profoundly convinced that the entire life of men – their interests, tendencies, needs, illusions, even stupidities, as well as very bit of violence, injustice, and seemingly voluntary activity – merely represent the result of inevitable societal forces. People cannot reject the idea of mutual independence, nor can they deny the reciprocal influence and uniformity exhibiting the manifestations of external nature.
In nature herself, this marvelous correlation and interdependence of phenomena certainly is not produced without struggle. On the contrary, the harmony of the forces of nature appears only as the result of a continual struggle, which is the real condition of life and of movement. In nature, as in society, order without struggle is death.
If order is natural and possible in the universe, it is only because the universe is not governed according to some pre-imagined system imposed by a supreme will. The theological hypothesis of divine legislation leads to an obvious absurdity, to the negation not only of all order but of nature herself. Natural laws are real only in that they are inherent in nature; that is, they are not established by any authority. These laws are but simple manifestations, or rather continuous variations, of the uniformities constituting what we call ‘nature.’ Human intelligence and its science have observed them, have checked them experimentally, assembled them into a system and called them laws. But nature as such knows no laws. She acts unconsciously; she represents in herself the infinite variety of phenomena which appear and repeat themselves inevitably. This inevitability of action is the reason the universal order can and does exist.
Such an order is also apparent in human society, which seems to have evolved in an allegedly anti natural way but actually is determined by the natural animal’s needs and his capacity for thinking that have contributed a special element to his development – a completely natural element, by the way, in the sense that men, like everything that exists, represent the material product of the union and action of natural forces. This special element is reason, the captivity for generalization and abstraction, thanks to which man is able to project himself in his thought, examining and observing himself like a strange, eternal object. By lifting himself in thought above himself, and above the world around him, he reaches the representation of perfect abstraction, the absolute void. And this absolute is nothing less than his capacity for abstraction, which disdains all that exists and finds its repose in attaining complete negation. This is the ultimate limit of the highest abstraction of the mind; this absolute nothingness is God.
This is the meaning and the historical foundation of every theological doctrine. As they did not understand the nature and the material causes of their own thinking, and did not even grasp the conditions or natural laws underlying such thinking, these early men and early societies had not the slightest suspicion that their absolute notions were simply the result of their own capacity for formulating abstract ideas. Hence they viewed these ideas, drawn from nature, as real objects, next to which nature herself ceased to amount to anything. They began to worship their fictions, their improbably notions of the absolute, and to honor them. But since they felt the need of giving some concrete form to the abstract idea of nothingness or of God, they created the concept of divinity and, furthermore, endowed it with all the qualities and powers, good and evil, which they found only in nature and in society. Such was the origin and historical development of all religions, from fetishism on down to Christianity.
We do not intend to undertake a study of the history of religious, theological, and metaphysical absurdities or to discuss the procession of all the divine incarnations and visions created by centuries of barbarism. We all know that superstition brought disaster and caused rivers of blood and tears to flow. All these revolting aberrations of poor mankind were historical, inevitable stages in the normal growth and evolution of social organizations. Such aberrations engendered the fatal idea, which dominated men’s imagination, that the universe was governed by a supernatural power and will. Centuries came and went, and societies grew accustomed to this idea to such an extent that they finally destroyed any urge toward or capacity to achieve further progress which arose in their midst.
The lust for power of a few individuals originally, and of several social classes later, established slavery and conquest as the dominant principle, and implanted this terrible idea of divinity in the heart of society. Thereafter no society was viewed as feasible without these two institutions, the Church and the State, at its base. These two social scourges are defended by all their doctrinaire apologists.
No sooner did these institutions appear in the world than two ruling classes – the priests and the aristocrats – promptly organized themselves and lost no time in indoctrinating the enslaved people with the idea of the utility, indispensability, and sacredness of the Church and of the State.
Michael Bakunin, 1871
In the following proclamation, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded directly draw the connection between sex discrimination and ruling class privilege. In subsequent publications, they called for capitalism to be replaced by workers’ self-management. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included Louise Michel’s defence of women’s rights, as well as her statement before the military tribunal in which she dared them to put her to death for her role during the Paris Commune.
That it is the duty and the right of everyone to fight for the sacred cause of the people, that is, for the Revolution;
That danger is imminent and the enemy are at the gates of Paris;
That union makes strength; in time of danger all individual efforts must combine to form a collective, invincible resistance by the whole population;
That the Commune—representing the principle of the extinction of all privilege and all inequality—should therefore consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes;
That the success of the present conflict, whose aim is to put an end to corruption, and ultimately to regenerate society by ensuring the rule of Labour and Justice, is of as much significance to women as it is to the men of Paris;
That many among them are determined that in the event of the enemy breaking into Paris, they will fight to the finish in defence of our common rights;
That effective organization of this revolutionary element into a vigorous force for the defence of Paris Commune can only be achieved with concrete aid from the government of the Commune itself;
Consequently, the delegates of the women citizens of Paris request the Executive Commission of the Commune:
1. To order all district town halls to make available in each district a room that can serve as headquarters of the committees;
2. To request that they provide large premises for meetings of women citizens;
3. To have the Commune subsidize the printing of circulars, posters and notices that these committees decide to distribute.
For the members of the Central Committee of Women
In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I could have included a whole chapter of writings produced by the revolutionary women’s group, the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. The group came together in April 1871, soon after the declaration of the Paris Commune. Its members included André Léo, Natalie Lemel, Louise Michel, Paule Mink and Elizabeth Dmitrieff. All were socialists involved in the International Workers’ Association. After the defeat of the Commune, Lemel helped persuade Michel to become a self-avowed anarchist. For a time, Léo was close to the anarchists, sharing their opposition to Marx’s attempts to assert control over the International. Mink associated herself with the anarchist currents in the French socialist movement, but after the defeat of the Commune advocated revolutionary dictatorship. During the Commune, Dmitrieff appears to have shared the revolutionary socialist and anti-state views of other members of the Association, but remained close to Marx, who had sent her to the Commune at the end of March 1871.
On April 11, 1871, the Association published the following proclamation, calling for not only the abolition of exploitation but for no more bosses and freedom for all.
A CALL TO THE WOMEN CITIZENS OF PARIS
The fratricidal madness that has taken possession of France, this duel unto death, is the final act in the eternal antagonism between Right and Might, Labour and Exploitation, the People and their Tyrants!
The privileged classes of the present social order are our enemies; those who have lived by our labour, thriving on our want.
They have seen the people rise up, demanding: ‘No obligations without rights! No rights without obligations! We want to work but we also want the product of our work. No more exploiters. No more bosses. Work and security for all—The People to govern themselves —We want the Commune; we want to live in freedom or to die fighting for it!’
Women of Paris, the decisive hour has come. The old world must come to an end! We want to be free! And France has not risen up alone. The civilized nations of the world have their eyes on Paris. They are waiting for our victory to free themselves in their turn.
A Group of Parisian Women, April 11, 1871
Within the Paris Commune there were numerous groups which advocated and practiced direct action and direct democracy, pushing the Commune towards the social revolution. These sorts of ideas had been advocated by a variety of anarchists during the revolutions of 1848 (see Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Chapter 4), such as Proudhon, Dejacques, Pisacane and Coeurderoy, and were championed within the International by people like Bakunin, Varlin and the revolutionary collectivists associated with them.
The following excerpts are taken from a wall poster and newspaper article by the “Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement,” published at the beginning of April and May 1871 respectively. In the wall poster, the Club urges others to follow their example of taking direct action by using the churches as gathering places for the people. In the newspaper article, the Club emphasizes the need for the people to govern themselves directly, as had Proudhon and other anarchists. The idea that direct democracy is a kind of direct action was developed further by Murray Bookchin.
Wall Poster of the Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement
A great revolutionary act has just occurred: the population of the Third Arrondissement has at last taken possession—to serve the political education of the People—of a building that has until now served only the caste that is inherently hostile to any kind of progress.
The coming to power of the Commune has restored all their rights to the citizenry. It is for these citizens to exercise them both to serve the Commune and when necessary, to remind our delegates that their mandate is to save the Nation. This means that they should act energetically and temporarily leave aside much too great a respect for considerations of ‘legality’ — which in effect aids only the forces of reaction.
It is to you, citizens of all arrondissements, that we make this appeal.
Follow our example: open Communal clubs in all the churches. The priests can conduct services in the daytime and you can provide the people with political education in the evenings.
Govern Yourselves! Long Live the Commune!
The Communal Club, constituted at the beginning of May 1871, professes the following aims…
To fight the enemies of our communal rights, of our freedom and of the republic.
To uphold the rights of the people, to accomplish their political education, so that they may be able to govern themselves.
To recall our representatives to first principles, were they to stray from them, and to aid them in all their efforts to save the Republic.
But above all else, to insist on the sovereignty of the people; they must never renounce their right to supervise the actions of their representatives.
People, govern yourselves directly, through public meetings, through your press; bring pressure to bear on those who represent you; they will never go too far in the revolutionary direction.
If your representatives procrastinate or cease to move, push them forward, that we may reach the objective we are fighting for: the acquisition of our rights, the consolidation of the Republic and the victory of Justice.
Long live the Commune!
Auguste Vermorel (1841-1871) was a radical French journalist and critic of Napoleon III’s Empire. He was also an advocate of “mutualism,” the conception of socialism developed by Proudhon, which sought to replace capitalist exploitation with a form of workers’ self-management. He was imprisoned several times for his political views and participated in the first attempt to establish a Paris Commune on October 31, 1870, after which he was again arrested. He was elected during the March 26, 1871 elections for the newly formed Paris Commune, and published a newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple. With Varlin and several other Internationalists, he was part of the minority opposed to the creation of a Committee of Public Safety, and disapproved of the execution of hostages. He was seriously wounded during the fighting and taken prisoner to Versaille, where he died on June 20, 1871. In the following article, written at the beginning of April 1871, Vermorel emphasizes some Proudhonian mutualist themes, including the view that control of the economy should pass from the capitalists to the workers’ own organizations, rather than to a “socialist” state.
If you are able to make the Revolution’s victory of March 18th definitive, it will remain one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity.
This date marks the achievement of political power by the proletariat just as the Revolution of ‘89 marked the acquisition of political power by the bourgeoisie.
It is the people, and only the people, who have achieved this revolution—and spontaneously like all great popular movements, rather than by some parliamentary intrigue. Demonstrating their ability and their strength, the people have been able to maintain their leadership of this revolution.
The Central Committee, which took power after March 18th, was composed solely of workers, of proletarians.
And by far the majority of the Commune is composed of workers, of proletarians, even though it also contains some bourgeois devoted to the people’s cause, just as there were some nobles in the Constituent Assembly of 1789 devoted to bourgeois emancipation.
However, while they [the workers] continue to fight, they must lay the foundations for a stable government that will be the measure of what the future will hold, and that will demonstrate the superiority of their aspirations over those of the bourgeoisie.
The error of preceding governments must not be continued, that is to say there must not be a simple substitution of workers in the places occupied previously by bourgeois.
The entire governmental structure must be overthrown with the aim of reconstructing another one according to a new plan based upon the principles of justice and science.
All political measures taken from now on—even when exceptional and provisional—should embody this new character.
Pure and simple confiscation of wealth by the State is an expedient of questionable value, and in normal times this would, it must be said, be a deplorable act since it would necessarily revive State despotism and would run counter to the spirit of our revolution—which is to destroy despotism by means of communal freedom.
What is needed are restorative measures that conform to the principles of justice by transferring to worker-ownership the wealth that has hitherto been left idle or used wastefully, instead of being employed for the improvement of the general welfare of the population.
In a well-organized state, all labour ought to be remunerated equitably. Only labour would be remunerated since it is the sole source of wealth. No worker should be in poverty and those who do not work have no right to participate in the social benefits of production.
The above principles could seem quite general and vague at first glance but we should not stray from them if we wish to remain rooted in revolutionary justice—the true source of our strength.
These principles, moreover, govern the very existence of the Commune.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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