The Paris Commune of 1871

paris commune

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.

Paris cover

André Léo: Appeal to the Farm Workers (1871)

The Paris Commune

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a chapter on the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, with selections from Bakunin, Kropotkin and Louise Michel. For the past few weeks, I have been posting material from libertarian socialists involved in the French sections of the International Workers Association and the Paris Commune. In April 1871, the Paris Commune issued a manifesto to the French people, seeking their support. The manifesto, which was mostly written by Pierre Denis, a Proudhonist member of the International, called for the “total autonomy of the Commune extended to every township in France,” with the “Commune’s autonomy to be restricted only by the right to an equal autonomy for all the other communes.” The Communards assured the people of France that the “political unity which Paris strives for is the voluntary union of all local initiative, the free and spontaneous cooperation of all individual energies towards a common goal: the well-being, freedom and security of all.” The Commune was to mark “the end of the old governmental and clerical world; of militarism, bureaucracy, exploitation, speculation, monopolies and privilege that have kept the proletariat in servitude and led the nation to disaster.”

Bakunin

One of the most serious problems facing the Paris Commune was the lack of support from the countryside. In September 1870, Bakunin had raised this issue in his Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, in which he urged revolutionaries to encourage the peasants and farm workers to “take the land and throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others,” inciting them “to destroy, by direct action, every political, juridical, civil, and military institution,” establishing “anarchy through the whole countryside” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: 103). The need to win the peasants over to the cause of the social revolution was a theme that Bakunin returned to in The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution, published in April 1871. Bakunin again urged the Parisian revolutionaries to go to the countryside to provoke a peasant insurrection by offering the peasants the “immediately great material advantages” that would result from a social revolution, such as the land itself, and the abolition of debts. Bakunin argued that a “revolution that is imposed upon people—whether by official decree or by force of arms—is not a revolution but its opposite, for it necessarily provokes reaction.”

André Léo

In Paris, a committee composed mainly of Internationalists was struck to prepare an appeal to French peasants and farm workers. The appeal was written by André Léo (1824-1900), the pen name of the revolutionary feminist, Victoire Léodile Béra, a member of the International who was also involved with the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. The Appeal is similar in its approach to that advocated by Bakunin, with the exception that it suggests that it will be by legislative means that the land will be returned to the farm workers, rather than the farm workers seizing it themselves.

To The Farm Workers:

Brothers, you are being deceived. Our interests are the same: we only want what you also want. The liberation that we demand is your own as well. Whether in the city or in the countryside, the important point is that there is insufficient food, clothing, shelter or assistance for those who produce the world’s wealth. An oppressor is an oppressor whether a big landowner or an industrialist. For you, as for us, a day’s work is long and hard and barely provides enough to keep one’s body going. Both you and we lack freedom, rest and recreation for mind and body. We have always been and still are—both of us—in the grip of poverty.

Don’t you feel how unjust this is? You can easily see that you are being deceived; for if it were true that property ownership resulted from work, you, who have worked so hard, would be a property owner. You would own that little house with the garden and farmyard that you have longed for all your life and that you find impossible to acquire. Or, even if you have perhaps had the misfortune to purchase a house, it has been at the price of a mortgage that drains off your resources. And this mortgage will force your children to sell this very shelter that has cost you so much when you die—if not before. No, work doesn’t lead to owning property. Property is inherited or is obtained by trickery. The rich lead a life of idleness while the workers are poor and stay poor. The few exceptions prove the rule.

This is clearly unjust. Vested interests have tricked you into accusing Paris of cheating you, but this injustice is precisely what has led Paris to rise up and demand a change in the laws that place all power over the workers in the hands of the wealthy. Paris wants the son of the farmer to be as educated as the son of the rich man, and at no cost.

So you see, farm workers—whether day labourer, mortgage-bound farmer, tenant farmer—all who sow, harvest and toil so that the best part of what you produce goes to someone who does nothing, what Paris wants, essentially, is that LAND BELONG TO THE FARMER, THE TOOLS OF PRODUCTION TO THE WORKER, WORK FOR ALL.

Yes, the products of farming should go to those who do the farming. To each his own; work for all. No more rich and poor. No more work without rest and no more rest without work. It is possible to achieve this… All that is needed are good laws. Such laws will be enacted when the workers decide to be manipulated no longer by the idle classes.

You can readily see—inhabitants of the countryside—that the objectives for which Paris is fighting are yours as well; that in striving to help the worker, it is striving to help you. The generals who are at this very moment attacking Paris are the very same ones who betrayed the defence of France. The representatives you elected without knowing them want to restore the monarchy under a Henry V. If Paris falls, then the yoke of poverty will remain around your necks and will also be placed around those of your children. So help Paris to win. No matter what happens, remember these objectives—for there will always be revolutions in the world until they are achieved:

THE LAND TO THE FARMER, THE TOOLS OF PRODUCTION TO THE WORKER, WORK FOR ALL.

THE WORKERS OF PARIS

Power to the People: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Power to the People

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.

Anarcho-Syndicalism: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Wall Poster of the Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement

Citizens:

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!

The Paris Commune

Auguste Vermorel: Communal Freedom (April 1871)

Auguste Vermorel

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.

Citizens:

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.

On the Barricades

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

The Social Revolution in France (1870)

Proudhon

In the summer of 1870, despite the imprisonment or forced exile of many of the most outstanding militants of the International in France, the Paris Sections continued to organize French workers in order to achieve the “Social Revolution,” a phrase coined by Proudhon, and adopted by Bakunin, to distinguish a socialist revolution, which transforms social and economic relationships by abolishing capitalism and the state, replacing them with a federation of workers’ associations and free communes, from the political revolutions of the past, which resulted in the substitution of one ruling class for another.

The ascendancy of these ideas of social liberation within the French sections of the International is demonstrated by the following excerpts from pamphlets published by Paris sections of the International around the summer of 1870. The Paris sections took to heart the admonition in the Preamble to the Statutes of the International that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves” (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 19). They sought to abolish classes and to establish a libertarian socialism “based upon equality and justice,” the “mutualist organization” of society that Proudhon had long advocated. For the majority of Parisian Internationalists, this was “the Social Revolution.”

The Workers Themselves

The International and the Social Revolution

All sincere socialists have a common aim: to secure the highest possible well-being for all human beings through an equitable distribution of labour and of all it produces.

However, they are far from agreeing on the means for attaining this objective.

Thanks to its organization and congresses, the socialism of the International is not like the older forms, that is, solely the result of the thinking of a few individuals. It is above all the synthesis of the aspirations of the proletariat of the entire world, and represents the considered expression of the will of organized workers.

It is this kind of socialism that has given rise to the only serious battle of the moment, namely, international resistance to the tyranny of capital. The ultimate result of this struggle will be the establishment of a new social order: the elimination of classes, the abolition of employers and of the proletariat, the establishment of universal co-operation based upon equality and justice.

It is this kind of socialism that has struck a mortal blow at the old principle of private property, whose existence will not last beyond the first day of the coming revolution…

Hence it is necessary, citizens, to eliminate wage labour, the last form of servitude.

The distribution of what is produced by labour, based upon the principles of the value of the work and a mutualist organization of services, will realize the principles of justice in social relationships…

Social and political emancipation depend upon achieving the united action of the workers.

Has it not always been evident that the art of governing peoples has been the art of exploiting them?

…Following the example of our fathers, who made the Revolution of ‘89, we must accomplish the Democratic and Social Revolution.

Château-Rouge section (Paris) of the International

The Revolutionary Commune

Napoleon III surrenders to Bismark

Following the defeat by the Prussians of the French army and the capture of Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III’s government collapsed. On September 4, 1870, a group of bourgeois republicans proclaimed the Third Republic and established a government of national defence. Several Internationalists who had been imprisoned by Napoleon III’s regime for their labour organizing and agitation were released to a hero’s welcome by the French working class, and Eugène Varlin returned from his temporary exile in Belgium.

Bakunin

Michael Bakunin, the Russian anarchist who had become active in the International in 1868, travelled to Lyon in the hope of turning the inter-imperialist war between Prussia and France into a far-reaching social revolution. Bakunin set forth his position in a pamphlet, Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, excerpts from which I included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. His associate, James Guillaume, who had established contacts with Varlin and other French Internationalists, was in the process of publishing and distributing the pamphlet from Switzerland.

Lyon City Hall

In Lyon, Bakunin met up with other members of the International who supported his revolutionary socialist approach, including Albert Richard from Lyon, and André Bastelica, from Marseilles. On September 24, 1870, following a popular demonstration that called for “a levy on the rich and the appointment of army officers by free election,” Bakunin and his associates issued a proclamation, reproduced below, calling for a federation of revolutionary communes to replace the bourgeois state. The proclamation was enthusiastically received, but Bakunin’s own associates were reluctant to put it into practice.

When the Municipal Council tried to reduce the pay for workers in local factories that had been turned into “national workshops,” thousands of Lyon workers protested outside the city hall, enabling Bakunin and his associates to seize the hall and reiterate their demands. Control of the hall passed back and forth between the protestors and the National Guard, but eventually the Guard recaptured the hall and Bakunin was arrested. He was freed by a small group of comrades and then made his way to Marseilles, where he stayed with Bastélica, eventually returning to Switzerland. A week after Bakunin left Marseilles, there was an attempt to establish a revolutionary commune there too.

From Lyon to the Paris Commune

Despite attempts by Marxists and some historians to portray the Lyon uprising as a tragicomic farce, as Paul Avrich points out, news “of the Lyon Commune touched off a chain reaction up and down the Rhone valley and through Provence.” There were attempts to establish revolutionary communes in “Toulouse, Narbonne, Cette, Perpignan, Limoges, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot, and other towns” (Avrich, Anarchist Portraits: 236). The most significant attempts were made at the end of October in Marseilles and Paris, presaging the revolutionary Paris Commune of March 1871.

To the Barricades

THE REVOLUTIONARY FEDERATION OF COMMUNES

The disastrous plight of the country, the incapacity of official powers and the indifference of the privileged classes have placed the French nation on the verge of destruction.

If the people do not hasten to organize and act in a revolutionary manner, their future is doomed; the revolution will have been lost. Recognizing the seriousness of the danger and considering that urgent action by the people must not be delayed for a moment, the delegates of the Federated Committees for the Salvation of France and its Central Committee propose the immediate adoption of the following resolutions:

Article 1 —The administrative and governmental machinery of the State, having become impotent, is abolished. The French people resume full possession of their destiny.

Article 2—All criminal and civil courts are suspended and replaced by the justice of the people.

Article 3—Payment of taxes and mortgages is suspended. Taxes are to be replaced by contributions from the federated communes levied upon the wealthy classes in proportion to what is necessary for the salvation of France.

Article 4—Since the State has been abolished, it can no longer intervene to secure the payment of private debts.

Article 5 — All existing municipal organizations are hereby abolished, replaced in all the federated communes by committees for the salvation of France. All governmental powers will be exercised by these committees under the immediate supervision of the people.

Article 6—Each committee in the principal town of a Department will send two delegates to a revolutionary convention for the salvation of France.

Article 7— The Convention will meet immediately at the town hall of Lyons, since it is the second city of France and in the best position to provide energetically for the country’s defence. This Convention, supported by the all the people, will save France.

TO ARMS!!!

Long Live the Revolutionary Commune!

The Paris Sections of the International: Manifesto Against War

The Franco-Prussian War

On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, the Paris sections of the International issued a manifesto against war which was republished by other sections of the International in Belgium and Germany. In many ways it provided the model for subsequent anarchist proclamations against war, emphasizing that the working class knows no frontiers and that their real enemies are capitalism, imperialism and the state. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from the resolution against war at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, and the Manifesto against the First World War issued by Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Alexander Schapiro and numerous other anarchists. When anarcho-syndicalists revived the International Workers’ Association (IWA/AIT) in 1922, they passed a resolution against war and militarism, which I posted previously.

Casualties of War

MANIFESTO AGAINST WAR ISSUED BY THE PARIS SECTIONS OF THE INTERNATIONAL

To the Workers of All Countries:

Workers,

Once more, on the pretext of the European balance of power, of national honour, the peace of the world is threatened by political ambitions.

French, German, Spanish workers: let our voices unite in one cry of protest against war!

Today, societies can have no legitimate basis other than that of production and the equitable distribution of its fruits.

As the specialization of labour increases each day so the need for exchange brings together the common interests of all nations.

War over a question of authority or dynasty can, in the eyes of workers, be nothing but a criminal absurdity.

In answer to the war of those who exempt themselves from the blood-letting, or who find a fresh source for speculation in the misfortunes of the people, we protest…

We Who Want Only Peace, Labour and Liberty

We protest:

Against the systematic destruction of the human race;

Against the misuse of the people’s wealth, which ought to be used to help agriculture and industrial development;

Against the spilling of blood for the satisfaction of vanity, pride and offended or frustrated monarchist ambitions.

Yes, with all our might, we protest, as men, as citizens, as workers, against war.

War represents the devious means by which governing powers stifle civil liberties.

War represents the destruction of the general wealth that has been produced by our daily labour.

Brothers of GERMANY!

In the name of peace, do not listen to the mercenary or servile voices who would try to deceive you about the true state of mind in FRANCE.

Disregard the senseless provocations, for war between us would be a fratricidal war. Stay calm, in the manner of a strong and courageous people, without any loss of dignity.

Division between us would only bring about the complete triumph of despotism on both sides of the Rhine…

Workers of all countries: whatever may come of our joint efforts, we, members of the International Working Men’s Association, who know no frontiers, we send you as a pledge of indissoluble solidarity, the good wishes and greetings of the workers of FRANCE.

Signed by 197 members of the Paris sections of the International, July 11th, 1870

From War to Social Revolution


Eugène Varlin and the Rise of Revolutionary Socialism in France

Varlin

After many posts on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, I will now be turning my attention toward the emergence of self-identified anarchist movements from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), founded primarily by French and English workers in 1864, and in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from Proudhon, Bakunin, Louise Michel, Kropotkin and the anti-authoritarian sections of the International in the Chapters on the International and the origins of the anarchist movement, the conflicts within the International, and the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Space limitations prevented me from including anything by Eugène Varlin (1839-1871), an outstanding member of the Paris section, and later federation, of the International, who was a pioneer in the development of a revolutionary socialist current within the International which advocated the abolition of the capitalist state and the creation of an international federation of workers’ collectives, a position he described as “collectivism” or “non-authoritarian communism,” to distinguish it from the state socialism advocated by the Blanquists and Marxists within the International.

Founding of the International

Varlin was a bookbinder by trade, involved in the revived workers movement in France in the mid-1860s. In February 1864, a group of workers, including Varlin, published their “Manifesto of the Sixty,” in which they argued that the workers were “in need of direct representation” from among their own number “in the precincts of the legislative body… the only place where workers could worthily and freely articulate their wishes and stake their own claim to the rights enjoyed by other citizens.” The “Sixty” signatories made a point of distancing themselves from the earlier Proudhon, assuring the Manifesto’s readers that they were not about to adopt Proudhon’s battle cry from the 1848 French Revolution: “What is the worker? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!” For “it is not for us [the workers] to destroy the rights deservedly enjoyed by the middle classes, but rather to secure for ourselves the same freedom to act.” Varlin subsequently adopted a more revolutionary position, seeking to achieve socialism through workers’ self-management.

Varlin and Nathalie Lemel, who later helped convert Louise Michel to anarchism, participated in the bookbinders’ strikes of 1864 and 1865 and were involved in the creation of workers’ credit unions, cooperatives and other mutual aid societies. Both were also involved in creating the Paris section of the International in 1865.

Nathalie Lemel

Varlin was among the French delegates to the 1866 Geneva Congress of the First International. Varlin and Antoîne-Marie Bourdon, an engraver from Paris, advocated equal rights for women in opposition to the more conservative Proudhonists, who argued that a woman’s place was in the home. Varlin and Bourdon also disputed the position of Proudhon and the majority of the French delegation that the patriarchal family should be primarily responsible for the education of children, arguing that education was a social responsibility. For them, access to education should not be limited by existing inequalities in the means of individual families, and the improvidence and caprice of the children’s fathers. They proposed public funding of education, which was to be administered by “truly democratic” communes, because no father had the right to refuse his children an education, while a free and equal society required nothing less.

The growing activity of the International in working class struggles in France resulted in the persecution of the French Internationalists, with 10 members of the Parisian section, including Varlin, being fined 100 francs and sentenced to three months in jail in May 1868. Prior to his imprisonment, Varlin had helped collect funds to assist construction workers in Geneva during their successful strike in March-April 1868 for a 10 hour day and higher wages. He and Lemel had also begun organizing workers’ cooperatives, such as the restaurant, La Marmite (the “Cooking Pot”). The statutes for La Marmite provided for the administration of the cooperative’s daily affairs by a council of delegates elected by the general assembly of the cooperative’s members. These delegates were to be elected for six month terms and subject to recall. The council was to have only administrative powers, with the general assembly making all policy decisions.

Proudhon

Varlin’s position on participation in bourgeois politics changed over time. In May 1869, he was still in favour of participation in bourgeois elections, persuading the Paris section of the International to put forward a slate of working class candidates.

At that time, he referred to the advocates of abstention as “proudhoniens enragés” (prior to his death in 1865, Proudhon had advised the workers not to participate in French elections because “under the regime that has ruled over us since 1852, our ideas, if not our persons, have been, so to speak, placed outside of politics, outside of government, outside of the law”). Varlin, however, argued that putting forward a slate of working class candidates would emphasize the division between “the people and the bourgeoisie.” Varlin believed that “it would be impossible to organize the social revolution while we live under a government as arbitrary” as that of Napoleon III. None of the working class candidates were elected, and the Varlin group had to throw its support behind radical candidates instead.

By the time of Napoleon III’s May 1870 plebiscite to legitimize his political “reforms,” Varlin joined other workers in advocating abstention, for the time had come, in Varlin’s words, for the workers “to disabuse themselves of the representative system” of Napoleon III, the position that Proudhon had advised Varlin and other French workers to take back in 1864.  The Paris federation of the International, which Varlin had helped form in April 1870, issued a Manifesto calling for mass abstentions because this was the method of protest that Napoleon III feared the most. The Manifesto denounced the massacres of striking workers, conscription and the onerous tax burden being imposed on the workers to bankroll Napoleon III’s imperialist escapades abroad.

Varlin agreed with Bakunin that it was through the workers’ own trade union organizations and strike activity that they would create “the organization of the revolutionary forces” of labour necessary to abolish capitalism. This position was endorsed by most of the delegates to the 1869 Basle Congress of the International.

Bakunin speaking at the Basle Congress

At the Basle Congress, Varlin had supported Bakunin’s resolution in favour of the abolition of the right of inheritance, agreeing with Bakunin that, in current conditions, to maintain the right of inheritance was to sanction inequality. Some children would be well provided for from their fathers’ estates, while other children would remain deprived, through no fault of their own. Still less could one justify, from a collectivist perspective, the “right” of someone to transfer “his” property to someone outside of his family, bestowing on them an unearned benefit.

Bakunin and Varlin were consistent in their rejection of patriarchal rights, whether to dispose of one’s “property” or to determine what sort of education should be provided to one’s children. Varlin had argued at the Geneva Congress that education was a social responsibility, a position shared by Bakunin and his associates. At the Basle Congress, Bakunin expressly tied the abolition of the right of inheritance to the need for an “integral” education freely available to all, arguing that “as soon as the right of inheritance is abolished, society will have to take responsibility for all costs of the physical, moral, and intellectual development of all children of both sexes.”

James Guillaume

Toward the end of the Basle Congress, one of Bakunin’s associates, James Guillaume, met with Varlin and described to him the revolutionary socialist program being developed by Guillaume, Bakunin and their colleagues. Varlin told Guillaume that he shared their ideas, and the two agreed to maintain closer contacts. Varlin soon thereafter described the position adopted “almost unanimously” by the delegates at the Basle Congress as “collectivism, or non-authoritarian communism,” which was to be achieved by a “European social revolution.” Varlin supported the vision of the future free society proposed by his fellow Internationalist, Jean-Louis Pindy, at the Basle Congress, with dual federations, one comprising the workers’ trade and labour organizations, the other local and regional areas. As Pindy put it at the Basle Congress, association “on the basis of town or country… leads to the commune of the future, just as the other mode of [trade union] organization leads to the labour representation of the future.”

In December 1869, Bakunin, Guillaume and several other Internationalists met in Lyon, and again in March 1870, resulting in the establishment of a regional federation of Rhône workers affiliated with the International, with Varlin acting as honourary chairman at the founding congress.

In his report on the Basle Congress, Varlin expressed the views of many of the French Internationalists when he wrote that the workers’ own organizations, the trade unions and societies of resistance and solidarity, “form the natural elements of the social structure of the future.” Varlin saw strikes as a “school of struggle” that would unite the workers into a revolutionary force.

In March 1870, Varlin published an article expressing the views of the majority of the Paris Internationalists, in which he called for the authoritarian capitalist state to be replaced by workers’ self-management:

“At present our statesmen are trying to substitute a liberal-parliamentary government (Orleans style) for the regime of personal rule, and hope thereby to divert the advancing revolution that threatens their privileges. We socialists know from experience that all the old political forms are incapable of satisfying the demands of the people. Taking advantage of the mistakes and blunders of our adversaries, we must hasten the arrival of the hour of deliverance by actively preparing the bases for the future organization of society. This will make easier and more certain the task of social transformation which the revolution must carry out.

Up till now, governments have simply been an extension of authoritarian rule and subjugation of the masses — whether republican governments like Switzerland or the United States, constitutional oligarchies like Belgium or England, autocracies like Russia or personal regimes as in France since the Empire… all represent a political authority whose purpose is to keep the working classes in fear of laws that were created for the benefit of the few. This authority may be more or less strict, more or less arbitrary, but this does not in any way change the economic relations that are its foundation: the workers always remain at the mercy of those who hold capital.

Society can no longer permit the arbitrary distribution of public wealth on the basis of birth or success. Since [public wealth] is the collective sum of all productive labour, it should be employed only for the benefit of the collective. In other words, all members of human society have an equal right to the advantages stemming from that wealth.

However, this social wealth cannot provide for the well-being of humanity unless it is put to use by labour.

Consequently, if the industrial capitalist or businessman is no longer to dispose arbitrarily of collectively produced capital, who, then, can place this capital at the disposal of all? Who is to organize the production and distribution of goods?

Short of placing everything in the hands of a highly centralized, authoritarian state which would set up a hierarchical structure from top to bottom of the labour process… we must admit that the only alternative is for the workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production… through co-operative associations in various forms.

Newly formed labour groupings must join with the older ones, for it is only through the solidarity of workers in all occupations and in all countries that we will definitively achieve the abolition of all privileges, and equality for all.”

Varlin was among several prominent Internationalists sentenced to one year in prison in July 1870 for their activities. He escaped to Belgium, where he remained until the fall of Napoleon III’s regime in September 1870, after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In subsequent posts, I will review the events leading up to the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Varlin played a prominent role. He was tortured and murdered during the massacre of up to 30,000 Communards in May 1871.

"The Execution of Varlin" by M. Luce

Noir et Rouge: Majority and Minority (1958)

In Volume 2 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from the French anarchist journal, Noir et Rouge (1956-1970), including material on national liberation and anti-colonialism, draft resistance against the French war against Algerian independence (Selection 31), and new directions in anarchist theory (Selection 47). Noir et Rouge (Black and Red, the traditional colours of class struggle anarchism) was published by the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Revolutionaire (Revolutionary Action Anarchist Groups), one of the many French anarchist groups that emerged following the split in the French anarchist movement between Georges Fontenis and the Libertarian Communist Federation, which tried to unite anarchists and other ultra-leftists into a more conventional revolutionary party, and those anarchists who felt the Fontenis approach was dogmatic and authoritarian (see the previous post from Giovanna Berneri). In the following excerpts from Noir et Rouge, translated by Paul Sharkey, the GAAR sets forth its position on the debate regarding majority rule, defending the right of the minority to follow its own path. Noir et Rouge, with its more fluid conception of anarchist organization, influenced the student revolutionaries of May 1968 in France.

Majority and Minority

Can a majority claim to speak for on organization? Are its decisions binding upon the organization? How is the minority treated in terms of its expression, its conduct, its very existence within the ranks of that organization?

At first glance, all these questions appear to be of secondary interest, but in fact they are of considerable significance when one wishes to live inside an organization and wants that organization to live. And there can be no “laissez-faire, time will tell, every case is a case apart, with a little good will…” approach, for often experience is very convincing but by the time it is noticed it is too late to change anything and everything has to be embraced or allowed to fall by the wayside. Right from the very first steps taken together, we must devise a theoretical and practical line of policy acceptable to all and, in this context, the minority-majority issue can tilt the balance in one direction or the other.

As we see it, the operation of a federalist organization is incompatible with retention of the principle of majority rule. There is a real majority in the form of a freely conceived, freely accepted unanimity. Any other majority, be it a two thirds majority, an absolute or simple majority, with all manner of implications, constitutes a majority only as far as those who accept it are concerned; as far as others are concerned, it is worthless and cannot be considered binding.

Every time an attempt is made to foist a policy upon others, on one ground or another, one arrives at a contrived, fragile, unstable unity. Of course, in every case one finds and is going to find “special circumstances, historical necessities” — but then, what moment in humanity’s march towards its happiness is not historical? And it is not hard for those in need of that majority to prate on about special circumstances.

But… “without a majority, no decision can be arrived at and in the absence of decisions, an organization is worthless, a shambles.” This is the chief charge levelled at libertarians by authority lovers and, it has to be said, by certain libertarians. But experience flies in the face of such reasoning. Not only are there organizations in existence that are built on this foundation, but there have been instances where, without any votes being counted, there was a real majority… 19 July 1936, the May events in Barcelona in 1937… but there was no majority when the anarchists were “obliged” to collaborate with the government, at which point our adversaries started to roil about the existence of an opposition and a minority and to carp about the anarchists’ weakness and lack of discipline. Yet it was the existence of that very minority that salvaged the movement’s honour, including the honour of those who had consented to compromise.

The majority principle derives from the practice of the political struggle, from universal suffrage, from parliamentarianism. There, it is necessary, nay, the only indispensable factor in the smooth running of the system. The struggle to win a majority has never been and never will be open and honest. In order to win votes, no one shows his true face, the mechanisms of his game or the real aims he has in mind. The most revolutionary appeals are merely vague propositions likely to attract a brood swathe of individuals: the most po-faced sermons are only the ravings of rabble-rousers trying to stir the basest sentiments of the mob, be it selfish or sham-humanitarian. This grand parade of fine talkers is well orchestrated from behind the scenes through the use of intimidation, economic and other threats, as well as promises and special advantages. In authoritarian regimes, this backstage activity is even more transparent and the real agents of the majority (the official and political police, direct or indirect oppression) tread the boards, flourishing their “arguments”; they do not even trouble to mount a few minor displays against the recalcitrant so as to make an example for the rest, and to arrive at the ideal majority… 99.99%. But that danger lurks even within non-authoritarian, democratic, indeed, libertarian organizations, when the principle of majority rule is embraced along with the competition to win a majority. We have seen supposedly libertarian congresses hatched behind the scenes, with the parts and the speeches allocated in advance and even propaganda tailor-mode for each delegate, and we have also witnessed the outcome.

This “Fontenis-style” phenomenon ought not to be repeated.

But there will always be some who are not convinced, some who hold back, even if only for strictly personal reasons: we know about the unconfessed role that has been played by personal relations, even in strictly political, economic or ideological organizations. We cannot make it a requirement that everyone hits it off with everybody else. So we will run into nonsensical, unsolicited obstruction which can paralyze and stymie the organization just when it ought to be acting with the greatest speed — and what, then, are we to do? It happens.

But this argument is founded upon two mistakes: the notion of a homogeneous specific organization and the notion of anarchist morality.

When the members of an organization are bound together not only by reasonably friendly personal relations, but also and primarily by a given number of ideological and tactical principles — enough common ground to justify the claim that that organization is homogeneous — the dangers of significant differences of opinion are minimal. This is one of the reasons why we stick to the views and practice of a “specific anarchist group” which we refuse to dilute or see diluted for us. Just let a new practice be adopted — “come all ye who are for freedom” or “against the State,” or even “anarchism generally” — and the next day, friction on some issue will be inevitable. Heterogeneity carries another consequence: the existence of groups of “initiates” (with a foot in several groups at once, maybe) which are, most of the time, secret or semi-secret: and every one them aims to make the running) their consciences clear that they are “leading others along the righteous path”… which will very quickly degenerate into internecine squabbling, into an OPB*, into leaders and masses. Thus there are not just a majority and a minority but a number of concentric circles, most often revolving around some “master-mind” (which releases the others from any requirement to think), each suspicious of the other, each of them pursuing his own little schemes behind the scenes or in the open, trying to win others over to his faction, and all of this overlaid with a blithe semblance of unity. This is an unwholesome climate that neither educates nor builds upright, honest individuals. It is a “den of parliamentarianism” in miniature.

Even so, though, and in spite of the variety of the views, differences of opinion and debates that may emerge, we should be overly•starry-eyed. Ideas themselves are not set in stone and are liable to evolve. So if the differences of opinion are of a significantly theoretical order, it would be better for the organization if it were to fall apart and for there to be two or several new more or less homogeneous organizations, than for one heterogeneous organization to be retained. This is inevitable, and if any attempt is made to stem this trend, it is at that point that there is a risk of everything coming to a halt and grinding to a standstill, through the quest for anodyne compromises that forestall disintegration but also prevent movement in any direction at all.

The other factor mentioned earlier — anarchist morality — if properly understood and implemented in life will help greatly to smooth over minor frictions, and also the disintegration of the organization should it come — through acceptance of an opinion that differs from one’s own, without writing it off as the opinion of an enemy or taking up arms against it. Provided, of course, that we are not dealing with a view completely outside the parameters of anarchism. The history of anarchism has had only a few specific instances of this sort to show and this latter likelihood can virtually be discounted.

There is a considerable part to be played in anarchist organizations by an internal bulletin wherein there can be an open forum for all matters of concern to the organization, including dissenting viewpoints.

There is a further factor tied to the organization: comrades joining this organization must freely embrace its necessity and its role. That much is self-evident. Anybody who cannot see beyond the narrow confines of the individual, who cannot imagine social structures beyond scattered, isolated individuals, will be better advised to stay isolated, helping others as and when he sees fit, but not hampering the organization through uncompromising, maverick practices. Some other designation will have to be devised for comrades of this sort, who are often very good comrades in fact, and they will have to be accepted for what they are.

A genuinely democratic organization can be identified on the basis of its behaviour vis-a-vis its own opposition. This is all the more true of a libertarian organization which aims to lay the groundwork for the society of the future. Every time that a majority discusses and enforces the majority-prescribed parameters within which the opposition has to operate, there can be two reasons far this: either the membership was very widely based, or, inside that organization, there are persons itching to play the parts of leaders. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: such and such a member keen to take charge of the organization will draft in new members in order to boost his chances of winning majority support.

Outside our own organizations, can we require and practice rejection of majority rule? This is a thornier issue, for circumstances differ, and the aim is primarily to promote our ideas without betraying them. But here too, we must ensure that even the victorious majority does not crush the spirit of the minority, not just because of the danger of finding ourselves in the same position someday (revolutionary movements being most often minority movements) but also because of our anti-totalitarian outlook and tolerance. Every time that a leader or panel of leaders starts to claim absolute mastery, they end up turning on one another and will arrive at a dictatorship, camouflaged or brazen. The first sign of a future “head of State” or “people’s leader’ is the hatred he bears his own comrades who cannot stand him in that role. After which there is no stopping his appetite for authority, the parameters of which become increasingly broadened and boundless.

Every organization, no matter what it may be, is a compromise between one person and the rest vis-a-vis the imperatives of social life. Meaning that every individual must inevitably renounce certain tendencies or habits which are unacceptable or harmful to society. And as a result, inside every organization, there is a risk of the sacrifices required of individuals for society’s sake going beyond the needs of society per se and turning an abstraction like the State, the bureaucracy, the leader, historical necessity, etc… One barrier against this threat is for the individual to have the option to dissent from certain things or certain tendencies which he deems inappropriate and of no social utility, the chance of switching across to the opposition, which is to say, the minority. There are other barriers as well: federalist organization per se, direct and limited election of officers, genuine participation by ordinary members of the organization, the struggle being economic rather than political, etc…

* Organisation Pensée Bataille

Noir et Rouge, No. 10, June 1958


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