Words of a Rebel
The Paris Commune
ON the 18th of March, 1871, the people of Paris rose against a rule that was generally detested and despised, and proclaimed the city of Paris independent, free, and belonging only to itself.
This overthrow of central power was made without the usual scenes of a revolutionary uprising: on that day there were neither volleys of shot nor floods of blood shed behind the barricades. The rulers were eclipsed by an armed people going out into the streets; the soldiers evacuated the city, the bureaucrats hastened towards Versailles, taking with them everything they could carry. The government evaporated like a puddle of stinking water under the breath of a spring wind, and by the 19th, having shed hardly a drop of its children's blood, Paris found itself free of the past that had contaminated the great city.
At the same time, the revolution that had been accomplished in this way opened up a new era in the series of revolutions, by which the people march forward from slavery to freedom. Under the name of The Paris Commune a new idea was born, destined to become the point of departure for future revolutions.
As is always the case with great ideas, it was not a product of the conceptions of an individual philosopher. It was born of the collective intelligence; it sprang from the heart of an entire people. But it was vague in the beginning, and many among those who helped to realize it and who even gave their lives for it, did not imagine the event as we conceive it today; they did pot fully understand the revolution they were inaugurating& nor the fecundity of the new principle which they were seeking to put into execution. It was only with practical application that one began to perceive its future importance; it was only in the working out of the thought from this time onwards that the new principle became more and more specific and clear, and appeared in all its lucidity, all its beauty, its justice and the importance of its results.
As soon as socialism had taken a new impetus in the five or six years preceding the Commune,(33) one question above all preoccupied the elaborators of the coming social revolution: the question of knowing what form of political grouping among societies would be the most propitious for that great economic revolution which current industrial development imposes on our generations, and which must lead to the abolition of individual property and the communalizing of all the capital accumulated by preceding generations.
The International Workingmen's Association gave that response. Association, it said, should not be restricted to one nation; it should extend beyond all the artificial frontiers. And soon that great idea would penetrate the hearts of the people and capture their minds. Hounded since then by an alliance of all the reactionaries, it has nonetheless survived, and as soon as the obstacles raised to its development are destroyed to the cheers of the insurgent people, it will be reborn stronger than ever.
But it remained to be seen what would be the integral parts of that vast Association. At that time two great currents of ideas confronted each other with their solutions to that great question: the Popular State on the one hand, and Anarchy on the other.
According to the German socialists, the State should take possession of all accumulated wealth and give it to workers' associations; it should organize production and exchange, and keep watch over public life, over the functioning of society.
To this the majority of socialists of Latin race, replied that such a State -even admitting that by some impossible chance it could exist-would be the worst of tyrannies, and they opposed this ideal with a new ideal copied from the past; an-archy, that is to say, the complete abolition of States, and reorganization from the simple to the complex through the free federation of the popular forces of producers and consumers.
It was soon admitted, even by "Statists" less imbued with government prejudices, that Anarchy indeed represented a greatly superior form of organization than that envisaged in the popular State; but, they declared, the anarchist ideal is so far beyond us that we cannot concern ourselves with it at the present time. At the same time, anarchist theory lacked a concrete and simple formula with which to define its point of departure, to give body to its aims, and to show that they were based on a conception that had a real existence among the people. The federation of workers' corporations and groups of consumers across the frontiers and apart from the existing States, still seemed too vague a concept; and at the same time, it was easy to perceive that they could not comprehend the whole diversity of human manifestations. A clearer formula, one that was easier to comprehend, and which had its basic elements in the reality of things, was needed.
If it had been merely a matter of elaborating a theory, we might well ask how important theories are. But until a new idea has found a form of expression that is clear, precise and derived from actual existence, it will not seize on people's minds or inspire them to the point of embarking on a decisive struggle. The people do not plunge into the unknown without gaining the support of a reliable and clearly formulated idea which serves, so to speak, as a springboard from which to take off. And this takeoff point, life itself will indicate.
For five months while it was isolated by the siege, Paris had lived its own life and it had come to understand the vast economic, intellectual and moral powers at its disposal; it had glimpsed and understood the strength of its initiatives. At the same time, it had seen that the band of l brigands who had seized power did not know how to organize anything -either the defence of France or the development of the interior. It had seen how this central government had set itself against all that the intelligence of a great city might bring to fruition. It had seen more than that: the powerlessness of any government to ward off great disasters or to assist positive evolution when it is ripe for fulfilment.. During the siege it had suffered frightful poverty, the poverty of the workers and defenders of the town, beside the indolent luxury of the idlers. And it had seen the failure, thanks to the central power, of all its attempts to put an end to this scandalous regime. Each time the people wished to take a free initiative, the government doubled its fetters, and the idea was born quite naturally that Paris should turn itself into an independent Commune, able to realize within its wails the will of the people.
Suddenly, the word Commune, began to emerge from every mouth.
The Commune of 1871 could not be any more than a first sketch. Born at the end of a war, surrounded by two armies ready to give a hand in crushing the people, it dared not declare itself openly socialist, and proceeded neither to the expropriation of capital nor to the organization of work, nor even to a general inventory of the city's resources. Nor did it break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organization from the simple to the complex it adumbrated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of Communes. But it is certain that if the Commune of Paris had lived a few months longer, the strength of events would have forced it towards these two revolutions. We should not forget that [in the French Revolution] the bourgeoisie devoted four years of the revolutionary period to proceed from a moderate monarchy to a bourgeois republic; it should not surprise us that the people of Paris could not overleap in a single day the gulf that separated the anarchist Commune from the rule of bandits. But we must also realize that the revolution, which in France and certainly also in Spain, will be communalist. It will take up the work of the Paris Commune where it was halted by the assassinations perpetrated by the men of Versailles.
The Commune succumbed, and the bourgeoisie took its revenge in the way we know, because of the fear the people had created among their rulers by shaking off the yoke of government. Events proved that there were indeed two classes in modern society: on the one hand, the man who works, who gives to the owner more than half of what he produces, and who in the meantime accepts too easily the crimes of his masters; on the other hand the idler, the glutton, animated by the instincts of the wild beast, hating his slaves and ready to massacre them like wild beasts.
After having surrounded the people of Paris and cut off all their exits, the rulers released on them soldiers brutalized by barrack life and wine, and said to them openly in the Assembly: "Kill the wolves, the she-wolves, and the cubs!" And to the people they said:
Whatever you do, you will perish! If you are taken with arms in your hands-death! If you beg for mercy-death! To whatever side you turn your eyes, left, right, before, behind, above, below-death! You are not only outside the law; you are outside humanity. Neither age nor sex will be able to save you, either you or yours. You will die, but before that you will savour the agony of your wife, of your sister, of your mother, of your daughter, of your son, even down to the cradle! Before your eyes they will drag the wounded from the ambulances to slash them with sword bayonets and bludgeon them with rifle butts. They will drag them, still alive, by their broken legs or bleeding arms, and throw them into the river like bags of ordure that scream and suffer.
Death! Death! Death!
And after this frantic orgy upon a pile of corpses, after the mass exterminations, a vengeance both mean and atrocious was to continue-floggings, thumbscrews, unendurable fetters, blows of prison guards, insults, hunger, all the refinements of cruelty.
Are the people likely to forget these great deeds?
"Down, but not out," the Commune is being reborn today. This is not merely a dream of the conquered caressing in their imagination a beautiful mirage of hope. No! The Commune today becomes the precise and visible aim of the revolution that already rumbles near us. The idea penetrates the masses, gives them a flag to march behind, and we firmly count on the present generation to accomplish the social revolution of the Commune, and in this way put an end to the ignoble exploitation by the bourgeoisie, rid the people of the tutelage of the new State, and inaugurate in the evolution of the human species a new era of liberty, equality and solidarity.
Ten years separate us already from the day on which the people of Paris, overthrowing the government of traitors which had seized power on the fall of the Empire, constituted itself a Commune and proclaimed its absolute independence. Yet it is still towards that date of the 18th of March, 1871 that we turn our glance, and from which we retain our best memories; it is the anniversary of that memorable day which the proletariat of the two worlds proposed to celebrate solemnly, and tomorrow evening, hundreds of thousands of workers' hearts will beat in unison' fraternising across frontiers and oceans, in Europe, in the United States, in South America, in memory of the revolt of the Paris proletariat.
This is because the idea for which the French proletariat shed its blood in Paris, and for which it suffered on the beaches of New Caledonia, is one of those ideas which embraces within itself a whole revolution, a broad idea which can gather under the folds of its banner all the revolutionary tendencies of the people marching towards their liberation.
It is true that if we limit ourselves merely to observing the actual and palpable deeds accomplished by the Paris Commune, we have to admit that this idea was not vast enough, that it embraced only a minute part of the revolutionary programme. But if, on the other hand, we observe the spirit that inspired the masses of the people after the action of the 18th of March, the tendencies that tried to emerge and did not have the time to reach the domain of reality because, before flowering, they were already stifled under the mounds of corpses, we will then understand the scope of the movement and the sympathies that it inspired in the hearts of the working masses of the two worlds. The Commune gladdens our hearts, not for what it achieved, but for what it has promised one day to achieve.
Whence comes this irresistible fascination which draws towards the movement of 1871 the sympathies of all the oppressed masses? What idea does the Paris Commune represent? And why is that idea so attractive to the proletarians of all countries, of all nationalities?
The answer is an easy one. The revolution of 1871 was a strikingly popular movement. Made by the people itself, born spontaneously in the heart of the masses, it is within the great mass of the people that it found its defenders, its heroes, its martyrs, and it was above all because of this "rabble" character that the bourgeoisie never forgave it. At the same time, the basic idea of that revolution, certainly vague, perhaps even unconscious, but nonetheless very pronounced and penetrating all its actions, is the idea of the social revolution, seeking to establish at last, after so many centuries of struggle, true liberty and true equality for all.
It was the revolution of the "rabble" marching to conquer its rights.
It is true that people have sought and still seek to distort the true meaning of that revolution, and to represent it as a simple attempt to conquer independence for Paris and turn it into a petty State within France. Yet nothing is less true. Paris did not seek to isolate itself from France, just as it did not seek to conquer it by arms; it made no attempt to enclose itself within its walls like a Benedictine within his cloister; it was not inspired by a narrow parochial outlook. If it demanded its independence, and sought to prevent the intrusion into its affairs of any kind of central power, it was because it saw in that independence a means of quietly elaborating the bases of future organisation and of developing within itself a social revolution that would completely transform the system of production and exchange by basing it on justice; would completely modify human relations by establishing them on a foundation of equality; and reform our social morality by giving it as a basis, the principles of equity and solidarity.
Thus, communal independence was only a means for the people of Paris, and the social revolution was its end.
This end would certainly have been accomplished if the revolution on the 18th of March had been able to follow its free course, and if the people of Paris had not been mowed down, sabred, shot and disembowelled by the assassins of Versailles. To find a simple idea comprehensible to everyone and expressing in a few words what must be done to accomplish the revolution was, in fact, the preoccupation of the people of Paris from the first days of their independence. But a great idea is not developed in a day, no matter how rapid may be the elaboration and propagation of ideas during a revolutionary period. It always takes a certain time to develop, to permeate the masses and to be translated into action, and this time was lacking for me Paris Commune.
It was lacking all the more because, for the last ten years, the idea of modern socialism has been going through a transition period. The Commune was born, indeed, between two epochs in the development of modern socialism. In 1871 the authoritarian, governmental, and more or less religious socialism of 1848 no longer retained its influence over the more practical and libertarian minds of our own epoch. Where will you find today a Parisian who would agree to shut himself up in a phalansterian barracks? On the other hand, collectivism, which wanted to harness to the same chariot both the wage system and collective property, remained incomprehensible, unattractive and beset with practical difficulties of application. And free communism, anarchist communism, had barely seen the light of day and hardly dared confront the attacks of the worshippers of government.
Indecision reigned in people's minds, and the socialists themselves did not feel audacious enough to hasten to the destruction of individual property, since they did not have a well defined objective in view. So everyone let themselves be lulled by the reasoning that the somnolent have been repeating for centuries: "Let us make sure of victory first! Then we will see what can be done."
Make sure of victory first! As if there was any way of transforming society into a free commune without laying a hand on property! As if there could be any real way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people was not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, in witnessing the arrival of material, moral and intellectual well-being for all! They sought to consolidate the Commune first of all while postponing the social revolution for later on, while the only effective way of proceeding was to consolidate the Commune by the social revolution!
It was the same with the governmental principle. In proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle; but as this principle had only feebly penetrated people's minds at this time, they stopped in mid-course, and in the heart of the Commune the people continued to declare themselves in favour of the old governmental principle by giving themselves a Communal Council copied from the old municipal councils.
If we admit, in fact, that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of Communes between each other, why do we grant the necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups that constitute the Commune? And if we concede to the free initiative of the communes the task of coming to an understanding between themselves on enterprises that concern several cities at once, how can we refuse this same initiative to the groups of which a Commune is composed? A government within the Commune has no more right to exist than a government over the Commune.
But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre-the people-they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.
Brought into being during a transitory period when the ideas of socialism and authority were suffering a profound modification;; born at the end of a war, in an isolated situation and under the threat of Prussian cannon, the Paris Commune was doomed to succumb.
But, thanks to its eminently popular character, it started off a new era in the series of revolutions, and through its ideas was the precursor of the great social revolution. The unprecedented massacres, cowardly and ferocious at the same time, by which the bourgeoisie celebrated its fall, the ignoble vengeance which the executioners have exercised for the past nine years on their prisoners, these cannibalistic orgies have driven an abyss between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that can never be closed. When the next revolution comes, the people will know what they have to do; they will know what awaits them if they do not carry off a decisive victory, and they will act accordingly.
In fact, we know now that the day when France bristles with insurgent Communes the people will no longer feel the need to give themselves a government and expect revolutionary initiatives from that government. After having swept out the parasites that feed upon them, they will seize hold of all social wealth to own it together according to the principles of anarchist communism. And when they have completely abolished property, the government and the State, they will freely constitute themselves according to the necessities dictated by life itself. Breaking its chains, and overthrowing its idols, humanity will then march towards a better future, no longer recognizing either masters or slaves, and holding in veneration only the noble martyrs who paid with their blood and sufferings for those first attempts at emancipation that have lightened us on our path towards the conquest of liberty.
The fetes and public meetings organized on the 18th of March in all the towns where there are organized socialist groups, deserve our attention, not merely as a demonstration by the army of the working class, but even more as an expression of the feelings that animate the socialists of the two worlds. Our numbers can better be counted in this way than by any kind of bulletin, for they show aspirations that have developed in full freedom without the influence of electoral tactics.
In fact, the workers, when they gather on this day, do not limit themselves in their meetings to praising the heroism of the Parisian proletariat or to demanding vengeance for the May massacres. While they reinvigorate themselves by memories of the heroic struggle in Paris, they are already forging an alliance that extends into the future. They discuss the lessons that must be drawn for the forthcoming revolution from the Commune of 1871; they ask each other what were the mistakes of the Commune, not to criticise individual men, but to emphasize how the presumptions about property and authority among the workingclass organizations of the time hindered the revolutionary idea from opening out, developing, and illuminating the whole world with its vivifying light.
The lessons of 1871 have profited the workers of the whole world so that, breaking with old prejudices, they have been able to state clearly and simply how they understand their revolution. From now onwards it is certain that the next uprising of the Communes will not be a simple communalist movement. Those who still think that an independent Commune must be elected to try out economic reforms are lagging behind the development of the popular mind. It is by revolutionary socialist actions, by abolishing individual property, that the Communes of the next revolution will affirm and constitute their independence.
The day on which, in consequence of the development of the revolutionary situation, the governments are swept out by the people and disorganization is created in the ranks of the bourgeoisie who can only survive through the protection of the State, the insurgent people will not wait for any old government in its marvellous wisdom to decree economic reforms. They will abolish individual property by themselves taking possession, in the name of the whole people and by violent expropriation of the whole of social wealth which had been accumulated by the work of past generations. They will not stop short at expropriating the owners of social capital by a decree that will remain a dead letter; they will take possession and establish their rights of usufruct immediately. They will organize the workshops so that they continue production. They will exchange their hovels for healthy habitations in the houses of the well-todo; they will immediately find ways of utilising the riches accumulated in the cities; they will take possession of it as if all this wealth had never been stolen from them by the bourgeoisie. Once the industrial baron who seized his booty from the worker has been evicted, production will continue, shaking off the fetters that hinder it, abolishing the speculations that kill it, getting rid of the muck that hinders its development, and changing it according to the needs of the moment under the impetus provided by freedom of work. "Never did people work in France as in 1793, after the land was torn out of the hands of the lords," said Michelet.(36) Never have people worked as they will work on the day work becomes free, the day on which every kind of progress achieved by the worker will contribute to the well-being of the whole Commune.
On the subject of social wealth a distinction has been made that has divided the socialist party. The school that nowadays calls itself collectivist, substituting a kind of doctrinaire collectivism for the collectivism of the former International (which was nothing more than antiauthoritarian communism), tried to establish a distinction between the capital used in production and the wealth that sustained the necessities of living. Machines, factories, means of transport and communication, and the land itself, were distinguished as one type, while housing, manufactured products, clothing, provisions were distinguished as another. One class should become collective property; the other was destined, according to the learned representatives of that school, to remain private property.
They have tried to establish that distinction. But the good sense of the people has quickly seen through it all, understanding that the distinction is illusory and impossible to establish. Defective theoretically, it falls down before the practice of life. The workers have realized that the houses they inhabit, the coal and gas they burn, the food which the human body burns to sustain its life, the clothes with which people cover themselves to sustain their existence, the books they read to instruct themselves, not to speak of the pleasure they gain from living, are all of them integral parts of life, as necessary for the success of production and the progressive development of humanity, as the machines, manufacturers, raw materials and other factors in production. They have understood that to sustain property for the sake of its riches would be to maintain inequality, oppression, exploitation, and to paralyse in advance the results of partial expropriation. Clambering over the obstacles put in their way by the collectivism of the theoreticians, they proceed directly towards the more simple and more practical pattern of anti-authoritarian communism.
In fact, in their gatherings, the revolutionary workers have clearly affirmed their right to the whole of social wealth and the need to abolish individual property, as much to defend the values of consumption as those of production. "On the day of the revolution, let us seize hold of all wealth, of all the resources accumulated in the towns and cities, and we will hold them in common"-so say the spokesmen of the working mass, and the hearers confirm it by their unanimous assent.
"Let everyone take from the heap what he needs, and be sure that in the storehouses of our cities there will be enough provisions to feed everyone until free production gets into its stride. In the shops of our cities there are enough garments to clothe everybody, Iying there unsold in the midst of general poverty. There are even enough objects of luxury for everyone to pick and choose according to his taste."
That is how the working mass envisages the revolution: The immediate introduction of anarchist communism and the free organization of production. These are two established points, and in this respect the Communes of the revolution that growls at our doors will not repeat the errors of their predecessors who, by shedding their blood so generously, have cleared the path to the future.
The same kind of agreement has not yet been established-though that agreement is not far off-on another, no less important point: the question of government.
We know that the two schools are facing each other, completely divided on this question. "On the very day of the revolution," says one group, "we must constitute a government to assume power. Strong and resolute, this government will make the revolution by decreeing this and that and coercing people to obey its decrees."
"What a sad illusion!" say the others. "Any central government, setting out to rule a nation, will inevitably be formed of disparate elements, conservative in its essence, and nothing more than a hindrance to the revolution. It will merely hobble the Communes which are ready to march forward, without being able to inspire the backward Communes with a revolutionary urge. The same will happen in the heart of an insurgent Commune. Either the communal government will do no more than sanction what has already been done, and it will then be a useless and potentially dangerous mechanism; or it will attempt to act with prudence and regulate what should be elaborated freely by the people themselves if it is to be viable; it will apply theories where society should be elaborating new forms of communal life with the creative force that rises up in the social organism when it breaks its chains and sees new and broad horizons opening out before it. Men who hold power will hinder that impulse, without producing anything on their own of which they might be capable if they remained in the heart of the people, working beside them in elaborating a new organization instead of closing themselves up in offices and exhausting their energies in idle debate. That will be a hindrance and a peril; powerless to do good but formidable in its possibilities of evil; thus, it has no reason to exist."
No matter how just and natural this reasoning may be, it still clashes with secular prejudices, accumulated and approved by those who have an interest in maintaining the religion of government alongside the religion of property and godly religion.
This prejudice, the last of the series: God, Property, Government, still exists and it is a danger to the forthcoming revolution. But one can already see it crumbling away. "We will see to our own affairs," the workers are saying, "without awaiting the orders of a government, and we will go over the heads of those who seek to impose themselves in the guise of priest, proprietor or ruler. And for this reason we must hope that the anarchist party will continue to fight vigorously against the religion of governmentalism, and that it will not be diverted from its own path by letting itself be dragged into power struggles; in our view, we can all hope that in the few years left before the revolution, the prejudice in favour of government will be aufficiently broken down and will no longer have the power of leading the working masses in the wrong direction.
At the same time there has been one regrettable deficiency in the recent popular gatherings. Nothing, or almost nothing, has been done in the countryside. Activity has been restricted to the towns. The country does not seem to exist for the urban workers. Even the orators who speak of the character of the coming revolution avoid mentioning the rural areas and the land. They are familiar neither with the peasant nor with his desires, and so they take no chances of speaking in his name. Need one dwell at length on the perils that result from this? The emancipation of the proletariat will not even be possible while the revolutionary movement fails to embrace the countryside. The insurgent communes will be unable to maintain themselves for a single day, if the insurrection does not spread at the same time among the villages. When taxes, mortgages and rents are abolished, when the institutions that protect them are scattered to the four winds, it is certain that the villages will understand the advantages of that revolution. At the same time it would be imprudent to count on the diffusion of revolutionary ideas in the villages without advance preparation. We must first find out what the peasant needs, how the revolution is understood in the villages, and how they think of resolving the thorny question of landed property. We must let the peasant know in advance what the workers of the towns-their natural allies- are thinking, and we must assure them that there is nothing to fear in the way of measures that may be harmful to agriculture. As for the workers in the cities, they must accustom themselves to respecting the peasant and marching in a common accord with him.
But for that to happen the worker must accept the obligation to help the propaganda in the villages. In each town there must appear a small but special organization, a branch of the Agrarian League, to carry on propaganda among the peasants. This kind of propaganda must be considered a duty, in the same way as propaganda in the industrial centres.
The beginnings will be hard, but therein lies the success of the revolution. It will be victorious only on the day when the workers in the factories and the cultivators in the fields march hand in hand to the conquest of equality for all, carrying happiness into the cottage as well as into the buildings of the great industrial agglomerations.