Friday, March 18, 2011

140 Years Since The Best French Revolution (So Far)

The first barricades defending the world of the workers from the world of capital
A critic once described William Blake's poetry as being "in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". Well the William Blake's poetry of historical events began one hundred and forty years ago today, when the people of Paris first raised barricades against the government of Adolphe Thiers.

The uprising that created the Paris Commune had its roots in the Franco-Prussian war, a rising gap between rich and poor, and food shortages. Many thousands of Parisians were part of the National Guard - a citzens' militia that had been set up in the First French Revolution three quarters of a century earlier. On 18th March, the National Guard built barricades to defend the workers of Paris from both the Prussian and regular French armies. Thiers ordered regulars to seize the workers' cannons at Montmartre, but they mutinied, and the regular General Lecomte was dragged from his horse and killed.

Within days, recallable delegates had been elected to a body - which Engels later described as the first working "dictatorship of the proletariat" - with full suffrage for all, including women. In just two months, the Commune achieved so much, including:
  • the separation of church and state, with churches allowed to stay open if they allowed political meetings when there were no services scheduled
  • the abolition of rent
  • the abolition of night work in the many Paris bakeries
  • introduction of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed by the regulars (in large part due to the work of feminists such as Louise Michel in the Commune)
  • the free return of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs from the city's pawn shops
  • the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and abolition of debt interest
  • the right of employees to take over a business if their owners fled - as many did
However, these were merely intended to be initial measures, and there was wide support for the full abolition of capitalism in Paris, and indeed throughout France. As Marx remarked in his The Civil War In France pamphlet that year:
“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour.”
Alas, the fate of all isolated rebellions awaited the Communards, whose revolution was drowned in blood at the end of May 1871. During what became known as 'the bloody week', many thousands were murdered by the regular army, most famously at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Many Communards were murdered at Père Lachaise cemetery
Despite the ultimate disappointment, the Commune made a huge impact on working class politics at the time, and was often proclaimed a blueprint for the future on an international scale. Of course criticisms were made, and strategic lessons could be learned from the defeat. Nevertheless, until the Russian Revolution displaced it in socialist consciousness nearly fifty years later, it was used as the best illustration of what could be done if workers refused to go to war for 'their' ruling class, and instead started collectively organising their own lives.

Sadly there is no comprehensive documentary on the TV schedules for tonight, and there will be no screening of La Commune - Peter Watkins' film reconstruction. Why not? Of course, if there were, there would be huge interest, so that can't be used as an excuse. But to objectively examine the Commune is to praise its achievements, so helping to raise working class awareness of our own history is never considered by media bosses.

May we celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary much better a decade from now! Vive la Commune!
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