From the Paris Commune of 1871 to today : same class war, same need for workers' emancipation

Lutte Ouvrière workplace newsletter
March 22, 2021

One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 18, 1871, the laboring people of Paris rose up and proclaimed their own Commune. To those who believe the domination of the bourgeoisie won’t last forever, the Paris Commune remains an extraordinary and inspiring event.

The Paris Commune was the first and only example of workers' power in French history. For 72 days, from March 18 to May 28, 1871, the workers, craftsmen and shopkeepers of Paris - today we would say the working class - governed themselves.

The bourgeoisie always claims to be the only class capable of ruling. The Paris Commune proved that the working classes and ordinary people didn’t need kings, politicians or bosses to organize social life. It did what no bourgeois government had done before or will ever do: it ran society to meet the needs of the majority.

In September 1870, the country experienced tremendous political upheaval following the defeat of the Prussian army, the fall of Napoleon III and the proclamation of the Republic. Popular assemblies and clubs developed all over the country. And most significantly, in Paris, working people took arms and they organized into National Guard battalions to defend themselves.

For the bourgeois republican government, the threat of a workers' revolution was real and it had to be stopped. The government tried doing just that on March 18, 1871, by removing the cannons from working-class districts. This act triggered an insurrection.

The people of Paris then set up their own government: the Commune. They chose leaders from their own ranks, workers and activists known for their devotion to workers. Eugène Varlin, a book-keeper, was elected to the finance department and Léo Frankel, a Hungarian jewelry maker, was elected to the Labor Commission.

No more privileges, sinecures or special favors! Members of the Commune, battalion commanders, city representatives... all officials were elected. They thought it only natural to be paid no more than a skilled worker and to be held accountable for their actions. They didn’t retreat into golden republican palaces as so many officials do today. They lived in working-class districts and were thus monitored by the population and could be dismissed at any time.

The people trusted their elected officials, but above all, the elected officials trusted the people and relied on the actions they carried out. Neighborhood associations, unions, cooperatives... a thousand and one initiatives were taken to solve the problems of the working classes. Many women, such as the teacher Louise Michel or the factory worker Victorine Brocher, also played leading roles.

The population was going hungry and needed to be fed urgently so collective canteens were set up. Thousands of families were lacking a roof over their heads so the Communards introduced a moratorium on rent and requisitioned vacant dwellings. Where there was little to no work, they had workers' associations run abandoned workshops. Children needed to be educated so churches were requisitioned and transformed into schools, volunteers were asked to lend a hand…

The ordinary people of Paris could count on a government that would stand up for tenants against landowners, workers against capitalists, poor against rich.

The bourgeoisie could not tolerate this. Thiers and his government crushed the Commune, shooting some 20,000 Communards without any trial at all.

Today, society functions the other way round and in no way follows the principles of the Commune: the government rules exclusively for a rich minority, to protect the profits and private property of a handful of parasites. This is why society is incapable of finding solutions to the tragic problems it creates like unemployment, economic crises or the ecological catastrophe.

This is also why, in this pandemic, no government is willing to transform vaccines into a common good for the whole of humanity, nor to requisition factories and pharmaceutical labs to produce them en masse. This is what makes the public authorities incapable of requisitioning vacant housing and, more particularly, of expropriating the capitalists who are closing factories and turning entire regions into industrial deserts.

No, the Paris Commune doesn’t belong to the past. It's a reminder that another world is possible, that the emancipation of workers will be the act of the workers themselves.