The Seventy-Two Greatest Days In History,
Remembering The Paris Commune Of 1871
By Dave Fryett
29 May, 2011
"They were madmen, but they had in them the flame which never dies."
May 28th is the 140th anniversary of the defeat of the Paris Commune. It lasted but a pitiful 72 days before it was drowned in blood, yet for subsequent revolutionary movements, its heirs, it is a source of joy, inspiration, and pride. It is said that some tribal cultures were democratic and egalitarian, but in the history of that churning, roiling, swift-flowing current we call civilization; that process that began when our ancient brothers and sisters were compressed by changing climactic conditions into denser and denser settlements along the world's great waterways; that maelstrom which we have all been caught up in for the last 7,000 years; in the history of that continuum, the working people of Paris were the first to throw off their captors and establish an egalitarian society; built upon public consensus; reflexively committed to universal suffrage; and constituted of, by, and for the people. The Communards were the first in the history of our species to be without masters, to be free. It is the stuff dreams are made of.
In a dispute which had its origin in the Spanish succession, France and Prussia went to war. Unfortunately for France, Napoleon III lacked the military cunning of his more famous uncle, and Prussia prevailed. The emperor was captured by Bismark's forces, and a Government of National Defense was convoked in his absence. It failed and was followed by National Assembly headed by Adolphe Thiers. A treaty was signed in which France ceded Alsace-Lorraine. The people of Paris, who had endured great deprivation during the Prussian siege without surrendering the city, were outraged at the capitulation and the humiliating terms.
On March 18th, Thiers ordered Generals Lecomte and Thomas to reclaim the cannon on the hill in the Montmartre neighborhood which had been given to the National Guard to defend the city. This they tried to effect overnight, but were spied by a group of women who sounded the alarm and soon a large number had assembled at the arsenal. The denizens of Paris, already disgusted with Thiers and the Assembly, confronted the generals. In contempt or panic, they ordered their soldiers to fire on the defiant mob. At first one, then another and another refused. The details of what ensued are debated but both generals were killed, and their bodies defiled by a few of the women. A celebration of sorts followed and the mutineers were rewarded--it is said in most generous fashion--by some of the ladies whose lives they had saved. News of the victory at the "Battle of Montmartre" spread quickly and a general uprising commenced. Thiers and the government fled to Versailles leaving the city in the hands of its citizens. Thus was the Paris Commune of 1871 born.
Elections were held immediately and, for the first time in history, working class people were put in high office. The raft of progressive legislation they produced is a triumph of justice, the procedures they created a paean to democracy. Their accomplishments are too great to be enumerated here, it will do to say that in no other society was power shared so broadly, and across the formerly unbreached fortifications of race, class, or gender. The Commune embraced and exalted humanity, all humanity; it extolled contribution and participation. While it did not equalize wealth, the Commune eliminated class privilege. It had done what no other society had: It had scaled the commanding heights of economic power and vanquished the plutocrats. It was a political culture like no other, and without equal.
Tragically, from the moment the Commune burst upon the world, it was surrounded by enemies. The Prussian Army was to the north and east, the newly reconstituted French Army to the west and south. Thiers, with Bismark's connivance, assaulted the city. The stand made by the Communards may be the most heroic defense of a city in history. There are many laudable incidents of impossible bravery; men and women holding their barricades until they'd fired their last bullet, often until the last Communard had fallen. But, inevitably, the Commune succumbed to greater numbers and superior resources.
Thiers had said he would be "pitiless" with the Communards, and made good his boast. For a week thereafter firing squads labored all day. In not a few cases Communards were interred in mass graves still alive, a lucky few to be dug out by comrades in the middle of the night. By the end of the "Bloody week," 30,000 lay slain.
Not many people know about the Commune. For obvious reasons, it has been purged from the meta-narratives of Western history. Yet for generations of revolutionaries it is a seminal event, and, more importantly, a validation. However short-lived, the Commune happened. And if it happened once, it can happen again. And that is the Commune's great bequest to posterity: Revolution is possible. And not just in the febrile minds of day-dreaming utopians, but in this life, and on this earth! However difficult it is to imagine in this age of bourgeois domination, everyday, ordinary, working people seized power and created the world's first democracy, the world's first society of free equals. The Commune legitimizes the emancipatory aspirations of the world's disenfranchised.
If one undertakes the pilgrimage to Père-Lachaise cemetery, one finds the Mur des Fédérés where the last Communards were martyred. People come from all over the world to honor those who were bold enough to take history into their own hands, who tasted the freedom the rest of us will likely never know. Often it is sufficient merely to utter the phrase Vive la Commune to elicit the greatest affection from complete strangers. One feels a curious sympathy for those one encounters there, an ardent fellowship. It can be a moving experience. On my last trip, I met a Japanese couple and two young men from Serbia. The former spoke English and I share some Italian with the Serbs. I translated. We conversed for about an hour, and I was impressed by how much my four new friends knew about the Commune. I learned a good deal. As we talked, other pilgrims came and went. A few who could speak either language stopped to share a few words of solidarity with us, others just greeted us with Vive la Commune. My companions and I exchanged e-mail addresses and went our separate ways. I ached when I thought I would never see them again. That's how it goes at the Mur des Fédérés.
One morning during the Bloody Week, some French soldiers were frightened by what they took to be an omen. The night before, they had hastily buried a clutch of executed Communards after dusk, and, in the encroaching darkness, hadn't quite managed the job. As they came upon the scene, as if erupted from the ground like a sapling, was a single forearm at the top of which was a clenched fist, the judgement of eternity.
Long live those in whom burns the flame that never dies. Vive la Commune!
Dave Fryett is an activist in Seattle, and can be reached at his blog saveourcola.blogspot.com
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