It’s back-to-basics time. With May Day in the offing, it’s important to take a little time to reflect on one of the major historical roots of that big red flag that’s so popular with a number of people. Later this week, following the wave of feminist pieces, we’ll focus on the feminist side of the historiography of the period, but we’re going to need some essential features first.
The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is one of a million histories of this canon, one that specifically and unapologetically is in favour of the Communards. What we have is a very strange narrative. One that begins with the achievements of the Commune, then moves on to the actions that made those achievements possible, continuing on to the last doomed days of the commune (it lasted for a grand total of two months, before being crushed by their fellow Frenchmen), and then analyzing the various left-wing interpretations of the Commune (Gluckstein doesn’t bother with the right wing analyses, as he feels that they’re uniformly negative and more than a little hysterical).
How did this crazy contraption come into existence? There were already long-simmering resentments amongst the working class towards Emperor Louis Napoleon (whose main claim to fame was that he was the grand nephew of the real Napoleon ). There was the utterly pointless adventure in Mexico, which ended in the beheading of the top man of the French troops. But what really got the masses going was the war against the Germans. Germany as such didn’t exist in the 1860s, but a gentleman from Prussia named Bismarck had a dream of a unified German state, and he knew that nothing would unite the disparate Germans better than a good old-fashioned war with the French.
So another senseless war against the Germans began. And to no one’s surprise, the French lost. The remainder of the French started going back home, but the Parisians were having none of it. They absolutely refused to back an incredibly punitive surrender (the terms of which were signed at Versailles, as a nice, petty “fuck you” to the French). Essentially the Paris Commune was therefore at war with both the Germans (who would have much preferred to have to the French sort out the French) and the “official”(and uniformly bourgeois) French Army, stationed at Versailles.
So why was the commune so important, especially for Marx and the rest of the International, to say nothing of virtually every left wing movement that followed in its wake?
To begin with, the commune was like an extremist democracy, a very Rousseau-esque democracy, that as Rousseau himself pointed out, that a) consisted of a small populace, and b) promoted total inclusion in the civic arena. This was as close to true communism as it gets, the early Bolshevik years notwithstanding.
To wit: There were no political parties. There were certainly factions, but no outright party machinery. Anybody of a certain age could vote (women included). Those who were voted in were given a workman’s pay, which was enough to live off, but not enough to encourage careerism. Those who were voted in were also subject to instant recall – if the person did something foolish, all it would take is a small group of citizens to sign a veto, and that person would no longer be in office.
Another key aspect was the existence of civil guard called the National Guard, which was strictly voluntary and established the commune in a physical sense. The guns and batteries which could have been used to level Paris were ferociously guarded by the Communard National Guard. This is where a crucial element of Marxist theory came into play: what is referred to as the “negation of the negation”. After overthrowing an oppressive state, and then using state apparatus to set up a communal society, the state itself will wither away on its own.
The logic is as follows: Since everybody is deeply involved the re-birth of society, particularly those functions operated by the state, a separated state will not be needed. The extraneous state will be tossed off and replaced by new organizational bodies, sometimes called collectives, sometimes called soviets. A rudimentary version of this constituted the Paris Commune, for a short period.
This state of affairs has happened exactly two, perhaps three times in history. The Commune experienced it, as the National Guard stood its’ council down to make room for new organizational bodies. It could be argued that the early Bolshevik years, up to Lenin’s death, also experienced a version of this – soviet is Russian for collective, the first of which began in Petrograd in 1917. Finally, it can also be argued the Cultural Revolution in China attempted to negate the negation (even though Mao himself thought that the entire anti-state concept was bogus, and despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was itself a snafu).
The Commune didn’t last long. Revoking command is a nice gesture towards democracy, but it utterly devastated the officer corps and military discipline. There have been some questions (that the author addresses) on whether or not the Commune would have been able to last, with or without Versailles. Was this is a realistic body, or just an inspired moment in French history? It depends on one’s level of cynicism regarding the human race. It should be noted that the basic apparatus of governing was operating more or less normally until the Versailles troops rolled in.
The author, Donald Gluckstein apparently wrote a book with SWP founder Tony Cliff, another left-wing UK citizen/ He’s not a fellow traveller either – Gluckstein is a member of the Scottish branch of the SWP and he teaches at Edinburgh.
It is honestly well written, even if it wears its’ politics on its’ sleeve (each chapter heading is followed by a few lyrics from the Internationale). The fact that this is recent work on this subject, standing on the shoulders of previous scholars, goes a long way to a recommendation.
Jon Stewart once said that “the eternal fate of the noble and enlightened is to be crushed by the armed and dumb”. He was talking about Athenian democracy, but it could just as easily applied to this situation.