Last night marks exactly 150 years since the provisional republican government of France, established the previous year on the abdication of Napoleon III, attempted to re-take artillery in Paris from the popular militia, the National Guard. The people resisted, the government’s officers withdrew, and for just over two months the city was in the hands of a revolutionary regime: the Paris Commune.
I don’t need to tell you much about the Commune because Roderick Long at Bleeding Heart Libertarians did it for me, five years ago. Read his piece here; it covers the ground beautifully. Here’s his central point:
While it bears responsibility for some foolish decisions (…) and some wicked decisions (…), on the whole the Commune behaved in a rather moderate and restrained fashion, and was far from being the sanguinary monster of conservative nightmares. (…) The invasion and massacre instituted by the national government at Versailles in May 1871 to put down the Communards’ insurrection has far more claim to be described as a reign of terror than anything the Commune itself did.
… Yes, it was a working-class insurrection, but one aimed at establishing, and one that did in fact establish, a government. And unsurprisingly, that government did (as we’ve seen) some of the stupid and unjust things that governments tend to do (though the regime that ended up suppressing it was guilty of far worse).
There was much ideological diversity within the Commune, but primarily it was a continuation of the liberal revolutionary current of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had much more in common with the French Revolution than with the Leninist atrocities of the twentieth century. The fact that Karl Marx acclaimed the Commune as a model should not be allowed to obscure that fact – partly because there was rather more of the bourgeois reformist in Marx himself than either his admirers or his critics like to admit.
In his tract on the Commune, The Civil War in France, he recognises that the Parisian workers are right not to expect miracles – “They know that in order to work out their own emancipation … they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes …” – and boasts (perhaps not quite truthfully) that the Commune had the support of “the great bulk of the Paris middle class.” (Incidentally, those who know Marx only as a rather turgid political economist will appreciate the sparkling quality of his more journalistic work.)
And there’s another important thing to note about the Commune. At the time, it was doomed by the fact that the citizens of Paris – even had they all, bourgeois and proletarian, been united in a common front – were a tiny minority of the French population. The conservative provisional government could rely on masses of peasant voters in the countryside, and ultimately on soldiers drawn from the same source. The Communards were radical democrats, but they were in no way democratically representative of the country as a whole.
In the 150 years since, the demographic balance has shifted dramatically. Metropolitan Paris now represents about a fifth of the country’s population; as many again live in the next ten or twelve biggest cities. In France as in most of the world, urban dwellers are no longer liable to be overwhelmed by their more conservative rural counterparts: it’s the latter who cling to unfair electoral systems and other means to try to preserve their power.
Liberal reformers and believers in cosmopolitan values once feared that the tide of democracy was running against them. Some still do, but for no good reason.
For more on the Commune, Mitchell Abidor in Tablet magazine is particularly interesting.