The Paris Commune and the crisis of imperialism
The eruption of the Commune in the spring of 1871 in Paris, the capital of one of richest and most powerful global empires, caused tremendous commotion in all of Europe and beyond. And today, 150 years later, the Commune continues to resound as “a synonym of social struggle,” inspiring the slogans of radical democratic movements from Hong Kong to Spain to New York.
As Quentin Deluermoz notes, the 2006 bibliography of the Commune by Robert Le Quillec runs to 600 pages with some 5,000 entries, and more books, essays and philosophical or sociological analyses keep coming. “One life would not be enough to read it all,” he says.
But Deluermoz has in fact read a great deal of it, in French and other languages, not to offer a review of the literature but to find a fresh way of looking at the causes and impact of those 72 days of revolution, 18 March to 28 May, in and around the city of Paris. What he calls the “stake” of his book — his pari— is to place the Paris Commune in its spatial and temporal dimensions, centuries long and world-wide, as a moment of crisis in the ever-accelerating dynamics of global capitalism and imperialism.
The rapid development of shipping, communications and manufacturing technologies in the 19th century had spurred the movement of populations from countryside to the cities and the rapid growth of an industrial working class across Europe, with special turbulence in France. There the continuous re-elaboration of revolutionary discourse begun in the Revolution of 1789 (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”), continued with the overthrow of Louis Philippe in 1830 (cf. the barricade scene in Hugo’s Les Misérables and the passages in Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale), the Europe-wide insurrections of 1848 (“A spectre is haunting Europe”: Marx), and the wide publication and repetition of the revolutionary postulates of Prudhon, Marx, St. Simon, Bakunin, and others, had created expectations and possible script for revolution in the rapidly growing associations of workers in particular trades.
The immediate cause of the 1870-71 crisis was the French Empire’s disastrous war with Prussia, then aspiring to create an empire of its own. Emperor Napoleon III’s surrender on the battlefield in Sedan, on September 2, 1870, and the proclamation two days later of a “Republic” by politicians and generals in Paris, surrounded by an angry populace, unleashed forces far beyond those politicians’ control.
In a world still ruled almost everywhere by kingdoms and empires, “republic” was a call for revolution: it meant power to the people, or at least to some of them—adult males. Men from Poland, Italy, Greece, Belgium, the Balkans, even South America and North Africa, eager to overthrow empires and monarchies elsewhere, rushed to France to defend the new republic against the Prussian monarchy. Many rallied around the famed Giuseppe Garibaldi who, with his sons, entered France to form a kind of international brigade, independent of the French high command in Paris. And across France and its colonies, disgruntled workers and bourgeois saw the French republic as the opportunity to create their own autonomous governments, called “communes” in reference to the Paris Commune of 1789-1795.
Deluermoz has selected four of the many roughly contemporaneous communes to illustrate different aspects of the spirit and consciousness of the times:
– Algiers, capital of France’s most important African colony and command center of its war against rebellious Arab and Berber clans; there, European colonists dismissed the colonial governor to set themselves up as a “commune” independent of the metropolis, to rule over the so-called “indigenous” peoples in their own manner.
– Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean island that only a generation ago had become free of slavery; there the bloody revolt including the burning of plantations and killing of oppressive landowners, was a response to racial and property status grievances rather than working-class grievances.
– Thiers, a small French city 450 kilometers south of Paris, famous for its cutlery, where the associations of cutlery workers proudly took charge but only for several hours.
– Lyon, then the second largest city in France and center of the silk industry, where a group of workers, many inspired by the Russian anarchist Bakunin, seized city hall — but failed to secure it properly, and the next day were routed by troops loyal to the new government in Paris.
Paris was not the first city to proclaim itself a commune in the French crisis of 1870-71, but it was by far the most dramatic and consequential because, first, it was the capital of the empire, and thus its revolution necessarily created great reverberations wherever local authorities depended on French finance and military power. With nearly two million people, Paris was then the largest city in continental Europe, not only a great financial center but also a major market for producers elsewhere. Finally, symbolically, Paris represented the highest example of what European intellectuals had begun calling “civilization” — the moral and cultural superiority that justified their intervention in the “uncivilized” or “barbarous” regions that were their source of raw materials and cheap labor.
In its two-and-a-half months duration, the Commune did not have time to carry out or complete many of the reforms that communards sought, but they did set patterns that remain an example to revolutionaries today.
Was the Commune then a flawed but suggestive model for the future, showing how masses can be rallied to seize power and what they can do once they’ve got it, as Lenin and other revolutionaries saw it? Or should we see it as the death throe of an obsolete form of protest, the last of the great urban risings in France — 1789, 1830, 1848, and finally 1871 — by a mob whipped to a suicidal frenzy, in a still immature period of capitalism now long behind us?
In fact, it seems to have been both. But, as this book makes clear, above all it was the most intense crisis of a global economic and political system in the 19th century, a forerunner of the even greater crisis of imperial conflict that we now know as World War I.