The Political Form at Last Rediscovered

Inspiring and motivating article about the commune of today. This article is included in the first issue of the printed edition of our favorite magazine.
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by Jerome Roos, via Roar Magazine

‘Overthrown, but not conquered, the Commune in our days is born again. It is no longer a dream of the vanquished, caressing in imagination the lovely mirage of hope. No! the ‘commune’ of today is becoming the visible and definite aim of the revolution rumbling beneath our feet.’

Thus wrote Peter Kropotkin in his reflections on the Paris Commune, ten years after the fact. The words might as well have been written today, nearly a century and a half later. At a time when capitalism and the state are both visibly struggling to reproduce themselves as the core of a stable social order, deregulating their own governance structures just as they disorganize the opposition, it is no coincidence that the commune arises once more as the horizon of a new cycle of struggles, imprinting itself upon the present as the definite aim of the 21st century revolution.

It is clear by now that the global financial crisis has forced a rupture in established conceptions of emancipatory politics. In a landscape littered with the debris of social democracy, in which an entire generation comes of age with life prospects incomparably more bleak than those of their parents, a radical space is opening up—from below and to the left—that could offer much-needed common ground for the divided and disoriented opposition to converge and organize upon. After decades of sectarianism and strife, the time has come to close the rift and chart a collective way forward.

In this light, the revival of the commune provides an opportunity to infuse the left with a shared project and a clear-eyed sense of purpose. But just as the renascent communal imaginary generates a whole new field of possibility, so it raises a host of long-standing practical and theoretical questions. To begin with: “What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?”

What Is the Commune?

Historically speaking, communal ways of organizing social life long precede the development of the modern state, and humanity on the whole has spent far more time living communally than it has under capitalism.

To an extent, historical experience therefore lends credence to the proposition that, in the long run, the commune-form might secure a far more stable social order than the state-form, whose contradictory unity with crisis-prone finance capital renders it increasingly vulnerable to social conflict and systemic chaos, not to mention ecological catastrophe. On this point, indigenous communities and peasant communes may hold some important clues for the identification of alternative developmental pathways—which helps explain why theorists like Marx and Kropotkin spent many years studying such pre-capitalist societies.

Nevertheless, there are clearly important differences between these ancient communal forms and the type of revolutionary commune of which we are speaking here, not least in terms of the latter’s emancipatory, future-oriented and internationalist horizon. Crucially, the modern commune fully embraces the expansiveness and universality of the socialist ideal. To paraphrase Subcomandante Marcos, whose Zapatista movement has formed its own indigenous communes in southern Mexico, the revolutionary commune is “not a dream from the past [or] something that came from our ancestors. It comes to us from the future; it is the next step that we have to take.”

This understanding of the commune as the political form of the future first emerged in the working-class sections of Paris during the French Revolution of 1789, but only really began to take shape in the workers’ reunions of Second Empire Paris, as a new idea that departed not only from the parochialism of isolated pre-capitalist communities and the romanticism of marginal Utopian mini-societies, but also from the bourgeois revolutions of the modern era. In this context, the commune initially took the form of a slogan whose “emotion and affective charge,” Kristin Ross writes, “far exceeded any of the meanings associated with the word.” Its unifying power effectively “melted divergences between left factions, enabling solidarity, alliance, and a shared project.”

When the revolutionary communal ideal finally took on a concrete form in the uprising of March 18, 1871, its radical potential once again overflowed any prior meanings attached to the concept. Ross cites the Communard Arthur Arnould on this point, who insisted that “the Paris Commune was something more and something other than an uprising. It was the advent of a principle, the affirmation of a politics. In a word, it was not only one more revolution, it was a new revolution, carrying in the folds of its flag a wholly original and characteristic program.”

Perhaps the most characteristic element of this program, Ross notes, is the fact that it was not based on any theoretical blueprints. Rather, it was the open-ended outcome of a collective process of struggle and experimentation in which the Commune constituted itself as a “laboratory of political innovation” whose “great social measure,” in Marx’s words, “was its own working existence.”

There are important resonances here with contemporary experience. When Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini refer to the square occupations of 2011 as “laboratories for democracy”, or Manuela Zechner speaks of Spain’s municipal platforms as “laboratories of social intelligence”, they are essentially observing the redeployment of the Commune’s experimental politics in our time.

But just as the Paris Commune was something more than an uprising, so it was something more than a political laboratory. Ultimately, it was a concrete manifestation of substantive freedom and real democracy—in the ancient Greek sense of the word—as the power of the people. In the short space of just two months, the Communards managed to liberate and organize a vast urban space in one of Europe’s largest metropolitan areas, establishing a direct democratic form of popular self-government that—in George Katsiaficas’ words—saw “hundreds of thousands of people creat[ing] popular organs of political power that efficiently replaced traditional forms of government.”

The Commune and the State

This unprecedented experience in popular autonomy immediately raised the theoretical and practical question of the Commune’s relation to the existing state apparatus. For the anarchists, who had long argued and fought for the abolition of the centralized state and its substitution with a confederation of freely associating communes, the experience of 1871 was a real-life affirmation of the revolutionary ideal. Bakunin, for one, saw in the Commune “a bold, clearly formulated negation of the state.” Kropotkin held that, “by proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle, which was the breakdown of the state.”

Marx and Engels—who in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 had still called for greater state centralization after the revolution—reached a remarkably similar conclusion as their anarchist counterparts. The spontaneous insurrection of the Parisian proletariat and the living experience of the Commune had informed Marx’s thinking on the matter, compelling him to recognize that “this program has in some details become antiquated.” And so, in 1872, he added a crucial revision to the preface of the manifesto’s third German edition, noting that: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, [namely], that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.” As Engels would later write:

From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself [replacing the army with the people-in-arms], and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.

The fact that subsequent generations of Marxists overlooked, obscured and in many cases actively distorted these important lessons from the Commune will forever stand as a testament to the tragedies of 20th century state socialism, both in its authoritarian and in its social-democratic forms. The historical fact remains that, starting on March 18, 1871, the Communards immediately set out to dismantle the existing state apparatus—a move that was enthusiastically applauded by Marx and his anarchist critics alike.

The Commune’s stance on the national question was equally characteristic as its stance on the state. Citing the extension of citizenship rights to immigrants and the election of a number of foreigners to the council, Kristin Ross highlights the Communards’ unwavering commitment to a radical working-class internationalism: “The Communal imagination,” she writes, “operated on the preferred scale of the local autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon.” This sentiment was powerfully expressed in the celebrated slogan that “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.”

As for the rest of France, the political form of the commune was to become the building block of the whole territory—all cities, towns, villages and “even the smallest country hamlet” were to be reorganized as autonomous communes, which would elect recallable delegates to their own local and regional councils, which would in turn send recallable delegates to Paris. As Marx stressed: “the unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power.” From there on out, France would freely associate itself with other nations to form a global confederation of communes.

All of this rightly led Marx to conclude that the Commune was a “thoroughly expansive political form, while all the previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. It’s true secret,” Marx argued, “was this: it was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

paris barricade

The Commune and the Economy

As a working class government, the political form of the Commune was therefore inseparable from its economic corollary of communal ownership and worker control. The Communards themselves took this point very seriously: in addition to a number of other basic social reforms, the Commune decreed that all closed workplaces be turned over to their respective producer associations and reopened as worker-run cooperatives. While it obviously did not have the time to fully socialize the Parisian economy, the Commune’s more radical elements certainly did push in this direction.

The Communard journal La Cause, for instance, described its stance as follows: “As the foundation of economic justice, we advance two fundamental theses: the land belongs to those who work it with their own hands: to the agricultural communes. Capital and all the tools of labor [belong to] the workers: to the workers’ associations.” Similarly, the Russian socialist and feminist revolutionary Elisabeth Dmitrieff, co-founder of the Women’s Union in the Paris Commune, declared that:

There is only one way of reorganizing labor so that the producer is guaranteed the product of his own work, and that is by setting up free producer associations which will share out the profits from the various industries. The establishment of these associations would put an end to the exploitation and enslavement of labor by capital, and would at last guarantee the workers the management of their own affairs.

The Commune can therefore be seen as an incipient attempt to break down the bourgeois firewall between political democracy and economic democracy. By pushing for the means of production to be held in common, for workplaces to be democratized and for the fruits of labor to accrue to their direct producers, the Commune—in Marx’ words—“intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to [transform] the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor.”

The Commune and Society

But the expansive nature of the Commune meant that emancipation did not stop at the factory gates—it inevitably spilled over into the city at large, opening up the field of struggles to a multitude of social actors who would otherwise have been overlooked, excluded or actively subordinated to the traditional vanguard of the industrial proletariat.

This included the various forms of precarious, self-employed, deterritorialized and unwaged labor, as well as the unemployed, which as distinct social groups tend to be easier to organize territorially or communally than sectorally or occupationally. Of course the category of the unwaged crucially includes historically feminized reproductive labor, which helps explain why women have always played such a central role in communal struggles.

It is well known that the women of Paris were among the first to mobilize when the regular army moved in to seize the cannons of the National Guard at Montmartre. Fraternizing with the soldiers, the women convinced many to ignore their officers’ orders or even turn their weapons on their superiors. Apart from performing crucial tasks in the Commune’s defense, like building barricades and caring for the wounded, many women—like the legendary anarchist revolutionary Louise Michel—directly participated in the street fighting. When the vengeful Versaillais finally closed in on the city in mid-May, the bourgeois demonization of female pétroleuses burning down buildings at random served in large part to discredit women’s heroic role in the revolt.

It is important to emphasize, in this respect, that the commune-form is ultimately but the political moment of a much profounder and more protracted social revolution; a revolution in which women in particular have much to gain. As Elisabeth Dmitrieff put it in her declaration for the Women’s Union, “the reorganization of female labor is an extremely urgent matter, when one considers that in the society of the past it was the most exploited form of all.” In addition to the right to divorce and education for girls, Dmitrieff and her comrades therefore fought for equal pay for women and for the weapons and ammunitions industry—in which the majority of workers were women—to be socialized and operated directly by the Union des Femmes.

Nevertheless, as Barucha Peller importantly points out in relation to Oaxaca, the expansiveness of the commune-form is by no means guaranteed, and much will depend on how the movement confronts the gendered logic of social reproduction. When men resist women’s active participation in the commune, either by forcing them to “stay home” or by refusing to share in the burden of reproductive and historically feminized labor, the whole revolutionary process will stall in its tracks. The construction of the commune and the empowerment of women and other oppressed, exploited and marginalized groups (including racial, ethnic and sexual minorities) is thus not just a question of equal rights and equal pay; it is ultimately a question of building a new life in common.

The Commune in our Time

Today, as the second era of globalization draws to a close amidst the deepest and most protracted capitalist crisis since the 1930s, many of the practical and theoretical questions first raised by the Commune are presenting themselves anew. As Kristin Ross points out, “the way people live now [suggests] that the world of the Communards is in fact much closer to us than is the world of our parents.” Just as then, a long wave of economic expansion has just run its course. Amidst the rising unemployment, the mountains of debt, the unaffordable housing, the generalized state of precarity and the growing urban discontent, a new generation of “proletarians” is growing up to the gradual realization that this system offers them nothing but Starbucks, smartphones and slavery.

Meanwhile, new wars are raging, millions of refugees are on the move and fascism openly celebrates its comeback. Some states in Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are already in an advanced state of disintegration, while the false sense of stability in the neoliberal heartland—generated purely by the financial largesse of increasingly unresponsive governments and the monetary extravagance of unaccountable central bankers—is punctuated ever so regularly by explosive urban riots of growing scope and intensity.

Market turmoil has become the new normal, social tensions are rising across the board, and the establishment seems clueless about what to do. A busload full of people now controls more than half the world’s wealth while humanity hurtles itself headlong into the abyss of ecological self-destruction. As cities burn, panic-stricken states strike back with more repression, more intimidation, more control. Yes, the glory days of democratic capitalism are truly over—and the left had better adapt to that fact.

In his last major essay before death, Murray Bookchin wrote that the most pressing challenge facing the left at the dawn of the 21st century was to find innovative new ways to “incorporate the best of the revolutionary tradition—Marxism and anarchism—in ways and forms that speak to the kind of problems that face the present.” The answer, he suggested, was to be found in the revolutionary project that “originated in the Paris Commune”; a rational project centered on the construction of an international confederation of self-governing regions and municipalities operating within ecological limits and in accordance with “the principles and practice of communal ownership.”

This is the horizon we must now look towards. This can be our common ground—our definite aim and our collective sense of direction. The time has come to shake off the yoke of the 20th century and start building the Commune of communes. As Kropotkin ended his clarion call many a year ago:

We count on the present generation to bring about the social revolution within the commune, to put an end to the ignoble system of bourgeois exploitation, to rid the people of the tutelage of the state, to inaugurate a new era of liberty, equality, solidarity in the evolution of the human race.”

Vive la Commune!