Transcription of a video by O. Ressler in collaboration
Rebond pour la Commune, recorded in Paris, France, 25
My name is Alain Dalotel. As a historian, I work in
the field of social history with a special interest
in all the questions related to ruptures: wars, revolutions,
strikes, feminism, which also implies ruptures, and
in particular The Commune. By the way, this is the latest
book I've written on this subject, about André
Léo, a manuscript which was used for the making
of Peter Watkins' film "La Commune de Paris".
We are now in front of the Fédéré
wall, where a number of Communards are buried.
The question of the origins of La Commune is always
a subject of debate. Some think that it was born out
of a set of circumstances: the war of 1870 opposing
the 2nd Empire and Prussia, others find answers in the
revolutionary movement which was very important since
the 1st international had already been founded in 1864
in London, by Karl Marx and others. Also, a very strong
revolutionary movement builds up in Paris during the
last years of the Empire as this liberal Empire had
authorized public meetings. Various revolutionary groups
then managed to take control of this free public speech,
well before the Commune since these thousands of public
meetings took place from 1868 to 1870. Then the war
broke out, and this and this movement of democratic
and free speech continued throughout the Paris Siege
with the birth of the "Red Clubs" which were
the direct descendants of the previous public meetings
which had finally been banned.
There was an extraordinary democratic outburst during
the siege affecting all types of individual liberties.
But what made this siege special was that the population
was armed in the National Guard, alongside the regular
troops. Approximately 300 000 men were enlisted and
armed with Chassepot rifles, guns, and cannons. This
quickly lead to popular uprisings since the so called
Government of National Defense was accused of treason
and capitulation. So here are some other causes. Some
causes are military, others are social
The situation rapidly deteriorated under a very harsh
siege which led to wide spread destitution
especially to the humiliation of this capitulation which
took place at the end of January 1871. That's when a
new organization is created: the Federation of the National
Guard which will lead to a new uprising, the 18th of
The Commune starts on the 18th of March 1871, the day
when the power is seized by the Fédérés
(the National Guard) and Blanquist groups, and ends
on the 28th of May 1871: 72 days for a revolution is
a very short time indeed. The Commune passed a certain
number of social measures which were all geared towards
the same generous aim. Towards children, etc., measures
taken in favor of wage increases, they were all in the
same vein. The most interesting social measure and the
one which most frightened the bourgeoisie was the decree
taken on the 16th of April concerning the workshops
abandoned by the employers. These workshops were supposed
to be handed over to the workers' trade union committees.
This really scared people, it is the truly socialist
measure adopted by the Commune. It explains the strength
of the repression which will follow, but we'll talk
about the huge scale of this repression later. On the
other hand, one must remember that this is a time of
civil war. Some trade unionists who are fighting in
the ranks of the Fédérés are against
the establishment of socialism because they believe
the time is not ripe. What matters for them is the fight
against Versailles. Don't forget that the fighting is
taking place to the West of Paris, just outside the
ramparts. Against a Versailles army which is rapidly
building up its strength with, after a while, the help
The Commune is associated with the idea of direct democracy.
So what does that mean?
At the time, there were numerous elections, everywhere
and all the time, almost too many. For all kind of reasons,
inside the National Guard for example, to dismiss the
leaders who are deemed unpopular, etc. This direct democracy
is linked to the instantly revocable mandate. That is
the central idea: an imperatival mandate. A program
is defined and then someone is sent to defend it, if
he doesn't do just that he's liable to be dismissed
as I was saying earlier. Having said this, elections
took place on the 26th of March. Which brought to power
at the Town Hall a certain number of revolutionaries.
Those who weren't left quite quickly. Then the debates
started. We speak of debates but more often it was just
shouting abuse. They would just shout at each other
for weeks and weeks. Furthermore, it appears that these
elected members had a difficult relationship with the
neighborhood people, who would very often fume against
their flabbiness. Very quickly the people become angry,
they invade churches and organize "Red Clubs"
where they come to present their own programs and list
their criticisms. These types of relations make things
more and more difficult. Towards the end of the Commune,
it seems that there developed a complete divorce between
the representatives and their constituency. This situation
went as far as to lead some Communards towards suicide.
So this direct democracy led to quite a dramatic situation
towards the end. In any event, during the Commune noone
One has to be very careful, although several people
along with Karl Marx have stated that the Commune had
abolished the state, I think that is not really the
case. The Commune had a government, a weak one, which
functioned through commissions and was called the Executive
Commission. Later on, after the military setbacks, old
models were sought like the Committee of Public Safety,
two of which were set up but never functioned. So one
has to be very careful, the Commune isn't a lack of
government, it's a weak government. Weak because of
discussions, conflicts, debates and no one knows exactly
in which direction the Commune is going. Especially,
there are the people down below who just don't want
to be governed. The word anarchist doesn't exist or
has a different meaning at the time. All the same, the
Commune has a very strong libertarian aspect to it.
As a matter of fact, Marx in his pamphlet "Civil
war in France", presented an almost anarchistic
picture which was a slight distortion of the truth.
Inside Town Hall, there was more tradition than most
people think. And there was also a significant Jacobin
element which always advocates the need for a government
and even of a dictatorship. And the debate between the
majority and the minority showed that some people wanted
to decide in the place of others. The only difference
is that during the Commune, this doesn't function anymore.
That's what is very new on a political level.
Most of the civil servants had fled to Versailles;
For the postal services for example, it was quite a
big problem because everything had to be started from
new, they had to find skilled people. The Commune was
able to do all that and replace the people who'd left.
The police force also left. Towards the end of the Empire
and during the siege, the police were very unpopular.
So it was totally unthinkable that a single cop might
remain in Paris. To take this example, the Communards
abolished the police. In fact, they renamed the police
administration quarters the ex-police headquarters.
Constables and policemen were replaced by National Guards.
They managed to find the necessary people to run the
public services: sewage system, etc. However, that's
not a specifically revolutionary characteristic. One
can only say that the Paris working class proved that
it had the skills to run public affairs. But once again
the most revolutionary aspect of the Commune cannot
be found in this capacity for administration. They were
capable of handling it, that's true. But things had
to move much further than that. All the same, the Commune
tried its best to associate the working class to the
administration of the city.
It has been said, by Marx for example, that the Commune
was the government of the working class, Engels spoke
of dictatorship of the proletariat. For sure, the workers
played a central role in this revolutionary episode.
However, to think that the Commune gave place to generalized
economic self-management is a bit far-fetched. The attempts
which had taken place during the Empire and the siege
to establish and develop cooperatives were pursued on
a larger scale and in a more optimistic environment
during the Commune. But the problem remained the same,
that is to say the funding, which meant dealing with
the banks. Furthermore, not all the economy was run
on a socialist basis during the Commune, far from it.
A certain number of employers or contractors stayed
in Paris. The big bosses fled to Versailles as well
as the main financial players. All the same, many people
from the Bank of France stayed put and got along rather
well with several elected members of the Commune as
Charles Beslay, for example. The Bank of France was
indeed threatened by some revolutionary battalions,
but the Communards never took over the Bank. That would
probably have happened had the Commune lasted a bit
longer. In any case the bank was safe guarded. In terms
of economy, what was needed was a war time economy since
we were in the middle of a civil war. Therefore a certain
number of contracts were renewed with the existing employers
and contractors. A certain number of important examples
of self-management did take place in certain workshops
like in the Louvre or in certain neighborhoods where
abandoned workshops had been seized. Trade unionists
and internationalists worked hard to run these self-managed
businesses in a radically democratic environment which
was not always very productive. We know from Avrial
who was an elected member for the 11th district, who
had told Rossel, a military who had rallied the Commune,
it was very difficult to make this new socialist economy
function. One reason it didn't function that well was
also that there was a very big debate around this issue.
I wrote an article in a popular magazine, and gave it
the title "the cooperative trap". This issue
was indeed the heart of a very harsh debate between
the revolutionaries who wanted to start by taking political
power, seize the political arena, and then provoke a
socialist revolution and those who thought it was possible
to gradually gain ground using the arena of economic
revolution by developing these cooperatives. But the
financial problem remains and also the question of organization.
Whatsmore these cooperatives were denounced by some
revolutionaries as recreating exploitative links between
the real cooperative workers and auxiliaries who were
generally younger and not given the same wages. So this
was a real debate which actually lasted all through
the 20th century and goes on today. One could organize
a seminar called "the difficulties of self-management".
The degree of phantasm in self-management.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the
Commune is the development of a vast women's movement.
For some reason or another, the women were involved.
One historic defeat which was best forgotten was that
of the French revolution where the woman's movement
had been eliminated by the Jacobins. Once more we see
women rise up during the Commune, in the midst of a
relatively macho revolutionary world. We talked about
the soldiers, well, they didn't like the idea of women
asking to participate in the armed struggle against
Versailles. They finally didn't receive weapons, at
least some of them, until the days of the bloody week
to defend Montmartre. Which was quite an incredible
thing to do, since they asked a group of only 50 women
to save the Commune by defending Montmartre which was
the symbol and birthplace of the Commune. So they put
up barricades, and along with the men they fire on the
enemy and some die and others are massacred. Some managed
to survive and bear witness.
After the fall of the Commune or its "failure",
the revolutionary movement followed a different path
and logic: to establish an organized party of the working
class. This leads towards the Bolshevik party
and others. The commune, which hasn't been forgotten,
becomes a negative reference: don't do what they did.
And know that all these parties and countries have failed
to establish socialism, and that the Berlin wall is
down, once more people from all over the world look
towards this Paris Commune to try and find its secrets.
What made its strength, what were its weaknesses? Well,
its strength is part of its weaknesses and its weaknesses
are part of its strength: direct democracy, this way
of speaking out, and taking time for debate. In the
light of the current events - they were in the middle
of a civil war - the time wasn't necessarily best suited
to organize debates and quarrels. But this also means
that we dream of a Commune that never existed. On a
military level, things were of course very complicated
since neither the elected members of the Commune nor
the officers of the National Guard obeyed. The "Ministers"
or War delegates were completely ignored. In fact, a
whole series of those officials fell one after the other.
So, it must be said that the Communards were totally
opposed to all forms of hierarchy. Even when they did
nominate leaders, it was only to be able to disobey
them. So, here again we find this libertarian element,
even if the word didn't exist at the time, which characterizes
the Commune and makes it very specific. It remains a
reference today as on the one side, socialism is disintegrating
or has disintegrated in the East, and on the other,
neo-liberalism doesn't work. So what should be done?
Well, let's study the Commune, that's the best way to
identify the value of those ideas and the way to put
them into practice.
The Commune has simultaneously been a negative and
a positive reference. As the revolutionary movement
took another path, the only heritage was that of the
actual armed seizure of political power by the Commune.
That was true for the Bolsheviks, as well as for the
Spartakists, and all other revolutionary movements,
even if there aren't that many left nowadays. The Commune
has always been remembered in a commemorative way. It
also had other aspects, a purely patriotic one. The
Commune wasn't used as a model and quite soon even the
French workers' movement and event anarchist groups
distanced themselves from this model. There would no
longer be any insurrections in France. We did have direct
action by anarchist groups who did things like throwing
bombs in various places. But on a more general level
the strategy adopted by the workers' movement will be
the weapon of the general strike even among the libertarians,
since they were the ones to establish the main trade
unions like the CGT. So the Commune remained something
quite sympathetic but globally negative. Nowadays, things
have really changed, as there are more and more people
who are really interested in the Commune. One thing
for certain is that this wall of the Fédérés
has seen all sorts of things. All the world's revolutionary
movements have come to this place of pilgrimage. I once
met a Chinese from Shanghai who told me about the proletarian
Cultural Revolution. He knew about the Commune and he
said that in schools the Commune was taught even though
it was totally unknown here in France because it was
illegal to bring that subject up in schools.
From whatever angle you prefer to take it: the Commune
is first of all an armed revolution. So, in terms of
the means, it's already very specific. A Communard newspaper
once stated: "every citizen is a soldier".
That's the basic idea of the Federation, you can't enjoy
full citizenship if you are not armed. And that's a
big difference compared to the current situation in
our societies where the people are defenseless against
the state. One thing that must really be stressed is
that the Paris Commune of 1871 is a direct democracy.
And this particular direct democracy has nothing to
do with participatory democracy. The Commune is not
about reforming the public services, it's about changing
society, not adapting it. In 1871, people want revolution
and think they have the capacity to make it happen with
guns and cannons.
André Léo, Leonine Champsey, who was
one of the most important women of the Commune, probably
more important than her friend Louise Michel, wrote
a very good article in her review "La Sociale"
called "the Soldiers of Ideas". First and
foremost, that's what the Commune is about: people speaking
out, discussing issues and debating about the revolutionary
utopia. Because resistance can't exist without utopia,
lest it fall into the trap of near-sighted nationalism.
Revolutionary socialism and communism as a whole, even
in its libertarian tendencies, is built on a corpus
of ideas and especially on debate. And if the Commune
is able to teach us anything, it would that we must
get together, discuss, debate and when possible, unite.
Translated by Patrick Watkins