150 years have passed since the 1871 Paris Commune, a brief interlude in French history where socialists ruled Paris and implemented laws that favoured the ordinary individual. To commemorate their actions, the Socialist Workers Party will hold an event on 12 May.
The Commune was a burst of liberation for working class Parisians as they seized control of the city and organised it democratically. They fought for an egalitarian society and confronted social problems such as homelessness, which still echoes in modern society.
It began during the defeat of the French Empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War as a result of the decades of contention between the French monarchist government and organised Labour unions.
The Commune was the first experience of a socialist government in Europe and in Paris and although it was short-lived (from 18 March to 28 May 1871, mere 72 days), it promoted reforms that allowed the establishment of direct democracy as a form of government.
These included abolishing military conscription and child labour. More familiarly, fighting for equal pay, requisitioning empty homes to house the homeless, and offering citizenship to foreigners and free access to the law.
Women seized this opportunity to challenge the intricacies of sexism that had been deeply entrenched for centuries by standing on the front line with the men.
Historian Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray noted in his 1876 book “History of the Paris Commune of 1871” that “it was the women who were first to act”. The women of Paris raised the alarm, they swarmed around the government troops who were unable to retrieve the cannons that were stationed on Montmarte hill, they formed a human barricade between the government’s soldiers and the National Guard.
These actions ruptured the ideology of the status quo, which influenced an upsurge of socialist politics.
However, these socialist advances were short lived. The Commune fell to the strength of the Thiers’s troops on May 28th, the final day of the infamous “Bloody Week”. According to Britannica 20,000 insurrectionists died alongside 750 government troops, an indiscriminate massacre of Parisian civilians. The government took harsh action in the aftermath: 38,000 communards were arrested and 7,000 were deported.
Four years later, the Russian anarchist and Commune advocate Peter Kropotkin gave a speech in London and stated: “The Commune did but little, but the little it did sufficed to throw out to the world a grand idea, and that idea was the working classes governing through the intermediary of a Commune—the idea that the state should rise from below and not emanate from above.”
The truth is that the Paris Commune was the inspiration for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Socialist Revolution in China, and its reformist spirit brought about changes in the forms of government in Europe, giving rise to what is now known as the Welfare State in several countries.
And it is because of this history, which laid the foundations of a political system based on participatory democracy as the axis of political and social administration, that the Socialist Workers’ Party has organised this call via zoom to commemorate the insurrection. The event is called The Paris Commune of 1871, when workers were “storming heaven”. The special guest of this event is Judy Cox, who has written extensively on the radical history of working class women.