THE PARIS COMMUNE
‘A place where people still laugh …’
Rooted in a history of revolution from 1789 through to the workers’ revolts in the 1830s and 1840s, the Paris Commune of 1871 was the first great urban insurrection of modern times. For anarchists it was proof of their vision. As Kropotkin wrote: ‘A new idea was born … the point of departure of future revolutions.’
In 1870 the French government lost a humiliating war against Prussia. Popular anger against the government sparked a chain of revolts throughout France. As the Prussian army closed around Paris its populace rushed to join the neighbourhood battalions of the National Guard and soon 384,000 had volunteered. With the people in arms, the government fled the capital for Versailles and made peace with the Prussians. Next the government had to regain control of a defiant Paris, and on March 18th, 1871, it sent in troops to regain the National Guard cannon.
Soldiers refused to fire on the jeering crowds, though, and turned their weapons on officers, shooting their commander. The Commune had begun.
Leading the spontaneous rising, the National Guard seized public buildings, churches and houses of the wealthy and handed them over to the numerous political ‘clubs’ and committees which sprang up. The people became involved in running the entire city, delegates being elected on a temporary basis and having constantly to report back to their districts. By May, 43 factories were cooperatively run and the Louvre museum was a munitions factory run by a workers’ council.
The Commune gave priority to education — one child in three would otherwise nave had no schooling at all — and the National Guard evicted nuns and priests from the city’s schools. An all-women committee, including the anarchist Louise Michel, organised classes for women, and opened girls’ schools and day nurseries near the factories.
One of the most striking aspects of the Paris Commune was its carnival atmosphere. It was a ‘festival of the oppressed’: the city had ‘all the signs of being on holiday … The excitement was so intense that people moved about as if in a dream…’ Paris was ‘a place where people still laugh.’ But it was only to last for 73 days. With the city under continuous siege, food became scarce and soaring prices led to extreme hardship.
On May 1st, government troops entered the starving city. Seven days of bitter fighting followed before, one by one, all of the Commune's barricades were overcome. A terrible slaughter followed. Squads of soldiers and armed members of the bourgeoisie roamed the streets, killing and maiming at will. At least 30,000 communards died in the aftermath.
PROPAGANDA BY DEED
The defeat of the Commune left French workers defenceless and gave the bourgeoisie a new confidence. Existing industry, mainly carried out in small craft workshops, was rapidly transformed by the development of production-line factories. Workers were powerless. Long hours, low wages and rigid discipline meant greater poverty; any attempt to organise a unión meant the sack and starvation. In reply, anarchists began a campaign of violence. The era of ‘Propaganda by the Deed’ had begun.
‘Placid and carefree sleeps the bourgeoisie, but the day of shuddering and fear, of ferocious tempests, of bloody revenge is approaching. The savage., blinding light of explosions begins to light up its dreams, property trembles and cracks under the deafening blows of dynamite, the palaces of stone crack open providing a breach through which will pour the wave of the poor and the starving. Here is the hour of revenge, the bombs have sounded the charge — by Dynamite to Anarchy!’
For 20 years the anarchists struck out with bomb, pistol or dagger at every King, President, Minister or millionaire that came within reach:
1878, St Petersburg: Sergei Kravchinski kills head of Russian Secret Pólice.
1878, Madrid: Giovanni Passanante attempts to kill King of Italy.
1880, Madrid: Otero attempts to shoot King and Queen of Spain.
1884, Germany: August Reinsdorf attempts to blow up Kaiser Wilhelm
1886, Paris: Charles Gallo hurls vitriolic acid at stockbrokers crowding the Stock Exchange, crying: 'Long live anarchism! Death to the bourgeoisie! Bunch of idiots!'
1891, Barcelona: Paulino Pallas attempts to blow up Spanish General Campos.
1891, Barcelona: Santiago Salvador hurls a bomb into crowded theatre, killing 22.
1892, Pittsburgh: Alexander Berkman attempts to kill Henry Clay Frick, head of steelworks.
1892, Paris: Emile Henry bombs police station, killing 5. Bombs café, kills 1. Shoots 3 policemen.
1892, Paris: Auguste Vaillant throws bomb into Chamber of Deputies. At his execution he cries 'Long live anarchy! My death will be avenged!'
1894, Lyon: Santo Caserio kills French President Carnot to avenge Vaillant.
1897, Barcelona: Michele Angiolillo kills Spain's Prime Minister Del Castillo.
1898, Geneva: Luigi Luccheni kills Austria’s Empress Elizabeth.
1898, Paris: Claude Etievant shoots two policemen.
1900, Geneva: Gaetano Bresci shoots Italy’s King Umberto.
1901, Buffalo: León Czolgosz assassinates President McKinley.
1906, Madrid: Mateo Morral hurls bomb at Spain’s King and Queen.
This message was immediately understood by the workers. Before then they’d dare not even speak of wage rises or unions, but the ‘Whiff of dynamite’ changed all that. There was widespread sabotage; over-zealous managers were beaten up, and the bosses’ chateaux were bombed. Popular songs celebrating the anarchists’ actions, whistled around the factory, would make bosses think twice before sacking a troublemaker. The workers rediscovered their courage, and from this developed Anarcho-syndicalism, a mass-movement which aimed at the abolition of government by means of a nation-wide General Strike, and the management of society by the working class.
The original purpose of trades unions (syndicats) in France, as elsewhere, was largely confined to the improvement of wages and conditions at work. More- obviously political activity was generally left to political parties. But in the 1890s militant unionism was increasingly seen as the principal source of revolutionary action.
The major figures in this development were Fernand Pelloutier and Emile Pouget. When in 1895 he was elected General Secretary of the Independent Labour Exchanges, Pelloutier seized his opportunity to overcome workers’ ignorance of their own interests and power by means of systematic political education. He began by transforming the Exchanges into workers’ universities; then into centres of mutual aid, and finally into centres of propaganda for anarchism. In 1906 the Exchanges united with the syndicats to become the CGT — Confederation Generale du Travail — which cut all links with political parties in favour of economic direct action.
The cornerstone of anarcho-syndicalism was direct action — machine breaking, consumer boycotts, intimidation of strike breakers, and violence against bosses and their wealth. Such actions, it was believed, would, when joined with anarchist education, both cement solidarity
between workers and at the same time widen the gulf between workers and their masters. Direct action would increase class conflict, and eventually lead to the General Strike. With the workers united in their syndicats,
the prototypes of the anarchist society, the General Strike would mark the defeat of the capitalist system. From 1902 to 1914 the CGT dominated French labour. Its ideas spread rapidly, having its most profound influence among America’s IWW and the Spanish CNT.
ART AND ANARCHISM
The resurgence of anarchism in the late 19th century found support not only among industrial workers but also from the avant garde of French artists, especially painters and poets. Symbolist poetry already had a reputacion as the literature of rebellion. Its major figures — Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarme and Charles Baudelaire — had fashioned their poetry in violent opposition to the established dogmas of rigid structure and mannered, artificial language. Symbolists insisted that poets must be absolutely free to create and use their own forms. More importantly, the guiding principles must be the poet’s own unique, subjective experience. Poetry is best created and understood by allowing the imagination total freedom of interpretation. As the Symbolist Stuart Merrill explained:
‘What makes the strength of Symbolist theory is precisely its anarchy. It demands of the poet that they be significant, that is, individual, and that they reveal themselves in thought and emotion by images as general as possible. The Symbolist is the anarchist of literature.’
Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own was widely read in Symbolist circles and such writers as Felix Feneon, Gustave Kahn, Emile Verhaeren, Bernard Lazare, Pierre Quillard and Paul Adam openly endorsed anarchism, the latter saying of Ravachol, the anarchist assassin, that ‘a saint has been born to us.’
Support for anarchism was even stronger among the painters. The leading Impressionist artist, Camille Pissarro, regularly produced lithographs for the newspaper La Revolte, and although often without money, he twice saved the paper from bankruptcy by paying all its debts. Key figures in the Neo-Impressionist movement — Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, Theo van Rysselberghe and Maximilien Luce among them — were also anarchists and frequently gave work to the anarchist press. Pissarro’s children became artists and anarchists. The book The Anarchist Peril, published in 1894, contained twelve illustrations by his sons and grandsons, Lucien, Georges, Félix and Rodo, and in 1901 Lucien illustrated a children’s book by the anarchist writer Jean Grave. This is how the novelist and anarchist Octave Mirbeau described the Pissarro family:
‘... in his oíd age, surrounded by fine sons, all artists, all different! Each follows his own nature. The father doesn’t impose on any of them his theories, his doctrines, his way of seeing and feeling. He lets them develop themselves according to the sense of their vision and of their individual intelligence.’
In Pissarro's words: 'It’s a beautiful and happy thing that these children have this love of art. Our epoch is so sad that one can at least feel one self live in a dream of beauty.'