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The Paris Commune and Grassroots Democracy

By: 
Howie Hawkins

150 years ago on this day, March 18, 1871, the Paris Commune declared itself the governing power in the city of two million and proceeded to build what the Communards called a “Democratic and Social Republic.” The Commune’s confederation of directly-democratic neighborhood assemblies coordinated by a mandated and recallable Communal Council still provides today the institutional model for realizing the Green Party’s principle of Grassroots Democracy.

The Paris Commune was last of a series of uprisings by the sans-culottes, which literally means without fashionable silk knee-breeches worn by the nobility and bourgeoisie. The common working people wore trousers. The sans-culottes were the artisanal working class and the lower-middle class of small-scale shopkeepers, producers, and merchants. Their uprisings began with the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794 and kept re-occurring, notably in 1830 and 1848, and finally in 1871. The people wanted democratic self-government as opposed to the militaristic republics that quickly devolved back into the monarchies that the original French Revolution had sought to overthrow. The Paris Commune ended two months after it began during the Bloody Week of May 22-28, a week of unspeakable mass murder by a counterrevolution that literally exterminated the revolutionary class of sans-culottes in Paris.

While commune simply means municipality in France, the Paris Commune of 1871 refers to the whole set of democratic institutions thrown up by the popular revolution, including the elected Communal Council, the neighborhood assemblies that gave instructions to their councilors who were considered mandated delegates rather than independent representatives, and the neighborhood-based citizens militias that replaced the standing army and police. The common people took power and began to institute their longstanding demand for a Democratic and Social Republic. Democratic at least meant universal suffrage in electing the Communal Council and in its fullest sense it meant a bottom-up grassroots democracy based on directly-democratic neighborhood assemblies with the power to give binding instructions (imperative mandates) to their council delegates and to recall them at will. Social meant the separation of church and state, women's suffrage, and a more egalitarian economy, with economic visions ranging from a more regulated economy featuring banking reform and debt relief to various visions of socialist economic democracy, from an artisanal socialism of small-scale worker and consumer cooperatives exchanging goods in the market adapted to the dominant economy of the day to a fully socialized and planned economy more adapted to the large-scale factory system that was emerging.

Prelude to the Commune

The Commune was created by an uprising of the working and lower-middle classes within Paris after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 ended with France's defeat. The common people of Paris had long been supporters of a democratic republic. Now they rose up to create it in place of the monarchy of Emperor Napoleon III (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte) who had initiated the disastrous war with Prussia in July 1870.

Louis Bonaparte was captured in battle by the Prussians in September 1870. The French army then deposed Bonaparte and declared a republic. But the military leaders delayed holding elections despite popular demands to do so. When they finally held elections the next February, most French citizens were not informed. The new National Assembly that was elected was dominated by conservative monarchists.

By March, the unpopular National Assembly had adjourned and retreated from Paris to Versailles outside of Paris due to protests and resistance by the armed workers. On March 18, the Versailles government sent in the regular army to disarm the workers in Paris who were organized into a citizens militia, the National Guard. But the regular army largely refused to follow orders and fraternized with the National Guard. The army was ordered to retreat back to Versailles, but many soldiers stayed in Paris to join the revolution.

The Commune Takes Power

The Commune was then declared that day, March 18, as the governing power replacing the National Assembly. But instead of attacking and defeating the retreating National Assembly government at its weakest point, the central committee of the National Guard focused on setting up a new government in Paris and organized elections to the Communal Council for the following week. Most of the seats were taken by old school Jacobin republicans and followers of the federalist and cooperativist doctrines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The more radical socialist followers of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who focused on socializing predatory financial capital, elected the next largest bloc of councilors. The Internationalists, the followers of the First International of Marx and Engels, who focused socializing exploitative industrial capital, also secured a few seats. Some of the elected councilors were foreign citizens who had joined the revolution. The Communal Council accepted their election into office with the declaration that "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic."

In the ensuing days and weeks, the Commune enacted measures designed to build a “social republic.” These measures included abolition of the army and police and their replacement by a neighborhood-based citizens militia with officers elected by the ranks, rent relief, payment of an average worker's wage to the elected Communal Councilors, the separation of church and state, the nationalization of all Church property, the abolition of all state payments for religious schools, free public schools, the postponement of all debt obligations for three years and the abolition of interest on them, the regulation of pawnshops including the return of workers’ tools to their owners, the abolition of night work for bakers, and the requisitioning of vacant homes and apartments for the homeless.

But just as the Commune had hesitated in finishing off the monarchical National Assembly government militarily at the start of the revolution, it also hesitated to implement a socialist economic program to take power away from the wealthy landed, financial, and industrial elites. Leaving the gold and cash in the vaults of the central bank, the Bank of France, the Commune legalistically negotiated loans from the bank to finance municipal operations. No moves were made to socialize the factories, land, and real estate of the very wealthy. The Commune did give workers the right to take over and run factories abandoned by capitalists who fled Paris after the uprising. Ten such factories were converted to worker cooperatives under this law. Forty-three artisanal craft cooperatives were also begun by workers on their own initiative.

Had the Commune survived for a longer time, perhaps circumstances and the influence of the socialist Blanquists and Internationalists would have led to a further socialization of the economy. But that was not on the agenda of the Jacobin and Proudhonist majority of the Communal Council. In any case, the counterrevolution would arrive before those possibilities had a chance the play themselves out.

Counterrevolution: The Bloody Week of May 22-28

After weeks of skirmishes between the National Assembly’s army and the National Guard militias, on March 21 the National Assembly breached the city’s walls at an unguarded gate and began to pour into the city. Despite weeks to prepare, the National Guard militias never organized a coordinated battle plan to defend the city. The decentralist sentiments of the Communards and their leaders resulted in a terribly ineffective defense where each neighborhood’s militia built barricades to defend only its own neighborhood. This enabled the army to concentrate its forces to kill off the Communards at the barricades in each neighborhood one at a time.

From May 21 to May 28, the army carried out a bloodthirsty butchery of the Communards on behalf of the reactionary monarchical, clerical, and capitalist elites. The army methodically and ruthlessly defeated the Communards neighborhood by neighborhood. It indiscriminately murdered any surviving men, women, and children by summary execution on the spot after they surrendered. Blood ran in the gutters. Bodies floated down the rivers. Estimates of the number of Communards killed by the counterrevolution run in the 20,000 to 30,000 range. The counterrevolution aimed to kill off the anti-monarchical, anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois sans-culottes of Paris once and for all.

Thousands of surviving sans-culottes fled seeking refuge abroad. Some 7,500 were caught and tried, with about 3,000 sentenced to jail and 4,500 deported to penal colonies in New Caledonia, where Communards like Louise Michel, who had been an elected officer in a women’s militia in the National Guard, supported the eight-month anti-colonial insurgency of the indigenous Kanak people in 1878. Upon returning to France in 1880 after an amnesty was declared for the surviving Communards, Michel resumed her social activism and became an internationally renowned speaker and writer for the anarchist wing of the socialist movement.

A Commune of Communes

As it had the during democratic apex of the Great French Revolution in 1793, the Paris Commune of 1871 again called out for a “Commune of communes” to replace the monarchy across France. It called upon the nation’s communes to emulate its municipal democracy and govern France through a nationwide confederal council of democratic communes.

The governing forms established by the Paris Commune were extolled by both the anarchist and Marxist wings of the socialist movement. Anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin viewed it as a negation of the state and the fulfillment of the anarchist ideal of a bottom-up federation of free communes. Karl Marx noted that the Commune proved that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” He called the Paris Commune “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” All three contrasted the Commune’s bottom-up democracy to the state as a parasitic structure that ruled over the people on behalf of the privileged classes, the wealthy landed, clerical, and industrial elites. While all three lamented the limited implementation of socialist economic measures, they all also suggested that the popular democracy of the Paris Commune would have proceeded to such measures if it had had time to work them out.

Marx’s commentary praised the Commune for its elected and recallable council delegates and judges, its accountable citizens militia that replaced the army and police, and its workers’ wages for all municipal officials. He acclaimed its call for the bottom-up federation of a Commune of communes: “The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government … were to be discharged by Communal and therefore responsible agents.”

Marx’s commentary on the Paris Commune stands in contrast to his calls before the Commune and again later for a centralized if transitional workers state to usher in socialism. But his praises of the Commune persist in the socialist tradition. For example, the Commune's principle of workers wages for municipal officials is carried on by a socialist city councilor in Seattle, Kshama Sawant, who contributes her salary above an average worker’s wage back to the movement.

The Greens and Grassroots Democracy

When the German Greens formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were highly aware of the traditions of the Paris Commune and the contrasting tradition of the German Social Democratic Party, which increasingly became a top-down bureaucratic component of the capitalist state that the party had started out to replace, culminating in its infamous vote for war credits at the start of World War I. The Greens therefore formulated policies to create what they called basisdemokratie (base democracy, or what Greens in the U.S. translated as grassroots democracy). These policies drew on the traditions of the Paris Commune, including power flowing up from membership assemblies in the party locals with imperative mandates to hold delegates to state and national committees and conventions, party officials, and elected officials accountable to the base. To prevent the formation of an entrenched oligarchic leadership in the party, the Greens instituted the imperative mandate, recall, rotation, and gender parity with respect to both party and elected officials. Over the course of a long struggle throughout the 1980s and 1990s between the radical fundi and moderate realo wings of the party, the realos progressively gained the upper hand, dispensed with the base-democracy policies, and became a professionalized parliamentary party where most members had paid positions with the staffs of the party organization or its elected public officials.

If the U.S. Greens are to be true to their principle of Grassroots Democracy, they should begin by practicing it within the party. Are the grassroots members organized into locals? Are the locals organized enough to give their delegates to state and national committees instructions on important issues before these committees? Are the delegates recallable at will and subject to term limits to ensure regular rotation? An honest assessment will admit that the party has much improvement to do in these respects.

Democratize the Republic! Radicalize the Democracy!

What should the principle of Grassroots Democracy mean with respect to the Green program for society as a whole? In the early years of the U.S. Green Party movement, Murray Bookchin urged the slogan, “Democratize the Republic! Radicalize the Democracy!” He elaborated this program in his 1992 book, Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship. He urged Greens to use the political space provided by the representative republic in the U.S. to democratize it at the grassroots level with a program of developing citizen assemblies in urban neighborhoods and rural towns. Green candidates should run for municipal office on a program of amending municipal charters to institutionalize the assemblies and give them the power to instruct delegates to municipal councils. With the municipalities democratized, the movement should radicalize them by democratizing the economy under municipal ownership and control.

Toward the end of his life, Bookchin would use the term communalism for this revolutionary program for a libertarian socialism. The national Green Party references communalism in its national platform without elaborating what it means institutionally to create a grassroots political and economic democracy. Bookchin had long argued that “Freedom has its forms….a liberatory revolution always poses the question of what social forms will replace existing ones. At one point or another, a revolutionary people must deal with how it will manage the land and the factories from which it acquires the means of life. It must deal with the manner in which it will arrive at decisions that affect the community as a whole.”

Bookchin argued that these forms must be based on the direct democracy of the popular assembly, not the representative structures of councils and legislatures detached from the assemblies. In an era when popular understanding considers democracy to be the election of a representative republic, Bookchin was restoring the distinction that ancient Greeks like Aristotle had drawn between the democracy of the assembled many and the aristocracy of the representative few. Bookchin argued that “the revolutionary process must be the formation of assembly and community.... Assembly and community must become ‘fighting words.’”

Bookchin also argued that the American experience of direct democracy rooted in the town meetings that still exist in New England is a tradition the Green movement could build upon. Town meetings were the cradle of the American Revolution, the vehicle through which the common people – small farmers, artisans, laborers – burst through the property qualifications and asserted their right to participate in public affairs. During the revolution, town meetings spread from New England to Charleston as the common people asserted their right to self-government. In many regions, town meetings expected representatives elected to county and state legislative bodies to follow their instructions. Town meetings became the crucible of post-revolutionary uprisings by small farmers, such as Shays' Rebellion, against the usurious debt burdens and land confiscations imposed by financial elites.

We must acknowledge that the outcome of the revolution that began in 1776 ended up being a counterrevolution in which merchants and slaveowners prevailed to preserve a profitable slave-based economy that was protected by a constitution designed to prevent real democracy. But we should also understand that the American Revolution established the principle that the common people had the right to participate in democratic self-government. U.S. politics has largely been a struggle over that principle ever since, down to this very day as Republicans conduct the biggest assault on voting rights and democracy itself in the states since the end of Reconstruction.

Democratic Confederalism

Bookchin advanced his ideas with the political institutions and traditions of the U.S. particularly in mind. He did not anticipate that the most conscious and successful implementation of his ideas would come in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, over the last decade. Based on his readings of Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), urged his party in the early 2000s to adopt what he called Democratic Confederalism. The PKK had been a traditional Marxist-Leninist national liberation movement seeking a nation state for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. Now Öcalan called for regional self-government within the states where the Kurds are based: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. That self-government would be based on popular assemblies confederated at the municipal and regional levels implementing a feminist, ecologist, and socialist program. Öcalan contacted Bookchin in 2004 seeking an exchange of ideas, but sick and nearing the end of life, all Bookchin could do was wish Öcalan well in his efforts. The PKK soon adopted Öcalan’s programmatic proposals.

Öcalan’s program of democratic confederalism is anti-sectarian and anti-nationalist, requiring the inclusion of all religious and ethnic groups in governing the multi-ethnic Kurdish majority region of Rojava, which also includes Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Circassians. The program stands in stark contrast to the Middle East’s predominant conservative political movements that feature religious sectarianism, national chauvinism, misogynistic patriarchy, capitalist economics, and authoritarian statism. While the PKK based in Turkey has been implementing the program as best it can under military repression by the Turkish state, the program has been implemented extensively in northeastern Syria where the Syrian state withdrew its military forces to concentrate them on the civil war that broke out in 2011 in other parts of the country. The PKK’s ideological compatriot in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has led the implementation of the program in Rojava, which is now governed under democratic confederalist principles by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Rojava: The Paris Commune of Our Time

Unfortunately, the Rojava Revolution is seen as a threat by the conservative powers that surround it. It has carried out an armed struggle to defend itself from attacks by Islamic fundamentalist movements, particularly ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates, by Syria’s Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors, and by Turkey with US/NATO/Iraqi complicity. The Rojava Revolution has been ignored or even attacked by the authoritarian “left” that uses geopolitical analysis of state interests in the New Cold War to justify support for reactionary states like Assad’s as “anti-imperialist” simply because they are in conflict with the US rather than using a class analysis to guide solidarity with the exploited and oppressed living in those states.  As the Kurdish proverb goes, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”

The military arm of the PYD has been the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), which have fought alongside YPG since these militias were formed in 2011. Since 2015, the YPG and YPJ have allied with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and Turkmen militias in Rojava into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the 2016 constitution of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria defines as its official defense force in fighting for a democratic, federalized, and secular Syria. The PYG and PYJ, and now the SDF, accepted U.S. help in the form of arms and supplies, small special forces units, and air support to push ISIS out of Rojava. But since ISIS was defeated by the SDF in Rojava in 2017, the U.S. has given its NATO partner Turkey the greenlight to attack and ethnically cleanse Kurds from land in Rojava near the Turkish border. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria fights diplomatically to be included international negotiations on the fate of Syria from which they reman excluded. The SDF carries on its armed struggle to defend the Rojava Revolution, which should be regarded as the Paris Commune of our time.

Movements for Grassroots Democracy

These ideas of a confederal grassroots democracy as a counter-power to predatory nation-states and global corporations are also finding expression in other parts of the world. The Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement fighting the French government’s austerity programs revived the French revolutionary notion of a Commune of Communes that once emanated from Paris with its efforts to build an Assembly of Assemblies emanating from the rural towns of France. Indigenous communities in Mexico, including the Zapatista region of Chiapas and the municipalities of Cherán and Oaxaca, have won autonomy for their popular assemblies, environmental protection, and self-defense militias against the drug cartels and Mexican state corruption. A Congress of Municipal Movements in North America was held from September 18–22, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan to share experiences among fledgling movements on this continent.

In the current U.S. political system of plurality voting, most progressives are afraid to risk a vote for the Greens on the left and settle for centrist corporate Democrats in hopes of defeating the far-right Republicans. This lesser-evil dynamic has become stronger than ever in the last decade as the Republican Party has adopted rule-or-ruin tactics to promote its increasingly racist and anti-democratic politics. In this political environment, the Greens are going to have an even harder challenge in most state and federal elections. 

At the municipal level, on the other hand, the stakes are not so high and the room for Green politics is greater. Outside of elections, Greens can foster popular assemblies by direct organizing that can have enormous influence on municipal policies if they become real mass meetings with formal procedures and resolutions to adopt and forward to municipal officials. Inside elections, Greens can run winning municipal campaigns on a democratic confederalist program of institutionalizing popular assemblies and municipal councils that must answer to the assemblies. For the Green Party, grassroots democracy is more than a principle and program for radically democratic reforms. It is the most practical politics Greens can do under today’s state structures and political conditions. That is a perspective to consider today as we commemorate the high ideals of democracy exemplified by the Paris Commune of 1871.

Howie Hawkins was the Green Party candidate for President in 2020.