From red scarfs to yellow vests: the communalist tradition

  • March 18, 2021

Paris Commune 150

The legacy of the Paris Commune and its dreams of radical social change resonate through time, inspiring revolutionary thinkers and activists to this day.

Commercy, France — February 2019. A crowd of local activists cheers. They have just unanimously decided to fight against the local government to keep their shack by organizing their own voting booth for a local citizen referendum. A place of human warmth, fraternity, debate and collective decision-making during daily assemblies, the shack was the cornerstone of Commercy’s direct democracy movement. To repress this threatening democratic experiment, the mayor decided that the shack should be destroyed. But this would not happen without a fight, without inviting the population of the whole town to express their support by voting to keep the shack during a grassroots referendum.

On paper, this scene of French revolutionaries organizing their own elections to govern themselves in defiance of the state could have been mistaken for an assembly of Parisian Communards. But no, the crowd cheering in Commercy happened almost 150 years later. The people did not wear red scarfs, but yellow vests; today’s symbol of a modern-day popular uprising against the French government.

This March 18, marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Despite its brief existence, the Commune forms a key moment in both the history of political ideas and revolutions. For 72 days, the Communards fought to build a democratic and social republic, organizing elections for their popular commune, initiating radical social measures, discussing political issues in revolutionary clubs while organizing resistance with the National Guard against the Versailles counterrevolution. This revolutionary experience ended with the Bloody Week, a brutal repression of the Communards by the French government based in Versailles.

Although the Paris Commune took place a century-and-a-half ago, the echoes of this ephemeral revolution resonate throughout history to animate social movements aspiring to radical and popular democracy. Today, in 2021, communalist movements are embodying the revolutionary spirit of 1871 with direct democracy principles applied all over France. The legacy of the Paris Commune, a social, democratic and workers’ revolution, lives on.

The origins of communalism

The limits of direct democracy in the Commune

On March 26, 1871, municipal elections were held by the Central Committee of the National Guard that was in charge of the city after the March 18 uprising. Two days later, the results of the elections were publicized, and the Commune was proclaimed before a crowd of 200,000 people. Paris, formerly subordinated to the central government with no right to self-government, was to be ruled by a municipal council of 90 elected officials. They would be in charge of running the city and handling public affairs. As such, the conception of politics that prevailed during the Paris Commune conferred the task of political decision-making to an elected few, and not the many.

During the few weeks that made the Paris Commune, the municipal council met on a daily basis, sometimes even twice a day. In addition to that, and in the spirit of merging legislative and executive powers, some of its members were also part of the executive committee, or of the nine thematic commissions on finance, work, education and so on. The heads of these commissions were recallable delegates from the council. Last but not least, each elected official was also in charge of the affairs of his own district. This multi-tasking demanded solid time management skills from the elected Communards.

Traditionally, the Paris Commune is associated with the idea of direct democracy. However, one could wonder what is directly democratic about a municipal council composed of elected representatives through universal (male) suffrage? Sure, the democratic evolution achieved by the Commune resulted in an elected municipal council — composed in part of working-class people — with the city no longer dependent on the central government to manage its affairs. But are elections and representative government not the opposite of direct democracy?

What made the Commune different, however, from a traditional representative government was the fact that the people were constantly gathering in public spaces to discuss, debate and take a stand on public affairs. These informal popular assemblies intended to exercise control over and exert pressure on the official government of the Commune. As such, direct democracy was not so much the one practiced in city hall as the one found flourishing in multiple assemblies across the city and taking part in public matters: the district committees which were organized in a city-wide federation and managed local affairs through a very active neighborhood life; the assemblies of the National Guard; the people’s militia composed of most working class men; the local sections of the First International, the International Association of Workers who was created in 1864 in London; the union chambers; and above all, the revolutionary clubs.

The revolutionary clubs: “theaters and salons of the people”

First created during the revolutionary periods of 1789 and 1848, and resurrected with the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, the revolutionary clubs marked the history of the Commune by their profusion, their intense political activity and their radicalism. Occupying the churches in the evenings (the clergy was dismissed as early as 5pm), these clubs brought together hundreds or even thousands of people. They were “the theaters and salons of the people,” where “the teaching of the people, by the people” was practiced, according to Edmond Lepelletier, a contemporaneous Parisian journalist. Except for anti-Communards, everyone was welcome, with the payment of 1 to 5 cents to finance the lighting.

A place of meeting, debate and decision, these popular assemblies exercised an important amount of control over the actions of the Commune, questioning the decisions of elected officials considered as “mere delegates,” demanding more radicalism and adopting resolutions on important political and social issues. In order to channel the democratic life of the clubs towards the Commune, they created a federation of clubs that was located right next to the city hall, to collect and transfer proposals from the assemblies to the city council.

The clubs were also an important place for women’s political expression — who, let’s recall, did not have the right to vote. One of the clubs among which there was an important presence of women is the Club des Prolétaires which, during a May session, welcomed 3,000 women out of 4,000 participants. In other clubs, several female speakers, such as Paule Minck or André Léo, who were both feminist activists for girls’ and women’s education as well as members of the First International, spoke out to demand more rights for women. A resolution in favor of the complete emancipation of women and the right to divorce was adopted at the Club des Libres-penseurs.

Finally, several clubs also had their own newspapers, such as the aforementioned Club des Prolétaires, which met at Saint-Ambroise Church and published four issues of its newspaper Le Prolétaire throughout the month of May in order to make workers aware of their interests.

Hurdles to direct democracy

However, some decisions of the Commune impeded this democratic exercise by the people. Indeed, in addition to the fact that the Commune, understood as the municipal government, does not embody direct democracy, these decisions even question its fundamentally democratic character. For example, the Commune at first decided to make its deliberations secret. Although this may have been justified by the military threat stemming from the Versaillais government, so as to not give away information to the enemy, the decision seemed difficult to understand by a population demanding direct democracy. Indeed, it undermined the principle of permanent intervention by the people in communal affairs that the Commune was supposedly championing. However, on April 9, after numerous debates within the council and popular pressure from the clubs, the Commune decided to lift the secrecy of the deliberations by publishing reports in the Official Journal of the Commune.

The division of power within the Commune also questions its directly democratic character. Indeed, legislative and executive powers were merged in the Commune, as the elected officials were both members of the municipal assembly — the legislative power — and members of one or several commissions, including the executive commission — which together formed the executive power. We will see later how the fundamental division between policy-making and administration is paramount to communalist direct democracy.

Another questionable decision of the municipal assembly was to ban newspapers hostile to the Commune. While it was again justified by the need to silence the anti-Communard movement in face of the imminent repression of Versailles, this decision could be — and has been by some elected Communards — considered an obstacle to the freedom of the press, fundamental to a democratic civic life. All the more in a revolutionary time where the press, multiplying since the beginning of the insurrection, was a pillar of public debate. Indeed, the most famous and widely distributed journals such as Le Cri du Peuple of the elected Communard Jules Vallès, or Père Duchêne, a satiric journal dating from the Great Revolution, were read aloud in public places, and discussed collectively.

Finally, the decision that offers the most serious challenge to the qualification of direct democracy for the Commune is the one taken on May 1. This decision sought to create a Committee of Public Safety (Comité de salut public) to replace the executive committee. The Committee was composed of five members endowed with “the most extensive powers over all the commissions” of the Commune, though these powers were not specified. This decision was taken in order to protect the revolution by rectifying the military situation and by suppressing opposition — which was mainly done through the prohibition of hostile press outlets and through hunting down traitors.

However, the decision was not adopted without debate: while some members of the Commune claimed the committee to be necessary to protect the revolution against Versailles, others saw it as the end of any democratic functioning of the Commune and the beginning of a dictatorship. The memory of a previous Committee of Public Safety, created in 1793 to protect the newly created republic from dangers during the Great French Revolution made some Communards fearsome of a repetition of the period of the Terror that the committee instilled — a period where the guillotine worked tirelessly against those deemed as traitors to the revolution.

Adopted by 45 votes against 23, the creation of the Committee led to a fracture within the municipal assembly, leading the anti-authoritarian socialist minority to leave the Commune. Nevertheless, in somewhat of a democratic paradox, the elected representatives of the 4th district who had resigned from the Commune in protest faced their voters in a district assembly on May 20. The assembly, by a unanimous vote minus one, imposed on their delegates the imperative mandate to return to the Commune. This mandate was respected and the elected representatives returned to the Commune the next day. Unfortunately, this day also marked the beginning of the end of the Commune with the entry of the Versailles army in Paris and the start of the Bloody Week.

This example illustrates one of the essential elements of direct democracy generally associated with the Commune: the imperative mandate. Consisting of a precise mandate given by the populace to the elected officials that the latter must respect, the principle of the imperative mandate seems to have been implemented at certain times. Its corollary, the revocability of elected officials seems not to have been practiced in the Commune, although called for in speeches and declarations, and in the call for elections made by the Central Committee of the National Guard. Despite the fact that no elected official was revoked by his voters in his role as an official (only in his role as delegate of a certain commission), the revocable mandate was nonetheless very present in other institutions during the Paris Commune. Indeed, both the National Guard and the workers’ associations practiced the recall of elected people.

Commune of Communes

But direct democracy at the time of the Paris Commune was not limited to local self-government. What also influenced this era was the idea of association of free communes, mostly theorized and promoted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Indeed, this autonomy was claimed not just for Paris, but for all cities and towns of France. Thus, in the “Declaration to the French people” of April 19, 1871, the Commune claimed that “the absolute autonomy of the Commune extended to all the localities of France. The autonomy of the Commune will be limited only by the right of equal autonomy for all the other communes adhering to the contract, whose association must ensure French unity.” As such, in the words of the American philosopher Murray Bookchin: “the Paris Commune called upon all the communes of France to form a confederal dual power in opposition to the newly created Third Republic.”

Inspired by the Paris Commune and in solidarity with it, Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon, Narbonne, Saint-Etienne and Le Creusot undertook to create their own communes towards the end of March. These communes would be ephemeral and last only ten days, at best. Due to their repression, the Paris Commune would receive very little support from other cities in France. This would have two consequences: first, it left Paris alone to face the French government in Versailles, and second, it let the idea of a confederation, or Commune of Communes, go unheeded.

Communalism theorized

Though the term communalism originated during the Paris Commune to denote its activity, it is also known today as the political theory developed by Murray Bookchin. The affiliation to the Paris Commune is clear, as Bookchin writes in The Next Revolution: “The word originated in the Paris Commune of 1871, when the armed people of the French capital raised barricades not only to defend the city council of Paris and its administrative substructures but also to create a nationwide confederation of cities and towns to replace the republican nation-state.”

According to the political philosophy of communalism, the commune is the main political unit where communities directly manage their own affairs through popular assemblies functioning on the mode of face-to-face and direct democracy. More precisely, it “seeks to radically restructure cities’ governing institutions into popular democratic assemblies based on neighborhoods, towns, and villages. In these popular assemblies, citizens . . . deal with community affairs on a face-to-face basis, making policy decisions in a direct democracy.”

For issues that exceed the scope of the municipality, communalism supposes that municipalities should organize following the confederalist model, which Bookchin describes as:

a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods in large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purposes of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves. Their function is thus a purely administrative and practical one, not a policy—making one like the function of representatives in republican systems of governments.

In fact, Bookchin establishes a distinction between policy-making — the political decisions regarding the course of action a municipality should follow — formulated by the popular assembly gathering the residents of the municipality, and the administration of these decisions — the coordination and execution of these decisions (both at the municipal and the confederal level) — carried out by delegates with recallable and imperative mandates, under close supervision of the popular assembly.

Communalism calls for autonomous, directly democratic municipalities which, organized into confederations, would be in direct competition for the claim to political legitimacy with the nation-states, with the ultimate aim of abolishing these. Bookchin thereby rejects both the political unit of the nation-state and the model of representative democracy, which together constitute the paradigm around which our modern polity is structured. Indeed, to the model of statecraft “in which individuals have diminished influence in political affairs because of the limits of representational government,” with “the state conceived as a highly professionalized system of governance,” he opposes politics understood as “the civic arena and the institutions by which people democratically and directly manage their community affairs.”

The main principles of communalism as theorized by Bookchin are therefore: the commune as the main political unit; direct democracy as the mode for exercising power; the political legitimacy of the popular assembly as a place of meeting, debate and decision; politics as the daily activity of all and not the profession of a few; the constant assembly of the people; the refusal of representation in favor of the delegation of power through imperative and revocable mandates; as well as the distinction between decision-making, belonging to the assembled people, and administration, left to delegates.

Interestingly, even though the Paris Commune inspired the theory of communalism, the institution of the Commune itself did not instantiated some communalist principles. As we have seen, the decision-making power belong to elected representatives during the Paris Commune, and not to the assembled people which therefore only had supervision and debating power, with little capacity to give representatives imperative mandates, and even less to recall them. In addition, in the Commune, the legislative and executive powers were merged, without any kind of distinction between decision-making and administration.

As noted by Paula Cossart in her forthcoming essay “De la Commune au Communalisme,” this was much criticized by Bookchin in The Ecology of Freedom:

This distinction [between the formulation of policy and its administrative implementation] has been woefully confused by social theorists like Marx, who celebrated the Paris Commune’s fusion of decision-making with administration within the same political bodies and agencies. Perhaps no error could be more serious from a libertarian viewpoint. The danger of delivering policy-making decisions to an administrative body, which normally is a delegated body and often highly technical in character, is redolent with elitism and the usurpation of public power. A direct democracy is face-to-face and unabashedly participatory.

Moreover, the assembled people did not have any decision-making power, which makes this principled distinction even further from reality. As such, the theory of communalism as formulated by Bookchin is not so much the exact theory of the Paris Commune’s experiment. It is rather an ideal theory he created to give life to his direct democracy principles and to address the shortcomings of revolutionary events to reach direct democracy, the Paris Commune being one of the first experiments of the sort on a large scale.

The Commune lives on

Graffiti in Paris: “La Commune de Paris 1781 [sic] / Gilets Jaunes 2018.” Photo by Katerina Ryzhakova / Twitter

The Paris Commune has been a reference for the radical left throughout the 20th century. While its legacy can be found among the many movements, I will focus here on the one of the communalist Yellow Vest movement in Commercy, a small rural town of North-Eastern France. Indeed, from the first days of the movement, the Commercy Yellow Vests were organized into popular assemblies and following the principles of direct democracy. At their shack, without leader nor representative, they held daily assemblies to debate and make decisions collectively, voting on everything — from pens and cups to leaflets and actions, and this with a majority, while seeking consensus.

The communalist form of political organization adopted by the group was partly inspired by the ideas of Bookchin. Indeed, the principles of communalism was progressively suggested to the group by a few communalists among them familiar with Bookchin’s ideas, whose propositions fit the democratic aspirations of the group. These assemblies of the people were much like the district assemblies and revolutionary clubs during the Paris Commune: constant assembly of the people, openness of the assembly to everybody, meeting of neighbors to debate and decide on essential political topics, politics seen as deprofessionalized activity, critiques of representative politics, organization of solidarity and mutual aid. The ideal of politics as the daily activity of all was instantiated every day. Moreover, the principles of imperative and recallable mandates, similar to the ones practiced and called for during the Paris Commune, were soon to arrive.

Indeed, in reaction to the French government’s demand to appoint eight representatives from the Yellow Vest movement to begin negotiations, the Yellow Vests of Commercy launched a first call to the Yellow Vests of France to refuse representation and recuperation and to organize popular assemblies everywhere: “From Commercy, we therefore call for the creation of popular committees throughout France, functioning in regular general assemblies. Places where speech is liberated, where one dares to express oneself, to train oneself, to help one another.” They kept on: “If there are to be delegates, it is at the level of each local Yellow Vest popular committee, as close as possible to the people’s word. With imperative, revocable, and rotating mandates. With transparency. With trust.”

After a second call to all Yellow Vests to confederate, the Yellow Vests of Commercy organized an “Assembly of Assemblies” at the end of January 2019. This event, which brought together 75 delegates from local Yellow Vest groups, elaborated its functioning according to the principles of direct democracy. Most delegates were endowed with imperative and recallable mandates from their local assemblies, with the aspiration to create a sort of federation — an aspiration shared by the Communards.

Since not all delegates had mandates from their own assemblies to make decisions on official demands based on the survey that local groups participated in prior to the meeting, they settled on issuing a common call. They decided that only mandated delegates would co-sign the call; non-mandated ones would submit it to their respective local groups for ratification. Besides asking for social and economic justice and social rights, condemning repression, affirming their antiracist, antisexist and anti-homophobic commitments, they also called for mass participation in the general strikes on February 5, 2019, and for the creation of popular assemblies everywhere.

The confederal dynamics of the Assembly of Assembly lived on beyond Commercy’s borders, up to the eve of the sanitary crisis, showing the extent to which this federative vehicle for democratic self-organization answered the need of many local Yellow Vests groups.

On the local level, the Commercy Yellow Vests movement ran out of steam in March 2019, notably due to the destruction of their shack by order of the mayor who wanted to repress this local uprising, against which they fought by organizing a local citizens’ initiative referendum and gathered massive support among the local population. Forced to reinvent itself, the movement decided to institutionalize the discussion space that is the assembly and to open it to other residents of Commercy by creating the Commercy Citizens’ Assembly (CCA). After several assemblies in May, June and September that year, as well as several thematic meetings during the summer, the people organizing the CCA decided to go one step further: to take the municipality and make it the locus of popular power. That the Commune should be the unit for the exercise self-government through direct democracy echoes the very purpose of the Paris Commune.

And indeed, the CCA gave a mandate to a group of people within it to present a list for the municipal elections of March 2020. This list, “Let’s Live and Decide Together,” has as its program only direct democracy, i.e. giving power to the CCA by linking the mandate of elected municipal officials to its decisions — that is, an imperative mandate. After an active campaign, punctuated by the organization of a national gathering of free communes called “The Commune of Communes” in January 2020 demonstrating the continuous pursuit of the federative ideal of the Assembly of Assemblies, the list failed in the first round of municipal elections on March 15, 2020 with 9.77 percent of the votes, missing only four votes to qualify for the second round.

Nevertheless, the communalist project to allow the self-organization of the inhabitants through a citizens’ assembly remained, as elections have always been seen as a means and not an end to give power to the residents of Commercy. In any case, what started in Commercy is much more than a local dynamic. It planted the seed of communalism in the mind of many Yellow Vests, protesters and militants, bringing 150-year-old ideals back to life. The Communard and well-known anarchist Elisée Reclus said: “What the leaders did not do, the nameless crowd did.” While this was true at the time of the Paris Commune, the same could be said today of this contemporary communalist movement. And what the nameless crowd did is no less than enacting the ideals of communalist direct democracy.

Lessons from the Commune

While the Paris Commune is a source of inspiration for contemporary movements, studying its history, its actions but also its shortcomings and its failures can allow communalist organizers to learn from them and to avoid certain pitfalls. Indeed, beyond inspiring radical left imagination, this first large experience of workers’ self-government can also teach us several lessons.

First, the fact that the clubs weighed on the municipal government shows the extent to which direct democracy is not only a matter of procedure, but of an active and mobilized citizenry. This outburst of political engagement within civil society was very present during the Paris Commune: all power was put in question by the people gathered into popular assemblies, even the revolutionary power of the Commune. However, this direct democracy had its own limits: the clubs flourished in a milieu favorable to the revolutionary Commune, which was not representative of the whole population. Moreover, these popular assemblies did not represent the whole population, but at best several tens of thousands of people. From a communalist perspective, this begs the question as to how to gather massive support among the population, as well as to secure its participation.

Second, the fusion of legislative (policy-making) and executive (administration) powers within the Commune, as well as the fact that citizens were not the legitimate body of decision-making, also questions its directly democratic character in a communalist outlook, and its capacity to actually give power to the people. Communalists should be wary of placing the locus of decision-making in the hand of the assembled people, rather than leaving them only a right of intervention, and to give executive powers to delegates endowed with recallable and imperative mandates — mechanisms that the elected Communards neglected, with a few exceptions, when it came to their own mandates.

The Commune also shows us that, when the revolutionary spark occurs, workers will enter the struggle and self-organize. This self-organization will unfortunately face a brutal repression by the ruling class ready and prepared to commit a massacre to maintain its own interests. Indeed, one must not be naïve, as some Communards might have been, about the fight the ruling class is ready to wage against anything that will threaten its position. To face this repression, the revolutionary movement must be prepared and organized — and this was certainly one of the main shortcomings of the Paris Commune. The Commune has been criticized for its endless discussions and resulting inaction, at a time during which it should have put more effort to prepare against the state government based in Versailles. The lack of support the Paris Commune received from other cities during the repression also shows the extent to which building a confederal movement is paramount to effectively challenge the state in a communalist perspective.

One of the main questions the inevitability of state repression also begs is how to manage the delicate balance between fighting repression to preserve the revolution on the one hand, and organizing the new revolutionary society in a directly democratic way on the other? The Commune answered this quandary through the creation of the Committee of Public Safety. This centralized body which gave executive power to a minority while reducing civil liberties, seemed very far from the ideal of power to the people the Paris Commune pretended to embody, and perhaps alienated people from the revolutionary movement.

Beyond all these lessons that movements could take away from this inspiring-but-tragic history, what the Commune has shown us, and what the Yellow Vests movement has once again confirmed, is that there is no better incentive to become politically active than political struggle itself. Revolutionary events drive those who were not conscious of their political being to discover within themselves deeply anchored social convictions and a hidden competence to become leaders, speakers, organizers, writers, fighters and so on. The dream of social change can inspire this collective enthusiasm and a massive energy to act. And this is the worst nightmare of the ruling class.

Sixtine van Outryve

Sixtine van Outryve is a PhD researcher in political and legal theory at UCLouvain in Belgium. Her research focuses on the theory and practice of direct democracy in a communalist perspective, more specifically on social movements struggling for self-government in France and North America. She is also the co-author of an exhibition for the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune called “Vive la Commune!”

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