# NY COMMUNE PROJECT /// The 1871 Paris Commune as seen by Karl Marx


Le Cri du Peuple by Jacques Tardi (2001)

As I wrote earlier, the 1871 Paris Commune is the historical reference of this series of articles. Despite an institutional soft form of censorship, there has been many historical interpretation of this event that saw a new form of governance created. One of them, nevertheless, remains one of the sharpest analysis of La Commune despite (or thanks to) its quasi-immediacy. Indeed, in the end of May 1871, only several days after that the Communards got exterminated by the Thiers’ administration, Karl Marx addressed a documented narrative of the past few months in Paris to the Worker International Association.

Entitled The Civil War in France this document is a vindictive text against Thiers and the other responsible for the massacre that ended La Commune in order to save the Bourgeois order in France. It is also a precise testimony of the various actions and laws undertook by La Commune. Precision is important here as the revolution triggered by this event did not only consist in rethinking a territorialization of democracy but also in implementing a sum of very pragmatic and specific measures to empower the working class:

The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. Such were the abolition of the nightwork of journeymen bakers; the prohibition, under penalty, of the employers’ practice to reduce wages by levying upon their workpeople fines under manifold pretexts – a process in which the employer combines in his own person the parts of legislator, judge, and executor, and filches the money to boot. Another measure of this class was the surrender to associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories, no matter whether the respective capitalists had absconded or preferred to strike work.

Those “small scale” specific actions were in fact balanced by an ambitious plan for a new way of thinking the implementation of more democratic processes of decisions. I retrospectivally call it the archipelagization of power for which governance is deeply related to concrete (and therefore limited) territories which maintains a symbiotic association between each other.

The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers.
In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. 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 not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents.
The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excresence.
While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well-known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly. On the other hand, nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supercede universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture.

Marx insists however that this paradigm is not simply a revolution against the centralized power but also a complete change in the essence of work itself through the emancipation of the workers who are at the same time citizens and have to work in new forms of association in order to use the various means of production. In the end, we can particularly consider this revolution as an empowerment related to a specific space, whether it is a factory, a workshop, a farm or even a whole city.