Although from an earlier era, the lessons of the Paris Commune are important for peoples of the world today who are labouring under an anachronistic representative democratic system.
Image caption: A barricade thrown up by Communard National Guards on 18 March 1871.
Source of image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Commune
150 years ago, on March 18, 1871, the people of Paris carried out a mass upsurge to take power in their hands, and subsequently proclaimed the Paris Commune This was the first attempt in the modern historical period to establish a democratic government in which people constituted the supreme power.
Today, people in India and most parts of the world are burdened with a system of democracy in which political power is wielded by the executive – cabinet or presidency – while the people themselves do not have any power Although from an earlier era, the lessons of the Paris Commune are important for peoples of the world today who are labouring under an anachronistic representative democratic system. The concrete example of the Paris Commune shows that the assertions that there can be no alternative to the present system of governance are simply false.
The heroic efforts of the Parisian people became an historic turning point in the definition of modern democracy where the Communards, representing most of the residents of Paris, decisively acted as an independent political force to achieve a cause defined by themselves. Though they were ultimately defeated, the Communards proved the point that people can be both the ruler and the ruled.
A little earlier, the French emperor Napoleon III had launched an expansionist war against Prussia but was repulsed and captured by the Prussian army. The members of the French National Assembly, which represented the elite sections of Paris, disowned Napoleon III and established a republic. But when the Prussian army marched towards Paris, the government, led by Adolphe Thiers, lost their nerves. The French ruling elite preferred to make a deal with the foreign army at its gate rather than share power with the common people. They concluded an ignominious peace with the Prussians and started to disarm the people who had taken up arms and formed a National Guard.
Earlier, 400 muzzle-loading bronze cannons, partly paid for by the Paris public via a subscription, remained in the city. The new Central Committee of the National Guard, now dominated by revolutionaries, decided to put the cannons in parks in the working-class neighbourhoods, to keep them away from the regular army and to defend the city against any attack by the “national government” of the French elite. Thiers wanted to bring the cannons under his control. A civil war ensued, and the “national government” had to leave Paris surreptitiously to Versailles.
The National Guard, made up of working people, had also not been disarmed as per the armistice with Prussia, and reportedly had 260 battalions of 1,500 men each, a total of 400,000 men. Between 15 and 24 February 1871, some 500 delegates elected by the National Guard began meeting in Paris. On 15 March, just before the confrontation between the National Guard and the regular army over the cannons, 1,325 delegates of the federation of organizations created by the National Guard elected a leader, Giuseppe Garibaldi (who was in Italy and respectfully declined the title), and created a Central Committee of 38 members.
To really understand what a people-led democracy means and how it is not utopian, we should look at the series of measures that the Paris commune took within a span of few days.
- On March 26, 1871, the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed.
- The Central Committee of the National Guard, which up to then had carried on the government, handed in its resignation.
- On March 30, the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared that the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, was to be the sole armed force.
- It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be reckoned to a future rental period and stopped all sales of article pledged in the municipal pawnshops.
- On the same day, the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic”.
- On April 1 it was decided that the highest salary received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore also by its members themselves, might not exceed 6,000 francs.
- On the following day the Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the State, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all Church property into national property.
- As a result of which, on April 8, a decree excluding from the schools all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers — in a word, “all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience” — was ordered to be excluded from the schools, and this decree was gradually applied.
- On the 12th, the Commune decided that the Victory Column on the Place Vendôme, which had been cast from guns captured by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This decree was carried out on May 16.
- On April 16, the Commune ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed by the manufacturers, and the working out of plans for the carrying on of these factories by workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organised in co-operative societies, and also plans for the organisation of these co-operatives in one great union.
- On the 20th the Commune abolished night work for bakers. The issuing of workers’ registration cards, which had been run as a monopoly by police nominees; was transferred to the mayors of the 20 arrondissements of Paris.
- On April 30, the Commune ordered the closing of the pawnshops, as they were a private exploitation of people’s labour and were in contradiction with the right of people to work and to avail credit.
All these decisions were taken by delegates of the working people of Paris in the Commune. In a short span of a few days, they decreed reforms which earlier governments never had the nerve to pass, such as freeing working people from indebtedness in one stroke and abolishing child labour. It should be remembered that all these actions were taken when the city was under siege and all the energies of the people had to be focused on saving the city from being overrun by invading forces.
The actions of the Communards are a compelling argument that a people-centred democracy is the opposite of the present system of parliamentary representative democracy. Representative democracy rests on the notion that people are not able to govern themselves and need to depend on the representatives of the political parties of the ruling establishment to rule on their behalf. People-centred democracy rests on the reality that people are capable of ruling themselves and that their elected representatives should be accountable to them.
The Paris Commune showed that a people-centred democracy is based on delegation, not representation. The crucial difference between delegation and representation is that delegates are only elected to implement specific decisions. Delegates do not have the right to change a decision previously made by an assembly of people. Delegates (unlike representatives) can be immediately recalled and dismissed from their mandate if they do not carry out the specific function allotted to them.
All members of the Commune were all elected by universal adult suffrage. They were accountable to the people who elected them and could be recalled at any time. So, people always remained their masters. The Commune combined the legislative and executive functions in its hands, which meant that the delegates not only passed laws but were also held responsible for implementing them. This ensured that the Commune would not degenerate into a talk-shop like the present legislatures. Judges too were elected by the people and could be recalled at any time.
The Paris Commune was defeated, one of the chief reasons being the failure of the Communards to forge a united front with their peasant brothers outside the city and to take an uncompromising stand with their previous rulers. But, the experience of the Paris Commune was so inspiring, that even in its defeat, its’ protagonists did not lose heart for a better tomorrow. This is best exemplified the fact that the great revolutionary song “Internationale” by written by Eugene Poitier after the fall of the Paris Commune.
People-centred democracy is mocked by the ruling establishment as either anarchist or something utopian. Kashyap echoes this when he says that “But, except in a primordial or revolutionary situation, sovereignty of the people is merely an abstraction. Also, it may imply a state of anarchy. Sovereignty in the hands of the people may be likened to power in the waters of a wild mountainous river…”
These arguments are advanced by those who took power over in India from the colonial rulers. Also implied is that legislation and state administration have grown so complex that people in a modern society cannot master them. The same arguments are advanced today also to dismiss this kind of democracy as utopian. It is for this reason that the actions of the Communards in Paris, one and half centuries ago, need to be studied and assimilated.
The existing political system in India is primarily based on the colonial model, the Westminster Model of representative democracy with Treasury and Opposition benches in the Legislature and an Executive headed by the Union Cabinet and its Prime Minister and a Judiciary that is supposed to maintain checks and balances. In the current political system, elected representatives have no accountability to the people who elect them. Using money and muscle power, the parties of the status quo limit the role of the people to only giving their vote to this or that party. There are no enabling mechanisms in this system to enable people to exercise their right to participate in running the affairs of society. The 1950 Constitution of India which was passed by a Constituent Assembly that was not elected through universal suffrage and based primarily on the Government of India Acts of the colonial period, codifies those concepts.
The time has come to thoroughly transform the political system in India and march towards a people-centred democracy. A thorough study of the overall experience of mankind with people-centred democratic systems, including that gained in glorious but short-loved Paris Commune of 1871, will be very useful indeed.