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Embers of the Paris Commune

Saturday 1 May 2021, by Sumanta Banerjee

This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871 - the biggest urban insurrection of the nineteenth century, that led to the setting up of a grass roots based popular government in Paris, albeit for only about two months, before it was crushed by the Versailles troops at the end of May that year. But during that brief period of popular sovereignty, that government - known as the Commune’, meaning the smallest unit of local governance -  laid the foundations of a model of decentralization of power, that has continued  to inspire generations all over the world. Historical accounts of the Paris Commune have generally highlighted it as theFestival of the Oppressed’, the term used to describe the mass demonstrations in the streets, where the people broke out in a festive mood to celebrate the end of an oppressive regime, and welcome the inauguration of a popular government. There were street concerts, and the ceremonious demolition of monuments of the imperial past, like that of the Vendome Column on May 16, 1871, or the public burning of a guillotine to express the popular rejection of the death penalty, on April 6 that year. While these spontaneous demonstrations might appear as unplanned, unguided and formless, there were in fact politically committed agencies behind them which were attempting to give them a coherent frame in the shape of social measures that they introduced during the two-month interregnum (March 18 - May 28, 1971) that the Communards enjoyed in running the administration in Paris before being crushed. These measures added a momentous historical dimension to the Paris Commune, that was to have a lasting impact on the shape of popular uprisings , both urban and rural, that were to follow in different parts of the world.

In fact, the Commune raised fundamental socio-economic issues that challenged the ruling socio-economic order. It opposed : (i) inequality in wage payment in the manufacturing sector; (ii) control over the educational system by a religious order ; and (iii) official censorship of dissident views expressed in works of art and literature.

Economic, social and cultural measures to decentralize power

In order to reverse this inequitable and oppressive order, the Commune announced and implemented a number of measures. They impacted not only on the citizens of Paris during that brief period, but they still carry lasting historical relevance for the present times.

To start with, one of the Commune’s first step was the setting up of a new body called the Commission of Labour and Exchange, to propagate ‘social doctrines’ and ‘find ways of equalizing labour and the wage paid it.’ On April 16, it issued a decree that allowed trade unions to take over any closed down factories, and renew production. As a result, some ten factories were taken over and run by workers’ cooperatives which prioritized items of production according to their own needs, instead of the earlier system of production dictated by the capitalist owners. The Commune also guaranteed an increase in wages, and equalization of conditions between male and female workers.

The other major social sphere that the Commune sought to reform was that of education. It set up the Commission for the Organization of Education, which aimed at providing state-funded compulsory education, freed from the domination of the religious clerics, and which would balance the courses of traditional humanities with those that would provide a useful technical training. It encouraged local efforts to free the prevalent schooling systems from the control of the orthodox religious clergy. A Jesuit school, with its well-equipped laboratories, was taken over by the local people and turned into what the Commune claimed to be the first professional’  school  established by it. But it was in the area of  culture that the Commune set up a model that offered freedom to creative talents in the fields of theatre, literature and painting -  and released them from the threat of censorship. Under its auspices, the artists of Paris formed the Artists’ Federation with the  famous French painter Gustave Courbet  as its chairman, on April 13, 1871. According to its announcement, its  aim was the free development of art without  government protection or special privileges. It stated that the realm of the arts would be controlled by the artists, who were urged to (i) conserve the heritage of the past; (ii) facilitate the creation and exhibition of contemporary works; and (iii)  stimulate future creation through art education. {{Later attempts to replicate the Paris Commune: Thesoviets’ in Russia, 1917

Despite its destruction, the ideas and the model of the Paris Commune continued to inspire future generations in different parts of the world aspiring for decentralized administration at the grassroots level. One of the first experiments was the organization of soviets’ in  Russia, in 1917, under the leadership of Leftist forces. The wordsoviet’ meant a council in the Russian language. But In the course of the tumultuous months of the revolution that year, the term soviet’ came to represent  the autonomous  self-governing bodies that sprung up in different sectors of the economy -  that was at that time reeling under total administrative chaos. Besides the local Soviets , elected in every city and village in Russia, there were  the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies,  and even Soviets of Soldiers’ Deputies operating  among the army ranks. There were the factory-shop committees,  created by the workers themselves in order to  run the factories and control production of goods to meet popular needs. Leading among these soviets was the Petrograd Soviet which played a prominent role in the  November revolution of 1917 that led to the formation of a government representing all the soviets from different sections of the people - to be known later as the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. The  famous American  journalist  John Reed, who was an eye-witness to the historical  events in Russia in those days, in hisTen Days That Shook the World’ (1919) gives a blow-by-blow account of the emergence of the soviets,’, how they asserted their autonomy, and to a large extent determined the course of the Bolshevik revolution . It is not a coincidence that John Reed in the introduction to his book, recalled  the Paris Commune as the source of inspiration for  the Petrogradsoviet’: “Just as historians search the records for the minutest details of the story of the Paris Commune, so they will want to know what happened in Petrograd in November 1917, the spirit that animated the people, and how the leaders, talked and acted.”

The Shanghai Commune of February 1967

Exactly fifty years after the establishment of the first soviet’ in Petrograd in Russia, the spirit of the Paris Commune was revived in another city - this time in China . On February, 1967, in Shanghai, factory workers along with radical students and rebel Communist activists, set up the Shanghai Commune to seize power and overthrow the old bureaucratic power structure.   While the communards in Paris and the soviets in Russia fought against  state authorities that were imposed upon them from outside, in an ironical twist of history, the members of the Shanghai Commune were forced to fight against a local oppressive bureaucracy that was an agent  of  their own government in Beijing - the People’s Republic of China -  which they themselves had put in power in 1949. There is an interesting background to the rise of the Shanghai Commune.   In the face of popular complaints of corruption and exploitation against his own Communist party’s official bureaucrats who were running local administration, Mao-Tse-Tung reached out to the masses in 1966 by urging them to overthrow this bureaucracy,  with his famous slogan: “Bombard the headquarters !” Responding to Mao’s call, all the workers’ groups in Shanghai got together, held a mass rally on January 5, 1967, denounced the city’s ruling officials, and in a universal verdict, removed them from their positions. In order to fill up the administrative vacuum created  by this decision, the Chinese Communist Party sent Zhang Chunqiau  to suggest a way out. He proposed the introduction of a  model  of local administration on the lines of the Paris Commune. Thus was formed the Shanghai Commune on February 5 1967, with Zhang as its head. During its brief spell, it embodied the seeds of a novel state structure that empowered the masses by relegating to their representatives  some of the  administrative powers. New organs of power with widespread ground roots support were emerging. Fearing a backlash that might threaten the very political power  structure at Beijing,  Mao soon beat a retreat. Originally, his call “Bombard the Headquarters,” was a directive to his party cadres to  raid the party offices and throw out the corrupt and bureaucratic party leaders who were spoiling the image of the ruling Communist Party of China. It was a part of the factional fights that were going on in the CPC during those years - that were to erupt a few years later in the ugly murderous warfare between Mao and the Gang of Four. The Shanghai Commune’s activities were threatening to go beyond the confines of the party’s factional fights, and were encouraging  non-CPC political  elements from the grassroots to take over the local administration. Mao therefore soon directed Zhang to announce the end of the Shanghai Commune, and reorganize it asRevolutionary Committee’ on February 24, 1967.

Thus ended an experiment with the ideas of the Paris Commune in Shanghai - thanks to the authoritarian policies of Mao, who felt that any autonomous local administration would crack the hegemonic centralization of his party that ruled over China.

Echoes of Paris Commune in India

Although not directly inspired by the political ideas of the Paris Commune, freedom fighters in India in 1942 in different parts of the country, set up parallel governments, in opposition to the ruling colonial administrative establishments. This followed the launching of the Quit India’ movement  by Gandhi in 1942. In December that year, in Tamluk in western Bengal, Congress workers under the leadership of Ajoy Mukherjee and Satish Samanta, established theTamralipti Jatiya Sarkar’, under which were set up parallel police stations, courts, and a system of revenue collection that side-stepped the official machinery. It undertook cycle relief work for distant villages, and gave grants to schools. The Jatiya Sarkar’ lasted  till August 1944, when it was dissolved under the explicit directions of Gandhi who felt that its purpose was over as the Quit India movement had ended. Yet another example of how popular grass roots efforts for self-administration are suppressed by a centralized political leadership. The next struggle to establish a counter-government to give voices to the local people - as opposed to the imposition of  authoritarian colonial rule - took place in Talcher in Odissa in eastern India. From August 31, 1942 onwards, freedom fighters took over the area, and announced the objective of  what they calledMazdoor Raj’ or Workers’ Rule - set up on the basis of adult franchise in each village. They also formed a militia, and tried to implement some developmental projects. Their experiment lasted till October that year.

One of the most interesting and historical experiments in Jatiya Sarkar’ ( national local government) during the 1942 Quit India Movement, was that of Satara. From August 1943 till May 1946, in Satara in Maharashtra, a dynamic leader called Nana Patil (1900-76) led a popular guerrilla-type movement that targeted rural treasuries and armouries, and took over some 150 villages . Here under his leadership his followers set upPrati Sarkar’ (parallel government) which established public utilities like a market system, supply and distribution of foodgrains, and a judicial system to settle disputes. They also formed a parallel army called Toofan Sena’ to resist their enemies. Although, under severe  colonial police repression these Commune-type experiments in decentralization of power were crushed, their spirit still remains alive.  Even in post-Independence India, it has re-asserted itself again and again - in the 1970s in the struggle of the tribal peasants who carved out a liberated zone for themselves in Srikakulam  in south India to set up their own government for a few years, or now in the Bastar region in  central India where armed tribal guerrillas have established what they calljanatana sarkar’ (people’s government).

One common thread that runs through all these experiments - from the Paris Commune, Russian Soviets, India’s 1942 jatiya sarkars’ and today’s Naxalitejanatana sarkar’ - is their stress on providing health care, education, and other essential needs through alternative people’s institutions - as different from the corrupt bureaucratic apparatus. An interesting glimpse into such developmental activities by Naxalite cadres in a tribal area Lalgarh in West Bengal in 2010 can be had from the book: `Letters from Lalgarh’ (Sanhati. Kolkata. January, 2013), where they describe how they built schools, primary health centres and other facilities for the villagers.

But like the Paris Commune, these brave efforts are doomed to be destroyed by the ruling powers. Yet, let us remember the speech of Karl Marx which he delivered on May 27, 1871: “…..if the Commune was beaten, the struggle would only be deferred. The principles of the Commune were eternal and could not be crushed; they would assert themselves again and again until the working classes were emancipated.” - (The Eastern Post No. 139)