The Paris Commune’s revolutionary ideas – 150 years on

The Paris Commune, which began 150 years ago today, was one of the great democratic experiments of history; a revolutionary government which over-turned hierarchies and inspired collective dreams. Ben Wray, Bella Caledonia’s European Feature Writer, looks at what ideas and strategies we can excavate from the Commune in seeking revolutionary change in the present.

IN THE morning of 18 March 1871, a crowd of women in the Parisian working class district of Montmartre demonstrated. They were responding to the regular army of the French Government, fresh from defeat in a war with Prussia and now fearing civil war, who were about to seize the cannons of the National Guard (a voluntary force). The Parisian masses had paid for the cannons themselves through a public subscription, and were not about to give them up.

An army General ordered his troops to fire on the crowd three times, but they refused. Instead, the General and his officers were arrested by the National Guard, who were now openly fraternising with the demonstrators, and the cannons stayed in Montmartre. By the evening, barricades were up across Paris, and the French Government was fleeing the city for nearby Versailles. The next day, the red flag was raised above the Town Hall, the Hôtel-de-Ville, and an election was called. It was the beginning of the Paris Commune, one of the greatest experiments in democracy history has known.

The Commune only lasted 72 days before it was drowned in blood, in perhaps the most savage massacre of Europe’s 19th century. But those 72 days reverberated around the world, and has shaped the thinking of anyone seeking revolutionary change since. For the Commune was something unique; a municipal government run by and for the city’s poor and downtrodden working class. And this revolutionary administration had ideas, big ideas about how not just Paris, not just France, but how the world should be governed.

As one Communard, Arthur Arnould, wrote afterwords: “The Paris Commune was something MORE and something OTHER than an uprising. It was the advent of a principle, the affirmation of a politics. In a word, it was not only one more revolution, it was a new revolution, carrying in the folds of its flag a wholly original and characteristic program”.

In a speech in London commemorating the Paris Commune four years later, the Russian anarchist and Commune advocate Peter Kropotkin said: “The Commune did but little, but the little it did sufficed to throw out to the world a grand idea, and that idea was the working classes governing through the intermediary of a Commune—the idea that the state should rise from below and not emanate from above.”

150 years on, what ideas and strategies can we excavate from the Commune for the present day?

The Paris Commune and the arts: ‘Communal Luxury’

When looking at the Commune, one of the mistakes to make is to focus only on what officially was decreed in its short life-span, such as the free return of household goods and tools that had been pawned by desperate debtors, the suspension of rents, and price controls on food. All of that was important, but much more interesting is the processes that were at work at the base of the Commune, which was made up of volunteer committees who effectively ran different aspects of the city. These committees were led by men and women who had never previously been involved in public administration, and suddenly found themselves with collective power – and collective dreams.

Kristin Ross, in “Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune” (2016), invites us to pay attention to the committee of artists, which demanded “the free expression of art, released from all government supervision and all privilege.” State subsidies were considered to be a means of top-down control of artists, and in its place they sought “complete independence from the state” through agreeing to “share equally among themselves the ordinary tasks and requisitions commissioned by the Commune,” Ross writes. This revolutionary approach to organising artists’ labour is obviously relevant today, when artists struggle to make a living and have to compete with one another for subsidies, through state-funded institutions like Creative Scotland.

But the really big idea of the Commune’s artist committee was summed up in its manifesto: “We will work towards…the birth of communal luxury”. This manifesto was read aloud at a meeting of over 400 artists. One sculptor in attendance said: “The results of the manifesto’s propositions were enormous, not because they elevated the artistic level…but because they spread art everywhere.”

This is the idea of communal luxury: that rather than art being the preserve of elites, commodified as as a product to be sold to the highest bidder, it should be integrated into the fabric of all of our lives as an ever-present public good, accessible to all in its creation as well as its enjoyment. As Ross puts it: “At its most expansive level, the “communal luxury”, whose inauguration the committee worked to ensure, entails transforming the aesthetic coordinates of the entire community.”

There is no need to limit inspiration from the Commune’s artist committee to just the arts: the toppling of hierarchies through the decommodified, collective association of labour can be applied across all sectors. And the turning of the concept of luxury on its head can also be thought of well beyond art: we need communal luxury in our relationship to nature, our transport policy, and much else besides. In an age where we must limit material excess to stay within ecologically sustainable boundaries, communal luxury is the only type of luxury we can afford.


Strategy and tactics of the Commune

There has not been a year since 1871 when the strategy and tactics of the Communards has not been scrutinised as part of wider debates about how to change the world. The Commune was an insurrection in the capital city, but while it had armed power it did not strip the French Government – which was allowed to regroup in nearby Versailles – of its arms when it had the chance. Neither did the Commune take full advantage of all the resources which were available to it within its territory, which included the Bank of France. Rather than seizing the bank and its gold, the Commune allowed the bankers to stay in control, a power they used primarily to help finance the French Government’s massacre of the Commune.

These were the great mistakes of the Commune, ones that Russian revolutionaries most notably would go on to learn from, but more interesting for us is the broader strategic dilemmas raised by what could be called revolutionary municipalism (some Communards afterwards described it as ‘anarchist communism’). Because there was a vision among Communards for how to spread the revolution beyond Paris.

The idea was for autonomous Communes to be established in cities across France and beyond, which would then be linked up in a decentralised and voluntary federation. It never came to pass due to the speed at which the Paris Commune, and some of the embryonic communes which did emerge in other French cities like Lyon, Marseille and St Etienne, were crushed, but nonetheless it is an interesting idea to think about in the modern context.

The obvious question which is raised by this city-orientated strategy is: what about the countryside? And indeed the inability to link the aims of the Commune to the pressing needs of the French peasantry was another major strategic weakness: peasants ended up being recruited into the French army to destroy the Commune. The political problem of a city v town/rural divide is fundamentally different today, but just as important.

We have seen in France with the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement how the geographies of revolt can shift – there is nothing pre-ordained about the city being in the vanguard. Post-industrial cities, including Paris, have been hollowed out by gentrification and over-tourism. The most recent census data shows that the share of Parisian residents defined as working class has declined to just 26 per cent, compared to 51 per cent nation-wide. Montmartre is now “an international tourist hub” and “prime real estate”. The city of Paris’ average age is over 50. Given these demographics, does the city still have the revolutionary potential of old?

“It is easier in towns than cities today, because people are more connected there,” Parisian activist Pierre Lalu tells Bella Caledonia.

Lalu is a member of ‘La 18 en Commun’, a municipalist project to take back the city’s 18th arrondissement. Like many municipal projects in Europe, Lalu’s was inspired by the successes of Barcelona en Comú and its mayor Ada Calou, who had built her reputation leading anti-eviction protests following the 2008 financial crash. La 18 en Commun did not win in the municipal elections last year, but is continuing a variety of projects based on municipalist principles: participatory budgeting, developing a local currency, a co-operative cycle scheme, and even seeking to create a digital app-game which would attempt to connect Parisians with one another.

Lalu, many of whom’s friends and family have left Paris because of the extortionate cost of living, says even the very idea of collective self-empowerment, which the Commune symbolises, “is a confused concept today”.

“People express this concept through ideas like the blockchain, or even through entrepreneurship as a means of empowerment, not necessarily in the old school municipalist way of taking collective, public power over the city.”

The case of Colau and Barcelona en Comú highlights the potential, as well as the limits, of municipal politics in the present era. Her administration has made important, if modest, achievements in rolling back neoliberalism in the city. But the problem of national politics has continually invaded the municipal-space, not least in the Catalan independence crisis since 2017, which Colau has struggled to adapt to, adopting a position between the independence movement and Spanish nationalism that has won few supporters.

At the level of the Paris administration, centre-left mayor Anna Hidalgo has sought to connect with the municipalist image of Calou, and has even achieved some results including introducing rent controls and restricting AirBNBs, but Lalu does not believe that there is a true municipal project emanating from the Hôtel de Ville today.

“It is a jewellery,” Lalu says. “They have no idea what municipalism is really.”

Winning ‘the Right to the City’, which Henri Lefebvre famously said was both “cry and demand”, is a battle in itself for the Parisian working class in 2021, never mind forging a revolutionary municipality.

Beyond Europe

However, take a step back from Europe’s ageing, gentrified cities and we can see that in much of the world, urbanisation is just taking off.

In China alone hundreds of millions of young workers have moved from rural to urban areas over the past 20 years, in the largest internal migration in history. The tipping point for a majority urban world was in 2008, with 68 per cent of people expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, and 85 per cent by 2100. New ‘mega-cities’ – population over 10 million – emerge every year, especially in Asia, and often have an average age about half that of Paris. Just like in Paris in the late 19th century, in the new mega-cities of the global south production and consumption – worker and citizen – intwine.

The Paris Commune may no longer be a model for Paris, but why not in Chengdu, Bogotá or Jakarta? 150 years on, the greatest Commune may still be to come.



Paris Commune Resources

To get a flavour of what the Paris Commune might have been like, I’d recommend Peter Watkins’ epic ‘La Commune’, which you can watch on Youtube. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s first-hand account, ‘History of the Paris Commune of 1871’, is a great read. Eric Touissant’s essay on the Paris Commune, the banks and the debt is very interesting. As cited in the article, Kristin Ross’ “Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune” is available at Verso.



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Comments (12)

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  1. Pub Bore says:

    I’d recommend John Merriman’s Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (2014) and Carolyn Eichner’s, Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (2004).

    The chief virtue of Merriman’s book is that it takes the Communards seriously; it humanises rather than romanticises them as ciphers of a contemporary idealism, which is really what is being celebrated in Ben’s paean to a distant historical episode. In Merriman and Eichner’s telling, the Communards are brought alive as complicated and flawed individuals rather than parodied as set-piece proletarian heroes. The disorganisation and atrocities of the Commune are presented not as heroic but as hapless, the barricades as symbolically charged with revolutionary fervour but practically ineffectual against the Versaillais, who simply climbed the stairs of the surrounding buildings and fired down at the defenders like fish in a barrel.

    The Francophile and radical, John Stuart Mill, not long after the Commune fell, summed up that fall in a letter to a British trades union leader as ‘an infirmity of the French mind… being led away by phrases, and treating abstractions as if they were realities which have a will and exert active power’.

    The romanticising of the Paris Commune is the work of kindred spirits to the flawed idealists of the Commune itself; nothing but generic unedifying flag-waving.

  2. Anarcho says:

    We need to go beyond remembering and celebrating (important as these are) to analysing and learning. This is what anarchists did at the time, with Kropotkin placing the Commune and its lessons at the heart of his anarchism. See:

    Anarchism, Marxism and the lessons of the Commune

    Also, the newly relaunched “Black Flag” has an article on the Commune plus newly translated declarations and articles by Communard:

    So, yes, the Commune is important and must be remembered, but it should not be idealised. It should be learnt from, like every popular movement and revolution.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    I’ve always had an admiration for the French working class. In the past when the government tried to “reform” welfare and benefits they took to the streets and blockaded the ports. It was the same when the government recently tried to reduce French pension rights to a level far better than the old ones we once had. Compare that with the cheering of the “I’m all right Jack” brits when the tories did the same over here. “Can’t they eat cake” is a soundbite that would translate to a minimum 4 terms in office over here.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Yep, compared to the French, the British working class (whatever that might mean) is a bit of a lost cause.

  4. Daniel Raphael says:

    Thanks to all the commenters, whose references, links, and observations are appreciated. It’s easy, across the span of time, to both idealize and dismiss the real people of the events about which we read, but considering both the degree of misery in which they lived, and the difficulty of revolt, the Commune can only be seen as a harbinger of history to come–far more significant than Occupy or even Arab Spring events of our own, still unfolding, era. I salute them and can only hope we show as much resolution in resolving the terminal crises we face today.

  5. J Galt says:

    Might the French have had a narrow escape – saved from a second “Terror” and a second Vendee?

    The Russians weren’t so lucky.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Who knows? The head of the Commune’s police force, Raoul Rigault, was a Dantonist and socialist polemicist of appetite and charm. He used his power to move one of his favourite brasseries from the Boulevard Saint-Michel into the prefecture of police, where, when he wasn’t persecuting small shopkeepers, the clergy, and the rest of the mercantile and professional classes, downed food, wine, and eau-de-vie.

      It’s recorded that, one day in May, Rigault breakfasted on Chateaubriand aux truffes; a few days later, the fare included bottles of Pommard, Veuve Clicquot, and Nuits-Saint-Georges. His taste for Burgundy and champagne was perhaps political in nature, however: Bordeaux he judged to be ‘too reactionary’, especially given that thence was where the old Imperial government had decamped when it abandoned Paris to the Prussians prior to the proclamation of the Third Republic.

      In what was perhaps the ugliest episode of the Commune, Rigault and his confederates took the Archbishop of Paris hostage, held him in prison, and then killed him and his adjutants at the moment of defeat.

      But compared to 1794, this was small beer. Perhaps, like Danton, he too would have been murdered by advocates of revolutionary terror for venality and leniency toward the enemies of the Revolution.

      1. J Galt says:

        Chateaubriand aux truffles for the people’s tribunes and rats for the people.

  6. Dougie Harrison says:

    Any memory and celebration of the Commune is most welcome.

    But I have never before read anything about it, which did not mention the many ways in which is helped shape the thinking of Marx, Engels, and all the multi-millions whose thinking it has helped shape.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      [Disclaimer: PG – Paternal Guidance Suggested. The following might not be suitable for reading. This heteronymous post questions the assumptions that inform the above article and/or the comments that have been made by some of its other commentators; its poster has nothing substantive to say for her/himself. Readers are urged to seek from one of the site’s self-appointed arbiters paternal guidance as to its suitability for reading.]

      1. Pub Bore says:

        [Disclaimer: PG – Paternal Guidance Suggested. The following might not be suitable for reading. This heteronymous post questions the assumptions that inform the above article and/or the comments that have been made by some of its other commentators; its poster has nothing substantive to say for her/himself. Readers are urged to seek from one of the site’s self-appointed arbiters paternal guidance as to its suitability for reading.]

        In his book, The Civil War in France (1871), Marx used the episode of the Paris Commune to project his vision of a ‘deconstructed’ state comprised of autonomous community councils syndicated on the principle of subsidiarity.

  7. Justin Kenrick says:

    Thanks for this.

    We learn from history or we repeat it,
    learning to wither with cynicism
    or to take and give greater care

    Thansk for the link to Touissant’s work (in the link you provide at the end).

    It gives the broader context in which the French Govt was operating. Many parallels with today – including the greater powers (in this case the Prussians) constraining and directing those powers you think you are up against (in this case the French Govt).

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