-by Davin Guinjicna
Democracy in Paris in 1871 looked very different in comparison to contemporary democracy. It had been in its nascent stages at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and accelerated into public consciousness within the city as radical Communards banded together on March 18th. The theory of democracy and choice became core to the ideals of the Commune, but the actual practice and use of democracy within the movement shifted to accommodate the environment they found themselves in. This environment would mold the eventual identity of democracy into a fluid idea, encompassing actions and the will of the people, in addition to its conventional characteristics of voting and rights. These ideas, formed by the uniqueness of the Commune and its situational nuances, outlived the movement within Paris. Democracy, in the crucible that was the Paris Commune, evolved beyond voting in order to sufficiently represent the will of the people.
The context that surrounds the evolution of democracy within the Commune is important to understand if we are to fully comprehend why it changed the way it did. As such, it is essential to outline the key actors and their respective positions in regards to government. Parisian workers comprised the bulk of the Communards, fearful of a return to monarchy given the conservative majority within the National Assembly. They were prodded by an attempt to claim cannons from the neighbourhood of Montmartre.1 Although no one figure encompassed the leadership of the Commune, characters such as Louise Michel helped guide Commune ideals through their work as radicals, organizing marches, committees and championing rights for certain groups.2 The conservatives, led by republican Adolphe Thiers, formed the government of France and opposed the actions of Parisians in favour of order. Their values and methods of control opposed the perceived rights of the Communards.
Democracy in Paris in 1871 can be seen as a revolutionary practice that opposed the overt control of the state, and embodied the collective of those within Paris who had had enough of a distasteful government. It can be observed within the “Manifesto of the Paris Commune” itself that voting and representation had become core to the ideals of the new movement, stating specifically the rights to “vote on communal budgets…and the choice by election or competition of magistrates and communal functionaries of all orders.”3 This formal document invited aspects of democracy within the Commune, overtly deposed the state, and sought to declare democracy as a unifying right afforded to Communards, bringing them closer together.
The Communards were a minority within France. Seemingly contradictory to the way democracy typically relied on a majority vote, this circumstance allowed for democracy to evolve as an embodiment of the will of the people, rather than who necessarily gets the most votes.4 In this case, democracy evolved to encompass the actions of the Communards, physical examples of what people wanted to see happen. Opposition to the state and the Versailles army, open calls for change; these physical manifestations of the will of the people concentrated within Paris defined the new idea of democracy emerging within the movement. It was not just voting and having a say in government, it now involved change being advanced outside of the ballot box. This is not to say that voting did not have a practical presence within the Commune. The election on March 26th, vindicating the Communard’s actions, is an example.5 It is just that democracy expanded its umbrella to include protest and revision outside of voting itself, allowing an argument to emerge that placed physical action in support of change above popular opinion as a means to properly embody the will of the people. Reacting to their environment, Communards altered the nature of democracy and its implications for representing the people in order to make it work in their favour as a minority.
Democracy was an idea shaped by Communards to include actions beyond the voting polls and a method of manifesting the will of the people through conduct. The events of 1871 did immense work in adding to the meaning of democracy and accelerated its development in the context of a monarchy-dominated France. Taken to be core to the ideals of the movement itself, and forced to adjust in order to be a positive tool for the Commune, democracy expanded in both scope and influence. Although the Commune came to a bloody end, the ideas fastened to the conventional thought of democracy endured.
from the archive
Democracy during the Paris Commune worked in practice against the Communards in poll results, but was eventually used as a tool of unification and a call to action. One document that encapsulated this sentiment of unification was “Your Commune Has Been Constituted,” published on March 29, 1871. It is a document produced at the very beginning of the Commune, speaking to the people of Paris in a way that suggests a negative view of monarchical government, and a contrasting view of the new Republic and its citizens’ agency in keeping it alive. The reality that pressed against what the Commune espoused manifested itself within plebiscites held just before the emergence of the Commune, heavily favouring the Provisional Government.6 Only in Paris did votes swing to the political left, emphasizing the inability of the Commune to claim a majority revolution. Despite this, democracy still served a purpose in garnering support, especially in the sense of representing the “will of the people,” through action rather than a popular vote.7 That is to say that taking to the streets in the name of democracy and freedom made up, and even minimized the need, for the Communards’ lack of power at the ballot box. The language, imperatives and conduct that surrounded the topic of democracy were made more overt to compensate for voter inadequacies. This is evident within “Your Commune Has Been Constituted.” Although the context suggested a pro-Provisional Government France, the Republic still made use of flowery language surrounding democracy and a call to action in order to distinguish itself as the side most representative of French beliefs. The terminology of a supposedly pro-democratic Commune, coupled with a greater emphasis on a people united in arms, helped the narrative of democratic innovation despite weak figures in polls.
- Christopher John Marshall, “A Revolutionary Crucible: French Radicals, Foreign Expatriates, and Political Exiles in the Paris Commune,” The University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy (2014): 139.
- Peter Lee Thomson Nickel, “The Socialist Minority and the Paris Commune of 1871 : A Unique Episode in the History of Class Struggles,” The University of British Columbia, UBC Theses and Dissertations (2001): 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0090228.
- Mitch Abidor, “Manifesto of the Paris Commune,” Paris Libre (April 19, 1871), https://www.marxists.org/history/france/paris-commune/documents/manifesto.htm
- Kevin Trieu Duong, “Democratic Terror: Redemptive Violence and the Formation of Nineteenth Century France,” Cornell University (2017): 142.
- Marshall, “A Revolutionary Crucible,” 143.
- Marshall, “A Revolutionary Crucible,” 118.
- Duong, “Democratic Terror,” 142-44.
Downing, David B.. “The Struggle Between Communality and Hierarchy: Lessons of the Paris Commune for the Twenty-first Century.” Socialism and Democracy, 32, no. 2 (2018): 56-86. doi:10.1080/08854300.2018.1513757.
This article relates the lessons learned from the Commune to contemporary America.
Eichner, Carolyn Jeanne. “”Vive la Commune!”: Feminism, Socialism, and Revolutionary Revival in the Aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune,” Journal of Women’s History 15, no. 2 (2003): 68-98.
Eichner discusses the splits among socialist ideas that occurred soon after the conflict.
2 thoughts on “democracy”
Fascinating essay. It is important to notice how we today always conflate state government and democracy – great to see historical work which shows that they might be at odds, and that democracy can have precedence over governmentality.
Reading this essay made me want to rewatch the awesome film by Astra Taylor from a few years ago, WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? which can be streamed for free on the NFB’s website: https://www.nfb.ca/film/what-is-democracy-2018/