Kropotkin, The Paris Commune, And Free Communism

Kropotkin, The Paris Commune, and Free Communism

by Brian Morris [from Organise! #61]

Kropotkin clearly felt, like many of his socialist contemporaries, that he was living on the "eve of great events", and that a social revolution was imminent. The political institutions on which people had put their trust in the early part of the 19th Century were, he thought, increasingly being questioned, and that "faith in parliamentary rule, in suffrage, be it limited or universal, is disappearing" ). The Paris Commune of 1871 had made a tremendous impact on Kropotkin and his socialist contemporaries, and it had generated intense theoretical debate on possible new forms of political organization. For Marxists this meant the "dictatorship of the proletariat", a "worker's state"; for the anarchists the complete abolition of governments and their replacement by a federation of free communes. Although Kropotkin was in no sense a historical determinist he nevertheless interpreted the emergence of mutual aid societies and voluntary associations at the end of the 19th century, as heralding the demise of the nation-state, which he felt had "served its time" . Such free associations, he thought, would supplant both the state and the capitalist economy, taking over many of their functions. Education, social order. leisure activities, health, as well as economic life could all be organized - and would come to be organized - through communes and voluntary associations. His reflections on the Paris Commune and on societies of "free co-operation" are scattered throughout his writings.

The Paris Commune of 1871 has been described as one of the most important urban insurrections of the 19th Century. It has long been hailed as both inspiration and model for revolutionary socialists. In his well-known address "The Civil War in France", written only a few days after the defeat of the Commune, Karl Marx wrote that it "will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society" (Marx and Engels 1968: 307). Twenty years later Engels was to describe the Commune as exemplifying the "dictatorship of the proletariat", and wrote that the state, whether a democratic republic or a monarchy, was "nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another". Writing almost as a quasi-anarchist Engels wrote of a time when people would be "able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap". Engels was only referring to the French Empire, for he applauds the Commune - based on universal suffrage - as a "new and truly democratic" state (op cit 258).

The Paris Commune lasted only seventy-two days. It was formally established in the Hotel de Ville on March 28th 1871. It took over the administration of Paris in opposition to both the German occupation and the national government under the unscrupulous Adolphe Thiers. Its membership consisted of around eighty delegates, about half of whom were manual workers or had been involved in revolutionary politics, most of them members of the International Workingmen's Association. Their politics had an anarchist tinge, for they were largely followers of Proudhon and his economic theory of mutualism. About a dozen members of the Commune were Blanquists, advocates of a revolutionary party, although Blanqui himself had been imprisoned on the eve of the Commune, and was not released from prison until 1879. The Commune also included the veteran republican journalist Charles Delecluze who died on the barricades, as well as the anarchists Louise Michel, Eliseé Reclus, and Gustav Courbet. After the bloody suppression of the Commune in May 1871, Reclus and Courbet were both forced to flee to Switzerland, along with Benoit Malon. Also a member of the International, Malon later wrote a history of the commune, and in the following year graphically described to Kropotkin his experiences of the Commune.

The Paris Commune came to an end after a week of bloody street fighting, many women participating both in the building of the barricades and bearing arms on behalf of the revolution. As Stewart Edwards wrote "Barricades and street fighting, the traditional warfare of the urban insurgent, were simply the last resort of the Commune’s struggle for revolutionary self-government". (1973; 41) Around twenty-five thousand communards were killed during May 22-28th, compared to 877 government troops, and more than ten thousand were imprisoned. Many were deported to New Caledonia, a French colony in the Pacific. There many died under a brutal prison regime. Louise Michel was not released until 1880. More people were killed in the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune than during the terror of the French Revolution.

Although the Paris Commune allowed trade unions and workers’ co-operations to take over factories, and made a number of important reforms, it never questioned the rights of private property. But the very existence of the Commune aroused the fury and antipathy of the bourgeoisie throughout Europe. When the army of the French republic crushed the Commune, its chief executive, Thiers, declared that: "the cause of justice, of order, of humanity, and of civilization has triumphed". But for socialists throughout Europe, both Marxists and anarchists, the Paris Commune became a source of inspiration and a symbol of hope for a better future.

It is evident that Marx saw state power as an instrument of society rather than independent of it; it was a necessary institution, and he saw the Commune as a positive form of "social republic", one involving the "self-government of the producers". Marxists, therefore, have always been critical of the idea of rejecting the centralized nation-state and its replacement by a federation of autonomous communities. They advocated instead a "republic of labour" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Lenin interpreted this as implying the rule of a revolutionary (Bolshevik) party - a form of politics that is more akin to Blanquism - and it led Trotsky to be critical of the Paris Commune precisely because it lacked the central direction of a revolutionary party.

Bakunin, who took a crucial part in the revolutionary uprisings at Lyon and Marseilles in September/October 1870, was to claim, in contrast to Marx, that the Paris Commune demonstrated the bankruptcy of state socialism. It was, he wrote: "a bold, clearly formulated negation of the state", and though the majority of its members were Jacobins like Delecluze rather than socialists, the Paris Commune was seen as inaugurating a new era. It initiated, Bakunin wrote, a social rather than a political revolution. He concluded: "Contrary to the belief of the authoritarian communists that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political revolution, our friends, the Paris Socialists, believed the revolution could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continuous action of the masses, the groups and associations of the people."

The Paris Commune was of central interest to Kropotkin. He had met and had engaged in long discussions with many of the communards - particularly with Gustave Le Francais, Louise Michel, Eliseé Reclus, Benoit Malon and Andre Bastelica. In 1879 Kropotkin established the anarchist paper Le Révolté and every March he wrote an anniversary article celebrating the Paris Commune. The three for 1880, 1881 and 1882 form a single chapter of Paroles d'un Révolté (Words of a Rebel), published in 1885.

The revolution of 1871 was, for Kropotkin, above all a popular one, made by the people themselves. When the people of Paris rose against the despised government and proclaimed the city free and independent, "It sprang … spontaneously from within the masses", he wrote. The overthrow of central power, Kropotkin continued, took place without the "usual scenes of a revolutionary uprising; on that day there were neither volleys of shot, nor floods of blood shed behind the barricades. The rulers were eclipsed by an armed people going out into the streets; the soldiers evacuated the city, the bureaucrats hastened towards Versailles, taking with them everything they could carry. The government evaporated like a pool of stagnant water in the spring breeze".

Kropotkin suggests that in the years prior to the Commune two currents of political thought emerged within the International Workingmen's Association. One advocated a people’s state, the other anarchy, the free federation of worker's co-operatives. Kropotkin misleadingly thought of these concept in ethnic terms, the German Socialists supporting state socialism, while socialists of the "Latin race" (Spanish, French) advocated the complete abolition of the state. The socialist state, Kropotkin suggested, was viewed by the majority of the French Socialists as the worst of all tyrannies. But unlike Bakunin, Kropotkin did not feel that the Paris Commune, in spite of its popular character and the heroic struggles of the communards, was in fact a form of anarchy. The Commune of 1871 he wrote: "could not be any more than a first sketch. Born at the end of the war, surrounded by two armies ready to give a hand in invoking the people, it dared not declare itself openly socialist, and proceeded neither to the expropriation of capital, nor to the organization of work, nor even to a general inventory of the city's resources. Nor did it break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and (proclaim) the independence and free federation of communes".

But Kropotkin felt that had the Paris Commune survived, then these "two revolutions" might well have occurred, driven by the force of events. Kropotkin, like other socialists at the time, sensed that a revolution was imminent. For him a social revolution implied the abolition of both government (state) and private property (capitalism), as well as of religious ideology. This meant overcoming three "prejudices", sustained and advocated respectively by priests, proprietors and rulers: god, property, government.

Kropotkin thought there were two inter-related tendencies evident in the 19th Century, one an ever-growing movement towards limiting the scope of government, the other a growing tendency towards free associations or "free communism". Overly optimistic at times, Kropotkin tended to over-emphasize the social significance of both these tendencies. Of course, rather than seeing the demise of the nation-state and the replacement of capitalism by voluntary associations, the power of these institutions - the states, business corporations and international agencies of capital – have continued to expand. "Capital" has become global and the modern state ever more powerful. Kropotkin was a perceptive observer of social life and graphically outlined the many forms of "free agreement" that emerged in the 19th Century. These included many forms of association established without the initiative of central governments: railway networks, lifeboat associations, voluntary organizations like the Red Cross, trade unions, professional and scientific societies and hospital associations . From this Kropotkin inferred there was a general social trend in which the free association of individuals was supplanting government agencies in the performance of many social functions. He noted that many of these societies or associations made decisions at conferences through delegates, but that they did not institute "laws" but only "agreements". Kropotkin also emphasized that many public services - museums, libraries, parks, street lighting - were provided in the spirit of communism, focussed on personal and social needs without reference to the value of the services the person may have rendered society.

Although Kropotkin emphasizes the power and intrusive nature of the modern state, he puts equal emphasis on the fact that much of everyday social life and many social activities are independent of the state. Like other anarchists Kropotkin always made a clear distinction between capitalism and government (the state) and society, between what Habermans describes as "systems" and the human life-world. Every day Kropotkin wrote, millions of social transactions occur without the slightest interference of government . Kropotkin's idea of revolution was the replacement of state institutions based on hierarchy and coercion with voluntary relationships. Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), an anarchist who was greatly influenced by Kropotkin, put it well when he wrote: "The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behaviour between men; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently towards one another ... we are the state ... until we have created institutions that form a real community and society of men". For Kropotkin this did not simply imply forming "temporary autonomous zones" for free spirits within a rampant capitalism, but creating real social institutions based on voluntary co-operation that would supplant both capitalism and the state.

In his study "Mutual Aid', Kropotkin emphasized the "mutual-aid tendency" that was still evident and, he thought, expanding among European peoples. In spite of the fact that throughout Europe the common lands of village communities had been plundered or expropriated by the landed aristocracy, communal institutions and habits of mutual support still existed, Kropotkin argued, throughout many parts of France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. For example, two thirds of the forests and alpine meadows of Switzerland were still under communal control and village communities still maintained customs and institutions of mutual aid. He noted, too, that wherever the peasants had been able to resist the plunder of their lands and maintain a "spirit" of community, peasant associations had been formed, such as the Syndicates Agricoles in France, although such unions or syndicates had been forbidden by law in many European states until the end of the nineteenth century . Contrary to the opinion of economists, Kropotkin maintained that communal ownership of land was not incompatible with intensive culture and agricultural improvement, for many peasant communities initiated the rotation of crops, drainage and irrigation without land having to be privatised.

Equally important, Kropotkin emphasises that outside the rural setting, mutual aid associations continued to flourish and expand throughout the 19th Century, with the emergence of varied forms of association: trade unions, friendly societies, trading guilds (in Russia, artels), lifeboat association, various clubs that catered for leisure activities such as alpine climbing and cycling, neighbourhood associations, scientific, literary and education societies. All these exemplified enduring social institutions of mutual aid and support . They also indicated the spontaneous initiative of ordinary people and, for Kropotkin, the fact that voluntary associations and local communes or municipalities could and should supplant state institutions and the market economy.

Kropotkin envisaged a society of "free communism", a society without a state, where all essential social activities were organized through voluntary associations and a network of autonomous federated communes. Kropotkin was not politically naive and believed that no social life was possible without some forms of control and authority; it was nonsensical to think of anarchy as implying the complete absence of power. What he envisaged was the creation of a society where power was dispersed, where "repression" was kept to a minimum and where there were no institutionalised forms of hierarchy or coercive authority. From his observation and studies of tribal and kin-based societies Kropotkin recognized that social customs and economic inter-dependence spontaneously generated mechanisms for controlling violent and anti-social behaviour. Like Tolstoy, he disavowed the use of coercion, or that it should be minimized, suggesting that "society possesses a thousand other means of preventing anti-social acts".

He suggested that there were three main ways in which human societies dealt with anti-social behaviour. The first was by repression or coercion, which Kropotkin repudiated as ineffective in the long term and contrary to human well-being. He wrote: "Not only has a coercive system contributed and powerfully aided to create all the present economic, political and social evils, but it has given proof of its absolute impotence to raise the moral level of societies" . Secondly, there was moral teaching, but this was often ineffective, Kropotkin felt, because of the influence of immoral teachings stemming from institutional religion. Christianity, he emphasized, was always in close alliance with state power. Finally, there were non-institutional controls on anti-social behaviour, customary norms and the practice of mutual aid, a concept central to Kropotkin's social philosophy.

But in contemporary Western society face-to-face communication, mutual aid and voluntary association tended to be restricted and marginalized by the state: "We live side by side without knowing one another. We come together at meetings on an election day: we listen to the lying or fanciful professions of faith in a candidate, and we return home. The state has the care of all questions of public interest; the state alone has the function of seeing that we do not harm the interests of our neighbour. Our neighbour may die of hunger or murder his children - it is no business of ours; it is the business of the policeman. You hardly know one another, nothing unites you, everything tends to alienate you from one another..." . Prophetic words!

But throughout human history human societies have developed various institutional forms and diffuse sanctions - ranging from simple expressions of disapproval to excommunication and ostracism - that have been utilized to counter anti-social acts. Kropotkin thought these diffuse sanctions, along with public opinion and formative habits, would tend, often unconsciously, to prevent anti-social behaviour . But he also recognized that in certain circumstances extreme sanctions would have to be applied to curb unwarranted behaviour in any human community.

It is important to recognize that Kropotkin did not give priority to the community over that of the individual. He said: "Anarchist communism maintains that most valuable of all conquests, individual liberty…… it does not ask the individual who has rejected god the universal tyrant, god the king, and god the parliament, to give himself a god more terrible than any of the preceding - god the community - or to abdicate upon its altar this independence……. It says to him, on the contrary, "No society is free so long as the individual is not so".