<< back


Guy Debord, Attila Kotányi, Raoul Vaneigem

Theses on the Paris Commune


"The classical workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions,
particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and
pseudotheoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure. The
apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures
(reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the
Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so
far, for us and for the future." (Internationale Situationniste #7.)


The Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the
events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents' feeling that they had
become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of
"governmental" politics as on the level of their everyday life. (Consider, for
example, the games everyone played with their weapons: they were in fact playing
with power.) It is also in this sense that Marx should be understood when he
says that "the most important social measure of the Commune was its own
existence in acts."


Engels's remark, "Look at the Paris Commune - that was the dictatorship of the
proletariat," should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship
of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the
proletariat in the name of the proletariat).


It has been easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune's obvious lack of a
coherent organizational structure. But as the problem of political structures
seems far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type
structure claim it to be, it is time we examine the Commune not just as an
outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes can easily
be overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be
rediscovered and fulfilled.


The Commune had no leaders. And this at a time when the idea of the necessity of
leaders was universally accepted in the workers movement. This is the first
reason for its paradoxical successes and failures. The official organizers of
the Commune were incompetent (compared with Marx or Lenin, or even Blanqui). But
on the other hand, the various "irresponsible" acts of that moment are precisely
what is needed for the continuation of the revolutionary movement of our own
time (even if the circumstances restricted almost all those acts to the purely
destructive level - the most famous example being the rebel who, when a suspect
bourgeois insisted that he had never had anything to do with politics, replied,
"That's precisely why I'm going to kill you").


The vital importance of the general arming of the people was manifested
practically and symbolically from the beginning to the end of the movement. By
and large the right to impose popular will by force was not surrendered and left
to any specialized detachments. This exemplary autonomy of the armed groups had
its unfortunate flip side in their lack of coordination: at no point in the
offensive or defensive struggle against Versailles did the people's forces
attain military effectiveness. It should be borne in mind, however, that the
Spanish revolution was lost - as, in the final analysis, was the civil war
itself - in the name of such a transformation into a "republican army." The
contradiction between autonomy and coordination would seem to have been largely
related to the technological level of the period.


The Commune represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to
date - attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of
life, understanding social space in political terms, refusing to accept the
innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some
"lumpenproletarian nihilism," some "irresponsibility of the pétroleuses," should
specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and
worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). "All space is
already occupied by the enemy. . . . Authentic urbanism will appear when the
absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call
construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept
developed by modern physics." (Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism, Internationale
Situationniste #6.)


The Paris Commune succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of
habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use the cannons
to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During
the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versaillese enclave in
Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property
and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally
disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of the
barricades in memory of 1848, etc.).


The Commune shows how those who defend the old world always benefit in one way
or another from the complicity of revolutionaries - particularly of those
revolutionaries who merely think about revolution, and who turn out to still
think like the defenders. In this way the old world retains bases (ideology,
language, customs, tastes) among its enemies, and uses them to reconquer the
terrain it has lost. (Only the thought-in-acts natural to the revolutionary
proletariat escapes it irrevocably: the Tax Bureau went up in flames.) The real
"fifth column" is in the very minds of revolutionaries.


The story of the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to
destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of
Commune artists, is richly provocative example of direct democracy. It gives an
idea of the kind of problems that will need to be resolved in the perspective of
the power of the councils. Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the
name of eternal aesthetic values - and in the final analysis, in the name of
museum culture - while other people wanted to express themselves then and there
by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that,
in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and
oblivion? The artist partisans of the Commune, acting as specialists, already
found themselves in conflict with an extremist form of struggle against
alienation. The Communards must be criticized for not having dared to answer the
totalitarian terror of power with the use of the totality of their weapons.
Everything indicates that the poets who at that moment actually expressed the
Commune's inherent poetry were simply wiped out. The Commune's mass of
unaccomplished acts enabled its tentative actions to be turned into "atrocities"
and their memory to be censored. Saint-Just's remark, "Those who make revolution
half way only dig their own graves," also explains his own silence.(1)


Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement from a divinely
omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily prove that
the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been
successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the
consummation was already there.


The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune must obviously be measured not in
relation to our time, but in terms of the political, intellectual and moral
attitudes of its own time, in terms of the solidarity of all the common
assumptions that it blasted to pieces. The profound solidarity of presently
prevailing assumptions (right and left) gives us an idea of the inventiveness we
can expect of a comparable explosion today.


The social war of which the Commune was one episode is still being fought today
(though its superficial conditions have changed considerably). In the task of
"making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune" (Engels), the last
word has yet to be said.


For almost twenty years in France the Stalinists and the leftist Christians have
agreed, in memory of their anti-German national front, to stress the element of
national disarray and offended patriotism in the Commune. (According to the
current Stalinist line, "the French people petitioned to be better governed" and
were finally driven to desperate measures by the treachery of the unpatriotic
right wing of the bourgeoisie.) In order to refute this pious nonsense it would
suffice to consider the role played by all the foreigners who came to fight for
the Commune. As Marx said, the Commune was the inevitable battle, the climax of
23 years of struggle in Europe by "our party."


<< back