• Robert Spicer

Lessons from history: the Paris Commune 1871

For ten weeks in 1871, workers, artisans, students and veterans of revolutions took control of the second largest city in Europe. It was said that for the first time since 1848 the streets of Paris were safe without any police of any kind.

The Commune’s law-making activities included the following:

  • The abolition of military conscription: the permanent army was replaced with the National Guard which was a democratic body of citizen soldiers.

  • A moratorium on rents.

  • The requisition of abandoned apartments and their distribution to the homeless.

  • The prohibition of the sale of articles deposited at pawnshops.

  • Teachers’ salaries were raised: there was no distinction between the pay of male and female teachers.

  • Equal pay for equal work.

  • The transfer of requisitioned property to worker co-operatives.

  • The separation of church and state.

  • The suppression of public funding for religion.

  • Nationalisation of church lands.

The Commune was destroyed by force of arms. Many communards were executed without trial in a frenzy of killing and thousands of others were transported to New Caledonia. This is an extreme example of a historical truth – that when the state is sufficiently threatened, it uses violence to deal with the threat. In extreme conditions, the criminal law is essentially about violence, no matter how it attempts to deny this and to dress itself up as machinery for suppressing violence. The state, in crisis, asserts its monopoly of extreme violence.

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