Although JD & I spoke some about this at his house over the weekend (where I found myself after being tricked into accepting an invitation for dinner & beers, which as I should’ve expected really meant stapling plastic to the inside of unfinished walls) and I have a sense from those conversations why this isn’t going to be acceptable for him in trying to get to answer his question (i.e., Where have the anarchists succeeded lately?).  Nonetheless, I’m squeezing this into my elongated answer.  There are some important things that happen throughout this example of “success”, so I want to look at it a bit.  Next time, I’m going to finish my answer to you, JD; but I’m going to do so by addressing the problem that I initially suggested: the question itself understands ‘anarchism’ in the wrong way, and leads us off course.  We might have to wait until that one gets posted before we can really begin to understand how and in what ways the following is an example of “success” for the libertarian-left.

Because I want to look at the Paris Commune in 1968.  While for some of us it’s far too easy to over-romanticize these kinds of moments in history, they’re also far too easily written off by cynics, pessimists, and detractors.  Worse, some choose to look at moments of social upheaval in a linear fashion, as if because of the revolution’s “failure” we cannot draw constructive conclusions which better inform our politics, beliefs, and actions.  This, in turn, is what will ultimately lead to our success.  In Part 4, there will be able time spent on looking into some of the concrete realities that happen as a result of this process (because I know that’s what you really want- concrete results).


The Event itself….

In May and June of 1968, Paris, France was almost spontaneously transformed into an autonomous, free city of 9 million people.  During these two months, the State, the bosses, the unions, and the Communist Party were all allied in working to squelch what was collectively their worst possible nightmare: a worker/student alliance in uprisings.  What is often known as the Paris Commune of 1968 began when a group of radicals at Nanterre University were suspended for using Student Union funds to pay for printing what was called their ‘revolutionary pamphlets and literature’.  A protest was called for, and the participating students were outraged when mass numbers of riot cops were sent to break it up.  Following this, a small group of anarchists took over an administration building, which prompted the police to proceed and surround the entire campus, shutting it down completely.  Now, bear in mind that at this time, 1968, “anarchism” was not the hip, cool thing it is today.  The revolutionary zeal of the late 60’s often was in favor of Communism (U.S.S.R. style, which is far from actually being the real deal), and even of General Mao, and moreso, about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.  

While self-described anarchists were prominent and influential in the course of events in Paris, they were also a very small minority.  We’ll get more into this in a bit.  The reaction first by the rest of the student body, and then by the working people of Paris, was mostly in solidarity with the people’s sense of right and wrong, rather than rallying around any ideology or revolutionary ideal.  As I would argue will usually be the case, the natural inclination of the people was to behave in an anarchistic way (self-organized and democratic, not “chaotic”).  The social inclination of the people of Paris wasn’t about being in political agreement with the student radicals- it was about defending their rights and being outraged at the heavy-handed reaction of the State.  Pushed forward by the minority of radicals, the people of Paris banded together for a revolution.  

Anyway, the next day, a student demonstration in the center of Paris brought over 500 arrests, which in turn prompted over 5 hours of rioting.  Police indiscriminately shot tear gas, and beat with their batons anyone in sight, including a large number of area residents who had no involvement with the protests or riots at all.  The next day, when the government announced a ban on protests and closed down large sections of Paris, thousands of angry residents took to the streets.  They erected dozens of barricades to slow police movements, and literally ripped the stones out of the road to throw at the cops.  By the end of the night, 350 cops and been sent to the hospital and thousands upon thousands of random Parisians had effectively kicked the police out of large sections of the city altogether.

The next day, a 50,000 person demonstration against police violence quickly became a day-long street battle throughout the city.  Tear gas, Molotov cocktails, rocks, and shouts of “long live the Paris Commune!” consumed the city.  When the Ministry of Education began negotiating with the students, the workers turned out in force to show their support.  Forced now to take their next step, the people of Paris organized worker’s assemblies in order to self-manage their day-to-day activities in light of a rapidly deteriorating political and economic order.  Anarchist thinkers were hugely instrumental in advocating these directly democratic council’s to be the only fair and logical way for them to self-manage in the absence of a functioning government of any sort in large parts of the city.  On May 14th & 15th, workers began locking management either into their offices, or out of the factories altogether.  Then, the National Theatre in Paris was seized and permanently turned into an assembly hall for debates and “Town Hall”-style meetings.  The newspaper, radio, and Television workers had taken it upon themselves to censor-out any pro-government or capitalist propaganda that tried to be snuck into the media.  By May 20th, 9 million people were taking part in the Paris Commune; living, working, going about their lives and fighting to spread their success far and wide, all without any police, any government, any elected officials.  Those who were effected by a decision were given a fair say in making it, and the city of Paris was, more or less, controlled and occupied by a free association of free peoples.

At this point, thousands of extra police officers were brought into Paris, while bosses and union officials tried unsuccessfully to lock their employees out of their workplaces in hopes of keeping them from continuing production.  The union bureaucrats, along with Communists Party officials, pleaded with their membership to give up the revolt and return to “order”.  Instead, the stock market was burned to the ground.  Holding onto little more than a few key governmental ministries, as well as the post offices and some outlets, the government prepared 20,000 troops outside of Paris, waiting on orders to enter the city and take it by deadly force.

At this point in the uprising though, many began to crack under the strain of their revolution.  Various differing factions on the left began taking actions without submitting their maneuvers to the democratic process.  The Trotskyites all retreated to the Latin Quarter, and several Marxist and socialist groups refused to cooperate with the anarchists’ call to push forward and take over other key governmental buildings.  As stress and tension ran high in a population in the throws of revolution, Communist Party and union officials began tricking workers to return to work or allow their bosses back on the job site.  In the case of the Metro workers, they would literally go to one station, say “well the guys at the other stations are all going back to work” and then continue on to the next station, with the same line.  By June 5th, after a 10-35% wage increase guarantee was negotiated for everyone who would concede the city back to the government, nearly all of Paris had been lost by the revolutionaries.  The few remaining factory occupations were violently ended by the returning police.  A final week of heavy rioting and violence against the authorities pretty much ended in the middle of June, with dozens killed and hundreds more imprisoned.  All political demonstrations were banned, and all known radical groups outlawed.

Despite their successes, the State, the bosses, the Communist Party, and the union leadership were too powerful for the people of Paris to overcome.  But this does not make their efforts a failure.  There are quite a number of conclusions we can draw from what happened, and what has been said by those who took part.  For instance, one of the clearest and most immediate problems that arose was the lack of experience in working together, organizationally, many people had.  Precious time and energy was required to determine the vehicles for which to foster the process of direct democracy.  The most decisive actions, the people who had the clearest direction and most compelling vision were those who were actively organized into affinity groups (whether that affinity was through political organizations, union locals, or the like).  So, to better navigate through times of political crisis and social upheaval, we can determine that the expansion and strengthening of social and political bodies: labor unions, housing associations, political groups, etc will further our chances of success and help us to ensure that our energies can best be spent on the task at hand.

The successes of Paris ’68 can -and have been- easily overstated.  But history, nor our human evolution, does not proceed in a black and white, win or lose fashion.  We can learn a lot about how people can, or will, behave in truly revolutionary instances when we study the examples we have.  How did the radicals of Paris think to suggest and organize directly democratic worker councils? from studying the revolutions in 1930’s Spain, and Russia near the beginning of the Century.

So with these things in mind, next time we’ll turn our attention on re-defining the question, hopefully so that it makes more sense.  With any luck, that will better help us understand the success of the these events, and even just what one is to do about all this.


Bibliography (primarily on the events of 1968):

Engrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement of France, May ’68 by Rene Vienet; Rebel Press, London.  1968. 

May ’68 and Its Afterlives by Kristin Ross; University of Chicago Press, Chicago.  2004.

Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left by Murray Bookchin; AK Press, San Francisco.  1999.