“Vive la Commune!”: Belgian exhibition celebrating the 150th birthday of the Paris Commune




by Sixtine van Outryve d’Ydewalle

Credit: Krasnyi Collective/Never Forget Editions


On March 18, 2021, it will be 150 years since the Paris Commune began. Despite its short existence and bloody repression, the Commune marked both the history of political ideas and that of revolutions. For 72 days, the communards fought to build a democratic and social republic, organizing elections for its popular commune, initiating radical social measures, discussing political issues in revolutionary clubs, organizing resistance with the National Guard against the Versailles counterrevolution, and more. This revolutionary experience ended in the Bloody Week, a brutal repression of the communards by the French government in Versailles.

Although this took place 150 years ago, the echoes of this ephemeral revolution resonated throughout history to inspire the radical left of the 20th century, and still animates social movements aspiring to radical and popular democracy and worker self-organization today. It is with the double aim of paying homage to the communards who, in the space of a few weeks, dreamed and lived a world of equality and solidarity, and to shed light on its inspiring legacy today that we want to use the 150th anniversary of the Commune to tell its story through an exhibition of photography and art.

While many events will take place in Paris and in the rest of France, we believe that it is our duty to do this work of memory and collective discussion in Belgium. Several communards went into exile here in Belgium after the Bloody Week, and the great workers’ revolts of 1886 broke out in Liège, Belgium following the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Commune.

It is obviously very difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct the entire history of this political experience; this however is not the ambition of this exhibition. The authors’ intention is to contribute to the preservation of this experience by retracing the history of the Paris Commune, from the precursor events to its political consequences. After historical and geographical research, the organizers walked the streets of Paris to find the places where the major events of the Commune took place. With the exception of the “Mur des Fédérés” in the Père Lachaise cemetery and a few other sporadic signs in the city, often placed due to the “Friends of the Commune” association created in 1882, it is interesting to see how few traces of the Commune have survived in Paris. This is a lesson that can unfortunately be drawn for the majority of events in popular and revolutionary history.

This exhibition, “Vive la Commune!” will take place in Brussels and Liège in Belgium during the 72 days of the Commune, from March 18 to May 28 2021. It will be composed of photographic images taken by Karim Brikci-Nigassa of places important to the history of the Paris Commune. Manu Scordia and Thibaut Dramaix will interpret these images by trying to reconstruct the historical events through drawings in the photographs. Historical, social and political explanations will be written by Sixtine van Outryve. This combination aims to put visitors into the atmosphere of the Paris Commune and make them discover or rediscover an important episode in the working class and social history of our region.

The Paris Commune: a democratic workers’ social revolution

March 18, 1871 marked the beginning of the Paris Commune: a democratic workers’ social revolution. It was not an unprecedented event. It was in line with the popular Parisian revolutions that had marked the century that preceded it: 1789, 1792, 1830, 1848. In a profoundly unequal France, whose proletariat never ceased fighting the yoke imposed on it or rebelling against the Second Empire, the years 1870-71 were pivotal. During a war declared against Prussia, the French Emperor was taken prisoner and, on September 4, 1870, the Third Republic was proclaimed, placing a government of national defense in power. After a months-long siege by the Prussian army during the harsh winter of 70-71, during which the starving population was reduced to eating the rats of the city, the government capitulated to the enemy. To repress any opposition, it suppressed political clubs, closed down dissenting newspapers and arrested opponents. But the people and their National Guard refused to give in, neither to the “national treason” government nor the Prussian army.

When head of the executive Adolphe Thiers seized the cannons belonging to the Parisian people on the Montmartre mound at dawn on March 18, it was the last straw and the insurrection began. That day, the soldiers in charge of taking the cannons refused to fire on the people of Paris and fraternized with the National Guard. Throughout Paris barricades were erected and Thiers ordered the entire government and administration to withdraw to Versailles, de facto leaving  power to the Central Committee of the National Guard, composed of elected and revocable officers. They decided to organize elections for the Paris Commune on March 26; on March 28, the Commune was proclaimed.

A social and popular government composed partly of workers, the Commune took several key measures. It proclaimed the separation of Church and State, introduced a cap on the salaries of public officers, prohibited the accumulation of mandates, laid the foundations for free, secular and compulsory education, prohibited penalties and deductions on workers’ wages, postponed the date for rent due, ordered that abandoned housing be requisitioned for the homeless, created subsidized municipal butcher shops, abolished night work for bakers, and allowed the requisition of workshops by the working class.

In parallel with these official measures, the revolutionary clubs –popular assemblies in occupied churches where people discussed political subjects and educated themselves in democracy – multiplied. These clubs demanded that elected officials in the Commune be revocable, and that they submit their projects of decrees to the club assemblies before adopting them. In order to channel the clubs’ democratic life to the Commune, they founded a federation of clubs that sat right next to city hall, to gather and transfer proposals from the clubs to the elected municipal government. Moreover, local neighborhood assemblies demanded “permanent intervention in communal affairs”, testifying to an active neighborhood political life.

While unions were deeply affected by the siege, the Commune saw the rebirth and the multiplication of workers’ organizations fostering workers’ democracy, including cooperatives and union halls. Since the Commune established that workers should be included in the making of every decree, these union halls could debate together all decisions concerning them. They organized actively and campaigned to push the Commune towards social action and transformation. On April 16, the Commune took a radical measure: they asked the union chambers to register all workshops abandoned by the bosses in order to reopen them as self-managed workers’ cooperatives.

The Commune was also an important time for political action by women. They fought alongside men on the barricades, organized themselves into associations and clubs, spoke out politically and demanded more equality. Indeed, on April 11, a few women created the Women’s Union for the defense of Paris that would meet every day and register women who were willing to defend the city. Mixing class and gender consciousness, the Women’s Union also recalled that “all inequality and all antagonism among genders constitute one of the bases of the power of the ruling class.” They defended the necessity of women’s participation in campaigns, clubs and neighborhood meetings. Not only did they create their own clubs, but they also struggled to open male-only clubs to female participation. One of these clubs approved a proposition for the full emancipation of women and the right to divorce. Despite the fact that they did not have the right to vote, some clubs included women in municipal governance. Moreover, they also took part in the workers’ democracy by creating their own union halls. When the Commune decreed that abandoned workshops should be put back to work by the workers’ themselves, women from the neighborhood committees started a tremendous task: they registered unemployed women and prepared the empty workshops. Lastly, thanks to direct democracy and women’s organizing, they imposed their demands on the Commune and introduced wage equality between men and women.

Faced with this self-organization of the workers, Versailles organized the counter-revolution. Those who refused to fight against Prussia were nevertheless ready to use their weapons against the communards. The communards, organized in battalions of the National Guard, defended Paris as best they could. But on May 21, 1871, the Versailles army returned to the city, with the blessing of the Prussian army. Then begins what will be remembered in history as the Bloody Week: a week of extraordinarily cruel and ferocious repression. The communards defended Paris to the end, fighting on the barricades they had erected throughout the city. On May 28th, after a fierce nigh-time fight in the Père Lachaise cemetery that resulted in the execution of 147 communards along what would become the Wall of the Federated, the last barricade fell. The gardens of Paris were transformed into mass graves, people being executed after arbitrary and speedy trial. The numbers vary, but it is certain that at least 30,000 communards were killed by Versailles during those bloody days. The survivors were imprisoned and brought to Versailles to be judged. Some were executed, most were deported to New Caledonia where they remained until amnesty was granted in 1880. Thus, a revolutionary experiment led by those who dreamed of a society of peace, justice and equality came to a blood-soaked end.

The Paris Commune is an important historical example because for the first time in a Western colonialist country, a capital was taken over by its citizens and run, however briefly, through direct democracy. The Paris Commune has profoundly impacted the revolutionary imagination because the communards managed to run a city abandoned by both government and civil servants, organizing daily city life and enacting radical reforms.

This experience informs our movement in the following ways. First, the fact that the clubs weighed on the municipal government shows the extent to which direct democracy is not only a matter of procedure, but of an active and mobilized citizenry. This political ebullition within civil society was very present during the Paris Commune: all power was put in question by the people gathered into popular assemblies, even the revolutionary power of the Commune. However, such a direct democracy has limits. Indeed, the clubs flourished in a milieu favorable to the revolutionary Commune, which was not representative of the whole population. Moreover, these popular assemblies did not represent the whole population, but a maximum of a few tens of thousands of people.

Second, we can learn from this experience that principles of direct democracy have to be balanced with the need to run a city, handle emergencies, and deal with the general context of external threat to the revolution. For example, due mostly to the short length of this experience and the attacks from Versailles, the principles of imperative and recallable mandate generally associated with the Paris Commune were barely applied in practice. Among the few occurrences one can find is the mandate the people of 4th district gave to their delegates to change their position on creation of a “Comité de Salut Public”, in charge of handling threats to the revolution.

The Paris Commune also raises broader questions: can a revolution survive if it is confined to one city? How do you manage the delicate balance between fighting state repression to preserve the revolution and organizing the new revolutionary society? What other problems are posed by the model of governance its leaders experimented with?

Our exhibition will explore these questions and more. During the 72 days that made the Commune, we will try to give life to these extraordinary revolutionary events that inspire movements still today. Vive la Commune!