Once, while shopping in Barneys on Fifth Avenue (that mainstay of upper-class consumerism), I stumbled upon a shirt whose twirling letters spelled out: “La Commune de Paris 1871”. I suppose 90% of those who bought the shirt can be forgiven if they have no idea what those words signify. Even those who do have a vague idea what the Commune is likely dismissed it as the result of childish anarchism.
From its earliest days in Zuccotti Park in September 2011, to its rapid spread to 900 cities in over 80 countries by the end of October, the Occupy movement has counted among the most influential and controversial movements in recent memory. It is easy to think such movements, when people live in tents and rely on human microphones to amplify their speeches, can only exist in a modern world whose youth have forgotten past experiments with socialism. They are, this perspective imagines, eager to embark on a new and adventurous journey befitting their spirit of radical progress.
The Occupy movement should rather be seen as a less violent, more modern, and perhaps more naïve version of one of the most compelling insurrections of the 19th century. They share the same political and economic burdens imposed by their respective nation states and capitalist economies, as well as a burning desire to prove to the world that a system rooted in democracy and fairness, however unrealistic it sounds, can work out. Both the Communards and members of Occupy had great grievances against the economic systems under which they lived. The financial crisis of 2007, increasing awareness of massive inequality in wealth, rising unemployment, and the well established fact that money can buy votes (illustrated by the decision in Citizens United) set the stage for Occupy, stirring the soon-to-be participants. Their most famous slogan, “we are the 99%” succinctly summarizes both their origins and goals.
Though discontent for quite some time, the workers and radicals of Paris only came together in their revolt when news of the French Army’s surrender in the Franco-Prussian War reached the city. Their populist revolutionary fervor was further bolstered by the influx of refugees from parts of France occupied by German forces. This bubbling resentment was a mixture of anger against the government for losing the war, workers' weariness with unjust economic treatment, and the injustice that Parisians had long been forbidden to self-govern like many other French towns and cities.
Among the more notable and indirect mediums of protest is the idea of self-government, shared by the Communards and members of Occupy. Both can be seen as experiments in direct democracy. A “people’s library”, meal services, and makeshift generators sprang up in Zuccotti Park so that protestors could be somewhat self-sufficient. In Paris, the Communards occupied key institutions in order to administer the city, keeping its bureaucracy functioning. They also ruled by elected committees, rather than individual officials.
Both movements, though not initiated by minority groups, those who are often overlooked by the powerful, nonetheless gave them the opportunity to speak out. More “pressing” issues such as the economy or national security, as opposed to racism and LGBTQ issues, have overshadowed American politics in years preceding Occupy. The Occupy movement drew increased attention to these issues by championing the idea that we all have a right to be heard. During the Commune, women played an active role in politics. A feminist movement was organized alongside socialist reforms in the city. Communards equated the two movements, and demanded many of the rights that women enjoy today. Even today, people debate wage equity between the sexes, an issue which was raised by 19th century feminists galvanized by revolutionary zeal.
Yet the most important result of these parallel events lies not in the actual change they brought about (which was negligible) but rather the transformations that they inspired. Like doctors before the arrival of our systematic and scientific modern medicine, they could not properly cure society's ailments, only partially diagnose them.
There were of course many other uprisings and rebellions in France before 1871, but none are cited more by subsequent radicals than the Commune. Indeed, the Bolshevik adoption of red as their emblematic color is due in no small part to the red flags flown by the Communards. Paris also gave those who had previously only dreamed of such scenarios a real-life example of a utopian, fully “liberated” society. Marx and Engels considered the Commune a living example of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, which evokes frightening images for many, but referred essentially to a grassroots democracy with common ownership in the Marxist lexicon. To them, this was a society on the verge of shaking off its yoke of divided statehood and moving on to something greater, a world without class differences and oppression.
The Occupy movement served to highlight frustrations towards a sociopolitical and economic status quo. Their slogan, “we are the 99%”, has entered American consciousness as a representation of dissatisfaction towards corporate greed and corruption. The political landscape has changed, however slightly, to accommodate this newfound awareness. The rise of Bernie Sanders is but one of the more prominent results of this new wave. Student debt has become both a bogeyman to be destroyed and a site for solidarity for thousands. Unemployment is no longer just considered an issue affecting white workers, but is also seen as one for African American youth.
Change happens when something ugly and intolerable is exposed and made vulnerable.
It is necessary to note, however, that these movements have their negative effects. Just as Communism is anathema to moderates, so were the actions taken by the Commune in establishing its bloody 10-week rule. Cooperation and pragmatism are necessary in any movement, something members of Occupy either failed or were too naïve to realize. Anarchy has as tendency to seep into any movement based on populism, which both movements fell prey to. Because of their inherent flaws and poor execution, both movements eventually fell apart. The Commune was brutally suppressed and disbanded by the French government, and Occupy is a shell of its former self.
To dwell too long on the negatives of these events is to ignore the problems our society faces in the present. I have no love for the Commune, just as I have no love for Marx, anarchy, or the Occupy movement for that matter, but one should always take the path of understanding rather than blind condemnation. These movements are linked not by a universal hatred for the rule of law, or a need for wanton destruction like that of the Vendôme Column. Rather, they both represent a reaction to the age-old problems of corruption, economic inequality, and oppression. And their worth lies not in their direct outcomes, but in what they teach us.
To borrow the immortal words of the French journalist Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.