By Jeff Sorel
Black History Month brings back to life long-buried struggles of African-American people for liberation and justice. One of the most stirring such struggles took place a century-and-a-half ago during Reconstruction, when a revolutionary upsurge in the 1870s led to formerly enslaved people winning political power throughout the U.S. South.
A contemporaneous revolutionary struggle over 4,000 miles away shared significant features with radical Reconstruction. In 1871, French workers seized power in Paris and proclaimed the Paris Commune after the bourgeois government fled the city.
Parallels between Reconstruction and the Paris Commune were remarked on at the time. In the June 21, 1871, issue of the New York Tribune, a Northern Republican rightly warned that the “dangerous alliance of poor southern whites” and Black people “might form a party by themselves as dangerous to the interest of society as the communists of France.”
Of course, the two developments were not identical. Radical Reconstruction was a movement against big landowners by mostly Black agricultural workers, joined by mostly white small landholders supported temporarily by a section of big capital. The Paris Commune reflected urban class struggle and socialist agitation against expanding industrial capital. But the parallels are striking.
From war to revolution
Like many revolutions, Reconstruction and the Paris Commune were triggered by military defeats of the ruling regimes. Reconstruction arose after the defeat of the Southern slaveholders in the Civil War. The Commune arose after Prussia’s defeat of France and replacement of the existing empire by a bourgeois republic.
In both cases, the victorious capitalist governments sought deals with their supposed enemies. These betrayals fostered mass anger that erupted into revolutionary action. The achievements of Reconstruction and the Commune rested on force of arms.
Enslaved Black people left the plantations in what historian W.E.B. Du Bois called “a general strike.” Almost 200,000 enrolled in the Union army and helped break the back of Confederate resistance. The presence of Black soldiers encouraged widespread land seizures, and a small section of “radical” Northern capitalists, to preserve their victory, were forced to support the formation of militias of Black soldiers under federal protection.
In Paris, the bourgeois government’s attempt to confiscate National Guard cannons sparked the workers and poor to rise up and seize power. The Commune they established quickly abolished conscription and the standing army, leaving the people as the sole armed force.
Political mobilizations of the oppressed
Both Reconstruction and the Paris Commune reflected vast political mobilizations of the oppressed. In the South, although it had been a crime for enslaved people even to read, political consciousness developed quickly with emancipation. Black people organized conventions to resist the ex-slaveowners’ imposition of racist “Black Codes.” During the six-week Paris Commune, virtually every city block hosted daily agitational meetings, demonstrations and rallies.
These mass mobilizations were reflected at the polls. With property qualifications abolished, Black people voted in at least some Southern states in proportion to their population. In South Carolina, they won roughly two-thirds of legislative seats, leading Du Bois to hail “the South Carolina Commune.” Throughout the South, some 2,000 Black people won state and federal positions. Likewise, an expanded franchise for the Paris Commune elections heightened the impact of the more population-dense, working-class districts.
Social reforms won
The Reconstruction and Commune governments aimed legislation at comparable problems, including education. While illiteracy was the heritage of slavery, even in urban Paris only 30 percent could read and write. Reconstruction Alabama provided more funding to public schools than ever before, and the Commune ensured that all public school education was secular.
Labor issues also received much attention. The Commune abolished night work for bakers and infraction fines for all workers, and it authorized labor unions to seize abandoned workshops, form cooperatives and resume production. Reconstruction decrees authorized land seizures, including on the Sea Islands, where 40,000 formerly enslaved people administered 400,000 acres of abandoned rice plantations until the lands were stolen back when Reconstruction ended.
Both revolutions addressed the needs of the poor. Reconstruction governments abolished imprisonment for debt and set up relief programs. The Commune canceled past-due rent payments and decreed a three-year moratorium on debt payments.
Women played vital roles
Women played a key role in both struggles. Reconstruction governments passed groundbreaking laws to protect women’s rights to divorce and hold property. Accounts of battles against the emerging Ku Klux Klan speak of Black women “carrying axes or hatchets in their hands, their aprons or dresses half-concealing the weapons.”
In the Parisian clubs, many of the most radical proposals came from women, who displayed legendary heroism on the barricades.
The socialist and anarchist communards had been schooled in internationalism. Lacking that background, revolutionary Reconstruction found its way to it. The National “Colored” Labor Convention, held in Washington in 1869, supported Cuban independence against Spain and elected a delegate to represent the interests of Black workers at the 1870 International Labor Congress. Black Reconstruction congressmembers also championed relief for embattled Cherokees and opposed restrictions on Chinese immigration.
Counterrevolutionary terror unleashed
Both Southern Black people and Parisian workers suffered from a lack of dependable allies. Black people in the South needed support from poor Southern whites — allies with objectively more lasting potential than Northern capitalists — and the groundwork for such an alliance was laid. The Communards needed support from the French peasantry. But both the Southern whites and French peasants were blindered by the hostility unleashed by the rich and became tools of reaction.
Both Reconstruction and the Commune were drowned in waves of blood. Pro-slavery terrorists murdered tens of thousands of Black people in the South from 1867 to 1877. A white terror group in South Carolina became the state militia in 1877, reflecting the heralded “compromise” between Northern capitalists and Southern landowners that ended Reconstruction.
Over 15,000 Parisians were killed by French republican troops in the single week after the Commune’s fall — five times more than were killed in Paris during the so-called “Great Terror” of 1793-1794.
But the struggle against racist oppression and capitalist exploitation lived on. Just seven months after the fall of the Paris Commune, the Skidmore Guards, a militia comprised of Black members, formed the front ranks of a New York City march organized by the International Workingmen’s Association to protest the continuing executions of Paris Commune leaders.
The truth about Reconstruction was unearthed and kept alive by Du Bois and other Black historians. The militancy of that period was born anew in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements of the last century. Likewise, analyses of the Paris Commune by socialists Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin, as well as revival of the French workers’ movement in the 1880s, ensured that the achievements of the Paris Commune would continue to inspire revolutionaries.
Indeed, within a week after the fall of the Paris Commune, Eugène Pottier, a French revolutionary, penned lyrics to the “Internationale,” the socialist anthem, that sum up the spirit of these two great revolutions on opposite sides of the Atlantic: “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, … Arise ye slaves no more in thrall, … We have been naught, we shall be all!”