Paris is once again in the news as the ‘victim’ of a terror attack. Paris, the city, is more than just a city. It embodies all that is good and bad about capitalism. It is the city of light but also has a dark side. It dishes out much more terror than it gets back. The ebb and flow of its history is a history of capitalism blow by blow.
As the site of the famous bourgeois revolution, the French Revolution, Paris threw up the most advanced revolutionaries, the Jacobins – based on the sansculottes (workers) who were enlisted as shock troops by the bourgeoisie to carry out the ‘terror’ on the resistant elements of the aristocracy. Having appeared on the stage of history in their vanguard role of doing the bosses dirty work, the Jacobins were soon paid off in their own blood as the bourgeois counter-revolution, now forced back into the arms of the aristocracy, ultimately entered into its Bonapartist period of ‘consolidating’ the first capitalist republic.
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity became increasingly scarce commodities. Like the American revolution these rights were the rights of the bourgeoisie to exploit workers only made possible because they lacked these rights. Napoleon even revoked the freedom of Haitian slaves to protect the profits and property rights of slave owners and merchants and set about ‘terrorising’ the slaves. To prove he was even handed Napoleon had to tax the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (profits) of the French bourgeoisie to pay for his expensive wars.
By 1848 the European bourgeoisies proved incapable of advancing their own revolution to include any class but their own and in France had to resort to another military Bonapartist pitting the peasantry against the proletariat. A period of instability came to a head in 1851 crowned by a farce. The republican president Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, staged a coup and appointed himself Emperor Napoleon III. This was the occasion of Marx’s famous statement about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
The farce ended in July, 1870, when Bonaparte declared war on Prussia only to be defeated when his army surrendered. Two days later a Republic was declared in Paris with massive support across France. The return of the Jacobins marked once again an advance in the bourgeois revolution, but this time in the name of the proletariat. The French ruling class rallied and joining forces with the Prussian army put down the revolution massacring up to 10,000 workers and their families. It proved that for workers to gain liberty, equality and fraternity, Jacobin ‘terror’ that did not result in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie was not enough.
The Paris Commune proved that it was necessary to smash the bourgeois state to win Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all citizens. Yet this would require the overthrow of the very notion of bourgeois citizenship itself. The Commune was defeated when the French bourgeoisie enlisted the support of the Prussian army, plunging Paris back to the days before the French Revolution. Revolutionary Paris was surrounded by the Prussians while the French troops engaged in their own ‘terror’ against the Communards.
1871 marked a turning point in the history of Paris. It was now the city of the victorious counter-revolutionary terror against the first proletarian revolution. It flourished as the head of the French Empire that soon spread terror across the world.The French Empire was somewhat unique to the extent that its settler colonies were incorporated into metropolitan France, usually by force. When the barricades came out again they would be in the colonies like Indo-China, Algeria, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe when protests escalated into independence movements, and in the banlieues of the cities when migrant workers and their children blocked off streets during protests.
France bombed and strafed civilians in Vietnam to terrorise the population. It used the same methods in Algeria, including torture and execution to defeat the FLN. The FLN in turn used the ‘terror’ of parcel bombs to kill French settlers. This is how France takes its ‘revolution’ to its colonies and to its own streets. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity delivered by bomb. It is no surprise that popular ‘terror’ always prevails over imperialist ‘terror’.
The French Empire still exists but it is rotting from its head in Paris. The latest ‘terror’ bombings of 13/11 reflect that fact. Perpetrated by Muslim youth born and raised in France, it is significant that the leaders were of Algerian and Moroccan extraction. They are the product of France’s internal colonies, the banlieus, where migrant youth lack most of the benefits of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The IS suicide bombers are therefore essentially the same as those who have long fought for independence from France.
There is a close similarity to the Algerian revolution led by the FLN but which was heavily influenced by an Islamic radicalism. We can argue that the subsequent rule of political Islam in Algeria marked the degeneration of the colonial independence struggles for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity into Sharia law based on a reactionary interpretation of Islam. Yet the real degeneration does not originate in the Muslim populations oppressed by the French Empire, nor in the interpretation of the Koran. It is a necessary degeneration of that Empire itself and in particular the regression of the French Revolution.
We can see this in Hollande’s appeal for ‘national unity’ after 13/11 to win popular support for bombing no longer for peace but for vengeance. ‘National unity’ was first won by smashing the Commune. Then it was built on the expansion of Empire. The workers and peasants of the colonies created the wealth that was trickled down to the native French working class. That working class then had an interest in ‘national unity’ with the bourgeoisie in oppressing the colonies.
That is why in all of its imperialist wars, the majority of the French working class was united behind their bosses to defend their ‘Empire’. For example in the Algerian war the French Communist Party opposed independence. This meant that apart from Vietnam, the leadership of the national liberation movements fell to the national bourgeoisie, and in the Muslim countries, political Islam.
This brings us to the conclusion that political Islam is a reaction, in both senses of the world, to imperialist oppression in Muslim countries. It is a reaction to the imperialist bourgeoisies and their client dictators exploitation and oppression. In the absence of a popular secular leadership, including that of communists, both in the heartlands and the neo-colonies, leadership of resistance to imperialist oppression defaults to the radical clerics who mobilise their armies to negotiate with imperialism a share of the oil. In creating the history of colonial oppression, or benefiting from it, the Empire unites bosses and workers in a common fight to defend the basis of Empire, the extraction of wealth from the resources and labour of their client states.
The Empire, therefore is the ‘head’ of reactionary ‘terror’, its own being infinitely worse than that of its colonial opposition. The double reaction that Empire produces, will not end until the workers and other oppressed peoples unite their forces in both the imperialist heartlands and the neo-colonies and fight for the basic demands of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. These demands will only be realised by the overthrow of the capitalist system and the creation of a socialist society in which the limited resources of nature can be utilised sustainably to meet the basic needs of all.
Comrade Dave Brownz is a NZ socialist blogger asking hard questions of global capitalism.