With the radicalization of the revolution, the Paris Commune was replaced by the Insurrectionary Commune in 1792. Under the leadership of artisans, shopkeepers, small merchants, and workers who comprised the so-called sans-culottes, a central committee was established and a new mayor was elected, replacing the mayor elected in 1789, who had since his election authorized a violent repression of a popular protest. The central committee of the reconstituted Paris Commune coordinated 48 sections. The most radical sections admitted men who did not qualify to vote under the established income and residence restrictions. The most active sections met every day at the end of the workday (Ianni 2011:68-69; Soboul 1975:250, 309-11, 407, 411-12, 470).
The formation of popular assemblies as an alternative to representative democracy has a sustained history in revolutionary processes: the Paris Commune of 1871; the soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers of the Russian Revolution of 1917; the worker’s councils of the Vietnamese Revolution; and the popular power and mass organizations of the Cuban Revolution. They reflect direct democracy by the people, a more advanced form of political participation than is possible under the structures of representative democracy developed by the bourgeoisie.
But in the seeing the possibilities of “power to the people,” the people should not be idealized. The majority of people tend to think in concrete and particular terms, not understanding problems in their larger historical and social context. Most tend to be orientated to the protection of particular interests rather than the good of the society as a whole in the long run. And the majority is prone to vengeance and violence, which in their most extreme manifestations include executions with minimal regard for the right of due process.
The correction to these popular tendencies is found through the vanguard. The members of the vanguard are of the people and come from the people. The have the best qualities of the people. They are disciplined and committed to the values of the revolution and to universal human values. As a result, they have become theoretically, politically, and historically informed. Their role is to educate the people, and they play this role through discourses in the popular assemblies and informal discussions among the people. Their challenge is to persuade the people of the best courses of action for the good of the revolution and the good of society in the long term.
Although the vanguard educates, the people decide. Decisions are made through consensus among the people. If the vanguard fails to persuade, the people may take courses of action that could undermine the revolutionary process and its quest to create a more just and democratic society. It therefore is necessary for the sustainability of the revolutionary project that the vanguard maintains the confidence and trust of the people.
The vanguard is not infallible, and it particularly may be vulnerable to limitations in understanding that are established by social and historical context (see “What is personal encounter?” 7-25-2013). But due to the personal characteristics of the members of the vanguard, it is in the best position to understand the best courses of action.
The relation between the vanguard and the people plays out in the popular assemblies. And in the assemblies, elections to government offices are held. In these elections, the people are choosing from among nominated candidates whose qualities they have come to know in the popular assemblies. This is a process different from and superior to representative democracy, where the people do not assemble, and they chose from competing images, and not from among persons that they have come to know and respect. Choosing from among images, the people under structures of representative democracy are subject to manipulation by the wealthy, which control the media of communication.
Ianni, Valera. 2011. La Revolución Francesa. México: Ocean Sur.
Soboul, Albert. 1975. The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
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