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'Live Working or Die Fighting,' Paul Mason

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Live Working or Die Fighting Paul Mason

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"Live Working or Die Fighting: How the working class went global"
by Paul Mason

Harvill Secker | April 2007 | ISBN 0436206153

An excerpt from "Live Working or Die Fighting", which focuses on the crucial day of 18 March 1871, which saw the first-ever workers' government set up in the Paris Commune.

A wiry, dark-haired woman runs screaming down the cobbled street that links Montmartre with the boulevard below. It is Louise Michel, and she's got a rifle hidden under her jacket. The word she is screaming is "treason". She's just seen government troops take possession of the guns lined up in the Montmartre cannon park. Drums are beating in the alleyways, and soon Michel returns accompanied by her boyfriend Ferré and a motley column of armed citizens.

"Montmartre arose in the dawn which was just breaking you could hear the toxin ringing. We went up at the speed of a charge knowing that at the top there was an army in battle formation. We expected to die for liberty. It was as if we were lifted form the earth. Crowds at certain times are like the breaking wave of the human ocean. The hill was in enveloped in a white light. The splendid deliverance of the dawn."

The regular troops may be in battle formation but they are not in battle mood. It's been raining. Their officers have forgotten to bring the horses to move the cannon so now they've been standing around like idiots for hours. And a crowd of women is giving them a hard time. "Between ourselves and the army," Michel remembered, "the women threw themselves up against the cannons and guns; the soldiers stood still." The general in charge of the regulars, Lecomte, orders them to open fire on the crowd. But nothing happens. Instead, the regulars break ranks, mingle with the crowd and arrest Lecomte.

Two miles east, in the working class district of Batignolles, Varlin is struggling into his uniform. The central committee of the National Guard has been in session until 3:30am, and he's exhausted. Now there are notices on the walls declaring the Central Committee illegal. At first, his troops don't want to leave their barracks but eventually he gets them onto the streets.

"I saw a regiment about, 300 men, perfectly organised and marching as if they were conducting a review," reports the local mayor, "they were led by Varlin."

At 8:30am cannon fire echoes across the rooftops of Paris. A National Guard commander in the south is firing blanks to call the workers into action. This is Duval, an ironworker who served time in jail for membership of the Workers' International. "The district," a courier reports to the despondent army staff, "is entirely in the hands of the self-styled General Duval, who is recruiting the local urchins and giving them shovels with which to dig trenches."

With fraternisation going on everywhere the French Army is pulled out of Paris: only the Central Committee can replace them as the civil power. But it does not have control: la canaille, the mob, has control.

A mob surrounds the house where General Lecomte is being held, and he's dragged away and shot, together with another elderly general famous for massacring workers in 1848, who simply made the mistake of coming out of his house to see what was going on.

Victorine Brocher rushes onto the streets, arriving at the City Hall in time to see government troops marching off with the money and the archives of the Paris administration. On the barricades, members of the National Guard are now posing for photographs. In the workers districts, people have decided to get drunk.

"We believed in fact that a new era had arrived. Everybody was in holiday mood," Brocher remembers, adding: "they say the mob is cruel and nasty, I think myself that it is stupid. It's always the poor bird that let's itself get plucked. And this time, really, it behaved stupidly, idiotically."

By night fall the only authority left in Paris is the Central Committee of the National Guard.

* * *

About the author: Paul Mason was born in 1960 in Leigh, Greater Manchester. He is BBC Newsnight's business and industry correspondent. In 2003 he won the Wincott Award for business journalism and in 2004 was named Workworld Broadcast Journalist of the year. His blog is at www.paulmason.typepad.com.

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