France - the Paris Commune and what it can teach us today

Spring 2021

This article is translated from the journal of Lutte Ouvriere: Lutte de Classe, issue 214 – March 2021 

The Paris Commune was declared 150 years ago. As Marx famously stated, Parisian proletarians “stormed heaven”, overthrowing bourgeois social order. After 72 days, the embryonic workers’ state they had established was bloodily crushed. As Lenin pointed out, “Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he [Marx] regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments.” The lessons Marx and Lenin drew from the Commune are just as valid for revolutionary communists today. The occasion of this 150th anniversary also provides some “lessons” about the French reformist left, who have attempted to appropriate its legacy for themselves. 

The Paris Commune (18 March to 28 May, 1871)

In September 1870, the French Empire collapsed after its army’s defeat in the war which “Emperor” Napoleon 3rd had foolishly launched against Prussia. In response, the population of Paris took up arms against the threat of German occupation and organised, district by district, battalions of national guards for the defence of the city. On 18 March 1871, the bourgeois republican government that had in the meantime filled the power vacuum, tried to disarm the national guard. To quote Victor Hugo, this ”set a spark to the powder keg"[1]. The proletarians rose up and declared the establishment of a Commune - named in reference to the commune set up during the French Revolution, eighty years earlier. Terrified, the bourgeoisie and their political leaders took refuge in Versailles, along with tens of thousands of officers and soldiers. 

    This was the first workers’ state: initially embodied in the Central Committee of the national guard, then in the Commune Council and including militants such as Eugène Varlin and the Hungarian Léo Frankel, both members of the First Communist International. The Commune would last for a little over two months. But during that time, emergency measures were adopted which greatly improved the living conditions of workers: for instance, a moratorium on rents; a reduction in working hours; an increase in the lowest wages; a ban on night work for children and women; and the creation of public canteens for the poor. 

    But above all, the Paris Commune began to dismantle the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. It implemented changes that were a precursor of a democratic workers’ government: the permanent army was abolished and replaced by the armed people; public servants were elected and revocable; their pay was aligned with workers’ wages. 

    If the bourgeoisie was to prevent the workers’ authority from spreading across the country and even beyond, it had to restore order. Thiers, head of their Versailles government, launched the army against the communards. Despite defending themselves heroically, the communards were defeated: at least 20,000 were massacred during the “bloody week” of 21st-28th May 1871. Tens of thousands more were thrown into prison, hastily tried, executed, or deported to New Caledonia, including the revolutionary school teacher, Louise Michel[2]. According to the writer Edmond de Goncourt, the bourgeoisie hoped that ”such a purge, by killing off the most combative part of the population, would defer the next revolution for a whole generation”. 

    It was in Russia, first in 1905, then in 1917, that the working class would lead a successful assault on the bourgeoisie and its state, paving the way for a wave of revolutionary struggles throughout Europe: the Russian Bolshevik Party, more than any other political group, had learned the militant lessons provided by the Commune. 

Betraying the Commune by heavily biased commemoration

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Commune, it is considered good form for the left to deplore how little space it occupies in school books or in the public sphere. The left takes credit for the Commune’s accomplishments and condemns the violence of its repression. But this serves effectively to misrepresent the Commune, stripping it of its revolutionary and communist character. In 2016, the National Assembly even voted for a resolution to make ”the republican values held by the main protagonists in the Paris Commune of 1871 ... more widely known.” They thereby turned the Commune into a simple extension of the French Revolution: a tragic time, perhaps, but one that laid the foundations for a perfectly virtuous regime. 

    Nor do historians allow themselves to be outdone in producing sanctimonious rhetoric about democracy and the alleged non-violence of the communards. They compare the “good” Commune with the “bad

    October revolution of 1917, which they consider to be both violent and anti-democratic. The academic magazine L’Histoire asks itself falsely naïve questions: ”Was the Commune a socialist revolution?”, ”Was Thiers the executioner of the Commune?” and ”Is it [...] disparaging to what happened in 1871 if it is portrayed as a primarily republican insurrection?”[3]. There are some intellectuals with a certain amount of sympathy towards the workers’ movement. But when they examine its history, they deny the violent class struggle that took place, so that history may appear “serene” and the republic can be considered something that is “good for everyone”. 

    In the same vein, the leader of “Rebellious France” (La France Insoumise) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was supported by many left-wing groups in the last election, and is a self-styled republican, claims that, “ideologically”, he is “a child of the Commune[4]. [The closest political equivalent in Britain to Mélenchon, is probably Jeremy Corbyn. However, Corbyn is nowhere near as boastful!]

    Mélenchon explains how proud he is of having launched two electoral campaigns on the anniversary of the Commune with a march to the sound of “La Marseillaise” (France’s national anthem), followed by “The Internationale”. In his eyes, seeing the Commune as a precursor of socialism would be ”no better than intellectual fraud”. He uses an old Stalinist refrain, quoting Engels, to say that, in France, “there may be no need for a revolution and power could be taken through the ballot box”. In case anyone forgets Mélenchon’s years as an elected Socialist Party and then France Insoumise MP, he proclaims himself to be “a man of assembly”. And goes further to say: “but I do not dream of a permanent general assembly. I know the cost and weight of an executive that can keep the ship afloat.” And he, of course, sees himself in the role of the great helmsman at the Elysée palace. 

    Mélenchon follows in the footsteps of the PCF (the French Communist Party) in terms of reformism and republicanism. Roger Martelli, historian, former high-ranking official in the PCF and co-president of the Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune 1871[5], feeds into this. He is a master of republican rhetoric and formulae that are as hollow as the bourgeois motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” is for the French state. He evokes a Commune that is ”concerned about human emancipation”, seeing it as ”a reference shared by all would-be emancipating, republican and universalist movements”. He compares it to ”the 1789-93 impetus but without the guillotine[6] – as if it would have been possible to overthrow the old feudal social order without revolutionary violence; as if the bourgeoisie itself had not been forced to do so by the landed aristocracy and all the landowners in Europe. But these prevarications serve only one purpose: yet another proposal of unifying the French left for the 2022 presidential election. He claims that he is faithful to the communards, but he is using them for his own political ends. ”A hundred and fifty years on, the communards of 1871 are nodding their approval. We can give them a nod back, not by imitating them but by adhering to the spirit of the Commune: bringing together those who have grown apart and, to do so, giving our priority to the common good and not to our own petty self-interest”. 

    In actual fact, for a long time, social democrats and Stalinist parties have been unable to think for themselves or to imagine anything other than the bourgeois republic, which for them is the epitome of democracy. 

Misappropriated lessons

A turning point was marked, on this subject and many others in the history of the workers’ movement, by the rallying of socialist leaders around their own bourgeoisie and the imperialist war in August 1914. They tried to justify this betrayal by denying not only the fundamental ideas of Marxism, to which they had adhered until then, but also the struggles for emancipation of generations of proletarians. A few years later, they violently opposed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the resulting workers’ state, ignoring all the lessons that Marx drew from the Commune in order to do so. 

    Karl Kautsky, the main theoretician of the Second International, was at the forefront of this revisionism[7]. He explained that the Commune had taken the revolutionaries by surprise. It had indeed. But this led Kautsky to criticise the Bolsheviks for having prepared and organised the seizing of power, i.e., for leading a successful revolution! He claimed that the Bolshevik Party had usurped authority, as compared with the “democratic principles” of the communards, and he concealed the fact that, for Marx, the Commune was the “most recently discovered form” of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Kautsky rejected this expression because, in essence, from this point onwards he was fighting against the idea that workers could lead society and give themselves the means to do so. 

    The only purpose of his truncated and distorted references to the Commune was to fight against the one victorious proletarian revolution just when its very survival was threatened by the counter-revolutionary armies, backed by the imperialist powers. And this, moreover, at a time when, due to the war, bourgeois society appeared in all its barbarity to the most conscious proletarians as ”violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth.” These are the words Rosa Luxemburg used to describe the social democrats who were complicit in this worldwide butchery. 

    The behaviour of socialist leaders in France was equally abject. To justify their adherence to the Sacred Union[8] in which they debased themselves, they had to portray the communards as mere defenders of their homeland. The spokespersons for the Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune 1871 - linked to the French Section of the Workers’ (2nd) International (SFIO)[9] at the time - were no exception. 

    On 18 March 1915, the Association praised the Parisians’ resistance to the Prussians in 1871 and their struggle ”against the surrender of Paris and the signature of a shameful peace treaty which would wrench Alsace and Lorraine from the nation”. In 1918, its general secretary signed a text that presented the allied victory as the only way to bring ”peace that is fair and a guarantee for the future”, and offered the army ”its deepest gratitude and its limitless admiration.[10] 

    The PCF, having defended internationalism and anti- colonialism at the start of the 1920s, having raised the flag of revolution and socialism, then abandoned it in the middle of the following decade to take up the red-white-and-blue French flag (le tricolore). 

    From February 1934, the PCF formed close ties with the SFIO and the Radical Party behind the Popular Front’s programme. It became a staunch supporter of patriotism, while considering itself to be ”the worthy heir to the Paris Commune”. In May 1936, they held a rally of 600,000 people next to the Communards’ Wall[11]. The following day, Maurice Thorez, secretary general of the PCF, renewed his offer of ”a close and loyal collaboration” in order to build a ”strong, free and contented France[12]. He talked of the Commune in much the same way that Léon Blum spoke of his soldiers dying “for France”, “for social justice and the Republic”. He turned it into one more of those “glorious occasions” that went all the way back to Joan of Arc and made France what it was today. 

    Further depths of abjection were plumbed in the speeches made by the PCF leaders right after WW2, when the party formed part of the government led by Charles de Gaulle. The speeches given by Thorez and Duclos on the 74th anniversary of the Commune bear witness to this. 

    To justify the PCF rallying around the bourgeoisie and its imperialism in the name of a fight ”to restore the homeland to its former power, independence and greatness”, the communards were transformed once again into ”heroic and ardent advocates of the national and republican cause”. By comparing the war of 1870 with the situation of occupied France in 1940, Thorez described the Commune as being of “the revolt of humiliated and wounded patriotism[13]. The secretary general of the PCF even drew a parallel between the Paris insurrection of August 1944, which was initiated to restore the French bourgeoise to power, and that of March 1871, led by the revolutionary proletariat against the bourgeoisie! 

Workers learn from experience

Marx wrote The Civil War in France while the Commune was taking place. He, and later Engels, saw the Commune first and foremost as an extraordinary example of the revolutionary power of the working classes. 

    Marx was well aware of the unfavourable balance of power and how isolated the revolutionary elements of the proletariat were in a France consisting mostly of tenant farmers. In September 1870, he wrote an admonitory letter warning its militants against premature insurrection. But as soon as the uprising was announced, he praised “the flexibility”, ”the historical initiative” and “the capacity for sacrifice” of the proletarians in the French capital. And before the Commune was crushed, he wrote ”whatever happens, the current uprising in Paris, even if it succumbs under attack from the wolves, pigs and filthy curs of the old society, is the most glorious exploit by our party since the June Paris insurrection.”[14] 

    As Lenin pointed out, what Marx saw as crucial in the struggles of the working class was ”the historical initiative of the masses”, their capacity to find the energy they needed to engage in the fight against bourgeois society and to decide what form that fight should take. In this context, a real step forward, however small, is better than any long programme. In Lenin’s struggle to build a revolutionary party in Russia and to lead it to the seizure of power, he relied constantly on this fundamental aspect of class struggle. He knew from experience that many militants, like Plekhanov, after having worked for the proletarian revolution, gave up because they did not really trust in that capacity of the working class or in the ”unfailing instinct of...the people”. 

    That is why Lenin was the first to really understand the importance of the soviets (workers’ councils), which had appeared in Russia during the revolution of 1905. This guided his attitude throughout 1917 and during the construction of the workers’ state that followed. He was convinced that, if workers made mistakes, they would also be able to learn from them. As he noted in 1908, “the Commune taught the European proletariat to pose concretely the tasks of the socialist revolution[15]. Lenin never ceased to admire the Commune’s sense of initiative and independence, its ”freedom of action” and its “vigour from below, with its voluntary centralism, free from stereotyped forms[16]. He fought for the Soviets to follow the same path. The activists of today who want to contribute to the emancipation of the working class and of humanity can base their hopes on that same confidence. 

Proletarian democracy and bourgeois democracy

The Paris Commune was the first time that the proletariat took control of a state and, what is more, one of the most powerful of the time. The Communards chose neither the timing nor the conditions for seizing power, but they took the state apart resolutely, stone by stone. And, as Lenin wrote in State and Revolution, that is why the only “correction” Marx deemed it necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto was drawn from the experience of the Commune. He considered that, in the next revolution, the workers could not be content with just taking over and operating the existing state machine for their own benefit: they would, ”first and foremost”, have to smash it. The Communards had already understood this to some extent when they started to dismantle the state apparatus and organise the arming of the proletariat - an indispensable lever to successfully overthrowing the social order. 

    The events of the Commune also put an end to the hope, still held in 1848 by many workers and socialists, of a “social republic” compatible with bourgeois parliamentary institutions. Lenin, inspired by Marx, wrote that, in a bourgeois democracy ”the oppressed classes enjoy the right to decide once in several years which representative of the propertied classes shall ‘represent and suppress’ the people in parliament[17]. In opposition to this regime and as an alternative, the workers of the Commune had their own form of domination. But they did not really have time to implement it, and did not dare to seize and manage the “Banque de France”, which allowed the bourgeoisie to use its financial resources to secretly reorganise its army and prepare the crushing of the Commune. 

    This particularly violent and murderous assault demonstrated that workers can only be truly free from exploitation and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - from its power and control over the economy - by exercising their power, their dictatorship, over the propertied classes. And this lesson applies whatever form the domination of the bourgeoisie takes - republic, parliamentary monarchy, or dictatorship. 

    This does not mean that revolutionary communists are indifferent to what are known as democratic freedoms. Quite the contrary, because those freedoms allow militants to defend their ideas more openly. The Bolsheviks were always the first to fight for democratic rights in Tsarist Russia, where such rights were flouted. But they did not lose sight of the fact that only the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the collectivisation of the means of production would guarantee real equality and therefore real democracy. 

    Despite all of the Commune’s shortcomings, including not engaging in a military offensive as soon as the Versaillaise fled Paris in March 1871, Engels reasoned that the Commune was “a dictatorship of the proletariat[18]. It was a new type of state, a proletarian one, in which Lenin saw ”the autonomous organisation of the labouring masses”, “without any distinction between legislative and executive powers”, and an armed organisation capable of standing up to counter-revolution from the old ruling classes and their supporters in the petty bourgeoisie[19]. This first rough draft of a workers’ state was the prototype for the power of the Soviets in Russia from 1917 onwards. When Lenin returned to Petrograd in April 1917, he was impressed by the factory committees and workers’ councils that had proliferated since the early days of the revolution. He spoke of them as forerunners of “a commune state”.

    Six months before the October Revolution, Lenin explained: ”To safeguard freedom, all the people to a man must be armed. This is the essence of the commune. We are not anarchists who deny the need for an organised state, i.e., for force in general, particularly a state maintained by the organised and armed workers themselves through the Soviets. [...] Soviets of Workers’ and other Deputies should be organised all over the country - life itself demands it. There is no other way. This is the Paris Commune![20]

    Giving all power to the Soviets, and ensuring workers’ control of production, oriented the policy of the Bolsheviks until the victorious insurrection of November 7, 1917. And it was still this fundamental perspective that Lenin defended when he began the fight against the first signs of bureaucratisation inside the young workers’ state - a fight that Trotsky and the Left Opposition subsequently continued against Stalin and the caste which seized power in the USSR. 

The Internationale Unites the Human Race”

Around twenty years after the Paris Commune was crushed, the entire socialist and labour movement started to adopt “The Internationale” as its anthem. It was written by Eugène Pottier during the repression of the Communards and set to music in 1888 by Pierre Degeyter. 

    The Paris Commune’s tragic end proved that the propertied classes and their respective states - in this case the French bourgeois republic and the German empire - put aside their disagreements when it came to crushing proletarians. The Commune’s defeat is also a reminder that workers make up one class, regardless of their origins and across all borders. This is not only because many Communards were themselves Poles, Hungarians or Germans, but also because the Commune resonated on every continent. And, above all, it is because the working class can only fully emancipate itself on the same scale as capitalism, that is, worldwide. 

    In fact, that was one of the criticisms Marx made against French working-class leaders in 1870. He warned them against the siren song of patriotism and nostalgia for the French Revolution – a period when the bourgeoisie carried out, in its own class interests, a policy of national unity. While Lenin admired Auguste Blanqui’s combativeness and dedication to the proletarian cause, he also emphasised the extent to which the title of Blanqui’s newspaper Our Country in Danger! was detrimental to this cause. 

    The Social Democrats, and then the Stalinists, are the ones who took this sort of patriotism as their example. But the fact that workers are all part of the same working class is truer than ever. The exploited can never share the same idea of nationhood as their exploiters. It is a vital necessity to criticise and combat those who defend patriotic ideas within working-class organisations, those whom Lenin referred to as the ”blue-collar lieutenants of the capitalist class”. And as Rosa Luxemburg wrote: ”Socialism cannot exist without the international solidarity of the proletariat; the socialist proletariat cannot renounce the class struggle or international solidarity, neither in times of peace, nor in times of war. That would be tantamount to suicide[21]

The Need for a Revolutionary Party

In September 1870, through the intermediary of the very small minority of militants who claimed to sup- port his ideas, Marx above all advised the workers of Paris to ”calmly and resolutely improve ... the work of their own class organisation[22]. They did not get the chance to carry out such work, and some did not understand the need for it. And so, with the Paris Commune the proletariat found itself in power with- out having been able to sufficiently organise before- hand and without having had the possibility of decid- ing between the different political currents existing within it: communists, anarchists, and supporters of Proudhon and Blanqui in particular. 

    The trials and errors and even the mistakes of the leaders of the Paris Commune in financial and military matters, and their difficulty in conceiving and implementing a policy directed toward the poor farmers, could not be overcome, because of the absence of a real party. They lacked an organisation and leaders with experience of the workers’ movement, who could have forged new, solid ties with the masses in the period before the Commune. Nor were the Commune’s leaders able to exclude certain patriots who claimed to be socialists but who, as Trotsky wrote, “didn’t really have any confidence” in the working class, and worse, ”shook the proletariat’s faith in itself”. 

    The most conscious revolutionary militants of the time had already come to such a conclusion. This included Marx and Engels, of course, but also Léo Frankel, the Hungarian militant of the International Workingmen’s Association who had been one of the leaders of the Commune. Shortly after the Paris Commune was crushed, he wrote: ”In order to achieve this objective [the seizing of power], workers must create an autonomous party opposing all other parties, ‘the only way’ to eliminate the other classes’ reign”. Frankel was to be one of the founders of the General Workers’ Party of Hungary in 1880. 

    The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 would finally settle this question. In order to use the full revolutionary potential of the working class, contrary to what anarchists maintained at the time, it was necessary to have a solid, centralised organisation whose militants were constantly in contact with proletarians in their workplaces and soldiers on the front and at the rear. A party that would be able to adapt its policies to the ebb and flow of the revolution and to initiate a policy that would lay the foundations of a communist society. That was the Bolshevik Party’s task. 

    In May 1871, when reaction drowned the workers’ insurrection in blood, Thiers reportedly exclaimed: ”Socialism is over now, and for a long time!” Quite the opposite! The socialist movement grew in leaps and bounds before the end of the century and then saw a victorious revolution in Russia. It took betrayal by the main leaders of the socialist parties and the unions, and later by the Stalinist leaders, to save the bourgeoisie. One hundred and fifty years after the Commune, the rage of the exploited against capitalist society must be combined with the sharpest consciousness of their interests and the knowledge of who are the false friends and true enemies of the proletariat, in order to prevail. Transmitting the experiences of the past, such as those of 1871, and learning from past successes and failures, remain essential tasks for revolutionary communists. As Lenin concluded: ”The cause of the Commune is not dead. It lives to the present day in every one of us. The cause of the Commune is the cause of the social revolution, the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the toilers. It is the cause of the proletariat of the whole world. And in this sense, it is immortal[23]

2 March, 2021 


[1]    Victor Hugo, Things Seen, 1870-1885.


[2]    Louise Michel, born in 1830, was a teacher, writer, militant anarchist, feminist and a prominent figure of the Paris Commune. Deported to New Caledonia in 1873, she continued her militant activities there and after returning to France in 1880, until her death in 1905. 


[3]    L’Histoire, special issue (January-March 2021). 


[4]    Interview reprinted from the special issue of Politis magazine, February-March 2021. 


[5]    The Association of the Friends of the Paris Commune 1871 is the name of the association today. The name has evolved since its creation. 


[6]    L’Humanité, 24 May 2018. 


[7]    Lenin replied to him in numerous texts, including The Proletarian Revolution and The Renegade Kautsky, writ- ten in November 1918; Trotsky also did so, in his work Terrorism and Communism, which appeared in 1920 (particularly chapter 5, “The Paris Commune and Soviet Russia”. 


[8]    The Sacred Union (Union Sacrée in French) was a po- litical truce in France during World War I. The left-wing agreed not to oppose the government or call strikes. It stood in direct opposition to a pledge made by the SFIO (the French Section of the Workers’ International) and former leader Jean Jaurès not to enter any “bourgeois war.” 


[9]    SFIO: the French Section of the Workers’ International founded in 1905 as a merger between the French Socialist Party and the Socialist Party of France in order to create the French section of the Second International, designat- ed the party of the workers’ movement. 


[10]    Quoted by Rémi Morvan, “The Commune is not dead”: a history of the Association of Friends of the Commune (1881-1971), A history dissertation, 2015. Document in French. 


[11]    The Communards’ Wall (Mur des Fédérés) in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, is where, on 28th May 1871, one hundred and forty-seven combatants of the Paris Commune were shot by the Versailles army and their bodies thrown into an open trench at the foot of the wall. 


[12]    L’Humanité, May 25th, 1936. 13-L’Humanité, March 18th, 1947. 


[13]    L’Humanité, March 18th, 1947.


[14]   Marx, Letters to Kugelmann (12th April1871). Marx is referring to June 1848.


[15]    Lenin, State and Revolution, 12th April 1917. 


[16]    Lenin, How to Organise Competition?, Pravda 20 January, 1929. 


[17]    Lenin, speech at the First congress of the Communist International, 4 March, 1919. 


[18]    Engels, 1891 introduction to Marx, The Civil War in France 


[19]    Lenin, Letter to the workers of Europe and America, 24 January, 1919. 


[20]    Lenin, The Petrograd city Conference, 27 April to 5 May, 1917, published in Pravda on 8 May, 1917. 


[21]    Rosa Luxembourg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy, 1915.


[22]    Marx, Address to the General Council of the International Workingmen's' Association, 9 September, 9 September 1870. 


[23]    Lenin, In Memory of the Commune, 28 April 1911.