The Paris Commune, 140 years ago - The first concrete form of workers' power

Jul/Sep 2011

The following article is translated from the journal published by our French comrades of Lutte Ouvrière ("Lutte des Classes" #136, May-June 2011).

"Of late, the Social Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat." (Friedrich Engels)

In 1871, in his pamphlet "the Civil War in France", Marx wrote that "the direct antithesis to the Empire was the Commune". In this text, Marx not only paid tribute to the Communards whom he described as having "gone to storm heaven", he also analysed the two months of the Paris Commune in power as the first proletarian revolution and drew all the useful political lessons for the future struggles of the working class from the leading revolutionary role played by the working class on this occasion.

Since 1852, France had been dominated by the Second Empire under Napoleon III. This dictatorial state, corrupt to the marrow, comprising opportunists, nouveaux riches, swindlers, had arisen because the bourgeoisie, terrified by the workers' uprising in June 1848, had fallen into the arms of the first uniformed adventurer who came along - Napoleon III. The second Empire, while taking direct political leadership of society away from the bourgeoisie, continued zealously to serve its economic interests and to develop its industry, thereby also causing the development of the proletariat and the rebirth of the workers' movement.

In 1864, in London, working class activists from different European countries founded the First International - the first international group in the history of the workers' movement. In France, the 1860s saw a renewed organisational activity among the working class, together with a rising level of struggles and strikes.

In 1870, faced with growing opposition, Napoleon III embarked on a war against Prussia (the part of modern Germany centred around Berlin at the time). The ineptitude, the intrigues and the corruption plaguing the imperial regime led to defeat within a few weeks. When it was announced that Napoleon III had been defeated and captured by the Prussians, the Paris working population responded by taking to the streets and proclaiming a Republic on 4 September 1870. The bourgeois republicans, whose opposition to the Empire had previously been rather tame, took over the leadership of this new Republic. In the name of the need for "national defence" - against the Prussians who were continuing the war - they formed a government led by Adolphe Thiers. But aside from needing to repel the invasion, this bourgeois republic only had one real objective right from the start - to disarm the working classes that it feared more than anything else. It was barely 20 years since the workers' uprising of 1848 and that event was still fresh in everyone's memory.

At the time, tens of thousands of workers were concentrated in Paris - in the building trade and public works, various industries that were booming - not to mention a large number of artisans. Marx explained : "Paris, however, was not to be defended without arming its working class, organising them into an effective force, and training the ranks by the war itself. But Paris armed was the Revolution armed. A victory by Paris over the Prussian aggressor would have been a victory of the French workman over the French capitalist and his State parasites. In this conflict between national duty and class interest, the Government of National Defence did not hesitate one moment to turn into a Government of National Defection".

Despite the attitude of the government, the Parisian working classes learned to act collectively, to organise themselves and measure their forces during the months of war and the siege that followed September 1870. Vigilance committees were formed as early as September. The resistance against the Prussian siege of the capital, starting from October 1870, and the resulting famine, fanned the flames of revolt. The National Guard which, so far, had been an armed militia of the petit bourgeoisie, in which only those who could afford it could take part, was expanded to include all men.

This armed force of the people which had managed to win the respect of the Prussian army, despite the difficulties resulting from the famine and siege, became the heart of the revolt. Its elected central committee won the trust of much of the Paris working classes and thus became a sort of political leadership. The bourgeoisie could not accept that the working population should be armed nor that it should organise itself and choose its own commanders. The clash between the bourgeois republic and the working class rose higher and higher up the political agenda. On several occasions, the proletariat threatened the government, in response to its cowardice and lies.

On 28 January 1871, an armistice deal signed by Thiers with Bismarck, increased the anger of the working class and accelerated the revolutionary process. It was essential and urgent for Thiers to disarm Paris. When, on 18 March, Thiers' troops tried to recover cannons which, for the most part, had been paid for by public subscription by the Parisian people, despite the privations of famine, revolt broke out. The troops sided with the insurgents and shot their own generals who had ordered them to fire on the predominantly female crowd.

The institutions of political power, together with the rich of the city, the bourgeoisie and their clique, fled to Versailles. Paris was in the hands of the workers and power was conferred on those that the Parisian people considered as its representatives - the central committee of the National Guard. On 26 March, elections were held for the Paris Commune which became the centre of political power in the city, under the active control of the proletariat.

With the Paris Commune, a new type of political power had arisen from the class struggle itself. The proletariat was experiencing, as Marx wrote, the fact, in reality, that "the working class cannot take over the ready-made capitalist state machine and use it for its own ends". It was the first and most important lesson coming out of the Commune.

It was not the fact of having elected a municipal council which, in and of itself, constituted a revolutionary act. It was the fact that the armed proletariat had imposed its rule, its class domination on society and, in so doing, had transformed the social nature of political power. The Paris Commune was not a verbose, but impotent, parliamentary organism, like those bodies which have been produced by the bourgeoisie. It was a working body, which exercised both legislative and executive powers, thus allowing active and direct control by the population over what was decided and done. Decisions were taken and applied directly by those who had been exploited. For once, it was not the rich or their lackeys who imposed their choices, it was the masses.

The National Guard, which organised the armed population, was already, to all intents and purposes, the antithesis of the bourgeoisie's permanent army. The Commune went one step further by decreeing the abolition of the permanent army. As Auguste Blanqui, a revolutionary leader in the 1848 revolution, had already proclaimed two decades earlier, "he who has iron, has bread!". By abolishing the permanent army and forging a new state whose power was not based on repressive force separate from the population, but on the arming of the population as a whole, the Commune had taken the revolutionary history of the proletariat one step further.

All the officials of the Commune, henceforth elected by the people, were responsible to the people and recallable by them at any time. They were paid workers' wages. Thus the working class was taking over control of political life. Legal costs were abolished. The Commune moreover attacked the spiritual weight of the Church and proclaimed the separation of Church and State, long before the 1905 legislation which was to establish France as a secular republic.

Throughout its 72 days of existence, the measures taken by the Commune were determined by the interests of the working population. "The people only get what they take for themselves" said one of the Commune's revolutionary leaders, Louise Michel. The government that the Parisian workers had chosen for themselves, being under the control of armed workers, made choices and voted texts which reflected their class interests.

The Commune took up the cause of the tenants against their landlords and ordered a moratorium on rents which were impossible to pay following the months of war. Empty homes were requisitioned for the homeless. Fines taken out of workers' wages were prohibited, as was night work for bakers. And on 16 April, the Commune decided to turn the shops and workshops which had been abandoned by their owners into communal facilities, which were run as cooperatives by workers themselves. During the Commune, the need to survive gave rise to the first embryonic form of collectivisation of the means of production.

As Trotsky wrote about another period "revolution is above all the violent eruption of the masses in governing their own destinies". During the Commune, as in all other revolutionary periods, the workers' consciousness evolved rapidly. The most revolutionary ideas and initiatives came from the ranks of the population itself.

Socialist aspirations were expressed in many shapes and forms, as for example in this statement issued by a women's meeting: "For us, the first gaping class wound that needs to be closed is that of the bosses who exploit the worker and get rich from his sweat. No more bosses who consider the worker as a machine for production! Let the workers join forces, let their work be for the common good and they will be happy. Another vice of this society is that the rich do nothing but drink and have fun, while experiencing no hardship. They must be rooted out, as must the priests and nuns. We cannot be happy until there are no more bosses, no more rich, no more clergy".

Just as they were expressed in the following statement, on 23 April 1871, from the mechanics and metallurgists union:

"Considering that equality must not be a hollow expression within the Commune, itself the outcome of the revolution of 18 March and that the struggle, so valiantly made and that we wish to continue until the last royalist cleric is extinct, has for its aim our economic emancipation; this can only be achieved by the workers banding together, this alone will change our condition from hirelings to associates. We declare that we give our delegates the following general instructions: eradicate the exploitation of man by man, the last remaining form of slavery; let labour be organised by workers joining together and with collective and inalienable capital".

Borne by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses, their initiatives and their aspirations, the Commune found itself at the forefront of progressive ideas. Religious obscurantism was fought, religious convents closed and the atrocities committed within them publicly denounced. Discussions were held to devise a new form of education for the masses that would be free and secular. The Commune asserted its will to develop professional training for girls and, moreover, women took an active part in the revolution. The Commune officialised cohabitation, giving legal recognition for the first time to families formed outside marriage (unmarried partners, "illegitimate" children). The Commune also banned prostitution which was considered a form of "commercial exploitation of human beings by other human beings". Ideas for setting up crèches and public canteens emerged. The Commune reopened libraries, museums and theatres and for the first time gave the working class the opportunity to attend concerts.

Foreigners were recognised by the Commune as members of the great international family of workers. What could be more significant in this respect than the fact that the Commune gave supreme command of its army to a Polish non-commissioned officer?

The Paris Commune perished in May 1871 under the fire of Thiers' troops allied with those of Bismarck. "The international of the ruling classes" had gone into action to crush this first attempt at worker emancipation. Between 20,000 and 40,000 died in the repression. The massacre of the Communards, whose dead bodies lined the streets, only ceased when the danger of a cholera epidemic threatened. The violence of the repression was a reflection of the fear that the bourgeoisie had suffered.

This Parisian working classes' revolution, even though it had been crushed, showed the way for future revolutions. Lenin wrote of the Commune: "Marx (...) was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards (...). Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he 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. Marx endeavoured to analyse this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it."

Since 1848, Marx and Engels had asserted that, for its emancipation, the proletariat had to become the ruling class and take over political power. But this remained a revolutionary prospect and not a concrete reality. Of course, Marx and Engels had been able to draw the political lessons of past revolutions, particularly that of 1848: "Any attempt at revolution in France will have to involve the breaking up of the machineries of the bureaucracy and that of the army". But it was the Paris Commune that showed for the first time how the working class could break up the bourgeois state machinery and forge its own state to achieve its own emancipation.

Later on, many socialist activists who claimed to be Marxist abandoned these ideas on the state. At the height of the revolution in 1917, Lenin, on the contrary, took up the flag of the Paris Commune in his book "The State and the Revolution". He pushed Marx's analysis further and used the Commune as an example: "Thus, the Commune appeared to have replaced the broken State machine by instituting a democracy that was 'simply' more complete: suppression of the army, the possibility of electing and recalling all its officials, without exception. However, 'simply' implies a vast amount of work: the replacement of institutions by others that are completely different. This is a true case of 'transforming quantity into quality': carried out this way, as fully and as methodically as conceivable, democracy changes from being bourgeois to being proletarian : the State ( = a special power designed to subdue a specific class) becomes something which is no longer truly a State."

The Paris Commune fed the experience of the international workers' movement for decades. That is why its history has been at the core of the training of all revolutionaries in the 20th century. If revolutionaries, particularly the Bolsheviks, carefully studied this first example of a workers' state in history, they also drew all the political lessons from the Commune. For example, in a 1908 article entitled "Lessons of the Commune", Lenin analysed what he called its mistakes. He explained that the fact of not expropriating the Banque de France had been like stopping half way in the social and economic struggle against the capitalists and that this had in fact been to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. He also warned the proletariat against romantic illusions and drew the necessary lessons from the violence of the Versailles repression: "The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May". Lenin added, however: "But despite all its mistakes the Commune was a superb example of the great proletarian movement of the 19th century".

Lenin thought as a revolutionary and searched the history and experience of the proletariat for lessons that could help its victory in future battles. In 1917, these analyses helped the Bolsheviks to take power with the determination that the Communards had failed to have. Knowledge of the events of the Commune, the fighting against the Versailles troops, helped to lead the civil war in Russia to victory.

As revolutionary communists, the hopes and dreams of the Communards, their mistakes and failures are all part of our heritage - a heritage that we are proud of, that we should learn about, understand and pass on, in order to continue our fight against the capitalist order. Every young person who joins the side of the working class and the ranks of the revolutionary movement should bear in mind the courage of Louise Michel, Leo Frankel, Eugene Varlin, and all the best known figures of the Commune, but also that of the thousands of anonymous workers who fought on the barricades for the emancipation of their class. Just as she or he should recognise and understand the hatred of the bourgeoisie towards the Commune. Without this knowledge, we will never be victorious.

The best tribute we can pay to the Communards, to the known as well as to the unknown among them, on this 140th anniversary of their uprising, is to learn about their struggles, to learn about their acts and their mistakes and to continue their fight.