The following article is translated from the journal Lutte des Classe (#136, May-June 2011), published by Lutte Ouvrière in France; see http://www.lutte-ouvriere.org/. The piece first appeared on this blog back in 2011 and again on March 20, 2015. We thought we’d run it again, as this month marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Paris Commune, the first seizure of power by the working class. We’ve changed the title to say 150th instead of 140th and changed it in the text.
150 years ago, Paris Workers Create the first Concrete Form of Workers’ Power
“The petty-bourgeois Social Democrat 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)
“The direct antithesis to the Empire was the Commune”– so wrote Karl Marx in his 1871 pamphlet, The Civil War in France. In this text, Marx not only paid tribute to the Communards, who had “stormed heaven,” he also analyzed this first proletarian revolution, which held power for two months in Paris, drawing all its useful political lessons for the future struggles of the working class.
Since 1852, France had been dominated by the Second Empire of Napoleon III. This dictatorial state, corrupt to the core, composed of opportunists, nouveaux riches, and swindlers, had arisen because the bourgeoisie, terrified by the June 1848 workers’ uprising, had thrown itself into the arms of the first military adventurer who came along: Napoleon III. While the second Empire took direct political leadership of society away from the bourgeoisie, it continued zealously to serve its economic interests and to develop its industry, leading to the development of the proletariat and to the renewal of the workers’ movement.
In 1864, in London, working class activists from different European countries founded the First International – the first international organization in the history of the workers’ movement. In France, the 1860s saw a renewed organizational activity among the working class, together with a rising level of struggles and strikes.
In 1870, faced with growing opposition, Napoleon III went to war against Prussia (the part of Germany centered at that time around Berlin). The incompetence, waste and corruption plaguing the imperial power led to its defeat within a few weeks. When the laboring classes of Paris heard that Napoleon III had been defeated and captured by the Prussians, they took to the streets, proclaiming a Republic on September 4, 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 defense” – against the Prussians who were continuing the war – they formed a government led by Adolphe Thiers. But far from trying to repel the invasion, this bourgeois republic had only one real objective right from the start: to disarm the laboring classes, which it feared more than anything else. It had been barely 20 years since the workers’ uprising of June 1848 – and that event was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
Tens of thousands of workers were concentrated in Paris – in the building trades, public works and other industries that were booming – not to mention the large number of artisans. Marx explained: “Paris, however, was not to be defended without arming its working class, organizing 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 workers over the French capitalist and his State parasites. In this conflict between national duty and class interest, the Government of National Defense did not hesitate one moment to turn into a Government of National Defection.”
Despite the bourgeois government’s attitude, the Parisian laboring classes learned to act collectively, to organize themselves and measure their forces during the months of war and the siege of Paris that followed. Vigilance committees were formed as early as September. By October 1870, the resistance to the Prussian siege of the capital and the resulting famine was fanning the flames of revolt. The National Guard – which had been the armed militia of the petty bourgeoisie, enrolling only those who could afford to pay – was opened to the laboring population.
This armed force of the people – which managed to win respect from the Prussian army, despite difficulties resulting from famine and siege – became the heart of the revolt. Its elected central committee won the trust of much of the Paris laboring classes and thus became a sort of political leadership. The bourgeoisie could not accept that the laboring population would arm itself, nor that it would organize itself and choose its own commanders. A clash between the bourgeois republic and the working class was fast approaching. Appalled by the government’s cowardice and lies, the proletariat several times threatened the government.
On January 28, 1871, Thiers signed an armistice deal with Bismarck, increasing popular anger and accelerating the revolutionary process. Thiers had to try to disarm Paris. On March 18, when Thiers’ troops tried to snatch the cannons away from the people of Paris, the revolt burst out. (Those cannons had been in great part paid for by the people themselves despite the privations of famine.) The rank-and-file troops sided with the Parisian insurgents and shot their own generals who had ordered them to fire on the crowd, most of which were women.
The institutions of political power, together with the city’s wealthy, the bourgeoisie and their clique, all fled to Versailles. Paris was in the hands of the workers, and power fell to those the Parisian people considered as their representatives – the Central Committee of the National Guard. On March 26, 1871, elections were held for the Paris Commune, which became the center of political power in the city, under the active control of the proletariat.
With the Paris Commune, a new type of political power surged up from the class struggle itself. The proletariat was experiencing, as Marx wrote, 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 the most important lesson coming out of the Commune.
The fact that they had elected a city council was not, in and of itself, a revolutionary act. What counted was that the armed proletariat had imposed its influence, its class domination on society and, in so doing, had transformed political power. The Paris Commune was not a talkative but impotent parliamentary organism, like those the bourgeoisie had already produced so many times. The Commune 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 the exploited themselves. Neither the rich nor their lackeys imposed their choices. For once, the masses did.
The National Guard, uniting the armed population, was already the antithesis of the bourgeoisie’s permanent standing army. The Commune went one step further by decreeing the abolition of the standing 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 standing army and forging a new state whose power was not based on a repressive force separate from the population, but on the arming of the population as a whole, the Commune revived the revolutionary history of the proletariat.
All the officials of the Commune, from then on elected by the people, became accountable to the people and recallable by them at any time. They were paid workers’ wages. Thus the laboring classes were taking control of political life. Finally, the Commune attacked the spiritual weight of the Church and proclaimed the separation of Church and State, long before the radical laws of 1905 established France as a secular republic.
Throughout its 72 days of existence, the Commune took measures determined by the interests of the laboring 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, controlled by the workers in arms, made choices and voted texts that expressed its class character.
The Commune defended tenants from their landlords and ordered a moratorium on rents, which were impossible to pay after months of war. Empty homes were commandeered for the homeless. The Commune prohibited workplace fines, which had put a strain on workers’ wages, and prohibited night work for bakers. Finally, on April 16, the Commune decided that shops and workshops abandoned by their owners should be taken over and run for the benefit of the whole community, set up as cooperatives directly run by their workers. During the Commune, the need of the laboring classes to survive gave birth to the first beginnings of collectivization in the means of production.
As Trotsky wrote about another period, “revolution is above all the violent eruption of the masses into the domain where they govern their own destinies.” During the Commune, as in all revolutionary periods, the workers’ consciousness evolved rapidly. And the most revolutionary ideas and initiatives came from the very depths of the population itself.
Socialist aspirations were expressed everywhere, as in this statement issued by a women’s meeting: “For us, the first 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 spend their time drinking and having fun, taking no care. They must be rooted out, as must be the priests and nuns. We cannot be happy until there are no more bosses, no more rich, no more clergy.”
Those same aspirations were expressed in the following statement, April 23, 1871, from the mechanics and metallurgists union:
“Considering that equality must not be a hollow expression within the Commune, which was, itself, the outcome of the revolution of March 18;
“and considering that our economic emancipation is the aim of the struggle, so valiantly carried out and that we wish to continue until the last royalist cleric is extinguished;
“and considering that this can be achieved only by the workers banding together, which alone will change our condition from hirelings to associates;
“We declare that we give our delegates the following general instructions: suppress the exploitation of man by man, the last remaining form of slavery; organize work through solidarity associations, with collective and inalienable capital.”
Borne by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses, their initiatives and their aspirations, the Commune found itself at the very forefront of progressive ideas. Religious obscurantism was fought, religious convents closed and the atrocities committed within them publicly denounced. Discussions were organized to devise a new form of education for the masses that would be free, public and secular. The Commune committed itself to developing vocational training for girls and, moreover, women took an active part in the revolution. The Commune gave official recognition to civil unions, providing the first legal recognition to families formed outside marriage (unmarried partners, so-called “illegitimate” children). Finally, the Commune banned prostitution, considering it a form of “commercial exploitation of human beings by other human beings.” Ideas for setting up children’s nurseries and communal eating facilities emerged. The Commune reopened libraries, museums and theaters and gave the laboring classes the opportunity, for the first time, to attend concerts.
Foreigners were recognized 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 workers’ emancipation. Between 20,000 and 40,000 died in the repression. The massacre of the Communards, whose dead bodies lined the streets, did not stop until the danger of a cholera epidemic threatened. The violence of the repression reflected the level of the bourgeoisie’s fear.
This Parisian working class revolution, even though it had been crushed, showed the way for future revolutions. Lenin wrote of the Commune: “Not only was Marx 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 definite advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programs and arguments. Marx endeavored to analyze this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re_examine his theory in the light of it.”
From 1848 on, Marx and Engels asserted that, to emancipate itself, 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. Lenin, to the contrary, took up the banner of the Paris Commune in his book, State and Revolution, written at the height of the 1917 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. Its history constitutes the core of the training of all the revolutionaries of the 20th century. Revolutionaries, particularly the Bolsheviks, carefully studied this first form of a workers’ state in history, and they drew all the political lessons from the experience of the Commune. For example, in a 1908 article entitled “Lessons of the Commune,” Lenin analyzed what he called its mistakes. He explained that, by not expropriating the Bank of France, the Commune stopped half way in the social and economic fight against the capitalists and that this reinforced the bourgeoisie. He also warned the proletariat against romantic illusions and drew all the conclusions 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 the greatest example of the great proletarian movement of the 19th century.”
Lenin reasoned as a revolutionary and searched in the history and the 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 all the resolution that the Communards had lacked. Knowledge of the events of the Commune, of the fighting between it and the Versailles troops helped to lead the civil war in Russia to victory.
For its 140th anniversary in 2011, the Commune was the object of polite commentaries, even from the Social Democratic mayor of Paris. The deceitful friends of the workers, past and present, can praise the Commune because it did not overcome, shedding hypocritical tears over its martyrs and its dead. These people celebrate the workers only when they are defeated. These same people hated the Russian workers of 1917 who, armed with the lessons of the Commune, defeated the bourgeoisie and did not let themselves be massacred.
The hopes and dreams of the Communards, as well as their mistakes and failures, are all part of the heritage of revolutionary communists – a heritage we must be proud of, that we should learn about, understand and pass on, in order to continue the fight against the capitalist order. Every young person who joins the side of the working class and the ranks of the revolutionary movement should keep in mind the courage of well-known figures of the Commune – like Louise Michel, Leo Frankel and Eugene Varlin – but above all that of the thousands of anonymous workers who fought on the barricades for the emancipation of their class. Just as today’s young person in the revolutionary movement should recognize 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 fighters, is to learn about their struggles, to learn about their actions and their mistakes and to continue their fight.