1871-2021: Vive la Commune!

And at dawn, armed with glowing patience, we will enter the cities of glory.

Rimbaud, 1873

There are certain dates in working class history which have made a lasting and indispensable mark on the communist programme, which we understand as the acquisitions and lessons of previous struggles faced by our class. 1871 is one of those. On 18 March, 150 years ago, workers in Paris took over the city and for 72 days experimented with transforming society.

The Franco-Prussian War

The Europe of the second half of the 19th century was shaped by the spectre of the revolutions of 1848. In France, Napoleon III established his dictatorship upon the bodies of the proletariat that had risen during the June Days, pledging to restore the French Empire. In Germany, still divided into 39 states, the liberal revolutions of 1848 had failed. It would be the Prussian military junker caste led by Bismarck who would unify Germany to preserve the monarchy and their class position. The Franco-Prussian War which broke out in 1870, following Prussia’s victories over Denmark and Austria, was the final act in Bismarck’s policy of realpolitik, that he had been pursuing ever since becoming Minister President in 1862.

Napoleon III was manoeuvred into declaring war on Prussia when Bismarck published the Ems Telegram which seemed to show that the French Ambassador had been rudely rebuffed by the Prussian King. Nationalists demonstrated in Paris chanting À Berlin (“to Berlin”) so that on 28 July Napoleon III led the French army towards the Rhine, while the Prussians and their allies in the lesser German states began massing on the French border. Over the next few weeks the French Army, badly organised and outmanoeuvred, suffered defeat after defeat, until on 2 September Napoleon III himself was captured at the Battle of Sedan. With Napoleon III’s abdication the Second French Empire effectively collapsed. Panic broke out in Paris, and two days later a Provisional Government of National Defence was created by members of the National Assembly, including left and right republicans, who committed themselves to the continuation of the war.

The events in Paris did not alter the ultimate course of the war. By 19 September Paris was under siege. On 31 October the Provisional Government decided to open negotiations with the Prussians, which was met with violent protest by the population. Various revolutionaries tried to take advantage of this volatile situation. In Lyon, Bakunin was at work concocting an insurrection – on 28 September he and his comrades seized the City Hall, proclaimed the state to have been abolished and announced the formation of a Revolutionary Convention for the Salvation of France. Finding little support, the revolutionaries were dispersed that same day, and Bakunin left for Marseilles, where he tried to start another short-lived insurrection (before it broke out on 31 October, he had to flee to Switzerland). Meanwhile Blanqui, who had already been organising armed demonstrations back in January and August, launched a republican newspaper La Patrie en danger (“the fatherland in danger”), and on 31 October took a leading role in organising the revolutionary elements of the Parisian workers and the National Guard towards the overthrow of the Provisional Government for betraying the French cause. Blanqui and his comrades seized the City Hall (Hôtel-de-Ville), announced the formation of a Committee of Public Safety, only to be likewise arrested soon after. Blanqui himself went into hiding where he continued to scheme against the Provisional Government until on 17 March 1871 he was finally arrested in Bretenoux.

In Paris the Provisional Government continued to weather the storms into the new year. On 18 January 1871, having whipped up German nationalism and having humiliated the French, Bismarck finally accomplished his aim – the unification of Germany. Meanwhile in Paris further attempts at insurrection, like the 22 January armed demonstration of Blanquists (in which Édouard Vaillant and Louise Michel, among others, participated), were staved off and resulted in more political repression. But the attempts of the Provisional Government to raise armies in the provinces were not enough to save Paris, and the siege continued (as did the peace negotiations with the Prussians). In the 8 February elections to the National Assembly in those departments not occupied by the Prussians, the monarchists gained a majority and a few days later the conservative Adolphe Thiers was appointed Chief Executive of the French Republic. He signed the Treaty of Versailles on 26 February 1871 which ended the Franco-Prussian War.

Yet those who hoped this would be the end of the crisis were to be quickly disappointed. The victory march of (now) German troops through Paris and the order for the disarming of the National Guard were met with widespread discontent. By this point the National Guard, disillusioned with the Provisional Government, had been gathering cannons and arms in working class districts of Paris and had elected their own independent Central Committee. When Thiers sent the regular army to disarm them by force and bring back order in the city, many soldiers refused and turned their guns on their generals instead. The Provisional Government withdrew to Versailles. The life of the Paris Commune had begun.

The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs ... They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.

Central Committee of the National Guard, 18 March 1871

The First International

At this point it is worth briefly outlining the political tendencies present within the working class movement of the time. Of course the prime mover here was the First International, founded in 1864, a loose alliance of trade unionists, republicans, and various radicals, anarchists and communists among them, to which Marx provided a political lead. In fact, it was Marx’s coverage of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, delivered first as addresses to the General Council of the International and later published as the pamphlet The Civil War in France (1871), which served as the most prolific defence of the Commune in the eyes of the world and made Marx the “the best calumniated and the most menaced man of London.” (Marx to Kugelmann, 18 June 1871)

In Germany, members of the International, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, denounced the war in the Reichstag on behalf of German Social Democracy, abstained from voting on war loans, and expressed sympathy for the Commune. For this they were later found guilty of high treason. Mass meeting of workers took place across German towns and cities passing anti-war resolutions. In France, where the International was only a marginal force plagued as it was by constant repressions and trials, the Paris section nevertheless published a manifesto against the war and issued an appeal to German workers. After September 1870 – the collapse of the Second Empire – the International in Paris was revitalised, and new committees were created in various districts of the city. That said, as Auguste Serraillier reported, there was much disorganisation and not all embraced internationalist positions (the Blanquists and Proudhonists refused to publish a translation of Marx’s second address deeming it “too Prussian”). Overall however, the official policy of the International was that of peace and against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany. The International tried to rally workers towards that end not only in the two warring nations, but also in England and America.

In Paris, the republican legacy of 1789, 1830, 1832 and 1848 held a stronger sway over political life. It was the ideas of Proudhon and Blanqui, revolutionaries of the preceding generation, which still dominated the workers’ movement. When the Commune, to which the Central Committee of the National Guard transferred power, held its first election on 26 March, members of the International received only seventeen of the ninety-two seats, while the majority went to Blanquists. Blanqui himself of course had been arrested only a few days before the Commune was established, but was elected its honorary president in absentia. All attempts by the Communards to trade hostages in exchange for the release of Blanqui were rebuffed. The Blanquists were essentially hoping for a military dictatorship which would replace the useless Provisional Government and continue the war with Prussia. The Proudhonists wanted a federation of communes where labour and capital could mutually coexist and eschewed participation in political and economic struggles. As Engels noted however, when faced with the real movement both currents were at times forced to do “the opposite of what the doctrines of their school proscribed.”

Storming Heaven

[The Revolution of 18 March represents] the achievement of political power by the proletariat just as the Revolution of 1789 represented the achievement of political power by the bourgeoisie.

Vermorel, L’ami du peuple, 24 April 1871

… for total social revolution, for the abolition of all existing social and legal structures, for the elimination of all privileges and forms of exploitation, for the replacement of the rule of Capital by the rule of Labour … in short, for the emancipation of the working class by the working class.

Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded, 8 May 1871

So declared some of the Communards. But the Paris Commune had only limited time to put its disparate ideas into concrete action. In the 72 days of its existence, it passed a number of decrees. Although only twenty-four members of the Commune were working class, it is clear that the majority of its decrees, albeit limited, were aimed at easing the lives of the Parisian proletariat. Besides, it must also be noted, some decrees were introduced only under the threat of demonstrations and some were never implemented properly.

  • 19 March: The Central Committee of the National Guard announces elections to the Paris Commune;
  • 29 March: The Commune decrees a moratorium on the last three quarters of the year's rent payments;
  • 30 March: The Commune decrees conscription and the standing army abolished;
  • 2 April: The Commune decrees the separation of Church and State. Salaries for all members of the government and civil service are set at the level of wages of a skilled worker;
  • 12 April: The Commune decrees a moratorium on payment of commercial bills;
  • 16 April: The Commune decrees the confiscation of abandoned factories and workshops and transferred their ownership to worker cooperatives;
  • 20 April: The Commune decrees that bakery workers no longer have to work nights;
  • 25 April: The Commune decrees the requisitioning of vacant lodgings;
  • 27 April: The Commune decrees that employers are forbidden from deducting penalties from wages;
  • 1 May: The Commune votes 45 to 23 to delegate its powers to a Committee of Public Safety;
  • 7 May: The Commune decrees that objects held by pawnshops have to be liberated;
  • 12 May: The Commune decrees that worker cooperatives will be given preference when it comes to contracts.

On the ground, countless committees, assemblies, unions, cooperatives, discussion clubs, demonstrations and mutual aid societies proliferated from district to district, animated by a working class base. At its best, the Commune interacted with these forms of self-organisation (an example: on 15 April some general meetings of workers already resolved to take over a few workplaces and run them cooperatively, on 16 April the Commune passed a decree providing workers the necessary requisition orders). There were attempts to reform the education system and the arts. A number of symbolic actions were taken: on 6 April the guillotine outside the Paris prison was smashed to pieces and burned, on 15 May Thiers’ house was destroyed, while the Vendôme Column, a hated symbol of war, was brought down on 16 May. The internationalism of the Commune, which declared its red flag to be that of the Universal Republic, was also more than just lip service. Jarosław Dąbrowski, a Polish military officer and participant of the January Uprising of 1863, was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Commune. Léo Fränkel, a Hungarian member of the International and contact of Marx, was delegated to the Commission on Labour, Industry, and Exchange. The Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded was led by Nathalie Lemel, French member of the International and militant bookbinder, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Russian member of the International and another contact of Marx. They supported and defended the cause of the revolution in the ambulance service and took part in the construction of the barricades. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray described the scenes he observed surrounding the Commune elections on 26 March in the following way:

Those who had despaired a month before were now full of enthusiasm. Strangers addressed each other and shook hands. For indeed we were not strangers, but bound together by the same faith and the same aspirations … The next day 200,000 ‘wretches’ came to the Hôtel-de-Ville there to install their chosen representatives, the battalion drums beating, the banners surmounted by the Phrygian cap and with red fringe round the muskets; their ranks, swelled by soldiers of the line, artillerymen, and marines faithful to Paris, came down from all the streets to the Place de Grève like the thousand streams of a great river … A thousandfold echo answered, “Vive la Commune!”. Caps were flung up on the ends of bayonets, flags fluttered in the air. From the windows, on the roofs, thousands of hands waved handkerchiefs. The quick reports of the cannon, the bands, the drums, blended in one formidable vibration. All hearts leaped with joy, all eyes filled with tears. Never since the great Federation had Paris been thus moved … This lightning would have made the blind see. 187,000 voters. 200,000 men with the same watchword. This was not a secret committee, a handful of factious rioters and bandits, as had been said for ten days. Here was an immense force at the service of a definite idea – communal independence, the intellectual life of France — an invaluable force in this time of universal anaemia …

Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, 1876

This popular movement, to which the working class of Paris gave a practical lead, of which the International became the spiritual bearer, was an insult to Thiers and company. The old world regrouped while Paris rejoiced.

The “Semaine Sanglante”

When the news of the Paris Commune spread in the provinces, attempts at establishing similar communes were made all across France: in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Narbonne, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot and Limoges. None of these survived long. Paris was soon to face an even bigger tragedy. Criticising the mistakes of our forebears is always easier with the benefit of hindsight, however some of these were already obvious to contemporary observers and participants.

The Commune could not abolish the labour-capital relationship or eliminate all oppression. It would be absurd to expect it to introduce socialism in one city. But the dominant ideas of the movement (Proudhonism and Blanquism) held it back more than necessary. Often it took pressure from below for the Commune to actually encroach on the right to private property (hence the reluctance to take over the State Bank). Many of the new cooperatives in practice functioned just like the capitalist businesses they had to compete with (hence wages remained low and working hours long). And although working women were highly involved on the ground, they were not allowed to vote and had no direct representation on the higher bodies of the Commune (though the likes of Fränkel and Vaillant championed their cause).

But the eventual downfall of the Commune is often blamed on indecision, wasted time and lack of direction. The Central Committee of the National Guard did not consider itself authoritative enough to act, and as such went about organising the elections to the Commune. The Commune, split between a majority and a minority (over the Committee of Public Safety), debated and passed decrees. Meanwhile, Versailles was given the opportunity to rally its forces. And once it did, the Commune had no diplomatic leverage, except a bunch of hostages. Marx would later comment:

[The Paris Commune was] merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people – the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc.

Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881

This sentiment was also echoed by participants of the Commune. The Commune only had a fighting chance if it struck early, while Versailles was still rattled. After that it could only hope for a negotiated compromise. By early April, Thiers had the military upper hand. His troops were reinforced when Bismarck promptly returned French prisoners of war and with recruits from the provinces. Under Napoleon III Paris had been transformed from a city of narrow streets, perfect for the setting up of barricades, to a city of wide avenues and boulevards more fitted for the movement of troops. Unlike on 18 March, the attempt to fraternise with troops proved futile. Despite the brave stand of many Communards, they could not hold out. Thiers’ army was ruthless – as they conquered they executed the vanquished. Out of desperation, the Communards executed 63 hostages and set sections of Paris on fire. This was the “red terror”. The full scale of the “white terror” was yet to be unleashed:

The massacre was thus carried on, methodically organized, at the Caserne Dupleix, the Lycée Bonaparte, the Northern and Eastern Railway Stations, the Jardin des Plantes, in many mairies and barracks, at the same time as in the abattoirs. Large open vans came to fetch the corpses, and went to empty them in the square or any open space in the neighbourhood. The victims died simply, without fanfaronade. Many crossed their arms before the muskets, and themselves commanded the fire. Women and children followed their husbands and their fathers, crying to the soldiers, ‘Shoot us with them!’ And they were shot … The army, having neither police nor precise information, killed at random. Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium.

Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, 1876

The massacre culminated in the semaine sanglante (“bloody week”) of 21-28 May. More than 20,000 Communards, and those assumed to be, were butchered on the streets of Paris by Thiers’ troops. Some 40,000 were taken prisoner; of these thousands more were executed, deported, imprisoned or condemned to forced labour. The bourgeoisie showed no mercy. The workers’ movement in France was crushed by brute force. It would take decades for it to recover. It was towards unified Germany that proletarian hopes would now turn, where conditions for the development of a mass workers’ party opened up. This, though, would later pose its own problems.

Revolutionary Marxism and the Paris Commune

Marx himself was originally pessimistic about the prospects of an uprising in Paris. When it broke out, he of course threw his weight behind it. What made the Commune exceptional was not the limited reforms it passed, it was its character as “essentially a working class government”. It showed that workers can take their destiny into their own hands. In this it gave the international working class a banner to rally around.

One of the distinguishing features of the Marxist method is that, rather than set up eternal principles or map out utopian schemes, we learn from and with the real movement. The awareness that social transformation towards “free association” would eventually have to involve the abolition of the state was there in the works of Marx even before the Paris Commune. Here we only need to quote The German Ideology (1845), where Marx recognised that proletarians “will have to abolish the very condition of their existence”, which also meant “they must overthrow the State”, or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), where Marx observed how since the French Revolution of 1789 “all revolutions perfected this [state] machine instead of breaking it”, how the contending parties simply “regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.” The Paris Commune was the first practical example of “breaking” that state machine – it abolished the standing army, it swept aside the bourgeois parliament. In its place it set up something qualitatively different (even if born with the birthmarks of the old society). The Paris Commune helped Marx come to the conclusion that:

the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871

This insight was so important that the infamous ten points proposed back in the Communist Manifesto (1848), calling for various immediate measures towards state centralisation, were now deemed to be antiquated “in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution (1848), and then, still more, in the Paris Commune (1871).” Engels would further comment:

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.

Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, 1891

This was written in the context of the revisionist debates within German Social Democracy at the time. After Marx died in 1883, the road was cleared for reformist elements to gradually strip Marxism of its revolutionary kernel. In his last months of life, even Engels himself was being censored by the party apparatus. The lessons learned in Paris were soon forgotten or obscured – on purpose. It would be up to a new generation of revolutionaries who, on the wave of new working class upheavals, would rescue Marxism from so-called Marxists.

This tendency found its expression in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In 1905 Russian workers discovered the councils of workers’ delegates (i.e. soviets) recallable by the workers who elected them. This was an enormous advance on bourgeois representative democracy where elected representatives serve for fixed periods while electors have no control over them. When soviets reappeared in 1917 the Bolsheviks gave the most vocal support to the idea that they should take over the running of society as an alternative power to the bourgeois Provisional Government. On 7 November the slogan “all power to the soviets” was realised in the October Revolution. With the repressive apparatus of the old regime effectively paralysed, the Red Guards did not wait to strike against their Versailles – government offices were occupied and the Winter Palace captured. Furthermore, they occupied not only railway stations, the telephone exchange and the main bridges in the city, but also the State Bank. It was Minister President Kerensky who had to flee abroad. This course of action was no accident – revolutionary Marxists like Lenin had spent the previous years carefully preserving the red thread running from 1848 through 1871 to 1917:

The Commune taught the European proletariat to pose concretely the tasks of the socialist revolution. The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten. The working class will make use of it, as it has already done in Russia during the December uprising (1905).

Lenin, Lessons of the Commune, 1908

For the next few months the Bolsheviks actively encouraged the setting up of workers’ and soldiers’ councils all over Russia. If the Paris Commune was the first time the working class rose up to overthrow the ruling class in one city, then the Russian Revolution was the first and so far only time the working class rose up to overthrow the ruling class in a major imperialist country. This was not its intention however. The Bolsheviks were internationalists, and knew that in order to endure, the revolution had to spread to other countries. One by one however revolutions failed and were crushed in Germany, Hungary, Finland, China, etc. The Communards lost honourably, being crushed by the counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks did not, as they found themselves administering a state capitalist monster which eventually devoured them.

Today, we keep alive the lessons of 1871 and 1917. The working class, now larger than ever, still has the potential to uproot the capitalist system and pave the way to a truly human future. Since the days of the Communards capitalism has produced all kinds of social misery and lurched from crisis to crisis. The ruling class has no solution to the current economic crisis other than to further destroy the planet or take us down the road to generalised war. The only hope for humanity lies in the working class which has to rediscover its own forms of self-organisation as demonstrated by Russian workers in 1905 and 1917 and by those of Paris in 1871.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
December 2020

Some Further Reading:

  • The Civil War in France (1871) by Karl Marx
  • History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (1876) by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray
  • The Paris Commune of 1871 (1937) by Frank Jellinek
  • The Paris Commune of 1871 (1972) by Eugene Schulkind
  • The Communards of Paris, 1871 (1973) by Stewart Edwards
  • Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (2014) by John Merriman
  • Voices of the Paris Commune (2015) by Mitchell Abidor
Thursday, March 18, 2021

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