The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Paris Commune and Its Lessons for Today

Mar 15, 2021

Translated and excerpted from Lutte de Classe, the journal of the revolutionary workers’ group Lutte Ouvrière, active in France.

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

In September 1870, the Empire of Napoleon III of France collapsed after 20 years in power, when news spread of the Empire’s defeat in the war the Emperor himself had launched against Prussia. The people of Paris responded by arming themselves against the threat of German occupation and by organizing themselves by city district into National Guard battalions. When the government of the bourgeois republic, which had replaced the emperor, tried to disarm them on March 18, 1871—in the words of novelist Victor Hugo, this “touched off the fuse to the powder keg”—the proletarians rose up. They proclaimed the Commune, which was a reference to one established by the French Revolution 80 years earlier. The bourgeoisie and their political leaders were frightened and took refuge in suburban Versailles, with tens of thousands of soldiers and officers.

This first workers’ power, as embodied first by the Central Committee of the National Guard and then by the Commune’s Council and by activists such as Eugène Varlin and Léo Frankel, lasted a little over two months. Emergency measures were adopted, aiming to concretely improve the living conditions of working people: particularly, a moratorium on rents, a reduction in work hours, increases of the lowest wages, the prohibition of night shifts for women and children, and the establishment of cafeterias for ordinary people.

But most significantly, the Paris Commune began to destroy the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. It put in place changes that foreshadowed what could become a democratic working class government, such as abolishing the standing army and replacing it with the armed people, and electing and recalling public servants and bringing their salaries in line with workers’ wages.

The wealthy had to re-establish their order, since they risked seeing the working-class power extend over the rest of the country and beyond. Government chief Adolphe Thiers launched the Versailles army into an assault on the Communards. Despite a heroic defense, the Communards were defeated. At least 20,000 were massacred during the “bloody week.” Tens of thousands of others were hastily sentenced and thrown into prison, executed, or, like Louise Michel, deported to New Caledonia. The bourgeoisie then could hope, according to the words of writer Edmond de Goncourt, “such a purge, by killing off the combative part of the population, defers the next revolution by a whole generation.” After that it was in Russia, first in 1905 and then in 1917, that the working class would again victoriously take up an assault on the bourgeoisie and its state. This opened up the way for a new wave throughout all of Europe. At its head was the Bolshevik Party, which knew more than all the other parties to learn the militant lessons of the Commune.

The Workers Learn from Their Experience

Karl Marx was writing The Civil War in France at the same time as the Commune was unfolding. He and Friedrich Engels saw in it an impressive demonstration of the revolutionary power of the working masses.

Marx was aware of the unfavorable balance of forces and of the isolation of the proletariat’s revolutionary elements in a France marked by the influence of the small farmers. In September 1870 he had written an “Address” in the name of the International Workingmen’s Association (the International) warning its militants against a premature insurrection. But as soon as the Commune was announced, he hailed the “flexibility,” “historic initiative,” and the “capacity for sacrifice” of the proletarians of France’s capital.

And even before the destruction of the Commune, he wrote, “However that may be, the present rising in Paris—even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society—is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection in Paris.”

As Vladimir Lenin emphasized, Marx upheld above all in the working class’s struggles “the historical initiative of the masses” and their capacity to find in their struggles the energy to engage in the fight against bourgeois society and even to invent the form of that fight. A step forward in struggle is always better in this regard than any program. In Lenin’s struggle to build a revolutionary party in Russia and lead it to the assault on the ruling power, he relied constantly on this fundamental aspect of the class struggle. Lenin was in a good situation to know that many militants like Plekhanov, who had worked for the proletarian revolution, would later renounce the revolution because they did not really have confidence in this capacity of the working class or in the “intuitive genius of the masses.”

This is why Lenin understood first and most deeply the importance of the appearance of the Soviets in Russia during the revolution of 1905. This perspective also guided his whole approach during the year 1917 and then in the construction of the workers’ state. He was convinced that if workers made mistakes, they would also be able to learn from them. Along this line, as he emphasized in a text in 1908, “The Commune taught the European proletariat to pose concretely the tasks of the socialist revolution.” Lenin never failed to admire in the Commune “initiative, independence, freedom of action and vigor from below [combined] with voluntary centralism free from stereotyped forms.” He fought for the Soviets to follow the same path. And the hopes of activists who want to contribute to the emancipation of the working class and of humanity today must be based on this same confidence.

Proletarian Democracy and Bourgeois Democracy

The Paris Commune saw the proletariat brought to the head of a state—and of a great power—for the first time. The proletariat hadn’t chosen the timing or the conditions, but it vowed resolutely to tear down the state stone by stone. This is why, as Lenin emphasized in State and Revolution, the only “correction” that Marx deemed necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto was drawn from the experience of the Commune. During the revolution to come, the workers could not be content to operate the state apparatus for their own benefit, they would first of all have to take it apart. The Communards had partially understood this by starting to dismantle the state apparatus and by organizing the arming of the proletariat, an indispensable lever for successfully overthrowing the social order.

The Commune also represented the end of the hope in a “social republic” based on bourgeois electoralism which was still held by many proletarians and some socialists in 1848. The workers of the Commune had opposed their own domination to this bourgeois regime in which, as Lenin wrote, paraphrasing Marx, “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.” They did not have time to really implement it, and they did not dare to seize and manage the Bank of France, which left the bourgeoisie the financial resources to secretly reorganize its army and prepare to crush the Commune.

When that particularly violent and murderous assault came, it showed that workers will be able to truly free themselves from the exploitation and dictatorship of the bourgeoisie—in other words, from its power and control over the economy—only by exercising their own power, their dictatorship over the propertied classes. This is true regardless of the form the domination of the bourgeoisie takes, whether a republic, a parliamentary monarchy, or an outright dictatorship.

This does not mean that revolutionary communists are indifferent to so-called democratic freedoms. To the contrary—if only because they allow militants to defend their ideas more openly. So, the Bolsheviks always were the first to fight for the victory of democratic rights in Tsarist Russia, where those rights were flouted. But the Bolsheviks did not lose sight of the fact that only the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the collectivization of the major means of production could guarantee real equality and therefore real democracy.

Despite all its shortcomings, such as renouncing to engage in a military offensive when the wealthy in Versailles fled in March 1871, Engels concluded in his 1891 introduction to The Civil War in France that the Commune “was the dictatorship of the proletariat.” It was a new type of proletarian state, in which Lenin saw “the autonomous organization of the working masses,” with no “distinction between legislative and executive powers,” and an armed organization capable of preventing any counter-revolution coming from the old ruling classes and their supporters in the petty bourgeoisie.

“The Internationale Will Be the Human Race”

The Commune’s tragic end showed that the owning classes and their respective states—in this case the French bourgeois republic and the German empire—knew how to get along perfectly when it came to crushing proletarians. The Commune’s defeat is also a reminder that workers are one class, regardless of their origins and across all borders. This is not only so because many of the Communards were themselves Poles, Hungarians or Germans, but also because the Commune resonated on every continent. And it is above all so because the working class can only fully emancipate itself on the scale of the capitalist world.

Moreover, one of the criticisms that Marx had formulated against the French workers’ leaders in 1870 was to warn them against the sirens of national unity and against nostalgic memories of the French Revolution—a period when the bourgeoisie had carried out this policy of national unity on its own account. While Lenin admired Auguste Blanqui’s combativeness and dedication to the proletarian cause, he also emphasized the extent to which the title of Blanqui’s newspaper Our Country in Danger! was detrimental to this cause.

The Need for a Revolutionary Party

In September 1870, through the intermediary of the very small minority of militants who claimed to support his ideas, Marx above all advised the workers of Paris to “calmly and resolutely improve … the work of their own class organization.” They did not have enough time, and some did not understand the need for this work. So with the Paris Commune the proletariat found itself in power without having been able to organize itself and without having had the possibility to decide between the different political currents existing within it: communists, anarchists, and supporters of Proudhon and Blanqui in particular.

The fumbles and even the mistakes of the leaders of the Commune in financial and in 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. What was lacking was an organization and leaders who concentrated the experience of the workers’ movement and who could have made the link with the masses in the period before the Commune. Nor could the Commune’s leaders exclude certain patriots who claimed to be socialist but who, as Trotsky writes, “did not really have any confidence” in the working class, and worse, “shook the proletariat’s faith in itself.”

In May 1871, when the 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 mightily before the end of the century and then led to 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 against capitalist society which still animates many exploited people must be combined with the sharpest consciousness of the interests of the proletariat and the knowledge of its false friends and its true enemies, in order to prevail. Transmitting the experiences of the past, such as those of 1871, and learning both from past successes and failures, remain essential tasks for revolutionary communist militants. This conclusion of Lenin remains ours: “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.”