The Spark

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

The Paris Commune, 1871

Dec 31, 1977

Introduction

Over one hundred years ago, in March of 1871, the working class of Paris drove the French ruling class out of Paris. It was the first time anywhere that the power of the bourgeoisie was replaced by the power of the workers.

We call this historic event the Paris Commune, which was the name of the council elected to run Paris after the old rulers left.

The working class and its allies organized life in Paris for 10 weeks before the Commune was crushed by the bourgeoisie. During those 10 weeks, the Communards made many mistakes. The working class had no clear goals, no clear leadership. Often the Communards did nothing more than react to events, without planning where they were going. Some of their mistakes helped to bring about the defeat of the Commune.

But despite all this, the Commune was an event of immense importance for the working class. For the first time ever, the working class took charge of its own destiny. The Paris workers gave an example of what the workers in power can do. They showed that it was not just a dream that workers can run their own lives. They showed the way to the socialist society of the future.

The Power of the Bourgeoisie Replaced by the Power of the Working Class

By 1871, the workers of Paris already had experience in revolution. There had been revolutions in Paris in 1830, 1832, and 1848 when the rising bourgeoisie had fought against the rule of the old nobility, and against the landlords and the bankers allied with them. Each time the industrial bourgeoisie, that is, the new capitalists of trade and manufacturing, had called upon the workers and poor shopkeepers of Paris to provide troops for the battle. And each time, the workers went into battle for this new ruling class.

But once the workers began to fight, they began to put forth their own demands. Each time, the bourgeoisie became frightened by the independence of the workers and turned on them. The bourgeoisie made new alliances with their old enemies, the nobility and landlords, in order to keep the workers from going further.

After the revolution of 1848, France was ruled by a dictator, Louis Bonaparte. He was elected president in the early days of the republic created by the revolution, but, in December of 1851, he organized a military coup and took over complete control of the state. Under Louis Bonaparte, speculation and industrial growth flourished. This led to the enrichment of the whole bourgeoisie, which began to dream of extending the French empire. They conducted small wars to gain territory here and there. But their main target was the rich southern section of Germany.

This goal became even more important as the industrial expansion of France began to slow. By 1869, a severe depression shook France; the capitalists pushed through big wage cuts; the workers reacted with strikes. Some strikes were put down by the army, but others were won. This strike movement caused many problems for the French bourgeoisie, already under pressure from the economic crisis. The bourgeoisie turned to their usual answer to such problems: war.

The French government began a war against Germany, but the scheme backfired. The French army quickly surrendered to the German army after several military disasters. But when the German army tried to take Paris, the people of Paris did not give up so easily. For five months, the German army tried to starve out Paris while constantly shelling it. During this siege, the upper classes and most government officials left Paris to go to the safety and the comfort of Bordeaux, in the south of France. Only the workers, the small shopkeepers, and the poor professionals stayed in Paris. They suffered starvation and sickness: 60,000 died. Meanwhile the French government hiding in Bordeaux sent no aid to the people of Paris. In fact, it eventually signed a surrender, giving Paris to the German army.

The people of Paris had to depend on themselves. Most of the working population was armed. There were half a million rifles in the hands of the Parisian workers. Two thousand cannons were placed on the hills guarding the entrances of Paris. Starting in August 1870, the Parisians organized themselves into the National Guard, composed of workers and poor professionals and shopkeepers, like all armies. But, despite this similarity, the National Guard was a new kind of army. Each neighborhood had its own unit; each unit elected its own officers from among the ranks. Each unit also sent delegates to a Central Committee which organized the defense of the whole city.

Neither the German army nor the French government could deal with the armed workers of Paris. The German army was never able completely to cut off the food supply. The peasants from the surrounding areas continued to supply Paris. The working people of Paris showed their determination not to surrender, no matter how many months they had to fight. Even though an armistice was concluded between the French and German governments, the German army could only make a symbolic entry into the west of Paris. The Parisians kept their arms.

As for the French rulers, their trickery worked no better than the German blockade did. After the German army withdrew, the French rulers wanted to take Paris back from the workers. First, the French government tried to talk the workers into disarming. They proposed to move the government to Versailles, a village near Paris. The government tried to convince the workers that their interests were the same as those of their rulers, so the workers had no reason to maintain their own armed guard. When that didn’t work, the government sent in their own troops to remove the cannons by force, the first step in disarming the whole city.

On the night of March 17 to 18, the French army tried a sneak attack. Before the army could move the cannons out of Paris, the workers surrounded the troops. The people of Paris talked to the common soldiers in the army, who soon refused to fight against the people. Instead, the soldiers joined the people of Paris, turning on their own officers, helping to arrest some and to shoot some.

Terrified of this reaction by the soldiers, the remaining army officers and government officials fled from Paris on March 18. Most of the bourgeoisie itself was long since gone. Paris belonged to the workers.

The taking of power by the working class was simple. The working class was armed. The French army was too weak at that moment to disarm them by force. And the workers refused to be disarmed by trickery. Ultimately the bourgeoisie always maintains its rule by force. When the force of the state proved to be less strong than the force of the workers, the bourgeoisie left. The workers in the National Guard took over City Hall and other important buildings in Paris.

And so for the first time in history, working people had the opportunity to govern themselves.

The Working Class Creates a New Life

When the old government officials fled, the workers were faced with big problems that had to be solved immediately. They had to feed themselves; they had to organize the daily life of Paris if they were going to survive. Not only did they do it, but they showed, despite all the hardships they faced, that daily life could be organized much more efficiently and much more humanely than the bourgeoisie had done.

A few weeks before the workers took power, they had already formed a body which had more authority with the working class than the French government had. It was made up of elected delegates from the National Guard, and it was known as the Central Committee of the National Guard. Twenty men were elected, one from each district of Paris, to act in the interests of the workers in the National Guard. These men were generally not known outside the districts where they lived. In fact, the bourgeoisie criticized the delegates because they were unknown to those who usually controlled the government. Yet the measures taken by those elected delegates made more sense to the workers than anything the famous politicians had done.

When the bourgeoisie fled, the Central Committee calmly sent people into different ministries to run them. For two weeks, the Central Committee led the city, until they had organized elections, by universal suffrage. The government that was established by the elections became known as the Commune.

The Commune was a new kind of government. Some foreigners, including one German, were elected. Some French people questioned whether “foreigners” should hold office since they weren’t French. The Commune declared that they could, for the banner of the Commune was the banner of the international working class.

The Commune eliminated the army and police, both of which are set up to be used against the people. These were replaced by the people themselves, who were already armed and organized. Every neighborhood defended and policed itself. The ruling class today tells us that we need police to protect us against crime. They say that it is impossible for people to handle this themselves. But during the ten weeks of the Commune, almost all crime stopped because people removed much of the exploitation which causes crime, and they defended themselves from criminals when necessary.

The Commune got rid of the physical force of the old government. Next they broke with the old ideas of their former rulers. The Catholic Church, always tied to the state, was separated by abolishing its tax money. The Church no longer controlled the schools; the educational system itself was completely revamped. It became free of religious cant for the first time. And since the schools were no longer tied either to the church or to the old bourgeois state, science itself was freed from the superstitions and prejudices which had hindered it.

The Commune also did away with the old kind of bureaucratic government. The representatives of the former government in Versailles had an average age of 62. Those in the Commune in Paris had an average age of 37. This new young government took part with the people of Paris in building a new kind of society. Ninety people had been elected to the Commune. Originally, there were 21 liberals elected, but they soon quit. About 60 of the remaining 69 members called themselves revolutionaries, taking the side of the working class against the bourgeoisie. The large majority of the members of the Commune were working people, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.

Most government officials were elected, not appointed, and all could be replaced immediately. If people didn’t like what their officials were doing, they could immediately vote the officials out. The officials agreed that they should not be paid more than the workers’ wages. So there was no encouragement for someone to become a government official for money or position. The Commune itself passed laws and then was responsible for how these laws were carried out. It was not an elected body like the U.S. Congress which can always put the responsibility for the bad effects of its laws on the non-elected officials who implement the laws.

As a result, the government was no longer a power above the workers. It could represent the changing views of the workers, as new people replaced the old. Many workers were elected to the Commune, and many of the important government bodies were headed by workers. The business of government was carried on by the working people themselves. The workers proved that they could run a government, that they could run society.

One result of this government run by workers was a big increase in efficiency. Those public services which the old government had abandoned during the five months of the German siege were immediately started up. During the time of the Commune, government was much cheaper. Services were organized in the most efficient way, there were no big salaries paid to officials. There was no drain of money into private hands (with the corporations taking their cut, as they do with government today, in juicy contracts for weapons or public transportation or health care.)

Since this government was controlled by working people for the first time in history, the policies of a government could be in the interests of the working people themselves. The decrees passed by the Commune show which class the Commune served. Rent payments were suspended for nine months. This was a response to the Versailles government, which had decided to reinstate rent payments. They had been suspended during the German siege; the decision to reinstate them had infuriated the people of Paris. Necessities like workers’ tools, which people had been forced to pawn in order to survive, were redeemed by the government. All payments of debts were suspended for three years, to give people a chance to catch up. Night work was abolished because it was more unhealthy for the workers. Fines which the bosses had collected for mistakes made at work were also abolished. Factories owned by those who had fled revolutionary Paris were taken over, re-organized and run by the workers themselves. In the factories which were already owned by the state, foremen were elected and could easily be recalled. An elected factory council met each night to plan the work.

The Commune lasted only ten weeks. But even in these first measures, it served the interests of the workers. The Communards passed very practical decrees to remedy their immediate problems. Thus, they began to question the supposedly inalienable right of the bosses to own and run the factories. The Commune called in question the control of the bourgeoisie over society.

The Commune also took measures which recognized that the revolution of the working class is international. Delegates from other countries were elected to the Commune. And the workers destroyed those monuments to French imperial wars built by the old regime. By their actions, the workers showed they have no country.

Many other measures taken by the Commune showed that workers wanted a different kind of life for themselves. They opened the Louvre, making it an art museum for the enjoyment of all people. Up until that time, the Louvre had been the palace which housed the private art collection of the kings of France. The Commune also opened the opera to poor people. Free outdoor concerts and plays were organized. The Commune pushed for a free education for everyone, with free supplies. And they tried to distribute books to the whole population. The workers tried to make culture and education available equally to all. It was the first step toward making it possible for everyone to be able to develop their abilities and interests. It was the first step toward realizing the full potential of all people.

The women of the Commune organized themselves to attack the problems they faced. They fought to get rid of prostitution, not by passing laws which punished the women, but by trying to make it economically unnecessary for any woman to be forced into prostitution. They attacked the idea that some children were “illegitimate” and fought to make all children accepted on an equal footing. They struggled against religious superstition, which had prevented many women from understanding how society works. And when the time came to defend the Commune, the women of the Paris Commune organized themselves to fight on the barricades.

But it is not the specific measures taken by the Commune that mark its historical importance. Most of the measures passed by the Commune were taken to solve the most immediate problems of the workers. Most of the measures did not completely and finally call in question the right of the bourgeoisie to own and control the economy and therefore to run the society. Certainly the dream of the free development of each and every person was still only a dream. And yet the very existence of the Commune was of earth-shaking importance. For, during the ten short weeks of the Commune’s life, the working class itself, aided and supported by the working petty bourgeoisie, decided and took these measures. The working class, through the activity carried on and the conscious decisions made, organized life in Paris. Socialist society will be achieved by the same kind of activity of the working class, supported by the other oppressed classes.

The End of the Commune, but the Commune Lives on

The Commune was remarkable for the heroism and combativity shown by the working class. Nonetheless, the Commune made a number of mistakes, which made it more vulnerable to the bourgeoisie’s attacks. The National Guard didn’t pursue the French army and the old government officials when they fled Paris. The National Guard probably could have destroyed the old army and the old government in March; if that had happened, the army could not have been used later to attack the Commune. But since the National Guard didn’t finish off the army, it came back later to destroy the Commune.

Nor did the Commune touch the Bank of France. The Communards still had too much respect for the law which defended the property of the bourgeoisie. And so they left untouched all the money of the old government as well as the wealth the bourgeoisie had taken from the working people over the years. The respect of the Communards for the rights of others was not reciprocated. The Versailles government used the promise of that money in the Bank of France to pay for soldiers and rifles to destroy the Commune.

And the Commune of Paris made little effort to lead the rest of France. The Communards thought it would be easy for the rest of the country to simply imitate Paris. Communes were proclaimed in other cities, but the workers outside Paris were not as strongly organized, nor as conscious of their power, as the workers of Paris. The rest of the cities needed direction and military aid from Paris, but they did not get it. Very quickly, these other communes were destroyed by the Versailles government.

At first, the Communards believed they would be left alone in Paris. Since they intended to leave the regime at Versailles alone, they expected to receive the same treatment. They did not organize a defense against the coming attack. Without a central co-ordination of the defense, the attack eventually proved fatal. The National Guard was organized only neighborhood by neighborhood. Barricades and cannons were placed as each neighborhood wished. Ammunition was not sent out according to any plan; some neighborhoods had too much, while others didn’t have enough.

The working people of Paris were learning from their mistakes, trying to correct them. But they didn’t have enough time. Their mistakes allowed the Versailles government to put together a new army. The Versailles government was aided by the German army which surrounded half of Paris and released the French army prisoners they held so the French army could surround the other half. The German and French governments, despite their war against each other, worked together to destroy the Commune. The Versailles government sent its army to attack Paris at the beginning of April. For nearly a month, Paris was bombarded, destroying much of it. Greater damage was inflicted on Paris by the French army than by the German army. On May 21, the army of the Versailles government began to enter Paris. But the Communards were determined not to give up. There were eight days of street fighting before the Commune fell on May 28.

Then the real blood-letting began. Soldiers marched through the streets shooting people. If a person had calloused hands, that was enough for him or her to be killed on the suspicion that he or she was a worker. The women of Paris, backbone of the Commune, had prevented the removal of the cannon; they were specially feared by the old ruling class. Hundreds, even thousands, of working class women and their children were captured, stood up against the wall and shot. The killing went on for a week. The streets filled with stinking dead bodies. Disease spread through Paris. Most of the working class districts of Paris burned. An estimated 30,000 people were executed that week. After the bourgeoisie got over its first thirst for blood, it imprisoned another 45,000 people, including 500 children; then it exiled another 30,000 to penal colonies. Some of those in prison were later executed or died in prison. Altogether, Paris lost 100,000 people.

The upper classes the so-called gentle upper classes came back to watch the slaughter. They observed the street fighting from the safe distance of the hills overlooking Paris, enjoying themselves as though they were at a country fair. A Communard general was captured at the beginning of the fighting. His head was cut off and brought to the court to allow the gentle ladies to spit on it.

The end of the Commune shows clearly the contrast between the old decadent society of the capitalists, and the new humane society of the workers. Quite simply, the bourgeoisie drowned the Commune in blood.

For the workers, the struggle against the ruling classes was just one side of what they were doing. They never lost sight of the goals that they set for themselves. An account of the Commune written by Lissagaray, a member of the Commune, describes a tour he made of the city with a friend just a few days before Paris fell to the bourgeoisie. He described the news stands filled with newspapers, of the Commune and of the bourgeoisie. A fair in Paris continued an extra week because people enjoyed it. There were concerts and speeches by political leaders on the street corners. The huge museums were filled with people hungry for culture. Paris was bubbling. The streets were calm, people continued on their business, despite the war which would completely engulf the city in only a few days time. Near the end, the workers understood they would lose. They knew that there was a good chance they would be killed or imprisoned. Yet they wanted to live their lives to the fullest, doing what they wanted with the time they had left. This was the most important reason that the workers of Paris fought so hard to keep the Commune.

With the fall of the Commune and the subsequent massacres, the head of the bourgeois government pronounced: “Now we have finished with socialism for a long time.” But six years later, the working class movement had already sprung back up in France. A new Socialist Party was launched. A new generation of workers emerged on the scene. The cry was “Long live the Commune!” This new movement quickly gained enough strength to force the ruling class to release many of the Communards still held in prison.

The Commune, despite the heavy sacrifice of workers’ lives, had a tremendous positive significance for the entire working class. If the working class had allowed itself to be disarmed, if it had not made the revolution, the bourgeoisie would still have tried to root socialism out of the working class. If the workers had allowed the bourgeoisie to destroy their hopes of the future without fighting back, the effect would have been truly disastrous the demoralization of yet another generation of workers.

But because the workers fought for themselves, they showed what could be done. They stirred a social movement both within the country and outside of France. The experience of the Commune taught workers everywhere that they could pose the question of the socialist revolution. It was no longer just an idea, no longer just a hope. For a brief moment, it was a living reality. The workers could run society. This was proven, once and for all, by the workers of Paris in 1871.

The leaders of the Commune may have had many faults, may have made many mistakes. But for all their mistakes, they chose to fight to the end alongside the other workers. Many died on the barricades; many more were executed. They did not know how to destroy the old power, but they never deserted the side of working people. And that is a rare thing for leaders in the workers’ movement.

The Commune of the workers in Paris lives today as a model for workers everywhere. It was the model of the Russian revolutionaries when they organized their revolution. They learned the lessons of the Commune, learned both from the mistakes and from the accomplishments of the Commune.

The workers of Paris fought in unfavorable conditions, with no support from anyone, with no other working-class revolution for a guide. They had to learn everything the hard way. But they made the way much easier for every working class struggle since then. The Paris workers of 1871 opened up a new age.

Reprinted from The Spark, 1977