THE FRENCH trade unions held a mass demonstration on Saturday, 29 May, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune when, as Karl Marx said: the workers ‘stormed heaven’ and ‘held the power for a whole month!’
The Commune confirmed the revolutionary role of the working class, and the lessons drawn from it prepared the way for the 1905 and then the 1917 Russian revolutions when the Bolshevik Party learned the lessons from the Commune, took the power and established the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Paris Commune was a revolutionary government that controlled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871 when it was put down in a bloody and barbaric counter-revolution led by Adolphe Thiers.
Following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III fled to England where he had served as a special constable against the Chartists.
Thiers was elected chief executive of the new French government, the Third Republic, and then sought to negotiate the surrender terms of the French bourgeoisie to their Prussian conquerors.
The Communards had other ideas.
When the Paris Commune seized power in March 1871, Thiers gave orders to the army for its suppression.
In ‘The Civil War in France’ a series of addresses to the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, Karl Marx sought to give workers of all countries a clear understanding of the character and worldwide significance of the heroic struggle of the Communards and their historical experience.
The chief lesson was that the capitalist state cannot be reformed but has to be smashed and replaced by a workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In their preface to the German edition of the ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ Marx and Frederich Engels stressed: ‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune viz, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.’
They also pointed out that not nationalising the Bank of France was another key mistake.
In his introduction to Marx’s pamphlet, Engels noted that Napoleon and the French bourgeoisie felt cheated ‘with the Austro-Prussian War of 1866; cheated of the anticipated “territorial compensation” by Bismarck, and by his own over-cunning, hesitating policy. There was now nothing left for Napoleon but war, which broke out in 1870 and drove him first to Sedan, and then to Wilhelmshohe (prison).
‘The inevitable result was the Paris Revolution of September 4th, 1870. The empire collapsed like a house of cards, and the republic was again proclaimed. But the enemy (Prussia) was standing at the gates (of Paris); the armies of the empire were either hopelessly beleaguered in Metz or held captive in Germany.
‘In this emergency the people allowed the Paris Deputies to the former legislative body to constitute themselves into a “Government of National Defence”. This was the more readily conceded, since, for the purpose of defence, all Parisians capable of bearing arms had enrolled in the National Guard and were armed, so that now the workers constituted a great majority.
‘But almost at once the antagonism between the almost completely bourgeois government and the armed proletariat broke into open conflict. On October 31, workers’ battalions stormed the town hall, and captured some members of the government. Treachery, the government’s direct breach of its undertakings, and the interventions of some petty-bourgeois battalions set them free again, and in order not to occasion the outbreak of civil war inside a city which was already beleaguered by a foreign power, the former government was left in office.
‘At last on January 28, 1871, Paris, almost starving, capitulated but with honours unprecedented in the history of war. The forts were surrendered, the outer wall disarmed, the weapons of the regiments of the line and of the Mobile Guard were handed over, and they themselves considered prisoners of war. But the National Guard kept its weapons and guns, and only entered into an armistice with the Prussian victors, who themselves did not dare enter Paris in triumph. They only dared to occupy a tiny corner of Paris, which, into the bargain, consisted partly of public parks, and even this they only occupied for a few days! And during this time they, who had maintained their encirclement of Paris for 131 days, were themselves encircled by the armed workers of Paris, who kept a sharp watch that no “Prussian” should overstep the narrow bounds of the corner ceded to the foreign conquerors. Such was the respect which the Paris workers inspired in the army before which all the armies of the empire had laid down their arms; and the Prussian Junkers, who had come to take revenge at the very centre of the revolution, were compelled to stand by respectfully, and salute just precisely this armed revolution!
‘During the war the Paris workers had confined themselves to demanding the vigorous prosecution of the fight. But now, when peace had come after the capitulation of Paris, now, Thiers, the new head of government, was compelled to realise that the supremacy of the propertied classes – large landowners and capitalists – was in constant danger so long as the workers of Paris had arms in their hands.
‘His first action was to attempt to disarm them. On March 18, he sent troops of the line with orders to rob the National Guard of the artillery belonging to it, which had been constructed during the siege of Paris and had been paid for by public subscription.
‘The attempt failed; Paris mobilised as one man in defence of the guns, and war between Paris and the French government sitting at Versailles was declared.
‘On March 26 the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed. The Central Committee of the National Guard, which up to then had carried on the government, handed in its resignation to the National Guard, after it had first decreed the abolition of the scandalous Paris “Morality Police”.
‘On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared that the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, was to be the sole armed force. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be reckoned to a future rental period, and stopped all sales of articles pledged in the municipal pawnshops.
‘On the same day, the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic”.’
The Commune governed Paris for two months, establishing policies including the separation of church and state, self-policing, the remission of rent during the siege, the abolition of child labour, and the right of employees to take over an enterprise deserted by its owner.
The Commune was eventually suppressed by the national French Army during La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) beginning on 21 May 1871.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 Communards are confirmed to have been killed in battle or executed, though some estimates are as high as 20,000.
The Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, and other hostages were shot by the Commune in retaliation.
The policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the understanding of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, who described it as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the third address, Marx began: ‘On the dawn of March 18, Paris arose to the thunder-burst of “Vive la Commune!” What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalising to the bourgeois mind?
‘ “The proletarian of Paris,” said the Central Committee in its manifesto of March 18, “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.”
‘But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’
In his postcript to Marx’s Civil War in France to mark the 20th anniversary of the Commune, Engels said: ‘… in the economic sphere much was left undone which, according to our view today, the Commune ought to have done.
‘The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake.
‘The bank in the hands of the Commune – this would have been worth more than 10,000 hostages. It would have meant the pressure of the whole of the French bourgeoisie on the Versailles government in favour of peace with the Commune, but what is still more wonderful is the correctness of so much that was actually done by the Commune …’
In a letter to Dr Kugelman of April 1871, Marx wrote: ‘If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting’.
In his pamphlet State and Revolution, the leader of the Bolshevik Party and successful Russian Revolution, Lenin, notes: ‘It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance.
‘This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination.’
However, Marx praised the Communards for what they did achieve.
In his third address in Civil War in France, Marx said: ‘Imperialism is, at the same time, the most prostitute and the ultimate form of the state power which nascent middle class society had commenced to elaborate as a means of its own emancipation from feudalism, and which full-grown bourgeois society had finally transformed into a means for the enslavement of labour by capital.
‘The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.
‘Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire.
‘Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.’
Commenting on the crushing of the Commune, Marx said: ‘At last, when treachery had opened the gates of Paris to General Douai, on May 21, Thiers, on the 22nd, revealed to the Rurals the “goal” of his conciliation comedy, which they had so obstinately persisted in not understanding.
‘ “I told you a few days ago that we were approaching our goal; today I come to tell you the goal is reached. The victory of order, justice, and civilization is at last won!”
‘So it was. The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge.
‘Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly. Even the atrocities of the bourgeoisie in June 1848 vanish before the infamy of 1871.
‘The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris – men, women, and children – fought for eight days after the entrance of the Versaillese, reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!
‘ “With stray shots,” writes the Paris correspondent of a London Tory paper, “still ringing in the distance, and unintended wounded wretches dying amid the tombstones of Pere la Chaise – with 6,000 terror-stricken insurgents wandering in an agony of despair in the labyrinth of the catacombs, and wretches hurried through the streets to be shot down in scores by the mitrailleuse – it is revolting to see the cafes filled with the votaries of absinthe, billiards, and dominoes; female profligacy perambulating the boulevards, and the sound of revelry disturbing the night from the cabinets particuliers of fashionable restaurants.” ’
Marx concluded his address: ‘Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.’