THIS SPRING MARKS the 140th anniversary of the revolt that led to the establishment of the world’s first workers’ government, the Paris Commune of 1871. The Paris Commune has always had a special place in the hearts and minds of revolutionaries, and can inspire today’s activist generation with the potential for “#8220;power to the people.”
Anniversaries of the Commune, like other anniversaries of notable events in socialist and labor history, have been occasions to celebrate working-class struggles and recall their lessons. The articles, books, pamphlets and public meetings produced on these anniversaries help preserve the memory of these events. In this way, these historical experiences and their lessons become part of the collective memory of the working class, even part of an oppositional working-class culture.
Marxists as well as various currents within anarchism, syndicalism and libertarian communism have also celebrated the memory of the Commune, and claimed its legacy as their own. Marxists see the Commune as an outstanding example of revolutionary working-class energy, determination and creativity. The lessons drawn from that experience have been foundational in the elaboration of Marxist theory, and on rare occasions, like the Russian Revolution of 1917, have helped guide revolutionary practice.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who were living in England at the time, immediately recognized the revolt in Paris as an authentic working-class uprising, and the government that the communards established as the first example of the “#8220;dictatorship of the proletariat,” by which they meant the establishment of a government that was working class in its composition and the direction of its social policies.
Marx followed the events in Paris that spring of 1871 with a particular intensity. His writings, which took the form of addresses to the leadership of the International Workingmen’s Association or First International, of which he was an active leader, are still the most insightful analyses of the Commune, and remain among the most profound interpretations of contemporary political events from the standpoint of historical materialist analysis.
Marx and his followers celebrated the revolutionary audacity of the Communards brave enough to “#8220;storm the heavens,” but didn’t hesitate to criticize their mistakes.
Engels’ introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Marx’s writing on the Commune, collected into a volume entitled The Civil War in France, remains one of the clearest — and for those unacquainted with French history, most accessible — Marxist accounts and analyses of the Commune.
Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune can be best understood as an extension of his analysis of the revolution of 1848, and Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état of December 2, 1851 against the Republic that issued from the 1848 uprising.
In March, 1848 the Orléanist branch of the French monarchy that had taken over from the Bourbons in a revolutionary uprising in July, 1830 was overthrown after several days of street fighting.(1) The French events were in fact part of a wave of revolutionary upheaval that erupted throughout Europe in 1848.
As Louis Philippe left the throne, a broad coalition of political figures representing distinct social classes formed a government. The government (all of whom were men) consisted of representatives of financial capital, petty bourgeois democrats, and two workers’ delegates, Louis Blanc, a well known pre-Marxist socialist, and Albert, a skilled worker veteran of underground revolutionary labor organizations.
Unsurprisingly, this diverse group soon began to disagree over the course for the new government. As a concession to the working class in a period of exceptional unemployment, national workshops were created to provide work on public works projects.
In June however, class antagonism in the workshops, streets and government reached fever pitch. The conservative-dominated government provoked a showdown by suddenly shutting down the national workshops and ordering the now unemployed masses of workers out of the city.
A five-day armed battle between workers and the government in June ended with a government victory followed by summary executions and mass deportations of worker militants.
For Marx, the “#8220;June Days” represented “#8220;the first great struggle of the two classes that split modern society. “#8220; A new government now shorn of working-class and socialist representation had a decidedly conservative, bourgeois profile. Louis Bonaparte, who claimed to be a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was soon elected president with support of these forces. As his term in office came to a close, he and his supporters organized a coup d’état against the parliamentary republican governmental apparatus on December 2, 1851.
Marx’s analysis of the meaning of Bonaparte’s coup, which he entitled The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (a reference to the date in the revolutionary calendar of Napoleon’s 1799 coup against the first Republic), written as a series of articles as the events themselves unfolded, is one of Marx’s’ most insightful political writings. For the next 18 years, while industrial capitalists made fortunes, French workers and peasants endured a political dictatorship where unions were illegal, radical labor organizations like the First International suppressed, and its leaders imprisoned or exiled.
Perhaps the first feature of the Commune that prefigured future revolutionary upheavals (most graphically the Russian Revolution of 1917), was the role of war in provoking a crisis of the regime and precipitating a revolutionary situation. The state-making ambitions of Bonaparte and Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck collided in the summer of 1870 with France declaring war on Prussia. Marx and the International denounced the war and called on French and German workers to refuse support to their respective governments.
The Franco-Prussian war went badly for France. Bonaparte himself was captured at the battle of Sedan on September 1-2. As France surrendered to Prussia, the empire fell and a broad coalition of “#8220;Republicans” (that is, those who favor a parliamentary form of government based on various degrees of popular suffrage), running from conservative to radical, declared a Republic.
A provisional government of national defense was formed — once again, a broad republican coalition united around the perception of common goals. Even the legendary revolutionary August Blanqui offered initial support to this government (which later arrested, tried and jailed him). And once again, divergent interests, strategies and goals rooted in antagonistic material interests drove a wedge through the alliance.
The chief difference was over whether or not to continue what had now become a defensive war against Prussia. Bismarck had continued the siege of Paris as a way to gain leverage for deep concessions in territory and war reparations. Bourgeois public opinion and the bourgeois politicians, around Adolphe Thiers (described by Marx as “#8220;a monstrous gnome who had charmed the French bourgeoisie for half a century because he was the consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption”)(2), who had waited in the wings for Bonaparte’s empire to end, sought accommodation with Bismarck, while working-class opinion was sharply in favor of continuing a war of national defense.
As Marx tersely explained, “#8220;In this conflict between national duty and class interest, the government of National Defense became a government of national defection.”(3) Indeed, when push came to shove, the French bourgeoisie preferred national defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Prussia to the prospect of losing control of French society to its own working class.
For all of their differences, Bismarck and the bourgeois politicians in charge of the new Republic agreed that the Commune had to be crushed. Bismarck agreed to withdraw his troops from Paris and allow the French government in Versailles to do the dirty work of repressing the Commune. This was a significant moment in the history of the bourgeoisie as a class.
The great French Revolution of 1789 had demonstrated the revolutionary energy and vision of an ascending bourgeoisie capable of uniting the popular classes below it, peasants for the most part, as well as urban artisans and laborers, in a successful struggle against the monarchy. That bourgeoisie was able to mobilize vast revolutionary armies eager to defend their revolution and nation from a European-wide coalition of counterrevolutionary forces. But the French bourgeoisie of 1871 could no longer claim to represent anyone but its own narrow interests.
The task of national defense as we will see fell to the working class, and its government, the Commune. As Marx himself put it, the Paris Commune represented “#8220;the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative. ”(4)
This prefigures later developments in anti-colonial struggles such as those in 20th century Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba, where the bourgeoisie proved itself utterly incapable of defending the most elementary tasks of bourgeois nationalism, leaving the realization of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution to the working class. The Commune can thus be seen as an early illustration of the revolutionary dynamics outlined by Trotsky in his theory of Permanent Revolution.
Trotsky explained how at a certain historical juncture the bourgeoisie becomes incapable of assuring the historical tasks of bourgeois rule, including national defense. This is exactly what happened in the fall and winter of 1870, as the bourgeoisie lost its appetite for a prolonged struggle with Bismarck, while the working people of Paris felt passionately about national defense and came to understand that only they could assure the defense of the country.
The Commune also illustrates the theory of Permanent Revolution in another way: Trotsky’s theory explains that once in power, a working-class government would not stop at “#8220;bourgeois democratic” tasks. Having assumed power the Commune as we will see, did not merely mount a military defense of the city; it also took significant political and social measures in a decidedly socialist direction.
As the empire fell and bourgeois politicians scrambled to assume leadership of the new Republic in the fall of 1870, two centers of popular power began to form: the committee of 20 arrondissements organized on the basis of Paris’ 20 administrative quarters, and the National Guard. Both were profoundly democratized both in terms of their composition and mode of internal functioning. In the months to come, both became key institutions of the revolutionary state that was the Commune.
In the meantime, tension arose between the national government (which had fled to Bordeaux as the Prussians advanced on Paris) and the working populace in the city. As we have seen, the Thiers government cut a deal with the Prussians behind the backs of the people. On March 18, 1871 government troops sought to remove the cannons (which had been purchased by popular inscription) that had been placed in the high grounds of the city — the working-class neighborhoods of Montmartre and Belleville.
Crowds, led by women workers in particular, rushed into the streets to block the removal of the cannons. Many troops of the line refused to fire on the people as commanded. Two generals, Lacomte and Clement Thomas were disarmed, arrested, and summarily executed that day. The cannons remained in Paris under the watchful eye of the National Guard. The army and government officials withdrew from Paris and established temporary headquarters in Versailles, 25 miles outside the city.
The National Guard assumed power immediately and organized elections, which were held on March 26. On March 28, the Commune is “#8220;proclaimed,” i.e. becomes the governing body of Paris. The election returns gave a decidedly class character to the new government, described by Marx in the following way: “#8220;The majority of its members was naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.” The Commune “#8220;was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing classes against the appropriating class. “#8220;(5)
Worker insurrections in Lyon, Toulouse, Marseilles, and other French cities established Commune-type revolutionary governments, but all were crushed within days.
One of the most remarkable and significant aspects of the Commune was its profoundly democratic character. The Commune’s elected officials were subject to immediate recall. No public official would be paid more than the average wages of a skilled worker. The Commune only lasted 72 days. But during that time, its government passed and enacted a series of measures that pointed in a socialist direction.
Although Marx criticized the Commune for having failed to nationalize the bank of France, he saw the Commune as beginning the “#8220;expropriation of the expropriators.” The social measures of the Commune included:
• The separation of Church and State.(6)
• The abolition of existing rents owed and their suspension for the entire period of the siege.
• The abolition of night work for the hundreds of bakers throughout the city.
• The granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed in defense of the Commune.
• Decrees demanding that the city’s pawnshops return all workmen’s tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege.
• The postponement of commercial debt obligations, and abolition of interest on the debts.
• The right of workers to establish cooperatives in workshops and factories deserted by their owners. In fact, many cooperatives were actually established.
Women were involved in much of the daily associational life that gave the Commune its revolutionary energy. We have already seen how women were at the forefront of the uprising on March 18. Marx had these women in mind when he wrote that “#8220;the real women of Paris showed again at the surface — heroic, noble, and devoted, like the women of antiquity.”(7)
Although women were excluded from formal leadership roles in the Commune, some played leadership roles in many mass based committees that sprang up in the spring of 1871. Elizabeth Dmitrieff, a 20-year-old member of the International who was influenced by Marx, organized the Association of Women for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded, characterized by one historian as an “#8220;extraordinarily cohesive and articulate organization in many arrondissements.(8)
Louise Michel was a leading anarchist activist and feminist who was later deported for her role in the Commune. After the general amnesty in 1880 she returned to France and resumed her work as an anarchist speaker, writer, and organizer.
The Commune was consciously internationalist. Its red flag was meant to signify the International Proletariat. Socialist and anarchist activists from other countries played leadership roles in the Commune. Polish nationalist Jaroslaw Dombrowski, a leading Communard General, was killed on a barrricade defending the Commune on May 23.
The Commune took symbolic measures to display its rejection of France’s bellicose imperialism. Painter Gustave Courbet, a member of the Commune, organized the toppling of the Vendôme Column, which had been erected to celebrate the Napoleonic empire.(9)
Within days of the founding of the Commune, the army and the provisional government began to attack the Commune’s outer defenses. The Commune’s leaders spent much of their energy organizing the defense of the city. Here they made what Marx regarded as one of the Commune’s great mistakes: they failed to rapidly march on Versailles to engage government troops. Had they done this early, they would have dealt a decisive blow and increased the Commune’s chances of survival.
On May 21, the troops from Versailles broke through city fortifications in a poorly guarded section of the city. This began the “#8220;semaine sanglante” or “#8220;bloody week:” A week of increasingly less organized, desperate pitched battles throughout the city between the defenders of the Commune — virtually all working people — and government troops and culminating in a final battle in Père Lachaise cemetery on May 28.
Communard prisoners that week were summarily executed. In the weeks that followed, up to 30,000 were shot following summary military “#8220;trials.”(10) Thousands managed to escape to Switzerland, England, Belgium and the United States. Others were deported to faraway French colonial territories like New Caledonia.
The bourgeois press in other countries offered support for the repression. As the bloody week began, the May 21 edition of the Chicago Tribune urged the “#8220;mowing down” of rebellious Parisians “#8220;without compunction or hesitation.” The ferocious repression of the Commune and the thousands of summary executions that followed sent a clear message of the savagery with which the ruling class is capable when their rule is threatened. It was not until 1880 that the Parliament voted an Amnesty for exiled and imprisoned communards.
One of the central shortcomings of the Commune was the programmatic weaknesses of its leadership. A majority were followers of Pierre August Proudhon, the utopian socialist thinker who advocated the creation of worker-owned cooperatives as a solution to capitalist exploitation. A minority were members of the First International.
The International was split between followers of Marx and followers of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Marx’s followers were few, but some like Leo Frankel, a member of the Commune’s Commission on Labor, Industry, and Exchange and a Hungarian member of the International, corresponded with Marx and sought his advice.
The predominance of Proudhonian thought among radical French workers in the decades preceding the Commune reflected the structure of French society. The particular course of industrial development in France had produced a working class that was still heavily artisanal.
Proletarianization — the process by which small landowners and independent craftsmen lose control and ownership of their property — had proceeded more slowly in France than in England, Belgium, Germany and the United States. This was largely the legacy of the French Revolution of 1789-1799, which had transferred large amounts of land from the nobility to the small and medium peasantry.
This smallholding system retarded large scale capitalist agriculture and the rural exodus to cities and industrial centers that would have provided industrial wage labor for manufacturing, as well as a class of consumers of industrial goods, that is, an industrial proletariat. By 1870, the working class in France still retained a heavily artisanal character; an industrial proletariat working in mechanized medium and large factories was only just emerging at this time.
The social and economic relations surrounding their lives and work seemed to many craftsmen to mesh well with the vision of independent craftsmen and the project of worker cooperatives that Proudhon had promoted. Significantly, the French workers’ movement was divided until at least the time of the Commune between “#8220;collectivists,” those favoring the abolition of private property, and “#8220;cooperatives” — those seeing the solution to capitalist exploitation in the establishment of worker owned trade cooperatives that would replace private capitalist ownership.
As industrial capitalist development proceeded, the appeal of cooperativism declined and eventually all but disappeared. But in the early 1870s the predominance of small scale artisanal production created the material conditions for the popularity of cooperative schemes. In fact, the Commune actually established cooperatives in shops and factories that had been abandoned by their owners.
The revolutionary socialist movement has drawn some its most important theoretical, programmatic and practical lessons from the experience of the Paris Commune. Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all drew on the experience of Commune during various debates with reformist opponents in the Second International, most notably Karl Kautsky of the German Social Democratic Party and George Plekhanov of the Russian socialist movement.
Chief among these lessons and debates has been the question of the state, particularly its class nature and its place in the transformation from capitalism to socialism. Marx and Engels themselves regarded this lesson so highly that they included a reference to it in later editions of the Communist Manifesto, something they didn’t otherwise do as the Manifesto had become not only a programmatic, but historical document.
Briefly put, the Commune’s lesson regarding the state was that as it takes power, the working class cannot simply take hold of the state machinery of the old regime and wield it for its own purposes. That state must be smashed and a new one built on different foundations. This is exactly what the Commune did when it suppressed the standing (bourgeois) army and government and replaced them with a government and an armed force controlled by the producers themselves, in spite of all the contradiction between these measures and the ideological and programmatic convictions of most Communard leaders.(11)
Here Marx and Lenin’s observations of the necessity of smashing the old state apparatus and on the profoundly democratic functioning of the Commune merge. The Commune’s practice of instant recall of public officials, and the limitation of their salaries to that of a skilled worker, underscored its democratic and plebian nature. The depth and strength of the Commune’s democracy was so much greater than that of bourgeois democracy that it was a state of a fundamentally different nature.
In other words, the difference between bourgeois and proletarian democracy is not just of scale, but of kind. As Lenin put it in his comments on the Commune in State and Revolution, “#8220;This is exactly a case of ‘quantity being transformed into quality’: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois democracy into proletarian democracy; from the state (i.e. a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer, properly speaking, the state.”(12)
A prime example of the differences between bourgeois and proletarian states was as Marx immediately observed, the ways that the Commune combined both executive and legislative functions in one single democratically controlled governmental body. The question of the state is one of the key lessons of the experience of the Commune. Every subsequent revolution has had to confront this question. This includes the emerging revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Lenin, as both revolutionary leader and Marxist theoretician, drew heavily on Marx and Engels’s analyses of the Commune as the Bolshevik Party navigated the revolutionary situation that arose in Russia in the spring of 1917. In State and Revolution, perhaps one of the most remarkable and insightful of all Marxist writings, Lenin looked to the Commune as he sought to chart a revolutionary course in the period following the February 1917 revolution that had overthrown the Czar.
Indeed, there are interesting parallels between the two revolutions. Although the Kerensky government continued Russia’s participation in war and the Thiers government wished to rapidly end it, in both cases the government’s course was opposite that favored by their respective working classes. And in both cases, bourgeois governments were overthrown within months by working-class uprisings leading to proletarian governments.
Early soviet democracy bore similar features to the Commune in its class composition, deeply democratic practices, and socialist social measures. But while the Commune was drowned in blood by the forces of bourgeois reaction, the democratic qualities of the Soviet state soon gave way to Stalinist dictatorship.
The victors over the Commune were anxious to both limit and control the memory of the Commune and its bloody suppression. Care was taken to remove blood from execution sites, and many bodies were transported outside of the city for burial in mass, unmarked graves.
The Catholic Church hierarchy, a particularly reactionary segment of the French ruling class, invested heavily in promoting their version of the events. They erected the Cathedral of Sacré Coeur on the hilltop of Montmartre, the neighborhood where the revolt had begun on March 18. Sacré Coeur was intended to both commemorate the Catholic upper clergy killed as hostages by the Commune in retaliation for summary executions of communard prisoners, and represent the expiation of the sins of the communards.
The forces of reaction in France worked hard to portray the communards as a dangerous, depraved cosmopolitan threat to civilization itself, a group that was perhaps not quite human, an image designed to suggest that its brutal repression was just, even necessary. The myth of the petrolleuses, wild-eyed Amazon women who supposedly torched large section of the city as the siege was brought to its close (and of which no documented evidence exists), added a misogynist twist to this ruling-class portrayal of the communards.
Reformist socialist, communist, and labor leaders haven’t been too anxious either to preserve or celebrate the memory of the Commune. It has been revolutionaries including anarchists, syndicalists, pre-Stalin communists, Trotskyists and leftwing academic historians who have done the most to preserve the memory of the Commune.
In this way, the Commune bears a telling resemblance to the aftermath of the Haymarket affair, which occurred 125 years ago this May. Although the two events cannot be compared in the scope of the murderous repression — the state of Illinois murdered five prisoners including Louis Lingg who committed suicide the night before the execution, and possibly several more in the police riot that ensued following the bomb explosion at the Haymarket on May 4, 1886 — the intensity of the repression reflected the same fearful, vengeful response to working-class power that drove the repression of the communards.
As was the case following the Commune, the memory of Haymarket in public markers of the event was also minimized and given a particular gloss. Although posthumously pardoned in 1893, the Haymarket martyrs were were widely portrayed as dangerous violent threats to civilization itself. The Haymarket martyrs saw themselves following in the footsteps of the communards, and walked to the gallows singing “#8220;The Marseillaise.*”
To this day, the most widely circulated image of the affair is the drawing published on the cover of Harper’s magazine that portrays a crazed looking orator seemingly directing the throwing of a bomb as injured police grimace in pain.
The immigrant origins of seven of the eight men convicted (all but U.S.-born Albert Parsons were German immigrants) were highlighted in ways designed to underscore their un-Americanness. Significantly, reactionary papers such as the Chicago Tribune accused the Haymarket defendants of wishing to replicate the Paris Commune on American soil. In much the same way, U.S. radicals following the Russian Revolution of 1917 were referred to as Bolsheviks. Once again, the immigrant origins of many labor radicals of the time were highlighted.
While France is full of streets named after Adolph Thiers, no official plaques or monuments were erected in memory of the communard victims of bloody repression and retribution. Likewise, there is no official marker commemorating the Haymarket martyrs. A statue in memory of police who died was placed on the site in 1889, but removed after Weathermen (the underground SDS faction) blew it up in 1969 and again in 1970. In 2004 a sculpture and plaque were finally placed at the site, but fall short of properly commemorating the Haymarket martyrs and the labor struggles that formed the backdrop of the affair.
The admirers of the Commune and the Haymarket martyrs have preserved their memories in a positive way. The monument over the graves of the Haymarket martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery outside Chicago has been a shrine to their memory.
In Paris, a procession to the wall of the fédérés, in Père Lacahise Cemetery where the final Communard combatants were lined up and shot on May 28 1871, and where many leaders of the international labor, socialist and communist movement are buried, has been held nearly every year since 1880. Most years, the numbers of those who march are rather modest. But occasionally, the procession becomes a mass political demonstration.
In 1936 for example, 600,000 people took part in the procession headed by the leaders of the Popular Front coalition — the Communist, Socialist and Radical parties that had come to power in the elections held several weeks earlier. Within weeks, a general strike involving mass factory occupations erupted, a fitting tribute to the Commune on its 65th anniversary.
On this 140th anniversary, we look back to Marx’s concluding words in his address to the general council of the first international: “#8220;Workers’ 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.” We recall the lessons for revolutionary theory and practice in our own times that is the great legacy of the Commune. At the same time we also remember Marx’s observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire that the social revolution “#8220;cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.”
*The Marseillaise became a revolutioanry anthem during the French revolution and remained part of the French revolutionary left until 1888 (a year after the hangings) when the words of the Internationale, written by a comunard, Eugene Pottiers, during the bloody week, were put to music. At that time, the French revolutionary left abandoned the Marseillaise, now the official hymn of the Republic (and its empire), in favor of the internationalist Internationale. Outside of France, the Marseillaise continued as a revolutionary anthem.
July/August 2011, ATC 153
I just got back from a quick visit to Paris to see again the rues, buttes and places of the Commune, and felt a special thrill on the little rue de la Corderie, where the Internationale gathered where now there is a plaque dedicated to the amazing Nathalie Lemel. But even more important for my understanding was the dramatic, fully documented and very clearly explained exhibit at the small and hardly visited Musée d’Art et d’Histoire à St-Denis, just 15 minutes from the Gare du Nord. (It was curated, I was told, by Bertrand Tillier.) I am now beginning work on a new novel, to imagine the experience of the Commune by some of the people who are only barely recorded in the histories, and reflect on the enduring repercussions of that wild, exuberant and ultimately tragic social experiement. I’m glad to find others equally moved by this story.
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