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The New International, March 1938


Ernest Erber

Paris Commune

From New International, Vol. 4 No. 3, March 1938, pp. 93–94.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Paris Commune of 1871
by Frank Jellinek
447 pp. New York. Oxford University Press. $3.00.

Every student of Marxism recognizes the Paris Commune first of all as the great historical laboratory from which Marx and Engels, and later, Lenin and Trotsky, drew the lessons which have since become foundation stones of Marxist theory. While most of them assume that they have mastered the conclusions based upon the experiences of the Commune, they reveal their lack of understanding of the Commune itself in the use they make of it in analogies with current phenomena.

The appearance of Jellinek’s The Paris Commune of 1871 is a most valuable contribution to a study of the real nature of the Commune. As informative and comprehensive material, ably presented, it surpasses anything yet written on the subject. It does not, however, nor did the author intend it to, fill the vital need of a work that examines the class relations that gave rise to the Commune and the class nature of the Commune itself. Jellinek prudently sets himself the following task:

“It is the aim of the present study to revive these facts, to restore, as it were, the background to The Civil War in France and to Lenin’s elaboration of it, The State and Revolution. There is no intention to draw conclusions, simply to state what exactly it was that Marx was studying and how it came about. At the same time, as it was naturally quite impossible, especially when writing for English readers not conversant with French nineteenth-century history, to display every single aspect of so complex and so chaotic a period, it was necessary to concentrate almost entirely on the one which most struck Marx and Lenin, simply because this aspect is the only one which has had a contemporary and concrete importance. This is the mutations of the state-form during this embryo of the proletarian dictatorship.”

In one respect, Jellinek’s work cannot be improved upon – the fine style that makes the reader re-live the exciting and inspiring events that took place on the streets of Paris. One is captivated by this scrupulously accurate narrative as by few novels. The reader exults with the triumphant Parisian workers of March 18, fumes over their naivete, grits his teeth over the unbelievable confusion and disorganization, swells with pride at their heroic defense, and writhes with the death agony of the Commune. Jellinek’s handling of this great drama of history surpasses even Lissagaray’s eye-witness account in ability to stir and move the reader.

The great personalities of the Commune come to life again in the pages of this book, not as mere historical names, but as real men. An understanding of the character of the most important actors gives one an insight into certain aspects of the event that cannot be understood in any other way. And the actors form as bizarre a company as ever played an important role in history – leaders of trade unions and leaders of Free Masonry, veterans of 1848, confirmed Jacobins, and members of the First International, exiled Polish revolutionists and mercenary soldier-adventurers, Marxists, anarchists, Blanquists, and Proudhonists.

The boastful, eloquent coward, Pyat, and the heroic, calm, aged veteran, Delescluze; the cigar-smoking, lazy, yet capable, adventurer, Cluseret, and the cold, stern disciplinarian, Rossel; the vigorous, romantic, histrionic Blanquist, Rigault, aspiring to play the role of Chaumette, the prosecutor in the Terror of 1792–1794, and the sentimental, confused idealist, Miot, objecting to infringements on the rights of enemies of the Commune – all these symbolized the chaos and confusion, both ideological and organizational, that defied any solution from the very beginning to the bitter end.

Jellinek also presents very valuable material on the measures the Commune was forced to take to defend itself against internal enemies. The Commune suppressed no less than forty newspapers in the few months of its existence. Among them were two papers edited by members of the Council of the Commune. And yet, both the social-democrats and anarchists point to the Commune as an example of a revolutionary regime that refrained from using dictatorial methods against its internal enemies in contrast with the evil Bolsheviks who were only interested in suppressing critics!

The Bolsheviks permitted even the bourgeois press its freedom for a longer period than the Commune existed.

Billioray, one of the members of the Commune gave the correct answer to the problem when he said:

“In principle, I am for the suppression not only of solitary confinement, but of all preventive detention. All of us here have had a taste of solitary confinement. There is no need for us, therefore, to make a profession of mere Liberalism; but it would be strange if we broke what weapons we have. Of two things one: either you will be victorious and will then be able to abolish solitary confinement and all other arbitrary measures, or you will be defeated through lack of precautions and they will use against you the system you will have abolished.”

Another interesting problem comes to light with a reading of Jellinek’s book – one that might well serve as the starting point in an attempt to probe the real class character of the Commune. The rivalry between the Council of the Commune, histrionic imitation of the Commune of 1792-1793, and the Central Committee of the National Guard, the manoeuvres and even intrigues they carried out against one another, are noted by nearly every student of the Commune. But it is usually regarded as an unfortunate conflict that arose from the ambitions of rival leaders. From the material presented by Jellinek it appears that the conflict had a much deeper basis.

The Commune was elected by universal suffrage. This resulted in the election of political leaders who had made a name for themselves in the past. The majority of them were the leaders in the 1848 uprising. Journalists, lawyers, and other petty bourgeois revolutionists who were still pursuing the illusory Jacobin ideal of a “Republic of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” based upon bourgeois property relations. Whether they were Blanquists or Proudhonists or, as some were, adherents of the First International, they had their eyes turned back upon the unrealized and unrealizable programs of the revolutions of the past. They could not give conscious leadership to the working class and their election to the Hotel de Ville removed them from the districts where they were subject to the pressure of the workers acting on their class instinct.

The Central Committee of the National Guard, on the other hand, was elected by the men from the ranks by a Soviet system of election. Those elected were not the prominent political leaders of the day but local figures who had distinguished themselves in the leadership of National Guard units. Since the National Guard was overwhelmingly proletarian in composition, the Central Committee was much more responsive to the moods of the working class than the Council of the Commune. Would the Central Committee have emerged as a dual power, seeking to displace the Commune, had the struggle been more prolonged? The only proclamation of the Central Committee following the election of the Commune quoted by Jellinek speaks a real proletarian language:

“Workers, do not be deceived; it is the great struggle; parasitism and labour, exploitation and production are at death-grips. If you are sick of vegetating in ignorance and squatting in the muck; if you want your children to be men gaining the reward of their labour, not a sort of animal trained for the workshop and for war, fertilizing with their sweat the fortune of an exploiter or pouring out their blood for a despot; ... etc.

The above stands in sharp contrast to the vague social idealism of the Commune’s proclamations and its protestations that it was not absorbing any governmental functions beyond the rights of a municipality.

The above question, however, can only be finally answered as the result of a much more thorough study of the Commune than even Jellinek’s work presents. His research and compilations, however, make that task much easier.

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