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Maurice Spector

The Tradition of the Communards

(21 March 1936)

From New Militant, Vol. II No. 11, 21 March 1936, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


“... Look at the Paris Commune ... That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” – Frederick Engels

SINCE the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the proletariat has experienced great victories and great defeats, in widely-separated fields of parliamentary activity and of civil war. But so far from reducing it, our epoch has actually enhanced the significance of the Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune was the first attempt of the modern working class to seize political power. Like the great Russian Revolution, the French Commune arose on the ruins of the military defeat and social collapse of an Empire. Louis Bonaparte pretended to rule as an arbiter of conflicting class interests, to defend the workers from the rapacious capitalists and the bourgeoisie from the “exorbitant” demands of the workers. In reality, the State was a tool of financial buccaneers and its hallmarks were corruption and exploitation. When Bonaparte realized that he could no longer alleviate the social contradictions, he unleashed chauvinism. But the newly-unified Germany of Bismark broke Napoleon's neck and the Empire crashed. On September 4, 1870 the workers of Paris proclaimed the Republic.

It soon became manifest that there were two governments, a dual power. The Government of National Defense headed by Thiers was the government of the propertied classes. Its principal objective became to disarm the Parisian proletariat, who were the majority of the National Guard and who had heroically carried out the defense of the starving city against the Prussian armies.

Realizing the national treachery and class aims of the bourgeoisie, the workers resisted. On the eighteenth of March, 1871 the Central Committee of the Paris Commune proclaimed the “absolute right of the proletarians of Paris amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing the governmental power.”

The proclamation of the Commune was the negation of bourgeois authority and the bourgeois state. All the Labor governments since the war have not the slightest shred of reality compared to the fact that the Commune, short-lived though it was, realized the necessity of shattering the state machine of the bourgeoisie as the prerequisite of social reconstruction. The Commune was the anticipation of the Soviet.

If the social legislation of the Commune seems to us very modest, it was due to the theoretical shortcomings of the leadership and the exigencies of the military struggle. The city was beleaguered by the Versailles troops of Thiers and his virtual allies, the Prussian junkers. But what the Commune did was nevertheless significant. The column of Victory on the Place Vendôme, the symbol of chauvinism, was demolished. Plans were worked out to take over factories shut down by the manufacturers and have them run by the workers on a cooperative basis. The Commune decreed the separation of Church and state and nationalized church property. Foreigners were declared eligible for election to the Commune – “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the world-republic.”

That the Bank of France could escape nationalization reveals the state of confusion, the lack of a scientific program, and the dire lack of a far-seeing revolutionary leadership in the Commune. The economic ideas of the Commune were provided by the Proudhonists, socialists and the small craftsmen and peasants as their social ideal, and theories of “equitable exchange” as their panacea. The result was that the resources of the bourgeoisie, which was making war on the Commune, were left intact. The immaturity of the Commune was further exhibited in the half measures characterizing the conduct of armed struggle against Versailles, which was permitted to consolidate its forces and take the offensive. The proletariat paid a bitter toll for its indecision. After the victory of the possessing classes came the White Terror and thousands of workers were cold-bloodedly butchered at the “Wall of the Federal” at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The study of the lessons of the Commune enabled Marx to work out in more concrete fashion his theory of the State and it is not wrong to say that the Bolsheviks’ insight into the Commune decisively influenced the struggle for the Soviets in 1917. Commune and Soviet are equally the antithesis of parliamentarism.

Lenin considered it the fatal error of the French Socialists that they combined the contradictory tasks of patriotism and socialism.

“Let the bourgeoisie bear the responsibility of national humiliation – it is the business of the proletariat to fight for the socialist liberation of labor from the yoke of the bourgeoisie.”

The Commune was defeated both by objective and subjective factors. European capitalism was on the eve of a period of expansion. The workers of Paris lacked an understanding of capitalist economics, they lacked a Marxist program, and above all they lacked the conception of the disciplined revolutionary party, that indispensable lever of power. Lest we feel too superior to those workers of 1871, let us remember our vast advantages. We live in the epoch of imperialism, of the world crisis, of all the requisite conditions for the struggle for socialism. We have witnessed the debacle of the Second International, and have had the tragic experiences of the degeneration of the Third International – and our task in America still remains the supreme one of building the powerful revolutionary party of the working class!

Towards that goal we shall march forward undaunted and the memory of that gallant generation of proletarian fighters of 1871 will remain an abiding inspiration.

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