Paris Commune of 1871: When the workers first took power

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It was 140 years ago that the French bourgeoisie put an end to the proletariat’s first great revolutionary experience, with a massacre of some 20,000 workers. The Paris Commune was the first time that the working class had appeared in such strength on the stage of history. For the first time, the workers showed that they were capable of destroying the bourgeois state apparatus, and so stood out as the only revolutionary class in society. Today, the ruling class is trying at all costs to convince the workers that humanity has no perspective for any society other than capitalism, and to infect them with a feeling of impotence in the face of the terrible barbarity and misery of the modern world. Today then, it is necessary that the working class examine its own past, to regain confidence in itself, in its own strength, and in the future that its struggles contain. The formidable experience of the Paris Commune is there to bear witness that even then, despite the immaturity of the conditions for communist revolution at the time, the proletariat showed that it is the only force able to call the capitalist order into question.

For generations of workers, the Paris Commune was a reference point in the history of the workers’ movement. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 especially were imbued with its example and its lessons, until the 1917 revolution took its place as the principal beacon for the struggle of the world proletariat.

Today, the bourgeoisie’s propaganda campaigns are trying to bury the revolutionary experience of October for ever, to turn the workers away from their own vision of the future by identifying communism with Stalinism. Since the Paris Commune cannot be used to spread the same lie, the ruling class has always tried to mask its real meaning by treating it as an event of their own, a movement for patriotism, or for the defence of republican values.

A combat against Capital, not a patriotic struggle

The Paris Commune was founded seven months after Napoleon III's defeat at Sedan, during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. On the 4th September 1870, the Parisian workers rose against the dreadful conditions inflicted on them by Bonaparte’s military adventure. The Republic was proclaimed while Bismarck’s troops camped at the very gates of Paris. From then on it was the National Guard, originally made up of troops from the lower middle class, which took on the defence of the capital against the Prussian enemy. The workers, who had begun to suffer from hunger, joined up in droves and soon made up the majority of its troops. The ruling class tries to paint this episode in the patriotic colours of “popular” resistance against the Prussian invader; very quickly, however, the struggle to defend Paris gave way to the explosion of irreconcilable antagonisms between the two fundamental classes in society: proletariat and bourgeoisie. After 131 days of siege, the French government capitulated and signed an armistice with the Prussian army. Thiers, the new leader of the republican government understood that with hostilities at an end it was necessary immediately to disarm the Parisian proletariat, since it posed a threat to the ruling class. On the 18th March 1871, Thiers first tried trickery: arguing that the weapons were state property, he sent troops to remove the National Guard’s artillery of more than 200 canons, which the workers had hidden in Montmartre and Belleville. The attempt failed, thanks to bitter resistance from the workers, and a movement of fraternisation between the troops and the Parisian population. The defeat of this attempt to disarm Paris touched off a powder-keg, and unleashed the civil war between the Parisian workers and the bourgeois government which had taken refuge in Versailles. On the 18th March, the central committee of the National Guard, which had temporarily taken over power, declared: “The proletarians of the capital, in the midst of the governing classes’ defections and betrayals, have understood that the hour has come for them to save the situation by taking charge of public affairs. (...) The proletariat has understood that it is its imperious duty and absolute right to take its own destiny in hand, and to ensure its triumph by seizing power”. On the same day, the committee announced immediate elections for delegates from the different arrondissements, under universal suffrage. These were held on 26th March; two days later, the Commune was declared. Several tendencies were represented within it: a majority, dominated by the Blanquists, and a minority whose members were mostly Proudhonist socialists from the International Workers’ Association (the 1st International).

Immediately, the Versailles government counter-attacked, to recover Paris from the hands of the working class - this “vile scum”, as Thiers called it. The bombardment of the capital, which the French bourgeoisie had denounced at the hands of the Prussian army, went on continuously for the two months that the Commune survived.

It was not to defend the fatherland from the foreign enemy, but to defend itself against the enemy at home, against its “own” bourgeoisie represented by the Versailles government, that the Parisian proletariat refused to give up its weapons to its exploiters and set up the Commune.

A combat to destroy the bourgeois state, not to defend republican freedoms

The bourgeoisie distils its worst lies from the appearance of reality. It has always relied on the fact that the Commune did indeed base itself on the principles of 1789, to reduce the first revolutionary experience of the proletariat to the level of a mere defence of republican freedoms, for bourgeois democracy against the monarchist troops behind which the French bourgeoisie had rallied. But the true spirit of the Commune is not to be found in the garments the young proletariat of 1871 draped itself in. This movement has always been a vital first step in the world proletariat’s struggle for its emancipation, because of the promise it held for the future. This was the first time in. history that the official power of the bourgeoisie had been overthrown in one of its capitals. And this immense combat was the work of the proletariat, and no other class. Certainly, this proletariat was little developed, had scarcely emerged from its old craft status, and dragged behind it all the weight of the petty bourgeoisie and the illusions born of 1789: nonetheless, it was the motive force behind the Commune. Although the revolution was not yet a historic possibility (because the proletariat was still too immature, and because capitalism had not exhausted its capacity to develop the productive forces), the Commune heralded the direction that future proletarian combats would have to take.

Moreover, while the Commune took to itself the principles of the bourgeois revolution, it certainly did not give them the same content. For the bourgeoisie, “liberty” means free trade, and the liberty to exploit wage labour; “equality” means nothing more than equality between bourgeois in their struggle against aristocratic privileges; “fraternity” means harmony between capital and labour, in other words the submission of the exploited to their exploiters. For the workers of the Commune, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” meant the abolition of wage slavery, of the exploitation of man by man, and of a society divided into classes. This vision of another world, heralded by the Commune itself, was reflected in the way the working class organised social life during its two months existence. The Commune’s real class nature lies in its economic and political measures, not in the slogans it dredged up from the past.

Two days after its proclamation, the Commune confirmed its power by directly attacking the state apparatus through a whole series of political measures: abolition of the police forces dedicated to social repression, of the standing army, and of conscription (the only recognised armed force was the National Guard); the destruction of all state administration, the confiscation of church property, the destruction of the guillotine, compulsory free education, etc, not to mention such symbolic actions as the destruction of the Vendôme column, the symbol of ruling class chauvinism erected by Napoleon 1st. The same day, the Commune confirmed its proletarian nature by declaring that “the flag of the Commune is that of the Universal Republic”. This principle of proletarian internationalism was clearly affirmed by the election of foreigners to the Commune (such as the Pole Dornbrovski, in charge of Defence, and the Hungarian Frankel, responsible for Labour).

Amongst all these political measures was one which particularly demonstrates how false is the idea that the Parisian proletariat rebelled to defend the democratic Republic: that is, the permanent revocability of the Commune’s delegates, who were constantly responsible to whichever body had elected them. This was well before the appearance, in the 1905 Russian revolution, of the workers’ councils - the “finally discovered form of the proletarian dictatorship” as Lenin put it. This principle of revocability which the proletariat adopted in its seizure of power once again confirms the proletarian nature of the Commune. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, of which the “democratic” state is only the most pernicious variant, concentrates the exploiters’ state power in the hands of a minority to oppress and exploit the vast majority of producers. The principle of the proletarian revolution on the other hand is that no power should arise to place itself over society. Only a class which aims at the abolition of any domination over society by a minority of oppressors can exercise power in this way.

Because the Commune’s political measures clearly expressed its proletarian nature, its economic measures, however limited, could not but defend working class interests: abolition of rent, abolition of night work for certain trades like the bakers, abolition of employers’ fines taken out of wages, the reopening and workers’ management of closed workshops, the payment of Commune delegates limited to a worker’s wage, etc.

Clearly, this way of organising social life had nothing to do with the “democratisation” of the bourgeois state, and everything to do with its destruction. And indeed, this is the fundamental lesson that the Commune bequeathed to the whole future workers’ movement. This is the lesson that the proletariat in Russia, urged on by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, put into practice much more clearly in October 1917. As Marx had already pointed out in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “All political revolutions to date have only perfected the state machine rather than smashing it”. Although conditions were not yet ripe for the overthrow of capitalism, the Paris Commune, the last revolution of the 19th century, already heralded the revolutionary movements of the 20th century: it demonstrated in practice that, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and use it for its own purposes. For the political instrument of its enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of its emancipation” (Marx, The Civil War in France).

Faced with the proletarian threat, the bloodthirsty rage of the bourgeoisie

The ruling class could not accept that the working class should dare to stand against its own order. This is why, when it regained Paris by force of arms, the bourgeoisie aimed not only to re-establish its power in the capital, but above all to inflict a such a bloodbath on the working class that it would serve as a lesson it would never forget. Its rage in repressing the Commune was equal to the fear the proletariat had inspired in it. From the beginning of April, Thiers and Bismarck, whose troops occupied the forts to the North and East of Paris, began to organise their ‘Holy Alliance’ to crush the Commune. Even then, the bourgeoisie showed its ability to push its own national antagonisms into the background in order to confront its class enemy. This close collaboration between the French and Prussian armies allowed the capital to be completely encircled. On 7th April, the Versailles troops seized the forts to the West of Paris. Faced with bitter resistance from the National Guard, Thiers persuaded Bismarck to free 60,000 French troops taken prisoner at Sedan, which from May onwards gave the Versailles government a decisive numerical advantage. During the first fortnight in May, the southern front folded. On the 21st, Versailles troops under General Gallifet entered Paris by the North and East, thanks to a breach opened up by the Prussian army. For eight days, fighting raged through the working class districts; the Commune’s last fighters fell like flies on the heights of Bellevile and Menilmontant. But the bloody repression of the Communards did not end there. The ruling class still wanted to savour its triumph by unleashing its revenge on a beaten and disarmed proletariat, this “vile scum” which had dared to call its class domination into question. While Bismarck’s troops were ordered to arrest any fugitives, Gallifet’s hordes carried out an immense massacre of defenceless men, women, and children: they coldly assassinated them by firing squad and machine-gun.

The “week of blood” came to an end in an abominable slaughter: more than 20,000 dead. It was followed by mass arrests, the execution of prisoners “to make an example”, transportation to forced labour colonies. Hundreds of children were placed in so-called “houses of correction”.

This is how the ruling class re-established its order. This is how it reacts when its class dictatorship is threatened. Nor was the Commune drowned in blood only by the bourgeoisie’s most reactionary fractions. Although they left the dirty work to the monarchist troops, it was the “democratic” republican fraction, with its National Assembly and its liberal parliamentarians, which bears full responsibility for the massacre and the terror. Never must the proletariat forget these glorious deeds of bourgeois democracy: never!

By crushing the Commune, which in turn led to the disappearance of the 1st International, the ruling class inflicted a defeat on the workers of the entire world. And this defeat was particularly crushing for the working class in France, which had been at the vanguard of the proletarian struggle ever since 1830. The French proletariat was not to return to the front line of the class combat until May 1968, when its massive strikes opened a new perspective of struggle after 40 years of counter-revolution. And this is no accident: in recovering, even momentarily, its place as a beacon for the class struggle, which it had abandoned a century before, the French proletariat heralded the full vitality, strength, and depth of this new stage in the historic struggle of the working class to overthrow capitalism.

But unlike the Commune, this new historic period opened in May 1968 came at a moment when the proletarian revolution is not only possible, but absolutely necessary if humanity is to have any hope of survival. This is what the bourgeoisie is trying to hide with all its lies, its propaganda campaigns, to falsify the revolutionary experience of the past: the strength and vitality of the proletariat, and what is at stake in its combat today.

Avril (originally published in Révolution Internationale no.202, July 1991, and in World Revolution146, July-August 1991).