150 years ago, on 18 March 1871, the proletariat mounted its first revolutionary offensive – the one that gave birth to the Paris Commune. Though the bourgeoisie declared an all-out war on it, the Commune resisted for 72 days, until 28 May 1871: the ruthless repression cost the lives of 20,000 proletarians. Since then, the Paris Commune, whose memory has been passed down from generation to generation of the working class, remains an example, a reference and a legacy for the exploited of the whole world, though not for its executioner, the bourgeoisie, which is currently holding indecent commemorations to falsify its own history and to bury the precious lessons that the workers' movement was able to draw from it.
For several weeks, historians, journalists, politicians and writers will all be serving up vile propaganda in the newspapers and on the television and radio channels on behalf of their class. From the right to the left, including the extreme left, the whole bourgeois class will churn out lies, from the most flagrant to the most subtle.
For 'the right-wing' the communards are bloodthirsty savages
If the right-wing was indignant about the timidity with which the state planned to “commemorate” the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon I, it has of course showed a total disdain for the Communards (1), these “murderers”, these “troublemakers”, these “agents of disorder” who should just stay where they are, i.e. six feet under. You have to go back to 2016 to see how Le Figaro, a well-known French right-wing newspaper, bluntly states what the “party of order” has always thought in substance, and unequivocally: “The Communards destroyed Paris, massacred honest people and even starved Paris by destroying the large warehouses that stored the grain reserves that supplied the bakers of Paris”. This shameless slander knows no bounds. This is how the insurgents, already regarded as vermin at the time, became responsible for their own famine and at the same time for starving the “honest people”. In other words, if the working class in Paris was reduced to eating rats, it was their own fault! As usual, and especially since the aftermath of the event, the right-wing, which has always felt terrorised by the “dangerous classes”, repeats over and over again a kind of hate speech, equating the Communards with bloodthirsty savages.
But this campaign of crude accusations, trampling on the truth, cruelly lacking any finesse, is very easily seen through for what it is by the working class. It therefore remains in the hands of the forces of the left of capital to carry out the real and necessary work of falsifying the meaning of the Paris Commune.
The Left lays claim to the Commune, the better to subvert it
For 72 days from 18 March, the Paris City Hall will organise no less than fifty events to supposedly celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Commune. The stage will be set on 18 March in Square Louise Michel (18th arrondissement of Paris), in the presence of the “socialist” mayor of the capital, Anne Hidalgo.
This location has not been chosen at random. Louise Michel was one of the most famous and heroic fighters of the Commune who, when she was tried, refused even to accept any pity from the executioners of the Commune, saying to their faces: “Since it seems that every heart that beats for liberty is only entitled to a bit of lead, I claim my share! If you are not cowards, kill me”. So who are these people who, today, want to stage the memory of the Commune in a totally truncated way? Who are Madame Hidalgo and her entire “socialist” city council? Nothing less than the descendants of the social-democratic traitors who irretrievably passed into the camp of the bourgeoisie at the time of the First World War.
Since then, in opposition or in government, the “socialists” have always acted against the interests of the working class. Therefore, for purely political reasons, Anne Hidalgo's Deputy Mayor cynically exploits the memory of Louise Michel in the 2021 commemorations by quoting her: “Everyone is seeking a way forward, we are too, and we think that the day when liberty and equality reign is when the human race will be happy”. For the Communards, these words meant the end of wage slavery, the end of the exploitation of man by man, the destruction of the bourgeois state. That is what the words “liberty” and “equality” meant to them. That’s why, instead of the tricolour flag of France, which flies on the roof of the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) in Paris today, the Communards erected the red flag, a symbol of the struggle of the workers of the whole world! But for this class of exploiters and mass murderers, the “reign of liberty” is nothing more than the reign of commerce and the domination and exploitation of proletarians in workshops and on production lines.
The Socialist Party have increased rallies to the glory of bourgeois democracy in the four corners of the capital and the left-wing intellectuals, writers and film-makers have released lots of films and books to dilute the revolutionary character of the Commune. Also, the bourgeois press, like the Guardian, (2) passes it off as a “people's struggle” and compares it to the interclassist movement of the “Yellow Vests” in order to deny its unquestionably proletarian character. But the Paris Commune was neither a struggle for the implementation of bourgeois values and democracy, that most sophisticated form of class domination and capital, nor a struggle of the “people of Paris”, or even of the “petty-bourgeoisie”. On the contrary, it incarnated a struggle to the death to overthrow the power of the bourgeois class, of which the Socialist Party and all the spokespeople of the “left” are the worthy representatives today.
The extreme left of capital completes the dirty work
The leftists are not to be outdone when it comes to making their own little contribution to the falsification of the experiences of the workers' movement. More often than not they provide the most insidious of distortions. Thus, the Trotskyists of the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) peddle the cause of “direct democracy” to distort the meaning of the Commune. These leftists do recognise that the Communards made an attack on the state, but only so they can draw false lessons from this and draw conclusions harmless to capital which they zealously support. The NPA, for example, in the Loiret district, in a bulletin they published on 13 March, gives space in its pages to the historian Roger Martelli (3) whose prose is a real plea for bourgeois democracy: “With no fixed doctrines, not even a finished programme, the Commune did in a few weeks what the Republic would take a long time to realise. It opened the way to a conception of ‘living together’, based on equality and solidarity. Finally, it set out the possibility for a less narrow representative, more direct citizen-oriented form of control. In short, it sought to put into practice the 'government of the people by the people', which US President Lincoln had announced years earlier.”
What an utter disgrace this is! Martelli shamelessly spits on the grave of the communards! The NPA, in a totally open and “uninhibited” way, reduces the Commune to a simple democratic reform dressed up as popular participation. In the end, the future prefigured by the Commune is reduced to the bourgeois democratic ideal!
Jean Jaurès, despite his reformist prejudices, at least had the intellectual honesty, unlike the falsifiers of the NPA, to say that: “the Commune was in essence and in substance the first great pitched battle of labour against capital. And that’s precisely why it was defeated, why it was slaughtered”. (4)
For its part, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the other main French Trotskyist party, contributes with its fake radical language to this campaign of falsification by pretending to oppose parliamentary democracy (in which LO has been participating for decades) to the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., in its eyes, a more radical form of bourgeois democracy. This is how this electoralist party explained it in 2001: “In a programme which they did not have time to develop, the Communards proposed that all the communes from the big cities to the smallest hamlets in the countryside should organise themselves according to the model of the Paris Commune and that they should constitute the basic structure of a new form of truly democratic state.” (5). That said, LO is then quick to point out: “This does not mean that revolutionary communists are indifferent to so-called democratic freedoms, quite the contrary, if only because they allow militants to defend their ideas more openly". (6)
The organisations of the left of capital play without question the most treacherous role, consisting in presenting the Commune as an experiment in “radical” democracy, which would have had no other objective than improving the functioning of the state. Nothing more! 150 years later, the Paris Commune is once again faced with the Holy Alliance of all bourgeois reactionary forces, like it did in its own day with the Holy Alliance of the Prussian state and the French Republic. The political treasures bequeathed by the Commune are what the bourgeois class seeks to hide and bury.
The Commune is a key moment of working class history
Indeed, as Marx and Engels stated loud and clear in its aftermath, the Paris Commune waged the first revolutionary assault of the proletariat by fighting for the destruction of the bourgeois state. The Commune aimed to immediately consolidate its power by abolishing the standing army and the state institutions, and by adopting the permanent revocability of the members of the Commune who were responsible to all those who had elected them.
The historical conditions were not yet ripe at this time - it was well before the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Russia - but the Communards did introduce plans to form workers’ councils, “the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as Lenin put it. So it was not the construction of a “truly democratic” state that the Communards made their objective, but the rejection of the domination of the bourgeois class. The Paris Commune demonstrated that the “the working class cannot simply take control of the existing state machinery and use it for its own purposes”. (7) This is one of the essential lessons that Marx and the workers' movement drew from this tragic experience.
If the Paris Commune was a premature insurrection that ended in the massacre of the finest flower of the world proletariat, it was nevertheless a heroic struggle of the Parisian proletariat, an invaluable contribution to the historical struggle of the exploited class. For this reason, it remains fundamental that the working class of the 21st century is able to appropriate and assimilate the experience of the Commune and the invaluable lessons that revolutionaries have drawn from it.
Paul, 18 March 2021.
To deepen the lessons of the Paris Commune, we recommend reading the following articles on our website:
- Paris Commune of 1871: When the workers first took power | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
- On the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
- 1871: The first proletarian dictatorship | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
(1) In the Paris City Council, right-wing politicians opposed the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Commune, leading a deafening campaign on the legitimacy and even the national duty of celebrating the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.
(2) “Vive la Commune? The working-class insurrection that shook the world”, The Guardian (7 March 2021).
(3) Linked to the reviving current of the Stalinist party in France, the PCF, now close to the left-wing party, La France Insoumise, with a very muscular nationalist discourse.
(4) Jean Jaurès, Histoire Socialiste.
(5) “Democracy, parliamentary democracy, communal democracy”. Cercle Léon Trotski intitulé issue n° 89 (26 January 2001). In this article, which says a lot about LO’s democratic ideology, the Trotskyist party adds, without batting an eyelid: “Of all bourgeois institutions, the municipalities [i.e. the cogs of bourgeois democracy where LO has the best chance of obtaining elected representatives] are still potentially the most democratic, because they are the closest to the population and the most subject to its control”. No comment...
(6) “La Commune de Paris et ses enseignements pour aujourd’hui”, Lutte de classe, issue no.214 (March 2021).
(7) Marx et Engels, Preface to the Manifesto of the Communist Party (24 June 1872) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/pre...