On the 65th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Bilan no 29 (March-April 1936)

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We are publishing below an article by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The interest of this article, written in the midst of the counter-revolution and the march towards the Second World War, is that it highlights the historical continuity between the Commune of 1871 and the October Revolution of 1917. The article illustrates both the proletarian character of these two revolutionary experiences, their international scope and the tragedy of their defeat. Above all, it highlights, in the face of false friends and the chauvinist politics of the "popular fronts", that the proletariat must learn from its experiences, knowing, as Rosa Luxemburg underlined, that it is from "defeat to defeat" that the struggle of the proletariat progresses in order to assert and develop its revolutionary consciousness.

Between the Paris of the glorious Commune of 1871 and the Paris of the Popular Front there is an abyss that no phraseology can hide. The one embraced the workers of the whole world, the other saw the French proletariat dragged through the mud of treason. We want, to use the profound words of Karl Marx, "the Paris of the workers in 1871, the Paris of the Commune" to be "celebrated as the harbinger of a new society" and not as a simple 'national' episode, a moment in the defence of the fatherland, of the struggle against the 'Prussian' as the lackeys of the Popular Front will inevitably want to present it.

Certainly, the historical circumstances in which it arose could make such ideas possible. After all Marx did write: "Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workers must perform their duties as citizens". But when, in March 1871, the Commune appeared, it was Marx who first brought out its profound internationalist character by writing: "If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a workers' government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labour, emphatically international.” 

The importance of the Commune lies in the fact that it was able to overcome the prejudices of the time, inevitable in the phase of the formation of capitalist states, in order to assert itself, not as the representative of the "Nation" or that of the democratic republic ("in reality," wrote Engels in his 1891 preface to Marx’s The Civil War in France, "the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, … in a democratic republic no less than in a monarchy"), but that of the world proletariat. Marx rightly wrote: " Its true secret was this: It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.

It is this historical significance of the Parisian workers' insurrection, brilliantly drawn out by Marx in the heat of the events themselves, which has remained, and which gave it the colossal importance it had for the development of the workers' movement. It was the appearance of "the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour". It's not surprising that, until 1914, the international movement lived on the heroic memory of the Commune, fed on it, but also came to blur its real meaning with the triumph of opportunism.

The French bourgeoisie, aided by Bismarck, was to crush the Commune with iron and fire. In the conditions of economic and social development of the time the Commune could have had no prospects. It was only after many years that the bourgeoisie, aided by opportunism, succeeded in blurring the immense significance of this event for the working class. In 1917, it appeared that only the Russian Bolsheviks had learned from the school of the Commune, that only they had understood its significance and through its critique had enabled them to deal with the problems of insurrection. Without the Commune, the October 1917 revolution would not have been possible. Here, it was one of those historical moments when "a desperate struggle of the masses, even for a hopeless cause, is essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for future struggles" (Lenin), a first fruit of a bloody experience, a concrete step towards the world revolution.

The Commune was great and will remain so because the Parisian workers allowed themselves to be buried under its rubble rather than capitulate. No threat from Thiers, no violence could overcome their heroism. It took the massacres of May 1871 of Père-Lachaise to restore order and the triumph of the bourgeoisie. And even the opportunists of the Second International, who deliberately rejected the lessons of the Commune, had to bow to its heroism. Before the war, the Socialist parties had to glorify the Commune in order to better dismiss its historical lessons. But this attitude entailed a fundamental contradiction in that it made the Paris insurgents a permanent focus of international revolutionary struggle where genuine Marxists came to learn.

The Russian Commune of 1917 did not have this glorious fate. Its transformation into a centre of counter-revolution, its disintegration under the weight of world capitalism, has made it an element of repulsion whose lessons are very difficult to draw out. The Soviets for the worker no longer mean a step forward in relation to the Commune, but a step backwards. Instead of perishing under its own rubble, facing the bourgeoisie, the Soviets crushed the proletariat. Today its flag is that of imperialist war. But in the same way as there would have been no October 1917 without the Commune of 1871, there is no possibility of a triumphant revolution without the tragic end of the Russian revolution.

What does it matter, after all, if the Commune serves the chauvinistic hype of the Popular Front, if Russia has become a powerful instrument for the preparation of imperialist war? It is the destiny of the great events of history to be used in the interests of the perpetuation of capitalism, as soon as they have ceased to be a threat to its domination. The only thing that nobody in the world can erase from the Commune is its character as a forerunner in the liberation of the working class. The only thing that remains of the Russian Soviets is the gigantic experience of running a proletarian state[1] in the name and on behalf of the world proletariat.

The revival of revolutionary struggles must recall the political bases of these events. The historical forms do not matter: Commune or Soviet (rather Commune than Soviet[2]), the world proletariat will not be able to repeat the historical errors of either one, because, as Marx put it so well, it has "no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant". We do not have to oppose a utopian and abstract ideal to these two historical experiences, to get lost in an empty enthusiasm or a sentimental repulsion, but to draw "the elements of the new society" from the historical phase in which the Russian revolution fell, as Lenin did with the Commune. As the Hungarian Commune of 1919 clearly shows, among other things, you inevitably see the repetition of errors, of failures, which, because of the existence of a previous experience, undermine the struggle of the proletariat for many years.

The workers cannot "repeat" in the course of their emancipatory struggle, but must innovate, precisely because they are the revolutionary class in present-day society. The inevitable defeats that occur along the way are then only stimulants, valuable experiences that determine, later on, the victorious development of the struggle. On the other hand, if we were to repeat tomorrow even one of the errors of the Russian revolution, we would jeopardise, for a long time, the destiny of the proletariat, which would become convinced that it has nothing more to try.

Let us therefore, while the proletariat is being beaten in all countries, allow the traitors to falsify the scope of the Commune. Let Russia follow its course. But let us take care to preserve the lessons of these two experiences, to prepare the new weapons for tomorrow's revolution, to solve what the Russian revolution failed to do, because if "The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence" (Marx, The Civil War in France), the merit of the Russian revolution was to have tackled the problems of the management of a proletarian economy in conjunction with the workers' movement of all countries and on the front of the world revolution. The "great act" of the Commune ended in massacres, the management of the Russian state ended with "socialism in one country". We know today that it is better that the next revolutions end like the Paris Commune than in the shame of betrayal. But we are working, not with the prospect of defeat, but with the will to prepare the conditions for victory.

There have been two Communes. Long live the Communes of the world proletariat.

Bilan no 29 (March-April 1936)


[1] This idea of a "proletarian state" testifies to the fact that all the lessons of the failure of the Russian Revolution and the degeneration of the Third International could not be drawn at that time. Even today, some groups in the proletarian political milieu retain such a confusion about the nature of the state. In reality, there can be no proletarian state insofar as this apparatus, which imposes itself as the expression of society divided into classes, is radically opposed to the necessary autonomy of the proletariat and to its project, which is precisely to make it wither away until the complete disappearance of classes themselves. The idea of a “proletarian economy” during the transition period, which appears further down in the text, is connected to this same theoretical error (ICC note).

[2] The meaning of this phrase is not very clear; the original soviets or workers’ councils were in fact an advance on the Commune form of organization insofar as they were based on workplace assemblies, and were thus a more direct expression of working class self-organisation than the territorially based Commune. But probably Bilan are referring here, as earlier on, to the USSR, the “Soviet State” which had become a force of counter-revolution (ICC note).


History of the workers’ movement