On the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune

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With the dramatic events of the Paris Commune between March and June 1871 we have the first example in history of the working class taking political power into its own hands. The Commune meant the dismantling of the old bourgeois state and the formation of a power directly controlled from below: the delegates of the Commune, elected by popular assemblies in the neighbourhoods of Paris, were subject to immediate recall and were paid no more than the average worker’s wage. The Commune called for its example to be taken up throughout France, demolished the Vendôme Column as a symbol of French national chauvinism, and proclaimed that its red flag was the flag of the Universal Republic. Naturally, this crime against the natural order had to be mercilessly punished. The liberal British newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, published at the time a very critical report on the bloody revenge of the French ruling class:

 “Civil government is temporarily suspended in Paris. The city is divided into four military districts, under General’s LADMIRAULT, CISSKY, DOUAY, and VINOY. ‘All powers of the civil authorities for the maintenance of order are transferred to the military’. Summary executions continue, and military deserters, incendiaries, and members of the Commune are shot without mercy. The marquis DE GALIFLET has given some slight dissatisfaction by shooting, it is said, a number of innocent persons near the Arc de Triomphe. It will be remembered that the Marquis (who was with BAZAINE in Mexico) ordered upwards of 80 men, selected from a large convoy of prisoners, to be shot near the Arch. It is now said that some of these men were innocent. The Marquis would probably, if he were appealed to, express a polite regret that such an untoward circumstance should have occurred; and what more could a true ‘friend of order’ require?[1]

In a mere eight days, 30,000 Communards were massacred. And those who played their part in this Calgary were not merely the Galiflets and their French superiors. The Prussian junkers, whose war with France had sparked off the uprising in Paris, patched up their differences with the French bourgeoisie to enable the latter to crush the Commune: the first clear evidence that, no matter how savage the national rivalries that pit different ruling classes against each other, they will stand shoulder to shoulder when they face a threat from the proletariat.   

The Commune was utterly defeated, but it has been a source of inestimable political lessons for the workers’ movement. Marx and Engels revised their view of the proletarian revolution as a result of it, concluding that the working class could not take control of the old bourgeois state but had to destroy it and replace it with a new form of political power. The Bolsheviks and Spartacists of the Russian and German revolutions in 1917-19 took inspiration from it and saw the workers’ councils or soviets which emerged from those revolutions as a continuation and a development of the principles of the Commune. The communist left of the 1930s and 40s, in trying to understand the reasons for the defeat of the revolution in Russia, went back to the experience of the Commune to see what light it shed on the problem of the state in the period of transition between capitalism and communism. In line with this tradition, our Current has also published a certain number of articles on the Commune. The first volume of our series Communism is not just a nice idea but a material necessity, which looks at the evolution of the communist programme in the 19th century workers’ movement, devotes a chapter to the Commune, examining how the experience of Paris 1871 has clarified the attitude that the working class must adopt towards both the bourgeois state and the post-revolutionary ‘semi-state’; towards the other non-exploiting classes in society; towards the political, social and economic measures needed to advance in the direction of a society without classes and without a state. This article can be found here, as well as in the book containing the whole of the first series, which can be bought directly from the ICC or on Amazon. We are also re-publishing in our territorial press an article originally written for the 120th anniversary of the Commune in 1991. This article denounces the latter-day efforts of the bourgeoisie to recuperate the memory of the Commune and hide its internationalist and revolutionary essence by presenting it as a chapter in the patriotic struggle for democratic freedoms.


[1]. Manchester, Thursday June 1 1871:Summary of Foreign News.


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History of the workers' movement