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Volume 51 Number 10, March 27, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Marking the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune

Showing the Way Towards a New Society

On March 18, 1871, the working class of Paris rose up against the French bourgeoisie and in the subsequent days, the Paris Commune was proclaimed. This marked the first revolutionary seizure of state power by the proletariat and one of the most glorious pages in the history of the international working class.

The heroic efforts of the Parisian workers became an historic turning point in the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie because it acted in its own right and the Communards decisively acted as an independent political force to push a cause defined by themselves. With their blood, the efforts of the heroic Communards remain a source of profound inspiration and invaluable lessons for the communist and workers' movement worldwide.

The establishment of the Commune took place within the conditions of a great revolutionary upheaval in France. In 1870 the French despot Louis Bonaparte had launched an unjust and anti-popular chauvinist war against Prussia in which he suffered a humiliating defeat. In this situation, with Paris under siege by the Prussian army, the Paris Revolution of September 4, 1870, took place, overthrowing Louis Bonaparte's Second Empire and proclaiming a Republic.

"The proletarians of Paris," said the Central Committee in its manifesto of March 18, "amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs...

While the bourgeoisie formed the government of the Republic, the main force of this revolution was the working people of Paris who had been armed to defend the city. When the bourgeois government capitulated to the Prussians after a long siege and then, with the collaboration of the Prussians, attempted to disarm the proletariat on March 18, 1871, the proletariat rose up in resistance and turned its arms against the government of the propertied classes sitting at Versailles. The proletariat established itself as the ruling class for the first time. On March 26, the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed.

"The proletarians of Paris," said the Central Committee in its manifesto of March 18, "amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs.... They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power."

Today the state power in charge of the crisis-ridden capitalist system of wage slavery and exploitation of persons by persons is blocking society's path to progress. The neo-liberal ruling elites have usurped the public authority and the state institutions are controlled directly by the most powerful private monopoly interests. Their inter-monopoly rivalry has not only wrecked the economies of entire countries but destroyed entire nation-states, while others are in profound existential crisis. The social fabric of these countries has unravelled to such an extent that the people have no choice but to find an alternative to the inter-imperialist collusion and contention which is taking the world to the brink of a worldwide conflagration.

In this situation, the lessons of the Paris Commune are especially important for the working class and all the exploited. Its experience shattered the myth of the eternal nature and invincible character of the bourgeois state and its neutrality, a myth that today the ruling elites are determined to keep alive. It provided the first practical confirmation of the most basic tenets of scientific socialism as elaborated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It also provided the practical experience which enabled them to further elaborate these principles.

The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. The Commune made the elected organs accountable. They had previously been simply legislative bodies to rubber stamp those measures needed by the exploiting classes while the bureaucratic apparatus was responsible for their implementation. The legislative bodies were given both legislative and executive functions so that those who passed the laws were also responsible for their implementation. On March 30, only two days after the Commune was proclaimed, it abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, as the sole armed force. On the same day, it showed its profoundly internationalist character when the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, proclaiming that "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic". In order to protect itself against any careeri sts who might try to advance their own interests at the cost of the working people, the Commune decided to pay its representatives workmen's wages and to declare them all, without exception, subject to recall at any time.

Other revolutionary measures taken by the Commune to dismantle the old state apparatus and establish the new included: the election of public officials such as judges, who were also subject to recall at any time; the separation of the church from the state; the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes and the exclusion from the schools of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers, and the like. The latter measures meant that it made the question of religion purely private.

Writing at the time, Marx noted that this proletarian revolution remained so free from the acts of violence in which the revolutions, and still more the counter revolutions, of the so-called "better classes" abound.

The Commune also took important revolutionary measures for the economic emancipation and well-being of the working people. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April 1881, the amounts already paid to be booked as future rent payments, and stopped all sales of articles pledged in the municipal loan offices. It abolished night work for bakers and closed the pawn shops, and it took measures to work out plans for the operation of factories, which had been closed down, by organising workers into co-operative societies.

The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. Once the communal regime was established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralised government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers.

The Communards made a start at carrying out these measures, but most of the Commune's energies were consumed in defending the Commune from the savage onslaught of the Versailles government.

In a rough sketch of national organisation, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service.

The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of constituents.

Marx points out: "The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organised by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence."

Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes. Marx says its true secret was this: "It was essentially a working class government both legislative and executive, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour." Further, Marx said that the working class in working out its emancipation "have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple" and they "have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant".

In these revolutionary conditions, the role of women came to the fore. It is important to stress the outstanding role women played in establishing and defending the Paris Commune. The Women's Union (Union des Femmes), which was part of the First International, as their leading organisation, organised working women at the barricades, ambulance stations and canteens. The Women's Union also mobilised them to fight for women's emancipation. Each district of Paris had Union committees for recruiting militant working women. Faced with the treacherous attack on Paris by Thiers' army, Nathalie Lemel, a member of the Union of Women, called on women to join the work: "We have come to the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our Nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty! All women to arms! All women to duty! Versailles must be wiped out!" Another outstanding woman fighter was Louise Michel of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, who was elected its president, thus occupyi ng a leading role in the revolutionary government of the Paris Commune. The committee held workshops, recruited ambulance nurses, gave aid to wives of soldiers, sent speakers to the clubs, and more. She served as a fighter and medical worker in the 61st Battalion of Montmartre.

France's Imperial annexation was brought to an end by the Commune, "the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world."

By May 1871, the Versailles government had co-opted the Prussians to help it crush the revolt of the workers. When after eight days of heroic resistance the Communards succumbed before the all-out assault of the Versailles troops with co-operation by the Prussians, the slaughter of the defenceless men, women and children, which had been raging all through the week on an increasing scale, reached unprecedented proportions. Thousands upon thousands of unarmed workers were massacred by the bourgeoisie. While the bourgeoisie presents itself as "humanitarian", "reasonable", "just" and "civilised", the Paris Commune showed the extent of frenzied barbarism to which the bourgeoisie will go to crush the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat, thereby highlighting the importance for the proletariat once it has seized power to resolutely exercise its dictatorship over the exploiters so as to be able to consolidate its victories and provide democracy for the large majority of the working p eople.

This is the invaluable lesson the Paris Commune gave the world proletariat. Though the existence of the Commune itself was brief, it is nevertheless a lesson of profound importance in the ongoing struggle of the proletariat to build the new socialist society. In the preface to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes. [...]"

The Paris Commune, which demonstrated in deeds what the dictatorship of the proletariat means, also provided lessons on the necessity to have a revolutionary political party of the proletariat to lead it through the complicated twists and turns of the class struggle, on the necessity to build and strengthen the worker-peasant alliance, and other invaluable lessons which were reconfirmed by the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the other revolutionary struggles of the proletariat.

Today, the importance of political parties that are capable of providing the class struggle of the working class and oppressed people with the orientation and leadership they require so as to have their own independent politics and provide the problems they and society face with solutions is in essence the same fight for which the Communards fought and blazed a trail with such great heroism. The example of the Paris Commune will forever inspire the working people everywhere who can never forget the invaluable lessons provided by the Communards, written in blood. The Paris Commune was indeed a glorious harbinger of the new society, which the working and oppressed people everywhere are striving to bring into being.


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