From the archives: Vital Lessons of the Paris Commune 145 Years on

A brief look into our history and inspiration.
The image is from the poster of the movie The New Babylon, a 1929 film of Grigori Kozintsev, narrating the events of the Paris Commune and the fight for a world without inequalities.

by Jonathan White, via Morning Star

March 18 2016 marks the 145th anniversary of the workers’ insurrection that began the Paris Commune. The Commune lasted for just 72 days between March and May 1871 before it was crushed with staggering brutality.

Reeling from humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, the political representatives of the French bourgeoisie reorganised their remaining regular forces and bargained with the Prussians to secure the release of one of their imprisoned armies. The army bombarded Paris and then 130,000 soldiers overwhelmed the Commune’s defences in late May 1871.

The soldiers then conducted a licensed massacre intended to purge Paris of its radicalism for a generation. 20-30,000 men, women and children were shot in varying degrees of cold blood; many machine-gunned using the latest technology. Adolphe Thiers, head of the French government based at Versailles, exulted in his work: “The ground is covered with their cadavers. This awful sight will serve as a lesson.” 10,000 prisoners were sentenced to prison or deported to penal colonies.

Such extraordinary violence betrays the fact that, as Eric Hobsbawm said, the Commune “frightened the wits” out of the bourgeoisie by its mere existence. Paris had seen risings of workers in its recent history but the Commune was something different. While many of its leaders looked back to the democratic ideals of the first French revolution, the Commune’s real driving force was the Parisian working class, increasingly organised, engaging in struggle and pushed to the limits of endurance.

The population of Paris was swollen by rural migrant workers flowing into the eastern suburbs of the city. Working families endured appalling overcrowding, with 15,000 people per square kilometre in the worst districts. The economically hard years leading up to the Franco-Prussian war had seen strikes in industry and a flowering of working-class political associations.

Napoleon III’s vainglorious military adventure brought more hardship as France’s armies collapsed and Paris was subjected to a four-month siege. When the French bourgeoisie capitulated to the Prussians in January 1871 and immediately enacted punitive economic measures against poor Parisians, it became clear who they considered the real enemy.

The final straw was Thiers’s decision to try to confiscate the National Guard’s cannon. The National Guard was Paris’s militia and during the siege its ranks had filled with working men. Many of their cannon had been paid for by workers’ subscriptions and were powerful symbols of the people’s sacrifice. Thiers’s highly provocative move on the morning of March 18 triggered a spontaneous insurrection and the Commune was proclaimed shortly afterwards.

What was it about the Commune that so terrified the French bourgeoisie? Most of all it was that the Commune represented the working class organising and governing in its own interest. In its short life, the Commune passed legislation to ease debt burdens, regulate work and turn abandoned factories and workshops over to workers’ associations. It legislated to liberate education from the grip of the Catholic Church, opening it up to working people as part of a conscious battle of ideas. Symbols of autocratic power and chauvinism were destroyed, such as the Victory Column in the Place Vendome. The streets and leisure spaces built for the wealthy were briefly claimed by ordinary working people.

Women were highly active in organising mass meetings, forming new associations, running basic public services, organising the defence of Paris and ensuring that the Commune took action to help suffering families.

The Commune set about reshaping government and state in Paris. The government was a committee of municipal councillors elected by universal male suffrage and subject to recall. Magistrates were elected and the people were armed in the form of the National Guard. In Paris at least, the organs of the state were filled with working people, brought closer to working people and made subject to their will.

The Commune was always doomed. The Parisian working class’s militancy was not matched elsewhere, its political leadership was poor and divided and the Parisians were surrounded and sealed off by the armies of two states.

After the massacres, the forces of order set about attempting to erase traces of the Commune. The massive Sacre Coeur church that dominates modern Montmartre, then a working-class stronghold, was built as a brutal statement of order, a national penance for the “crimes” of the Commune.

Yet the memory of the Commune endures. Many of its far-sighted reforms became part of later French social democratic programmes. The Commune’s greatest legacy, however, was that it enabled a leap in the development of revolutionary political thought.

Marx and Lenin both studied the lessons of the Commune and saw that its true significance lay in the way the working class attempted to transform the apparatus of the state. For both, it was clear that this “engine of class despotism,” theoretically standing over and above social interests, but in reality upholding the everyday domination of capital, could not simply be taken and used by the working class. It had to be transcended.

Observing the Commune in action from London, Marx realised that he was watching the French working class wrestling with this very problem. Not only were they seizing state power, but they were beginning to dissolve its concentrated force back into society.

This was what made the Commune, in Marx and Lenin’s view, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

For Lenin it also showed all too clearly the importance of the organised revolutionary political party. Both understood that the Commune could not have won, but they saw that it provided the working-class movement with an immense lesson that must shape future revolutionary theory and practice.

The question of how working people win, use and transform state power is as alive today as it was then. The Commune was the first attempt by working people to grapple with this issue.

Thousands of ordinary Parisian men, women and children paid for it with their lives. They are part of our history.

We should fight to remember them and honour their achievement.