The Guardian • Issue #1954

150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

The 18th of March marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Lasting just over three months, from 18th March to 28th May 1871, the Commune would serve as a model and vision for communists for generations to come.

The shorthand historical account is that France had lost the Franco-Prussian war in January 1871. The National Government, which had moved out of Paris to Tours, signed an armistice with the Prussians, it disbanded its army but not the National Guard who had remained defending Paris. The people of Paris felt abandoned by their government who had capitulated to the Prussian forces. Mass discontent ensued; besieged by both the French National Government and the Prussians, the National Guard in Paris refused to give up their arms and the working class rose up alongside them, refusing to accept the authority of the government.

The self-appointed French National Government sent the army twice in an attempt to disarm the Commune with no success. The resilience of the Commune was because of its radical socialist experimentation. Once established, it immediately implemented a workers’ wage, cancelled all debts and interest, and paid pensions to unmarried spouses and illegitimate children. The children of the Commune were given free education, and  abandoned factories were seized, which were then reappropriated into communal bakeries and kitchens. Workers were enrolled into the National Guard and guns were distributed among the population. A delegate system was used, wherein each district of Paris elected their own representative to speak for them within it. Once the French proletariat had created their own form of the state, they were able to govern themselves in a truly democratic sense.

The experience of the Paris Commune informed the development of Marx’s theory, as evidenced in the books and articles he and Engels penned on the subject. Marx wrote in The Civil War in France in 1871, the same year the Commune was formed, that Parisians “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.”

The Commune was eventually crushed by the French army on 21st May, 1871, when over thirty thousand communards – the revolutionaries inhabiting the Commune – were executed and over a hundred thousand were dispersed, either through exile, execution, arrest, or expulsion.

Despite its eventual defeat, the Commune is significant to us today by virtue of its profound legacy for communist revolutionaries. In 1932, Lenin asked “Why do the proletariat, not only in France but throughout the entire world, honour the workers of the Paris Commune as their forerunners? What was the heritage of the Commune?” To commemorate this event, it is best to use the words of the revolutionaries inspired by it. In answer to his own question, Lenin said

“This was an event unprecedented in history. Up to that time power had customarily been in the hands of landlords and capitalists … After the revolution of March 18, when the Thiers Government fled from Paris with its troops, its police and its officials, the people remained masters of the situation and power passed into the hands of the proletariat. But in modern society, enslaved economically by capital, the proletariat cannot dominate politically unless it breaks the chains which fetter it to capital. This is why the movement of the Commune inevitably had to take on a Socialist colouring, i.e., to begin striving for the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie, the power of capital, to destroy the very foundations of the present social order.”

Lenin, taking up Engels and Marx’s position wrote that the Commune was the model that he based his understanding of what the dictatorship of the proletariat would look like.

Marx wrote that it was “the greatest revolution of this century and still holds its post in the present glorious struggle of Paris.” These were not idle words. “Look at the Paris Commune,” he urged, “that was the dictatorship of the proletariat.” For Marx, the organisation of the Commune was instrumental in his thought. It sharpened his view on what a socialist society could look like. It marked the movement from a spontaneous uprising to a concrete form of organisation in Marxist theory.

Engels, reflecting on the organisation of the Commune, wrote in the preface of the same book that:

“the state is nothing other than an instrument of oppression of one class by another; this applies equally to a democratic republic and to a monarchy. In the best case, the State is an evil to which the proletariat will fall heir after emerging victorious from the struggle for class domination. Just as in the case of the Paris Commune, the proletariat will inevitably be compelled to lop off immediately, in so far as that is possible, the worst aspects of this evil, until a new generation, growing up in a new and a free social system, will have sufficient strength to do away with all this rubbish of all State institutions whatsoever.”

This characterisation of the state undoubtedly informed Marx and Engels’ later view on the “withering away of the state.” Once the proletariat has seized the control of the state machinery they can wield it for their own purposes, and each function of the state they took over would eventually destroy the need for a state at all. Engels continued:

“The German philistine has recently been struck with wholesome fear again at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well, then, gentlemen, do you want to know how this dictatorship looks? Then look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat”

The philistines of today are those who deny the dictatorship of the proletariat as part of the progression of creating communism. Marx continued exalting the revolutionary character of the Commune, citing the manifesto of its Central Committee.

“The proletarians of Paris … 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.”

Though the Commune had been crushed, its revolutionary legacy persisted. Its lesson is that the ideal of communism is never impossible. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, socialism, as the first stage of communism, can be established. We should not resign ourselves to the decisions the government supposedly makes as the ‘general will’ of the people but instead advance our own working class demands. A new system is not only possible but necessary. To honour the Commune is to concretely assert against the capitalist class what the will of the working class is not simply a defensive manoeuvre to maintain certain rights, but an affirmation that communism can happen, and has happened, in spite of what any capitalist tells us. Vive la Commune!

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