Paris Commune Revisited

--Arindam Sen

“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.”

– Manifesto of the National Guard, 18 March, 1871

To workers across the world, May is a month for celebrations. Following the May Day, May 5 marks the birthday of Karl Marx and one also remembers how between March and May 1871 workers of Paris created and ran for 72 days the world's first proletarian state, providing thereby indispensable live inputs for the development of Marxism. This May, as students' and working people's Paris celebrates the recent victory it won against the government on the CPE issue, as the worldwide movement against butcher Bush prepares for fresh advances after scaling new heights in March and struggles against tyrannical regimes like the one in neighbouring Nepal surges forward, we find it very timely, very relevant, to remember that great harbinger of a new society on earth.

Seizure of Political Power

Paris , March 18, 1871 . Apparently the scene resembled that of 13-14 July, 1789: advancing waves of insurgent workers destroying the old order to create a new. But whereas on the earlier occasion, the French Revolution, they followed the lead of the then progressive and revolutionary bourgeoisie, this time around they were snatching power from that very bourgeoisie which had in the meantime turned into a force of reaction and national betrayal. As the government troops retreated from one part of the city after another and the red flag was hoisted over the imposing Hotel de Ville, the city saw a panic exodus of the rich and famous. Louise Adolphe Thiers, the head of the bourgeois government, fled in a carriage with curtains drawn across the windows and guarded by the mounted police, and set up the counterrevolutionary government in Versailles . Political power in Paris was now in the hands of the National Guard (NG), its Central Committee to be precise.

Before we see what happened next, a flashback will be in order.

The Franco-Prussian war, started in July 1870, led to the fall of Napoleon III and proclamation of the Third Republic in early September, even as Paris continued to be under seize by Prussian forces. The new republican government of France named itself “government of national defence”, but lost no time in starting secret negotiations with the Prussian invaders. For the French bourgeoisie had already begun to hate and fear the working class in their own country more than the bourgeoisie of any other country. Sensing the national betrayal, the people of Paris tried to overthrow the government on October 31, 1870 and January 22, 1871 . Both of these armed uprisings were crushed, but the rulers realised the situation was rapidly slipping out of control. So they signed an armistice with the Germans and on March 1 invited the German troops into Paris . The latter moved into the city only to be greeted with total social boycott called by the NG and after a few days retreated to the outskirts of Paris . Thiers' next step in conspiracy was to send his troops against the NG at the wee hours of 18th March. Instantaneously and spontaneously, working people's Paris rose in arms with the thunderous slogan: “Vive la Commune!”

While the insurrection was largely spontaneous, within hours the CC of NG took leadership into its hands. The CC consisted of workers, artisans, students, journalists and others. Prominent among them were the bookbinder Louis Eugene Varlin, a self educated man who became one of the organisers of the Paris section of the first international; Duval, a foundry worker who had taken part in the uprisings of January 22 and March 18 and became one of the commanders of the city's armed forces; the 27-year-old medical student Emile Eudes, who had earlier been sentenced to death for his part in the revolutionary moment against the second Empire; Grenier, the owner of a small laundry; the cobbler Edouard Roulier, a veteran of the June 1848 uprising who was put in charge of the Ministry of Education.

On March 19 itself, the CC disbanded the regular army and police and ordered all the soldiers and policemen who had stayed back in the city (most had already fled to Versailles ) to join the ranks of the NG, i.e., the armed people. It also declared elections to the Commune, to be held seven days later on the principle of universal male suffrage. The Versailles counterrevolutionary government issued an appeal to the people to boycott the elections and the percentage of votes cast in the bourgeois and aristocratic districts of Paris was very small. But the working men voted with great enthusiasm and the Commune was proclaimed on the 28th.

The New State : “executive and legislative at the same time”

A quick glance at the first few measures of the Commune will tell us how “working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris... radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative”, up against the “bloodhounds of ‘order'' – as Marx put it – moved forward to build the new, proletarian state on the ruins of the old.

Since March 19, the staff in government offices did not turn up at work, in compliance with a directive from the Thiers government. Not to be let down, the CC sent workers, students, journalists, and artisans to reorganise the work in the offices. They naturally lacked experience in state administration, but were quick to learn and began to run the administration much better than the old bureaucracy.

Like the CC of the National Guard, the Commune regarded itself not simply as a municipal organ of the city of Paris but as the central revolutionary government of the Republic. So it proceeded forthwith to adopt laws and also supervise the implementation of laws. This combination of legislative and executive powers in one body was perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Commune, as Marx pointed out in The Civil War in France (henceforth Civil War ) and Lenin was to highlight in The State and Revolution .

On March 30 the Commune ratified the abolition of the standing army, and declared that the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, was to be the sole armed force. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be reckoned to a future rental period, and stopped all sales of article pledged in the municipal pawnshops. On the same day the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic ”. On April 1 it was decided that the highest salary received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore also by its members themselves, might not exceed 6,000 francs, the average wage of a skilled worker. On the following day the Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the State, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all Church property into national property; as a result of which, on April 8, a decree excluding from the schools all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers — in a word, “all that belongs to the sphere of the individual's conscience” — was ordered and this decree was gradually applied. On the 5th, day after day, in reply to the shooting of the Commune's fighters captured by the Versailles troops, a decree was issued for imprisonment of hostages, but it was never carried into effect. On the 6th, the guillotine was brought out by the 137th battalion of the National Guard, and publicly burnt, amid great popular rejoicing. On the 12th, the Commune decided that the Victory Column on the Palace Vendôme, which had been cast from guns captured by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This decree was carried out on May 16. On April 16 the Commune ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by the manufacturers, and preparation of plans for running these factories by workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organised in co-operative societies, and also plans for the organisation of these cooperatives in one great union. On the 20th the Commune abolished night work for bakers, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by police nominees — exploiters of the first rank. On April 30, the Commune ordered the closing of the pawnshops, on the ground that they were a private exploitation of labour, and were in contradiction with the right of the workers to their instruments of labour and to credit. On May 5 it ordered the demolition of the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI. A completely new type of state was thus being chiselled out: one which, in the words of Marx, “was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.” Lenin was to take this as a basic guideline in the construction of the Soviet state.

The Commune and Karl Marx

Says Lenin in The State and Revolution :

“It is well known that in the autumn of 1870, a few months before the Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, in March 1871, the decisive battle was forced upon the workers and they accepted it, when the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the proletarian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm, in spite of unfavourable auguries.”

On behalf of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association, Marx maintained close contacts with the leaders of the commune from London . He highly admired the communards, but at the same time pointed out the lapses:

“What flexibility, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused by internal treachery even more than by the external enemy, they rise, in the face of the Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not standing at the gates of Paris ! History has no comparable example of similar greatness! If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They ought to have marched at once on Versailles after the withdrawal first of Vinoy and then of the reactionary section of the Paris National Guard. They missed their opportunity because of moral scruples. They did not want to start a civil war , as if the mischievous dwarf Thiers had not already started the civil war... Second mistake: the Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too ‘honourable' scrupulosity!” (Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871)

Such liberal niceties amount to unaffordable luxuries in times of revolution. The Russian proletariat remembered these momentous lessons drawn by Marx, and led their revolution to success. The firm steps the Bolsheviks took in defending and consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat — dissolution of the constituent assembly in January 1918, when that assembly refused support the Soviet government, for example — have been criticised as undemocratic, but such tough measures at least seem to have a sanction in Marx.

As he wrote the above lines, Marx grew increasingly aware that the revolution's chances of success were dwindling. But along with Engels, he fought on. They led the International in organising a broad campaign in support of the Commune in many countries. Marx's assessment of the ongoing revolution — and his approach to revolutions in general – was so beautifully expressed in his April 17 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann that we find it hard to resist the temptation of quoting it almost in full. Kugelmann, a very close associate of Marx and Engels, had expressed doubts about the ability of the French “to bring about a revolution in the mode of production, and in general this is something that no nation can do by itself.” Now this was perfectly true in theory (and clearly anticipated the whole pedantic opposition to the Bolshevik attempt to build socialism in ‘a single country'). But Marx's response – like Lenin's nearly 50 years later – was not that of an academic but of a fighter and a revolutionary dialectician:

“World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition that the prospects were unmistakably favourable. It would on the other hand be of a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. These accidents naturally form part of the general course of development and are compensated by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very much dependent upon such “accidents”, including the “accident” of the character of the people who first head the movement.

The decisively unfavourable “accident” this time is by no means to be sought in the general conditions of French society, but in the presence of the Parisians in France and their position right before Paris . Of these the Parisians were well aware. But of this, the bourgeois canaille of Versailles were also well aware. Precisely for that reason they presented the Parisians with the alternative of either taking up the fight or succumbing without a struggle. The demoralisation of the working class in the latter case would have been a far greater misfortune than the doom of any number of “leaders”. With the struggle in Paris the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase. Whatever the immediate outcome maybe, a new point of departure of worldwide importance has been gained .” (Emphasis added)

Could there be a truer assessment of the Paris commune?

For all the force of Marx's advice and the revolutionary class instincts of the communards, adoption of correct tactics was hindered by the absence of an ideologically and organisationally consolidated communist party that could provide mature leadership in the extremely difficult situation. As Engels subsequently wrote in his comments on Civil War, neither the Blanquists, who commanded the greatest influence on the Commune, nor the left-wing Proudhonists , to say nothing of the petty bourgeois neo-Jacobins, were capable of playing this role. Consistent followers of Marx and Engels were indeed in a miniscule minority among the leaders of the commune (in fact they were far from a majority even in the General Council of the International) and this added to the difficulties.

In a letter to Frankel and Varlin, Marx observed on May 13, “The Commune seems to me to be wasting too much time on trivialities and personal quarrels. One can see that there are other influences besides that of the workers. None of this would matter if you had sufficient time to make up for lost time.”

In the same letter he informs his comrades in Paris : “I have written several hundred letters in support of your case to every corner of the world in which we have branches.... even the bourgeois papers in England have given up their original ferocity. I have succeeded in slipping some favourable paragraphs into them from time to time.”

The Bloodbath

However, the odds were heavily against the Parisians. Immediately after March 18, communes were set up in a number of other towns such as Lyons , Marseilles , Saint-Etienne , Toulouse , etc. But the Communards were not in a position to link up with these and their passive attitude to the Versailles government allowed the bourgeoisie to put down the isolated centres of revolutionary activity in different parts of the country by the beginning of April. Counterrevolutionary forces were now free to concentrate all the energies against Paris . The commune leaders did make fervent appeals to the peasantry to join the revolution, but could not take practical steps to organise that.

Meanwhile the Versailles government consolidated its military advantages. On May 10 it signed a humiliating peace in Frankfurt , whereby France paid a war indemnity of 5000 million francs and handed over the industrially advanced provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans. On May 22 troops from Versailles entered Paris with cannons and machine guns. The people put up a heroic resistance at the barricades, forcing the enemy fight for every inch. By May 28 the battle was over. The bourgeois newspapers screamed revenge and the massacre began. Thousands were killed during the battle, thousands in firing squads after that, and tens of thousands were arrested and sentenced to hard labour in the infamous tropics of New Caledonia . Quite a few managed to go underground. With the help of the International, which arranged British and German passports for them, they fled to London and other places. In London , Marx and Engels worked tirelessly to provide them with food, shelter (in their own houses and elsewhere), clothes, jobs and everything. The Marx family played an active part raising funds and taking warm care of the honoured guests.

What Marxism Learned from the Commune

Even as workers in Paris were in the midst of a losing battle, in London, the leader of the world proletariat – one who, never given to indulging in cheap sentimentalism or artificial show of modesty, had long ago described himself as a “servant of the working class” – was writing his ode to the heroes of the first proletarian state in the world. Yes, we refer to the immortal Civil War , written between the fourth week of April and fourth week of May in the shape of an address of the General Council of the International.

Written in a vigorous revolutionary style resembling that of the Communist Manifesto , the pamphlet declared that the Commune was the first state in history which truly championed the interests of the working people. More, it was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”. Marx's insightful comment that the commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body etc. has been noted earlier; but he did not in any way suggest rejecting the use of democratic freedoms and representative institutions in the interests of the working people. The destruction of the bourgeois state by no means ruled out the possibility of preserving the traditional democratic institutions, such as universal suffrage, which could well be remoulded in a truly popular spirit. He wrote that “while the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.” So far as the Paris Commune was concerned, from its proletarian character sprang its consistent democratic nature: electivity, removability and accountability to the people of all organs of power and persons in office, and so on.

What all this amounted to was the dictatorship of the proletariat in its inchoate, rudimentary form. In the Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels had written that the victorious proletariat “will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class”. But it took the practical experience, the class action, of the Paris Commune to bring this theory of dictatorship of proletariat to consummation in the Civil War . As Marx and Engels wrote in the Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Manifesto , quoting from the Civil War , “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'.” And then Marx developed the theory even further in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). Finally on the 20th anniversary of the Paris commune Engels beautifully expressed the whole thing in his Preface to the third German edition of Civil War :

“Of late, the social-democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”