“Of worldwide significance” – The Paris Commune at 150

Communards on the barricades during the 1871 working-class uprising in Paris

The birth of the Paris Commune marked the first time in history when the working class took political power directly into its own hands. Karl Marx at the time described it as a “new point of departure of worldwide significance”.

Its lifespan was brief. Only 72 days separated the date of 18 March 1871, when the working class of Paris first took power, and 28 May, the final day of the ‘bloody week’ which saw the Commune overrun and the revolution brutally drowned in blood on the orders of the capitalist government in Versailles.

Despite its brevity, the Paris Commune not only provided a crucial case study for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in outlining the potential of the working class to take over the day-to-day running of society, but also invaluable lessons for socialists in how to successfully achieve the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a new socialist society on a lasting basis.

It also provided crucial lessons for revolutionaries in the lead-up to the October 1917 revolution in Russia 46 years later. As one of the co-leaders of the 1917 revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote following the unfolding of the 1905 revolution – the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the 1917 Russian revolution: “For us, the history of the Commune is now not just a great dramatic moment in the international struggle for liberation; it is a direct and immediate lesson”.

Birth of the commune

The background to the Paris Commune, as has been the case with a number of revolutions throughout history, was a devastating war, on this occasion between French and Prussian imperialism.

Following the restoration of the Bonaparte dynasty in France in 1851 and the beginning of the Second Empire, Paris led the French economy in a period of capitalist economic growth. The rapid growth of the industry in and around Paris delivered massive wealth and luxury to the capitalist class who owned and controlled industry and finance.

But with riches for this select few came poverty and destitution for the majority at the time, the workers and urban poor. Migrants from all over France poured into Paris during the 1850s and 60s looking to escape the poverty of the provinces.

Once in Paris, however, they only found further misery. Many remained underemployed or unemployed. Workers were squeezed into rooming houses in the central districts of Paris, or in shacks in the suburbs where industry was mainly concentrated. Disease in the workers’ districts was rife, with only a fifth of buildings in Paris having running water. One-quarter of Paris’s population was classified as poor at the time, with tens of thousands reliant day-to-day on charity in order to survive.

Workers’ opposition

As prices increased rapidly over wages and inequality deepened, so too did working-class opposition to Napoleon III’s regime. Although trade unions were still illegal in France at the time, hundreds of workers’ associations were created in the struggle over wages and conditions. By 1869, there were an estimated 165 workers’ associations in Paris with around 160,000 members.

The deepening opposition to his regime was a key factor in compelling Napoleon III to declare war with Prussia on 19 July 1870. Napoleon hoped that by securing a victory militarily over Prussia, he could secure a victory politically over the growing influence of republican and socialist opponents to his brutal regime at home, thereby strengthening the rule of the wealthy elite in France over the toiling masses.

The gamble of war was a disastrous miscalculation, however. The French army was riven by divisions between the privileged caste of officers, on the one hand, and workers and peasants, who made up the ranks, on the other. Its war mobilisation was limited by the still low development of French infrastructure which was no match for the army of Prussia.

The defeat of France on 2 September marked a turning point – the end of the Second Empire and the declaration of the Third Republic, which immediately faced the challenge of a Prussian army within France marching towards the capital. A so-called ‘Government of National Defence’ (GND) was formed, made up of various pro-capitalist ministers and headed by military leader Louis-Jules Trochu, a man who, in his own words, was committed to “God, family and property”.

The war, as Trotsky explained, completely shook the consciousness of the French and in particular the Parisian working class to the core. A key factor was the growth of the Paris-based National Guard during the war. This was mostly made up of poor workers who joined in order to receive a daily allowance of 1.5 francs a day. Its company officers and commanders, far from the class-based hierarchy of the regular army, were elected directly by national guardsmen and almost exclusively from the working-class neighbourhoods of Paris.

The strengthening of the National Guard meant a strengthening of the confidence of the working class to struggle – both in defence of its own class interests against the bosses and in defence of the Third Republic.

While Prussian armies laid siege to Paris from September onwards, it was the armed workers who the French ruling class feared the most.

Anger was further stoked with the announcement by the GND that it was considering surrendering to the Prussian army. Nationwide elections to the National Assembly in February, which delivered the monarchist minister Adolphe Thiers at the head of the new government, further added to fears of a monarchist restoration.

It was on the 10 March, when the ministers of the National Assembly relocated to Versailles, that the task of defending the capital from the invading Prussian forces fell to the working class. An attempt by the Versailles army under the command of Thiers to seize National Guard canons at Montmartre on 18 March sparked an insurrection. This thwarted the attempt to disarm the workers and seized the main centres of state power in Paris, including the Prefecture of Police. Flying a red flag from the Hotel de Ville city hall, the central committee of the National Guard that evening met and declared that it had taken power.

In contrast to the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the seizure of power by the working class in Paris in March 1871 was not consciously led by a revolutionary party capable of leading the struggle for power through to the end.

Rather, it was the events themselves, in particular the abandoning of Paris by the pro-capitalist government, which compelled the working class, ready or not, to take power in Paris in March 1871.

As the central committee of the National Guard proclaimed on 18 March: “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… by seizing upon the governmental power” (quoted in ‘The Civil War in France’, by Karl Marx).

However, as Marx critically remarked: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”(Ibid)

Gains under the Commune

Benoit Malon – a member of the (First) International in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels played a leading role – said: “Never has a revolution so surprised revolutionaries.” But nevertheless, under the “momentum of its own class weight”, as Trotsky put it, massive gains were made for the workers, poor and oppressed of Paris by the Commune.

Elections to the governing council of the Commune were organised by the central committee of the National Guard on 26 March. A 90-strong leadership was elected, an assortment of various left republicans, anarchists and socialists, including members of Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association. The new authority proclaimed the Paris Commune two days later.

Immediate measures were taken by the leadership of the Commune to alleviate the desperate situation facing the Parisian working class and poor. It immediately banned the eviction of renters unable to pay their rent. Debts of struggling workers were cancelled.

A survey was ordered by the Commune into workplaces recently shut down to be reopened and run as workers’ cooperatives to alleviate unemployment. Night baking, which had been a bane of the lives of many workers, was banned. Of the privileged who remained in Paris, the Commune demanded that they turn over any empty properties they owned to alleviate the city’s housing crisis.

Steps were also taken to dismantle the brutal apparatus of state repression. Conscription and the professional standing army were both abolished. All elected officials of the Commune were subject to immediate recall, and salaries capped. The average wage of all municipal employees was set at the modest sum of 6,000 francs a year.

Despite the fleeing of government officials and employees to Versailles, workers organised to ensure the continued functioning of society. Streets were cleaned and rubbish was regularly collected. Day-to-day life for workers and the poor was transformed. Residents of the working-class neighbourhoods now frequented the streets of the ‘beaux quartiers’ (rich neighbourhoods).

There was an explosion of new political newspapers, pamphlets, posters and literature being published as workers engaged in hopeful discussion about the building of a new kind of society.

Workers participating in political clubs, which had exploded in the latter days of the Second Empire, regularly gathered to discuss the political life of the Commune. It was widely expected that officials representing the Commune attend such meetings to hear and discuss the thoughts and concerns of the masses. And women played a key role in the construction and defence of the Commune, including militarily, providing care to wounded Communards and occupying and fighting on the barricades themselves.

Despite these major gains, a fatal error of the leaders of both the National Guard and the Commune was to leave the key levers of the French economy in the hands of the capitalist enemy.

This was chiefly demonstrated by the attitude the leadership of the Commune took towards the Bank of France, which was based in Paris. Measures to take the Bank and the other commanding heights of industry and finance into democratic public ownership could have provided the basis to begin to meet the social needs not just of workers in Paris, but also for a political appeal to workers, poor and peasants all across France to join the revolution.

And with Paris at that stage decisively controlled by the working class, the process would most likely have been relatively bloodless. Instead, the Commune sent its delegate for finance to the Bank to politely request a loan of 700,000 francs! With the financial sector left in private hands, in the hands of the class enemy, Thiers was granted access to a huge payment of 258 million francs in credit in order to reconstruct his army at Versailles to crush the Paris Commune.

Many leaders of the Commune mistakenly believed that by respecting ‘legality’, they could conciliate with and eventually pacify the capitalist class and its state machine. It was to this end that the elected leaders of the Commune worked in each arrondissement (local administrative district) with the ‘legal’ government-appointed mayors and deputies, many of whom were not supporters of the Commune. This further frustrated the attempts of the leadership of the Commune to organise the revolution.

Time was slipping through the fingers of the leaders. Meanwhile, at Versailles, an army was being raised and prepared to put an end to the Commune with force. Thiers spread propaganda throughout the army and the rest of France about the assortment of “ex-convicts, drunks, and dregs of society” who had come to rule the French capital and needed dealing with, as did the capitalist class and media elsewhere in Europe.

A revolutionary party

The Commune brought to the fore all the different ideas at the time about how to best transform society in the interests of working people. The followers of anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon and socialist Auguste Blanqui, in both the leadership of the Commune and many workers’ organisations across Paris, believed that a new society would simply ‘evolve’ across France following the example set by the Paris Commune into a federation of similar communes across France.

Karl Marx, however, fought for a completely different approach. Understanding that the ruling class would never allow their power to simply be reformed away, Marx argued for the need for decisive economic and political measures to break the power of the capitalist class as a prerequisite to constructing a new society run by and for the working class.

Aside from measures to seize the economic levers of power, this meant action taken against the military forces of capitalist and monarchist reaction. Marx argued for an immediate pursuit of Thiers’ weak and defeated army while the balance of military forces remained in favour of the Communards. The forces of the National Guard, estimated at 120,000 at the beginning of the Commune, could have inflicted a fatal blow to Thiers’ army in its path of retreat to Versailles.

But such decisive action was impossible without the existence of a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to victory. From day one, a dual government existed between the council of the Commune and the central committee of the National Guard, butting heads and floundering at every key stage of the battle.

The bloody week

It was during the final days of the Commune, with the wolf of Thiers’ army at the door, that the absence of a revolutionary party was perhaps most graphically demonstrated. National Guard soldiers received conflicting orders from the Commune’s Delegate for War and the Central Committee of the National Guard. In the confusion, Communards spent precious time in mid-May demolishing old symbols of the Empire, including the Vendome Column and even Adolphe Thiers’ house! While no doubt cathartic, these did nothing to halt the advance of Thiers’ forces towards Paris.

Without a guiding organisation and strategy, the forward momentum which carried the Commune in its early weeks rapidly lost its energy. The shelling of Paris intensified after 12 April, and after further weeks of skirmishes, Thiers’ army eventually penetrated the Western walls of Paris on 21 May. So began the bloody week, one of the most vicious episodes of capitalist reaction in history.

Communards for a week heroically resisted Thiers’ murderous army which recaptured Paris street by street, building by building. Unlike the repression which followed the June 1848 revolution, executions were carried out by the army in the open in order to inflict maximum terror possible in the hearts of the masses who dared to struggle against the power and privilege of the French ruling class.

Thousands of men, women and even children were dragged from their homes and executed in the street. People were shot for having the wrong type of accent when interrogated by Versailles troops. It is estimated as many as 40,000 were possibly murdered that week alone, while 38,000 were taken prisoner.

For Marx and Engels, the bloody conclusion of the Commune demonstrated that in the struggle for power, the working class could not simply ‘pick up and use’ the capitalist state machine ready-made, but instead would need to smash the old repressive state apparatus and replace it with a new state to serve and defend the interests of the working class and oppressed majority in society.

Despite the bloody ending of the Commune, the heroism and courage demonstrated in those two months by the working class in Paris still serves as an inspiration to anyone struggling for a new society. And the lessons it provides for revolutionaries are as relevant and fresh as ever: of the need for the construction of a revolutionary party capable of living up to the historic task of overturning capitalism and building a new socialist society on a lasting basis in Britain and internationally.


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March 2021