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Workers Vanguard No. 985

2 September 2011

140th Anniversary

Lessons of the Paris Commune

Part One

As part of the training of young revolutionaries, the Spartacus Youth Clubs strive to critically learn from past victories and defeats of the working class. The Paris Commune of 1871 is nearly peerless in the lessons it has for revolutionary Marxists. We print below a slightly edited class on the Commune given by S. Williams, a member of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League, to the New York SYC.

140 years ago, on 18 March 1871, the working class of Paris rose up and established its own, short-lived workers state in one city. Although much of the capitalist government and army had already fled Paris, the workers swept away what remained and they began to rule. This lasted only for some weeks, until late May 1871. The Commune was the first taste of what Engels, in his 1891 introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, called the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin closely studied the Commune: He edited and put out the second edition of The Civil War in France in Russian. He drew on the lessons of the Commune in The State and Revolution, written in the run-up to the October Revolution of 1917, and in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written after the revolution. Like Lenin, we must gain a critical understanding that, unlike the victorious Russian Revolution, the Commune had no effective leadership and ended in slaughter.

Background to the Commune

The idea of a “commune” dates to the Middle Ages. During feudal times, as cities grew into centers of exchange, city dwellers (e.g., artisans, merchants, and the growing bourgeoisie) would sometimes seek a charter for freedom from feudal tribute, which allowed them to have a kind of autonomous city government “in common” (or a commune in French). Later, during the bourgeois French Revolution, a “commune” arose in Paris between 1792-93. It was the base of support for the most radical Jacobin, Maximilien Robespierre, and was called the “Insurrectionary Commune.” It supported universal male suffrage and was based on the city’s armed citizens. In 1871, workers looked back at these earlier examples as models. In The Civil War in France, Marx wrote, “It is generally the fate of completely new historical creations to be mistaken for the counterpart of older and even defunct forms of social life, to which they may bear a certain likeness. Thus, this new Commune, which breaks the modern State power, has been mistaken for a reproduction of the mediaeval Communes.” The 1871 Commune was new because of its revolutionary proletarian nature.

To understand the figures who played a role in relation to the Paris Commune, we must first look at earlier revolutions, in 1848, when uprisings against monarchic and feudal reaction swept across continental Europe. In France, a monarch named Louis-Philippe d’Orleans had ruled in the interest of the financial and industrial capitalists since 1830. In February of 1848, there was a mass uprising against this Orleanist monarchy, which was overthrown and a bourgeois Provisional Government, including a few representatives of the socialists and workers, took power. Under pressure from the workers, the Provisional Government instituted something called National Workshops that were a kind of make-work/welfare for the Parisian unemployed. The main leftist opposition to the Provisional Government was led by Auguste Blanqui, whose supporters later played a role in the Commune. In April of 1848, the Provisional Government held elections to a Constituent Assembly (which Blanqui opposed). The majority of the French population, the reactionary peasantry, mainly voted for a right-wing coalition of bourgeois-supported monarchists called the Party of Order. One of its leaders was a man named Adolphe Thiers, who was later the butcher of the Commune. In June of 1848, the democratically elected Constituent Assembly declared that the national workshops would be abolished, leading to a workers uprising in Paris. In a foretaste of what would happen with the defeat of the Commune, the June 1848 workers uprising was brutally suppressed by the Assembly and thousands of workers and oppressed were killed.

Not just in France, but across Europe, the working class emerged as an independent class force in 1848, and the bourgeoisie showed that it had become counterrevolutionary as a class. In previous centuries, during the great bourgeois revolutions, the bourgeoisie had overthrown feudal monarchies. But in 1848 they allied with reactionary feudal elements to crush the workers. Prior to 1848, Marx and Engels—who later participated in the 1848 revolutions—had envisioned the possibility of the proletarian party allying itself with a bourgeois republican opposition in the course of a bourgeois-democratic revolution (at least in France and Germany). However, in drawing the lessons of 1848, Marx and Engels emphasized in their famous 1850 address that the workers party had to act independently of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, and they made their point that for a workers party the “battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence.”

Just prior to 1848, Marx and Engels had been instrumental in forming an organization called the Communist League, which was a small group of communist revolutionists whose program was the Communist Manifesto. But a few years after the 1848 revolutions, the Communist League fell apart. By the time of the Commune in 1871, Marx and Engels were leaders of what was called the International Working Men’s Association, or the First International, which had formed in 1864, reflecting the reactivation of the workers movement in Europe after its defeat in the 1848 revolutions. Unlike the cadre organization of the Communist League, the First International was made up of many ideological currents, both revolutionary and petty-bourgeois. The ideology of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was very strong in the French branch of the International. He was an ideological father of anarchism—a petty-bourgeois ideology reflecting the interests of small artisans and not the industrial proletariat. The Proudhonists were “mutualists” who didn’t believe in strike action or participation in “political” struggle. They thought society should be made up of small property holders, and they fought for “Mutual Aid Societies” to provide cheap or free credit, viewing “economic struggle” as their weapon. Blanqui (who did not join the International) was also very influential in the French workers movement. Engels called him a “revolutionary of the old generation” because his ideology had its origins with the radical Jacobin communists from after the French Revolution of 1789. Blanqui believed in the politics of secret conspiracy, i.e., organizing a small minority through secret cells that would then spring up and try to make a revolution through an armed uprising. Blanqui (with about a thousand others) tried this in 1839. The predictable result was that they and others went straight to prison.

The First International also included some English trade unionists. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the trade unions were a mass movement in England, albeit with bourgeois-democratic politics. In the International, there were also some German former members of the Communist League and an eclectic mix of others, including some Italians and Poles. Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist, allied with the First International in 1868-69, although at the same time he secretly kept up his own parallel organization, the International Social-Democratic Alliance, which was a source of constant tension with Marx and Engels. The Bakuninists, like the Proudhonists, looked toward the petty bourgeoisie as the source for social change, not the working class. Bakunin believed that the bourgeois state could simply be abolished, and he opposed the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as well as any “authority.” As Engels later put it, for Bakunin “authority = the state = evil in the absolute.” Like Proudhon, Bakunin rejected “political struggle” in favor of “economic struggle.” To learn more about these questions: Joseph Seymour wrote a terrific series on the early communists and the 1848 revolutions in Young Spartacus (1976-1979), called “Marxism and the Jacobin Communist Tradition.” Also, the Spartacist pamphlet Marxism vs. Anarchism has nice details about Proudhon and Bakunin.

Paris and Industrial Development

In the period after the 1848 workers uprising, the industrial proletariat grew quickly in Western Europe through the growth of industry itself: In the 20 years between the defeat of 1848 and the Commune, industrial production and foreign trade in France doubled. In 1840 there were very few rail lines outside of Britain and the U.S., but by 1870 there were about 11,000 miles of rail in France, thousands of miles of telegraph lines, and industrial shipbuilding had massively expanded. Gold flowed into Europe from the California gold rush. Finance capital grew with the founding of giant French banks like Crédit Lyonnais and Crédit Foncier, which financed the massive industrial expansion and huge building projects.

Although the character of the Parisian working class remained largely artisan or organized in small workshops (one reason Proudhon had such influence), the growth of a significant industrial proletariat in France (to a small extent in Paris) was a change relative to the time before 1848, when Marx and Engels thought that the proletariat, particularly of France and Germany, needed more time to develop economically as a class. As Engels noted in his introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France: By 1871, large-scale industry had already “ceased to be an exceptional case even in Paris, the centre of artistic handicrafts,” and Marx “quite rightly says” that the civil war “must necessarily have led in the end to communism, that is to say, the direct opposite of the Proudhon doctrine.”

Corresponding to this industrial growth, the urban population expanded quickly. The population of Paris more than doubled between 1831 and 1872. In the 20 years before the Commune, a government official named Baron Haussmann carried out a massive urban project in Paris. Prior to Haussmann, much of Paris did not appear as it does today, but rather resembled most medieval cities: tiny alleyways, uneven houses crammed together in the city center, poorly-lit streets that were dirty and crime-ridden, and the working-class and plebeian population was afflicted by all sorts of diseases. The “respectable” middle class was terrified of the city center, which was also the historic center of revolt against the ruling class. Haussmann razed this part of the city, replacing it with “Grand Boulevards” that were wide, with large intersections at angles that would make it easier to move troops and suppress barricades. Haussmann himself said, “We ripped open the belly of old Paris, the neighbourhood of revolt and barricades, and cut a large opening through the almost impenetrable maze of alleys, piece by piece....” The workers were pushed out of the city center and into the hills of the city, like Belleville and Montmartre, which later became the stronghold of the Commune.

The Franco-Prussian War

The event that precipitated the formation of the Paris Commune was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. During most of the 19th century, Germany was not a unified country. In the 1848 revolution, Marx and other socialists fought for the unification of Germany. However, when the German bourgeoisie allied with feudal reaction in 1848, the outcome was that there remained many small German-speaking states, some of which were dominated by local nobility and some of which were under foreign control. The strongest German state was Prussia, ruled by the Hohenzollern monarchy. In the mid 1860s, under King Wilhelm I, a strong German chancellor named Otto von Bismarck emerged. Fighting against Denmark and Austria (successively) for control of German-speaking provinces, Bismarck accelerated a process of German unification embodied in the founding of the North German Confederation in 1867. To complete German unification, Bismarck had to challenge French domination to the west: He essentially provoked Napoléon III into declaring war against Prussia by threatening to put a king from the Prussian nobility on the Spanish throne. (France would have been surrounded by pro-Prussian regimes.)

Louis Napoléon (the nephew of the first Napoléon) came to power as a result of the crushing of the French proletarian uprising in June 1848. He had been president of the Republic from 1848 to 1851, but he carried out a coup and abolished the National Assembly in December of 1851. A year later, he declared the Second Empire, crowning himself Emperor Napoléon III. In reference to the two Napoléons in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx derisively wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

On 19 July 1870, Napoléon III declared war on Prussia and the Franco-Prussian War began. In a declaration on the war, Marx’s “First Address on the Franco-Prussian War” (19-23 July 1870), the International sided militarily with Germany from a revolutionary-internationalist standpoint. He argued that it was a defensive war and supported the unification of Germany, while politically opposing Bismarck and Napoléon III. Marx also warned that “if the German working class allow the present war to lose its strictly defensive character and to degenerate into a war against the French people, victory or defeat will prove alike disastrous.”

But within weeks, Prussia easily occupied parts of France. A decisive blow came when French troops were crushed in a battle on 1-2 September 1870 in the city of Sedan in eastern France, where over 80,000 soldiers and officers were taken prisoner, including Napoléon III. When news was received of the defeat and capture of Napoléon III, there were protests by workers throughout France against Napoléon’s monarchy, for a republic, and in opposition to capitulating to the Prussians. On the morning of September 4, workers in Paris invaded the parliament at the Palais Bourbon. The masses physically drove out the legislative deputies. Léon Gambetta, a bourgeois republican politician, was forced by them to announce the abolition of Napoléon III’s Empire and to proclaim the Third Republic. The workers carried off some deputies to the Parisian seat of government, called the Hôtel de Ville, where the Government of National Defense was set up.

But from that day, September 4, the “Government of National Defense” was “in dread of the working class.” Its leadership was made up partly of “notorious Orleanists [bourgeois monarchists], partly of middle-class Republicans, upon some of whom the insurrection of June, 1848, has left its indelible stigma” (Marx, “Second Address on the Franco-Prussian War,” 6-9 September 1870). Despite their name, the group of bourgeois politicians in the “Government of National Defense” had little intention of fighting the Prussians and principally wanted to keep a workers revolt down. As Jules Favre, the foreign minister at the time, later said: The Government of National Defense had seized power in order to “repel the forces of anarchy and to prevent there being a shameful revolt in Paris.”

Days after the French defeat at Sedan in early September 1870, the First International issued Marx’s “Second Address on the Franco-Prussian War,” which hailed the formation of the French republic and denounced the Prussian invasion of France. The International demanded that the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, where a German dialect is spoken but which have long considered themselves French, not be annexed to Germany. Marx also warned against the danger of the French workers rising up, because he thought it would be premature (although when the Commune later occurred, Marx, Engels and the International were the first to champion its cause). That said, the heterogeneous forces in the International did not all have the same attitude: Marx and Engels were critical of the French section of the International, which issued a “chauvinistic” declaration to the “German people” in the name of “French people,” i.e., on a bourgeois-nationalist (not a working-class-internationalist) basis. This continued to be a political weakness of the elements who later led the Commune. As Lenin remarked: Combining “patriotism and socialism” was “the fatal mistake of the French socialists”; the French bourgeoisie should have borne “the responsibility for the national humiliation—the task of the proletariat was to fight for the socialist emancipation of labour from the yoke of the bourgeoisie.”

Paris Under Siege and Armistice

After 4 September 1870 the French continued to fight the Prussians but under very half-hearted bourgeois leadership. Soon, the Prussians surrounded Paris. The city was under siege and within weeks hunger reigned. By October 1870 not only the working masses but also the bourgeoisie had resorted to eating horsemeat. (The working class had begun to eat it during the industrial depression of 1866.) By mid November, pets were being eaten, and some even ate rats and carrier pigeons. The writer Victor Hugo was given parts from deer and antelope from the zoo. Heating oil also became scarce and the Parisian workers and poor were soon freezing. To top it off, by early January 1871 the Prussians were ceaselessly bombarding the city.

During this period, in the fall and winter of 1870-71, there were further revolts by working-class elements, along with a few lame military attempts by the bourgeois government to attack the Prussians. On 31 October 1870, news arrived in the cities that the second French army was defeated at Metz, and Thiers went to Paris to negotiate an armistice with Bismarck. But the French workers opposed an armistice, and on October 31 they revolted in several cities. In the course of the Paris uprising, radical leaders including Blanqui took members of the Government of National Defense hostage. The socialists made the government promise to call elections to a Commune, but it was a false promise. They had agreed only in order to quell outrage and buy time for pro-government soldiers to surprise and disarm the workers who had been holding the Government of National Defense hostage. After the failed uprising, while the siege of Paris continued, the government began secretly negotiating with the Prussians.

Finally, by late January 1871 much of the French population was exhausted. On January 28, Jules Favre from the Government of National Defense went to Versailles to negotiate an armistice with the Prussians. The terms of the armistice were steep: The payment to Prussia of a 200 million franc indemnity with the first payment to begin in two weeks; immediate surrender of most of the forts around Paris; handing over the guns and ammunition of the army (but not of the National Guard); the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany; and the holding of elections to a National Assembly.

The elections to the National Assembly were held on 8 February 1871. The Assembly was dominated by monarchists elected by the conservative peasants in the countryside. (The Assembly and its supporters were referred to as the “rurals” by the insurgent workers in the French cities.) Adolphe Thiers—who in 1848 was a leader of the Party of Order that massacred the workers—was made head of the government by the reactionary National Assembly. Since the Prussians were still at Versailles, the National Assembly met at the southwestern city of Bordeaux. A month later, on March 1, the Prussians marched symbolically down the Champs-Élysée and soon after, withdrew from Versailles while continuing to occupy land to the east of Paris and in northern France as security for the payment of war reparations due to them.

The National Guard

I want to digress for a moment to talk about the National Guard. The National Guard in Paris was a distinct force from the French army. The existence of the National Guard dates back to the very beginning of the 1789 French Revolution, when it formed as a bourgeois citizens’ militia. During the brief restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the National Guard was abolished, but was re-established in 1830. After that, the class composition and the size of the National Guard fluctuated according to the political circumstances. In the course of the 1848 Revolution, for example, it grew from a small, conservative, bourgeois force to 250,000 people, with a large majority being poor and working-class battalions. After the defeat of 1848, it again became a small bourgeois body. On 4 September 1870, when the Third Republic was declared, the Parisian police fled and the National Guard was the main armed force left in the city. So in the winter of 1870-71, during the siege by the Prussians, the workers of Paris in the National Guard were armed, because there was no other force that could fend off the Prussians. The National Guard again grew, to over 300,000 people. During the siege, all available resources in the city were mobilized to manufacture munitions and, through a subscription set up by Victor Hugo, workers put in money to pay for the manufacture of cannons.

In late January 1871, after the armistice with the Prussians was signed, the French bourgeoisie had only 15,000 regular loyal army troops—the rest were Bismarck’s captives. Meanwhile, there were 300,000 armed workers in the Paris National Guard and quite a few of them were “reds.” Under pressure from the French bankers, in order to get money from them to make the first payment to the Prussians under the terms of the armistice, Thiers had to disarm the Parisian workers. As he later said, “Businessmen were going around repeating constantly that financial operations would never be started up again until all those wretches were finished off and their cannons taken away.”

The workers in the National Guard immediately began organizing in opposition to the January 1871 armistice. National Guard battalions began to form electoral committees on a left-wing Republican basis for the February 8 elections. When the monarchists won the National Assembly elections, the National Guard called further meetings and continued to organize the Parisian workers for about a month between early February and early March. Thiers appointed a brutal army officer as “general” of the National Guard. On 3 March 1871, in opposition to Thiers’ choice, some National Guard leaders (affiliated with the First International) revolted and appointed a provisional leadership of the National Guard and called for elections to a Central Committee. As Marx noted: The rising of Paris “against the government of Defence does not date from the 18th of March, although it conquered on that day its first victory against the conspirators, it dates from the 28 January, from the very day of the capitulation.”

In early March, the elections to the Central Committee of the National Guard were announced with bright red posters all over Paris, urging citizens to organize in their neighborhoods and districts (called arrondissements). In response to the National Guard organizing campaign, the reactionary National Assembly claimed there was “incendiarism and pillage” in Paris. After the Prussians left Versailles, the French government moved there from Bordeaux, not to Paris, for fear of the plebeian masses. The Assembly then also took retaliatory measures against the workers and the petty bourgeoisie of the cities. It abolished the National Guard’s pay, which was one of the few sources of income for most Parisians. The Assembly also supported the landlords who demanded the payment of all back rent due from the time of the siege, which impacted a wide swath of the population. It also demanded that all back bills had to be paid with interest over the next four months, which particularly impacted petty-bourgeois store owners.

These measures provoked broad outrage, but the spark leading to the workers uprising in Paris occurred in the wee hours of the morning on 18 March 1871. Thiers, lacking troops, sent army battalions sneaking into the city to steal the National Guard’s cannons. Symptomatic of the lack of conscious organization in the National Guard, the cannons had been left unguarded. When milkmaids began arriving at dawn and saw the army trying to carry off one of the cannons, paid for by the workers themselves, the women alerted the National Guard and physically stopped the soldiers, scolding them for acting against the Republic. The National Guard began to assemble and appealed to the rank-and-file army soldiers, who went over to their side. When General Lecomte, their commanding officer, gave orders to fire on the unarmed population, the soldiers refused, and the general and another commanding officer were arrested by the soldiers and the National Guard. Soon, all across Paris the army disobeyed orders and fraternized with the Parisian masses. Later in the day, a bourgeois politician who had supported the brutal suppression of the June 1848 workers uprising, Clément Thomas, was recognized in the street. He and General Lecomte were both put up against a wall and shot by the insurgents.

After the March 18 uprising and army mutiny, the governor of Paris fled to Versailles and the Central Committee of the National Guard began to rule, immediately implementing measures favorable to the working masses. On March 21, they suspended the sale of objects from pawn shops (pawning possessions had been one of the few ways poor Parisians had survived the siege). They reversed some of the reactionary decisions of the National Assembly, allowing more time for overdue bills to be paid and prohibiting evictions for unpaid rent. Despite the power in their hands, the Central Committee began to push for elections to a commune, having illusions that it would be possible to negotiate the elections with the bourgeois mayors of the Paris arrondissements, who all supported Thiers. After some days, most of the bourgeois mayors and their supporters fled to Versailles and joined forces with the National Assembly.



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Lessons of the Paris Commune

Part One


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