The Paris Commune

THE Paris Commune of 1871 arose, victoriously from the ruins of the Second Empire and, after seventy-two epoch-making days, it succumbed heroically under the hail of bullets of the Versailles counter-revolution. The Commune was, in a far higher sense than the June insurrection of 1848, the "most tremendous event in the his history of European civil wars" (Marx) in the nineteenth century. It marked the violent conclusion of the "pre-history" of the proletarian revolution; with it begins the era of proletarian revolutions. It was the brilliant culmination of the romantic "Sturm und Drang" period of the revolutionary proletariat, which was glorious in heroic deeds and bloody defeats, in bold initiative and growing attempts. But chiefly it was the first dress rehearsal in world history of the socialist revolution of the working class, which at the head of all oppressed and exploited classes, which, for the first time set up its power by its own might with the purpose of setting the whole of society free from the system of enslavement and securing its own political and social emancipation.

The Commune was a turning-point of decisive importance. It stands at the threshold of the modern age of imperialism. The conditions methods and aims of the proletarian revolutionary movement in the age of imperialism were, so to speak, grandly foreshadowed in it. Its lessons were the starting-point for formulating the system of strategy and tactics of the proletarian revolution in its matured Leninist form. The decades of experience of the class struggles and the concrete lessons of the proletarian revolutions of the twentieth century, above all of the victorious October Revolution, were first needed in order that the historical significance of the Commune in all its grandeur might be learned and the profound actuality of its lessons be understood in our own day.

Before examining more closely the exact historical role of the Commune in the history of the proletarian revolution, we wish to recapitulate in general outline the course of events from March 18 to May 28, 1871.

The Franco-German war of 1870-71, which had been kindled by Louis Bonaparte in order to bolster up the tottering structure of the Second Empire, dealt the death-blow to this system (space will not permit us to deal with Bismark's role and aim in the war). Marx's brilliant prediction in the first manifesto of the International Workingmen's Association of July 23, 1870: "The death-knell of the Second Empire has already sounded at Paris. It will end, as it began, with a parody"1 --was fulfilled at Sedan. With military defeat, the Bonaparte Empire, its foundations long since undermined, collapsed. The Republic which took over the pitiful legacy left by adventurer Louis Bonaparte, did not have lift a finger to overthrow throw the throne. "That Republic has not subverted the throne but only taken its place become vacant. It has been proclaimed, not as a social conquest, but as a national measure of defence." 2

From this special situation it is clear that the republic that liquidated the Bonapartist regime, entered upon its life with a Janushead. At almost the same time that the "Government of National Defence" took the rudder of state into its hands on September 4, the armed proletariat of Paris set up its committees of control in order to watch over the measures taken by Theirs' government for the defence of Paris and to assure the food supply of Paris. And so arose a peculiar form of "dyarchy" which was repeated in history almost half-century later, at a higher level of development, after the collapse of the tsarist regime in Russia, in the period from February, 1917, to the October revolution.

The period from September 4, 1870, to March 18, 1871, was marked by the struggle for power between these two centres of government. The strength of the Parisian proletariat was therefore the real government programme of men like Thiers and Jules Favre. Thus the government of "National Defence" was transformed into the government of national betrayal, and the defence of Paris, which the proletariat itself had taken in hand, became under these conditions the point of departure for the decisive clash of March 18, 1871.

On January 8, 1871, Paris, which had been starved out, had to capitulate to the Prussian army. The forts were surrendered, outer wall disarmed, the weapons of the regiment of the line and of the mobile guard were handed over, and the troops considered prisoners of war. But the National Guard kept their weapons and guns, and only entered into an armistice with the victors who themselves did not dare enter Paris in triumph.... Such was the respect which the Paris workers inspired in the army before which all the armies of the Empire had laid down their arms; and the Prussian Junkers, who had come to take revenge at the very centre of the revolution, were compelled to stand by respectfully, and salute just precisely this armed revolution! 3

What the Prussians had not dared to do in January, Thiers attempted to carry out two months later with the support of Prussian bayonets. On March 18 he sent troops of the line to Paris to steal the National Guard's artillery, which had been cast by the Paris workers themselves. But the proletariat did not allow itself to be disarmed. The provocative intention of the Versailles government kindled a spontaneous uprising of the people. The Versailles troops were sent home with cracked heads, and the elected committee of the National Guard, a kind of soviet of Red Guard Deputies took power in the name of the Paris proletariat.

What was the specific character of the new government authority and what was its programme? The Central Committee of the National Guard, in its proclamation of March 18, gave the classic answer:

The proletarians of Paris, in the midst of the defeats and betrayals of the ruling class, have come to understand that they must save the situation by taking the conduct of public affairs into their own hands... They have realised that it is their highest duty and their absolute right to make themselves the masters of their own fate and to seize the power of the government. 4

Thus, the class character of the revolutionary events in Paris and the class content of the Paris Commune, which had been "thrust into the background" by the struggle for national defence against the alien conqueror and had been more or less veiled, was sharply defined. "Its true secret," says Marx in his Civil War in France "was this: It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the expropriating class. The political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour."

It cannot be our task here to describe in detail the historic deeds of the Commune during the seventy-two days of its heroic struggle. In the manifestoes of the General Council, as drawn up by Marx, and in his Civil War in France, we have imperishable documents which, with Marx's genius and impassioned penetration, picture and analyse the history of the Commune, its "heaven-storming" revolutionary measures and its tragic errors, committed as a result of the immaturity of the proletariat and the social and political situation.

The revolutionary activity of the Paris Commune was hindered and in part rendered illusory by manifold circumstances. The decisive obstacle was that it was continuously under the fire of the Versailles counter-revolution and hemmed in by a ring of enemies and consequently, it was obliged to concentrate all its strength on the defence of the revolution. The historian of, and the fighter in the Commune, Lissagaray, reproaches the leaders of the Commune for failing "to understand, that the Commune was a barricade and not a government office." This reproach is not unfounded, but it holds only half the truth. It was just because the Commune, under the onslaught of the united Versailles and Bismarckian counter-revolution, had to he a "barricade," and could not be a "government office," that it was able to take only the first awkward steps towards organising and firmly establishing the power of the victorious working class.

In attempting to master such a task, the Commune, in addition, lacked the organising and guiding force of a strong proletarian class party with clear principles. The Paris proletariat was chiefly recruited from amongst exploited petty artisans. Modern industry in Paris was still at its initial stage. There was no true revolutionary party. The various political groups of the proletariat, resting on an uneven degree of development of class consciousness, reflected in their multiplicity the immaturity of the proletariat itself. In the Commune, which was formed by the elections of March 26, as well as in the Central Committee of the National Guard, there sat representatives of the most diverse tendencies: petty bourgeois anarchists of the Proudhon stamp, Blanquists, Babeufists, Jacobins and supporters of the International Workingmen's Association. The Internationalists were in the minority but their dominating part in formulating the ideas of the Commune is clear in all the decisive measures of the Commune, despite their personal, political and theoretical inexperience and weakness.

The Paris proletariat was still immersed in the deep-rooted traditions of Petty-bourgeois--democratic to Utopianism--which corresponded Utopianism added to the predominance of small artisan industry--and in the patriotic illusions inherited from the great bourgeois revolution of the Jacobin dictatorship. The experiences of the Commune and of the bloody "witches' sabbath" of the May days were necessary in order to clear the minds of the French working class of these obsolete ideas.

Thus, the Commune stopped half-way in its course and fell victim to its unavoidable fate. On May 28 the last Barricades went down under the fire of the Versailles cannon and the first revolutionary workers' government was drowned in the blood of more than twenty-five thousand men, women and children, the boldest and the most heroic fighters of the Paris proletariat.

In order that its complete historical importance may be grasped, the Commune must be regarded from two points of view, which are merely two forms of one and the same historical attitude: first, its specific role in the process of development of the proletarian revolution; second, its importance as the point of departure and as a guide for the proletarian revolutions of the twentieth century.

The Paris Commune had its basis in the experiences of the June insurrection of 1848; it turned its lessons into deeds. The significance of the June uprising Marx saw in the fact that after June, 1848, every revolution in France would bring up the question of "overturning bourgeois society," while before February, 1848, it could be a question only of "the form of government."

The Paris Commune furnished the solution of the problem. In June, 1848, the working class was "still incapable of carrying through its own revolution." The Commune, on the other hand was "the first revolution which recognised as the only class capable of social initiative." In the year 1848, the proletariat was only able to set the task to conquer "the terrain for the struggle for its social emancipation." With the Commune it began its struggle for its actual emancipation; the Commune was to serve as the lever for overthrowing the existing economic foundations on which rested the position of classes and therefore class rule. In June, the French proletariat constituted itself a separate clan and received its baptism of blood under' Cavaignac's bullet.5

In first time in history brought into being its own class rule. The history of the class struggles and of the proletarian revolutions of the nineteenth century in France has furnished imperishable lessons to the world proletariat. All later proletarian revolutions and revolutionary uprisings rest upon the experiences of the June revolt and of the Commune. The Commune opened a new epoch in the history of the proletarian revolution, it presented "a new point of departure which was of tremendous import in world history."6 Its lessons, which served as guide-posts for the world proletariat have been fully and in their ripest form transformed into reality by the victorious October Revolution.

The decisive lesson of the Commune, surpassing others in significance in itself, was the concrete formulation of the content dictatorship of the proletariat. In his Civil War in France and in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx drew from the experiences of the June uprising the conclusion that the next step of the French revolution would consist in: "No longer, as hitherto, the transference of the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but its destruction."7 By what should the annihilated bourgeois machinery of the state be replaced? This question, which was decisive for the further development of the proletarian revolution, was answered by Marx in the Communist Manifesto still more or less abstractly: the bourgeois state was to be replaced by "the state of the proletariat organised as the ruling class."8In The Class Struggle in France, on the basis of the June lessons, Marx formulated the battle-cries: "Down with the Bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the Working Class!" In the Eighteenth Brumaire9 he made these watchwords concrete through the slogan: "Break up the bureaucratic and military machine" of the bourgeoisie. These words took on flesh and blood for the first time in the concrete. The Commune was "the political form at last discovered under which is to work out the economic emancipation." And Engels added the comment:

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.10

The interpretation of the Commune, worked out by Marx's genius, can he understood in all its profundity and actuality only on the basis of the revolutionary experiences of the twentieth century, which are integrally connected with the lessons of the Commune, go beyond them and give them concrete reality. It is therefore historically true to say that these lessons were consciously falsified by the dominant revisionist and centrist tendencies in the Western European Social Democratic Parties and were "forgotten" by the left groups, and that Lenin had first to "excavate" them, so to speak, on the basis of the revolutionary events in Russia, in order to discover anew and to deepen further the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as it had been deduced by Marx from the history of the Commune.

In the revolutions of 1905 and of October, 1917, the lessons of the Commune found their historical application on a still higher level. With the widening of its social basis and with the increase in importance of its historical tasks, the social content of the proletarian dictatorship changed and the forms of this dictatorship, created by the exploited masses of toilers for the violent overthrow of the rule of the exploiters, were further developed. Today we are able to determine the various steps in the development of this "higher type of the democratic state" (Lenin), the "Commune-state." The Paris Commune, though still undeveloped, though still burdened with the rudimentary forms of petty-bourgeois democracy, was the first form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It had to perform the historic task of setting "free the elements of the new society."11 It could base itself only upon the most advanced strata of the proletariat of those times. Its attempt to win over the peasant masses did not go beyond the merest beginnings.

In the Soviets of 1905, which had a deeper and wider social basis than had the Commune--which was a result of the predominant role of the proletariat as the leading force in the bourgeois revolution and of the sweeping movement of revolt among the peasant masses--a further step was taken towards winning the proletarian dictatorship, the "Democracy for the Toilers." It was for the first time in the form of the Soviet power, which stepped upon the stage of history as a result of the victorious October Revolution, that the dictatorship of the proletariat--the only "class that is revolutionary to the last degree, the only true representative and leader of all exploited peoples"--found the perfect form, corresponding to the period of capitalist decline, and of the birth of Socialism; this form can "serve as a levee to set free the elements of the new society" and to assume and accomplish the task of building up the new Socialist society.

This symposium contains the finest and most important articles, speeches, and excerpts from the longer works of Lenin, in which he concretises and develops the lessons of the Commune. Throughout all of Lenin's theoretical and practical work there runs like a red thread the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of the struggle leading to it, the problem of destroying the exploiters' state and of the revolutionary struggle for "proletarian democracy." After 1905, when it found its historical, epoch-making expression in the power of the Soviets, Lenin moved this problem into the central position in his strategy and tactics. The October Revolution gave the historical proof of the correctness of Lenin's teaching and turned the heritage of the Commune into a reality on an incomparably higher historical level.

Lenin's commentaries on the lessons of the Commune are not historical observations, they are documents of our own time, as a whole they form an imperishable guide to the strategy and tactics of the world proletarian revolution.


1 Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (International Publishers), p. 69.

2 Second Address of the General Council on the Franco-Prussian War, ibid. p. 77.

3 Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, pp. 11.11

4 Ibid, p. 43.

5 Karl Marx, The Class Struggle in France (International Publishers)

6 Karl Marx, Letters to Dr. Kugelmann, International Publishers, p. T10 (April 17, 1871).

7Ibid., (April 12,1871).

8Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (International Publishers), p. 30.

9Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (International Publishers)

10The Civil War in France, p. 19.

11Ibid, p. 44-Ed.

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