Harbinger of the new society
On 18th March, 1871, the heroic working class of Paris, the capital of France, took over the reins of political power from the hands of the bourgeoisie and established its own state power.This event, immortalized in history as the Paris Commune, is one of the greatest and most inspiring events in the history of the working class.
The Paris Commune marked the first revolutionary seizure of state power by the proletariat. The working class of Paris strove, in extremely difficult circumstances, to reorganize society on entirely new foundations, to put an end to their exploitation and oppression. They replaced the bourgeois state with their own organs of power. The Paris Commune firmly placed the proletariat at the centre of the further development of society. The Paris Commune lasted from March 26 until May 30, 1871, when it was brutally crushed.
Today, the necessity to overthrow the crisis ridden capitalist system is more urgent than ever. The biggest monopolies have established their complete domination over the state and are using this to advance their narrow private interests while driving the working class and toiling masses into ruin. Entire countries are being destroyed. The imperialists are preparing to hurl the world into a new world war. In this situation, the lessons of the Paris Commune are especially important for the working class and all the exploited. The experience of the Paris Commune shattered the myth of the eternal nature and invincible character of the bourgeois state, which the ruling bourgeois class the world over tries its best to keep alive.The example of the Paris Commune remains a source of profound inspiration and invaluable lessons for the communist and workers' movement throughout the world.
Conditions under which the Paris Commune was established
The Paris Commune was formed in the conditions of a revolutionary upheaval in France. In 1870 the French despot Louis Bonaparte had launched an unjust and anti-popular chauvinist war against Prussia in which he suffered a humiliating defeat. With Paris under siege by the Prussian army, the Paris Revolution of September 4, 1870 took place, overthrowing Louis Bonaparte's Second Empire and proclaiming a Republic.
While the bourgeoisie formed the government of the Republic, the main force of this revolution was the working people of Paris who had been armed to defend the city.The French bourgeoisie had formed a “government of national defence” and called on the proletariat to fight under its leadership. However, the French bourgeoisie considered the armed workers of Paris a far greater threat to its class interests than the foreign army at its gates. Having concluded an ignominious peace with the Prussians, the bourgeois government proceeded to attack and disarm the Paris proletariat.
On March 18, 1871, the proletariat of Paris rose up in resistance and turned its arms against the government of the bourgeoisie. Theproletariat established itself as the ruling class for the first time in human history. On March 26, the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed.
Marx and Engels closely followed the developments of the Paris Commune and drew many important lessons from it, which have been documented in their famous work ‘The Civil War in France’. Marx regarded it as a very important historical experience and a definite advance for the world proletarian revolution.
The experience of the Paris Commune led Marx and Engels to include one of its most profound lessons in their preface to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto. In their words, “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’”. Lenin clarifies in The State and Revolution that this means “that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery’, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it
Replacing bourgeois democracy with Proletarian democracy
On March 30, just 2 days after its proclamation, the Commune abolished the standing army, and declared the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, as the sole armed force.As Marx elaborates, “The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”
The Paris Commune took several revolutionary measures to establish people’s control over its elected representatives. The Commune was formed of municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members was working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.
Whereas under the earlier regime, the function of the legislative bodies was to simply rubber stamp the decisions of the exploiting classes while the bureaucratic apparatus was responsible for their implementation, the Commune transformed the elected organs, into both legislative and executive bodies where those who passed the laws were also responsible for their implementation.
The police as also officials of all other branches of the administration were turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, servants of the Commune. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. All the functions of the state were taken into the hands of the Commune.
Other measures included the election of public officials such as judges who were also subject to recall at any time.
By eliminating two great sources of parasitic expenditure -- the standing army and the bureaucracy, the Paris Commune showed in practice that the running of the government need not be a drain on the economy.
The Commune, in its short existence, started to take measures directly in the interests of the working people and their well-being. This included organizing workers to take over and run factories closed down by their former employers, and to try and bring all such workers cooperatives together into one great union. It closed down pawnshops, and also restricted night work for bakers.
Among the many other revolutionary measures adopted by the Commune was the separation of the Church from the State. This included ending state support for religious purposes, the conversion of Church property to state property, and the removal from public life, including education, of “all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience”. Education and science were made accessible to all the working people and science itself was freed from the fetters which the class prejudice of the bourgeoisie had imposed upon it.
Hated symbols of tyranny, such as the guillotine, and of national chauvinism, like the Victory Column erected after Napoleon’s military campaigns against other countries, were publicly brought down and destroyed. The Commune welcomed in its ranks those foreign fighters who had dedicated themselves to its cause, proudly declaring that “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.” The song of the international working class “The Internationale” was the song on the lips of the communards as they fought to establish and defend the new society they were creating.
The Paris Commune was a splendid example of the unanimity with which the proletariat was able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the bourgeoisie could only proclaim. Without any particularly complex legislation, in a simple, straightforward manner, the proletariat, which had seized power, carried out the democratisation of the social system. Marx clarifies its revolutionary essence: “Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor.” Marx also explained how the Paris Commune showed the way for the abolition of class rule. “The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labor emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labor ceases to be a class attribute”.
Lessons from the Paris Commune
The Paris Commune was the first attempt to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat on this earth. In drawing lessons from the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels pointed to two main mistakes of the Communards. One of these was their failure in “expropriating the expropriators”, in particular, their failure to take control of the Bank of France, which continued to finance the reactionaries against the workers of Paris. The second mistake was that the victorious proletariat of Paris underestimated the military strength of the bourgeois government and gave it time to gather its forces and prepare to crush the Commune, which it soon did with brute military force.
The bourgeois army entered Paris on 21st May 1871. The communards fought with tremendous courage, but were finally defeated on May 28. In the subsequent fighting that lasted for several weeks, the reactionary troops unleashed their savagery on the working masses, men, women and children of Paris – anyone suspected of having cooperated in any way with the Commune – leaving more than 30,000 dead and an even greater number arrested, tortured and shot.This showed the extent of frenzied barbarism to which the bourgeoisie will go to crush the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat. At the same time, it highlights the importance for the proletariat, once it has seized power, to resolutely exercise its dictatorship over the exploiters, so as to be able to consolidate its victories and provide democracy for the vast majority of the working people.
The Paris Commune, which demonstrated in deeds what the dictatorship of the proletariat means, also provided lessons on the necessity to have a revolutionary political party at the head of the proletariat, to lead it through the complicated twists and turns of the class struggle, on the necessity to build and strengthen the worker-peasant alliance, and other invaluable lessons which have been reconfirmed by the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the other revolutionary struggles of the proletariat.
The Paris Commune blazed the way for successive generations of working class and communist revolutionaries around the world to fight for the establishment a society free from all forms of exploitation of persons by persons. On the 145th anniversary of the Paris Commune, we rededicate ourselves to this goal. As Marx wrote in homage: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”