The Paris Commune inaugurated a new era in the struggle of mankind for emancipation
150 years ago, the workers of Paris, the capital of France, rose up in conditions of national crisis. They proclaimed a new state power – the rule of the toiling people. They dismantled the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. They set up completely new institutions of state power. In place of the old standing army, the armed people stood ready to defend the new power. This was the first instance of proletarian state power on this earth, and the working class showed what it can do when it has power in its hands. Among other things, pioneering laws were enacted and measures were taken to ensure the rights of workers and women, and to make education, art and culture – formerly the preserve of the rich — available to all.
This was the Paris Commune, which blazed the trail for later proletarian revolutions in the twentieth century. Commenting as it was taking place, Marx hailed the workers of Paris for “storming the heavens” and for discovering the political form under which the working class could achieve its emancipation. As Engels clarified, this political form pioneered by the Paris Commune was nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like?” he wrote in the introduction to Marx’s famous work, Civil War in France. “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Besieged on all sides and faced with the full fury of the bourgeoisie, the Paris Commune was able to survive for only two months, from March 26 to May 30 1871. But it left a legacy that could never be erased. Both from its achievements and from its defeat, the international working class movement learned very important lessons. The experience of the Paris Commune proved invaluable to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party when the proletariat of Russia carried out the October Revolution in 1917 and waged the struggle to defend the revolution against its enemies.
On the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, the Indian working class salutes the death-defying spirit of the Communards and pledges to learn from their experience in the struggle to establish the rule of the toilers in our country.
The events of the Paris Commune
The Paris Commune was established in the midst of a grave crisis, when the invading armies of Prussia (later, a part of Germany) had encircled the city and laid siege to it for more than two months. In the previous year, the French emperor Napoleon III had launched an expansionist war against Prussia, but was defeated and captured by the Prussian army in September 1870. The bourgeois members of the French National Assembly then overthrew Napoleon III and declared the establishment of a republic and a new government of national defence. However this government led by Adolphe Thiers fled to Versailles outside Paris in the face of the advancing foreign army, and then tried to negotiate a surrender agreement with the Prussians behind the backs of the French people who were mobilised to defend their country. The Prussians rejected the deal and besieged Paris, trying to starve and bombard the population into submission.
Aware of the bourgeoisie’s treachery, units of the National Guard in the working class areas of Paris rose up in revolt and took power. They proceeded to organise elections for new representatives of the people in the city, leading to the establishment of the Commune on March 26. The establishment of their own state power was greeted with tremendous joy and expectations by the people of Paris. Without any delay, the Commune proceeded to take measures unprecedented in history to dismantle the state apparatus of the exploiting classes, ensure the wellbeing of the toiling people, and organise the defence of the city.
The bourgeois government at Versailles considered this new working class power established by their own countrymen as much more dangerous than the foreign invading armies. They soon arrived at a deal with the Prussian (now German) government to release the huge numbers of their soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the enemy. The army of the French bourgeois government was allowed to regroup with the understanding that its force would be directed against the Paris Commune, and in return for an ignominious peace deal in which France lost a major portion of its territory and had to pay a huge indemnity to Germany.
Then began a brutal campaign waged jointly by the French and German forces to retake Paris. The working class of Paris, both men and women, fought heroically. After a week of particularly ferocious fighting, known as the “Bloody Week”, the Commune was finally defeated on May 30, 1871. Nearly 25,000 men, women and children were massacred by the French bourgeois army, while thousands more were captured and imprisoned or exiled.
Revolutionary measures taken by the Commune
As the first state power of the working class, the Commune had no precedents it could follow. Nevertheless, the measures that it took in the short time available to it showed the direction that the victorious working class must take.
As Marx and Engels were to write, one thing was clear to the Commune, and that was that it could not “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” The existing state machinery had been perfected over centuries by the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes before it, precisely to suppress the toiling people and facilitate their exploitation. This state machinery therefore had to be completely dismantled and new institutions built in its place to enable the working class to wield power in its own interests.
Almost the first measure taken by the Commune was to abolish the old standing army of the bourgeois state. Just two days after its proclamation, on March 30 it decreed that the army would be replaced by the National Guard, in which all able-bodied persons were enrolled. Thus the greatest prop of the power of the exploiting classes was done away with at one stroke.
The members of the Commune were all elected by universal adult suffrage. They were accountable to the people who elected them, and could be recalled at any time. This ensured that the people remained their masters at all times. An important feature was that the Commune was a combined legislative and executive body, in which the delegates not only passed laws but were also held responsible for implementing them. This ensured that the Commune would not degenerate into a talk-shop like bourgeois legislatures. Judges too were elected by the people and could be recalled at any time.
All public functionaries, including the police, worked under the direction of the Commune. It was decided that they would receive only the equivalent of workers’ wages. The abolition of the cumbersome, parasitic state machinery with its privileged functionaries ensured that it would no longer continue to be a drain on the economy and its resources. Simple, cheap and effective government was the watchword.
Even in the midst of the siege and all the suffering it entailed, the Commune instituted practical measures for the wellbeing of the working men and women. Factories that had been closed down or abandoned by their owners were turned over to cooperatives of workers to run. The onerous system of fines levied on workers by their employers was abolished. Pawnshops were closed, and night work for bakers was ended. Empty and abandoned buildings and homes were turned over to the homeless. The payment of rent was suspended.
In the sphere of personal laws, the Commune took progressive steps that were directly in the interests of women. Civil marriage and divorce were recognised. The stigma of illegitimacy was removed from children, and the children of married and unmarried mothers were treated equally.
A very important and revolutionary measure was the separation of the Church from the state. All state support for the Church was ended, and Church property taken over by the state. The influence of the Church on all matters of public life, including education, was removed, and religion was considered a matter of the individual’s private conscience.
In the true spirit of internationalism, the Commune welcomed and honoured fighters in its ranks from other countries. It demolished that symbol of French bourgeois national chauvinism, the Victory Column, as crowds cheered. It also destroyed that hated symbol of tyranny, the guillotine.
All these revolutionary measures were taken in the short span of two months, during which the Commune and the working class of Paris had to suffer the effects of a brutal siege and had to engage in direct fighting for much of the time. That the proletariat organised as the ruling class could achieve so much under even the most difficult conditions was proved in practice by the Commune.
Lessons of the Paris Commune
The achievements of the Paris Commune were a beacon to proletarian revolutionaries all over the world. Karl Marx analysed the great contribution of the Commune to the struggle of the working class for emancipation in his work, Civil War in France. Writing his immortal work The State and Revolution on the eve of the socialist revolution in Russia in 1917, VI Lenin pointed to the great significance of the decisive steps taken by the Commune. It proved the necessity for the working class to smash the old state machinery and establish its own dictatorship over the defeated exploiting classes.
At the same time, the international working class also learned important lessons from the defeat of the Paris Commune and its weaknesses.
The Paris Commune was a product of a spontaneous uprising and suffered from weakness of organisation. At various points in the struggle, it was unable to take the decisive moves necessary to defend itself successfully. To confront the power and experience of its bourgeois enemies, to anticipate their cunning moves, and to maintain steel-like unity in its ranks, the proletariat needs its own vanguard, a party of professional revolutionaries. This was the lesson that was impressed on the socialist revolutionaries in Russia by Lenin who went on to form the Bolshevik party that carried out the October Revolution in 1917.
Another lesson from the defeat of the Commune was that the proletariat could not afford to show any laxity towards its enemies. Marx and Engels pointed to the reluctance of the Commune to take over the Bank of France, to deny the bourgeoisie access to its resources, as a major mistake. Also, in the hope of avoiding a bloodbath, the leaders of the Commune tried to negotiate with the Versailles government, and thereby gave it time to rearm and reorganise its forces and hurl them against the Communards. When the bourgeois forces entered Paris, they did not show the slightest leniency towards the Communards or masses of people, but wreaked a bloody vengeance. This showed the need for the victorious proletariat to firmly exercise its dictatorship over the defeated enemy forces.
A major factor in the downfall of the Commune was that the bourgeois forces were able to isolate the working class of Paris from the peasantry and the toilers in the rest of the country. Since the Communards were unable to reach out to the other toilers, this made it easier for their enemies to spread all kinds of lies about them and to crush the Commune. The necessity for the working class to forge an unbreakable unity with the peasantry and other toilers in order to put an end to the rule of the exploiting classes is another lesson that was learned from the experience of the Paris Commune.
The Paris Commune will forever be remembered for inaugurating a new era in the struggle of the toiling people for emancipation, the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It showed that the only way forward is for the working class to take power into its own hands, demolish the state machinery of the exploiters, and proceed to uproot the economic foundations of class society. It showed that the working class was ready and capable of performing this historic role. Since then, this understanding has been taken several steps forward through the experience of the October Revolution and other proletarian revolutions. Time and again, the proletariat has learned from defeats and setbacks how to recoup and better organise its struggle for emancipation.
Today, every effort is being made to instil despondency in the working class, and to delude it that the only path possible is to compromise with the capitalist system and bourgeois rule. However, this issue was settled 150 years ago. The path of compromise with capitalism and imperialism will only lead to deepening exploitation, crisis and war. The working class must reject this path. Following the trail blazed by the Communards, it must rally around its own standard. Following the lead shown by the Bolsheviks and VI Lenin, it must unite around its own political party, and fight in an organised way for complete victory over the bourgeoisie and for an end to the system of exploitation and oppression of the toiling people.