Bourgeois ruling classes claim that there is no better alternative to multi-party representative democracy
The Paris Commune, established on 18 March, 1871, showed that there is a superior alternative – proletarian democracy
We are living at a time when people in most capitalist countries are looking for an alternative to the existing system of bourgeois democracy. Masses of people are angry that they have no control over the elected representatives. They are disgusted with the domination of the political sphere by parties which serve monopoly capitalist interests. While the majority of peoples are looking for a superior alternative to the system of bourgeois democracy, the ruling classes keep asserting that “there is no alternative”. In this context, it is important to study and learn from the first example of proletarian democracy, the Paris Commune, whose anniversary falls on 18th March.
The Paris Commune was established by the heroic workers of Paris, the capital of France. It was established in conditions of national crisis caused by the Franco-Prussian War. The armies of neighbouring Prussia (part of today’s Germany) were advancing on the French capital. The bourgeois government of France abandoned Paris and fled. In these conditions, the proletariat of Paris, together with the National Guard, rose up and established their own state power, called the Paris Commune.
The Paris Commune had to organise the defence of the capital even while it had to assume the functions of government. It was under siege by a much more powerful enemy, the Prussian army. The French bourgeois government made a treacherous deal with the foreign occupiers in order to crush the proletariat of its own country.
In spite of the enormous sacrifices made by the working class fighters, the Paris Commune could not last more than two months. Yet the Paris Commune will always be remembered for the extraordinary measures that it took during its brief lifespan. It showed the world what the working class is capable of when it assumes political power. It revealed the essence of proletarian democracy.
New institutions to serve the rule of the proletariat
All exploiting classes have relied on special institutions of force like the standing army, police, bureaucracy, judiciary, and so on to enforce their rule over the working and oppressed people. The great contribution of the Paris Commune was to demonstrate that the working class could not just take over this ready-made state machinery of the exploiters. It had to forge its own instruments of power. It had to establish a state that would serve the interests of the toilers and not the exploiters.
The Commune abolished the standing army and bureaucracy at one go. In place of the standing Army, the working population was armed and stood ready to defend their rule and the nation. All able-bodied men became part of the National Guard. Instead of the old bureaucracy that stood apart from and above the population, the people now elected their officials, who performed their tasks for workmen’s wages. The work of administration was carried out by the working people themselves. Judges too were elected. Simple, cheap and effective government — this was the watchword of the Commune.
Elections to the Council of the Commune were held within days of the uprising, in the midst of the siege of Paris. One of the revolutionary measures adopted by the Commune was to make the Council not just a legislative body but also responsible for the execution of laws. In other words, the legislature was not just a talk shop. The elected representatives were accountable for their actions to the people, who could recall them at any time.
In the Paris Commune, the working class, organised as the ruling power, carried out the tasks of government and implemented concrete measures to emancipate the proletariat, women and other oppressed people from centuries-old practices that had been used to keep them down. For instance, the Commune abolished the fines that employers used to regularly impose on workers, as well as child labour and night work in bakeries. Factories and enterprises that had been abandoned by their owners were turned over to cooperatives of workers to run, and abandoned houses and plots were handed over to the homeless. Remission of rents was declared by the Commune.
Apart from these acts, the Commune took trailblazing socially progressive measures. A complete separation of the Church from the affairs of the state was effected, and Church property was taken over by the state. Civil marriage and divorce were recognised. Children of married and unmarried mothers were treated equally and the stigma of illegitimacy of children of unwed mothers was done away with.
The experience of the Paris Commune stands in stark contrast to the bourgeois democratic states in today’s world. These bourgeois democratic states are of various forms, including the presidential and parliamentary forms. While they differ in form, all of them in essence are the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the working class and toiling masses. Decision making power vests in an executive which is not accountable to the electorate.
In the parliamentary system in place in our country, the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister is in charge of the executive. The Cabinet is not accountable to the Parliament and the members of parliament are not accountable to the people. Political parties of the ruling class select the candidates for election and the role of people is restricted to voting for one of them. People cannot recall representatives who work against their interests. People have no role in making laws. Parliaments make a lot of noise to fool the people, but the real business of government takes place away from the public eye. It takes place through the collaboration between the monopoly capitalists, ministers and senior bureaucrats.
Lessons from the fall of the Paris Commune
In order to guarantee the rights of all working people, it is essential for a proletarian state to deprive the exploiting classes of political and economic power. This is one of the lessons which emerged from the fall of the Paris Commune. The Paris Commune failed to take over the Bank of France, thereby leaving the financial resources of the country in the hands of the big bourgeoisie. The failure to deprive the big bourgeoisie of its control over the principal means of production and distribution, and the failure to forge a worker-peasant alliance, were assessed by Karl Marx as being major reasons for the defeat of the Commune.
Subsequent proletarian revolutions, as in Soviet Russia, learnt from the mistakes of the French communards. The Bolshevik Party, with Lenin at the head, understood that it was necessary for the proletariat to establish an iron dictatorship over the exploiting classes and their allies.
In all the books on European history written by bourgeois scholars, the French Revolution of 1789-99 is glorified, while the Paris Commune of 1871 is belittled or completely ignored. For the proletariat and all oppressed peoples of the world, it is important to note that the French Revolution of 1789-99 established the rule of the bourgeoisie. The Paris Commune established the rule of the proletariat.
The Paris Commune will always be remembered and honoured by the toiling and oppressed people for the brilliant light that it shed on the path that the proletariat must follow — the path of seizure of political power and uprooting the foundations of the old society.
The Paris Commune showed the superiority of proletarian democracy over bourgeois democracy. It has invaluable lessons for all those who are striving for an alternative to bourgeois democracy at the present time.
The legacy of the Paris Commune will live forever in the minds and hearts of the working class and people of the whole world.