The Paris Commune – The Tradition of the Oppressed



A privileged moment in history in which the subaltern classes managed to break with the continuity of oppression; period of freedom, emancipation and justice

There is in the cemetery Père Lachaise of Paris a wall, known as "The Wall of the Federals". There they were shot, in May 1871, by Versailles troops, the last combatants of the Paris Commune. Every year, thousands – and sometimes, as in 1971, tens of thousands – of people, mostly French, but also people from all over the world, visit this important place of memory of the workers' movement.3. They come alone or in collective demonstrations, with red flags or flowers, and sometimes they sing an old love song, which has become an anthem of the Communards"Le Temps des Cérises“. They do not pay homage to a man, a hero or a great thinker, but to a multitude of anonymous people that we refuse to forget.

As Walter Benjamin said in his theses “On the Concept of History” (1940), the emancipatory struggle takes place not only in the name of the future, but also in the name of the defeated generations; the memory of subject ancestors and their struggles is one of the great sources of moral and political inspiration for revolutionary thought and action.

The Paris Commune is, therefore, part of what Benjamin calls “the tradition of the oppressed”, that is, of those privileged (“messianic”) moments in history in which the subordinate classes managed, for a moment, to break the continuity of history. , the continuation of oppression; short – very short – periods of freedom, emancipation and justice that will always serve as a reference and example for new struggles. Since 1871, it [the Paris Commune, GS] has not ceased to feed the reflection and practice of revolutionary men and women, starting with Marx himself – as well as Bakunin – and then, in the XNUMXth century, Trotsky and Lenin.

Marx and the Commune of 1871

Despite their differences within the First International, Marxists and libertarians will cooperate fraternally in support of the Paris Commune, the first great attempt at “proletarian power” in modern history. Certainly, Marx's and Bakunin's respective analyzes of this revolutionary event were opposite.

We can summarize the theses of the first in the following terms: “The situation of the small number of convinced socialists who were part of the Commune was extremely difficult… They had to oppose a revolutionary government and army to the government and army of Versailles”.

Faced with this reading of the civil war in France, which opposes two governments and two armies, the anti-statist point of view of the second was quite explicit: “The Paris Commune was a revolution against the State itself, this supernatural aberration of society”. The attentive and informed reader will have made the correction himself: the first opinion is from… Bakunin, in his essay “The Paris Commune and the notion of the State”4. While the second is a quote from… Marx, in the first essay of “The Civil War in France, 1871”5. We purposely shuffle the cards, to show that the disagreements – certainly quite real – between Marx and Bakunin, Marxists and libertarians, are not as simple and self-evident as we believe…

Indeed, Marx rejoiced that, in the course of the events of the Commune, the Proudhonians had forgotten their master's theses, while certain libertarians noted with pleasure that Marx's writings on the Commune departed from the prestige-centralism of the federalism.

Karl Marx had proposed, as the central political watchword of the International Workers' Association – the First International – this formula that he recorded in the Inaugural Address of the AIT, in 1864: “The emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves”. If the Commune of 1871 was so important in his eyes, that was precisely because it was the first revolutionary manifestation of this founding principle of the workers' and workers' movement and modern socialism.

The Commune – writes Marx in the speech he composed on behalf of the First International in 1871, “The Civil War in France” (and in the preparatory texts) – was not the power of a party or a group, but “essentially the government of the working class ”, a “government of the people by the people”, that is, “the resumption by the people and for the people of their own social vocation” 6. For this, we could not be satisfied with “conquering” the existing State apparatus: it was necessary to “break” it and replace it with another form of political power, as the Communards from his first decree - the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the people in arms. Here is what Marx writes in a letter to his friend Kugelmann on April 17, 1871, that is, during the first weeks of the Commune: “In the last chapter of my “18th Brumaire”, I note, as you will see if you reread it , that the next attempt at revolution in France will no longer consist in passing the bureaucratic and military machine into other hands, as has been the case up to now, but in destroying it. This is the first condition of every truly popular revolution on the continent. It was also what our heroic comrades in Paris did.”7. What seems decisive for Marx is not only the social legislation of the Commune – bringing some measures, such as the transformation of factories abandoned by their owners into workers' cooperatives, with socialist dynamics – but, above all, its political significance as a workers power. As he writes in the 1871 Discourse, “this new Commune, which breaks the power of the modern State” was the work of “simple workers”, who, “for the first time, dared to touch the governmental privilege of their 'natural superiors', the proprietors”. .8

The Commune was neither a conspiracy nor a coup, it was "the people acting by themselves and for themselves". The newspaper correspondent Daily News he does not find any boss there exercising “supreme authority”, which leads to an ironic comment by Marx: “This shocks the bourgeois who have an immense need for political idols and 'great men'” 9 . Certainly, the militants of the First International played an important role in the events, but the Commune cannot be explained by the intervention of a vanguard group. In response to the slander of reaction, which presented the uprising as a conspiracy hatched by the AIT, Marx wrote: “Bourgeois understanding, all impregnated with police spirit, naturally imagines the International Workers’ Association as a kind of secret conspiracy, whose central authority commands , from time to time, explosions in different countries. Our Association is, in fact, nothing more than the international bond that unites the most advanced workers of the different countries of the civilized world. Wherever, in whatever form and under whatever conditions the class struggle takes hold, it is quite natural for the members of our Association to find themselves on the front lines”.10

If Marx sometimes speaks of workers and sometimes of “the people”, it is because he is aware that the Commune is not only the work of the proletarian class in the strict sense, but also of sectors of the impoverished middle class, of intellectuals, of women from different groups. social groups, students and soldiers, all united around the red flag and the dream of a social republic. Not to mention the peasants, absent from the movement, but who for lack of their support the Commune was doomed to defeat.

Another aspect of the Commune on which Marx insists is its internationalist. Certainly, the people of Paris rose in 1871 against the capitulating bourgeois politicians who reconciled with Bismarck and the Prussian army. But this national upheaval by no means takes on a nationalistic form; not only because of the role of the militants of the French section of the First International, but also because the Commune summons fighters from all nations. The solidarity of the International Workers' Association and the meetings in support of the Commune held in Breslau and other German cities, on the initiative of the socialist workers, are demonstrations of the internationalist significance of the Parisian people's uprising. As Marx writes in a resolution adopted by a meeting commemorating the anniversary of the Commune in March 1872, the Communards they were "the heroic vanguard... of the menacing army of the universal proletariat". 11

The Tiger's Leap into the Past: October 1917

There is, according to Walter Benjamin, in his Theses of 1940, a unique constellation between a present moment in the struggle of the oppressed and a precise event of the past, a unique image of that past that runs the risk of disappearing if it is not recognized. This is what happened during the Russian Revolution of 1905. Only Leon Trotsky saw the constellation between the Commune of 1871 and the fighting of the Russian Soviets in 1905: in his preface, written in December 1905, to the Russian edition of Marx's writings on the Commune, he notes that the example of 1871 shows that "in an economically more backward country, the proletariat can come to power sooner than in an advanced capitalist country". However, once in power, Russian workers will be driven, like those of the Commune, to take measures that combine the liquidation of absolutism with socialist revolution.12

In 1905-1906 Trotsky was quite isolated in defending the 1871 model for the Russian revolution. Even Lenin, despite his criticism of Menshevik tactics in support of the anti-tsarist bourgeoisie, refuses to consider the Commune an example for the labor movement in Russia. In his work of 1905, The Two Tactics of Social Democracy, he criticized the Paris Commune for having “confused the objectives of the struggle for the republic with those of the struggle for socialism”; for this reason it is “a government which our [future Russian revolutionary democratic government] must not resemble”. 13

Things will be very different in 1917. April theses, Lenin takes the Paris Commune as a model for the Republic of Soviets that he proposed as a goal for Russian revolutionaries, precisely because she operated the dialectical fusion between the struggle for a democratic republic and the struggle for socialism. This idea will also be widely developed in The State and the Revolution and all of Lenin's other writings in the course of 1917. Identification with the Communards was so strong that, according to the recollections of contemporaries, Lenin proudly celebrated the day when – a few months after October 1917 – the power of the Soviets managed to survive one day longer than the Commune of 1871…

The October revolution is, therefore, a remarkable example of this idea proposed by Walter Benjamin in his Theses: every authentic revolution is not only a leap into the future, but also “a tiger’s leap into the past”, a dialectical leap into towards a moment in the past loaded with “present time” (Jetztzeit).

Both Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky criticized certain political or strategic mistakes made by the Commune: for example, not withdrawing money from the Bank of France, not attacking Versailles, waiting for the enemy on the barricades of each district. This did not prevent them from recognizing in this event an unprecedented moment in modern history, the first attempt to “take heaven by storm”, the first experience of social and political emancipation of the oppressed classes.

Paris Commune in the XNUMXst Century

Each generation has its own reading, its own interpretation of the Commune of 1871, depending on its historical experience, the needs of its present struggle, the aspirations and utopias that motivate them. What would it do today, from the point of view of the radical left and the social and political movements of the early XNUMXst century, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the “movement of movements”, the alter-globalist movement?

Certainly, the vast majority of militants and activists today know little about the Commune. There are many certain affinities between the experience of the Parisian spring of 1871 and the struggles of today, with some resonances worth mentioning:

(a) The Commune was a movement of aself-emancipation, self-organization, initiative from below. No party tried to replace the popular classes, no vanguard wanted to “take power” in the place of the workers. The militants of the French section of the First International were among the most active supporters of the popular insurrection, but they never wanted to set themselves up as the self-proclaimed “leadership” of the movement, never tried to monopolize power or marginalize other political currents. The representatives of the Commune were democratically elected in the districts and submitted to the permanent control of its popular base.

(b) In other words: the Commune of 1871 was a pluralist and unitary movement, in which supporters of Proudhon or (more rarely) of Marx, libertarians and Jacobins, Blanquists and “social republicans” participated. Certainly there were debates and differences, sometimes even political clashes in the democratically elected instances of the Commune. But in practice we acted normally, we respected each other, we concentrated our fire on the enemy and not on the combat brother with whom we had disagreements. The ideological dogmas of one and the other weighed less than the common objectives: social emancipation, the abolition of class privileges. As Marx himself recognized, the Jacobins forgot their authoritarian centralism and the Proudhonians their “anti-political” principles.

(c) As we saw above, it was a move authentically internationalist, with the participation of fighters from various countries. The Commune elects a Polish revolutionary (Dombrowicz) to lead its militia; makes a Hungarian-German worker (Leo Frankel) his labor commissioner. Certainly, resistance to the Prussian occupation played a decisive role in triggering the Commune, but the appeal of the French insurgents to the people and German social democracy, inspired by the utopia of the “United States of Europe”, testifies to this internationalist sensibility.

(d) Despite the weight of patriarchy in popular culture, the Commune is distinguished by an active and combative participation of women. Libertarian activist Louise Michel and Russian revolutionary Elisabeth Dmitrieff are among the best known, but thousands of other women – designated with rage and hatred as petroleuses by the Versailles reaction – participated in the struggle of April and May of 1871. On April 13, the citizens' delegates sent a communiqué to the Executive Committee of the Municipality, which affirmed the will of many women to participate in the defense of Paris, considering that “the Commune, representative of the great principle which proclaims the annihilation of all privilege, of all inequality, at the same time undertakes to take into account the just claims of the entire population, without distinction of sex - a distinction created and maintained by the necessity of the antagonism over which rest the privileges of the dominant classes”. The appeal was signed by the delegates, members of the Central Committee of Women Citizens: Adélaïde Valentin, Noëmie Colleville, Marcand, Sophie Graix, Joséphine Pratt, Céline Delvainquier, Aimée Delvainquier, Elisabeth Dmitrieff.

(e) Without having a precise socialist program, the social measures of the Commune – for example, the restitution of workers in factories abandoned by the bosses – had a radical anti-capitalist dynamic.

It is evident that the characteristics of the popular uprisings of our time – for example, the Zapatista insurrection of 1994, or that of the people of Buenos Aires in 2001, the one that aborted the anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela in 2002, or that of the Chilean people in 2019 , to cite just a few recent examples from Latin America – are very different from those of insurgent Paris in 1871. But many aspects of this first attempt at the social emancipation of the oppressed remain astonishingly topical and deserve to feed the reflection of new generations. Without memory of the past and its struggles, there will be no fight for the utopia of the future.

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of Marxism against positivism (Cortez)

Translation: Gustavo Seferian.


3 In the original, “mouvement ouvrier”. On the particularities and nuances of translating the expression and its political significance, see MATTOS, Marcelo Badaró. The working class: from Marx to our time. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2019 (NT).

4 M.Bakunin, From the War to the Commune, textes établis par Fernand Rudé, Paris, Anthropos, 1972, p. 412.

5 Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sur la Commune de Paris, Moscow, Ed. du Progres, 1971, p. 45.

6 K.Marx, The Civil War in France 1871, Paris, Editions Sociales, 1953, p.5&, 56 and « Prémier essei de rédaction », in The civil war in France 1871, p.212.

7 Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sur la Commune de Paris, Moscow, Editions du Progrès, 1970, p. 284.
8 K. Marx, The Civil War in France, p. 50,53.
9 K.Marx, « Prémier essei de rédaction »…pp. 192, 206.
10 .K.Marx, The Civil War in France, pp. 68-69.
11Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sur la Commune de Paris, p.267.

12 L.Trotsky, Preface to Marx, Parizskaya Komuna, st. Petersburg, 1906, p.XX, in Leon Trotsky on the Paris Commune, Pathfinder Press, 1970, pp. 12-13.
13 Lenin, Les deux tactics de la social-démocratie dans la révolution russe, ch. 10


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