Assault on the heavens – the Paris Commune

Barricade held during the Paris Commune
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By RONALD LEÓN NUÑEZ*

The brief experience that ushered in the era of “expropriation of the expropriators”

“And behold, the German philistine was once again seized with a healthy terror at the words: dictatorship of the proletariat. Well, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship is like? Look at the Paris Commune. Such was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Friedrich Engels, Introduction to the Civil War in France, 1891.

The existence of the Paris Commune was brief, from March 18 to May 28, 1871, when resistance from the Communards it was drowned in blood by the joint repression of the French and German bourgeoisie, who cared little about the fact that just a few months before they had been at war. However, its political significance is enormous. 153 years ago, the first experience of workers' government in history was born, a sublime attempt to take the sky by storm.

Both his achievements and his defeat became a reference for the struggles for social emancipation. The Commune did not perish with the last barricade on Ramponneau Street, for its teachings have value in themselves; “the great social measure of the Commune”, observed Marx, “was its own productive existence”[I].

By the end of the 1860s, the despotic regime of Emperor Napoleon III, built on the defeat of the 1848 revolution, was greatly weakened. To overcome the crisis, “Napoleon the Little” decided to embark on a new military adventure. Engels explains that “the Second Empire was the appeal to French chauvinism, the demand for the restoration of the borders of the First Empire lost in 1814 or, at least, those of the First Republic. […] Hence the need for brief wars and expansion of borders. But no frontier expansion dazzled the imagination of French chauvinists as much as that of the left bank of the Rhine.”[ii].

In July 1870, following diplomatic disputes over the succession to the Spanish throne, France declared war on Prussia. Chancellor Bismarck, in turn, took advantage of the French attack to accelerate the process of national unification of the then North German Confederation. The Franco-Prussian War begins.

The Battle of Sedan marks the French military disaster. On September 2, by decision of the high command, around 83.000 soldiers capitulated to the Prussians. Napoleon III himself is taken prisoner. The Second French Empire collapses with its army. On September 4, the Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris and a Provisional Government of National Defense was formed, headed by Louis-Jules Trochu. The Republic decided to continue the war.

However, the Prussian advance was unstoppable. From September 19th, Paris was bombed and subjected to a siege that lasted four months. Hunger took over the capital. On October 27, at Metz, 173.000 French capitulated under the command of Marshal Bazaine. Bismarck went on a war of conquest. The French bourgeoisie demonstrated desperation to capitulate. On January 18, 1871, the “Iron Chancellor” sealed unification with the proclamation of the German Empire in no less than the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. On January 28, the armistice was signed[iii]. France lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, in addition to having to pay heavy war reparations to the victors. In February, elections for a new National Assembly gave a majority to monarchist factions. On February 17, the body that became known as the “rural assembly” appointed Louis Adolphe Thiers as provisional president.

The war precipitated the revolution. The humiliating capitulation to Prussia exacerbated discontent in Paris. The National Guard, a popular militia tasked with defending the capital during the war, arrived on the scene. It had around 300 armed men, mostly workers, artisans and ruined sectors of the petty bourgeoisie.

In early March, the battalions elected a Central Committee of the National Guard Federation. New statutes were adopted, stipulating “[…] the absolute right of the National Guard to elect its leaders and to dismiss them as soon as they lose the confidence of their voters.” This democratically structured body took on the organization of the defense of Paris in the face of the desertion of the French bourgeoisie, the entry of the Prussian army and the serious danger of a monarchical restoration.

After the agreement with the Prussians, Thiers' priority became the liquidation of the National Guard. He tried to disperse it, reduce it, abolish its salaries and, above all, disarm it. The main obstacle to the bourgeoisie's objective of making workers pay the cost of the crisis – and war reparations – was the duality of power in the capital. Thus, between March 17 and 18, 1871, the republican government tried to confiscate 271 cannons and 146 machine guns that the Guard had placed on the Montmartre hill. However, the proletariat, led by women's committees, detained the regular troops. The women summoned a crowd. The common people surrounded the soldiers sent by Thiers and urged them to disobey the orders of their superiors. These not only fraternized with the Parisians, but executed generals Lecomte and Clément-Thomas. The insurrection and civil war begin. The Central Committee occupies the strategic centers of the city and is installed in the Hôtel de Ville, until then the headquarters of the government. Thiers and his cabinet flee to Versailles, where the rural Assembly had previously been installed. Thus began the first workers' government in history.

The March 18 proclamation declared: “The proletarians of the capital, amidst the failures and betrayals of the ruling classes, understood that the time had come to save the situation by assuming the direction of public affairs. […] He understood that it was his imperative duty and his absolute right to take control of his destiny and ensure his triumph by conquering power”. To which he added the commitment to fight for the “abolition of the system of wage slavery once and for all”.

The leadership of the National Guard, imbued with legalist prejudices, was quick to call municipal elections to transfer power[iv]. On March 28, the Paris Commune was officially installed[v].

Marx summarized the composition and democratic character of the new power: “The Commune consisted of municipal councilors from the different districts […], chosen by the suffrage of all citizens, responsible and revocable in the short term. The majority of this body was naturally made up of workers or recognized representatives of the working class. It was not a parliamentary body, but a working body, executive and legislative at the same time. Police agents, instead of being agents of the central government, had to be servants of the Commune, having, like officials in all other departments of administration, to be chosen and always replaceable by the Commune; All officials, like members of the Commune itself, had to do their work for workers’ wages.”[vi].

In fact, the Commune's first decree was to abolish the standing army and replace it with the organization of the armed people. This, in practice, meant the collapse of the bourgeois state. A series of measures followed which, although there was no time to fully implement them, leave no doubt as to their class meaning: suspension of rent payments; prohibition of the sale of goods pawned by the poor in Montepio; confirmation in office of all elected foreign members, since “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the Universal Republic”; definitive separation between Church and State, implemented in decisions such as the suspension of all public payments for religious purposes, the nationalization of ecclesiastical property, the secularization of education, the declaration of religion as a “private matter”. On April 12, the Commune ordered the demolition of the Place Vendôme Column – an order that was only carried out on May 16 – as it constituted a symbol of French chauvinism. On April 16, a three-year moratorium on all debts and the elimination of interest were established. On the same day, the requisition of abandoned factories and their reorganization under the control of workers' cooperatives was approved. On the 20th, night work for bakers was abolished; ten days later, all pawnshops were closed. On April 25, empty houses were confiscated to house homeless families. On May 5, the Expiatory Chapel, built to purge the execution of Louis XVI, was demolished. On May 11, Thiers' house was demolished and his assets were confiscated.

However, in a city under siege, these measures could hardly be put into practice. By early May the regular army at Versailles was ready for the final offensive. Thiers made another deal with Bismarck, which freed some 60.000 French prisoners to increase the forces of the counterrevolution. Marx denounced that “the conquering army and the conquered army fraternize in the common massacre of the proletariat […] Class domination is no longer capable of disguising itself under a national uniform; national governments are one against the proletariat![vii]".

Since April, the Versailleses had surrounded Paris, subjecting it to constant bombardment. On May 21, the final offensive to end the Commune began. You Communards They resisted courageously, but were gradually pushed east of the city. The defeat came on May 28. The “bloody week”, an orgy of atrocities committed by the “civilized” French bourgeoisie, ended with the murder of around 30.000 Parisians, many of them women and children. Machine guns were used to speed up the work. The piles of corpses, after being displayed, were thrown into mass graves. The bloodbath was followed by persecutions, deportations, five years of martial law and decades of slander. The basilica of Sacred Heart, currently a sought-after tourist destination, was built to “atone for the sins” of Communards.

In the words of Engels: “Only after eight days of fighting were the last defenders of the Commune defeated on the heights of Belleville and Ménilmontant, and then the murder of unarmed men, women and children, which for a whole week occurred on a progressive scale , reached its maximum scale. […] The 'wall of the federates', in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, where the last mass murder took place, remains today as a mute-eloquent testimony to the savagery of which the ruling class is capable as soon as the proletariat dares to rise up stand up for your rights”[viii].

On April 17, Marx wrote to his friend Dr. Kugelmann: “Thanks to the Paris Commune, the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and against the State that represents their interests has entered a new phase. Whatever the immediate outcome this time, a new starting point has been achieved, which is important for the history of the entire world.”[ix]. This helps us understand the ferocity of the repression. The bourgeoisie needed to liquidate this “starting point” of historical significance.

The transcendence of the Paris Commune was that it was a revolution against the capitalist State: “This is the true secret of the Commune: it was essentially a government of the working class, the product of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form in short. discovery to carry out the economic emancipation of work”[X]. It was the first modern revolution that was not content with simply taking control of the state machinery and using it for its own purposes, but demolished it, liquidating key institutions such as the army, police, clergy and judiciary. This action, which Marx characterized as the “precondition for any real popular revolution on the continent”[xi], represented the embryo of a proletarian power. Since then, the theoretical study of this experience has become indispensable for future processes.

The historical period in which the Commune occurred could only anticipate elements of the great crises of the 1914th century. The Franco-Prussian war foreshadowed the massacre unleashed in 1917; The Paris Commune announced the proletarian revolution that would triumph for the first time in Russia in XNUMX.

The leaders of the Commune, mainly Blanquists and Proudhonians[xii], committed serious political errors, typical of their respective doctrines, such as not having marched against Versailles before the counter-revolution could reorganize and surround Paris; having limited itself to borrowing from the Bank of France instead of expropriating it[xiii]; or the poor military preparation in the face of Thiers' imminent attack. The analysis of these limits, the expressions of excessive condescension and the inclination to stop after the first conquests, is part of a historical assessment that proved extremely useful in forging the Bolshevik leadership that led to the seizure of power in 1917 and, of course, continues until today.

The Paris Commune, despite everything, ushered in the era of “expropriation of the expropriators”. She opened a new chapter in the tradition of proletarian internationalism by incorporating it into her cause; 65 years before the Spanish revolution of 1936, the tradition of international workers' brigades, among which a Belgian brigade and a Franco-American brigade stand out. Versailles is known to have taken more than 1.700 foreign prisoners.

The cause of the Commune is the cause of the social revolution. The cause of all the humiliated and offended. A flag of the new society without exploitation and oppression. This makes her immortal. “Their martyrs,” wrote Marx, “are engraved on the great heart of the working class. As for their exterminators, history has already chained them to that eternal pillory, from which all the prayers of their clerics will be of no use to redeem them.”[xiv]. Live the Commune!

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (Sundermann). [https://amzn.to/48sUSvJ]

Translation: Marcos Margarido

Extended version of article originally published in Cultural Supplement of the ABC Color newspaper. Notes


[I] MARX, Carl. The civil war in France. São Paulo: Ed. Boitempo, p. 64.

[ii] ENGELS, Friedrich. Introduction. In: MARX, Karl. A civil war in France..., P. 190.

[iii] On February 26, 1871, the preliminary peace agreement was signed. The final treaty was signed in Frankfurt on May 10, just days before the crushing of the Commune.

[iv] The calling of elections, according to Marx, was a “decisive error” that diverted the Central Committee from the urgent organization of a march on the then defenseless Versailles: “Then, in the town halls of Paris, they were able to exchange affable words of conciliation with their conquerors very generous, while they ruminated in their hearts on solemn plans to exterminate them at the opportune time. “, MARX, Karl. The Civil War in France…, P. 53.

[v] 86 representatives were elected to the Commune, of which 25 were workers.

[vi] MARX, Karl. A civil war in France…, p. 172.

[vii] MARX, Karl. A civil war in France…, pp. 95-96.

[viii] ENGELS, Friedrich. Introduction…, p. 193.

[ix] Letter from Marx to Kugelmann, 17/04/1871:https://www.marxists.org/espanol/m-e/cartas/m17-4-71.htm>.

[X] MARX, Carl. The civil war in France…, p. 59.

[xi] Letter from Marx to Kugelmann, 17/04/1871:https://www.marxists.org/espanol/m-e/cartas/m17-4-71.htm>

[xii] Engels wrote: “It is clear that the Proudhonians were mainly responsible for the economic decrees of the Commune, both for their commendable and condemnable aspects, just as the Blanquists were mainly responsible for their political actions and omissions.” ENGELS, Friedrich. Introduction…, P. 194.

[xiii] The Commune, concerned about paying the National Guard troops, received from the Bank of France the sum of 20.240.000 francs in advances, of which 9.400.000 francs belonged to the city of Paris. The bank, located in the territory controlled by Communards, maintained immense reserves of money, bonds, jewelry and gold bars. Versailles, in turn, received 257.637.000 francs, resources intended directly to pay for the repression of the Commune.

[xiv] MARX, Karl. A civil war in France..., P. 79.

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