Paris Commune, 152 years old

André Devambez, L'appel, 1906.


The working class took power by storm and frightened the bourgeoisie

“The real secret of the Commune was this: it was essentially a working-class government” (Karl Marx).

“The proletariat assaults the heavens…” “At dawn on March 18, Paris awoke to the burst of thunder'Live the Commune!'. What is the Commune, that sphinx that so torments the bourgeois spirit? Thus began Marx's reading of the theme of the Commune in the Message to the General Council of the International Workers' Association, entitled The Civil War in France, on May 30, two days after the massacre of the Communards.

The proclamation of the Central Committee of the National Guard fell like a bolt from a blue sky on the French bourgeoisie: “The proletariat…understood that it was its imperious duty and its absolute right to take its destinies into its own hands and assure them (the workers) of triumph. gaining power”.

In fact, by order of the Central Committee, elections were called for the establishment of the Commune for the 26th of March, a Sunday. According to Olivier-Lissagaray (a combatant and historian of the Commune), 287 voters voted, much more than the “Assembly of Vampires” – Marx's expression – of the French bourgeoisie installed in Bordeaux in February and later in Versailles.

Commune of the Commune

In all, 88 councilors were elected, 16 of which were district administrators or liberal adjuncts, representatives of the bourgeoisie and 72 revolutionaries of all stripes. Twenty-five workers had been elected, only 13 from the International. The vast majority, according to Lissagaray, were petty bourgeois, employees, accountants, doctors, primary school teachers, lawyers, journalists. Most were extremely young, some as young as 25, like Paris Police Prefect Raoul Rigault. No woman could run in the elections, as the Empire's roster was used, and women did not vote in France.

How was it possible for the working class to seize power in Paris?

After the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, at the Battle of Sedan, on September 1, 1870, with the surrender of Napoleon III and his generals, workers and the National Guard invaded the place where the legislative body met and put down the Empire on the 4th of September. But the people want the Republic and oblige the deputies of the left to proclaim it in the Hotel de Ville. As Engels said in the Introduction to the 3rd German edition of Civil War in France, “The empire collapsed like a house of cards, the Republic was proclaimed again”.

Power fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie and a “cabal of lawyers hunting for places”, with Thiers as their head of state and Trochu as their general, taking over the Hotel de Ville. But, as Marx said, "with the real leaders of the working class still locked up in Bonapartist prisons and the Prussians already on the march on Paris, Paris tolerated their seizure of power on the express condition that it be exercised for the sole purpose of national defence".

However, on January 28, 1871, these gentlemen capitulated to the Prussian army, their “mask of imposture” fell off. All the terms of the capitulation are accepted, including electing a National Assembly in eight days with the sole purpose of deciding on peace and war. The monarchist counter-revolution with the remnants of Bonapartism met in Bordeaux, the famous Assembly of “Rurals”.

This bourgeoisie (with Thiers at the head) and its “assembly of vampires” having capitulated to Prussia, which occupied a third of French territory and left Paris isolated from the provinces, now needed to remove the greatest obstacle from its path: armed working-class Paris. The pretext for disarming the workers was that the Artillery of the National Guard in Paris belonged to the State and the State had to be returned.

At three o'clock in the morning on March 18th, Thiers started the civil war, ordering the robbery of the 250 cannons in the possession of the National Guard, which were in Montmartre (XVIII District), in Belleville, in the fauborg Du Temple, in the Bastille , at the Hotel de Ville, at Place Saint-Michel, in Luxembourg, etc. The operation is commanded by General Vinoy, Bonapartist and Prefect of the Paris Police.

Successful in the beginning due to the surprise factor, the operation fails, faced with the resistance of the National Guard and the fraternization between the line and the people, mainly the women, who took the lead and “surrounded the machine guns”, according to Lissagaray. Among them was Louise Michel, a Blanquist militant, who had been elected president of the Vigilance Committee of the citizens of the XVIII District, Montmartre, before the Commune, according to Gaston Da Costa. Two generals who were in charge of the operation, Lecomte and Clément Thomas, were executed by the soldiers.

Thus, with the occupation of the Hotel de Ville by the Central Committee of the National Guard on the afternoon of March 18, “the proletariat storms the skies”, in Marx’s famous phrase, in a letter to Kugelmann, dated April 12, 1871. Of its deeds, Marx will say that “the real secret of the Commune was this: it was essentially a working-class government”.

The achievements of the Commune

The Paris Commune remained in power for 72 days, from March 18 to May 28, 1871. As we have seen, the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie, headed by Thiers, tried from the beginning to break the first workers' government in history.

But what did the Commune do that was so extraordinary, that it so horrified the French bourgeoisie to the point of reacting and annihilating the first attempt at a workers' government, with the help of the German Empire?

The class measures implemented by the Commune

The first decree of the Commune, of March 30, was the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people, establishing in practice the armed power of 300.000 national guards, the vast majority composed of workers and petty bourgeois. It was a mortal blow to the main institution of the bourgeois state, the reactionary armed forces and the old imperial army. The Commune became an operative power, executive and legislative at the same time; functionaries in all branches of public administration, from the members of the Commune downwards, would have to exercise their function in exchange for workers' wages.

Among other measures promoted by the Commune, the following stand out: Exemption from all house rent payments from October 1870 to April (30/03); the confirmation of all foreigners elected to the Commune; the separation of church and state and the abolition of all payments for religious purposes; transformation of all ecclesiastical property into national property (April 2); the institution of secular, obligatory and free education; exclusion from schools of all religious symbols, images, dogmas, prayers; Decree for the detention of hostages, in view of the daily executions of Commune combatants by the Versailles troops; publicly burning the guillotine on April 6; overthrow of the Vendôme Column, cast by Napoleon after the war of 1809 (executed on 16 May); abolition of night work for bakers (April 20); suppression of the pawnshop, which was a private exploitation of the workers (April 30).

The errors of the Commune and its leaders

The Commune committed at least two crass errors vis-à-vis the French bourgeoisie. The first was not having marched immediately to Versailles, which was completely unguarded after the capitulation to Germany, which imposed a regular army of only 30.000 soldiers, while the National Guard had enough men and weapons to liquidate the bourgeois reaction in Versailles. Instead, the Central Committee spent ten days organizing elections, in which the bourgeoisie and the Party of Order themselves participated - elections which could very well have been held after the liquidation of Versailles.

The second mistake was not having expropriated the Bank of France. Engels would say that the Bank in the hands of the Commune “was worth more than ten thousand hostages” and that it was not possible to understand “the sacred respect with which one stood reverently at the doors of the Bank of France” (Introduction to the Civil War in France). Control of the Bank of France meant pressure throughout the French bourgeoisie on the Versailles government and in the interests of peace with the Commune. According to Olivier-Lissagaray, in his History of the Commune from 1871, the Commune had almost 3 billion francs on hand to ensure the victory of the revolution.

The errors of the Commune were the errors of its leaders, who, according to Engels (Introduction to Civil War in France), mostly composed of the Blanquists – linked to the French socialist Auguste Blanqui –, who had no direct connection with the workers and advocated the seizure of power by an armed vanguard; and in a minority the members of the International Workers' Association, predominating the followers of Proudhon, of petty-bourgeois character. Companions linked to Marx and Engels were in the minority among the members of the International, such as Leo Frankel, the German who became the Commune's Minister of Labor.

Regardless of the general successes of the Commune, which we have highlighted, these mistakes, the result of the moderate policy of the leaders, were crucial to the defeat of the Commune. From April 3 Thiers and his army made raids on Paris, capturing and shooting the Communards. The slave-owning bourgeoisie wanted to avenge in blood the audacity of the workers to capture Paris. It had the valuable help of the German bourgeoisie, represented by Bismarck, who returned about 100 prisoners of war so that Thiers' government could help defeat the workers' revolution.

In the "bloody week", the last week of May 1871, the bourgeoisie went for the final attack against the Parisian revolutionaries. It was a bloodbath. The executions continued afterwards and the massacre accounted for more than 30 dead. “The people of Paris die enthusiastically for the Commune in numbers unequaled in any known battle in history... The Civil War in France. Those who were not shot were arrested or deported to New Caledonia, totaling around 13.500, including 157 women and 6 children.

Despite the errors of its leadership, Engels will say that the Commune “was the dictatorship of the proletariat” in its 72 days of life.

The Lessons of the Commune

Today, when many political parties and organizations have abandoned the struggle for political power of the working class, such as Castroism, Stalinism, the PT and its new variants such as Chavismo in Venezuela, or when new horizontalist organizations no longer recognize the need for a party of working class like Pablo Iglesias in Spain, we will see how Russian revolutionaries learned from the mistakes of the Commune and saw in the party a key issue for the seizure of power.

Vladimir I. Lenin

The lessons of the Paris Commune were world-wide and reached Russian revolutionaries, mainly Lenin and Trotsky, the two main leaders of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Lenin gave capital importance to the teachings of the Commune, even saying that “The cause of the commune is the cause of the social revolution, it is the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the workers, it is the cause of the world proletariat.” Memory of the Commune, 28/04/1911).

In the Preface to the Russian translation of Letters from Marx to Kugelman (1907), where he highlights Marx's two letters on the Paris Commune (April 12 and 17, 1871), Lenin harshly criticizes Plekanov, the social democrat who introduced Marxism in Russia, when he criticizes the Russian workers who took in arms in 1905, during the first Russian revolution, claiming it was a mistake. When he tries to compare himself with Marx, citing that Marx had warned the Parisian workers by not taking power, Lenin was much harsher in his criticism, saying that Marx did not preach to the Communards Plekanov's sermon on the presumptuous philistine, but on the contrary, he praised the historical initiative of the Parisian masses in the letter of April 12, 1871: “what elasticity, what historical initiative, what capacity for sacrifice of these Parisians. History knows no similar example of such grandeur.”

In concluding this preface and already predicting a second Russian revolution, Lenin says “The Russian working class has already proved and will prove many times over that it is capable of 'assaulting heaven'”. But, it's in The State and the Revolution , written on the eve of the October Revolution (August, 1917), that Lenin will dedicate a greater analysis to the great work of the Paris Commune, polemicizing with Russian and German reformists and opportunists, about the need for the Russian Revolution to give the State the same fate bourgeois, which starts to break it from the beginning, citing as a first example the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people; the suppression of the bourgeois parliament and not the “occupation of its spaces” as reformists of all stripes want, unifying the executive and legislative powers; the revocable mandate of State officials and salary equal to that of a worker, all with the aim of destroying the “parasitic state” of the bourgeoisie.

But, the great lesson that Lenin took from the Paris Commune is that without a centralized combat party, for the struggle, the proletariat will always be crushed by the bourgeoisie. Since What to do? (1903), Lenin was convinced of the need for a revolutionary party to seize power. And he worked all the following years to build this fighting tool.

Leon Trotsky

Also Trotsky, in the midst of civil war, in the work Terrorism and communism: the anti-Kautsky, May 1929, analyzed the Commune in Chapter 5, The Paris Commune and the Russia of the Soviets”. The aim of the chapter was to respond to Karl Kautsky's opportunistic comparisons between the Commune and the Russian Revolution to show that where Karl Kautsky saw 'the predominant qualities of the Commune is precisely where we see its misfortunes and mistakes'. Trotsky will not deny that the Commune was the first "historical rehearsal... of working-class domination... the dawn, however pale, of the first proletarian Republic". He will say, for example, that the socialist parties of the Commune were not prepared for the revolution, and that it caught them off guard, and that when they were in power they did not know how to use all the strategies and tactics necessary to break bourgeois domination.

Unlike the Russian Revolution of October and November which was thoroughly prepared by the Bolshevik party. Trotsky will say that behind the Russian revolutionaries there was the heroic Paris Commune, “from whose crushing we would deduce that the mission of revolutionaries is to foresee events and prepare to receive them” (p.75). Another important comparison that Trotsky makes is that the Petrograd proletariat that seized power in October 1917 is entirely concentrated and has not gone through the petty-bourgeois traditions of the Parisian workers; Russian workers did not, like the French, pass through the broad school of democracy and parliamentarism. They were called directly into the revolutionary struggles, led by a revolutionary party.

In May 1922, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Trotsky would reaffirm that the party question was the key factor missing from the Parisian revolutionaries. “Only with the help of the party, which relies on all its past history, which theoretically predicts the direction in which events will follow; who foresees its stages and defines precise lines of action, can the proletariat free itself from the need to constantly recommence its history: its doubts, its indecision, its mistakes. The proletariat of Paris lacked such a party…”

We must return to the teachings of the Paris Commune.

*João Santiago Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).

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