Vive La Commune! The Paris Commune 150 years later

Mar 18, 2021

barricade on Rue Voltaire, after its capture by the regular army during the Bloody Week. Source: Wikimedia.

The Paris Commune took place 150 years ago this year in France. It was one of the most earth-shaking events in history up to that point, and it’s one that continues to have an impact even today.

Marx said about it a few years afterwards that it was the most slandered event in human history, but what happened later was that it was pushed out of the picture almost altogether—especially, of course, in this country. Marx wrote extensively about it at the time, and there’s a pamphlet called The Civil War in France, made up of speeches that Marx gave during the time of the Paris Commune to the General Council, the leadership body of the First International. The third and main address is, I believe, one of the most brilliant, most impassioned and most bitterly satirical writings about politics that’s ever been written. In it you see Karl Marx in the midst of an all-out life and death struggle. The pamphlet is not very long, and it’s definitely worth reading or rereading. 

The Paris Commune was the first, although short-lived, workers’ state, workers’ republic. During its short life, which lasted only 72 days before it was brutally murdered by the so-called democratic bourgeoisie of France, it had so many experiences and such rich experiences and lessons that 50 years later the Bolshevik Party—Lenin and all of the Bolshevik Party—carefully studied the Paris Commune. Not only did they study it, they based the Soviet form of government on the Paris Commune. And then, 50 years after that, in 1969, when a new constitution of China was written, they cited the Paris Commune as being the example of the form of government they wanted to have. That’s how influential this 72-day-long Commune was in history. And that’s not all; there are many other examples.

Based on the experience of the Commune, Marx and Engels felt that they had to make what was their only correction to the Communist Manifesto. They said that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Instead, they said, the old state would have to be broken up, would have to be shattered and replaced by a completely new form; that is, that the workers could not use the state that the capitalists used.

Marxism vs. anarchism and reformism

Generally speaking, anarchists have a utopian view that the state can just be abolished overnight. Both Marxists and anarchists want to put an end to the state, but if and when the anarchist theory is followed, the working class is left with no means of defense against counterrevolution, and in those cases any kind of revolution would be quickly defeated. But the struggle against the anarchists is just one side of the question. 

 Equally or even more important is the struggle of Marxism against reformism. The reformist socialists believe that gradually, over a long period of time and by means of elections, they could take over the government and the state and implement socialism. Marx and Engels viewed this argument as hopeless opportunism and they called it “bourgeois socialism.” Marx and Engels were in favor of working-class parties participating in elections, not because this was the road to power or to socialism, but because it was a means of educating and organizing the working class.

The experience of the Paris Commune convinced them more than ever that not only was it hopeless reformism to think that the capitalist ruling class would ever allow itself to be voted out of power, but also that the capitalist state structure was made for capitalism and would have to be replaced.

How did the Paris Commune come about?

After the revolutions of 1848 that swept across all of Europe, in France Louis Napoleon, who was the nephew of Napoleon I, was able to take power in December 1851 and established the Second Empire. During the next two decades there was an explosion of capitalist development and corruption and everything else that went along with it in France. At the same time, you can see by the map that was handed out that Germany was still divided into several states, the largest of which was Prussia. 

Prussia waged a series of wars in the 1860s, against Denmark first and then Austria, and then finally in 1870 there was a war between France and Germany. And in this war the French Army of the Second Empire collapsed almost immediately, and the great emperor himself was taken prisoner in the first days of the war, thus putting an end to the empire. 

Marx and Engels saw this war and the resulting unification of Germany as a progressive step, preparing the way for a nationwide working class movement in Germany. But Prussia went further and they started to annex parts of France, called Alsace and Lorraine, and began moving their troops toward Paris, the capital. Marx and Engels opposed this and predicted that it would inevitably lead to a much more massive and destructive war in the future. And of course 45 years later was World War I; that prediction was borne out in the most destructive war in history up to that time.

In September 1870, after the collapse of the French army, the German army was right outside Paris, threatening the capital. This rotten empire had collapsed. Some of the equally rotten bourgeois politicians who had been leaders of it, led by Adolph Thiers, had set up a Government of National Defense, based at Versailles. And Versailles, if people know, is the old royal palace where Louis XVI and all of them were—the big gardens and so forth—that’s where their government was. In Paris when this happened—in a city of 2 million people—the Parisian workers and the National Guard, which was made up overwhelmingly of workers, drawn from the workers, and had about 160,000 members—they were predominant inside the city of Paris. So here was Versailles, the Government of National Defense, but they couldn’t take over Paris, and the workers and the National Guard weren’t inclined to let them take over.

The German army, which had crushed the French army, was afraid to go into Paris. They weren’t afraid of the French army, but they were afraid of the French workers, who were armed; so they waited outside too. 

The number one priority of the bourgeois government based in Versailles was to disarm the Parisian workers. They worked with the German military, first urging them to occupy their own capital; in other words, this was the great Government of National Defense trying to get the German army to attack the French workers inside Paris. But the Germans weren’t inclined to do this. And there’s a quote from Marx saying that Thiers “was compelled to realize that the rule of the propertied classes, the big landowners and the capitalists, was in constant danger as long as the workers in Paris had arms in their hand.”

Meanwhile, the workers in Paris were setting up committees to stay alive, to bring food into the city, to make contact with the countryside, to defend Paris, to strengthen the National Guard to such an extent that they went out and had fund-raising drives to buy the materials to make their own artillery—like big cannons—and they were producing them. 

At this time, at the beginning of this, it should be mentioned that Marx advised Parisian workers not to try to take power, because, he said, what you really need first is organization. But once the events unfolded, Marx became an all-out supporter of the Paris Commune, discussing with them, back and forth from London, what was going on and analyzing it.

For six months, from September 1870 until March 1871, there were two centers of power in France—one at Versailles and one in Paris—and the tension was growing; there were skirmishes going on between them. Bismarck, who was the German leader, seeing the danger of this, began gradually releasing the prisoners of war of the French army to the Versailles government, so that they could rebuild their army. And on March 18, 1871—which is a famous day in history, especially in France—Thiers, the head of the bourgeois government, made his move, sending his troops into Paris to seize the artillery of the National Guard. And this artillery, as I said, had been paid for by fund-raising among the citizens of the city to defend the city against the Prussian army. The attack failed. The National Guard and the workers drove Thiers’ troops back. Not only did they drive them back, but they completely routed them. This newly formed army completely broke up. Unfortunately, though, the National Guard and the workers didn’t have the leadership, they didn’t make the decision to follow them to Versailles and destroy this bourgeois government once and for all. They gave it a second lease on life.

Ten days later the Commune issued this proclamation: “The proletarians of Paris have understood that the hour has struck for us to take into our own hands the direction of public affairs, and we have understood that it is our highest duty and absolute right to render ourselves masters of our destiny by seizing the power of the government;” a truly historic declaration.

The Paris Commune’s first decree

The first decree of the Paris Commune was to suppress the standing army, and to substitute for it the armed people. In other words, they said we are disbanding the national army of France, and putting in its place the National Guard.

Why was this such a significant decree? Why was it their first decree, and why was it so important? To answer that question I think we have to digress for a second and talk about what the state is, because that’s what this was talking about. What is the state, and what is state power?

There has not always been a state. That’s something that’s hard to see today when it seems as if it’s always been there and always will be. But in the long period of communal society in which all of humanity lived, except for the last 10,000 years at the most—in other words, at least 99 percent of the history of humanity—there was no state. Engels, in the famous book The Origin of the Family, Property and the State, explained, first, that “the state is the product of irreconcilable class antagonisms.” Can the interests of the slave and the slave owner, can the interest of the feudal lord and the serf, of the worker and the capitalist ever be reconciled? Can it be just one big happy family?

Of course, our media and politicians want to tell us today that we can all, business and labor, everyone, they’re all for everybody, which makes you know right away that they’re lying, since you can’t be for everybody. You can’t be for the boss and the worker, for the rich and the poor at the same time. And the reality is that the wealth, position and even the existence of the exploiting class in any class society depends on the exploitation and the suppression of the exploited class in that society. To maintain this situation in class societies, exploitative societies, where a small minority reaps all the benefits at the expense of the majority, requires order to keep people from rebelling against this. Order always depends, in the final analysis, on force. Of course, the slave owners, the feudal lords, the capitalists, they don’t want to go out and do that themselves—that’s dangerous to do. So their right to exploit is defended by the state. 

The essence of the state

Engels pointed out that the essence of the state is a public force, “which is no longer absolutely identical with the population organizing itself as an armed power.” What does he mean by that? He means that at one stage in history, for all of humanity the armed power was in the hands of the people, and it was in the hands of all of the people—regardless of what part of the world you go to. The weapons of society, the force of society—in communal society—was in the hands of everybody. 

Engels said that what is characteristic of the state and most important to the state are special bodies, what he called “special bodies of armed men.” It distinguishes the state and class society from all forms of communal society. By “special bodies of armed men” he meant the army, the navy, the airforce, the police, the courts, the judges, the prisons. He said, “This public force exists in every state. It consists not merely of bodies of armed men, but of prisons and repressive institutions of all kinds, of which communal society knew nothing.” The masses—especially the oppressed masses—are disarmed. In many forms of class society it has been a crime punishable by death for a serf or a slave or even workers to own weapons. 

 The real concern that the ruling class here has about gun control has nothing to do with their concern about the safety of people, but the fact that they feel that the situation is potentially one that could be out of control, without gun control.

These special bodies of armed men, loyal to the ruling class, maintain the system—whatever exploitative system it is—by terror. That’s really the essence of it; the essence of force is terror. Every form of class society, no matter what its democratic facade, is in essence a dictatorship, a dictatorship of a class; and the dictatorship of that class, of that ruling class, is enforced by its state, by its armed bodies of men. Under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, of the capitalists, owners of private property make all the essential decisions. You can tell this if you try to argue with your landlord about whether you have to pay your rent next month; or try arguing with a corporation: “Look, you really should hire me,” or “You really shouldn’t fire me.” 

All of the things that are most essential to people are really outside any realm of democracy, and if you don’t go along with their decisions you know what happens. They get their special bodies of armed men to deal with you, whether it’s the sheriffs for evictions, the cops or their own private security forces in some cases.

Third, Engels said, “The state is an instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed class.” It’s an instrument itself; not only does the oppressor class exploit directly, but they also exploit the oppressed class indirectly by means of the state. For instance, we pay the taxes to pay for the armed bodies of men who repress us. That’s one of the great things about it. They don’t pay for it, the capitalists don’t pay for it; it’s theirs, but we pay for it. To maintain this enormous military—to pay for the police, the FBI, the CIA, the courts, the jails, the prison bonds and all of that—is all paid for by the working class itself. 

And then, on top of that in the state are the high-level government officials. I’m not talking about government workers, but those who have the good jobs, of whom there are hundreds of thousands of federal and state and local appointees who are making $100,000 or more. Here they talk about how we just can’t get any good people in city government if we don’t pay them $140,000 a year to head some department. There are so many positions like that. And not only that, but in addition there are the contracts that are given out—the billions and hundreds of billions of dollars on an annual basis that go out from the federal, state, local and regional governments to private corporations. All of that is our money, so it becomes another way for them to profit.

And then there are the direct corporate subsidies, which we’ve heard a lot about since the “Contract with America” came along, which amount to billions and tens of billions of dollars. And one of the biggest of all is the national debt, because sometimes in order to maintain all this, particularly the military, it’s been necessary to incur a national debt—which is how much now, $6 trillion, $7 trillion?—which is a great deal for the banks that hold the national debt because they get paid at interest rates that none of us could ever dream of getting. All of this constitutes the way in which the capitalist state is an instrument of exploitation. Engels summarized this in a famous quote: 

    The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which managed without it and which had no conception of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this cleavage. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but is becoming a positive hindrance to production. They will disappear as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them, the state will inevitably disappear. The society that organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machine where it will then belong—in the museum of antiquities, side by side with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.

Lenin summarized this by saying that the replacement of a bourgeois by a proletarian state is impossible without a revolution—and it wasn’t just his view, it was Marx’s and Engels’ as well. And that the abolition of the proletarian state, of the workers’ state, and the state as a whole is only possible through withering away, when there’s no longer a need for repressive force at all in society. 

In the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, Marx and Engels talked about what they saw coming as a socialist society, and they were always very careful not to project some utopian idea. They said, “We have seen that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to establish democracy.” This is vague in its details, but it’s clear on this point: that the working class needs to have its own state, and if it needs a state it’s only because a state is used for repression. In other words, they were not lying about this. They were very truthful about it, and they said that the proletariat needs the state. 

The state is a special form of organization of force. It is the organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, the exploiting class only [in other words, the bourgeoisie]. The workers need the state only to overcome the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct the suppression and bring it to fulfillment. For the proletariat is the only class that is thoroughly revolutionary, that can unite all the workers and the exploited in the struggle. 

The exploiting class needs political rule in order to maintain exploitation, in the selfish interests of an insignificant minority, and against the vast majority of people. The exploited classes need political rule in order to completely abolish all exploitation. [In other words, in the interest of the vast majority of the people and against the insignificant minority consisting of the slave owners of modern times, the landowners and capitalists.]

Dictatorship of the proletariat

After the 1848 revolution was over, in 1852 Marx first used the expression—the famous expression that’s been so slandered—“the dictatorship of the proletariat.” He said that this was the form that workers’ government would take. Again, he didn’t have an example, so he didn’t go into it much more than that. The big question remained: What will replace it? What will replace the capitalist form of government, the capitalist form of state? What do we as communists propose to replace the present political and state system with? 

The first real answers to this question were found in the Paris Commune. After their first decree, about getting rid of the standing army, Lenin described the Commune: 

The Commune was formed of municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage, in various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short term. The majority of its members were naturally workers or acknowledged representatives of the working class. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the central government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune.

“Revocable” meaning they could be fired immediately, and that applied to members of the Commune, councilors who were elected. It wasn’t as if you had to wait four years. The people whom they represented could immediately recall them.

    And he says, “and so were the officials of all other branches of the administration.” And this is a very important point. “From the members of the Commune downward, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The vested interests and the representation, allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. 

“Having once gotten rid of the standing army and the police, the physical force elements of the old government, the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the parson power.” And he doesn’t go into it here, but they outlawed all of the connections between the state and the church—and its role in education—and said religion is a private matter, the priests are out of here and we’re taking over their land and property too, and they can preach like the Christians of old.

“The judicial functionaries were to be divested of their sham independence, like the rest of the public servants,” meaning the judges—we all hear about the independence of the judiciary. He says, get rid of “their sham independence, like the rest of the public servants; the magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible and revocable.”

So Lenin goes on and says: “Thus the Commune would appear to have replaced the shattered state machinery only by fuller democracy. Abolition of the standing army. All officials to be fully elective and subject to recall.” He continues, “But as a matter of fact, this ‘only’ signifies a gigantic replacement of one type of institution by others of a fundamentally different order. Here we observe a case of the transformation of quantity into quality, using the language of dialectics. This change is one that might appear to be just a quantitative change, but really it’s so great that it has changed the very nature of this government and of this state.

“Democracy introduced as fully and consistently as is generally thinkable is transformed from capitalist democracy into proletarian democracy, from the state”—in other words, a special force for the suppression of a particular class into something that is no longer really the state in the accepted sense of the word.

He says, “It was still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush its resistance”—that was particularly necessary for the Commune—“and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do it with sufficient determination. But the organ of suppression is now the majority of the population: the armed people is now the state, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage labor.”

Lenin pointed out that one of the things the Commune did is that they made the watchword of all these bourgeois politicians about cheap government—he said they made it a reality. How did they make it a reality? By destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and the high-paid state functionaries, and in this way began to break up and destroy the parasitic state that had existed before.

Another very interesting point that Lenin raises about this, in analyzing the Paris Commune, is that it destroyed parliamentarism. Now that’s an interesting concept, and it at first sounds very undemocratic. “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people constituted in the Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search of the workmen and managers in his business.”

Now, that’s a very confusing thing, I think, but I think what he means here is that, for example, when you go to apply for a job what you really face is the individual suffrage of the boss, who decides whether or not to hire you. What Lenin is saying here is that under the Commune and its rules of recall, the people are selecting whom they are going to have work for them, and they have a right to do that and they have a right to withdraw that right on any notice. And also, that the person who is now working for them is being paid only the average wage of a worker. So in other words, there’s no impetus to go into government, to join the government, if you think that the reason for it is that you’re going to get rich.

I don’t know whether people here know Art Agnos, who used to be the mayor of San Francisco, but there was this famous mythology about Art Agnos, that he came riding into town on a Greyhound bus with a social work degree and $500 in his pocket, and he was so smart and hardworking that he fought his way up the political ladder, and he got Jimmy Herman from the ILWU (International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union) leadership, who took him under his wing, and off he went to the State Assembly, and then he came back and became mayor of San Francisco, and it was all this great American success story. But the question nobody asked in the bourgeois media at the time he became mayor was: How, if he came into town with $500 in his pocket, went to work in the State Assembly, where he supposedly made $30,000 a year, when he came back to become mayor of San Francisco he could buy a home that cost $1 million? But that’s the story of politics; that’s the story we’re given about it, anyway.

Lenin said, “To decide every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and oppress the people through parliament, this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in constitutional monarchies, but in the most democratic republic in the world.” (Here, parliament is called the Congress.) Isn’t this really what the election process is still today?

And what really goes on in the Congress, in the state legislature, that we see? Acting, right? They all come out, they give their speeches—all the decisions have been made somewhere else, no one ever changes their vote as a result. I don’t know if people ever watch C-Span—you see these people getting up, making these lofty-sounding speeches for the camera. No votes ever change, it’s all just a parliamentary show put on for our benefit. And the Paris Commune said that’s not what we’re about, what our legislature is going to be. We’re going to have one; no president, no executive, none of this fake division, separation of powers that’s so glorified here, which is really just a way for the ruling class to play off elements of the government against each other to maintain their rule.

So what did the Paris Commune do, once it came in, once it set itself up as a governing body? In an introduction to a book entitled The Civil War in France, Frederick Engels wrote: “On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army. On the same day it remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses [that’s rental property] from October 1870 until April 1871.” And people who had already paid the rent, tenants—I imagine probably a lot of people weren’t paying the rent, in the middle of the war; since they had guns they could get away with not paying it—he said for everybody who’d already been paying it, “it would be booked as future rent payment.” And they stopped all articles of sale in the municipal loan office—like when the state has come and repossessed your property. “On the same day [March 30, 1871], the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office,” and this included a German—here they are in this war against Germany—they confirmed a German as the minister of labor; there were Polish leaders of the military; there were people of many different nationalities. They said, “The flag of the Commune is the flag of the world republic.”

“On April 1st it was decided that the highest salary to be received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore by its members themselves, was not to exceed 6,000 francs,” which was the average wage at the time. 

On the following day the Commune declared the separation of the state, and the abolition of all state payments for religious property; on April 8th the exclusion from the schools of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers, in a word, of all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience. On the 5th, in reply to the shooting day after day of captured Commune fighters by the Versailles troops, a decree was issued for the imprisonment of hostages, but it was never carried into execution. On the next day, the 6th of April, the guillotine was brought out and burned by the 137th battalion of the National Guard. [This was the symbol of all the executions of the poor that were going on, and Engels said,] and publicly burned amid great popular rejoicing. On the 12th the Commune decided that the victory column on the Place Vendôme, which had been cast from captured guns [of many countries conquered] by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred.

On April 16th it ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by manufacturers and the working out of plans for the operation of these factories by the workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organized in cooperative societies. On the 20th it abolished night work for bakers, and also the employment offices, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by creatures appointed by the police, labor exploiters of the first rank. On April 30th it ordered the closing of pawn shops on the ground that they were private exploitation of the workers, in contradiction of the right of workers to their instruments of labor and to credit. And on May 5th it ordered the razing of the Chapel of Atonement, [which had been built in the Second Empire or later on as a symbol of atonement for having cut off the head of Louis XVI—they burned that down.]

So you get the picture of what this was. I want to read something else that is so contrary to what we hear about, like, what if we didn’t have police? Crime would run rampant. Marx pointed out, “Wonderful indeed was the change that the Commune had wrought in Paris. No longer any trace of the Paris of the Second Empire. No longer was Paris the rendezvous of British landlords, Irish absentee landlords, American ex-slave holders, Russian ex-serf owners, bodyguards from all over. No more corpses at the morgue. No nocturnal burglaries. Scarcely any robberies. In fact, for the first time since the days of February 1848 [when the other revolution happened], the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind.” And this is attested to by many, many people; this isn’t just Marx’s view of it. Virtually everyone who was there and wrote about it afterward in Paris at that time said that there was virtually a complete disappearance of crime under these conditions. And he says, talking about all the people that have left, “In their stead the real women of Paris showed again at the surface—heroic, noble and devoted. Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris, almost forgetful in its incubation of a new society, with the cannibals at the gate; radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative.”

Weaknesses of the Commune

It was really a revolution, it was a revolutionary society. The greatest weakness of the Commune was the absence of a strong revolutionary party to lead it that could serve really as the general staff of this revolution, and could have tried to deal with all of the huge tasks that it had before it: to reach out to the peasants; to reach out to the other cities; to organize the defense better; to organize in all kinds of ways. There were several socialist and anarchist groups, including some that were attached to the First International, but none of them had this theoretical or political outlook necessary to extend the revolution and to really defend it the way it needed to be. And of course they were one city, in a very early period.

Another aspect that’s important about the weakness of the Commune was how the oppressed treated their oppressors, and as Lenin and Trotsky and many others have often commented, the oppressed have a tendency to be far too gentle to their rulers and former rulers. On March 18, as I said, when the bourgeois government attacked Paris, they were in such a rout, they were thrown into such a panic, that the National Guard could have marched right to Versailles and put an end to that government. But they didn’t; they held back.

In early April the government of Thiers began to publicly torture and execute captured communards and members of the National Guard in the streets in Versailles; all the bourgeois forces that gathered there would come out and join in this, like a big lynch mob, a bourgeois lynch mob, and carry out all these atrocities. They only slowed down when the Commune declared, as I mentioned, in one of their decrees that they were going to take hostages and that they would carry out retribution on the bourgeois hostages who were still in Paris—the archbishop and so forth, and all these characters—but they didn’t do it. And as soon as the Thiers government realized that they weren’t going to act on it, they resumed this public torture, execution and so on and so forth. And they took as a sign of weakness the fact that the Commune didn’t respond, didn’t react to this.

Some of those in the Commune, like a man named Vermorel, said, “We must rise above our enemies by moral force. We must not infringe the individual liberty and life.” These are noble sentiments perhaps, but in the midst of a civil war they are suicidal ones for a revolutionary leadership to take. 

The bourgeois government, by mid-April, was beginning to recover. They were getting a lot of forces from the German army, which was releasing the French prisoners of war to form the new bourgeois army. And they began to attack; they began to wage war against the city. And this continued until, on May 21, these forces entered the city. The German army played the role of coming up and blocking those who were trying to escape, the communards who were trying to escape, except for some of the divisions that were more progressive, that would let some people through; but basically they were squeezed and they were pushed in by this new bourgeois army that was attacking Paris. 

This is mentioned in one of the papers we’ve handed out about the Paris Commune from the magazine Liberation and Marxism.  Engels described it: “It was only after eight days of fighting that the last defenders of the Commune succumbed, and then the massacre of defenseless men, women and children, which had been raging all through the week on an increasing scale, reached its zenith. The breech loaders could no longer kill fast enough. The vanquished were shot down in the hundreds. On May 28th the last barricades in Paris went down, and the first revolutionary workers’ government was drowned in the blood of tens of thousands of heroic Parisians.” 

It was a mass slaughter, and the accounts of it are really something. I want to read one of the accounts, not from a revolutionary source but from a bourgeois newspaper of the day. The reporter, who was watching it—this was on the 29th of May—said, 

    The column of prisoners halted in the avenue Uhrich and was drawn up four or five deep on the footway facing the road. General Marquis de Gallifet and his staff dismounted and commenced an inspection from the left of the line. Walking slowly and eyeing the ranks the general stopped here and there, tapping a man on the shoulder or beckoning him out of the rear ranks. In most cases without further parley, the individual thus selected was marched out into the center of the road, where a small supplementary column was soon formed. It was evident that there was considerable room for error. It was not a good thing on that day to be noticeably taller, dirtier, cleaner, older or uglier than one’s neighbor. One individual in particular struck me as probably owing his speedy release from the ills of this world to his having a broken nose. Over a hundred being thus chosen, a firing party peeled off and the column resumed its march, leaving them behind. A few minutes afterwards, a dropping fire in our rear commenced and continued for nearly a quarter of an hour. It was the execution of these summarily convicted. [Paris correspondent for the London Daily News]

And that’s where the fist comes from; it’s from the Paris Commune. And from the fist through the soil—one of the communards who had been executed in this way.

Lessons of the Commune

So, what’s the lesson of this? To summarize, the Bolshevik Party wrote a lot about this and studied it a lot, and there was one particular historian named Lavrov who wrote a history of the Paris Commune. He said in it that the reality that the workers have to face is that when you’re in a war with a brutal, cutthroat enemy—I should say first that Marx said later, in an interview eight years after the Paris Commune, that the Commune killed 60 hostages probably, in the whole course of the time—and probably 60,000 workers were killed. It was just this immense bloodbath that took place, and probably 40,000 or 50,000 more were imprisoned in big camps and then sent into exile. It’s something that we’ve seen repeated in the twentieth century, certainly in Indonesia, in Chile, in Spain, in Argentina and other countries.

Lavrov, when he wrote about this, said that what the workers have to know—and he said the workers always have this tendency to be too gentle with their oppressor, and then the oppressor comes back—is that the highest degree of energy in smashing the enemy is the highest degree of humanity. “Just the men who hold human life and human blood dear must strive to organize the possibility for a swift and decisive victory, and then to act with the greatest swiftness and energy, in order to crush the enemy. For only in this way can we achieve the minimum of inevitable sacrifice and the minimum of bloodshed.”

But the greatest lessons of the Commune don’t really have to do with the suppression of it. The suppression itself is one great lesson, but there are others. It showed for the first time what should be the form of a workers’ republic, how it was really different from any capitalist government that has ever existed. And it showed that this wasn’t just a dream. It wasn’t just a utopian idea of somebody that somehow this could exist. The fact that it existed for 72 days, and could have existed for much longer, proved that it was possible.

The Bolsheviks studied the Paris Commune very carefully, both its strengths and its weaknesses. They said that the government that they were working to create, the Soviet government, should be based on the Commune, and that there should be recall, that none of the members of the government should make more than the average wages of a worker, that your incentive to be in the government had to be based on your commitment to the struggle. 

I think for people who’ve gone to Cuba recently, you know that the people who are in the Cuban Party really have to expect to have less in this time of hardship than the average person in the population; and don’t have open to them the possibility, if they want to remain in the Party, to have access to anything more than the average worker does. And people all live in their neighborhoods and their workplaces and they know who has what. This is what the Party should be; that’s what those who want to serve in our government should be: those who are willing to do more, who are willing to work longer hours, who are willing to sacrifice more, who are willing to give more for the struggle. And not, like any of the previous governments of exploitative classes, that this would be a road to riches.

The other lesson that they studied very well and wrote a lot about—Trotsky wrote about it and Lenin and many others—was that they built their own national guard, but they built a much more efficient one, which was known as the Red Army. Without the Red Army, they would have been crushed by the counterrevolution and imperialism in probably about the same amount of time as the Paris Commune, maybe a couple of months more. But that would have been it for the Soviet Union if they hadn’t done this. There were 14 imperialist countries that sent in invading forces; there were big counterrevolutionary feudal and bourgeois forces in the country, made up of old elements of the military and the old exploiting classes. And so those lessons, what happened in Paris in 1870 and 1871, were part of the reason that the Soviet Union was able to survive. 

And in fact to this day, it really is a test of any government that claims to be socialist, revolutionary—kind of the litmus test for it—to compare it to the Paris Commune in these particular ways. What are the wages of those who serve in it? Are they subject to recall? And some of the other points that I mentioned.

After the suppression of the Paris Commune, a witch-hunt was carried out against the International Workingmen’s Association. And one of these “great democratic leaders” of the French bourgeoisie, who were really responsible for this bloodbath . . . there was a letter to the London Times saying that Jules Favre issued a circular to all the European governments—he was now a member of this new government that had taken over—calling on them to hunt down the International Workingmen’s Association. So this became one of the reasons why the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, along with the other struggles that were going on—but this was primary—why it had to eventually shut down in London, move its headquarters to New York, and in 1876 go out of existence.

I’ll read two quotes to conclude. One is by Engels, written 20 years after the Paris Commune, as in introduction to subsequent publications of The Civil War in France. He said: “Of late the social democratic philistine has once more been filled,” and he’s talking about reformist socialists here, “with wholesome terror at the words ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Well and good, gentlemen. Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

In reality, this term that’s so fearsome and so feared, this dictatorship of the proletariat, is really the most democratic government; this was the most democratic government that had ever existed up until that point. 

The second quote is from Marx, at the end of his Third Address to the General Council, in May 1871, published in The Civil War in France: “Workingmen’s Paris with its Commune will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators’ history has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.”