March 21, 2021
Paris Commune – A Harbinger of Proletarian Revolutions

R Arun Kumar

THIS year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, which has enormous historical significance. Marx greeting the Paris Commune wrote, “On the dawn of March 18, Paris arose to the thunder-burst of ‘Vive la Commune’!….When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their ‘natural superiors’….the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour….”

The Paris Commune was the first proletarian revolution, the first ever dictatorship of the proletariat. It existed for only 72 days, from March 18 to May 28, 1871, but left a profound influence on the revolutionary history of the proletariat. It emerged in France at a time when the social contradictions were maturing. The ground was prepared by the struggles conducted by the international working class movement, the First International and the spread of Marxist ideas among proletarians.

The working class of Paris, discontented with the bourgeoisie rule, overthrew their government and assumed power. The Central Committee of the National Guard, the working class army, became the provisional revolutionary government. The Commune initiated many democratic, progressive and revolutionary measures. Immediately after wresting power, it declared elections to the Commune in Paris. Most of the seats in it (65 out of 86) went to the revolutionary organisations. Elected to the Commune were 26 workers, the rest were office employees, teachers, physicians, journalists and lawyers. In its social make-up, the Commune represented the workers and petty bourgeoisie. The Commune comprised of 18 Blanquists, 13 Proudhanists, 10 Left Proudhanists and 19 revolutionary democrats or Neo-Jacobins. 33 members of the Commune were in the First International.

The historic achievement of the Paris Commune was that it smashed the existing bourgeoisie State and attempted to replace it by the State of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Commune passed a decree on disbanding the old army, replaced it by arming the people and followed it by abolishing the bourgeoisie police. Writing about the experiences of the Commune and the importance of replacing the entire State machinery, ‘lock, stock and barrel’, for the revolution to survive, Engels wrote: “From the outset, the Commune was compelled to recognise that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old State machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment”.

Another important decree passed by the Commune was separating the Church from the State and a decree on the transfer of the property of monasteries to the State. It initiated steps for socialising the means of production: the factories left by their owners were handed over to workers' associations and reopened under workers' management. It decreed for labour protection, to combat unemployment and eliminate the huge salary differences. It sought to improve the working conditions, fixation of minimum wage and a raise in the salaries for junior employees.

The Commune canceled rent debts for a definite period of time and suspended rent payment between April 1 and June 1. Personal property in pawnshops was returned to its owners free. A decree was passed on paying commercial bills on a three years' installment plan, thereby displaying its concern for the petty bourgeoisie, which faced the threat of ruin. Important reforms were affected in culture and education too. It began the separation of the school from the Church and introduced free and compulsory primary education. It promoted the activities of trade unions, clubs, sections of the International, vigilance committees and others. For the Commune, statehood rested on the principles of 'electivity, public responsibility and replaceability of all officials' and collective administration.

Commending the Commune, Marx wrote: “Wonderful, indeed, was the change the Commune had wrought in Paris! No longer any trace of the meretricious Paris of the Second Empire! No longer was Paris the rendezvous of British landlords, Irish absentees, American ex-slaveholders and shoddy men, Russian ex-serfowners, and Wallachian boyards. No more corpses at the morgue, no nocturnal burglaries, scarcely any robberies; in fact, for the first time since the days of February 1848, the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind”.

In spite of these various positives, the Commune was pulled back by the different attitudes to political, social and economic measures displayed by the various leading members of the Commune. With these diverse political trends represented in it, they found it rather hard to pursue a single and firm policy. The differences over some of the issues like centralisation and limits of power and measures to combat counter-revolution grew so acute and effected the working of the Commune. The differences and the lack of clarity on a number of fundamental issues of revolutionary reforms led to grave drawbacks in the activities of the Commune.

One of such mistakes it had committed proved to be very, very costly. The Communards let the bourgeoisie government to flee from Paris to Versailles, a suburb of the French capital and took no effective measures to nip in the bud this source of counter-revolution. Taking advantage of this leeway provided to them, the bourgeoisie reactionaries reinforced their troops and at an opportune time launched a severe offensive against revolutionary Paris. Another costly mistake was its failure to confiscate the wealth of the National Bank. This gave the dethroned bourgeoisie access to their deposits and the monies in the Bank to regroup and finance its counter-revolutionary activities. On the other hand, the Commune was very frugal in putting to use this money available in the Bank.  The Paris Communards failed to establish contacts with the peasants and with the population of other cities in France and for a long time employed the tactics of passive defence. All these weakened the fighting ability of the Commune.

On May 21, the counter-revolutionary troops, supported by the German army stationed near Paris, broke the Communards defences and a week later recaptured the whole city. The reactionaries dealt with the defenders of the Paris Commune with utmost cruelty. 30,000-40,000 Communards were shot dead and this included women and children.

Some of the important factors that caused the defeat of the Paris Commune are: the ideological and organisational weakness of the proletariat; the lack of its alliance with the peasantry; the mistakes it had committed, together with the adverse internal and external conditions at the time. Despite all these mistakes, Lenin saluting the significance of the Commune stated that the “Commune was a superb example of the great proletarian movement of the 19th century”.

Though lasting for just 72 days, the historic significance of the Commune is immense. It validated the correctness of Marxist doctrine and through action demonstrated many of the main laws concerning the development of a proletarian revolution. Marx' doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat was carried from the realm of theory to revolutionary practice and was tested in a revolution. The failure of the Paris Commune once again confirmed the conclusion made by Marx on the basis of his study of the 1848 revolution: that for the revolutionary struggle to be victorious there should be a sound alliance of the workers and peasants.

Marx termed the Paris Commune as “essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” About its significance, Marx wrote: “Working men’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 nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them”.

The Paris Commune brought to completion the historical period (1848-71) characterised by Lenin as the period of upheavals and revolutions. The period following the Paris Commune witnessed severe persecution of all the members of the International. France passed a law making it a crime for anyone to be associated with the International. Similarly, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium passed laws proscribing the activities of the International and punishing all those associated with it.

History shows that all the repressive measures failed to prevent the spread of the ideas of the Commune, establishment of parties of the proletariat and the ultimate triumph of socialism. In fact, learning from the lessons of Paris Commune, the march of communist movement continues.

“And although these magnificent uprisings of the working class were crushed, there will be another uprising, in face of which the forces of the enemies of the proletariat will prove ineffective, and from which the socialist proletariat will emerge completely victorious” (Lenin).