The Paris Commune: 3 keys the media won’t tell you about even 150 years later

18 March, 2021

Paris Commune. Rosta window. Petersburg 1921

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Almost all the major world media have been devoting articles the last week, rehearsing nationalist, feminist reinterpretations or even incongruously reducing it to a riot preforming… May ’68 and the yellow vests! Today we shed light on three keys for understanding what the Paris Commune really was… which the media won’t tell you about.

In this article…

The topic of this article has been chosen by the readers of the Communia channel on Telegram.

The Franco-Prussian war and revolutionary defeatism

Trial of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel. Holzstich, 1872 after defending revolutionary defeatism and Paris Commune
Schwurgerichtsverhandlung gegen die FŸhrer der Sozialdemokraten in Leipzig: von links: Wilhelm Liebknecht, Hepner, August Bebel Holzstich, 1872

The Paris Commune arose in the context of the Franco-Prussian war. Prussia, a semi-feudal state dominated by a landed aristocracy, the junkers, had guided the defeat of the bourgeois revolution of 1848 and given a reactionary shape to German unification by tying to its bandwagon a bourgeoisie which already was more afraid of the workers than it had the vigor to seize the state by taking political power.

German Marxists correctly understood that the war against the French second empire would serve the Prussianization of Germany as a whole, i.e., the deepening of the power of the Junkers and the strengthening of reactionary tendencies in Europe as a whole.

Why was it reactionary? At a time when bourgeois democratic revolution was still on the historical agenda on half the continent, a Prussian triumph would delay capitalist development – and thus the numerical and social development of the proletariat – by strengthening the aristocratic-landowning classes. Even where, as in Germany and Austria, the proletariat was already numerically large, it would retard its political development by strengthening the feudal autocratic states, forcing the proletariat to prioritize their transformation into bourgeois states and distancing it from the direct and clear confrontation with the bourgeoisie that befits a fully established capitalist society.

Thereupon, in the autumn of 1870, the socialist spokesmen Liebknecht and Bebel openly opposed the war in the Reichstag, the consultative parliament of the German empire, launching a campaign against conscription and levies to finance the war. With the outbreak of revolution in Paris, Lyons and Marseilles, the party as a bloc would support what it identified early on as a revolutionary movement of the workers.

In a new speech before the Reichstag on May 25, 1871, Bebel would openly support the Commune by linking its defense to a denunciation of the Bismarck government’s annexationist zeal in Alsace and Lorraine and a call to overthrow Prussian reaction. It was the first essay of revolutionary defeatism as a tactic of the proletariat in the face of the war.

Immediately Bebel and Liebknecht were stripped of their parliamentary seats, arrested and charged of high treason along with a young militant, Adolf Hepner, who had spread defeatist ideas through the socialist press. The trial, which acquitted Hepner and sentenced Bebel and Liebknecht on March 26, 1872, to two years’ imprisonment in the Saxon castle of Hubertusburg, marked the real starting point of German social democracy as a mass movement.

Indeed, as Engels later pointed out, the revolutionary defeatism of the German socialists and its mirror in the Paris Commune -which was considered the practical consequence of the revolutionary defeatism of the workers on the French side of the front- turned German social democracy into the reference point of the world workers’ movement. It would continue to be so until 1914, when the need for revolutionary defeatism would be raised again in the face of the imperialist war, but only one deputy of the entire German Social Democratic group, Karl Liebknecht, Wilhelm’s son, would this time take the internationalist position.

The standing of the German workers at the forefront of the European movement is based essentially on their genuinely internationalist attitude during the war.

Engels, Letter to Bebel on March 28, 1875

What the Marxists emphasized most about the Paris Commune was that it exposed their own mistakes

National guard barricade during the Paris Commune

When the March 18 proclamation of the Paris Commune occurs, the 1st International is living the last throes of a long and exhausting battle against Bakuninism. It was fundamentally a struggle to uphold the most basic centralism against the putschist and conspiratorial logic, typical of secret societies, of Bakunin’s Alliance. However, the anarchists attempted to dignify their own position with a spurious debate on political struggle and the rejection of authority.

In that debate, Marxists argued that without a state it would be impossible for the proletariat to advance its program once the bourgeoisie had been defeated. And they inferred from this that the aim of the political struggle of the class would be to take over the state in order to use it for its own revolutionary ends, in the way the bourgeoisie had used the hyper-development of the state under absolute monarchy.

Centralized state power, with its omnipresent organs: the standing army, the police, the bureaucracy, the clergy and the judiciary – organs created according to a plan of systematic and hierarchical division of labor – came from the times of absolute monarchy and served the nascent bourgeois society as a powerful weapon in its struggles against feudalism

Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, 1871

And herein comes the collapse of the French army at Sedan.

Peace having been sealed after the capitulation of Paris, Thiers, the new head of the government, was forced to understand that the domination of the propertied classes – big landowners and capitalists – was in constant danger as long as the workers of Paris held the guns in their hands. The first thing he did was to try to disarm them. On March 18 he sent line troops with orders to strip the National Guard of its own artillery, which had been built during the siege of Paris and paid for by public subscription. The attempt failed; Paris was mobilized rallying as one man for resistance and war was declared between Paris and the French Government, installed at Versailles.

Friedrich Engels. Introduction to “The Civil War in France,” 1891

The Central Committee of the National Guard launched a manifesto on March 18 in which it proclaimed itself the Paris Commune and clearly expressed the nature of what was happening.

The proletarians of Paris, in the midst of the failures and betrayals of the ruling classes, have realized that the hour has come to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs (…) They have understood that it is their imperious duty and their indisputable right to make themselves masters of their own destinies by taking power.

Manifesto of the Central Committee of the National Guard, March 18, 1871

For the first time in history, the proletariat takes power. It has taken it and set about ruling by constituting a highly centralized power, it has not destroyed the bourgeois state and declared anarchy, leaving everything else to the spontaneity of the masses and the free will of individuals, as advocated at the time by the Bakuninists.

The direct antithesis of the Empire was the Commune. The cry of “Social Republic,” with which the February Revolution was heralded by the Paris proletariat, expressed no more than the vague yearning for a Republic that would put an end not only to the monarchical form of class domination, but to class domination itself. The Commune was the positive form of this Republic.

Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, 1871.

But something essential happened. Something that contradicted the expectations that had been gathered in the Communist Manifesto and which Marx is going to clearly single out from the first sentence of his analysis:

The working class cannot limit itself simply to taking possession of the State machine as it is, and using it for its own ends.

Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, 1871.

Marx and Engels will emphasize this point again and again, interpreting the Paris Commune in its light: the Paris Commune sets the path of the proletarian Revolution and creates a new type of state that is already placed in the logic of the transition to communism.

The variety of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected and the variety of interests that have interpreted it to their advantage show that it was a perfectly flexible political form, unlike previous forms of government which had all been fundamentally repressive. Therein lies its real secret: the Commune was, essentially, a government of the working class, the fruit of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered which made it possible to realize the economic emancipation of labor.

Without this last condition, the communal regime would have been an impossibility and an imposture. The political domination of the producers is incompatible with the perpetuation of their social slavery. Therefore, the Commune had to serve as a lever to extirpate the economic foundations on which the existence of classes and, consequently, class domination rests. Once labor is emancipated, every man becomes a worker, and productive labor ceases to be an attribute of a class.

Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, 1871.

From now on, the Paris Commune becomes a nodal moment in revolutionary thought, the whole Marxist theory of the state as an organism articulating a class dictatorship and the very vision of proletarian revolution are modified and developed.

During the following months and years, Marx and Engels would take the analysis of the Paris Commune even further as that political form at last discovered which made it possible to realize the economic emancipation of labor. Representing the interest of a universal class, without particular interests and bent on eliminating wage labor, the Commune was very close to being that representative of all society which all states falsely pretend to be.

At the end of the day it was a merely functional and elective structure, without bureaucracy or professional offices, which was supported on associated labor and which centralized it by preparing to formally take ownership of the goods of production… And that, in reality, is no longer a state, properly speaking.

Read also the summary of Marx's and Engels' texts on The Paris Commune in our training texts (In Spanish). 

The Paris Commune refutes myths about leaders and programs

The  workingwomen of the Paris Commune, nemesis of the «first wave» of feminists.
The workingwomen of the Paris Commune, nemesis of the «first wave» of feminists.

The Paris Commune conclusively disproves two contradictory political myths that are widespread today. The first is that a real revolution has no leaders. Nobody remembers those of the Paris Commune, but they existed… and they were neither Marxists nor Bakuninists. The second one is that the character of the political programmes and the ways of understanding the class goals of those leaders are what gives shape to a revolution. The Paris Commune demonstrated just the opposite.

Marx commented that the great social measure of the Paris Commune was its very existence. And indeed it is true, it neither spread successfully, nor did it have time for more than to deploy the measures that enabled the struggle itself to advance. But one cannot but marvel at the quantity and coherence of the measures proclaimed in only two months to further, beyond even what was imaginable a few weeks earlier, the process of constitution of the proletariat as a class.

And if this advance is astonishing, it is even more dazzling when we contrast it with the consolidated militant sectors and groups that provided the neighborhoods and the National Guard with leaders.

The members of the Paris Commune were divided into a majority composed of Blanquists, who had also predominated in the Central Committee of the National Guard, and a minority composed of affiliates of the International Workingmen’s Association, among whom the adherents of the socialist school of Proudhon prevailed. At that time, the great majority of Blanquists were only socialists by revolutionary and proletarian instinct, only a few had reached a greater clarity of principles, thanks to Vaillant, who knew German scientific socialism.(…)

But even more astonishing is the correctness of many of the things that were done, despite the Paris Commune being composed of Proudhonians and Blanquists. Of course, the Proudhonians bear the main responsibility for the economic decrees of the Commune, both as to their merits and their defects; the Blanquists bear the main responsibility for the political measures and omissions. And, in both cases, the irony of history willed – as generally happens when power falls into the hands of doctrinaires – that both did the opposite of what the doctrine of their respective school prescribed.

Proudhon, the socialist of the small peasants and master craftsmen, positively hated association [productive work on a medium and large scale self-organized by the workers].

He said of it that it had more bad in it than good; that it was by nature sterile and even pernicious, like a fetter placed on the freedom of the worker; that it was pure dogma, unproductive and burdensome, contrary alike to the freedom of the worker and to the economy of labor; that its disadvantages grew more rapidly than its advantages; that, in the face of it, concurrence, division of labor, and private property were economic forces. Only in the exceptional cases – as Proudhon calls them – of big industry and large enterprises such as the railroads, did the association of workers have a reason to exist (see “Idée générale de la révolution”, 3rd study).

But by 1871, even in Paris, the center of artistic craftsmanship, big industry had so far ceased to be an exceptional case, that the most important decree of all issued by the Commune provided for an organization for big industry, and even for manufacturing, which was not based only on the association of the workers within each factory, but which was also to unify all these associations in a great union; in short, in an organization which, as Marx says so well in The Civil War, would perforce have led eventually to communism, that is, to the direct opposite of the Proudhonian doctrine.

The fate of the Blanquists was no better. Educated in the school of conspiracy and kept in cohesion by the rigid discipline that this school presupposes, Blanquists proceeded from the idea that a relatively small group of determined and well-organized men would be in a position, not only to seize at a favorable moment the helm of the State, but that, by deploying an energetic and tireless action, they could maintain themselves until they succeeded in dragging the masses of the people into the revolution and rallying them around the small leading group.

This supposed, above all, the most rigid and dictatorial centralization of all powers in the hands of the new revolutionary government. And what did the Paris Commune do? (…) The Commune had to recognize from the first moment that the working class, on coming to power, can no longer govern with the old State machine; that, in order not to lose again its newly conquered domination, the working class must, on the one hand, sweep away all the old repressive machine hitherto used against it, and, on the other hand, take precautions against its own deputies and officials, declaring them all, without exception, revocable at any moment.

Friedrich Engels. Introduction to “The Civil War in France,” 1891

What does that first great proletarian revolution, the Paris Commune, teach us about leaders and parties? That when there is a vigorous class movement underneath, the role of the leaders is relative. The Revolution creates its own party and leads the representatives of different currents which previously found themselves within a class terrain to converge around a program which is given by the very materiality and necessity of the struggle itself.