Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

The Legacy of The Paris Commune

It only lasted two months, but the Paris Commune (1871) has been repeatedly invoked and re-interpreted. Marx, writing at the time, noted many different interpretations. Having written about previous French revolutions of his time (THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE: 1848 to 1850 and, in 1852, THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE), he was well qualified to chronicle and analyse the 1871 revolution.

Earlier he wrote:

"Men make their own history ... not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited conditions with which they are directly confronted" (EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE).

This point applies especially to the Paris Commune. The people of Paris seized power at a time when Bismarck's victorious troops surrounded the city and the French government was negotiating for peace. From the start, the Commune was at war. As time passed, the government forces grew, with Bismarck's help, by his releasing French prisoners until, at the end of May, they seized Paris and slaughtered most of the Communards. This gruesome, indiscriminate massacre, where even children were killed, where the wounded were buried alive in mass graves, was evidence of how far the party of 'Order' and property saw the Commune as a threat.

Marxs Account

In his contemporary account of the Commune, Marx concluded:

"It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour ... The Commune was to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of class, and therefore of class rule" (THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE).

The Commune was fully democratic, its members being revocable at any time. Although in a position to do so, it did not seize the Bank of France or expropriate the businesses of the capitalists.

If Marx thought the Commune's aim was the abolition of the class system, it may be that he over-estimated the influence of those Communards who supported the International.

However, as Engels noted later, the majority were Proudhonists and Blanquists. The former were opposed to the principle of association, which was central to the Commune's efforts at social transformation. Blanquists, like Lenin, held to a disastrous vanguardist theory of revolution as a putsch, a coup d'etat:

"... a proportionately small number of resolute, well-organised men would be able ... not only to seize the helm of the State, but also ... to keep power until they succeeded in drawing the mass of the people into the revolution ... This conception involved... the strictest discipline and centralisation of all power..." (Engels, Introduction, 1891, to THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE).

Proudhonists saw the Commune as a mini-Utopia, with all France to become a federation of Communes. Blanquists wanted a Jacobin dictatorship - a view which became increasingly dominant in beleaguered Paris. Neither view fitted Marx's wish for a democratic working class revolution.

Bakunin: "the 'Negation' of the State"

Before this Bakunin and Marx had been in dispute. Marx played a key role in defining the policy of the International: "to conquer political power has ... become the great duty of the working class" (Inaugural Address, 1864). In order to achieve social emancipation, the abolition of classes, the working class needed to organise politically to gain control over the State.

Bakunin saw the state as the cause of violence and injustice: "the abolition of the church and of the State must be the first and indispensable condition of the real emancipation of society" (Bakunin, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State, 1871).

While Marx saw in the Commune "the political form of the social emancipation" (first draft of the Civil War in France), Bakunin declared himself a supporter of the Commune both because it was "drowned in blood" and "because it was a bold and outspoken negation of the State".

The dispute between Anarchists (now often called "Libertarians") and Marxists centres on the question of the state. We argue that, since the state exists to protect the interests of property, in order to end the system of class exploitation we need to take control of the state. Only by the abolition of the class system can we create a society with no need for a state. Anarchist programmes can only be, at best, impractical; as long as the class system exists, so long will the coercive political institutions it needs.

Lenin: A "Dictatorship of the Proletariat"

As Lenin's views changed about Russia and his own plans for revolution, so did his claims about the lessons of the Commune. He was as opportunist and inconsistent in this as in other things.

In 1908, he praised the idea of "armed conflict and civil war". In 1911, he wrote that the Commune "sprang up spontaneously" and was a "truly democratic, proletarian government". Come 1917, and he discovered in the Commune the organisation of Soviets and the arming of the workers (Lenin On the Paris Commune, Moscow, 1970).

In THE STATE AND REVOLUTION (1917), he invoked the Commune to justify his own programme:

"... to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy - this... is the experience of the Commune

Why did Lenin think it necessary to construct a new bureaucracy? Why suppose this would assist in the abolition of all bureaucracy, gradual or otherwise? The fact is - and Lenin demonstrated this - that simply changing the bureaucracy has nothing to do with the abolition of the class system.

Libertarians: A 'Self-Managed' Society

After 1968, there were some who saw in the Paris Commune a form of non-bureaucratic, 'self-managed society', an anarchist Utopia.

However, this does not fit the facts: "the real executive powers ... were still vested in the military and the police" (Frank Jellinek, THE PARIS COMMUNE OF 1871).

New Labour's Gloss: An 'Urban Community'

More recently there was an attempt to claim the commune for New Labour. Apparently, it was not about class; only about "neighbourhood" and "community", New Labour buzz-words.

"It is the Communards' attempts to decentralise and federate, to re-establish community in a changing city, and their ability to conduct pluralist politics without the aid of political parties that resonates down the years" (Kevin Davey, NEW STATESMAN and SOCIETY 12 April 1996).

So, what it all comes down to is merely "the appropriate shape of a modern urban community". How very soothing, bland and reassuring this New Labour interpretation is. And how remote from the blood-spattered reality. That NSS article by Kevin Davey was also wrong in asserting that the use of the Commune "as a means of legitimising the Soviet Union" was never questioned until the 1960s. The Socialist Party of Great Britain challenged such Leninist claims repeatedly.

For instance, in 1920, in publishing an 1874 article by Engels about the Blanquist fugitives from the Paris Commune, the SPGB prefaced it with a note drawing attention to "similarities with groups in Germany and Russia". The SPGB shared Engels's critique of Blanquism/Bolshevism and its practical consequences.

"From Blanqui's assumption that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship. This is, of course, a dictatorship not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals" (SOCIALIST STANDARD, April 1920).

Lessons of the Commune

The Blanquist/Leninist theory of revolution by a minority coup is not supported by the history of the Commune. Vanguardism entails dictatorship. But the Commune was egalitarian and democratic. Bakunin's claim that there was a "socialist instinct" at work is also wrong. If this had been the case, the Communards' respect for the rights of business would be inexplicable.

What remains of lasting significance is that Marx developed his ideas about the necessity for political organisation. Later in 1871, the London Conference of the International adopted an important resolution on political action, drafted by Marx and Engels:

"... Considering that against the collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;
That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure ...the abolition of classes

The key lesson from the Commune is the necessity for the revolutionary Socialist movement to act as a political party, in order to gain control over the machinery of government. Without this any revolution is bound to be crushed.

As Marx asserted, the working-class party must not ally itself with other parties; it must be "opposed to" such parties, representing as they do, the interests of the "propertied classes". From 1904 onwards, the SPGB has asserted these points as part of its founding OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

Now, in 2021, 150 years after the Paris Commune, we continue to assert the need for Socialists to organise as a political party in the interests of the working class, and, in opposition to all other parties, to work for Socialism.

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