Storming heaven: the Paris Commune of 1871

More than a century ago, workers in Paris demonstrated how to build a new society, explains Lachlan Marshall

SEVERAL TIMES throughout the past century workers have struggled against the state and taken control of society. The workers’ councils in Portugal in 1974, shoras in Iran in 1979 and Poland’s Solidarność in 1980 all demonstrated the potential of workers to run society in their interests. In 1917 Russian workers rebuilt a whole new democratic society from the ground up. But the first time workers took on the state and created a democratic society was the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Commune was of momentous significance for people who had been theorising the idea of a future socialist society. Up until the Paris Commune, Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels had no answer to what the capitalist state could be replaced with. The 1847 edition of The Communist Manifesto only offered the vague explanation that it would be “the proletariat organised as the ruling class.”

It was Paris’ workers that gave a concrete example of how to take power. The Communist Manifesto was revised in 1871, and the preface to the 1872 edition stated: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”

The Commune showed Marxists that the state machine must be destroyed and replaced by something fundamentally different, a workers’ state. As Egyptian workers’ struggle for a better society for themselves and as workers in Europe battle the economic crisis, the lessons of the Commune are as important as ever.

Rising tensions

The French empire experienced tremendous economic development through the 1850s and 1860s as industrial production boomed. The emperor, Louis Napoleon, sought to entrench his rule by military expeditions to Italy and then Mexcio, where he installed a puppet, Maximilian.

Yet the Emperor’s rule was not firm. Opposition from parts of the bourgeoisie grew, who were resentful at the benefits accrued by a minority close to the emperor. Workers hated a regime that was presiding over their impoverishment; costs of living were surging ahead of wages.

As his imperial exploits began to founder (Maximilian was killed by firing squad) and the bourgeois republican opposition gained popularity, Napoleon opportunistically declared war on Bismarck Prussia.

Paris armed

But this attempt to consolidate his power backfired. Following humiliating defeat to Prussia, Napolean abdicated and power fell to the republican opposition. But Bismarck invaded and demanded reparations. During a desperate five-month siege, destitute workers and artisans of Paris were forced to eat dogs and rats and lacked fuel to warm their homes.

The burden of defending the city fell to these city poor. They flooded into the National Guard, swelling its ranks to 350,000. In the process they transformed the National Guard into a democratic proletarian defence body, electing their own officers. As Karl Marx wrote in his history of the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France, “Paris armed was the revolution armed.”

This upsurge from below generated a dynamic culture of resistance marked by “red” clubs and revolutionary newspapers. These people had not forgotten their repression at the hands of the bourgeois republicans in 1848 and it was lessons like this that were retailed in the peoples’ press.

But neither had the bourgeoisie forgotten. The burgeoning armed resistance resembled the upheavals of 1792 and 1848 and began to concern the republican government as much as the Prussian invaders.

Following two attempted left wing coups, the republican leader, Favre, concluded that the only way to prevent civil war and protect the government was to surrender to Prussia.

The Parisian masses were indignant. Five months of struggle and sacrifice had come to nothing.

Favre gave only eight days notice for elections. The left lacked the time and resources to argue with France’s vast peasantry and combat the reactionary ideas of priests and wealthy landowners. So a majority of monarchists returned to government and a former monarchist, Adolphe Thiers, was chosen to head the government.

The Parisians’ had now been betrayed twice. Their defence of the city had been futile and now the reshuffle of the government betrayed the republic too.

A clash between the still-armed masses and the state was inevitable. The regular army remained disbanded.

Thiers moved to disarm the Parisians, dispatching soldiers to seize 200 cannons from atop Montmartre. Women led men in encircling the weapons and began arguing with the soldiers. Three times the soldiers defied the orders of their general, Lecomte, to fire on the people. During this impasse, 300 National Guards emerged banging drums to rally the masses to resistance. They overwhelmed and arrested Lecomte and his officers and took control of the city. By mid-afternoon of that day Thiers and his government had fled the city.

For the first time in history, armed workers were in power.

Workers’ control

Paris was now effectively a new independent workers’ state. Power was initially exercised through the elected leadership of the “central committee” of the National Guard. But authority soon passed to a new formation, the Commune.

The Commune was built on universal male suffrage, so delegates were subject to immediate recall from their electors. Their wages were restricted to a skilled worker’s average wage, and they were held accountable for implementing measures decided on. This was far more democratic than anything capitalism had produced. Marx explained that, “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people constituted in communes.”

The Commune combined economic and political power in the hands of the working class.

Shops or factories that were shut by employers were handed over to workers. Night work in bakeries was banned. Pensions were provided to widows, free education provided to every child, levies on debts accrued during the siege were abolished and evictions for unpaid rent were stopped. For the first time, the right to divorce was granted.

The state’s monopoly over the means of violence, the armed forces, was done away with. The Commune had no independent army as the masses were armed. The Commune also demonstrated its internationalism by demolishing monuments to Bonapartist chauvinism, and assigning a German worker as minister of labour.

It broke down the separation between the society and the state, and legislative and executive powers.

This new society was the most democratic of political forms to have been created since the emergence of class society. It’s achievements even put those of modern reforming governments to shame.

But the Commune was unable to meet a challenge from the French state and its army.

Two streams of thought were influential at the time of the Commune. Both stemmed from the shortcomings of the Great French Revolution of 1793.

First were the ideas of August Blanqui. His method for achieving socialism was based on the radical yet isolated work of an organised minority acting on behalf of the masses. This strategy, without a solid mass base of support, had led to frequent imprisonment. Blanqui was incarcerated throughout the period of the Commune.

Another influential set of ideas were those of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, known as the “father of anarchism”. Against the bitter political experiences of the French Revolution, Proudhon espoused a “non-political” strategy whereby workers could establish a new society based on “mutualism”, the organising of cooperative businesses autonomous of the capitalist state.
But neither of these ideas helped the Commune to consolidate and spread its power in order resist the brutal offensive that was to come.

Supporters of Blanqui called for an immediate offensive on Versailles and the old regime. Followers of Proudhon condemned such military actions for requiring excessive centralisation of leadership. The Commune, they thought, would bring about more wholesale social and economic change through the power of a good example.

During this indecision in the Commune, at Versailles the republican government was amassing troops. The republic conspired with the Prussians to release French prisoners of war who, along with recruits from the countryside, constituted the forces that would suppress the Commune. These new recruits were untouched by the new ideas sweeping through Paris.

By April, Thiers and his troops had encircled Paris and were bent on crushing the Commune. Bismarck agreed to allow the republican forces to travel through Prussian lines in order to wreak vengeance on the Commune.

The Commune was a powerful example of the potential of workers’ control. Crushing it meant obliterating any trace of its existence.

Anyone who had fought for the Commune was immediately shot. Troops shot people after 30 second “trials” because they looked like Communards.

The London Times reported at the time: “The Versailles troops have been shooting, bayonetting, ripping up prisoners, women and children. So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history. The wholesale executions inflicted by the Versailles soldiery sicken the soul.”

The total number killed came to 30,000. Thousands more were imprisoned or deported.

Nipped in the bud

The Commune made incredible achievements in its 72-day existence. As Commune leader Artheur Arnould explained, “With only tiny resources this government not only fought a horrible war for two months but chased famine from the hearths of a huge population which had had no work for a year. This was one of the miracles of a true democracy.”

Although the Commune did not allow women the vote, the rapid chain of events and the key involvement of women were upending people’s worldviews. Women fought side-by-side with men in defence of the Commune. The possibilities were there for greater emancipation of women.

Karl Marx wrote that the Commune represented the greatest challenge the new world of capital had faced. He called it “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the emancipation of labour” and wrote to his friend Kugelmann that the Communards had “stormed heaven”.

Our fight for a new society today can only be enriched by its powerful lessons.

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