The Franco-Prussian war went badly for France. Napoleon III was captured, as was the two huge French armies. A provisional French government was formed, ostensibly to carry on the war but in reality to prepare capitulation terms. The only armed force of any consequence left to defend Paris was the National Guard, a volunteer militia force. The Government tried to disarm the National Guard and steal its cannon (one of the peace conditions imposed was the disarmament of Paris.) The attempt to steal the cannon was frustrated and provoked an rising. The Government re-located to Versailles and the committee of the National Guard took control of affairs and prepared to resist the siege. By decree of the Committee of the National Guard elections were held in Paris to form a properly constituted government, in place of the one that had fled.
"On the dawn of the 18th of March, Paris rose to the thunderburst of ‘Vive la Commune!' ...The Proletarians of Paris amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of affairs.... They have understood that it is their imperious duty and absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power."
It was in the Paris Commune of 1871 that French workers actually created organisations of mass control which challenged the old system albeit temporarily. The Commune adopted the red flag as its official flag and Marx wrote about "the Red Flag, symbol of the Republic of Labour, flying over the Hotel de Ville"
Engels cited the Paris Commune as an example of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The Commune impressed itself upon Marx and Engels for its ultra-democratic features - non-hierarchical, the use of revocable delegates, etc.
Here is how he described the Commune as an example of how the working class should exercise political power once they had won control of it:
"The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time...In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents..."
The workload of the Commune leaders was enormous. The Council members (who were not "representatives" but delegates, subject in theory to immediate recall by their electors) were expected to carry out many executive and military functions as well as their legislative ones. The numerous ad hoc organisations set up during the siege in the localities ("quartiers") to meet social needs (canteens and first aid stations, for example) continued to thrive and cooperate with the Commune. These local assemblies pursued their own goals, usually under the direction of local workers. A vital ingredient in the Commune's relative success, at this stage, was the initiative shown by ordinary workers who managed to take on the responsibilities of the administrators and specialists who had been removed by Thiers.
Any comparison that is sought to be made between the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik Dictatorship of 1917 by so-called socialists is curious, as the Bolsheviks did just the opposite to what was done by the Communards. The Communards proposed decentralisation of control whereas the Bolsheviks established a rigid centralisation of control in the hands of a group inside the Russian Communist Party. The Communards made all posts elective and paid all officials the same pay as an ordinary workman. The Bolsheviks established different grades of pay and the central committee appointed the officials.
However Marx was a realist and he later described in a reply to Domela Nieuwenhuis, a Dutch Social Democrat dated London, 22 february, 1881:
"One thing you can at any rate be sure of: a socialist government does not come into power in a country unless conditions are so developed that it can above all take the necessary measures for intimidating the mass of the bourgeoisie sufficiently to gain time--the first desideratum [requisite]--for lasting action. Perhaps you will point me to the Paris Commune; but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be."
Marx's defence of the Commune was made against the scorn heaped on it by the ruling classes of all countries, by the bourgeois press and even within the International from its liberal and conservative elements. His analysis was also aimed at the followers of Blanqui (who participated in the Commune) and their theory of "proletarian dictatorship" and also aimed at the anarchist followers of Bakunin. The anarchists accused Marx of changing his own principles and admitting to the relevance of the anarchist philosophy. In Government in the Future, Noam Chomsky, 1970 writes:
"Now the Paris commune, I think it is fair to say, did represent the ideas of libertarian socialism, of anarchism if you like, and Marx, of course, wrote about it with great enthusiasm. In fact, the experience of the commune led him to modify his concept of the role of the state, as you can see, for examples, by looking at the introduction to the "Communist Manifesto", the edition of which was published in 1872, and to take on something like a more anarchist perspective of the nature of social revolution."
Marx notes that:
"The huge governmental machinery, entoiling like a boa constrictor the real social body in the ubiquitous meshes of a standing army, a heirarchical bureaucracy, an obedient police, clergy and a servile magistrature" must be wiped away. The State, Marx says, is a "parasite", an "abortion", and "excresance". The self-government of the working class was no longer the State. The Commune was a "working class government", and a government body devoid of the state bureaucratic-military machine, a body to end class rule and to end the State itself. "It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour . . . Communism!"
What was the Commune? Marx says:
"This was, therefore, a Revolution not against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or Imperialist form of State Power. It was a Revolution against the state itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life. It was not a Revolution to transfer it from one fraction of the ruling classes to the other, but a Revolution to break down this horrid machinery of Class domination itself." [Marx's emphasis in his First Draft of "The Civil War in France"]
In his Second Draft of "The Civil War in France", Marx puts it as:
"But the proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their different rival factions have done in the successive hours of their triumph, simply lay hold of the existent state body and wield this ready-made agency for their own purpose. The first condition for the holding of political power, is to transform the traditional working machinery and destroy it as an instrument of class rule." And for good measure, Marx repeats his argument "But the working class cannot simply lay hold on the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose. The political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation."
The workers having obtained control of power and supremacy in the state then they will, as Marx explains, re-organise the administration of affairs to meet their needs. Engels also makes this position clear: “From the outset the Commune had to recognise that the working class, having once obtained the supremacy in the State, could not work with the old machinery of government.”
The Commune's final week of street fighting became known as La Semaine Sanglante ("The Bloody Week"). The number killed can never be established for certain, and estimates vary from about 10,000 to 50,000.
Having supported the Commune in any way was a political crime, of which thousands were, accused. Reprisals now began in earnest. Some Communards were shot against what is now known as the Communards' Wall in Père Lachaise Cemetery while thousands of others were tried by summary courts martial of doubtful legality, and thousands shot. Notorious sites of slaughter were the Luxembourg Gardens and the Lobau Barracks, behind the Hôtel de Ville. Nearly 40,000 others were marched to Versailles for trials. For many days endless columns of men, women and children made a painful way under military escort to temporary prison quarters in Versailles. Later 12,500 were tried, and about 10,000 were found guilty, 23 were executed; many were condemned to prison and 4,000 were deported for life to New Caledonia.
According to Alfred Cobban, 30,000 were killed, perhaps as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned and 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia
“The Civil War in France,” concluded with the following words:
“Workingmen’s Paris, with its Commune, will be for ever 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 Civil War in France" was Marx's eulogy and tribute to the tens of thousands of workers who were slaughtered when it was ruthlessly suppressed. In such a booklet any criticism would have been out of place.
For a long time the movement for working-class emancipation was unable to raise its head in France after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. To put the Commune in historical context, it was the uprising of one city by the working class at a time when both Marx and Engels stated that France was unprepared to establish Socialism, when the city was surrounded by a foreign army, when the forces of reaction were ready to drown the uprising in blood. Nevertheless, for the first time, workers had seized political power to establish a working "government". One lesson of the Commune was clearly spelt out, i.e. the need to get hold of state power before trying to expropriate the capitalist class. The working class of Paris did not "smash the State" and build a new one. It seized political power of the State machine and immediately began to dismante its class basis.
Another lesson learned as explained by Engels:
"If the conditions have changed in the case of war between nations, this is no less true in the case of the class struggle. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for [with body and soul]. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work which we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair."
It is fitting that on this day SOYMB should pay homage to the tens of thousands of workers who were massacred when the 1871 Paris Commune was brutally crushed.
In memory of the Paris Commune
Born 18 March 1871, Killed in June the same year
What winged shape, with waving torch aflame
Wild with winds of March, and streaming hair
Above the storm clouds, doth to men declare
What message, and a memory doth claim
A star through drifting smoke of praise and blame
The toilers` beacon, still to re-appear
With spring-tide hopes new quickening year by year
Since bright in Freedom's dawn the COMMUNE came
Maligned, betrayed, short-lived to act and teach
Whose blood lies still upon the hands that slew
E'en now, when Labour knocks upon the gate
That shuts on Privilege, He thinks of you
And what men dared and suffered, and their fate
Who ruled a City, once, for all and each
by Walter Crane