150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune
Glorious Harbinger of the New Society
On March 18, 1871, the working class of Paris rose up against the French bourgeoisie and in the subsequent days, the Paris Commune was proclaimed. This marked the first revolutionary seizure of state power by the proletariat and one of the most glorious pages in the history of the international working class.
The heroic efforts of the Parisian workers became an historic turning point in the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie because it acted in its own right and the Communards decisively acted as an independent political force to push a cause defined by themselves. With their blood, the efforts of the heroic Communards remain a source of profound inspiration and invaluable lessons for the communist and workers’ movement worldwide.
The state power in charge of the crisis-ridden capitalist system of wage slavery and exploitation of persons by persons is blocking society’s path to progress. The neo-liberal ruling elites have usurped the public authority and the state institutions are controlled directly by the most powerful private monopoly interests. Their inter-monopoly rivalry has not only wrecked the economies of entire countries but destroyed entire nation-states, while others are in profound existential crisis. The social fabric of these countries has unravelled to such an extent that the people have no choice but to find an alternative to the inter-imperialist collusion and contention which is taking the world to the brink of a worldwide conflagration.
In this situation, the lessons of the Paris Commune are especially important for the working class and all the exploited. Its experience shattered the myth of the eternal nature and invincible character of the bourgeois state and its neutrality, a myth that today the ruling elites are determined to keep alive. It provided the first practical confirmation of the most basic tenets of scientific socialism as elaborated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It also provided the practical experience which enabled them to further elaborate these principles.
The establishment of the Commune took place within the conditions of a great revolutionary upheaval in France. In 1870 the French despot Louis Bonaparte had launched an unjust and anti-popular chauvinist war against Prussia in which he suffered a humiliating defeat. In this situation, with Paris under siege by the Prussian army, the Paris Revolution of September 4, 1870 took place, overthrowing Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire and proclaiming a Republic.
While the bourgeoisie formed the government of the Republic, the main force of this revolution was the working people of Paris who had been armed to defend the city. When the bourgeois government capitulated to the Prussians after a long siege and then, with the collaboration of the Prussians, attempted to disarm the proletariat on March 18, 1871, the proletariat rose up in resistance and turned its arms against the government of the propertied classes sitting at Versailles. The proletariat established itself as the ruling class for the first time. On March 26, the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed.
While the Paris Commune was subsequently crushed with unprecedented violence, it provided a shining example of some of the most fundamental characteristics of a new proletarian state. On March 30, only two days after the Commune was proclaimed, it abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, as the sole armed force. On the same day, it showed its profoundly internationalist character when the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, proclaiming that “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.” In order to protect itself against any careerists who might try to advance their own interests at the cost of the working people, the Commune decided to pay its representatives workmen’s wages and to declare them all, without exception, subject to recall at any time.
Other revolutionary measures taken by the Commune to dismantle the old state apparatus and establish the new included: the election of public officials such as judges, who were also subject to recall at any time; the separation of the church from the state; the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes and the exclusion from the schools of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers, etc. The latter measures means that it made the question of religion purely private. Most importantly, the Commune made the elected organs accountable. They had previously been simply legislative bodies to rubber stamp those measures needed by the exploiting classes while the bureaucratic apparatus was responsible for their implementation. The legislative bodies were given both legislative and executive functions so that those who passed the laws were also responsible for their implementation.
The Commune also took important revolutionary measures for the economic emancipation and well-being of the working people. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April 1881, the amounts already paid to be booked as future rent payments, and stopped all sales of articles pledged in the municipal loan offices. It abolished night work for bakers and closed the pawn shops and it took measures to work out plans for the operation of factories, which had been closed down by organizing workers into cooperative societies. The Communards made a start at carrying out these measures but most of the Commune’s energies were consumed in defending the Commune from the savage onslaught of the Versailles government. By May 1871, the Versailles government had co-opted the Prussians to help it crush the revolt of the workers.
When after eight days of heroic resistance the Communards succumbed before the all-out assault of the Versailles troops with cooperation by the Prussians, the slaughter of the defenceless men, women and children, which had been raging all through the week on an increasing scale, reached unprecedented proportions. Thousands upon thousands of unarmed workers were massacred by the bourgeoisie. While the bourgeoisie presents itself as “humanitarian,” “reasonable,” “just” and “civilized,” the Paris Commune showed the extent of frenzied barbarism to which the bourgeoisie will go to crush the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat, thereby highlighting the importance for the proletariat once it has seized power to resolutely exercise its dictatorship over the exploiters so as to be able to consolidate its victories and provide democracy for the large majority of the working people.
During its brief existence, this is the invaluable lesson the Paris Commune gave the world proletariat — a lesson of profound importance in the ongoing struggle of the proletariat to build the new socialist society. In the preface to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote: “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 Paris Commune, which demonstrated in deeds what the dictatorship of the proletariat means, also provided lessons on the necessity to have a revolutionary political party of the proletariat to lead it through the complicated twists and turns of the class struggle, on the necessity to build and strengthen the worker-peasant alliance, and other invaluable lessons which were reconfirmed by the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the other revolutionary struggles of the proletariat.
Today, the importance of political parties that are capable of providing the class struggle of the working class and oppressed people with the orientation and leadership they require so as to have their own independent politics and provide the problems they and society face with solutions is in essence the same fight for which the Communards fought and blazed a trail with such great heroism. The example of the Paris Commune will ever inspire the working people everywhere who can never forget the invaluable lessons provided by the Communards, written in blood. The Paris Commune was indeed a glorious harbinger of the new society, which the working and oppressed people everywhere are striving to bring into being.
(TML Archives, Hardial Bains Resource Centre)