On the Anniversary of the Paris Commune: For the establishment of new revolutionary Workers governments!
by Johannes Wiener, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 18.3.2016, www.thecommunists.net
On the 18th of March 145 years ago in 1871 the reactionary government of Adolphe Thiers tried to steal the cannons which protected the working masses of Paris against the German army. This demonstrated to the masses defending Paris that the capitalist government was more concerned about armed masses than it was about Germans occupying their capital. The attempted theft of the artillery provoked a rebellion among the ordinary soldiers who delivered revolutionary justice to the two generals responsible – they were both shot. This developed showed Tiers’ government that it no longer held power in Paris, which led it to a withdraw forces loyal to the government forces to Versailles. This opened the doors to the first workers’ government in the history of the world. Today, the rise and fall of the Paris Commune remains an important episode in the ongoing struggle which our class is waging against the exploiters. Here, rather than attempt to write a detailed historical analysis of this episode, we will try to outline some important conclusions for us, today’s revolutionary workers.
The revolution must be expanded!
From the outset, the revolutionary forces in Paris demanded that the revolution not only be focused on the capital city, but that it be expanded. Concretely, this meant that the revolutionary forces must attempt to conquer the stronghold of the counterrevolution: Versailles. However, vital as such a conquest was, it was not sufficient in itself to assure victory; for the revolution had to be spread to other French cities, as well as extending it into the countryside in order to win over the peasants. Thus, the work of the inexperienced 1st International in Paris provides us with important lessons of what could have been, but wasn’t; and what must be in the future lest we too fail. In today’s world this expansion of the revolution is no less critical, but it is also undeniably possible, as we witnessed in the Arab Revolution. Nowadays it is far easier to spread information and to travel between different locales than was the case at the time of the Paris Commune. But this ease and speed are a double-edged sword cutting both ways; for while they most definitely facilitate the expansion of the revolution and its conquest of minds and territory, the same can also be said of the counterrevolution. Therefore the main issue is which side will expand faster at the expense of the other. In turn, this demonstrates the necessity of suppressing the freedom of the counterrevolutionary forces during a heated civil war. On this Marx wrote:
“While the Versailles government, as soon as it had recovered some spirit and strength, used the most violent means against the Commune; while it put down the free expression of opinion all over France, even to the forbidding of meetings of delegates from the large towns; while it subjected Versailles and the rest of France to an espionage far surpassing that of the Second Empire; while it burned by its gendarme inquisitors all papers printed at Paris, and sifted all correspondence from and to Paris; while in the National Assembly the most timid attempts to put in a word for Paris were howled down in a manner unknown even to the Chambre introuvable of 1816; with the savage warfare of Versailles outside, and its attempts at corruption and conspiracy inside Paris – would the Commune not have shamefully betrayed its trust by affecting to keep all the decencies and appearances of liberalism as in a time of profound peace? Had the government of the Commune been akin to that of M. Thiers, there would have been no more occasion to suppress Party of Order papers at Paris than there was to suppress Communal papers at Versailles.” (1)
Today the “information” bureaus of the imperialist Great Powers and the capitalist governments react much faster and much more professionally and efficiently in comparison with those of their counterparts at the time of the Commune. In addition, today’s military forces are much more agile in their deployment. All the Great Powers possess special military commands which can deploy all over the world in a matter of hours to fight or sabotage rebellions.
On the other hand, today our class is much more able to spread its ideas than the information posters which were glued to the walls of the working class districts of Paris. This information can even trigger mass protests, as was proved in the cases of video footage documenting the murder of our black brothers in the US when they were released and went viral. Undeniably, in today’s world our class can learn much faster from the successes or failures of other sectors of the population.
The importance of expanding the revolution was demonstrated by the civil wars in Syria and Libya. In both wars most of the territorial conquests were accomplished in the initial period of the war. (In Libya, the collapse of the regime obviously opened a second phase of the war.) At the start of a civil war, the counterrevolution is disorganized; this gives revolutionaries the chance to expand the revolution rapidly, both by political and military means. This is also an important aspect of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.
No to parliamentary maneuvering – for revolutionary action!
After Thiers’ dogs fled from the masses of Paris to Versailles, the workers’ Central Committee took power and quickly organized elections. Out of the 86 elected delegates, 31 had been Blanquists while another 17 were revolutionaries who were members of the 1stInternational of Marx and Engels. In addition, 13 delegates were part of the revolutionary National Guards. Thus, based on the election results, it was clear that the masses in Paris supported the revolution. But this democratic election cost the Commune important time; time it might have used to prepare the elimination of the counterrevolution. Simultaneously, Thiers and his hounds of reaction were organizing themselves in Versailles where they regrouped and formed a force that would hover over the heads of the Paris working class like the sword of Damocles. What was actually needed during this fragile and vulnerable stage of the revolution was not an election, but determined revolutionary action to eliminate the threat from Versailles. When the Commune ultimately attempted to attack Versailles at the beginning of April, it was already too late; the counterrevolution was already strong enough to withstand the Communards.
Certainly, we cannot equate the revolutionary Communards with the treacherous leadership of the reformist SYRIZA party in Greece. But the example of 2015 Greece also demonstrated very clearly that only bold revolutionary action can save the masses from defeat and hunger. Before SYRIZA openly betrayed the Greek workers and poor, their sole orientation was towards negotiations with the imperialist robbers of the European Union (not at all surprising, given the reformist nature of this party). What was – and still is – needed for our class brothers in Greece is not chit-chat with Schäuble and Merkel, but revolutionary action against them. In their place, true revolutionaries would not chit chat with the class enemy, but expropriate their banks and financial trusts, while arming the workers and poor!
The place of the women is in the revolution!
Although the Commune suffered from various limitations regarding the equality of women (e.g., they were not allowed to vote in the elections), it also brought above tremendous gains for them. With the ongoing fight for the liberation of all humanity, naturally the situation of women was dramatically improved. They were allowed to work, “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children received equal rights. It was the first time in history that women received the same pay as men for performing the same work. Women played also an important role in the defense of Paris. Thousands of women died on the barricades with rifles in their hands. Many eye-witness accounts relate how the female Communards were even braver and bolder than their male comrades. Many women also pressured the men to fight more consistently against the reaction which, if victorious, would represent their re-enslavement. For example, Joséphine Marchias, a washer woman, seized a gun during the fighting on the barricades and yelled to the National Guards, "You cowardly crew! Go and Fight! If I'm killed it will be because I've done some killing first!" (2) Louise Michel, a revolutionary teacher and medical worker, was fighting and commanding the National Guard. Together with the last remaining fighters she participated in the hopeless and heroic resistance at the cemetery of Montmartre. She was captured and dared the capitalist court to sentence her to death: "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance." (3) She was later jailed and deported.
The heroic resistance of the women of Paris is similar to the struggle of the women of Palestine against Israel’s terrorist forces. Many young Palestinian women give up their lives like the female Communards in order to take along some reactionary soldiers with them. They know that the only road to liberation lies in the united struggle of all oppressed. The Commune and the independent revolutionary organization of Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded showed that women must fight from within the revolutionary movement, not only for the revolution but for their own liberation as well. This lesson is urgently needed by the women of India, who are currently fighting against the brutal violence to which they are exposed. The spirit of Louise Michel and the female martyrs of Paris will guide the way for the women of India and around the world!
Destroy the counterrevolution or it will destroy us!
The Commune was unable to smash the counterrevolution; this led to the brutal white terror in Paris. The German army assisted their former enemies, the government of Thiers, in defeating Red Paris by providing material aid, blockading the Commune, and releasing tens of thousands of French prisoners of war (desperately needed by Thiers who tremendously lacked loyal forces). While the counterrevolution surrounded Paris, the Communards took hostages from the ranks of the bourgeoisie and the counterrevolutionary forces inside Paris; nevertheless, the reaction moved forward. At the end of May the forces of the counterrevolution began bombarding Red Paris. A furious and heroic resistance took place in the working class districts where, in their thousands, the masses died on the barricades. Working men and women fought side by side for their future and their city, which now authentically belonged to them. Tens of thousands died in the battles or subsequently executed by Thiers’ rabid dogs.
Nevertheless the Paris Commune was an important historical effort to challenge the rule of the capitalists. Lenin summarized its historical legacy. “But despite all its mistakes the Commune was a superb example of the great proletarian movement of the nineteenth century. Marx set a high value on the historic significance of the Commune—if, during the treacherous attempt by the Versailles gang to seize the arms of the Paris proletariat, the workers had allowed themselves to be disarmed without a fight, the disastrous effect of the demoralisation, that this weakness would have caused in the proletarian movement, would have been far, far greater than the losses suffered by the working class in the battle to defend its arms. The sacrifices of the Commune, heavy as they were, are made up for by its significance for the general struggle of the proletariat: it stirred the socialist movement throughout Europe, it demonstrated the strength of civil war, it dispelled patriotic illusions, and destroyed the naïve belief in any efforts of the bourgeoisie for common national aims. The Commune taught the European proletariat to pose concretely the tasks of the socialist revolution.” (4)
The massacre of the heroic strugglers of the Commune recalls to mind how the military command in Egypt saw to the killing off of the bloom of the revolution before and after their coup in 2013. The Egyptian revolutionaries were not able to defeat the counterrevolution and the pro-imperialist army command. Tragically what happened was very similar to the Paris Commune; the capitalist army shot down thousands of revolutionaries in the streets and smashed the improvised paving-stone-barricades.
Smash the capitalist state apparatus and replace it with workers’ councils and militias!
For Marx and Lenin, the most important lesson for our class from the example of the Paris Commune is that revolutionary workers cannot take over the capitalist state apparatus, but must smash it. Most of the bourgeois state functionaries in Paris simply fled from the revolution in the early days of the Commune. The officials, together with a large part of the police, escaped to Versailles. Consequently, the revolutionaries who were elected by the masses had to reorganize the state. In doing so, they completely changed its character. Most of the “government” of the Commune was composed of workers, all officials were paid the wage of a working man – not more – and Red Paris abolished the standing army and police.
Lenin wrote about the task of building a new state:
“The Commune, therefore, appears to have replaced the smashed state machine “only” by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this “only” signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type. This is exactly a case of "quantity being transformed into quality": democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is no longer the state proper.” (5)
The Commune replaced the dictatorship of the capitalists with the rule of the working class (the Dictatorship of the Proletariat). But, contrary to the Stalinist bureaucratic states, it did so with the aim of granting far-reaching freedoms to the workers and poor, even though it was forced to wage a war of survival. It proved impossible for the Commune to reform the existing structures of the capitalist state for the benefit of the working masses; it had to simply rebuild them entirely. This lesson Marx clearly understood:
"If you look up the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the precondition for every real people's revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting." (6)
Unfortunately, this important lesson has been ignored by many false-flag “followers” of Marx. From the German Social Democrats, to the Spanish Anarchists who joined the bourgeois government, to the Stalinists who joined numerous capitalist and even imperialist governments, to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in Brazil. It was the PT which saved capitalism by granting the workers and poor some limited reforms (but which, itself, is now forced to attack these very rights), and in doing so dug its own grave. The capitalist state apparatus, which the PT refused to overthrow, is now threatening it with a coup d’état.
The need to build a revolutionary party!
The central weakness of the Paris Commune can be summed up by the lack of an experienced, steeled revolutionary Party. The 1st International was, at the time, more a conglomerate of revolutionaries and various petty-bourgeois forces who tried to build workers’ parties. Their inexperience was not at all the fault of the heroic revolutionaries and the thousands of martyrs of the Commune. They were products of their time and – in contrast to us today – did not have the knowledge of more than 150 years of working class struggle. Naturally, they could not have known about what the future would see: the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and other important examples of revolutionary movements. But, during the days of the Paris Commune, it was obvious what was missing was a central organization with dedicated fighters and a sharp and clear program; this is what led to their defeat. Only such a centralized party could have sent agitators and organizers to the peasants and the enemy forces to win over parts of them for the revolution. Only such a party could bring the desperately needed discipline to the heroic masses of Paris. This was the party Marx and Engels were trying to build and many heroic Paris workers such as Emile Duval, a founding worker member of the 1stInternational and martyr of the revolution, contributed to. And this is the party we, the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), are also dedicated to build!
We, as revolutionary workers living in the 21st century, have to learn from the weaknesses and strengths of the Paris Commune. Capitalism and imperialism leave us no option but to fight for a revolution throughout the world. It is our task to fight for the establishment of new Paris Communes. Even if we are defeated in the battle, the very battle would send forth a tremendous signal to millions of oppressed people about the way forward. We have to make sure that the work and the struggle of the martyrs of Paris is fulfilled by the future Communes of Gaza, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Delhi and Aleppo!
The Commune of Paris lives on wherever workers fight and revolutionaries die so that we of our class may all ultimately succeed!
(1) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871
(2) John Merriman, Massacre, The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871, 2014
(3) Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries: The Inspiring Story of the Women of the Paris Commune, 2007
(4) V.I.Lenin, Lessons of the Commune, 1908, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mar/23.htm
(5) V.I.Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm#s2
(6) Karl Marx, Letters of Marx to Kugelmann, 1871