Anniversary of the Paris Commune

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 18 - April 1982

On 28 March 1871 the Paris Commune was proclaimed. For two months the Parisian working class ruled themselves in the first organised attempt at workers' power. Ever since then the Commune has been a model of revolutionary heroism rich in lessons for all future generations.

The chauvinism and expansionism of the French regime had caused a war with Prussia. Prussia was winning and advancing into France, and the Paris ‘deputies' (MPs) formed a 'Government of National Defence'. The working class stood firmly behind them, in full force since the great majority of the men were in the National Guard and armed to defend their city.

Four months later, starving, Paris surrendered, or rather the bourgeois politicians did. But the National Guard did not hand over its guns, and continued to assert its authority over most of Paris. The politicians, safely re-assembled in Versailles, tried to disarm the National Guard and steal the guns that the Parisian workers had paid for themselves. As long as the working class was armed, the bourgeoisie could not feel safe. The whole working class mobilised and civil war was declared between Paris and the French Government. That is how the Commune came to be elected: to run the affairs of Paris by the Parisians themselves ...

The workers took several decisions of crucial importance for self-government. Firstly they abolished the army as it existed, and made the National Guard the only armed force: ie an army of all citizens capable of carrying arms. Then they decided that no-one would earn more than a set wage. The most important officials in the Commune would receive a salary no higher than any other worker.

What is more, every official in the administration, including judges and magistrates, the State institutions would become the servants of society instead of the masters. The State would be the property of the working class, not the tool to crush and enslave it. No longer could someone claiming to serve the people rise up on their backs and enjoy the power and wealth of a State functionary. All the officials would be truly responsible to the people who had elected them and not just at election time. As Karl Marx put it

‘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 ... '

The Commune also acted to get rid of Church repression, by removing its influence over the schools. Religion was to be a matter of private conscience, not forced down children's throats as part of their education. Priests were no longer paid from taxes either. Instead the parishioners would support them.

The Commune also used its political power to try to reorganise industry —planning to open all the factories which had closed, to be run by the workers themselves in cooperative societies. In one decree after another the Commune acted directly in the interests of the working class: abolishing night work for bakers, closing down pawnshops, shutting the corrupt employment offices, banning employers' fining workers out of their wages. It made some deeply political gestures, like burning the guillotine, and demolishing the Victory Column that Napoleon had made from captured guns. To the Communards this was a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred, while for them 'the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic'.

When the bourgeois army finally crushed the Commune they massacred thousands of these heroic men, women and children. They hounded those who escaped, branding them as Red extremists, murderers, traitors etc. In fact if the Commune had a fault it was that of being too 'reasonable'. While the bourgeois army shot dead the Communards it captured, the workers did not even imprison its hostages. While in full command of Paris they did not touch the Bank — which would have given them a lot more power in negotiation. Many of their plans they could not accomplish in their besieged city, fighting to the death against the bourgeois army. But they showed the possibilities for the working class movement of the future. They had to work out their needs as they went along but some of their lessons never have to be learned again. The revolutionary movement knows from the Communards' experience that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'. (Marx)

It is only the false 'Communists' of the Communist Party and their allies in the Labour Party who pour scorn on the idea of destroying the State, and claim it can be reformed in the interests of the working class. They try to brand us as ‘extremists' and ‘ultraleftists' but they have forgotten that Engels himself drew this lesson from the Paris Commune:

‘The state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.'

The thousands of misguided supporters of Mitterrand in France have refused this lesson, but will see all too soon that no 'Socialist' government will act in the interests of the working class as long as the capitalist state has not been over-thrown. There will be a similar rude awakening for all those ‘leftwingers' clinging to the Labour Party as their chosen road to socialism.

Let us remember our heritage this month and salute the martyrs of the Commune who did not die in vain, all those years ago. As Engels wrote on the 20th anniversary of the Commune: ‘Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Sheila Marston

Further reading Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, V I Lenin, The State and Revolution, Lissagary, History of the Paris Commune


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