The Commune was working to destroy “militarism, bureaucratism, exploitation…monopoly, privileges-everything to which the proletariat owes its slavery.”Karl Marx
Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. For this reason, and as a celebration of socialist history, we are reproducing two pieces on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, when workers took control of Paris and “stormed heaven.” Below as a contribution to the discussion on lessons of the Commune, is a recent interesting analysis of Karl Marx’s views on the Commune from the Indian publication People’s Democracy. We are also reproducing here Frederick Engel’s introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France, which can be downloaded here – The Labour Outlook Volunteers.
The Paris Commune
ON July 19, 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia. The ruling classes of both countries had long been secretly preparing for it. Marx had long foreseen that the adventurer Napoleon III and the Prussian Junker Bismarck, who was bent on unifying Germany “by blood and iron”, would embark on policies leading to an armed conflict.
The Bonaparte Government hoped that military victories would help to bolster its regime and enable it to weather the deep international political crisis. For its part, Prussia sought to weaken France by seizing the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine which were rich in iron ore and important strategically.
The Franco-Prussian war came as a complete surprise to a vast number of people. Caught unawares, the working class of France was not able to put up any active resistance to it. There was an upsurge of chauvinistic and bourgeois-nationalistic sentiments in both countries.
Only the International with Marx at the head stuck to its principles. At the crucial juncture, Marx called upon the working class of different countries to combat militarism. An “Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association”, written by Marx, evoked wide response among the workers and helped them avoid being swayed by chauvinistic passions or taken in by the spurious war propaganda intended to cover up the aggressive character of the war.
Militarism and wars of conquest are incompatible with the interests of the proletariat—such was the central idea of the Address. Countering the militarist propaganda, Marx reiterated the humanistic anti-war principles of the International which was working to make “the simple laws of morality and justice which should regulate relations between private persons, the supreme laws of relations between nations.”
Marx firmly believed that the German and French workers would fulfil their internationalist duty, and he was not disappointed. Mass meetings of protest against the war took place in many cities of both countries, and Marx noted with pride that they were encouraging manifestations of proletarian internationalism.
Marx concluded the General Council’s Address with the following words: “This fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future. It proves that in contrast to the old society, with its economic miseries and its political delirium, a new society is springing up, whose international rule will be peace, because its national ruler will everywhere be the same—Labour!”
Marx was engrossed with practical activities in those days; in particular, he explained to the French and German members of the International the true nature of the war.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR
From the first days of the war, Marx had foreseen what its consequences, would be, namely the victory of Prussia and its allies over France, which had been weakened as a result of corruption and mismanagement during Napoleon III’s reign. On September 2, 1870, Napoleon III, with his 100,000- strong army, surrendered at Sedan. Forty–eight hours later, a republic was proclaimed in Paris.
Marx realized that in such conditions Prussia would try to annex French territories. Its troops soon started advancing on Paris, although France no longer represented a threat to it. The new situation demanded new tactical principles for guiding the activities of the International and the working class movement.
On instructions from the General Council, Marx wrote a second “Address on the Franco-Prussian War”, in which he principally attacked the annexation plans of the Prussian militarists and the new German big bourgeoisie. He urged the working class of Germany to do everything to prevent the annexation and secure the conclusion of an honourable peace with the French bourgeois republic.
The revolutionary upsurge of the masses had been taken advantage of by the big bourgeoisie. Marx noted in the Address: “…we hail the advent of the Republic in France, but at the same time we labour under misgivings…That Republic had not subverted the throne, but only taken its place become vacant…Some of their first acts go far to show that they have inherited from the empire, not only ruins, but its dread of the working class.”
Marx called upon the working class of France to use all their republican freedoms to strengthen their class organisation.
WORKERS TAKE POWER
The social economic and political crisis in France deepened after her military defeats. The new republican Government had either to continue along the road of capitulation or to arm the people and organize nationwide resistance to the aggressor. Catering to the class interests of the bourgeoisie and fearing an armed people, the Government adopted a policy of capitulation. Because of this and of its betrayal of the national interests, the French people called it the “Government of national treason.”
At the end of January 1871, after a siege that lasted several months, Paris surrendered. At Versailles, the German Empire was proclaimed, was proclaimed, and the Prussian King. Wilhelm I, became the German Emperor. German unification was carried out with Prussia playing the dominant rote, which led to a further strengthening of the positions of Prussian militarism, with the disastrous consequences that ensued.
On February 28, a preliminary peace treaty was concluded, under which France ceded Alsace and most of Lorraine, and had to pay an indemnity of 5,000 million francs. But suddenly their course of events, which the ruling classes regarded as natural under the circumstances, was disrupted. On March 18, 1871, the workers of Paris took power into their own hands. A red banner was hoisted over the City Hall.
In the early hours of the morning of that day, the Thiers Government, objecting to the fact that the National Guard, which consisted mainly of workers, had secured the right to keep their arms even after the surrender, ordered its troops to take cannons from the Guard. But this attempt failed. The whole of the working population of Paris took to the streets. Many of the soldiers dispatched by the Government fraternised with workers and artisans.
THE COMMUNE PROCLAIMED
Thiers lost his nerve and field from the capital to Versailles. A general election was called, and on March 26, the Council of the Commune was elected as the highest organ of power. Two days later, at a mass meeting held in front of the City Hall, the Commune was officially proclaimed. For the first time in history the working class came to power.
Marx hailed the Paris Commune and defended it from all attacks on the part of its opponents. “What flexibility, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians”, he wrote his friends in Germany. “After six months of hunger and ruin, caused by internal treachery even more than by the external enemy, they rise in the face of the Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were still not at the gates of Paris! History has no other example of such greatness!”
Marx regarded the Paris Commune as an ideological offspring of the International, as an outcome of the development of the French working class movement in the 1860s, which was considerably influenced by the ideas of the International.
Marx considered that on the whole the situation was not favourable for the revolution of March 18. Troops of the Prussian army, which had occupied a greater part of the country, were at the walls of Paris. However, for some time after the revolution he thought that a victory of the Paris insurgents was possible.
A resolute suppression of the counter-revolution and a march on Versailles, where the Thiers Government and the entire Paris nobility had taken refuge, could consolidate the victory of the Parisians and help spread the revolution to all parts of the country. It emerged later that Thiers had only 27,000 extremely demoralized soldiers against whom Paris could dispatch more than 100,000 highly committed National Guardsmen.
From the very beginning Marx saw that the new revolutionary power had a proletarian class content.
From the declaration of revolutionary power, “To the French People”, Marx copied the statement that the Commune was working to destroy “militarism, bureaucratism, exploitation…monopoly, privileges-everything to which the proletariat owes its slavery.”
STEPS TAKEN BY COMMUNE
He studied with particular care steps taken by the Commune that were of political and socio-economic significance, such as the replacement of the standing army, which served the interests of the reactionary forces, by the general arming of the people, and the abolition of the bourgeois machinery of State.
Marx knew that the Commune had adopted decrees on the abolition of rent, on labour protection and employment, on turning over idle enterprises abandoned by their owners to workers’ associations.
His attention was also attracted by the fact that the Council of the Commune had appointed thousands of workers to responsible posts. These new deputies and State officials were elected and could, in turn, be recalled. They not only discussed and adopted laws, but also carried them out themselves. The turning of the people’s representatives into the genuinely highest bearers of power—that was something quite unprecedented.
Here, in Paris, revolutionary practice had given the answer to an important question of what the proletarian dictatorship should be like.
With a feeling of tremendous pride in what had been achieved by the working class. Marx wrote in a letter: “With the struggle in Paris, the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its State has entered upon a new phase. Whatever the immediate outcome many be a new point of departure of worldwide importance has been gained.”
Marx exchanged letters with the prominent Commune leaders, Leo Frankel and Eugene Varlin, giving them advice the value of which was confirmed by subsequent developments. For example, he warned the Communards about a possible deal between the Thiers Government and the Prussians which would enable Thiers’ troops to surround the city after the signing of the peace treaty and advised them to fortify the northern side of Montmartre to fend off the Prussian troops.
As a weapon against the enemies of the Commune, Marx suggested that the Communards send to their friends in London the documents they had seized exposing such treasonable acts of Thiers and his Ministers as embezzlement of State property, betrayal of France’s national interests and their criminal collusion with the aggressors.
ABSENCE OF PARTY
Marx saw the ill effects on the Commune of the absence of a proletarian party. The International’s section in France had failed to become the political vanguard of the proletariat. The adherents of Marxism formed only an insignificant part of it. The poor theoretical grounding of the French workers was also a serious obstacle to the founding of proletarian party, The Communist Manifesto, The Class Struggles in France, Capital and other basic Marxist works had not yet been published in French.
Marx was extremely worried over the fact the Communards were confining themselves to defence, thus enabling the Versailles men to build up their forces. In his letters he urged them to smash the citadel of reaction, sequester the funds of the French national bank and secure the province’s support of revolutionary Paris.
In mid-April alarming reports started coming in from Paris. Hunger and disease were rife in the city. The Versailles Government pleaded with the Prussian enemy to release several tens of thousands of French servicemen and sent them to fight the Communards. For several weeks the battle raged, first on the approaches to the city and then in its street and every house.
In April, the General Council instructed Marx to write an address on the Commune. On May 30, two days after the last barricades fell in Paris, Marx read the text of the address, entitled the Civil War in France, at a General Council meeting.
In this work Marx described the historical conditions of the emergence of the Paris Commune and its class essence and formulated the conclusion that the proletariat cannot simply take over the bourgeoisie’s State machine and use it for its own purpose, that the machinery for the oppression of the working class cannot be used as an instrument in its emancipation.
The task of the working class is to bring the functions of the State under its control. The Commune dispelled the illusion that administrative and political leadership can be exercised only by members of the propertied classes. The bodies of the Commune were those of an entirely new State, new both in class essence and in form.
One more important lesson of the Commune was that in order to win and then retain power, the proletariat must act in close alliance with other sections of the working people and in the first place with the peasantry. Marx stressed also that the emancipation of the working people from exploitation and oppression is impossible without a revolutionary party equipped with a scientific programme.
DEFENDER OF THE COMMUNE
The Civil War in France demonstrated once again Marx’s remarkable ability to penetrate through a mass of separate facts to the essence of historical phenomena, to assess, on the basis of trends of development, the character of historical processes. By formulating in his work the behests of the Communards, Marx erected an eternal monument to the “Parisians storming heaven.”
After the defeat of the Commune, when the forces of reaction throughout the world assailed the Paris workers, Marx came out in their defence. As the leading member of the committee in aid of the Commune refugees, he helped rescue Communards who were in hiding from the Versailles avengers. He saved some of the finest representatives of the proletariat from court-martial and helped supply them with passports and money and find employment for them. His home became the first shelter for many fugitives.
- Originally published at https://peoplesdemocracy.in/2019/0120_pd/paris-commune-27