The Light of the Paris Commune

Below is an abridged version of an article by Gennady Zyuganov, Chairman of the CC of the CPRF

The dawn of a new world. A great lesson for the world proletariat. A tragic, but lofty attempt of the working people to shake off the thousand-year-old shackles of exploitation, inequality and lack of legal rights. This was the Paris Commune. This year sees the 150th anniversary of this immortal feat.As we pay tribute to the memory of the Communards, we see them as titans who have inspired the following generations of the fighters for socialism.

The economic and political situation in Europe at the time was determined by several factors: incompleteness of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of 1848—1849, the first world economic crisis of 1857 which plunged tens of millions of people into poverty as well as hardship and misery caused by a series of armed conflicts: the Italian War of 1859, Prussia’s wars against Denmark and Austria in 1864 and 1866, and he Franco-Prussian War of 1870—1871.

By the start of the Franco-Prussian War the internal situation in France was marked by a profound crisis of the Bonapartist system. Karl Marx wrote: ”This final form of state power was at the same time its most prostituted form, shameless plunder of state resources by a gang of adventurers, spawning huge state debts, the crowning of dissipation, an artificial life full of false pretences. State power with its tinsel covering it from top to bottom, sank into filth.”

The war with Prussia exposed the fragility of the rotten system riven with deep contradictions. France’s lack of military success aggravated economic problems. A social crisis was rapidly brewing.

In the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870 the French army was surrounded and the Emperor was captured and shortly afterward was overthrown under the pressure of popular masses.

The new French government, in spite of its populist rhetoric, acted in the interests of big capital. Suppressing popular protests, it made a secret deal with Germany. In February 1871 the government of Adolph Thiers signed a humiliating peace treaty becoming a government of national betrayal.

The working masses refused to support the government’s act of treason. As early as the autumn people in Paris and other cities began to form themselves into communes and vigilance committees. Battalions of the National Guard were being created. This was in line with the thinking of Karl Marx who closely followed the events in France and argued that the only way to avert a foreign invasion was to arm the proletariat.

Things turned out exactly as Marx predicted. After capitulating to Germany the government tried to disarm the National Guard. On 18 March the troops loyal to Thiers broke into ParisBut they ran into staunch resistance of ordinary citizens. The National Guards, supported by the people, occupied government buildings. The Central Committee of the National Guard became an interim government. Ten days later its powers were transferred to the Paris Commune elected by a popular vote. It consisted mainly of workers and members of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Many of them were socialists and members of the First International.

The formation of the new government, the Paris Commune, was declared on 28 March 1871. The biography of the Paris Commune began. The French working class rose against capital to try to implement humanity’s age-old dream of building a just society.

During its short history – a mere 72 days – the Commune made steps of world historic significance. It created a new type of state, the first experience of proletarian dictatorship. Breaking with bourgeois parliamentarism, the Commune was at once an executive and a legislative body. It was based on truly democratic principles: collegiate governance, elections, responsibility and replaceability of all officials.

As Marx pointed out, the great accomplishment of the Communards was that they were the first to demolish the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and lay the foundations of a new proletarian statehood. Lenin later pointed out that in the course of revolutionary transformations the Paris proletariat carried out “a gigantic replacement of existing institutions with institutions of a fundamentally different kind,” something that had never been done before.

Marx wrote that the Commune “was essentially a government of the working class, the result of the struggle of the productive class against the appropriating class; it was a… political form that made economic emancipation of labour possible. “The socio-economic policy of the new power was informed with the desire to improve the situation of the people’s masses, to liberate the working people from capitalist exploitation. The Commune introduced a number of progressive and previously unheard of measures in the interests of the common people.

The Communards had to tackle creative tasks in a situation when part of the country had been occupied by the German troops. The ruling classes, which only recently were beating the drums of patriotism, colluded with the invaders. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted: seeing the “incompetence and betrayal” the Paris proletarians “realized that the time had come for them to rescue the situation by taking the running of social affairs in their hands… They realized that this was their imperative duty, that they had the indisputable right to become masters of their own destiny by taking government power in their hands.”

Alas, not all of the Paris Commune’s decisions held promise. It made some fateful mistakes which doomed their mission to failure. Along with the uprising’s achievements these miscalculations were analyzed in detail in The Civil War in France and later in other works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The study of the experience of the world’s first proletarian revolution and the first government of the working class was necessary for the further struggle for socialism.

The experience of the Paris Commune was a roadmap for future revolutionaries. Yes, the roadmap was not perfect. It had many gaps and inaccuracies. These “blanks spots” were to be filled by future champions of a just society. Even so, the feat of the pioneers cannot be called into question. Its significance has not been erased. And an analysis of the Paris Commune has practical relevance for us, 21st-century communists.

So, the first and main mistake of the Paris Commune was indecision, especially at the first stage. Many of its leaders were in thrall to misconceived patriotism. They believed that radical actions, for example, advancing on Versailles, would trigger a fratricidal war and harm their country. The argument carried weight considering that the enemy was at the walls of Paris. Putting “national” and “patriotic” interests above the class ones was a serious miscalculation. Why? For one thing, because the Thiers government was guided precisely by class interests. It showed utter neglect for “their own” proletarians.

The capitalists did not hesitate to unleash a civil war against the working people of their own nationality. Moreover, they turned their bayonets against them, supported by a foreign army.

The second mistake of the Paris Commune was closely linked to the first one. The measures it took did not go far enough. The Communards stopped short of taking over the Bank of France and confiscating its assets of almost 3 billion francs. Instead the Commune’s leaders humiliated themselves in front of the banks’ governor cadging money to be able to pay the salaries of the national guardsmen. Engels made this comment: “The hardest thing to understand was the reverence with which the Commune stopped respectfully in front of the doors of the Bank of France. This was also a major political mistake. The Bank in the hands of the Commune would have been more significant than ten thousand hostages. It would have induced the whole French bourgeoisie to bring pressure on the Versailles government to make peace with the Commune.” Instead of acting decisively the Communards engaged in interminable discussions with the former municipal authorities among whom were some avowed enemies.

Another strategic omission was a lack of strong links with the working people in the provinces. This in spite of the fact that in March 1871 revolutionary communes were proclaimed in Marseilles, Toulouse, Lyons, and other cities. Nor were the Communards conscious of the importance of alliance with the working peasantry which remained passive amid the stormy events.

Some of the Paris Commune’s mistakes are attributable to the divisions within its ranks. In the absence of a leading revolutionary party it consisted of the followers of Blanqui, Proudhon, Jacobins, anarchists and even members of masonic lodges. This gave rise to a lot of useless arguments and confusion, which was all the more dangerous because the enemy was storing up strength to drown the revolution in blood.

Nor did the rebels have a single military command. Defense matters were handled simultaneously by the Commune’s Military Commission, the Central Committee of the National Guard, the military offices of Paris districts and some other bodies.

History gave the Communards very little time. The heroic workers of Paris were “storming the sky,” to use Marx’s phrase. Even their short-lived victory elevated the world movement for socialism to a fundamentally new and higher stage.

Whatever the outcome may be this time, a new starting point of world historic significance has been gained,” wrote Marx on 17 April 1871. And already on 23 May, at the height of the “bloody week,” he said prophetically: “The principles of the Commune are eternal and cannot be destroyed; they will declare themselves again and again until the working class achieves liberation.”

The Paris Commune provided priceless experience of the working people’s struggle for their liberation. It has played a huge role in the development of the theory of scientific communism. The practice of its actions prompted Marx, Engels and their followers to develop more deeply the teaching on class struggle, revolution and the proletarian dictatorship.

The role of the Commune is enormous. It went a long way to lay the foundation of the subsequent proletarian revolutionary movement. Its lessons were no less significant for the emergence of Bolshevism than the lessons of the First Russian Revolution were for the victory of the Great October Revolution. As Lenin stressed, “the cause of the Commune is the cause of social revolution, the cause of full political and economic liberation of the working people, it is the cause of the world proletariat. In that sense it is immortal.”

Today’s communists are the heirs to the heroes of the Paris Commune. Yes, they have to act under various conditions. The communist parties in different countries must be mindful of the different alignments of class forces. The communists of China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos and the DPRK are in power and are working to build socialist societies. In some states communist parties are members of ruling alliances. While having their own agendas they support progressive socio-economic reforms and anti-imperialist struggles.

In the majority of countries today the communists are struggling opposition parties. They are in the vanguard of the resistance to the anti-people policies of big capital governments. The coronavirus pandemic merely made more evident the cannibalistic essence of the bourgeois system. Millions of people across the world have become victims of criminal “optimization” of social rights, lack of access to healthcare and mass lay-offs…

Capital and its servile bureaucrats are harping on “objective causes” of the crisis. They continue repeating the mantra that “we are all in the same boat.” This is a brazen lie. Take a closer look at the situation. The number of people suffering from hunger has grown by tens of millions. People are gripped by fear of the future. Meanwhile the billionaires are busy counting their profits.

Mass protest movements are mounting in diverse countries. For months now millions of peasants and workers supporting them have been protesting in India. Strikes in support of claims for better living conditions and against neoliberal experiments are taking place in France, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Columbia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia and dozens of other countries. Even the United States, the bulwark of global capital, is seeing a growth of the workers’ movement and a surge of the popularity of socialist ideas.

In Russia the CPRF is the main force protecting the interests of the working people. Power, frightened by the growing protest sentiments, has stepped up its attacks on communists. Illegal arrests, toughening of legislation, unbridled anti-Sovietism and information pressure have become part of daily life. The Russian Bonapartists believe that all this would weaken the CPRF and scare its activists and supporters. In response our party is closing ranks and is confidently preparing for important political events. The September elections for the State Duma are just one of them.

Yes, each left-wing party, each militant unit of working people has its difficulties and its successes, its strong and weak points. But we share a common goal, the striving towards building a just socialist society. In this human association labour and not capital will rule supreme.

The ideological heritage of the Paris Commune sets an example of staunchness and heroism for modern fighters for socialism. It warns us against dangerous illusions and dubious compromises. It reminds us that only a mass proletarian party equipped with the ideas of Marxism-Leninism is capable of leading the dispossessed in their struggle for a bright future.

Our goal is to turn the dreams of the Communards into reality. We are convinced that this goal can be achieved. The Paris Commune, strangled by counter-revolution, had no time to prove this fact. But it has been proved by the decades of dizzying successes of the USSR. It has been proved by the convincing results of the development of Vietnam and the staunchness of Cuba. It has been proved by the spectacular success of socialist China which, under the red banner, has moved to the center stage of world politics. Indeed, not only of politics, but of the very existence of the modern world.

We communists have every reason to look to the future with confidence. To a socialist future. The people of the beautiful Tomorrow will never forget the heroes of the Paris Commune who stood at its very source.