150 years ago, on March 18, 1871, the proletariat seized power for the first time and formed the first workers’ government. Ministers, bureaucrats and the general staff were driven out of Paris, and the executive power was in the hands of the Central Committee of the National Guard which represented the armed working class.
The first workers’ power lasted 72 days and was crashed by the reactionary forces who were united and who massacred tens of thousands of people. However, the Commune has left a treasure full of invaluable lessons that are still relevant today.
The spark for the Commune was the uprising of the proletariat of Paris, who refused to accept the humiliating agreement made by the French bourgeoisie and its government, submitting to the invading Prussian army which came out victorious in the 1870 war.
Following the surrender of Napoleon III, the people of Paris rose up and brought down the Empire on September 4. The bourgeoisie, having grabbed power, tried to suppress the people of Paris, instead of fighting against the invaders. “In this conflict between national duty and class interest the Government of National Defence did not hesitate one moment to turn into a Government of National Defection.” (Marx) When the bourgeoisie paved the way, the Prussian invaders who had already captured the most industrialised regions of France surrounded Paris.
Following the betrayal of the bourgeoisie, the Paris proletariat came forward and “stormed heaven”. While the advanced sections of workers put forward the idea of national and social liberation, the working class, who had no clear idea of the laws of social progress, was under the influence of Proudhon and Blanqui as well as neo-Jacobinism. Despite everything, they began to dismantle the bureaucratic-militarist apparatus. Marx wrote: “After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. History has no like example of a like greatness.”
The Central Committee of the National Guard announced on the Official Journal dated 25 March that “The Commune has given Paris the national guard defending the citizens against the power in place of the permanent army defending the power against the citizens”.
Marx talked about the transition period from capitalism to communism, and stated the necessity of breaking up of the bourgeois state apparatus as a lesson of the 1848 revolutions. And the proletariat of Paris showed what it should be replaced by.
The Paris Commune dismantled the permanent army and the police organisation, both instruments of class repression. The bureaucracy was also dismantled. The decision for these two “destructions” was not based on theoretical reasoning, but it was completely an outcome of the real course of class struggle and was materialised as a result of “following the unfailing instinct of the awakened people”.
On the second day of the Commune, it was made compulsory for all remaining soldiers in Paris to join the National Guard. Army and police were replaced by armed people, the old bureaucratic apparatus was replaced by democratically assigned . Including the Commune and the judiciary, all assignments were done by election. Those elected were accountable to the people and could be removed from duty. They were paid no more than 6000 francs, the average wage of a skilled worker. The Commune unified the executive and the legislative powers. The dictatorship of the proletariat which was being built was still very weak and had shortcomings, but all those measures implemented in great difficulties were much more democratic and superior than the most advanced bourgeois democracy.
With the announcement of the republic, dozens of workers’ clubs, trade unions and newspapers were established in Paris and in all big towns. Proletarian dictatorship, or proletarian democracy, developed the initiative of the masses.
The people of Paris got organised quickly to warn the elected members of the Commune of their mistakes and shortcomings, to draw them closer to the interests of the people and to remove them from duty if necessary. Hundreds of men and women citizens gathered in the workers’ clubs every night after work to have discussions in about 30 neighbourhoods of Paris, where they also criticised the Commune from time to time. Commune leadership were also invited in these meetings which were participated especially by workers. These were platforms where the working masses were directly involved in politics, raising their demands, assessing and criticising the decisions made by the Commune. The next day, a delegation on behalf of the club, informed the Paris Municipality, where the Commune was based, of the decisions taken. These debates were also reflected in numerous daily newspapers, which had great influence among the masses, with a circulation of 50-60 thousand. They published letters written by the workers, advising the Commune which steps to take. Newspapers articles were debated among the masses, sometimes becoming the subject of a polemic between two different views in club meetings. These debates helped raise political consciousness as well as providing a platform for the people to oversee the decisions made and to express their initiative.
The people of Paris were organised in the neighbourhood committees and in municipalities, and deployed their representatives in regional councils and others such as Postal Council and Louvre Arms Atelier Council.
Women had no voting rights yet but were active in politics and they played a big part in the Commune period, presenting the most important proposals.
Trade unions were among the instruments of intervention by the working class. In the Commune period there were 34 active unions organised in various sectors. Most of them were formed before the Commune but with it their influence increased and they became centralized. These unions, together with 43 associations organised among the masses, represented people’s control over the Commune leadership.
The Commune lasted only 72 days, almost all of which passed with skirmishes, but in this short time it tried to solve people’s main problems.
- In order to resolve unemployment, they decided to pay for and take over deserted factories and workplaces and resume production.
- To improve working conditions, night shifts were banned for bakers. There was also a ban on bosses to cut wages with fines with manifold pretexts, which was a widely used method then. Daily working hours were reduced in some sectors.
- Empty and deserted houses were confiscated, rents were frozen and accumulated rent debts were written off.
- Religious and state affairs were separated, and the foundations of a secular state began to be formed; secular and free education was made compulsory for all boys and girls.
- A political amnesty was declared and all restrictions on freedom of expression were lifted. Municipalities were given full autonomy.
However, the Commune did not survive long to implement all these decisions. However, as Marx said “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence”.
However, the Commune made some mistakes, too.
- After seizing power it had compromising and moderate attitude. It could not utilise the vital hours and days but lingered, not striking the final blow on the Versailles government which was withdrawing in disarray. The Commune leaders wanted to avoid a civil war, but it was the bourgeoisie who launched the war.
- In the first days of the Commune there was an exaggerated loyalty to formal democracy and too much legitimacy was attached to elections, and this led to the delay of urgent tasks. Yet, the Commune was already legitimate in the eyes of broad masses. A week passed by with formalities.
- Political naivety went on afterwards. Paris streets were full of Versailles spies but the Commune did not take the necessary measures. Many newspapers defending counter revolution were allowed to be printed and circulated under the name of “press freedom”. On the other hand, when the Versailles generals began to shoot down the communards with firing squads, the Commune passed a decision on 5 April that “every massacre would be countered with blood” but it was not implemented before the “Bloody Week” when tens of thousands of Parisians were massacred.
- Same indecision was also seen on the issue of overthrowing the old order. Central Bank and big companies were not nationalised by appropriation. There were not any measures taken in favour of women who played the most active part in the revolution. Taxes remained in place together with the old reactionary system.
- Another shortcoming of the Commune was that it did not do much to win over the support of the peasantry. The proletariat was not yet fully aware of winning over their support.
The International drew another important lesson from the Commune experience: “Considering that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes.” In its meeting in September 1871, the International Working Men’s Association declares that “this combination of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes”.
The Paris Commune emphasizing the necessity for the dictatorship of proletariat for social liberation through struggle for power against decaying capitalism, and for the working class to organise as a political party is still alive and relevant after 150 years.
Long live the Paris Commune!
Long live proletarian internationalism!