France commune

In memory of the Municipality

This essay by Vladimir Lenin was published in April 1911, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, in the Russian-language newspaper Rabochaya Gazeta.

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Forty years have passed since the proclamation of the Paris Commune. In accordance with tradition, French workers paid tribute to the memory of the men and women of the revolution of March 18, 1871, through meetings and demonstrations. At the end of May, they will again lay wreaths on the graves of the executed Communards, victims of the terrible “week of May”, and on their graves they will take the oath to fight tirelessly until their ideas triumph and the cause they have bequeathed has been fully achieved.

Why does the proletariat, not only in France but throughout the world, honor the men and women of the Paris Commune as their predecessors? And what is the heritage of the Municipality?

The Commune arises spontaneously. No one consciously prepared it in an organized manner. The fruitless war with Germany, the hardships suffered during the siege, the unemployment of the proletariat and the ruin of the petty bourgeoisie; the indignation of the masses against the upper classes and against the authorities which had shown a total incompetence, the vague agitation of the working class, dissatisfied with its fate and aspiring to a different social system; the reactionary composition of the National Assembly, which raises apprehensions about the fate of the republic, all this and many other factors combine to push the Parisian population to the revolution on March 18, which unexpectedly puts power in the hands of the National Guard, in the hands of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie who sided with him.

A barricade Chaussée Ménilmontant, March 18, 1871

It was an unprecedented event in history. Until then, power was generally in the hands of landowners and capitalists, that is, in the hands of their trusted agents who made up the so-called government. After the revolution of March 18, when the government of M. Thiers fled from Paris with its troops, police and officials, the people became master of the situation and power passed into the hands of the proletariat. But in modern society, the proletariat, economically enslaved by capital, can dominate politically only if it breaks the chains which attach it to capital. This is why the movement of the Commune had to take a socialist tint, that is to say to strive to overthrow the domination of the bourgeoisie, the domination of capital, and to destroy the very foundations of the contemporary social order. .

At first, this movement was extremely indefinite and confused. She is joined by patriots who hope that the Commune will renew the war with the Germans and bring it to a successful conclusion. It benefited from the support of small traders threatened with ruin if there was no postponement of payment of debts and rents (the government refused to grant this postponement, but they obtained it from the Commune). Finally, it initially benefited from the sympathy of the bourgeois republicans who feared that the reactionary National Assembly (the “rustic”, the savage landowners) would reestablish the monarchy. But it was of course the workers (especially the artisans of Paris), among whom active socialist propaganda had been carried out during the last years of the Second Empire and many of whom even belonged to the International, who played the main role in this process. movement. .

Only the workers remained faithful to the Commune until the end. The bourgeois republicans and the petty bourgeoisie soon broke away from it: the former were frightened by the revolutionary-socialist, proletarian character of the movement; the latter broke away when they saw that she was doomed to inevitable defeat. Only the French proletarians supported their government without fear and tirelessly, they alone fought and died for it, that is to say for the cause of the emancipation of the working class, for a better future for all workers. .

Abandoned by its former allies and left without support, the Commune was doomed to defeat. All the bourgeoisie of France, all the landowners, stockbrokers, factory owners, all the brigands, big and small, all the exploiters united against it. This bourgeois coalition, supported by Bismarck (who freed 100,000 French prisoners of war to help crush revolutionary Paris), succeeded in raising the ignorant peasants and the provincial petty bourgeoisie against the Paris proletariat, and in forming a circle of steel around half of Paris (the other half was under siege by the German army). In some of the largest cities in France (Marseille, Lyon, Saint-Étienne, Dijon, etc.) the workers are also trying to seize power, to proclaim the Commune and to come to the aid of Paris; but these attempts were short-lived. Paris, which had first hoisted the banner of proletarian revolt, was left to its own devices and doomed to certain destruction.

At least two conditions are necessary for a successful social revolution: highly developed productive forces and a proletariat sufficiently prepared for it. But in 1871, these two conditions were lacking. French capitalism was still underdeveloped, and France was then mainly a petty-bourgeois country (artisans, peasants, traders, etc.). On the other hand, there was no workers’ party; the working class had not gone through a long school of struggle and was not prepared, and for the most part did not even clearly visualize its tasks and the methods of accomplishing them. There was no serious political organization of the proletariat, nor strong unions and cooperative societies …

But what was lacking above all in the Commune, it was the time, the opportunity to take stock and to embark on the accomplishment of its program. No sooner had he had time to get down to work than the government entrenched in Versailles and supported by the whole bourgeoisie began hostilities against Paris. The Commune was to concentrate mainly on self-defense. Until the very end, from May 21 to 28, he did not have time to seriously think about anything else.

However, in spite of these unfavorable conditions, in spite of its brief existence, the Commune has succeeded in promulgating some measures which sufficiently characterize its meaning and its real goals. The Commune suppressed the standing army, this blind weapon in the hands of the dominant classes, and armed all the people. It proclaims the separation of church and state, abolishes state payments to religious organizations (i.e. state salaries for priests), makes popular education purely secular and thus deals a severe blow to the gendarmes in the cassock. In the purely social sphere, the Commune has accomplished very little, but this little nevertheless clearly reveals its character as a popular workers’ government. Night work in bakeries was prohibited; the system of fines, which represented the legalized theft of workers, was abolished. Finally, there was the famous decree according to which all factories and workshops abandoned or closed by their owners were to be handed over to workers’ associations who were to resume production. And, as if to underline its character as a truly democratic proletarian government, the Commune decreed that the salaries of all administrative and government officials, whatever their rank, should not exceed the normal salary of a worker, and in no case amount to more than more than 6,000 francs per year (less than 200 rubles per month).

All these measures showed quite clearly that the Commune was a mortal threat to the old world founded on the enslavement and exploitation of the people. This is why bourgeois society could not feel at ease as long as the red flag of the proletariat was flown over the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. And when the organized forces of the government finally succeeded in gaining the upper hand over the badly organized forces of the revolution, the Bonapartist generals, who had been defeated by the Germans and who only showed courage in fighting their defeated compatriots, these Rennenkampfs and French Meller-Zakomelskys, organized such a massacre that Paris had never known. Around 30,000 Parisians were slaughtered by the bestial soldiery, and around 45,000 were arrested, many of whom were subsequently executed, while thousands were deported or exiled. In total, Paris has lost around 100,000 of its best inhabitants, including some of the best workers in all trades.

Shooting of Communards during Bloody Week, May 1871

The bourgeoisie was satisfied. “Now we are done with socialism for a long time,” said their leader, the bloodthirsty dwarf Thiers, after he and his generals drowned the Paris proletariat in blood. But these bourgeois crows croaked in vain. Less than six years after the suppression of the Commune, while many of its champions were still languishing in prison or in exile, a new workers’ movement was born in France. A new socialist generation, enriched by the experience of their predecessors and not at all discouraged by their defeat, picked up the flag which had fallen from the hands of the fighters for the cause of the Commune and carried it with boldness and confidence. Their war cry was: “Long live the social revolution!” Long live the Municipality! And a few years later, the New Workers’ Party and the work of agitation it launched across the country forced the ruling classes to release the Communards who were still being held in prison by the government.

The memory of the fighters of the Commune is honored not only by the workers of France but by the proletariat of the whole world. For the Commune was fighting, not for a narrow local or national goal, but for the emancipation of all working humanity, of all the oppressed and oppressed. As the first fighter of the social revolution, the Commune has won sympathy wherever there is a suffering proletariat engaged in the struggle. The epic of his life and death, the spectacle of a workers’ government which seized the capital of the world and held it for more than two months, the spectacle of the heroic struggle of the proletariat and the torments it suffered after its defeat, all this awakened the minds of millions of workers, awakened their hopes and enlisted their sympathy for the cause of socialism. The thunder of cannon in Paris awakened the most backward strata of the proletariat from their deep slumber and gave impetus everywhere to the development of revolutionary socialist propaganda. This is why the cause of the Commune is not dead. It lives in each of us today.

The cause of the Commune is the cause of the social revolution, the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the workers. It is the cause of the proletariat all over the world. And in that sense, he is immortal.