Saturday, World Socialist Website marked the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871, the first time in world history that the working class has seized state power, with an international meeting online. WSWS International Editorial Board Chair David North moderated and introduced the discussion, which included Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Alex Lantier, WSWS Editor ThÃ©rÃ¨se Leclerc, and WSWS US National Editor Barry Gray.
Over the past year, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) and the WSWS have published a series of essays and held milestone events marking a number of important anniversaries, including the 80th anniversary of the assassination. by Leon Trotsky, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lenin and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg.
For the ICFI, the commemoration of historical events is always linked to the clarification of the current tasks of the working class. Historical experience is the essential foundation for educating workers and young people, providing them with direction and direction, allowing them to see their current struggles in a larger context. In a time of enormous crisis, like ours, historical lessons still acquire enormous contemporary relevance. This is certainly the case with the Paris Commune.
During the meeting, which lasted just over two hours, panelists discussed a range of critical issues. They reviewed the historical context that gave birth to the Commune, including the response of different classes to the revolutions of 1848. They discussed how the Commune powerfully confirmed the theoretical and historical work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the development of scientific socialism and historical materialism from the mid-1840s. They assessed the political and social forces involved in the Commune and the mistakes made that made the Communards vulnerable to counter-revolutionary violence. And they examined the lessons learned by Marxists, including Lenin and Trotsky, from the astonishing violence directed against the communards of the capitalist state.
Introducing the discussion, North explained that the Commune came into being on March 18, 1871, when the working class in Paris rose up against the French government‘s attempt by Adolphe Thiers to disarm the working class by suppressing artillery. which was vital for the defense of the city. The heads of the bourgeois government fled the city, established their headquarters in Versailles and started a civil war against the workers of Paris.
âSeventy-one days laterâ, explained North, âon Sunday May 28, 1871, the Commune was suppressed by the army of the government of Versailles, which regained control of Paris by perpetrating a horrific massacre of the working population of the city. . . ” He added:
During the last seven days of the Commune’s existence – the âBloody Weekâ from May 21 to 28 – the Versailles army massacred more than 20,000 workers. Violence on this scale had not been seen in a European city for hundreds of years. Nothing comparable to this massacre will be seen again until the outbreaks of the Nazis between 1939 and 1945.
The Township, North explained, was not just a story of destruction and tragedy. âThe achievements of the Commune, during the 71 days of its existence, have been of monumental historical importance. The form of this government, and the measures it took, heralded a new epoch in the history of mankind. The fact that the Paris Commune demonstrated the possibility of an alternative to the bourgeois state explains, in the final analysis, the bloody punishment inflicted by the Versailles regime.
Leclerc reviewed Marx’s contemporary analysis, in Civil war in France, forms of government and policies implemented by the Commune, which created the basis of an entirely new society free from class inequality and exploitation. She noted that the Commune’s policy, coming after poverty and famine besieged the city during its siege by the Prussian army, “really bore the imprint of the working class.”
Critically, the Commune rejected the militarism and nationalism of the failed regime of Napoleon III. With 100,000 immigrant workers and political refugees from all over Europe living in Paris, Leclerc noted, the Commune âtook a stand for internationalism and welcomed these immigrants, giving them equal rights and positions of authority in the management of the Municipality â.
Gray discussed the work of Lenin, who worked extensively on the writings of Marx and Engels on the Commune. In August 1917, while in hiding in Finland and struggling to win the Bolshevik Party in a fight to seize power, Lenin was preparing his great work The State and the Revolution. One of the main lessons Lenin drew was that the working class could not simply take control of the existing bourgeois state. A workers’ revolution was not possible, Lenin concluded, “without the destruction of the apparatus of state power, which was created by the ruling class.”
Gray also highlighted the conclusions that Marxist leaders drew from the weaknesses of the Paris Commune. He did not act to stop Thiers and overthrow his government after his criminal plot of March 18, nor did he seize the Banque de France, which was funding the capitalist government’s plots.
One of the most important lessons provided by the Commune, which was discussed throughout the meeting, is the ruthless violence of the capitalist class in defense of its domination over society. The capitalist Thiers government, in collaboration with the Prussian government, deployed an army to drown the Commune in blood.
On May 21, the troops of the Third Republic seized part of the walls of Paris, thanks both to an act of treason by an opponent of the Commune and to the negligence of the military units of the Commune. . Storming the town in a week, Thiers government forces murdered some 20,000 workers, the vast majority after their surrender. North quoted the account of historian John Merriman in his book on the Paris Commune, Massacre:
After destroying the gates of the PÃ¨re Lachaise cemetery on Saturday evening, the Versailles troops burst in. Many Communard fighters fell there, some in melee with bayonets in the middle of the graves. Soldiers captured the rest and executed hundreds en masse, doubling federated [Communard] two prisoners against a wall next to a very deep ditch. Machine guns did the rest. Many prisoners fell or were thrown into a mass grave.
Elaborating on the level of violence against Parisian workers, Lantier said:
It was a general offensive against anyone who politically represented the working class. Anyone who is caught wearing [Paris] National Guard pants, anyone caught holding a barricade, they were not tried under the laws of war. Tens of thousands of people were shot dead on the spot. What is known today as the best place to walk and see Paris – the gardens near the Ecole Militaire and the Eiffel Tower, Parc Monceau, Parc du Luxembourg, PÃ¨re Lachaise cemetery – have been transformed in killing grounds.
This massacre, North pointed out, took place in a country considered to be a center of European culture, and in the hands of a government claiming to be a democratic republic. These are the methods of the capitalist state when it comes to defending its class domination.
Each generation of Marxists has learned from the experience of the Paris Commune. North noted that the period between the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution of 1917 was less than 50 years, which roughly corresponds to the period of time between today and the horrors of Chile in 1973, when a junta military seized power and carried out a massacre of workers and young socialists.
The Paris Commune appeared at an early stage in the development of the socialist movement. However, it anticipated in its basic elements the dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution in the twentieth century. From the defeats and successes of this story emerges a central lesson, which is perhaps the greatest lesson of the Paris Commune: the colossal role of the revolutionary leadership.
Trotsky, in his essay “LeÃ§ons de la Commune de Paris”, written in February 1921, insists on this point. âWe can thus leaf through the entire history of the Commune, page by page, and we will find only one lesson there: a strong party leadership is needed. Trotsky’s words resonate powerfully today:
The workers’ party, the real one, is not a parliamentary maneuvering machine, it is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat. It is only with the help of the party, which is based on the entire history of its past, which theoretically foresees the paths of development, all its stages, and which extracts from them the necessary formula for action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need to always start over its history: its hesitations, its indecisions, its errors.
The meeting ended, linking the past to the present, with a discussion on the relationship between the Paris of Thiers and the Paris of Emmanuel Macron, the current President of France.
Lantier explained that in response to the pandemic, Macron’s subordination of all considerations, including those of life itself, to the profit interests of the capitalist financial aristocracy has deadly consequences. In the coming weeks, with French hospitals inundated with critically ill patients, more people could die in France than there were in Paris in the bloody week of 150 years ago.
Amid the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unmasking of bourgeois democracy resonates with force. This is not only true of France. The governments of all the great capitalist countries have not yet gone so far as to directly slaughter the citizens. However, the astonishing indifference to the loss of human life due to the policy of “collective immunity” of the ruling elite clearly echoes Thiers’ barbarism.
Today, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, war and the obscene inequalities of capitalist society requires a struggle to end the capitalist order. As the workers turn to this struggle, the Paris Commune and the heroism of the Communards will inspire new generations. It will also inspire workers to join and build the International Committee of the Fourth International, today’s revolutionary socialist movement.