France commune

The Paris Commune, a workers’ democracy


National Guard defending the streets of Paris (Pic: Wikicommons)


The Paris Commune, where workers briefly seized power and created the first workers’ government, came into being 150 years ago this month.

A labor movement ruled the city for 72 days between March and May 1871, with freedom and democracy at its heart.

Revolutionary Karl Marx described the Paris Commune as “the first revolution in which the working class was openly recognized as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the vast majority of the Parisian middle class – traders, traders. , merchants – the rich capitalists. alone except.

And the revolutionary Frederick Engels would write later: “Look at the Paris Commune. It was the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Commune emerged from a French military defeat.

Crushed

In 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia. French forces were quickly crushed in early October 1870 and Paris was under total siege.

The rulers of France signed an armistice with Prussia at the end of 1870, which betrayed ordinary people and the forces that had attempted to defend Paris. In particular, the deal enraged the National Guard, a force based on the poorer sections.

The central committee of the National Guard had distributed 400 guns in the working-class districts of the city ready to be attacked.

To establish its control, the head of the new provisional government resulting from the armistice, Adolphe Thiers, ordered the seizure of the guns on March 18.

But resistance erupted when the French army advanced.

The army managed to secure the guns but they were greeted by hundreds of workers who began to assemble. Women played a key role in the resistance.

Louise Michel, member of the National Guard, was entrusted with the role of defending arms.

Michel rang the church bells and mobilized 200 women to face the 3,000 men in the army. It is the beginning of the revolt.

Michel wrote: “We ran double, knowing that at the top was an army in combat formation. We expected to die for freedom. All the women were by our side, I don’t know how.

Thiers ordered the soldiers to fire on the mobilization and disarm the workers. But the soldiers refused, which led sections of the army to unite with the Parisians against the generals.

Two army generals are assassinated by their soldiers and Thiers orders the evacuation of Paris.

The women made huge gains during the uprising. They built barricades, took up arms and joined committees. This included education committees that imposed a free education system that, for the first time, educated women.

“Look at the Paris Commune. It was the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Friedrich engels

However, they did not have the right to vote. Michel, like Marx, knew that for the liberation of women to be realized, it was necessary to fight for it.

She said, “It is true, perhaps, that women love rebellions. We are no better than men when it comes to power, but power has not corrupted us yet.

On March 26, the workers chose to elect their own council that worked in their own interests for security and liberation.

Marx wrote: “The old world twisted into fits of rage at the sight of the red flag.

Engels later said that “the Commune used two infallible expedients.” First, he filled all the positions by election.

Second, all civil servants, regardless of rank, were paid the same as other workers. It was also to prevent careerism.

Unlike bourgeois parliaments, all members were held democratically accountable if they lied or backed out, in order to protect the Commune from corruption. The Commune made the National Guard the main armed body.

He also created a salary cap, shut down pawn shops, suspended debt, and separated church and state.

It abolished child labor, granted pensions to the unmarried partners of a killed custodian, and established the right of employees to take over a business.

The Commune has also launched calls for internationalism. The workers opposed the nationalism represented by the old bourgeois rulers.

“The flag of the Commune is the flag of the republic of the world”, they write.

Engels later said that the Commune directly challenged bourgeois chauvinism and that the international working class understood this.

Workers hold the power

But the ruling class in France weren’t content with leading the National Guards – they didn’t want workers to run society.

They put aside nationalist differences with the Prussian generals and collaborated to destroy the armed Parisian workers.

As Marx predicted, the Commune did not achieve full state power because the outside forces were too large.

On May 21, state forces stormed into the town and slaughtered National Guard soldiers and civilians. On May 28, the Commune was suppressed by the army and severe repression ensued.

Eyewitness Prosper Lissagaray described how the rich took their revenge by taking over the city. He writes: “The populace in the kid’s gloves followed the prisoners, cheering the gendarmes who led the convoys, applauding at the sight of the bloody vans.

“The civilians tried hard to outdo the military lightly.

“Elegant and cheerful women, as if on a pleasure trip, went to the corpses, and, to enjoy the sight of the valiant dead, the ends of the parasols lifted their last blankets.

More than 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting or executed. More than 7,000 others, including Michel, were exiled.

Military trials have taken place for up to 40,000 prisoners, resulting in executions, solitary confinement and forced labor.

The suppression and exploitation of the French working class would continue despite the gains made by the Commune.

The Commune had been crushed. But as Marx said, the experience of “storming the skies” set an inspiring example for others to follow.

He created a concrete example of the kind of democratic society that workers could build if they took control.


Karl Marx on the “glorious harbinger of a new society”

The Commune was crucial in shaping Karl Marx’s understanding of the importance of class and the role of the state.

Reflecting on the revolt allowed him to deepen and expand his ideas.

As Vladimir Lenin wrote later: “The only ‘correction’ that Marx felt necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto which he made on the basis of the revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune.

Marx rejected the idea that the working class could advance simply by moving as the head of the existing state.

What the Commune has shown is that “the working class cannot simply grab the ready-made state apparatus and use it for its own ends”.

“Instead, the next attempt of the French Revolution will no longer be, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to the other, but to smash it,” wrote Marx.

In its place would come a completely different mechanism of workers’ democracy and control.

Karl Marx, the workers and the revolution
Karl Marx, the workers and the revolution

This would abolish many of the features of the old state form and fully democratize those that were still needed to combat the old ruling class.

Marx wrote: “While the purely repressive organs of the old government power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping preeminence over society itself and returned to the responsible agents of society. “

The working class would take back its power from the bourgeois state which ruled it.

This crucial lesson for future revolutions was the reason why Marx said that workers’ Paris “with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.

“Its martyrs are enshrined in the great hearts of the working class. “

Class was crucial.

Unlike previous revolutions, the working class has collectively shown its power to control the means of production and distribution for its own sake.

Thus, Marx wrote: “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

The Commune’s experience is crucial for today’s arguments on the limits of working through existing state institutions.


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