March 18, 2021
Celebration of 150th birth anniversary of the Paris Commune today which wrote a new epoch in the history of mankind taking revolutionary democracy to a magnitude unprecedented
Today on March 18th we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Paris Commune. It inaugurated or ushered a new era in history by igniting the first spark of workers self governance. The flame of liberation shimmered at a magnitude as never before in history of man, turning a spark into a prairie fire. It is difficult for any book to do justice to the sensational twists and turns that gave birth to such an uprising and the sequence of events that sunk it to morass after being on the threshold of victory. Classically it came closest to emulating the model of Karl Marx. Never had revolutionary democracy been taken to such a crescendo or the working class run their own lives or build their own institutions of power as during the Paris Commune. The event reflected the deep wrath of the working class against the injustice meted out by capitalism. Never in history had a standing army been replaced. Above all the Paris Commune stood up not for the narrow interests of the people of Paris city but for the working class of the whole world. Proletarian heroism was taken to regions or height untraversed, reminiscent of a new experiment being performed .It’s spirit will forever run in the blood of the veins of revolutionaries. It may take an epic film to do justice to the ebb and flow if the uprising. What is pertinent that the event created the very fabric of which the Russian or Chinese revolutions were triumphant. Literally the Paris Commune gave birth to a a ‘New man.’
The Paris Commune was a precedent which gave triggered of revolutions later in Russia and China. The Soviets in Russia under Lenin and the Shanghai Commune built in 1968 in time of Mao are classic examples. The event was great testification of the phenomena of historical materialism discovered by Marx .It showed how history was shaped by precedent events and a whole set of inter related circumstances .Cadres must study the causes of reversal of Paris Commune in context of reversal of Socialist societies of Russia and China when capitalist roaders usurped power.
The experience created a great educational base for Marxist cadres who could learn important lessons from the mistakes. Lenin termed it “the greatest example of the greatest proletarian movement of the nineteenth century. We learn more lessons from non Communist party led movements as they are higher expressions giving grater insights into the inherent aspirations of the masses or their characteristics. Studying the struggle would give a cadre deep insights into importance of analysing subjective forces, the link and connivance of parliamentary institutions with the ruling classes and the strategy or methods the enemy deploy to destroy the backbone of a revolutionary movement.
- NARRATION OF EVENTS AND FEATURES OF PARIS COMMUNE UPRISING (Information from Atlas of world revolutions by Andrew Wheatcroft and Wikipedia)
The revolt of the Paris Commune began Mar. 18, 1871 when National Guard troops repelled an attempt to seize their cannons, fraternized with regular soldiers who killed two of their generals, took control of the city, and raised the red flag over the Hôtel de Ville.
The ruthless Prussian armies demolition of France to oust emperor Napoleon ignited the spark that flared up anger amongst French people to the boiling point. On 19th September the Prussian s completed encirclement of France and on March 1st thronged in to the capital to illuminate the flame of victory. The months which preceded those famous events of March 18th, 1871 virtually set it up. In July of the previous year the Emperor Napoleon III, was seized upon a diplomatic episode involving a Palace coup against the Queen of Spain to declare war on Prussia. It proved to be a disastrous move with the Prussian army was perhaps the strongest in Europe, having effortlessly dispelled Austria for supremacy among the German states a few years before, and Bismarck had long hoped for just such an episode to unifying Germany under the yoke of Prussian hegemony and making it the central power in Europe. Napoleon III, literally too victory as a mere formaility.
On September 4th, enormous crowds gathered in Paris, stormed the Hôtel de Ville, lowered the imperial flag and proclaimed the Third Republic of France. The man chosen to lead the new republican administration, though, was one General Louis-Jules Trochu, the former military governor of Paris appointed by Napoleon III, whose government included the old ‘republican’ stalwarts Jules Favre and Adolphe Thiers. The men who came to lead the republic had no intention of realising the aspirations of the movement of poor and working people which swept them into office – indeed, the ‘Government of National Defence’, as it styled itself, was established to defend wealthy and respectable France against them more than the Prussian invaders, as Badiou writes.
Ironically it was the republican ‘left’ opposition in the Assembly which patronised the repressive and stultifying measures against the populace. This gave the impetus to the working class to shape it’s own chapter in history where it would yield power in it’s hands and weave it’s own political machinery.
The Republican their government made an agreement to hand over Paris to the Germans. The masses of Paris counter revolted to form the Paris commune when they tried to disarm the national guard.The uprising was influenced by the Bakunist tendency which advocated insurrection.
The revolutionaries did not seize power by force of arms, but by walking into buildings abandoned in panic by the forces of order. I do not have an adjective which would do ample justice to the heroism of the Communards in deploying street warfare to confront the troops of the Versailes government and calling for abolishing of the standing army. the red light of liberation literally shimmered in the core of the soul of every Communard.Intensity of fighters in confronting the enemy reached proportions or heights of the sublime.
The major turning point was the creation of the National guard that tormented the very flesh of the bourgeois army .Mass elections were held with a council of 932 members.Blanqui led the insurrrection.It was significant that Blanqui was few days later elected leader by a thumping majority, putting leader Clemenceau into the oblivion. Democratic revolutionary election functioning or voting methods was a predominant feature here. Inspite of Blanqui being an insurrectionist or anarchist and not a Marxist Marx and Lenin gave him tacit support in their writings for the role he played.
In Paris, hostility was growing between the elected republican mayors, including Clemenceau, who believed that they were legitimate leaders of Paris, and the Central Committee of the National Guard. On 22 March, the day before the elections, the Central Committee declared that it, not the mayors, was the legitimate government of Paris. It declared that Clemenceau was no longer the Mayor of Montmartre, and seized the city hall there, as well as the city halls of the 1st and 2nd arrondissements, which were occupied by more radical national guardsmen. “We are caught between two bands of crazy people,” Clemenceau complained, “those sitting in Versailles and those in Paris.”
The elections of 26 March elected a Commune council of 92 members, one for every 20,000 residents. Ahead of the elections, the Central Committee and the leaders of the International gave out their lists of candidates, mostly belonging to the extreme left. The candidates had only a few days to campaign. Thiers’ government in Versailles urged Parisians to abstain from voting. When the voting was finished, 233,000 Parisians had voted, out of 485,000 registered voters, or forty-eight percent. In upper-class neighborhoods many abstained from voting: 77 percent of voters in the 7th and 8th arrondissements; 68 percent in the 15th, 66 percent in the 16th, and 62 percent in the 6th and 9th. But in the working-class neighborhoods, turnout was high: 76 percent in the 20th arrondissement, 65 percent in the 19th, and 55 to 60 percent in the 10th, 11th, and 12thWhen the German seize of Paris continued ,control moved into the hand of the National guard composed mainly of workers.
I do not have an adjective which would do ample justice to the heroism of the Communards in deploying street warfare to confront the troops of the Versailles government and calling for abolishing of the standing army. the red light of liberation literally shimmered in the core of the soul of every Communard.Intensity of fighters in confronting the enemy reached proportions or heights of the sublime.
The Paris Commune conducted its inaugural meeting on March 28th in a victorious spirit, brimming with joy. Death penalty and military conscription was abolished. Following the model proposed by the more radical members, the new government had no president, no mayor, and no commander in chief. The Commune began by establishing nine commissions, similar to those of the National Assembly, to manage the affairs of Paris.
In consonance with the features of a Socialist state the Commune replaced the regular army, an instrument of the dominant classes, and armed the people. It proclaimed the separation of Church and State, suppressed the wages that the State paid the clergy, abolished the property of the Church in benefit of the people, and proclaimed a secular education. Isolating the Church marked a Historical event which illustrated how organised religion was a major obstacle to revolutionary democracy and how the Church Oligarchy was a a major instrument or representative of the bourgeoisie.
Prohibiting night work in the bakeries, and abolishing the fining system that in accordance with the law was applied to the workers it continued with the fulfillment of it’s democratic tasks. It decreed the delivery of the factories and all abandoned or paralyzed workshops by their owners to the worker cooperatives with the purpose of resuming production. In addition, it disposed of the wages of the workers for the administrative and government functionaries. All these measures adopted by the Commune blatantly show it’s character of a people’s government opposed to the old order of oppression and exploitation.
The impact of the Commune spread like wildfire enabling it to shimmer its spark to create communise in Marseille,Lyon,Saint-Etienne as well as cities of Toulose and Le Creusot.
- WHY PARIS COMMUNE WAS OVERTHROWN (Reference from article by Eric Toussaint –The Paris Commune of 1871- Debts and banks)
However subjective factors stood against the Commune consolidation its gains or converting the raw material into a proper ingredient. A solid foundation base was not knit to enable it to confront the enemy, There were flashes of spectacular sparks but the superstructure was non -exit it to weld them into a cohesive machinery.30,000 communards were shot down and 45000 arrested. Virtually a volume could be written summarising the setback and reversal with repression or barbarity on the Comumards and supporters at a magnitude that did not have a precedent in history. Tragedy was literally written on the walls in the manner of a crucification.
A.INPROPER ASESSMENT OF LOGISTICS
The Communards did not recognize the efforts of rebuilding Paris on the methods of street fighting. The city had been totally re-built after 1848.Street fighters happily defended their own quarters, but were placed in great discomfort in the barricades in the wet end of the city. When their backs were placed to the wall or in the doldrums, they forfeited their positing and returned home. Unfamiliarity with the terrain or alien to the conditions they fought in led to their downfall .
B.NO PROPER POLITICAL PROGRAMME
Lack of any adequate political programme was a major deficit in the movement. Paris was isolated from the provinces, not only by effects of the seizure, but by a difference in attitudes’ combination of military, technical and political mistakes were responsible for the reversal. Parisians looked at provincials with scorn, while vice-versa showed disdain to the radicalism in the city. While taking control was easy,it was very challenging to turn the screws on the emergence of a coup by the enemy. The Communards could not galvanise he city to build bulwarks of defence.
C.NO ATTACK ON THE BANKS
The head-quarters of the Bank of France, its principal reserves and its governing body were situated in Paris Commune territory. The leadership of the Paris Commune made the grave error of not taking it over, which would have been a necessary step.
In his Histoire de la Commune de 1871 published in 1876, Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, a militant intellectual who participated in the Communards’ street fighting, fustigated the Commune’s leaders who were “mesmerized in front of the haute bourgeoisie’s cash-box when they had it in their hands”  meaning the Bank of France.
The Commune’s only demand from the Bank of France was to receive the financial advances they needed to maintain a fiscal balance while still paying wages to the National Guardsmen. Paris’s National Guard was a citizens’ militia in charge of law and order and of military defence. It consisted of 300,000 armed personnel for Paris’s population of two million.
The most radical of the elected representatives, like Jean-Baptiste Clément, author of famous songs including Le Temps des Cerises and La Semaine Sanglante, considered that the Commune should have at a much quicker pace dealt with with pawn-shops and in many other aspects of the living conditions of the working classes.
“Jean-Baptiste Clément considered that the Commune should have done more, more quickly”
Among those advocating a very moderate approach regarding working-class and middle-class debt (which affected a huge number of small shop-keepers and artisans) was Charles Beslay, the oldest member of the 1871 Commune, a disciple and close friend of Proudhon. Beslay systematically stood up in defence of Finance and creditors.
D.CAPITULATION OF GENERAL THIERS
From Versailles, in the following days and weeks, The Communards made a major error by not eliminating the crafty general Thiers ,who precipitated the assault on the people on March 18th .To put down the people of Paris who were armed, Thiers mounted a military operation on 18 March 1871 to steal 400 of their cannons and machine guns. It was the failure of this attempt that led to popular mobilization and ended up with Thiers’ government fleeing and setting up in Versailles.General Thiers organized the crushing of the Communes as soon as they emerged in different parts of France (Marseille, Lyon, Narbonne, Saint-Etienne, Toulouse, Le Creusot, Limoges…). Even as he used the part of the Army he had at his disposal to put down the Communes in the South of France, Thiers made as though to negotiate with the Paris Commune to gain time and prepare for a final offensive against it. This led to a delegation from Thiers’ government being sent to Frankfurt at the beginning of May 1871 to ask Bismarck for help in crushing the Paris Commune. Bismarck replied that they should first pay the instalments due on the debt and that to help them create the right conditions for victory, he would allow Thiers to use the part of the French Army that the Prussians were holding prisoner to attack Paris. Bismarck also agreed to send part of the Prussian troops as back-up though they were not to enter Paris. Finally, after long negotiations, Bismarck agreed to wait until the Paris Commune had been dealt with before receiving the first payment.  This was the plan concocted between the French government and the Prussian leader that finally overcame the Paris Commune.
E.ABSOLUTE PRIORITY ON MILITARY
By April, as MacMahon’s forces steadily approached Paris, divisions arose within the Commune about whether to give absolute priority to military defence, or to political and social freedoms and reforms. The majority, including the Blanquists and the more radical revolutionaries, supported by Le Vengeur of Pyat and Le Père Duchesne of Vermersch, supported giving the military priority. The publications La Commune, La Justice and Valles’ Le Cri du Peuple feared that a more authoritarian government would destroy the kind of social republic they wanted to achieve. Soon, the Council of the Commune voted, with strong opposition, for the creation of a Commitee of Public Safety modelled on the eponymous Committee that carried out the Reign of Terror (1793–94). Because of the implications carried by its name, many members of the Commune opposed the Committee of Public Safety’s creation.
The Committee was given extensive powers to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune. Led by Raoul Rigaultt began to make several arrests, usually on suspicion of treason, intelligence with the enemy, or insults to the Commune.
I mantain that the Paris Commune was a precedent which gave triggered of revolutions later in Russia and China. The Soviets in Russia under Lenin and the Shanghai Commune built in 1968 in time of Mao are classic examples. The event was great testification of the phenomena of historical materialism discovered by Marx .It showed how history was shaped by precedent events and a whole set of inter related circumstances .Cadres must study the causes of reversal of Paris Commune in context of reversal of Socialist societies of Russia and China when capitalist roaders usurped power.
Quoting Lenin “But two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over, and Proudhonist theories about a “just exchange”, etc., still prevailed among the socialists. The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.”
- FINAL DEFEAT OF PARIS COMMUNE(Thanking Wikipedia for information)
What set seal to the upheaval of the Communards was the massive army combing operation from May 24th and 26th.Counter-vengeance was taken to a crescendo with scale of brutality in proportions rarely seen in history.
On May 24th led by Commander Brunel the French army pierced the ribcage of the Commune members.Hotel de Ville was burned to the ground and the national gauard literallt blown to pieces ,in the manner of a combing operation.
The Latin quarter was first cleared at night of May 24th leaving no stone unturned ,displacing the insurgents. Louis Charles Delescluze was martyred ,who was assassinated, unarmed perching on the top of the barricade. At two in the morning on 24 May, Brunel and his men went to the Hotel de Ville, which was still the headquarters of the Commune and of its chief executive, Delescluze. Wounded men were being tended in the halls, and some of the National Guard officers and Commune members were changing from their uniforms into civilian clothes and shaving their beards, preparing to escape from the city. Delescluze ordered everyone to leave the building, and Brunel’s men set it on fire
On 26th May after an intensive six hour combat, the army captured the place de la Bastille. A contingent of several dozen national guardsmen led by Antoine Clavier, a commissaire, and Emile Gois, a colonel of the National Guard, arrived at La Roquette prison and demanded, at gunpoint, the remaining hostages there: ten priests, thirty-five policemen and gendarmes, and two civilians. They took them first to the city hall of the 20th arrondissement; the Commune leader of that district refused to allow his city hall to be used as a place of execution. Clavier and Gois took them instead to Rue Haxo. The procession of hostages was joined by a large and furious crowd of national guardsmen and civilians who insulted, spat upon, and struck the hostages. Arriving at an open yard, they were lined up against a wall and shot in groups of ten. National guardsmen in the crowd opened fire along with the firing squad. The hostages were shot from all directions, then beaten with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets
The final nail in the coffin was banged or knock out blow delivered in the Peres Lachais cemetery .On the morning of 27 May, the regular army soldiers launched an attack on the National Guard artillery on the heights of the Buttes-Chaumont.. One of the last remaining strongpoints of the National Guard was the cemetery of Pere Lachais. defended by about 200 men. At 6:00 in the evening, the army used cannon to demolish the gates and the First Regiment of naval infantry stormed the cemetery. Savage fighting followed around the tombs until nightfall, when the last 150 guardsmen, many of them wounded, were encircled and surrendered. The captured guardsmen were taken to the wall of the cemetery, known today as the Communards Wall, and shot.
Hundreds of prisoners who had been captured with weapons or gunpowder on their hands were executed immediately. Others were taken to the main barracks of the army in Paris and executed there after summary trials. They were buried in mass graves in parks and squares. Not all prisoners were shot immediately; the French Army officially recorded the capture of 43,522 prisoners during and immediately after Bloody Week. Of these, 1,054 were women, and 615 were under the age of 16. They were marched in groups of 150 or 200, escorted by cavalrymen, to Versailles or the Camp de Satory, where they were held in extremely crowded and unsanitary conditions until they could be tried. More than half of the prisoners, 22,727, were released before trial for extenuating circumstances or on humanitarian grounds. Since Paris had been officially under a state of siege during the Commune, the prisoners were tried by military tribunals. Trials were held for 15,895 prisoners, of whom 13,500 were found guilty. Ninety-five were sentenced to death; 251 to forced labour; 1,169 to deportation, usually to New Caledonia; 3,147 to simple deportation; 1,257 to solitary confinement; 1,305 to prison for more than a year; and 2,054 to prison for less than a year.
- HISTORICAL IMPACT
Quoting Lenin “In spite of such unfavorable conditions, in spite of the brevity of its existence, the Commune found time to carry out some measures which sufficiently characterize its real significance and aims. The Commune replaced the standing army, that blind weapon in the hands of the ruling classes, by the armed people. It proclaimed the separation of church from State, abolished the State support of religious bodies (i.e., State salaries for priests), gave popular education a purely secular character, and in this way struck a severe blow at the gendarmes in priestly robes. In the purely social sphere the Commune could do very little, but this little nevertheless clearly shows its character as a popular, workers’ Government. Night work in bakeries was forbidden, the system of fines, this system of legalized robbery of the workers, was abolished. Finally, the famous decree was issued according to which all factories, works and workshops which had been abandoned or stopped by their owners, were to be handed over to associations of workers in order to resume production. And, as if to emphasize its character as a truly democratic proletarian Government, the Commune decreed that the salaries of all ranks in the administration and the government should not exceed the normal wages of a worker, and in no case should exceed 6,000 francs per year.”
The memory of the fighters of the Commune is not only honoured by the workers of France but by the proletariat of the whole world, for the Commune did not fight for any local or narrow national aim, but for the freedom of toiling humanity, of all the downtrodden and oppressed. As the foremost fighter for the social revolution, the Commune has won sympathy wherever there is a proletariat struggling and suffering. The picture of its life and death, the sight of a workers’ government which seized the capital of the world and kept it in its hands for over two months, the spectacle of the heroic struggle of the proletariat and its sufferings after defeat—all this has raised the spirit of millions of workers, aroused their hopes and attracted their sympathies to the side of socialism. The thunder of the cannon in Paris awakened the most backward strata of the proletariat from deep slumber, and everywhere gave impetus to the growth of revolutionary Socialist propaganda. This is why the cause of the Commune did not die. It lives to the present day in every one of us.”
We must also inscribe in red letters the praise Marx and Engels had for the Paris Commune which had a great impact in affecting their mode of thought. Marx, in Civil War in France (1871), described it as the ‘prototype for a revolutionary government of the future,”. the form at last discovered” for the emancipation of the proletariat’ Marx wrote that, “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators, history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all of the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”
Engels asserted that the absence of a standing army, the self-policing of the “quarters”, and other features meant that the Commune was no longer a “state” in the old, repressive sense of the term. It was a transitional form, moving towards the abolition of the bourgeois state as such. The Commune was, he said, the first “dictatorship of the proletariat”, a state run by workers and in the interests of workers.
Quoting Karl Marx” When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their “natural superiors,” and, under circumstances of unexampled difficulty, performed it at salaries the highest of which barely amounted to one-fifth of what, according to high scientific authority,(1) is the minimum required for a secretary to a certain metropolitan school-board – the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labor, floating over the Hôtel de Ville.”
The saga of the Paris commune conjures many a memory in my minds of struggles whether the Dalit Panther revolt of the 1970’s,Railway workers strike of 1974,the movement against the contract system in the mines by Shankar Guha Nyugi ,the Kanoria jute mills agitation in 1994 where the workers captured and ran the mill for a sustained period, the Bandh Girni Sangarsh Commitee combating mill closure in 1992,Jawaharal Nehru Students agitation in 2015 ,Lalgarh movement or even the Naxalabari and Srikakulam peasant revolts earlier.
Today the spirit of the Paris Comune has ressurected in different forms but are confronted by greater diversionary forces., in the age of globalisation. It is harder to garner or bind democratic forces with powerful reactionary currents be it of religious, chauvinist, or consumerist variety. On countless number of occasions revolutionary upsurges have been diffused after reaching a boiling point, with penetration of reactionary elements in struggles. The reactionary forces have a more powerful social weaponry to break the unity of movements in the age of high tech.Today with consumerism booming sky high the lute of lucration too often absorbs potential revolutionary cadres. Democratic forces will also have t make deep inroads in computer technology to counter the oppressive propagananda and create forums for organising.
The absence of a solid genuine Communist party was acutely felt and a major hurdle in the Paris Commune uprising. However historically we have had only two revolutions led by a Communist party in history, and three armed struggles led by a Communist party today. Communist parties have hardly channelized or shaped uprisings in Palestine , South Africa during apartheid regime, or black revolutionary movements in America into genuine proletarian movements. On the other hand we have had movements like the student revolt in Paris in 1968 , the Cuban revolution, the Intifafada and the Yellow vest movement which have not been led by a Communist party. The majority of big strikes worldwide have been led without a Communist party, including India. The farmer’s movement today in India against agricultural bills is another classical example. There is support from Communist parties but it is under no direct leadership of a party. Ideologically we have to strike a balance between confronting liberalism as in the Paris Commune to vanguardist tendencies displayed by the Communist party like in the Cultural revolution in China,supressing revolt in Hungary in 1956 or imprisoning line in the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. The equivalent of the Paris Commune through the Shanghai Commune was reverted in China in 1968 to be converted into a revolutionary .Committee. The Paris Commune was a striking example of practice of revolutionary democracy from below.
However today we are operating in a completely different scenario living in the age of Robots or artificial intelligence and globalization. The proletariat is much more divided at workplace and production methods are also radically different from the time of the Paris commune, with technology so advanced. It would be imperative even for revolutionaries to deeply artificial intelligence as a weapon. Today nation chauvinism is blowing its trumpet louder than nations were 150 years ago ,religious trends like Islamaphobia are at a helm and the might of global capital pulling the wool out of the working class as never before. .Nevertheless the world economic crisis is more acute of aggravated as never before with global contention at its sharpest ,which is a perfect platform for revolutionary democratic forces to crystallize mass movements.
Written with reference from ‘World Atlas of Revolution’s by Andrew Wheatcroft Blog Wikipedia on Paris Commune, blog the Marxian blogspot and blog Commitee for abolition of Illegitimate debt by Eric Toussaint.I deeply pay gratitude to these sources for sound reference.
Harsh Thakor is a political commentator or freelance Journalist who has toured India ,particularly Punjab and written articles on democratic blogs like ‘Ottos War Room’ and ‘Democracy and Class Struggle.’ and ‘Frontier weekly’ on a range of topics. Emailemail@example.com
The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Kana’an’s Editorial Board.