Democracy, the state machine and working class power

The Paris Commune was the world's first example of a workers' state, albeit short-lived. Ian Donovan looks at the lessons for the 21st century

After the defeat of Napoleon I, Europe was dominated by the Holy Alliance - the reactionary despotisms that came together between 1812 and 1815 to exorcise the spectre of the French Revolution. The Holy Alliance, founded in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, brought together Austria, Russia and Prussia, the three central reactionary powers in Europe, which imposed the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France. There followed a period of quite deep reaction in Europe, which was broken in 1830, again in France, by the overthrow of the Bourbons: the revolution in 1830. This brought to power Louis Philippe, in what was called the Orleanist monarchy - a constitutional, semi-democratic setup. It was part of a mini-revolutionary wave. A successful uprising led to the creation of Belgium as a state, as distinct from Holland - a national liberation struggle. There was also an attempted revolution in Poland, which was rapidly crushed by the three main powers of the Holy Alliance. Historical context However, the key event in understanding the context of the Paris Commune is the European-wide revolution which broke out in 1848, destroying the Holy Alliance. It was a revolutionary wave that stalled after a certain point, in which the bourgeoisie revealed its cowardice and inability to take things beyond a certain point. But it was also the first occasion when the working class rose up as an independent class and attempted, albeit in an embryonic and ultimately unsuccessful manner, to impose its will on society. This concretised itself in June 1848, in Paris, with the uprising of the proletariat. In many ways it was a prelude to the Paris Commune. The armed working class took to the streets, under the battle cry not merely of the republic (which had always been the slogan of the bourgeoisie since the early days of the French revolution of 1789), but of the social republic - that is, the republic of the poor and the working people, as opposed to the republic of the capitalists. This anticipated what happened 23 years later in the Paris Commune. This shocked and frightened the bourgeoisie, who bloodily suppressed the uprising in a foretaste of what would happen to the Commune. This brings me to Louis Bonaparte, who came to power after 1848 as a product of the defeat of the proletariat, the defeat of the revolution. There are those who say that his regime was a phoney replica of Napoleon I's. The latter regime could be described in various ways - as a reactionary manifestation of revolution, or revolution in the clothes of reaction. There are many ways of capturing the paradox that Napoleon I, having adopted the symbols of monarchy, succeeded in exporting the revolution to large sections of Europe. But the regime of Napoleon III, the pretender Louis Bonaparte, was a product of the inability of the French bourgeoisie to develop a political form though which it could carry out its own rule as a class. The bourgeoisie for over three years after the defeat of the working class in 1848 was forced to rule against its own anti-democratic instincts, in the form of a republic, which had not been its general habit for the previous period, when they supported the restored monarchies that had ruled France since the defeat of Napoleon I. The problem is that the bourgeoisie was divided over the question of dynasty, and the question of what particular form of monarchy (Bourbon or Orleanist) would best serve its interests. They could agree to differ only through adopting a form of republic. This strange, paralysed situation in the aftermath of 1848 was a very unsatisfactory state of affairs for the bourgeoisie - in those sorts of quasi-revolutionary conditions the idea of the rule of the people from below appeared to be legitimised. This is where the fake Napoleon came in. Napoleon III was an adventurer who attempted to use the name of his illustrious uncle as a demagogue, appealing to the peasantry in the main. He was elected president in December 1850, as head of a movement comprising declassed elements in the cities and the peasantry. The bourgeoisie were originally shocked by the election of Louis Bonaparte as president, but came to realise fairly quickly that this posed the solution to the problem of how they could construct a more stable state power. It was a means of setting aside the dynastic quarrels between the various monarchist strands and constructing a strong state that would protect the bourgeoisie against the threat of revolution. Thus the bourgeoisie supported the coming to power of Louis Bonaparte as a dictator, which happened about a year, almost to the day, after he was elected. He proclaimed what was called the Second Empire, which was a parody of Napoleon I's empire, prompting Marx to make his famous remark about history repeating itself as a farce. Proclaiming himself Napoleon III, Louis Bonaparte reduced the national assembly to a rubber stamp. The regime was a corrupt dictatorship, where prostitution flourished and every sort of financial chicanery prevailed. It was a dictatorship in which the bourgeoisie was able to retire from politics and gain more latitude than ever to pursue its own industrial and financial interests. The result of this was a rapid industrialisation of France, and the growth of the working class as a class. Under this corrupt regime there was a major growth in the productive forces. This is somewhat relevant to the conditions under which the Commune could take place. The end of the Napoleon III regime came about in the context of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which ended rather tragically for Louis Bonaparte. He was captured at the battle of Sedan, on September 2 1870. There then immediately followed another humiliating defeat for the French forces, at Metz. Germany was at that point consolidating into a nation-state based essentially around Prussia. It was able to seize the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The defeat in the reactionary war against Prussia provided the spark for the Commune. Revolution Marx wrote in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian war: "The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking on the doors of Paris would be a desperate folly." He goes on to explain that they would be smashed. And they were smashed. However, while this outcome was always likely, I do not think it was inevitable. What would have happened if they had not seized power? This is an abstract question, and it is rather difficult to stop something like that from happening. Marx warned against it, but, once it had happened, he supported it in every way. The overthrow of the Second Empire on September 4 1870 was essentially carried out by the working class of Paris, and France was proclaimed a republic. The events bear a significant resemblance to those just under 50 years later in Germany, where the collapse of the kaiser's regime led to the formation of the Weimar republic. In France in 1870, as in Germany in 1918, the collapse of the monarchy - or pseudo-monarchy in the case of France - led to power initially falling into the hands of bourgeois elements. Though they were raised to power by the actions of the working class, they were hostile to the independent interests of the workers, and quite prepared to ally with the worst reaction to prevent them from taking power into their own hands. Thus the Paris deputies of what had been the puppet national assembly under Napoleon III were allowed to constitute a government which was supposed to organise the defence of Paris, still under siege by the Prussians at the time. All Parisians capable of bearing arms were enrolled into the national guard - a militia-type formation. Simply by virtue of the fact that everyone was called up, it had an enormous working class majority. The antagonism between these armed workers and the bourgeois government repeatedly broke into open conflict. The bourgeoisie could not get away with anything. The result of that was a phenomenon that we have seen since: bourgeois defeatism. The bourgeoisie wanted the Prussians to get the war over with quickly so it could restore 'order'. So on January 28 1871 this so-called 'government of national defence' capitulated to the Prussians and tried to surrender Paris. But such was the power of the proletarian forces, they were unable to do so. The Prussians had to sign a separate armistice with the national guard, and they were able to occupy only a small corner of Paris, which was mainly a couple of public parks, and that only for a few days. The job of taking Paris against the working class was a somewhat more formidable job than defeating Napoleon III's army. The point is that such was the power of this working class, that the French bourgeoisie and its supporters more or less instinctively regarded it as a good idea to organise some sort of rival power. As these events were happening they took control of Versailles, the palace of Louis XIV and the French kings, and reconstituted the national assembly there. It was led by Adolphe Thiers, whom Marx called a "monstrous gnome". He was the leader of the Orleanist wing of the French monarchist bourgeoisie. The ruthlessness of Thiers was notorious. As in so many revolutionary situations subsequently, one can only say that if our side had shown the same degree of class consciousness and ruthlessness in dealing with our enemies as he did, then the victory of the revolution would have been much more likely. The bourgeoisie was hostile to and fearful of the arming of the proletariat. Therefore the first aim of the Versaillais was the disarming of the national guard, attempted on March 18 1871. They were caught in the act trying to steal the national guard cannon from Montmartre. This was done on the orders of Thiers. They were foiled by a combination of masses in the streets, the action of the national guard and the going over to the revolution of many of the troops who were sent to steal the weapons. The historian Lissagaray, who participated in the Commune, described what happened in this way: "As in our great days, the women were the first to act ... They surrounded the machine guns, apostrophised the sergeant in command of the gun, saying, 'This is shameful. What are you doing there?' The soldiers did not answer. Occasionally a non-commissioned officer spoke to them: 'Come, my good women, get out of the way.' "... Suddenly a large number of national guards, the butt ends of their muskets up, women and children, appeared on the other flank from the Rue des Rosiers. Lecompte, surrounded, three times gave the order to fire. His men stood still, their arms ordered. The crowd, advancing, fraternised with them and Lecompte and his officers were arrested" (History of the Paris Commune London 1976). In fact Lecompte and Clément Thomas, two of the senior officers who were in command of that particular expedition, were just taken out and shot. It was one of the few incidents where the workers actually took summary revenge on people who were trying to smash the revolution. Unfortunately there were rather too few of those incidents during the Commune. There was a disproportion in the subsequent casualties on each side. But I will come to that later. The outcome of the attempt by Versailles to seize the weapons was power in the hands of the central committee of the national guard, which immediately called for elections to the Commune, held on March 26. On March 28 the central committee handed power over to the elected Commune. The actions of the Commune, as listed by Marx, speak for themselves. On April 30 they abolished conscription to the standing army, declaring the sole armed force to be the national guard, into which all citizens capable of bearing arms would enrol. They cancelled all outstanding rents incurred during wartime, and stopped the sale of seized items that belonged to the poor. They confirmed the election of foreigners with the slogan, "The flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic". The salaries of elected officials were the same as that of skilled workers. The separation of church and state, nationalisation of all church property and exclusion of all religious symbols from schools were declared. The guillotine was publicly burned, and the Vendà´me column, a massive monument to Napoleon Bonaparte and a symbol of warmongering and conquest, demolished. The organisation of workers' cooperatives in factories that had previously been closed by their owners was begun, night work for bakers was banned and pawnbrokers closed down. The Chapel of Atonement, built by the French bourgeoisie as an offering in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI in the revolution of 1789, was destroyed. (As a symbol of bourgeois power and as a warning to workers, Sacré Coeur cathedral was subsequently built on the top of Montmartre, in thanksgiving for the crushing of the Commune.) Engels makes the point in his introduction to The civil war in France that these measures were pretty much cut short: "From the beginning of May onwards, all their energies were taken up by the fight against the army assembled by the Versailles government in ever growing numbers." They were compelled to fight for their lives, and revolutionary measures became somewhat overshadowed by this question. Paris was invaded on the western and southern fronts, and had to fight a desperate rearguard action, which involved setting the city on fire to slow down the advance of the enemy. The Prussian and German troops were less inclined to hunt down Communards than the French Versailles troops, who basically shot everyone they could get their hands on. Quite a few people managed to escape through the Prussian lines. They received a certain amount of sympathy and solidarity: not of course from the top brass, but from the ordinary Prussian soldiers. On May 28 the last Communards capitulated at Belleville in eastern Paris, which was the main working class district. Leadership That is a very brief account of what happened, but it raises questions about, for example, the nature of the Commune. The leadership involved different strands of political thought. There were people who considered themselves to be Jacobins in the tradition of Robespierre, and followers of Auguste Blanqui, one of the main leaders of the French workers' movement in the mid-19th century. His tactics and methods were those of putschism, of small groups of people attempting to seize power on behalf of the working class. Blanqui was already in jail at the time of the Commune, and was therefore not able to take part - luckily for him because he would have been shot. There were also a number of followers of the First International, which of course was founded and led by Marx, but not many of them were Marxists. There were also supporters of Proudhon, who had also been involved in the International. And there were a minority of more conscious communist elements - Leo Frankel, a member of the general council of the International, was an elected member of the Commune. As Lissagaray noted, "Many years would have been required for the development of the party of labour, hampered by young bourgeois adventurers in search of a reputation, encumbered by the conspiracy-mongers and romantic visionaries, still ignorant of the administrative and political mechanism of the bourgeois regime that they attacked." They did not know what they were doing to a large extent. But despite these shortcomings they managed to tap into the enormous revolutionary energy of the French working class and the Paris proletariat in particular. People like Eugène Varlin, a Proudhonist and member of the International, and an elected member of the commune for the sixth district of Paris, was shot by the Versaillais at the end of the Commune. People like Deleschluze, representing the 19th district, a member of the committee of public safety set up as the Commune was showing signs of losing its battle with Versailles, who was killed in one of the last skirmishes on the left bank of the Seine. There were Polish military exiles, such as Dombrowski and Wroblewski, people who fled the aftermath of the Polish revolution of 1830. They were murdered wholesale by the Versaillais. We honour these people, but we recognise how immature they were, the massive shortcomings and mistakes they made. The timidity of the Commune leadership was quite astonishing in some ways, especially compared to the Bolsheviks. In the very early period the French bourgeoisie was in a desperate situation. It had been defeated in war, it had a working class that had seized control of the capital, and its army was largely in captivity. Yet the Communards failed to march on Versailles. That might not have worked, but it would have put them on the offensive. They failed, as Marx pointed out, to seize the Bank of France. In fact in the first few weeks the Commune was involved in negotiations with the deputy governor of the bank (the governor himself had fled), which had 2,000 million francs at its disposal, to be able to pay the workers, to keep the Commune going. There is a tragic and comical interlude involving Beslay, a Proudhonist member of the Commune from the sixth arrondissement who was in charge of negotiations. He reported to the leading body of the Commune: "The bank is the leading body of the country. Without it, no more industry, no more commerce. If you violate it, all its notes will be so much waste paper." What absolute rubbish. This shows a superstitious regard for private property, despite the revolutionary pretensions of the Proudhonists - the expropriation of the banks had been part of Proudhon's programme. They failed to spread the Commune to other parts of France. There was a movement, parallel to the Commune, in several French cities, all the way down to Marseilles, Toulouse, Lyon and St Etienne, amongst others, but it was leaderless and petered out fairly quickly. This movement did not actually get to the point of seizing power anywhere else. Marx calls the situation a civil war and in some ways it was, but it was not actually fought as a civil war. The Communards remained on the defensive and did not see themselves as competing with Versailles for the right to rule the country. They had a conception of Paris as a free town, which the rest of France could imitate if they chose. And yet for a while France was there for the taking. The Versaillais had nothing to begin with. Around April 1 1871, they had, as Lissagaray chronicled, "only the rabble of March 18, strengthened by five or six regiments, about 35,000 men, with 3,000 horses and 5,000 gendarmes" (the gendarmes were the only corps with any solidity). He quotes the dismissive attitude of the Commune to these troops: "Paris did not believe in the existence of this army. The popular papers demanded a sortie, speaking of the journey to Versailles as a promenade." They allowed Versailles to build an army out of very little. Initially the Commune had far superior forces. At least 60,000 men, 200,000 muskets, 1,200 cannons, five forts, munitions enough to last for years, and milliards of francs. Said Lissagaray: "What else is wanted to conquer? Some revolutionary instinct. There was not a man at the Hà´tel de Ville [the city hall, the Commune headquarters] who did not boast of possessing it." But unfortunately, in the absence of a coherent programme, such forces were not enough. The form of the Commune was basically that of a municipal council, which was directly elected. Initially Paris was divided into 20 electoral districts or arrondissements, a bit like London boroughs. The question of democracy within this situation is key. The bourgeoisie had proposed its own electoral system for after the war: they wanted the areas to elect 60 councillors between them - three from each one, irrespective of the size of the population. So, for example, the 11th arrondissement would have three councillors despite the fact that it had a population of 150,000, while another arrondissement, where the bourgeoisie lived, would have three councillors for its 45,000 population. The Commune on the other hand decreed that there would be one councillor for every 20,000 electors, or each fraction of 20,000, which meant 90 representatives in all. A rather more equitable system. Marx comments in his address to the general council of the International, shortly after the defeat of 1871: "The Commune was formed by municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in various wards of the town, responsible and revocable for short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. "The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the central government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all time revocable agents of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages." It is also worth examining what the national guard, the core of the Commune, actually was. It was not a workers' militia at first - but it evolved into one. It was an irregular, state-sanctioned organisation, based on the masses, whose purpose was the defence of Paris in times of war. It was a product of French history, and the at that time incomplete formation of the French bourgeois state. This militia-type organisation grew out of Jacobinism and democratic revolution, which to some extent had been the traditions of the bourgeoisie. But it proved its non-utility for the bourgeoisie, because it did not separate the ranks of this particular armed force from the rest of the population. Hence in the middle of a revolutionary upsurge, at the time of defeat in the reactionary war against Germany, it became the military, and also the political, locus of the working class revolution. Lessons Both the bourgeoisie and conscious elements of the working class drew crucial lessons from this. The bourgeoisie was alerted to the danger of armed formations that are not separated from the masses, and the need for a professional, or at least a regular, standing army. The Versaillais had to build one from scratch, out of the ruins of Bonaparte's forces. But this would not have been possible without the lack of consciousness about aims and strategy from the leadership of the Commune. So from our point of view the lesson is that we need to shatter the regular forces of the bourgeois state. We need to split the army from below. You can argue that the national guard was a split in the army from below. On a more general programmatic level, there are also lessons to be drawn about the relationship between bourgeois democracy and working class rule. The Paris Commune, you could argue, was not a soviet. Formally it was a municipal council. It was elected by universal suffrage, not based in its organisational form on workplaces - the Russian soviets in 1905 basically grew out of the strike committees. But the Commune was much more of a traditional state/democratic-type organisation than that. That does not mean I regard the Commune as an inferior form of organisation to a soviet. There is more than one way to skin a cat. I have no dogmatic hostility to utilising particular historically evolved formations, such as the municipal councils that came from 1789 and subsequently became the organisational form of a very short-lived workers' state. The key to it was, as Marx said, the end of the distinction between the legislative and the executive, and the creation of a working body, which, combined with the universal arming of the population and attacks on private property - expropriating factories and reopening closed workplaces under workers' management - was clearly a break with capitalism. Looking at the Paris Commune through the spectacles of the Russian Revolution, it is clear that unlike in Russia, where the working class was compelled to improvise dual power forms entirely from scratch, the commune gave a new, socialist content to that which was derived from older forms, from Jacobinism and the most democratic aspects of earlier French revolutionary traditions, the municipal council. The Commune was not a new thing as a body: there was a commune in 1789, which was a municipal council as well. But it gained a new content. Universal suffrage in this sort of situation, as a demand against the bourgeoisie that was afraid of working class power (which is why they supported Napoleon III in the first place), has a real democratic-revolutionary cutting edge. This raises some interesting questions about the role of democratic demands as a driving force for proletarian revolution. It is clear to me that in this situation, in a country with a tradition of revolutionary-democratic agitation, where the system has been brought to disaster by a regime of anti-democracy under capitalism, this kind of demand for democracy could have a revolutionary dynamic. It is not so clear to me that in other situations, such as in contemporary Argentina, where there has been universal suffrage for a long time, where capitalism is going into a situation of economic collapse, such demands would have the same progressive significance or revolutionary potential. The debate about Argentina is about whether a constituent assembly could be the locus of some sort of revolutionary attack upon capitalism. I have grave doubts. Remember, the situation in Argentina was not provoked by a crisis in war or attack on formal democracy. It arose because the bottom fell out of the economy, which necessitated as a minimum programme some sort of attack on capital's power over the means of production itself. I do not see a constituent assembly, which is a call for a new democracy, a half-way-house to the dictatorship of the proletariat, performing such a role. I am uneasy about raising demands that artificially isolate the political form from a major economic catastrophe. The question of private property and direct workers' control was on the agenda in Argentina - it was a revolutionary situation. One further question is the relationship between counterrevolution in the 19th and 20th centuries: ie, the relationship between counterrevolution and fascism. Lissagaray describes the bloody suppression of the Commune and the terror, the real massacres that took place after the Versaillais reconquered Paris. Lenin made a distinction between supposedly progressive capitalism in the 19th century and reactionary imperialism in the 20th century. But reading accounts of the suppression of the Commune makes me wonder if there was really such a massive difference. There is a considerable resemblance between the white terror and the butchery of tens of thousands of workers, the torture and degradation and deportations and massive blood lust against the Communards by the French bourgeoisie, and such phenomena as the crushing of the Hungarian soviet republic in 1919. Similar white terror, similar barbarism and massacres. It used to be a standard riposte to the British establishment's anti-Nazism that the British are just as bad: they invented concentration camps in the Boer War. But I do not think that is true. I think the French bourgeoisie invented concentration camps: they built them in places like New Caledonia, where they sent the Communards to die. They invented the concentration camp to imprison the captives of the defeated Commune.