Inspirational feats and heroic failure

The Paris Commune teaches us valuable lessons, writes Nick Rogers

One hundred and forty years ago the suppression of the Paris Commune was reaching its climax. On May 21 1871 the troops of the ostensibly republican regime based in Versailles entered Paris. They quickly occupied the wealthier west of the city. Nevertheless, for another week the working class and plebeian population of Paris, particularly in the north and east, resisted, as 130,000 troops systematically extinguished the hopes of the previous seven weeks, along with thousands of lives - 17,500 is the lower official estimate; some historians have calculated in the region of 35,000.

As the barricades fell, those fighters who surrendered were lined up and shot. The wounded were dispatched where they lay. Others were beaten to death with rifle butts. Women had fought heroically alongside men. Neither they nor children were spared by the forces of Versailles. The bodies - some still breathing - were dumped in shallow graves.

Even after the fall of the last barricade on May 28, the killing continued: those wearing army boots (assumed to be soldiers who had gone over to the Commune); those with watches (assumed to be communal officials); women with milk or wine bottles, who were denounced as petrol bombers.

Jean-Baptiste Millière had been elected a deputy for Paris to the reactionary assembly based in Versailles. After attempting in vain to conciliate between Versailles and Paris, he had returned to the capital but took no part in the Commune. Still he was ordered to be shot by a general who had been “revolted” by an article he wrote. Millière was “a viper that should be stamped out”.[1]
The counterrevolution was attempting to purge Paris - the city of revolution - of all political trends that posed any threat to the established order.

Thousands of survivors were to spend years in prison or brutal exile.

In ‘the civil war in France’, completed a few days after the fall of the Commune, Karl Marx quoted from an article by the Paris correspondent of the Daily News. It reported the behaviour of general Marquis de Gallifet, the head of the Versailles cavalry, after he halted a line of prisoners: “Walking down slowly and eyeing the ranks, the general stopped here and there, tapping a man on the shoulder or beckoning him out of the rear ranks. In most cases, without further parley, the individual thus selected was marched out into the centre of the road, where a small supplementary column was, thus, soon formed ...

“It was not a good thing on that day to be noticeably taller, dirtier, cleaner, older or uglier than one’s neighbours. One individual in particular struck me as probably owing his speedy release from the ills of this world to his having a broken nose ... A few minutes afterwards a dropping fire in our rear commenced, and continued for over a quarter of an hour. It was the execution of these summarily convicted wretches.”[2]

This was the same general Marquis de Gallifet who was appointed minister of war in the Waldeck-Rousseau government that the socialist, Alexandre Millerand, joined in 1898. It was the debate around this crisis in the international socialist movement that prompted the 1904 series of articles by Karl Kautsky which is currently appearing in the Weekly Worker, having been translated by Ben Lewis.

Kautsky was defending the Marxist republican tradition against those who suggested that the reactionary nature of the French Third Republic emerging from the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune implied that the workers’ movement should be indifferent to the constitutional form of the bourgeois state. A monarchy or a republic? How was that of concern to the workers?

Kautsky’s response is to explain why for Marxists republican agitation does not cease with the formal removal or abdication of a monarch, but continues until the conditions have been created for the working class to take power: “ie, the republic as a means of the emancipation of the proletariat”.[3]

In the first two articles Kautsky traced the history of republicanism in France, starting with the revolution of 1789 and the first republic. This week Kautsky reaches the Paris Commune of 1871 (pp8-10). For Kautsky, the Commune of some 30 years previously was the clearest example of the kind of emancipatory republic he aspired to win. In this article I want to provide a little of the background to the revolution that was the Paris Commune and ask what lessons Marxists can still draw from the experience of the Parisian working class 140 years ago.

Accidental revolution

No-one planned to carry out a revolution on March 18 1871.

A couple of days earlier Adolphe Thiers, head of the provisional government, had moved to Paris, together with the rest of his team. Elections on February 8, hastily called as a condition of the January 28 armistice with the Prussians, had produced a large majority of reactionary and monarchist deputies. The moderate and rightwing republicans who had retained power since the fall of Napoleon III’s empire on September 4 1870 - after the defeat of French forces at the hands of Prussians at Sedan and the capture of the emperor - managed to play off the factions and, with some reshuffling, continue in office.

Now - with little need of prompting from Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who was anxious to see the disarming of a hostile force - order was to be restored to the turbulent capital that in a display of patriotic republican fervour had withstood a desperate winter siege and Prussian bombardment. Effectively, under the leadership of national guard battalions that elected their officers, the people of Paris were armed. After the political and economic breakdown of the winter and the departure of many of the wealthy inhabitants of Paris, everyone understood that the people armed meant the working class and poorest citizens armed.

The cannons possessed by the national guard had become the principal point of contention. The national guard considered the cannons to be literally their own property, since they had been purchased by public subscription. The government wanted to remove them from the hands of the populace. After an earlier attempt to do so the crowd had on January 29 seized those located in the Place Wagram and transported them to the more working class northern and eastern suburbs.

Now Thiers and his cabinet wanted them back. In the early hours of the morning of March 18, the military commander of Paris organised the dispatch of army columns to the various sites where cannons were held. The most dramatic events took place on the heights of Montmartre. At this period a citadel of the working class, the hill was not yet disfigured by the marble basilica of the Sacré Coeur - built explicitly in expiation of the plebeian ‘outrages’ of the Commune.

On Montmartre and elsewhere the troops found the cannons unguarded and quickly took them under their control, but made no speedy effort to make off with them. As the local population awoke, the women were the first to react. They came onto the streets, stood in front of the troops and formed a barrier when national guardsmen arrived. The leader of the Montmartre military column, general Claude Lecomte, ordered his troops to fire on the crowd. They refused and military discipline collapsed.

Throughout Paris ‘fraternisation’ dissolved the distinction between the crowd, the national guard and government soldiers. Lecomte was seized by the national guard to protect him from the crowd and his own troops. Despite their best efforts, later in the day Lecomte was executed along with Jacques Clément-Thomas - picked out by the crowd as a leader of the repression of the June 1848 uprising.

These two deaths, along with the execution of ‘hostages’ (including the archbishop of Paris) in the final stages of the Commune’s suppression, were subsequently proclaimed by government spokesmen as evidence of the bloodlust of the communards, justifying the slaughter of scores, then hundreds and finally thousands by ‘official’ France.

On March 15 the various battalions of the national guard had elected a central committee. This was now the effective political authority in Paris and it took control of the hôtel de ville (town hall), traditionally the focus of French revolutionary actions. The red flag was raised.

A full meeting of the government at the foreign affairs ministry was swiftly abandoned, with Thiers being the first to be driven away hastily in a coach to Versailles.

The battle lines for the next 72 days were being drawn - revolutionary Paris against the forces of ‘order’ to the south-west in Versailles.

Famously, Karl Marx, speaking on behalf of the general council of the International Working Men’s Association (subsequently known as the First International) after the declaration of the September 4 republic, had advised against any uprising: “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 at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen must perform their duties as citizens ... Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.”[4]

Now, however, he threw himself into support for the Commune. In an April 17 letter he scolded his correspondent, Louis Kugelmann: “World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature if ‘accident’ played no part .... The struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained.”[5]

Extreme democracy

What did revolutionary Paris achieve in the space of the little more than two months allowed to it? From the perspective of Kautsky’s argument on republicanism, it is the political and constitutional forms it erected that are its most significant legacy. The long quote Kautsky gives us from Marx’s ‘The civil war in France’ demonstrates that it is a view he shared with Marx.

In its first week or so the central committee of the national guard was primarily concerned to establish political legitimacy by handing power to the people of Paris. It sought to hold city-wide elections. These were delayed while negotiations took place with the mayors elected for each arrondissement on November 4 1870, who had collectively been running municipal affairs. The mayors as a group were of a moderate republican temper, but eventually recognised the reality of the new power balance in Paris.

On March 26 elections took place to a Commune of 90 members, with one representative for every 20,000 electors. The election was based on universal manhood suffrage using the existing electoral register. Despite the leading role of women on March 18 there was no suggestion that they should be enfranchised. The Commune was to be the central authority (although sometimes contested, as we shall see) for the remainder of the revolution. For Marx, the key lesson of the Commune’s rule was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.[6]

The standing army was abolished: “Paris could resist only because in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men... The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.”

The police also were transformed: “the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune.”

The communal assembly itself was “responsible and revocable at short terms” and was to be “a working, not a parliamentary, body - executive and legislative at the same time”.

The roots of bourgeois careerism were cut off: “From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service at to be done at workmen’s wages.”

These principles applied equally to the legal system: “Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible and revocable.”

But Marx resisted the suggestion that this conception of governance represented the abolition, rather than the reconfiguring and transformation, of the state: “The few but important functions which still would remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by communal, and therefore strictly responsible, agents ... While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”

For the purposes of Kautsky’s and our discussion of republicanism, it is necessary to emphasise that in Marx’s view the bedrock of the form of democracy that can serve to emancipate the working class is quite simply universal suffrage: “The Commune was formed of municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town.”

Marx’s response to Mikhail Bakunin’s criticism of electoral democracy is instructive.[7] A choice example of Bakunin’s approach is the following: “By a people’s government the Marxists understand the government of the people by means of a small number of representatives elected by the people by universal suffrage. The election by the whole nation of the self-styled representatives of the people and leaders of the state - this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school - is a lie that conceals the despotism of the governing minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it is presented as the expression of the alleged will of the people.”

The distortion of Marx’s argument is transparent. Universal suffrage is the starting point of Marx’s conception of democracy, but his discussion of the Commune two years before proves definitively that it is hardly the “last word”. In response to a question Bakunin’s poses, “The Germans number about 40 million. Will, for example, all 40 million be members of the government?”, Marx responds unashamedly: “Certainly! Since the whole thing begins with the self-government of the Commune.”

Social revolution

The social measures carried through by the Commune were modest by comparison with the constitutional forms it pioneered: ie, Marx’s conclusion that “the great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence” (p217). This was partly an inevitable consequence of the revolution’s short time-span, but it also reflected a degree of ineffectiveness on the part of the Commune, which discussed much, but decided little, and the conflicting cacophony of political trends that were represented.

During the months of the siege political organisations in Paris had multiplied, but there were also attempts to generalise political trends, such as the national committee of the 20 arrondissements, in which the Paris branch of the International was influential.

Kautsky has traced the lines of development of the main political traditions. In Paris 1870-71 it was mostly Proudhonists (dominant in the Paris branch of the International), Blanquists and straight Jacobins who vied to have their voices heard, while avowed Marxists were very thin on the ground.

A few were influenced by Marx, however - some of the Proudhonists, for instance, as a consequence of their involvement in the International. The Proudhonists, against their better judgement, given their mutualist political doctrine, had also been influenced by the rising strike wave in France - the Paris branch of the International even shared a building with the French trade union federation. Forty members of the Commune - out of the 81 who eventually took their seats - had been involved in the workers’ movement, and most of these had joined the International.

The Blanquists had less contact with Marx, since they had held back from joining the International and were only to do so when in exile in London after the defeat of the Commune (they left after the 1872 decision of the Hague congress to relocate to New York). Marx, nonetheless, considered Blanqui the only political leader who might have provided some coherence to the Commune’s military operations. But Blanqui spent the whole period of the Commune imprisoned by the Versailles authorities. He was only to be released in 1879, two years before he died.

The prominent Jacobin, Félix Pyat - who contrived to place himself at the centre of communal political events, but disappeared from the scene in late May at the approach of Versailles troops, to reappear when safely in exile - was considered by Marx to be a dangerous demagogue and charlatan from whom he had determinedly disassociated the International on several occasions during the 1860s.

So Marx is speaking of unfolding logical consequences rather than programmatic commitments when he announces in defence of the Commune: “Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators.”

The concrete social reforms of the Commune fell into three broad areas. First there was the crucial step taken to cancel rent payments for the period October 1870-April 1871. Any sums already paid were to be credited to the account of the tenant. This early measure was a direct rebuff to the national assembly, which had voted to end the moratorium on the payment of rents enacted by the provisional government of national defence and enforce the payment of arrears.

This cancellation also met the needs of many middle class inhabitants of Paris. Economic activity had ground to a halt during the siege and it had become a question of economic survival for many. Throughout February public meetings had been held in Paris on this issue and a Tenants League was formed. This one measure decisively secured broad support for the communal authorities. However, it outraged the most conservative forces in France. Take Flaubert: “The government is interfering now in matters of natural law; it is intervening in contracts between individuals.”

The Commune set up nine commissions to fulfil the role of government ministries. Only two took effective action in the field of social reforms: the commission of labour and exchange, headed by Leo Frankel, and the education commission, headed by Édouard Vaillant, who despite his Blanquist proclivities was a member of the International and knew Marx.

The commission of labour and exchange promulgated two measures relating to labour conditions - the abolition of the night work of journeymen bakers; and the abolition of fines by employers on their workers. It also passed a decree authorising trade unions to take over workshops abandoned by their owners and run them as cooperatives. Ten factories were subsequently occupied for this purpose.

The education commission took steps to increase educational provision and root out the influence of the church. For much of this it was dependent on support at local level and progress differed from arrondissement to arrondissement, depending on the level of local self-activity.

Lest we be too critical of the progress made by the Commune, it is worth bearing in mind that many civil servants and other administrators left Paris for the duration. Simply keeping existing services functioning in the face of this disruption, and in the context of foreign occupation and civil war, was in itself a major achievement.

Many observers attest to the success on this front - and also to the virtual disappearance of crime. Even those who were far from entirely sympathetic. The Observer of May 24 1871 commented that the leaders of the Commune were men who “governed well, very patiently - quite as well as an English vestry would have done.” And in August 1871 Fraser’s Magazine concluded: “The Commune was a mistake; but it did keep Paris clean and morally wholesome; it did manage its police, its schools, its hospitals strangely well.”[8]

‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’

How are Marxists to characterise the Paris Commune? It is possible to construct a rather pedantic argument around this issue. In his writings Marx never used the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in relation to the Commune.

On the other hand, Engels in his introduction to the 1891 edition of ‘The civil war in France’, addressing those German social democrats who wanted to shy away from the term, did: “Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what the dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Does this reflect a significant difference between Marx and Engels?

Well, Hal Draper has shown Marx had not used the term in any context for 20 years before the events of 1871. It was simply not Marx’s favoured term for discussing what he usually described as “the rule of the working class”. Draper also points to a contemporary newspaper report of a speech Marx gave at a banquet after the September 1871 London conference of the International. Many former members of the Commune were present, including Blanquists, against whom Draper argues Marx was more likely to discuss the dictatorship of the proletariat - in contrast to the Blanquist concept of ‘dictatorship of the conspiratorial sect’.

The report paraphrases Marx as defining the Commune as “the conquest of political power of the working classes” and saying that, before the basis of “class rule and oppression” could be removed, “a proletarian dictature would become necessary”.

August Nimtz is correct to argue that this piece of evidence does not settle the argument particularly decisively one way or the other. However, I think he is on shaky ground when he argues that, if push came to shove, Marx would rather have characterised the Commune as a “dictatorship of the people’s alliance - that is, an alliance of the proletariat and its allies - or, the working classes in its broadest sense”.[9]

No working class revolution will be made without building alliances with other social classes, but this does not affect the fundamental nature of working class rule. The point about the Paris Commune is that the working class - however politically confused the bulk of its representatives - was hegemonic.

Marx again: “The multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favour, show that it was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”[10]

This strikes me as fairly conclusive evidence of Marx’s view. What is the dictatorship of the proletariat if it is not “the political form ... under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”? It is true that Marx was later to admit that “the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist nor could it have been”. I agree with Draper that this is a question of political programme versus class content (workers’ state) - although admittedly when these aspects of working class rule are out of sync we have a highly unstable political form.

More to the point, contemporary participants and observers were agreed on applying the terms ‘working class’ and ‘proletarian’ to the institutions and actions of the Commune. The bourgeois press, once again, can be instructive. The Times of March 29 1871 wrote that one of the main “streams in the bed of the insurrection ... was the predominance of the proletariat over the wealthy classes, of the workman over the master, of labour over capital”.

Military disaster

The prospects for the success of the Commune were never very good. Surrounded on three sides by victorious Prussian forces that were reluctant to directly intervene (aware that an attack by foreign invaders would rally support for the Commune), but not prepared either to see the social and political forces represented by the Commune flourish. On the other, a vengeful Versailles.

The omissions and commissions of the Commune itself contributed to defeat. Primarily, the prosecution of the war effort was nothing short of disastrous. Marx thought the key error was to focus on elections in the days after March 18 rather than make an immediate attack on Versailles and eliminate the threat from that quarter. Whether the military forces of the Commune would have been capable of an organised attack so far from their home base is a moot point.

In the early days of April, angered by exploratory attacks on Paris’s defences by the forces of Versailles, a grande sortie against Versailles was launched. Versailles by this stage had been able to bring in troops from other parts of France who could be insulated from the contagion of Paris. ‘Fraternisation’ was not to be a feature of any of the later stages of the war against the Commune.

A later sympathetic description has the mood and composition of this ‘military’ expedition as more “a band of turbulent holidaymakers setting out gaily and unconcernedly for the country than a column of attack”. Fired on from a fort they assumed was in friendly hands, the majority of the column fled back to Paris. The remainder came within four miles of Versailles, but they were dispersed and hunted down. Gallifet began as he meant to go on, executing three prisoners - a form of exemplary punishment he had apparently refined against Mexican insurgents. Goustave Flourens (who had led the October 31 1870 Blanquist attack on the hôtel de ville) after surrendering was chopped to death with a sabre. Ex-soldiers on the side of the Commune were shot out of hand and the prisoners who survived were kept in appalling conditions in Versailles.

At no stage in the remaining weeks of the Commune was anyone able to form the military resources at the disposal of the Commune into any kind of coherent force. The national guard battalions were loathe to leave their home district. Forts were abandoned. Attacks initiated and then turned into retreats.

In the meantime, relations between the Commune and the central committee of the national guard (which had not dissolved itself, as many expected) deteriorated. Neither displayed evidence that they were capable of taking control of the situation.

At one stage in early May a meeting of 15 battalions of the national guard demanded that the Commune abolish the war ministry, leaving the central committee in sole charge of military affairs. If the Commune hesitated the national guard “would act in a revolutionary fashion and take over again their revolution”. In effect, a coup was being threatened.

Later when the Blanquists and Jacobins successfully persuaded the majority to set up a committee of public safety with dictatorial powers - prompting the sizeable minority who opposed this measure to walk out of the Commune - no discernable contribution was made to improving Paris’s fighting capacity.

When the decisive attack by Versailles was made, their forces entered Paris unopposed and it was virtually a day before the authorities in the hôtel de ville became aware of the severity of the situation. Under attack, the forces of the Commune retreated even more determinedly to their local district. This time around, the cannons of Montmartre were taken without a fight. Square by square, district by district, arrondissement by arrondissement, the barricades, although defended with fierce heroism by a large part of the local population, fell.

Bank of France

There was one other instrument the Commune could have used to give themselves negotiating options. The Bank of France remained in Paris throughout this period. Yet the communards treated this institution with the utmost caution and restraint. The acting governor, the Marquis de Ploeuc, cultivated relations of concerned bonhomie with the member of the Commune sent to negotiate with him, the Proudhonist, Charles Beslay.

De Ploeuc argued that a seizure of the Bank’s reserves would destabilise the currency and the French financial system and discredit the Commune in the rest of France. Beslay - true to his Proudhonist beliefs in the importance of credit for mutualist ventures - was impressed with this argument: “In financial matters, the Commune’s only principles should be order and economy.” De Ploeuc offered regular loans (a total of just under 17 million francs) so that the Commune could pay its bills.

Yet, had the Commune seized control of the reserves, they could have held bourgeois France to ransom. This was no doubt in Marx’s mind when he wrote to the Dutch socialist, Ferdinand Nieuwenhius, on February 22 1881: “With a small amount of sound common sense they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people - the only thing that could be reached at the time.”

The reserves were substantial: 500 million francs in cash; 11 million francs in bullion; seven million francs of jewels held on deposit; and one billion francs of assets, shares and securities. They far exceeded the Commune’s own needs and were a much bigger sum than the indemnity demands made by Bismarck.

But there was no-one to challenge Beslay. His attitude of financial probity - a feature of working class reformism ever since - was shared by the financial commission and the question of the Bank of France was never discussed in the Commune.

Communist republicanism

The historical experience of the Paris Commune teaches us a threefold lesson.

First, the key role of political leadership and programme. The Commune clearly lacked coherent political leadership. It did not even have a clear idea of what it sought to achieve. This was partly a question of political ideology, but it was also an expression of the lack of any working class party to speak of. In Paris (and in the other cities of France, where during this period several communes of only a few days’ duration were declared) there were political traditions, clubs and conspiratorial groupings. Lacking from the political firmament was any party seeking to democratically represent the interests of the whole class.

The International came closest and was subsequently blamed by the French government for the uprising. It banned the International in France and wrote to governments around Europe urging them to take the same action. But the Proudhonist majority in the French section held to a theoretical position that rejected political action (and trade unionism, for that matter). It was not ready to lead a workers’ revolution.

Second, the spontaneity of the working class is capable of great feats. What was achieved in Paris during April and May 1871 by the citizens of the city retains the capacity to inspire. Local initiatives proliferated. Right up to the last week a mood of festival prevailed. It is not the role of a political party to subsume or subdue such initiative, but to provide a focal point for directing the working class’s capacity for political and organisational creativity in an agreed direction.

Third, a workers’ revolution transforms the political and constitutional landscape or it is not a revolution. That is why communists raise democratic and republican demands. It is a lesson most of the present-day ‘revolutionary’ left has forgotten. The rediscovery of Kautsky “when he was a Marxist” can help hammer home that lesson.


  1. S Edwards The Paris Commune 1871 Newton Abbott 1972, p341.
  2. K Marx ‘The civil war in France’ First International and after, political writings Vol 3, London 1974, p233.
  3. K Kautsky, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ Weekly Worker April 28 2011.
  4. K Marx, ‘Second address of the general council on the Franco-Prussian war’ First International and after, political writings Vol 3, London 1974, pp185-86.
  5. K Marx Letters to Dr Kugelmann London 1936, p125.
  6. This and following quotes in this section from K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’ op cit.
  7. Discussed in H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3, Dictatorship of the proletariat New York 1986, pp298-301.
  8. Both quotes H Collins and C Abramsky Karl Marx and the British labour movement: years of the First International London 1965, p200.
  9. AH Nimtz Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough New York 2000, p220.
  10. K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’ op cit p212.