The 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune has given rise to many studies, books, comments and public enthusiasm. Much more than the hundred years of the Russian Revolution.
By Michel Lenoir, Paris
The Commune still in vogue
This striking difference is due to a series of factors, at least three. Unlike the Bolshevik Revolution, whose terrifying Stalinist aftermath induced a disgust, often confused but quite generalized, the Commune was crushed in a merciless massacre and thus retained the status of an ephemeral but grandiose historical fact, unsullied by a degenerative process. Moreover, the Parisian revolution of 1871 retained a fairly general sympathy on the left and is still celebrated in the workers’ movement, while within it, the October Revolution has always been divisive by nature. As in recent years, after the collapse of so-called “communism” in the East, libertarian currents are on the rise – at least in terms of ideological influence – in several countries, it is the non-authoritarian, even libertarian aspect of the Commune that is often waved as a flag. Many revolutionary movements – albeit of different persuasions – have taken up the communalist terminology, from Shanghai to Chiapas, from Oaxaca to Rojava. The current social struggles that are partly or wholly based on it are also common, from Notre-Dame des Landes to a fraction of the Yellow Vests. Let’s add to this the currents of critical thought that are seizing on it, following the example of Murray Bookchin, theorist of libertarian municipalism. And these are just a few examples.
But if there is no lack of reasons to be passionate about the Paris Commune, or even to marvel at its spirit of freedom, equality and solidarity, and its spontaneity, we cannot ignore its tragic outcome, which deserves our reflection. It is by no means an insult to the Commune to look at its weaknesses and errors, to try to understand the reasons for its terrible defeat. This approach is essential if we are to draw updated lessons from this grandiose but short-lived historical experiment, in order, perhaps, to ensure that workers and people’s insurrections are not interrupted by an abominable slaughter, and finally lead, on the contrary, to lasting and cumulative victories. To understand what the Commune was, let’s first try to grasp what social and political forces were present in the Communard camp.
Trotsky, the Commune and the missing party
The Bolsheviks studied the Commune a lot to learn from it to win when their time came against the owners and oppressors. For Marxist-revolutionaries – unlike the anarchists – it is a given that what the Paris Commune lacked was a revolutionary party. In his preface to C. Talès’s 1921 book, Trotsky explains that the working masses need a party to win, even if they are the ones making the revolution. Why do they need a party?
The Commune shows us the heroism of the working masses, their capacity to unite in a single block, their gift of sacrificing themselves in the name of the future, but it shows us at the same time the incapacity of the masses to choose their path, their indecision in the direction of the movement, their fatal inclination to stop after the first successes, thus allowing the enemy to recover, to re-establish its positioni.
A little further on, Trotsky specifies in a few words what he means by revolutionary party:
The workers’ party – the real one – is not a machine for parliamentary manoeuvres, it is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat. It is only with the help of the party, which relies on the whole history of its past, which theoretically foresees the paths of development, all the stages and extracts the formula of the necessary action, that the proletariat frees itself from the necessity of always starting its history over again: its hesitations, its lack of decision and its mistakes. The Paris proletariat did not have such a partyii.
A party, in a way, so that the proletariat stops having to play the legend of Sisyphus!1 A party for action, but also a party of memory. If the existence of such a revolutionary party was indeed lacking in 1871 – the International Working Men’s Association, or IWA, or First International, founded in London in 1864 did not meet these criteria, I’ll come back to that – I’ll also note that the absence of such a party is intimately linked to the weaknesses that led the Commune to its crushing. But it is worth going further upon reflection. This is possible because the history of the Commune has progressed a lot since 1921. In this perspective, I will try to bring elements of answers to two questions:
– Why a revolutionary party such as the one Trotsky wanted didn’t exist in 1871? There are objective and, above all, subjective causes for this, some of them are material ones and others belong to the ideological domain, both of which are linked, as we shall see.
– In what way, indeed, would a real revolutionary party of the workers have had more capacity to avoid the fatal outcome of the Commune? We’ll note, in this respect, that some of the causes which prevented the emergence of such a party played a direct role in the weakening of the Commune and the strengthening of the Versailles counter-revolution.
About the conditions for the emergence of a proletarian revolutionary party in 1871
What I would like to point out here is that the historical conditions did not yet allow the Parisian proletariat to have a revolutionary party that was both sufficiently rooted and politically mature to confront the situation effectively. By historical conditions, I refer both to the objective conditions, linked to the state of social structures, in particular class structures; and to the subjective conditions, to the perceptions and consciousness of the actors of the Commune and their structuring into “parties”. Yet, one only has to look at the history of France and Paris since the end of the 18th century to realise that the French capital had experienced more revolutions than others, and therefore had more lessons to learn from them than anywhere else in the world… And yet, there was no party capable of synthesising the lessons. The IWA had developed a lot in France and Paris during the last years of the Empire, participating in workers’ struggles throughout the country. But the IWA, a broad workers’ grouping, absolutely did not possess the degree of coherence and centralisation of a revolutionary party as described by Trotsky. The IWL was very young and the debate advanced step by step.
Paris, capital of revolutions
Let’s first put the Commune back in the long term, to remember that it took place after a series of revolutionary upheavals that shook France, and especially Paris. They include the French Revolution (1789-1794) and, in particular, the revolutions deemed “liberal” in July 1830, and “democratic” in 1848. In each of these revolutions, the people – and in particular their working-class component – shed their blood but, in the end, their sacrifice strengthened another class, or a fraction of the ruling classes, propelling it to the top of political power. But the revolutionary soil was fertile, and between these great dates, many riots and attempted insurrections also punctuated the political life of the 19th century.
After the crushing of the Parisian workers in June 1848, the dominant classes entrusted the keys of the country to Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the former French emperor. From the coup d’état carried out by the latter on 2 December 1851, France lived under the yoke of the Second Empire. The very authoritarian regime allowed the capitalist class to prosper by doing brisk business. The country was rapidly industrialising and making a quantum leap in heavy industry, especially in the field of rail transport. Financial speculation was also on the rise. From the end of the 1860s onwards, the empire was said to be ‘liberal’: it was a little less authoritarian, but it was also sinking into economic and political difficulties. To escape this, the Emperor embarked on a bellicose headlong rush – which would prove fatal – against Prussia. The war, declared on 19 July 1870, quickly turned very bad for the regime: on 2 September, the French army suffered a crushing defeat at Sedan, and the Emperor was taken prisoner by the Prussian army. As soon as the news of this imperial and national humiliation spread, the people took to the streets to bring down the regime, particularly in Lyons, Marseilles and Paris, where the republic was declared without difficulty. But “republic” and “democracy” did not mean the same thing to the little people of Paris and to the individuals that their uprising would bring to the government known as “National Defence”. In a few months, this hiatus would become painfully obvious.
Proletarians and Communards
Historians agree on the essential role played by the Parisian working class in the emergence and animation of the Commune. However, there has been a bias in interpretation which has long consisted in more or less applying the structures and characteristics of the 20th-century proletariat to that of 1871. In the last fifty years or so, thanks in particular to the work of Jacques Rougerie, it has become clearer that this was a major source of error. This major historian of the Commune even went so far as to write:
The communard has nothing of the modern proletarian. Just as the Commune was based on tradition, on the memory of the Great Revolution, so in the common Parisian of 1871, there are still many features, barely rejuvenated, of the distant sans-culotte, notably the demand for direct participation in the exercise of power, or furious anticlericalismiii.
Nothing of the modern proletarian? Rougerie probably goes too far: the base of the Commune is above all working class, and the workers of Paris in 1871 are already proletarians: they don’t own the means of production and have to sell their labour-power. But they were less concentrated proletarians than those of the 20th century, and they often possessed expertise, which was jeopardized by capitalist mechanisation. In 1871, the proletariat had certainly grown a lot since its purely embryonic phase of 1793 and had also changed qualitatively. But the phase of its gestation preserved some of its original characteristics. The uninterrupted process of proletarianisation of society was massive thereafter, leading to qualitative transformations of the class. The class had changed a lot by the 20th century when the historiography linked to the workers’ movement (especially the French Communist Party) developed.
Of the 79 elected members of the Commune, there were about thirty workers and “artisans”, an approximate number given the too strict character of this classification for the timeiv. More generally, among the Communards, there were certainly proletarians selling their labour-power to capitalist factory owners. But more numerous were skilled or even highly skilled workers – some of whom had become small artisanal bosses –, and whose profession was exercised in small productive units. The Communards also had non-manual occupations (clerks, salespeople, accountants, teachers, lawyers, journalists, doctors, academics, etc.). Many of the professions, both male and female, have since disappeared. But as far as the working class is concerned, and to illustrate my point by limiting myself to the elected representatives of the Commune, I will cite a few examples of these manual and working-class professions, often highly qualified. Eugène Varlin, an elite worker, was not the only bookbinder on the Council of the Commune: this was also the trade of Adolphe Clémence. Joseph Oudet and Gabriel Ranvier were porcelain painters, as well as Alfred Puget, who later became an accountant. Eugène Pottier had been a cloth designer before becoming a poet and writing the lyrics of the Internationale. Henry Champy was a goldsmith and the boss of a small company; Antoine Demay, a statuary; and the Hungarian Marxist Leo Frankel, a goldsmith and clockmaker. Albert Theisz, the Commune’s postmaster, was a bronze chiseller.
The elected representatives were quite numerous among the shoemakers: Emile Clément, Simon Dereure, Jacques Durand, Alexis Trinquet, or Charles Ledroit, who later became a photographer, while Auguste Serraillier, Marx’s envoy for the IWA, was a bootmaker, and Fortuné Henry, a leatherworker. Louis Chalain, an IWA activist, was a mason. Charles Amouroux was a hatter and Clovis Dupont a basket maker. Benjamin Barré worked as a woodworker, Hubert Géresme as a winemaker, while the International activist Jean-Louis Pindy was a carpenter. Another IWA cadre, Benoit Malon, was a dyer, like Victor Clément. The Communal Council also included metalworkers of various levels: Emile Duval, an iron founder; Charles Ostyn, a lathe worker; or the IWA militants Camille Langevin, a mechanic and metal turner, and Adolphe Assi, a mechanic, who had been hired as a mechanic-adjuster at Schneider in Le Creusot, and had played an important role in the 1870 strikes at this large company.
The Parisian National Guard and its Federation with its elected and revocable bodies, including the Central Committee, were more working-class in their social composition than the Communal Council, which proportionally included more intellectuals, some of whom (journalists, teachers, lawyers, academics, etc.) could more easily make themselves known than manual workers. But this does not call into question the strong overall presence of manual labour, which was very much in the majority in the popular base of the Commune, and strongly represented in its Council. If manual jobs are very present in the Commune, it should also be noted that a large proportion of them are reserved for women, who earn on average half as much as men. These trades do not appear, because even under the Commune, the world of political institutions remained a world of men, as women did not vote. The many professions reserved for women, which have often disappeared, appear in the reports of the Councils of War following the Commune: we find, in particular, lingerie makers, laundresses, ironers, milliners, embroiderers, boot stitchers, quilters, breeches makers, waistcoats makers, glove makers, dressmakers, seamstresses, cardboard makersv… Many manual trades, therefore, highly specialized, often skilled, and practised mainly in small production units, often in the home.
In any case, the methodological error of adorning the Communard people with sociological characteristics, or modes of thought specific to the French proletariat living half a century or even a century later, leads to a failure to understand the incapacity in which the working class found itself at the time to create a party such as that described by Trotsky.
Working-class Paris under the Commune
To see this more clearly, we need to look at the demographic data. Paris was then a city of about two million inhabitants. The majority of its inhabitants were working-class people who led a very harsh life. These categories were highly concentrated in the northern and eastern districts of the capital, while the bourgeois resided in the west (and many had fled since the siege by the Prussian army in September 1870). The popular categories included the unemployed (living from begging, prostitution, or petty theft); workshop or factory workers; office workers; small civil servants; craftsmen and small traders.
The working-class population represents a major part of the active population: there are nearly 500,000 workersvi. Five years earlier, in 1866, 57% of Parisians lived from industrial activities, and 12% from commercial activities. There were 455,400 workers, 120,600 employees (in shops and services), 140,000 bosses and 100,000 servantsvii. Of the workers, half worked in the garment and craft industries, and one-tenth in constructionviii. Although the working-class population was in the majority in Paris, its distribution in the economy and the productive structure were very different from what would prevail from the end of the 19th century and especially in the 20th. Let Rougerie describe this vanished world to us:
Small-scale industry reigned supreme: more than 60% of “bosses” worked alone or with a single worker. But alongside the tiny shops, a host of small and medium-sized workshops, there were solid factories with 50, 100, sometimes 500 workers: goldsmiths, bronze workers, and manufacturers of metal objects. Two locomotive factories, Cail in Grenelle and Gouin in Batignolles, have more than a thousand workers; the workshops of the Chemin de fer du Nord in La Chapelle have been a metallurgical fortress since 1848. Entrepreneurs of all sizes made the dispersed workforce of the clothing industry, mostly women, work at home; clothing companies and department stores competed fiercely with the independent craftsman […] At the bottom of the ladder, there was the day labourer, whose work was uncertain, and at the top, the artist worker. There is the worker of old Parisian stock and the recently immigrated worker. Each trade has its own colour and its own place […] This astonishing diversity also makes for an astonishing unity; a Parisian working-class “nationality” has been forgedix.
It is clear that among the categories of workers, what predominates in 1871 is the worker who works in a workshop or a very small production unit and not a large factory. In France and Paris, there were of course already large companies, but the workforce was mainly scattered in small, often very small companies. The general framework was still that of very competitive capitalism, and monopolies would come later.
Ideological consequences of the class makeup of Paris in 1871
This point is far from being merely descriptive: this reality necessarily influences the consciousness of the majority of Parisian proletarians and their perception of what capitalism is, and the representation they have of their main enemies. What the working people reject is the political power of those from above and the corrupt people who wallow in it or hover around it; they are the “vultures”, as the profiteers of shortages are called, or the owners of buildings (the leeches to whom you have to pay your rent). Not forgetting the priests and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the almost unanimous pet peeve of the Communards. The rejection of the bosses as such is not massively widespread, unlike in 1936 for example. This is because the vast majority of the Parisian working class is still close to the (small) boss, who works alongside them. The majority of these proletarians see the boss as a craftsman, often hard-working and competent, a person with whom one often has a personal relationship, not as a capitalist exploiter. The link between capitalist exploitation and the extortion of surplus-value is not obvious in a context where most of the small bosses are also co-workers of their workers. Capitalist relations of production are still largely in their infancy. The situation is different in the more developed factories. But once again, these are few in number. Despite everything, the proletariat in some sectors, although very scattered among numerous small production units, managed to organize itself during large-scale class actions: this is the case of the bookbinders, who led big strikes in 1864 and 1865, then of the bronze workers in 1866, and this allowed the International to build itself and to show its usefulness. But basically, this particular structuring of the rising proletariat, still very atomised, necessarily influences its level of consciousness and its understanding of the capitalist world. And this has immediate wider ideological and political consequences. This is particularly the case on the question of ownership of the means of production: many workers do not envisage the expropriation of their own boss, often a craftsman close to them. And this, even if it’s fair to consider that the Commune is situated in an objective opposition to capital… Which the latter understood very well.
Let’s note that the expropriation of capital is not put forward as a watchword by the Commune. Two facts illustrate this: the attitude of the Communards towards the Banque de France (to which I’ll return later), and the reactivation of workshops abandoned by their owners. When it decreed the requisition of abandoned workshops, the Commune chose to hand them over to workers’ associations that would be set up for this purpose. This was certainly not a simple circumstantial measure: the decree provided that “in the event of the return of the boss, the workers’ association would keep the workshop. But as a sign of the compromise of the communist policy, the boss would benefit from compensation”x. Despite the presence of a majority of elected representatives calling themselves “socialists” – the term “communist” is much less claimed – in the Council of the Commune, the socialism of the Communards is very vague, and its content is disputed. “One idea was unanimously shared by the Communards: work should receive its just reward. But from there, many paths diverged, even diverged. It is also clear that the truly socialist measures were limited”xi. The general idea that prevails is to distribute the value produced among the producers, and not to the benefit of the exploiters. But as for the measures to be taken and the degree of confrontation with capitalist property, vagueness and indecision prevail. The Commune has no clear plan to attack – at least not directly or not immediately – the private property of the means of production. While the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the collective ownership of the means of production were to become a key programmatic element of the socialist and then communist parties, this was not at all unanimous among Communard Paris.
More exactly, the Communards spoke, certainly, of the cooperation of labour. But if there is to be collective ownership of the tools of labour, the anti-capitalist form which we knew later – the expropriation of the masters of capital by a proletarian government (or one claiming to be such) – is not on the agenda. In fact, in 1871 there was a great deal of confusion about the structure of property and the framework of production to be put in place. The struggles of the last few years had not yet allowed us to go far in the programmatic and strategic debate. In fact, Marxism was still far from having taken its full place in the workers’ movement, while anarchism was still in the early stages of its expansion in Paris at the time. This brings us directly to the following question: who were these Communards? What do we know about their political thinking, their aspirations? How were they organized, in which “parties”?
Ideas bringing together the Communard camp
When the Commune was set up, there was no Communard “party” in the sense of the word “party” today. From September 1870 onwards, IWA activists and others tried to federate the “vigilance committees” into the Central Committee of the twenty arrondissements (Paris districts). This could be likened to an embryo of a party, intended to bring together socialist revolutionaries throughout Paris, at the rate of two delegates per arrondissement. But here again, this delimitation remains very broad. Self-organisation in the arrondissements, in addition to the clubs, places of intense and daily debates present throughout the city (but more particularly in the working-class neighbourhoods), allowed the militants to address the working masses and to get the most advanced people to act together. But political decantation takes time.
We can count three main ideological currents among the Communards: the Proudhonian current, the Blanquist current and the Neo-Jacobin current. Each current has its own particular characteristics, but there are divergences and contradictions both between these groups and within them. During the last years of the Empire, during the government of National Defence, and during the short period from 18 March to 28 May, decantation would affect all the sensibilities. In the same way that it is necessary to understand that the Parisian working class of 1871 was very different from that of the 20th century, one should grasp that these political currents, which have now disappeared, cannot be considered as precursors of those which have appeared later (socialists, anarchists, social democrats, communists, etc.). In 1871, the programmatic and strategic debates were barely sketched out. In fact, the fall of the Paris Commune would largely contribute to developing the debate within the international workers’ movement.
Several major points were agreed upon among the currents propelled into the animation of the Commune: a categorical rejection of monarchical and imperial reaction, and detestation of aristocrats, as had been the case 80 years earlier; a visceral republican demand, despite a rather vague definition of this republic, but which can be summarised by expressions emanating from the communard movement itself: “democratic and social republic”, “universal republic”; a fierce desire to do away with the clergy and its influence on society. Let us now say a few words about the three political currents mentioned above.
Proudhon asserted his opposition to the state and to the principle of authority, which he rejected both in a monarchy and in the Jacobins. For him, the revolution must be based on the idea of reciprocity. As a promoter of mutualist ideas, he was opposed to all statismxii. Wanting to base the political order on freedom and not authority, he ardently defended the ideas of decentralisation and federation, a contractual principle that should govern both economic relations and political choices.
The ideas of Proudhon (who died in 1865) were still very influential on the Parisian working class in 1871. Even if Proudhon and his followers denounced many of the evils of the system, in their perception, the market was considered to be fair by nature, and neither the exchange of goodsxiii nor wage labour was questioned. Their critique remained partial, failing to perceive the exploitative process inherent in capitalism, rooted in the extortion of surplus-value. Rather, they believed that all the ills of society at the time were linked to phenomena outside the market: political interventions, the constitution of large companies and monopolies… For this current, a perfectly competitive market should allow for a harmonious coexistence between masters, journeymen and apprentices – a bit like in a mythical past – to remove the threat of ruin to this small market economy posed by competition from large industry. This is a misunderstanding of the fact that capitalist competition sooner or later leads to monopoly, through concentration and centralisation. We also understand that this world view was quite in harmony with the thoughts of the still predominant world of workers and craftsmen and that the question of expropriating capital did not arise for the proponents of this view.
On many points, the Blanquists, who were not very theoretical, were the opposite of the Proudhonians. Blanqui (nicknamed “l’Enfermé” – the “Enclosed One” – because of his long years in prison) and his followers were inspired by the years 1792-1793, by the supporters of Hébert and by the revolutionary Commune of the time. They thought above all in terms of action, the seizure of power, and the strategy and tactics to achieve it. Riots and coups de force were central. The insurrection was seen as an art. It implied the construction of a disciplined apparatus, made up of highly dedicated militants, ready for anything. The construction of a political tool is of primary importance here, intending to seize power and establish a revolutionary dictatorship. For Blanqui and his supporters, the people must be educated, but this will take some time. That’s why a revolutionary dictatorship must be set up, and govern in this perspective. But what revolutionary dictatorship? For Engels:
Given that Blanqui conceives of every revolution as a coup de main, it follows, of necessity, that a dictatorship will be established after its triumph, by which I don’t mean a dictatorship of the revolutionary class – the dictatorship of the proletariat – but the dictatorship of the handful of those who made the coup de main and who themselves were already, beforehand, organised under the dictatorship of one man or severalxiv.
One can assume that there might be authoritarian drifts if the Blanquists succeed in taking power. Another characteristic of Blanquism was its ardent patriotism. This is what led them, along with others, to put their opposition to the government of National Defence on the back burner for a while, while the Prussians approached Paris and then laid siege to it. For H. Lefèbvre:
The pure patriotism of Blanqui and the Blanquists made it a link between the other tendencies. These tendencies […] have a more or less elaborate programme. In this respect, they diverge: but they all share, during the siege, the passionate rather than reasoned patriotism of the Blanquistsxv.
This is the most influential and numerous current among the elected members of the Commune, headed by the emblematic figure of Charles Delescluze. Less proletarian in its composition than the Proudhonian current, or even the partly proletarianised Blanquist current of the last few years, the neo-Jacobins were often known through their intellectuals, lawyers, journalists and academics. The “veteran of forty-eight” Delescluze had studied law and started his life as a lawyer before becoming a journalist. The controversial Félix Pyat was a journalist, while Pascal Grousset was a doctor. Like the Blanquist movement, the Neo-Jacobin movement was very much inspired by the French Revolution, but it drew its inspiration from the thought and action of Robespierre rather than from that of Hébert. For the Neo-Jacobins, the Revolution that began in 1789 was not finished, and it was necessary to bring it to a conclusion, because since the counter-revolution of 1794, apart from the short interlude of 1848 to 1851, the republic had been supplanted by reaction, royalist and imperial. The place taken by the Neo-Jacobin current was largely due to its dearly paid opposition to the coup d’état of 1851 and its opposition to the Empire, which had earned its leading figures very high regard.
The slogan “republic” united the Neo-Jacobins, of course, and far beyond. But which republic? According to D. Gluckstein, “for some, this was the ‘Republic, one and indivisible’, as enunciated by Robespierre, which focused on the need for a strong state to carry society forward. More left-wing Jacobins preferred the slogan of ‘The social and democratic’”xvi.
The International and its Parisian federation do not strictly speaking represent a fourth current, because the IWA brought together militant fighters, men and women, united in a socialist perspective. The IWA participated in strikes and political struggles while making efforts at programmatic elaboration, but the socialism in question was not qualitatively better defined within it than in the whole Commune. Since its creation in 1864, the IWA had developed a lot in the last years of the Empire, but it remained a very broad political grouping. Beyond its particularity of being an international, which made it enjoy wide popular esteem while generating many illusions about its power and wealth, it was the object of specific repression by the reactionary powers (first the Empire, then the Versailles reaction). But the IWA brought together activists with diverse convictions. Some internationals were also Blanquists. This was the case with Emile Duval, who was to play an important military role (from the insurrection of 18 March until his death on 3 April), even if contact with the International pushed him away from the excessively militaristic methods of the Blanquists. Many members of the IWA were greatly influenced by Proudhon, starting with Charles Beslay, to whom I shall return.
Among the elected members of the Commune, few members of the IWA were Marxists. We can mention Auguste Serraillier, who had been living in exile in London since the coup d’état of 1851, where he became a man of confidence of Marx, on whose proposal the IWA had sent him to Belgium as secretary-correspondent, before he joined Paris on 6 September 1870. Leo Frankel, who was first appointed member of the Labour and Exchange Commission and then delegate of the Commune to this function, was also among Marx’s supporters in the IWA. Outside the Communal Council, we should also mention the case of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, only 20 years old at the time of the Commune, a Russian internationalist revolutionary who had already taken part in the foundation of a section of the IWA in Switzerland, before going to see Marx in London, and then committing herself wholeheartedly to the Paris Commune, in particular with the creation of the Women’s Union for the defence of Paris and support for the wounded.
These are the ideological and political currents that were to share the weight of influence on the course of the Commune experience. To conclude, let us say the following. Firstly, even if the Neo-Jacobins were the most numerous, none of the political and ideological currents presented above had a clear ascendancy over the others. Second, all were radically republican, but the conceptions of the republic differed. Thirdly, even when these currents talked about socialism, the view of the latter remained rather vague; in particular, the question of the attitude towards private property was not clear-cut among the communard forces. Fourthly, the Blanquists, sometimes marked by an authoritarian leaning, had military experience and were used to a violent confrontation with the authorities, but they were in the minority and were rather vague about the socialist project and general political proposals. Fifthly, the Proudhonians, distrustful of the state on principle, were very concerned with economic and social questions but lukewarm about the initiatives to be taken on the political and military level. Sixthly, the Neo-Jacobins were very marked by the experience of the great French Revolution, but this often led them to use politically outdated concepts and watchwords. After this brief overview, we guess that the strengths of some of these currents were counterbalanced by the weaknesses of others, and vice versa.
18 March: how to move forward with it?
A spontaneous “insurrection”?
Of course, the “assault on heaven” of 18 March was not a thunderclap in a serene sky. After a siege of about five months by the Prussian armies, and a little more time spent discovering the reality of the government of “National Defence” set up from 4 September 1870 onwards – the people of Paris gradually understood that despite its name, it was a government of capitulation and national treason – a whole series of factors prepared the ground for 18 March. Let’s mention just a few facts in the weeks leading up to it, to try to gauge the state of exasperation into which the working classes of Paris were brought, thus pushing them to “insurrection”. After months of deprivation, famine and cold – but suffering very unevenly distributed according to social class – the occupation of part of Paris, from the 1st to the 3rd of March, by German troops and their parade on the Champs-Elysées, desired by Bismarck and accepted by Thiers, was a real insult to the sacrifices made and aroused the anger of the people. But the measures then taken by the government and the ultra-reactionary National Assembly (known as the “Rural” Assembly) elected on 8 February could only bring the situation to a head. Firstly, the choice, after the armistice, to “decapitalise Paris” by deciding to move the parliament from Bordeaux to Versailles, the capital of the kings, a city-symbol hated by the republican people, led them to think that the reactionaries, monarchists and others, were threatening the republic. Then, the working classes of Paris, already in misery, were violently attacked at the purse: while unemployment was general, the pay of 1.50 francs per day paid to the members of the National Guard allowed them to hold up a little better to them and their families; the government decided precisely to remove this pay for all those whom it did not recognise as indigent and unable to work: such an attack would affect as well the small artisan and commercial bourgeoisie as the working world. Moreover, while bank payments had been postponed since the beginning of the war, and business had not resumed, here this Assembly of the wealthy voted that all the deadlines extended for seven months should be paid within 48 hours, which could only lead to bankruptcy of hundreds of thousands of small businesses. Rents that had been outstanding for months would also have to be paid to the landlords, whose selfish interests were faithfully represented in government and parliament. Not to mention the war debt of five billion gold francs that France would have to pay to Germany, and that the property-owning classes wanted the people to pay…
Finally, there is the matter of the cannons. These had been paid for by subscription by the Parisian people during the siege, but Thiers wanted them back. Beyond that, he wanted to put an end to the dual power represented by the Central Committee of the National Guard and inflict a major defeat on the revolting people of Paris. It was thus necessary for him to disarm it. But the National Guard had been made increasingly suspicious: some of these cannons had been left by the government in the area of Paris that Bismarck’s armies were to occupy, and the National Guard had mobilised to put them in a safe place, on the heights of north-eastern Paris, in Montmartre in particular. But for many Federalsxvii, all this smacked of treason… Moreover, Thiers had already failed to take back some of these weapons. He nevertheless decided at the council of ministers of 17 March to send, from the following night, a troop of some 15,000 soldiers of the regular army to Montmartre (4,000 men) and elsewhere (6,000 men sent to Belleville, to the Buttes Chaumont, to the Villette)xviii, not only to recover the cannons but also to arrest a series of revolutionary leaders.
In one sense, but one sense only, the “insurrection” of 18 March was not completely spontaneous: the popular anger at its origin was directly provoked by the will of the possessing classes, their government and their parliament to disarm what they called “the scoundrel” and to inflict a major defeat on them, and this military aggression came after the provocations recalled above. But the course of the day was truly spontaneous, for no one had planned this insurrection. Neither the Central Committee of the National Guard, nor the IWA, nor any of the political currents presented above. The actors of 18 March were indeed the popular masses, starting with the women of Montmartre who confronted the troops and prevented them from recovering the cannons. It was the delay due to the unforeseen very late arrival of the carriages to evacuate the cannons, and above all the mobilisation of the Montmartre women, their calls for fraternisation, that pushed the soldiers of the regular army to refuse to obey the orders of General Lecomte, who wanted to fire on the crowd. The execution of the latter and of his colleague Clément-Thomas, who was recognised and arrested not far from there, were also spontaneous events, which took place against the will of the national guards present. While the warm fraternisation between the people and the soldiers deepened in Montmartre, the revolt spread, and scenes of fraternisation were repeated elsewhere in Paris. Gradually, the popular masses flooded the streets and avenues of Paris, while barricades were erected everywhere. One thing leading to another, the masses converged on the Hôtel de Ville. At dawn and on the morning of 18 March, most of the militants were absent (except for Duval, Eudes, Ranvier, Henry, Louise Michel and perhaps a few others)xix. They would only be at work at the end of the morning, and especially in the afternoon, well after the decisive moments. Let us specify that the meeting of the Central Committee of the National Guard had ended very late in the night of the 17th to the 18th.
It is therefore an impromptu uprising. One is amazed by the power of this spontaneity. Nothing was planned. Nobody imagined that 18 March would be the starting point of a revolution. The explosive material had accumulated in Paris. The spark came from the armed attack of Thiers and his followers against the people of Paris, a necessary condition for bringing the latter to their knees and imposing the reactionary measures decided upon. A Thiers in a hurry to settle his account with the Parisian “rabble” before the installation in Versailles of the “Rural” Assembly.
The flight of the executive to Versailles. What to do at this moment?
From the afternoon of the 18th, Thiers ordered his ministers and all his civil servants to leave Paris and to come to settle in Versailles. The national executive power thus chose to desert the capital. The bourgeois state apparatus, abandoned, collapsed in Paris… to be reconstituted elsewhere. Taking the Hôtel de Ville was therefore child’s play for the Central Committee of the National Guard that day. But what to do then, once you’re there? This is where the power of spontaneity shows its limits. Especially as the question was anything but simple.
Very quickly, the question of the legitimacy of power arose. What was the legitimacy of the Central Committee of the National Guard, and for what purpose? The overwhelming answer was that the Paris Commune had to be elected very quickly, and then all power had to be handed over to its elected Council. Yes, but in the meantime… what to do with the enemy? During the Central Committee meeting on the morning of the 19th, we certainly heard: “We must march on Versailles, disperse the Assembly and call on the whole of France to take a stand”xx. But the opinion which prevailed then was rather this one: “We have only mandate to ensure the rights of Paris. If the province thinks like us, let it imitate us”xxi. Among the Central Committee, the Blanquists called for Thiers to be pursued to Versailles (in particular Emile Eudes and Emile Duval, both of whom were soon to play an important military role). But they were in the minority. Overall, several commentators insist that recklessness prevailed, primarily among the people of Paris. As C. Talès, the day after 18 March, people were worried about an offensive return of the army, “everywhere barricades were going up; people looked at them with a confident satisfaction, they thought that ‘if they come back, they will be well received’”xxii. For his part, Lissagaray noted that on Sunday 19th, “a spring sun was laughing at the Parisians”xxiii. This is understandable: after months of great suffering, and a brilliant historic victory the day before, why not take advantage of the fine weather?
This context of widely shared optimistic naivety encouraged the immense majority of the Central Committee of the National Guard to neglect to ask themselves a crucial question: what did Thiers intend to do in Versailles? Wasn’t there a great danger in allowing him to prepare the counter-offensive there? This is what a handful of revolutionaries rightly guessed, but they were too isolated to extract the decision of an armed offensive against Thiers and Versailles. The Central Committee, therefore, chose not to pursue the military advantage and to concentrate on the transmission, as quickly as possible, of the powers it had in its hands to an elected communal assembly. Let’s stop for a moment on this choice, which has often been commented on, and which moreover led Marx to formulate his criticisms of those he called the “too generous victors of 18 March”xxiv:
In its reluctance to accept the civil war begun by Thiers with his attempted night break-in at Montmartre, the Central Committee committed, this time, a decisive mistake in not marching at once on Versailles, then entirely undefended, and thus putting an end to the plots of Thiers and his “Rural” people. Instead, the party of order was again allowed to try its strength at the ballot box on 26 March, the day of the Commune electionxxv.
Indeed, despite the will of the Central Committee to proceed immediately to the elections of the Commune, the talks with the republican deputies and mayors of districts of Paris (legally able to organize an election) dragged on, forcing the Central Committee to postpone the ballot. It was only on 28 March that the Commune was proclaimed, and it only started work on the 29th. Ten days were thus lost for the military balance of power, ten days that Thiers was able to use, while during the bourgeois “run-for-your-life” to Versailles of 18 March, the military apparatus of the wealthy, in tatters, was undermined by indiscipline.
What arguments in favour of an immediate offensive by the Federals against Thiers and the Versaillais could have prevailed? In the first place, the fact that Thiers himself had never hidden the fact that he wanted the political power to fall back on Versailles to better counter-attack and seize Paris by crushing the insurgents. He had suggested the same plan in 1848, but it was not followed then. But this old bourgeois had the foresight: on 18 March, he quickly understood that this was what he could and should do, hence his order to transfer the executive and the entire administration of the country to Versailles immediately. Secondly, the few thousand workers’ deaths of June 1848 could have served as a reminder that the bourgeoisie, even the “republicans”, had already not hesitated to resort to butchery to put an end to workers’ insubordination. In the workers’ and people’s camp, we note here both a tragic magnanimity, a lack of understanding of what the ruling classes are, of their determination to maintain their order by all means, and a failure to learn the lessons of history. Of course, in 1871, the historical reference points in this area went back to June 1848. It was remembered in the families, but very few individuals were in a position to have learned and remembered the lessons fully.
It is precisely at this level that a party-organisation of the class and at the same time a party-memory, a party turned towards revolutionary action having learnt the lessons of history, understanding the laws of the class struggle, knowing how to evaluate the enemy, their plans and their projects, was lacking. A party that would have understood the game that the ruling classes were playing and that would have been able to explain that Thiers’ interest was to gain time to reorganise his military apparatus and that the time lost by the insurgent Parisian people was time offered to Thiers. If the Central Committee had been under a greater influence of trained and experienced revolutionaries, these explanations might have had a greater echo. It is, moreover, among Eugène Varlin’s many merits that he pushed the Parisian Internationals to invest themselves massively in the Central Committee of the National Guard, an organization which some of his comrades initially perceived with indifference or distrust. But if Varlin’s influence made it possible to get a certain number of IWA militants elected to the Central Committee, their presence was not enough to sway the 19 March decision in the direction of the offensive against the reactionary fugitives. This also allows us to verify that the IWA also had many merits, but had not had the time to become the coherent and determined party of the proletariat which, in fact, was lacking. Moreover, after the revolution of 4 September 1870, Marx, and Varlin himself, were cautious: far from pushing for insurrection, they doubted the possibilities of the IWA to play its full role and wanted above all to organise and build the International.
Thiers, who was worried shortly after his flight to Versailles about possible persecution by the Parisians, was, therefore, able to use his retreat to the royal city to reorganise the army and to recover military units from other regions, negotiate with Bismarck the release of soldiers held prisoner by Germany and their incorporation into the vast and expanding military camp that was Versailles, train all these armed men by removing them from the deleterious influences of the Communist press, subjecting them instead to the brainwashing of the dominant ideology. In fact, the 72 days of the communard epic were a period when the balance of power kept deteriorating for the people and improving for the Versailles army. On 2 April, the Versaillais already attacked Courbevoie by surprise and initiated the practice – which was not interrupted until after the end of Bloody Week – of the summary execution of prisoners. From that moment on, the Parisians would hear the sound of cannon fire every day. The civil war had begun with the action of 18 March. It started again for good, on this occasion. Immediately afterwards, on 3 and 4 April, the indignant Communards decided to leave Paris and attack Versailles. But the unprepared attack had the unfortunate surprise of being bombed from the fort of Mont Valérien, which was in the hands of the Versaillais, contrary to what Charles Lullier, appointed commander-in-chief of the Paris National Guard by the Central Committee on 19 March (but dismissed shortly afterwards), had led them to believe. Last but not least, the Versailles army had already greatly improved in terms of numbers and organisation during the past two weeks. The military defeat of the Commune on 4 April had a fairly devastating effect on morale and helped to keep many National Guardsmen away from the fight. The period that began then, and which led up to the Bloody Week, saw an increase in the number of Parisians killed by bombardment and saw the Versailles positions strengthen, gradually gaining ground towards Paris, before the irruption of 21 May.
What could have been the consequences of an offensive choice against Versailles immediately after 18 March? Trotsky, well experienced in matters of insurrection and military strategy, wrote:
The enemy had fled to Versailles. Wasn’t that a victory? At that moment, we could have crushed the government gang almost without bloodshed. In Paris, all the ministers could have been taken prisoner, with Thiers at the head. No one would have raised his hand to defend them. We didn’t do it. There was no centralised party organisation, with an overview of things and special organs to carry out these decisions. The remnants of the infantry did not want to retreat to Versailles. The thread that bound the officers and soldiers together was very thin. And if there had been a leading party centre in Paris, it would have incorporated into the retreating armies – since there was a possibility of retreat – a few hundred or even a few dozen dedicated workers, giving them the following instructions: to excite the discontent of the soldiers against the officers and to take advantage of the first favourable psychological moment to liberate the soldiers from the officers and bring them back to Paris to unite with the people. This could be easily done, according to the opinion even of Thiers’ supporters. No one thought of itxxvi.
Rougerie seems to have taken sides in favour of moderation, and criticised the offensive approach advocated by Eudes and Duval, and supported by Marx and then by Trotsky. For him, the majority of the Central Committee thought as follows, and the historian seems to prove them right:
Versailles would perhaps fall. But then, to what atrocious civil war would we be led, under the eyes of the occupier? First, the situation in the capital had to be consolidatedxxvii.
Who is right? We are entering the realm of history-fiction here, so it is better to refrain from taking a peremptory tone. I will just make a few remarks. On 19 March, the Parisian National Guard had a clearly favourable balance of forces against Versailles. In any case, this balance of power was never again so favourable. Thiers knew this, as he feared a Communards’ offensive at that time. It would have been possible on the military level to effectively inflict a defeat on the bourgeois and aristocratic reaction. Of course, the German occupier was at the gates of Paris. What would have been Bismarck’s attitude to the Communards triumphing over Versailles? And that of the German soldiers? It is difficult to say, but one can imagine that the German state leaders would have hesitated to engage in combat against a victorious insurrection of Paris against Versailles, if only for fear of revolutionary fraternisation: wouldn’t the German soldiers have risked being “contaminated” by the “reds”? In such a context, it might have been better to make the return journey to Germany. It is at least certain that this concern would have weighed in the reflections of William and Bismarck. As for the other corps of the French army dispersed in the country, one can also think that the chances of fraternisation with the Commune would have increased after the dismantling of the reactionary, political and military apparatus defeated at Versailles. One can then imagine that this could have strengthened the communalist insurrections in the provincial towns, whereas, weaker than in Paris, these stopped at the beginning of April.
It is impossible, therefore, to affirm anything on this point. But based on these few reflections, it is possible to say that the “atrocious civil war” feared in the national context and the presence of the German enemy at the gates of Paris might not have been as atrocious as the very real civil war, the class war which ended in the Bloody Week and the crushing of the Commune on 28 May. In any case, if the Parisian insurgents had triumphed immediately over Versailles, they would have found themselves in a consolidated position and would have had a stronger ascendancy over the province and its cities. This is why I think that the position defended by Eudes and Duval, then by Marx and finally by Trotsky holds the sea.
The question of the Bank of France
This is the other point often criticised as a major error of the Communards, notably by Marx and his successors. But this criticism came later, after the crushing of the Commune. Lissagaray, in particular, is virulent on this subject when he writes his history published in 1876:
All serious insurrections have begun by seizing the nerve of the enemy: the cash box. The Commune is the only one that refused. It abolished the budget of the cults which was in Versailles and remained in ecstasy in front of the cash box of the high bourgeoisie which it had in handxxviii.
In the heat of the moment, the position adopted in the name of the Commune was moderate and respectful of property. But apart from the disagreement of Varlin, and perhaps of a few others, it was hardly fought. It is necessary to measure that this question could not be thought out in advance and that it fell to the leaders of the revolution as a problem to be solved urgently, but for which nobody was prepared. Beyond the purely financial data, who were the main actors, but also what were the concerns, modes of thought and ideological conceptions at stake?
While the executive and its administrations had fled to Versailles, the Banque de France could not do the same. It remained stuck in Paris, unable to transport or endanger all its gold, its savings and its files in such a move. From 19 March onwards, the Central Committee of the National Guard faced the problem of financing the city’s expenses, starting with the National Guards whose daily pay of 1.50 francs had to be paid. And this, in a context of administrative vacuum. Therefore, even before the Commune’s election, the question of relations with the Banque de France was raised. According to the figures given by Lissagaray, the Banque de France had some three billion francs, the details of which he gives as follows: “cash 77 million, banknotes 166 million, portfolio 899 million, securities in guarantee of advance 120 million, ingots 11 million, jewels on deposit 7 million, securities deposited 900 million, that is to say, two billion 180 million. Eight hundred million in banknotes were just waiting for the cashier’s signature, a signature that was easy to make”xxix.
It was first François Jourde, an accountant by profession, and Eugène Varlin who were put in charge of the affair, as delegates for Finance of the Central Committee. They intervened in a framework already defined as temporary before a legitimately elected Commune made the fundamental choices. By negotiating with Rouland, the governor of the Bank, then with the deputy governor De Plœuc after the departure of the first to Versailles on 23 March, they obtained six advances totalling 2.5 million francs, “to complete the payment of the indemnities due to the national guards, their wives and children”xxx. After the proclamation of the Commune, the number one contact of the Banque de France became Charles Beslay. He was a former boss, very close to Proudhon, a supporter of the association of capital with labour, having joined the IWA in 1866. He was the oldest member of the Communal Council, and he joined its Finance Commission, becoming a delegate to the Banque de France. Often presented as “the bourgeois of the Commune”, he intended to respect legality and opposed a seizure of the Bank by the Commune. He knew the directors of the Banque de France very well and they were happy to deal with him. The Finance Commission was headed by François Jourde, also elected on 26 March and appointed Finance Delegate by the Communal Council. He was an honest and scrupulous manager, also respectful of the law and the Banque de France. In the Finance Commission, Beslay and Jourde were surrounded by Varlin, Victor Clément, and Dominique Régère.
For Beslay, Jourde, and most of the elected members of the Commune, Paris is not the whole country, and therefore it would not be right to seize the Banque de France. Consistent with the federalist paradigm, it is a matter of addressing the cities of France to create a federation of communes that could then establish relations with the Banque de France. In an interview with the right-wing daily Le Figaro, published on 13 March 1873, Beslay stated:
I went to the Bank intending to protect it from any violence by the exaggerated party of the Commune, and I am convinced that I have preserved for my country the institution which constituted our last financial resourcexxxi.
As for Jourde, he declared during his trial before the Council of War: “I defended, there as elsewhere, the same principles, the respect of property and private rights”xxxii. According to the historian Delalande:
For Jourde and many others, this financial moderation was one of the conditions for the ‘salvation of the Commune and the Republic’. Any measures that might have weakened the credit of the Banque de France would have been counterproductive, particularly because the Parisian government had to reassure the rest of Europe if it wanted to be able to obtain suppliesxxxiii.
This was not Varlin’s position. As early as 19 March, he had proposed to seize the Bank of France to the Central Committee, given the delay in the payment of the National Guards. This idea was discarded, in favour of the idea of a loan of two million francs. Thereafter, Varlin, always anxious to defend a mass line, left his proposal aside. According to Lejeune:
This proposal of Varlin is in line with all his ideas; previously, at meetings of the IWA, he had spoken out in favour of the abolition of the monopoly of the Banque de France. And yet he was going to have a legalistic attitude on 19 March and the following days. […] Why this moderation, this legalism? Varlin was worried about the acceleration of events on 19 March, he knew the Parisian masses, he knew that they were not ready to take power. The very rejection of his proposal to seize the Bank of France proves to him that the Central Committee itself remains on legalistic positions (its intention, immediately declared, to proceed to elections also proves this)xxxiv.
The problem that the Commune had to resolve was therefore of various kinds. On the politico-ideological level, we understand the paradox: what should a power that wants to be strictly municipal do when faced with a colossal source of financing, but whose activity concerns the entire national territory? It is clear here that there is a conflict between the claimed principles of communal autonomy and the simple requirement of survival of Paris and its population. Respect for legality – a bourgeois legality, but one that was not clear enough perceived as such – prevailed, and the Commune let sleep within its walls a treasure that could have greatly contributed to demolishing its enemy, and which instead allowed the latter to triumph by carrying out a nameless butchery.
By not seizing the Banque de France, the Commune allowed the financial institution to continue to function according to its rules and choices, and in particular to finance the operation to reconquer Paris by Thiers and his henchmen. The Versailles camp understood this very well. Here is what the anti-Communard author Maxime Du Camp wrote: “While the Commune was harassing the Bank of Paris to get a few thousand-franc notes, the Banque de France gave millions to the government of legality. The troops poured in, took shape, organised themselves and were not short of pay”xxxv. He added: “When M. Thiers needed money, he informed M. Rouland, who sent a telegraphic dispatch to the right person, and the money arrived”xxxvi.
If it had got its hands on the Banque de France – in military terms, an easy matter for the National Guard to carry out – the Commune would, on the other hand, have posed problems of financing for the Versaillais and their army. The financial resources seized would have allowed the people of Paris to live better, and the military reinforcement of the capital. How to respect federal principles and not harm the provinces? A revolutionary and democratic solution could have been to give Paris a quota of access to the Bank’s wealth while explaining this position on a national scale and engaging in dialogue with the province and its cities. This could have revived the communalist dynamic and solidarity with the capital. It goes without saying that this kind of reflection is infinitely easier to carry out with 150 years of hindsight, in cold blood! But we must also understand that ideological confusions about property played a big role in this crucial question. The debate on socialism, its aims and means, had not gone far enough in 1871 to allow Varlin’s initial proposal to become a decision of the revolutionary power under construction.
In the end, Rougerie says:
The expenses of the Commune were estimated at 42 million francs: three quarters went to the war, which left very little for any reform […] The Bank [of France] paid, willy-nilly, a small twenty million. At the same time, the advances it made to Versailles amounted to 257 million francsxxxvii.
Thus the amount of money that was drawn by the Versailles assassins to arm themselves and crush the Commune was more than twelve times that requested by the latter for its daily survival. The legalism of the majority of the elected Communards cost the Commune dearly.
What lessons for today?
Beyond these two major questions, the Commune certainly had to suffer from other errors and revealed other limits. Its military strategy and the functioning of its defence were flawed, despite the valour of some of its leaders – Duval, Dombrowski and Wroblewski come to mind – and despite the heroism of many National Guards and the people of Paris. Many of the Commune’s sympathizers reproached it for wasting an infinite amount of time in sterile debates when it was in danger of dying. It was divided on the question of the Comity of Public Safety (5 members appointed by the Communal Council) set up by its majority on 1 May and supposed to remedy its relative paralysis, but without succeeding in doing so; but the minority and the majority found each other in the fighting of the Bloody Week. Other weaknesses of the Communards were also noted, starting with the insufficient energy spent on gaining political support in the province, a crucial issue. Moreover, although they proved to be internationalists, in particular by offering high responsibilities to foreigners, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, etc., the Communards ignored the possible solidarity with the insurrectionary events taking place in Algeriaxxxviii. We could also add the absence of any emphasis on women’s right to vote, even though they played a major role in the Commune, speaking out in clubs, organizing themselves in particular in the Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded, demanding arms – often, taking them – and defending the barricades. All these shortcomings are real, but they are due to the limits set by the era and its ideological environment.
But all this should not tarnish the deep feeling of admiration that one feels when witnessing the immense courage and creativity of the people and the workers and their Commune. Their work was of course limited by the brevity of its existence, but it dug certain furrows that even the bourgeois republic born of its crushing used later: this is the case for the separation of Church and State, or for compulsory education (even if the content of Jules Ferry’s school differed profoundly from the Commune’s pedagogical choices). His liberating abundance in favour of the arts would also deserve more development. His forays into the field of property and employer power were rare, hesitant – as we have seen – but significant: banning night work for bakery workers; requisitioning abandoned production units. In other areas, on the other hand, the Commune had just had time to prepare the ground for a world that had not yet come to pass: we are thinking here of its educational project for all, secular, integral and free, founded on confidence in the curiosity and intelligence of the child, and which was opposed to the selection needs that instruction had to satisfy from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. Finally and above all, it is its very existence, with its great desire for democracy, direct, popular, from below, which compels interest and admiration, with the will of the working people to control their elected representatives, to limit their income and to dismiss them if necessary.
Today, therefore, the Commune remains a popular reference, a marker for struggles and political perspectives. May its quest for authentically popular democracy and its thirst for emancipation remain sources of inspiration for ourselves and future generations. Of course, times are different, social classes and their ideologies have changed, and given the degree of interconnectedness of today’s world, a revolution should not only seek to coordinate cities within a country but countries between them.
But may the harsh defeat of the Commune serve as a lesson to us all: the enemy, the capitalist Moloch, is greedy, ruthless and barbaric. It is not possible to compromise with it. It must be dealt with ruthlessly: expropriated economically, broken politically and militarily, and thrown into the dustbin of history. For this, not only is the greatest possible political freedom and self-organization necessary, but a revolutionary party, rooted in the working class, democratic and bearing the lessons of history, is indispensable. After many dashed hopes, such a party is still lacking today, both nationally and internationally.
1 The King of Corinth condemned to roll ceaselessly up a hill a huge stone. Which would roll back to the foot of the hill again each time he neared the top; hence, endless, labourious and futile.
i L. Trotsky, « Les leçons de la Commune », in L’Anticapitaliste n°122, janvier 2021, p. 25.
ii As above.
iii J. Rougerie : Paris insurgé. La Commune de 1871, Gallimard 1995, p. 69.
iv L. Godineau : La Commune de Paris par ceux qui l’ont vécue, Parigramme 2010, p. 50.
v L. Bantigny : La Commune au présent. Une correspondance par-delà le temps, La Découverte 2021, p. 160.
vi As above, p. 34
vii J. Rougerie : La Commune, PUF 1988, p.12.
viii As above.
ix As above.
x J.L. Robert : « La Commune, révolution socialiste », in M. Cordillot (coord.) : La Commune de Paris 1871. Les acteurs, l’évènement, les lieux. Editions de l’Atelier 2021, p. 931-933.
xi As above, p. 931.
xii H. Lefèbvre : La proclamation de la Commune. 26 mars 1871, La Fabrique 2018, p. 135.
xiii D. Gluckstein : The Paris Commune. A Revolution in Democracy. Haymarket 2018, p. 61.
xiv K. Marx & F. Engels : Inventer l’inconnu. Textes et correspondances autour de la Commune, La Fabrique 2008, p. 277.
xv H. Lefèbvre, op. cit. p. 144.
xvi D. Gluckstein ; op. cit. p. 70.
xvii Federals: this is what the Parisian National Guards are called, brought together by a Federation set up in February and March 1871, where all the elected members, soldiers or officers, of the Parisian National Guard, from the level of the company to that of the battalion, the legion and the Parisian federation, are mandated and revocable.
xviii M. Cordillot : « Le 18 mars : du soulèvement à la révolution », in M. Cordillot (coord.) op. cit. p. 200.
xix As above.
xx P.O. Lissagaray : 1871. Editions de Delphes, p. 86.
xxi As above.
xxii C. Talès : La Commune de 1871. Spartacus 1998, p. 53.
xxiii P.O. Lissagaray, op. cit. p. 86.
xxiv Karl Marx : La guerre civile en France. 1871. Editions sociales 1975, p. 57.
xxv As above.
xxvi L. Trostsky, op. cit. p.25-26.
xxvii J. Rougerie : La Commune, PUF 1988, p.55.
xxviii P.O. Lissagaray, op. cit. p. 160.
xxix As above.
xxx E. Cavaterra, La Banque de France et la Commune de Paris (1871), L’Harmattan 1998, p. 56.
xxxi E. Toussaint, « La Commune de Paris, la banque et la dette », in Les Utopiques, La Commune de Paris. Mémoires, horizons, Sylllepse 2021, p. 270.
xxxii N. Delalande : “Les finances de la Commune”, in M. Cordillot (coord.) op. cit. p. 484.
xxxiii As above, p. 485.
xxxiv P. Lejeune : Pratique militante & écrits d’un ouvrier communard. Eugène Varlin. L’Harmattan 2002, p. 159.
xxxv Cité dans E. Toussaint, art. cit., p. 271.
xxxvi As above.
xxxvii J. Rougerie : La Commune et les Communards. Gallimard 2018, p. 44.
xxxviii On this issue, see Q. Deluermoz : Commune(s) 1870-1871, Une traversée des mondes au XIXe siècle, Seuil 2021, p. 67 and following.