Workers Vanguard No. 1041

7 March 2014


From the Archives of Marxism

The Heritage of the Paris Commune

On 18 March 1871, as the bourgeoisie fled Paris for Versailles, the workers established the world’s first proletarian dictatorship in the French capital. The heroic Communards, as Karl Marx put it, “stormed heaven” and seized power, which they held until late May when the Commune was drowned in blood by the resurgent capitalists.

We reprint below an excerpt from 1871: The Paris Commune, a pamphlet written in 1927 by Max Shachtman, at the time a cadre of the American Communist Party. Shachtman explains how lessons drawn from the Commune later helped guide the Bolshevik Party through the three Russian Revolutions referred to in the text below: the defeated revolution of 1905; February 1917, when the tsar was overthrown; and October 1917, when the working class took power. The shortcomings of the Commune laid bare the bankruptcy of the political program of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an ideological father of anarchism, and of Auguste Blanqui, who envisaged an insurrection led by a conspiratorial group of revolutionaries. Typographical errors in the excerpt have been corrected.

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The Commune is written large in the history of the working class of the world. It was the first great attempt of the proletariat of a nation to establish the rule of the working class thru the dictatorship of the proletariat, accompanied by weak, unclear efforts to adapt to this overthrow of bourgeois domination a new social order.

The weaknesses, shortcomings, hesitance, lack of clarity and insufficiencies of the Commune have been pointed out. The lessons to be learned from its experience must be studied by the struggling working class of the world.

The main source of the weakness of the Commune can be traced to the absence of a determined, conscious revolutionary party which would have given it direction, firmness and decision.

“If in September, 1870, there had been found at the head of the proletariat of France the centralized party of revolutionary action,” writes Trotsky, “the entire history of France and with it the entire history of Humanity would have taken another direction. If on the 18 of March power was found in the hands of the proletariat of Paris it was not because they had consciously seized it, but because their enemies had quit Paris.”

Without a revolutionary proletarian party, without such an instrument the Paris Commune could not, despite the unparalleled heroism and the self-sacrifice of its noble defenders, maintain itself. With a ruling body in which almost every delegate represented a different viewpoint, in which there did not reign a dominating single clear idea, it was natural that the results would prove fatal to the uprising. Even the vague viewpoint which united its two leading groups was shattered by the concrete experiences which they underwent. The Proudhonians found their doctrinaire hatred for association of labor and industry confronted by their own decrees in the Commune which aimed at the organization of great industries and the federation of the workers in every factory into one great association. The Blanquists, the doctrinaires of highly-pitched dictatorial centralism, failed to follow out even their own theories and neglected completely the centralization of the political and military apparatus, as well as the agitation in the provinces for the unity of revolutionary Communes thruout the land.

The Communards made the error of failing to use the power which had fallen into their hands to consolidate the rule of the working class and complete the ruin of the bourgeoisie. The failure to push the attack upon the Versaillese and spread the hegemony of the revolutionary proletariat thruout the country was a fatal blow to the uprising. Their refusal to push forward determinedly the work of expropriating the expropriators, taking over the economic life and substance of the city was another source of weakness.

The feebleness of their attempts to put hands on the Bank of France, which as Engels says was worth ten thousand hostages, was an indication of this grave fault. This point was only a sharp indication of the failure of the Communards to take even a thousandth part of the advantages of power to suppress with an iron hand the enemy, that the Versaillese took.

The history of Bloody Week is a bitter lesson learned by the proletariat, a lesson which means unrelenting struggle against an unscrupulous enemy, the utilization of all the instruments and means of proletarian power for the extermination of the brutal vampire of the ruling class.

The difficulty of an insufficiently developed working class, the lack of a political party of clear principles, tactics and experience, and the absence of highly developed industry, might have been overcome by the Commune had it not been forced to assume the defensive on the military field from the beginning. Its natural anxiety for defense from extermination by the Versaillese made it, to put it mildly, difficult to begin very much economic work. The steps it took despite these difficulties already gave an indication as to the real socialist nature of its economic measures and quite safe predictions can be made as to the development towards a socialist economy that might have resulted thru the military victory of the Communards over Thiers.

The Commune, slandered and calumniated by the bourgeoisie for decades, is the property of the revolutionary working class today, in the Communist movement where its spirit is embodied. The Commune lives in even more heroic form, in broader lines, with more power and greater clarity of purpose in the revolution of the Russian workers and peasants. The existence of the revolutionary movement of the working class today, honoring the great Paris Commune and carefully learning from its experience, the existence of the first working class republic in Russia is the vindication which history and the working class have rendered the heroic efforts of the Parisian working men.

The working class of Russia has long ago learned the lesson of the Paris Commune. Painstakingly they built up their iron regiments into a mighty Bolshevik party, armed with the sharp weapons of Marxism, and dominated by the irresistible will to power which led the first successful proletarian revolution in the world. The revolutionaries of Russia knew that the chief source of success in the uprising for liberty was a conscious group, a party of the vanguard of the working class which would be able to give leadership and direction to the struggle, the lack of which was the evil genius of the Commune.

And the Communist movement of the world today, learning equally the lessons of the Commune and of the three revolutions in Russia; of the revolutions and uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy and Finland, is preparing for the revolution by building up more strongly every day the fighting parties of Communism, steeled in every struggle.

“Workingmen’s Paris,” wrote Marx in his brilliant Civil War in France, “with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.”

It is the admirable and fitting eulogy to the immemorable action of the Paris workers. The celebration of the Commune is the celebration of the approaching victory of the most oppressed class in history. The lessons of the Commune are being slowly learned by the workers. In its lofty spirit of heroism the revolution of today finds new inspiration and courage and determination.

“The cause of the Commune is the cause of the social revolution,” said the greatest Communard of all times, Lenin, “of the complete political and economic liberation of the working class, the cause of the proletariat of the entire world. And in this sense it is immortal.”