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The Paris Commune: the first workers’ revolution

Having endured inhuman conditions during the unforgiving winter of 1871, Parisians rose up and created an insurrectionary movement that established the world’s first working-class government. It was liquidated two months later, but its political system (self-managed socialism) is inspiring. The Prisma’s Memoirs. March 2021.


Author Jean Louis Maziers / Flickr. Creative Commons License

Juanjo Andres Cuervo


The Paris Commune was the first European revolution to be carried out by the working class. Hailed by the members of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, latter known as the First International, some of its measures included increased wages, the handing over of workshops to the workers’ trade union committees, and the establishment and development of cooperatives.

The Union de Femmes formed by women worked on educational reform, increasing schooling for girls and administering welfare. This organisation had a great relevance on the search for equality, and members such as Elisabeth Dmitrieff, the founder of the International in Russia, or the anarchist Louise Michel, were constantly involved in the fight for freedom.

The great diversity of ideologies within the Commune made it difficult to establish a clear aim. Karl Marx defined it as a “sphinx” due the intersection of communists, socialists or anarchists. Although slightly different in its composition, the Popular Fronts of Spain and France in the 1930s and Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity of 1970 might be the most analogous system of government, at least in the combination of left forces.

Clearly, the premises of direct democracy signified something completely new in European society, as the historian William Pelz summarised in “A people’s history of modern Europe”: “They established a radical participatory form of democracy that was in almost complete contradiction to traditional parliamentary systems.”

Photo by Rae Allen / Flickr. Creative Commons License

For Karl Marx, this was the first proletarian government, and the abolition of the night work of journeymen bakers or the prohibition to fire workers certainly benefitted the usually neglected working class.

The anarchist movement of Catalonia led by the CNT in 1936 after Franco’s coup d’état might be seen as a continuation of this premise of self-management and equality among the people.

However, the historian Mathilde Larrère dismisses Marx’s approach to the Commune, saying that “the communist interpretation of 1871 was a very partial one”.

Instead, she remarks that “the Communards were not the working class of Marxist theory”, but “the successors of the sans-culottes of 1789.” The members of this class had mainly been formed by artisans and small businessmen, and were fighting for a social republic based on the ideas of liberty and equality.

And yet, the revolutionary government served as an inspiration for the October Revolution of 1917. In 1911, Lenin had analysed the Paris Commune and gave his verdict about the event: “The cause of the Commune is the social revolution, the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the toilers. It is the cause of the proletariat of the whole world. And in this sense, it is immortal.”

War and misery

The Paris Commune was born as a response to a series of events. The Emperor Napoleon III had been defeated during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the Prussian army besieged Paris during the long winter of 1871. The people in Paris barely survived due to the lack of food, the cold and unemployment. The ‘Parisian diet’ consisted of dogs, cats, horses or rats.

Author André Devambez / Wikimedia Commons

When in the early morning of March 18th of 1871, the French army troops led by Adolph Thiers entered the city to take back the Guard’s canons, something unexpected occurred.

The working class people refused to give back the weapons. More surprisingly was the decision of the National Guard, who refused to follow the orders to open fire against the revolutionaries, and decided instead to join them. Adolph Thiers had to flee the city and the Paris Commune was born.

Lenin defined the initial moments of the Commune as “a festival of the oppressed.”

The theory of Hannah Arendt based on expecting the unexpected through the actions of human beings was firmly illustrated on the 18th of March.

Similarly, Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray remarked the spirit of equality among its members in “Histoire de la Commune de 1871”, published in 1876: “A single flame warmed these souls, reuniting the petite bourgeoisie and the proletariat, touching the middle bourgeoisie.”

Whereas among the working class people the Paris Commune had great popularity, it faced many critics among the upper classes. The French poet Théophile Gautier depicted the Communards as “the hyenas of 93” and as “gorillas of the Commune”, and the novelist Gustave Flaubert defined them as “rabid dogs.”

Generally, as the historian Paul Lidsky has summarised, the Commune was considered as an international conspiracy to spread “the revolutionary virus”. Here the dichotomy is clear: while the middle and upper classes neglected the Paris Commune and highlighted is horrors, the lower stratum of the population admired the creation of a people’s government based on the Athenian idea of direct democracy.

The legacy

The Paris Commune was officially proclaimed on the 28th of March of 1871, after the municipal elections of the 26th of March, and it lasted until the 28th of May, when it was crushed by Adolph Thiers’ army during the ‘bloody week’.

The repression was very brutal. According to William Pelz in his book People’s history of modern Europe: “An even higher pile of corpses was to be erected in the ‘bloody week’ that followed close on to the military defeat of the Commune. Determined to, in Thiers’s words, ‘bleed democracy dry for a generation’, the capitalist state took revenge on radical Paris with an estimated 40,000 executed. Women made up about a fifth of these murdered civilians.”

Parisians executing unarmed members of the Paris Commune.  Author Paukrus / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License

And according to the Marxist Internet Archive:  “Tens of thousands of Communards and workers are summarily executed (as many as 30,000); 38,000 others imprisoned and 7,000 are forcibly deported.”

The writer Émile Zola depicted in “La debacle” an enlightening image of “a river of fire” and “huge conflagrations” across the Seine.

Paris was lit up with flames and the Communards were brutishly massacred.

Despite the obliteration of the Commune, its inspiration spread quickly across the continent.

From the 1870s until the end of the nineteenth century, a great number of socialist parties were established across Europe.

To name just a few, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the French Workers’ Party (POF), and the Labour Party in Britain.

The paradigm of the Paris Commune raised class consciousness among the workers, and the economic depression produced by the effects of capitalism and industrialisation created a massive wave of dissatisfaction. All of this was fundamental for the emergence of the trade unions as platforms to gather a great number of people.

We must inevitably link these socialist parties and the Paris Commune with the First International, which collapsed in 1876.

It has been assumed that one of the main causes was the split between Bakunin and Marx, between Anarchism and Communism, between the black and the red.

Photo: Pixabay

Interestingly, Edward Acton argues for a different reason.

For him, “it was the European reaction inspired by fear of the Commune and the International” which caused the International breakdown.

The police in Germany ruthlessly persecuted its members, and it has been suggested that Prime Minister Gladstone was seriously considering expelling Marx and his comrades from England.

The forces of reaction concentrated their efforts on supressing the inspiration of the Communards, as they wanted to crush the people’s dream of justice, equality and liberty.

Adolph Thiers’s demand to “bleed democracy dry for a generation” was more than a mere threat. In the end, the Commune was defeated, but it set an example of the certainty of socialism.

The Commune in 2021

In spite of its political importance, the Paris Commune has barely been remembered in France. According to Mathilde Larrère, “unlike 1789, the Commune was never truly integrated into the national story.” While the 14th of July is being celebrated every year, the Paris Commune seemed lost in the midst of time.

And yet, a few years ago, during a railway workers demonstration, there was a banner with the following message: “We don’t care about May ’68, we want 1871”.

Photo: Pixabay

This year to mark the 150th anniversary of the Commune, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, will plant a memorial tree in the Place Louise Michel, named after the female Communard. Placed in Montmartre, the area will be filled by Parisians carrying silhouettes of the bakers, shoemakers and washerwomen who seized control of the capital in 1871.

So, at last, it seems that Marx’s premonition will be fulfilled, and the Communards “will be celebrated forever as the glorious harbinger of a new society.”

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