By Sankar Ray
The historic 72-day Paris Commune began March 18 in 1871, when Paris arose to the thunder-burst of “Vive la Commune!”It came up with a radical social agenda like separation between church and state, women’s suffrage, abolition of interest on debts, and worker self-management. It happened as a sequel to the defeat of the French Empire of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)- culmination of decades of tension between the French monarchist government and organized labour syndicates. Karl Marx called it the first experience of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as envisioned by him.
‘The proletarians of Paris,’ wrote the Central Committee of Paris Commune in its manifesto of March 18,’amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs…. They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.’ The awakening in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June Insurrection in Paris (referring to the workers’ uprising of June 1848, which was drowned in blood by a conservative republican government)’
Its violent suppression on 28 May 1871 by the French Army on “la semainesanglante” (bloody week; 21-28 May) notwithstanding, Marx realised, “whatever the outcome of the revolution, the Commune had opened a new chapter in the history of the workers’ movement” , as rightly wrote Marcello Musto ( Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to International) during The First International Workingmen’s Association ( also called the First International) , whose French members were inspired by French leftists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Auguste Blanqui who led the insurrection against the newly proclaimed republican government of President Adolph Thiers who presided over the indiscriminate massacre of Parisian civilians.
In the wake of defeat by the Prussian armies, the conservative provisional government, headed by Thiers had negotiated peace by allowing Prussian troops to occupy sections of Paris, among other concessions. But Parisians who called for socialist self-rule (for Marx, socialism or communist, did mean ‘collective self-authority) in their city were aware that Thiers’ supporters were monarchists, out to crush freedom with or without the presence of the Prussian occupiers. They became restless, demanding municipal autonomy, forcing Thiers and his government to flee to Versailles. The Parisian National Guard, mostly comprising former labourers, had been allowed to form a governing Central Committee in Paris to command its units.. Thiers disarmed the National Guard who had lost their livelihoods during the Prussian War and the Siege of Paris in September 1870.Thiers recognised the threat of an armed force in Paris that opposed the conservative government.
Women played a significant role to combat Thiers who attempted to extract canons that the National Guard had funded. Women spontaneously began throwing stones and badgering the troops, causing riots that forced Thiers and his men to retreat to Versailles. In the process, Thiers had ordered his military to use force against the National Guardsmen, but most of them refused to fire on their brothers in arms. Paris had become a barricaded city and the Versailles army had been crippled by the strength of Paris’ National Guard.
This working class of Paris, which had been inculcated with the doctrines of Proudhon and Blanqui, counted among them many members of the first International Workingmen’s Association. There was a yearning for socialist revolution. But Marx, a leading figure in the IWMA, had advised Paris not to seek revolution and instead told them to use the period during the provisional republic to form strong working-class organizations in order to push toward revolution. But his counsel fell on deaf ears of those who had survived the Siege of 1870 and found themselves in starvation, harsh financial demands, and the threat of a monarchist-majority government that was committed to crush republican ideals that Parisians had fought so hard to secure.
In the refulgent 72-days the Commune introduced popular social reforms, but also caused discord and destruction within the city. As a military organization, the Central Committee, was keen on vesting in the authority of the Commune by calling for elections. the leadership of Commune was under the Jacobins. Of the 85 representatives elected at the municipal election, 15 were moderates (so-called ‘party des maires ’, a group of former mayors) and four radicals, who immediately resigned and never formed part of the Council of the Commune. Of the 66 remaining, 11 were revolutionaries sans a clear political tendency, 14 were from the Committee of the National Guard, and 15 were radical- republicans and socialists. There were also nine Blanquists, and 17 members of IWMA. The newly elected members of the Central Committee were workers, not experienced politicians, who found themselves unprepared to govern a city while defending it from both the French regular military and the Prussian armies.
The history-making communards, backed by Parisians in general finally fell to Thiers’s troops on 28 May that cost 20,000 Parisians their lives. The Versailles troops ultimately finally breeched the city walls, men, women, and children were massacred indiscriminately. Most members of the National Guard were either killed on the streets or lined up and shot in Père Lachaise Cemetery, but a number of them were swiftly court-marshalled and executed in the days following the massacre. But defiant Parisians set fire to those buildings that symbolised monarchial and religious power. The Louvre, the Palais Royale, the Tuileries, and Nôtre Dame were among these. However, most of the buildings survived, but the Hôtel de Ville, which served as the headquarters for the Central Committee was burned to the ground to prevent its seizure along with the Tuileries.
Immediately after the defeat of Paris Commune, Marx read his Civil War in France at the general council of IWMA in London. It was translated into English and several other European languages. Several editions were brought out, read with great interest by not only workers, but bourgeois ideologues as well. Marx wrote: “The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic. (IPA Service)