Storming the Heavens – 140th anniversary of Paris Commune

In the wake of the two-month-long Franco-Prussian war of autumn 1870, which saw the French capitalist state resoundingly defeated (with its self-styled emperor, Napoleon III, being captured on the battlefield) and witnessed the birth of a united Germany, the workers of Paris briefly established, for the first time, a dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule of the exploited majority over a parasitical minority of bankers, factory-owners and landlords. 

It ended bloodily, and with the French bourgeoisie fully restored to power, but communists, socialists and all progressive humanity are justified in celebrating the Paris Commune and its 140th anniversary as a milestone in proletarian history.

At the time, Karl Marx spoke of the workers of Paris “storming the heavens” and, upon the Commune’s violent demise at the hands of a defeated French capitalist class rearmed by Germany’s ruling military clique and its industrialist backers, he famously wrote in The Civil War in France that “working-men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the harbinger of a new society.

Its martyrs,” he declared, “are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its executioners are consigned to that dustbin of history from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.”

On March 1, 1871, the conquering Prussian – soon to be German – army staged a victory parade along the main avenue in Paris, the Champs Elysées (a symbolic humiliation which was to be re-enacted 69 years later by the occupying Nazis). But within a fortnight of this, the people of the capital had transformed the local volunteer army which fought in the previous year’s war into a democratic workers’ militia, with delegates to its central committee elected from each of the city’s twenty boroughs.

And, on March 18, this National Guard led the proletariat of Paris in an uprising against attempts by the new, bourgeois “provisional government” and its German paymasters to disarm the city. The exploiting class and its political leaders took refuge at Versailles, to the west of the capital, which had been the seat of royalty before the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

Paris was now in the hands of its working men and women.

March 26 saw the election of a popular administration, the Paris Commune, comprised mainly of workers, small craftsmen and trusted members of the National Guard.  When the Commune was publicly proclaimed two days later, there were scenes of wild rejoicing outside the city hall and in practically every other part of Paris.

Meanwhile, it took the Versailles government until May 10 to sign a formal peace agreement with the German empire so as to turn all of its military efforts against the Paris workers.  The Versailles troops did not have an easy time of it, though.  It took them two weeks of bitter fighting to fully wrest control of the capital from proletarian forces, but the bourgeoisie was a lot quicker when it came to wreaking its revenge.

During the bloody week of May 21-28, 17,000 communards – supporters of the Commune — were summarily executed. Many of these judicial murders took the form of workers, both men and women, being shot by firing squad in Père Lachaise cemetery. The wall against which they were stood is still there, opposite the graves of successive leaders of the French Communist Party, and it remains a site of pilgrimage for revolutionaries and progressives from around the world.

By the time the last barricades had fallen, in the north-east of the city, working-class political power in Paris had been in place for some two and half months. There is a song which remains popular to this day among advanced French workers: Les 72 Jours de la Commune [The Commune’s 72 Days].

The ferocity of the ruling class and its army in the final week was surely a measure of its tremendous fear. Twenty-three years earlier, in 1848, the bourgeoisie had already torn off the mask of its fine republican slogans – “liberty, equality, brotherhood” – when it crushed the previous generation of revolutionary Paris proletarians. In 1871, however, it also tore off the mask of its patriotism when it colluded with the German army of occupation in moving against the insurrection in the capital.

It is nonetheless an error to present the Commune simply as a popular, patriotic uprising against the capitulation of a collaborationist bourgeoisie. From being national in character, the struggle very quickly became a social one. An extremely short war against Prussia had transformed itself into a civil war, a war of class against class.

The measures taken in such a short time by the Commune and its leaders amply illustrate this point: abolition of the police and the standing army (March 30); disbanding of the religion-inspired “morality police”, practically all of whose victims had been workers, of course; and the full accountability to the working class, up to and including immediate recall, of all public officials (April 1). It should be added that political leaders and civil servants were also banned from receiving more than the average worker’s wage.

Then there was the secularisation of the state – and the confiscation of the assets of the clergy – along with the establishment of universal primary and vocational education (both of these decrees being promulgated on April 2).

There was a moratorium on rents (March 30); the freezing of the price of bread (May 9); and the banning of most night-shift work (April 20).

Most significantly of all, the Commune passed a law granting workers’ associations ownership of property which had been abandoned by the fleeing Paris bourgeoisie (April 16).

For generations now, the Commune has come to represent the possibility of a different society, one which is truly democratic and participative, one in which those who produce the wealth hold sway over the state and over an economy planned in the interests of human need rather than private greed.

It also came to represent the internationalism of the French proletariat, which elected a number of foreign workers to the Commune. And, while symbolically burning the guillotine in public on April 6, as a repudiation of the Terror, it went on to demolish the chapel built in memory of Louis XVI after his execution.

Despite all of these audacious moves, it must be said – as Marx himself did – that the Paris workers still showed too much timidity when confronted with the capitalist taboo of expropriating private property. In particular, they did not dare to take over the Bank of France.

Careful not to be held responsible for unleashing civil war, the Commune also allowed the Versailles army time to organise itself for a counter-offensive.

On balance, however, these weaknesses in no way dim the bright vision held out in Paris during that spring of 1871, the vision of a revolutionary, socialist alternative to the exploitation of man by man.

Another French song ends with the declaration: “La Commune n’est pas morte!” – The Commune is not dead!”

Long may it live in our hearts as we mark this, its 140th anniversary. And long may it inspire us with confidence in the proletariat as we march on towards the new world of socialism and communism.