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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

When the workers first held power: Joanny Berlioz on the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune, the first attempt by the modern working class to seize power in history, was proclaimed March 18, 1871. 100 years later, in 1961, French Communist leader Joanny Berlioz wrote an excellent brief look at the history, flaws and profound legacy of the Commune. Berlioz was a member of the Central Committee of the French Communist Party from 1925 to 1959, a journalist for L'Humanité and was elected to the French senate.

We republish it here in full:

IN 1924 the French delegation to the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (of which I was a member) was invited to a stirring ceremony. It was the turning over to the Moscow Soviet of a red flag of the Communards of 1871, saved in the last moments of the final attack of the Versailles army on the heights of Belleville and lovingly kept since then.

Our delegation, with one member carrying the sacred emblem, passed through an immense throng, in the midst of which military units of the capital lined the streets, their bands playing a mighty Internationale. We were proud of this tribute to our ancestors who, ninety years ago, "stormed heaven" (Marx) and with their blood wrote glorious pages in the history of the international working-class movement, which Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin studied to draw teachings that would hold good for the entire movement. We were also overjoyed by the certainty that the defeated Commune had had its glorious revenge in the USSR in October 1917; the flag that we brought could have no better place than in the Lenin Mausoleum where it is kept, near the body of the genius of the Revolution who had said, at the Seventh Congress of the Bolshevik Party, held shortly after taking power: "We stand . . . on the shoulders of the Paris Commune."

Napoleon III's regime of personal power had crumbled on September 4, 1870 after the crushing defeat at Sedan. The people were sick of arbitrary Bonapartism, of poverty, of military adventures, and had proclaimed the Republic, which the bourgeoisie had taken into its hands. The German armies continued the war and besieged Paris. The government called itself a government of national defense, but really it was the government of national defection; it pretended to fight the invader but its only idea was to strike a bargain with him. Its real enemy was the people of Paris, armed and organized in the National Guard, fired with ardent patriotism ". . . a victory of Paris over the Prussian aggressor would have been a victory of the French worker over French capitalism and its political parasites" (K. Marx).

These parasites surrendered the capital on January 27, 1871. They proceeded to have a reactionary National Assembly elected, which threw down a challenge to Paris by setting itself up at Versailles, the ancient headquarters of the kings of France. The people of Paris, the workers and craftsmen of the faubourgs, had not accepted the capitulation, and its attitude was such that the German army did not dare to occupy the city. The National Guard had kept its arms, in particular a park of artillery. It rose against the treason to the nation on the part of the ruling class, whose selfish spirit led it to seek protection from a foreign imperialism against its own people -- a regular practice that was repeated after 1945, the protector this time being American imperialism.

The proletariat and common people of Paris were to take up the cause of the nation, which its bourgeois leaders had abandoned: this was the basic reason for the insurrection of March 18, 1871. On that day, Thiers, chief of the executive power, wanted to have his troops seize the cannon of the National Guard; the population was warned and stopped the putsch and, with the support of the people, the Central Committee of the Guard took power. On the 26th the Commune of Paris was elected by universal suffrage, the first workers' government in the world; it was only to last seventy-two days, but it was to be the harbinger of great historical changes.

The Commune was principally engaged in the armed struggle against the Versailles party (Thiers had fled to Versailles); the Versaillais were supported by the German occupants, who threw up a tight blockade around the capital and sent the French prisoners of war to swell the ranks of the counter-revolutionary army. The Commune went down after a heroic fight, culminating in the battles at the barricades of the bloody week of May 21-28. The repression was savage; Thiers wrote to his prefects, "The ground is strewn with the corpses of Communards; this fearful spectacle will serve as a lesson."*

But the Commune was not only a movement of a national character. The patriotic uprising that it expressed in its origin was linked with the social objectives of a "glorious workers' revolution" (K. Marx), and it showed the perfect harmony between the interests of the proletariat and those of the country.

Many bourgeois historians have labored to deny that it had this nature of a social movement. Among these falsifiers is the American historian, E. S. Mason (in particular, in his book published in New York in 1930), who works hard to minimize the contribution of the Paris Commune to the cause of the working class, and to reduce to the status of a legend the fact that it had set up a state of a new type, of the same type as that of the Soviet power, as defined by Lenin.

There is no doubt that the social achievement of the Commune, taken up as it was by the problems of the daily armed struggle, was not very great, but the Inspiration of its program is clear. Some of its measures are definitely in the direction of the social emancipation of the exploited: turning over to workers' associations, enterprises abandoned by the owners; prohibition of work fines; equal pay for equal work by women; preparation for setting up the eight-hour day; management of enterprises by the workers in accordance with production plans, etc.

But above all, the Communards demonstrated that the working class was capable of running the government, a government of a different type from the one it had overthrown, a government whose source came directly from below. They destroyed the old apparatus of the state, its bureaucracy alienated from the people, its privileged corps; they removed the old managing figures from the central posts in justice and the police; they replaced the standing army set up against the people by arming the people and entrusting them with keeping order; they made every agency of power responsible to the workers. The Commune, whose members were given workers' wages, was based on the mass organizations in existence at that time (political clubs, unions, sections of the International, women's organizations, etc.); it gave a public account of its actions and was under the permanent control of its constituents.

The decisions of the Commune were often democratic reforms, those that the republican opposition had demanded under the Empire, but which the "liberal" wing of the bourgeois opposition did not dare to put into effect. In this sense, the boldness of the perspectives and the ability of the working class in power were recognized and appreciated by the middle class of Paris, the shopkeepers, craftsmen and merchants. "The working class was openly recognized as the only class able to use social initiative." (K. Marx).

* * *

NOW THE failure of the Commune under the attacks of the counter-revolution calls for explanation. It had many weaknesses, despite the undoubted devotion and personal valor of most of its members. The capitalist enemies of the Commune have made a great outcry about the "bloody horrors" perpetrated by the Parisian insurgents. Actually, the Commune's mistake was to be too moderate and timid; it often stopped halfway to the action that was called for, despite the anarchizing phraseology that frequently surrounded its deliberations. It had illusions about "moral action" and carried traditional democratic scruples to excess. Thus it lost time in organizing the March 26 elections, which could have been dangerous for it, instead of immediately taking the military offensive against the Versailles clique, which was disorganized at the outset; it did not "expropriate the expropriators"; it respected the sacrosanct gold reserve of the Banque de France.

Because of the circumstances under which it arose, the Paris Commune was isolated. Its effort was only supported by transitory attempts at communes in some provincial cities. Above all, it was cut off from the French peasantry, which formed the great majority of the population at that time, and which gave Thiers most of the troops for his army. It was only on April 28 that the Commune issued an Appeal to the Workers in the Fields, a very able document which contained the slogan: the land to the peasant, and the tool to the worker. This appeal received little attention, because of material difficulties (control by the army of occupation) and the backward political condition of the rural masses. Here is one essential difference between the Commune and the October Socialist Revolution. In addition, most of the Communards had no clear conception of the need for an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry.

Here we come to the decisive weakness of the Commune: its lack of political maturity, the ideological confusion that prevailed in its ranks and that merely reflected the ideological confusion prevailing in the working-class movement of that time, with the best elements divided into antagonistic sects in which class consciousness was often only rudimentary. Among the Communards were followers of Proudhon, who had a considerable influence on the workers in the small workshops and on the middle classes, with his petty-bourgeois theories aimed at settling the social question by cooperation and mutuality. There were Blanquists. who advocated insurrections coming from closed conspiracies, and belated Jacobins still bemused with the memories of the bourgeois Revolution of 1789. To be sure, there were also representatives of the weak Parisian sections of the First International, through whom Marx and Engels tried, from London, to orient the enterprise of the Commune; but these representatives themselves did not form a unified group capable of directing the Commune and overcoming the negative influence of the petty-bourgeois democrats and socialists, who stood for the collaboration of classes.

Lacking sufficient clarity and unity of understanding with respect to the aims of their movement, and in the last analysis for want of a revolutionary party to give leadership, the necessity for which was not realized, the general council of the Commune soon exhausted itself in sterile quarrels couched in big language, with resulting lack of discipline and, in some cases, defeatism. It was not equipped with a scientific theory of revolution. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 had had little influence in France; treasures of loyalty and self-sacrifice, and in the end a Utopian confidence in the spontaneity of the masses, could not take the place of knowledge and application of Marxism.


ALL THESE weaknesses proved fatal to the Paris Commune, but they can only be evaluated if we place ourselves in the time at which they emerged.

The French economy had made significant progress between 1850 and 1871, to be sure, but many regions were still only slightly industrialized, and the small workshop still was predominant opportunism in which the Second International went down, and from its triumphal revenge in October 1917, will save us from the weaknesses of that time. The new relationship of forces in the world and the preponderance of the forces of socialism over those of imperialism create new possibilities for action and revolutionary success, perhaps by easier paths. Today there exists in France the indispensable tool of victory: the Communist Party, whose 40th anniversary we have just celebrated.

In order that this party, which was so sadly lacking the Parisians of 1871, may be able to carry out its mission, we watch, with constant vigilance, to see that it gets rid energetically of anything that could cause confusion in its ranks, any manifestation of revisionism which at bottom is often a return, more or less masked, to the old theories that proved so useless and so dangerous for the Commune, any weakening of the unity of thought and will of its collective leadership.

Our party is sure that it is faithful to the memory of the Communards when it calls to struggle against De Gaulle's personal power, which resembles Napoleon III's dictatorship in many ways, and against the extension of the Thiers-Bismarck alliance that today constitutes the Bonn-Paris axis for foreign policy.

Like the Communards, but with a clearer awareness, our party believes in the close connection between true patriotism and class struggle; it feels that the reconquest of our national independence and the renewal of the French nation are the task of the working class and its party, at the head of the people.

Even the stubborn struggle that we are now waging for ending the Algerian war by honest negotiation links up with the memories of the Commune. We remember that an anti-colonial insurrection broke out in Kabylis early in 1871, and that the Versaillais crushed it with unexampled brutality, Thiers giving his occupation troops instructions "to act in Algeria as towards the Commune." We do not forget that the chief generals who massacred the Communards, like those who massacred the fighters of June 1848, had been formed in the colonial war against Algeria, for today there are military chiefs who, as their predecessors of 1871 took revenge for their defeat by the German army by killing workingmen, no doubt look forward to make up for their colonial failures by killing what democratic liberties are left in France.

Finally, when we celebrate March 18, we have in our mind's eye the flag of the Commune unfurled inside the mausoleum on Red Square, in the heart of the country that made a living reality of the ideal that inspired the Communards. In 1924, surrounded by the Moscow crowd, we already said to ourselves, "How far we have come!" It is still more decisive today that the seeds sown by the Commune are sprouting in the building of communism in the USSR.

Faithfulness to the memory of the heroes of 1871, who have been well avenged, includes, as the Statement of 81 parties recommends, doing every-thing to consolidate the unity of the Communist parties of the world on the basis of Marxism-Leninism around their universally recognized avant-garde, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

*We should recall the vile role played by Washburne, the United States Ambassador in Paris, whom Karl Marx denounced in a letter from the General Council of the International to the New York Central Committee in the summer of 1871. This character, who professed to be a friend of the Parisians, but was actually an accomplice of Thiers, offered the Commune, on May 21, his mediation between the Versaillais and the Federes, allegedly to prevent the shedding of blood. On that very morning he had stated to a journalist, "Everybody who belongs to the Commune will be shot." Unfortunately, his maneuver was taken under advisement by the Commune, and this perspective of a truce paralyzed its defense efforts for two decisive days. A splendid example of reactionary collaboration among the American. French and German bourgeoisie. It was not to be the last one!



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