Last month marked the 150th anniversary of the day that the working people of Paris stormed heaven. The Paris Commune was the first workers’ government in history, in the very heart of Europe. It instilled terror among all the capitalists and rulers of the world. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche warned of the commune as the harbinger of “threatening storms”[[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), nietzsche.holtof.com.]] and asked, “Who can say whether modern democracy, even more modern anarchism and especially that inclination for ‘commune,’ for the most primitive form of society, which is now shared by all the socialists of Europe, does not signify in the main a tremendous counterattack — and that the conqueror and master race, the Aryan, is not succumbing physiologically, too?”[[Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), nietzsche.holtof.com.]] He thus expressed panic at the idea that slaves could have a “master morality.”
Faced with this awe from the ruling classes, many “socialists” later sought to make the experience of the Commune palatable to public opinion. As Lenin said, “All who parade as socialists pay lip service” to the commune, while “forgetting the concrete experience and concrete lessons of the Paris Commune and repeating the old bourgeois rubbish about ‘democracy in general.’”[[V. I. Lenin, “Thesis and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” (1919), marxists.org.]] Since then, such distortions have only multiplied. But what was the commune?
Marx was the first to fully understood the universal historical magnitude of the Paris Commune. “It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”[[Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), marxists.org.]] For Marx and Engels, as we know, the commune was so important that they considered it necessary to “correct” the Communist Manifesto. In 1872, they stated that in the face of “practical experience” such as the commune’s, “where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”[[Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Preface to the 1872 German Edition,” The Communist Manifesto (1848), marxists.org]] This thinking was taken up by Lenin in State and Revolution, written during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Commune was the great inspiration of the Bolsheviks.
At the same time, an adversarial current emerged that sought to counterpose the commune of 1871 to the Soviet republic. Its main proponent was Karl Kautsky, for whom the power of the soviets was the antithesis of the municipal councils elected by universal suffrage of the commune. His intent was to devalue the class rupture, establish an institutional continuity with the parliamentary mechanisms of bourgeois democracy, and at most relegate the bodies of self-organization like soviets (councils) to a subordinate position for sectoral discussions about “workers’ affairs.” In other words, he proclaimed a kind of “pure democracy,” independent of its class content, which had to be developed “to the end.” He was not the last person to formulate theses like this.
Such interpretations can be found, for example, in the work of Nicos Poulantzas. To maintain the perspective of his self-styled “democratic socialism,” in his critique of the Russian Revolution and of Bolshevism, Poulantzas asked, “Was it not this very line (sweeping substitution of rank-and-file democracy for representative democracy) which principally accounted for what happened in Lenin’s lifetime in the Soviet Union, and which gave rise to the centralizing and statist Lenin whose posterity is well enough known?”[[Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 1980), the final chapter of which is reprinted as “Towards a Democratic Socialism,” Jacobin, October 6, 2020.]] Closer to our time, Antoine Artous has criticized Lenin for not considering the specificity of the Paris Commune’s system of representation in his reading of Marx,[[Antoine Artous, Marx, l’État, et la politique (Paris: Syllepse, 1999), 266. For a recent critique of Artous, see Claudia Cinatti y Emilio Albamonte, “Transcending Liberal Democracy and Totalitarianism,” ft-ci.org, June 9, 2009.]], and argued that for communist strategy, political representation passes through an assembly elected by “universal suffrage,” while the “soviets” could be a “‘second social chamber’ representing unions, associations, etc., which defend the economic and social interests of the wage laborers and the popular masses.”[[Antoine Artous, “Democracia y emancipación social (II),” Vientosur, April 24, 2005, our translation. In the cases of both Poulantzas and Artous — as previously in the case of Kautsky — the point was to justify the abandonment of the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The former was accompanying the social democratic turn of the official communist parties with so-called Eurocommunism. The latter was part of the turn by the former Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) of France toward “anti-neoliberalism” or general “anticapitalism.”]]
At present, linked to the eccentric return to Kautsky advocated by Jacobin magazine and a sector of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), we find attempts to reconcile Kautsky’s perspectives and those of his antagonists, such as Lenin, regarding the Paris Commune. This is the view of Lars Lih, who argues, “The political positions of the two men overlapped to a much greater extent than any reader of State and Revolution would expect. No doubt very substantive differences remain.” He adds, “Perhaps we should focus on the political programme common to the Marxist left during the early years of the previous century: a republic with radically democratic institutions of the Commune type.”[[Lars Lih, “The Book That Didn’t Bark,” Weekly Worker, April 27, 2011.]]
When Marx spoke of the form “at last discovered,” however, this went far beyond such interpretations. The communards understood how to apply a new democratic principle that could not be reduced to the different liberal and republican conceptions of democracy, even the most radical versions of the latter. In what did this great historical innovation consist, and what strategic lessons did the Paris Commune provide? Let’s see.
To begin with, we must note that the commune was not a parliamentary body, and this for several reasons. As Marx pointed out, it was a “working body, executive and legislative at the same time.” That is to say, the commune executed the measures it decided on democratically. It rejected in practice the idea of “checks and balances” that capitalist democracy employs as successive barriers to popular initiative. If Montesquieu saw the separation of powers as the condition for (bourgeois) liberty, the democratic guarantee in the commune was that all municipal councillors were directly accountable to their voters and could be recalled at any time. The same applied to judicial functionaries who “were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments”[[Marx, Civil War in France.]] and become elected, accountable, and recallable.
Marx saw the organization via elected and recallable councillors from the districts of Paris as “a rough sketch of national organization” — although the commune, due to its brief existence, was not able to develop at a national level. He said the commune “was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet. … The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”[[Ibid.]] As Robin Blackburn[[Robin Blackburn, “Marxism: Theory of Proletarian Revolution,” New Left Review.]] points out, it is not difficult to see in Marx’s work an echo of Rousseau. For the author of Capital, however, the commune was not an expression of the “general will” but a product of the class struggle: “the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class.”
This was evidenced, on the one hand, by the fact that the majority of the commune’s “members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.”[[Ibid.]] In fact, with the Prussian invasion and the successive insurrections, the bourgeoisie had fled Paris, leaving behind a city dominated by the working class, along with artisans, shopkeepers, merchants, and sectors of the urban petty bourgeoisie. In line with this, the commune eliminated all privileges of officials and decreed that all its members receive a worker’s wage. With these and many other measures — including the separation of church and state, the expropriation of ecclesiastical property, free and secular education, etc. — the commune “supplied the republic with the basis of really democratic institutions.” But, Marx added, “neither cheap government nor the ‘true republic’ was its ultimate aim; they were its mere concomitants.”[[Ibid.]]
The commune was the political form “under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.” Without that, according to Marx, the commune “would have been an impossibility and a delusion,” as “the political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery.”[[Ibid.]] Thus, in its short existence, the commune expropriated factories and workshops that had been closed or abandoned by their owners, or those where capitalists had ceased production as a form of resistance, putting them under the control of their workers; it did so without granting any kind of compensation. It abolished night work for bakers, as well as the “fines” which the bourgeoisie imposed on workers as an arbitrary sanction to lower wages. It also waived rent payments and decreed the postponement of debt payments for three years, while canceling the interest, a measure that alleviated the economic situation of the petty bourgeoisie.
Many of the interpretations that contrast the Paris Commune with the soviets of the October Revolution of 1917 see the former as nothing more than the “true republic” that attempted to democratize the parliamentary institutions “to the end.” But they overlook the essence of its historical novelty. The commune was based on a principle opposed to that of bourgeois democracy. The latter, through elections based on universal suffrage every few years, declares itself to be the expression of the “popular will” — while seeking to keep the population in general, and the working class in particular, atomized, separating the masses from the government of the state with various mechanisms (the purely formal recognition of political liberties, the division of legislative and executive powers, the impossibility of recalling representatives, the nonelection of judges, and the privileges of officials, among many others). This allows a government of the minority — the bourgeoisie — to shore up its hegemony, with greater or lesser success.
The commune proceeds from the opposite principle: maximizing the incorporation of the masses into the real governing of the state. As Marx said, “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business.”[[Ibid.]] Hence, it constituted itself as a “working body” and elaborated a whole series of mechanisms (the material guarantee of political rights, the fusion of legislative and executive power, recallability, an end to the privileges of officials, election of judges and popular participation in the courts, etc.). It did this so that working people could govern in the broadest sense of the term: defining the political as well as the economic course of society, without halting at the prerogatives of capital.
For the bourgeoisie, of course, all these measures were a sign of the most abject despotism. They did not rest until they could walk among the corpses of the 25,000 or 30,000 communards murdered after the defeat. The commune did not show even one tenth of the implacability against the capitalists that the latter showed against the commune. This was one of Marx’s criticisms; he questioned the refusal of the commune’s leadership to march on the refuge of the bourgeois government in Versailles, just a few kilometers from Paris, and defeat it definitively. He similarly criticized the refusal to seize the Bank of Paris and the French gold reserves. Here we come to one of the central strategic points neglected in the theories of “pure democracy.”
The commune attempted to raze the bourgeois state apparatus to its foundations — the bureaucratic, judicial, military, and police apparatus — and replace it with the autonomous organization of the working masses.[[See Lenin, op. cit.]] Thus, one of its first measures was to abolish the standing army and replace it with the people in arms. But this decree only sanctioned the existing state of affairs: power in Paris was already in the hands of the people in arms, and this was the basis of the commune’s emergence. A few historical references are necessary.[[The events of the Paris Commune were analyzed in this three-part essay by Doug Greene for Left Voice. Here we will just mention a few points that are essential for our argumentation.]] The creation of the commune was inextricably linked to the Franco-Prussian War. In July 1870, Emperor Napoleon III[[The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte; he had seized power after the defeat of the 1848 revolution.]]] declared war on Prussia. Two weeks later, he surrendered in Sedan and abdicated. An insurrection took place on September 4. The Third Republic was established, and power was in the hands of a coalition of monarchists and republicans headed by Adolphe Thiers. At the same time, dual power was emerging, as some battalions of the National Guard refused to hand over their weapons. When Thiers attempted to force them to do so, the people of Paris — with women on the front lines — staged another insurrection on March 18, 1871. Thiers’s government fled to Versailles, and power was left in the hands of the Central Committee of the National Guard.
It was in this context, with Paris besieged by Prussian troops and Thiers a few kilometers away preparing a counteroffensive, that the elections to the Paris Commune took place on March 26. On the 30, the Central Committee of the National Guard, which until then had held power, resigned in favor of the new commune, which in turn proclaimed the National Guard to be the only armed force and called on all citizens capable of taking up arms to enlist in it. This event contains a fundamental strategic problem. It became especially relevant after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the commune was no longer just a great revolutionary inspiration or a piece of evidence for the Marxist theory of the state — against those in the Second International who had tried to adapt it in a reformist spirit — but as a living example of strategic problems of life and death for the revolution. Leaders like Lenin and Trotsky could now interpret it in the light of their own experiences. This debate is brought to the foreground by people like Kautsky, who attempted to interpret the experience of the commune in contrast to the Bolsheviks and the power of the soviets. One of Kautsky’s central points was the following:
After the Commune had been constituted the Central Committee delegated its power to that body on March 28th. It even went so far as to give signs that it would dissolve completely; but the Commune did not insist on this, and so this Central Committee continued to function under the Commune as a part of the military machinery. … The Central Committee never attempted to upset the principle that the supreme power belonged to those elected by universal suffrage. This Central Committee never claimed that all power should fall to the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Councils, that is, in the present case, to the Central Committee of the workmen’s battalions. In this point also, therefore, the Paris Commune was the exact contrary to the Russian Republic, and yet Frederick Engels wrote on March 18th, 1891, on the twentieth anniversary of the Paris Commune: “Gentlemen, do you want to know what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.” We see that Marx and Engels, under the title of dictatorship, in no way understood the withholding of universal and equal suffrage, or the suppression of democracy.[[Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism (1919), marxists.org.]]
This type of reasoning is based on a series of sophisms that have been influential in more than one sense. In the first place, the democratic character of the commune could not be reduced to the miserable concept of “formal” or “procedural democracy,” or even to that of so-called “substantive democracy.” The point was that it was “the political form at last discovered” for the liberation of working people. In terms of formal democracy, the “illegality” of the commune was almost absolute — greater, one could even say, than that of the Russian soviets before October 1917. The fact that it was elected by universal suffrage does not erase the much more important fact that the commune had emerged from an insurrection against the national government of Thiers. Shortly before, on February 8, 1871, the elections to the National Assembly — also by universal suffrage — had handed an overwhelming victory to the monarchist sectors, thanks to the peasant vote. The first measures of the commune, in turn, put an end to conscription and the standing (national) army. In terms of formal democracy, it was a dictatorship of (workers’) Paris over the peasant nation.[[Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (1920), marxists.org.]]
From this starting point, the commune sought to win the peasants as allies. As Marx put it, “The Commune was perfectly right in telling the peasants that ‘its victory was their only hope.’”[[Marx, Civil War in France.]] There were a whole series of vital problems “which the Commune alone was able, and at the same time compelled, to solve in favor of the peasant — viz., the hypothecary debt, lying like an incubus upon his parcel of soil, the prolétariat foncier (the rural proletariat), daily growing upon it, and his expropriation from it enforced, at a more and more rapid rate, by the very development of modern agriculture and the competition of capitalist farming.”[[Ibid.]] Marx believed that the Parisian proletariat could win over the peasantry, “that three months’ free communication of Communal Paris with the provinces would bring about a general rising of the peasants,” which explained Thiers’s haste “to establish a police blockade around Paris, so as to stop the spread of the [epidemic].”[[Ibid. The original English translation uses the German word “Rinderpest” (cattle pest).]]
The commune would have needed more time, but was unable to get it. The key strategic question is, Why? Or, put a different way, How did the leadership of the commune manage its time, and what could it have done to extend it? Trotsky, having led the Petrograd insurrection and civil war, offered an answer. He argued that the Central Committee of the National Guard was in fact a “Council of Deputies of the armed workers and the petty bourgeoisie,” since it had been directly elected by the revolutionary masses. But on March 18, after its first victories, it became indecisive. Since it had not arrested the government and allowed it to flee to Versailles, it was necessary to prepare an assault on the counterrevolution’s headquarters without delay (Marx agreed on this suggestion). This meant sending detachments to agitate among Thiers’s demoralized troops in order to divide them, sending emissaries to the rest of the country, etc. But instead, as Trotsky explained, “the Central Committee imagined ‘legal’ elections to the commune. It entered into negotiations with the mayors of Paris in order to cover itself, from the Right, with ‘legality.’” He added, “Had a violent attack been prepared against Versailles at the same time, the negotiations with the mayors would have been a ruse fully justified from the military standpoint and in conformity with the goal. But in reality, these negotiations were being conducted only in order to avert the struggle by some miracle or other.”[[Leon Trotsky, “Lessons of the Paris Commune” (1921), marxists.org.]]
Thus, Trotsky drew the opposite conclusion as Kautsky. The Paris proletariat needed to understand that it was in a city besieged by Bismarck’s troops with the counterrevolution reassembling just a few kilometers away. To gain the time needed to fight for hegemony over the peasant masses, it needed to consolidate its power. But it lacked a combat party, which would have prepared itself for revolution and which would have had the audacity to go on the offensive.
In supporting the democracy of the Commune, and at the same time accusing it of an insufficiently decisive note in its attitude to Versailles, Kautsky does not understand that the Communal elections, carried out with the ambiguous help of the “lawful” mayors and deputies, reflected the hope of a peaceful agreement with Versailles. This is the whole point. The leaders were anxious for a compromise, not for a struggle. The masses had not yet outlived their illusions. … Everything taken together was called democracy.[[ Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism.]]
In this same sense, “legalist” strategies such as those defended by Kautsky led German social democracy to capitulate to the imperial government in World War I, then to the defeat/deviation of the German revolution of 1918–19, and then in the medium term to Hitler’s rise to power — including the electoral road via “universal suffrage.”[[Trotsky said, “Hitler’s political army is made up of officials, clerks, shopkeepers, tradesmen, peasants, all the intermediate and doubtful classes. In point of social consciousness they are human dust. It is a paradox that Hitler, for all his anti-parliamentarism, is much stronger in the parliamentary than in the social plane. The Fascist dust remains dust after each new counting of heads.” Leon Trotsky, “Leon Trotsky on Hitler’s Victory” (1933), marxists.org.]]
After the commune and especially in the 20th century, the sociopolitical structures of Europe and the central countries became more complex. As the workers’ movement emerged, there developed new forms of Bonapartism — including its most aggressive variant, fascism — and more sophisticated forms of bourgeois democracy. The “extension” of the state — including the statification and bureaucratization of the organizations of the mass movement — made it possible to occupy the spaces left unguarded by traditional liberal democracy and to “organize” consensus rather than just passively waiting for it. As Perry Anderson pointed out, “The general form of the representative state — bourgeois democracy — is itself the principal ideological lynchpin of Western capitalism.”[[Perry Anderson, The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (London: Verso, 2017).]] These will be key questions in a “Western” scenario very different from the one that revolutionaries had faced in Russia.
Thus, the political preparation that had been absent in the commune included the fight against legalistic illusions in the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy, among other questions.[[We have analyzed more of these questions in a previous article: Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte, “Trotsky, Gramsci, and the Emergence of the Working Class as Hegemonic Subject,” Left Voice, March 13, 2021.]] Trotsky reappropriates the radical-democratic program of the commune in a novel way, as part of a transitional program for the struggle for workers’ power. The most instructive formulation was in 1934 in A Program of Action for France, raised against the very Third Republic that had been founded on the blood of the communards. For the workers who wanted to defend bourgeois democracy against the attacks of the fascist and Bonapartist Right, Trotsky proposed the following dialogue:
We are thus firm partisans of a Workers’ and Peasants’ State, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working-class allies to this program is our primary aim. Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie. However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to “democratic” socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793.[[Leon Trotsky, A Program of Action for France (1934), marxists.org. Trotsky was drawing a contrast between the Third French Republic, which spanned from the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 to Germany’s defeat of France in 1940, as the ultimate expression of bourgeois corruption and hypocrisy, and the Great French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie was still revolutionary, particularly at its high point in the Convention of 1793.]]
In this way, Trotsky began by noting the differing objectives of the communists and the social democratic workers, in order to formulate a program that included the defense of bourgeois democracy against the attacks of the bourgeoisie, in pursuit of a united front between both wings of the workers’ movement. He then contrasted revolutionary and parliamentary methods to implement such a program, and adapted the program of the Paris Commune:
Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion! Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction! A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.[[Ibid.]]
Trotsky restated the proposal, arguing that “a more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power.”
But what did this have to do with the determined defense of soviets (or councils) that he had undertaken in his polemic against policy? His reasoning was that the struggle to build soviet organizations was fundamental for the revolution,[[Trotsky added: “If the parliamentary regime, even in the period of “peaceful,’ stable development, was a rather crude method of discovering the opinion of the country, and in the epoch of revolutionary storm completely lost its capacity to follow the course of the struggle and the development of revolutionary consciousness, the Soviet regime, which is more closely, straightly, honestly bound up with the toiling majority of the people, does achieve meaning, not in statically reflecting a majority, but in dynamically creating it.” Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism.]], as organs of the insurrection and as the scaffolding of workers’ democracy in the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the soviets (councils) are organs of the masses’ united front — and what was necessary to be able to form the united front? Unity of action with the majority of the workers who had confidence in bourgeois democracy and wanted to defend it against the advance of fascism. What did Trotsky propose to them? To defend bourgeois democracy against the attacks of the bourgeoisie itself — not with parliamentary methods, but with those of the class struggle; not under the banners of the decaying regime of the Third Republic, but under those of radical democracy. This formulation made it possible to establish a bridge between the reformist consciousness of the working masses and the preparation of the conditions for the revolutionary offensive (the insurrection). This made it possible not only to develop the workers’ united front to fight the bourgeoisie; common action in the class struggle also made it possible for revolutionaries to win the majority for the struggle for a workers’ government.
With this approach, Trotsky pointed out an alternative to the Kautskyan idea of “passive defense” in pursuit of “pure democracy,” which never existed in history. in 1871, the legalist illusions led to the commune’s indecision, while the counterrevolution responded with a large-scale massacre that was the baptism by fire of the “democratic” French Third Republic. In the 1930s, the legalist strategy of class collaboration represented by the Popular Front (made up of the Communist, Socialist, and Radical parties) brought the Third Republic to an end just as ignominious as its beginning. After the government of Édouard Daladier[[Édouard Daladier (1884–1970), leader of the French Radical Party, took over the government after the Popular Front government left office in April 1938.]] signed the Munich Agreements with Hitler in 1938, the Nazis invaded France in 1940 and the French bourgeoisie quickly surrendered. In the unoccupied territories, it set up the collaborationist Vichy regime headed by Marshal Pétain. More than half a century later, Daladier completed the work of Thiers, and Hitler that of Bismarck. Thus perished the Third Republic.
In the 150 years that separate us from the Paris Commune, bourgeois democracy has extended to the most distant parts of the world. Yet this miserable concept of democracy has never been able to respond to the questioning represented by the commune. As Antonio Gramsci pointed out,
We might write a whole series of articles entitled “Looking for democracy,” and demonstrate that democracy has never existed. And indeed, if democracy meant … rule of the popular masses, expressed through a Parliament elected by universal suffrage, then in which country has the government ever existed which meets such criteria? In England itself, homeland and cradle of the parliamentary régime and of democracy, Parliament is flanked in government by the House of Lords and the Monarchy. The powers of democracy are in reality null. … And does democracy perhaps exist in France? Alongside Parliament there exists in France the Senate, which is elected not by universal suffrage, but by two levels of electors who in their turn are only partially an expression of universal suffrage; and there also exists the institution of the President of the Republic.[[Antonio Gramsci, “The Peasants and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (1926), marxism.halkcephesi.net. In a similar tone, debating about democracy in Britain, Trotsky asked rhetorically, “What is political democracy and where does it start from? … Can for example a state be called a democracy where there is a monarchy and an aristocratic chamber? Is it permissible to adopt revolutionary methods to topple these institutions? … What is the position with the House of Commons itself? Can this institution really be called democratic, even from a formal point of view? Not in the slightest. Considerable groups of the population are deprived of the franchise. Women have the vote only from the age of 30 and men only from 21. … Besides, parliamentary constituencies are divided up in such a perfidious fashion that one Labour member must win twice as many votes as one Conservative. … Thus the present-day British Parliament represents the most flagrant mockery of the will of the people even taken in the bourgeois-democratic sense.” Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain (1925), marxists.org.]]
Gramsci concluded ironically that these institutions exist precisely “to temper the possible excesses of the Parliament elected by universal suffrage.”[[For Gramsci’s summary but systematic analysis of the evolution of parliamentarism from Jacobinism to the numerous restrictions that are developed to restrict it, see Antonio Gramsci, “Charles Maurras’ reverse Jacobinism,” §48, Prison Notebooks, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).]]
It would not be very difficult to continue this list up until the present day. Indeed, the world’s main capitalist democracy, the United States, is an increasingly obvious example of the mechanisms Gramsci was referring to. At the head of the representative system is a Bonapartist presidency that is not even elected directly but by the Electoral College. An almost impregnable two-party system creates innumerable restrictions that make any new national party almost impossible. A federalism that allows each state to restrict electoral rights and organize elections as it sees fit (arbitrary distribution of polling places, voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc.). More than 21 million citizens do not have the documents required to vote. An oligarchic Senate and a judiciary composed of a caste named for life, as a “counter-majoritarian” power — these make up the “checks and balances,” which are part of countless mechanisms that guarantee the separation between “the government” and the masses of the people.
Nonetheless, since the defeat of the wave of class struggles in the 1970s, and even more so after the debacle of the bureaucratic workers’ states and the “end of history,” the postulate that bourgeois democracy was the only possible democracy was able to prevail. In Latin America, this axiom was popularized when the dictatorships held power across the region came to an end; in Argentina especially, this was accompanied by a generalized transformism (to use Gramsci’s term) of the intelligentsia that banished all perspective of revolution. The idea of a “pure” democracy without class content today permeates all tendencies of self-styled “democratic socialism,” or the postulate of “democracy to the end.” But as the development of neoliberalism has shown, “pure” democracy does not exist. Its various forms are inseparable from the class whose domination they express. Today, the foundations of bourgeois hegemony are narrowing, and elements of organic crisis are proliferating around the world. Authoritarian and Bonapartist tendencies are rife — as is the class struggle, which we have seen developing since 2018, from the Yellow Vests until today, although still in the form of revolts.
In this context, the relevance and the originality of the commune consists precisely in having applied a new democratic principle which would be taken up decades later by the Russian soviets, first in 1905 and then in 1917, in a much broader way. The soviets came to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks — and Stalinism had to suppress them in order to impose the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. The “inclination for commune” which Nietzsche feared appeared in a more or less developed form in most revolutionary processes, albeit with different names, from the German Räte to the Iranian shoras to the Chilean cordones industriales — one can even recognized elements in the Inter-Factory Coordinating Committees of 1975 in Argentina. Such councils also had to faced new and old enemies — they were stifled by the bureaucracies of the mass movements or crushed by counterrevolution, or a combination of both. Hence the importance, in the face of new developments of the class struggle, of articulating new ways for the working class to emerge as a subject, tearing down the bureaucratic structures that are erected over the workers’ and mass movements, and deploying the necessary force to construct a revolutionary combat party.
From the commune until today, much water has passed under the bridge. Nonetheless, with its two months of existence, and the strategic lessons it left behind, it showed the power of the creativity of the working masses, their capacity to forge new institutions of power, and the perspective of organizing society on new foundations. A century and a half later, to paraphrase Lenin, it is not a question of paying lip service to the commune, but of fighting to complete its work.
First published in Spanish on August 21 in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation: Nathaniel Flakin