Lessons of the Commune

The Paris Commune, founded 150 years ago, ended in a bloody defeat. But this defeat offered lessons to revolutionaries around the world. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg — all drew strategic lessons that were applied in the Russian Revolution.
  • Doug Enaa Greene | 
  • March 21, 2021

Part I | Part II | Part III

The history of the Paris Commune has become a touchstone of great importance for the question: How should the revolutionary working class organize its tactics and strategy in order to achieve ultimate victory? With the fall of the Commune, the last traditions of the old revolutionary legend have likewise fallen forever; no favorable turn of circumstances, no heroic spirit, no martyrdom can take the place of the proletariat’s clear insight into … the indispensable conditions of its emancipation. What holds for the revolutions that were carried out by minorities, and in the interests of minorities, no longer holds for the proletariat revolution. … In the history of the Commune, the germs of this revolution were effectively stifled by the creeping plants that, growing out of the bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century, overran the revolutionary workers’ movement of the nineteenth century. Missing in the Commune were the firm organization of the proletariat as a class and the fundamental clarity as to its world-historical mission; on these grounds alone it had to succumb.
— Franz Mehring1English translation quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 788. The original German can be found at Franz Mehring, “Zum Gedächtnis der Pariser Kommune,” Sozialistische Klassiker 2.0.

In 1919 at the end of the failed January Uprising in Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg observed the following in one of her last articles:

The whole path of socialism, as far as revolutionary struggles are concerned, is paved with sheer defeats. And yet, this same history leads step by step, irresistibly, to the ultimate victory! Where would we be today without those “defeats” from which we have drawn historical experience, knowledge, power, idealism! Today, where we stand directly before the final battle of the proletarian class struggle, we are standing precisely on those defeats, not a one of which we could do without, and each of which is a part of our strength and clarity of purpose.2Rosa Luxemburg, “Order Reigns in Berlin,” in Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 413–14.

Luxemburg’s words applied just as much to the Paris Commune as to the German Revolution. In the 150 years since its defeat, the Commune has haunted and inspired. Generations of revolutionaries, such as Marx, Engels, and Lenin, have pondered its meaning and mistakes in order to do better in the future.

In the months before March 18, Marx had warned Parisians that an uprising would be “an act of desperate folly.”3Karl Marx, “Second Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 22, 269. (henceforth MECW). Once the revolution was an accomplished fact, he hailed the commune for “storming the heavens.”4“Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann April 12, 1871,” MECW, vol. 44, 132. During its existence, Marx followed the commune’s every step, praised its initiatives, and did everything in his power to further its cause. Even though the commune did not follow Marx’s advice, he was willing to learn from a living revolution.

Just two days after the last barricades had fallen, Marx offered his first reflections on the Paris Commune to the General Council of the First International. Marx’s The Civil War in France was written in a white heat: an impassioned work that clearly grasped the historical significance of the Paris Commune.

First and foremost, Marx believed that the great lesson of the commune “was its own working existence” as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat: “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.”5Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in MECW, vol. 22, 334.

Friedrich Engels also famously wrote, “Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” “Introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France,” MECW, vol. 27, 191.

As the world’s first socialist revolution, the commune proved in practice that the working class cannot seize the existing bourgeois state. Rather, that state must be destroyed and replaced by a new one after the example of the commune. According to Marx, the “next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another, but to break it, and that is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.”6“Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann April 12, 1871,” MECW, vol. 44, 131.

As Engels noted, “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.’”7Engels, “Preface to the 1872 German Edition of the Manifesto,” MECW, vol. 23, 175.

You might also be interested in: The Commune at 150: Socialists and the State

According to Franz Mehring, Marx came to understand that the working class could not conquer the existing state, but needed to smash it. See Franz Mehring, “Die Bolschewiki und Wir,” Marxists Internet Archive.
What the Communist Manifesto implied before — that the proletariat could seize the already-existing state to make socialism — was now obsolete.

Proletarian Jacobinism

While analyzing the historic significance of the commune, Marx and Engels also noted its weaknesses. Chief among them was that the commune lacked any guiding organization or cohesive leadership. None of the major factions of the commune were ready to exercise power, nor did they have a clear program. As a result, the communards shrank from the fierce and decisive measures that a revolution needs to survive. As Engels noted,

A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?8Engels, “On Authority,” MECW, vol. 23, 425.

Instead of imposing their will consistently, the communards preferred to negotiate with Versailles. The commune hoped that by compromising, they would avoid a slaughter. Instead, they brought a bloodbath upon themselves:

It seems the Parisians are succumbing. The right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start the civil war, as if that MISCHIEVOUS abortion Thiers had not already started the civil war with his attempt to disarm Paris! Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too “honourable” scrupulousness!9“Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann April 12, 1871,” in MECW, vol. 44, 132.

From their own experiences and in his criticism of the commune, Marx and Engels were arriving at the need for a “proletarian Jacobin” organization. Like the Jacobins, Marx and Engels argued for revolutionary theory, leadership, mass mobilization, organization, discipline, and terror. Of course, Marx was not simply arguing for reviving the Jacobin-Blanquist model wholesale. He had reservations about the Jacobin-Blanquist traditions for its voluntarism and elitism. But as a dialectician, Marx recognized what was rational in Jacobin politics and opposed to what was simply outmoded.10See Joseph Seymour’s series on “Marxism and the Jacobin Communist Tradition,” Young Spartacist; Doug Enaa Greene and Harrison Fluss, “The Jacobin Enlightenment,” Left Voice.

Another example in which the commune did not act decisively was its failure to take over the Bank of France. The millions of francs in the bank’s vaults should have been expropriated and used by the Parisian proletariat as they saw fit. This would have prevented any of that money from going to Versailles. Instead, the bank lay untouched. As Engels noted,

The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The bank in the hands of the Commune — this would have been worth more than ten thousand hostages. It would have meant the pressure of the whole of the French bourgeoisie on the Versailles government in favour of peace with the Commune.11Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France,” MECW, vol. 27, 187.

Once again, the commune showed too much decency and paid a terrible price for its moderation.

Revolutionary Alliance

Marx had argued that revolutionaries must win the peasantry over to their side. He observed that capitalism undermined the peasantry’s way of life, bringing them closer to the proletariat. Therefore, a socialist revolution was in the interests of the peasantry since it would deliver them from destitution and misery: “Only the fall of capital can raise the peasant; only an anti-capitalist, a proletarian government can break his economic misery, his social degradation. The constitutional republic is the dictatorship of his united exploiters; the social-democratic, the Red republic, is the dictatorship of his allies.”12Marx, “Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850,” MECW, vol. 10, 122.

Even though the commune passed decrees in support of the peasantry, few reached the countryside. Thiers maintained a blockade around Paris and made sure that only horror stories of the commune reached the provinces. This allowed Versailles to keep the commune isolated, forestalling the creation of a worker-peasant alliance. Any future socialist revolution would need to break out of urban isolation if it were to survive.

The Vanguard Party

Marx’s teachings on the Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat were largely forgotten by the Second International until they were revived by Lenin. It cannot be overstated just how important Lenin’s understanding of the commune was to the victory of 1917. As Alistair Horne notes, “Without the lessons and legends derived from the Commune, there would probably have been no successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.”13Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870–71 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 15.

From Marx, Lenin drew four major lessons from the commune’s failure. The first was the need for professional revolutionaries who possess a Marxist worldview to lead popular struggles. Second, the revolutionary struggle required a general and international view of things and not just a particular and local perspective. Third, the proletariat needed allies to succeed, most importantly the peasantry. Last, the counterrevolution would be defeated only by a centralized and coordinated offensive.14See Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject (London: Continuum, 2009), 46. For a discussion of the specifics of the Leninist politics that developed, see my essay “Leninism and Blanquism,” Cultural Logic (2012). It is the Communist Party that ties these four elements together and enables the successful practice of revolutionary politics. Trotsky describes this practice as follows: “Needed are a correct theory, an intimate contact with the masses, the comprehension of the situation, a revolutionary perception, a great resoluteness. The more profoundly a revolutionary party penetrates into all the domains of the proletarian struggle, the more unified it is by the unity of goal and discipline, the speedier and better will it arrive at resolving its task.”15Leon Trotsky, “Lessons of the Paris Commune,” Marxists Internet Archive.

State and Revolution

Lenin recognized that every struggle aiming for the genuine transformation of society must come to terms with the role of the state. In the critical months immediately preceding the outbreak of the 1917 revolution, Lenin wrote State and Revolution to resurrect Marx’s views on the state. In this work, Lenin argued that the working class must overthrow the bourgeois state and create a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Lenin argued that the bourgeois state, like all states, “is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class.”16V. I. Lenin, State and Revolution, Marxists Internet Archive. Like Marx, Lenin argued against the idea that socialists could simply take over the existing state. Rather, based on the experience of the Paris Commune, he argued that the proletariat would need to smash the existing machine and replace it with its own revolutionary dictatorship. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be the democratic rule of the exploited majority over the formerly exploited minority. For Lenin, there was no clearer example of this dictatorship than the Paris Commune. “The Commune,” he wrote, “is the first attempt by a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ‘at last discovered,’ by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.”17Lenin, State and Revolution.

The Commune Lives

One hundred and fifty years later, it is important to remember that the Paris Commune showed that it was possible for the working class to liberate itself and create a new society. The workers of Paris not only struggled for their own immediate aims, but also fought under the red flag for an entire world free of exploitation, oppression, militarism, and national barriers. Only by learning from the commune, the first example of what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat, can the working class today go further and resurrect the commune.

You might also be interested in: The Women Incendiaries of the Paris Commune

It will live again not just as the Paris Commune but as the New York Commune, the Boston Commune, the Chicago Commune, the LA Commune, the Seattle Commune, the Cairo Commune, the Jakarta Commune, the New Delhi Commune, the Johannesburg Commune, the Buenos Aires Commune. It will live on in all the communes that spring up in suburbs, rundown towns, outskirts, slums, and farms, and in all the forgotten neighborhoods and places. The commune will live again in Flint, in Minneapolis, and in Kenosha. Finally, it will live again as a World Commune of Socialism.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.



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