Vive la Commune

Primer on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune – III

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This is Part 3 of the PRISM primer on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Here we restate the most important analyses, insights and lessons about the Paris Commune, as they were derived by proletarian-revolutionary thinkers and leaders closest to the actual events, namely, Marx and Engels. We also include the additional analyses and application of these lessons to the changing circumstances of the revolutionary workers’ movement as viewed by one who was in the midst of another mass proletarian upheaval, namely, Lenin. We end with a glimpse of the prospects for new mass upsurges in the workers’ movement in the near future.

Part III. Legacy and lessons of the Paris Commune

1. What was the attitude of Marx and the International to the Commune?

As mentioned earlier, members of the International—including its entire French section and other non-French emigres such as Poles and Germans—actively participated in the efforts to organize the independent arming of the masses during the siege of Paris and in the subsequent work of the Commune itself. Marx and Engels followed the 1870-71 events as closely as they could. They fully used the postal and telegraphic services between London and Paris, and fed their war reports and analyses to various newspapers.

Marx famously said at first that he did not favor the overthrow of the Government of National Defense and the setting up of the Commune at that time. Right after Napoleon’s Empire collapsed and the new republic was proclaimed, he said:

… the French section [intends] … to do foolish things in the name of the International. They want to overthrow the Provisional Government and establish a Commune de Paris. … Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. … Let [the French workers] calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty for the work of their own class organization. It will gift them with fresh Herculean powers for the regeneration of France, and our common task—the emancipation of labor.

(Marx letter to Engels, Sept. 6, 1870)

But once the March 18 uprising triggered the Commune, Marx publicly and unreservedly aligned himself with it, supporting it from start to end, and rallying the rest of the International in that regard. He expressed profound marvel at the heroism of the Paris workers: “What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians!” He regarded the Commune “as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments.”

When Frankel and Varlin (members of the International and two of the most influential leaders of the Commune) asked Marx for advice and aid, he wrote back on May 13, 1871: “ … For your cause I have written some hundreds of letters to all the corners and ends of the world, wherever we have connections.” Largely through the influence and connections of the International, the Commune aroused tremendous sympathies from the working classes of Europe and America.

In many German cities, the workers held huge mass meetings to express solidarity. In the Reichstag, Bebel spoke with passion:

… Be assured that the entire European proletariat, and all that have a feeling for freedom and independence in their heart, have their eyes fixed on Paris. And if Paris is for the present crushed, I remind you that the struggle in Paris is only a small affair of outposts, that the main conflict in Europe is still before us, and that ere many decades pass away the battlecry of the Parisian proletariat, war to the palace, peace to the cottage, death to want and idleness, will be the battlecry of the entire European proletariat.

Marx was particularly close to Varlin (despite his being a Proudhonist) and Frankel (who aligned with Marx on many debates), corresponding with them on Commune matters. Marx’s strong influence among Commune leaders was also reflected in his sympathetic dealings with Blanqui and his followers. Two of Blanqui’s most influential supporters, Charles Longuet (who was a leading member of the Paris Commune) and Paul Lafargue (who went to unoccupied Bordeaux to raise French public support for besieged Paris), were members of the International. Both were married to Marx’s daughters.

Marx’s reportage and running commentary on the events of 1870-71 became the basis of the series of his writings in the form of “Addresses of the General Council of the International,” which were later published as The Civil War in France. A major work on the Commune, it showed his “remarkable gift for grasping clearly the character, the import and the necessary consequences of great historical events, at a time when these events are still in progress before our eyes or have only just taken place.” (Engels)

Marx and Engels were in fact thrilled that the Blanquist and Proudhonist leaders of the Commune, through their own revolutionary practice, disproved the petty-bourgeois socialist and anarchist theories that guided them at first. Instead of being content with a state of anarchy, as advocated by Proudhonism, they established the Commune as the state machinery of the proletariat. Instead of relying on conspirational plots and dictatorial measures of the few, as advocated by Blanquism, they relied on the revolutionary enthusiasm and initiative of the toiling masses in exercising proletarian power.

At the same time, Marx and Engels seriously weighed some of the Commune’s most obvious failings, and relayed their opinions and suggestions to their contacts in the French sections of the International, many of whom were leaders and fighters of the Commune.

As embattled Paris entered its Bloody Week, Marx told the International’s General Council that the end was near, yet he boldly declared: “[If] the Commune is beaten, the struggle will only be deferred. The principles of the Commune are eternal and cannot be crushed; they will assert themselves again and again until the working classes are emancipated.” (“The Record of Marx’s Speech on the Paris Commune, May 23, 1871”. MECW Vol. 22, p. 595)

2. What were the Commune’s failings that caused its downfall?

Immediate causes of the defeat. Lenin, in his speech “In Memory of the Commune” (1911, for its 40th anniversary), summarized the attitudes of the various class actors that shaped the Commune and led to its fall. He did not mince his words: “Only the workers remained loyal to the Commune to the end.”

Lenin explained:

The bourgeois republicans and the petty bourgeoisie soon broke away from it: the former were frightened off by the revolutionary-socialist, proletarian character of the movement; the latter broke away when they saw that it was doomed to inevitable defeat. Only the French proletarians supported their government fearlessly and untiringly, they alone fought and died … for the cause of the emancipation of the working class, for a better future for all toilers.

He continued:

Deserted by its former allies and left without support, the Commune was doomed to defeat. The entire bourgeoisie of France, all the landlords, stockbrokers, factory owners, all the robbers, great and small, all the exploiters joined forces against it. This bourgeois coalition, supported by Bismarck (who released a hundred thousand French prisoners of war to help crush revolutionary Paris), succeeded in rousing the ignorant peasants and the petty bourgeoisie of the provinces against the proletariat of Paris, and forming a ring of steel around half of Paris (the other half was besieged by the German army).

The French workers also attempted to seize power in a few large cities (Marseilles, Lyons, St. Étienne, Dijon, etc.) and to provide help to Paris, but the attempts were short-lived. Paris was thus “left to its own resources and doomed to certain destruction.”

Commune lacked basic conditions for victory. In hindsight 40 years later, in the same article, Lenin discussed certain conditions that the Commune lacked in 1871, but which it absolutely needed to attain victory as a “social revolution” (with socialist aims while also completing the uncompleted tasks of the democratic revolution).

The first condition lacking, Lenin said, was highly developed productive forces. “French capitalism was still poorly developed, and France was at that time mainly a petty-bourgeois country (artisans, peasants, shopkeepers, etc.).”

The second condition lacking was “a proletariat adequately prepared” to lead the revolution. “[There] was no workers’ party; the working class had not gone through a long school of struggle and was unprepared, and for the most part did not even clearly visualise its tasks and the methods of fulfilling them. There was no serious political organization of the proletariat, nor were there strong trade unions and co-operative societies …”

For Lenin, there was yet a third condition—something very practical but crucial for the Commune’s survival: time. The Commune needed time—

… an opportunity to take stock of the situation and to embark upon the fulfilment of its programme. It had scarcely had time to start work, when the government entrenched in Versailles and supported by the entire bourgeoisie began hostilities against Paris. The Commune had to concentrate primarily on self-defense. Right up to the very end, May 21-28, it had no time to think seriously of anything else.

Major mistakes and shortcomings. Those were the objective conditions. But there were also subjective mistakes that the Commune could have avoided. Many of them were minor or understandable, but at least two huge blunders greatly hastened its defeat.

First mistake: the Paris proletariat was over-magnanimous to its enemies. In the trenchant words of Marx, writing blow-by-blow commentaries while the Commune was still unfolding:

If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They should have marched at once on Versailles … The right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start the civil war, as if … Thiers had not already started the civil war with his attempt to disarm Paris.

(Marx letter to Kugelmann, April 12, 1871)

In other words, while the Commune had the backing of a fully armed population in Paris, it only sought to exert moral influence on its enemies instead of destroying them. Its sense of patriotic duty in fighting the Prussian occupiers blurred its view of the unfolding civil war with the French ruling clique entrenched in Versailles. Thus it flinched from a resolute offensive, giving Versailles enough time to pursue and achieve its own aim of crushing Paris.

Although the Commune was armed, it used those arms only to defend itself once the Versailles offensive began. The Commune also underestimated the role of military initiative and tactical leadership in civil war, neglecting to fully utilize its available armed forces and to organize even its own proper defense.

Engels emphasized this lesson, with both strategic and tactical implications, about a people arming itself and using those arms to the fullest against the enemy. In his 1874 article “On Authority”, directed against the anarchists (who decried the Commune’s exercise of state authority backed by arms, and wished to have abolished the state at one stroke), he said: “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?” (MECW, Vol. 23, p. 425)

Second mistake: the Paris proletariat stopped half-way from imposing a socialist program according to its class interests. Still influenced by Proudhonist (anarchist) notions of “just exchange”, it limited itself mostly to populist or half-baked measures instead of “expropriating the expropriators”. Along this line, the Commune committed the unforgivable blunder of refusing to seize the Bank of France.

Both mistakes were reinforced ideologically, among many leaders, by the still-prevalent bourgeois traditions of the French revolution of 1793 and the legalities of French bourgeois institutions. The other shortcomings of the Commune—of which there were countless and varied ones—would find their root causes in these objective limitations and subjective mistakes.

Marx and Engels, for example, did not hide their frustration about the Commune’s indecision and vagueness in its program and aims; its having tolerated the phrase-mongers, incompetent generals, and anarchic organization; and its wasting too much time on meetings where “long-winded talkers and demagogues” discussed petty issues while Versailles was already starting to tighten its stranglehold.

Commenting on hindsight judgments about the Commune’s many excesses (e.g. arbitrarily taking and killing hostages and destroying monarchist properties and symbols), Engels had this to say:

A lot of follies are unavoidably committed in every revolution, as they are indeed at all other times, and when at last people calm down sufficiently to be able to review events critically, they inevitably draw the following conclusion: we have done many things that it would have been better to leave undone, and have failed to do many things that it would have been better to do, and that is why things took a bad turn.

(Engels, Refugee Literature series, 1874-75)

3. How did the Commune inspire the growth of the proletarian-socialist movement?

Immediately after the Commune’s collapse, the general socio-political situation became more repressive against the workers’ movement. This was especially true in the various European states, which recalled the 1848 Revolution and saw themselves being threatened once more by another social upheaval.

At the same time, successive generations of the working class learned to take inspiration and draw lessons from the Commune. They honored its martyrs, cherished its veterans who were in prison and exile, and studied its lessons. They scoffed at the worst reactionary red-scare propaganda and persecution campaigns thrown at them by the big bourgeoisie. As Engels remarked in 1895: “It was believed that the militant proletariat had been finally buried with the Paris Commune. But, completely to the contrary, it dates its most powerful resurgence from the Commune and the Franco-Prussian War.”

Within France, the bourgeoisie assumed that revolutionary socialism was dead after 1871. But five years later, a new generation of socialist workers emerged to pick up the red flag anew. By the 1880s, a new workers’ party waged a successful nationwide campaign to compel the release and return of many Communards still in prison or exile.

In other European countries, the embers of the Commune served to awaken and inspire the working class into advancing their movements and building their socialist parties. The events of 1870-71 “transferred the centre of gravity of the European workers’ movement in the meantime from France to Germany, … [where] Social-Democracy experienced a still more rapid and enduring growth.” (Engels, 1895) Indeed, German chancellor Bismarck had tried to destroy the German Social-Democratic movement with repressive anti-socialist laws in 1878. But the repression merely made the party stronger, such that it could hold a most successful Erfurt Congress in 1891.

In a handful of countries such as Spain and Italy, Britain and some American cities (and as secret factions within the First International), anarchist groups rode on the continuing political ferment. They attempted to redirect the working class away from social revolution and into dark treacherous paths where they joined up with other reformist and sectarian groups.

On the other hand, many leaders of the Commune who escaped death, prison and brutal repression found themselves as refugees in England. They were warmly welcomed by Marx and Engels, and absorbed into the increasingly Marxist leadership of the International.

In a broad sense, the Paris Commune’s aftermath defined the paths taken by the proletarian-socialist movement in the subsequent 20-30 years. The Commune gifted the proletariat with priceless lessons. It also showed that some conditions were still lacking for the advance to victory. Such conditions include mass proletarian parties armed with scientific-socialist theory and able to lead the workers’ struggle in the specific conditions of their own countries.

This post-Paris Commune era, said Lenin, was thus a “period … of the formation, growth and maturing of mass socialist parties with a proletarian class composition.” The task at hand was for the working class to rally its forces, form proletarian parties in individual countries, and prepare for new revolutionary storms. Marx and Engels, and their work in the First International (which disbanded in 1876), helped prepare the basis for building such parties.

Based on the Paris Commune experience, Marx and Engels further developed their theories on state and revolution, the working-class struggles under capitalism, the political conditions and class alliances required for it to win power, and the features of the proletarian state and party. They defended its lessons against the anarchists (who viewed it too narrowly, as an example of the destruction of the state per se) and the reformists (who praised its social reforms but glossed over its revolutionary essence).

Lenin and the Russian Bolshevik party treasured the lessons of the Commune and the memory of its martyrs. On March 18, 1908, Lenin spoke at a Geneva meeting in commemoration of three anniversaries: the 25th anniversary of Marx’s death, the 60th anniversary of the March 1848 revolution, and the anniversary of the Paris Commune. On April 15 (28), 1911, Lenin wrote the stirring “In Memory of the Commune” to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Finally, the lessons of the Commune as applied to the Russian revolution underlie much of Lenin’s major work, The State and Revolution (especially in Ch. III).

The Internationale, the proletarian-revolutionary anthem. The Commune inspired so much awe among the masses of workers and radical intellectuals of that time, that they produced volumes of literature and many artistic works dedicated to its heroic martyrs, stories, and lessons. In the past 150 years, massive outpourings of deep proletarian sentiments, especially in solemn cultural form, marked the many anniversary commemorations of the Paris Commune, through meetings and demonstrations, and by placing wreaths on the graves of the Communards.

Of these artistic expressions, the most outstanding and timeless is the Internationale—a poem written in June 1871 by French socialist revolutionary, poet and singer, and painter of fabric and wallpaper designs, Eugène Pottier, after he escaped the Paris bloodbath. It was originally intended to be sung to the tune of “La Marseillaise” (the most-sung anthem in the barricades). During the next 16 years, Pottier revised the poem. It was finally published in 1887, the year he died.

A year later, Belgian socialist and composer Pierre de Geyter wrote a new melody, partly inspired by another barricade favorite (“Chant du Depart”). The rousing proletarian anthem quickly gained popularity among workers of other countries fighting on their own picketlines, protest marches, barricades and combat fronts, for class and human emancipation. The Internationale has become one of the most-translated, most-performed, most-popular, and most-beloved song of revolutionaries throughout the world.

4. What are the Paris Commune’s most fundamental lessons for today’s world?

The most fundamental lessons of the Paris Commune for today’s world remain anchored on the historic but still unfulfilled mission of the proletariat to end wage slavery and emancipate itself together with the whole of humanity, to wage organized resistance against all kinds of oppression and exploitation, and eventually to overthrow capitalism and build socialism. Here we focus on three fundamental lessons that ring as resonant as ever.

Proletarian party as practical center of leadership, guided by revolutionary theory. Throughout the many decades after the fall of the Commune, Marxists have gone deeper to understand the roots of its subjective weaknesses and mistakes. It is now clear that the main internal cause underlying the Commune’s failure was the absence of a proletarian party guided by revolutionary theory, while its many groups of proletarian leaders and activists held on to various theories that often conflicted with each other and with concrete conditions.

The theories of Marx and Engels, while already enjoying a formidable influence within the International, were as yet only loosely understood among the Commune’s leaders—including those who were themselves members of the International. It was Blanquism and Proudhonism that dominated among the leaders. This did not help to resolve the constant bickerings, vacillations, and over-extended debates within the leadership.

Thus, the Commune had no solidly unified party capable of providing correct leadership—if only to overthrow the Versailles regime, extend proletarian power beyond Paris, adopt consistent class-based policies, and conclude an honorable peace treaty with Prussia. (In comparison, the correct leadership of the Bolshevik party, with Lenin at the helm, proved crucial in winning the 1917 October Revolution and in consolidating the Soviet state under similar conditions of war, economic ruin, and tangled politics.)

It was thus reasonable that during the International’s London Conference (held in September 1871 in lieu of a regular congress due to post-Commune repression throughout Europe), the most important decision was “to found, in each country, an independent proletarian party whose aim would be the conquest of political power by the working class.”

As Lenin later explained, after the First International decided to disband in 1876: “[It] had played its historical part, and now made way for a period of a far greater development of the labour movement in all countries in the world, a period in which the movement grew in scope, and mass socialist working-class parties in individual national states were formed.”

Indeed, the revolutionary mass upsurges and emergence of proletarian-socialist states in the 20th century—all inspired by the Paris Commune—were led by such working-class parties guided by Marxism-Leninism.

Relying on the masses, learning warfare through warfare. Among the lessons of the Paris Commune, one fundamental lesson—a materialist lesson that runs through the thousands of years of class struggle—is for revolutionaries to rely on the masses and to learn from their actual practice of waging revolution.

As Lenin said: “The historical initiative of the masses is what Marx prized above everything else.” In one of his memorable quotes, Lenin explained the fundamental reason behind Marx’s apparent 180-degree turn from his position on the Paris workers’ uprising (“a desperate folly”) the moment they proved their absolute willingness to “storm heaven”:

In September, 1870, Marx called the insurrection desperate folly. But when the masses rose [in March 1871] Marx wanted to march with them, to learn with them in the process of the struggle and not to give them bureaucratic admonitions. He realised that it would be quackery or hopeless pedantry to attempt to calculate the chances in advance with complete accuracy. Above everything else he put the fact that the working class heroically, self-sacrificingly and taking the initiative itself, makes world history.

As for the charge that the Commune was an costly gamble on a losing bet, Marx said: “World history would, indeed, be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.” (Marx letter to Kugelmann, April 17, 1871) Even after the Paris Commune fell, Marx saw in it a most valuable historical moment “when the desperate struggle of the masses even for a hopeless cause is necessary for the sake of the further education of these masses and their training for the next struggle.”

While the leadership of the Paris Commune came from many streams of revolutionary and socialist thought, it was the proletarian masses of Paris in their millions, brimming with enthusiasm and initiative, that really drove the leaders to unite and resolve their differences, decide and act quickly on the urgent tasks of the Commune.

The masses, who were organized on a wide scale, were the Commune’s real masters. They discussed important questions of policy within their organizations. Everyday, some 20,000 activists joined club meetings to propose or criticize this or that course of action. The masses likewise sent articles and letters to the various revolutionary newspapers and journals that circulated throughout the Commune.

The more democratic Commune leaders encouraged this groundswell of mass participation and local initiatives in running state affairs. Many of the major decrees of the Commune, especially those on political and socio-economic reforms, were based on proposals by the masses. The masses also monitored the work of the Commune and its leaders, and criticized them either directly (during meetings) or through letters and articles.

Writing about the lessons of the Commune some two decades later (Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, 1895), Engels said: “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul.”

In the same Introduction, Engels stressed another point barely touched in earlier years: the need to mobilize the other strata of working people, especially the great mass of peasants, and to use all possible means to win them over. He said: “…Even in France, the Socialists are realising more and more that no lasting victory is possible for them unless they first win over the great mass of the people, i.e. the peasants in this instance.” Lenin, drawing from this lesson and applying it to Russian conditions and the requirements of the Russian revolution, likewise gave utmost importance to mobilizing the peasantry in their vast numbers.

The Paris Commune showed the correct relationship between the leadership and the masses. As Sison explained:

The creators of history are indeed the masses. Leaders can make a summing-up and synthesize new tasks only on the basis of the revolutionary mass movement. True leadership cannot be established and cannot act correctly without relying on the masses and without learning from them. “From the masses to the masses” is the correct slogan that must be followed by the revolutionary party of the proletariat and by its cadres.

(“The Paris Commune Inspires Our Party,” 1971)

Political power and proletarian dictatorship. The solid core of the Paris Commune’s message, serving to anchor its many important lessons, is on the question of political power. Marx and Engels tirelessly explained the Commune’s world-historic significance to the working class, as the first attempt to break the bourgeois state machine and to replace it by a state of a new type, a proletarian dictatorship—the main instrument for building socialism.

Throughout the 19th century and beyond, capitalist countries displayed a crazy “musical-chairs” kind of political situation in which various forms of bourgeois state power merely rotated within the ruling classes. One ruling clique simply transferred power to the next ruling clique, while the same military-bureaucratic machine at the core of the bourgeois state remained intact.

This pattern was most starkly exhibited in France during that period, but is inherent in all bourgeois states. However the political shuffle went, the proletariat remained under bourgeois rule and exploitation. Every major change of ruling clique further expanded and perfected the state machine, while the workers and other working people were more ruthlessly squeezed. The French proletariat, with its nearly a century of painful lessons since the bourgeois 1789 revolution, gradually realized that “the political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation.”

In 1871, the fully armed masses of Paris faced two imminent threats: the external Prussian threat, which was straightforward enough, and the internal threat from a double-faced “Republican” regime. But they were already exercising power within Paris and scoffed at any thought of surrender. Hence, by force of historical circumstances, they had no choice but to turn the predatory Franco-Prussian war into a revolutionary civil war. (This lesson was much appreciated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in leading the Russian revolution through a similarly complex situation.)

The proletarian masses realized that their revolution this time was “not against this or that legitimate, constitutional, republican or imperialist form of state power.” Rather, it was:

… a revolution against the state itself, of this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life. It was not a revolution to transfer it from one fraction of the ruling classes to the other, but a revolution to break down this horrid machinery of class domination itself. (Marx, The Civil War in France, 1st and 2nd drafts)

Marx and Engels gave such an exceptional importance to this historical lesson of the Commune, that when a new German edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party was issued in 1872, they wrote in its preface what they saw as the only substantial correction to their original 1848 work: the Commune had especially proved that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

The Paris Commune, Marx said, was an attempt to smash the military-bureaucratic machine, and not simply to transfer it to different hands. He repeatedly stressed that the bourgeois state had to be smashed and replaced with the proletarian state. And the first premise in accomplishing this task, Marx said, “was a proletarian army. The working classes would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield.”

By 1895, the various workers’ parties had recovered, having gained substantial mass following and victories in the parliamentary struggle. But parliamentary reformism and bourgeois pacifism lurked in the wings. With Marx already gone, and with the Commune’s lessons in danger of fading away after two decades, Engels made sure to reiterate this fundamental assertion and remove any ambiguity:

Of late, the German philistine [reformist Social-Democrat] 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 The Civil War in France)

Towards a proletarian-socialist resurgence. A century and a half later, Marxist-Leninists of the world have shown more brilliant examples of the dictatorship of the proletariat—the products of armed revolutions led by the proletariat and its party: the great socialist states of the Soviet Union in the time of Lenin and Stalin (1917-1956), the People’s Republic of China in the time of Mao (1949-1976), and other socialist states elsewhere.

Because of the failures that produced revisionist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, leading them back to the capitalist road, the international big bourgeoisie has been crowing that the proletarian-socialist revolution is a dead-end. At best, they say, the working class should find an alternative way out of capitalism and of exercising its power without smashing the bourgeois state machinery.

But, despite the defeat of the Paris Commune, the Soviet Union and socialist China, despite the absence of a fighting organization such as the First International in the 1860s-1870s, the world proletariat of the early 21st century is in fact stronger in terms of sheer size, distribution, technical skills, and intellectual level.

As the most advanced social force in history, today’s proletariat has retained its capacity to organize itself for class struggle, and to rediscover its revolutionary moorings and historic mission. More proletarian revolutionary parties, with red flag in hand, are rising anew to lead the mass upsurges and the long march to socialism in the years and decades ahead.

Today, 150 years after the Paris Commune—as past generations also did 50, 100 years ago—the world’s proletariat and oppressed peoples will again honor the men and women, young and old, of various nationalities, that fought for the Paris Commune. Its story has not faded. Its lessons ring true now more than ever. Its chants and songs continue to fire up the workers and other toilers wherever and whenever they are suffering, wherever and whenever they are struggling to keep afloat the red flag, wherever and whenever they are in the thick of the people’s fight for rights and liberation.

Marx summed it up thus: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” The cause of the Paris Commune is the cause of the complete social emancipation of all proletarians and and other toiling masses of the world. # (Review Part I) (Review Part II)

Corrections on 2021-04-16, with additions in bold/red:

  • Two of Blanqui’s most influential supporters, Charles Longuet (who was a leading member of the Paris Commune) and Paul Lafargue (who went to unoccupied Bordeaux to raise French public support for besieged Paris), were members of the International. Both were married to Marx’s daughters. (This replaces the error referring to Lafargue has having been in Paris at that time.)
  • French socialist revolutionary, poet and singer, and painter of fabric and wallpaper designs, Eugène Pottier… (This replaces the description of Pottier as a “transport worker”, which is mentioned in several Internet articles.)


Main references

Karl Marx. [April-May] 1871. The Civil War in France (Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association). MECW Vol. 22

_____. 1850. The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. MECW Vol. 10

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 1872. Preface to the 1872 German Edition of The Communist Manifesto.

Friedrich Engels. [July] 1870 – [February] 1871. Notes on the War. MECW Vol. 22.

_____. 1892. Message of Greetings to the French Workers on the 21st Anniversary of the Paris Commune. MECW Vol. 27.

_____. 1895. Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. MECW Vol. 27.

V.I. Lenin. 1907. “Marx’s Estimation of the Commune.” Excerpt from Lenin’s Introduction to Letters to Dr. Kugelmann. Also: “Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx’s Letters to Dr. Kugelmann,” LCW, Vol.12, p.113.

_____. 1908. “Lessons of the Commune.” LCW Vol. 13, pp. 475-478. First published in Zagranichnaya Gazeta, No. 2 , March 23, 1908.

_____. 1911. “In Memory of the Commune.” LCW Vol. 17, pp. 139-143. First published in Rabochaya Gazeta, No. 4-5, April 15 (28), 1911.

_____. 1917. The State and Revolution. LCW Vol. 23.

Cheng Chih-Szu. 1966. “The Great Lessons of the Paris Commune: In Commemoration of its 95th Anniversary”. Peking Review (1966 Nos.14-16),,

Editorial Departments of Renmin Ribao, Hongqi and Jiefangjun Bao. 1971. “Long Live the Victory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat! – In commemoration of the centenary of the Paris Commune”. Peking Review, 1971 No. 12.

Jose Ma. Sison (Amado Guerrero). 1971. “The Paris Commune Inspires our Party”. Ang Bayan Vol. 3 No. 2 (March 19, 1971)

Other references

Documents of the Paris Commune (Ephemera from the collection in the Bibliotheque nationale de france, translated from the French by Mitchell Abidor.)

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. 1876. History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (Translated from the French by Eleanor Marx.)

Judy Cox. 2021. “Genderquake: socialist women and the Paris Commune”. International Socialism. No. 169. Posted 5 January 2021 on ISJ site,

Max Shachtman. 1926. 1871: The Paris Commune. (The Little Red Library No. 8)

Image credits will be double-checked and added to the caption embedded to each online image.

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