5. 26. 2021

The Paris Commune:
A Tiger’s Leap into the Past

Michael Löwy

From March 18 to May 28, 1871, the working class of Paris seized control of the city and established the Paris Commune, a remarkable experiment in radical workers’ democracy and liberation from oppression – celebrated by Marx as “the glorious harbinger of a new society,” and a key inspiration for the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was crushed with extraordinary bloodshed by the French military, doing the bidding of the French ruling class and ruling classes across Europe.

To mark the Commune’s 150th anniversary this spring, we’re publishing this new English version of “La Commune de Paris: un saut de tigre dans le passé” by the Paris-based ecosocialist Michael Löwy, exploring the Commune’s legacies and lessons for left strategy today. The essay first appeared in French in Mediapart. The translation of an earlier version, which Midnight Sun has here updated and in places reimagined, appeared in International Viewpoint.

In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx wrote that proletarian revolutions, unlike bourgeois revolutions, take their poetry not from the past but from the future. He was undoubtedly right: social revolutions are always innovative and unexpected, they invent new forms for organization and struggle. But at the same time, I think he was wrong. Each revolution also draws its inspiration, its poetry, from earlier revolutions. As Walter Benjamin said, every revolution is “a tiger’s leap into the past.” This was true of the Paris Commune of 1871, which took the Paris Commune of 1793-1794 as one of its main references; and, as we will see, this was also true of the Russian Revolution’s relationship to the Paris Commune of 1871.

As with all of history’s great revolutions, the Commune was, in the words of Daniel Bensaïd in his stirring introduction to the writing of Marx and Engels on the subject, an event that interrupted the ordinary course of daily life, a breach in the mechanical time of clocks, an explosive fusing of past, present, and future tasks.

We can say of the Paris Commune what Immanuel Kant wrote in his famous commentary on the French Revolution: “That occurrence is too important, too much interwoven with the interest of humanity, and its influence too widely propagated in all areas of the world to not be recalled on any favourable occasion by the nations which would then be roused to a repetition of new efforts of this kind…”

The 150th anniversary, in 2021, is an opportunity not only to pay tribute to the fighters of 1871, but also to reflect on the relevance of their efforts to today’s struggles.


The tradition of the oppressed

There is a wall at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, known as “Le Mur des Fédérés” (“The Communards’ Wall”). It was there that the last fighters of the Paris Commune were shot in May 1871, by Versailles troops.

Every year, thousands and sometimes, as in 1971, tens of thousands of French people, but also people from all over the world, visit this exalted place of remembrance for the labour movement. They come alone or in demonstrations, with red flags or flowers, and sometimes sing an old love song, which became the song of the Communards: “Le Temps des Cerises.”

We do not pay homage to a man, a hero or a great thinker, but to a crowd of anonymous people whom we refuse to forget.

As Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy Of History (1940), the struggle for emancipation is waged not only on behalf of the future but also on behalf of defeated generations; the recollection of enslaved ancestors and their struggles is one of the great sources of moral and political inspiration for revolutionary thought and action.

The Paris Commune is therefore part of what Benjamin calls “the tradition of the oppressed” that is to say, of those privileged (“messianic”) moments in history when the lower classes have succeeded, for a while, in breaking the continuity of history, the continuity of oppression; short too short periods of freedom, emancipation, and justice that will, each time, serve as benchmarks and examples for new battles.

Since 1871, it has never ceased to nourish the thought and practice of revolutionaries, starting with Marx himself as well as Bakunin and then, in the twentieth century, Trotsky and Lenin.


Marx and the 1871 Commune

Despite their disagreements within the First International, Marxists and libertarian socialists worked together fraternally in support of the Paris Commune, that first great attempt at “proletarian power” in modern history. To be sure, the respective analyses of Marx and Bakunin on this revolutionary event were poles apart.

We can summarize Marx’s views in the following terms: “The small group of convinced socialists who participated in the Commune were in a very difficult position. … They had to set up a revolutionary government and army against the government and army of Versailles.”

Faced with this reading of the civil war in France, in which two governments and their respective armies face off against each other, Bakunin’s anti-statist point of view was quite explicit: “The Paris Commune was a revolution against the state itself, this supernatural runt of society.”

Attentive and informed readers will have made the correction for themselves: the first opinion is actually that of…Bakunin, in his essay “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State.” While the second is a quote from…Marx, in his first version of The Civil War in France. We have purposely muddied the waters, to show that the differences admittedly very real between Marx and Bakunin, Marxists and libertarian socialists, are not as simple and obvious as is thought…

Moreover, Marx rejoiced in the fact that, during the events of the Commune, the Proudhonians set aside their teacher’s theories, while certain libertarian socialists observed with pleasure that Marx’s writings on the Commune abandoned centralism in favour of federalism.

Marx had proposed, as the central political slogan of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) the First International a formula which he inscribed in the Inaugural Address of the IWA in 1864: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

If the Commune of 1871 was so important in his eyes, it is precisely because it was the first revolutionary manifestation of this founding principle of the modern working-class and socialist movement.

In The Civil War in France (and its preparatory notes), the address written on behalf of the First International in 1871, Marx says that the Commune was not the regime of a party or of a group, but “essentially a working class government,” a “government of the people by the people,” which is to say “the taking back by the people and for the people of their own social purpose.”

To this end, it was not enough to “conquer” the existing state apparatus: it was necessary to “break” it and replace it by another form of political power, as the Communards had done, from their first decree the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people.

Here is what Marx wrote in a letter to his friend Kugelmann on April 12, 1871, in the first weeks of the Commune: “If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I say that 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 smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.”

What seemed to Marx to be decisive was not only the social legislation of the Commune certain measures of which, such as the transformation of factories abandoned by their owners into workers’ cooperatives, had a socialist dynamic but above all its political significance as workers’ power

As he wrote in the Address of 1871, “this new Commune, which breaks with the modern state power” was the work of “plain working men” who “for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their ‘natural superiors.’”

The Commune was neither a conspiracy nor a sudden surprise attack, it was “the people acting for itself by itself.”

The correspondent of the Daily News newspaper found there was no leader exercising “supreme authority,” a remark that prompts an ironic comment from Marx: “This shocks the bourgeois who wants political idols and ‘great men’ immensely.”

While activists from the First International played an important role in the events, the Commune was not hatched by a vanguard organization. In response to slanders of reaction presenting the uprising as a conspiracy hatched by the IWA, Marx wrote: “The police-tinged bourgeois mind naturally figures to itself the International Working Men’s Association as acting in the manner of a secret conspiracy, its central body ordering, from time to time, explosions in different countries. Our Association is, in fact, nothing but the international bond between the most advanced working men in the various countries of the civilized world. Wherever, in whatever shape, and under whatever conditions the class struggle obtains any consistency, it is but natural that members of our Association, should stand in the foreground.”

If Marx speaks sometimes of workers and sometimes of “people,” it is because he was aware that the Commune was not only the work of the proletarian class strictly speaking, but also of sectors of the impoverished middle classes, intellectuals, women from various social strata, students and soldiers, all united around the red flag and the dream of a social republic. Not to mention the peasants, absent from the movement, but without whose support the uprising in Paris could only fail.

Another aspect of the Commune that Marx insists on is its internationalist character.

No doubt, the people of Paris rose up in 1871 against the capitulating bourgeois politicians who had reconciled with Bismarck and the Prussian army. But this surge of national spirit in no way took a nationalist form; not only because of the role of the militants of the French section of the First International, but also because the Commune called upon fighters of all nations.

The solidarity of the International Workingmen’s Association, and the meetings in support of the Commune held in Breslau and other German cities, at the initiative of socialist workers, are an expression of the internationalist significance of the uprising of the Parisian people. As Marx wrote in a resolution adopted at a March 1872 meeting celebrating the anniversary of the Commune, the Communards were “the heroic vanguard … of the menacing army of the universal proletariat.”


October 1917: the tiger’s leap into the past

There exists, according to Walter Benjamin in his 1940 Theses quoted above, a unique constellation between a present moment in the struggle of the oppressed and a specific event of the past, a unique image of this past that threatens to disappear if it is not recognized. This is what happened during the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Only Leon Trotsky saw the constellation between the Commune of 1871 and the struggle of the Russian Soviets in 1905: in his December 1905 preface to the Russian edition of Marx’s writings on the Commune, he observes that the example of 1871 shows that “it is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.” Once in power, though, Russian workers would be led, like those in the Commune, to take measures which combine the liquidation of absolutism with the socialist revolution.

In 1905-1906, Trotsky was virtually alone in his defence of the 1871 model for the Russian revolution. Even Lenin, despite his criticisms of the Menshevik tactic of supporting the anti-Tsarist bourgeoisie, refused to regard the Commune as an example for the workers’ movement in Russia.

In his 1905 work Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Lenin criticized the Paris Commune for having “confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with the tasks of fighting for Socialism”; for this reason, it was a form of government which would not resemble that of the future Russian revolutionary democratic government.

Things would turn out quite differently in 1917.

From his April Theses onward, Lenin took the Paris Commune as a model for the Republic of Soviets that he proposed as a goal for the Russian revolutionaries, precisely because it had effected the dialectical fusion between the struggle for a democratic republic and the struggle for socialism.

This idea would also be broadly developed in The State and Revolution and all Lenin’s other writings during the year 1917. The identification with the Communards was so strong that, according to contemporary accounts, Lenin had proudly celebrated the day when just a few months after October 1917 the power of the Soviets had succeeded in holding out one day more than the Commune of 1871…

The October revolution is therefore a striking example of the idea set out by Walter Benjamin in his Theses: any genuine revolution is not only a leap towards the future, but also “a tiger’s leap into the past,” a dialectical leap towards a moment in the past “filled by the presence of the now” (Jetztzeit).

Like Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky criticized certain political or strategic errors of the Commune: for example, not seizing the funds of the Bank of France, not attacking Versailles, waiting for the enemy at the barricades of each neighbourhood. Nonetheless, they recognized in this event an unprecedented moment in modern history, the first attempt to “storm heaven,” the first experience of social and political emancipation of the oppressed classes.


The relevance of the Paris Commune in the 21st century

Each generation has its own reading, its own interpretation of the Commune of 1871, according to its historical experience, the needs of its present struggle, the aspirations and utopias that motivate it.

What would its relevance be today, from the point of view of the radical left and the social and political movements of the early 21st century, from the Zapatistas of Chiapas to libertarian socialist Rojava, to the global justice movement?

Of course, the vast majority of organizers and activists today know little about the Commune. There are nonetheless some affinities and resonances between the experience of the Parisian spring of 1871 and the struggles of today that deserve to be highlighted:

a) The Commune was a movement of self-emancipation, self-organization, and initiative from below. No party tried to take the place of the popular classes, no vanguard wanted to “take power” in place of the workers. The militants of the French section of the First International were among the most active supporters of the popular uprising, but they never wanted to set themselves up as the self-proclaimed “leadership” of the movement, they never attempted to monopolize power or marginalize other political currents. The representatives of the Commune were democratically elected in the neighbourhoods and subject to the permanent control of their popular base.

b) In other words: the Commune of 1871 was a pluralist and unitary movement, in which the partisans of Proudhon or (more rarely) of Marx, libertarian socialists and Jacobins, Blanquists and “social republicans” all participated. Of course, there were debates and differences, sometimes even political clashes in the democratically elected bodies of the Commune. But in practice they acted in common, respected each other, and focused their fire on the enemy and not on the comrade in struggle with whom they may have had disagreements. The ideological dogmas of each mattered less than the common objectives: social emancipation, the abolition of class privileges. As Marx himself acknowledged, the Jacobins forgot their authoritarian centralism, and the Proudhonians their “anti-political” principles.

c) As we saw above, it was an authentically internationalist movement, with the participation of fighters from several countries. The Commune elected a Polish revolutionary (Dombrowicz) to the leadership of its militia; a Hungarian-German worker (Leo Frankel) was commissar of labour. Of course, resistance to the Prussian occupation played a decisive role in triggering the Commune, but the call of the French insurgents to the people and to German social democracy, inspired by the utopia of the “United States of Europe,” testifies to this internationalist consciousness.

d) Despite the weight of patriarchy in popular culture, the Commune stands out for the active and combative participation of women. The libertarian socialist activist Louise Michel and the Russian revolutionary Elisabeth Dmitrieff are among the best known, but thousands of other women designated with rage and hatred as “pétroleuses” (“hysterical female arsonists”) by the Versailles reactionaries took part in the fighting of April-May 1871.

On 14 April, the citizens’ delegates sent to the Executive Committee of the Commune an address which stated the will of many women to participate in the defence of Paris, considering that “the Commune, representative of the great principle proclaiming the annihilation of all privilege, of all inequality, should be simultaneously engaged in taking into account the just demands of the entire population, without distinction of sex, a distinction created and maintained by the need for antagonism on which the privileges of the dominant classes rest.”

The appeal was signed by the delegates, members of the Central Committee of Women Citizens: Adélaïde Valentin, Noëmie Colleville, Marcand, Sophie Graix, Joséphine Pratt, Céline Delvainquier, Aimée Delvainquier, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff.

e) Though lacking a detailed socialist programme, the social measures of the Commune for example, the handing over to the workers of factories abandoned by their bosses had a radical anti-capitalist dynamic.

It is clear that the characteristics of the popular uprisings of our time for example, the Zapatista uprising of 1994, that of the people of Buenos Aires in 2001, that which defeated the anti-Chavez coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002, or that against the villainous President Piñera in Chile in 2019 to mention just a few recent examples from Latin America, are very different from those of the Paris insurrection of 1871.

But many aspects of this first attempt at social emancipation by the oppressed retain an astonishing relevance and can fire the political imagination of each new generation.

Without the memory of the past and its struggles, there will be no fight for the utopia of the future.

Michael Löwy is an ecosocialist, sociologist, and philosopher. He is emeritus research director at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) in Paris. His books have been translated into 29 languages.