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The first glimpse of a society run by workers
The Paris Commune

By Paul D'Amato | December 13, 2002 | Page 10

"THE FIRST step in the revolution by the working class," Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class--to win the battle of democracy." But there hadn't yet been any experience of what a successful workers' revolution would look like. The Paris Commune of 1871 gave them their answer.

In March of that year, the workers of Paris, organized into the Parisian National Guard, defeated troops sent by France's leader, Louis Thiers, to disarm them. Thiers had just been elected head of France's new republic after Napoleon's Second Empire was disastrously defeated in a war with the Prussian army. The peace terms required France to disarm and allow Prussian troops to march into Paris.

But the Parisian working class refused to give up their arms. The workers rallied heroically around the National Guard militias, defeating the troops and compelling the bourgeoisie, their armed forces and their political apparatus to flee Paris for Versailles.

The Paris Commune was elected on March 26 and remained in power for only two months. Fatefully, it didn't follow up its victory by defeating Thiers' troops for good when they were on the ropes, nor did it attempt to spread the Commune to other cities in Paris. This gave Thiers the breathing space to reorganize at Versailles and eventually fight his way back into Paris. The Communards were eventually crushed in an orgy of violence that took 30,000 workers' lives.

The first lesson of the Paris Commune, wrote Engels, was this: "From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment."

The undeveloped state of industry in Paris at the time meant that these delegates were elected to the Commune by neighborhood. In later revolutions, workers would create delegated organizations of workers' power from workplaces.

The Commune abolished conscription and the standing army; it decreed the separation of church and state; it began to devise plans to reopen factories under the control of the workers in them; and it abolished night work for bakers.

But these achievements were minimal compared to the most important achievement of the Commune. It was, argued Marx, "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."

Direct, universal suffrage was transformed into an instrument of the real rule of society by the majority. "Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament," wrote Marx in his brilliant work The Civil War in France, "universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes."

He elaborated on what made the Commune so distinct. First, elected delegates to the commune were workers themselves, "revocable at short terms" and paid at "workman's wages." Moreover, the Commune wasn't set up to be a parliamentary talk shop, but "a working…body, executive and legislative at the same time." The police--under the bourgeoisie a special force standing apart from society and enforcing the interests of the rich--would now be "turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune."

Much has been made about the fact that Marx and Engels used the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" to refer to a workers' government--as if they meant rule by an individual or a minority. Engels answered this charge best when he said: "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."

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