This article by Francesco Ricci of the Party of the Communis Alternative in Italy (PdAC) was published in the IWL’s theoretical magazine Marxism Alive n. 16 in 2007, as part of the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It has been copyedited for clarity and republished here.
A massacre to wipe away the example of the Parisian workers
It is difficult to find precedents for the bourgeois-orchestrated massacre that followed the collapse of the Paris Commune: very few prior moments in history bear comparison with the ferocious suppression that was met by the world’s first workers’ government. To pinpoint anything comparable, we have to look all the way back to when 6,000 slaves from Spartacus’ army were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to anyone who might have wanted to rebel against Rome.
We will never know exactly how many victims there were. We do know that of the Commune’s roughly two million residents, only 100,000 were left at the end of the massacre. There were mass graves, shootings were carried out at random, and machine guns were used to speed up the job. Even after the bloodbath was finished, repression continued with investigations, trials, deportations, and vilification for years to follow. The entire international bourgeois press worked hard to portray the Parisian workers as vandals.
Why such a fierce smear campaign? The answer can be found in one of Marx’s seminal letters to Ludwig Kugelmann (written in April of 1871, when the Commune had only just begun): “Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained” (1). Simply put, the bourgeoisie wanted to erase this “point of world-historic importance.”
The Bolsheviks studied the Commune and learned much from it
As they prepared for a new revolution, the Bolsheviks studied the events of 1871 very carefully. In fact, investigation into the Commune was at the heart of Lenin’s theoretical approach leading up to the October Revolution. The example of the Commune took center stage in Lenin’s “blue notebook” of quotations from Marx and Engels on the state (published after the revolution with the title State and Revolution): this notebook would form the base of his Letters from Afar, in which Lenin, writing from Switzerland, endeavored to direct the Bolshevik executive committee. Furthermore, Lenin’s April Theses and the broader fight to “rearm” the party during the hectic months of 1917 all took root in the Commune’s example.
As Trotsky wrote (in Lessons of October), without study of the Commune, “we never would have been able to achieve the October Revolution.” Trotsky wrote about the Commune throughout the course of his life: his 1921 Lessons of the Paris Commune, as preface to a work of the historian Claude Talès, draws comparisons between the failed Paris Commune and the victorious one of Petrograd. The Commune fills entire chapters of Terrorism and Communism (written during the civil war as Trotsky defended the dictatorship of the proletariat from Kautsky’s “democratic” critiques). Finally, the magnificent Their Morals and Ours cites the Commune in order to maintain the necessity of the Russian civil war’s Red Terror.
Contextualizing the French proletariat
To study the Commune, Lenin and Trotsky had to dig through the thick crust of lies that the bourgeoisie, reformists, and anarchists had smeared onto the matter. They had to get around those readings that insisted upon seeing the Commune as something “spontaneous” and random. This is a myth nurtured by bourgeois historiography to portray the Commune as an isolated and unrepeatable event, and it is a myth that comes to be strengthened by anarchist interpretations which claim to thus find proof for their theories on the uselessness of the vanguard party.
In reality, there was not anything random and certainly nothing “spontaneous” about the Commune.
In 1871, Parisian workers were riding on a century of revolutions. To briefly run through this historic period, it will suffice to just mention a few events. First, there was the great French revolution of the late 1700s, which expressed through Jacobinism the pinnacle of bourgeois society’s sustained efforts to wipe away class contradictions, but also gave rise to an initial proletarian agenda expressed through Roux and Leclerc’s Enragés, forerunners of Babeuf: this was a movement that, as Marx wrote, was still lacking the social base to grow. Then there was the revolution of July 1830, where the proletariat took an active role but nonetheless remained subaltern to the bourgeoisie in the effort to get rid of Charles X and install a constitutional monarchy (Louis Philippe). Subsequently, in the revolution of February 1848, the proletariat helped the bourgeoisie to get rid of Louis Philippe but then fell into the trap of participating – for the first time in history – in a government with the bourgeoisie. As occurs every time that a government is drawn up to be “shared” between these two mortally antagonistic classes, the minister (Louis Blanc) who was supposed to represent the workers ended up leaving them defenseless instead. In June of 1848 these workers finally broke off from their acquiescence to the bourgeoisie and rose up against them with gun in hand, nevertheless paying the price for their lack of preparation when 10,000 were killed. From the barricades of 1848 emerged the figure of Louis Bonaparte, who, under the name Napoleon III, would govern France until the eve of the Commune (3).
So Parisian workers did not reach the 1871 revolution by chance. Through their struggles they learned the need for class independence from the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, however, the proletariat does not learn by themselves. Their experience of struggles needs to be worked out through the permanent memory that a revolutionary party has. Deprived of this party, the Parisian workers were once more cheated by the bourgeoisie at the end of the Franco-Prussian war.
The Franco-Prussian War: yet another betrayal by the bourgeoisie
This is not the right place to dive into the topic of the Franco-Prussian War (4). It can be summarized by understanding that the real cause of the war was the attempt of Napoleon III to emerge from his regime’s crisis through what he hoped would be a rapid victory, while Bismarck was convinced that victory would have facilitated the unification of Germany (at the time divided into small states) around Prussia. The International Workers’ Association (IWA) stood against the war and for the fraternizing of the proletariat of both countries. At the same time the IWA was not “equidistant” in the face of the war once it started. Marx and Engels were convinced that a Prussian victory would facilitate the unification of the German working class in a united Germany and would have opened the path towards a republic in France, liberating the working class from the oppression by Napoleon III (5).
Their predictions proved to be right. France was defeated and a popular revolt proclaimed the republic. But then workers trusted the bourgeoisie and entrusted them with the government. The first deed of the new Thiers administration was to make an agreement with the German bourgeoisie and to burden the working class with the payment for the war.
A stumbling block for the bourgeoisie: an armed Parisian working class
But the plot of the French and German bourgeoisie had a huge obstacle in the way: Parisian workers were armed. Actually, there was a militia in France: the national guard, active workers who grouped in battalions and periodically did military drills paid for by the State. The National Guard was an old institution of the 1789 revolution and ever since June 1848, they served the bourgeoisie to repress workers. But in 1871 it consisted almost entirely of workers and not of the bourgeoisie. After the constitution of the republic, it was reorganized as a Republican Federation, with the officers being elected by the troops (6).
The working class had become much stronger since the 1860s. By 1871, they were more numerous and were concentrated in several factories: in the shipyards of Paris there were about 70,000 workers; the Cail metallurgy factory employed 3,000; other large concentrations of workers were in Govin (train engine production), in the factory producing weapons in Louvre, and more.
In total, there were 300,000 trained and armed workers who were not willing to comply with the wishes of the bourgeoisie. Thiers’ attempt to disarm the National Guard by taking away their cannons and machine guns triggered the insurrection on March 18th as soldiers and inhabitants of the Montmartre neighborhood banded together. An important role was played by women, among them Louise Michel. All the bourgeoisie administration could do was to flee from Paris and seek shelter in the neighboring Versailles, while the Central Committee, leadership of the National Guard, competed the seizure of power by a bloodless occupation of Hotel de Ville, just the way that in 1917, the capture of the Winter Palace was only the final step of the revolution.
The working class in power
For the first time in history, the working class was building a “government of the working class for the working class” (Marx) and was discovering that – to put it into words that Brecht attributed to Galileo Galilei, that there was “no difference between heaven and earth: heaven has been abolished”. The need for bourgeoisie and directors of factories was abolished: workers could direct factories and the State itself without those parasites. Governing was no longer a domain reserved for the bourgeois “heaven”.
The Central Committee, however, followed a mistaken (7) policy of yielding power to an elected Commune and proposed new elections to form an assembly of about 90 members containing commissions (exactly along the lines of the national government’s ministries: Finances, Foreign Policy, Teaching, Labor, etc,, thus proving that the Commune expected to govern all of France).
This government, which drew the legislative, executive and judicial powers together, overriding the tripartite bourgeois division into “three powers,” only lasted a few weeks. Its activity, however, was so intense that it would take three issues of this magazine just to describe it. The annulment of the police and the substitution of the permanent army by a workers’ militia (national guard) was a way to destroy bourgeois state machinery (the greatest lesson taught by the Commune, according to Marx, and one that laid the foundation of the operation of the Bolsheviks: revolutionaries did not restrain themselves to merely “reforming” the bourgeois state machinery but they had to destroy it, tear it to pieces and substitute it by dictatorship of the proletariat); free medical service (with free abortion, something that the bourgeois republic does not take up even today); retirement at the age of 55; reformation of schools giving preference to “polytechnic” education, that is bringing together all that bourgeoisie wanted to teach separately to the children of the bourgeoisie and the children of workers: “humanistic” subjects, “scientific” subjects and “technical” subjects; separation of the State from the Church, suppressing all levies to the clergy and the eviction of religion from schools; first steps towards confiscation of factories and reorganization of labor under workers’ control at assemblies to decide what and how to produce; confiscation of vacant houses and allotting of housing commodities to the homeless, etc.
Because of the little time that Parisian workers had at their disposal, many of these measures remained only as wishful thinking. But they showed the will of transforming the bourgeois society totally in all its form, as well as the will to found a new society created by workers.
It is a significant fact that during the 10 weeks of the Commune, hundreds of daily newspapers were edited. Libraries remained open day and night because workers wanted to appropriate for themselves all the culture that had been kept away from them. There were so many debates that the salons were not enough to take them all. That is why priests were driven out of churches and the buildings were used for more helpful purposes than prayers. This grand experience was interrupted by the entrance of the troops of the bourgeois government, reconstructed with the aid of Bismarck, which on 28th of May 1871 pulled down the last barricade that workers had put up. A similar cultural experience was to be found some 50 years later, when the new era was opened by a workers’ government installed by the October revolution.
Lessons and errors of the Commune in Marx and Engels’ analysis
Marx and Engels regarded this brief French experience as very important, and they worked its primary lesson (the dictatorship of the proletariat “finally found in form”) into all of their writings. Nonetheless, they did not shy away from criticizing and pinpointing the Commune’s errors and limitations, forging a lesson of tactics and strategies that proved very useful to the Bolsheviks.
They criticized the tactical errors: not having attacked the government in Versailles; limited exercise of the “red terror” against reactionary bourgeois. Parisian workers were – in Engels’ opinion – “excessively kind-hearted”. They criticized errors in its program: not having completed the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, having stopped at the threshold of the National Bank.
In the Commune, Marx and Engels saw a great lesson: the need for the proletariat to apply class independence from bourgeoisie and its governments as a condition for the conquest of their own government, first with their struggle as opposition and then by means of an insurrection. It is only by omitting this historic lesson that a base can be laid for the “theory” of reformism (continued by Stalinism since 1935, with all their participation in the “popular front” administrations).
It was with on account of this lesson that Lenin “rearmed” the Bolshevik Party with his April Theses, insisting on the need to not lend any support to the (“left”) bourgeois Kerensky administration as a prerequisite of winning over most of the politically active workers in order to end that government and build one that was of the workers.
Was it really the first dictatorship of the proletariat? Trotsky’s account
In the 1891 preface to The Civil War in France, Engels wrote, “Look at the Paris Commune. That was a dictatorship of the proletariat.”
In this, Engels was polemically emphasizing a concept in order to attack the revisionist tendencies that were already surfacing among the German Social Democrats. But Marx (even in The Civil War in France) spoke more accurately of a “tendency” towards the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Trotsky developed Marx’s analysis by doing what Nahuel Moreno has correctly called a “revision” of Marx’s and Lenin’s analysis: a revision in the Marxist sense, that is to say, a development of Marxism upon its own foundation (8).
Moreno (9) quotes Trotsky’s writing of the 1930s specifying where this “tendency” or embryo of the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be found: not in the Council of the Commune (the 90 elected by “universal suffrage” in the election emerging from the Central Committee), but in the Central Committee of the National Guard. Why? Because it was in that structure that they were getting ready for the struggle – and not in an assembly emerged from elections, even if these elections were very particular – that the first “soviet” in history could be envisaged. Moreno highlights the importance of these words from Trotsky: “When we say ‘long live the Commune,’ we do not refer to the heroic insurrection or to the institutions of the Commune, that is to say, to a democratic municipality. Their election, in any case, was a tomfoolery (read Marx) and this tomfoolery was, anyhow, only possible immediately following the conquest of power by the Central Committee of the National Guard, which was itself the committee for action or the soviet in that situation.”
But why was the dictatorship merely potential? Because the “soviet” was only embryonic. That is to say, because what the “soviet” lacked in order to become a pillar for a real dictatorship of the proletariat was a Marxist revolutionary party. In 1921, in his Lessons of the Paris Commune, Trotsky wrote, “The Central Committee of the National Guard needed to be led”.
Here is the main difference between 1871 and 1917: in 1917 this party existed (the Bolshevik Party) which, in minority at first, clashing with reformist leaderships (Revolutionary Socialists and Mensheviks) eventually gained majority in the soviet, transforming it from a buttress of a bourgeois government (February) into a foundation for a workers’ government (October). Lenin and Trotsky never praised the soviet in itself. They regard them as structures that can serve different purposes depending on the leadership they have. Even if he doesn’t compare or oppose the soviet to the party, or the party to the masses, (Trotsky employs a useful metaphor of the party as a cylinder and the masses as steam: two elements that complement each other), Trotsky nonetheless configures the party as the central element. It is the central element just like how in an arch there is a stone that holds all the other ones together (the “key” of the arch): it does not substitute the arch, but it is its most important piece.
The party was the missing key in 1871
In 1871, there was not a single party in Paris similar to what the Bolshevik Party was. Marx was aware of this fundamental flaw and that is why that hot on the heels of the proclamation of the Republic (September 1870), he suggests workers to take up an attitude of opposition with respect to the bourgeois government, but not to pull it down immediately, Calmly and resolutely, use all the possibilities that republican liberty can offer, in order to work on your class organization. This will give you fresh Herculean strength (…) for our common aim, emancipation of labor.” (10)
There were diverse trends in Paris – apart from the Marxist one – in the French section of the International: Proudhonists, left Proudhonists (linked to Bakunin). In the commune, the Blanquists and neo-Jacobin prevailed.
The trends in workers movement in 1871 Paris
These names mean very little to readers today, because these trends have disappeared: it was the practical experience of the Commune that contributed towards their dissolution.
Proudhonists were the followers of Proudhon (father of anarchism and so many other varieties of reformism that we must put up with even today), against whom Marx battled for decades and against whom he wrote polemic documents as early as 1847 in his Misery of Philosophy. Proudhon died in 1865, before the Commune started, but his ideas against centralism and dictatorship were still strong. The essence of Proudhonism, according to Marx, consisted in believing in finding a remedy for the evils of capitalism to ensure the survival of capitalism even if reformed. Their left wing was developing in France with Bakunin`s anarchist positions. Theoretically they defended the “rabble”, that is to say the sub-proletariat and upheld the “extinction” of the State and were adversaries of dictatorship of the proletariat. Bakunin`s followers were for “political abstention” of the proletariat and were against the concept of a party to seize power, they defined themselves as “antiauthoritarian” and wanted a federative International. In short, they were exactly the opposite of Marxists.
Outside of the International there were also the neo Jacobins, representing the positions of Robespierre and Marat and collided as much as they agreed with the Blanquists, who would rather refer to another figure of the French Revolution, Hebert. The followers of Auguste Blanqui, whom Marx defined as “head and heart of the French proletariat”, a courageous revolutionist who spent half his life in jails – he was in jail even during the Commune – and who envisioned revolution as an insurrection of a revolutionary elite, for he regarded workers as unable to free themselves culturally in capitalism. According to Engels, who esteemed the great French revolutionary, Blanqui was a “revolutionary of a previous period”, linked to Utopianism. Blanquists as well as Neo Jacobins were nearer than the Proudhonists to the idea of centralization and dictatorship that Marxists defended – even if in a distorted form, not on class base – but underrated the social aspects of the revolution unlike the Proudhonists regarded as of supreme value, even in a distorted way.
In short: there were five trends: neo Jacobins, Blanquists, Proudhonists (federative), Bakuninists (collectivists) and Marxists. But this classification is schematic, the limits between each group were not clear, and cross-sectional groups were often formed (real parties did not exist). In the International there were different Blanquist groups (even if that trend had never joined the International Workers’ Association). Among those Blanquists who were not members of the International, there were some whose positions were nearer to those of Marx than those of many Proudhonians, who were members of the IWA.
There are several studies meant to classify the protagonists of the Commune. The most thoroughly documented one is that by Charles Rihs (11), who contradicts dozens of other studies. Actually, we not only lack (even today!) sufficient documentation but the exercise of labelling is in a way useless inasmuch as – according to Engels – more often than not, “they all did precisely the contrary to what the doctrine of each school prescribed.”
Many of the Commune leaders drew lessons from the Commune experience and approached Marxist positions: different Blanquists upheld Marxist positions at the Hague Congress (12) where the Marxist majority expelled Bakunin’s anarchists from the International, as they insisted – in spite of the Commune – on denying the need for a centralized party of workers for the conquest of power.
But in those days, consistent Marxists in France could be counted with the fingers of a hand. That is why Marx sent a cherished fiend to Paris: Serraillier, a worker of IWA (13).
Unfortunately, there was no time to build a Marxist party, because the times of revolutionary crisis were decided on by the bourgeoisie, which attacked in March, forcing workers to defend themselves so as not to be disarmed and defeated.
The role of the International and the roles of Marxists
On May 14th, 1872, the Dafaure Bill was passed in France, prohibiting any International association “promoting strikes, abolition of the right of property whether of family or religion”.
The target for the French bourgeoisie was the IWA led by Marx. And it was the IWA that bourgeoisie “blamed” for having organized the Commune.
Was that what the IWA actually did? Engels summarizes it like this, “(… ) From the intellectual point of view, the Commune was absolutely the child of the International, even if the latter did not move a finger to make it (…) and even so was justly considered responsible”. (14).
What does it mean that the International “did not move a finger” and yet was justly considered responsible? The contradiction is merely outward. What Engels is trying to say is that the International, understood as the General Council led by Marx, had little possibility of leading the movement; at the same time, he acknowledges the importance that the French section and its militants held in the Commune.
Historiography (even a Marxist one) generally stops at the part where Engels declares that Marxists were weak in Paris, and does not discuss the admittance of “paternity” that Engels expresses here and in other writings.
Marxist leaders, fully aware of their belonging to Marx’s positions (and that of the majority of the IWA) were very few. There was Serraillier in Paris, a direct representative of the IWA, sent – as we have seen – directly by Marx. This honest shoemaker, however, lacked proper education and was not prepared to analyze the situation comprehensively as is evident in the reports that he sent to the General Council in London. Another one that Marx could rely on in Paris was a workers’ leader of Hungarian origin, Leo Frankel. And that is about all. There would be one or two isolated Marxists as, for example, the twenty-year-old Elizabeth Dmitrieff, an IWA militant of Russian origin, whom Marx encouraged to go to Paris in March 1871 and who was to become a leader of Womens’ Union. We also know that Marx corresponded with another leader, Eugene Varlin, the most interesting figure in the IWA, and we know that he wrote several letters to Varlin, Serraillier and Frankel by means of a German merchant who used to commute between London and Paris. Most of these letters were lost but the few that can still be found are significant. On April 25th, 1871, Franket, in charge of the Labor Commission of the Commune, wrote to Marx, “I should be very happy if you could in some way help me with your advice because at present, I am so to say, alone (…)”. We do not have Marx’s precious advice. However, we do have Marx’s letter to Frankel and Varlin on May 13th 1871, “For your sake I have written a hundred letters to all the parts of the world where we have relations. (…) It seems to me that the Commune is wasting a lot of time on trifles and personal disputes. (…) but all this does not matter; we can make up for the time wasted.”
But why does Engels claim “fatherhood” of the Commune? The truth is that in 1860, IWA had created a very important organization. Initially led by Proudhonist leaders, it gave room for the development of a group of young workers’ leaders, especially Varlin, a book binder, self-taught man. In 1866, the IWA had 600 affiliates in Paris. In the early days of the Commune, it had 70,000 (15). Apart from Paris, there were other federations in Marseilles, Rouen and Lyon; that means in the main centers of workers’ struggles in France. In the 1860s, IWA encouraged all the important struggles and strikes that were preparatory for the Commune.
The problem is that even if there were many affiliates – in many cases there were even collective affiliations – The international did not have a structured party: it did not even have a periodical. Furthermore, the leaders of these militants, inserted in the main struggles but often not organized among them, consisted of socialists rather than Marxists.
That explains why Marx was trying to win over Eugene Varlin: he had actually become the main leader of the IWA. He was a good militant, capable organizer, who was trying to make up for the loss of time with the old Proudhonist leaders.
Varlin would play a fundamental role in the Commune. Being a “minister” of the Commune (first of Finances and then of Subsistence) he was elected for the Central Committee of the National Guard (which led the occupation of the Vendome Square on the 18th of March). He was to inspire the IWA section; he was to handle the work of the Trade Union Chamber; he was among the main leaders of an embryo of a revolutionary party, called Deputation of the Twenty Districts (districts were neighborhoods or arrondissements) into which Paris was divided. It is a significant fact that the three organizations were in the same place: Number 6 of the Place of the Corderie (in today’s Paris known as Rue de la Corderie) that was the site of the trade union chamber, the Deputation of the Twenty Districts and the French section of the IWA. As far as we can understand from the discussions of the leadership of the French IWA, the debate and the decisions were often oriented by contributions made by Varlin (16). Varlin was always supported by Frankel and Serraillier, both of them Marxists. But Varlin was not a Marxist, he was of Proudhonian stock but always drifted to the left. Historians have discordant definitions: some of them call him “left Proudhonian”, some say he was related to Bakunin (that is the Carr case) and some (Nikolaevkij and Kaminski) (17) define him – mistakenly – as Bakunist. Actually, the one who has gone most deeply into the subject is the historian Bruhat and he has obtained letters that prove that Bakunin had tried to recruit Varlin for his sect against Marx, but he failed and was very disappointed (18). What is true is that during the Commune, Varlin expressed opinions far from those of Bakunin (Varlin placed the organization of workers as the center of the struggle and not the conspiring of the “rabble”). He was also far from the Proudhonians, so much so that when he was responsible for finances, he challenged the Proudhonian leader Jourde, because Verlin (the same as Marx) wanted the communers to take over the National Bank (19).
In short, Varlin’s behaviour differed in some ways from what is prescribed by the non-Marxist doctrine from which he stemmed. As we have seen, during the Congress at the Hague, many of the leaders of the Commune who survived the massacre got ready to fight a battle in the IWA on Marx’s side against the anarchist Bakunin. Probably Varlin would have done the same thing, but he was arrested (given away by a priest) and shot at Montmartre on the 28th May 1971, after having taken the place of Cluseret – killed on the barricades – as the last commander of the workers’ defense.
Anyhow, in 1871, Marxists did not have an organized party in Paris. It was the experience that allowed Marx and Engels to overcome in the battle against Bakunin’s anarchists at the Hague conference in 1872. This congress expelled the anarchists and decreed the closure of the central offices as well as their transfer to New York, triggering the disappearance of the First International: this congress saw the complete fracturing of the “naïve agreement of all the fractions” (to put it into Engels’ words) on which the International had been aligned up to that moment. The Commune proved that it was necessary to build parties organized independently from the bourgeoisie, based on Marxism, that is to say on the program of the dictatorship of the proletariat that had just been put to test in Paris. As Engels wrote, “I believe that the new International – after Marx’s books have exerted their influence for some years – will be purely communist and will spread our principles directly.” (20). The final years of Marx and Engels’ lives were dedicated to the construction of this “purely communist” International and its parties in every country.
We should study the Commune once more
Marx and Engels first as well as Lenin and Trotsky after them studied the Commune thoroughly. Unfortunately, they had scarce documentation. Marx’s main source is in the memory of some members of the Commune and, particularly in the book by Lissagaray, whom Marx even encouraged to write and of which he requested a translation into German. A daughter of Marx’s worked an edition in English (21). Lissagaray was an excellent journalist and he took part in the defense of the Commune, but his history (published in Belgium in 1876) reflects his non-Marxist formation, specifically that of a neo-Jacobin (22) Lissagaray minimizes the role of the leaders of the International: he says that in the elected Commune there were only 13 (wrong number) of them, failing to add that, numbers aside, these leaders of the International had primary roles. But that is not the only shortcoming: in order to develop his discussion against Proudhonism, Lissagaray labels all the leaders of the IWA, as “Proudhonist”, while – as we have seen with Varlin – they often expressed positions distant from those of Proudhonism.
Lenin relied most on Lissagaray’s book (one of the few available sources at that time) and Trotsky used that of the historian Claude Tales, who uses Lissagaray as the only source, and that is why he highlights the aspect of the “chaos” of the Commune and the weight of Proudhonism, without individualizing the conscious role (but completely insufficient because they were not organized in the party) of so many revolutionary leaders and the few that were near to Marx.
Lenin and Trotsky, wishing (rightly) to highlight the main cause for the defeat of the Commune – that is to say, the absence of a Marxist party – tended (mistakenly) to diminish the role of the “sowing” carried out by IWA in the 1860s and, lacking documentation, did not write anything on the embryo of a party that was being built during these months in Paris.
This embryo of a party, in the development of which Varlin and Frankel played an important role, was the Delegation of the Twenty Districts. Tales as well as Lissagaray dedicated but few lines to it. Documents found by historians after 1960, however, provide us with a very different framework (23).
We do not have enough space here to go into the issue more deeply: this is something that would require another article. Let it suffice if we say that Lissagaray commits two mistakes: firstly, he asserts that the Delegation (also known as Republican Central Committee of the Twenty Districts) was not linked to the IWA while now we know that its main members were members of the IWA (five out of seven, including Varlin); secondly, he asserts that it disappeared before the Commune, while today we have the records of the sessions that took place just before the fall of the last barricade.
Of the Statute of the Delegation (24) we know that to enroll, certain conditions had to be complied with: militancy, adherence to the “socialist and revolutionary” principles, and payment of a contribution. The program was “revolutionary destruction of parliamentary bourgeois democracy and acknowledgement of the “revolutionary Commune as the only government stemming out of the representations of revolutionary socialist groups”
For the election of National Assembly (February 1871) the Delegation presented a program and candidates belonging to the French section of the IWA, and to the Federal Chamber of Workers’ Society (Varlin was the soul of all these organizations!), the electoral manifest states that the aim was “the organization of a republic that would return factories to the workers” and thus putting into practice “political freedom through social equality”.
It is true that Delegation contained several of the trends into which French workers’ movement was divided and did not have time to develop: it was born immediately after the proclamation of the Republic, on 5 September 1870, with an assembly of 500 Parisian workers (here was Varlin!) But a few weeks later the most moderate trends left and their documents became more and more akin to Marxist positions as days went by.
If, as Marx expected, workers had had time to “work toward their class organization”, the course of history would have been different. Today, however, we can say that this organization (whose history we must investigate much more thoroughly) and its leaders had a central role in the development of the revolution.
The historical documents we have today consistently confirm Lenin’s and Trotsky’s thesis: without a Marxist party there is no chance for a victorious revolution. What Lenin and Trotsky did not know when they wrote about the Commune is that there was a sign, a trace of that party and that it was because of this that the Commune managed to make headway. In 1871, then, revolution was not the outcome of “spontaneity” but of the organization of revolutionaries. This organization, however, did not have time to consolidate itself into a Marxist party and that is why the Central Committee of the National Guard was not a real soviet; that is why the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Commune was only an incomplete inclination.
It was by studying the achievements and the errors of the brave French workers that the Russian workers under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky’ party could win in 1917. It was the course marked by the cannons of the Paris Commune what opened the way for the Commune of Petrograd.
(1) Letter from Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 17, 1871, orig. in Marx and Engels Correspondence, International Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_17.htm
(2) Claude Talès, La Commune de Paris, 1921, ed. Spartacus, 1998.
(3) For a deeper look into these events, two fundamental books by Marx employ the materialist method very adroitly: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Editions in all languages can be found on the site Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org
(4) For those who wish to get further acquainted with the situation, we recommend the three letters written by Marx to IWA and published in several languages under the title Civil War in France. Also very interesting are the articles by Engels (expert on military matters) published in the London paper The Pall Mall Gazette which Trotsky published in Russia and he studied it when he was entrusted with the leadership of the Red Army
(5) In the first letter Marx wrote of the IWA there is a call for the German workers not to allow Bismarck to transform the war into a war of conquest. Later on, when the Republic is born in Paris, in a second letter to the International, he censured the expansionist aim of Prussian government and calls on the workers – at this point – to defend the French republic together with the French workers.
(6) In late February 1971, an assembly of 2,000 representatives of battalions of the National Guard passed the constitution of the Republic Federation (only a few battalions from the bourgeois headquarters stayed out of this structure) The first point of the program was abolition of a permanent army and its substitution by a workers’ militia. It was the proclamation of the split with bourgeois state and the will to dissolve the “armed band” proclaiming itself as the only armed force.
(7) The error of the election was to be highlighted by Marx in several texts. For example, in a letter to Libnrcht, dated 6th April 1871, he wrote, “because they did not have the attitude of usurping power, they wasted a precious time choosing the commune (…) while they should have marched on Versailles.” Kautsky agitates this judgment, trying to use the “democratic” Commune against the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky respond with two “anti-Kautsky” proving that Parisian workers were commonly against bourgeois “democratic legitimacy”: the election for the Commune achieved universal suffrage but bourgeoisie had escaped and the few elected bourgeois were compelled to resign.
(8) See: La Dictadura Revolucionaria del Proletariado (Revolutionary Dictatorship of the Proletariat) a text by Moreno, written in 1978, as part of a discussion against a revision (in the negative sense of the word) made by Mandel.
(9) It is the article and a letter by Trotsky enclosed in the book published by Pathfinder Press (1977) The Crisis of the French Section). Actually, in this text Trotsky works on a concept that he had already started developing in the 20s in Terrorism and Communism. It is in this book (chapter VI) that for the first time he speaks of the Central Committee of the National Guard as the “soviet of those days”.
(10) See the second letter written by Marx to the General Council of the International (9 September 1870). Here quoted from the edition Newton Compton, 1978, page 83)
(11) Charles Rihs, The Paris Commune, its structure and its doctrines, Ed. Du Seuil, 1973. According to Rihs, there were 90 elected: 40 were neo Jacobins (Delescluze, etc), 15 were Blanquists, (Rigault, Protot, Flourens, the members of the IWA Duval and Vaillant, etc), 23 were members of the IWA (Frankel, Varlin, Vaillant, Malon, Serraillier, Longuet, etc). But according to a survey by Jean Miron (Hommes et femmes de la Commune – Men and women of the Commune, published in the magazine La Commune Nr 3, 1976) out of 89 members of the Council of the Commune, 45 were militants of the IWA. Other authors talk about 30 members of the IWA: each survey has its own figures.
(12) Blanquist survivors of the massacre fled to London, regrouped round Emile Eudes, sentenced to capital punishment in his absence in Versailles. Vaillant and others joined the General Council of the IWA and defended Marx’s positions against Bakunin and Guillaume.
(13) In a letter dated 6th September 1870, Marx wrote to Engels about the mission on which he had sent Serraillier.
(14) Letter by Engels to A. Sorge, 12th September 1874, in Marx and Engels, Letters from 1874- 1879. Ed. Lotta Communista, 2006, page 35.
(15) These data, based on many sources, are quoted in Rihs’ book. See Note 11
(16) On the site http//gallica.bnf.fr/ we can find dozens of books on the Commune that can be downloaded free (in French). Particularly important is Les séances officielles de l’Internationale a Paris pendant la siège et pendant la Commune. (1872)
(17) The books quoted are: E. H. Carr, Bakunin, The Macmillan Press, 1975; B. Nikolaevskij, Karl Marx, 1937, Ed Einaudi 1969; H. E. Kaminski, Bakunin, 1938, Ed. Graphos, 1999.
(18) Jean Bruhat, Eugene Varlin, Editeurs Français Reunis, 1975. Bruhat furnishes evidence of Bakunin´s attempt at trying to get Varlin to adhere to his organization and what was a failed attempt of making him subscribe an attack against Marx (Page 146-147 of the biography). Later on Bruhat quotes an important letter by Bakunin (dated 7 July 1870) where the anarchist leader wrote, “(Varlin) is an excellent and useful figure but he is far from being absolutely ours.”
(19) There was another biographer (Paul Lejune, Eugene Varlin, Practique militante e ecrits d’un ouvrier communard – Eugene Varlin. Militant Practice and writings of the worker of the Commune, Ed Maspero 1977) revealing the disagreement between Varlin and Jourde on issue related to the Banks. Also interesting is a more recent biography: Michelle Cordillot, Eugene Varlin, Chronique d’un espoir assassiné – Eugene Varlin, Chronicle of murdered hope. Les Editions Ouvrieres, 1991.
(20) See Engels v note 14
(21) V. Ivonne Kapp: Eleanor Mar, Einaudi 1977, volume I, pages 158-162
(22) To get to know the figure of Lissagaray, see Rene Bidouze, Lissagaray, la plume et l’pée – Lissogaray, the pen and the sword, Les Editions Ouvreires, 1991.
(23) To go deeper into the subject, a book edited in 1960: Jean Sauntry and Lucieen Scheler, Le Comité Central Républicain des vingt arroundissements de Paris –Republican Central Committee of the twenty districts of Paris – Editions Sociales, 1960. Dautry is also the author together with Tersen (all of them, of course of Stalinist formation) of the most documented study on the 1871 Commune – Editions Sociales 1970.
(24) From the book by Dautry and Scheler (see note 23)