Legacy of Paris Commune, Ended 150 Years Ago Today

What united the Paris Commune with rebellions across France and others around the world was the claim that silk workers and cutlery workers, bakers and weavers, could govern society without the bourgeoisie.

Jorge Luis Rodríguez Aguilar (Cuba), Paris Commune 150, 2021.

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

On May 28, 1871, one hundred and fifty years ago today, the Paris Commune collapsed after seventy-two days. The workers of Paris created the Commune on 18 March, building on the wave of revolutionary optimism that first lapped on the shores of France in 1789 and then again in 1830 and 1848. The immediate spur for the Commune was Prussia’s victory over France in a futile war.

Two days after Emperor Napoleon III surrendered to Helmuth von Moltke, the rattled generals and politicians in Paris formed the Third Republic (1870-1940). But these men – such as General Louis-Jules Trochu (President of the Government of National Defence, 1870-1871) and Adolphe Thiers (President of France, 1871-1873) – could not control the tide of history. The people of Paris pushed them aside and formed a government of their own. They created, in other words, the legendary Paris Commune.

All eyes turned to Paris, although Paris was not the only site of such an uprising by workers and artisans. The cutlery workers of Thiers and silk workers of Lyon took control of their cities for a brief period (only hours in Thiers), but they nonetheless sensed that the failure of the bourgeois government had to be met by a government of the workers. Their agendas were varied, their capacity to get them implemented chequered, but what united the Paris Commune with these rebellions across France, and with many others around the world, was the claim that silk workers and cutlery workers, bakers and weavers, could govern society without the leadership of the bourgeoisie.

For the working class of Paris, it was clear by 1870 that the bourgeois politicians and the generals had sent them to die in the battlefields of Sedan, had capitulated to Prussian demands, and had then made the working class pay the costs of the war. The wreck of France had to be taken in hand by the workers.

Junaina Muhammed (India), Paris Commune 150, 2021.

Junaina Muhammed (India), Paris Commune 150, 2021.

A few weeks after the defeat of the Paris Commune, Karl Marx wrote a brief pamphlet on its experiences for the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association. This text, Der Bürgerkrieg in Frankreich (‘The Civil War in France’), judged the uprising for what it was, namely a remarkable demonstration of the possibility of a socialist society and the importance for that society to create its own state structures.

Marx, who understood fully well the zigs and zags of history, recognized that, despite the massacre conducted by the bourgeoisie when it retook Paris, the dynamic that began with the 1789 Revolution and that was carried forward by the Paris Commune in 1871 could not be stopped: the old hierarchies inherited from the past and the new hierarchies forged by capitalism were intolerable to the democratic spirit.

From the ashes of the Paris Commune would rise the next experiment with socialist democracy, which would likely fall, and then from that would arise the next experiment. Such experiments, promoted by the International, emerged out of the contradictions of modern society. “It cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage”, Marx wrote. “To stamp it out, the Governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labour – the conditions of their own parasitical existence”’.

Philani E. Mhlungu (South Africa), Paris Commune 150, 2021.

Philani E. Mhlungu (South Africa), Paris Commune 150, 2021.

The Paris Commune of 1871 remains vital to our political imagination, its lessons a necessary part of our processes today. That is why twenty-seven publishers – from Indonesia to Slovenia to Argentina – have gathered together to produce the commemorative book Paris Commune 150 (which will be available for download in eighteen languages from fifteen countries today, May 28). The book gathers together Marx’s essay, Vladimir Lenin’s discussion of that essay (from State and Revolution, 1918), and two explanatory essays on the context and culture of the Commune from myself and Tings Chak, lead designer and researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Watch the Video

In 1918, on the seventy-third day of the October Revolution and the Soviet Republic, Lenin left his office in the Smolny Institute (Petrograd) and danced in the snow. He celebrated the fact that the Soviet experiment had outlasted that of the Paris Commune.

Five days later, Lenin addressed the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets, where he said that their Commune had outlasted that of Paris 1871 because of the “more favourable circumstances” in which the “Russian soldiers, workers, and peasants were able to create the Soviet Government.”

Every defeat – of the Paris Commune in 1871 and, later, of the USSR – is a school for working people. Every attempt to build socialism leaves lessons for the next experiment. 

Not long after the Paris Commune, uprisings occurred in the French colonies of Algeria and New Caledonia. In both places, the example of the Paris Commune was paramount. Mohammed el-Mokrani, who led the Arab and Kabyle uprising in March 1871, and Ataï, who led the Kanak uprising in New Caledonia in 1878, sang the songs of the communards only to fall to the guns of the French.

Louise Michel, who was imprisoned in New Caledonia for her role in the Paris Commune, tore her red scarf into pieces and shared them with the Kanak rebels. Of the Kanak’s stories, she wrote:

“The Kanak storyteller, if he is in high spirits, if he is not hungry, and if the night is beautiful, adds to a tale, and others add more after him, and the same legend passes through various mouths and various tribes, sometimes becoming something completely different from what it was at first.”

The Commune sustains an electrical political charge in our time. In Venezuela, communes forged in the barrios (‘neighborhoods’) have been central to the constitution of new ideas and material forces pushing society forward. In South Africa, the eKhenena (‘Canaan’) land occupation in Durban, which is facing sustained repression, is a commune where democratic self-management has provided social services, established agricultural projects, and built a political school used by activists across the country.

Vijay Prashad, an Indian historian, journalist and commentator, is the executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of Left Word Books.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

Please Support Our
Spring Fund Drive!

Donate securely with PayPal


Or securely by credit card or check by clicking the red button:

2 comments for “Legacy of Paris Commune, Ended 150 Years Ago Today

  1. S.P. Korolev
    May 30, 2021 at 03:31

    I was thinking of the Paris Commune recently while writing about Napoleon III and Marx’s ’18th Brumaire’ and realised that it was the 150th anniversary, thank you for helping to keep its example alive through your commemorative book. Napoleon III was perhaps the first (Right) ‘Populist’ leader of the modern era, proposed as a solution to the threat posed to the French ruling class by the revolution of 1848. With the ruling class hopelessly divided and the working class not yet organised enough to rule, the creation of a ‘strongman’ to stand above the divisions within and between classes was a tempting prospect for the French bourgeoisie.

    When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, i immediately thought “perhaps the U.S. is about to get its own Napoleon III.” Both men were con-artists and stuffed shirts trading on a famous name, appearing on the scene at a time of crisis for the ruling class. Uniting under a strongman while externalising the crisis into a renewed imperialism was one possible option, but the U.S.A. of 2016 was fundamentally different from the France of the early 1850s. While the French working class lacked mature revolutionary organisations, they were enough of a threat to ruling class power to force the ruling class to suspend its infighting and devolve some of its power to a strongman. With the U.S. working class hopelessly divided and lacking in organisation, there was no need for the ruling class to cease its infighting. In fact, the attempt to impose a Bonapartist solution led to unprecedented polarisation within the ruling class, with the divided working class simply tailing after one or the orther contending ruling class faction.

    With the triumph of the Big Tech-led faction associated with the Democratic party, Joe Biden seems to enjoy a stable basis for a renewed imperialism that puts Napoleon III’s Second Empire to shame. But while the Second Empire fell to a rising Germany and Bismarck’s ‘passive revolution’, and was buried by the Paris Commune, the U.S. faces a rising power that has learned the lessons of both. Perhaps it will take Chinese victory over U.S. imperialism on the scale of Sedan to awaken the U.S. working class and overcome its divisions.

  2. Dany Page
    May 29, 2021 at 18:08

    Very good ! Thanx a lot for remembering us of the Paris Commune.
    I have downloaded the book: very inspiring !

Comments are closed.