Creatively Apply the Lessons of the First International

In Commemoration of 150th Anniversary of Foundation

[This article, originally planned to be published in two parts, will be brought to you in three parts. The discussion on the principal lessons to be learnt from the experience of the First International will accordingly appear not in the second part as mentioned in our October number but in the concluding part to be published next month. -Editor ]

Before we proceed, a couple of important facts should be taken note of.

Initially, membership of the International Workingmen’s Association was restricted to men only. In less than a year, it was opened up to women also and one woman comrade was co-opted into the General Council. A resolution was passed in the 1871 London conference calling for the “formation of working women’s branches” or “female branches among the working class, without however interfering “with the existing or formation of branches composed of both sexes”.

Secondly, the International regarded the peasant question as of vital importance in the struggle for emancipation of the proletariat. The Basle Congress (September 1869) for instance reiterated its socialist platform and expressed full support to the abolition of private property in land. The relevant resolutions were widely propagated and in England the “Land and Labour League” was founded with the participation of the GC members. Around the same time Engels wrote a special preface for the second edition of his The Peasant War in Germany (first published in 1850) which also appeared separately in working class magazines. In this preface he criticised the tendency, witnessed even among senior leaders like Liebknecht, of belittling the importance of socialist propaganda in the countryside. He also explained why with the development of capitalism stratification of the peasantry assumes great importance and why the proletariat must unite firmly with the toiling peasantry as opposed to the wealthy capitalist elements.

However, in those days and in the industrialised countries, naturally the central focus was on the working class movement in “its three coordinated and interconnected sides, the theoretical, the political and the practical-economic”1 . Among the outcomes of this “concentric attack”[2] on the power of capital, the most significant was the Paris Commune.

The First Proletarian State

The Paris Commune was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour” (as Marx put it in the “Address of the General Council of the International”, later published as The Civil War in France, henceforth The Civil War). It was not planned or guided by the IWA, but it represented the rapid advance of revolutionary proletarian consciousness under the impact of vigorous ideological-political work conducted by the International. Engels was perfectly justified when he wrote that the Commune “was undoubtedly the child of the International intellectually –– although the International did not lift a finger to produce it.”[3]

To recall the historical backdrop -- the Franco-Prussian war, started in July 1870, led to the fall of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and proclamation of the Third Republic in early September, even as Paris continued to be under siege by Prussian forces. The new republican government led by Adolphe Thiers lost no time in starting secret negotiations with the invaders. For the French bourgeoisie had already begun to hate and fear the working class in their own country more than bourgeois invaders from any other country. Sensing the national betrayal, the people of Paris tried to overthrow the government on October 31, 1870 and again on January 22, 1871. Both of these armed uprisings were crushed, but the rulers realised that the situation was rapidly slipping out of control. So they signed an armistice with the enemy and on March 1 invited the Prussian troops into Paris. The latter moved into the city only to be greeted with total social boycott called by the National Guard (NG, a contingent of armed workers) and after a few days retreated to the outskirts of Paris. Then at the wee hours of 18th March, Thiers sent his troops to take away the guns strategically positioned atop the Montmartre hill, and guarded by the NG – so that the Prussian forces could take the city without much resistance. Instantaneously and spontaneously, working people’s Paris led by the NG rose in arms and took power into their own hands in course of a hard-fought day-long battle with government forces.

And then, “working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the cannibals at its gates, radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative!”[4], moved boldly forward to build the new, proletarian state on the ruins of the old. The ousted Thiers government fled to Versailles.

On March 19 itself, the Central Committee[5] of NG disbanded the regular army and police and ordered all the soldiers and policemen who had stayed back in the city (most had already fled to Versailles) to join the ranks of the NG. The Commune was then elected on the basis of universal male suffrage and proclaimed on the 28th. Fresh recruits from workers, students, journalists, and artisans took the place of the old staff in government offices.

The Commune proceeded forthwith to adopt laws and also supervise the implementation of laws. On March 30 it ratified the abolition of the standing army, and declared the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, as the sole armed force. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April 1871 and prohibited the sale of articles pledged by poor people in the municipal pawnshops. Foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office because, it was declared, “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic”. Like members of the Commune, civil servants also were to be elected and could be recalled by popular demand at any time. The highest salary for members and employees of the Commune were fixed at 6,000 francs, the average wage of a skilled worker. The Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the state, the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes and the transformation of all Church property into national property. This was followed by a decree removing from the schools all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers -- in a word, “all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience”. Plans were made for running closed factories by workers’ co-operatives, and also for the organisation of these cooperatives in one great union.

The guillotine was burnt down amid great popular rejoicing but at the same time the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI was demolished. The same fate awaited the Victory Column on the Palace Vendôme, which had been cast from guns captured by Napoleon after the war of 1809 and served as an emblem of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. Significant symbolic acts like these demonstrated the Commune’s distinct proletarian approach to the past, and therefore to the present and the future.

The working women, true to their heritage since the French revolution, played a very special role. They were the ones who roused the soldiers of the NG to their feet and mobilised the Parisians to begin the battle for defending Paris. The Union des Femmes demanded equal pay for women, the right to divorce, education for girls, and much more. A pension was enacted for wives or “concubines” of dead National Guardsmen, as well as each of their children—“legitimate” or not. Orphans were to receive an education at the expense of the Commune. On the day before the Versailles troops entered Paris to drown the Commune in blood, equal pay for men and women workers was declared.

A completely new type of state was thus being chiselled up: one which, in the words of Marx, “was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.”[6] This did not, of course, rule out the preservation, and remodelling in a truly popular spirit, of traditional democratic institutions like universal suffrage and the elective principle (refurbished with accountability to the people and revocability) in all organs of the state.

As we know, Lenin would take this combination of legislative and executive powers in one body as the most remarkable feature of the Commune and as a basic guideline in the construction of the Soviet state.

Alluding to the bold and innovative measures mentioned above, Marx and Engels wrote a year later, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, namely, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.”[7] Much later, on the 20th anniversary of the Paris commune, Engels beautifully expressed the essence of the novel state form in his Preface to the third German edition of The Civil War:

“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.”

The Bloodbath and the Eternal Glory

On behalf of the General Council of the IWA, Marx maintained close contacts with the leaders of the commune. He highly admired the communards, but at the same time pointed out the lapses (see box).

Liberal formalities, Marx and Engels were trying to impress upon their comrades-in-arms, must be avoided in times of revolution. The Russian proletariat remembered these momentous lessons and led their revolution to success. The firm steps the Bolsheviks took in defending and consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat -- dissolution of the constituent assembly in January 1918, when that assembly refused to support the Soviet government, for example -- have been criticised as undemocratic, but such tough measures at least seem to have a sanction in Marx.

The International organised an energetic campaign in support of the Commune wherever it had its sections. When Kugelmann, a very close associate of Marx and Engels, expressed theoretically justifiable doubts about the ability of the French “to bring about a revolution in the mode of production” adding that “in general this is something that no nation can do by itself”, Marx responded not as an academic but as a fighter and a revolutionary dialectician:

“World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition that the prospects were unmistakably favourable. … [T]he bourgeois canaille of Versailles … presented the Parisians with the alternative of either taking up the fight or succumbing without a struggle. The demoralisation of the working class in the latter case would have been a far greater misfortune than the doom of any number of “leaders”. With the struggle in Paris the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase. Whatever the immediate outcome may be, a new point of departure of worldwide importance has been gained.”

Commenting on this illustrious stance taken by Marx, Lenin observed in The State and Revolution, “It is well known that in the autumn of 1870, a few months before the Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, in March 1871, the decisive battle was forced upon the workers and they accepted it, when the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the proletarian revolution with the greatest enthusiasm, in spite of unfavourable auguries.”[8]

The auguries were unfavourable indeed. Immediately after March 18, communes had been set up in a number of other towns such as Lyons, Marseilles, Saint-Etienne, Toulouse, etc; but the Parisians could not link up with these and the reactionaries put them down one by one. Paris was left alone. The Commune leaders did make fervent appeals to the peasantry to join the revolution, but could not take practical steps to organise that. On May 22 the Versailles government, having signed a humiliating truce with Prussia to free its hand for settling scores with the class enemies at home, sent troops to recapture Paris.

The people, including a very large number of women, put up a heroic resistance at the barricades, forcing the enemy fight for every inch. By May 28 the unequal battle was over. The bourgeois newspapers screamed revenge and the mass slaughter began. Thousands were killed during the battle; thousands in firing squads after that, and tens of thousands were arrested and sentenced to hard labour. Quite a few managed to go underground. The International arranged British and German passports for them to flee. In London, Marx and Engels worked tirelessly to provide them with food, shelter (in their own houses and elsewhere), clothes, jobs and everything else. They maintained close contacts with Parisian refugees who stayed back in London and some of them were co-opted into the GC.

[To be concluded]

“The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs.... They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”

NG Manifesto,

18 March, 1871

“What flexibility, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused by internal treachery even more than by the external enemy, they rise, in the face of the Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not standing at the gates of Paris! History has no comparable example of similar greatness! If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They ought to have marched at once on Versailles …. They missed their opportunity because of moral scruples. They did not want to start a civil war, as if the mischievous dwarf Thiers had not already started the civil war... Second mistake: the Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too ‘honourable’ scrupulosity!”[9]

1  Engels in Prefatory note to the Peasant War in Germany, Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Vol. 1, p 590

2  Ibid

3  Letter to F A Sorge, September 12, 1974,Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, henceforth Correspondence, p 270

4  The Civil War in France, Selected Works of Marx and Engels in one volume, p 300

5  The CC consisted of workers, artisans, students, journalists and others. Prominent among them were the bookbinder Louis Eugene Varlin, a self educated man who became one of the organisers of the Paris section of the First International; Duval, a foundry worker and one of the commanders of the city’s armed forces; the 27-year-old medical student Emile Eudes, who had earlier been sentenced to death for his role in the revolutionary moment against the second Empire; Grenier, the owner of a small laundry; the cobbler Edouard Roulier, a veteran of the June 1848 uprising who was put in charge of the Ministry of Education.

6  The Civil War in France, Ibid, p 291.

7  Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Manifesto. The phrase in single inverted commas is from The Civil War.

8, Single Volume edition, p 288

9  Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 12, 1871; see Correspondence, p 247. Engels in his 1991 Introduction to The Civil War drew attention to a similar and “serious political mistake” of the Commune: “they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France.” The unfortunate blunders were, so to say, unavoidable, for consistent followers of Marx and Engels were a miniscule minority in the Commune (in fact they were far from a majority even in the General Council of the International). Besides, as Marx wrote on May 13, “one can see that there are other influences beside that of the workers.” (Letter to L Frankel and L E Varlin, members of IWA fighting in Paris, Correspondence, p 249)

  • 1Engels in Prefatory note to the Peasant War in Germany, Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Vol. 1, p 590

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