By Christian Lourdin
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. It only lasted 72 days from March 18th, 1871 to May 28th, 1871. The Paris Commune was the very first socialist revolution in history that actually held power. It was the first realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat, when the working class having overthrown the bourgeois state, actually proceded to build its very own, by smashing the old bourgeois state machinery.
Let’s get an historical background. France for a hundred years had been the poster child of revolution. It started with 1789, the great French Revolution that overthrew feudalism and paved the way for capitalism. After the Napoleonic interlude and the restauration of monarchy came the 1830 revolution that put in power a more liberal type of monarchy. In 1832 another uprising that failed. In 1839 a factory workers rebellion was suppressed. Then came the revolution of february1848 that overthrew the monarchy all together and brought the 2nd republic. And just 4 months later the Paris proletariat took up arms again for 4 days and was massacred by the army. The Paris Commune was the revenge for June 1848.
Louis Bonaparte( called Napoleon the third) had done a coup d’etat against that 2nd republic in 1851 ( see the classic work of Karl Marx “the 18th brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”) and he tried to relive the glory of Napoleon the first. It was a miserable failure. Capitalism had grown tremendously since then and the proletariat would not fall for the illusions and lies of a second empire. But in 1870 Louis Bonaparte went for it and declared war on Prussia. It was a total disaster, defeats after defeats, culminating with the surrender of the french army and emperor Bonaparte being taken prisoner!
Upon hearing the news, the Paris proletariat rose up at once and proclaimed the republic( the 3rd one) on september 4th, 1870. That was the end of the empire once and for all. But power went to the hands of the bourgeois republicans. And they were scared to death of the Paris proletariat. They were ready to compromise with the prussians in order to submit Paris workers. Because of the prussian invasion of french territory a National guard has been established in Paris 300,000 strong and composed mostly of workers. So here it was : the bourgeoisie holding state power but facing Paris armed proletarians. That, the bourgeois could not accept. So in the middle of the night of March 18th, 1871 the bourgeois government sent his regular troops to disarm the National Guard ( also called the “Fédérés”). Women workers, who were the first awake, gave instantly the alarm and the National guard rushed to confront the soldiers. Most of them fraternised with the Fédérés and turn their guns against their own officers. They killed the general who commanded the bourgeois army. What was left of it retreated outside Paris to the city of Versailles and so did the whole bourgeois government. It abandoned Paris and left it to the armed workers who, at once, took all the power in their hands: they proclaimed the Commune! From that day they became known as “Les Communards”. But they made a mistake which would turn out to be fatal later. They did not pursue the fleeing bourgeois army to wipe them off. They let them regroup in Versailles under the bourgeois gouvernement headed by Thiers. When the Communards had prisonners of the bourgeois army they would release them, letting them keep their weapons. But every Communard taken by Thiers’s soldiers was summarily executed, some of them even tortured.
In the mean time Thiers was negotiating with Bismark, the leader of Prussia, and begged him to release Louis Napoleon’s captive soldiers so they could join the fight against the Commune. Bismark agreed if Thiers would give him some french territory. Of course Thiers made the deal. So Thiers was able to rebuild his army to go on the offensive. On May 20th, 1871 Thiers managed to breach the gates of Paris and enter the City. The whole of Paris Proletariat, men, women and children, took to the streets and build barricades all over the city. The combat lasted for 8 days and 8 nights.
Communards were overwhelmed by a superior bourgeois army. They fought like lions, streets by streets, block by block, house by house. When surrounded and asked to surrender they would answer “Vive la Commune” and shoot until the last bullet. These last 8 days are known as “La Semaine Sanglante”, the bloody week. Communards took their last stand on sunday May 28th at the Pere Lachaise cemetery where they fought hand to hand between the graves tombstones. When it was all over the bourgeois army rounded up the survivors and the wounded , lined them up against a wall of the cemetery and machine gunned them. Some were buried still alive. Since then the wall is known as “Mur des Fédérés”. For over 100 years, on the last sunday of May, a march takes place to the wall, to honor the memory of the Paris Communards, who, as Karl Marx said, “stormed the heavens”. That annual march is known as “La montée au Mur”, the climb to the wall. One Communard who survived La Semaine Sanglante was Eugène Pottier. He was a poor artisan, and was also a poet. A few days after the last stand of the Commune’s heroes, while hiding from Thiers’s butchers, Pottier erected a monument to the Communards for the ages: he composed “L’Internationale” , the anthem of the world’s proletariat. When Lenin had to choose a national anthem for the Soviet State, he very naturally picked L’Internationale. Lenin’s wish was to be buried with a red flag of the Commune that was brought over to Russia. Few Communards survived to old age, always hoping for a revenge before they died. They got their revenge in October 1917!