The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first and perhaps only true 'communist' revolution. Occurring less than a century after the great cataclysmic French Revolution, the Commune differed greatly from its predecessor in its emancipatory content. The French Revolution had declared a Republic, which was highly centralised and replaced an absolute monarchy with an 'enlightened' elite who ruled 'on behalf of the people'. This would result in the Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic empire, restoration of monarchy and the crushing of regional identities which is still felt in France today. The centralised Republican model also became the basis of the Russian revolution and Soviet communism. Its legacy is evident as well in the European Union project.
The Commune emerged after decades of post-revolutionary oppression of ordinary working class people. With this background, the events of the Franco-Prussian war finally pushed the citizens to seize power for themselves. The Napoleanic regime had attempted and failed to invade Germany with the intent of restoring its 'prestige' and bringing an economic upswing to France. Instead the government had sacrificed its people and inadvertently brought an occupation Prussian army to surround Paris. The people of Paris called for the overthrow of the Empire, which was replaced by a Republican government in Versailles but they too were more terrified of the demands of the Parisian citizens they claimed to represent than of the foreign army surrounding them. Meanwhile Paris was under siege and its people starving. The time had come to rise up and in a tremendous revolutionary movement, the working people of Paris replaced the state with their own organs of government and held political power until their eventual bloody suppression.
The Parisian workers strove, in extremely difficult circumstances, to put an end to exploitation and oppression, and to reorganise society on an entirely new foundation. Under the Commune, all privileges for state functionaries were abolished, rents were frozen, abandoned workshops were placed under the control of the workers, measures were taken to limit night-work, to guarantee subsistence to the poor and the sick. The Commune declared its aim as ending the ruinous competition between workers for the profit of the capitalists. Standing armies separate and apart form the people were declared illegal. Religion was declared a private matter. Homes and public buildings were requisitioned for the homeless. Public education was opened to all, as were the theatres and places of culture and learning.
The Communards hoped that other cities, towns and villages across France would follow their example and set up their own self-governing Communes but, despite some attempts in other urban centres, most of rural France remained loyal to the government. Without the possibility of replacing the national government with a federation of self-governing Communes, Paris didn't stand a chance and in collusion with the Prussians the government destroyed the Commune and with it the hopes of the people.
Much has been written since about the failure of the Commune, particularly by Marxist communists. Marx and his allies had very little actual influence of the events in Paris, which was far more a spontaneous response to oppression and patriotic rising of the people in the face of a foreign army and a treacherous government. Their precedent and inspiration was a native tradition of rebellion such as the Mutualism of Proudhon.
The orthodox Marxist-Leninist view can be read in Trotsky's disgraceful assessment: "It is only through the help of the Party... that the proletariat frees itself... We can look, page by page, through the history of the Commune. We will find in it only a single lesson: there must be a strong Party leadership." This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims of the Commune, which was a rebellion without a leader or eventual dictator. It was an uprising of the people intent on not repeating a Reign of Terror or of replacing one oppression with another in the name of its revolution.
Much effort has also been expended in attempting to erase the patriotic content of the events in Paris. The fact that working class foreign nationals and fierce supporters of the Commune such the Polish general Jarosław Dąbrowski were accepted as comrades by the Paris citizenry does not contradict the patriotic element of the Commune in defending itself against an occupation army and a traitorous ruling class. This was a libertarian and social patriotism against the heirachical, self-serving patriotism of the elite and proof that patriotic feeling can exist alongside compassion and without chauvinism. The latter is a crude patriotism which does a disservice to a country and its people.
"When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands, when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their 'natural superiors'... the old world writhed in convulsions of rage," said Marx himself. A far cry from the words of Trotsky and the Marxists of today!
The true lesson of the Commune is that revolution must come from the people responding to actual conditions and developing their own solutions to their own needs. We must not allow our dissent to be usurped by the power politics of individuals and parties or fall prey to sectarian divisions between city and country and political dogma.
Like the French, we the English also have our own radical tradition to draw upon. Remember then the Diggers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Jarrow marchers, William Morris and the legend of Robin Hood! Do not let yourself be lead by politicians and those that seek power only for themselves at the expense of true freedom for all!
Long live the Commune!