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Contribution to the ICOR Webinar Paris Commune

UC France, 27 March 2021


The legacy of the Commune.

We are going to speak for the Communist Unity, member of the ICOR in France

In order to present briefly the legacy of the Commune in France, it is necessary to return a little to the significance of this event and its crushing.

As the first experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Commune marked a break with the previous revolutions, which were mainly democratic. Certainly the 1848 revolution had shown the capacity of the working class to intervene in political affairs, but it had been quickly swept away by the moderate republicans.

The Commune, by proposing a new kind of democracy : a popular democracy, of the exploited by the exploited and against their exploiters, set a precedent : there was no more room for the bourgeoisie, which was already a parasitic class.

Its defeat was due to several reasons : in the face of overwhelming forces, it had very little room for manoeuvre. Despite other uprisings in its image, it remained alone. The campaigns had been mounted against the workers since 1848 and the national workshops affair1.
It also lacked a general staff, an organisation capable of leading it from revolt to victory. It sometimes lacked firmness in critical moments, refusing to take the bourgeoisie's gold hostage.

There are several legacies of these. First of all, a bourgeois heritage.

The difficulty of integrating the Paris Commune into a republican narrative - since the Third Republic was born of the blood shed by the people of Paris (and elsewhere) - explains the ambivalent view of it, even today.

Paris is disfigured by the existence of the Sacré Coeur, a building built to 'atone for the faults of the commune'. The right, especially the Catholic right, is deeply attached to it. It continues to be horrified by this event.

The socialist mayor's office in Paris will therefore organise an official commemoration of the Commune, while the Catholic right is strongly opposed to it. But the reformists' commemoration is not ours. In order to seize the positive aspects of the Commune (women's rights, social rights, egalitarianism...) while preserving republican legalism, they played a magic trick. They turn the crushing of the Commune - because it is intolerable for a bourgeois regime! - a misunderstanding, a quarrel, a mistake. This makes it possible to believe in a filiation between the Commune and the Republic, and thus to safeguard the illusion that it is possible to expect something from power and the state.

The extreme right, for its part, embarked on an equally odious plundering. It transformed the Commune into resistance to foreign invasion, into ultra-patriotism in the face of the Prussian invasion and the betrayal of the government. It will surely try to draw a parallel between this event and their theory that France is under siege again.

In the revolutionary organisations, here too, there is a double look.

The Commune is however a limited point of cleavage. It was overshadowed by other conflicts within the country, notably the Collaboration/Resistance, the question of Algeria or the EU. It did not necessarily polarise the militant forces.

The Paris Commune certainly benefited others more than the French. The Commune caused a huge, immense wave of repression, which largely decapitated the French revolutionary movement. In fact, after the revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, each time the repression eliminated a part of the thinkers and theorists.

The observers of the Commune, like Marx and like a large number of European revolutionaries, will be able to draw the benefits of this. In Germany and Russia, in particular, these experiences will nourish a new generation of thinkers and theorists, who will manage to put it into practice.

In France, it posed the imperative question of building a Party, resulting in the creation of the SFIO in 1905, which was the first unified, albeit reformist, party. But today, it seems that it has been largely emptied of its content and turned into a fetish.

It is a common heritage that unites all left-wing movements. There are songs, places, commemorations, an important, living folklore that is passed on. But it's more a question of celebrating the past than looking to the future.

The Paris Commune puts a whole section of the left, particularly the Trotskyite and anarchist currents, in an uncomfortable position. It raises questions. It raises the question of the exercise of power, that is to say the transition from the struggle for power to a struggle to exercise and retain power, remains a taboo.

In France, which from the 1970s onwards became the European centre of anti-totalitarian ideology, this question does not go down well. The right-wingers want to eliminate this question by reducing it to a simple revolution through the ballot box, or even a citizens' evolution. The more left-wing wings want to keep only the revolt to avoid the question of power. This idealisation of the Commune as something intrinsically anti-authoritarian finally reveals the fact that these currents bend to the moral injunctions of the bourgeoisie.

The latter has managed to empty the legacy of the Commune by declaring that it is wrong to have an administration, a diplomacy, a justice, an army, a political police. This slave mentality, in the end, leads to accepting a battle lost in advance. It goes against the experience of the Commune.

It doesn't prevent these currents from having tactical successes, in the ZADs (Zones à Défendre), and from managing to strike back at the bourgeoisie. But beyond that, the strategic perspective remains absent.

André Gide said about the USSR that "lies were told with love, and truth with hate". We think that, 150 years after the Commune, we must learn to look at the truth with love. To look at the flaws, the shortcomings, the inconsistencies and the successes, knowing how to use them to move us forward. We have a lot to understand about the Commune, its successes and its mistakes.

We, a "we" that gathers the most consistent communists, have drawn the conclusions of the need for the link with the peasantry, of the need for the centralised organisation that is the party, the General Staff of the revolution. But also the need for the link, living, fighting, between all the parts of the French imperialist economic sphere, which extends mainly in Africa. It is each of these parts that must strike the same enemy.

We believe that the heritage of the Commune is not commemorative, it is a practical experience that must be studied to understand what to do, how to fight, how to win, but also how to build, administer, manage... and finally triumph.

We think we have made a quick overview of this issue, I thank you again and wish you a good day.

1The national workshops were a - very limited - attempt to provide state-guaranteed work for the unemployed. Although the wages were miserable, they had deeply angered the bosses. They saw this as a threat to the absolute power they could exercise over the workers. The experiment is three months old. When they were dissolved, the workers demonstrated their anger, leading to fierce repression. To turn the peasants against the workers, the agitators had claimed that it was their taxes that paid for the workers' idleness.


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