“Our task now is to learn from the Paris Commune and think what needs to be done in the coming decades so that many of the debacles that the workers had the courage to face before will be turned into a situation wherein there is nothing else to do but turn down the existing state power.”
By MENCHANI TILENDO
March of this year marks the 150th anniversary of the historic Paris Commune. A lot has been said and theorized on the ‘failures’ and the ‘victories’ of the months-long uprising, but, without a doubt, the Paris Commune was a result of the struggle of the working class in France at a time when capitalism and industrialization were taking off.
The capitulation of the French government in the first German-French war in 1870-1871 has brought dire socio-economic consequences to the Parisians. Amid an ongoing siege, the population of Paris experienced massive unemployment and government-imposed anti-social measures making people pay for reparations through war tax while demoralizing them. At this heat of social crisis, the working class of Paris wielded great influence on the building of the Commune that mainly aimed at destroying the existing state apparatus.
In the new millennium, the teachings of the Paris Commune of 1871 still hold true in the ongoing mass struggles being waged by the peoples of the world in response to continued exploitation and oppression. In this light, the democratic and anti-imperialist International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) is dedicating the month of March and the next five months in commemoration of the revolutionary spirit of the Commune. Its significance, lessons, legacy and continuing validity will again be debated in the media, the academe, political parties, and social movements. As the world faces an unprecedented crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the byproducts of imperialism – state terrorism, wars of aggression, neoliberal policies against the poor, and so on, demand stronger peoples’ resistance resembling that of the Paris Commune uprisings.
“The Paris Commune showed the boundless capacity of the revolutionary masses for creating new things after destroying the bourgeois state machine with their own armed power. They created a new government based on a truly democratic exercise of universal suffrage among the workers. They put up a leadership from their own ranks, working conscientiously and receiving pay equal to that of the worker, with no representation allowances and discretionary funds,” ILPS Chairperson Emeritus Jose Maria Sison said during the March 20 webinar and launch of the ILPS Paris Commune at 150 Global Campaign.
“We see today the growing turbulence in the world capitalist system. All major contradictions are intensifying, such as those between labor and capital; those between the imperialist powers and the oppressed peoples and nations; those between the imperialist powers and states that assert national independence and the socialist cause; and those among the imperialist powers themselves,” Sison said, giving the current context of the global capitalist system.
Similar to the attempts of the French government in 1871 to monopolize power over the Western European continent, Sison discussed that among the imperialist powers today, the US and China have emerged as the two main contenders in the struggle for a re-division of the world. And it seems like history is repeating itself when this struggle puts the heaviest burden on the most vulnerable and exploited classes.
“They (US and China) have developed the neo-colonial ways and means of shifting the burden of crisis to the underdeveloped countries. They are afraid of any direct war between imperialist powers because they are afraid of mutual destruction with their own nuclear weapons of mass destruction. They give vent to their aggressiveness by waging wars against underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” Sison added.
Commune’s relevance to the Black liberation movement
Frank Chapman, executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, discussed the significance of the lessons of the Paris Commune in his time as a grassroots organizer of the workers and Black liberation movement in the US.
“The Paris Commune was a heroic momentous event in history, and perhaps the most defining one of the 19th century wherein workers seized power. However, there is another defining event in the 19th century happening directly in the wake of slavery being abolished in the United States, occurring under the same framework of history. That is the transition period when monopoly capitalism has given rise to imperialism, and was characterized by the conquest of workers for its ultimate decay,” Chapman said.
“The civil war in France and the US were comparable but of different measure, time, place, and circumstance. The Black reconstruction lasted from 1872 to 1877, it suffered the same character of bloody massacres and this kind of crime against our people continues to this day. The Paris Commune and the Black reconstruction are two related powerful events to our class and our people; and they speak a profound historical truth. That truth is that white workers of Europe cannot free themselves from wage slavery so long as Black and Brown workers suffer from national and economic oppression,” Chapman added.
Escalating resistance movements by the working class
German philosopher and economist Friedrich Engels has drawn lessons from the teachings of Karl Marx in his “Introduction to the Civil War in France by Karl Marx” (1891), stating that “the commune had to recognize from the outset that the working class, once in power, could not continue to work with the old state apparatus.”
According to Karl Marx, during the second half of the 19th century, in most of Europe, the bourgeois state apparatus became a bureaucratic-military apparatus of the ruling class against the proletariat. Thus, one of the first social measures undertaken by the Commune was the abolition of the standing army of the state, which was replaced by the popular militia, also known as the National Guard. The commune has become the organ of power in Paris, the armed people secured and defended the power of the working class.
Today, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it triggered the rise of resistance movements in the face of fascist regimes, the working class continues to be at the vanguard.
“There is now widespread discontent among the people. Of course, the workers and the peasants across the world are coming to the forefront; there is no doubt that much of their unrest is hidden and brushed aside. The failure of the capitalist system is now very vivid to everybody. It has failed for decades to provide decent livelihoods and this is triggering the movements to escalate,” Azra Sayeed of the Roots for Equity said during the webinar and launch.
“Our task now is to learn from the Paris Commune and think what needs to be done in the coming decades so that many of the debacles that the workers had the courage to face before will be turned into a situation wherein there is nothing else to do but turn down the existing state power,” Sayeed added.
“It is quite clear that it is going to happen again, the capitalist system will result in total failure, and it is for the revolutionaries, the proletariat, to come forward and take on the world as ours”, Sayeed ended.
(1) F. Engels, Introduction (1891) to the Civil War in France by Karl Marx. Pegasus, Amsterdam, 1978, p.19.
(2) F. De Maegd (2021) 150 Years since the Paris Commune, the First Socialist State (Primer)