-by Jane French
The 1871 Paris Commune and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 erupted while war raged in Europe.
In St Petersburg (Petrograd), women textile workers marched against the Tsar and war, demanding bread on International Women’s Day, March 9, 1917. Proletariat men and the Russian military joined the protest, and within days the Tsar abdicated the throne.1 In what would become known as the February Revolution of 1917, moderate socialists then set up an interim government lasting until the October Revolution of 1917, led by Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks.2
Concerned about the timing and organization behind the revolution, Lenin looked to the history of the Paris Commune for instruction, and advanced the revolution as an extension of the Paris Commune, writing, “(T)he cause of the Commune is the social revolution…[and] …is the cause of the proletariat of the whole world.”3
It was the Commune’s “ideas (civil liberties and rights), practices (popular protests and elections), and symbols (red flag, Marseillaise, Internationale, and May Day), that had emerged since the French Revolution,” and remade Russia into the “vanguard of the proletarian world.”4
The October Revolution transformed Europe thereafter with the “establishment of a government that was working class in its composition and the direction of its social policies.”5 For Lenin the “thunder of the cannon in Paris awakened the most backward strata of the proletariat from deep slumber.”6 The Commune was the spiritual ancestor for the October Revolution and Russia “picked up the flag which dropped from the hands of the fighters of the Commune and bore it boldly and confidently forward, with cries of: “Long live the social revolution! Long live the Commune!“7
from the archive
In examining the history of the Paris Commune Lenin asked, “(W)hy [does] the proletariat, not only in France but throughout the entire world, honour the workers of the Paris Commune as their forerunners? What was the heritage of the Commune?”8 Lenin’s essay was intended to encourage other struggling working-classes with the legacy of the Commune that revolutionaries like Lenin and especially future Russian revolutionaries would find instructive and inspiring.
Though Lenin described the Commune as “indefinite and confused” and “doomed to inevitable defeat,” he blamed the backward peasants and the French bourgeois classes for deserting the proletariat of Paris to their bloody end at the mercy of the Thiers’ Versailles government.9 The petty bourgeois, the conservative upper and wealthy classes, the bankers and financiers, as well as the Prussian backed Versailles military and French government saw the Commune as a dreaded destabilizing socialist movement that they could not let persist. Lenin pointed to the lack of socialist and labour organizations to educate the French working classes of the value of trade unions and co-operative societies with strategies for political and social change. Lenin argued that if the Communards had these organizations in place educating the proletariat before the 1871 Commune, it may not have been defeated.
Lenin’s portrayal of the fallen Communards as heroes of the working class in the ever increasingly industrialized world was tailored to encourage his cause in Russia, which he warned in his 1911 article more than once, needed an organized and educated proletariat with labour and political associations to avoid the Commune’s doomed fate. He concluded the article by inspirationally describing the Commune as a “social revolution” and “the cause of the proletariat of the whole world. And in this sense it is immortal.”10 These words were meant to hang in the air like the ringing of a church bell leading his followers to action.
1. During this time, Russia went by an old Russian calendar, different from the rest of the world, which is why the first revolution in 1917 is sometimes called the February Russian Revolution. Miriam Martin, “Remembering International Women’s Day 1917 – The Gains Made for Women by the Russian Revolution.” In Defense of Marxism, (March 8 2007): https://www.marxist.com/international-womens-day1917.htm; Timothy Dowling describes how the Tsar had no choice but to abdicate after the “demonstrations in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) shook the foundations of the Tsarist regime. Cossacks, previously staunch and feared defenders of autocracy, sided with the demonstrators, as did many military units.” Timothy C. Dowling,“ 1914-1918-online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War” ( Freie Universität Berlin (Germany): https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/eastern_front.
2. John Merriman, “The Romanovs and the Russian Revolution.” YaleCourses. Accessed Feb 15, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGFilsLo6OI&list=PL3A8E6CE294860A24&index=19.
3. Lenin wrote these words in 1911, and they were on his and Trotsky’s minds as they waited out the fall of Kerensky’s February Revolutionary 1917 Socialist government. Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks time would come in October of 1917. Vladimir Lenin, “Lenin on the Paris Commune” (April 1911), https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/1932/no12/lenin.htm
4. Matthew Rendle, “Making Sense of 1917: Towards a Global History of the Russian Revolution,” Slavic Review Vol.76, No. 3 Special Issue: 1917-2017 The Russian Revolution a Hundred Years Later (Fall 2017): 610-618; 610-611; B. I. Kolonitskii, Simvoly vlasti i bor΄ba za vlast’: k izucheniiu politicheskoi kul΄tury rossiiskoi revoliutsii 1917 goda, 2nd ed. (St Petersburg, 2012)
5. Keith Mann, “Remembering the Paris Commune.” Accessed February 24, 2021. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/atc/3315.html
6. “Lenin on the Paris Commune (April 1911).”
7. Marx’s asserted that the Commune was part of the continual evolution of social revolutions originating in Paris in 1789. For Marx, modernity and modern history began with the French Revolution of 1789. Marx inspired how Bolsheviks revered the Commune; Jay Bergman, “The Paris Commune in Bolshevik Mythology” English Historical Review Vol. 129 (541) Oxford University Press, December 1 2014: 1413-1414. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24474120?seq=1; Ibid, “Lenin on the Paris Commune (April 1911).
8. There is one glaring omission in Lenin’s critique and brief history of the Paris Commune in this article that should be noted at this time. Lenin did mention that after the Thiers government exacted its violent revenge on the Paris Commune and on those Parisians that supported it he estimated that “Paris lost about 100,000 of it sons, including the best workers of all trades.” He did not comment on, or include the women or children killed or shipped away to penal colonies, nor did he make any note in this article of women’s actions and participation in creating and supporting the Commune. Vladimir Lenin, “Lenin on the Paris Commune (April 1911),” The Militant, 19 March 1932 Vol. V No. 12 (Whole No. 108): 1. Lenin on the Paris Commune (April 1911) (marxists.org)
Cohen, Mitchell. “What Lenin’s Critics Got Right.” Dissent Magazine (Fall 2017). https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/lenin-menshevik-critics-right-bolshevism-stalinism
Cohen avidly criticizes Leninism and Bolshevik rule, citing Lenin’s dropping of the democratic socialist party and completely turning to Bolshevism. Cohen had more praise of Martov and Martov’s comparison of the Paris Commune and Bolshevik Russia under Lenin.
Herron, George D. “From Revolution to Revolution: An Address in Memory of the Paris Commune of 1871.” Anarchy Archives, Accessed February 12, 2021. http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/herron/revtorev.html
As Herron reviews the basics of the Commune’s history he argues for what he saw as its virtues for the working class long after it was over. Herron was an American clergyman and Christian socialist activist who was concerned about the working class of all nations, and what he called rampant Imperialism. He recognized that women and children had been part of the Commune, and wrote of the Versailles government murdering “men, women and children to the number of thirty thousand” while Lenin could only praise the communards as ‘lost men’.
Lenin, Vladimir. “The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State & The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Chapter III: Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx’s Analysis.” Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm#s1
Lenin goes into a deep dive on Marx’s theory of revolution and the history of the Paris Commune. He highlights what he needs out of the Commune, and criticizes or ignores other lessons.
Merriman, John. “The Paris Commune and Its Legacy.” Accessed Feb 14, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clDZl40CJik&list=PLE653BF062C136B62&index=2
This YouTube video is the second lecture on a series of Yale University course lectures on French history, entitled France Since 1871, (HIST 276). Merriman presents vital historical information that draws you in to the legacy of the Commune, and its context.
Riggins, Thomas. “Lenin on the Paris Commune (1871): An Heroic Uprising.” Dissident Voice, March 31, 2014. https://dissidentvoice.org/2014/03/lenin-on-the-paris-commune-1871-an-heroic-uprising/
This brief article covers some of the conflicting opinions between Marx and Lenin on some of the main philosophical points on socialism and revolution, while emphasizing the history of the Paris Commune and lessons that must be learned from the Communes failure.
Trotsky, Leon. “On the Paris Commune (March 1917)” in The Great Marxist Leaders on the Commune. Accessed February 20, 2021: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1917/03/commune.htm
Trotsky, Leon. “Lessons of the Paris Commune (February 1921).” Accessed February 20, 2021: Leon Trotsky: Lessons of the Paris Commune (1921) (marxists.org)