The Lessons of The Paris Commune, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press, 1971
George Bernard Shaw once called Leon Trotsky the ‘ Prince of Pamphleteers’ and his little book on the Paris Commune certainly bear this out. All militants pay homage to the memory of the Commune. For a historical narrative of the events surrounding the rise and fall of the Commune look elsewhere. However, if you want to draw the lessons of the Commune this book offers a superior strategic study. Not surprisingly Trotsky, the organizer of the Russian October Revolution in 1917 and creator of the Red Army, uses the strength and weaknesses of the Commune against the experiences of the October Revolution to educate the militants of his day. Today some of those lessons are still valid for the international labor movement in the seemingly one-sided class struggle being waged against it.
When one studies the history of the Paris Commune of 1871 one learns something new even though from the perspective of revolutionary strategy the Communards made virtually every mistake in the book. Nevertheless, one can still learn lessons and measure them against the experience acquired by later revolutionary struggles and above all by later revolutions, not only the successful Russian Revolution of October 1917 but the failed German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Chinese and Spanish revolutions in the immediate aftermath of World War I. More contemporaneously we also have the experiences of the partial victories of the later Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions. Trotsky’s analysis follows this path.
Notwithstanding the contradictory nature of later experiences cited above, and as if to show that history is not always totally a history of horrors against the fate of the masses, Trotsky honored the Paris Commune as a beacon of the coming world socialist revolution. It is just for that reason that Karl Marx fought tooth and nail in the First International to defend it against the rage of capitalist Europe and the faint-hearted elements in the European labor movement. It is truly one of the revolutionary peaks.
The Commune nevertheless also presented in embryo the first post-1848 Revolution instance of what was to be later characterized by Lenin at the beginning of World War I as the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the international labor movement. Moreover, after Lenin’s death this question preoccupied Trotsky for much of the later part of his life. Trotsky’s placing the problems facing the Commune in this context made me realize that this crisis really has a much longer lineage that I had previously recognized. Unfortunately, that question is still to be resolved.
Many working class tendencies, Anarchist, Anarcho-Syndicalist, Left Social Democratic and Communist justifiably pay homage to the defenders of the Paris Commune and claim its traditions. Why does an organization of short duration and subject to savage reprisals still command our attention? The Commune shows us the heroism of the working masses, their capacity to unite for action, their capacity to sacrifice themselves in the name of a future, more just, organization of society. Every working class tendency can honor those qualities, particularly when far removed from any active need to do more than pay homage to the memory of the fallen Communards.
Nevertheless, as Trotsky notes, to truly honor the Communards it is necessary to understand that at the same time the Commune shows us the many times frustrating incapacity of the masses to act in their objective interests, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their almost always fatal desire to halt after the first successes. Obviously, only a revolutionary party can provide that kind of leadership in order fight against these negative traits. At that stage in the development of the European working class where political class consciousness was limited to the vanguard, capitalism was still capable of progressive expansion and other urban classes were at least verbally espousing socialist solutions it is improbable that such an organization could have been formed. Nevertheless such an organization was objectively necessary.
It is a truism in politics, including revolutionary politics, that timing is important and many times decisive. As Trotsky noted seizure of power by the Commune came too late. It had all the possibilities of taking the power on September 4, 1870 rather than March 18, 1871 and that would have permitted the proletariat of Paris to place itself at the head of the workers of the whole country in their struggle. At the very least, it would have allowed time for the workers of other cities and the peasantry in the smaller towns and villages to galvanize their forces for action in defense of Paris and to create their own communes. Unfortunately the Parisian proletariat had neither a party, nor leaders forged by previous struggles who could or would reach out to the rest of France.
Moreover, a revolutionary workers' party, while entirely capable of using parliamentary methods is not, and should not, be a machine for parliamentary wrangling. In a revolution such activity at times amounts to parliamentary cretinism. The Central Committee of the National Guard, the embodiment of organizational power, had more than its share of such wrangling and confusionist politics. In contrast, a revolutionary party is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the road forward, all its stages, and knows how to act in the situation, that the proletariat avoids making the same historical mistakes, overcomes its hesitations, and acts decisively to seize power. Needless to say those same qualities are necessary to retain power against the inevitable counter-revolutionary onslaught. The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party. The result was that the revolution broke out in their very midst, too late, and Paris was encircled. Like other revolutionary opportunities six months delay proved fatal. Capitalism cruelly exacted its revenge. That is a great lesson of the Commune, for others read this book.
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