The Franco-Prussian war produced the first proletarian revolution in history, and showed to the world for the first time what a workers’ state looks like.
Germany’s bourgeois revolution ‘from above’ was accomplished by Prussian artillery on the battlefield of Sedan in 1870. By launching a victorious war against the traditional enemy, Bismarck and the Prussian Junkers had placed themselves at the head of the German national movement. The new Prussian-dominated united Germany – ‘a feudal turret on a capitalist base’ – quickly became the dominant power in Europe.
But this was not the Franco-Prussian War’s only revolutionary outcome. It had two others. First, it brought down the ramshackle dictatorship of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte – ‘Napoleon III’ as he had styled himself from 1852.
Second, it produced the first proletarian revolution in history, and showed to the world for the first time what a workers’ state looks like. The Paris Commune lasted only two months, but its defenders, as Marx put it, had been ‘storming heaven’, providing ‘a new point of departure of worldwide significance’.
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte – ‘Napoleon the Little’ as Marx called him to distinguish him from his uncle, ‘Napoleon the Great’ – was lifted to power by the Gallic tradition of lopsided revolution, where Paris would always lead, but France sometimes did not follow.
The forward march of the 1848 upsurge had been halted as early as June, when the revolutionary vanguard, the working people of eastern Paris, were isolated and gunned down by General Cavaignac’s soldiers.
In the presidential election that December, Louis-Napoleon came from nowhere to win a landslide victory, taking 75% of the popular vote across France. The secret of his success was vacuousness: being nothing to anyone, he could be all things to everyone. Louis-Napoleon was ‘the strong man’ with an illustrious name who seemed to promise order, justice, and prosperity.
Louis-Napoleon ruled as president for three years. Then, in December 1852, he declared himself emperor, ruling as Napoleon III until his defeat at Sedan in September 1870.
The rule of Napoleon III was a political paradox. It represented a bureaucratic fossilisation of revolutionary instability. A facade of dictatorial power obscured a wobbly balancing act.
After the June Days of 1848, the active political forces of France, still focused upon the capital, were evenly divided between a reactionary bloc of monarchists, clericals, and other conservatives, and a progressive bloc of republicans, liberals, and democrats.
The presidential election of December 1848 had flattened these divisions under a massive weight of peasant votes. Louis-Napoleon was elected by the passive majority. Thereafter, the Parisian factions were held in check by the bureaucratic apparatus of the ‘Third Empire’ regime.
The role of the Bonapartist state, in Marx’s view, was ‘to impose an armistice on the class struggle’, ‘to break the parliamentary power of the appropriating classes’, and thus ‘to secure the old order a respite of life’.
But if the state becomes semi-detached from civil society, if the political elite is able to free itself from scrutiny and accountability, corruption can spread through the bureaucratic apparatus.
Speculators and entrepreneurs close to the emperor enriched themselves on government contracts; other capitalists became resentful of their exclusion from the charmed circle.
Military adventures in Italy and Mexico, designed in part to puff the national and dynastic claims of the regime, backfired.
The economy grew – industrial output doubled under Louis-Napoleon – but poverty stalked the suburbs of Paris and other big cities, and the dictator’s police and informers were widely hated.
Bismarck had no difficulty provoking Napoleon III into war in June 1870. With its grip on power slipping, the regime could not risk losing face when the Prussian chancellor contrived a deliberate diplomatic affront.
The war exposed the decadence of the regime: its army crashed to defeat, the emperor was captured and deposed; and a new bourgeois republican government took power in Paris.
After Sedan, Bismarck demanded punitive terms: France was to hand over the eastern border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and pay a huge war indemnity. The republican government refused the terms, and, for five months, Paris was besieged by the Prussian army.
This was the democratic phase of the war. The national army had been defeated, and its place was now taken by a Parisian militia. A newly formed ‘National Guard’ swelled to a third of a million. The struggle was transformed from a war between nation-states into a war of revolutionary defence.
A spectre of popular revolution now haunted the French ruling class. Two attempts to overthrow the new republican government were defeated, but its leaders sensed their power draining away. ‘Paris armed,’ wrote Marx, ‘was the revolution armed.’
The choice, it seemed, was between the Prussians and the Revolution. The bourgeois-republicans decided to surrender the city to the national enemy.
They agreed an armistice with the Prussians in late January 1871. They then organised an immediate general election. As in 1848, the purpose was to mobilise a passive rural electorate against the revolutionary vanguard in the capital. The result was that 400 of the 675 deputies returned were monarchists.
August Thiers, a veteran conservative politician, was appointed to head a new government. On 18 March, Thiers dispatched troops to begin the disarming of the National Guard. The troops refused to fire on the crowd that gathered to oppose them. That afternoon, having lost control, Thiers and his government fled the capital.
Power passed at first to the Central Committee of the National Guard. Ten days later, it was trasnferred to a newly elected ‘Commune’ representing the revolutionary people of Paris.
The Commune was one of the most democratic assemblies in history. Elected by universal male suffrage in every locality, the members were subject to immediate recall by their electors if they deviated from their mandates, had personal responsibility for carrying out collective decisions, and were paid no more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
The Commune revealed one of history’s secrets: the necessary form that a workers’ state must take.
Here was a new sort of power. Not a repressive state raised above society, controlled by the ruling class, and formed of armed bodies of police and soldiers for the suppression of protest. But a state embedded within society itself, where both elected bodies and armed militia were but expressions of mass participatory rank-and-file democracy.
‘The Commune constitution,’ wrote Marx after its suppression, ‘would have restored to the social body all the forces hitherto absorbed by the state parasite feeding upon, and clogging up, the free movement of society… It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the political emancipation of labour.’
The Commune was not perfect. It did not enfranchise women, although their role in the struggle was paramount from start to finish.
Women had led the first demonstration of the revolution on 18 March. And revolutionary activist Louise Michel’s defiant words in court after the defeat of the Commune can be taken as its swansong: ‘I will not defend myself. I will not be defended. I belong entirely to the social revolution. If you let me live, I shall not cease to cry vengeance.’
Nor was the programme and strategy of the Commune sufficiently bold. Instead of going onto the offensive, politically and militarily, so as to carry the revolution beyond Paris, the Commune allowed the counter-revolution time to recover its balance and assemble its forces.
On 21 May, Thiers’ troops broke into the city. For the next week, they fought block by block to recapture it. The fall of the eastern bastions of revolutionary Paris on 28 May was then followed by an orgy of killing.
Almost 2,000 were shot in the first two days. Many were killed summarily after 30-second street ‘trials’ simply because they were poor. Eventually, between 20 and 30,000 were killed, and a further 40,000 were interned in prison-hulks awaiting trial.
The Paris Commune opened a new chapter in world history. The struggle between capitalist violence and proletarian revolution, between barbarism and socialism, dates from 1871.
That chapter is unfinished. It is our chapter – the chapter of the epoch in which we are still living.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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