Arsenal of Marxism

Paris Commune, the October Revolution and the Party Question

By Howard Keylor

Without the lessons of the Paris Commune there would have been no October 1917 revolution. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and generations of proletarians studied the Paris Commune and developed the political theory that led to the Russian Revolution and the consolidation of the first workers state.

The only major correction to the Communist Manifesto was made by Marx and Engels in their introduction to an 1872 edition:

“…one thing especially was proved by the Commune, vis-à-vis, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”

Marx and Engels returned again and again to this theme in their polemics with sections of the Second International, especially the German Social Democracy.

The First International collapsed after the defeat of the Paris Commune but Marx and Engels continued the work of rebuilding an international workers organization.

Leon Trotsky, writing from a Czarist prison cell in 1905 demonstrated how his study of the Paris commune played an important part in the development of his theory of the permanent revolution. He used the example of the Paris Commune to show that the decisive factor in proletarian revolution was the relationship of forces between the classes and the consciousness of the working class, and these did not follow mechanistically from the level of the productive forces. When Lenin was essentially won to the dictatorship of the Russian proletariat supported by the peasantry, and Trotsky and his co-thinkers were won to the Leninist conception of the party, the lessons of the Commune came together in 1917.

While writing State and Revolution in the midst of the tumultuous events of the summer of 1917 Lenin turned to the Paris Commune for the main question facing the Russian revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat:

“The Commune is the first attempt by a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ‘at last discovered,’ by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.”

Writing in 1920 from the car of a military train amid the flames of civil war, Trotsky’s “The Paris Commune and Soviet Russia” defends the harsh measures of the Russian proletariat in consolidating their revolution from Kautsky’s slanders. At the same time, he offers a perceptive comparison between the new Soviet Republic and the Paris Commune contributing to an understanding of the defeat of the Commune and the strengths of the still threatened Soviet state power.

But it is in Trotsky’s Lessons of the Paris Commune written in 1921 for the young Communist movement of France that he underlines more cogently than any prominent Marxist had done previously the main lesson of the Commune:

“We can thumb the whole history of the Commune, page-by-page, and we will find in it one single lesson: a strong party leadership is needed.”

His close examination of the Commune from the standpoint of revolutionary leadership leads him to the conclusion that a conscious and resolute proletarian revolutionary party could have led the workers to power on September 4 rather than six months later:

“The workers’ party—the real one—is not a machine for parliamentary maneuvers it 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 path of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.”

Trotsky goes on to say:

“The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party. The bourgeois socialists with whom the Commune swarmed, raised their eyes to heaven, waited for a miracle or else a prophetic word, hesitated, and during that time the masses groped about and lost their heads because of the indecision of some and the fantasy of others. The result was that the revolution broke out in their very midst, too late, and Paris was encircled. Six months elapsed before the proletariat had reestablished in its memory the lessons of democracy and it seized power.”

All of the ministers with Thiers at their head could have been taken prisoners with no one to defend them. The remnants of the infantry who did not want to fall back to Versailles could have been infiltrated and turned to the cause of the workers. The toying with “legality” through the communal elections and negotiations with the mayors and deputies of Paris disarmed the proletariat. A rapid and violent attack against Versailles was precluded by passivity and indecision based upon respect for the “principle” of federation and autonomy. Thus the opportunity to send agitators, organizers, and armed contingents throughout France was lost. The endemic particularism and hostility to centralism of the Parisian working class prevented a disciplined center for consolidating and extending the revolution.


“Those fighters of ’7l were not lacking heroism. What they lacked was clarity in method and a centralized leading organization.”

Trotsky had before him the recent failed revolutions of Germany and Hungary. Since that time a number of opportunities for proletarian power have been lost due to Stalinist and Social Democratic misleadership of the working class. Those of us who aspire to assimilate the terrible negative lessons of working class defeats must return again and again to study the lessons of the Paris Commune as well as the history of the only successful proletarian revolution, October 1917.

To close with a personal observation: A turning point in my own awareness of social reality occurred when I was taken out of the infantry and assigned to the 10th Army Headquarters during the three-month battle of Okinawa in the Spring of 1945. I was shocked to learn of the military incompetence of the professional officers and their hatred of and indifference to the fate of the largely working class and farmer soldiers of the fourth infantry and third marine divisions who were being slaughtered in that incompetently led battle.

One of the lessons of the Paris Commune is that the enraged forces of the bourgeois state will exterminate armed workers who seize power if the workers fail to consolidate that power. The mass executions of Spanish workers by Franco’s forces, the slaughter of the Shanghai proletariat, and the rivers of blood following the failed Indonesian coup are within recent memory. The consolidation of proletarian power must be uppermost in our minds.