1871-in the midst of war the Paris workers rose up

They stormed the gates of heaven


IS THERE an alternative to the wars which have dominated capitalist society, of which NATO's war in the Balkans is just the latest example? Socialists argue that the hope lies with ordinary working class people. Wars have created mass misery and destruction, but they have also led to revolts by workers and the poor who always suffer most from the horror. That is what happened in France in March 1871. Amid the poverty and hardship of war, the workers of Paris took control of their city. They established the first ever workers' government-the Paris Commune. The Commune showed an alternative to the barbarity of our rulers' system.

THE WORKERS of Paris had suffered 20 years of hardship under the repressive rule of Emperor Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. In July 1870 Napoleon dragged France into a disastrous war with Germany. Napoleon arrogantly believed his army would easily win the war. But instead his regime collapsed within weeks. By September the French army had surrendered and Napoleon himself was taken prisoner. The victorious German armies besieged Paris.

Crowds of workers filled the streets of the French capital, demanding Napoleon's abdication. The empire collapsed and a new republican government of national defence was set up. This was a government of the rich and it was far more terrified of workers' resistance than it was of the German army. A member of the government later admitted, "Virtually the whole defence revolved around a single thing-fear of rebellion."

Workers suffered the brunt of deprivation and poverty during the five months of the siege. They were forced to eat rats and dogs to survive-1,000 a week died of pneumonia through the winter. But workers were also radicalised by the siege. "Red" clubs and revolutionary newspapers flourished. The journalist Lissagaray, an eyewitness to events, wrote, "At the end of December their privations began to open the eyes of the people." Workers demanded arms to defend their city. Thousands of workers joined the National Guard, which effectively became a workers' militia, with its members allowed to elect their own officers.

On 28 January 1871 republican government leader Thiers, terrified of revolt from below, surrendered to Germany. Then, in March, Thiers' government tried to disarm workers. It sent soldiers to seize guns and artillery held by the National Guard in the working class Montmartre district. But a massive crowd of workers, led by women, surrounded the soldiers and the artillery. One captain later described how "the streets were nothing but one vast assemblage in which my company was positively drowned."

THE VICTORIOUS workers overturned Thiers, who fled to Versailles, 20 miles outside Paris. The city was now in the hands of the workers and they transformed every aspect of life. The central committee of the National Guard declared: "The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs."

The Commune was officially set up after its supporters won 80 percent of the popular vote. It was far more democratic than even Britain today, where the majority have no say over whether our rulers take us into war. Everyone could participate in decision making in the Commune. Its first decree was the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by armed workers. Workers publicly burnt the guillotine and tore down patriotic and militaristic statues. And, in the spirit of internationalism, a German worker was appointed as minister of labour.

DELEGATES elected to the Commune were placed under the direct control of those who had elected them. If workers were dissatisfied then they could immediately recall delegates and elect someone new. A majority of those elected were workers or allied to the working class. All received workers' wages. The Commune transformed people's lives and the atmosphere of the city. It opened up the workshops and factories shut down by the bosses and encouraged associations of workers to take them over. Education, which had previously been the preserve of a privileged few, was made freely available to everyone, with books, paper and other materials provided. A department of public assistance to help meet people's health and other needs was established.

The Commune separated the church from the state and, as Karl Marx put it, "the priests were sent back to recesses of private life." Judges and other officials were to be elected and accountable and the Commune abolished the hated "morality police" who used to patrol and intimidate working class districts. Marx wrote, "Wonderful indeed was the change the Commune has wrought on Paris! No longer was Paris the rendezvous of British landlords, Irish absentees, American slaveholders and shoddy men. No more corpses at the morgue, no nocturnal burglaries, scarcely any robberies. In fact the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind."

BUT JUST as the Parisian working class showed that workers could run society peacefully, the ruling class was preparing to launch a bloodbath. It was willing to use as much brutality and force as it could to crush the workers' government. On 28 May, after 72 days of the Commune, Thiers' troops entered Paris.

Tragically the leaders of the Commune failed to realise the lengths the ruling class would go to to regain power. They had not launched a military offensive against Thiers' army. That enabled him to gather together the forces to smash the Commune. Unfortunately the Commune also did not give the vote to women. But workers fought courageously to the end to defend the Commune and working class women were some of the bravest fighters. One of the best known women leaders, Louise Michel, would later say at her trial, "I belong entirely to the social revolution. If you let me live, I shall not cease to cry vengeance."


The ruling class went on an orgy of violence, slaughtering up to 30,000 of those who had taken part in the uprising in just one week. Even the Times newspaper reported at the time, "The Versailles troops have been shooting, bayonetting, ripping up prisoners, women and children. So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history. The wholesale executions inflicted by the Versailles soldiery sicken the soul."

The ruling class had established its "order". As Lissagaray wrote, "Order reigns in Paris! Everywhere ruins, death. In the rich quarters joy knew no bounds. Elegant and joyous women in a pleasure trip betook themselves to the corpses and, to enjoy the sight of the valorous dead, with the ends of sunshades raised their last coverings."

DESPITE ITS defeat the Commune was a huge achievement. It also contained invaluable lessons about the violence of the ruling class and its state machine. Karl Marx amended the preface to the Communist Manifesto, which had been first published in 1848, to point out that workers cannot simply take over parliament and state institutions such as the army, police and courts. These institutions are not neutral. They are there to protect the ruling class which will use all the force at its disposal to crush the working class. That is why, if workers are to create a genuinely peaceful and socialist society, they have to smash all the institutions of ruling class power.

The Paris Commune was and remains an inspiration to the workers' movement. "Storming heaven" was how Marx described it. "Working men's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society," he wrote.