The Paris Commune—a workers’ democracy

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune Sam Ord looks at the importance of the first workers’ government, and how it influenced the ideas of Karl Marx

Mon 15 Mar 2021 by

National Guard defending the streets of Paris (Pic: Wikicommons)

The Paris Commune, where workers briefly took power and created the first workers’ government, was born 150 years ago this month.

A workers’ movement ran the city for 72 days between March and May 1871, with freedom and democracy at its core.

Revolutionary Karl Marx described the Paris Commune as, “The first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle class—shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants—the wealthy capitalist alone excepted.”

And the revolutionary Frederick Engels later wrote, “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The Commune emerged from a French military defeat.


In 1870 war began between France and Prussia. French forces were swiftly smashed by the beginning of October 1870, and Paris was under total siege.

France’s rulers signed an armistice with Prussia at the end of 1870, which betrayed the ordinary people and the forces that had tried to defend Paris. In particular the deal enraged the National Guard, a force that was based on the poorer sections.

The central committee of the National Guard had distributed 400 cannons across working class areas of the city ready for attack.

To establish its control, the head of the new provisional government that emerged from the armistice, Adolphe Thiers, ordered the cannons should be seized on 18 March.

But resistance broke out when the French army advanced.

The army managed to secure the cannons but they were met by hundreds of workers who started to gather. Women played a key role in the resistance.

Louise Michel, a member of the National Guard, was given the role of defending the arms.

Michel rang church bells and mobilised 200 women to confront the 3,000 strong army. This signalled the start of the revolt.

Michel wrote, “We ran up at the double, knowing that at the top was an army in battle formation. We expected to die for liberty. All womankind was at our side—I don’t know how.”

Thiers ordered the soldiers to fire at the mobilisation and disarm the workers. But the soldiers refused, leading to sections of the army uniting with the Parisians against the generals.

Two army generals were assassinated by their soldiers and Thiers ordered an evacuation of Paris.

Women made huge gains during the uprising. They built barricades, took up arms and joined committees. This included education committees that imposed a free education system that, for the first time, educated women. 

“Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”Friedrich Engels

However, they were not given the vote. Michel, like Marx, knew that for women’s liberation to be achieved they had to fight for it.

She said, “It is true, perhaps, that women like rebellions. We are no better than men in respect to power, but power has not yet corrupted us.”

On 26 March the workers chose to elect their own council that worked in their own interest for safety and liberation.

Marx wrote, “The old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag.”

Engels later said that “the Commune made use of two infallible expedients”. Firstly it filled all posts by election.

Secondly, all officials regardless of rank were paid the same as other workers. This was also to prevent careerism.

Unlike bourgeois parliaments, all members were held democratically accountable if they lied or retreated, to safeguard the Commune from corruption. The Commune made the National Guard the main armed body.

It also created a wage cap, closed pawn shops, suspended debt and separated the church and state.

It abolished child labour, granted pensions to unmarried partners of killed guardsman, and established the right of employees to take over a business.

The Commune also raised calls for internationalism. Workers stood against the nationalism that former bourgeois leaders represented.

“The flag of the Commune is the flag of the world’s republic,” they wrote.

Engels later said that the Commune directly challenged bourgeois chauvinism and that the international working class understood this.

But the ruling class in France wasn’t content with the National Guards’ leadership—they didn’t want workers to be running society.

They put aside nationalist differences with Prussian generals and collaborated to destroy the armed Parisian workers.

As Marx predicted, the Commune didn’t achieve full state power as the external forces were too great.

On 21 May state forces broke into the city and slaughtered National Guard troops and civilians. By 28 May the Commune was suppressed by the army and harsh repression followed.

Eyewitness Prosper Lissagaray described how the rich took their revenge as they retook the city. He wrote, “The kid-glove populace followed the prisoners, acclaiming the gendarmes who conducted the convoys, applauding at the sight of the blood-covered vans.

“The civilians strove to outdo the military in levity.

“Elegant and joyous women, as 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.”

Over 30,000 people were killed in fighting or executed. Over 7,000 more, including Michel, were exiled.

Military trials were held for up to 40,000 prisoners, resulting in execution, solitary confinement and forced labour.

The suppression and exploitation of the French working class would continue despite the gains made by the Commune.

The Commune had been crushed. But as Marx said, the experience of “storming heaven” gave an inspiring example for others to follow.

It had created a concrete example of the sort of democratic society that workers could found if they seized control.

Karl Marx on the ‘the glorious harbinger of a new society’

The Commune was crucial in shaping Karl Marx’s understanding of both the importance of class and the role of the state.

Reflecting on the revolt enabled him to deepen and extend his ideas.

As Vladimir Lenin was later to write, “The only ‘correction’ Marx thought it necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto he made on the basis of the revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune.”

Marx rejected the idea that the working class could advance just by moving to the head of the existing state.

What the Commune showed was “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.

“Instead, the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it,” Marx wrote.

In its place would come a completely different mechanism of workers’ democracy and control.

This would abolish many of the features of the old form of state, and fully democratise those that were still necessary to combat the old ruling class.

Marx wrote, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.”

The working class would take back its power from the bourgeois state that ruled over it.

This crucial lesson for future revolutions was why Marx said that the workers’ Paris “with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.

“Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”

Class was crucial.

Unlike prior revolutions the working class collectively showed their power to control the means of production and distribution in their interest.

So, Marx wrote, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

The experience of the Commune is crucial to the arguments today about the limits of working through existing state institutions.