The Paris Commune (1871): Replacing the Bourgeois State

Lenin on State and Revolution: Chapter 3, Parts 2 - 5

Chapter Three of State and Revolution is devoted to Lenin’s commentary on Marx’s analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. It is divided into five parts. This article deals with parts 2 -5 of the chapter:

2. What Is To Replace The Smashed State Machine?

According to Lenin Marx and Engels had no answer to this question when they wrote the Manifesto. Marx thought the experience of the working class would provide the answer. He summed up that experience in his work The Civil War in France on the Paris Commune and, although Lenin says that experience was “meager”, came to conclusions thought by Lenin to be valid some 45 years later when he wrote State and Revolution. Leaving aside the question whether Marx’s conclusions are still valid after almost a century of further experience by the working class, I will only deal with Lenin’s interpretation.

The form of state prevalent in the developed capitalism of the time of the Commune (on the continent and later on more widespread) was a state that functioned to support the bourgeoisie in its war against the working class. It was ultimately based jointly on the police and the military, whatever outward form it may have taken (constitutional monarchy or democratic republic), and ruled by means of a vast development of public workers (state employees) organized along bureaucratic lines and controlled at the top by people representing the interests of the big industrial conglomerates.

This was the type of state confronting the Paris Commune. The FIRST DECREE that the Commune promulgated, Marx says, “was the suppression of the standing army, and its replacement by the armed people.” The leaders of the commune were elected by universal (male) suffrage and subject to recall if the people became dissatisfied with them.

Next, the police were depoliticized and put at the service of the Commune and the courts were also subjected to the rule of the people with their “sham” independence replaced by elected justices subject to recall. All this was, according to Lenin, an example of advanced democracy with the Commune representing the interests of the masses of people while the previous bourgeois state (now smashed) represented the interests of the minority of the landlords and capitalists.

One of the outstanding accomplishments of the Commune, which so impressed Marx, was that all the servants of the new state were paid no more than the average wages of working people. The Commune was not a “special force” serving the interests of a small class against the majority but was a “general force” serving the vast majority against their oppressors.

For the conservatives and ultra-rightists of today who rail against government spending the model of the Commune should be most enlightening as Marx pointed out that the Commune “made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions, cheap government, a reality, by abolishing the two greatest sources of expenditure — the army and the officialdom.” Those Americans truly concerned to slash federal spending should welcome those initiatives.

3. Abolition of Parliamentarism

This year, 2014, is an election year in the US and there is great concern for how the House of Representatives and the Senate will be constituted; i.e., which of the two bourgeois parties will be in control. Lenin, following Marx, maintains the real meaning of the election (and it is the same in every bourgeois democracy) is to “decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people.”

If we understand that, we can get over certain illusions about bourgeois democracy and its relation to working class interests. While it is important to try to minimize “the crushing” whichever party intends for you, it is also important to keep in mind the only remedy to being crushed at all. There should be no conflict between these two goals. The way elections are conducted today, the very existence of the House and Senate, the separation of powers between legislature and executive powers are inimical to working class interests and the workers, while struggling for positive and realistic reforms, should constantly keep this in mind.

The way to escape the trap of bourgeois democracy, according to Lenin, “is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from ‘talking’ shops into working bodies.” This is what the Commune did. In Marx’s words, “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

Today, in the US, or any other bourgeois democracy, the people have no idea how their government works. It takes an Edward Snowden or a Chelsea Manning to pull back just a part of the cover of secrecy, lies, and trickery that the government employs against the people to keep them ignorant and prevent them from finding out how everything is loaded to favor the 1% and to keep the masses down. And woe to anyone who pulls back that cover of secrecy: President and Congress, the courts and the military, the bourgeois party leaders and their supporters in the press are aligned to condemn and destroy all who expose the truth to the people. Real democracy cannot exist in ignorance and secrecy.

Lenin puts it more succinctly: “Take any parliamentary country … the real business of ‘state’ is performed behind the scenes and is carried out by the departments, chancelleries and General Staffs. Parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the ‘common people.’ ”

The elected representatives in the Commune not only enacted the laws but also were personally involved in putting them into practice. They were not “representatives” enacting laws and leaving it up to the executive to execute them. They combined both functions within themselves and thus abolished “parliamentarism” as it is practiced in bourgeois “democracies.”

Lenin says, “The Commune substitutes for the venal and rotten parliamentarism of bourgeois society institutions in which freedom of opinion and discussion does not degenerate into deception, for the parliamentarians themselves have to work, have to execute their own laws, have themselves to test the results achieved in reality, and to account directly to their constituents.”

Lenin admits that it is “utopian” to believe that it is possible to eliminate the old state bureaucracy over night, in one fell swoop. But he does believe that the Commune gave an example of what could be done. It began immediately to construct a new kind of state bureaucracy to replace the old one. The new one would gradually replace the functions of the old one and the old one would gradually go out of existence. For Lenin, the commencement of this change-over “is the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary forces.”

Why do we need any state at all? Why not just abolish the bourgeois state by fiat and be done with it? Because, as Lenin puts it elsewhere, there is no Chinese Wall between the ideas and attitudes of working people and those, determined largely by the ruling class, of society at large. All sorts of backward notions (racism, jingoism, homophobia, sexism, etc.,) permeate bourgeois society and also the brains of working people who can only learn to correct these ruling class attitudes by practice and learning in the struggle for socialism. Just struggling for higher wages and benefits will not cut it.

If the workers are going to legislate and execute the laws of the new society, they will have to learn how to manage and supervise the institutions of society without being subordinate to bourgeois rule. They cannot wait to be given a new education before taking political power. They have to learn by doing. Lenin says, “we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and ‘foremen and accountants.’”

The class conscious vanguard will lead the way and in the replacement of the old state with the new the workers at large will learn from the experience of socialist construction that they can be their own foremen and accountants. [At least that was the plan. It was a good plan if the difficulties of execution presented by a hostile social environment (internally and externally) didn't doom it.]

4. The Organisation of National Unity

The Commune only lasted two months and did not have time to implement any long term program. The plan was, however, to have all of France organized into communes — every city and village. These would then elect representatives who would be in the national commune in Paris. Marx supported this long term program because it would destroy all of the negative features of the bourgeois state, its special organs for the repression of the masses — the courts , army, and police, as well as the state bureaucracy, and have these functions carried out by the masses themselves via their representatives in the local and national communes — popularly elected and subject to immediate recall if they did not perform as expected.

This aspect, popular mass democracy, has, Lenin says, been played down and avoided by the opportunist non-communist left; i.e., the social democrats who have abandoned revolutionary Marxism. The prime example, cited by Lenin, of the top party person taking the capitalist road within the German socialist party was Eduard Bernstein with his 1899 book Evolutionary Socialism [Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie].

Bernstein rejects the view that the first step of a revolutionary government should be the creation of the sort of democratic communal organisation Marx ascribed to the Commune, but rather the creation of a federal type of constitution of the kind proposed by Proudhon which, Bernstein says, is really the type of revolutionary government Marx had in mind — not one making such a clean sweep as proposed by the Commune.

Lenin thinks it “monstrous” for Bernstein to misrepresent Marx’s views to such an extent and confuse his ideas with those of the anarchist Proudhon. “Marx was a centralist” not a federalist with respect to government. While it is true that Marx agreed with Proudhon and Bakunin in wanting to see the bourgeois state destroyed, he was not at all sympathetic with the anti-state rhetoric of the anarchists and their views on ‘federalism’. Lenin says only petty bourgeois Anarchists could confuse Marx’s views on the destruction of the capitalist state with the destruction of centralism.

Lenin asks, “will it not be centralism if the proletariat and the poorest peasants take the power of the state in their own hands, organize themselves freely into communes, and unite all the action of the communes into striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, in the transfer of private property in railways, factories, land, and so forth, to the entire nation, to the whole of society?” This is the goal of any people’s revolution, to unify a country to create “conscious, democratic, proletarian centralism” and destroy “bourgeois, military, bureaucratic centralism.”

5. Destruction of the Parasite-State

What was the great lesson of the Commune? Lenin says that Marx understood it but the socialists (non Bolsheviks) of his day have either forgotten it or have abandoned it. “Its true secret was this,” Marx wrote in The Civil War in France: “It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” You can talk about democracy all you like but true democracy (rule of the people) can only be brought about with the abolition of the appropriating class (the capitalists). Minimum programs are fine as long as that goal is never lost sight of or played down for opportunistic reasons. This is where the synthesis of State and Revolution and Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder begins.

The Utopians, according to Lenin, were busy inventing socialist forms of government, the Anarchists rejected political forms, and the Opportunists stopped with bourgeoisie democracy with its congresses and parliaments: “they broke their foreheads praying before this idol.”

The next chapter we will discuss is Chapter 4 (dealing with Engels).

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.