For the 50 years before the October revolution of 1917, on 18 March every year the socialist movement throughout the world celebrated “Commune Day”. This was the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871. There, for the first time, the working class seized power, and held it for nearly two months. This, as Frederick Engels said, was “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It ended in a horrific massacre of the Parisian workers, but it pointed to the political future of the working class everywhere. Leon
Trotsky, writing in March 1917 during his brief stay in New York, outlined the experience and lessons of the Commune in an article printed here.
Revolution has often followed war in history. In ordinary times the working masses toil from day to day, docilely performing their slave labour, bowing to the great force of habit. Neither overseers, nor police, neither jailers no: executioners could hold masses in subiection were it not for this habit which does faithful service to capitalism.
The war which tortures and destroys the masses is dangerous to rulers as well — precisely because with a single blow it tears the people from their habitual condition, awakens with its thunder the most backward and dark elements, and compels them to take stock of themselves, and to look around.
Impelling millions of toilers into the flames, the rulers are obliged to resort to promises and lies in place of habit. The bourgeoisie paints up its war with all those traits wrhich are dear to the magmanimous soul of the masses: the war is for "”iberty”, for “Justice”, for a “Better Life”! Stirring the masses to their nethermost depths, the war invariably ends by duping them: it brings them nothing except new wounds and chains.
For this reason the tense condition of the duped masses produced by the war often leads to an explosion against the ruler; war gives birth to revolution.
This happened twelve years ago during the Russo-Japanese war: it immediately aggravated the dissatisfaction of the people and led to the revolution of 1905,
This happened in France 46 years ago. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 led to the uprising of the workers and the creation of the Paris Commune.
The Parisian workers were armed by the bourgeois government and organized into a National Guard for the defence of the capital against the German troops But the French bourgeoisie stood in greater fear of its own proletarians than of the troops of Hohenzollern. After
Paris had capitulated, the Republican Government attempted to disarm the workers. But the war had already awakened in them the spirit of rebellion, They did not want to return to their benches the self-same workers they had been prior to the war, The Parisian proletarians refused to let the weapons out of their hands.
A clash took place between the armed workers and the regiments of the Governmert. This occured on 18 March, 1871. The workers were victorious. Paris was in their hands, and on 28 March they established, in the capital, a proletarian government known as the Commune.
The latter did not long maintain itself. After a heroic resistance on 28 May, the last defenders of the Commune fell before the onslaught of bourgeois cohorts. Then ensued weeks and months of bloody reprisals upon the participants of the proletarian revolution.
But, despite its brief existence, the Commune has remained the greatest event in the history of the proletarian struggle. For the first time, on the basis of the experience of the Parisian workers, the world proletariat was able to see what the proletarian revolution is, what are its aims, and what paths it must pursue.
The Commune began by confirming the election of all foreigners to the workers’ government. It proclaimed that: “The banner of the Commune ls the banner of a World Republic.”
It purged the state and the school of religion, abolished capital punishment, pulled down the Column of Vendome (the memorial to chauvinism), transferred all duties and posts to genuine servants of the people, setting their salary at a level not exceeding a working man's wage.
It began a census of factories and mills closed by frightened capitalists in order to initiate production on a social basis. This was the first step towards the socialist organization of economic life.
The Commune did not achieve its proposed measures: it was crushed. The French bourgeoisie, with the cooperation of its “national enemy” Bismarck — who immediately became its class ally — drowned in blood the uprising of its real enemy: the working class. The plans and tasks of the Commune did not find their realisation. But instead, they found their way into the hearts of the best sons of the proletariat in the entire world, they became the revolutionary covenants of our struggle.
And today, on March 15 1917, the image of the Commune appears before us more clearly than ever before, for, after a great lapse of time, we have once again entered into the epoch of great revolutionary battles.
The world war has torn tens of millions of toilers out of habitual conditions, under which they labour and vegetate. Up to now this has been the case only in Europe, tomorrow we shall see the same thing in America as well. Never before have the working masses been given such promises. Never before have such rainbows been painted for them. Never have they been so flattered as during this war. Never before have the possessing classes dared to demand so much blood from the people in the name of defending the lie which goes by the name of “Defence of the Fatherland”. And never before have the toilers been so duped, betrayed, and crucified as today.
In trenches filled with blood and mud, in starving cities and villages, millions of hearts are beating with exasperation, despair and anger. And these emotions, correlated with socialist ideas, are being transformed Into revolutionary fervor. Tomorrow the flames will burst into the open in mighty uprisings of working masses.
The proletariat of Russia has already emerged onto the great road of Revolution, and under its onset are tumbling and crumbling the foundations of the most infamous despotism the world has seen. The revolution in Russia, however, is only the precursor of proletarian uprisings in the whole of Europe and the entire world.
Remember the Commune, we socialists will say to the insurgent worker masses. The bourgeoisie has armed you against an external enemy. Refuse to return your weapons, like the Parisian workers refused in 1871! Heed the appeal of Karl Liebknecht and turn these weapons against your real enemy, against capitalism! Tear the state machinery from their hands! Transform it from the instrument of bourgeois oppression into an apparatus of proletarian self-rule.
Today you are infinitely more powerful than were your forefathers in the epoch of the Commune. Tumble all the parasites from the thrones! Seize the land, the mines and the factories for your own use! Franternity in labour; equality in enjoying the fruits of labour!
The banner of the Commune is the banner of the World Republic of Labour.