Lessons of the Paris and Shanghai communes

What is socialism? Part 3

Lately, great interest and support for the idea of socialism has developed in the U.S., especially among younger generations — a marked departure from the fearful and stultifying days of red baiting ushered in by the Cold War of world imperialism against the then-existing bloc of countries trying to build socialism. But how can socialism be achieved?

The Paris Commune of 1871 and the Shanghai Commune of 1927 briefly showed the world what workers’ governments might look like.

Back in the 19th century, capitalist development in Europe and the United States skyrocketed, much of it fed by the ruling classes’s superexploitation of workers in the colonized parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America and, in the U.S., of Black people still subjugated, even after the abolition of chattel slavery. The consolidation of political power by an immensely wealthy class of merchants, manufacturers and bankers led to intolerable conditions for the growing working classes at home.

In Part 2 of this series, we described attempts by earnest utopians almost a century and a half ago to build socialism by setting up model communities, which vastly improved the workers’ lives and pioneered in liberating working women from household drudgery. But these utopian experiments were overwhelmed by the boom-and-bust cycles of the capitalist world order surrounding them.

Even as the utopian socialists were unable to gain ruling-class neutrality, let alone support, for their reforms, another ideological current was developing. As early as 1848, the need to overthrow the capitalist ruling class was advanced by two young Germans, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”: “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.”

Marx and Engels not only gave voice in stirring language to the aspirations of the workers, but they fought on the barricades in the German revolution of 1848. While that struggle was basically for democratic rights against the repressive bourgeois state and the remnants of feudalism, it already strongly reflected independent demands of the working class.

Paris Commune of 1871

It would be another 23 years, however, before the working class had the opportunity — even if for only a brief period — to show what it could do if it took power. The Paris Commune of 1871 lasted only a few months, but in that time the workers of Paris, women and men, upended the pillars of bourgeois rule. You could say that they showed the world “this is what workers’ democracy looks like” as they dismantled the repressive organs of the bourgeois state and replaced them with armed workers’ defense committees.

Marxism, as it was already called by then, was based not on speculation and wishful thinking but on a materialist analysis of the existing state of human society. Thus, it was with great excitement and enthusiasm that Marx and Engels studied the Paris Commune and its achievements.

The Commune took power against a backdrop of chaos and suffering inflicted on the masses by the Franco-Prussian War and the Prussian Army’s siege of Paris. The Commune lasted less than three months, but in that time valuable lessons were learned on what the workers needed to do in order to transform society from one based on class oppression to one with the potential to abolish class privilege and divisions.

On March 18, 1871, the Central Committee of the Commune had issued a manifesto: “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… . They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.” And they did hold power, for just over two months — enough time to show what workers’ power could do.

In May 1871, shortly after the Commune was crushed by the combined strength of both the Versailles government of France and its adversary, Prussia, Marx wrote that it had demonstrated: “[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

That “centralized state power,” he wrote, “with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature,” had originated “in the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism.” But once the capitalists had replaced the feudal lords and the class struggle between workers and capitalists heated up, the bourgeoisie “now used that state power mercilessly and ostentatiously as the national war engine of capital against labor.”

New political organs of power

The workers of Paris had to create new organs of power. And they did.

They effectively defended Paris from the Prussian siege of the city in the fall of 1870 by establishing a National Guard made up mainly of workers. One of the first decrees of the Commune was for the suppression of the old standing army and its replacement by the armed people.

The Commune was made up of municipal councillors from all the city’s wards, chosen by universal suffrage. Their short terms could be revoked if the people weren’t satisfied. It was a working body with both legislative and executive powers. All officials, including the police, magistrates and judges, were to be agents of the Commune, could be recalled at any time and were paid the same wages as regular workers.

The Commune forgave all housing rents accumulated from October 1870 to April 1871. If these rents had already been paid, that was to be deducted from future payments. It also stopped all sales of items held in the city’s pawnshops.

Having gotten rid of the standing army and police, the Commune then severed the connection between church and state, ending endowments and material privileges for the Catholic Church, still unofficially the state religion. The priests, said Marx, “were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.” The Commune’s newspaper, Mot D’Ordre, exposed the church’s crimes against nuns who had been incarcerated and even tortured by priests. Church control over schools was ended, science triumphed over dogma, and education was made free of charge.

Engels, in his introduction to the German edition of Marx’s “The Paris Commune,” wrote that on April 6: “[T]he guillotine was fetched out by the 137th battalion of the National Guard, and publicly burnt amid loud popular applause. On April 7, the Commune ordered the triumphal column on the Place Vendome, which had been constructed by Napoleon I after the war of 1789 out of captured cannon, to be overthrown, as it was a symbol of chauvinistic and mutual hatred among the nations. This was accomplished on May 16. It has since been restored.

“On the 16th of April, the Commune issued an order for a statistical account of all factories and workshops which had been closed by the employers, for the elaboration of plans for their management by the workingmen hitherto engaged in them, who were to be formed into cooperative societies for the purpose; and, also, for the federation of these societies into one great cooperative organization. On the 20th it abolished the night work of bakers.”

Engels added that the German apologists for capitalism had “lately been thrown once again into wholesome paroxysms by the expression ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Well, gentle sirs, would you like to know how this dictatorship looks? Then look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Yes, it was a dictatorship, but one wielded by the majority, having overthrown the dictatorship of a wealthy few.

Women at the barricades

At a time when women had few rights of any kind, the Commune was strengthened by the formation of a Women’s Union — Union des Femmes — spearheaded by women socialists. They demanded the right of women to take up arms in defense of the revolution and fought heroically on the barricades when the French bourgeoisie, in collusion with the Prussian military that had Paris under siege, attacked the Communards.

The Union des Femmes demanded equal pay for women, the right to divorce, education for girls and recognition of all children as “legitimate.” Widows of killed National Guardsmen were to receive pensions for themselves and their children, whether “legally” married or not. On the day before French troops entered Paris — with Prussia’s assistance — to crush the Commune, the Commune officially declared equal pay for women and men workers.

While women in other “enlightened” capitalist countries were still decades away from winning even the right to vote, the working-class women of Paris were on the cutting edge of fighting for social equality.

Shanghai Commune of 1927

The establishment of workers’ rule in the form of a Commune resurfaced in China in 1927. A search of English-language books on China reveals little about what the workers’ rebellion in Shanghai was able to carry out during its short life, but Agnes Smedley, in her biography of the leading military figure of the Chinese Revolution (“The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh”), gives a detailed account of how the Commune was defeated.

The establishment of the Commune took place during a tempestuous turning point in the long struggle against foreign domination and domestic reaction. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Kuomintang, which had been a bourgeois nationalist party fighting against the warlords and their colonial patrons, had died. Under its new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang suddenly broke its alliance with the Communist Party of China and would soon drown the workers’ movement in blood.

The city of Shanghai was notorious for the brutal treatment meted out by the occupying foreign powers, particularly Britain, against the impoverished working class. The racism of the imperialists was so blatant that Chinese of any class were barred from the foreign-controlled sections of that key port city and could be murdered on the spot if they violated the imperialists’ sanctions.

Starting in February of 1927, wrote Agnes Smedley, “[A] special British expeditionary force, together with American, French and Japanese marines, landed at Shanghai, on which Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were converging. On February 19, three days after their landing, the Shanghai workers walked out in the first of three general strikes, all of them organized by Chou En-lai. General Sun Chuan-fang, warlord ruler in the lower Yangtze, struck with everything he had at the first and second general strikes, crushing them and beheading hundreds of workers as a bloody warning to others.

“Undismayed, workers called their third general strike, which paralyzed the city in late March, as Chiang’s forces drew near Shanghai. Spearheaded by 300 men armed with pistols, the workers stormed police stations, garrison headquarters and, finally, the arsenal. With captured arms they fought and drove warlord Sun’s troops from the entire Shanghai area, then sent out a delegation to welcome Chiang’s troops to the city.”

The workers, not realizing that Chiang had betrayed the alliance, expected support from the Nationalist army. Instead, it mowed them down.

Bloodied but not defeated

Smedley quotes Chu Teh as telling her: “By mid-1927, the Great Revolution was finished … rivers of blood were flowing, generals were changing sides, and there was chaos and confusion everywhere. Chiang Kai-shek was rising to power, drawing old and new warlords to him and playing them off one against the other to keep himself on top. … Chiang was being propped up by the combined forces of foreign imperialism, the Chinese bourgeoisie, and the feudal landed gentry. … Chiang was proclaimed by foreigners as a patriot, a statesman, a great administrator, and the one strong man capable of holding China together.”

The Chinese Revolution had suffered a terrible blow, but it was not defeated. The struggle for socialism went on and eventually new leaders — Mao Zedong chief among them — made a strategic retreat to the deep countryside.

Many of the thousands who joined in the 4,000-mile Long March to the hinterlands were workers and intellectuals who had survived the crushing of the Shanghai Commune and other mass struggles in the coastal cities. There they won the support of millions of peasants who joined the rebellion against the hated landlords, bloodsucking usurers and capitalists.

They were confident of the justice of their cause — enough to sustain them for two more hard decades of fighting the landlords, bosses, bankers and Japanese imperialists, until the great day in 1949 when Mao, standing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, was able to proclaim to the world the establishment of the People’s Republic of China with the words: “The Chinese people have stood up.”

What is socialism?

Part 1: Denmark, imperialism and social democracy

Part 2: Lessons of an early socialist experiment

Part 3: Lessons of the Paris and Shanghai communes

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