A speech given by Lenin in Geneva on March 18, 1908 at an international Socialist meeting commemorating 25th anniversary of Marx’s death, the 50th anniversary of the March Revolution of 1848, and the 37th anniversary of the Paris Commune.
‘Lessons of the Commune’ (1908) by V.I. Lenin from The Paris Commune. Little Lenin Library No. 5. International Publishers, New York. 1934.
AFTER the coup d’etat which crowned the Revolution of 1848, France came for eighteen years under the yoke of the Napoleonic regime. This regime reduced the country not only to economic ruin, but also to national humiliation. The proletariat which rose against the old regime took upon itself two tasks: a general national, and a class task- the liberation of France from the German invasion, and the Socialist liberation of the workers from capitalism. This combination of two tasks is the most original feature of the Commune. The bourgeoisie had established “the government of national defence,” and the proletariat had to fight under its leadership for national independence. In reality, this was a government of “national betrayal” ordained, as it thought, to fight the Paris proletariat.
But the proletariat did not realise this, for it was blinded by patriotic illusions. The patriotic idea had its origin in the Great Revolution of the eighteenth century; the minds of the Socialists of the Commune were under its spell, and Blanqui, for instance, a true revolutionary and an ardent advocate of socialism, could not find a more suitable title for his newspaper than the bourgeois cry: “Our Country is in Danger!”
It is this combination of contradictory tasks-patriotism and socialism- which constituted the fatal error of the French Socialists. Already in the Manifesto of the International, September, 1870, Marx warned the French proletariat not to be carried away by the false national idea: profound changes had taken place since the time of the Great Revolution, class differences had become more acute, and although at that time the struggle against the reaction of the whole of Europe united the whole revolutionary nation, the proletariat of the present time can no longer unite its interests with the interests of other classes hostile to it: let the bourgeoisie bear the responsibility for the national humiliation- it is the business of the proletariat to fight for the Socialist liberation of labour from the yoke of the bourgeoisie.
And true enough, the idea underlying bourgeois “patriotism” was not slow in revealing itself. Having concluded a shameful peace with the Prussians, the Versailles Government devoted itself to its direct task- it undertook a raid upon the dreaded arms of the Paris proletariat. The workers replied by proclaiming the Commune and Civil War.
Although the socialist proletariat was divided into many sects, the Commune was a brilliant example of the capacity of the proletariat to unite for the realisation of democratic tasks to which the bourgeoisie could only pay lip service. Without any special complicated legislation, the proletariat which had seized power, carried out simply and practically the democratisation of the social order, did away with bureaucracy, and had all officials elected by the people.
But two errors robbed the brilliant victory of its fruit. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of proceeding with the “expropriation of the expropriators,” it was carried away by dreams of establishing supreme justice in the country, based on the common national task. For instance, institutions such as the bank were not seized; the theory of the Proudhonists about “equitable exchange,” etc., still held sway among the Socialists. The second error was the unnecessary magnanimity of the proletariat: instead of annihilating its enemies, it endeavoured to exercise moral influence over them; it did not attach the right value to the importance of purely military activity in civil war, and instead of crowning its victory in Paris by a determined advance on Versailles, it hesitated and gave time to the Versailles government to gather its dark forces and to prepare for the bloody May Week.
But with all its errors, the Commune is the greatest example of the greatest proletarian movement of the nineteenth century. Marx valued very highly the historical importance of the Commune: if, during the treacherous raid of the Versailles gang on the arms of the Paris proletariat, the workers had given them up without a fight, the disastrous effect of the demoralisation which such weakness would have brought into the proletarian movement would have been much more serious than the injury from the losses suffered by the working class in the fight while defending its arms. Great as were the sacrifices of the Commune, they are redeemed by its importance for the general proletarian struggle: it stirred up the Socialist movement throughout Europe, it demonstrated the value of civil war, it dispersed patriotic illusions and shattered the naive faith in the common national aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The Commune has taught the European proletariat to deal concretely with the problems of the socialist revolution.
The lesson taught the proletariat will not be forgotten. The working class will make use of it, as was already the case in Russia during the December insurrection.
The epoch which preceded and prepared the Russian Revolution was somewhat similar to the epoch of the Napoleonic rule in France. In Russia, too, the autocratic clique had reduced the country to the horrors of economic ruin and national humiliation. But the revolution could not break out for a long time-not until social development had created conditions for a mass movement, and, in spite of their heroism, the isolated attacks on the government in the prerevolutionary period came to naught owing to the indifference of the masses. Only Social-Democracy, by its persistent and systematic work, educated the masses up to the highest forms of struggle- mass demonstrations and civil war.
It was able to eradicate “common national” and “patriotic” aberrations in the ranks of the young proletariat, and when, with its direct intervention, it was possible to make the Tsar proclaim the Manifesto of October 30, the proletariat took up energetic preparation for the further inevitable stage of the revolution- armed insurrection. Free from “common national” illusions, it concentrated its class forces in its mass organisations- the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, etc. And, in spite of all the differences between the aims and tasks confronting the Russian Revolution and those of the French Revolution of 1871, the Russian proletariat had to resort to the same means of struggle which the Paris Commune had initiated- civil war. Bearing in mind its lessons, the proletariat knew that it must not disdain peaceful weapons of struggle-they serve its everyday interests, they are essential during the preparing of revolutions- neither must it ever forget that under certain conditions the class struggle assumes forms of armed struggle and civil war; there are times when the interests of the proletariat demand ruthless annihilation of its enemies in open battle. The French proletariat was the first to demonstrate this in the Commune, and it was brilliantly confirmed by the Russian proletariat in the December insurrection.
These magnificent insurrections of the working class were crushed, but there will be another insurrection in the face of which the force of the enemies of the proletariat will prove impotent, an insurrection in which the socialist proletariat will be completely victorious.
Zagranichnaya Gazeta, No.2, March 23, 1908.
The Paris Commune by V.I. Lenin. Little Lenin Library No. 5. International Publishers, New York. 1934.
Contents: Introduction by Paul Braun, In Memory of the Commune (April 28, 1911), Lessons of the Commune (March 23, 1908), Marx’s Estimation of the Commune (February, 1907), From State and Revolution (1917) – In What Does the Heroism of the Communards Consist? – What Is to Replace the Shattered State Machinery? – The Destruction of Parliamentarism – The Organisation of National Unity – Destruction of the Parasite-State, Supplementary Explanations of Engels – The Housing Question – Polemic Against the Anarchists – Letter to Bebel – The 1891 Preface to Marx’s Civil War in France – Vulgarization of Marx by the Opportunists, The Commune and Democracy (1919), Bourgeois and Proletarian Democracy, Can the be Equality Between the Exploiters and the Exploited?, The Commune and the Soviets (1919), Bourgeois Democracy, The First Step (1919), A New Type of State, The Soviet Power and the Commune, The Paris Commune and the Tasks of the Democratic Dictatorship (1905). 62 pages.
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