The Commune: Paris 1871 – P. Guillaume and Martin Grainger – ‘Each time we study the history of the Commune we see something new in it, thanks to the experiences gained, in later revolutionary struggles…’ Thus wrote Trotsky in 1921, in his preface to a book by Tales1 which was to become basic reading for a whole generation of French revolutionaries.
The ‘tricks of History’, as Marx delighted to call them, have amply confirmed the correctness of Trotsky’s statement. We can now examine the Paris Commune in a new light – in the light precisely of the rich experience of Bolshevism and of Trotskyism. We mean, more specifically, in the light of their failure. Stated more concretely, the proletarian revolution of 1871 must now be re-evaluated in the light of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and of the positive lessons of the revolutionary struggle of the Hungarian Workers’ Councils in 1956 against a bureaucratic society in which the means of production were completely ‘nationalised’.
Trotsky could hardly have foreseen these developments when he wrote his prophetic words in the heroic days of 1921. This however in no way detracts from their absolute correctness.
For both Trotsky and Tales the great defect of the Commune was the absence of a revolutionary leadership. ‘The Commune’, Trotsky emphasised, shows us ‘the incapacity of the masses to choose their own path, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their fatal inclination to stop after the first successes…’ How can this be overcome? Trotsky is quite explicit! ‘It is only through the help of the Party, basing itself on the whole history of the past theoretically foreseeing the paths of development and all its stages, and extracting from them the necessary formulas for action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need constantly to restart its own. history…’. He summarises his views with his usual logic: ‘We can look, page by page, through the history of the Commune. We will find in it only a single lesson: there must be a strong Party leadership’ (our emphasis).