The Paris Commune as an historical turning point: On its 150th anniversary

By Seiya Morita

September 10, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal  This year marks the 150th anniversary of the victory and defeat of the Paris Commune. Many articles have already been published around the world bringing back this historic event and developing new insights. This article is written as one of them.

One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 18, 1871, under the direct threat of the Prussian army, the citizens and workers of Paris rose up to defend the French Republic and seized political power in Paris. In the Franco-Prussian War, which had begun in July of the previous year, the French army under Louis Bonaparte suffered a series of defeats against the Prussian army, and finally, in the Battle of Sedan, the supreme ruler Bonaparte himself was taken prisoner: a humiliation rarely seen in history. In September 1870, a republic was proclaimed in Paris. However, the bourgeois politicians who had temporarily risen to power as a result continued the war against Prussia, but were unable to overcome their inferiority. The leaders of the bourgeois government, led by Thiers, felt more threatened by the army of workers and citizens who had gathered to defend Paris, and when they signed an armistice with Prussia, they decided to disarm the citizens of Paris, mainly the workers. However, the Parisian workers adamantly refused to disarm themselves, and the soldiers sent by the Thiers government sided with the Parisian workers. A revolution began. This was the same situation that took place in Petersburg nearly 50 years later.

The uprising of workers, citizens and revolutionaries seized full power in Paris and immediately held elections to form a commune government (March 28). For the next two months, the first workers' government in history implemented various progressive policies and tried to make "freedom, equality and fraternity" a reality. In the end, however, the commune government was crushed by the Versailles government forces with the help of the Prussian army (May 28) and the commune fighters either fell in the battle or were massacred after the defeat. Those who narrowly escaped were forced to flee the country and become exiles.

In many ways, the Paris Commune marked a turning point in history. I have already talked about the significance of the Paris Commune as a turning point in several articles[1], but in this paper, I would like to discuss its historical significance more comprehensively.

The age of bourgeois revolution and its end

First of all, the Paris Commune was the event that ended the era of bourgeois revolution and opened the era of permanent revolution in the world history of revolutions. Although the era of bourgeois revolution can be traced back to the Puritan Revolution in England, the two bourgeois revolutions that occurred at the end of the 18th century, namely the American Revolution and the French Revolution, opened the world historical era of bourgeois revolution. The French Revolution, which was the most radical bourgeois revolution, experienced various setbacks due to its radicalism, but during the historical upsurge of the bourgeoisie, even under the imperial regime, it had fierce struggles against the feudal and aristocratic old orders around the world. The Napoleonic Wars were bourgeois revolutionary wars on a European scale, clad in the mantle of imperialism. Napoleon tried to introduce the bourgeois order and elements of the modern state from above in every country and region he conquered.

However, when Napoleon suffered a fatal defeat in the war against Imperial Russia, the greatest and most powerful fortress of European reaction (600,000 soldiers and officers were sent to Russia, but only 20,000 returned alive), he failed spectacularly and the famous reactionary Vienna system was established in 1815. However, the seeds of the bourgeois democratic revolution that had been sown throughout Europe by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars persisted under the Vienna system and eventually sprouted and began to grow. The people of Europe could no longer withstand the rule of the Vienna system, and their complaints finally exploded in the form of a European-scale revolution in 1848, triggered by the economic crisis of 1847. This was the famous Revolution of 1848. The wave of revolutions that started in Italy in January triggered the February Revolution in Paris, France, overthrowing the July Monarchy, spreading to Germany and Austria the following month, and furthermore, the oppressed peoples rose up in various parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Once again, it was imperial Russia that halted this European-scale bourgeois revolution. That vast empire, spreading over the immense Slavic region, once again blocked the great wave of bourgeois democratic revolutions and crushed them.

But by the time of the 1848 revolution, the revolutionary subjects had already begun to decline politically. Unlike the Jacobins and Napoleon's army, which bravely fought against the aristocracy throughout Europe, the petty-bourgeois politicians who came to power in each country and region in the 1848 Revolution immediately began to compromise with the old ruling classes and, after wavering left and right, ended up grudgingly returning power to the old ruling classes.

The German bourgeoisie was particularly miserable. Marx and Engels had a good sense of the non-revolutionary nature and political cowardice of the German bourgeoisie even before the 1848 Revolution, but the 1848 Revolution raised it to a strategic certainty for them. In countries like Germany that entered capitalism late (latecomers), the bourgeoisie cannot be the subject of a bourgeois democratic revolution because of its political cowardice and because of its ties to the old ruling classes. But if the bourgeoisie and its political agents cannot carry out the bourgeois revolution, then who or what class will take its place? There can be two kinds of answers: revolutionary and conservative. The former, i.e., the revolutionary proletariat, leading to a permanent revolution, and the latter, i.e., the enlightened politicians of the old ruling classes, leading to a "revolution from above," or, as Gramsci later put it in his Prison Notebooks, a "passive revolution.”[2]

When the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry become the main bearers of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the less developed countries, a most thoroughgoing “revolution from below” happens, but because of the class character of its bearers and the counter-revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, it cannot remain in the bourgeois-democratic stage, but must follow the trajectory of a permanent revolution that merges with the first stage of the socialist revolution. This is exactly the conclusion that Marx and Engels came to when the revolutionary atmosphere was still strong in the years between 1849 and the first half of 1950.[3]

However, the proletariat in latecomer Germany was neither numerous enough to play such a titanic role, nor politically mature enough to carry it out. No permanent revolution took place, and it was the latter pattern that actually took place. In other words, the bourgeois revolution was carried out bureaucratically from above without the participation of the revolutionary people from below, by having some of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution carried out on behalf of the wise and far-sighted part of the old ruling classes. In Germany, which had been divided into dozens of states, the despotic Prussian government under the leadership of Bismarck united the neighboring states one after another, and finally established the German Empire through the victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Similarly, in Italy, a unified Italian state was gradually formed under the initiative of Camillo Cavour, Prime Minister of Sardinia. Thus, as Marx and Engels later noted, the forces that had crushed the revolution of 1848 became the executors of that revolution and realized some of the tasks of that revolution in a bureaucratic manner from above.

From Bonapartism to the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune occurred at a time when this "revolution from above" was coming to an end. As mentioned above, the Commune was established in the political vacuum that followed the collapse of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. In "Civil War in France," Marx describes the historical character of the Second Empire as follows.

In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation. It was acclaimed throughout the world as the saviour of society….

Imperialism is, at the same time, the most vile and ultimate form of the State power which nascent middle-class society had commenced to form as a means of its own emancipation from feudalism, and which full-grown bourgeois society had finally transformed into a means for the enslavement of labour by capital. [4]

Thus, Bonapartism has been given two somewhat different characterizations. On the one hand, it was a form of government at a special time when the bourgeoisie had already lost its ability to govern the people, but the working class was not yet in power. On the other hand, in a way that also encompasses the power of Napoleon I, Marx describes Bonapartism as a form of state power (“imperialism”) in which bourgeois society was formed in order to emancipate itself from feudal society and then turned into a means of enslavement of workers by capital when the society reached maturity. The former provision characterizes Bonapartism in the sense of the particular reign of Louis Bonaparte after 1851, while the latter characterizes Bonapartism in a broader sense that includes the reign of Napoleon I.

However, both characterizations were inaccurate because of Marx’s mistaken understanding that the proletarian revolution was at hand in Europe. The particular reign of Louis Bonaparte, or Bonapartism in the narrow sense, was not a form of government "possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation," but rather a form of government at a time after the bourgeoisie had temporarily lost its faculty to rule the nation and until the bourgeoisie eventually regained it. As for Bonapartism in a broader sense, there were two forms of Bonapartist government: that of Napoleon I, who had the world-historical mission of expanding the geography of the bourgeois revolution through wars of conquest, and that of Napoleon III, who had the modest domestic mission of creating a stable mechanism of capital accumulation in a country exhausted by the upheavals of the 1848 Revolution. It was impossible to use the term “imperialism” to sum up the regimes of Napoleon I and Napoleon III. What they had in common was that bourgeois society did not necessarily need a republic to accomplish its mission (be it a world mission or a domestic one), and that the bourgeoisie was always ready to throw off the republic when revolutionary upheavals exhausted or threatened the country.

The tragedy of the Paris Commune is understood as one proof of this rule, but also it has another dimension. The fact that the Paris workers, who tried to defend the republic even against the will of their own bourgeoisie, inevitably overstepped the limits of bourgeois democracy as soon as they came to power, suggested the passing from the “age of bourgeois revolution” to the “age of permanent revolution”. And in countries entering into the capitalist regime even later than Germany did, the main bearers of the bourgeois democratic revolution were no longer the bourgeoisie or the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie from the beginning, but the proletariat allied with the vast population of peasantry, and thus the era of permanent revolution began in earnest. The first historical significance of the Paris Commune was that it marked a turning point in world history from the “era of bourgeois revolution” to the “era of permanent revolution.”

Geographical shift of the center of gravity of revolution

The world-historical turn of the revolutionary period was accompanied by a shift in the world geographical center of gravity of the revolution. The age of bourgeois revolution, which began with the American Revolution of 1875 and the French Revolution of 1879, reached its intermediate peak with the Revolution of 1848 and the American Civil War in the early 1860s, and ended with the Paris Commune in 1871. It was an era of upheaval that lasted nearly 100 years. Apart from the United States, which is on a different continent, the age of the bourgeois revolution, its beginning, its intermediate peak, and its end, were all centered in France. France was the motherland of the bourgeois revolution, the object of admiration of all revolutionaries, liberals and progressives, and the heart of the revolution. Both Marx and Engels longed for France and its capital, Paris, as the motherland of the revolution. However, the defeat of the Paris Commune and the massacre of the leading revolutionaries resulted in the long-term exclusion of France from the status of revolutionary homeland. The center stage of the revolution shifted to another country and another region.

This geographical shift can be viewed from the perspective of both a shorter historical span (and thus a narrower world geography) and a longer historical span (and thus a wider world geography). From the perspective of the shorter span, and from the perspective of the narrower world geographic unit of Western Europe, the defeat of the Paris Commune was an event that shifted the center of the revolutionary movement in Europe from France to Germany. Although the actual revolution in Germany would have to wait until 1918, nevertheless, in the period leading up to it, the revolutionary movement in Europe had developed above all around the powerful Social Democratic Party in Germany, and French revolutionary forces had always been just a satellite around it. Engels, in his later years, confirmed this geographic shift in the global center of gravity of the revolution with somewhat a hint of nationalistic pride. And the German Social Democratic Party was above all a party of the working class, not of the bourgeoisie. In Germany, long before the bourgeois revolution was achieved, the revolutionary movement was carried out by the working class and its party, and this structural gap between the revolutionary task and its bearers was a clear indication that the period was no longer the era of the bourgeois revolution but the era of the permanent revolution.

Secondly, if we look at it from the perspective of a longer historical span, and therefore from the perspective of world geography far beyond the European continent, the center of gravity of the revolutionary movement has shifted significantly from the West, Europe, to the East, Russia and Asia. Needless to say, the decisive turning point was the first Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The October Revolution and the Bolshevik government, taking as a great example and lesson the tragedy of the Paris Commune, which drew the first modest trajectory of the permanent revolution but was crushed in just two months, survived by all means, including the use of the brutal repressive measures that the Paris Commune had hesitated to use, and carried the trajectory of the permanent revolution even further, and expanded the magnetic field of revolution throughout the world. In this way, the geographical center of gravity of the world revolution decisively shifted from the West to the East.

The ideological shift of revolutionary ideas

In parallel with both the turn of the historical period of the revolution and the shift of the geographical center of gravity of it, a shift in revolutionary ideology occurred. Many of the revolutionaries who became the leaders of the Paris Commune were Proudhonists and Blanquists. The defeat of the Paris Commune and the subsequent massacre of revolutionaries not only resulted in the physical destruction of these revolutionaries, but also decisively relegated these various doctrines which were based on old revolutionary theories, to the background.

In contrast, Marx's Civil War in France, which elucidated the experience of the Paris Commune with great analytical power and historical perspective, demonstrated to revolutionaries throughout Europe the decisive superiority of Marx's thought. While his Capital, which had already been published a few years earlier, was too difficult to be read and understood, Civil War in France had an immediate impact. Even though there were few Marx supporters among the participants of the Paris Commune, the European bourgeoisie and bourgeois politicians tried to sniff out the presence of the “red specter” Marx behind the bloody “conspiracy” of the Paris Commune. Stanley Moore, who wrote a short but excellent book on Marx's theory of revolution, said

The Civil War in France transformed him [Marx] from a relatively obscure theorist into the most famous representative of revolutionary socialism. During 1848 the bourgeoisie had attached the name of Blanqui to the spectre that was haunting Europe. After 1871 that spectre was rechristened with the name of Marx.[5]

Thus, the tragedy of the Paris Commune was the decisive catalyst for shifting the hegemony of revolutionary thought from French-born ideas such as Proudhonism and Blanquism to German-born ideas of Marx, Engels, and partly Lassalle. Of course, after that, Marxism had to fight against Bakuninism, which was strong in Russia and Spain, and also had to go through a long struggle against Lassalleism, which coexisted with Marxism in the German Social Democratic Party for a long time. In any case, after the Paris Commune, Marx's ideas or Marxism steadily rose to a hegemonic position in revolutionary thought in Europe, and after the Russian Revolution in 1917, Marxism became hegemonic in almost the whole world. The era of permanent revolution was also the era of the intellectual and ideological hegemony of Marxism (therefore, with the end of the era of permanent revolution, the intellectual hegemony of Marxism also declined).

From “crisis/revolution” thesis to “war/revolution” thesis

These three shifts brought about by the Paris Commune were historically the major transformation, but in addition, the Paris Commune also marked a turning point in terms of revolutionary forces and for Marxists at the strategic and tactical level of the revolution. It is well known that Marx and Engels drew the lesson from the historical experience of the Paris Commune that the working class cannot simply get hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes (from bureaucratic bourgeois state to commune type semi-state). Therefore, without repeating the point here, I would like to discuss two other points that are not often discussed.

First, previous revolutions have followed the pattern of “economic crisis or depression followed by revolution,” as was typical of the 1848 Revolution. It is well known that at the time of the 1848 revolution and for some time afterwards, Marx and Engels had the vision of economic crisis to revolution (“crisis/revolution” thesis). However, since no revolution took place during the next economic crisis, the Depression of 1857, they could no longer maintain the strategic vision of “crisis/revolution”. Instead, a new strategic vision of “war followed by revolution” emerged (“war/revolution” thesis). The Paris Commune was, above all, a revolution born out of the Franco-Prussian War, the germ of imperialist war[6]. The revolution and the Paris Commune emerged directly from the process to defend France, the homeland of republicanism and revolution, and especially Paris, the capital of the revolution, from the invasion by Prussia, a monarchist reactionary state.

This historical fact, on the one hand, was later capitalized on by social patriots during the First World War as one of the (wrong) grounds for the idea that the defense of their fatherland against reactionary monarchies, even in imperialist wars, would lead to revolution. But on the other hand, that fact showed that a large-scale war that shakes the bourgeois order of the nation to its foundations, endangers people's lives and livelihoods, mobilizes workers and peasants all over the country, and supplies ordinary workers with weapons in large quantities can easily turn into a revolution, depending on its outcome.

However, unlike crises, wars are not inevitable events that occur periodically, and their outcomes are too uncertain and too costly to be easily formulated as a strategic vision. Nevertheless, since then, especially since the late 1870s, Engels' articles and letters have repeatedly talked about the prospect of “falling into barbarism by war or progressing to revolution,”[7] and in World War I, as Lenin called for “turning the imperialist war to civil war,” it ended up becoming a virtually new strategic prospect for revolutionaries.

From war-of-maneuver to war-of-position

The second turn in the strategy and tactics of the revolutionaries was the shift from the revolutionary tactics of war-of-maneuver to that of war-of-position. The first French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the Revolution of 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871 all took the ruling classes by surprise, and were revolutions of war-of-maneuver type in the later Gramscian sense of the word. Marxism, however, was a revolutionary theory that relied on the industrial proletariat, which grew in number and unity with the development of capitalism, and it was based on the preconditions of organizing the revolutionary proletariat into an independent party and training it for a long time. Therefore, for Marxists, the strategy and tactics of the revolution are not basically improvised war-of-maneuver type but organized and systematic war-of-position type. It is due to this hegemony of Marxism among the revolutionary forces, as well as due to the development and complexity of civil society and the expansion of the state, that the main type of revolution has been transformed into a type of “war of position” since the end of the 19th century.

Therefore, the more the revolution has a short-term and war-of-maneuver character, the less the influence of Marxists will have over it, and the more the revolution has a long-term and war-of-position character, the more the influence of the Marxists, who from the beginning wanted to organize the vast working masses into a political party, will increase. The February Revolution of 1917 was a war-of-maneuver revolution, and therefore it was the remnants of the imperialist bourgeoisie, bureaucracy and aristocracy that took power in it. In the soviets formed at about the same time as the Provisional Government, the Mensheviks (and SR), an opportunist faction within Marxism, became the majority. The war of positions in the soviets, armies, factories, and workers' areas was then intensively developed, and the revolutionary Marxist, Bolsheviks and followers of Trotsky, gradually gained the upper hand. Unlike Gramsci's later characterization, the Russian October Revolution won not as the last war of maneuver, but as the first war of position.


As we have seen above, the Paris Commune was an event located at the historical, geographical, ideological, strategic and tactical turning point of the world revolution. The era of permanent revolution that developed mainly around Soviet Russia, and after World War II established the world system of workers' states through revolutions in China and Eastern Europe. Eventually, this revolutionary wave passed through Latin America and finally circled the world, returning to France, the former revolutionary homeland, as May 68 in Paris. This was about a hundred years after the defeat of the Paris Commune.

But when the revolution of 1968 ended in defeat everywhere, including in France, the end of the era of permanent revolution began, just as the revolution of 1848 meant the beginning of the end of the era of bourgeois revolution. As Trotsky had envisaged from 1905, the permanent revolution in the less developed countries was not a self-sufficient process but was to be supported and supplemented by the proletarian revolution in the developed countries. As the last possibility of that was cut off by the defeat of the revolution of 1968, the energy of the permanent revolution waned rapidly, and finally the era of permanent revolution would come to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. 


[1] For example, see Seiya Morita, "Marx's Capital and the Significance of the Russian Revolution," in Marx’s Capital and the Russian Revolution, Tsuge Shobo Shinsha, 2019 [in Japanese].

[2] For more details on this point, see Seiya Morita, "Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution and Gramsci's Theory of Passive Revolution," in Hegemony and Permanent Revolution: Trotsky, Gramsci, and Our time, Shakai Hyoron-sha, 2019 [in Japanese].

[3] For more details on this point, see Seiya Morita, "The Communist Manifesto and the Modern World," in From Communist Manifesto to Pandemic: The Dialectic of the End of History, Tsuge Shobo Shinsha, 2021 [in Japanese].

[4] Marx & Engels Collected Works, vol. 22, Lawrence & Wishart, p. 330.

[5] Stanley Moore, Three Tactics: The Background in Marx, Monthly Review Press, 1963, p. 51.

[6] Of course, this war itself was not yet an imperialist war; it was, as Marx and Engels believed, a war for Germany to achieve the unification of the nation-state. Nevertheless, Germany, as the victorious nation, expanded its territory (e.g., annexing Alsace-Lorraine), and the war had a partial imperialist character. Therefore, the Franco-Prussian War was the last non-imperialistic (but partially imperialistic) war between the great powers.

[7] See Seiya Morita, "The origins of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ and its contemporary significance: From the 'Communist Manifesto' to the present day", Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, July 21, 2020,.