The Paris Commune Taught the Bolsheviks How to Win a Revolution

Lenin was so enthused by the Paris Commune that he danced in the snow the day the Bolshevik government had lasted longer than its French forebear. Both the successes and ultimate defeat of the commune gave practical lessons to generations of Russian revolutionaries — most importantly, that working-class rule was possible.

Rioters in Paris, France during the last days of the Paris Commune of 1871. Illustration from the century edition of Cassell's History of England, (ca. 1900) (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Few historical events mattered as much to Lenin and the Bolsheviks as the Paris Commune of 1871. Shortly after coming to power, the Bolsheviks made March 18 — the date the Commune was founded — a Soviet public holiday. The Paris Commune was celebrated as the prototype of the new Soviet republic. Mass festivals and public reenactments took place in its honor in towns and cities across what was now the world’s first avowedly socialist state. It was not uncommon for Pravda and other leading press organs to refer to this new state as the “Russian” or “Soviet Commune.” The implication was that this, much like Paris in 1871, was a revolutionary bastion amid a sea of imperialist aggressors.

Back then, the radicals and discontents of Paris had rejected the authority of the French government, established their own elected municipal administration, and set about implementing a new social and political agenda. They held out for just seventy-two days before the French Army reentered Paris and cut through Commune forces in a series of bloody street battles.

The Commune and those that fell in its defense went on to inspire generations of revolutionaries. Come 1921, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Commune, posters adorning Soviet streets declared that “The Martyrs of the Paris Commune were Resurrected under the Red Flag of the Soviets!” To mark Lenin’s death, in 1924, a delegation of the French Communist Party even gifted an original flag from the Paris Commune to the “workers of Moscow.” Placed next to the Bolshevik leader’s mummified body in his Mausoleum on Red Square, Lenin was symbolically immortalized as a fellow Communard.

The Soviet celebration of the Paris Commune has sometimes been viewed as opportunist propaganda — a form of legitimacy for an illegitimate regime. That is, a Bolshevik invention designed to demonstrate heritage where it was lacking. Yet such readings have long ignored the Commune’s long-term practical and symbolic significance to revolutionary Russia. Russian radicals, at home and abroad, were captivated by the Paris Commune from the beginning, and its meaning and its legacy were the topic of intense and prolonged debate through to 1917.

The Commune in Tsarist Russia

News of the Paris Commune had first reached Russia in 1871 via the conservative press. Predictably hostile, the coverage was extensive, ongoing, and sensationalist. The Commune was portrayed as aberrant, unconscionable, and fundamentally un-Russian. It represented the very opposite of good autocratic values — if such reports were to be believed. From the first telling, then, the sanctioned press of tsarist Russia presented the Paris Commune as a dangerous political alternative to tsarist autocracy.

But this was an alternative that radical Russia readily embraced. The political symbol of the Commune was being martyred by conservative Russia even before the notorious events of “Bloody Week” (May 21 and 28, 1871) — when a vengeful French Army made actual martyrs of the Communards whom they brutally felled in the recapturing of Paris.

The first revolutionary voice brave — or foolish — enough to respond to the Paris events within Russia was academic-turned-avowed-communist Nicholas Goncharov. He published a series of leaflets during the lifetime of the Commune, each under the title The Gallows (Viselitsa). Produced at a hand-operated press, these leaflets proclaimed that the “world revolution [had] … begun,” and that a series of “new communes” would spread across all of Russia. His incendiary prose even called for the blood of reactionary journalists who denounced the example of the Commune.

Goncharov was not an astute or particularly successful revolutionary. He produced very few of his leaflets and, unpracticed in the ways of the revolutionary underground, he was soon arrested and indicted for sedition. Yet despite his glaring inadequacies, his case garnered a lot of attention through the summer of 1872. The antics of his lawyer — who, in arguing that his client was emotionally unstable, accused a leading journalist of having an affair with Gonarchov’s wife — only managed to add more drama to proceedings.

With conservative Russia still in a state of hysteria over the Paris Commune, Goncharov’s judges decided to make an example of him. He was ordered to serve penal servitude in Siberia — a harsh sentence for a first-time political offender. Later reduced to banishment from European Russia, the deed was done — and the headlines had been made. Appearing as intransigent and uncompromising as the Versailles government that suppressed the Commune, the Russian authorities only succeeded in confirming an existing sense of injustice among their critics. For these critics, this was another in a long line of injustices that defined their sense of “the right” and “the wrong side of history.” For many on the Left, Russia’s fate was now tied to that of Paris.

Internationalists

In the French capital, a number of influential Russian revolutionaries witnessed the forging of the Commune and even took part in the action. Among them was the notable revolutionary feminist Elizabeta Tomanovskaia (aka “Madame Dmitrieff”). Dmitrieff was a friend of Karl Marx. It was she who introduced him to key works of Russian revolutionary literature — inspiring Marx to learn Russian so he could read more.

A stylishly frail women, like many a revolutionary at the time, her appearance consciously reflected a will-to-martyrdom. On April 11, she founded the Union des Femmes and sought out working-class women to assist and serve at the Commune’s ambulance stations, canteens, and barricades. Dmitrieff and the union fought on to the bitter end, holding the barricades of the eleventh arrondissement, before fleeing at the last moment to the safe, familiar surroundings of Geneva.

Anna Korvin-Krukovskaia was, likewise, present and active along with her husband, the French revolutionary socialist, Victor Jaclard. She served in the Hospital and Ambulance Committee, worked with another women’s group —  the Comité des Femmes — to promote women’s education, and also found herself fighting on the barricades as the Commune collapsed.

She and Victor were both arrested, but somehow Anna escaped. It appears Anna’s family name — she was the daughter of a Russian major-general — ultimately saved Victor’s life, too. He was narrowly spared execution, and eventually reunited with Anna — via a series of back-channel negotiations — in October 1871.

The most prominent Russian revolutionary socialist in Paris that year, Petr Lavrov, played a less hands-on role. He later admitted to being envious of Dmitrieff’s more active participation. But this did not stop Lavrov from becoming Russia’s primary witness and chronicler of Commune activities. Lavrov wrote and published his first articles in support of the Commune as events were still unfolding.

In May, as the end drew near, he was still writing that the Commune was an example for all socialists. He called for the advance of a “federation of … communes” to spread international socialist revolution. And in its wake, writing for the Russian journal Vpered! (Forward!), he declared the Commune to have been the first proletarian revolution. He did more than anyone to establish the mythology of the Commune in Russia. Expanding his thoughts into a book, The Paris Commune (1880), Lavrov kick-started a broader debate among Russian revolutionary circles about the “lessons” of the Commune.

Lavrov praised the initiative of the Communards, but did not hold back from listing what he perceived as their failures: a lack of militancy, not seizing the Bank of France, and reticence over the use of violence. By framing his account in this way — as a balance-sheet of positive and negative lessons — Lavrov set a template that influenced the way the next generation of radicals, including Vladimir Lenin, engaged with the legacy of the Commune.

Lavrov’s account also chimed with the future Bolshevik leader, and many other budding Russian Marxists, because it echoed the views of Karl Marx, whose The Civil War in France (1871) noted that the “working existence” of the Commune set a series of practical examples for all who sought to advance the socialist struggle. Each account was well circulated among Russia’s revolutionary circles before 1917, and each was reprinted in multiple editions by the Soviets after the October Revolution.

The “lessons” of the Paris Commune gained an elevated status among Russian Marxists after the internal disputes of the 1890s. A new generation of radicals — an emerging young guard (molodye), including Julius Martov, Arkadii Kremer, and Vladimir Ulyanov (later known as Lenin) — called on their comrades to “agitate” workers and ferment political unrest among all exploited and alienated social groups. They rallied against the old guard (staryi) of Russian Marxism — Georgi Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, and Vera Zasulich — who argued that Russia was not ready for such agitation. The economic groundwork was not yet sufficient and the Russian working class not fully formed, they insisted.

The young guard desperately vied to position Russian Social Democracy at the forefront of a wider anti-tsarist struggle, while the old guard— labelled ekonomisty (economists) for their supposed overemphasis on economic theory — stuck to the notion that a bourgeois revolution was required in order to lay the foundations of the socialist struggle. As the ramifications of this divide rumbled on, the practical “lessons” of the Paris Commune, not least the heroic and decisive example of the Communards, lent credence to those eager to press for political agitation in the here and now of fin de siècle Russia.

Lessons From Paris

At the Second Congress of the still-fledgling Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) held in 1903, Russian Marxism splintered further, with the formation of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. Increasingly, a revolutionary’s opinions on the Commune became a means by which they defined and positioned themselves within Russian Social Democracy. As Jay Bergman has recently shown, in letter written to the Georgi Plekhanov, in 1901, Lenin criticized the so-called Father of Russian Marxism for having called the Commune “ancient history.” Lenin later went on to publicly castigate Plekhanov and others, often unfairly, claiming that they had suggested there was little to learn from 1871.

In his earliest public remarks on the Commune, in 1904, Lenin listed “its pluses”: the separation of church from state, free public education, making all officials elective and removable, and abolishing bureaucracy. He listed “its minuses”: “lack of organization,” “lack of class-consciousness,” and the failure to “take the bank and attack Versailles.” Between these early remarks and the momentous events of 1917, Lenin developed his language on the “lessons of Commune.”

During the 1905 uprisings in the Russian Empire, Lenin drew comparisons between these events and the initiative of the Communards in Paris. As war enveloped Russia after 1914, he cited the Commune as an example of revolutionary civil war growing out of imperialist aggression. At each stage, he developed the “lessons” framework, picking up on Lavrov, and seeking to apply the example of the Commune to preset-day Russian circumstances.

Lenin was not alone in seeking confirmation of a socialist future in the revolutionary past of Paris. Revolutionary Russia’s response to 1905, including the formation of the first soviets — literally “councils,” or elective revolutionary bodies — bore, as the historian Georges Haupt once put it, “more than a hint of mimicry” of the Parisian example. And as another historian, Casey Harison, has argued recently, the Russian revolutionaries of this period, Lenin chief among them, fundamentally shifted the way the Paris Commune was remembered.

French revolutionaries, notes Harison, had come to focus their memorial reflections on May and the horror of the Communard’s demise. Lenin, and many in Russia around this time, looked to March and the practical example of the Commune — from a predominately negative focus on the Commune’s failings and its infamous end, to a glorification of its “working example.” Where others commemorated the memory of the Commune’s defeat in May, the Bolsheviks celebrated the anniversary of its rising in March. They sought its lessons, its practical inspiration, and confirmation of their political approach.

A “Commune-Type State”

To quote Walter Benjamin, this was “a past charged with the time of the now.” By 1917, fearful that his fellow revolutionaries were missing a golden opportunity, Lenin used the example of the Paris Commune to urge the immediate seizure of power. He also started to refer to the direct, self-governing initiatives of the Commune as the practical basis for “a new type of state.” He presented the “Commune-type state” as a ready model for the Soviet state.

Famously, in State and Revolution, written during 1917, Lenin claimed that Commune policies such as wage equalization, housing expropriation, and the reconstituting of state and bureaucratic mechanisms could be immediately enacted upon achieving power. The lure of a ready-made “Commune-type state” distinguished Lenin and the Bolsheviks from those socialists that were willing to work with the liberal parliamentarism of the Provisional Government in 1917.

The debates, and references, as well as the various meanings attributed to the Paris Commune then unsurprisingly broke beyond 1917, providing the early Soviets with the symbols and language to define themselves and their place in history. This happened through official sources, with the party and state organs promoting the commemoration of the Commune. But it also resonated and developed more organically, especially among young activists and budding builders of socialism. Some of whom, for instance, were inspired to forge their own “communes,” in the form of experimental cohabitative  arrangements in newly requisitioned apartments or student dormitories, while also embracing the title “communard” as an indication of their commitment to socialism.

The symbol and language of the Commune went on to saturate the early Soviet state, with numerous institutions, from orphanages and schools to state farms and provincial administrations, acquiring the title “commune.” Streets were renamed in honor of the Paris Commune; it became part of the Soviet everyday.

The Soviet celebration of the Commune was more than improvised propaganda stratagem. Soviet celebrations were built on a deeper revolutionary heritage and on internationalist aspirations. It provided political confirmation and a sense of historical belonging. The red banner of the Commune provided the Soviet republic with a flag, it immortalized Lenin, and it provided the first generation of Soviets with a genuine sense of belonging within the international struggle for communism.

Given revolutionary Russia’s long obsession with the events of 1871, it would in fact have been extraordinary had the Bolsheviks and early Soviets not made reference to the Paris Commune when it came to defining who they were and where they had come from.

Ritual Use

Like many of the things that inspired the Soviet project, for some the memory of the Paris Commune went on to become another stale and ritualistic facet of life, while, for others, it could and did hold a lingering sense of meaning. Under Stalin revolutionary memory turned inward and the number of public holidays was reduced. March 18, Day of the Commune, was struck off the list.

But it was not struck off the Soviet calendar and continued to be marked every year in some form. And it would enjoy an elevated status once more. Under Leonid Brezhnev, March 18 began to feel like a festive occasion again. As Bergman has highlighted, with the rise of communist China, the Soviet Union was moved to position itself as the rightful leader of the international proletariat. The Commune moved up the political agenda.

In 1964, the Paris Commune and Soviet scientific prowess were celebrated together, as a fragment of the Commune banner was sent into orbit on the Voskhod spacecraft. And under Mikhail Gorbachev’s hopeful glasnost and perestroika, the Paris Commune was again being lauded as a revolutionary example — now representing a beacon of revolution untainted by Stalin and his now openly acknowledged crimes. The Commune once more offered “a past charged with the time of the now.”

End Mark

About the Author

Andy Willimott is senior lecturer (associate professor) in modern Russian history and fellow of the Institute for Humanities and Social Science at Queen Mary University of London. He is author of the award-winning book, Living the Revolution: Urban Communes & Soviet Socialism, 1917–1932 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and coeditor of Rethinking the Russian Revolution as Historical Divide (Routledge, 2018). His research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Leverhulme Trust, and British Academy.

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