by Danny Bird
One morning in July 1920, representatives of the world’s Communist and revolutionary socialist parties gathered alongside an audience of 45,000 outside Petrograd’s Stock Exchange building. For three hours, an epic historical production titled ‘Toward the Worldwide Commune’ gripped their imagination. In one memorable scene, the red flag of the Paris Commune of 1871 was spirited away for future generations as counterrevolutionaries slaughtered its defenders.
A re-enactment of the October Revolution and the birth of the Comintern brought the performance to a close. As the audience rose to sing The Internationale, the socialist anthem, written by Communard, Eugène Pottier, the message of the whole spectacle was palpable. There was no doubting that the nascent Soviet regime was the Commune’s heir.
The Commune’s bloody defeat had bequeathed vital lessons to revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in autumn 1917, the party’s leaders obsessively measured their achievements against the Commune’s record. In January 1918, Lenin noted that the Soviet regime had outlived its predecessor by five days. Yet these small victories always begged the question of how long it could all last.
Indeed, just as a hostile adversary had besieged the Commune, so too Bolshevik Russia found itself confronting the same foe following October 1917. Though Lenin believed the Commune had been premature and ‘not understood by those who created it’, their sacrifice offered a paradigm of what had to be done in order to avoid a similar fate: namely, the violent destruction of the proletariat’s class enemy, the bourgeoisie.
The Commune served as the archetypal proletarian state throughout Lenin’s writings. No doubt, Friedrich Engels’s assessment of it as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ championed by Karl Marx and himself, piqued Lenin’s interest. Disagreement over its legacy had contributed to the First International’s demise and would ultimately rupture the Second in turn. But for adherents to the Third, or ‘Communist’, International (Comintern), the Commune’s significance was indisputable.
Upon returning to Russia in spring 1917, Lenin had published his April Theses, in which he denounced the emergence of a parliamentary ‘bourgeois’ republic. Instead, he called for the creation of ‘a state of the Paris Commune type’. Inspired by Marx’s epitaph to the events of 1871, The Civil War in France, and the role of class conflict within history, Lenin argued that the key to ending the First World War lay in each combatant nation imploding into civil war. This, he deduced, would eradicate imperialism, topple the bourgeoisie and lead to the eventual confluence of socialist regimes into a worldwide commune.
Lenin later elaborated on this in his pamphlet: Will the Bolsheviks retain State Power? Describing the state as the apparatus by which one social class oppresses another, he asserted that the socialist state’s principal duty was to obliterate the bourgeoisie, thus paving the way for a classless society. The Commune had been the untimely pioneer, whereas the Soviet regime was better prepared to enact this historical imperative.
Moreover, according to Leninist wisdom, the Communards failed because they had lacked the discipline and foresight of a resolute vanguard party. For Leninists, this was the greatest lesson of 1871. A ‘professional’ revolutionary elite would devise the strategy needed to crush the proletariat’s enemy. As Russia descended into civil war following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks relished the prospect.
Against this backdrop, the party launched the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage: better known as ‘the Cheka’. Headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, it devoted itself to eviscerating the bourgeoisie. Lenin hailed its savage task as ‘directly exercising the dictatorship of the proletariat’. The harsh reality of ‘class struggle’, both on the battlefields of the Russian Civil War and on the home front, proved to the Bolsheviks that they were constructing a proletarian state in accordance with their ideology.
In March 1918, they rebranded themselves as the ‘Communist Party’. The resolution that
authorised this also declared Soviet Russia to be: ‘a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat [and] … a continuation of those achievements of the world working-class revolution which the Paris Commune began’. Moreover, the lyrics of The Internationale were modified from the future to the present tense to reflect the advent of worldwide revolution.
The outbreak of the Red Terror in September 1918 further testified to the regime’s confidence barely a year after coming to power. Following an assassination attempt on Lenin, a catharsis of violence erupted across Soviet Russia. Dzerzhinsky ordered the execution of key tsarist dignitaries, as well as the incarceration of numerous bourgeois citizens.
For Trotsky, the distance between 1871 and the late 1910s appeared immaterial as he rationalised the bloodshed: ‘The Commune was weak. To complete its work we have become strong … We are inflicting blow after blow upon the executioners of the Commune. We are taking vengeance for the Commune, and we shall avenge it’.
In a still largely illiterate country, the Bolsheviks used agitprop to galvanise the masses and convey the ‘utility’ of violence in history. Statues dedicated to historic regicides helped trivialise the murder of the Romanovs, presenting it as part of a revolutionary tradition. Additionally, the demolition of tsarist monuments echoed the Communards’ most famous act of iconoclasm: the razing of the Vendôme Column.
Nevertheless, the Commune’s incorporation of multiple left-wing and radical groups appalled Lenin. Only a single, regimented party acting as the vanguard of the proletariat’s interests could ensure that workers transcended ‘trade union consciousness’. This principle underlay the expulsion of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries from the Soviet government in summer 1918. At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, Lenin imposed a ban on internal party factions. His approach became orthodoxy.
While this was happening, a mutiny on the Kronstadt naval base was being ruthlessly suppressed by Bolshevik troops. Kronstadt’s sailors had played a major role during the October Revolution, but grew disenchanted with the Communist regime’s brutality in the years after 1917.
Their rebellion threatened to undermine the Leninist state’s revolutionary probity. By chance, the mutiny’s defeat coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune’s inception. In a definitive act of expiation, the triumphant Soviet regime rechristened one of the rebel ships, Sevastopol, as the Parizhskaya Kommuna.
The Leninist state was forged by an ideological campaign of class conflict. Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders considered their revolution to be a continuation of the Paris Commune. The Communards failed to secure a proletarian state because, according to Leninist theory, they had hesitated to wage war against the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the October Revolution was not conceived as a trailblazer, nor peculiarly ‘Russian’, but rather as the inheritor of a long revolutionary tradition, predicated on fulfilling the Commune’s aspirations.
Danny Bird is a History MA graduate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, for which he completed a dissertation on the topic of this blog. He also previously studied History at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 2009. His work has been published in History Today and TIME magazine. Twitter: @dannymbird