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Workers’ Government

Susan Green

Third in a Series of Articles: What Is a Workers’ Government?

Out of the Pages of History – an Example
of a Workers’ Government

(15 March 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 11, 15 March 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This month marks the seventy-second anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871. What was the Commune that it is such an important landmark for the working class of the world?

It was the first attempt – in all history – of working people themselves to form a government EXCLUDING the landlords, capitalist bosses, bankers, politicians and miscellaneous hangers-on – and AGAINST these exploiters.

A short account of the events leading up to its establishment will give a fuller picture of the Commune itself.

Set Up First Workers’ Government in History

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 the Paris population capable of bearings arms had been armed and enlisted in the National Guard, which thus consisted mostly of armed workers. The French government, under Thiers, was more afraid of the workers in arms than of the Prussian army. Thiers felt that as long as the Parisian workers had arms and artillery, the rule of the propertied classes was not too safe.

Thiers had bravely run out of Paris at the approach of the Prussian troops, setting up his government in Versailles and leaving the Parisian people to fend tor themselves. The workers had to have their arms because – with the government in Versailles – they alone were keeping the Prussian troops – which had occupied the forts and lines of fortification – from invading all Paris. However, on March 18, 1871, Thiers sent troops to Paris – not against the Prussian invaders – but with orders to steal the artillery actually belonging to the people of Paris, having been manufactured and paid for by them.

This was the last straw. Throughout this period in French history – marked by wars for territory and by political machinations of the ruling classes – the working people were, as always, the victims, suffered greatly and were in revolutionary ferment as a result. Thiers’ plan to disarm them made it clear that the French ruling class regarded French workers as more dangerous to their interests than the Prussian Junkers. The Parisian workers broke with their treacherous government.


Isolated by the siege of Paris from the working people of the rest of France and without the workers of other countries taking similar revolutionary action to support the Paris workers, the Commune could stand its ground for only about two months – against overwhelming odds.

With the bravery that only men and women defending their own can show, the Communards fought both against the besieging Prussian troops and the onslaught of Thiers’ forces. They lost, and the merciless massacre let loose by Thiers against the vanquished workers is something that only ruling classes frenzied by fear for their stolen wealth are capable of.

Yet this first workers’ government, which died almost at its inception, taught the workers of the world two invaluable lessons: (1) What a workers’ government looks like – what form it can take; and (2) What workers can do for themselves when they are in control of a government which excludes their exploiters.

The Council of the Commune consisted of working men or bona fide representatives of the working class. The people of Paris formed themselves into districts and by universal suffrage elected fellow workers to represent them on the Council of the Commune – a brand new governmental structure.

How were these representatives controlled by the workers? How did the workers make sure that their representatives would represent them? Very simply. All representatives were subject to recall at any time. Yes, at any time, the people of a given district – without fuss or political fanfare – could call a meeting to replace a representative who was not up to crack with them. In the second place, every single person serving in the Commune – from the members of the Council itself down to the humblest worker – was paid wages at the same rates as ordinary workers in the factories. All special privileges and favors for officials were ended.

Careerists could find no fruitful orchard in the Commune. This limitation of pay insured that the Commune would be in the hands of the sincerest workers, close to their class and willing to advance only as fast as the wages and well-being of the workers as a whole advanced.

The Commune, of course, abolished [line of text missing] The armed force of the Commune was the armed people, organized in the National Guard. The police that had served the master class to suppress every spontaneous act of the workers of Paris, was disbanded. Simple police functions necessary to the community were undertaken by the Commune itself.


This workers’ government was no talk shop for parliamentarians and cheap politicians. It was a working organization – and its work was to run the community in the interest of its people.

Undertook Solution of People’s Problems

In spite of the colossal military task of fighting, its two-headed enemy, the French rulers and the Prussian Junkers, the Council of the Commune proceeded in its civilian tasks of alleviating the misery of the people impoverished by years of exploitation and war. For instance, rents for dwellings from October 1870 to April 1871 were cancelled to help the poor; rents already paid were deductible from future payments. Pawnshops were stopped from selling the tools and other things pledged by the poor workers for the little money they had been obliged to borrow to live on. Later, pawnshops were entirely abolished as being incompatible with the right of workmen to their tools and TO CREDIT as workmen. Abusive night work was ended. Employment offices that had been flesh-pots for political scoundrels were closed.

The Commune furthermore undertook the real solution of the unemployment problem. On April 16 it issued an order for a statistical record of all factories and workshops which had been closed by the bosses and proceeded with plans for reopening the factories under the management of the workers who had previously been working in them. For the purpose of running the factories the workers were to be organized into cooperative societies.

In all this it is apparent that the Commune undertook the solution of the living problems of living people – without regard to capitalist property rights and without regard to private profit. This the Commune could do because it was a workers’ government. Short-lived as it was, it flashed upon the screen of history a brilliant example of what workers – freed from their exploiters – can do for themselves.


The very interesting and inspiring workers’ government under Lenin and Trotsky – the Soviets of 1917 – will be discussed next week, after which the lessons of these two workers’ governments of the past will be tied up with the problems of this year 1943. A later article will contrast the Stalinist government of today with a workers’ government.

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Last updated: 21 March 2015