Lessons of the Commune

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2005 - 12:04

In 1884 Ernest Belfort Bax, one of the pioneer British Marxists, wrote a long series of articles on the Commune in Justice, the paper of the first British Marxist group, the Social Democratic Federation. In the last two issues of Solidarity we have published an abridged and adapted version of Bax’s narrative and also incorporated a few pages from a mid-1880s Socialist League pamphlet, written by Bax and William Morris. This is the final instalment.

We have seen that the Commune had one special fault, that of a fatuous moderation in all its doings. We have seen that probably never since history began have any body of men allowed themselves and theirs to be treated as lambs in the slaughterhouse with more lamblike forbearance and absence of retaliation than the Commune and its adherents. We have seen this illustrated by the incredible fact that up to the last, amid all the slaughterings of Communists, the vast majority of the hostages and prisoners in its hands remained unscathed.

The Versaillese, under Thiers, organising with a cold-blooded deliberation and ferocity an orgy of blood for weeks in advance, keeping their hands in the while by isolated murders of prisoners of daily occurrence. Having seen this, it remains to consider, in view of the facts, the attitude of the “civilised world” as expressed in its accredited organs, in other words the public opinion of bourgeois society.

Not only was there no remonstrance, but as if by a concerted action, “society” and its press began, not in France alone, but equally throughout the “civilised world,” to pour forth abuse, not on the murdering Versaillese, but on the murdered Communards.

The orgy of carnage penetrated by the Versailles troops was everywhere hailed as a glorious victory of “order.” The “Commune” was at once stamped as a byword of unutterable horror. The execution by the Commune of six hostages — including Archbishop Darboy, a judge, a curé and three Jesuits — out of some hundreds, the single act of retributive justice, was a godsend to the bourgeois classes, as they wanted something to hang their vituperation upon. An archbishop was slain! Not merely a man, or a priest, or even a bishop, but actually an archbishop!

That there was never, throughout all history, an execution more completely justified than that of the hostages by the despairing adherents of the Commune must be apparent to every unbiassed mind.

This the purveyors of public sentiment cooked-up at the cheapest rate knew perfectly well, but their master, bourgeois class-interest demanded that they and all true bourgeois should pretend to regard this simple and, judged by their own standard, even grossly inadequate, act of judicial retribution as an unspeakable atrocity.

The hostages in their personal capacity were technically innocent?

The bourgeois should have bethought himself of this when the practice of seizing hostages for the good behaviour of the enemy was revived by the German military authorities during the Franco-Prussian war.

The idea of innocent French citizens being killed for the misdeeds of those who wore the national uniform, never evoked any special protest, that I am aware of, from the sensitive middle-class conscience or from that of its press.

Most of the hostages were fair “representatives” of the “enemy,” of church, state, police and capitalism in their most aggressive forms.
Thiers deliberately rejected an offer to exchange five of the hostages, including the sainted archbishop, for the single person of Auguste Blanqui!

The vengeance of the bourgeoisie lasted, uninterruptedly, till the end of the year. Ferré, abused, bespattered, and calumniated by the press-lackeys of capitalism, died on 28 November like a Communist, an atheist, and a hero.

But though the constant stream of judicial murders slacked off at the end of 1871, it must not be supposed that they ceased. The last three persons shot for participation in the Commune met their deaths so late as 22 January 1873.

A board of assassins was established composed of the greatest reactionists in the Chamber called the “Commission of Pardons” whose function it was to confirm the sentences of the courts-martial. These murders, be it remembered, were not done in the heat of combat or even immediately after the victory, but were carried on continuously for more than six months, and sporadically for a year longer.

Besides the idea of the Federation of Communes, which was the special politics of the Commune, lay the people, and it was soon shown that the Commune of Paris must obey the great impulse towards the real Revolution: the freedom of labour from the trammels of wage-slavery.

The declared socialists on the Council of the Commune were in the minority, but nevertheless all its acts were aimed at the extinction of class slavery; and if the revolution could have lived through the fiery furnace of war, it cannot be doubted that it would have developed largely in this direction.

Its enemies saw this image of social revolution rise up clearly enough; and well would it have been for our cause if its own children had been as clear-sighted!

If they had proclaimed in plain terms the social revolution, which was indeed their only aim, if they had all known it as some did, they would have rallied to them the whole living moving spirit of the times; would have multiplied every chance of success, and minimised every cause of failure.

This uncertainty of aim was felt through all their counsels, and was the cause of the shortcomings that hampered the heroism of the people of Paris.

If the Commune found its helpers bad policemen, as indeed they were, letting all sorts of plotters and reactionist agents slip through their fingers, at least they did not need police against their own

The great general lesson taught us by the failure of the Commune of 1871 is the supreme necessity of an organisation comprising a solid body of class-conscious proletarians and other socialists well acquainted with each other, whose views are clearly defined, who know what they want, and who have, at all events, some notion of the course to pursue on an emergency.

Had there been such a body of men in Paris in February and March, 1871, the subsequent course of events might have been very different.

The Commune wished the war to be carried out on decently humane principles. This was excellent in intention, but would not work without the bargain being endorsed by both belligerents. It was a criminal weakness on the part of the Commune not to shape its conduct by the fact that the Versaillese were determined to conduct the war upon wild-beast principles.

The best hostage of all, for the Commune, was the Bank of France. The bank, the civil register, the domains, and the suitors’ fund, were the tender points on which to hold the bourgeoisie. The very heart of the enemy was in their grasp, as the giant’s heart of the old fable, and they refused to clench their hand. But the vast financial resources at the disposal of the Commune remained virtually untouched.

Instead of seizing the bank, they borrowed a small sum of money from the stored up plunder of the people, instead of taking the people’s own and using it for the freeing of the people.

No one among those engaged in the revolution seemed to appreciate the French maxim a la guerre, comme a la guerre (in war, as in war). The Commune leaders should have remembered that they were not the administrators of a regenerated society, but rather the leaders in an implacable war waged for that regeneration.

No one seemed even to appreciate adequately the ethics of insurrection — that an insurrectionary administration which has succeeded in establishing itself, becomes by that very fact (from the point of view of the insurrection) the sole rightful repository of power for the time being, and that the Government, against which the insurrection has directed, becomes in its turn the rebel power, to be crushed in the most expeditious manner possible.

The Assembly and the Ministers were rebels not to be parleyed with but suppressed. The Committee, instead of negotiating, should have at once thrown the whole force of the National Guard upon Versailles, then weak in resources, and dispersed the Assembly.

This was the only reasonable tactics after having made the initial blunder of letting the Ministers escape, followed by the elements of an army. Instead, they allowed a whole fortnight to be frittered away in abortive attempts at negotiations which the Versaillese gladly protracted till they had organised their military forces, and made their arrangements with the German authorities for the rapid delivery of the prisoners of war.

One of the most unfortunate characteristics of the leaders of the Commune was their sensitiveness to bourgeois public opinion. The first thing for the leader of a revolutionary movement to learn is a healthy contempt for the official public opinion of the “civilised world.” He must learn to smile at all the names it will liberally shower upon him and his cause.

To aid in breaking the force of the representatives of the established order it is necessary to have a vigorous party press which will place matters in their true light. The deliberate perversion of facts and the distorted judgments of the bourgeois journals on the Commune were too impudently flagrant to have passed muster as they did, had there been a socialist press to expose them.

But the dominant classes, though they may succeed, by aid of their wealth and power, in perverting the truth for the time, can do no more. The proletariat once conscious of its class-interests, and knowing what these interests imply, will not forget the pioneers in the struggle for liberty.

The Parisians who chose to bury themselves in the smoking ruins of Paris rather than to allow socialism and the revolution to be befouled and degraded are as great as the greatest heroes of history.
The intensest passion used for the furtherance of the loftiest and purest ideal – there is nothing higher than this under the sun!

The only gratitude which it is possible to show towards those who suffered and died for us is our own resolution to carry forward the work which they left unfinished.

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