We cannot let March pass away without a reference to an event of great significance in the history of the Working Class Movement. We refer to the Paris Commune of 1871.
Although nearly sixty years have passed away since the Commune, yet it still has a message for us, a message of hope and a message of warning. Then for the first time a section of the French working class, owing to a set of favourable circumstances, obtained control of supreme power and held it for a period of three months. Their defeat was due to many causes, chief of which were the unity of the International capitalists against them and the as yet unreadiness of the French working class for a social change in their interests.
The story of the Commune is told by Karl Marx in his little book, “The Civil War in France," and also by Lissagary (himself a fighter in the Commune) in his “Paris Commune of 1871.”
Of the objects of the Commune Marx speaks as follows:
"The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of Church and State.
All public servants (including magistrates and judges) were to be elective, responsible and revocable.
The Paris Commune was to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France.
The Rural Communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send delegations to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the formal instruction of his constituents. The few but important functions which still would remain for a Central Government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible, agents."
Engels in his introduction to the German edition of "The Civil War in France,” points out that the members of the Commune were divided into a majority of Blanquists, who had also predominated on the Central Committee of the National Guard, and a minority, which consisted for most part of members of the International Working Men’s Association, who were followers of Proudhon. He then shows that both the Blanquists and Proudhonists did the reverse of that which the doctrines of their Schools prescribed. Of the Blanquists he writes as follows :—
"The Blanquists fared no better. Brought up in the School of Conspiracy, held together by the rigid discipline essential to it, they started from the conception that a comparatively small number of resolute, welt-organised men would be able not only to grasp the helm of State at a favourable moment, but also, through the display of great energy and reckless daring, to hold it as long as required; that is, until they had succeeded in carrying the masses of the people into the revolutionary current, and ranging them around the small leading band. To accomplish this, what was necessary, above all else, was the most stringent dictatorial centralisation of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary Government. And what did the Commune do— which in the majority consisted of these very Blanquists? In all its proclamations to the French people in the Provinces, it called upon them for a free federation of all French communes with Paris, for a National Organisation, which for the first time was to be the real creation of the nation. The Army, the Political Police, the Bureaucracy, all those agencies of oppression in a centralised government, which Napoleon had created in 1798, and which since then every new government had gladly used and kept up as ready weapons against its enemies, were to be abolished everywhere as they had been abolished in Paris." (Page 16.)
Lissagary gives a picture of Paris during the reign of the Commune which is instructive and interesting;—
"Sunday the 26th was a day of joy and sunshine. Paris breathed again, happy, like one just escaped from death or great peril. At Versailles the streets looked gloomy, gendarmes occupied the station, brutally demanded passports, confiscated all the journals of Paris, and at the slightest expression of sympathy for the town arrested you. At Paris everybody could enter freely. The streets swarmed with people, the cafes were noisy; the same lad cried out the “Paris Journal” and the “Commune.” The attacks against the Hotel-de-Ville, the protestations of a few malcontents, were posted on the walls by the side of the placards of the Central Committee. The people were without anger because without fear. The voting paper had replaced the Chassepot.” (Page 127.)
In the course of the Commune, working men demonstrated their capacity to organise. The departments of the Mint, Finances, Education, Labour and Post Office were in charge of working men, and the results accomplished in the short space of time at their disposal was remarkable and many were continued after the suppression of the Commune.
But the people were not ready for such a fundamental change, and the forces without were too strong. The French Capitalists had made an arrangement with Bismarck under which one of the first stipulations was the pacification of Paris, and accordingly Bismarck released the captured French troops, who were let loose upon Paris by the Versailles government. The Communards contested with unsurpassed bravery and devotion every foot of ground and resisted for several days after the gates of Paris had been opened by treachery, and bitter was the toll they paid for the rising. The savagery of the government troops, as illustrated by Lissagary are almost unbelievable and even called forth comment from such a conservative paper as the English Times.
Lissagary records that about 20,000 were killed, while the number of the wounded will never be known. More than 40,000 prisoners were taken and trials followed lasting several years. 13,221 men, 157 women and 62 children were condemned. 270 were condemned to death and 7,500 to transportation.
Such was the vengeance wreaked by the French ruling class for an insurrection that failed. It will be well for the working class to remember the Commune and profit by its lessons.