The Paris Commune
The Socialist attaches no mystical importance to dates. Hence he is not given overmuch to the celebration of anniversaries. There is one event, however, in the annals of the class-struggle which needs to be kept in mind for the lessons to be learnt therefrom..
In March, 1871, after enduring the vile horrors of a prolonged siege, the working class of Paris rose against their oppressors and proceeded to administer the affairs of the city. Their victory was short-lived. Before the end of May the Government troops, assisted by their late “enemies” the Germans, overthrew the Commune and carried on for several days the wholesale massacre of its supporters.
Space does not permit here a detailed account of this historic episode, but one or two salient features may usefully be dwelt upon. The curious reader may consult Lissagaray’s “History of the Commune,” and Marx’s “Civil War in France” for fuller light.
During the siege the ruling class of France had been compelled to protect their property by permitting the workers of the city to arm. As usual, they exploited the patriotic illusions and economic ignorance of their slaves. The workers paid for their arms themselves.
After the armistice the authorities, naturally apprehensive as to what an armed and discontented working class might attempt, endeavoured to disarm them. The workers resisted, for the time being successfully, and the Government fled in panic to Versailles.
Left in charge of the city, the workers administered affairs with remarkable success considering all the circumstances. They established universal suffrage and rid the city pro tem of the incubus of the bureaucracy. The Commune was itself an administrative body and not a mere talking-shop. The practical results of its administration, such as the abolition of night work for bakers, were not, indeed, revolutionary, but so far as they went, were in the interests of the working class.. The outlook of the Commune was towards the limitation of exploitation, rather than its abolition.
Improvised in an emergency, the Commune reflected both the political immaturity of its supporters and the incomplete economic development of France as a whole. On questions of major importance such as the property question and its own relationship to the Versailles Government, confusion reigned in the Commune, and vacillation, as a consequence, paralysed its hands. It left in the hands of its enemies the principal financial weapon, the Bank of France, and allowed these same enemies time to prepare their ruthless counter-stroke, while ostensibly negotiating “peace.”
Behind much of the apparent weakness of the Commune, however, lay the isolation of Paris, the lack of working class organisation throughout the country. The peasantry and the petit bourgeoisie in general proved broken reeds on which to lean for support. Hence it was only a matter of time before the Commune fell, betrayed from within and overwhelmed from without. Neither the conditions of its existence nor its own mentality made it ripe for success.
For all that it failed, the Commune, nevertheless, constitutes an encouraging example of the ability of the workers to help themselves. It had all the faults of a purely spontaneous and instinctive upheaval, but it proved the existence of the capacity for self-assertion which is indispensable to a revolutionary class. When the cynical bourgeois, secure behind the guns, or the spineless slave ignorant of how to capture them, tell us that the workers will never rise, we can point to the Commune and conclude that a class capable of such an effort will rise again. The rising we have in mind, however, is a determined, intelligently organised capture of political power by a working-class which has at last realised the underlying causes of its own movement and which will therefore know how to act when it has the power.
Hence we of the Socialist Party do not rest content with merely sentimentalising over the martyred dead, by the wall of Pere La Chaise. We incessantly insist on the necessity for our policy of no compromise with capitalism and the parties which uphold it. Class sentiment is a necessary element of class consciousness, but it is not sufficient in itself. . Knowledge of the system we desire to overthrow and of the manner in which it is upheld are equally necessary. “Solidarity”! Yes! but the condition which necessitates solidarity on the part of the working class is the class war!
The utter ruthlessness of the revenge of the French bourgeoisie upon the Communards forms a never-to-be-forgotten warning of the criminal folly of parleying with the enemy. There can be no peace between exploiters and exploited save at the expense of the latter. When the workers realise this they will also realise the futility and danger, from their point of view, of Liberal “Labour” Parties and caricature “Communists” who rally to their support at the polls. They will realise, in fact, the necessity for the Socialist Party.