The Commune In Paris


[Specially reported THE SOCIALIST STANDARD]

    The thirty-fourth anniversary of the establishment of the Paris Commune was celebrated by a well attended meeting at Sydney Hall on Sunday, 19th March. The meeting was organised by the Battersea Branch of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, and was creditable alike to the occasion which it commemorated and to the members of the Branch responsible for its organisation.

Comrade Crump presided, and after a short opening address called upon H. Neumann to deliver the first speech.

Neumann said that in honouring the memory of the men and women who participated in the struggle in ’71, they were honouring some of the bravest pioneers of the movement of the working-class. The event known to history as the Commune of Paris was one of the most glorious, if saddest, in the annals of the proletariat. It showed the heroism of which the working-class was capable, while at the same time it demonstrated the fiendish brutality, the incredible cowardice and the all pervading treachery of the dominant class. Thirty or forty years ago, of course, the workers of France were in a different position to that which obtains to-day. Then Socialism was understood but by a few, but dim as was their perception of the nature of the class-struggle, confused as were their notions as to the economic reconstruction of society, the workers who in Paris in ’71 raised the red flag over the Hotel de Ville and proclaimed the rights of labour, gave unmistakable evidence of the powers that were latent in the proletariat. When, through the incompetence and treachery of the French bourgeoisie, Paris had been occupied by the Prussians, the discontent of the metropolitan populace was great, but that discontent, though great, was ill-defined. Nobody, or at any rate no considerable section of the people, knew precisely what ought to be done, but when the corrupt Thiers government sought treacherously to disarm the National Guard, that is to say the working-class of Paris, some of the doubts were solved, and the workers, in successfully baffling the attempt to steal their cannon, were first thrown on the defensive and afterwards brought to a position when they had no alternative but, on the flight of the cowardly Theirs and his minions to Versailles, to set up the Commune and assert their rights such as they understood them to be. The working-class government of Paris under the Commune lasted only a few months. It was easy enough to see now that the Commune was doomed from the outset; but though the Commune failed and was deluged in a sea of blood, the lessons to be derived from the struggle were of first importance. They had heard a lot of talk nowadays, even from some professed Socialists, about the necessity of proceeding to revolution via reform, but let them learn a lesson from the Commune. How often had the Commune sent representatives to the capitalist government at Versailles for the purpose of establishing truces or entering into negotiations for the adjustment of their differences? Did not the working-class of Paris ask brother Capital at Versailles to arbitrate ? And what was brother Capital’s reply? Thiers said there was to be no negotiation: he wanted the unconditional surrender of Paris. Surely if there was any truth in the contention that reforms were to be got from the capitalist class, here was an occasion on which a great opportunity was afforded to that class of granting “palliative” measures, and avoiding bloodshed; but what occurred? The material interests of the masters were threatened by an armed section of the working-class, the class-feeling and class-hatred of the bourgeois for the proletaire were aroused, and instead of granting reforms the capitalists waded ankle deep in the blood of the Parisian workers. Let the workers prepare themselves in the school of revolution to deal with the impending collapse of capitalist society.

F. C. Watts spoke next. It was a good thing to hold these Commune meetings. To many, even. the word “Commune,” meant upheaval, anarchy and bloodshed; but to Socialists the Commune signified the fight between the working-class and the capitalist-class. They acted wisely and well. Schemes were set afoot for opening the disused factories, by handing them over to be worked co-operatively by the workers, and schemes for forming communes in other parts of France were promoted, but owing to the superior force of circumstances these and other proposals did not fructify. The Commune, however, was a great example of the international solidarity of the working-class. One of the, soldiers of the Commune, while at his post on a barricade, was asked what he was dying for. “Human solidarity” was the answer. That brave worker, dying for the brotherhood of man, was an example of what the Commune stood for. The Commune showed more clearly than any other movement that when the working-class really stand for their own, when they Commune, far from implying crime, denoted the absence of crime, for while the Commune held sway, a man or woman was safer in Paris with the Communards than in Versailles with the French Government, with its forgers, swindlers, and nondescript hangers on. Crime there was, but not on the part of the workers. The charge of incendiarism had been made, but when the working-class, driven to desperation, burned the public buildings, they did so because the Versailles Government cared more for the public buildings than for the lives of the people. The difficulties the Commune had to face were hardly appreciated. They were fighting their own countrymen outside the walls, with spies and traitors within, but notwithstanding these difficulties the Paris Commune, in many respects, really menace the interests of the capitalist-class, that class will use every means to crush the working-class movement. The capitalists resolved that they would crush the canaille and wipe out the whole breed. But though they succeeded in crushing the Commune, they failed in wiping out the working-class movement, which was immeasurably stronger to-day than it was then. The working-class movement, though it vigorously asserted itself in ’71, did not, of course, begin at that time, for in ’48, while not near so ripe as that movement was in ’71, they became troublesome to their masters, and instituted the Social Republic. A quarter of a century produced changes, for in ’71 the working-class to a certain extent realised that not alone must the political machinery be controlled but that industry likewise must be controlled. They realised, moreover, not fully perhaps, but anyhow more fully than before, that the master-class and not the foreigner was the enemy. As Karl Marx had said, there must fee no truce between the working-class and the master-class of France and of every country, and as heralding that great coming struggle of classes the memory of the Commune would always be cherished by the working-class.

A. Anderson, who followed, said that viewed from the standpoint of the working-class there was no revolution in ’48, nor could it be said that there was a revolution ‘in,’71. The upheavals of these periods were certainly not working-class revolutions, for despite the fact that the workers took part in these movements, their objective was not the advancement of the material interest of the working-class, and the Social Revolution would be a failure unless the Socialists saw to it that they had behind them the well organised support of the working-class. To get an example of what a revolution really meant that movement which culminated in France in 1789 would have to be studied. Then the whole of society was stirred to its roots by social development acted upon by the litterateurs and champions of the rising middle-class. Prior to ’89 the bourgeoisie had diffused that knowledge which was necessary to dispel the old ideas of property, and by an educational propaganda the peasants through their material interests were enlisted on the side of the new order. The peasants burned the castles and the leases of the feudal aristocracy, whose reign was speedily brought to an end. The Voltaires and the Rousseaus of the middle-class had well prepared the ground and the bourgeois revolution triumphed. With regard to the working-class, they were not a political force at all before ’71, and the Commune marked the baptism of fire of the working-class in the political field. The events associated with the Commune showed clearly that the capitalist-class is the most cowardly class that ever figured in the world’s history,. They fled from Paris to save their skins, while the working-class were compelled to rise and take hold of the reins of government. A great deal had been said about the shooting of hostages—it had been said there was a bloody week, a bloody month. But it took longer than a week or a month to satisfy the ferocity of the capitalist-class, for between January ’71 and January ’72 the number of insurgents arrested by the Thiers government was 38,578: of these 10,131 were sentenced to imprisonment, and 23,121 were shot. Let the revolutionists of to-day teach the-workers that while for their own ends the Liberal and Tory sections of the capitalist-class were playing with them, to deceive and decoy them into supporting capitalism by promises of reform here and promises of reform there, when the workers determined to fight for their own cause they would be shot down just as mercilessly as were the men and women of the Paris Commune. The Commune failed because the moment had not struck for the Social Revolution, and before that could be brought about a large amount of educational work must be done. The working-class must realise that it is not by putting men into power over their heads and imagining that in that way a revolution would be brought about from the top, that their emancipation would be accomplished. The working-class revolution must commence with the working-class itself, intelligently organised and well-disciplined. Then and now the heart of the people was sound, but revolutions were not questions of the heart, a revolution was a question of the brain. The duty of the hour was to educate the working-class into a knowledge of its power and mission, to clear away the confusions created by Liberalism and Toryism and thoroughly discredit the pretensions of spurious Labourism and alleged Socialism, The flag of the Commune was the heirloom of the working-class, and if the banner of Socialism was let fall by one organisation, another party must spring into existence to rear it aloft. The Socialist Party of Great Britain guarded the flag-in this country, and had never compromised. Let its members go forward with good cheer and carry the ensign of freedom into every town and hamlet in the land.

J. Fitzgerald then mounted the platform, and referring to the statement frequently made by capitalist writers, to wit that in establishing the Commune the workers had chosen the wrong time, said that this was a favourite argument of the upholders of capitalism. When the workers tried to better themselves, they were always told it was the wrong time. In fact never had the-workers done anything that was not done at the wrong time. In 1830 the capitalists were compelled to give the workers some political power, and in 1848 the workers had political power, and weapons to defend it. The men of property never relished the idea of seeing arms in the possession of the men of no property, and the reason was obvious. Theirs saw that if the capitalists of France were to continue as the dominant class, the working-class must no longer have arms, and it was decided that the National Guard must be disarmed. These arms were not the property of the government, as they were paid for by public subscription : and moreover at the surrender of Paris to the Prussians it was clearly stipulated that they were not to be given up. But Thiers ordered them to be seized, and in the night a detachment of the military marched on Montmartre to steal the cannon of the National Guard. The-attempted governmental theft was discovered just in time, and the Parisian working-class-refused to be disarmed. That was the beginning of the revolt. The working-class, however, had not then realised that the only people the working-class could rely upon were the working-class themselves, and so they were looking for help and counsel from some middle-class men who only succeeded in muddling matters. The establishment of the Commune came as a surprise to the rest of France, for when the Commune issued a manifesto to the other towns, the people in the provinces said they did not know the men who signed the manifesto. This in itself was sufficient evidence-that the ground had not been prepared, and even in quarters where perhaps assistance might have been expected the Paris workers were sadly disappointed. The radical left, the men who were “coming our way,” were determined to help the working-class, and to-day should a crisis involving similar grave issues be prehistory would repeat itself, and the are “coming our way” would be found wanting. Let the Socialist working-class beware of these men. From the Commune many important lessons were to be derived, the first being the unreliability of any section of the capitalist-class . Secondly it showed clearly that the working-class ought to look askance at the students, the class that provided the material for future “intellectuals,” for during the struggle in ’71 the Latin quarter, the students’ quarter, went over to Versailles, whence they heaped opprobrium on the working-class. We were told by “Social-Democratic” papers to-day that the students in Russia were aiding the working-class, but the converse would be nearer the truth. The Russian revolution now in progress was a middle-class revolution, and it was misleading to say that it was a working-class revolution. He (the speaker) found all doubts on the subject vanish when he heard that the students in Russia were in the movement. Another point to be noted in connection with Commune was the fact that the working-class had not half enough hatred nor half enough organisation. The working-class will learn yet that the class struggle is war to the knife against capitalism, a war which allows of no parleying with the enemy. Thiers demanded the unconditional surrender of Paris, and to-day in like language, The Socialist Party of Great Britain demanded the unconditional surrender of the capitalist class. Organisation was of prime importance, for without a sound organisation of the working-class there would be another Commune—another wholesale slaughter of the workers. He had heard someone once say that what they ought to do is to wait for a while and then “make a rush for it.” Make a rush with what ? Without organisation nothing could be done. Again, they had been told by some by worthy people, even by a man of the stamp of Morris, that the soldiers would fraternise with the people. Did the soldiers fraternise in ’71 ? No, they did not do so, nor would they do it to-day, for the soldiers of capitalism are kept apart from the people, and do not sympathise with the people. The soldier as a rule only learnt to obey orders and would shoot when told. The Commune also showed the nature of the “religion” of the disciples of Christ, as the treatment of the wounded by the Sisters of “Mercy” testified. Finally, the utter uselessness of “humanity” in dealing with the foes of the working-class was shown during the Paris struggle. Let them realise that there would be no successful revolution of the working-class until that class had studied well the economic and political history of the workers; until the memory of the working-class is well stored with a knowledge of what has been done to them by the ruling-class. Cluseret, who in a manifesto told the Paris workers that without military organisation the workers could be relied upon to defeat the best strategist, was a dangerous fool. Let them beware of the of to-day, and learn above all that there was no hope from “Labourism,” “bogus Socialism,”, or any other manifestation of capitalist politics.

E. J. B. Allen, who spoke next, wished to draw the attention of the workers to the fact that when the Commune rose, the capitalist-class who were previously divided, united against the working-class. The French capitalist government did not kill all the working-class because then the capitalists would have to their own work. In addition to the lack of organisation shown during the Commune, there was also the fact that the working-class did not understand its mission, but if the Commune was a failure it still stood as a beacon light for the workers of to-day. Let the watchword be “No compromise,” for any movement that compromised was doomed to failure.

C. Lehane said that it was indeed fitting that at meeting held to honour the men and women of ’71 should be called together in Sydney Hall, the premises of the Battersea Branch of The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Battersea would go down in the annals of the Party as the Montmartre of the Socialist movement in Great Britain. As in ’71 with the attempted seizure of the guns at Montmartre the Parisian working-class had the first brush with the enemy, so in 1904, with the passage of what was known as the “Battersea resolution,” at Battersea, the working-class, of London exchanged the first shot with capitalism and all the forces of reaction. Well he remembered that engagement, for he was present when Ernest Allen, the previous speaker, who commanded the Battersea Battery on the 15th of May last, fired that well directed and penetrating shell which spread such confusion among the ranks of the enemy. As a result of that shot, The Socialist Party of Great Britain sprang into existence to fight and win the battle of the working-class. It had been pointed out that when the Commune issued a manifesto to the provinces calling upon them to act, the answer came that the manifesto was signed by unknown men. The manifesto issued on behalf of the “Battersea Meeting” calling for the formation of The Socialist Party of Great Britain was also signed by “unknown men,” but he, the speaker, trusted that the response to that manifesto from provincial Britain would be more cheering and more decisive than that which came to the Paris manifesto in ’71. Let the Socialists in the provinces rally to the support of those who in the metropolis were doing battle on behalf of the working-class of Great Britain and of the world. At the present time they should not calculate on any chance luck or happy accident, but they should go forward steadily with the work of organisation. Depending on the soldiers’ to fraternise with the people in the hour of need was trusting to chance, for it was only a chance. Let them remember the “fraternising” that took place at Mitchelstown and at Featherstone. In Ireland the military police sent their billets-doux in the shape of bullets and in England the soldiers sent their love-messages at long range. The butchers of Featherstone served the soldiers with bullets capable of cutting through 35 inches of solid elm, and the capitalists would yet have reason to believe the workers were wooden-headed if they did not recognise that in the last resort they had nothing to rely on but their own well-disciplined strength.. Let them learn the coalescence of the French and German capitalist governments against the workings-class of Paris in ’71, that the “patriotism” by which reactionaries tried to keep asunder the workers of all countries, was only a snare, and let them realise that the development of the economic forces demanded international action on the part of the working-class. International solidarity to-day transcended geographical boundaries, for rivers were bridged and mountains scaled by mankind in its onward march.

The meeting, having given hearty cheers for the Commune of ’71, the Social Revolution to come, and The Socialist Party of Great Britain, was brought to a conclusion by the singing of “the International.”

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