The Brutality of the Bourgeoisie
Originally published in the Toledo “Socialist.” By W. J. Ghent.
In reading again the story of the Paris Commune, especially in the light of other class conflicts, one is struck afresh with a sense of the ferocious brutality of the bourgeoisie when repelling attacks upon its property. It is not necessary to say that individually the property owner is more brutal than the proletarian. Perhaps he is not. But no informed person can deny that when acting by group or class in defense of its material interests, the bourgeoisie reverts to a bloodthirstiness, an inhumanity, like that of the lowest savages. In such times all the veneer of civilization is sloughed off as a snake sloughs its skin, and the most cruel passions are awakened. It would seem that nothing that men will do in defence of their wives, their state or their religion, can compare, in desperate ferocity, with what they will do in defence of rent, interest and profit.
And, after all, it is by group and class that men are prompted in the larger activities of their lives. Primarily there is a struggle of individual against individual. But this individual struggle pertains to only a part of our activities, The workman competes with the workman for a job; but in all the larger matters that affect him as a member of an economic class, he feels, thinks and acts with his fellows of like needs and aims. And so the trader, tho’ he will cheat and rob his fellow trader, will still instinctively feel, think and act with him in all matters wherein his class interests are involved.
In the mob the worst passions are developed. What the individual would never dream of doing alone, he is prompted spontaneously to do when in company with his fellows. “Crowd consciousness ” is one thing, “class consciousness” is another. But when the two are met in the same persons, at the same time, there is developed an impulse and a power for evil which spurn ordinary restraints; And when those two are met in the bourgeoisie, repelling attacks upon its possessions, or meting out punishment for a baffled attack, the result is a diabolism of frenzied malice worse than anything which Milton has inscribed to the cohorts of Satan.
It matters not when or where the occasion. At Peterloo in 1819, in Prussia in 1848, in Paris in 1871, in the Coeur de’Alene, in Pennsylvania, in Colorado, in Russia, in more recent years, it is all the same. The bourgeoisie will fight among themselves with some show of restraint. The little fellows, under the constant hemming in of their scope and province by the big fellows, are developing a sort of group feeling and community of interest which causes them to battle against the increasing domination of the magnates. But however fiercely the conflict rages, it is restrained by a fundamental sense of a certain likeness of interest. It is only by the attacks of the proletarians on capitalist property, that the real frenzy of the bourgeoisie is awakened; and then every one, from petty retailer to industrial overlord, unites with his fellows in a cry for the defence of property, religion and the state, and for the annihilation of the proletarian aggressors.
The lesson of Colorado is still fresh in most minds. The beatings, the deportings, the killings, the forced starvation of men, women, and children, the overthrow of civil government, combined to illustrate again the instinctive brutality and lawlessness of the bourgeoisie when roused in defence of its possessions and its privileges. But it is to the Commune that one turns for the chief instance. Here was a class conflict on a gigantic scale, and here the frenzy of the bourgeoisie manifested itself as perhaps it never did before. The frightful deeds of the victors are not to be ascribed to racial temperament, as some of our Anglo-Saxon sentimentalists assume. The French can be quite as humane as the English or the Americans. Nor were the deeds done because the Communards were considered traitors. Treason has been a pretty respectable crime in France. The deeds were done because the Communard home rulers were led by men who strove for a better order of society, which involved the abolition of capitalism. All the mad ferocity of the bourgeoisie was awakened by this attempted subversion of its material interests, and it slaughtered the victims till its rage was glutted.
The Communards held the city of Paris for a little more than nine weeks. They rapidly and efficiently organized its municipal activity. They suppressed vice and crime; they kept industry and commerce moving. Betrayed on every hand by the agents of the Versaillese, they maintained a rare leniency in their treatment of their enemies. From April 3 to May 24, tho’ provoked by every manner of brutality and treachery on the part of the Versaillese. they did not execute a single prisoner. Only in the last desperate days of the defence, after the Versaillese had shot down hundreds of prisoners and of unresisting citizens suspected of sympathy with the Communards, did the latter retaliate. They then executed 63 prisoners out of some 300 in their hands. As frightful as this act appears, it is one in entire accord with the rules of warfare. It has been resorted to in probably every war, and was certainly practised in our Civil War. When one side violates a flag of truce, or executes a prisoner, the other side invariably retaliates in kind.
The Versaillese seized the city, and for days gave it up to almost indiscriminate slaughter. Probably 20,000 persons were killed. The number of wounded will never be known. The dead were strewn all over the city. Burial on such a gigantic scale became impossible, and the corpses, saturated with petroleum, were burned in the casements of the fortifications or in the open air.
Tired with the slaughter, the further ferocity of the bourgeoisie was wreaked upon the hapless victims through the form of “ law.” More than 40,000 prisoners were taken. Thousands of these, men, women and children, were driven along the roads to Versailles, scourged, beaten and insulted, packed into foul dungeons and stockades, where they were systematically starved. No words can adequately picture the horrors of that time. The worst degraded savages would have shown instincts of humanity superior to those manifested by the victorious bourgeoisie. The “trials” followed, lasting several years, and 13,221 men, 157 women and 63 children were condemned. Two hundred and seventy of these were condemned to death and 7,500 to transportation.
It is from this bourgeoisie, the same in America as in France, that we must take our laws, our institutions, and our moral codes. This class rules, and its intellectual retainers formulate and hand down the principles and precepts of conduct which are obligatory upon all of us. But not for long we hope. As tho working class comes gradually to a consciousness of itself, it throws off its ingrained timidity and learns to trust the validity of its own instincts. More and more it learns to condemn the cheap moralities of the bourgeoisie—the “fair weather” moralities which it mouths in times of ease and security, but which it forgets in times of stress. The virtues of usefulness, of fellowship, of magnanimity, which the working class instinctively develops, but which, out of its timidity and subservience to the ruling class, it hesitates to proclaim, come more and more to be the conscious and reasoned bases of its ethical code. And so, as it comes to a full consciousness of itself, it purposes the overthrow of the regime of the bourgeoisie and the installation of an order of society wherein its own code shall have ample field for expression.
And for all its sacrifice of blood it will not retaliate in kind. Out of its instinctive magnanimity, tho’ it remembers the massacres, the indescribable cruelties practised upon it by the propertied class, it will obey the injunction of Shelley:
“Do not thus when ye are strong!”
W. J. Ghent