Why We Commemorate The Commune
M. Yves Guyot, in the first number of that most amusing journal, the Anti-Socialist, says that “Socialists celebrate, without much conviction, the anniversary of the Commune which, in 1871, added the horrors of fire and shooting to those of the siege of Paris. As a matter of fact, however, they have forsaken the so-called revolutionary methods.” The wish is probably father to the thought. Or perhaps M. Guyot is misled by the clamour of the middle-class place-seekers, who try to use the working-class movement as a means of inducing the ruling clique to admit them to the feast. The would-be leaders of the workers are usually ready to sell out or become reasonable “when the ruling class shows a disposition to purchase them. But with the rank and file this cannot be—and that is why the real and the sound movement, the movement that counts, is that of the rank and file, and is neither more advanced nor more backward than this is. Socialism is a class movement, a mass advance, and not a movement of demagogues. And there is a steady growth of Socialist knowledge and determination among the workers, who, far from abandoning the revolutionary method, become more truly revolutionary in the scientific sense of the word. They are gaining in consciousness of their class interest, and learning, slowly it is true, how fundamental is the truth that for their emancipation they must rely upon themselves alone.
This, indeed, is one of the great lessons of the Commune of Paris, and its annual celebration helps to bring vividly home to the Socialist worker the deep meaning of the class struggle and the ruthlessness of the master class when its interests are threatened. It is by no means the only valuable lesson afforded by that historic tragedy, but it is one that will repay a moment’s attention. On the heads of the Communards mountains of calumny have been heaped. The hireling literature of the bourgeoisie has attempted to bury the Commune under falsehoods, suppression of facts, and misrepresentation. The capitalist squint is manifest all through, and the workers are assiduously trained by preceptors in the hire of the masters to look at all things with their masters’ squint. That which is just and legitimate when done by the master class in defence of their interests is the blackest of crime when done by the workers in defence of theirs. That which is heroism and gallant conduct on the part of the capitalist class becomes murder and abominable misdeeds when resorted to by the workers in their own defence. Therefore, while so many of our fellows are taught to look upon the Communards as the worst of criminals, it is our duty to vindicate the memory of those brave men.
The history of the Commune, as recounted by many bourgeois historians, presents a glaring example of that falsification of history of which the capitalist class is guilty; of the shameless slandering of heroic workers, in spite of existing trustworthy documents and evidence, and of the reliable histories which have been written. There is no need to repeat the story, to refute one by one the lies of prostitute historians—Lissagaray and others have done that —but it is worth while emphasising here the fact of the class calumny. Thus a writer in the Times “Historian’s History of the World” recklessly accuses the Commune of having committed monstrous crimes, and goes on to say, “For more than two months the Commune ruled supreme over one of the greatest capitals of the world, and to this day the collectivists, the anarchists, the unruly, and the lawless of every country on the globe celebrate that brief triumph as the most splendid manifestation of the power of the people that the world has ever seen.” And against the fact that while supreme the Commune ruled well and peacefully, and kept Paris remarkably free from disorder or crime, this person, Rambaud by name, says, “In reality a few audacious men, both within and without the committee, such as Rossel, Flourens, the ‘generals’ Duval and Bergeret, Raoul Rigault and Delescluze, arrogated to themselves the greater part of the power and abused it shamefully . . . So long as the Commune lasted the conditions under which men governed, tyrannised, fought, killed, and themselves found death were those of pure anarchy.” Such specimens of class misrepresentation are by no means rare in this “history,” yet in spite of class bias, they are compelled to admit in speaking of the “ re-conquest ” of Paris after the Commune, that “From the beginning it was evident that the conquerors would lie implacable”. Hardly had the army entered the city than the executions began. . . At the barracks people were shot down by the dozen. Whole districts were depopulated by flight, arrests, and executions. . . Meanwhile long processions of prisoners (forty thousand had been taken) were journeying with parched throats, blistered feet, and fettered hands along the road from Paris to Versailles, and as they passed through the boulevards of Louis XIV.’s town, they were greeted with yells and sometimes with blows. They were crowded hastily into improvised prisons, one of which was merely a large court-yard where thousands of poor wretches lived for weeks with no lodging but the muddy ground, . . and whence they were dispatched with a bullet in the head when desperation led them to rebel. . . The punishment inflicted on the insurgents was so ruthless that it seemed to be a counter- manifestation of French hatred for Frenchmen in civic disturbance rather than a judicial penalty applied to a heinous offence. The number of Parisians killed by French soldiers in the last week in May 1871 was probably twenty thousand, though the partisans of the Commune declared that “thirty-six thousand men and women were shot in the streets, or after summary court-martial.”
It is a bourgeois refinement to represent the capitalist hatred of the workers as “French hatred for Frenchmen in civic disturbance.” No struggle is so bitter as the class struggle, for on their supremacy in this depends the capitalists’ power, wealth, influence, indeed, everything that springs from their ability to exploit the workers; and they will in this struggle go to lengths of savageness which make ordinary warfare pale its ineffectual fires. After the Commune slaughter gave place to wholesale deportation to New Caledonia only when the heaps of dead threatened the conquerors with pestilence. Such was the punishment of the Commune for its “crimes,” of which the greatest was its weak sentimentalism and mistaken moderation in face of the tiger that was attacking it.
The Commune is by no means the only example of the vindictive ruthlessness of the ruling class and the folly of washy sentiment on the part of the workers, but it is nearer to us because it illustrates clearly that the working class in revolt within the capitalist system almost instinctively turn towards industrial democracy. Of the bitterness of class struggles, and their ruthless prosecution by ruling classes, history abounds in examples, from the massacre of the soldier-helots of Sparta to the street slaughters of our own times. And in every social revolt calumny has been the accompaniment of the massacre of those who revolted. The peasants in Germany, driven to revolt by misery and ill-treatment, were accused of every known crime, yet the “Cambridge Modern History” tells us that “The worst of their deeds was the ‘massacre of Weinsberg,’ . . (1534) for which the ruffian Jacklein Rohrbach was mainly responsible. In an attempt to join hands with the Swabian peasants, a contingent of the Franconian army commanded by Metzler attacked Weinsburg, a town not far from Heilbronn held by Count Ludwig von Helfenstein. Helfenstein had distinguished himself by his defence of Stuttgart against Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, and by his rigorous measures against such rebels as fell into his power. When a handful of peasants appeared before Weinsberg and demanded admission the Count made a sortie and cut them all down. This roused their comrades to fury: Weinsberg was stormed by Rohrbach, and no quarter was given until Metzler arrived and stopped the slaughter. He granted Rohrbach, however, custody of the prisoners, consisting of Helfenstein and seventeen other knights; and against Metzler’s orders and without his knowledge the Count and his fellow prisoners were made, ” to run the gauntlet of the peasants’ daggers before the eyes of the Countess.” The author further adds “These bloody reprisals were not typical of the revolt.” On the other hand we are told in the same chapter that “the suppression of the movement was marked by appalling atrocities . . the Bavarian chancellor reports that Duke Anthony of Lorraine alone had already destroyed twenty thousand peasants in Elsass; and for the whole of Germany a moderate estimate puts the number of victims at a hundred thousand. The only consideration that restrained the victors appears to have been the fear that, unless they held their hand, they would have no one left to render them service. ‘If all the peasants are killed,’ wrote Margrave George to his brother Casimir, ‘where shall we get other peasants to make provision for us ?’ Casimir stood in need of exhortation ; at Kutzingen, near Wurzburg, he put out the eyes of fifty-nine townsfolk, and forebade the rest to offer them medical or other assistance.” The writer justly adds “When the massacre of eighteen knights at Weinsberg is adduced as proof that the peasants were savages, one may well ask what stage of civilisation had been reached by German princes.”
The peasants’ revolt in England is another case in point. The poll tax and the attempt to re-enforce feudal services roused revolt all over England. The men of Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire, though they attacked the houses of the more obnoxious nobles, and ransacked the prisons, did not plunder or steal, but simply asked for their freedom. This Richard II. promised, and set thirty clerks to write out charters, upon receipt of which the peasants began to disperse. The next day Wat Tyler, their leader, was murdered by the Mayor of London; and when the peasants had returned home their charters were annulled and the King marched through Essex and Kent at the head of a large army and put hundreds of peasants to death.
Another instance was Kett’s rebellion in the reign of Edward VI. Twenty thousand men defeated the royal troops at Norwich and demanded redress of grievances. Kett proclaimed a rude communism, and admittedly kept perfect order in his camp and consented to no violence. His humanity, however, cost him dearly. The Earl of Warwick at the head of an army of foreign mercenaries defeated the peasants, and then proceeded with a cold-blooded massacre which ceased only because Warwick feared that the “gentlemen would have to be plowmen themselves, and harrow their own lands.”
There is, indeed, no lack of modern instances pointing the same moral and emphasising the fact that the savage crushing of the Commune, far from being an isolated case, is but the expression of the real feeling of the ruling class for those beneath. The worker who in the face of these lessons becomes the dupe of the sentimental humbug and humanitarian professions that cloak capitalist interests, is guilty of treachery to his fellows. The lesson most be taken to heart that on his own class alone can the worker rely, for the capitalist must ever remain the bitterest enemy of the working-class movement; and bourgeois honour, justice and humanity are but empty words to lure the worker astray. In all war sentiment is weakness, and nowhere more so than in the class war, and for the workers to be the dupes of bourgeois sentiment in the inevitable struggle with the capitalist interest, is to place themselves entirely at the mercy of the enemy.
It is not, perhaps, pleasant to find things so. It would doubtless be more agreeable if the tiger would peaceably lie down with the lamb, and fools may abuse us for pointing out that this cannot be. Well, let those who nurse such illusions ignore the facts if they will — the facts will not ignore them, and will find them unprepared. Let those who will not face reality soothe themselves with falsehood—though they shut their eyes the truth remains. The very harshness of reality makes him worthy the name of man but the more determined that it shall alter, and he finds that he must know rightly the nature of the society about him before he can take any effective step toward the change on which so much human well-being depends Moreover, in emphasising a harsh truth—a truth to which so many wilfully blind themselves we are but doing our bare duty by our fellows, for it is on the knowledge of things such as these that the speedy emancipation of humanity from slavery and the possibility of real human brotherhood depends; and that, indeed, is one of our reasons for commemorating the Paris Commune of ’71.
F. C. Watts