Lest We Forget

We cannot let March pass away without a reference to an event of great significance in the history of the working class movement. 2021’s March has some important dates in socialist history. In Germany it is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg and a hundred years since the abortive March Action by the Communist Party. While in Russia it is the 100th anniversary of the doomed anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt Commune. In France March 2021 is has been 150 year since the formation of the ill-fated Paris Commune.

To socialists throughout the world, the Commune of Paris in 1871 recalls to their minds the first organised attempt on the part of a section of the working class to administer the affairs of society in the workers’ interest. Even many politically conservatives with  no sympathy with the Commune reluctantly testified to the orderly and peaceful manner in which the Communards carried out the duties of citizenship. One can only look in vain through the revolutionary articles of the day for any blood-thirsty policies and proposals. The needs of the Parisians were attended to the best they could under the circumstances of a siege. 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 Thiers’ regime, they maintained a rare leniency in their treatment of their enemies although provoked by every manner of brutality and treachery on the part of the government. They did not execute a single prisoneruntil the very final desperate days , after they had suffered the massacre of  hundreds of prisoners and of unresisting citizens suspected of sympathy with the Communards, and only then did they retaliate, executing 63 prisoners out of some 300 in their hands.

If heroism and devotion to the ideal of human solidarity could accomplish anything in themselves, a different tale of the Commune would have been told in the history books.

Marx wrote of the Commune that it was “to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule”. Answering charges in the capitalist press that the Commune was “communist”, he went on:

“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour — but this is Communism, “impossible” Communism!”

This suggests that the conscious aim of the Paris Commune was the establishment of Socialism. But this was not so. Those who held this view of the tasks of the Commune were only a minority, the majority being made up of the Jacobins and Blanquists who looked back to 1792 rather than forward to socialism. The 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

 Marx, himself, was later to acknowledge that he did not think that the socialist movement would come to power in any country unless at the same time it was strong enough to overcome any capitalist resistance. He went on:

“Perhaps you will refer me to the Paris Commune, but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no wise socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of commonsense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people — the only thing that could be reached at the time.”

As the renown historian of the Communards, Lissagaray cautioned:

“He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.”  

The French and German capitalist classes joined hands, after a war between the two countries, to crush the working class in France. The lesson should be burned deep into the minds of every worker, for it shows the foul hypocrisy of the capitalists when they pretend to be interested in the welfare of the workers of the particular nations they rule, or aspire to rule, while all the time it is to protect their class-rule from working people that is their real concern. It illustrates the capitalist method of securing order when their supremacy is threatened by the working class. It is to be remembered that the butchery took place, not in the heat of battle, but after the fighting had ceased, therefore, in cold-blooded lust of revenge. 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. 

Although 150 years have passed away since the Commune, yet it still has a message for us, a message of hope and a message of warning. For the first time a section of the French working class, owing to a set of favourable circumstances, obtained control of political power.

 Marx reiterates the lesson for us all in these present times:

“Fellow-citizens! Let us think of the fundamental principle of the International—Solidarity. We shall attain our great goal if we can establish this life-giving principle firmly among all the workers of all lands. The revolution must be the work of solidarised efforts. We can learn this from the great example of the Commune of Paris. Why did the Commune fall? It fell because there did not simultaneously occur in all the capitals—in Berlin, in Madrid and the rest—a great revolutionary movement linked with the mighty upheaval of the Parisian proletariat. For my own part, I shall continue to work at my chief task, at promoting the solidarity of the workers…”