E. Belfort Bax, Victor Dave & William Morris, A Short Account of the Commune of Paris, Socialist League, The Socialist Platform No.4, 1886.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).
The series of great events which is known under the above name is a remarkable instance of the tendency of history to pass speedily into fable. When it happened it produced the most profound impression on the civilised world; it is but fifteen years since it happened, and yet in the time in which we are writing, it has become to most people a mere myth, at best a symbol or token of things which some fear most, others hate most, and from which some hope most.
And, especially in this country, is the ignorance dense concerning these wonderful events; it is not too much to say that in England the Commune of Paris is looked upon, even by most of those who would shrink from being branded as reactionaries, by those even who consider themselves in sympathy with the popular cause, Democrats, Radicals, and such-like, as a piece of mad and murderous folly, excusable, perhaps, after the sufferings and shame of the German invasion and the siege of Paris, but at the best causeless, aimless, and most disastrous to the progress of humanity.
The middle-class historians, that is to say historians in general, who see nothing in history but a chance medley of events, devoid of meaning or logical sequence, have treated the Commune as they treat all history. They have failed to understand that, from the political point of view, the Revolution of Paris established in France a new form of administration, – Federalist Administration, – which is entirely opposed to French tradition since the time of Richelieu. They have equally failed to understand that, from the social point of view, the Revolution of Paris brought about the final rupture between working-class democracy and the ruling middle-class; that the workman organically associated for the first time since the Communes of the Middle Ages, and since 1793 were bringing to birth a new world – the world of the independent and free organisation of industrial and commercial labour.
Moreover, these same “accepted” historians believed that when the Commune was overthrown everything would fall back again into the old order of things. They could not understand that the great movements of history are not regulated by the chronology of defeats and victories, that its laws are accomplished by death and martyrdom as much as by success and triumph, and that the Commune of Paris, vanquished and drowned in blood, did yet spring from its ashes and, victorious in its own fashion, has become the starting point of the irresistible Unity of Socialism in Europe and America.
We believe that English working men know nothing, as a rule, of what happened in Paris between March and June of the year 1871; and we feel that it is our duty to enlighten them on this matter, and so remove some part of that ignorance which is the great instrument of oppression everywhere and always, and, in this case, is being used continually with effect to prevent the union of the workers of all countries which, even before it is complete, will shake down the edifice of misery, violence, and injustice, which, for want of a better word, has to be called modern civilization.
The revolt of the Paris Commune was neither murderous, nor mad, nor aimless. Its fault was want of success only. If it had succeeded the working men of this country would by this time be in a very different condition than they are in now.
Nor is that all. One day we believe we shall no longer have to say of it that it was unsuccessful. The beneficent Revolution which we Socialists aim at is so stupendous that when it is accomplished we shall look back and see past events in a very different light from what we do now, and shall understand how much each one of them contributed to our changed and happier condition. In that day belike the great shall seem small and the small great; things which, when they happened, were hailed as great and fortunate steps towards progress we shall know were unimportant incidents, hiding by their noise and clatter the real springs of action, the real enduring events. So it has been in past history, so it will be in the future. The time will come when the Revolt of Paris, quenched in blood though it was – and apparently the unluckiest of all attempts of slaves to free themselves – will be recognised as one of the noblest of those steps whereby mankind has risen to freedom and happiness.
It is our business, therefore, to lay before the workers of this country a plain statement of facts as to the Paris Commune; to give a brief outline of the course which the revolt took; in order that it may be seen how different this attempt in favour of the working classes was from the picture painted of it by those whose position of robbery and violence its success would have ended.
We must, therefore, ask our readers to remember that, after having ruled France for eighteen years, the wretched adventurer – whose reign began with the murder in cold blood of thousands of defenceless men, women, and children, and which while it lasted meant simply the basest corruption which the world has ever seen – had made his exit to the sound of the cannon of Sedan; that the Republic had been proclaimed, and that many honest men were hoping that a new world was beginning for France; but they did not understand that a society which welcomed such “saviours” as this band of swindlers and whores was incurable, and that in creating such a government it was but fulfilling its ordinary functions in a somewhat exaggerated manner. After Sedan and the Proclamation of the Republic, the French people still made head against the invaders, and many deeds of military heroism were performed; but the army was a mere mass of corruption and treachery. Bazaine’s treason of delivering up the last regular army of France to the Prussians was only a flagrant example of the universal treachery and time-serving. The heads of the defence had always before their eyes another enemy besides the German invaders: that enemy was the working classes of the great cities, especially Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles. This was made specially manifest in Paris itself, where the heroic defence which the people were prepared to make, and did make as far as they could, was nullified by what was at the time in this country supposed to be the incompetence of the generals, but which was, indeed, their treachery. They had no wish to save Paris for the people, but only for the masters of the people. If they failed in that, let it be anything, so long as it was not revolutionary.
This, then, was the condition of Paris after the capitulation and the famous entry of the Prussians on February 28th, 1871. People betrayed, but armed, and more or less organised for war. For the National Guard, though it had been prevented by Trochu and Co. from putting out its strength against the Prussians, was formidable and numerous, as it had not been disarmed by the Prussians like the regular army, and by this time it understood thoroughly that it was intended by the Versailles Assembly, the majority of which was not even merely anti-revolutionist but even monarchical, to reduce it to impotence.
After a period of excitement and hesitation this at last became quite clear to everybody by the appointment of a reactionary general – D’Aurelles de Paladines – as commander of the National Guard. These citizen soldiers had, with great energy and determination, got together at Montmartre and elsewhere their own cannon and others dismounted at the capitulation, and were determined not to surrender them to any comer. The defence of these famous guns marks the first epoch of the Revolt of Paris. Ernest Picard, the Versailles home minister, issued a proclamation denouncing this action, and the Central Committee of the National Guard under whose auspices it had taken place. This was followed on the 17th March by a proclamation of Thiers directed against what was now clearly becoming a revolt, headed by the Paris workmen; and on the 18th a regular military operation was set on foot for the capture of the cannon, as a preliminary to the complete disarmament and subjection of Paris; but only a few shots were fired, and the stroke failed completely: for the troops almost everywhere refused to fire, and finally fraternised with the people. In the tumultuary proceedings that accompanied this attempt a few lives were lost, some ten in all; but the event was more just and discriminating than war usually is; for amongst those were General Lecomte, who had four times that day ordered the troops to fire on the people, and General Thomas, who, during the siege, had made himself obnoxious by his brutality and reactionary tendencies, and who was discovered spying on the barricades erected by the people. These two were shot after capture by the very troops whom their misconduct and self-seeking had demoralised; and surely amongst all those that fell in this struggle they were not the least guilty of the blood that was shed. Other officers taken with them were set at liberty next morning.
Thus was the Revolution made. Paris and its fortifications, including Mont Valerien, which dominates the whole of the south side of the town and forts, were evacuated; the troops not being molested by the National Guard, who were ignorant of what was going on, and expected a fresh attack.
The next morning, the 19th, Paris awoke to find itself free, and it accepted its freedom joyously; the sole real power in it was the Central Committee of the National Guard, composed of honest men, who were not politicians in the sense in which that word is used generally, amongst whom were fifteen declared Socialists, members of the International Working Men’s Association, men who, told off to occupy the various ministerial offices, indignantly refused to claim more than their usual pay, and hastened to divest themselves of the power which had been thrust upon them, and hand it over to the people of Paris.
Their first step was to call on the people to elect Communal delegates on the 22nd, and to declare the state of siege raised. They were met by the opposition of the Mayors and Deputies to the Assembly living at Paris, who were anxious to legalise the proceedings of the city which had just freed itself by popular revolt. These men, Clemenceau at their head, went and came between Paris and the Reactionary Assembly at Versailles, with the natural result that to the latter they seemed dangerous Revolutionaries, to the former traitorous Reactionaries.
In consequence, the Municipal Elections had to be put off till the 20th. The Mayors, &c., had the effrontery to appoint an opposition Commander of National Guard, and a Staff-General-in-Chief, and Commander of the Artillery, as though they represented the legal power in Paris.
Encouraged by this resistance to the Revolution, for Saisset, the intrusive Commander of the National Guard, was attempting to organise Reactionary battalions, the mere Reactionaries, men of the Third Empire, &c., thought they might make a stroke, and on the 22nd March they tried it: a crowd of “gentlemen,” stock-jobbers, journalists, &c., the dregs of the Third Empire, proceeded to the Place Vendôme in the guise of an unarmed crowd, where they were met by the National Guards, whom they insulted; the commander in vain summoned them to retire, these unarmed people then drew revolvers and fired on the guards, killing two and wounding several; the guards, at the end of their patience, fired in turn, but not in deadly fashion, so that only a few of the rioters fell; but it was enough, and the rest lied leaving the place strewn with revolvers, sword-canes, daggers, &c.
This failure of an openly Reactionary attempt was followed, after a brief space, by the breakdown of what may be called the respectable Radical opposition who, repudiated by the Versailles Assembly, and without support in Paris, had to yield to the only real power in the city, the Central Committee. Of the Deputies, some left Paris to play the hopeless part of decent Democracy at Versailles; but some few, Socialists and sympathisers with the cause of the people, cast in their lot with revolt, after indignantly resigning their positions as Deputies.
This was followed on the 26th March by the election of members of the Communal Council. Out of 101 members, 21 were declared Socialists and members of the International Working-Men’s Association; the rest were of the advanced Radical and Jacobin type, with the exception of a few respectabilities, who soon resigned in disgust. But Radicals or Socialists, the whole Commune found itself forced to legislate in a Socialistic sense: the welfare of the people was and had to be its aim, and so-called property was attacked in several edicts all tending to make life in Paris, at least, possible for the workers. The Commune of Paris meant the beginning of the new world for the working classes; the continuance of its life would have meant the downfall of class society. If this was clear to no one else it was clear enough to the Reactionaries who were preparing to attack Paris and its terrible rebels. Extermination was now the only word with them. Although they were, if not daunted, at least surprised at the joy with which all Paris received the proclamation of the Commune in a simple but noble ceremonial.
In spite of this unbridled hatred on the part of the Reactionaries, Paris found it difficult to believe in their enmity. The Commune, to speak with all respect, committed the mistake of supposing it possible to legalise its position. They did not act as if they clearly saw that they were in revolt against the corrupt society of the present, and accordingly they wasted precious time and opportunity in what may be called parliamentary pros and cons, instead of applying themselves to organising their splendid fighting material into a serious army. History, when it is cleared from lies woven by bitter class prejudice, will applaud their humanity; but we, amidst our present struggles, must say sadly that the result might have been different if they had been more open-eyed – more practical.
All illusions as to civil war vanished when, on April 1st, the Versailles troops attacked a post at Courbvoie and drove its defenders, heavily outnumbered, into retreat, after a stout resistance. The few prisoners taken having been first beaten and then shot to death by the Versaillese.
It was now a matter of war, simply and solely; and, looking back on the events of that time, it would now seem as if the Commune had some chance of triumphing in that war. Paris was now well victualled, ammunition was plenty, and munitions of war generally, including guns; and there was no lack of men as brave as might be, as the result showed. On the other hand, the Versailles army was in those early days of the siege a poorish collection of beaten men, some 40,000 in all: the best of them a corps of gendarmes, or armed police, to whom may be attributed the beginning of the atrocities, which would have disgraced the Party of Order so terribly, if history were usually written by honest men.
One fatal military mistake was made by the rebels, which, of itself, was almost enough to make their position untenable from a military point of view. The dominating fort of Mont Valerien, which looks down on the whole valley of the Seine, and even to the most unprofessional eye proclaims its paramount importance, had been left unoccupied by the Versaillese when they evacuated Paris after the 18th March. The army of the Commune, committed temporarily to Lullier – an incompetent officer, perhaps insane – paid no attention to this key of Paris. It may be considered as an excuse for the Commune that Thiers refused at first to occupy it, alleging that it was not a strategical point; but, unluckily, his officers knew better, and at last forced almost an order for its occupation out of him, and it was lost to the Commune.
To this mishap was added the fact that the National Guards were ill disciplined, had no cavalry, and few skilled artillerymen; that they lacked officers, both regimental and staff; that most of the generals were deficient in professional knowledge.
With all these disadvantages a sortie was determined on; and on the 2nd April 40,000 men were directed against Versailles in two divisions. They were completely defeated, as might have been expected. One incident shows the folly of people in such straits as the Commune was in shutting their eyes to their real situation. The leaders had concealed the fact of the occupation of Mont Valerien by the Versaillese; so that when that fortress opened fire on the column which was marching on Rueil a complete panic, brought on by a fear of treason, took place, and only a handful of men held together for the forward match. Flourens surprised at Rueil, was slain on the spot. Duval, ill supported, after a brave resistance, had to surrender with a few men. He and his chief of staff were at once shot by the Versailles General Vinoy. The soldiers of the regular army taken with him were also shot. The other prisoners were marched to Versailles to be insulted, spat upon, and struck by the “ladies and gentlemen” to whose position their existence was a menace. The infamous Gallifet began in these days his special course of brutal murder. This monster is still alive, and a general of the present Bourgeois Republic at the time in which we are writing.
At Marseilles and Narbonne, in the meantime, as afterwards at Lyons, Cahors, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Etienne, the revolt, at first successful, fell through, owing to want of organisation and lack of aim in most of the Revolutionists; and Paris was left to sustain the struggle by herself,
The Parisians were by no means daunted by their first defeat, but set to work to carry on the conflict defensively. To the Versaillese murders they replied by a decree, by which anyone suspected of complicity with the Versaillese Government should be tried within forty-eight hours, and, if found guilty, detained as a hostage, such hostages to be shot in proportion to the prisoners of war killed in cold blood by the Versaillese – a decree, however, which was not carried out – nor were any reprisals made by the Commune on prisoners taken by them, till in its last agony the hostages were shot in a tumultuary manner. Had they been held by ordinary belligerents, they would have been shot long before – and justifiably so, according to the laws of war, since it is a maxim that each side is bound to defend the lives of the prisoners which it loses. The hostages for the rest were not of much importance, since the important people had already fled from Paris; nor did M. Thiers trouble himself much about the lives of the few unimportant ones who were in the hands of the Commune. But the Commune had one hostage which was of importance – to wit, the Bank of France, including the registry of Domains, representing property in all amounting to two milliards 180 millions of francs. The council, under the influence of Beslay, a sincere man, but old, and too timid for the occasion, weakly spared this enemy, which it might have converted into so strong an ally – a weakness which has not saved it from being covered with the lying abuse of the enemies of the people. At the same time, too, in spite of the ring of war which surrounded Paris, the city internally was quiet, decent, and safe, as it never has been either before or since. The spirit of Socialism animated the minds of the general population, although the leaders it had chosen were, on the whole, deficient in true revolutionary energy.
This deficiency showed itself most in matters military – the staff, the commissariat, and the ammunition service were specially lacking. Cluseret was kept on as general, though he was dismissed from the military committee. He was a commander used to regular troops, and failed in handling the irregular levies of the Commune. Bergeret was dismissed from his post, and Dombrowski, an excellent officer, and a man of great courage, took his place, and, in spite of all drawbacks, the defence was carried on stoutly. The forts were manned, only two of them, Issy and Vanves, being much damaged; and in spite of the cannonade of Mont Valerien, now fully armed, the attack would have made little way if Dombrowski had been properly supported. As it was, after having gained some advantages by dint of great courage and energy, the Commune troops had to yield the posts they had taken.
It may be well here to give some idea of the relative forces of the combatants. The Versailles army by this time, the middle of April, consisted of 130,000 men, a great part of them prisoners of war begged back again from Prussia for the purpose in hand. They were naturally not good troops, but had the advantage of ordinary military discipline, and also of abundant artillery, well served and well found, besides cavalry, more than sufficient for their purpose.
The army of the Commune was much larger on paper than in reality; it amounted to about 60,000 serviceable men, of whom not more than 500 were artillerymen, and they had no cavalry, and, indeed, very few horses.
It would be impossible within the narrow limits of a pamphlet to give a history of the defence of Paris on these terms, but we think it best, from this point, to give a brief account of it up to the time of the entrance of the Versaillese; uninterrupted except by an account of events which more or less interfered with the actual military operations.
The last attempt at conciliation was that made by the Freemasons, who, on the 26th April, determined that they would try and convert M. Thiers once more, and if their attempt failed would throw in their lot with the Commune and fight to the death. On the 29th, they gathered at the Hôtel de Ville 10,000 in number, and proceeded to the ramparts with their banners, which they planted in the most dangerous places; they then marched out to the Versaillese posts, and thence three of their number went on a deputation to Thiers. They returned the next day with the news that Thiers would scarcely receive them, and refused to see any more deputations; in short, unconditional surrender was now the only word; and the murders already perpetrated by the Versaillese made it clear to everybody what that would mean. This rallied everyone to the Commune that was not a definite enemy, all now must stand or fall together.
But now came a disaster, Fort Issy was evacuated needlessly, after its most gallant defence of so many days. A kind of panic followed on this check; the Committee of Public Safety was formed which, however, did but little. Cluseret was dismissed from the post of General-in-Chief, and Rossel took his place, a man of some professional knowledge but pedantic and straight-laced, a mere soldier, quite unfit for the terrible crisis of a great revolution, of whose real aim and cause he could form no conception.
The Versaillese were driven out of Fort Issy, which was again occupied; ill supported, without sufficient ammunition or food, its defenders held out with desperate courage.
On May 8th, the definite bombardment of Paris began, and Issy was evacuated finally, being in fact nothing more than an indefensible heap of ruins. Rossell resigned his position in a way which tended to make the worst of everything, and was arrested, though after great hesitation; but he slipped away from the imprisonment which he had himself tauntingly claimed from the Commune.
The Committee of Public Safety was dissolved and re-elected, Delescluze at its head, and they found themselves with Versaillese and Royalist plotters within the walls, whose attempt to hand over one of the gates to the Versaillese failed however.
The siege went on under much the same conditions; the Fort of Vanvres was evacuated, but retaken under the conduct of Wroblewski, another Polish officer, and again lost. A terrible explosion, the work of Reactionary Versaillese incendiaries, took place in a cartridge-making workshop in Paris itself; and the bombardment of M. Thiers still went on, and the defence was now becoming hopeless, although those who held their posts on the ramparts and elsewhere showed incredible courage.
The circle of fire drew closer. On the 17th, six districts were under fire; scarcely anything could live at the posts which were most directly attacked. Yet, strange to say, Paris shut her eyes in fatal confidence. At two o’clock on Sunday, the 21st, there was a concert held, under the direction of Dr. Rousselle, in the Tuilleries Gardens, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of the Commune, close to where the Versaillese shells were falling.
The concert over, a staff-officer mounted on the orchestra and announced the second concert, in the same place, to that gay and kindly assembly.
Almost at that moment the Versaillese were entering the doomed city by the gate of St. Cloud, now at last unmanned. Dombrowski sent this terrible news to the Committee of Public Safety; it was received with less terror than might have been expected; since many thought that it would be still probable to recover all by the street fighting; which, perhaps, might have been the case if due preparations had been made for it, as they were not. The massacre had already began, while people were amusing themselves as usual on the boulevards and in their cafés.
The National Guards had no longer any military cohesion. They were deluded by the hope of the barricades, and dispersed to do each man his work in his own district, as in the old risings in Paris. It would be impossible to make our readers understand the conflict that followed without a good map and a careful detailed account.
It must be enough to say that though the Communists should militarily have had no hope, and though a fatal blindness had taken away from them the means of concerted defence of the town, the barricades rose everywhere, and if mere courage could have defeated the enemy the Commune would not have fallen. But the want of plan or organisation made all vain in the teeth of a big army of professional soldiers, thrust on by the hatred and fear of a society that had but one aim – perpetuating its worthless existence. The barricaded positions were taken in flank, and Montmartre, the citadel, so to say, of Paris, was surrounded and cut off from the rest of the city, and was taken by the assault of 20,000 men, at about noon of the 23rd. The shooting of prisoners by the Versaillese was now universal. Dombrowski was mortally wounded on this day.
On the left bank of the Seine the fight was the fiercest, and the houses were fired in the contest partly by the shells of the Versaillese, partly as an act of war by the Communards, who were fired upon by the inhabitants. Mere massacre of every suspected person followed the success of the troops. That night Paris was burning in many places, the Tuilleries amongst others.
On the 24th, the few members of the Council of the Commune evacuated the Hôtel de Ville, and it was fired over their heads; the Pantheon, the citadel on that side of the city, fell much as Montmartre had done. Strong positions counted for little in this war of confused bravery. This day the fury of massacre reached its height; the Versaillese did not trouble any longer about suspicion, but slew right and left.
In the midst of all these horrors six of the hostages, out of the 300 still remaining, were shot, in a more or less tumultuary manner, at the prison of La Roquette; among them was the Archbishop of Paris. That night more buildings still were burning; and the flaring light, the terrors, and cannon firing on either side, made such a city of it as words cannot tell of.
The 25th morning, however, still rose on this great battle of the streets. Wroblewski still hold the Butte aux Cailles in due military form, from whence, the day before, he had repulsed the Versaillese again and again, and elsewhere more irregular resistance still went on; but again the position was turned, and the best officer of the Commune had to retreat with a handful of men. That evening Delescluze walked quietly into the storm of bullets, and left his life gloriously. As the prisoners of the Versaillese increased, so did the massacres, which were now on the big scale, mitrailleuses taking the place of the platoon.
On the 26th, after a fierce fight, the Place de la Bastille fell, and the battle grew more and more confused, especially as the weather, hitherto fine, was now become rainy and thick; this day the fifty-two hostages, who were being taken from La Roquette to the Rue Haxo, were shot. Jecker, of Mexican stock-jobbing infamy, had been shot in the morning of the same day.
The 27th, there was still fighting in Belleville and La Villette.
The cemetery of Pére la Chaise was taken; all the cannon were gone, ammunition failed for the musketry, and by eleven o’clock at night all was over. The fort of Vincennes unarmed surrendered last.
Thus was extinguished the despair of Paris; but though the fighting was over, the killing went on merrily; for instance, in the prison of La Roquette alone nine hundred prisoners were slain in cold blood, and without any pretence of form of trial. The courts martial disposed of others. “Have you taken arms, or served the Commune? Show your hands.” If the judge thought the man looked likely, “classé” was the word; if anyone was spared, “ordinaire” was pronounced, and he was kept for Versailles. None were released – sex or age made no difference. Those who were “classés” were shot at once; perhaps they were not the unluckiest. It may be said, if it be necessary, that few died other than manfully. In more than one case men were shot by mistake. Several members of the Commune were killed many times over. Varlin, a working man, one of the best and most capable members of the Commune – a true hero of Revolution – was dragged up to the Rue des Rosiers, at Montmartre, where Lecomte and Thomas were killed on the 18th of March, and was there beaten half to death before he was shot.
It need not be said that the Reactionary Press egged on these murders to the utmost. The wholesale slaughter went on for the first few days of June; the courts martial till the middle of the month. Twenty thousand in all were killed in Paris in cold blood, besides those slain in Versailles.
But those who were dead had ended their sufferings at least. There were prisoners besides: people arrested wholesale, men, women, and children, in nine days 40,000 of them for one item. The treatment of these poor people could scarcely be credible if it were not attested by the Reactionary Press itself, which, with a baseness unexampled, one must hope, rejoiced in the sufferings of these martyrs of the people. Space fails to tell the story of the sickening horrors of the penfold of Satory. Nothing more hideous is known to history, not even the quarries of Syracuse, wherein the Athenians expiated the crime of defeat; and they were at least combatants: upwards of 399,000 denunciations were made; in all, probably, 50,000 people were actually arrested. Of these, some were released after long months of imprisonment in cruel prisons, hulks, and forts. Some (at least 1,179) died on the hands of their tormentors. Some were condemned to deportation, some were shot after a regular trial.
A few words to point out the meaning of this revolt, suppressed with such inhuman cruelty. Undoubtedly, the occasion of it rose from the indignation of the people of Paris at the cowardice and treachery of their rulers during the German siege; these worthies, as we have said before, undoubtedly had all the time one eye upon the Prussians and another on the Revolutionists, actual or possible, and this it was which paralyzed their defence, as it was bound to do.
Then after the surrender, Paris found itself face to face with a Reactionist Assembly plotting mere monarchical restoration, and determined to humble the great Revolutionary city, in which determination M. Thiers helped to the best of his power. His attempt to disarm Paris failed on the 18th March, and Paris asserted her freedom amidst the universal joy and hope of her population, most touching indeed when looked at by the light of after events.
So far, then, the revolt appeared to most men to be little more than an assertion of Municipal and Republican freedom. But, besides the idea of the Federation of Communes which we have mentioned before, and which was the special politics of the Commune, behind all this lay the people, and it was soon shown that the Commune of Paris must obey the great impulse towards, the real Revolution: the freedom of labour from the trammels of wage-slavery. The declared Socialists on the Council of the Commune were in the minority, but nevertheless all its acts were aimed at the extinction of class slavery; and if the Revolution could have lived through the fiery furnace of war, it cannot be doubted that it would have developed largely in this direction.
Its enemies saw this image of Social Revolution rise up clearly enough; and well would it have been for our cause if its own children had been as clear-sighted! They had done enough to draw upon them the implacable hatred of the combination which they threatened. If they had proclaimed in plain terms the Social Revolution, which was indeed their only aim, if they had all known it as some did, they would have drawn no more enmity upon them, for they already had gained the complete hatred of the classes of tyranny; while they would have rallied to them the whole living moving spirit of the times; would have multiplied every chance of success, and minimised every cause of failure.
Unhappily they were not, as a whole, prepared for this. The spirit of nationality, which has so often betrayed France into the hands of foreign enemies and domestic traitors, still clung to the Parisians generally, who did not quite understand what they were doing. Conscious, too conscious, perhaps, of their own rectitude and their goodwill towards France and towards humanity, they could not believe that the enemy was irrevocably the enemy. Much precious time and still more precious energy was wasted by the leaders in vain attempts to legalise their position in the eyes of France; a position, one cannot too often repeat, whose real aim was the destruction of legalised tyranny throughout the world.
We cannot help thinking that this uncertainty of aim was felt through all their counsels, and was the cause of the shortcomings that hampered the heroism of the people of Paris. In nothing is this more plain than in their dealings with the Bank. The very heart of the enemy was in their grasp, as the giant’s heart of the old fable, and they refused to clench their hand. They borrowed a small sum of money from the stored up plunder of the people, instead of taking the people’s own and using it for the freeing of the people.
We wish our readers to understand that we should not say even so much as this of the failures of the leaders of this heroic struggle if we regarded it as a mere piece of dead history. But since it lives, and will live always in the hearts of the people, we feel that we have no right to neglect the lessons which it holds out to us. The only gratitude which it is possible to show towards those who suffered and died for us is our resolution to carry forward the work which they left unfinished, and even the failures of our comrades must be used in the work. Whatever minor failures took place in the administration are easily excusable, and would have done little harm probably if the Commune Leaders had remembered that they were not the administrators of a regenerated society, but rather the leaders in an implacable war waged for that regeneration. It must be rioted that the went came upon everybody suddenly; that the Versaillese officials had fled from the offices everywhere, taking with them nearly all the machinery of them; so that never was Revolutionary administration carried on under such difficulties.
Again, if the Commune found its helpers bad policemen, as indeed they were, letting all sorts of plotters and Reactionist agents slip through their fingers at least they did not need police against their own people. By the testimony of indifferent and impartial onlookers, Paris was never so safe (except for the Versailles shells) or so decent as it was under the sway of these “Incendiaries.”
That last word reminds us that it may be well for us, as Revolutionary Socialists, to state here our views on the “incendarism” which marked the last days of the Commune.
It is true that Paris was fired, that some of its monuments of art were reduced to ashes; but who was responsible for this fire-raising?
Was it the Revolutionary population of Paris, who from the 18th of March had but been claiming to live independent and free, proclaiming the same right for all other Communes of France; or, rather, was it not the Versaillese, those who strove to force their rule on Paris at the cannon’s mouth? Does the responsibility rest on the Commune, who had not shed a drop of blood, except in fair and open fight, and according to the laws of war; or, rather, does it rest on the Versailles Assembly, which shot its prisoners, and wilfully exasperated Paris to the utmost? On the Commune, which so often offered peace by means of men more sympathetic, perhaps, with Versailles than with Paris; or, rather, on the Assembly, which rejected all overtures which did not mean unconditional and impossible surrender? On the Commune, which had maintained admirable order for two months in Paris, where crime and disorder were unknown; or on Versailles, who called such men as these, “malefactors, assassins, and swindlers,” and, brought face to face with a great political and social party, contemned all laws of Policy or War? Lastly, does it rest on the Commune, which guarded the Red Flag intact and pure or, rather, on the Assembly, which only overwhelmed Paris by means of the open help of the enemies of France?
Surely, it is not difficult to answer these questions. Nor is it surprising if in the face of a coalition composed of all Monarchies and all centralizations, the centralizing Republic, rotten Orleanism, foul Imperialism, and lastly the German Empire – it is not wonderful if, surrounded by such enemies of the human race, the heroes of the Revolution, driven to despair, made up their minds not to vanish till they had destroyed with them the Paris of Centralization and Monarchy.
The history of great peoples contains startling pages which compel the admiration of posterity, and the greatest of these are not generally the records of speedy victories or obvious successes, but rather those terrible tragedies in which the souls of nations are rent to the very depths, and show suddenly such tremendous energies that we do not know whether they ought not to inspire us with elevation rather than fear.
It is not so much the victories of Salamis and Plataea, but far more the Athenians abandoning their city to fire and pillage rather than submit to an alien yoke, which has shed such an enduring ray of heroism from Athens. Rome is fairer, vanquished by the Gauls and threatened by Hannibal than triumphing with Caesar. The most solemn hour of the Revolution of the Low Countries was that when William the Silent, in despair of victory, proposed to break the dykes and abandon the very soil of his country to the sea rather than it should be trampled under foot by the Spaniards. The Spaniards, in their turn, in their resistance to Napoleon, were at their greatest when they defended Saragossa from house to house against the French, burning all rather than surrendering. It is not the passage of the Beresina which is sublime, but rather that burning of Moscow which revealed the virtues of antiquity in new and almost barbarous Russia.
Such are the memories which peoples guard as tokens of undying glory, because, in these events, their energies attain the summit of power. The intensest passion used for the furtherance of the loftiest and purest ideal – there is nothing higher than this under the sun. Therefore, the conscience of the people is not deceived herein, and it is in these passages of despair and enthusiasm that they inscribe the names of their heroes.
So, for our part, we say that the Parisians who chose to bury themselves in the smoking ruins of Paris rather than to allow Socialism and the Revolution to be befouled and degraded are as great as the greatest heroes of history.
Last updated on 15.7.2006