E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

I. Introduction

In an historical sketch of the events of the movement known as the Paris Commune of 1871 it is desirable to start with the endeavour to fix that movement in its true historical perspective.

Now, the Paris Commune occupies a peculiar position in the history of the proletarian movement. It forms the culmination of the first period of modern Socialism – a period in which the elements of prior movements were still clinging to it. The distinction between Socialism and Anarchism had not as yet fully emerged; the Anarchistic-Individualistic doctrines of Proudhon still had adherents within the Socialist party; while Bakounin was regarded as one of the pillars of the International. The old French Red Republican party, of which the Commune was the outcome and expression, was a very mixed concern. In addition to the elements above referred to, there were archeological survivals of the ideas of ’48, and even of the Jacobins of the Great Revolution. This first period of modern Socialism dates from the foundation of the Communist League and the issue of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels in 1847, and closes with the practical extinction of the old International in 1873. After the great work of the International in the Commune, it did nothing worth speaking of, although much, feared by the authorities on the Continent. But apart from the socialist movement in its proper sense, it is necessary, in order to fully understand the strains which composed the Paris Commune, to note more particularly, its relation to the general revolutionary movement of 48, and to the French national revolutionary tradition. The European Revolution of 1848 was the culmination of the bourgeois revolutionary movement which began in the sixteenth century, and which in England partially, though very imperfectly, succeeded in breaking down the monarchical bureaucracy veneered with Feudalism – into which the mediaeval political system had become transformed – at the close of the seventeenth century. On the Continent, however, this transitional political order of things, based on the power of the reigning monarch (in Germany, prince or duke) and his functionaries, was not even scotched, much less killed, before the end of the eighteenth century. In the general reaction which succeeded the French Revolution it was temporarily resuscitated with slight modifications, but it suffered again a partial reverse in 1830-2, and from that time forward the irresistible wave of middle-class ascendancy gathered its forces till it swept all before it in the great revolutionary year. The middle class was backed by the proletariat, as yet politically undifferentiated from it, and constituting, so to say, the body of the progressive party, which the middle-class leaders claimed to direct as its head.

One of the main features of the popular movement of ’48 was “patriotism,” by which was understood centralisation – the “United Germany,” “United Italy,” – “Independent Hungary”, mania, and the rest. All the united, independent, and patriotic balderdash, over which so much rhetorical froth and so many gallons of good black ink were expended, has since been realised. They have it now, all for which they strove. And what good has come of all the centralising bureaucratisation that the patriotic “forty-eighter” orated, struggled, gushed, and wept for by turns as the goal of human aspiration? These precious “united” nationalities are now groaning under the united and independent military and administrative budgets of their respective beloved fatherlands. One would think, if one is to risk one’s skin at all in a revolutionary enterprise, it were better to save it for something more worth having than the sorry result for which most of the Continentals of 48 were so eager to risk theirs!

In 1848 the present constitutional basis of Europe was established, and since then the middle-class “advanced” movements have become more and more moderate as the class itself has become politically dominant and settled down. The; revolt of even the small middle class has, since ’46, disappeared, its main object having been attained, such changes as the poorer section of the class demand, with few exceptions, having been striven for by peaceful and constitutional methods. In 1848, in short, the bourgeoisie, which had long been economically dominant, put the finishing touch to its political emancipation.

Yet the ’48 Revolution, though predominantly a middle-class concern, is signalised by the first appearance of the proletariat in conscious opposition to the middle-class – to wit, in the German Communist League and the Paris insurrection of June in that year. The former of these movements was the beginning of Socialism: the latter, though, as above said, a conscious class-movement, was, in its turn and general character, rather a survival of the original revolt of the French proletariat during the great Revolution than the beginning of any new departure on the part of the French working-classes, notwithstanding that the immediate “plank” was Louis Blanc’s scheme. Indeed, at this time and for some years later, “Scientific Socialism,” as we understand it to-day, was practically unknown in France, the brilliant essays of Proudhon being the nearest approach to anything of the hind.

It remains to say a few words on the revolutionary tradition in France Amongst the working-classes of the large towns – notably of Paris, of course, but also of Lyons, Marseilles, and other places – the remembrance of the power and position of the then young proletariat during the great years of the Revolution, 1792 to 1794, had lingered on ever since, now and again bursting out in somewhat aimless revolt, and again slumbering for awhile, but always there. The party of the people embodying this tradition, which, of course, from time to time absorbed new ideas of a Socialistic nature as they arose, became definitely constituted in 1848, and was known after that year as the Red Republican Party, from the fact that, in the June insurrection, the red flag was adopted by the insurgents (I believe at the suggestion of Louis Blanc, when the national workshop system was the immediate question at issue) and everywhere acclaimed as the banner of the class-conscious proletariat and of Socialistic Republicanism, in opposition to the tricolour, which was that of the middle-classes and of bourgeois or political Republicanism. Such was the origin of the flag which is now, the world over, the great ensign of the modern Socialist movement.

In addition to the active Red Republican Party and its popular leaders, there has always existed in France a class of men who have made the history of the great Revolution their life-study. These men naturally conceive of every revolution as modelling itself on the lines of the French Revolution of 1789-96. Their influence has reacted on the popular movement and its leaders, and confirmed the natural bias of every Frenchman to try and re-live and re-act the greatest epoch in his national history, the general outlines and prominent names of which he is familiar with from his youth up.

In addition to the foregoing influences, there was, of course, that of the International, and with it, the Marxists, who had been industriously propagandising among the Parisian working-classes for five or six years past, and who made their influence felt at the time we are speaking of.

Such was the amalgam of tendencies and ideas – Proudhonism, neo-Jacobinism reminiscences of ’48, with a recent infusion of the modern Socialism of Marx – which in various proportions went to constitute the mental background alike of the leaders and the rank and the of the French Red Republican Party in 1871, at the time when it established the Commune of Paris.


Last updated on 12.3.2004