E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XV. The Civilised World and Its “Thrill of Horror”

We have seen that the Commune had one special fault, that of a fatuous moderation in all its doings; we have seen that probably never since history began have any body of men allowed themselves and theirs to be treated as lambs in the slaughterhouse with more lamblike forbearance and absence of retaliation than the Commune and its adherents; we have seen this illustrated by the incredible fact that up to the last, amid all the slaughterings of Communists, the vast majority of the hostages and prisoners in its hands remained unscathed. We have seen on the other hand the Versaillese, under Thiers, organising with a cold-blooded deliberation and ferocity an orgy of blood for weeks in advance, keeping their hands in the while by isolated murders of prisoners of daily occurrence, in short, deliberately planning and carrying out a crime unexampled in history, compared to which the worst Anarchist “outrage” of our days is but as the pressure of a suckling’s gums is to the rending of a tiger’s maw. Having seen this, it remains to consider, in view of the facts, the attitude of the “civilised world” as expressed in its accredited organs, in other words the public opinion of bourgeois society. Now this public opinion, judging by its indignant eloquence over the infantile attempts of silly youths and others to feebly emulate the exploits of Thiers and the miscreants of Versailles in the line of cold blooded murder (e.g.. at the Liceo theatre and the Cafe Terminus) we might have imagined would have been animated at the very least to some energetic remonstrances. Such an expectation would have shown an ingenuous ignorance of the ways and the manners of a class public opinion, and its hired press lackeys. Not only was there no remonstrance, but as if by a concerted action, “Society” and its press began, not in France alone, but equally throughout the “civilised world,” to pour forth abuse, not on the murdering Versaillese, but on the murdered Communards.

The orgy of carnage penetrated by the Versailles troops was everywhere hailed as a glorious victory of “order.” The “Commune” was at once stamped as a bye-word of breath-baiting unutterable horror. The execution of a handful of hostages out of some hundreds, the single act of retributive justice exercised by the adherents of the Commune was a godsend to the bourgeois classes, as they wanted something to hang their vituperation upon, and otherwise they would have had to go on ranting anent the execution of their sainted heroes Lecomte and Clement Thomas, or else on the wickedness of the National Guards in the Rue de la Paix in daring to resent being prodded with sword-sticks, and riddled with the revolvers of the “respectable” mob which attacked them, both of which incidents were getting rather worn. It is true it did not much matter, as the “respectable” world was prepared to swallow anything against the Commune, and with or without the hostage business the villany of the Commune would have been equally great in its eyes. But still, the death of the hostages came as a good “stalking horse” for the sham “horror” and bogus “indignation” so extensively manufactured in Fleet Street and other places where they print on occasions when the voice of threatened class interests makes itself heard. An Archbishop was slain! Not merely a man, or a priest, or even a bishop, but actually an archbishop!! If that does not “thrill” us what would? What mattered it that he was a hostage for the lives of tens of thousands of innocent persons previously murdered in cold blood, including many children, at whose massacre the “civilised world” did not experience any symptom of that “thrill of horror and indignation” which invariably afflicts it when a representative of its own class-interests is killed!

It is a noteworthy circumstance how this “thrill of horror” accompanied by “indignation,” “detestation,” “abhorrence,” and the rest of the vocabulary of penny-a-lining Telegraphese, symptoms invariably following the assassination of some head of a State, never show themselves on the murder of a common domestic man through the official agency of the said State. For example, the “civilised world” duly thrilled over the knife in the late M. Carnot’s liver, but we failed to observe any “thrill” after the recent fiendish murder by the cavalry officer of the Italian soldier Evangelista. Yet had the attempt on Signor Crispi’s life been successful the “horror and indignation” tap would doubtless have been turned on as usual. Again, we did not notice any special symptoms of a “thrill of horror” over the deliberate shooting of a harmless passer-by by a Prussian sentry last year, for which the said sentry was specially rewarded by his sovereign! Had, instead, the sovereign had the misfortune to be shot at and killed by apolitical malcontent, we imagine the “civilised world” would have “thrilled” properly, with all the recognised accessory symptoms. If the prognosis and diagnosis of these “thrills of horror” he studied it will be seen that they regulate themselves in a singularly accurate manner in accordance with the danger to the existing order of society which the bourgeois thinks he sees in the nature of the act supposed to cause them. The murder of soldiers by their officers, and on occasion the shooting of harmless passers-by by sentries, are simply regrettable incidents of “military discipline,” a thing necessary to the existence of the modern bureaucratic State. Besides, no matter what the acts they commit, it would be subversion of all “order” to thrill with horror at anything done by “heads of State,” or even inferior Government functionaries in their official capacity.

At the time of the Commune I was not up to all this. Accordingly my innocent surprise at the number of mere domestic human lives it must take to equal that of an archbishop was considerable.

It was not for some time that I saw the full meaning of all the crocodile tears and caterwauling over the handful of hostages – not only that it was meant to drown the silent appeal for vengeance of the thousands of slaughtered workmen whose murder had led up to the retributive execution in question, but that this wholesale brew of horrific emotion (?) formed part of a tacitly understood, though none the less definite policy of the bourgeois world according to which moral judgments are to be dictated solely by political expediency, and the requisite sentiment pumped up to order.

The present Anarchist madness, of course, gives plenty of scope for the well-calculated fabrication of these newspaper and platform hysterics. The facts of the case are simply that the Anarchists in their foolish attempts to overthrow, by individual acts of violence, the existing order of society can be as cruel and unscrupulous as the governing classes can in their efforts to maintain it. The firing into unarmed crowds by which non-combatants are as likely to be killed as anyone else is certainly unjustifiable, yet it is universally recognised as a legitimate act of the Executive. We, as Social-Democrats, condemn the acts of the Anarchists, and we also condemn many of the acts of existing governments – for instance, capital punishment and panic-made laws. We believe the “potting” of the “heads” of States to be a foolish and reprehensible policy, but the matter does not concern us as Socialists. We have our own quarrel with the Anarchists, both as to principles and tactics, but that is no reason why, as certain persons seem to think, we should put on sackcloth and ashes and dissolve ourselves in tears because, say, M. Carnot or the head of any other State has been assassinated by Anarchists. What is Carnot to us or we to Carnot that we should weep for him? We do not specially desire the death of political personages, while we often regret their slaying on grounds of expediency, if on no others. But at the same time Socialists have no sentimental tears to waste over the heads of States and their misfortunes. To the Socialist the head of a State, as such, is simply a figure-head to whose fate he is indifferent – a ninepin representing the current political and social order, If one of these skittles is bowled over another will be put up in its place. To talk about the “head of the State” when alive as merely the representative of an impersonal political entity, to talk of him when executing some cruel function in the name of “law and order” as a mere mechanical figure “doing his duty,” and, when assassinated, as “the man, the brother and the father of his family,” over whose fate we are supposed to weep our eyes out, is a little too thin. Every sphere of life has its dangers, the chief danger attending the headship of a Government being assassination. The aspirant to this lucrative and “honourable” office and his friends should recognise this fact beforehand, and discount the risk in the general average, just as the soldier or the sailor discounts the risks attending his calling. As it is, the heads of States cannot be congratulated on the courage, either moral or physical, with which they face this comparatively slight danger.

The foregoing remarks are necessary as the “thrill of horror” in its varied forms is one of the stock properties of Reaction, by which it seeks to thimble-rig public opinion, and hitherto unfortunately with only too much success. People are told by their papers that they are feeling “thrills of horror” till they really think they are, the journalist who pens the gasping leaders meanwhile laughing up his sleeve, knowing it is all “business.” These observations are specially appropriate to the subject in hand, as never was there a more barefaced or more successful attempt made by the governing classes of the world to bluff their own hideous crime by trumping up a sham horror at their victims than in the “civilised world’s” verdict on the Commune of Paris.


Last updated on 12.3.2004