E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XVII. The Lessons of the Commune

The great general lesson taught us by the failure of the Commune of 1871 is the supreme necessity of an organisation comprising a solid body of class-conscious proletarians and other Socialists well acquainted with each other, whose views are clearly defined, who know what they want, and who have, at all events, some notion of the course to pursue on an emergency. Had there been such a body of men in Paris in February and March, 1871, the subsequent course of events might have been very different. As a consequence of the heterogeneous nature of the elements comprising the Central Committee, divided councils prevailed, and any dishonest or incapable person (as, for instance, Lullier) who only made himself sufficiently busy could obtain a momentary ascendancy which at a critical juncture may be fatal.

The importance of not taking men on their own estimation alone, was, moreover, never realised, either by the Committee or the Commune. Had the Committee not trusted Lullier, but seen to the occupation of Mont Valerien itself, one of the greatest military blunders would have been avoided. Had there been a leading body of men to have given a head to the insurrection of the 18th of March, the gates of Paris would have been immediately closed, and the already disaffected troops would never have been suffered to slip through the fingers of the insurrection and form the nucleus of a hostile army at Versailles. The Ministers, the officers, in short all the civil and military functionaries of the Government would have been simultaneously arrested and preparations made for trying the guilty.

The Assembly and the Government had been collectively guilty of a crime, even from the ordinary point of view. They had violated the conditions under which they were elected, their mandate being solely to ratify the forms of peace, and then to appeal to the country on the constitutional issue. Instead of this they had virtually usurped the powers of a constituent assembly with the avowed intention of crushing all Republican, Democratic, and Socialistic aspirations throughout France, and especially of striking a blow at Paris, which they regarded as the head-centre of such aspirations – in other words, they were traitors to the country.

They had chosen as their leader the “head of the Executive,” Louis Adolphe Thiers, probably the cleverest, most hypocritical, and most unscrupulous villain that ever defiled the page of history. As stated in chapter III., owing to the remissness of the Central Committee, the chief of the monarchical conspiracy at Versailles was allowed to escape with the other Ministers from Paris instead of his having been arrested on the 18th of March. Had he, with the rest, been taken and tried, they might have been condemned and the execution of their sentence held over pending events. The Commune would then have had effective hostages. For the Versaillese would have thought twice of massacring prisoners if they had felt convinced that the first instance of the kind would have been answered by the peremptory execution of (say) Adolphe Thiers. The Commune wished the war to be carried out on decently humane principles. This was excellent in intention, but would not work without the bargain being endorsed by both belligerents. It was a criminal weakness on the part of the Commune not to shape its conduct lay the fact that the Versaillese were determined to conduct the war upon wild-beast principles. But the best hostage of ail, for the Commune, was the Bank of France. As M. Lissagary well says, the bank, the civil register, the domains, and the suitors’ fund, were the tender points on which to hold the bourgeoisie. Had the Committee or the Commune seized the bank with its millions, and the registers of 90,000 depositors throughout France, Versailles must have capitulated. Instead of doing this they allowed themselves to be bamboozled by a well-intentioned old fool like Beslay, who in his turn was made a tool of by De Ploeuc, the sub-governor of the bank, the result being that the vast financial resources at the disposal of the Commune remained virtually untouched.

No one among those engaged in the Revolution we have been describing seemed to appreciate the French maxim a la guerre, comme a la guerre (in war, as in war), and the scrupulosity of all concerned as to laying hands on the property or persons of their adversaries allowed the cause no chance. No one seemed even to appreciate adequately the ethics of insurrection – that an insurrectionary administration which has succeeded in establishing itself, becomes by that very fact (from the point of view of the insurrection) the sole rightful repository of power for the time being, and that the Government, against which the insurrection leas directed, becomes in its turn the rebel power, to be crushed in the most expeditious manner possible. The Assembly and the Ministers were rebels not to be parleyed with but suppressed. The Committee, instead of negotiating, should have at once thrown the whole force of the National Guard upon Versailles, then weak in resources, and dispersed the Assembly. This was the only reasonable tactics after having made the initial blunder of letting the Ministers escape, followed by the elements of au army. Instead, they allowed a whole fortnight to be frittered away in abortive attempts at negotiations which the Versaillese gladly protracted till they had organised their military forces, and made their arrangements with the German authorities for the rapid delivery of the prisoners of war. Of the later blunders we have already said enough in describing the course of the defence.

One of the most unfortunate characteristics of the leaders of the Commune was their sensitiveness to bourgeois public opinion. The first thing for the leader of a revolutionary movement to learn is a healthy contempt for the official public opinion of the “civilised world.” He must resolutely harden his heart against its “thrills of horror,” its “indignation,” its “abomination,” and its “detestation,” and he must learn to smile at all the names it will liberally shower upon him and his cause.

To aid in breaking the force of the representatives of the established order in press and on platform, it is necessary to have a vigorous party press which will place matters in their true light before that mixed and nebulous section of public opinion possessed of wavering or of no definite principles, but which, in default of thinking and examining into facts for itself, takes the impress of any statement that it finds repeated a few times without very decisive and publicly-made contradiction. The deliberate perversion of facts and the distorted judgments of the bourgeois journals anent the Commune were too impudently flagrant to have passed muster as they did, even with the ordinary mind, had there been a Socialist press to expose them, such as we now have, for example in Germany.

But the dominant classes, though they may succeed, by aid of their wealth and power, in perverting the truth for the time, can do no more. The proletariat once conscious of its class-interests, and knowing what these interests imply, will not forget the pioneers in the struggle for liberty. Already the 13th of March has become throughout the civilised world the greatest day in the Socialist calendar. The wonder is, indeed, not so much that the great capitalist class, possessing the monopoly of every organ of public opinion, of the whole press, and of every hall and meeting place, were able to drown the voice of truth and justice by their noisy bluff and bullying, but rather that despite all the clamour, and without any Socialist press at the time worth speaking of, the true meaning and facts of the Commune should have come to light as much as they did. But so it was. There were a few honest middle-class men to be found who, though caring nothing for the Commune, and with no sympathy for its aims, yet refused to join in the great class-conspiracy of vilification, and who, at all events up to their lights, spoke the truth as to what they had seen and heard in Paris under the red flag, who bore witness to the noble disinterestedness of the defenders of the cause, and to the foulness of their persecutors.

For the rest, if there is one lesson which the Commune has been the indirect means of teaching all who are willing to learn, and for which alone all Socialists should owe it a debt of gratitude, it is this: It has taught us all that the opinion of the “civilised world,” as voiced by the leader-writers of its great organs of the press, and the speakers on the platforms of its great party meetings, alike in its moral judgments, its political judgments, and its social judgments, has, in spite of all seeming diversity, one thing only as its final measure and standard – the interests, real or imagined, of the dominant capitalist class.


Last updated on 12.3.2004