In spite of his volcanic temperament, Marx did not find anything in these precautionary measures to which he could not agree. He said in his Civil War in France, p.53:
The great social measure adapted by the Commune was one for the existence of the working element. This special measure could only point the way in which a government of the people, through the people, could function.
After Marx had so described the dictatorship of the proletariat as the government of the people through the people, in other words, as democracy, he continues, and praises the financial measures adopted by the Commune as “excellent both in their wisdom and moderation” (p.54).
Shortly before, Marx shows in the same work the principles on which a period of transition from capitalism to Socialism must proceed:–
The working classes did not demand any miracle from the Commune. It had no ready-made Utopias to introduce, as a result of popular decision. It knew that, in order to obtain its own freedom, and to fashion along with that some better standard of living, which the present state of society had made impossible through the economic complications then existing, the working class would have to go through a long process of preparation, and sustain many fights before men, as well as circumstances, could be completely transformed. It had no ideals to realise. It had merely to give the elements of the new society freedom to expand, the elements which were already latent in the crumbling bourgeois society. (p.50).
From the sentence, “the working class had no ideals to realise,” it has been concluded that Marx contributed to the Social movement no set aim and no definite programme. Burt this is disproved by the fact that he himself drew up the Socialistic programmes from The Communist Manifesto, of 1847 onwards to, the time of the programme of the French Labour Party, which he finished in 1880 with the collaboration of Guesde and Lafargue. In the above-cited paragraph he already gives the aims of the Social movement, namely, emancipation of the working class by means of victory and progressive class war, and the creation of a better standard of living, which would follow from the coming into power of the working class, and which would be based on the results of modern science.
It might be urged against Marx that these aims were nothing else but ideals, and therefore that the working class had still ideals to realise, but among the ideals which were not realisable Marx clearly understands all transcendental ideas, such as lie beyond the spheres of time and place, such, for instance, as the ideas of eternal justice and freedom. The aims of the workers’ movement were provided by the economic development that was then in progress. The special forms of their realisation are in a continuous state of development, and are indeed dependent on time and space. Socialism is for him no ready-made Utopia, but a process which promises a lengthy development of economic relations and also of the working class itself, a development which should not come to an end after a political victory, but which could only continue by setting at liberty “the elements of the new society.”
Already two decades before Marx had prescribed a lengthy preparation on the part of the working class, and the knowledge of the actual state of affairs as conditions necessary for the social revolution. After the breaking up of the Revolution of 1848, he recognised, as a result of his study of the economic conditions, that the Revolution for the time being had come to an end. This brought him into conflict with many of his comrades, who saw in this mere treachery towards the Revolution. The masses had need of a revolution, and they had the will for it; and therefore it was inevitable, so they said. But Marx replied in September, 1850, in the following words:–
In place of a critical examination the minority (the League of the Communists) sets up the dogmatic; instead of the materialistic conception of things, the idealistic. Instead of the actual condition of things being the driving force of the Revolution, they seek for that driving force in mere will; whereas we say to the workmen, “you have to go through twenty or fifty years of civil wars and struggles, not only to change conditions but also to change yourselves, and to make yourselves capable of political government.” You say to the workmen, on the contrary, “we must at once seize power or we might as well lie down and sleep.” Whereas we point out, specially to the German workers, the undeveloped state of the German proletariat, you flatter in the crudest manner possible their national feelings and the class prejudice of the German artisan, which is naturally much more popular.
Just as the democrats have converted the word ‘people’ into something almost sacred you have done the same with the word ‘proletariat.’ Like the democrats you substitute the word ‘revolution’ for ‘revolutionary development.’ Marx: (Cologne Communist Trial, new issue, 1885).
When Marx protested against the idea that mere will should be made the driving force of the Revolution, he did not mean to say, of course, that the will had nothing to do with the matter. Without will-power no conscious action is possible. Without the will, no revolution is possible, indeed no history. The first condition of every social movement lies in the strong will, which social endeavour engenders, and which arises from a deeply felt need. But with the will alone nothing can be achieved If the movement is to have any success, there must be something more than the mere will and mere need. I may have the will to live for ever, and this will may be unusually strong in me, nevertheless it cannot preserve me from death. If then the movement is to have success, the will must confine itself to what is possible, and the need must find the means to secure its own satisfaction. Moreover, those who will to do anything must possess the power to overcome any opposition that may arise. It is the purpose of discussion to distinguish, as a result of the examination of actual conditions, the possible from the impossible, and to show the mutual relation of strength. In this way the latent powers in humanity can be concentrated on what is practicable at the time. In this way all waste of energy may be avoided, and the existing power may be turned to better use, and operate more intensively.
This discernment in social matters is, however, by no means easy to obtain; for the economic foundations of society are in a state of continuous development and change, and, in addition, social needs change also, as well as the means by which these needs shall be satisfied, and the forces which shall accomplish what is practically possible. Moreover, society becomes more complicated, wider in its embrace, and ever more difficult to penetrate. Certainly human intelligence, it is true, increases, and the methods of knowledge improve, but the human mind is not always fashioned to recognise actual relations as they are. It always tries to satisfy the needs of the time. But wherever the actual condition of things renders the satisfaction of these needs impossible, the human mind is only too inclined, from sheer imagination, to read into these conditions a very friendly aspect in accordance with what it desires. Man does not wish to die, but knowledge of actual conditions tells him that he must die. Yet human penetration has managed to discover in these very conditions same sign that we continue in existence after death. The proletariat of the Roman Empire lived in wretched poverty. Nevertheless they felt most strongly the need for a joyous life of pleasure without work; but actual conditions excluded such a life from the bounds of possibility. Despite all, their human instincts promised them such a life in the direction in which they thought they were going.
The idea of the deity was the means to make the weak strong, and the impossible possible. It was to raise the small, ill-treated Jewish people to be lords of the earth. It would give the indignant band of defenceless peasants, at the time of the Reformation, the victory over the well-equipped and well-disciplined armies of the potentates of that time. In the nineteenth century the proletariat discontinued to believe in a deity that would thus come to the rescue; but the picture of the great French Revolution, in which at certain times the proletariat of Paris was able to challenge the whole of Europe, caused a new belief in miracles to arise, which made them believe in the wondrous powers of the Revolution and the revolutionary proletariat. They needed merely to will in order to achieve what they willed. If nothing came of it, that was due merely to the fact that they had not willed. As against this idealistic conception, Marx championed the materialistic view, which insisted that the actual conditions of things should always be taken into account: Certainly these conditions made the emancipation of the working classes and a higher standard of living state of society, one of its aims which “the present as the result of its development, absolutely possesses.” These aims were not, however, to be immediately achieved, like some “ready made Utopia.” They did not form a complete scheme applicable to all times, but engendered merely a new form of social movement and development.
The working class, therefore, is not always, and in all circumstances, mature enough to take over control. It must everywhere go through a period of development, in order to become capable. Furthermore, it cannot choose the moment when it shall come into power. If the working class does take over control, then it must not simply destroy the means of production which it finds in existence. It must rather seek to carry on what is already existent, to develop it further in accordance with the needs of the proletariat, and to “liberate the elements of the new society,” all of which in different circumstances requires very different treatment. It will thus at any given moment more easily find what is attainable the more clearly it understands the actual conditions and takes them into account.
When, after the downfall of Napoleon, the possibilities of a proletarian Revolution arose, Marx gave it a good deal of serious thought. Certainly the Parisian workers were the most intelligent workers in the world at that time. They were not living in vain in the very heart of the world, in the very home of enlightenment and revolution. Nevertheless, the Empire had denied them a good school-system, freedom of the Press, as well as political, and for a long time also industrial, organisation. Therefore, to make use of the Republic for the better education and organisation of the working classes, to uphold and defend the Republic with every means in power, seemed to Marx to be the most imperative need of the time. There was one circumstance which rendered acquisition of political power by the workers at the time impossible, namely, the fact that the greater part of the country was still agrarian, and the population of Paris itself still largely small bourgeois. Moreover, the world’s history does not depend upon our mere will power. It can just as little postpone the coming of revolution as it can hasten it. The rising of the Paris workers and their victory on March 18th were inevitable. From henceforth it was for the people to become clear as to what the actual state of affairs permitted the victorious proletariat to carry out, and to concentrate all their strength upon this design.
Marx did not regard it as the chief duty of the Paris Commune at that time to do away with all capitalistic means of production. He wrote to Kugelmann about this on April 12th, 1871:
If you will turn up the last chapter of my 18th Brumaire you will find that I proposed, as the next attempt for the French Revolution, to undertake that they should not endeavour to wrest the bureaucratic military machine out of the hands of one man and give it to another, but smash it up completely. This is the necessary condition of every real popular revolution on the Continent. This is also what our heroic comrades in Paris are attempting. (The New Times, No.20, 1, p.709.)
There is no word of Socialism in this letter. Marx proclaims that the chief duty of the Commune is to destroy the power then in the hands of the bureaucrats, the militarists. Obviously the proletariat can never come to the head of affairs without striving, along with the changes in the organisation of the State, to realise also the changes in the organization of the means of production, which should ameliorate its position. If we characterise all such attempts at political power with this end in view as Socialism, then certainly there was Socialism in the Commune, but State Socialism was far removed from what we to-day understand as Socialism. Naturally that was due in part to want of time. The whole rising lasted only a few weeks. For the most part this was due to the fact that this rising was confined to the small industrial elements in Paris. As the result of the existing economic basis, little more could be achieved than the transformation of single workshops into associations of productive workers.
The organisation of a complete branch of industry into a unified system of production and control of its exports, as well as of its raw materials, was hardly possible at that time. If the Commune had been successful, it might have acquired for itself the whole of the State and Government machinery. It might also have introduced nationalisation of railways, perhaps also of mines and ironworks. But all this would not have done away with capitalism, for it was already in operation to a large extent, or at least in preparation, in neighbouring Germany. But under a proletarian and democratic regime it would nevertheless have greatly raised the social position of the working-class. In addition to lack of time and to the economic backwardness of the country, there came a further serious hindrance to “socialisation,” namely, the ignorance of the men who were in the Commune. The Jacobins and Blanquists cared not one farthing for economic matters. The Internationalists, as we have seen, attributed to them the greatest importance; yet just at the time of the Commune they were theoretically untenable. These Internationalists had the intention of abandoning the Proudhonist basis, but they were not prepared to go so far and deliberately put themselves on the side of the Marxists. In the meanwhile, in spite of their fears, Marx agreed with the method of the Commune, namely, first of all to examine the economic question before making any changes, and not to introduce hasty decrees, which would fail of their object, cause confusion, and finally discouragement. Even if this caution arose more from theoretic uncertainty than from theoretic discernment, it agreed with all that Marx, in consequence of his materialistic conception of things, regarded as necessary, namely, that in the Revolution we must be guided not by mere will alone, but by a knowledge of the actual state of affairs. Debreuilh has characterised this feature of the Paris rising extraordinarily well in his Commune, p.419.
The policy of methodic expropriation, quite apart from the opposition of the other classes, was impossible, for the very good reason that the day labourers in the mass had no idea of the constitution of society other than the traditional one, and because they had not developed any institutions or trade guilds, which are absolutely necessary to ensure the normal working of production and exchange after all capitalistic organisation. has been removed. It is impossible to improvise a new regime, especially a Socialist regime, by means of decrees. Decrees and laws should rather make secure the relations already existing. If in this matter the Commune had attempted to act prematurely, probably the sole result would have been to cause a section of its own best powers to turn against it, without causing among the daily workers any appreciable disposition in their favour. They could not do otherwise than prepare the way for a general social provision, under the pretence of democratising the political machinery then in existence; and that is what they did. (Debreuilh.)
In this way the Marxian idea of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was realised on the social plane. This Marxian method of socialisation, which was so very much like that of the Commune, must be our method to-day. That does not mean to say that this same method and this same reserve must be employed in present day Germany, as was the case in the Commune of 1871 in Paris. Since then, half a century of the most powerful capitalist development has elapsed. The enormous progress that was made is shown by the fact that, at that time, it was Paris alone which rose in an insurrection that was not purely proletarian, without any support from the country; and that it had to succumb to the superiority of agrarianism, which was intimately bound up with bureaucracy and higher finance. In the year 1918 the German Revolution broke out throughout the entire Empire, and it was everywhere led by the proletariat. German agriculture constitutes hardly more than a quarter of the population (1907 – 29 per cent.), and industry has made enormous progress and has advanced to the formation of Trade Unions comprising whole branches of industry.
The Parisian proletariat in 1871 had only just emerged from the Bonaparte regime, which had hitherto prevented it from acquiring any means of education or of organisation. The German proletariat entered on this Revolution with the political and corporate experience of half a century, with political and economic organisation, which embraced millions of people. And finally, the Socialists of Paris in 1871 were on the point of giving up an economic theory that had proved to be unsatisfactory. But they had not gone so far as to evolve another and superior theory. German Socialism has at its command the historical and economic insight and the clear methods of a theory, which has been recognised by the Socialists of all countries as the highest and best, and which even the bourgeois classes accept, thanks to its enormous superiority over any other conception of economics now prevailing. In these circumstances Socialism can proceed much more rapidly, more energetically and with quicker results than was ever possible in 1871.
We have already spoken of an economic method of the Commune. But we have shown that such a method in the real sense of the word was not to be found. It is impossible to speak of a well-considered and well-planned method in the Commune. For this reason alone, that in the Commune so many opposing forces were endeavouring to work together. The method of procedure in the Commune was the result of opposition, and not of a definite theory. The Socialists themselves in the Commune were not very clear and definite, and they represented only the minority. Nevertheless their spirit and conception of things ruled the economic ideas of Paris at the time. Whereas, however, the majority attached little importance to economics, and felt themselves even more insecure than did the minority, with politics in the Commune it was different. The opposition that arose in the Commune over politics was far greater. This opposition seriously influenced and almost destroyed the capacity of the Commune for work, but the general tendencies arising therefrom gradually found a middle course, which Marx also accepted, as he did the methods of procedure in regard to economics. We know already that the majority of the Commune consisted of Jacobins and Blanquists. When they entered the Commune of Paris they hoped to influence the whole life of France similar to the manner of 1793. They were Radical Republicans and freethinkers; they wished to destroy the whole apparatus of monarchy, of the clerical system as well as the bureaucracy, and the standing army; and yet they could have arrived at the supreme command of Paris only by means of a State organisation, which would have made one of the central positions in Paris a strong means of force. They forgot that the Paris Commune of 1793, by means of the centralised power which was thereby developed, actually prepared the way for Bonaparte and the Empire. They hoped to get salvation by means of dictatorial power, without realising that a dictatorship, which is not supported by sternly disciplined armies and organised administration, is the mere shadow of a dictatorship. In strong opposition to the centralising Jacobins were the Proudhonists, who were extremely critical of the traditions of 1793, which they in fact abhorred. They realised the illusions which led to the Reign of Terror, and which befooled the proletariat and made it bloodthirsty and brutal, without in the least aiding it towards freedom. But they were not less critical towards democracy. Universal suffrage in 1848 had helped to create the reactionary National Assembly, and had become the main support of the Empire.
Indeed, in the economic conditions of France at that time the State policy, whether of the dictatorship or of the democracy, could offer no hope for the immediate emancipation of the proletariat. A means towards this end was sought by the Socialists. The idea of development in general, as well as of the significance which democracy might have for the development of political insight and the organising capacity of the proletariat, and ultimately for its emancipation – to this idea they were completely strange. For the immediate emancipation of the proletariat at that time neither the dictatorship nor the democracy was very hopeful. This the Proudhonists understood very well; but the consequences they drew from this were not good. Entirely without a policy such as they wished, they found it was impossible for them to proceed. At this time the communal policy in certain industrial municipalities offered the proletariat quite other prospects than those offered by the State policy in a country which was preponderantly agrarian. Democracy in the districts was of great importance; in the State it was of small account. The bitter critics of the State Parliaments, of these “talking shops,” as they called them, had nothing to say against the communal talking shops and Parliaments. The sovereignty of the municipality became the ideal of the Proudhonists. Their idea is shown already in the status of industry as they regarded it. Moreover, they did not intend to do away with exchange; for even at that time there were business concerns, whose economic importance extended far beyond the single community. In order to control such concerns, it was necessary for the different municipalities to combine. In this way the Proudhonists hoped to emancipate the industrial proletariat and agrarian France. But they forgot one small thing, namely, that the idea of dissolving the State into sovereign municipalities was also a State idea, to carry out which the overthrow of the existing State was necessary, which was exactly what the proletariat wished to avoid. The idea of the Commune, in the Proudhonist sense, was therefore the direct contrary to the idea such as the Jacobins held. For the Jacobin, the Commune of Paris was a. means to obtain State power far the control of the whole of France. For the Proudhonist, the sovereignty of each Commune was a means to putting an end to State power as such.
Arthur Arnould characterises very well this contrast of the revolutionary Jacobins and the “Socialist Federalists” in his book, Histoire Populaire et Parliamentaire de la Commune de Paris. The same words were often understood by the different members of the Assembly in two quite different ways.
For one group, the Commune of Paris represented the first application of anti-government principle, the war against the old conception of the centralised despotic single State. The Commune represented for them the triumph of the principle of autonomy, of the free federation of groups, and of the most direct form of government ‘of the people by the people’; but in their eyes the Commune formed the first stage of a great revolution, social as well as political, which had nothing to do with the old methods of procedure. It was the very negation of the idea of a dictatorship. It was the seizure of power by the people themselves, and therefore the destruction of every power that stood outside the people or over them. The people, who so felt and thought and willed, represented that group which afterwards was called the Socialist Group, or the Minority. For the others, on the other hand, the Commune of Paris was the continuation of the old Commune of 1793. In their eyes it represented dictatorship in the name of the people, an enormous concentration of power in the hands of a few, and the destruction of the old system through the setting up of new men at the head of the system, whom, for the moment, they provided with arms to fight a war in the service of the people against the enemy of the people.
Among the men of this authoritative group, the idea of the centralised individual State had by no means disappeared. If they accepted the principle of municipal autonomy and the free federation of groups, and even proclaimed this on their banners, they did so solely because the will of Paris forced them. They remained slaves to old habits and thoughts. As soon as they came into power, they continued in their old habits and allowed themselves, certainly with the best of intentions, to employ old methods to new ideas. They did not realise that in such cases the former always gains the victory in the struggle, and that those who try to establish freedom by means of the dictatorship, or of mere arbitrariness, generally destroy that which they would save. This group, which consisted of many various elements, formed the majority, and they were called ‘The Revolutionary Jacobins.’
Debreuilh has quoted these comments with the remark that they referred only to the two extreme tendencies. That is true. It is equally true that in all such tendencies many new shades of opinion are to be found. Still, if we wish to have a clear idea of them we must regard the most pronounced characteristic, as if it were the classical characteristic. The opposition that existed was enormous. It might never have been overcome had the Commune been victorious. But it was not victorious, and that forced the contending parties to strike out some fresh line. From April 3rd onwards the Commune found itself on the defensive, and had to surrender all idea of conquering France and ruling it. In this way all the Jacobin hopes fell to the ground. Far from hoping to rule through the Commune, they had to be content if they succeeded merely in preventing the new-found liberties of Paris from being crushed by reactionary France. But in those circumstances there was just as little hope that the Proudhonist dreams would be fulfilled, that the French State would crumble to pieces, and that complete sovereignty would be bestowed on the separate municipalities. The Centralising Jacobins, like the Federalist Proudhonists, were obliged by the force of circumstances to work for the same object, which would be realisable under favourable circumstances, which became of paramount importance for the whole of France, and was even demanded by many of its citizens and politicians. This abject was, namely, the self-control of the municipalities, their independence within limits drawn by the State democracy, and the, limitation of the power of State bureaucracy, as well as the setting up of a militia in place of the standing army. The Internationalists recognised this democratic State all the more readily, because, as we have seen, they were drawn into a fight against the Empire in those latter years, and therefore were involved in a State policy and had begun. to carry out strict Proudhonism mingled with Marxist ideas.
The final result was a policy, which Marx himself would have recognised and sanctioned if he had been in Paris; but he would not have been able to join either the one or the other party. He would have been quite isolated. Nevertheless, force of circumstances and the wisdom of the best heads of the Commune, who really took into consideration the actual “circumstances” and were not driven by “mere will,” resulted in the striking out of a line of policy, which showed much resemblance to that of Marx himself. To this policy, still more than to its economic measures, Mendelssohn’s remark well applies (in his appendix to Lissagaray, p.525): “The creators of the Commune seem not to know what they have created.”
The political order of things newly created by the Commune, amidst the bitterest internal struggles, proceeded on lines between the two extremes. The great misfortune from which the Commune suffered was its lack of organisation. It was the natural outcome of the lack of organisation, routine and ability in the Parisian proletariat at the time, which had really only just broken away from the Empire. The Commune, from the very beginning, stood in a state of war with Versailles. Nowhere are organisation and discipline more necessary than in war. They were completely lacking in the Commune. The battalions of the Commune were commanded by officers whom those battalions themselves had elected. In this way the officers were independent of the supreme command, but were dependent on those who had chosen them. On these lines it is impossible to organise a real fighting army, for such an army is only possible where internal disorganisation is forbidden.
This is what the Bolsheviks in Russia have seen, for they very soon put an end to the powers of the Soldiers’ Councils and of the election of officers through the men, when they found themselves involved in a. really serious war. Whether or not the different battalions of the National Guard obeyed the orders of the supreme command depended entirely upon their mood. Small wonder, therefore, that the number of actual fighters in the Commune was very small. Pay was made to 162,000 men and 6,500 officers, but the number of those who went into the fire and fought varied after those fatal days of April 3rd from 20,000 to 30,000. These brave fellows had to sustain the whole fearful burden of battle against a well-disciplined and well-equipped superior force, which in the second half of the month of May numbered at least 120,000 men. Disorganisation from below was still more increased by disorganisation from above. Alongside of the Commune, the Central Committee of the National Guard continued to exist. It had formally handed over all its power to the Commune. Nevertheless, it continued to intervene in all orders given to the National Guard. Marx, in a letter to Kugelmann, on the Commune of April 12th, 1871, regards it as a mistake that the Central Committee so early abandoned its power in order to make room for the Commune (Neue Zeit, XX., p.709). He does not give the ground for this statement, and we therefore cannot tell why this seemed to him to be a mistake – apparently on account of the reaction of the conduct of the war. He regards this mistake as the second one made by the Parisians. The first mistake, according to him, consisted in their not having marched against Versailles immediately after March 18th. These two mistakes may have been the cause of defeat. In the meantime, unfortunately, all these fundamental mistakes, which made the military situation of the Commune from the very start so hopeless, were made already, before the Commune ever assembled. Nothing can show that the conduct of the war, under the command of the Central Committee, would have met with any more success than it had under the Command of the Commune. On the contrary, that Committee showed itself to be more vacillating even than the Commune. The conduct of war is not the proletariat’s strongest point.
The worst that happened, however, was the existence of two simultaneous independent supreme powers, to which was added yet a third, which interfered with the carrying on of the war, namely; the “Committee of Artillery.” The Committee of Artillery, which was formed on March 18th, made trouble with the Ministry of War over the cannons. The Ministry of War was in possession of the cannons of Marsfeld, whereas the Artillery Committee had those of Montmartre. (Lissagaray, History of the Commune, p.205.)
Everywhere an attempt was made to minimise the general organisation, by strengthening the power of the Government. In place of the Executive Commissions, of which we have already spoken, there was formed, on April 20th, an Executive Council consisting of nine men, each of whom was a delegate from each of the nine Commissions. But the evil was too deep-rooted to be removed by such a measure. The Jacobins, mindful of the traditions of 1793, demanded a Committee of Public Safety with dictator’s powers, which would reduce the Commune to nothing. The continuous advances of the Versailles troops caused the member of the Commune, Miot, “who had one of the finest beards of 1848” (Lissagaray, p.273) to demand on April 28th the formation of a Committee of Public Safety, in other words, of a new Commission, which should be over all other Commissions. As to the necessity for a powerful executive everybody was in agreement, although the question of a name, for that executive caused heated debate. The Revolutionary Jacobins thought that if this Commission was called the Committee of Public Safety, it would bestow on that Committee the victorious power of the French Republic of 1793, with its Committee of Public Safety. But this very tradition, which brought into remembrance the Regime of Terror, repelled the Proudhonists. With 34 votes against 20 it was decided on May 1st to form this Committee. In the election, which led to its formation the greater part of the minority, 23, abstained, giving the following explanation:
We have not set up any candidate. We did not want anybody who appeared to us to be as injurious as he would be useless; for we see in this Committee of Public Safety the denial of the principles of Social reform, out of which the Communal Revolution of March 18th arose.
This Committee of Public Safety, which was to lead to increased energy on the part of the Commune, at the same time prepared the way for its disorganisation. In fact, it split the Commune. For this reason alone the Committee lost all moral power, and further, those who alone performed any serious work in the Commune, namely the Nationalists, held aloof from it. Its members were all, with the exception of one, “bawlers,” as Lissagaray expressed it. On May 9th this futile Committee was disposed of, in order that a new one might be elected. This time the Minority took part in the election, after it had seen that behind the much-feared name there was lurking nothing less than an actual dictatorship. But meanwhile the opposition between the Majority and the Minority had become so acute, that the Majority made the extraordinary mistake of not electing one member of the Minority to the Committee. The second Committee of Public Safety proved to be as incapable as the first. It even went further than the first, by actively rising against the Minority, and removing a certain number of the Minority from office, thus robbing the Commune of some of its best men. This led to an open breach. On May 16th the Minority published in the papers a declaration, in which they protested against the abdication of the Commune in favour of an irresponsible dictatorship, and announced that, from that time onwards, they would no longer take part in the work of the Commune, and would confine their activities solely to the districts and to the National Guard. In this way, they said, in conclusion, they hoped to save the Commune from internal strife, which they wished to avoid; because the Majority and the Minority were both working towards the same purpose. In spite of this conciliatory conclusion, it seemed that this declaration implied a complete rupture.
Nevertheless, although the Minority, for administrative work as well as for the solution of economic problems, was a good deal more capable than the Majority, in its politics it was not very decisive or logical. Against the dictatorship of the first Committee of Public Safety it had protested by abstaining from voting on May 1st. But on May 9th it had already recognised the dictatorship by proposing candidates for the Second Committee. On the 15th, again, they decided to make public protest against this same dictatorship, by stopping all collaboration in the Commune. On the 16th, the day of the publication of their protest, they yielded to the pressure of their friends, namely, of the Federal Council of the International, who urged them not to destroy the unity of the Commune in face of the insistent enemy: and so on the 17th fifteen of the twenty-two subscribers to the manifesto were again in their places in the Committee. But the majority was not by this means appeased, in spite of the attempt at reconciliation made by some of the more reasonable of their members, including Vaillant. A resolution, conciliatory in character, was refused, and a proposal of Miot’s was accepted, which ran as follows: “The Commune will forget the attitude of every member of the Minority, who withdraws his signature from the declaration. It blames this declaration.” Debreuilh remarks in connection with this, (p.440): “Thus Jacobins and Federalists stood together as enemy brothers at the last battle before their death.”
On May 21st the Versailles troops entered Paris. On the 22nd the last sitting of the Commune took place.
The policy of the Commune offers us a remarkable spectacle. Of the two tendencies which are represented in the Commune each was guided by a programme, which, had it been applied, could never have been carried out, and which only led its disciples to actions that were purposeless. But in spite of all this, one action and reaction of these two programmes on one another, as the result of the force of circumstances, produced a political programme, which was not only capable of being carried out, but which corresponded to the needs of France at the time, and which even to-day has latent within it the most fruitful possibilities. This programme consisted of a demand for self-administration of the municipalities, as well as for the dissolution of the standing army. These two fundamental demands of the Commune are to-day no less important for the welfare of France than they were at the time of the Second Paris Commune.
We cannot speak of the Committee of Public Safety without thinking of the Regime of Terror, which represented the very soul of that body in 1793. It was only natural that the Opposition arising over the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety should find its continuation in the question of terrorism. The Jacobins were, from the very start, as much in favour of recognising terrorism as a fighting means as the Internationalists were of repudiating it. Even in the very first meeting of the Commune its opposition was noticeable. A member proposed the abolition of the death penalty. “He wants to says the head of Venoy (the General of Versailles) was the retort they levelled at him.
Before the federation of, the International, Frankel formulated on April 29th the policy of the International, saying: “We wish to establish the rights of the workers, and that is only possible by persuasion and moral force.”
On the other side were people like the dramatic critic Pyat, the accountant Ferré and the student Raoul Rigault, who in their bloodthirsty demands were insatiable. In principle all Jacobins had to support Terrorist measures, but in actual practice there was little of these measures to be seen. Few could escape the humanitarian spirit which inspired the whole of democracy, bourgeois as well as proletarian. Moreover, the conditions which obtained at the time of the Second Paris Commune were not those that produced Terrorism at the time of the First Commune.
The Second Commune did not set about the impossible task of erecting a communal system on bourgeois lines which should serve the interests of the proletariat, and, further, it confined the application of its power to Paris, of which city the majority were certainly on its side. Thus it was not necessary for then to intimidate their opponents by resorting to forceful measures. The enemy who was really dangerous to the Commune stood outside the confines of their communal life, and was not to be affected by recourse to Terrorism. Thus the motive for putting Terrorist tradition into practice was lacking. What Raoul Rigault and Ferré in the Committee of Public Safety accomplished by their suppression of the Press and by their arrests was much more a mere bad imitation of the Empire than of the Reign of Terror, which proceeded on entirely different lines. The Blanquist student, Rigault, gained his laurels under the Empire in a continuous fight with the police, whose tricks he knew perfectly well.
Even before March 9, that is, before the insurrection, Lauser said of him: “Those who know him have told me the most astonishing things about his mad ways, and the cunning with which he spied out the police to frustrate all their persecutions, and indeed himself to play the part of the Prefect of Police of Paris.” (Under the Paris Commune – a Diary, Leipzig, 1878, p.18.)
On March 18 he had received official orders to act as the Prefect of Police of Paris. His first act was to take up a position at the Prefecture of Police on the night of March 18. His police system very soon met with lively opposition from all parties, but especially from the Internationalists. This system had little to do with the principles of 1793, although at the time he was working on a History of the Commune of 1793.
On the other hand, we must not attribute the execution of Generals Thomas and Clement to the Commune. As we have already shown, these executions took place before the Commune existed and in spite of the opposition of the Central Committee.
There was only one measure adopted by the Commune which can be described as Terrorist, and that was the arresting of hostages, undertaken to intimidate the enemy by oppressing the defenceless. That the taking of hostages is a hopeless method of procedure, which seldom prevents cruelties from taking place, and more often increases the barbarity of the fight which caused it, has often enough been proved in experience.
But it was difficult for the Commune to do anything else, unless it wished to suffer patiently and without protest that the men at Versailles should shoot the prisoners they had taken. In numerous cases this actually took place after April 3rd.
As the result of the indignation, which arose on account of the execution of the prisoners Puteaux and Chatillon, as well as of Duval, who was one of the officers of the National Guard taken prisoner by the Versailles troops during the attack on April 3, several members of the Commune insisted that one should forthwith shoot a number of the reactionaries, who, for the most part, were taken from the clergy of Paris. Other Jacobins, and particularly Delescluse, indignant at these excesses, proposed the decree concerning hostages. It was decided to oppose the Versailles elements on the bloody way into which they had blindly stumbled. By means of an implicit understanding, however, it was agreed that this decree should not be carried out. (Fiaux, Civil War of 1871, p.246.)
This decree, therefore, arose not out of an attempt to destroy human life, but to save it. On the one hand, to force the Versailles commanders to stop all further executions, and on the other, to make the Versaillais renounce the idea of immediate reprisals.
“Ever noble and righteous even in its anger,” so ran the proclamation of the Commune of April 5th, “the peoples view with horror the shedding of blood as well as civil war. But it is its duty to defend itself from barbaric attacks of its enemies; it must therefore act on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Journal Officiel, April 6th, p.169.)
In reality the Commune showed itself to be very noble and righteous, but it did not act in accordance with the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!
The decree issued by the Commune concerning hostages determined that any persons accused of being in agreement with Versailles should be immediately denounced and arrested. A court of justice was to be set up within the space of twenty-four hours to hear the accused, and within forty-eight hours pass judgment on him. No accused person was to be shot, but kept as hostage. Likewise all prisoners of war were to be brought before this same tribunal, which would thereupon decide whether they were to be set free or detained as hostages. Finally, it was decided that every execution practised on a fighter or follower of the Commune, who had been caught by the Versailles command, should be followed by the execution of three times the number of hostages. This last and most terrible decision of the decree really remained a dead letter. It was never put into practice by the Commune, although those in command at Versailles, after short interruptions, continued to shoot the prisoners they had caught, and seemed quite unconcerned by the fact that, by their action, they had jeopardised the lives of their friends, who had been kept as hostages in Paris. Thiers did his best to incite the Commune to slaughter. He knew perfectly well that every hostage shot rendered a service, not to the Commune, but to himself; because it roused public opinion at large, which was still governed by bourgeois thought and feeling, and coolly accepted the shooting of numberless prisoners at Versailles, whereas it waxed violently indignant over the mere arresting of hostages in Paris. This miserable attitude was shown by Thiers in the affair of the exchange of hostages.
After the decree of April 5th, there were taken as hostages in Paris a number of the clergy, a banker, Jecker, the originator of the Mexican Expedition, as well as the President of the Cour de Cessation, Bonjean. But the Commune proposed an exchange. They wished to set at liberty the arrested clergy, among them the Archbishop Darboy, the Pastor Deguerry, and the Vicar-General Lagarde, as well as President Bonjean, provided the Versailles Government would deliver up Blanqui, who was then under arrest. They were good-natured enough to allow the Vicar-General Lagarde to proceed to Versailles on April 12th with a letter of Darboy’s to Thiers, after he had sworn, to return if the deliberations should came to grief. But before that, on April 8th, Darboy had already addressed a letter to Thiers, and implored him to shoot no more prisoners. Thiers remained silent. On April 13th a Paris newspaper, L’Affranchi, published this letter. Whereupon Thiers replied; but with a lie, since he characterised all news about executions as being mere libel. The answer to the second letter, which Lagarde had handed in, was not received until the end of April. But the Vicar-General, in spite of his oath, was cautious enough not to return to brave the vengeance of the lion. In this answer Blanqui’s release was refused, but the Archbishop was comforted with the assurance that the lives of hostages were not in danger. Further attempts on the part of the Papal Nuncio and of the American Ambassador, Washburn, to intervene in favour of an exchange remained equally without success. Therefore Thiers was responsible for the fact that the above-named, with the exception of Lagarde, were still to be found as hostages in the prisons of Mazas, when the Commune broke up and lost the power to protect them. He was quite right in his assertion which, by the way, entirely disproved his libellous statement about the brutality of the Commune, that the lives of the hostages were not in danger. But it was he himself who laboured to overthrow the protecting bodyguard of the hostages, namely the regime of the Commune, indeed, under circumstances which placed the lives of these hostages in the gravest danger. Through some treacherous act, the Versailles troops forced their way into Paris on a Sunday, May 21st, quite by surprise, at the very time when a popular concert was in full swing in the Garden of the Tuileries, and at the conclusion of which concert an officer of the General Staff invited the audience to come again the following Sunday, adding:
Thiers promised to march into Paris yesterday. He did not come, nor will he ever come.” At that very moment the Versailles troops entered Paris. The inhabitants were so panic stricken, and the troops of the Commune so exhausted; that the Versailles army would probably have succeeded, by means of a rapid and determined advance, in occupying the whole of Paris without any serious opposition. But they entered very slowly, and this gave the defenders of the Commune time to gather together for a furious street fight, which lasted the whole of the week, the famous terrible May week.” This succeeded all the more in bringing passions to fever heat, since the Versailles commanders gave no pardon, and not only shot down all those who were arrested with weapons in their hands, but even all the suspects. Many historians of the Commune point out that this slow advance of the Versailles troops had the result of increasing the opposition, and likewise the number of those who fell, thus enhancing the immensity of the defeat.
Paris could have been taken in twenty-four hours if the army had proceeded along the quays of the left bank. It would have met with opposition only from the Ministry of Marine at Montmartre and at Ménilmontant. By means of its slow advance into Paris it gave time for the opposition to organise. They made eight and ten times as many prisoners as there were fighters, and they shot more men than actually stood behind the barricades, whereas the army lost only 600 dead and 7,000 wounded. (G. Bourgin, L’Histoire de la Commune, p.108.)
The number of dead on the side of the Commune exceeded 20,000, put by some at 30,000. The Chief of Military Justice, General Appert, counted 17,000 dead. The number of victims who did not come to the knowledge of the authorities cannot be fixed, but amounted to at least 3,000.
It is not to be wandered at that, in this fearful storm, the thirst for vengeance in many cases gained the upper hand. It became the more furious the more power it lost and the less able it was to avoid defeat. It was only after the Commune had ceased to exist that the execution of hostages began. On May 21st the Versailles troops entered Paris; on the 22nd street fighting began; on the 24th the last shot was fired. In this respect, although the executions were more the result of desperate rage and blind revenge than of premeditated action, the opposition between Jacobins and the Internationalists became obvious. The beginning of the executions was made by the fanatic Blanquist, Raoul Rigault. He ordered a number pf gendarmes, who were arrested on March 18, along with an editor, by name Chaudey, caught in the middle of April, to be executed on the night of May 23. Chaudey had caused the crowd to be fired upon on January 22, during which affray Sapia, a friend of Rigault was killed by his side. On the 24th Rigault himself was arrested and shot. At the same time the old Blanquist, Genton, demanded the execution of six hostages, among them the Archbishop Darboy, President Bonjean, and pastor Dugeurry, already known to us. The Blanquist, Ferré, gave him the authority.
The firing party of the execution was composed almost exclusively of young people, practically children. In most cases those taking part in these crimes were hardly more than adolescent young men, excited through the vice rampant in the towns, and whose passions, which had grown faster than their beards, left no place open for the feeling of responsibility. (Fiaux, Civil War, p.528.)
Unfortunately we cannot make the same observation to-day in Germany in the case of those who would justify by practice the right of war.
On the 26th it was again the Blanquist, Ferré, who arranged that forty-eight hostages, mostly priests, secret police, and gendarmes, who had fired on the crowd on March 18th, should be handed over to Colonel Gois, likewise a Blanquist. He took them along with him, followed by an armed crowd who were in utter disorder, since they could hope for no pardon, and since they were themselves doomed to death. In desperate rage they fell upon the hostages and killed them one after the other. In vain the Internationalists, Varlin and Serailler, tried to rescue them. They themselves were very nearly lynched by the furious crowd; who accused them of belonging to the Versailles Party. On May 28th this same Varlin, who had risked his life to save the hostages, was arrested by the Versailles command as a result of the denunciation of a priest, who had recognised him in the street, and he was forthwith shot.
Of the countless victims who succumbed to the murderous lusts of the victors, both during the fight and after it, those bourgeois elements that waxed indignant over the terrorism of the Commune had nothing to say. On the contrary, they had not words enough to express their furious condemnation, when they came to speak of the five dozen hostages who, after the downfall of the Commune, fell victims to the vengeance and irresponsibility of some of the Versailles Party.
It is this very account of the affair with the hostages that proves most clearly how far removed the Commune was from any form of terrorism. In the whole of history there is no mention of a civil war, hardly of a national war, in which one side, in spite of the murderous inhumanity of the other side, upheld in practice the principles of humanity with such noble determination, and in such contrast to the bloodthirsty phrases of a few of the “ Radicalinskis,” such as appeared in the French Civil War of 1871. This is the reason why the Second Paris Commune ended quite differently from the First, which had formed such a fearful Regime of Terror.
The Regime of Terror of the First Commune fell to pieces, without the workers of Paris offering any opposition. Indeed, its fall was felt as a relief by some, and by many even greeted with satisfaction. When, on the Ninth Thermidor, 1794, the forces of the two opposing Parties came into contact, the followers of Robespierre turned tail before a single shot was fired, and fled. On the other hand, the Parisians clung to the Second Paris Commune with fanatical tenacity to the very end. The fiercest street fighting was necessary for a whole week, before it could be overcome. The number of victims, of dead, wounded, prisoners and escaped, which resulted from the death struggle of the Commune, reached the number of 100,000. (In July, 1871, the number was put at 90,000 – Bourgin, La Commune, p.183.)
The Second Commune was torn asunder by violent opposition. We have seen this in the enmity of the two parties engaged in the last struggle. But never did one of these parties ever oppress the other by terrorist means. The Maximalists (“Bolshevik” means Maximalist in English) and the Minimalists (Russian “Mensheviks”) fought together, in spite of all, to the bitter end; and so all factions of Socialism in the Commune foresaw the necessity of common representation of the whole of the fighting proletariat. In recognising this they combined the views of Marx and Bakunin, Lassalle and Eisenach. The first government of the proletariat has engraved itself deep in the hearts of those who craved for the emancipation of humanity. The powerful effect of this “dictatorship of the proletariat” on the fight for emancipation in all countries was due, not a little, to the fact that it was inspired throughout with a spirit of humanity, which animated the working classes of the nineteenth century.
Last updated on 19.1.2004