Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 19, April 1937, No. 4, pp. 253-255, (1,636 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian R.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
The Paris Commune of 1871
By Frank Jellinek. (Gollancz.)
447 pages. 8s 6d. To Left Book Club Members, 2s. 6d.)
One of the urgent needs of the British Labour Movement is a good history of the Paris Commune. At a time when thousands are being driven towards the movement, by the growing revolutionary crisis in Europe, it is necessary that they should know something of the history and lessons of the great struggle of the people of Paris in 1871. Because that period, when understood, helps us to understand the present, to face the future with courage and confidence. It is a pity, therefore, that Jellinek in his exciting study of the Commune, which is the best available in English, has confined himself to a descriptive and chronological narrative, though he presents the story with moving and thrilling brilliance. But surely, at this dark period of crisis, it is the duty of the Socialist historian—thanks to the genius of Marx and Lenin—to lift the Commune to the highest plane of historical interpretation, to use it as a beacon light. “This,” declares Lissagaray, who came straight from the barricades to write his history, “is due to the working men of the earth.”
Jellinek opens his story with a brief record of the rottenness of the empire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and shows how the war against Germany was a desperate gamble to meet a desperate situation. An equally brief account of the economic and political forces that drove emerging Germany forward to the war—and particularly the aim of Bismarck’s policy—would have been very helpful.
In the description of Paris before the war there are many splendid and penetrating portraits of the revolutionaries and journalists who remembered the struggles of 1848, and who dreamed of the great Jacobins of 1793. But more important than these is the examination of working-class Paris and the growth of the immature Socialist Movement. Before the war the Government had made many attacks on the workers, and particularly those who were influenced by the first International. Several mass trials had been staged and many leaders were imprisoned. All this aroused the masses against the government, and directed their attention to the class struggle.
Industry in Paris had not reached a high stage of concentrated development—even for I870. It was backward and rather lopsided and formed an uneven basis for building a workers’ movement. These conditions tended to create a leadership of unequal quality, and help to explain the absence of a highly disciplined revolutionary party.
Then came the war in 1870. The Prussian Army had an easy task. Within a few weeks the great French forts had capitulated, the Emperor was a prisoner, and Bismarck was hammering at the gates of Paris. The masses swept away the government and replaced it with one of National Defence.
The population of Paris made every effort to defend itself. The able-bodied male population was enrolled in the National Guard and organised into twenty districts. The workers showed their suspicion of the government by using their influence to set up Vigilance Committees within the National Guard. These were linked up and formed a Central Committee of the twenty districts of Paris—it was a rudimentary form of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. The Central Committee, by the pressure of events, was compelled to discuss and deal with problems of all kinds and became a powerful force in the politics of Paris. Thus, the masses were groping towards the creation of new political forms through which to enforce their will.
One of the tasks of the Central Committee was to arm and equip the National Guard and to procure heavy artillery.
Meanwhile Paris was being humiliated by the farcical “defence” against the Prussian Army. The government leaders, Thiers and Favre, surrendered to Bismarck and received permission to hold an election to ratify the terms of peace. The forts were surrendered and the 250,000 troops in Paris were disarmed. But not even Bismarck dared to ask the National Guard to yield up their arms.
At the elections for the National Assembly in February, 1871, reaction triumphed in the provincial areas and royalist candidates swept the country. Paris returned many republicans, and the workers, led by the Central Committee, the trade unions, and the international, made their influence felt.
Meanwhile Bismarck was demanding the acceptance of his indemnity bill and the handing over of Alsace-Lorraine. Thiers, as leader of the government, was anxious to concede all Bismarck’s demands. But he was afraid of Paris—armed Paris—and its workers and small middle class who knew upon whom the burden of the war and the peace would fall.
The reactionary National Assembly goaded and provoked Paris. During the siege the economic life of Paris had been paralysed. The middle class could not pay their bills, and the unemployed masses could not pay their rents. The National Assembly, in obedience to the landlord and financial interests, declared that both rents and bills had to be paid immediately. They also decided to make Versailles the capital instead of Paris. Thiers, by his policy, united against his government many social groups who seldom acted together. As the temper of revolt rose in Paris, and became dangerous, Thiers decided to disarm the city by removing the cannons of the National Guard from important strategical points. The spontaneous revolt of the workers, reinforced by the leadership of the Central Committee, defeated this plan. The Commune was declared and the Central Committee found itself functioning as the organ of government in Paris. For the first time in history—from the 18th March to the 28th May, 1871,—the workers had raised themselves to the status of a ruling class.
At the very moment of its triumph the Commune revealed the immaturity of its leadership that was destined to end in failure. It vacillated between the need for revolutionary action and the limitations of legal action. It allowed Thiers, who was trembling in Paris, to escape to his government at Versailles. Had the Commune immediately marched against Versailles they could have smashed the government. Tirard, one of the enemies of the Commune, confessed:
I am persuaded that if, on the l9th or 20th of March, the Federal battalions had left by the Châtillon route, Versailles would have run the greatest danger. (The Paris Commune. E.S. Mason. p.144.)
If the policy of the Commune revealed many weaknesses, it also displayed many great and heroic qualities. It is one of the shortcomings of Jellinek’s history that the errors of the Commune are over elaborated and the positive achievements equally minimised.
He is so far from the dialectical point of view of Marx, Engels and Lenin that he even declares (p.16) the errors to have been “more fertile for future revolutionaries” than the “limited successes,” and then proceeds to make the extraordinary statement that for “an analyst such as Marx it is the errors that are interesting, not the causes of the errors.” “For the student of facts, however” (Marx, we gather, was no student of facts), “the important thing is to show the causes of the errors” and to show the causes, according to Mr. Jellinek, is “to show that those men in that particular situation behaved in that particular way simply because that was the only way in which they could behave.” The one gleam of light in this fog seems to indicate that though Mr. Jellinek is a mechanical determinist he does not accuse Marx of being one.
Jellinek does not seem to understand the real revolutionary reason why the Commune should have seized the bank of France. The workers must smash the fetters of capitalism. It was not a question of shocking the world. It was a weapon of civil war. Lissagaray says:
The Commune had then three milliards in its hands, of which over a milliard realised enough to buy all the generals and functionaries of Versailles; as hostages, 90,000 depositors of titles, and the two milliards in circulation whose guarantee lay in the boxes in the Rue de La Vrilliere. (History of the Commune. Lissagary. p.188.)
Engels summed it up when he said that the bank in the hands of the Commune would have been worth 10,000 men.
A couple of lesser points illustrate the careless nature of Jellinek’s attention to the writings of Marx and Engels. His statement that Paul Lafargue married Laura Marx after the Commune (pp.25, 382), shows his unfamiliarity with Marx’s correspondence at this period. Paul and Laura Lafargue, married in 1867, were together during the Commune.
Jellinek also accuses Engels of failing to emphasise the tendency towards Socialism already existing among the Blanquists, and the role of Valliant in this connection (p.33). Yet it was Engels who wrote in his important Preface, 1891, to the Civil War in France:
The great majority of the Blanquists at that time were Socialists only by revolutionary and proletarian instinct; only a few had attained greater clarity on the essential principles, through Valliant, who was familiar with German scientific Socialism.
The armed onslaught on Paris, and the struggle at the barricades during the week of blood are graphically described. “Altogether,” says Jellinek, “some hundred thousand Parisians suffered death, imprisonment, transportation or exile in the year 1871.”
Every worker will draw the lesson: to maintain their power when it is once really threatened there is no brutality and no bloodshed at which the ruling class hesitates.
A reading of Jellinek’s history should inspire many workers to study Marx’s “Civil War in France” with Engels’ 1891 Preface, and Lenin’s “The State and Revolution.” Then they will appreciate why Marx claimed that the Communards, in their epic and heroic struggle, were indeed storming heaven.