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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

The Communards
(March 18, 1871–May 28, 1871)

(14 March 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 15, 14 March 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

They “stormed heaven.” They charged the gates of boss-class security. They proved the strength and the solidarity of the oppressed. They lived for ten weeks as conquering, self-disciplined proletarians, organizers of their own society. And they died, thousands upon thousands of never-to-be-forgotten martyrs in freedom’s cause.

Who were they? Bakers, cobblers, teachers – radical intellectuals, and proletarians of all trades. A few of them are known by name: the clerk Jourde who carefully guarded the finances of the Commune; the German Marxist Leo Franckel who as head of the Commission of Labor and Exchange was responsible for the propagation of socialist ideas; Delescluze, who was Civil Delegate for War; Louise Michel who organized and led the revolutionary women. These and some others are known. But the great, great majority are known only as anonymous fighters for liberty who struck the first staggering blow at capitalism, who sought to build a society of equality and freedom, and whose blood spattered the barricaded streets of Paris.

Raise the Red Flag of the Commune

For months they had withstood the Prussian siege of Paris. (The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was drawing to a close.) Lacking faith in the capitalist ministers who were preparing capitulation to Bismarck, they had placed the defense of Paris in their own citizens’ army, the National Guard.

Food was short; want was great. They had begun to demand that government power be transferred to them; revolutionary committees sprang up in all sections.

All they hated was epitomized in the head of the capitalist republic that had been proclaimed some few months before: Thiers, “that monstrous gnome ... the most consummate intellectual expression of their (the bourgeoisie’s) class corruption” (in the words of Karl Marx). And when Thiers, who had not dared enter Paris for weeks, organized a raid in the early morning hours of March 18 to seize the arms held by the National Guard, all Paris rushed to the defense. Barricades were thrown up quickly. Soldiers sent to attack the barricaded workers, fraternized instead. The red flag of the Commune was that day raised.

Begin the Work of Socialism

The Communards were improperly organized. They had no group of leaders with a clear program of what to do, no party. They committed mistake after mistake: they allowed the Bank of France to continue unmolested: they did not expropriate the property of the financiers and industrialists; they failed above all to make a clean sweep of the state machinery.

But they did prove the ability of the working class to take the reins of society, an ability which was again to be proved by the Russian workers, and which will some day soon be again tested in France. Crime, murder virtually disappeared; the motives of inequality and injustice gone, crime ceased. Provisions and food were parcelled out to all.

Night-work in bakeries stopped; illegal traffic in bread was punished. A moratorium on rent was declared. Shops abandoned by their owners were to be taken over “by the cooperative association of the workers employed in them.” Reorganization of the disorganized and undemocratic school system was begun. An eight-hour day for all workers was the goal. In the arms factory, the workers had a ten-hour day, but the director, foreman, and other officials were all elected by the workers; a factory council met every evening to discuss the conditions and work in the shop. And much else – some actually put into effect, others aimed at.

Towards the end of May, the Versaillese, the army of the capitalist state officials, began a concerted attack on Paris. For seven days, from May 21 to May 28, the fiercest fighting raged. The resistance of the Commune finally cracked. The Versaillese swooped down on Paris and massacred the defeated Communards. Some thirty thousand were shot down in cold blood. Those who were allowed to live were exiled to fever-ridden penal colonies, or locked for years in dungeon cells.

Throughout the Commune, the capitalist agents and press had howled about the “terror” of the Commune. Actually, the Commune had sinned in the reverse respect. The Commune was over-tolerant to its enemies, only in its last few days did it try seriously to root out the traitors in its midst. Far from being cruel to private property owners inside Paris, it erred mortally by being over-considerate of the parasites. Yet, no sooner had the Communards been vanquished than the atrocity-story-tellers unleashed an unrestrained ferocity and bestiality against the Communards.

Harbinger of a New Society

In their mistakes and failures as well as in their victories the great teachers of socialism, Marx, Engels, Lenin, saw lessons to be learned – how the working class must organize in a revolutionary party, how the proletariat can only succeed if guided by a consistent socialist program, how the workers must completely destroy the state machinery of the bosses, and substitute their own.

“Working-men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.” (Karl Marx.)

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