The Paris Commune
All parties have grown accustomed to considering the insurrection of March 18 to be a socialist insurrection.
This is a serious error.
It doesn’t in the least bit follow that since most of the leaders of the Communalist government were either revolutionary socialists, like the Blanquists, or reformist socialists, like the dreamers and phonies (both kinds could be found there) of the International Workingmen’s Association; or that since the National Guard was almost entirely proletarian (workers, employees, petit-bourgeois) that the civil war of the time was a social war.
Yet one must recognize that the victorious Commune would have established the social republic in place of the oligarchic republic which the bloodthirsty Thiers founded, the realization of a dream long held by this Machiavelli of the bourgeoisie.
It is only if we look at events in this light that we can say, along with Benoit Malon, that “the revolution of March 18 marked, with a terrible gradation, the third bloody phase of the French proletariat, starting with the Croix-Rousse uprising” (April 1834, June 1848, March 1871).
But if the Commune wasn’t a social war, then what was it?
This is an historical question to which we will attempt to give an historical solution.
To start with, what would be the characteristics of a socialist uprising?
It is the revolt, either instinctive or considered, either spontaneous or thought out, of the oppressed masses, despairing of their wages or threatened in their right to work.
So anyone who coldly and impartially studies the insurrection of 1871, either in its origins or in its acts, will recognize that it is impossible to reasonably grant it the character of social revolt.
Antiquity’s triple slave wars, the Jacquerie, the formidable uprising of the English agricultural masses under Wat Tyler, the great peasant war in Germany, the starvation riots of 1789, Babeuf’s brave attempt, the proletarian insurrections of Lyon in 1831 and 1834, that of the workers of Silesia that inspired Hauptmann’s noble drama “The Weavers,” and finally the insurrection of 1848: these were all socialist revolts and episodes of the great social struggle which has certainly not ended and risks fighting its final battle on the shifting, terrible, and troubling terrain of the class struggle, where the sectarian, reactionary, and profoundly inhuman theories of Karl Marx have sprouted.
All of these tragic events had their origin in a legitimate feeling of revulsion by the workers against those who exploit and starve them.
Look as closely as you'd like; you won’t find this sentiment among the insurgents of 1871.
No. The insurrection of March 18 was essentially political, republican, patriotic, and, to qualify it with just one epithet, exclusively Jacobin.
The Franco-German War broke out like a thunderbolt, the sorry consequence of a diplomatic machination that at the time was unknown to the masses. In addition, it was begun without the consent of the nation, and we can even say against its will.
What is more, the Empire, driven to carnage as a last resort of its internal policy, was in no way prepared for the fight: our first disasters occurred successively and inevitably, despite the valor, not to mention the heroism, of many units.
Then came September 4 and the collapse of the regime of December 2, which we suffered under for twenty years. Then came Gambetta’s grand effort for the final fight. Then, with Paris under siege, came the arming of all healthy citizens and the organization of an army of 300,000 National Guardsmen in the capital. The Guardsmen have been much criticizedby those who didn’t know how to utilize them as an excuse for their own acts. Then came the events of the siege, the republican and patriotic enthusiasm of the first days, the stupidly culpable inaction of the Government of National Defense, the ceaseless agitation of the revolutionary groups, and Blanqui’s gloriously energetic appeals in La Patrie en Danger.
Then came the famine, the ensuing physiological and psychological misery, the growing anger, the indignation against the lying leaders, blowhards like Ducrot or the inert like Trochu. Then came the insurrectionary attempts of October 31, 1870 and of January 22, 1871. And finally came the capitulation.
There then followed the elections and the usurpations of the Bordeaux Assembly, which was elected to decide on war or peace and which voted for a disastrous peace – which Paris, right or wrong, did not want – and which already insolently manifested its determination to give this unfortunate, amputated, ruined, and demoralized country a monarchical constitution.
And then came the supreme insult to Garibaldi, the resignations of Victor Hugo, Rochefort, Gambetta, and Tridon; the threat to de-capitalize Paris, the postponing of the municipal elections, the suppression of the republican newspapers by the Decembriseur Vinoy, the stupid and iniquitous law on debts due, and the arrest of Blanqui; finally, Thiers’ decision to disarm the population when each citizen rightly considered his rifle a guarantee of the vitality of the nascent republic.
Truly, is anything else needed to explain the inevitability of that formidable insurrection, its legitimacy, and its character?
In good faith, where can one find in these circumstances, driven by necessity, the characteristics of a social uprising?
Was the question of salaries posed? Was there a strike? Was there some social reform that was in question? Among this great people of Paris, always generous in its insouciance, was there the least concern about a worrisome future? At the end of that pitifully conducted war, disastrous for France, ruinous for its capital, were the poor of Paris concerned with the fight for their life? They thought about it a good deal. And one must truly not know the carefree character – the too-carefree character – of the inhabitants of our working class faubourgs to sustain such a thesis.
We must insist: the error in judgment comes above all from the fact that the insurgents, almost all of them salaried workers, counted among their leaders many socialist and revolutionary militants from the final days of the Empire. But those who lived those hours of distress and obsidian fever know full well that Paris, with the good sense and clear-sightedness of its great days, rose solely against those it considered enemies of the nascent republic and who it considered resigned in the face of the mutilated fatherland.
Read the proclamations of the Central Committee and the Commune: are they not all, or almost all of them, impregnated with the sentiment – vaguely socialist because humanitarian, but above all Jacobin – of the Montagnards of the Convention and the Commune of 1793, a revolutionary sentiment that Delescluze personified in his fashion, and the disciples of Blanqui in theirs.
From our current perspective, this is truly the way the essential character of the great and praiseworthy revolt of 1871 appears.
It is nevertheless impossible to argue that socialist ideas, if not doctrines, were not spoken of within the assembled Commune, but these affirmations remained verbal, platonic, and in any case foreign to the 200,000 rebels who on March 18, 1871 slid cartridges into their rifles in indignation. If they had truly been socialist revolutionaries, which our good bourgeois like to believe, and not indignant Jacobin and patriotic revolutionaries, they would have acted completely differently. For example, instead of lingering over the harmful tragedy of the hostages, they would have attacked property itself. Instead of a hundred priests, gendarmes, and secret agents they would have taken hostage the 3,000,000 francs guarded in the middle of a rebellious Paris by a feeble reactionary troop at the Bank of France.
The priest survived, the gendarme survived, and the secret agent survived. Would it have been the same for the capitalist fortune of France if they had carried out the seizing of the great safe?
If the Commune had surrendered to the concerns of social revolution, it would have immediately accomplished this truly revolutionary act. It didn’t even consider it, and if some of us thought of taking this precious hostage, it was with the strictly political intention of forcing Thiers to negotiate.
What is more, how could revolutionary socialism, the only one in my eyes of any worth, have affirmed itself then when today’s socialists are still manifestly unable to give us a truly positive explanation of their social concepts?
The internationalists of the time, embarked on the raft of a utopia that was Napoleonic in its origins, in the end were anything but revolutionaries. It was they who made up the minority of the Commune, and during the sessions of that assembly their theories were affirmed only through timid decrees lacking sanction concerning the payment of debts due, on night work for bakers, and on the reorganization of the national pawn shop.
It was time childishly wasted to Thiers’s profit and at the expense of the organization of the battle!
As for the socialist revolutionaries of the Blanquist school, they had very clear ideas on this matter which they had formulated many times under the Empire, but which they had no thought of applying. Their sole concerns were the defeat Versailles and preventing Thiers from organizing the republic that he created and whose goal, today more obvious than ever, was delaying the coming of a democratic, communal, and social revolution.
No one can reasonably contest the following statement: it was the Blanquist party that dominated the insurrection. And so, if this party thought that this insurrection could immediately result in a social revolution, it would have manifested its socialism. It didn’t do so. Why? Because it had a precise concept of the only sentiments that had produced the insurrection: republicanism and patriotism.
Adversaries of Blanquism have given another reason for this. They claimed, and they still claim, that if the Blanquists failed to show proof of socialism, it’s because in reality they weren’t and never were anything but political revolutionaries, without a defined socialist idea.
This is yet another legend that must be destroyed.
Blanqui and his disciples never were and never will be socialist doctrinaires. Does this mean that they are not socialists, in the truly revolutionary meaning of the word? I will establish the contrary by demonstrating that what constitutes the revolutionary socialist character of Blanquism is precisely its contempt, in the past and the present – if not in the future, beyond our sociological vision – of any form of “doctrinairism,” if I can be forgiven the expression.
The Blanquists have no POSITIVE social doctrine, but they have a revolutionary socialist theory, unlike the socialist believers who claim to have a positive social doctrine and who have no revolutionary theory. What is the Blanquist theory? I will attempt to briefly summarize it.
In 1789 the bourgeoisie made its revolution. It was the result of a class struggle. It definitively freed itself and took possession of public power. Its revolution was thus simultaneously social and political. A new social order was established and consolidated as a new political order. Thus was organized a new society based on property, the family, and religion.
From that point forward, these three social elements – family, property, and religion—formed the fearsome trilogy that would enslave all the governmental regimes issued from the Revolution, including the most gendarme-like of all of them: Caesarism.
Whatever the governments were that succeeded each other after 1789, for the truly sovereign bourgeoisie there was but one reason to arrive and to hold on: the duty to be the conservative gendarme of the three social pillars – family, property, and religion.
Two revolutionaries understood this perfectly—Proudhon and Blanqui.
From this flows two aphorisms that are essentially identical:
“God is evil; property is theft.” (Proudhon)
“Neither God nor master.” (Blanqui)
As for the trilogy, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” which is basically banal and contradictory, it was conceived by the triumphant bourgeoisie in order to hide from the eyes of the naïve crowd its selfish goal of social preservation.
But from the naïve crowd, there also sprang men avid for social justice: Marat and Hébert during the revolutionary storm; Babeuf, Fourier, Saint Simon, Pierre Leroux, Victor Considérant, Cabet, Louis Blanc, Proudhon, and Blanqui under the parliamentary regime. These men thought that everything was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds; they attacked the three pillars.
It is these men who, by their writings and acts, established the contemporary and, let us say in passing, French principle of the social revolution, which must continue the completed bourgeois revolution.
And so the Blanquists only grant the title of socialist to those who want simultaneously to destroy and transform the family, property, and religion. For them, any socialism that is not revolutionary remains a doctrinal and vain utopia, the socialist task being above all destruction before construction.
And so as concerns socialism, Blanquist theory can be summed up as follows: first nihilism, and then on to the grace of evolution.
So while non-revolutionary socialists imagine that the social revolution must be the consequence of the successive transformations first of property, then of religion, and finally that of the family, the Blanquists think that the family, a natural social organism, was modified in a reactionary fashion by the addition of private property, which was imposed as a stimulating necessity on one hand and, by religion, imposed as a moral necessity, on the other. They conclude from this that the communal family, freed from proprietary and religious ties, must be substituted for the bourgeois family.
The property registry and the church steeple: these are two monuments incompatible with the emancipated Commune.
In conclusion, the Blanquists claim that human evolution must first be preceded by a social revolution which will organize the family as an element of that other organism, the commune, which they consider the sole natural political and social government of individuals living in society.
They say that a social order resulting from the social revolution will have the family and the commune as its sole rational basis, subject to the utilitarian morality of the common interest. This affirmed, they have no positive doctrine and they don’t want to have one as long as the revolution – violent, obviously – has not placed the social individual in his two natural environments. For the Blanquists, the words collectivism and communism remain poorly defined. Though the first appears to be a euphemism for the second, a euphemism imagined by politicians, no sociologist can say how a society brutally placed in an environment that we know nothing about would evolve. As revolutionaries, we wish for this environment because for us it is the sole terrain for the cultivating, if we can speak in these terms, of human equity, but that’s all. From a negative point of view, what we claim is that any society organized on any other foundation will inevitably return us to some kind of oligarchy.
In summary, the Blanquists think that one cannot be socialist without being revolutionary, because socialism, unless one plays with words, is the necessarily violent substitution of a new social organization for that founded by the French Revolution, which was essentially bourgeois. Secondly, they reject any positive preconceived doctrine because they believe that human evolution towards equity and the total liberation of man can only be the result of the placing of associated units in an environment that is yet to be created, and whose conditions of development it is impossible to formulate a priori.
Neither Blanqui, if he would have led us, nor his disciples dreamed of creating this environment in 1871. At that time the Blanquists were the only thing that they could be: Jacobin revolutionaries rising up to defend the threatened republic. The idealist socialists assembled in the minority were nothing but dreamers, without a defined socialist program, and their unfortunate tactics consisted in making the people of Paris and the communes of France believe that they had one.
On which side was truth? Contemporary socialism is sufficiently proving its emptiness for us to continue to believe that the truth was on ours.
Whatever the case, the Commune has been presented by the historians of the reactionary vogue of the time, Maxime Ducamp and Claretie in particular, as nothing but a horde of bandits and imbeciles. And the Commune, as the arrivé radicals and so-called socialists – beneficiaries today of its republican valor – represent it was an unthinking uprising of proletarians thirsty for social justice and guided by incompetent idealists. This is a double fiction that must be destroyed. We believe we have established that the insurrection was above all republican and patriotic, and that despite the socialist philosophy of its leaders, the republican and patriotic will of the people was the supreme law at the time.
In addition, whatever admiration we might have for the revolutionary works of Élisée Reclus, that persuasive apostle of libertarian philosophy, we cannot accept this powerfully phrased judgment he bears on the character of the insurrection of 1871:
“The Commune raised up for the future, not by its rulers but by its defenders, an ideal far superior to that of all the revolutions that preceded it. It commits in advance all those who want to continue it, in France and throughout the world, to fight for a new society in which there will be neither masters by birth, title, or money, nor slaves by origin, caste, or salary. The word ‘Commune’ has everywhere been understood in the broadest sense, as having to do with a new idea, formed of free and equal companions, knowing nothing of the existence of ancient borders and mutually and peacefully assisting each other from one end of the world to the other.”
Élisée Reclus obviously marched with this idea in his head as he went to attack the Chatillon redoubt, where he was gloriously taken, his weapon in hand. But Duval and his soldiers had no other objective in marching on Versailles than that of saving the nascent republic sold by Thiers to the Orleanists, just as he sold France to the Prussians.
6. We know that the French delegates of 1862 to the London exposition were for the most part Bonapartists; we also know that Messrs. Jules Simon, Guéroult, Henri Martin, etc., were early members of the International Workingmen’s Association.