History of The First International
The Franco-German War and The Paris Commune
by G. M. Stekloff
WHILE the struggle was thus being fought out within the International, events were arising without, which forced the Association to buckle on its armour, and constrained the proletariat to rally all its forces.
At the Basle Congress it had been decided to hold the next congress in Paris on September 5, 1870. But, in view of the attack on the internationalists that was being made by the French Imperial Government, the General Council thought it expedient to transfer the meeting-place to Mainz, that city being chosen because the German internationalists wished one of the congresses of the International Workingmen’s Association to be held in Germany. On July 12th, the General Council published the agenda for the congress, but only a week later France declared war against Prussia. The General Council thereupon decided to postpone the congress until after the war, not foreseeing that the war was destined to inflict a deadly wound on the International.
Nearly all the members of the International had shared the opinion that the rapid development of that organisation would, in the near future, bring about the social revolution and lead to the establishment of an international brotherhood of all the workers. The criminal war, caused by the arbitrary will of two despotic governments, was a fearful blow for it shattered these fondest hopes. Vainly did the more advanced among the French and German workers strive to ward off the conflict. If in 1914 the International was still unequal to such a task, how could it be expeted that in 1870, when the working-class movement was yet in its infancy, anything could have been forthcoming beyond theoretical expressions of mutual goodwill? A few days before the war began, the Parisian internationalists issued an address, signed by Tolain, Murat, Avrial, Pindy, Theiss, Camélinat, Chauvière, Eugène Pottier (the author of “L'Internationale”) Landrin, Charles Keller, Malon, Lucipia, Joffrin, Chausse, and others. In this address we read:
“German Brothers! In the name of peace refuse to listen to the hired or servile voices of those who are trying to deceive you concerning the true mind of France. Be deaf to mad provocations, for war between us would be fratricidal. Retrain calm, as is possible, without any loss of dignity, to a great and strong and brave nation. A quarrel between us can only lead, on both sides of the Rhine, to the complete triumph of despotism.”
The Berlinese members of the International replied as follows:
Inspired with fraternal sentiments, we join hands with you, and, as men of honour who cannot lie, we assure you that there is no trace of national hatred in our hearts, but that we are under the thralldom of force, and that only through compulsion shall we form part of the fighting forces which are about to spread wretchedness and disaster over the peaceful fields of our countries.
We may also quote the following passage from the Paris Federation’s manifesto of July 12, 1870:
“Against the war-cries of those who run no risks, and of those who see fresh opportunities for making money out of public misfortunes, we enter our protest, we who desire peace, work, and freedom. War is the underhand expedient whereby governments try to strangle public liberty.”
A further passage in the Berlinese reply runs:
“With heart and with hand we endorse your proclamation. We solemnly declare that neither the heating of the drums, nor the thunder of the guns, nor victory, nor defeat, shall hinder our efforts to bring about a union of the proletarians of all lands."
From the very outset of the war, the French internationalists, and especially those belonging to the Parisian Federation, did not limit their activities to protests against the fratricidal struggle; they were likewise on the alert for any favourable opportunity to overthrow the Second Empire. They intended to proclaim a socialist republic, and to propose a peaceful settlement with Germany; if they were met by a refusal, they would declare a revolutionary war, not upon the German people, but on the German Governments; by this means they hoped to arouse a response among the German socialists. But most of the active and influential Parisian internationalists were in gaol, undergoing terms of imprisonment after the third trial of the Parisian International. Nevertheless, a committee of action was formed, and it was arranged that at the opening of the parliamentary session on August 9th an attack should be made on the Palais Bourbon in the hope of bringing about the revolution. The plan was not carried out, owing to the unexpected arrest of Pindy, the most influential leader of the group. It was therefore decided to await the next favourable opportunity. The internationalists in Marseilles joined forces with a few local republicans and organised a rising which took place on August 8th. They broke into the Town Hall; but the rising was soon quelled and twenty-eight of the manifestants were court-martialled and sentenced to confinement in a fortress.
In a series of meetings, the German proletariat made common cause with the Berlinese protest against the dynastic war. A dissonant note was, however, sounded by the proclamation of the Brunswick committee of the Social Democratic Party, which declared that Germany was waging a defensive war, and that the German workers ought to rally to the support of the fatherland. A number of local committees issued protests against the Brunswickers, who were anticipating the claims made by all the belligerents of 1914 that they were on the “defensive.” In the North German Reichstag, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Bebel, showing equal hostility towards Bismarck and Napoleon III., voted against the war credits. On the other hand, the Lassallists and Fritzsche, the Eisenacher, voted for the credits on the ground that the victory of Napoleon would ruin the cause of the socialist workers in France, would put the whole of Europe under the heels of the Bonapartist soldiery, and would lead to the partition of Germany.
On July 23rd, the General Council issued a manifesto protesting against the war, and laying the blame for it jointly on Napoleon and the Prussian Government. While pointing out that for Germany the war certainly had a defensive character, the manifesto warned the German workers that if they allowed it to become a war of conquest, this would prove disastrous to the proletariat whether it ended in victory or in defeat, for Germany would in either case pass under the sinister influence of Russian tsarism. At that time, the belief was universal that Prussia was on the defensive. Even Marx and Engels held this view, for nothing was known about the trick played by Bismarck in the matter of the Ems dispatch. But the authors of the manifesto were careful to avoid the “defensive” opportunism of the Brunswickers, and took their stand upon the internationalist platform, proclaiming the solidarity of all the workers. In this first manifesto issued by the General Council during the Franco-German war we read:
“At a time when official France and official Germany are engaged in a fratricidal war, the German and the French workers are exchanging peaceful and fraternal messages. This one great fact, unparalleled in history, justifies the hope of a brighter future. It shows that, in contradistinction to the old society with its miseries and follies caused by the prevalent economic conditions, there will arise a new society which will engender international peace, for in every land it will have the same foundation – labour.”
The internationalists of neutral countries, such as Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium, joined in this protest.
The German armies quickly scattered the French imperial forces. On September 4, 1870, there was a political revolution in France, and a republic was proclaimed. Officially, the International did not play a notable part in the September revolution. Of course, the working-class internationalists participated in the movement. They detested the Second Empire, and regarded it as an obstacle to the realisation of their socialist ideas. But the Parisian workers of that day were, generally speaking, guided by the Blanquists, and these were patriotic and bellicose. Not being able to direct the course of events, the internationalists hoped to turn the September revolution to account for the strengthening of working-class organisations, and to make of it a prelude to social transformation. The mentality of French internationalist circles at this date finds typical expression in the letter written from Manchester under date October 17, 1870, by Eugène DuPont, the corresponding secretary for France, to the Lyons internationalist Charvet. Here is an extract:
“Directly the republic was proclaimed in Paris, I wrote to Richard and the other correspondents to explain the part our Association ought to play in what was happening. Our business is to take advantage of all the freedoms we possess and of everything that occurs, in order to amplify working class organisation. For, without good organisation, the workers will always be the plaything and the dupe of the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, a good many of our friends have failed to understand. They have allowed themselves to be blinded by patriotism, and have joined in the chorus of the bourgeois who were shouting everywhere: ‘Let us forget all our differences of opinion, let us sacrifice our dearest principles upon the altar of our country, and drive out the enemy.’ What preposterous humbug! The bourgeois have sacrificed nothing in the past, and are sacrificing nothing to-day. Once more the people is being fooled through lack of organisation."
Thus the theoreticians of French internationalism, especially those that were in close touch with the General Council, were sounding as a counterblast to the bourgeois rallying cry “defend the country against the foreign enemy,” the rallying cry to the workers “attack the enemy within the gates – the bourgeoisie!” Naturally, the device could not please such leaders as Fribourg, the sometime internationalist, now quite estranged from all that the Association represented. Consider the phrases used by him concerning the trend of French working-class opinion, a trend he considered both incomprehensible and hateful
“It is known that the International, as an organised body, took little part in the movement [the revolution of September 4, 1870]; nor does it seem to have been any more alive in the defence of Paris. Led astray by the vociferations of the Blanquists, the Pyatists, all others of the same kidney, these latter-day internationalists were reserving their courage and their powder for the home-grown Prussians. Under the pretext of consolidating the republic and of hastening the advent of socialism, they shook the republic to its foundations, and gravely compromised the future of socialism."
The internationalists, not having taken any active part on September 4th, had no share in the new government, and political power was completely monopolised by the bourgeoisie. In the early days after the September revolution, they were reduced to the role of critics of the bourgeois republican government, which was girding up its loins for further achievements.
The bourgeoisie, having attained to power, devoted itself in the first instance to the problem of putting an end to the war which had turned out so disastrously for France. Had the ruling classes and governments of Prussia and the other German States really been waging war for no other purpose than to safeguard the national independence of the Germans, had they not been animated by any design of conquest, Germany could readily have concluded an honourable peace with France. On September 5th, the Brunswick committee issued a manifesto, penned by Marx, addressed to the German workers. These were reminded that the war had been undertaken for defensive purposes only. Now that Napoleon III. had been deposed, it was necessary to make an honourable peace with the French Republic. Working-class demonstrations must be organised throughout Germany to protest against the severance of Alsace and Lorraine from France.
On September 9th, the members of the committee were arrested; arrests of social democrats in other German towns soon followed; Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht were tried for high treason, and were sentenced to two years confinement in a fortress. On September 9th, also, the General Council issued a manifesto to all the branches of the International, pointing out how disastrous would be the dismemberment of France by the victorious Prussian reactionaries, and summoning the internationalists to action. Showing that “the Prussian war camarilla was determined to transform the war into a war of conquest,” Marx (for he composed this second manifesto as well as the others) went on to say that the forcible annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Prussia would throw France into the arms of Russia, and would make Russian tsarism the dominant power of western Europe. As a result of such an annexation of two French provinces, Germany would either have to become a slave to the tsarist policy, or else would have to prepare for a new war. This new war would have to be waged against an alliance between France and Russia; it would no longer be a local war, but “a racial war – a war against the leagued Slav and Latin races.” In conclusion, the manifesto summoned the working class throughout all lands to rally to the defence of the principles of internationalism, and it closed with the following words, which contained a terrible forecast:
“Let the branches of the International Workingmen’s Association in all lands summon the working class to action. If they fail to fulfil this duty, if they remain passive, the present disastrous war will be merely the prelude to yet more murderous international conflicts, and everywhere the lords of war, land, and capital will triumph anew over the workers. Long live the republic!"
Analogous statements were issued by various branches of the International in Europe and America (Vienna, New York, and London). They all protested against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany, expressed their sympathy with the French Republic, and demanded the conclusion of an honourable peace with France.
In France itself; after the September revolution, the internationalists became extremely active, and began to concentrate their forces. The Paris committee of the International, the Federal Council, was re-organised, and met in the Corderie du Temple. This was also the meeting-place of a confederation of workers’ societies which were not affiliated to the international but, in nearly all important matters, collaborated with that body. A number of noted internationalists, such as Camélinat, Theiss, Pindy, Pottier, and others, were members of this “Federal Chamber.” Furthermore, in twenty of the Parisian districts there were formed vigilance committees (local revolutionary councils or soviets), linked together by a central republican committee of the twenty districts. This central committee likewise met in the Corderie du Temple, which thus became the focus of the revolutionary movement. The new committee was mainly composed of members of the International (Combault, Camélinat, Frankel, Ferré, Charles Longuet, Malon, Pindy, Pottier, Theiss, Vaillant, Varlin, etc.). As far as they could, the Swiss Bakuninists maintained correspondence and personal relationships with the French branches, many of whose members supported Bakunin’s ultra-revolutionary tactics. Especially close to him in spirit were the younger French internationalists, notably in Marseilles and Lyons.
At the news of the first victories of the Prussian arms (at Weissenburg on August 4, at Worth and Forbach on August 6 1870) Bakunin, confident that a victory of Prussia would retard the triumph of the social revolution by at least fifty years, began feverishly to occupy himself with organisation with a view to rallying the broad masses of the French work-people. He held that the French nation must at one and the same moment clear out the German invaders and sound the signal for the social revolution. Sheaves of letters were sent by him to sympathisers in Switzerland, France, Italy, and Spain. The plan of Bakunin and his friends amounted to this. Taking advantage of the general confusion resulting from the war, there was to be a widespread revolutionary, movement in France, Italy, Spain, and Romance Switzerland. This movement, he believed, must inevitably have an anarchist complexion. It would lead to the annihilation of the State and to social liquidation. Only such a movement, based upon risings of the peasantry, would be able, so Bakunin believed, to stop the advance of the German conquerors. But were such a movement to take place, it would not only drive the Germans back across the frontier, but would give them a civil war to deal with in their own land.
On September 15th, Bakunin, who had set himself the task of “saving France by means of anarchism,” arrived at Lyons. Since September 4th, in that town, a Committee of Public Safety, whose members comprised bourgeois republicans and a few internationalists, had been established in the Town Hall. Some days later, this committee was superseded by an elected municipal council, most of the councillors being bourgeois republicans. Among the masses, an aimless fermentation was in progress, and Bakunin determined to utilise this for his own purposes. At a public meeting on September 17th, it was decided to form a Central Committee for the Safety of France. Among the members of this new body were a number of Lyons Bakuninists – Albert Richard, Gaspard Blanc, Palix, etc. Plans were laid for a rising on September 26th, and a call to arms was issued. The following decisive steps were recommended: the abolition of the administrative and governmental machine of the state, the abolition of civil and criminal law-courts; the annulment of taxes and mortgages; the formation of committees of Public Safety in all communes; the sending of delegates from these committees to meet in Lyons, where a Revolutionary Convention for the Safety of France was to be set up. There was considerable dissatisfaction in the town of Lyons owing to a recent reduction in wages, and it was possible to turn the discontent to account. On September 28th, the group of social revolutionaries which had gathered round Bakunin broke into the Town Hall. The Committee for the Safety of France installed itself in the assembly room of the municipal council and began to issue decrees. The authorities, left to their own devices, did not go to sleep. They assembled a battalion of the bourgeois national guards. The insurgents ran away. Bakunin was arrested, but was rescued by a detachment of franc-tireurs under the command of the Russian refugee, Ozeroff. He kept out of the way for twenty-four hours, and then escaped to Marseilles with a heart full of sadness and gloomy forebodings.
Revolutionary attempts to take advantage of the situation created by the war were made in various French towns. In Brest the internationalists formed a Committee of Vigilance and National Defence, and, on October 2nd, an unsuccessful attempt was made to seize the Town Hall and initiate an armed rising. In Marseilles on October 31st, the workers seized the Town Hall and proclaimed a revolutionary commune; but the movement was suppressed on November 4th. In Lyons, on November 4th, there was an unsuccessful attempt to establish a revolutionary committee; there was a fresh popular rising in this town on December 20th, followed by a bourgeois reign of terror. In Paris, the agitation continued. On October 31, 1870, and on January 22, 1871, there were attempts at armed rising in which the internationalists actively participated – foreshadowings of the Commune of Paris. The decisive rising, the one which led to the proclamation of the Commune, occurred on March 18, 1871. Upon receipt of news of the Paris rising, there were insurrections in various French towns, attempts to seize power and to support the comrades in Paris. These took place in Lyons (March 22nd and 23rd, St Etienne, Bordeaux, Marseilles March 25th) Narbonne, Le Creusot, etc. In all these cases, the attempts to establish revolutionary communes were suppressed by the bourgeoisie. The last of such risings took place at Lyons on April 20, 1871.
This is not the place for a detailed history of the Paris Commune, which is only in a minor degree bound up with the history of the International. But a few words must be said about the part played by the internationalists in the Commune.
The movement which culminated in the declaration of the Commune of Paris was hazy in its objective, and was not the work of any single organisation having a definite membership. In part, the movement was an elemental protest by the Parisian masses, weary of the war and of the siege of Paris; in part it was the outcome of mortified patriotism, of sentiments inflamed by the intolerable situation in which France was placed. Another factor was the general belief that the cause of the people was being betrayed by the Government of National Defence, which represented the interests of the great capitalists. Yet another was that the Parisians, whose sentiments were strongly republican, distrusted the National Assembly (sitting for a time in Bordeaux and subsequently removed to Versailles) because it was so largely monarchical in composition. The petty bourgeois elements of the capital city, impoverished by the war, were infuriated by the refusal of the Government and the National Assembly to grant a moratorium for the payment of rent and bills of exchange. Last of all, there was at work the confused desire of the proletarian masses to bring about the social revolution. The spark which led to the explosion of March 18th was the attempt of the Government to disarm the National Guard. The “Commune” which was proclaimed was a sort of town council elected by universal suffrage. The political form thus assumed by the movement was determined by memories of the famous Commune of 1792 to 1794 which, during the great French Revolution, guided the aspirations of the urban poor of Paris, and directed the activities of the masses towards an advanced socio-political radicalism. In 1871, until the election of the Commune had taken place, affairs were in the hands of the Central Committee of the National Guards.
The members of the International had not played a conspicuous part in the preparations for the rising of March 18th. In so far as the workers were active at this stage of affairs, they were influenced quite as much by the Blanquists as by the internationalists. The mass of the French internationalists (with the exception, perhaps, of the extreme left wing comprising the Bakuninists) did indeed believe the social revolution to be close at hand, and were ready, in the near future, to undertake a systematic organisation of the forces of the proletariat, so that they might prepare the working class for the imminent social struggle. But they did not contemplate an immediate rising in order to seize power. On the contrary, wherever they could, the internationalists endeavoured to hold the extremists in check, and to keep them from ill-considered action. Thus, the members of the Parisian section of the International persuaded the Central Committee of the National Guards to refrain from resisting by force the entry of the Prussian armies into Paris. Speaking generally, during the siege of Paris the internationalists took little part in the popular agitations and revolutionary movements of the day.
In the Commune itself, the Internationalists were in a minority. There were only seventeen of them in a total membership of ninety-two; thirteen of the seventeen were working-class members, out of a total working-class membership of twenty-five. Among them we may mention, Varlin, Dupont, Theiss, Malon, Jourdes, Avrail, Pindy, Assy, Duval, Lefrançais, Frankel. In the April elections, there were elected to the Commune Charles Longuet, Serail, Johannard, and other internationalists. Tolain shared the bourgeois outlook, betrayed his fellow-workers, and was expelled from the International. In the detail work of the Commune, the internationalists were chiefly occupied upon the economic and not upon the political committees: for instance, the finance committee; the postal, labour, trade committees; the committee for social work; the taxation committee; the currency committee. Thanks to their influence (reinforced by that of a special institute of plenipotentaries sent by the International to the Commune, which subsequently became a permanent delegation from the federal council to the Commune), there were projected a number of social measures, which were unfortunately never carried into full effect owing to the brief duration of the Commune. Among these may be mentioned: the abolition of night-work in bakehouses; the seizure of workshops that had been closed down, with intent to transfer them to groups of co-operative workers; the abolition of fines; the setting up of a bureau for labour statistics; and so on. In contradistinction to many members of the Commune, who regarded it as nothing more than a radical change in the system of governmental and local administration, the internationalists, being far more advanced in their outlooks, thought of the Commune as the first stage in the social revolution. But, inasmuch as they looked especially towards the independent activity of the workers, they came into sharp conflict with the Blanquists who formed the majority in the Commune, for the minds of the latter were nourished upon memories of the great French revolution and were animated by the desire to imitate the Jacobins. For this reason, the internationalists played the part of an opposition in the Commune, although, speaking generally, they gave it active support. In the fight with the republican Government at Versailles, which represented the interests of the landlords and capitalists, the members of the International were convinced that they must support the Commune to the last, since the Commune represented the interests of the revolutionary democracy – the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. But they protested against the holding of the sessions of the Commune in private, for they regarded publicity as essential to the popular control of executive activities. They also objected to the formation of the Committee of Public Safety, for they looked upon this as equivalent to the establishment of a dictatorship “in defiance of the principles of social reform out of which the revolution of March 18th had issued.” It was, they said, a dangerous return to the past. In a word, we cannot say that either theoretically or practically the French internationalists were fully equal to the occasion, any more than were the other sections of the Commune. They were still under the spell of an outworn utopism, and in especial they were still influenced by the relics of Proudhonism.
But the minority, among whom the internationalists occupied the predominant position, did not fail to support the majority of the Commune. All the members of the Commune fought shoulder to shoulder, and strengthened with their life-blood the bonds between themselves and the revolutionary masses. One of the victims who died for the Commune was Varlin, the internationalist, a man who was dearly loved and was held in high honour by the proletariat.
After the suppression of the Commune, the bourgeois press loaded it with the foulest calumnies. In the manifesto entitled The Civil War in France, Marx, writing in the name of the General Council, endeavoured to show the true historical worth of this great movement. The Parisian workers, after all the defeats and the betrayals suffered at the hands of the governing class, understood (and time of course was their teacher) when they should defend their patrimony, taking the reins of government in their own hands and seizing power. But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes. It created its own organisation in the shape of the Commune. In this we witness a confused endeavour to create a republic which would aim at the destruction, not only of the monarchist form of government, but also of class government in general.
The Commune was composed of persons elected by universal suffrage, and subject to recall at any moment. It was not a parliament of the old type, but was a working body, equipped with executive as well as legislative functions. The officialdom, which had hitherto been a mere tool of the Government and a pliable instrument in the hands of the class State, was converted into a serviceable, responsive, and removable organ of the Commune; police and standing army were abolished; the clergy secularised and church property was confiscated; judges and magistrates were elected; free education was introduced. Beginning with the members of the Commune, all adults had to perform social functions for ordinary working wages. Jourdes, the minister of finance under the Commune, dined at the public table, and his wife did the family washing with her own hands.
The Commune was a form of political rule by the working class, a dictatorship established by the oppressed class over the oppressing class. It was to serve as a means for the economic transformation of society, that is to say, it was to be the lever prying, at the very foundations of class society in order utterly to destroy it. Through the Commune, the proletariat acquired the leadership in the State; and the petty bourgeoisie, which up to that time had been hostile to working class ideals, now threw in its lot with the proletariat. Not all the members clearly realised the historical vocation of the Commune; nor was the Commune able to fulfil its mission, owing to the short duration of its stormy existence and to its forcible suppression by the bourgeois reaction. But both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat understood the significance of the Commune. If the immediate effect of its destruction was to deal a severe blow to the working-class movement of those days, none the less the Commune served as an example; the glorious memories of the Communards’ last heroic stand were potent forces in the spread of socialist ideas throughout the world, and helped considerably to promote the foundation both of the Second and of the Third International.
How true were Marx’s utterances in his letter to Kugelmann under date April 17, 1871, a letter written in the days when the Commune was at the height of its struggle for power! “The struggle of the working class with the capitalist class and its State machine has, thanks to the Parisian fight, entered a new phase. However the affair may end, from this time we have attained a new starting-point and one of worldwide historical significance.”
One of the results of the forcible suppression of the Commune of Paris, as far as the international socialist movement was concerned, was the strengthening of the conviction that the proletariat must create a political party of its own to guide the working-class struggle, not only in peaceful periods, but also and still more, during revolutionary phases.
The Commune had neither a definite program nor a clearly conceived tactic. These were lacking because there was no disciplined and organised working-class party able to provide such essentials, able to become the vanguard of the working class, and to organise the proletarian forces whether for defence or for attack. That was why, on the one hand, the Commune was unable to present wide perspectives to the workers and peasants, to unfold distant outlooks which might have aroused their enthusiasm and might have awakened a readiness for the struggle. That was why, on the other hand, among those who established the Commune, there were none competent to foresee the course of events, to co-ordinate activities, to guide the movement towards deliberately chosen ends; and, worst of all, that was why there was no one able to understand the causes of failure and to seek a better path.
From the very first, the Commune was fatally weakened owing to the non-existence of a working-class party. Every one knows that it secured practically no support from the provinces. It is true that, during the last years of the Second Empire, a revolutionary mood had prevailed in the leading provincial towns; there had been working-class organisations and branches of the International in touch with the masses, and a readiness to fight the bourgeoisie had been manifested. But all this had been sporadic, unorganised, disunited. The energy had been dissipated in partial risings which had occurred without a general plan, without interconnexions, without a joint leadership. In Lyons, Brest, Marseilles, there had been attempts to establish Communes during the closing months of 1870. They had been easily suppressed by the bourgeoisie. Such partial outbreaks had exhausted the energy of the provincial proletariat, so that, when the time came for the establishment of the Commune of Paris, the provinces were not in a position to lend any aid to the metropolis. When the news of the revolution of March 18th was received, there were indeed isolated attempts on the part of the workers to seize power; for instance in Lyons, St. Etienne, Le Creusot, Narbonne, Bordeaux, and Marseilles. But, lacking unity and guidance, they were put down without difficulty, and no assistance could be given to Paris.
Partial failures and premature movements may, of course, occur even when a working-class party exists. No revolution is immune from them. But an organised and disciplined party can quickly repair acknowledged mistakes, can strengthen this or that weak organisation, give it new workers, unite it to the general movement, and arrange matters in such a way that even failures can become the source of new successes. But in France, at that time, there was no such party, and what was lost then could never be regained.
The Commune of Paris was an elemental outburst – though to say this is to say very little. In actual fact, the Commune was a continual series of grave errors and unpardonable blunders which rendered futile all the heroism of its defenders. There was no party, and the whole history of the Commune became a tragedy. The revolution went on without any leadership; it was full of disorder, and utterly lacked organisation. Not a single measure was thought out in advance, not a single plan was drawn up with sufficient care or elaborated with reasonable completeness. Even if, by good luck, some sensible measure was conceived, there was no one to supervise its being carried into effect.
There are several facts to show how disastrously the fortunes of the Commune were affected by the lack of a communist party worthy of the name. On March 18th, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to seize the members of the capitalist Government, the leading bureaucrats, and the representatives of the great bourgeoisie. But no one dreamed of doing anything of the sort. A division of the National Guard marched quietly past the house where Thiers’ ministers were in session, and never attempted to lay a finger on them. No endeavour was made to seize and disarm the Paris garrison (the soldiers of the line). The army was in a state of decomposition; the rankers were quite ready to mutiny, and would not have been reluctant to shoot down their officers. But nothing of the kind happened. The capitalist ministers of State were left perfectly free to depart from Paris, and to withdraw the demoralised soldiery from that city. Once the soldiers were at Versailles, it became possible to work upon their minds, and to transform them into the executioners of the Parisian proletariat. Lullier, an ex-naval officer who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the revolutionary National Guards, actually let certain officers who had been arrested go free after all, being animated by a sense of “comradeship” for them. The crying need was to seize or to disperse the assembly at Versailles, to annihilate its forces, which in these early days were very small. But no attack was made on Versailles. Nay more, the Communards did not even seize Mont Valérien which commanded the road from Paris to Versailles. Lullier was content to accept the “word of honour” of the commandant of the fort that he would remain neutral during the civil war that now beginning (as if neutrality had been possible!) Needless to say, the word was “honourably” broken.
Mistakes are inherent in every revolution, as in every human activity. Not even a communist party is exempt from them! But a political party does other things besides making mistakes; it is able quickly to recognise when it has been at fault, and can promptly take steps to remedy the evil. But the Commune never stopped making blunders. It had no power to do its work in accordance with an intelligent plan. That was the cause of its ruin.
Through lack of a nerve-centre its will was paralysed. For good or for ill, the course of events gave the leadership into the hands of the Central Committee of the National Guards, and if this body had displayed more energy and initiative during the early days of the revolution (before the election of the Commune) when it was still the only active organ, affairs would not have gone so badly, and the position of the Commune would not have been hopeless. In actual fact, the whole fate of the revolution was decided during these early days. Nowhere and at no time did the Committee lead, for it had no leader. It never regarded itself as perfectly “constitutional,” and it awaited the election of the Commune. But when the Commune had at length been elected, the Committee did not surrender its powers. Now it wanted to do what it had not done before, when it was alone upon the stage. Thanks to its intermeddling, confusion became worse confounded.
As far as material resources were concerned, the Commune was not badly off. The provisioning of the capital after the siege had been vigorously undertaken by the Versaillists, and there was no acute lack of food. There was no scarcity of fighting men or of munitions, but these were not utilised, and were subsequently allowed to dribble away. The National Guards were full of revolutionary fire and were eager for a fight. But the Central Committee, though at this time much better equipped than its enemies at Versailles, remained inactive. In the fateful hour, it devoted itself to making preparations for the elections to the Commune, instead of undertaking a decisive onslaught upon the enemy forces and seizing all the important strategic points.
When the Commune was at last elected, it did no better than the Central Committee. Its dilatoriness, incapacity, and lack of system led to the final disruption of those powers which had been bequeathed to it (unfortunately already in a very weak and disorganised condition) by the Central Committee. The disorder which prevailed in the department of war, is proverbial. The choice of “experts” had been an unlucky one. Bourgeois officialdom had responded to the revolutionary call by sabotage. On the other land, as far as concerned the civil departments, the workers were successful in superseding the old bureaucratic methods; and we learn on good authority that during the Commune these affairs were no whit worse administered than in the previous epoch. But in the department for war, which after all was the most important at that particular time, such successes were unfortunately not achieved. The commanders-in-chief, nominated by the Commune, were a succession of hopeless “rotters.” The half-insane Lullier, the adventurer Cluseret, and Rossel, the martinet – none of these were successful in the role of leaders of the revolutionary army; they did not understand the situation; they were unable to utilise the forces at their disposal; and they were incompetent to introduce even partial order and revolutionary discipline among the troops entrusted to them. The Commune had no idea how to utilise the talents of the experts, or how to set them to work for the proletarian cause. Nor was the Commune successful in introducing into its armies the principles of proletarian order and discipline. All the officers complained of the general lack of orderliness, and of the prevailing unwillingness to submit to discipline. Such a state of things might have been avoided had a communist party been in existence.
The Commune could not rise triumphant over the organised sabotage of the officialdom, nor could it rid itself of traitors. It did not possess the master mind which could supervise everything and, when need arose, could point out what was bad. It will suffice to remind the reader that the powerful batteries of the Commune which had been stationed on the heights of Montmartre, were absolutely silent at the decisive moment of the general assault of the Versailles troops, the majority of the guns had been spiked by traitors. The revolutionary citadel, upon which the Commune placed so great reliance, surrendered almost without a blow. The Versailles army entered Paris at the Point-du-Jour without firing a shot; the place was absolutely undefended, and one of the traitors was able to open negotiations with the vanguard of the Versaillese who were encamped a few hundred paces from the town. And at how many other of points was not the town undefended! For instance, I may mention the south, Paris’ most vulnerable spot. In fact the whole military work of the Commune was characterised by the same confusion. There was no central power to guide and lead; no well-considered plan; and even if there had been a plan of campaign there was no one capable of undertaking to carry it out or put it into execution.
It was not to be wondered at that the energy of the workers gradually ebbed, and that apathy overtook them. Instead of the three hundred thousand soldiers who had been Paris at the time of the revolution of March 18th, the Commune could marshal only about six thousand men. Agitational work, always a most important part of the revolution, was neglected. The provinces were in complete ignorance as to the aims of the Commune; bourgeois calumnies remained unchallenged; and the Commune never won the sympathy of the broad masses of the people. It is true that such sympathy would have been difficult of achievement owing to the lack of a clear program capable of bringing the masses into line. But, even as matters stood, much might have been accomplished in this field, had there been any one to do it, or had a Party existed which was interested in such questions, which understood the real significance of agitational work, and which was in a position to carry out whatever activities it had decided to undertake. Not only was the Commune unable to attract new supporters, but it lost its former adherents and those who had been instrumental in creating it. The petty-bourgeois sympathisers were the first to fall away, but soon the workers began to be disheartened and indifferent. At the last moment, when the Versaillists had already entered Paris, and were advancing along roads strewn with the corpses of their victims, the traditional heroism of the Parisians blazed up fiercely for a moment. But it was too late; victory had become impossible, and there was nothing left but an honourable death. Here and there, a handful of workers continued to hold out in the suburbs, especially in Belleville.
It is not surprising that, after the suppression of the Commune, the champions of the working-class struggle should gradually have come to realise that it was essential to found a workers’ party, a political organisation of the working class, able to lead the proletarian forces, and to give them unity of action in pursuit of a definite objective. If we except a few anarchists, persons holding very divergent views upon other matters were agreed upon this point. Blanquists like Vaillant, Marxists like Lafargue, and Proudhonists like Charles Longuet, were unanimous in advocating the participation of the workers in the political struggle. They all insisted upon on the need for creating a workers’ party, quite distinct from and antagonistic to all the bourgeois parties, and competent to lead the working-class struggle on behalf of complete political and economic emancipation. The London Conference of 1871 and the Hague Congress of 1872, in their well-known resolutions, merely gave summary expression to the deductions from the disastrous experience of the workers in the Commune of Paris.