What sort of future for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

Korean Reunification

Korean Reunification

When I was in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the end of last year (2017) the international situation was very different from what it is now – at least on the surface. So many negotiations go on in the background that the rhetoric of leaders has to be taken with a sizeable pinch of salt. Unfortunately the world-wide capitalist media concentrates on such outlandish statements and in the process present a picture that confuses rather than informs. What will come out of the meeting on June 12th 2018 between the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and the US President Trump remains to be seen but it might be worth while reminding people of the historical background to these talks and the complex international situation that will follow whatever happens in Singapore.

Some historical background

The ‘Korean War’, known by the people of the DPRK as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, took place between the 25th June 1950 and 27th July 1953. I don’t intend to discuss who started that war here as, at the moment, it’s not really relevant. All I’ll say here is that the decision taken at the United Nations meant that all the resources of the capitalist world (21 countries took part on the side of US imperialism) were mobilised against the North. It might also be worthwhile reminding readers that the decision taken by the UN Security Council – where all permanent members have the right of veto – was taken when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN in support of the People’s Republic of China being the proper representative of the Chinese People and not the tiny island of Taiwan – a fascist regime at the time and the mere puppet of the US. I’m sure that the aggression against the North at a time when both its principal allies were absent from the supposedly representative international organisation of the UN is just a mere coincidence. (In 1950 the population of China was about a quarter of the total throughout the world and the USSR covered one sixth of the world’s land mass.)

That relatively short war caused millions of deaths and untold destruction on the Korean peninsula. As in the Vietnam War – another war of aggression promoted by the US and its sycophantic allies – the main reason the struggle didn’t end in ignominious defeat for the United Nations’ forces was due to the overwhelming superiority the US had in air power. Again as history is often forgotten in these circumstances, its worth remembering that the war broke out less than a year after Chairman Mao’s Declaration of the People’s Republic of China (after almost 20 years of warfare) and only five years after the end of the Second World War – known by the Soviet People as the Great Patriotic War – where the USSR had suffered unbelievable losses, both in people and material.

If the US wanted to achieve its aims then there was no better time to attempt to gain control of the Korean Peninsula. They failed.

One of the true facts that have been widely disseminated in the last few months when it comes to Korea Is the fact that the war didn’t end with a treaty but with an armistice. That armistice was signed in a rapidly constructed hut just outside one of the command bunkers in the virtually razed to the ground city of Pyongyang, in the DPRK. In politics the location of the signing of such agreements is important and making the UN commanders come to the North to agree that they would cease hostilities says a lot.

Since the armistice

But all imperialisms don’t like losing and after the armistice and the end of open hostilities they set about given the maximum support to the fascist regime in Seoul and have maintained an aggressive and threatening stance against the DPRK ever since.

If we look at the DPRK we see that although the aggressive rhetoric increased throughout 2017, and the first few months of 2018, the situation has been on a knife-edge ever since the end of the Geneva Conference in June 1954.

The openly fascist government of Syngman Rhee, supported by the Americans after the end of hostilities, was more than happy to accept the permanent placement of foreign soldiers on South Korean soil – local security forces could suppress any opposition from the people whilst the border along the Demilitarised Zone would be patrolled by US forces. This presence has not diminished in the more than 50 years since the fighting stopped and now there are something like 30,000 US troops in various parts of South Korea – most close to the border, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Most people just lap up the pap that’s fed to them by the various media in their respective countries when reference is made to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the DPRK. They see it as an aggressive and belligerent stance by a ‘desperate and unstable dictatorship’ – the sort of descriptions used by their ‘democratic’ leaders. However, how many of them will know that it was the Americans, not satisfied with the number of conventional weapons that they had in South Korea, were the ones to break the Armistice Agreement by first introducing nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula in January 1958?

There was a partial withdrawal of these weapons in October 1991, when the US administration of George Bush decided to remove all land based nuclear weapons. However at the same time weapons which could be deployed from aircraft, from air bases in South Korea, were excluded. And, anyway, the fact that the US nuclear arsenal is so huge, and distributed throughout the world in a manner unique to any other country, this means that the nuclear threat is only slightly mitigated – aircraft or submarines, based in other submissive countries close by, could be close to the DPRK within a matter of hours.

The situation now

So that’s now 50 years when the people of the DPRK have been under threat of nuclear annihilation from the most powerful (militarily) country on the planet – and this doesn’t even take into account the massive ‘war games’ that take place a couple of times each year, on land, sea and in the air right next to the border. Although classified as exercises these are obviously no more than acts of intimidation, the classic tactic of a bully which the US has assumed with even more openness since the (temporary) weakening of Russia when the people accepted the full-scale restoration of capitalism in their country.

If the American workers who have supported (and still support) Trump had half a brain between them they might start to question why, even in times of ‘austerity’, there is always money made to feed into the bottomless maw of the military-industrial complex.

No other country in the world has to experience this implied military threat on a regular and ongoing basis. For decades. And not knowing if or when the exercise might turn into a full-scale military attack.

It’s the hypocrisy of the west that is astounding in these situations. Those in Britain only have to think back to October 2016 when a small Russian naval fleet passed through (in international waters) the ‘English’ Channel. It was treated in some quarters as tantamount to a threat to the security of the country but when huge war games are taking place on the border of another sovereign country it’s OK if they are carried out by the US and its allies.

Added to this (up to a couple of months ago) for the best part of a year, with Trump trying to establish his credentials as a ‘hard man’, the world has had to listen to the threats of the bully in the White House declare that the DPRK should expect ‘fire and fury’ if it does not abide by the wishes of the US; that the country ‘would regret it fast’ if it carries along its chosen path; going as far as to state, earlier in 2018 that the region was close to war.

Faced with all this what is the DPRK to do? Back down and then suffer the humiliation that all bullies shower on their victims or stand up and face the aggression with dignity? Their development, therefore, of a nuclear capability makes sense in the face of such continued hostility. Their level of technological expertise has long been known, and they have successfully launched satellites in Earth orbit – something the British have been unable to do alone.

The capitalist countries argue that the DPRK shouldn’t have the right to develop and possess nuclear weapons. They argue about non-proliferation treaties and try to force such a stance on all nations, especially ones that are prepared to stand up and refuse to do what they are told. But at the same time the major nuclear powers openly develop and improve their nuclear stocks (with the UK and the renewal of Trident and with Trump’s recent statements about a similar upgrade of the massive stocks the US already holds) which goes in direct contravention of the same non-proliferation treaties they so espouse.

Trump is going to the meeting on the 12th June claiming the only reason such a meeting has been possible is due to his own hard line. Like many others he forgets history and doesn’t seem to accept that there has long been desire within the south of the peninsula for an easing of tensions – which have been exacerbated by the attitude of various United States administrations in the past. The US might also underestimate that there’s a growing feeling in the south that being virtually occupied by a foreign power, who not only lives in your country but carries out actions that might – one day – lead to a devastating civil war, has gone passed its sell by date. Although there are US bases in Japan and have been there since the end of the Second World War they don’t play the same aggressive role as they are, and have been, in South Korea.

The US President also has already declared that he will not accept anything less than total submission from the DPRK on the matter of de-nuclearisation – a somewhat strange negotiating stance but not a surprise taking into account the individual concerned. That would be a hard one for Kim Jong-un to sell back home as there was definitely a sense of pride from the few people I had the opportunity to talk to during my short visit to the country. If nothing else the people in the DPRK have, and value, their independence. Relying on the goodwill of a President who continually reneges on past agreements could be a bit dodgy – whatever the assurances.

In a sense the DPRK has little to lose in these ‘negotiations’. Obviously sanctions hurt – even more when they are enforced by the erstwhile friend of the People’s Republic of China. China signing up to the most recent round of sanctions hurt, not just economically but also as the Chinese People’s Volunteers had played such a fraternal role during the Fatherland Liberation War. In Dandong, at the Chinese end of the Friendship Bridge across the Yalu River in the north-west of the DPRK, there are a couple of monuments celebrating the sacrifice of the people of China who went to fight on the side of their comrades in North Korea.

If Trump doesn’t get what he wants then as far as the US goes the situation hasn’t changed. He might ramp up the rhetoric to the same level as the end of last year but unless he can prove that Kim has been totally unreasonable this will give both China and Russia a get out clause in the continued imposition of sanctions.

International politics are getting even more complicated at the moment with allies bring pushed away, as was seen in the G7 summit that has just finished in Canada. China and Russia have been getting closer in certain economic and military fields and if the US is not careful they might find that they are the ones who are being isolated internationally.

The US is not the power it once was and even though Russia isn’t in the same situation as it once was as the revisionist and renegade country to Socialism during its latter days as the USSR it is not the sick man it was even ten years ago. And China’s economy is such a threat to the US that trade wars are very much on the cards.

American arrogance, which is merely being personified by its present President, might lead to the country’s comeuppance. Empires fall when their leaders, and possibly many of their population, think they are invincible.

The consequences of the meeting in Singapore might be different from Trump might think – whether he is smiling when he gets back on Air Force One or not.

Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 3

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

Train on the east coast of the DPRK

No longer alone

Although there were people getting on at the various stations not many were coming into the carriage at the end of the train – and I don’t think it was ever full at any time during the journey. It was probably about two to three hours into the journey before a couple of men came along the corridor (some time after the most recent station stop) and joined me in the compartment that housed berths 5 – 8. We soon realised that we had no common language with which we could communicate but that didn’t really become a problem.

Being by myself for the first part of the morning I wasn’t really as much aware of the general protocol of travelling in the sleeper carriage of the train. The majority of the passengers were male (in the whole 33 hours of the journey no more than a couple of female passenger in the carriage – not so in the rest of the train) and as soon as they had settled down, having found their berth and stowed any luggage the first task was to strip off the outdoor clothes.

I learnt on this journey that the majority of men in the DPRK seem to wear one-piece thermal underwear (that used to be called ‘long-johns’ but as they have come into fashion again in the west recently – for all, men, women and children – they are now known as ‘onesies’) and many of them would spend the journey dressed like that, even when it came to getting off the train at some of the longer stops. Others, perhaps with a different attitude to modesty, would take off their street wear and spend the journey in a track suit. Many of the men were dressed in suits and this was to keep these in a good condition but as well it was just mirroring what they would do at home. It might be moving across country but these compartments were effectively our home for the duration of the journey. Street shoes were replaced by some sort of slipper or flip-flops – again just as they would at home. This reluctance on behalf of many in Britain to leave the dirt of the streets on the margins of their homes is one of the reasons the British are considered ‘dirty’ in some countries of Europe, especially the further east you go.

Although they didn’t have a lot of luggage but what they did have was a medium-sized, cardboard box which was placed underneath the table by the window. I was to find out what was in that in a matter of a couple of hours.

How to cater for a long journey

When it comes to food planning it is a necessity on this route from Pyongyang to Moscow, especially if you are going straight through and not planning to stop off en route. I could have done better in my planning but was saved by serendipity. If I were to make the journey again I would plan for the worst case scenario as the greatest disaster in such a situation is that you arrive in Moscow with a lot of food which you didn’t need.

One stand-by (although far from providing a memorable gastronomic experience) are dried noodles, these are especially popular for long distance travellers on Chinese trains. It was for this reason that I had initial concerns about the samovar taking a long time to heat up after departing from Pyongyang. Really the only thing that can be said for instant noodles is that they are light in weight and will keep you alive – and at the end of your journey will swear never to touch them again for the rest of your life.

Due to DPRK restrictions on tourist, as it stands at the moment you won’t be able to make this trip unless it’s tagged on to the end of another pre-booked, organised trip. This means your official tour guides will be able to get you to a supermarket to stock up before you get on the train. I had to shop taking into account the longer stretch on to Moscow but I ended up hitting it lucky on that stretch as well (more in a later post) – so my errors were covered over. Obviously, if you make this trip with a group of people you can turn it into a gastronomic extravaganza if you so wish. Travelling alone means that the responsibility falls on yourself but at the same time opportunities open up to a lone traveller that will denied a group.

The more I think about it the more I don’t understand why the food trolley didn’t come to the last carriage. As far as I could tell the door was locked between the sleeper carriage and the rest of the train – but I might have got things wrong there. Before boarding I thought this trolley would have been a useful fall back option. On the other hand there might have been the problem with currency. Chinese Yuan might have been accepted as on the train from Dandong (on entering the country) but I don’t if that would have been the same with Euros. Presenting US Dollars might well, rightfully, have resulted in you being thrown off the train – before it stopped at a station.

Shopping in the DPRK

It seems appropriate here to make a bit of an aside and talk about shopping in the DPRK. Shopping is something I do only when I have to so won’t be talking about what might or might not be good value in the DPRK. Here I want to concentrate on some of the practicalities that any foreign tourist might find useful on a visit to the country. This is even more important as one of the few English language guide books about the DPRK (Bradt’s ‘North Korea’, 3rd edition, published 2016) is so out of touch with present day reality it is even more than useless. The author is more intent on making negative comments (as he does throughout) that he forgets that a guide book is useful only if it provides a visitor with up to date and accurate information. Virtually all his references to shopping are inaccurate. In fact, if he took out his childish ‘political analysis’ the whole book would be half as long and twice as useful.

What is true, which I’ve stated a number of times in previous posts and which many people are aware, is that you don’t have the same freedom to walk into any shop that is the case in most countries. That aside for shopaholics or just the curious it is possible to get an idea of how this works in the country as well as an indication of what ‘s available to buyers. Whether or not every citizen of the DPRK can actually purchase these items or not is totally irrelevant. Shops are full to bursting with all kinds of items many places throughout the world but that doesn’t mean that all citizens of those countries can take advantage of what’s on sale. I don’t know how much a Rolls Royce car might cost but as the saying goes ‘if you need to ask the price you can’t afford it’.

I suppose for a foreign visitor the number of places where they might be able to shop are limited to a small number of categories.

Those places which are a common part of the itinerary and where there will always be a slot in the timetable. One of these is the Stamp Shop – which is just to the left of the main entrance to the Hotel Koryo on Changgwang Street (not far from the main railway station). As the name implies there are a lot of collectors postage stamps here. These are interesting for people other than stamp collectors as since the very beginning postage stamps have told the story of the political situation internationally, commemorating events that might be taking place nationally or internationally (where there’s a DPRK presence) or celebrating an idea, an achievement or individuals within North Korean culture. (Even, bizarrely, a series of commemorative stamps in 1982 for the birth of William Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.) For those interested in DPRK Socialist Realism some of these are miniature art works of the genre.

Also on sale in the Stamp Shop are small, poster reproductions of some of the stamps. My group was told that the ones that depict the US being destroyed by soldiers of the DPRK are especially popular. A paper version of these would cost about the equivalent of £3.00 and one printed on cloth about £10.00. Here both Yuan and Euros are happily accepted.

The other place that is on the itinerary of virtually all tours is a visit to the Foreign Languages Bookshop on Sungri Street, just a block away north from Kim Il Sung Square. This is only a small, one room bookshop but it has a reasonable selection of books that cover the spectrum from the political to the cultural. The most common languages will be Russian, English, French and German, many books (especially picture books and albums) being in two or three languages in the same edition. These will be of various prices and probably more expensive than was normally the case in such bookshops in Socialist countries in the past. Here, again, Yuan and Euros are accepted without any problem.

Sanctions mean that it’s not easy for the country to export its publications and it’s even difficult for foreigners to subscribe to magazines from the DPRK. This probably has had an impact on the prices requested. However, technology has become a sanctions buster here with much historical and contemporary political material (including the monthly magazines ‘Korea Today’ and ‘DPRK Pictorial’ – in various languages) available as a download – in pdf – from Korean Books.

Visitors might want to buy drinks in their hotels at the end of the (what is normally a very long) day. I have no interest in other country’s beers when I’m travelling and stick to whatever is the local brew. In the Koryo Hotel a local made beer, 660ml, cost the equivalent of about £1.20. Stay local with the spirits and the prices are still very low (taking into account these are hotel prices and much more expensive than they would be in a local supermarket). Go pretentious and international and the prices will probably start to get to what you’d pay in any international hotel. Why anyone would do that is beyond me but there’s no accounting for taste.

All the international tourist hotels will also have a small supermarket somewhere in the building. These are rarely very busy and have a selection of both local produce as well as international products – almost certainly from China. Here it is the case that you have to pay via the system of getting a chit of you purchases, paying for them and then returning to the first counter. This, for people who are used to going to a supermarket and then paying for their goods via the self check-out, does seem (and in fact it is) somewhat archaic. But why do people who go to other countries demand that everything is the same there as in their home country? It’s different but once you know the system it’s no more complicated than queuing in any major department store in Europe. Even there things have changed – remember when cash tills were everywhere but now there’s a common queue? Anyhow, my limited experience at the hotel shop was easy enough the staff, knowing that their system might be strange for foreigners, making the process as easy as possible. Why this constant search for tiny inconveniences to make a negative point about a society?

The other shopping opportunity – that might only be normally available to those tourists on some of the longer tours – is a visit to a ‘normal’ department store in the centre of Pyongyang where foreign currency could be exchanged for DPRK won and used to buy whatever was available to the local population. This was a three storey store along one of the main streets of the capital – unfortunately I didn’t get the name or the address, but I’m sure it would be the same one used for tourists each time.

The idea here is that the visitor is allowed to wander around and see what is there and after a pre-arranged time meet up with the guides and then the process of currency exchange and purchase would go from there.

This store was similar to many in any other reasonably well-developed city. On the ground floor food and household goods. The range of food was extensive and prices by European standards were cheap – but then the cost of living in general is much less than in Europe. Most of the goods on sale in this store appeared to be local, DPRK produce. The food hall took up most of the ground floor and the household goods section was relatively small – specialised stores for such goods holding a bigger selection.

The first floor was mainly clothing and other items of personal use. Here there was a requirement to deposit any bags at a counter before going through a turn-stile to enter the sales area at the top of the stairs. I would have no idea of the incidence of shop lifting in the DPRK but I suppose there will always be someone who wants something for nothing. I’m the worst one to ask about what might be on sale but all the (very few) items I inspected looked of reasonable quality. There was nothing I needed but I’m sure that many tourists taken to this shop would buy a small something just to say they handled DPRK currency and that they had something authentically North Korean.

The top floor was dominated by a huge canteen. I was there at lunch time and the place was full and very busy. There seemed to be a wide selection of dishes, some similar to what we had been served in various restaurants at previous meal times and other more esoteric dishes which would be the norm for Koreans but which I really only came across when I was on the train journey from Pyongyang to Rajin – on my way to Moscow. This included a wide selection of sweets and desserts, that section full with children. I would have preferred to have eaten here rather than the fancy restaurant somewhere in the depths of the same building but that was not possible.

I suppose I should have decided to buy something, just to experience the actual process of currency exchange, but there’s nothing to be gained by knowing the process as it would only take place with the involvement of the official guides so the role of the visitor would be to merely pull out the foreign notes. When I met with my two female guides and I said there was nothing I wanted they neither expressed surprise nor suggested that surely there must be something I would want – i.e., there was no pressure to spend foreign currency. This was the case in all the places that we did any shopping, you could spend as much or as little as you wanted and all the guides would do would be to make the transaction as trouble-free and quick as possible – there nearly always being time constraints.

A whistle salute as the train departed

There was an interesting ritual when the train left one of the stations after about 3 hours into the journey (possibly Sudok or Sinsongchon) which didn’t occur anywhere else. As the train started to move out of the station a number of female station staff, all immaculately dressed in dark blue uniforms, blew their whistles as the train moved away. There were quite a few of them as if they were at each of the carriages along the whole length of the train. As my carriage was the last the whistling stopped after we passed and can only surmise it was to make people aware that a train was moving away from the station. I can’t recall this happening anywhere else which makes it all the stranger as I would have thought these procedures would have been standardised throughout the network.

My concerns about food came to nothing and Korean hospitality

Before getting on the train in Pyongyang I had been given a take-away, packed Korean lunch as the meal was considered to be part of my tour package. This sort of multi compartment, plastic container is common in many countries of South-east Asia. They have a time scale of a couple of days outside of refrigeration, there are and six or seven sections in the base with a number of local dishes, a mixture of meat/fish and vegetables, as well as the ubiquitous rice. When I had been handed this I decided that if other food options didn’t present themselves I could have survived on this for the length of the journey, it being easy for me (a relatively small eater) to spread the contents over a couple of meals. However, that didn’t become necessary.

From my experience North Koreans (reinforced by the almost 12 days I spent on trains with citizens of the DPRK) tend to have quite regular habits when it comes to eating, when they have the opportunity to choose when to eat. That’s basically 06.00 for breakfast, 12.00 for lunch and then 18.00 for the evening meal. Obviously it could, and did, slip from time to time but unless something major interfered (such as a longer stop at a station occurring at one of these times if travelling) it would rarely slip more than 30 minutes or so.

Around about 12.30 the question I had asked myself about what was in the cardboard box that my two compartment companions had brought with them was answered. It was their picnic for the duration of the journey. This was not home-made food but different dishes that had been prepared on a commercial basis and which local people would have bought in the stalls, stores or supermarkets before getting on the train.

Obviously there are no take-away places that have become like a virus in most countries, culturally homogenised but dominated by the fast-food that has spawned around the world from the United States. One of the great joys of being in the DPRK was that it was a Coca Cola/McDonalds/KFC/etc., free zone. Not only was the country not poisoned by the food itself, neither was the eye continually assaulted by their garish advertising and promotion. Also the country was free from the pollution of the streets which always comes with these businesses and the attitude of those who eat there of the throw away nature of what they had paid for.

Back to the compartment at lunch time. Slowly, out of the cardboard box came a number of these small, clear, plastic containers. They were talking amongst themselves about what to bring out, deciding how to spread the different dishes over the meals when they were on the train. The small semi-circular table that was fitted beneath the window was soon full of different containers. Also making an appearance was a bottle of a reddish coloured liquid in a bottle that was first used to store iced tea. The bottle was followed by a small stack of shot sized, clear, plastic cups.

Next to appear was a plastic bag which held a number of packs of use once and throw away chopsticks. These are, again, common throughout this part of the world. The chopsticks are made from flimsy wood and are shaped to about a centimetre or two from the end you hold in your hands. When released from their plastic wrapping (plastic is dominating so many aspects of life in the DPRK as well as other parts of the world) you just pull them apart and after the meal throw them away. (For anyone making a long journey by rail it would be useful to have some of these little packs as washing facilities are basic and the disposable sticks are a better option – although that might horrify many environmentalists.)

There had been little communication between us since they had joined the train apart from the nod of the head and a smile at the beginning and I just sat and watched this all play out. I was thinking that I, too, would start on my lunch – such an early start had meant I hadn’t had any breakfast.

The next thing to happen was that one of them handed me a pair of the chopsticks and indicated with his hand that I should help myself to what was on the table. Thinking that I should at least attempt to bring something to the feast I brought out and opened my commercially prepared lunch pack and found space for it on the edge of the table, indicating that – if they wished – that was available for the table.

Food for foreign tourists

This food was unlike any that had been presented at the something like 20 meals in the different restaurants during the first ten days or so of my visit. This was ‘Korean’ food but very different from the ‘Korean’ food that’s presented in the places where tourists go to eat. These restaurants are a mix of KITC (the official Korean Tourist company) owned restaurants or those attached to hotels. In many respects these are the up-market type of restaurants that aren’t in normal use. Those attached to hotels are the sort of places that would be used for large, family celebrations, such as weddings, so are close to a normal restaurant as they would be in any country.

I also feel that, although there’s no total pandering to foreign tastes, many of these places have a ‘westernised’ menu. It takes the fundamental of local cuisine but then twists it slightly to take in influences from the capitalist west. This is yet another impact, which affects virtually all countries – a sign of ‘wealth and prosperity’ is defined by the consumption habits of those in the richer countries of the world. A consequence of this is that meat, of all varieties, appears in quantities that aren’t the norm in the local cuisine. This is done not taking into consideration the negative effects that this change in diet might have on both the economy, ecology and health of a country.

On the other hand to have provided typical North Korean cuisine to foreign visitors on all occasions would have caused riots. I have been in circumstances (especially in Spain) where tourist hotels, catering for those from northern Europe, have tried to introduce local dishes in all meals but have soon changed back to a more homogenised menu (perhaps having a ‘local’ menu on one night of the week) as what people say and how they react when presented with a different menu is very often not the same – especially if this goes on for a number of consecutive days.

At the same time reject all the rubbish you’ll read on other sites where people claim that eating in these restaurants is all to do with a separation of foreigners from the rest of the population. If these people had travelled anywhere in any other part of the world they would have experienced a situation where the places to eat are not chosen for the benefit of the tourist themselves but of another self-interest – whether that be of a guide (who will get some commission) or a place that has an agreed relationship with a tour company. So on virtually all organised tours, in all countries of the world, the choice is no choice whatsoever. The only way you could do that is when you travel independently – but those who the most vocal in their criticism of the DPRK are the very ones who would be like fish out of water if they had to depend upon their own wits.

I agree it’s unfortunate that independent travel is not possible in the DPRK but that has historic reasons – which anyone with a modicum of political analytical ability will understand. The biased and prejudiced attitude of some travellers being a prime example of what this has produced. If you want to find fault when visiting another country then no country would be omitted – including the country from where these complainers come. It’s a case of people in glass houses. But hypocrisy is not confined to political so-called ‘leaders’.

It’s also not true that no Korean can enter the restaurants where groups of foreign tourists are eating. It would be difficult to place a percentage upon it (I wasn’t thinking in that strangely constrained manner when I was eating) but I would say that about a third of the places I ate in during the 11 days I was in the country there were a few local people also having a meal. This was especially so in the restaurants attached to any of the hotels in the centre of Pyongyang. If there was a limiting factor it was probably down to cost, making the realistic assumption that the hotel restaurants would have been more expensive than those regular eating places along all the streets.

I personally would have preferred to have eaten on those more ‘local’ sorts of places as well as at some of the street stalls that existed on occasions. There seemed to be some semi-permanent places in the centre of Pyongyang that only seemed to be open at weekends – which seemed to be attracting a regular stream of customers whenever I passed them.

But back to what the locals had for their lunch – which I was now sharing.

There must have been a half a dozen different dishes, with a mixture of meat, fish and vegetables. The fish, in such circumstances, is almost invariably the small, dried fish (which I learnt more about when on the next stage of my journey from Tumangang to Moscow). The meat was pork and this was in a spicy thick sauce. (Knowing that many foreigners are used to bland and flavourless food probably the most frequent questions about food preferences was whether you liked spicy food or not.) And, of course, there was always plenty of rice together with a container of kimchi. (There seems to be as many recipes for kimchi as the number of people who make it and I probably never ate the same version twice.) The fresh veg was provided by a small cucumber that was handed to me and which was eaten by biting off a chunk – having the effect of refreshing the mouth from the spicy cooked vegetable and meat dishes.

Soon after we had started eating the little plastic cups began to be passed around. This was their version of the local, home-made alcohol, possibly soju (rice wine) but this version had a slight reddish tint so was almost certainly flavoured by some fruit – perhaps to soften the impact (although I didn’t think it too harsh). Again the awful Bradt guidebook ‘warns’ visitors off this tasting these home-made versions for some reason.

As I was eating I was aware that the train staff were passing past the door taking food they had prepared and cooked to other passengers who weren’t as organised as my companions. This is useful to know for anyone who might like to try what could be produced on a tiny stove in an equally tiny kitchen. I stored this idea away for possible back-up when I was on the Tumangang-Moscow train – but that was before I knew the actual logistics of that part of the journey. There would still be the problem of communication but I’m sure that, if necessary, the problem could have been overcome with body language and a few selected words of Korean. As always, if I had known then what I know now.

After the meal the unfinished dishes were put away in their cardboard box and any debris from the meal thrown into the rubbish. Then my two companions went to sleep. In fact, virtually everyone in the carriage, passengers and staff, disappeared for at least an hour or so for the afternoon siesta.

Apart from me. The corridor was quiet as I watched the world go by.

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18th March – Paris Commune 1871

18th March - Avenue Jean-Jaures

18th March – Avenue Jean-Jaures

‘World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.’ Karl Marx, April 17th, 1871

The 18th March this year marks the 147th anniversary of the start of the Paris Commune. For the workers and oppressed of the world this was probably the most significant event of the 19th century. During the short 72 days of its existence it demonstrated that once workers are united in a common goal they can quickly change their lives for the better. At the same time the murderous manner in which it was suppressed showed that the ruling class will stop at nothing to prevent the workers from taking control of their own lives.

What was the spark that caused this prairie fire?

Before it got light on the morning of 18th March 1871 washer-women, on their way to work, came across a group of soldiers trying to steal some of the artillery pieces which the local National Guard had secured in working class districts once the Prussians had entered Paris. After a long siege the national government had acquiesced to Prussian demands that the National Guard be disarmed and this group of, reluctant, soldiers were given the task to do so before the general population was awake.

Feelings were running high as those in the working class districts of the capital were prepared to hold out against the invaders and this attempt to take away the guns they had paid for was seen as the last straw. The alarm went up. Angry crowds started to gather. A couple of the state’s generals were shot and things moved quickly.

What in other circumstances might have just have been a riot became one of the most significant political events of the 19th century, where working people not only opposed the existing regime but decided to replace it with a structure that benefited the working class and not just the rich. This structure became known as the Paris Commune.

The Communards hadn’t planned in advance what to do and didn’t really understand how they were entering into brand new territory and the majority of those involved in the Commune wouldn’t have known the exact nature of the progressive organisation they were building – or of it’s possible long-term effects.

Mao stated in August 1927, 56 years after the Commune, that ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ (Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II, pp. 224-225) and the spark for the Commune was the attempt by the bourgeois Thiers government to disarm the workers. Due to the siege of Paris by the Prussians many workers in the National Guard actually knew how to use what they had and this combination of armed workers with dangerous ideas made them a threat to the very existence of the bourgeois, capitalist state.

And how did they respond?

There had been political tension in Paris since the end of January when the bourgeois government capitulated to the Prussians and had allowed them to enter the city. The petty-bourgeois elements of the National Guard dissolved away and the Central Committee of the National Guard was staunchly proletarian. This meant there was a structure that was able to step into the vacuum created on that tumultuous day in March – what they did next took the Parisian workers into the unknown.

18th March - Rue Basfroi

18th March – Rue Basfroi

By the evening of the 18th the National Guard was in control of key points in the city and had occupied the Town Hall (the Hôtel de Ville), where the Red Flag was hoisted. The next day, the 19th, elections for the Commune were announced for March 26th. On March 28th the Paris Commune was officially proclaimed.

However, instead of following the tried (and failed) road of parliamentary cretinism the Commune started to create a new organisation which had as its central tenet the interests of the working class. For such temerity, for such audacity they were to be severely punished within less than 70 days.

I can do no better than quote the words of the great theoreticians of Marxism for their analysis of the experience of the Commune, some thoughts written within days of the destruction of the first example of workers taking power into their own hands.

The Communards ditched the old reverence to the established electoral order;

‘From the very outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.’ Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, p15

And that;

‘ … the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw out the entire lumber of the state.’ Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, p17

That;

‘… the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p66

However, the Paris Commune saw the significance of their new organisation as something that would have to extend beyond the Paris city limits.

‘In a rough sketch of national organization which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short-term of service.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p71

It also bore the seeds of longer term ambitions and had international implications.

‘It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p74

What did the Commune achieve – if only for a short time?

On March 30th the first decree of the Commune concerned the suppression of a standing army and an armed people, the National Guard, would be the only army – all citizens capable of bearing arms to be enrolled, both men and women.

Your Commune has been established!

Citizens:

Your Commune has been established.

The vote of March 26 has sanctioned the victorious revolution.

A craven aggressive power had seized you by the throat; in your self-defence you have driven beyond your walls the government that sought to dishonour you by imposing a king.

Today, the criminals whom you had not even thought to prosecute, abuse your magnanimity in organizing a centre of monarchical conspiracy at the very gates of the city. They invoke civil war, they seek to corrupt; they accept every complicity; they have even dared to beg for foreign support.

We summon these abominable intrigues to the judgement of France and the world.

Citizens:

We have just given you instructions which defy all comparisons.

Your are masters of your destiny. Strengthened by your support, the representatives that you have designated will undertake to repair the disasters brought about by the defiant power. The industry that has been compromised, the labour that has been suspended, and the commercial transactions that have been paralysed will all receive the most vigorous impetus.

Today, the awaited decision on rents;

Tomorrow, that on loans;

All public services re-established and simplified;

The National Guard, henceforth the only armed force in the city, reorganized without delay;

Such will be our first acts.

The elected representatives of the people only ask, to ensure the triumph of the Republic, that you give them your support and confidence.

They will do their duty.

Hotel-de-Ville of Paris March 29th 1871
The Paris Commune

Among the other decrees (which were enacted with greater or less success with the time constraints) were;

  • rents for dwellings abolished
  • articles that had been pawned declared not for sale
  • the wage differentials between men and women were abolished
  • officials would not get any more than ‘workingmen’s wages’
  • the church was separated from the state
  • church property was to be national property
  • religious iconography was to be removed from schools
  • the guillotine to be publicly burnt, as a symbol of the old regime
Burning the Guillotine in front of Voltaire's statue

Burning the Guillotine in front of Voltaire’s statue

  • night work for bakers was abolished
  • planned the reopening of factories closed by owners and these to be run on a collective basis
  • razed the Chapel of Atonement – built to expiate the execution of Louis XVI

Paradoxically, in a city on a war footing, besieged by hostile forces, both national and international, this all resulted in a situation where the streets of Paris were safer than they had been for decades – without a police force.

Did the Commune make any mistakes?

Of course. Many. Some forced due to the circumstances, some because someone, for some reason, made the wrong decision. Perhaps some mistakes could have been foreseen and lack of experience, lack of knowledge or even stupidity got in the way. And even in a revolutionary situation there will always be those traitors who hide themselves behind revolutionary rhetoric and seek to undermine the movement to benefit of their traditional ‘masters’.

The Commune wasn’t planned, it evolved. It wasn’t the result of a group of revolutionaries working out how best to change society. At the time of the Commune most revolutionaries in Europe were following the Blanqui model of a small group of insurrectionists creating a situation where the rest of the population would follow. (This failed approach was resurrected by Che Guevara in the 1960s under the name of the ‘foco’ theory.) The Commune was different. It was a period when thinking men and women had taken state power and they were trying to work out how to go forward – against all the odds.

And during all this they were under military attack, both from the reactionary bourgeois forces of Thiers and the presence of the Prussian occupying force.

The majority of them were workers who had never been in a position of making decisions about the rest of their community in their lives. They weren’t the trained sycophants and lackeys the ruling class accumulates around themselves. If they had not made mistakes that would have been a surprise.

Some of their mistakes were strategic, some tactical. They had no over-arching theory to guide them. The theory that would lead to a successful revolution of the oppressed and the exploited, Marxism, was in the process of being formed by its originators.

In 1927 Chairman Mao wrote;

‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’ Mao Tse-tung, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 28.

He had learnt from past experience, in China’s failed insurrections and revolutions, the success of the October Revolution in Russia and the failure of the Commune in Paris in 1871. Chairman Mao learnt from the past but the Paris Commune was the present for the Communards, for the Parisians. They had no experience to guide them. The were true trail-blazers and so mistakes were inevitable.

With hindsight it’s always easy to criticise what people did in the past.

But some of their mistakes need reiteration, not least to remind future revolutionaries of some of the matters they have to consider.

  • The Central Committee of the National Guard (the precursor of the Commune) gave the reactionary forces almost ten days grace after the thwarted seizure of the guns on Montmartre. This allowed reaction to organise and allowed them to create chaos within the centre of Paris. When you have power you must use it – reaction never rests.
  • The Central Committee of the National Guard was too magnanimous during this period and allowed a violent demonstration by reactionary forces to take place. Marx criticised ‘this magnanimity of the armed working men’ (The Civil War in France, p60). Reaction is the viper in the nest – it has to be crushed.

This lesson was well learnt by future revolutionaries after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. If you can criticise Comrades Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin and ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky for some of their actions (but not many) it will not be due to their ‘magnanimity’.

‘It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush its resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat is that it did not do this with sufficient determination. But the organ of suppression is now the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p50

  • They didn’t take over the banks. How this would have worked in practice is difficult to say, especially as they had such a short time in control, but if the Commune had lasted longer then this would have become a very serious matter. Better to take them over and not have an impact than not and then suffer the consequences down the line. Something else the Soviets learnt.
  • Reactionary parties were allowed to stand in the elections for the Commune on 26th March. This can be a difficult one. There will be the argument that not everyone supports the new order and that opposition forces should be given an opportunity to have their say. The problem is that they have been having their say for thousands of years and still the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – that’s the case in the 21st century world and was definitely the case in 1871 Paris.

The slaughter during the last week of May 1871 was a direct consequence of the innocence, naiveté and magnanimity of the Parisian working class. They suffered for their mistakes – how many more others are to suffer because future generations haven’t learnt the lessons of the past – and of the Paris Commune in particular?

But whatever the failings of the Commune it was not given the time to sort out its shortcomings or mistakes.

What can we still learn from The Commune?

The biggest ‘crime’ of the Communards was that they wanted to plan things for and by themselves and did not choose to be limited by the established bourgeois state. Play the game by their rules and you’ll get a pat on the head. Play another game which doesn’t include them and they will (attempt to) destroy you. That’s what happened in May 1871.

In ‘theory’ revolutions of the oppressed and exploited should be an easy matter. After all we outnumber the ruling class (in whatever country, in whatever social situation – beit slavery, feudalism or capitalism) by factors of hundreds of thousands in some instances. But it doesn’t work that way.

How many slave revolts can people cite during the whole of the Roman Republic and Empire – a period of something like 2,000 years? Spartacus, yes. And?

How many slave revolts can people cite in the 300/400 period of slavery in the United States of America? Nat Turner (possibly but not guaranteed – and that only lasted less than two days). And?

However dire their existence and conditions most people cling to life and misery rather than freedom and dignity. Many individuals in the past have chosen the latter but history doesn’t always record those brave men and women as the ‘prize’ for their independence was death. There are a few episodes in history where the oppressed and exploited have come together to change their situation. In a British context I will cite the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the English Revolution of 1640.

Fourteenth century peasants would have normally lived and died within sight of their home, only leaving it if they were conscripted into some war for a tribal warlord (as that was basically what the monarchy was at that time) to establish his (and sometime her) right to rule them. The Rebellion, led by Wat Tyler, therefore, was something that came out of the blue, something which would have left most peasants thinking they were in some sort of dream.

When some of them went to London and their leader had a meeting with the King they were probably even more bemused. Then terrified as they were once again ‘put in their place’. They followed their charismatic leader to the capital who, riding a horse (what peasant rode a horse in 1381?), was set to meet the child monarch. Once out of his environment Tyler was treacherously stabbed in the back by the Sheriff of London. The rebellion melted quicker than summer snow.

(Traditionally, ‘commoners’ – i.e., anyone not of Royal birth – in Britain walk away backwards from a meeting with the monarch. This is interpreted as a sign of respect but it comes from the fact that, in the past, no one would trust a King/Queen as they were as likely to stab you in the back as look at you. That’s a lesson Wat Tyler learnt too late and which everyone should remember. Never literally, or figuratively, turn your back on the oppressor.)

Just about 260 years later there was another revolt against a British monarch. Although there were enough grievances amongst the population this particular revolt was led, and instigated, by the nascent bourgeoisie who had their own agenda but needed the anger of the people to achieve their aims – they also needed young, working class men to fight in their war. After nine years of war, where something like 11% of the male population lost their lives, the war criminal Charles Stuart had his divine head separated from his less than divine body.

The reason I mention these two events is to try to suggest how rare are those episodes in history where the oppressed and exploited actually get to a stage of challenging the fundamentals of power. They will always riot (especially in summer, riots rarely happen in the winter, although revolutions often do), they will always go on strike, they will always gripe and make things awkward for the ruling class, but they rarely challenge the class rule.

In 1381 the peasants trusted the monarchy and their trust was thrown back at them and they returned to their misery. In 1640 the few revolutionaries that did exist in Britain thought they could advance their ideas and practices (Gerrard Winstanley, for example, with the Digger Movement) but once the monarchy had been tamed the bourgeoisie had no need of certain sections of the army and used the forelock-tuggers to destroy progress – another lesson that we should learn, not all the oppressed and exploited will side with us against the oppressors and exploiters and are quite happy to destroy their own people.

But Marx saw something different with the working class revolt in Paris. There had been revolutions in France in 1789, 1830 and 1848 but they had been subverted for the benefit of the ruling class, if not initially, eventually. The Paris Commune was something qualitatively different.

‘In September 1870, Marx called the insurrection an act of desperate folly. But, when the masses rose, Marx wanted to march with them, to learn with them in the process of the struggle, and not to give them bureaucratic admonitions. He realised that to attempt in advance to calculate the chances with complete accuracy would be quackery or hopeless pedantry. What he valued above every thing else was that the working class heroically and self-sacrificingly took the initiative in making world history. Marx regarded world history from the standpoint of those who make it without being in a position to calculate the chances infallibly beforehand, and not from the standpoint of an intellectual philistine who moralises: “It was easy to foresee … they should not have taken up … “. VI Lenin, Selected Works, Vol 12, p111

For the first time the working class were fighting, consciously, for themselves. Not that they were necessarily conscious of all that they were doing. They moved the working class movement forwards by defending and promoting the interests of their class. Starting by defending their right to their armaments they decided they could promote those interests that had been denied them by the ruling class.

Serendipity (the washer women arriving at the time the government troops attempted to steal the artillery of the National Guard and those troops preferring to be mutinous rather than go against their class brothers and sisters) also had a role to play. Being in the right place at the right time even has a role in social advancement.

 …. and what has already been learnt.

Karl Marx had always closely followed events in Europe and especially what was happening in France with the country at war with Prussia. With the ignominious defeat of the French – and the subsequent declaration of the unification of Germany, on 18th January 1871, which took place in the ‘occupied’ Palace of Versailles in the humiliated France – Marx knew that the situation in Europe was about to change as the new, militaristic and powerful economic power of the new country would have to come into conflict with the most dominant economic power, Britain. It wasn’t a matter of if a war between these two powers would occur, only when. The world was too small for two such ambitious, imperialist powers to exist side by side.

Both Marx and Engels had also very closely followed and studied the revolutionary workers movements in France and Germany (especially) but other movements in Eastern Europe as well. Engels actually fought on the barricades in the Baden, Prussia, during the 1848 Revolution – even writing articles on military tactics which were published in the Manchester Guardian.

They knew that Paris was a seething cauldron of proletarian discontent but that were in a perilous position to take on the combined might of the French state – which had the tacit support of the Prussian occupiers. Although he recommended caution Marx was fully behind the Parisian workers when they were forced to either fight or capitulate after the incident of the attempted theft of the artillery of the National Guard by the reactionary government of Thiers.

He followed matters as closely as possible and, in fact, the first draft of The Civil War in France was written before the Commune was crushed in the blood soaked week at the end of May, 1871.

Apart from that seminal work Marx made an extremely important, and often ‘forgotten’ or ignored, annotation to The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. In the 1872 Preface to the German edition of the book one sentence is of special significance:

‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p2.

The reason this short sentence is frequently overlooked is because this had the effect of challenging those who believed that a workers’ revolution could succeed peacefully and through bourgeois, parliamentary means – the ideas that have been shown countless times in the almost 150 years of the Commune to be a fallacy but which are still promulgated by modern-day Social Democrats.

Lenin also learnt from the organisation structure of the Commune and later, after the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviets were introduced with many of the attributes of proletarian democracy that had existed in Paris for a couple of months in the spring of 19871.

‘The way out of parliamentarianism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the electoral principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops to “working” bodies. “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.” VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p55

Lenin believed in elections and representation but of a new kind that didn’t trap the workers who were attempting to build Socialism into the stultifying trap of parliamentary cretinism.

‘We cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions, but we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarism,’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p56

For the first time ever the proletariat had a model which worked – in all sorts of ways – if only for a short time.

‘The Commune is the form “at last discovered” by the proletarian revolution, under which the economic emancipation of labour can take place…. [It] is the first attempt of a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ….. by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p66

Although Marx had based his theories of scientific socialism on the experiences of the workers’ and peasants’ struggles in the past he was more than willing to change his approach if new experience told a new story or gave a better example of how to do things in the future.

‘Marx did not indulge in utopias; he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to what specific forms this organization of the proletariat as the ruling class will assume and as to the exact manner in which this organization will be combined with the most complete, most consistent “winning of the battle of democracy.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p48

All great revolutionary thinkers learn from great events – from both their success and failures. It can’t be otherwise and this is why both Marx and Engels constantly referred to the Commune in their writings after 1871. When Lenin was trying to make sense of the Russian situation he found inspiration in the events in Paris – which were taking place at the very time he was celebrating his first birthday 3,249 kilometres away in Simbirsk, Russia.

Lenin also liked the way the Communards organised themselves, in a new way and very different from the hierarchical structure that characterises capitalist states.

‘There can be no thought of abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely. That is utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will permit to abolish gradually all bureaucracy – this is not utopia, this is the experience of the Commune, this is the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p57

The proletarian dictatorship replaces the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This turns the world upside down and now instead of subordination to a monarchy, an aristocracy or an industrial or financial bourgeoisie society would now be under the control of the armed working class.

‘We are not utopians, we do not indulge in “dreams” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination; these anarchist dreams, based upon a lack of understanding of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and “foremen and bookkeepers.” But the subordination must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and toiling people, i.e., to the proletariat.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p58

It was the Commune, without an organised, revolutionary Party leadership, that came up with the form of the new State that Marx had been looking for. It was workers themselves, and not ideologues, who realised what was needed to liberate themselves from oppression and exploitation.

They were not a movement as Lenin wrote about 31 years later; ‘Without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement.’ (VI Lenin, What is to be Done? – Burning questions of our movement, p28), but without the Paris Commune Lenin might not have come up with this important conclusion.

However the lack of organisation was one of the contributory factors in the defeat of the Paris Commune. Not the only factor, as they had so many things going against them, but divisions based upon different political interests didn’t help in the struggle against the reactionaries. Future revolutionaries who have not learnt that lesson will end up suffering the same fate.

Women and the Paris Commune

Women had played a role in previous revolutions in France but the part they played was not recorded in a consistent manner and is often overlooked. Their role in the French Revolution (1789-1799) is often caricatured with harridans knitting at the public executions of the aristocracy but this is merely promoted to deny what actually was taking place – even when against the odds.

The Women’s March on Versailles, in October 1789, forced the royal court back to Paris – and was the virtual beginning of the end for this episode of the Bourbon’s. The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women agitated for full citizenship for women – their position being vague (to say the least) when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published in August 1789.

Meetings of the Patriotic Women’s Clubs were held in churches – something that was copied in many of its aspects during the Commune.

Women's Club - 1793

Women’s Club – 1793

Revolutionary women also played a major role in the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat, the radical writer who produced the periodical ‘Friend of the People’, who was assassinated by a counter-revolutionary woman (not everyone who should be is always a revolutionary) in July 1793. They carried the bath tub in which he had been murdered – which even I think is a strange way of playing tribute.

Women were also very much involved in demonstrations against the increase of the price of basic foods and were prepared to riot when their demands were not met.

However, as the revolution was hijacked and moved to the right organised women’s groups were permanently shut out of the French Revolution after October 30, 1793.

So there was a tradition of women fighting for their freedom in uprisings and revolutions in France but in the Paris Commune of 1871 it (like the workers’ movement in general) took a qualitative leap.

It should be remembered that women were the ones who really started the revolution in March 1871 when they prevented the theft of the workers’ armaments and sounded the alarm which woke Paris to the theft and to a new dawn in so many ways.

They revived the clubs using, as in the 1790s, the same churches from where the clergy had been evicted following the decree on religion.

'The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed'

‘The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed’

Although there are examples of women taking up arms in the 1790s this was more prevalent in the Paris Commune, especially so when the reactionary state machine started its slaughter of all those who had dared to challenge state power at the end of May 1871. Not only fighting side by side with their male comrades on the barricades but also causing mayhem by setting alight and destroying many buildings in the centre of the city. These ‘petroleuses’ (women incendiaries) were especially vilified by the reaction for the contempt they held for bourgeois property.

'A girl soldier'

‘A girl soldier’

One renowned woman of this group of female revolutionaries was Louise Michel. Louise was an anarchist – and this will probably be the only time where an anarchist will be lauded on this blog – but was steadfast in the face of the threat of death once the Commune had been destroyed. She showed her contempt for the court at her trial – which took place as the fires in the city were still smouldering.

The reaction wanted contrition and regret, what they got was defiance and hatred;

‘You must cut me off from society! You have been told to do so, well, the Public Prosecutor is right! Since it seems that every heart that beats for liberty has the right only to a lump of lead, I demand my share! If you let me live, I shall not cease calling for vengeance, and I shall denounce to the vengeance of my brothers the murderers of the Commission of Pardons! … If you are not cowards kill me!

They were cowards and she was sentenced to, first, imprisonment in Paris and then deportation to the French colony of New Caledonia (off the eastern coast of Australia), returning to Paris when the surviving Communards were given an amnesty.

Louise Michel

Louise Michel

She wrote a poem in honour of her fellow Communard and friend, Théophile Ferré, the Blanquist Delegate to the Police, who refused to recognize a military court’s right to judge him after the defeat of the Commune and was sentenced to death and executed.

The Red Carnation

If one day to the cold cemetery I were to go,
brothers, cast on your sister,
like a final hope,
some red carnations in bloom.

In the final days of the empire,
as the people awoke,
red carnation, it was your smile
that told us all was reborn.

And now, go blossom in the shade
of dark and drear prisons,
go blossom near the sombre captive,
and tell him we love him.

Tell him that in these changing times
everything belongs to the future;
that the victor with his pallid brow
can die as easily as the vanquished.

She remained active in revolutionary politics (if anarchist politics can be called ‘revolutionary’) until her death in 1905 – the year of the revolutionary events in Russia which were to lead to the October Revolution of 1917.

In 2008 a film was released, ‘Louise-Michel’, directed by Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, where female workers made redundant from a textile factory decide to pool their redundancy payments to hire a hit man to eliminate the boss. I’m sure Louise would have approved

Long Live the memory of The Paris Commune!

Eternal glory to the Parisian Martyrs of the Working Class!

Further Reading

If the only thing I achieve with this post is to stimulate an interest in this oft forgotten event in the 19th century it would have been worthwhile. When I say ‘forgotten’ I’m not saying that it has been forgotten by the world revolutionary movement. The Paris Commune sits in the pantheon of our revolutionary past.

However, not unsurprisingly, it is ignored in general history education in – at least – schools in the UK. The war between France and Prussia will be taught as this led to the creation of the German State which, ultimately, led to the clash between the European  imperialist powers and the ‘First World War’ – called the ‘Great War’ by the murderous British imperialists. 

That killing fields of the young working class and peasantry between 1914 and 1919 did have a positive result – the October Revolution of 1917. VI Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party that initiated that revolution learnt from the positive and negative aspects of the valiant struggle of the Parisian workers in 1871.

So the ‘forgotten’ event of 1871 has had a direct effect upon the society in which we live today, coming towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Capitalism and imperialist of the Anglo-Saxon world has never forgiven, and will never forgive, the Russian workers for their audacity to challenge capitalist rule and succeeded in the construction of a Socialist society for, an unfortunately short period of 39 years.

That 39 years, as opposed to 72 days, would not have been possible but for the determination, imagination and sacrifice of the Parisian proletariat from March to May 1871. 

From a Marxist-Leninist perspective:

The already referenced works by Marx and Lenin:

Karl Marx – The Civil War in France, 1871

VI Lenin – The State and Revolution, 1917

And earlier analyses of the Paris Commune by Lenin;

In Memory of the Commune

Lessons of the Commune

A History of the Paris Commune:

The best general history of the Paris Commune, as far as I’m concerned is:

The Paris Commune of 1871

written by Frank Jellinek, and originally published in Britain in 1937 as part of the series of books under the umbrella of ‘The Left Book Club’. 

To put The Paris Commune into its historical context the Left Book Club Edition of Frank Jellinek’s ‘The Paris Commune of 1871’ included a very short – but useful – pamphlet by Dona Torr.

An Introduction to The Paris Commune by Dona Torr

Women in The Paris Commune

One book that investigates how women fought for their own freedom during The Paris Commune is:

The Women Incendiaries by Edith Thomas – not yet available in digital format