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 

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Pyongyang, DPRK

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum - Panorama

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Panorama

The complex that is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum contains one of the largest collections of Socialist Realist art in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Comprising of ten slightly more than life-size tableau, stand alone statues, bas reliefs and mosaics these amazing works of art tell the story of how the people in the north of Korean peninsula stood up against the invading forces of the United Nations – puppets of United States imperialism – during the just over three years (25th June, 1950 – 27th July, 1953) of what the west calls ‘The Korean War’ but which the people of the north call the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War’.

(The other large concentration of Socialist Realist Sculptures are at the Mansudae Grand Monument where the two huge statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are flanked by two tableau, comprising 228 bronze figures which depict, on the left, the War of Liberation and, on the right, the Construction of Socialism. This is considered the most sacred site in the DPRK and photographing, in detail, the tableau is not really possible.)

From the introduction to the book ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ (Foreign Languages Publishing House, DPRK, 2014):

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is located on the bank of the picturesque Pothong River in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK.

Under the auspices and energetic guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the museum was renovated in July Juche 102 (2013) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the war in order to hand down to posterity the brilliant tradition of invincibility and immortal patriotic exploits performed by Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the indomitable fighting spirit and heroic feats displayed by the DPRK service personnel and people in the struggle for national defence.

Covering an area of 93,000 m², it comprehends the protracted history of the Korean people’s struggle, ranging from the periods of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and the Fatherland Liberation War to the anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown in postwar years. On display there are over 300 revolutionary relics, 120,000 war relics, materials and data in their original state.

With a total floor space of 51,000 m² its main building consists of three storeys above and one storey under the ground.

In the central hall stands the colour statue of Generalissimo on Kim 11 Sung who is acknowledging enthusiastic cheers of the Korean service personnel and people in the plaza of war victory in July 1953.

On the first floor are a hall displaying the materials relating to the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle which was organized and led by Kim Il Sung, especially those relating to main operations and battles fought in those days, a hall displaying the materials about the building of regular armed forces for the first time in Korea after its liberation, and a hall displaying material evidence that the US imperialists who had occupied southern half of Korea committed, in collusion with the south Korean puppet army, armed provocations against the north and at last unleashed the Korean war.

On show on the second floor are the materials relating with the strategic policies for every period and stage of the Fatherland Liberation War advanced by Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung, brilliant military strategist and iron-willed commander, main battles and heroic struggle of soldiers and civilians who defended every inch of their country at the cost of their lives to carry out the orders of the Supreme Commander and other relics.

On the same floor are also halls dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteers who participated in the war upholding the slogan “Resist America, aid Korea, safeguard the home and defend the motherland,” to the peoples over the world who rendered selfless material aid and moral support to the Korean people, to the materials about brutal atrocities committed by the US forces during the war and their bitter defeat, and to the brilliant victory won by the soldiers and people in the hard-fought war for national defence. On this floor are the halls of peculiar style dedicated to the anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters, leading commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army during the Fatherland Liberation War and internationalist fighters.

On the corridor linking the main building with the hall dedicated to the battle for liberating Taejon are exhibited the photos showing war heroes’ feats that would go down in national history and their relics.

On the third floor are the halls displaying the materials relating with Party political work Kim Il Sung conducted energetically to enlist all the soldiers and people in the effort to achieve victory in the war and those showing the struggle of the officers and men of services, arms and corps and the brave activities of the people in the rear.

In the hall dedicated to the Liberation of Taejon there is a large-scale panorama showing the victorious battle, which was recorded as a “living example of modern encirclement battle,” fought in line with the original tactics and under the adroit command of Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung.

The museum has also a hall that comprehensively shows the immortal exploits of Generalissimo Kim Jong Il who adorned the history of anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown with victory on the strength of Songun-based revolutionary leadership.

On show outside the museum are the merited weapons in the war, enemy military hardware captured during and after the war, and the Pueblo, a US armed spy ship which was captured in 1968 while committing espionage acts in the territorial waters of the DPRK.

The museum, built in a characteristic way in conformity with the architectural and aesthetic demands of the new century, will remain a structure representing the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean service personnel and people who are determined to defend the exploits of victory performed by the Generalissimos and carry them forward through generations under the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, and a symbol of eternal victory of Songun Korea with great traditions.

The uniqueness of Korean Socialist Realist sculptures

Those of you who have visited this site before will be aware of the respect I hold for the art that’s represented in the Albanian lapidars – and that respect remains undiminished. But (why is there always a but?) the examples you will see in the DPRK are different. They tell the same story – more or less – but the images (and this is in all the main sculptural fields – sculpture, bas reliefs and mosaics) seem, in a sense, to be more refined. There’s a, dare I say it, finesse to the images in Pyongyang and the rest of the country which is missing from those in Tirana and other parts of Albania.

I’ve discussed this difference between different Socialist countries and the ‘feel’ you get from observing those images which were produced during the period of the construction of Socialism. For example, although both fine sculptures in their own right there’s a marked difference in style between the two bronze statues of Comrade JV Stalin which now stand neglected behind the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana.

As I consider the matter more I believe it’s possibly a difference between European Socialist Realist Art and that produced in Asia. The art traditions of the far east were finer than those of the west even before the first Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. The fine prints that have been produced on all sorts of materials in Asia are reflected more in some of the examples of British realism of the early part of the 20th century rather than the work of the Soviet Union or the paintings inside the actual National Art Gallery in Tirana.

When it comes to sculptures I believe the Asian examples, of both the DPRK and Socialist China, have been able to capture emotions in a manner that was much more subtle than their European counter-parts. The finest example I know of in China is the series of clay statues which were produced in 1968 (during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) depicting the suffering of pre-revolutionary peasants. This series of statues telling the story of how poor peasants had to make payments in kind to oppressive and exploitative landlords is called ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’ (with the interesting Introduction to photographic version) which were displayed in what used to be a landlord’s house in Szechuan Province.

(I don’t know the fate of this collection of 114 statues. They were reproduced and put on show in Beijing but the politics represented by this story of the peasantry doesn’t fit with the present capitalist regime in China. The post 1976 (the date from which all the revolutionary achievements of the People’s Republic of China began to be reversed) regime even has an impact upon the public art, witness the tableau outside of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing – impressive in many ways but lacks the passion of the likes of ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’. Their sense of aesthetics also doesn’t bode well – just have a look at what they used to celebrate the Anniversary of Chairman Mao‘s Declaration of the People’s Republic in October 2017.)

Tienanmen Square - October 2017

Tienanmen Square – October 2017

It’s revolutionary passion that determines the feeling and impression the viewer gets from the tableau at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The artists believed in what they were creating. Believed in the story they wanted to tell. Believed that it had a purpose over and above their own personal vanity. Yes, they should be proud of what they had created but their names will not be found on the results. They subsume their personal ego to the common good – which should be the aim of artists, as with all other workers, in a Socialist society. Celebrity status is an anathema to Socialism. All of these artists work out of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.

This finesse means that you get a much better impression of the emotions that the artists have wanted to create in their characters – anger, jubilation, compassion, determination, struggle, happiness and joy, etc.

The sculptural aspects of the complex

To enter the museum grounds you go through a triumphal arch. On the left side is a statue of three males representing the three military services – army, navy and air force. Above them is the number 1950, the year the War of Liberation started. They are dressed and armed with the weapons of that time. On the opposite side are three other males, of the same military services, but now everything has moved on a few years and their weapons and clothing have been updated.

1950-1953 - How things had changed

1950-1953 – How things had changed

Above the vehicle entrance to the site, carved into the stone, are partially unfurled ceremonial banners, and in between the two sets of three banners is a campaign medal, the star in evidence.

Going higher there’s a long, rectangular metal plaque with gold lettering where it is written in Korean (obviously) the words ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’.

On the highest point of the arch, in the middle, is a large, metal rondel with a large star in the centre. Flanking the star on either side is an almost semi-circle of ripe ears of rice. This follows the format established by the Soviet Union where the rice would have been replaced with ears of grain but in both cases stresses both the idea of providing the staple food as well as a reference to the importance of agriculture. On either side of this rondel is a DPRK National Flag, also of metal. This flag in reality is a red star inside a white rondel which sits on a red background. A blue strip, about a fifth of the width of the flag, is above and below the red portion. This design was adopted in 1948.

Once through the arch you enter a large, open esplanade. This, I assume, is where formal events take place at the location, especially anniversaries of the Liberation War, as this is the start of what is officially designated as the ‘Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War 1950-1953’. This was created in 1993 in time for the celebrations of the 40th Anniversary of the end of the war and extends from this esplanade to the single statue of the ‘Victory’ just before the entrance to the Museum building itself. This monument is dedicated to the Korean People’s Army and Korean People who defeated the US imperialists and its allies in the Fatherland Liberation War.

(I can understand why nations celebrate the end of wars but haven’t been able to get my head around the obsession that has gripped officialdom (and some of the population) in Britain over the start of the 1914 World War – the war that was supposed to end all war – and at every possible opportunity in the subsequent (almost) four years. I can only assume it’s part of a propaganda battle to keep the population numb with the idea of war and allows the country to threaten, and often take action, against other perceived enemies. There is only one year (1968) since the end of the Second World War in 1945 where British armed forces have not been involved in killing people in other parts of the world. On the other hand the DPRK has not invaded any country and they are branded as the aggressors. But then, why should we take facts into account?)

There’s a large, metal schematic of the complex, at the edge of the grassed area.

Schematic of the Museum Complex

Schematic of the Museum Complex

On either side of this plaque there are two Korean Soldiers – effectively on sentry duty to the monument. Standing to attention, with a rifle hanging from a strap over their right shoulders, they stand in front of huge stylised red flags, constructed of marble. They are looking slightly to their left, therefore covering the space between them. The soldier on the left stands underneath the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush – and the soldier on the right stands beneath the emblem of the DPRK. At the top is a large red star, radiating light to all below. Beneath that is the outline of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country and one which has had symbolic importance for centuries. Next is a schematic representation of a hydro-electric dam with a pylon taking the power to other parts of the country. Supporting these images, on both sides, are ripe ears of rice. Finally, in gold lettering on a symbolic red scroll is written the words ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.

From here on symmetry rules – as it does in many of the monuments in Pyongyang, both their construction and the relationship they might have with other structures in the city. One of the consequences of the blanket bombing of the North’s capital between 1950 and 1953 was that during reconstruction the architects were provided with a, more or less, blank canvas as there were virtually no buildings that survived intact in the city. That US bombing campaign saw more tons dropped on the north of Korea in those three years than were dropped by all combatant nations in the Second World War. That unenviable ‘record’ was broken when the US decided that it had the right to determine the future of yet another Asian people, when they interfered and invaded Vietnam in the 1960s.

Down the centre is an immaculately manicured lawn with seasonal flowers in the beds. There are also a couple of large and ornate fountains which are connected by a tunnel of water when operating. This whole area looks impressive at night (see the front of the booklet on the museum, link below) but, unfortunately a night time visit wasn’t on the cards when I was in the country.

However, for me, the main interest is the collection of ten, large tableau which seek to tell the story of the Liberation War. There are four of these on each side of the lawns, then there’s a smaller esplanade where two others flank the large statue of the male allegorical representation of ‘Victory’.

Some of those tableau represent specific battles or campaigns but in general they represent the whole nation’s struggle against the invading, imperialist forces. The three main strands of the armed forces, the army, navy and air force, are depicted as well as the ever important guerrilla forces and the role of the work carried out in the rear. Women are shown (although in a minority) both armed and taking part in battles as regular fighters or guerrillas, but also in supplying the front with necessary equipment and materials. As in the various battles and wars that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had to fight to achieve and then construct Socialism women played a crucial role in the final victory.

The group statues also illustrate those values that a Socialist country wants to celebrate from those who have fought in the past as well as to instil such values in future generations.

The People's Liberation Navy

The People’s Liberation Navy

People's Liberation Army

People’s Liberation Army

Liberation Air Force

Liberation Air Force

Women in the Liberation War

Women in the Liberation War

Three Generations

Three Generations

Compassion

Compassion

Civilians are warriors too

Civilians are warriors too

Liberation

Liberation

Sweat of her labour

Sweat of her labour

Behind the group sculptures on the right (as you walk towards the museum building) is a mock-up of trench warfare that leads to open sheds where captured military hardware of the invaders is stored. On the left hand side, behind other plastic trenches, is a collection of the hardware used by the People’s Liberation Army, including the likes of Russian MIG jets and T34 tanks.

The capture of The Pueblo

January 1968 wasn’t a good month for the US President Johnson or the USA in general, when it came to their foreign ‘adventures’. On the 23rd their spy ship, The Pueblo, was boarded and captured by the forces of the DPRK whilst carrying out surveillance activities in the East Sea of Korea/Sea of Japan. A week later the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam – the one single event in that murderous war that showed the US imperialists that – however much they spent, however many Vietnamese they killed and however many of their own troops would return in body bags or scarred for life – they would be unable to win.

The Pueblo - US Spy Ship

The Pueblo – US Spy Ship

The DPRK, obviously pleased to have achieved such an important propaganda coup, didn’t flinch under pressure from the US to return the boat and its crew and it wasn’t until 11 months later, when the US admitted its espionage activities, that they got their crew back. The ship, no. It is moored on the banks of the River Potong and is now a permanent part of the exhibits of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and a visit is always on the itinerary of all visitors to the museum.

However, this episode didn’t deter the US from maintaining spying activities over the country and they faced another disaster on April 15th 1969 when one of their spy planes, EC-121 was shot down and all 31 Americans on board were killed. Now, I’m sure, a number of satellites regularly monitor what’s going on in the DPRK.

‘Victory’

'Victory'

‘Victory’

The statue of ‘Victory’ is posed in a manner which is common in Socialist Realist military monuments, a soldier going forward but looking behind and calling for others to join him/her in the advance. Here he holds a DPRK flag, his right hand high on the flag pole, with his left arm outstretched behind him, his hand adding urgency to his call for others to join the fight. Hanging from a strap around his neck is a Soviet Shpagin PPSh-41, sub-machine gun, millions of which had been produced in the Soviet Union for the defeat of the Hitlerites in the Great Patriotic War and which were now used in another war against an aggressive, invading force.

The Museum Entrance Façade

Entrance to the interior of the museum is by a door in the centre of the concave façade just behind the statue ‘Victory’. Before going inside have a look at the 17 large bas reliefs that take up the whole of the frontage. These tell the story of the Fatherland Liberation War, some images reflecting actual events whilst others episodes of warfare that would have taken place during the three years of the conflict. Only one of them has a date, (7 27) the 7th July, and that’s the one on the extreme right, which shows an image of the celebration of the end of the war in 1953. If you have had a look at the statues in the Memorial Park you will notice that certain images are repeated in a slightly different form, but as with the statues all the armed forces are represented and the role of the regular and guerrilla fighters, the old and the young, of men and women are all represented and their achievements and efforts commemorated and celebrated.

All the images in the centre of these bas reliefs are different but the surround are in common – apart from the slogan written at the top. A folded, ceremonial scroll creates the border at the top and to about half way down on both sides. Then, on the right hand side is a furled national flag which just shows the star. On the left hand side a similar banner is folded to reveal the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush. (The Party Foundation Monument is a huge representation of this symbol.) Above and below these two banners ears of ripe rice poke their way into the light.

At the bottom there’s a busy scene. There are three, partially furled banners on each side which rise from the bottom centre to each side of the bas relief, forming a V for Victory. All these banners have a spear shaped finial at the top. At the point where these banners cross there’s a large red star surrounded by ears of rice – similar to the star over the main triumphal entry arch. On the banner closest to the viewer on the left hand side is a large star and on the right the emblem of the DPRK – as described above. Finally, at the very bottom are more ears of rice.

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Mosaics

At the right hand edge of the concave facade the wall becomes convex and here there’s a mosaic depicting a victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the US imperialist forces. Flags of the DPRK flutter in the wind and the largest, which dominates the mosaic, is attached to the central figure’s rifle (again another trope that can be seen in Albanian lapidars, for example the statue at Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery). In celebration of their victory the men (strangely all men in this image), some of them wounded and bandaged, have their arms in the air, weapons in hands as they cheer themselves for their success. At the base of the image a tattered Stars and Stripes (the US flag) of the defeated aggressor lies in the dirt. To its left is a discarded helmet of an absent US soldier, the skull and crossbones image indicating that they have brought death to a country where they have no right to be.

US = Death

US = Death

There are many fine mosaics, some of them very large, in Pyongyang and other locations in the DPRK (some of which I will be posting at a later time) but this one at the museum is slightly different. Most of the mosaics use small pieces of coloured stone. Here, on the other hand, the image is almost monochrome as the image is created by a handful of colours (a couple of shades of brown, black, white and a slightly bluish off-white) on rectangular tiles. Some of these are broken but the majority of the image is constructed by a technique that is similar to brick laying, the tiles in a regular pattern. From afar it’s difficult to even realise that it is a mosaic but getting close you can appreciate the artistry of those workers from the Mansudae Art Studio who created these images.

On the left hand side of the bas reliefs there’s another large mosaic. This is, again, a victory scene but this time a group of combatants are on the rocky summit of a high hill. Tall pine trees set the scene but it’s uncertain exactly what has been achieved. Interestingly here the banner is not the national flag but the red flag of Communism. Although a scene of jubilation the feeling is different. Yes there are one or two weapons raised high in the air but the celebration is much more intimate. An older man, who could be the commander of the group, is hugging a young bugler and a couple of young women are also holding each other. You get the impression of what has been achieved is a victory over their own weaknesses rather than that of the enemy – as in the first mosaic.

Victorious Comrades

Victorious Comrades

Kneeling down at the bottom left of the image a male soldier has scooped up a couple of handfuls of soil which he holds in his hands as he looks, smiling, in the same direction as the others. Soil to a peasant is everything and here we are given the impression that these fighters are now the possessors of all they survey.

The rest of the outside

There were many parts of the building, from the outside, I wasn’t able to visit due to constraints of time but I was aware that there were many other bas reliefs on display, especially on the part of the museum extension that was completed in 2012.

The interior

It’s not permitted to take pictures inside the museum but you can get an idea of what is presented from book Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, published in 2014. Unfortunately, although an English version exists (the introduction at the beginning of the blog comes from that version) it’s not available for download. To get a copy which shows the same images but with captions in Korean go to Publications of the DPRK, click on the Korean page (the language link on the extreme left) and type 조국해방전쟁승리기념관 in the search box.

Who started the war?

No one ever starts wars – or, at least, it’s always the other side. That obviously is impossible. War is the extension of politics by other means and truth is always the first casualty of war. Whatever answer you give to this question in relation to the Fatherland Liberation War, as well as in what you might call that particular conflict, is equally a statement of political allegiance.

I don’t intend to go into any depth here about the conflict between 1950 and 1953 – which, in theory still exists. An armistice was signed, not a treaty. However, as this post is about the Museum in Pyongyang that celebrates the achievements of the workers and peasants of the north in that war I don’t think it can be completely ignored.

So a few points:

  • The idea of ‘drawing lines’ at the end of World War Two might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s long-term effects have been disastrous for many millions of people. I believe this was agreed by the Soviet union as an attempt to prevent war – the problem the agreement was made with imperialist powers who were not prepared to give up what they had or wouldn’t be prevented from acquiring more control in those parts of the world where the weakened European imperialist could no longer guarantee their control of the old colonies.
  • Although prepared to support the DPRK against imperialist aggression both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were tired of war and it made no sense to instigate another confrontation with the capitalist states so soon after such destructive wars in their respective countries. The US had no qualms about this having benefited from the World War Two and feeling that it had the right to decide what peoples’ should do and what system they should live under.
  • It was under US instigation that aggressive border controls were set up along the 38th parallel in 1946, restricting movement and creating needless antagonism in the border region.
  • The US constantly went back on agreements when they could get a way with it. In Korea they supported the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist, neo-Fascist Syngman Rhee who would be a willing tool in the attempts by the US to destroy any attempts to construct Socialism in the Korean peninsula. (It should be remembered, when many people refer to ‘Democratic’ South Korea, that Rhee and his successors were virtual dictators of the country and it wasn’t until 1988 that any sense of a parliamentary system was instituted in the country. During all that time the country was supported militarily, politically and economically by the US – with no criticism of a dictatorship.)
  • Korea was seen by the US as a place where they had to stand against the spread of Communism, especially after the success of the Communist Party of China, led by Chairman Mao, and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The failure of the US (and its UN puppet supporters, such as the UK) to defeat the DPRK in the 1950s was to lead, inevitably, to the US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.
  • Although tensions were high at the beginning of 1950 overtures from the DPRK for nationwide elections were summarily rejected by the puppet regime in the south. Only a spark was needed to ignite a full confrontation but the south (with American support) made no attempt to reduce the tense atmosphere.
  • The U.S. Diplomat John Foster Dulles visited Korea on 18 June 1950, seven days before hostilities broke out. Syngman Rhee would have done nothing without US approval and would also do whatever they required.
  • The US sought ‘legitimacy’ from the United nations, securing a resolution of the Security Council on 7th July 1950. The USSR at that time was boycotting the UN in support of the seat on the Council reserved for China was held by the Nationalist Government in Taiwan and denying hundreds of millions of Chinese representation in the international forum. The US doesn’t always need UN support (and had not called for it in the previous five years in their wars of intervention and didn’t call for it in Vietnam) but it helps in the propaganda war to have a piece of paper to justify the killing. When they failed to get such a resolution in 2003 they invaded Iraq nonetheless.

For more detailed ideas of how the war is seen by the DPRK have a look at The Korean War – An unanswered question. If you want the point of view of the ‘victim of aggression’ – the put upon United States – I’m sure you will find justification in spades.

Further information

The attempted isolation of the DPRK means that it’s not very easy to obtain information about the country from the country itself – most information in the west being filtered through antagonistic capitalist media outlets. For those interested in the opportunity to see the DPRK from another perspective go to Publications of the DPRK where there are a number of language options (although not all books and pamphlets are necessarily available in all those languages).

Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 2

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

Commemoration of the Supreme Leaders

What’s the train like?

To describe my ‘home’ (I thought) for all but one night of the next 10 days.

The ‘soft seat’ coach was the very last of about 18 carriages which comprised the Pyongyang –Rajin train. As I’ve written in the post on train travel in China the name ‘soft seat’ is a bit of misnomer. It might have had relevance when the ‘hard seat’ was actually a wooden board (and not a six-berth compartment as it is now) but I can assure anyone that after spending a considerable amount of time travelling on trains in China, the DPRK and Russia the last adjective to describe those seats is ‘soft’.

The carriage had 9 compartments (4 berths in each) with a corridor running down one side – the sort of carriages that were the norm on British railways until they were phased out from the 1970s. This one was Russian made – quite a long time ago – and all the original signage was in Cyrillic. Everything was clean and the berths in all the compartments were laid with sheets and blankets ready for the passengers most (if not all) of whom, in this coach, would be travelling well into the night. Unlike the Chinese trains there was no hot water flask in the compartment.

There was a toilet at either end, the WC kind – some of these carriages often have a squat toilet as one of the options but not this particular one. There was a smaller two berth compartment (which was for the staff) next to which was a small galley – not very well equipped but adequate for the task it was to perform. Next to the galley, accessible to the public, was a large hot water boiler – an indispensable piece of kit for any train operating in the east Asian and Russian area – instant, dried noodles being a staple for many travellers.

The carriage had seen better days but as I got to ‘know’ it over the next few hours I thought that I would be able to accept what it had to offer for the time of my journey. Until I arrived in Rason (and more particularly after I had arrived in Tumangang) I thought it would be this very carriage that would see me all the way through to Moscow – I was wrong (but, again, that will come later). It could have done with a bit of tender loving care and a small investment would make it as acceptable as anything new and more up to date. It didn’t have a power point in the compartment – which I would have liked for my computer – but there were a couple of points in the corridor and with a little bit of planning and forethought the power issue could be overcome.

I knew there were no catering facilities available but a short time after the train left Pyongyang, when I went exploring, I realised that the connection between this final carriage and the rest of the train was locked and that a trolley that would serve the rest of the train couldn’t come anywhere close to me. That was something I wasn’t expecting, having thought that the trolley would be able to supplement whatever I had brought with me. Here was another of those ‘unknowns’ that didn’t work out as I had hoped. This had not been the case on the Dandong-Pyongyang train as the two young women who operated the trolley on that journey seemed quite fascinated that two Caucasians were on board – and who were wound up by some of the men in the carriage about our reasons for travelling.

Another point worthwhile making here, before going any further, is that even though the people in the north of the Korean peninsula are demonised by so many of the governments (and its sycophantic media) in the capitalist world (including the erstwhile Socialist countries of China and Russia) I never encountered any animosity in the limited amount of contact I had with the people during my time in the DPRK. In fact, it was quite the opposite when they realised that I was there to try to learn and understand a bit more about their country and not to continually find fault with all that I saw. I’m not saying that the country doesn’t have its issues but critics would do well to look at the problems in their own countries before loading their opprobrium on to the DPRK.

When I had arrived at the station there was a lot of activity in and around the carriage as those travelling stowed their luggage (many people who travel on these long train journeys often travel with huge amounts of luggage and there’s a rush to find space before others get there first) but once we moved away from the station the whole carriage got very quiet, everyone, including the staff but apart from me, retreating to their compartments, doors closed, probably resting after an early start. Even the samovar took some time to warm up and it was three hours or so before hot water was available.

It’s always possible to see much more from a train than in a mini-bus so it was useful to get my bearings as we passed through the outskirts of Pyongyang, picking out the landmarks helped as there are some very tall and distinctive buildings in the city, and was able to put together a mental image of the locations I had been to, and had passed, in the previous days. Pyongyang main railway station is in the west of the city (the newer part expanding towards the east and the south) so the route out is initially to the north-west and then curving around to the north and the city is left behind after less than 10 kilometres into the just a smidgen under 800 kilometre journey.

The importance of rice

Being predominantly an agricultural society it wasn’t long after leaving the capital behind that the route took us between rice paddies, as far as the eye could see. This had been the same on the journey from Dandong, all the fields on both sides of the train filled with the golden colour of just about to be harvested rice. And this went on for miles, only being broken up by occasional orchards, fields growing cabbage (for the ubiquitous kimchi) and other smaller concentrations of other vegetables.

Not being an expert on rice everything looked well to me. The crop looked ripe, it wasn’t blown down or damaged (except in a very small number of paddies – indicating that the weather hadn’t been unfavourable at the wrong time) and some of the early rice was already being harvested – an increasing number of paddies had cut sheaves of rice standing on end in order to dry out before being taken away for threshing. Although the area covered by rice was huge the paddies were of varying sizes, as is the case with paddies in order to make the flooding manageable, but there was no indication of any individual ownership. When people were working in the fields they were almost always in groups much larger than you would get with private ownership so these must have been collective or State farms.

This should mean that the autumn 2017 rice crop was a good one for the DPRK. There have been a few bad years in the recent past, an issue which is affecting many countries due to the consequences of climate change, so a good year offers the country the opportunity to fill up grain stores for possible collapses in the crop in the future.

The country’s dependence upon one crop is something I would have thought should have been studied. If so much importance is placed on one crop then there are any number of possible problems that could arise from climate being wrong at the wrong time to the threat to a whole crop that could arise from pests and disease. Although I was only travelling along a very narrow corridor rice dominated the horizon and the only change in the dominant crop occurred when passing through areas where rice was impossible to grow – where maize became ubiquitous.

One thing that was very obvious, from both the train journeys and passing so many rice paddies, was the lack of any significant mechanisation in the process, of either the harvesting or the transporting of the rice crop. Although land ownership looked collective I only saw one small tractor being used during all the time I was looking out the window. There are economic reasons why mechanisation is not appropriate for farmers with small areas of cultivation but when it comes to a whole village working the land surrounding it there should be more than an economic reason to employ machinery. Rice planting and cutting is a particularly back-breaking form of agricultural labour – constant bending being necessary – so anything that can reduce that will have an immediate benefit to the workers in the countryside.

The collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s – and 20 years later in China – was only possible with the revolutionary transformation of industry in the cities and the bringing of the industrial revolution to the countryside. Tractor stations which provided, and maintained, all the machinery needed for an efficient and productive countryside were an integral part of collectivisation. Without one you wouldn’t have had the other. Not only is it economically more efficient it also transforms the peasant in the countryside into a worker in the countryside, raising him/her to the same status as the worker in the city. Breaking down the divide between the town and country being an important aim of the revolution in what were predominantly peasant countries.

Reducing the time spent in the fields doing hard manual work allows the agricultural workers to diversify and also to improve their skills through education for themselves and their children. There’s nothing wrong with children working, at times, in the countryside, especially at times of harvest, as it educates them into the world of labour. But to depend upon that labour has the potential of keeping the countryside in the past and prevents developments for the future.

Economic sanctions under which the DPRK has had to live for a number of years now (assisted by the pusillanimous and sycophantic attitude of both Russia and China – whose own self-interests are more with the DPRK than the US imperialists and their hangers-on) don’t help. Fuel oils being in short supply mean that priorities have to be decided and perhaps fuel for farm machinery is one area that suffers. However, after so many years after Liberation I would have liked to have seen more evidence of machinery in the countryside.

I don’t think that people who haven’t spent a significant amount of time living in an Asian country can quite understand the importance of the rice crop and how much of a staple it is. Rice is served at EVERY meal and people eat rice in quantities which have never ceased to amaze me. Rice has an importance in Asia which is not reflected in the same way with the staples in the west, which is spread across a number of crops. Maize does play a small role in diversification – and in those areas of the country where rice growing is impossible maize is much more in evidence – but it can only be a small percentage of the whole. I don’t know how much effort is being made to wean the population off such total dependence on one crop but with the uncertainties with which agriculture is having to deal with the man-made effects on the climate it would seem to be a priority.

I also don’t know how productive these paddies might be. It’s quite possible to fill the land with low yield strains that look good but have low productivity. I would like to think that this issue has been addressed in the DPRK as they have had many years where they have been developing their own science institutes. As an example of this I was shown a small area in Pyongyang where experiments are being carried out to grow rice directly on slow flowing rivers. In a country where levels of pollution of the rivers is low this makes more use of valuable resources, both of water and land.

Obviously, a good crop in itself doesn’t mean that the food gets to all who need it. This is an issue everywhere and is evident in all capitalist countries. The supermarkets in Europe and America are bulging with all kinds of foodstuffs but the same countries have an increasing rate of poverty and food shortages are a serious problem for many. If that’s wasn’t the case why is there the abomination of the proliferation of food banks in some of the richest countries in the world. Yes, many people depend upon them, but what does that say about these societies? It’s not what you produce, or how much, it’s all a matter of distribution and control of the means of production. As long as profit dominates people will go hungry.

In my limited time in the DPRK I wasn’t aware of these problems. People in all the places I visited seemed healthy enough, the people on the streets of Pyongyang, the people in the two trains I travelled on, the cultural places I visited as well as the people in the countryside. Those in the cities were well dressed and seemed, more or less, content with their lot. If you are up to your shins in mud cutting rice stalks all day you are unlikely to be wearing your best party frock so judging people in the countryside by what they are wearing is fraught with danger. But the bicycles and motorbikes that were standing close to the railway, whilst their owners worked in the fields, looked quite modern and functioning well.

Yes, often there were children working in the fields. That’s not unusual in agricultural communities, especially at harvest time, throughout the world. However, I would suggest that children in the fields in the DPRK is a long way from the children who are forced to work in sweatshops in the likes of the so-called ‘world’s biggest democracy’ of India, so a little bit of perspective might well be useful here. As children do in all parts of the world they would look up from their work, or from playing at the sides of the fields as their parents worked, and wave at the passengers going by. (Perhaps not in all countries. In Albania and Vietnam – for reasons I just don’t understand – they throw rocks.)

A short anecdote about child poverty

When I went around the National Art Gallery in Pyongyang I was asked how I read a painting of a poor, young, peasant boy ignoring a large dragonfly which was hovering around his head. This introduced one of the many cultural differences between Britain and Korea. For Koreans this had an immediate significance as it seems that all young Koreans (and here I assume both north and south of the false border at the 38th parallel) love to chase the big dragon flies that can be found throughout the countryside. The fact that he was ignoring the insect was proof that he was too tired or concerned with more important things, i.e., his empty stomach, than the almost innate wish of Korean children to chase these large insects.

As well as the people the buildings in the countless small villages the train passed through looked in a good condition and gave the impression of a thriving community. Yes, many of the roads weren’t paved but when you have an embargo on the import of petroleum products that doesn’t leave a lot of slack for the ‘luxury’ of a paved road.

Iconography

Over the entrance into the railway station buildings there was always the dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In many of the villages you can also see columns commemorating these two previous leaders of the country. Also large mosaics would be erected in the main squares, sometimes with images from the revolutionary past, a visit from one of the Kim’s to the area or depicting life in the countryside – I saw one on the way from Dandong to Pyongyang of a couple of white cranes flying over the ripe rice paddies.

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Village showing revolutionary mosaic

Restrictions on foreigners?

Although, in the main, I understand the restrictions that foreign travellers have whilst travelling in the DPRK, they can, at times, be frustrating. After a little over an hour into the journey the train stopped at the town of Pyongsong. Here there were quite a few stalls selling whatever. Other passengers from the carriage had got off so I knew we would be there for at least a few minutes but when I tried to get off – just to see what was going on, after all I didn’t have any local currency even if I did want to buy something (although Chinese Yuan might have been accepted if you got that far) – it was politely indicated to me that it was not permitted.

Now it’s possible that the train staff knew that the stop was only for a matter of a few minutes and they didn’t want me to get myself stranded. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound, as in many Asian countries foreigners are not considered to be really adults and are treated like children – probably based on the inability of generations of Europeans being able to understand the people and the customs in the countries they have invaded, normally due to their lack of desire to do so. In all these situations I encountered until I got into Moscow ten days later I could only use supposition to try to understand what was happening as the lack of any meaningful, verbal interaction was virtually nil – there’s only so much that can be conveyed by body language.

This restriction was not repeated at any of the other stops where the ongoing passengers got off to buy something or to just smoke or stretch their legs so I’ll have to remain mystified why it occurred at the first station stop which was longer than just one allowing passengers to alight or jump on board. Needless to say that when I did go on to the platform, or beside the track when in the middle of nowhere, I never strayed too far and always kept a watch on what everyone else was doing, which was to include a few false alarms for all us.

I think it was when we had just left Pyongsong that I received a salute from a young soldier who was manning one of the rail/road crossings. The train was still moving very slowly and I was just looking out of the window and he saluted as soon as he saw me. I smiled and nodded in return. I think that was the first time I’ve had such a response in my travels – often authority figures, whilst not necessarily being hostile (although I’ve met enough of them) are certainly more distant to foreign visitors.

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