Summary execution of a petroleuse – note the vicious bourgeoisie on the left
On the 18th March 1871, the Parisian working class gave a lesson to the international proletariat that it was possible for the oppressed and exploited of the world to take the future into their own hands. On the 28th May, the last day of slaughter of those very revolutionaries, coming only 71 days after that momentous spring day of hope, through their martyrdom, they taught the working class of the world that the audacity of challenging the power of the ruling class came with a price. For the 28th May 1871 marked the end of ‘Bloody Week’, the end of the Paris Commune.
The Paris Commune of 1871 started when a group of washer-women thwarted a pre-dawn raid by the capitulationist and pusillanimous government forces who sought to rob the people of the artillery they had paid for in their attempts to prevent the fall of their city to the invading Prussians. What began as a self-defence action in the hills of Montemartre soon spread throughout the city and by the afternoon of March 18th barricades were being constructed and the revolution had begun.
18th March – Avenue Jean-Jaures
In the post on the anniversary of the start of the Commune I listed what I consider to be some of the achievements of that, literally, world-changing event. For it was both in their achievements and failures of the Communards that later revolutionaries were to learn so much and which determined the manner in which they pursued the revolutions in their own countries, especially in Russia, Albania and China.
In studying revolutions there are both positive and negative lessons that need to be learnt. Failure to do so will lead to the same mistakes being made resulting in similar consequences. As the conditions in which a revolution takes place are always specific to the times and the conditions in a particular country it is inevitable that new mistakes will be made. That’s not a problem.
As Chairman Mao stated a revolution is not a dinner party (Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, FLP, Peking, p8). Revolutions are uncontrollable, it becomes almost a living organism which has a mind of its own. An organised revolutionary party might be able, at times, to direct the flow of events but they are no more than desperate men and women trying to control a river in spate. Dig the channels in the right place at the right time and the water can be controlled. Make one slight mistake and the water will break the banks and all bets are off – until the next crucial moment is reached. If a revolution can be controlled it is not a revolution. This makes the achievements of the Communists in Russia, Albania and China all the more remarkable.
Before going on to the mistakes made by the Communards it’s worthwhile re-iterating some of the achievements in that short two and a bit months. In the first few days:
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 a ‘working-man’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
night work for bakers was abolished
planned the reopening of factories closed by owners and these to be run on a collective basis
Although many of these were in response to the grievances of the Parisian working class after decades of living under a corrupt system, added to which were the hardships as a consequence of a more than four-month siege of the city – during a hard winter – by the Prussian army many of those decrees would have resonance in Britain (and most other countries throughout the world) even now.
Housing is still a problem – highlighted in Britain by the Grenfell fire of a year ago; wage differentials and the ‘gender pay gap’ have long been contentious issues (however, paying everyone the same, more or less, is an easier solution to crashing through ‘glass ceilings’ and has more rationale to it than paying over-paid women as much as even more over-paid men and would have a direct impact upon the poorest in our society who, nowadays, don’t even get the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich); recent events in the Republic of Ireland demonstrates how society can be distorted when the Church has a hand in controlling civil society – not to mention the role of religion in various parts of the world and the death and destruction that comes with it; general working conditions have become worse not better in the last couple of decades in most countries even though the Gross Domestic Product might be rising – the poor ALWAYS get proportionately less in such circumstances; employment is an issue which capitalism finds so difficult to deal with it’s not even considered of any importance in the political debate; and elected representatives of the Commune could be replaced at any time if they failed to live up to their promises – so no chance of the development of a so-called ‘Political Class’, a group of self-selected, self-serving, over-important opportunists who have gained control in too many countries.
The representative structure was for the working class and it was run by the working class. At the same time it’s important to make clear that the Commune was not a state of all the people. The bourgeoisie had run society for years and had failed – a bit like now – so the Parisian working class decided that it was time for a new class to be in control and purposely excluded certain sections of society. This was the first time in history where the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was in action – something which Marx, Engels and, later, Lenin picked up and developed in their post 1871 theoretical writings and which Lenin sought to put into practice after the Great October Proletarian Revolution of 1917.
Did the proposals and declarations of the Commune always work out as it was intended? No. Did they get some things wrong and follow an incorrect direction on some policies? Yes. But give them a break, many hadn’t had much formal education and it takes time for people to learn to do things in a new way – they weren’t given that time. Did opportunists and renegades from the working class get into positions of power which they then abused? Yes. These parasites exist in all societies and it will take decades of a new society before we can say that they definitely have been eliminated. Seventy one days was not long enough. Were they divided when unity was necessary? Yes. But that’s how things go. Either honestly or dishonestly people in such circumstances come to different conclusions over crucial matters. Here, again, time would have allowed the Commune to overcome (at least in part) some of these differences. But time there wasn’t.
But what is important is that they tried. They did not surrender when the going got tough – which happened very soon after the heady days of the recovery of the guns from the government troops. Many persisted, tried to make a difference to their community and many of them died for their tenacity and determination.
‘The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed’
Not only were working men involved in running society in a new way so were women – who also established women only debating clubs which used to meet in expropriated churches and which was a revival of a practice from the bourgeois French Revolution of 1789. They took up arms and enrolled in the National Guard and also played a major role in attempting to delay the entrance into the city of the murderous Versailles troops during ‘Bloody Week’. They were never ‘victims’ (as too many women claim today). They asked for nothing – they demanded and took.
But mistakes were made which led directly to the events of ‘Bloody Week’ from the 21st-28th May 1871.
Probably the most serious was that the Parisian Communards were too magnanimous – they didn’t recognise the viper they had in the nest, the government supporters and the bourgeoisie in general who would do any and everything to see the destruction of the new workers power. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the great Russian Marxist and Revolutionary, took this particular lesson of the Paris Commune on board and his seminal work on proletarian revolution, The State and Revolution, FLP, Peking, 1970, takes as its starting point the experience of the Parisians workers.
It’s strange that this soft approach towards the enemy within persisted throughout the period of the Commune. In the Declaration of the Commune, dated 29th March 1871, reference was made to the fact that if the people of the Commune didn’t deal severely with their enemies then they would become powerful enough to destroy the revolution or, at least, be able to undermine its advances. But little was done practically to avoid the counter-revolution.
However, in all revolutionary circumstances there will be those who call for leniency towards the deposed ruling class, either out of opportunism – in an effort to protect their own class interests under the guise of being revolutionary – or, more usually, out of naivete as many don’t realise what challenging power entails and that the deposed ruling class will never accept their loss of power and will wreak vengeance on all those that try. The naïve were to learn their lesson – but when it was too late to do anything about it.
Lax security meant that bourgeois counter-revolutionaries were able to allow the entry of the government, Versailles, forces inside the walls of the city on May 21st. Once inside the forces of reaction, composed mainly of ignorant and easily manipulated peasants, just carried out a blood-lust campaign of slaughter. One of the failings of the Commune was seen in the very instrument of their destruction – the workers of Paris had failed to communicate to the vast majority of the population of France the true importance of what they were trying to achieve in the capital. The interests of the peasants were with the workers but the reaction was able to convince these soldiers that they should stick with the theocratic, capitalist state.
Once the defences had been breached the Commune was reduced to fighting a rear-guard action. It was soon evident that with the actions of the government troops there was literally nothing to be lost in fighting to the death. No quarter was being given so none was asked. Many of those who surrendered were subject to summary execution – the vicious and degenerate bourgeoisie egging on the executioners. History often mentions the women knitting on the occasion of the execution of the aristocrats during the bourgeois French Revolution of the late 18th century but there is little mention the finely dressed bourgeois harridans who cackled and spat as young men, women and even children, were stood against a wall and shot.
Execution of a trumpeter
The workers did fight and most notable, and for the bourgeois reaction the most notorious, were Les Petroleuses, the women who set fire to buildings in the city centre to slow down the advance of the murderous government forces. In this action there was also an idea of ‘if we can’t have these properties then neither shall you’. This was branded as mindless destruction by bourgeois commentators and the press.
The writer Emile Zola condemned the Communards for what he saw as pointless destruction of a beautiful city. He changed his mind slightly on learning of the scale of slaughter in subsequent days but at the same time his attitude that property was sacrosanct pervaded the ideas of many opponents of the activity of Les Petroleuses. Such an attitude exists to this day and can be seen whenever there are riots against the present capitalist system – whether politically motivated or just out of sheer frustration and anger about injustices in the society – where property is destroyed. Many, including the working class, in capitalist societies have an idea of the sanctity of property and no concept at all about the reasons for the ownership of such property.
Despite all efforts to hold them back the government troops were soon in control of increasingly large areas of the city and the slaughter continued. By the end of the week the ‘conservative’ estimate was that around 30,000 men women and children were murdered by the peasant Versailles troops. No proof was needed for active participation in the Commune, being in the wrong place and the wrong time was enough to merit the bullet or the bayonet of the soldiers.
But this was the aim of the reactionary forces. They were not concerned about capturing, taking to trial, convicting and punishing those who might have been elected members or active supporters of the Commune. The vary fact that the working class had permitted such an organisation and structure to exist in the first place was enough to deserve the death sentence. The reaction were not just thinking of those 70 days when the working class of Paris had taken control from their traditional rulers they were concerned that the working class of France (and indeed, the rest of the capitalist world) would be aware of the penalties for acting above their ‘station’.
Marx wrote about the importance of the working class being an independent armed force even before the blood of the Communards had been washed from the city’s streets;
All this chorus of calumny, which the Party of Order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, FLPH, Peking, 1966, p99
The workers had taken up arms to better their condition and they were crushed by superior arms so that in future workers would be content to act within the bounds set by the ruling class itself. Fights and struggles around who should rule by depending upon the ballot box was to be the norm. It didn’t matter if people were to die in such internecine and tribal struggles (which is happening in many parts of the world even into the 21st century) as long as such fighting doesn’t challenge parliamentary cretinism – the belief that only by a cross on a piece of paper can society ever move forward.
By the 28th May the only fighting combatants of the Commune found themselves surrounded at the Père Lachaise cemetery, to the east of the city. One hundred and forty-seven were summary shot and buried in a trench – beside which today exists a simple monument to those murdered in that Bloody Week.
Communard’s Wall – Pere Lachaise
The repression didn’t finish when the shooting stopped. Thousands were arrested and about another 100 were shot ‘after due process. Many workers were imprisoned in various parts of France and 4,000 or so transported to New Caledonia, one of a group of islands that was part of the French Empire in the Pacific, 1,200 kilometres east of Australia, which at the time was a penal colony. (It’s still a French dependency to this day.) Included in their number was Louise Michel – probably the only ever decent anarchist.
Women of the Commune at Chantiers prison
Many lessons were taught in that short period of time in the spring of 1871 – both positive and negative – but, unfortunately, the example of the wrath and brutality of the ruling class has had a greater influence over the proletariat of the world than the shining example of courage, audacity and true freedom.
Only in a few cases have the workers (and this time in an alliance with the peasantry) got off their knees and attempted to establish a new world order. Internal problems and mistakes in those countries (and here I specifically talking about Russia, China, Albania – and perhaps Vietnam) led to the eventual demise of the socialist goal but the lack of proper, meaningful support in, especially, the so-called ‘advanced’ industrial countries meant that the burden, which would have been light if spread more widely, had to be taken on a relatively few shoulders.
Nonetheless, the same issues which caused the Parisian workers to take up arms and establish the Commune are the same under which most workers and peasants throughout the world still have to endure. There is no doubt they will rise and take control, but they will have to do so in a position of weakness, as did the Communards, as history has shown us that revolutions only occur at times of severe crisis – which inevitably mean not the best of circumstances under which to build socialism.
‘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
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
‘ … 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
‘… 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!
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.
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
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
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’
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’
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.
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!
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.
In the very early hours of 31st January 1968 gunshots started to sound out in the area of the United States Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. As it got light many more residents were woken by gunfire in hundreds of towns and urban areas throughout the southern part of divided Vietnam. The 30th was the Eve, the 31st the actual day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Those gunshots sounded the beginning of what was probably the most decisive single military event in the undeclared war that the US waged against a small peasant country in South East Asia and which presaged the grim future for the invaders. Those gunshots sounded the beginning of the Tet Offensive.
What was the Tet Offensive?
The Tet Offensive was the name given to the offensive and general uprising that began on the night of 30th/31st January 1968. In Vietnamese it is Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968 – literally the 1968 Tet Event.
‘For nearly two months, this campaign, like a tidal wave, attacked four out of six big cities, 37 out of 44 towns and hundreds of district capitals’.
The first attack was made in Saigon at about 02.30 on the 31st when a small group of Viet Cong, irregular guerrillas living and working in the south of the country, blew a hole in the wall of the compound of the American Embassy in Saigon and for the next few hours engaged the Marines charged with the task of defending the iconic building and symbol of American force within the southern capital. By daylight 19 attackers and seven Americans lay dead. This was probably the only time during the whole of the uprising where there is agreement on the number of fatalities.
At first the Americans, including the Commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, thought this was a one-off event, an adventurist, opportunistic, ‘terrorist’ attempt by desperate guerrillas to take a swipe at the US presence in their country.
Then reports started to come in from Saigon airport, then various areas within the city, then other cities, then other towns, then hundreds and hundreds of other locations throughout the country where American and South Vietnamese collaborationist power was under attack.
US supported South Vietnamese rule was being challenged and attacked on every level; military bases were under attack, as were administration buildings; various military and government officials who were helping in the occupation of the country were being targeted; the transport and communications infrastructure was being attacked and disabled, making response to the uprising more difficult to organise; armaments stores and other resources were destroyed and, perhaps most important of all, the Vietnamese resistance was on the streets of the urban areas carrying out all this mayhem when the general belief of the Americans was that they could only operate in the countryside and in the jungle areas.
The other shock to both the military on the ground in Vietnam and the politicos back in mainland United States was that they had been telling themselves, the world, and the Vietnamese Liberation Front that the Americans were winning.
Since the back-end of 1965 the Americans had been following a policy of ‘search and destroy’. This basically depended upon the superiority the Americans had in technology, resources and armaments. They would go out in force, either on land or in the air, destroy anything that moved and thereby win the war. Sheer power would destroy the opposition and it would be light on US casualties as there would be distance between the targets and the US technology. This was why it became normal practice for helicopter gunners to just shoot at anything that moved on the ground, more often than not poor peasant farmers, or their draft animals, trying to eke out a living from the soil. Those events, often depicted in Vietnam War films, actually happened! And, it should never, ever be forgotten that massacres such as that at My Lai (which was to occur on 16th March 1968) were taking place on a regular basis.
The Americans had been saying that they were forcing the guerrillas and regular North Vietnamese Army out of the south of the country, making it more and more difficult for them to challenge the rule of the puppet regime in Saigon and the puppet master. Apart from anything else they believed their own propaganda and intelligence sources – which might well have been feeding them what the North Vietnamese and the Viet Gong wanted them to believe.
And then the guerrillas were everywhere, organised, well armed and with a strategy of what they were doing.
And not only in the urban areas of South Vietnam.
The siege of Khe Sanh.
I said the first shots of the offensive were fired in the early hours of the 31st January. That’s not strictly true.
At dawn on the 21st January, ten days earlier, North Vietnamese long-range artillery began shelling the mountain top base and airstrip of Khe Sanh – a place very few people in the US had even heard of. On the first day more than 300 shells landed on this base, merely half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. The American Marines had been there for just under a year and before they realised it, even with all the modern technology that the US possessed at the time, the base was effectively surrounded and could only realistically be reached or provisioned by air.
The whole, relatively short story of Khe Sanh probably deserves a post in its own right but in relation to the Tet Offensive there are a number of points to stress.
In a sense the attack on the 21st can be seen as a distraction from the forthcoming uprising. Obviously the Americans would have been asking themselves why they had missed such a massive build up. Not only had the North been able to transport anything up to 20,000 fighters, with their equipment and a supply line that could keep them fed and cared for, they had also been able to transport heavy artillery (and even tanks that were used later during the siege of the base) and thousands of artillery shells. All this travelling hundreds of kilometres very often on nothing more substantial than a push bike.
That took a huge amount of forward planning and was far too much just to create a distraction. There was more behind the siege than that, although the distraction was an added bonus.
The US response to the siege was similar to their failed policy of ‘search and destroy’ – committing almost unbelievable amounts of resources into air raids on the ground where they thought the Vietnamese might be found. At one point there were 400 plus sorties A DAY. This included B52s dropping 500 pound bombs that no one knew were on the way until they landed, the planes themselves flying so high, and Phantom jets firing missiles and/or dropping napalm, effectively creating a lunar landscape. It failed. Although many of the commanders had fought in WWII they still didn’t seem to have learnt the lessons of Monte Casino in Italy or Okinawa in Japan.
At the beginning of April the Vietnamese started to leave quietly. One morning the Americans slept in as there were no shells giving them a wake up call, the base was relieved and then, within a matter of days, abandoned. They feared another Dien Bien Phu debacle of 1954, they left just in case it should happen in the future. Khe Sanh had shown them what they would have to face.
Khe Sanh had other strategic aims but the very fact that two, completely unexpected, events occurred at the exactly the same time was a shock from which the US never really recovered
Tet in Saigon, Hue and entrenchment.
I can understand, and appreciate, many of the actions of the Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive but questions come to mind when Saigon, Hue and a few other locations are concerned.
The use of heavy artillery and tanks, which were being used in the Khe Sanh siege meant a qualitative change in the tactics of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong – principally a civilian guerrilla army living amongst the population. Once an army starts to depend upon such material it is forced into a situation which is the opposite to that which a guerrilla army depends
Guerrilla warfare (and this was a theory developed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung in the war against Japanese Aggression and then the Civil War against the Kuomintang before 1949, later taken up in a masterful manner by General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam) is where the liberation fighters use their strength – knowledge of the terrain, being part of the people, mobility, ability to strike quickly and then disappear – against a superior enemy, but superior only in that they have greater access to war materials, technology and a very deep pocket to pay for it all.
But the enemy’s strength is also its weakness. It’s totally dependent upon a sophisticated supply line which, in certain circumstances, can be isolated and then such a force basically dies of its own ‘strength’ – this was what happened at Dien Bien Phu to the French invaders in 1954, both a military and psychological defeat which saw the end of the European presence in Indochina. Such a problem doesn’t exist for a guerrilla army which can just melt away as the only equipment they have can be carried or easily hidden.
This also means that there’s no necessity for the guerrilla army to entrench itself into a fixed position – which seems to be what was planned in Saigon and even more so in the historic city of Hue.
After the initial skirmishes in Saigon a force of about 4,000 guerrillas ended up in the Chinese neighbourhood of Cholon. Soon fighting was on a block by block, house by house nature. Initially the much more heavily armed American and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) tried to take control of the area in conventional, house to house fighting. This was, after all, their major city and the capital of South Vietnam. The world press were looking on and they had to keep up appearances.
However, after a few days of fighting and mounting casualties the Americans declared the area a free fire zone and ordered all civilians out of the neighbourhood. Despite that and with all the resources at their command it wasn’t until 7th February that the US and South Vietnamese government forces could say they had ‘complete’ control of Saigon again – after a number of the Viet Cong had silently left the area.
Here I don’t know why the North Vietnamese committed so much resources into a set battle they could not possibly win in 1968. By 1975 the situation was completely different and then ‘conventional’ warfare was an option. But at the beginning of 1968 they did not have the ability, either militarily or psychologically, to defeat the Americans and their lackeys.
The same question can be asked about why Hue was considered to be so important as to devote the greatest number of combatants from the start of the uprising and was even reinforced by troops from Khe Sanh. Thousands of the bravest and patriotic sons and daughters of the country were fighting in a battle that they didn’t need to fight and they could have been withdrawn to fight another day, when the chances of victory were greater – that, surely, if nothing else is the most important lesson of guerrilla warfare? It’s when that lesson has been ignored, on too many occasions in the last 70 years or so, that things go wrong and not only battles but wars have been lost.
Well into February the NVA were able to move more fighters and material into Hue. They should have done exactly as they were later to do at Khe Sanh – just up and leave one morning. As it was by the 24th February, when the Citadel in Hue had, once again, the flag of the South Vietnamese puppet state flying from its ruined ramparts, many hundreds of Vietnamese patriots lay dead, although, as in Saigon, many had managed to leave in the heat of battle.
Whatever the reasoning of the North Vietnamese for their positional warfare over a period of five to six weeks there was no doubt about the US response to such a situation on the ground – that is to destroy all, whatever might be in the way, to, hopefully, kill the enemy. The US decided that it would use its ‘advantage’, wealth, technology and overwhelming military power, to obliterate the enemy, whatever it might cost. What was said about the total destruction of Ben Tré, a small town to the south-west of Saigon, ‘we had to destroy it to save it’, became the axiom of American response then as now, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (among others) have learnt to their regret.
Also, as another indication of American hypocrisy and duplicitous thinking, in made no difference if that destruction was to concern anything that had cultural value to either the country or the world’s population in general.
The ancient and historic Citadel in Hue barely had a wall strong enough to plant the ‘victorious’ South Vietnamese flag on the 24th February. Mỹ Sơn, the longest inhabited archaeology site in Indochina, was devastated by B52 carpet bombing in a single week in August 1969. This was only to presage the irreparable damage done to the library and the looting of the museum in Baghdad in 2003 when the US, yet again, decided it had the right to invade a country to protect its interests. And now they criticise Islamic State for its deliberate destruction of the archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria.
Summary execution of the streets of Saigon.
It was in these early stages of the fighting that an incident took place in Saigon which was to define the nature of the war. On 1st February a Viet Cong officer, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was summarily executed, on camera, in the streets of Saigon by the Chief of the National Police, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. International lawyers might waste everyone’s time in debating the ‘legality’ of this execution and excuses can be made for the murderer, i.e. he was upset at what he believed Lém guilty, but it demonstrated the nature of the conflict. The US and their puppets would do anything to make sure they maintained their power.
Murder on streets of Saigon
There’s no doubt that the Vietnam war – especially that part of it with US involvement – was a ‘no holds barred’ affair. However, it’s the hypocrisy that emanated from the Americans at the time (and still to this day in whatever conflict they might be involved) that they are the ones who maintain and hold the moral high ground. The falsity of that claim is proven by the farce of the ‘trial’, sentencing and then pardoning of those involved in the My Lai Massacre (which was to take place within a matter of days after the ‘end’ of the Tet Offensive) or more importantly the fact that many other villages suffered such a fate and those details have never been fully reported.
Who won at Tet?
What happens on the battlefield is not always the same as what has happened when there’s a review of the battle. Whatever the fine words and the emphasis on the body count of the Vietnamese patriots (which was far too high) it’s pushing things for the Americans to argue that they ‘won’ the conflict militarily. Wars don’t just end, even when there might be a significant battle towards the end of the conflict. That loss can normally be traced to some event in the past which meant that, however far down the road, defeat was inevitable. As with the battle of Stalingrad the defeat of the Hitlerite Fascists was inevitable – all that was in doubt was when. Tet played that role in Vietnam.
To start with it was a total intelligence disaster for the Americans. They knew there ‘was more activity than usual’ from the end of December but nothing that suggested a nationwide, co-ordinated and strategic attack; nothing that gave any indication of the sheer amount of movement of personnel and materials; nothing that would be so significant that, whatever the political leanings of the commentators, it would shape the future of American involvement in Vietnam and, if it hadn’t been accepted before Tet it certainly was after, that the Americans could not win.
In this intelligence disaster it is rarely stated that although the US and its lackeys didn’t know what was going to happen, a sizeable proportion of the Vietnamese population obviously did – if not the exact details they would have known something very big was in development. That’s not a real surprise. The Viet Cong were of the people and lived among them. There will, in any such situation, be collaborators, traitors and plain opportunists but it would not have been possible for the offensive to have been so extensive if it were not for the co-operation of many and the acquiescence of many more. What is particularly notable here is that many of those people who basically kept quiet would have been members of the South Vietnamese political infrastructure as well as the relations, and members, of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
To retake control of Saigon and Hue the Americans didn’t use any recognised military tactics, they depended solely upon the artillery and air power, and the force they were able to bring to bear in any location
Yes, they could spend billions of dollars, send thousands more young Americans to be killed, injured, traumatised in Vietnam. Yes, they could kill many hundreds of thousands of poor peasants, destroy what infrastructure existed in both the North and the South. Yes, they could feed the military/industrial complex money that could be better spent on projects helping those in need at home. Yes, they could eventually argue, which many still do, that they didn’t really lose the war – although crowds fighting to get on to helicopters on the roof of the embassy building in Saigon, at the end of April 1975, those helicopters then being dumped into the South China Sea afterwards as there was no space for them on the ships sent to aid the evacuation – seems to be a somewhat undignified manner to get out of a conflict they had been directly involved with for almost 25 years. And anyway, how can you lose a war that wasn’t declared in the first place?
After a post-mortem of the offensive, carried out by Clark Clifford, who was to take over as the new Defence Secretary from Robert McNamara at the same time as Tet was over, he realised that the Americans had ‘no military plan to win the war in Vietnam’. It’s astounding that such a high-ranking official in Johnson’s administration could make such a statement after the US had been meddling in Vietnamese affairs since the early 1950s. It’s even more astounding that the war was to carry on for seven more years, with all the death and destruction that went with it – on both sides.
The US Presidency.
Tet basically ended Lyndon Johnson’s political career – and probably shortened his life. At the New Year (Western style) he was anticipating a second full term at the White House, a victory in the US mirroring what they thought was greater success in the foreign war. He, and virtually all around him, had listened to and had believed their own propaganda – a dangerous thing to do. When you make statements for public consumption make sure you don’t con yourself in the same way as you seek to con them.
On 31st March 1968 he made a televised speech which began with ‘I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam’ and ended by making the statement ‘I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President’. He did keep to his word about the Presidency but peace was to take another seven years before it knocked on the door of the Vietnamese.
The US Military.
The US commanders, especially Westmoreland, argued to his dying day that the Americans and their puppets had won Tet militarily. If the question is asked in the sense of who was it that was the most powerful force on the battlefield after Tet it might be true. But to ‘defeat’ the partisans the Americans had to create a wasteland, where everything was destroyed, where when the fighting stopped the people had nothing to return to but rubble. This was shown most clearly in Cholon (Saigon), Hue and the town of Ben Tre.
The idea of ‘if we can’t have it neither can you’ permeated US imperialist thinking then, for the rest of the Vietnam war and into the present, 21st century conflicts. In Vietnam, after Tet, the level of bombing increased – more bombs being dropped on Vietnam, in the ten years from 1965-76, than were dropped by ALL the belligerents in the Second World War; napalm and agent orange (a powerful defoliant) were used to deny the Vietnamese cover in the forests and jungles; and thousands and thousands of anti-personnel mines (especially brightly coloured ones aimed to attract children) were dropped to make daily activities a life threatening experience.
‘Destroy it to save it’, ‘better dead than Red’ was the motto then – and now.
The ‘psychological effect’ and the role of the media.
But military success, whatever that might mean, is not the only thing that’s necessary for winning a war. The psychological aspect has become even more important in the age of fast communication. The conflict in Vietnam was considered to have been, probably, the most photographed and filmed war of the 20th century. Images of dead and wounded soldiers being shown on television within hours of it happening was something that had never occurred before.
There were also a number of images that seemed to define the conflict – and in all these the Americans and their allies came out in a bad light. Apart from the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém (mentioned above) there was that of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death on the streets of Saigon on 11th June 1963 (in protest at the activities of the Ngô Đình Diệm government of the US puppet regime at the time) and that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a nine year old girl photographed running naked along a road, with other villagers, after a US air force napalm attack on 8th June 1972.
Westmoreland constantly harped on about the media being one of the causes of the US withdrawal from the conflict and the growing opposition to the war back home in the United States. He would have preferred the world to have only heard the stories that had been produced by the US propaganda machine, copies of ‘Stars and Stripes’ – the internal army magazine – dropping through everyone’s letter box. But even if the US had been able to control the dissemination of news they couldn’t have hidden the almost 60,000 black body bags that were returned to the United States.
However, ‘freedom of the press’ has been restricted in subsequent imperialist wars, firstly in Britain’s shameful war in the Malvinas (1982). Then, as now in the increasing number of conflicts of the 21st century, journalists, photographers and film crews are ’embedded’ with the invading troops. Such a situation both restricts their movement and also creates an environment where they actually get to know the soldiers on the ground and will be more reluctant to report stories that would place them in a bad light. And, of course, anyone selected would undergo a strict vetting process, so they would be less likely to report unfavourable news in the first place.
The consequences of Tet.
In terms of casualties on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong side I know of no exact figures, but they would have very much outnumbered those of the enemy. Hà Văn Lâu, a military commander against the French and later a diplomat said, in the Canadian made documentary, ‘Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War’ (1980), that the high cost in personnel and materials ‘was the price we had to pay to win this strategic victory’. That is both true and not.
Throughout history there have been many who have been prepared to die for the liberation of their country. Mao’s theory of guerrilla warfare gave an ideology to those struggles and a way forward that offers better chances of success. However, I would be happy to see a return to the situation where it is the enemy who takes the brunt of the pain and more workers and peasants are around to see, to celebrate and to benefit from the final victory.
However, I agree that the strategic aim was achieved; the National Liberation Front had shown that it could effectively take the combat to the US and its puppets in the cities; they proved they had the organisational infrastructure to carry out such activities; they had shown the enemy something of their potential for the future; they had given hope to those having to live under the neo-Fascist regimes in Saigon and the occupation of the country by a vicious, imperialist military; they had proven that they could defeat the invader in certain circumstances; they had broken the enemy psychologically; and they had made the first moves to eventual victory.
When was Tet in 1968?
Researching this article I became confused with what seemed conflicting information. It was only when I read something about the changing of the date of Tet that light was shone on the issue. At the end of 1967 the government of North Vietnam decided that Tet in 1968 would fall on 31st January. This was an adjustment to the calendar which did not happen in the South. So when there was an order that the offensive would start on the Eve of Tet there was some confusion in certain parts of the country.
This could have been disastrous in other circumstances. In 1968, however, this confusion acted to benefit the insurgents as attacks were made in the more marginal urban areas and this had the effect of disguising the attacks that were to take place in the likes of Saigon and Hue.
Nonetheless, it seems to be a risky business to change a calendar, no matter the justification, of a particular festival when you were planning a major military event for that very day. It seems there was a slight communication problem within the government departments in Hanoi.
I have chosen the North Vietnamese day of Tet for the title of this post.
The Tet Mau Than 1968 Event in South Vietnam
‘The Têt Mâu Thân 1968 Event in South Vietnam’ by Hô Khang, Thê Giói Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.
This is the only account of the event that I have encountered written from the Vietnamese perspective that is available in English. It should be remembered, however, that by 2001 Vietnam had turned away from the road of Socialism and was storming along towards the full embrace of capitalism.