28th May 1871 – the end of ‘Bloody Week’ of the Paris Commune

Summary execution of a petroleuse - note the vicious bourgeosie on the left

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

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'

‘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

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

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

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.

In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote:

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,The Manifesto of the Communist Party, FLP, Peking, 1968, p76).

What was true 160 years ago is as true today as it was then.

Eternal glory to the martyrs of the Paris Commune!

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 

Realism made a come back in Edinburgh – Autumn 2017

The Moon Goes Round the Earth - Keith Henderson

The Moon Goes Round the Earth – Keith Henderson

Having some knowledge of Socialist Realist Art from the erstwhile Socialist countries it was a pleasure to be able to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 2017, on British Realist Painting of the 1920s and 1930s to see what was shared – and what wasn’t. After all the style fell out of favour here and became a victim of the Cold War – collateral damage in the propaganda war against Communism.

In the main, these examples of British Realism compared to Socialist Realism are as different as chalk and cheese. In Socialist Realism context is everything, the period in which a picture is painted, the reason for its creation, who or what is depicted and the audience at which the image is aimed are all important .

With the British paintings what is most obvious from the start is the difference in the subjects. British Realism was fine art in its most literal sense. Some of the painters used single sable hair brushes in their work. Some of these paintings took years to complete. There’s no doubting the skill and draughtsmanship of such creations but they were, in many ways, products of their time and the social relations that existed in the decades between the two world wars.

With few exceptions the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ prevailed. They were vanity products of a privileged minority, who had private incomes, who came from ‘old’ wealth. Even those from working class backgrounds rarely reflected their heritage in the subjects and themes they chose to paint.

Many of the male painters had direct experience of the First World War – although a few were pacifists or conscientious objectors and one, Maxwell Armfield, even went to the US to avoid conscription. Their rank during the conflict indicated their class background but most bullets and gas don’t respect class and many returned from the war scarred physically or mentally. Instead of reacting against the carnage most chose to retreat into an idealised past, or a beautiful present, rather than use their art to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated in the future.

This is especially obvious in an idealised view of the countryside, harking back to a time of innocence, before mechanisation, which had, as a corollary, produced the weapons of the early 20th century which had turned once fertile farmland in France into a murderous quagmire. Their countryside is idyllic, the sun always shines and all is good with the world with happy workers bringing in the harvest or tourists enjoying the countryside in their spare time. In their pastoral images there is no reference to the almost feudal working and living conditions under which most agricultural workers existed. As a result they created paintings which included horse drawn rakes and workers harvesting with scythes – backbreaking and low productivity labour.

British Realism included no drama, narrative, or anecdote. It doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more like a photo of a specific time, location or individual but it’s a photo that doesn’t have a back story. It’s an image frozen in time but without any indication of a past or a future.

But ‘Realism’ doesn’t mean real.

By the Hills - Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills – Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills (Brockhurst),

Woman Reclining - Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining – Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining,

A Game of Patience - Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience – Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience (both by Frampton) and

Pauline Waiting - Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting – Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting (Gunn) are images of incredibly beautiful women, perfect in every way. But no one’s that perfect. All of them oil on canvas, the style which results in a ‘brushless, flawless finish’ is used to produce an impossibly flawless image.

The paintings look the same as they do in the catalogue – like large, blown up (and retouched, or, perhaps I should say Photoshopped) photographs. The only difference with the originals is that when close up you can actually see the small hairs on these women’s faces and arms. Their perfection is what gives them away as paintings – such technologies in retouching weren’t available at the time. The artists aimed for, and achieved, perfection before the ravages of time would take that away forever. Standing in front of these portraits you know Oliver Cromwell, with his ‘warts and all’, would not have been a welcomed sitter in these technicians’ studios.

Some artists during this heyday of British Realism also played around with materials, reverting to tempera (using egg yolks, the norm before the invention of oil based paints) which produces a much softer, watercolour effect. What had, half a millennium ago, restricted artists in their desires to depict the world around them was reinvented to depict contemporary society – the medium not as restrictive as once thought. They rejected oil for the previously rejected egg.

British Realism came closest to Soviet Socialist Realism with the works of Branson

Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works - Clive Branson

Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works – Clive Branson

(Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works) and Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop - Clifford Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop – Clifford Rowe

(The Fried Fish Shop). This is not surprising. Both were Communists and used their art to comment on the capitalist society that had just come out of the worst economic crisis (to that time) and was rushing headlong into the worst and most destructive conflict so far known to mankind. In depicting ordinary working people, even in the mundane act of eating fish and chips, they were referencing those who could take society along another, more prosperous and peaceful road.

There was also a similarity to the Soviet example in the works of Matania

Blackpool - Fortunino Matania

Blackpool – Fortunino Matania

(whose Blackpool was used as a poster advertising the seaside town) and that of Taylor

Restaurant Car - Leonard Taylor

Restaurant Car – Leonard Taylor

(whose Restaurant Car was used to advertise luxury rail travel). In this way they paralleled the work of Soviet artists who were producing public information posters in all fields of Soviet life at exactly the same time.

Flawed but illuminating, museums and art galleries should hunt out further treasures of British Realism and present them to the public. Let the people decide what is ‘art’ and not leave it to the Turner Prize jury.

The National Galleries of Scotland produced a wonderfully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, by Patrick Elliot and Sacha Llewellyn. Apart from the reproductions of the paintings that were in the exhibition the text puts the Movement into its context.