27th March 1886 – Birth of Sergei Mironovich Kirov

Sergei M Kirov

Sergei M Kirov

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Sergei Mironovich Kirov 27th March 1886 – 1st December 1934

From The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979)

(Party pseudonym of S. M. Kostrikov). Born March 27th 1886, in Urzhum, in present-day Kirov Oblast; died December 1st 1934, in Leningrad. A prominent figure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Became a member of the Communist Party in 1904.

Kirov’s father belonged to the lower middle class (meshchanstvo). After his parents died, Kirov at the age of seven was placed in an orphanage. He studied at the Urzhum City School from 1897 to 1901 and the Kazan Mechanical and Technical School, from which he graduated in 1904; that same autumn he moved to Tomsk and worked as a draftsman with the city executive board. There Kirov became an active member of the Bolshevik group of the Tomsk Social Democratic organization. He was elected to the Tomsk Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) committee in July 1905 and organized an underground printing press and conducted party work among railroad workers in the summer of 1906. In October 1905, Kirov prepared and successfully led a strike at the important Taiga railroad station. He was repeatedly arrested in 1905 and 1906; in February 1907, having spent seven months in prison, he was sentenced to one year and four months of detention in a fortress.

After his release in June 1908, Kirov moved to Irkutsk, where he re-established the Party organization that had been smashed by the police. Evading police persecution, Kirov moved in May 1909 to Vladikavkaz (now Ordzhonikidze), assumed the leadership of the Bolshevik organization, and worked on the newspaper Terek. In November 1912 the newspaper published the article “Simplicity of Mores” over the signature S. Kirov, a surname that became his party pseudonym. In the period of the new revolutionary upswing in 1910–14 and during World War I, Kirov directed all Bolshevik political work in the Northern Caucasus; he was elected to the Vladikavkaz Soviet after the February Revolution of 1917. In October 1917, Kirov was a delegate to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets and participated in the October armed uprising in Petrograd. Upon returning to Vladikavkaz, Kirov led the struggle of the working people of the Terek for Soviet rule. He attended the second oblast congress of the peoples of the Terek, held in Piatigorsk in February-March 1918, which proclaimed Soviet rule in the Northern Caucasus, and attended the Sixth All-Russian Congress of Soviets in November 1918 as a delegate of Terek Oblast.

In late December 1918, Kirov led an expedition transporting arms and ammunition through Astrakhan to the Northern Caucasus; he stopped in Astrakhan because the Whites had captured the Northern Caucasus by that time. He was then appointed chairman of the Provisional Military Revolutionary Committee of Astrakhan Krai in February 1919, becoming a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Eleventh Army on May 7th 1919, and a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Southern Troop Group of the Red Army on July 7th Kirov was one of the organizers and leaders of the defense of Astrakhan. From January 1919, Kirov and G. K. Ordzhonikidze directed the offensive of the Eleventh Army in the Northern Caucasus; after capturing Vladikavkaz on March 30th and Baku on May 1st the army helped the workers in Baku overthrow the Musavatists and restore Soviet power.

On May 29th 1920, Kirov was appointed plenipotentiary of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in Georgia, where the Mensheviks had seized power, and on October 1st – 12th 1920, he headed the Soviet delegation in Riga concluding the peace treaty with Poland. Kirov became a member of the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) RCP (B) after his return to the Northern Caucasus (October 1920). He was elected a candidate member of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) at the Tenth Congress of the RCP(B) in March 1921 and directed the work of the constituent congress of the Gorskaia Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) (Vladikavkaz) on April 16th – 22nd 1921. Elected secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in early July 1921, Kirov was instrumental in the rehabilitation of the petroleum industry and was one of the founders of the Transcaucasion Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (December 1922). The Twelfth Congress of the RCP(B), held in April 1923, elected him to the Central Committee of the RCP(B).

At a crucial point in the struggle against the Trotskyite-Zinovievite opposition, the party sent Kirov to Leningrad, and in February 1926 he was elected first secretary of the Leningrad Province Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), ACP(B) and of the North-western Bureau of the Central Committee of the ACP(B) and a candidate member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the ACP(B). Under his leadership the Leningrad organization made great strides in all fields of socialist construction. Kirov waged an uncompromising and principled struggle for party unity against all anti-party groupings, such as the Trotskyites, Zinovievites, and Bukharinites. He was elected to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the ACP(B) in 1930, to the Organization Bureau in 1934, also becoming its secretary, and to the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. A passionate tribune totally committed to the cause of the Party, Kirov enjoyed tremendous prestige among and had the love of the Soviet people. On December 1st 1934, Kirov was killed by an enemy of the Communist Party in Smol’nyi Institute (Leningrad).

Kirov had been awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner. He is buried in Moscow on Red Square at the Kremlin wall.

Sergei with JV Stalin

Sergei with JV Stalin

From The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik)

Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 19039, pp325-328

On December 1, 1934, S. M. Kirov was foully murdered in the Smolny, in Leningrad, by a shot from a revolver.

The assassin was caught red-handed and turned out to be a member of a secret counter-revolutionary group made up of members of an anti-Soviet group of Zinovievites in Leningrad.

S. M. Kirov was loved by the Party and the working class, and his murder stirred the people profoundly, sending a wave of wrath and deep sorrow through the country.

The investigation established that in 1933 and 1934 an underground counter-revolutionary terrorist group had been formed in Leningrad consisting of former members of the Zinoviev opposition and headed by a so-called “Leningrad Centre.” The purpose of this group was to murder leaders of the Communist Party. S. M. Kirov was chosen as the first victim. The testimony of the members of this counter-revolutionary group showed that they were connected with representatives of foreign

capitalist states and were receiving funds from them.

The exposed members of this organization were sentenced by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R. to the supreme penalty—to be shot.

…..

In a circular letter to Party organizations on the subject of the foul murder of S. M. Kirov, the Central Committee of the Party stated:

a) We must put an end to the opportunist complacency engendered by the enormous assumption that as we grow stronger the enemy will become tamer and more inoffensive. This assumption is an utter fallacy. It is a recrudescence of the Right deviation, which assured all and sundry that our enemies would little by little creep into Socialism and in the end become real Socialists. The Bolsheviks have no business to rest on their laurels; they have no business to sleep at their posts. What we need is not complacency, but vigilance, real Bolshevik revolutionary vigilance. It should be remembered that the more hopeless the position of the enemies, the more eagerly will they clutch at ‘extreme measures’ as the only recourse of the doomed in their struggle against the Soviet power. We must remember this, and be vigilant.

b) We must properly organize the teaching of the history of the Party to Party members, the study of all and sundry anti-Party groups in the history of our Party, their methods of combating the Party line, their tactics and—still more the tactics and methods of our Party in combating anti-Party groups, the tactics and methods which have enabled our Party to vanquish and demolish these groups. Party members should not only know how the Party combated and vanquished the Constitutional-Democrats, Socialist-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Anarchists, but also how it combated and vanquished the Trotskyites, the ‘Democratic-Centralists,’ the ‘Workers’ Opposition,’ the Zinovievites, the Right deviators, the Right-Leftist freaks and the like. It should never be forgotten that a knowledge and understanding of the history of our Party is a most important and essential means of fully ensuring the revolutionary vigilance of the Party members.

SM Kirov addressing a meeting in the Ingush village of Bazorkino

SM Kirov addressing a meeting in the Ingush village of Bazorkino

From The History of the Civil War in the USSR

Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1947, pp136-138

IN THE NORTH CAUCASUS

In the North Caucasus the Bolsheviks were obliged to fight under extremely difficult conditions. The very intricate national situation, the antagonisms among the Cossacks, the strife between the higher caste of the Cossacks and the Mountain People, and between the Cossacks as a whole and the peasant settlers from other parts of the country, the national strife among the Mountain People, and the numerical weakness of the proletariat in the region – all this necessitated the employment of exceptionally cautious tactics. An example of thoughtful, Bolshevik handling of problems was set in the Terek Region in 1917 by Sergei Mironovich Kirov.

Kirov had been away in Petrograd on a mission on behalf of the Vladikavkaz Bolshevik organisation and the Vladikavkaz Soviet. He returned on September 2 and immediately plunged into revolutionary work. Every day, and sometimes several times a day, he addressed meetings of workers and soldiers. A brilliant speaker, and well read, he had a gift for illustrating his arguments with vivid metaphors and examples. His inspired speeches, breathing profound faith in the victory of the revolution, literally fired his audiences. In preparing the proletariat and the working people in the North Caucasus in general for armed insurrection Kirov attached enormous importance to propaganda activities among the poorer sections of the Mountain People, among whom he was already extremely popular.

The counter-revolutionaries among the Cossacks and Mountain People did their utmost to foment national strife. Rumours were deliberately spread in the Cossack stanitsas to the effect that the Bolsheviks were· inciting the Mountain People to set fire to and destroy the stanitsas. On the other hand, the mullahs and kulaks among the Mountain People spread the rumour that the shaitans (devils), the Bolsheviks, were urging the Cossacks to wreck their mosques and seize their wives and children. The poorer sections of the Mountain People and the Cossacks, however, knew Kirov as a courageous Bolshevik who had already on one occasion averted what had seemed an inevitable sanguinary collision. On July 6, the soldiers in Vladikavkaz, incited by the counter-revolutionaries, brutally assaulted the unarmed Mountain People who had come to market. The flames of national war threatened to engulf the city, the Cossack stanitsas and the auls, or mountain villages. Foreseeing the frightful bloodshed that would result in the extermination of the best revolutionary forces and the strengthening of the counter-revolutionary forces among the Cossacks’ and the Mountain People, Kirov went off alone to the Ingush village of Bazorkino, where preparations were in progress for an armed attack on Vladikavkaz and succeeded in revealing to the Ingush people the provocative designs of the counter-revolutionaries among the Cossacks and Mountain People. His courage and daring made such a profound impression upon them that they abandoned their intention of attacking the city. Through Kirov, the best representatives of the Ingush people, such as Sultan Kostayev and Yusup Albagachiev, made contact with the Vladikavkaz Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

Kirov also established connections with the poorer sections of the Ossetian people through the Ossetian revolutionary party known as ‘Kermen’, which was formed in the summer of 1917. This party took its name from the legendary Ossetian hero, Kermcn, a slave, who had fought for his rights and had been treacherously killed by his oppressors. True, this organisation lacked a definite program and clung to a number of nationalist prejudices and fallacies, but it exercised considerable influence among the poorer sections of the Ossetian peasants. In May 1918 the best elements of the ‘Kermenists’ joined the Bolshevik Party and formed an Ossetian Area Bolshevik organisation.

By the autumn of 1917 the Vladikavkaz Party organisation had undergone considerable change. Under Kirov’s leadership, the Bolsheviks had won over the proletarian nucleus in the united Social-Democratic organisation, and from the very first days of the revolution had acted as an independent group. They were backed by the workers in the railway workshops and the Alagir Works.

The split in the Social-Democratic organisation occurred at the end of October 1917. At a general Party meeting held in Vladikavkaz, of the 500 members present, only eight supported the Menshevik platform. In face of this overwhelming defeat the Mensheviks withdrew from the meeting.

Thus, on the eve of the Great Proletarian Revolution the Vladikavkaz Bolsheviks were united in a strong and solid Party organisation. This was an extremely important factor in securing the victory of the Soviet regime in the North Caucasus. Already at the end of September the Bolsheviks had gained control of the Vladikavkaz Soviet.

On October 5 the Vladikavkaz Soviet elected Kirov as one of its delegates to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. He was also elected as a delegate to this Congress by the Nalchik Soviet. On October 21, after Kirov had left for Petrograd, the Vladikavkaz Soviet re-elected him in his absence a member of the new Executive Committee that was chosen that night.

In JV Stalin, Works, Volume 14, pp63-65

THE DEATH OF KIROV

1st December 1934

A great sorrow has befallen our Party. On December 1st, Comrade Kirov fell victim to the hand of an assassin, a scallawag sent by the class enemies.

The death of Kirov is an irreparable loss, not only for us, his close friends and comrades, but also for all those who have known him in his revolutionary work, and have known him as a fighter, comrade and friend. A man who has given all his brilliant life to the cause of the working class, to the cause of Communism, to the cause of the liberation of humanity, is dead, victim of the enemy.

Comrade Kirov was an example of Bolshevism, recognizing neither fear nor difficulties in the realizing of the great aim, fixed by the Party. His integrity, his will of iron, his astonishing qualities as an orator, inspired by the Revolution, were combined in him with such cordiality and such tenderness in his relations with his comrades and personal friends, with such warmth and modesty, all of which are traits of the true Leninist.

Comrade Kirov has worked in different parts of the U.S.S.R. in the period of illegality and after the October Revolution – at Tomsk and Astrakhan, at Vladicaucase and Baku – and everywhere he upheld the high standard of the Party; he has won for the Party millions of workers, due to his revolutionary work, indefatigable, energetic and fruitful.

During the last nine years, Comrade Kirov directed the organization of our Party in Lenin’s town, and the region of Leningrad. There is no possibility, by means of a short and sad letter, to give an appreciation of his activities among the workers of Leningrad. It would have been difficult to find in our Party, a director who could be more successfully in harmony with the working class of Leningrad, who could so ably unite all the members of the Party and all the working class around the Party. He has created in the whole organization of Leningrad, this same atmosphere of organization, of discipline, of love and of Bolshevik devotion to the Revolution, which characterised Comrade Kirov himself.

You were near us all Comrade Kirov, as a trusted friend, as a loved comrade, as a faithful companion in arms. We will remember you, dear friend, till the end of our life and of our struggle and we feel bitterness at our loss. You were always with us in the difficult years of the struggle for the victory of Socialism in our country, you were always with us in the years of uncertainty and internal difficulties in our Party, you have lived with us all the difficulties of these last years, and we have lost you at the moment when our country has achieved great victories. In all these struggles, in all our achievements, there is very much evidence of you, of your energy, your strength and your ardent love for the Communist cause.

Farewell, Sergei, our dear friend and comrade.

J. Stalin, S. Ordjonikidze, V. Molotov, M. Kalinin, K. Voroshilov, L. Kaganovich, A. Mikoyan, A. Andreyev, V. Tchoubar, A. Idanov, V. Kuibyshev. Ia. Roudzoutak, S. Kossior, P. Postychev, G. Petrovsky, A. Ienoukidze, M. Chkiriatov, Em. Iaroslavski, N. Ejov,

Pravda

2 December 1934

Sergei Kirov Apartment Museum

Sergei Kirov Apartment Museum

SM Kirov House and Museum

From the museum website.

Kirov’s museum is located in the famous ‘House of Three Benois’ on the second entrance of the house number 26/28 on Kamennoostrovsky Prospect, on the 4th and 5th floors.

‘The House of three Benois’ is one of the largest pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg tenement buildings. It was constructed in 1911-1914. for the First Russian Insurance Company, designed by architects L. Benois, A. Benois, J. Benois and A. Gunst.

After the revolution of 1917, many apartments in this house became communal. Some of the apartments have been given to the Party and government leaders.

In April 1926, Kirov started to live in a service apartment number 20 in the house 26/28 on the Krasnyh Zor’ (Red Dawn) street (former Kamennoostrovsky Avenue). Sergei Mironovich Kirov was head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad. There he lived with his wife, Maria Lvovna Marcus until the last day of his life, up to December 1st 1934. In 1955, the apartment became a museum.

In addition to the memorial five-room apartment (in four of which authentic furniture are fully preserved ) you will see two hallways, bathroom and kitchen (which were renovated in the 2000s.). In the former maids room is an interactive educational game ‘Take what you are given’, which dedicated to the food supply and rationing system in 1920-1930 Leningrad. In another room of the museum is an exposition ‘Kirov’s office in Smolny’.

Location and information

5th floor

Kamennoostrovsky Avenue, 26-28,

St. Petersburg,

197101

Metro: Petrogradskaya, Gorkovskaya

Opening Hours

Everyday: 11.00 to 18.00.
Ticket Office: from 11.00 to 17.30
Closed: Wednesday

Entrance

Adults 200 ruble

Students 150 ruble

Guided Excursion (individuals) 600 ruble + entrance

(group 3-5) 1,500 ruble + entrance

To Book a Guided Excursion: (812) 346-02-89

E-mail: KirovCM@yandex.ru

Website: https://kirovmuseum.ru/en

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18th March – Paris Commune 1871

18th March - Avenue Jean-Jaures

18th March – Avenue Jean-Jaures

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

18th March – Paris Commune 1871

‘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 2018 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 in society 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 

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

16th March 1968 – My Lai Massacre

My Lai Monument

My Lai Monument

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

16th March 1968 – My Lai Massacre

Just after dawn on the morning of 16th March 1968, when the peasants were starting off to tend their paddies and the children were starting to have their breakfast, the quiet of the spring morning was broken by the arrival of US helicopters firing into people’s homes. This was soon followed by the arrival of troop carrying helicopters who also started to fire indiscriminately at anything that moved. Four hours later, by the end of this ‘military action’ 504 Vietnamese civilians were killed and soon after a village structure that had existed for hundreds of years was wiped out. The Vietnamese knew this group of villages as Song My, the rest of the world, when the news finally broke 18 months later, were to know the site of this massacre as My Lai.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Earlier that year the US invading forces and their South Vietnamese lackeys had been taken by surprise by the Tet Offensive. This began on the night of the 29/30th January when units of the Vietnamese People’s Army (from the North Vietnam) and guerrilla units of the National Liberation Front (the NLF from the South) simultaneously attacked numerous military bases and cities in the south of the country, even coming out of the ground in the middle of Da Nang, the principal close to the border with the People’s Republic of the North.

The action didn’t achieve any lasting military objectives but the very fact that it could have been organised on such a scale in the first place started to create the realisation amongst the American imperialists that they wouldn’t be able to win the war. It would be another seven years before the panic-stricken Yankees and their hangers-on (literally as the last helicopters took off) fought tooth and nail against each other to get on the last helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the compound gates.

But like a wounded animal, knowing it is about to die, the Americans lashed out with the aim of causing as much damage and suffering as possible. The cost of defeating the most powerful military nation on the earth would have to be paid for at a high price.

The area which encompassed Song My was considered to be more than just sympathetic to the NLF and was known by the Americans as ‘Pinkville’. The guerrilla units in the south followed the military principals of People’s War, developed by Mao Tse-tung in China in the war, first, against the Japanese Fascist invaders and then the reactionary, Western Imperialist supported, Nationalist Kuomintang.

Mao coined the phrase of the guerrilla army ‘swimming like fish amongst the people’ and the Vietnamese followed this lesson well. However, not only do revolutionaries learn from the experience of those who have gone before them. Reactionaries also learnt and decided that if the revolutionaries were swimming amongst the people then they would deny them the water. The fact that many innocent people would bear the cost of this approach wasn’t (and still isn’t – witness what has happened in the last 14 years with the imperialist wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East) of concern to the American commanders in Vietnam nor their political masters in Washington. As far as they were concerned ALL the ‘gooks’ (their racist term for the Vietnamese) were guilty, if not for crimes of commission then for crimes of omission, even babies only a matter of a few weeks old or those yet to be born.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

It’s difficult to imagine what went through the minds of those soldiers who carried out the massacre that covered three separate hamlets in Song My. There were no reports whatsoever that these brave troops came under any sort of enemy fire. In fact there was only one casualty amongst the G.I.s – and his wound was self-inflicted in an effort not to indulge in the blood lust.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Most of the troops involved were relatively new to the country and therefore couldn’t really argue that they were battle weary and bitter from what they had seen happen to their fellow conscripts – although I have heard one soldier argue that case. Neither could they use the excuse given in Northern Ireland by the British Paratroopers after the murder of Irish Republican demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972 when one reason given for them opening fire was that these ‘elite’ troops were frightened by being shot at.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

The majority of US troops in Vietnam by this time of the war were conscripts. The majority of them were in their late teens or early twenties. The majority of them were from poor, working class backgrounds. A disproportionate number of them were poor working class black Americans (in a tableau in the My Lai museum they are given equal status to the whites in killing women and children), living in a society that was even more racist and segregationist than it is now. Yet these working class boys, under the orders of officers with little more stake in US society than the soldiers under their command, just went wild.

My Lai Massacre Museum

My Lai Massacre Museum

Shooting at everything that moved, regardless of age or gender; burning of buildings, sometimes with people inside alive; destroying all foodstuffs including domesticated animals; trapping people in confined spaces and then throwing in fragmentation grenades; gang raping of the women regardless of age and even those in late stages of pregnancy; killing babies only a few weeks old; mutilating the bodies of their victims including cutting out tongues, cutting off hands, disembowelment and taking scalps; pulling out unborn foetuses from pregnant women; shooting the wounded if they made the mistake of lettering their murderers know they were still alive; this orgy of death and destruction went on for hours until they had killed all that they thought was alive.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

There was little evidence of any of the soldiers making any effort to put a stop to all this or to try to bring some element of civilisation back into their mission – although a few are said to have ‘not participated’ (but that begs questions about crimes of commission or omission). Apart from one exception. The three-man crew of one of the support helicopters put their machine between a group of G.I.’s and their intended victims. Whilst the gunner held his heavy machine gun on soldiers from his own side a handful of villagers were able to be escape the mayhem. One of the helicopter crew was killed soon after (in combat) but the two that survived were invited to the thirtieth anniversary commemoration at the Quang Ngai General Museum in 1998.

Even though the trials at Nuremberg (after World War Two) had, supposedly, rejected the argument of ‘just obeying orders’ as being no excuse or vindication for committing such atrocities this was the case put by many of those who attended (many didn’t) the Peers Commission that was set up more than 18 months after the event. Whatever orders might have been given that doesn’t excuse what these teenagers did, many of them going way above and beyond the ‘call of duty’, their obvious enjoyment of the opportunity to kill and maim with impunity being proof of that.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

(This wasn’t the first time American soldiers had been given orders by their officers and then executing them with a gusto that bordered on fanaticism. On November 29th 1864 the American army carried out a similar massacre against, mainly, unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in Colorado. The film ‘Soldier Blue’, released in 1970, making a clear parallel between the two events separated by just under a hundred years.)

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

So those who actually did the killing have no excuse (and shouldn’t be excused) but what were their orders? The same that had been given to other units before them, that is to go out and ‘search and destroy’ in what was designated as a ‘free fire zone’. This gave a virtual carte blanche for the soldiers to do whatever they wished and they would not be held responsible. This had been happening throughout the country for a number of years causing widespread devastation, through acts of the military on the ground, artillery bombardments, the widespread use of napalm and defoliation with chemicals such as Agent Orange. Therefore the idea of a ‘free fire zone’ was basically part of the philosophy of the American military and this would have been known by even such rookie troops as those that were sent into the Song My area.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

At the same time the military did not act totally under their own volition and were under the control of the politicians in Washington. Even if the rest of the world wasn’t aware of what was happening in Vietnam those in the White House and the Pentagon certainly did. And the fact that the very villages were bulldozed soon after the massacre indicates that the commanders in the field knew that things had gone slightly to far.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

So what made the My Lai Massacre different? It seems that news of what had happened was circulating very soon after the event. Although the murder of civilians and the destruction of their homes wasn’t new at Song My the Americans had taken their task of murder into a new league and it would have been impossible to have completely suppressed the news. At the same time the military would have wanted this news to have spread throughout the south of Vietnam as a warning, threat and promise to those Vietnamese who supported the NLF and the North Vietnamese.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

The reports and letters that went around, both the military structure in Vietnam and the offices of politicians and newspapers in the United States were only words. By 1968 it was images that were to make the difference. Anyone who was of an age to watch and understand the TV images being shown everyday throughout the world in the late 60s and early 70’s will understand the importance of images. TV news programmes showed, daily, American wounded and dead being collected from the battlefield as well as the scenes played out on the streets of Saigon (such the summary execution by a bullet to the head of a Vietnamese guerrilla or the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk). The power of those images is the reason why, ever since, photographers and journalists are ’embedded’ – read controlled – by the US, UK or NATO armies.

My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

Ron Haeberle, an army photographer, had only just started his tour of duty when he was sent to Song My. Although not believing what he saw he continued to take photos during the morning. After the massacre he handed in 40 black and white pictures to the military but kept 18 in colour. It was those pictures which were to make the written reports even more potent.

Wisely, for self-preservation reasons, Haeberle didn’t release those pictures until he had returned from Vietnam – war zones are very easy places to get yourself killed. Even though the extent of the furore after the release of his photographs was worldwide, to the best of my knowledge none of the other pictures he took that spring morning have ever been made public. However, it’s difficult to believe that any other pictures would tell us much more about what happened. The suppression, or destruction of his other pictures only goes to demonstrate the lack of openness of governments when caught out doing the direct opposite to what they say. (Most of the pictures on this page are from among those Haeberle kept to himself for the best part of 18 months.)

The Report of the Peers investigation set up when the news of the massacre was too widespread to be ignored seemed to give the impression that this was a ‘one off’, an aberration and not a matter of policy. However, the widespread deployment of ‘search and destroy’ missions, the ‘Strategic Hamlet Programme’ – whereby villagers were gathered together in virtual concentration camps in order to make contact between the ordinary peasants and the guerrillas that much more difficult – and the designation of huge swathes of the country as being ‘free fire zones’ meant that the lives of the Vietnamese people held no value in the minds of the occupation forces.

Atrocities carried out by the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army were not new, only the scale was different. Eighteen months before My Lai the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had produced a pamphlet, with photographs, of examples of war crimes committed by US troops and at about the time of the My Lai Massacre they produced evidence (presented to Bertrand Russell International Tribunal) claiming genocide on the part of the Americans. There’s no significant difference between the pictures in these pamphlets from those of Haeberle taken in March 1968.

After all the fuss, all the publicity, all the demonstrations on the streets throughout the world, all the words spoken, all the investigations carried out, all the crocodile tears of politicians, no one was held accountable for what happened at Song My/My Lai. A junior officer (Calley) was chosen as a scapegoat (which doesn’t mean him any less culpable) and found guilty but later given a Presidential pardon by Richard Nixon. The Peers investigation report was even told not to refer to it as a massacre and described it as an ‘incident’. Ultimately no one was held responsible.

And nothing has really changed in the policies of the American nor any other country that considers it has the right to enter in the internal affairs of another country. My Lai wasn’t the first of such massacres, neither was it the last.

For a period after defeat in Vietnam the US ‘sub-contracted’ the killing of innocent villagers, although really the concept of ‘innocence’ seems now to have been lost. In Latin America the fascist, right-wing murder squads ran amok throughout the 70s and 80s from Mexico down to the Tierra del Fuego. If these killers needed training they received that at the ‘anti-communist insurgency’ School of the Americas at Fort Benning. To keep their eye in the US invaded Granada and Panama, on both occasions civilians got in the way.

In the Middle East surrogates kept their populations quiet with the use of terror. Some of these lost the support of the US and have fallen. Others still carry out the will of the US although they would maintain they are independent nations. Sometimes things don’t need to be said for them to happen. Israel continues to murder Palestinians and destroy their homes. Indeed Israel was in the game of massacres before it was even established as a state, killing indiscriminately Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin on 9th April 1948. The Zionists then sub-contracted the killing to the Christian militia in Lebanon and over two days in September 1982 they murdered thousands in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Since the beginning of the 21st century the US has again got more directly involved and thousands have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East following western government attempts at ‘regime change’. The Americans, and their allies, got around the embarrassment of large numbers of civilians being killed by not actually counting them, as they did in Fallujah.

And presently in India, the present and previous governments, since 2009, have been pursuing what they call ‘Operation Green Hunt’ against the dalits and adivasis (the ethnic and tribal groups) who in some of the most mineral rich areas of the country. However, in India the people are not just accepting this and are fighting back under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

If people thought that the massacre at My Lai was an aberration they should think again.

The voices of those who killed

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the massacre in 2008 the BBC’s Radio Four broadcast a programme in its Archive Hour slot which includes interviews with some of those involved in the murderous attack. Personally, I don’t have any sympathy whatsoever for those young soldiers who have subsequently suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for what they did that day so long ago.

Here is a recording of that programme, entitled The My Lai Tapes is presented in two parts, Part 1, Part 2.

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’