1871-2021: Vive la Commune!

1871-2021: Vive la Commune!

Today, we keep alive the lessons of 1871 and 1917.

"And at dawn, armed with glowing patience, we will enter the cities of glory." (Rimbaud, 1873)

There are certain dates in working class history which have made a lasting and indispensable mark on the communist programme, which we understand as the acquisitions and lessons of previous struggles faced by our class. 1871 is one of those. On 18 March, 150 years ago, workers in Paris took over the city and for 72 days experimented with transforming society.

The Franco-Prussian War

The Europe of the second half of the 19th century was shaped by the spectre of the revolutions of 1848. In France, Napoleon III established his dictatorship upon the bodies of the proletariat that had risen during the June Days, pledging to restore the French Empire. In Germany, still divided into 39 states, the liberal revolutions of 1848 had failed. It would be the Prussian military junker caste led by Bismarck who would unify Germany to preserve the monarchy and their class position. The Franco-Prussian War which broke out in 1870, following Prussia’s victories over Denmark and Austria, was the final act in Bismarck’s policy of realpolitik, that he had been pursuing ever since becoming Minister President in 1862.

Napoleon III was manoeuvred into declaring war on Prussia when Bismarck published the Ems Telegram which seemed to show that the French Ambassador had been rudely rebuffed by the Prussian King. Nationalists demonstrated in Paris chanting À Berlin (“to Berlin”) so that on 28 July Napoleon III led the French army towards the Rhine, while the Prussians and their allies in the lesser German states began massing on the French border. Over the next few weeks the French Army, badly organised and outmanoeuvred, suffered defeat after defeat, until on 2 September Napoleon III himself was captured at the Battle of Sedan. With Napoleon III’s abdication the Second French Empire effectively collapsed. Panic broke out in Paris, and two days later a Provisional Government of National Defence was created by members of the National Assembly, including left and right republicans, who committed themselves to the continuation of the war.

The events in Paris did not alter the ultimate course of the war. By 19 September Paris was under siege. On 31 October the Provisional Government decided to open negotiations with the Prussians, which was met with violent protest by the population. Various revolutionaries tried to take advantage of this volatile situation. In Lyon, Bakunin was at work concocting an insurrection – on 28 September he and his comrades seized the City Hall, proclaimed the state to have been abolished and announced the formation of a Revolutionary Convention for the Salvation of France. Finding little support, the revolutionaries were dispersed that same day, and Bakunin left for Marseilles, where he tried to start another short-lived insurrection (before it broke out on 31 October, he had to flee to Switzerland). Meanwhile Blanqui, who had already been organising armed demonstrations back in January and August, launched a republican newspaper La Patrie en danger (“the fatherland in danger”), and on 31 October took a leading role in organising the revolutionary elements of the Parisian workers and the National Guard towards the overthrow of the Provisional Government for betraying the French cause. Blanqui and his comrades seized the City Hall (Hôtel-de-Ville), announced the formation of a Committee of Public Safety, only to be likewise arrested soon after. Blanqui himself went into hiding where he continued to scheme against the Provisional Government until on 17 March 1871 he was finally arrested in Bretenoux.

In Paris the Provisional Government continued to weather the storms into the new year. On 18 January 1871, having whipped up German nationalism and having humiliated the French, Bismarck finally accomplished his aim – the unification of Germany. Meanwhile in Paris further attempts at insurrection, like the 22 January armed demonstration of Blanquists (in which Édouard Vaillant and Louise Michel, among others, participated), were staved off and resulted in more political repression. But the attempts of the Provisional Government to raise armies in the provinces were not enough to save Paris, and the siege continued (as did the peace negotiations with the Prussians). In the 8 February elections to the National Assembly in those departments not occupied by the Prussians, the monarchists gained a majority and a few days later the conservative Adolphe Thiers was appointed Chief Executive of the French Republic. He signed the Treaty of Versailles on 26 February 1871 which ended the Franco-Prussian War.

Yet those who hoped this would be the end of the crisis were to be quickly disappointed. The victory march of (now) German troops through Paris and the order for the disarming of the National Guard were met with widespread discontent. By this point the National Guard, disillusioned with the Provisional Government, had been gathering cannons and arms in working class districts of Paris and had elected their own independent Central Committee. When Thiers sent the regular army to disarm them by force and bring back order in the city, many soldiers refused and turned their guns on their generals instead. The Provisional Government withdrew to Versailles. The life of the Paris Commune had begun.

"The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs ... They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power." (Central Committee of the National Guard, 18 March 1871)

The First International

At this point it is worth briefly outlining the political tendencies present within the working class movement of the time. Of course the prime mover here was the First International, founded in 1864, a loose alliance of trade unionists, republicans, and various radicals, anarchists and communists among them, to which Marx provided a political lead. In fact, it was Marx’s coverage of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, delivered first as addresses to the General Council of the International and later published as the pamphlet The Civil War in France (1871), which served as the most prolific defence of the Commune in the eyes of the world and made Marx the “the best calumniated and the most menaced man of London.” (Marx to Kugelmann, 18 June 1871)

In Germany, members of the International, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, denounced the war in the Reichstag on behalf of German Social Democracy, abstained from voting on war loans, and expressed sympathy for the Commune. For this they were later found guilty of high treason. Mass meeting of workers took place across German towns and cities passing anti-war resolutions. In France, where the International was only a marginal force plagued as it was by constant repressions and trials, the Paris section nevertheless published a manifesto against the war and issued an appeal to German workers. After September 1870 – the collapse of the Second Empire – the International in Paris was revitalised, and new committees were created in various districts of the city. That said, as Auguste Serraillier reported, there was much disorganisation and not all embraced internationalist positions (the Blanquists and Proudhonists refused to publish a translation of Marx’s second address deeming it “too Prussian”). Overall however, the official policy of the International was that of peace and against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany. The International tried to rally workers towards that end not only in the two warring nations, but also in England and America.

In Paris, the republican legacy of 1789, 1830, 1832 and 1848 held a stronger sway over political life. It was the ideas of Proudhon and Blanqui, revolutionaries of the preceding generation, which still dominated the workers’ movement. When the Commune, to which the Central Committee of the National Guard transferred power, held its first election on 26 March, members of the International received only seventeen of the ninety-two seats, while the majority went to Blanquists. Blanqui himself of course had been arrested only a few days before the Commune was established, but was elected its honorary president in absentia. All attempts by the Communards to trade hostages in exchange for the release of Blanqui were rebuffed. The Blanquists were essentially hoping for a military dictatorship which would replace the useless Provisional Government and continue the war with Prussia. The Proudhonists wanted a federation of communes where labour and capital could mutually coexist and eschewed participation in political and economic struggles. As Engels noted however, when faced with the real movement both currents were at times forced to do “the opposite of what the doctrines of their school proscribed.”

Storming Heaven

"[The Revolution of 18 March represents] the achievement of political power by the proletariat just as the Revolution of 1789 represented the achievement of political power by the bourgeoisie." (Vermorel, L’ami du peuple, 24 April 1871)

"… for total social revolution, for the abolition of all existing social and legal structures, for the elimination of all privileges and forms of exploitation, for the replacement of the rule of Capital by the rule of Labour … in short, for the emancipation of the working class by the working class." (Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded, 8 May 1871)

So declared some of the Communards. But the Paris Commune had only limited time to put its disparate ideas into concrete action. In the 72 days of its existence, it passed a number of decrees. Although only twenty-four members of the Commune were working class, it is clear that the majority of its decrees, albeit limited, were aimed at easing the lives of the Parisian proletariat. Besides, it must also be noted, some decrees were introduced only under the threat of demonstrations and some were never implemented properly.

• 19 March: The Central Committee of the National Guard announces elections to the Paris Commune;
• 29 March: The Commune decrees a moratorium on the last three quarters of the year's rent payments;
• 30 March: The Commune decrees conscription and the standing army abolished;
• 2 April: The Commune decrees the separation of Church and State. Salaries for all members of the government and civil service are set at the level of wages of a skilled worker;
• 12 April: The Commune decrees a moratorium on payment of commercial bills;
• 16 April: The Commune decrees the confiscation of abandoned factories and workshops and transferred their ownership to worker cooperatives;
• 20 April: The Commune decrees that bakery workers no longer have to work nights;
• 25 April: The Commune decrees the requisitioning of vacant lodgings;
• 27 April: The Commune decrees that employers are forbidden from deducting penalties from wages;
• 1 May: The Commune votes 45 to 23 to delegate its powers to a Committee of Public Safety;
• 7 May: The Commune decrees that objects held by pawnshops have to be liberated;
• 12 May: The Commune decrees that worker cooperatives will be given preference when it comes to contracts.

On the ground, countless committees, assemblies, unions, cooperatives, discussion clubs, demonstrations and mutual aid societies proliferated from district to district, animated by a working class base. At its best, the Commune interacted with these forms of self-organisation (an example: on 15 April some general meetings of workers already resolved to take over a few workplaces and run them cooperatively, on 16 April the Commune passed a decree providing workers the necessary requisition orders). There were attempts to reform the education system and the arts. A number of symbolic actions were taken: on 6 April the guillotine outside the Paris prison was smashed to pieces and burned, on 15 May Thiers’ house was destroyed, while the Vendôme Column, a hated symbol of war, was brought down on 16 May. The internationalism of the Commune, which declared its red flag to be that of the Universal Republic, was also more than just lip service. Jarosław Dąbrowski, a Polish military officer and participant of the January Uprising of 1863, was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Commune. Léo Fränkel, a Hungarian member of the International and contact of Marx, was delegated to the Commission on Labour, Industry, and Exchange. The Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded was led by Nathalie Lemel, French member of the International and militant bookbinder, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Russian member of the International and another contact of Marx. They supported and defended the cause of the revolution in the ambulance service and took part in the construction of the barricades. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray described the scenes he observed surrounding the Commune elections on 26 March in the following way:

"Those who had despaired a month before were now full of enthusiasm. Strangers addressed each other and shook hands. For indeed we were not strangers, but bound together by the same faith and the same aspirations … The next day 200,000 ‘wretches’ came to the Hôtel-de-Ville there to install their chosen representatives, the battalion drums beating, the banners surmounted by the Phrygian cap and with red fringe round the muskets; their ranks, swelled by soldiers of the line, artillerymen, and marines faithful to Paris, came down from all the streets to the Place de Grève like the thousand streams of a great river … A thousandfold echo answered, “Vive la Commune!”. Caps were flung up on the ends of bayonets, flags fluttered in the air. From the windows, on the roofs, thousands of hands waved handkerchiefs. The quick reports of the cannon, the bands, the drums, blended in one formidable vibration. All hearts leaped with joy, all eyes filled with tears. Never since the great Federation had Paris been thus moved … This lightning would have made the blind see. 187,000 voters. 200,000 men with the same watchword. This was not a secret committee, a handful of factious rioters and bandits, as had been said for ten days. Here was an immense force at the service of a definite idea – communal independence, the intellectual life of France — an invaluable force in this time of universal anaemia …" (Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, 1876)

This popular movement, to which the working class of Paris gave a practical lead, of which the International became the spiritual bearer, was an insult to Thiers and company. The old world regrouped while Paris rejoiced.

The 'Semaine Sanglante'

When the news of the Paris Commune spread in the provinces, attempts at establishing similar communes were made all across France: in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Narbonne, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot and Limoges. None of these survived long. Paris was soon to face an even bigger tragedy. Criticising the mistakes of our forebears is always easier with the benefit of hindsight, however some of these were already obvious to contemporary observers and participants.

The Commune could not abolish the labour-capital relationship or eliminate all oppression. It would be absurd to expect it to introduce socialism in one city. But the dominant ideas of the movement (Proudhonism and Blanquism) held it back more than necessary. Often it took pressure from below for the Commune to actually encroach on the right to private property (hence the reluctance to take over the State Bank). Many of the new cooperatives in practice functioned just like the capitalist businesses they had to compete with (hence wages remained low and working hours long). And although working women were highly involved on the ground, they were not allowed to vote and had no direct representation on the higher bodies of the Commune (though the likes of Fränkel and Vaillant championed their cause).

But the eventual downfall of the Commune is often blamed on indecision, wasted time and lack of direction. The Central Committee of the National Guard did not consider itself authoritative enough to act, and as such went about organising the elections to the Commune. The Commune, split between a majority and a minority (over the Committee of Public Safety), debated and passed decrees. Meanwhile, Versailles was given the opportunity to rally its forces. And once it did, the Commune had no diplomatic leverage, except a bunch of hostages. Marx would later comment:

"[The Paris Commune was] merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people – the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc." (Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881)

This sentiment was also echoed by participants of the Commune. The Commune only had a fighting chance if it struck early, while Versailles was still rattled. After that it could only hope for a negotiated compromise. By early April, Thiers had the military upper hand. His troops were reinforced when Bismarck promptly returned French prisoners of war and with recruits from the provinces. Under Napoleon III Paris had been transformed from a city of narrow streets, perfect for the setting up of barricades, to a city of wide avenues and boulevards more fitted for the movement of troops. Unlike on 18 March, the attempt to fraternise with troops proved futile. Despite the brave stand of many Communards, they could not hold out. Thiers’ army was ruthless – as they conquered they executed the vanquished. Out of desperation, the Communards executed 63 hostages and set sections of Paris on fire. This was the “red terror”. The full scale of the “white terror” was yet to be unleashed:

"The massacre was thus carried on, methodically organized, at the Caserne Dupleix, the Lycée Bonaparte, the Northern and Eastern Railway Stations, the Jardin des Plantes, in many mairies and barracks, at the same time as in the abattoirs. Large open vans came to fetch the corpses, and went to empty them in the square or any open space in the neighbourhood. The victims died simply, without fanfaronade. Many crossed their arms before the muskets, and themselves commanded the fire. Women and children followed their husbands and their fathers, crying to the soldiers, ‘Shoot us with them!’ And they were shot … The army, having neither police nor precise information, killed at random. Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium." (Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, 1876)

The massacre culminated in the semaine sanglante (“bloody week”) of 21-28 May. More than 20,000 Communards, and those assumed to be, were butchered on the streets of Paris by Thiers’ troops. Some 40,000 were taken prisoner; of these thousands more were executed, deported, imprisoned or condemned to forced labour. The bourgeoisie showed no mercy. The workers’ movement in France was crushed by brute force. It would take decades for it to recover. It was towards unified Germany that proletarian hopes would now turn, where conditions for the development of a mass workers’ party opened up. This, though, would later pose its own problems.

Revolutionary Marxism and the Paris Commune

Marx himself was originally pessimistic about the prospects of an uprising in Paris. When it broke out, he of course threw his weight behind it. What made the Commune exceptional was not the limited reforms it passed, it was its character as “essentially a working class government”. It showed that workers can take their destiny into their own hands. In this it gave the international working class a banner to rally around.

One of the distinguishing features of the Marxist method is that, rather than set up eternal principles or map out utopian schemes, we learn from and with the real movement. The awareness that social transformation towards “free association” would eventually have to involve the abolition of the state was there in the works of Marx even before the Paris Commune. Here we only need to quote The German Ideology (1845), where Marx recognised that proletarians “will have to abolish the very condition of their existence”, which also meant “they must overthrow the State”, or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), where Marx observed how since the French Revolution of 1789 “all revolutions perfected this [state] machine instead of breaking it”, how the contending parties simply “regarded the possession of this huge state structure as the chief spoils of the victor.” The Paris Commune was the first practical example of “breaking” that state machine – it abolished the standing army, it swept aside the bourgeois parliament. In its place it set up something qualitatively different (even if born with the birthmarks of the old society). The Paris Commune helped Marx come to the conclusion that:

"the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." (Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871)

This insight was so important that the infamous ten points proposed back in the Communist Manifesto (1848), calling for various immediate measures towards state centralisation, were now deemed to be antiquated “in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution (1848), and then, still more, in the Paris Commune (1871).” Engels would further comment:

"Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat." (Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, 1891)

This was written in the context of the revisionist debates within German Social Democracy at the time. After Marx died in 1883, the road was cleared for reformist elements to gradually strip Marxism of its revolutionary kernel. In his last months of life, even Engels himself was being censored by the party apparatus. The lessons learned in Paris were soon forgotten or obscured – on purpose. It would be up to a new generation of revolutionaries who, on the wave of new working class upheavals, would rescue Marxism from so-called Marxists.

This tendency found its expression in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In 1905 Russian workers discovered the councils of workers’ delegates (i.e. soviets) recallable by the workers who elected them. This was an enormous advance on bourgeois representative democracy where elected representatives serve for fixed periods while electors have no control over them. When soviets reappeared in 1917 the Bolsheviks gave the most vocal support to the idea that they should take over the running of society as an alternative power to the bourgeois Provisional Government. On 7 November the slogan “all power to the soviets” was realised in the October Revolution. With the repressive apparatus of the old regime effectively paralysed, the Red Guards did not wait to strike against their Versailles – government offices were occupied and the Winter Palace captured. Furthermore, they occupied not only railway stations, the telephone exchange and the main bridges in the city, but also the State Bank. It was Minister President Kerensky who had to flee abroad. This course of action was no accident – revolutionary Marxists like Lenin had spent the previous years carefully preserving the red thread running from 1848 through 1871 to 1917:

"The Commune taught the European proletariat to pose concretely the tasks of the socialist revolution. The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten. The working class will make use of it, as it has already done in Russia during the December uprising (1905)." (Lenin, Lessons of the Commune, 1908)

For the next few months the Bolsheviks actively encouraged the setting up of workers’ and soldiers’ councils all over Russia. If the Paris Commune was the first time the working class rose up to overthrow the ruling class in one city, then the Russian Revolution was the first and so far only time the working class rose up to overthrow the ruling class in a major imperialist country. This was not its intention however. The Bolsheviks were internationalists, and knew that in order to endure, the revolution had to spread to other countries. One by one however revolutions failed and were crushed in Germany, Hungary, Finland, China, etc. The Communards lost honourably, being crushed by the counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks did not, as they found themselves administering a state capitalist monster which eventually devoured them.

Today, we keep alive the lessons of 1871 and 1917. The working class, now larger than ever, still has the potential to uproot the capitalist system and pave the way to a truly human future. Since the days of the Communards capitalism has produced all kinds of social misery and lurched from crisis to crisis. The ruling class has no solution to the current economic crisis other than to further destroy the planet or take us down the road to generalised war. The only hope for humanity lies in the working class which has to rediscover its own forms of self-organisation as demonstrated by Russian workers in 1905 and 1917 and by those of Paris in 1871.

Dyjbas
December 2020

Some Further Reading:

The Civil War in France (1871) by Karl Marx
History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (1876) by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray
The Paris Commune of 1871 (1937) by Frank Jellinek
The Paris Commune of 1871 (1972) by Eugene Schulkind
The Communards of Paris, 1871 (1973) by Stewart Edwards
Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (2014) by John Merriman
Voices of the Paris Commune (2015) by Mitchell Abidor

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Internationalis...
Mar 20 2021 13:41

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Anarcho
Mar 22 2021 09:33

A few points:

Quote:
Marx himself was originally pessimistic about the prospects of an uprising in Paris.

It was more than that -- he was completely against the idea of any revolt. His position was stay ay home and vote when you get the chance: “perform their duties as citizens… Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty.”

Quote:
This was written in the context of the revisionist debates within German Social Democracy at the time. After Marx died in 1883, the road was cleared for reformist elements to gradually strip Marxism of its revolutionary kernel.

Revisionism followed the path Marx himself laid with his call for the working class to take "political action". As predicted by Bakunin, this became reformist... and, after all, least we forget, Marx's own words:

Quote:
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms.

The Commune may have smashed the state machine but it was the Paris Municipal Council elected by (male) universal suffrage. As such, it was completely consistent with a social democratic strategy -- albeit one waged by the Marxists on the national stage rather in one city.

As confirmed by Engels in a letter written in 1884 clarifying what Marx meant by the famuous expression that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”:

Quote:
"It is simply a question of showing that the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administrative centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes: whereas all bourgeois republicans since 1848 inveighed against this machinery so long as they were in the opposition, but once they were in the government they took it over without altering it and used it partly against the reaction but still more against the proletariat." [Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 74]

This is echoing words Marx wrote in the second outline of The Civil War in France:

Quote:
"But the proletariat cannot, as the ruling classes and their different rival fractions have done in the successive hours of their triumph, simply lay hold on the existent State body and wield this ready-made agency for their own purpose. The first condition for the holding of political power, is to transform its working machinery and destroy it as an instrument of class rule." [Collected Works, vol. 22, p. 533]

So elect social democrats and when they have a majority they will transform the existing State machine rather than use it. What eventually happened was that the majority of social democrats spent so much time seeking to "win the battle of democracy" (to use an appropriate term) that they forget the second part, namely transforming/smashing the State machine rather than using it. But, then again, they also forgot about replacing capitalism as well.

Overall, it is hard not to agree with Bakunin:

Quote:
“Its general effect was so striking that the Marxists themselves, who saw their ideas upset by the uprising, found themselves compelled to take their hats off to it. They went further, and proclaimed that its programme and purpose where their own, in face of the simplest logic and own true sentiments. This was a truly farcical change of costume, but they were bound to make it, for fear of being overtaken and left behind in the wave of feeling which the rising produced throughout the world.”

also see: Anarchism, Marxism and the lessons of the Commune

And I should note that the Bolsheviks, once they had seized power in the name of the soviets, systematically marginalised them -- gerrymandering, packing and, when needed, simply disbanding them to maintain the party in power (more details here). For the Commune and Bolshevism to be praised in the same article suggests the author understands neither.

Battlescarred
Mar 22 2021 11:31

And indeed, just after the outbreak of war, on the 20th of July, Marx wrote to Engels castigating French “republican chauvinism” : “The French need a drubbing. If the Prussians are victorious then the centralization of the State power will be favourable to the centralization of the working class. German preponderance will shift the centre of the working-class movement in Western Europe from France to Germany, and one has only to compare the movement of 1866 in both countries to see that the German working class is theoretically and organizationally superior to the French. The superiority of the Germans over the French in the world arena would mean at the same time the superiority of our theory over Proudhon’s, etc.”
Engels replied “The situation seems to me to be as follows: Germany has been forced into a war to defend its national existence by Badinguet (Bonaparte). If Germany is defeated then Bonapartism will be consolidated for years and Germany broken for years, perhaps for generations. Under such circumstances there could be no question of any independent German working-class movement. The struggle for the establishment of national unity would absorb all energies, and in the best case the German workers would be taken in tow by the French. If Germany is victorious then French Bonapartism is destroyed in any case, the eternal squabbling about the establishment of German unity will be ended at last, the German workers will be able to organize themselves on a far broader basis than previously, whilst the French workers will also have much greater freedom of movement than under Bonapartism, no matter what sort of a government may follow there. The great masses of the German people, all classes, have realized that the national existence of Germany is at stake and they have therefore immediately sprung into the breach. Under these circumstances it seems impossible to me that a German political party can preach total obstruction (à la Wilhelm (Liebknecht) and place all sorts of subordinate considerations before the main issue.” He was referring to the decision of Liebknecht (and Bebel) to abstain on war credits voted for by the North German Reichstag to the sum of 120 million thalers.
Marx and Engels called for the defence of Germany and to point out the differences between Prussian interests and German national interests, whilst at the same time y arguing for the common interests of German and French workers. This changed with the defeat and capture of Napoleon III, the invasion of France and demands for the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine.Marx and Engels chose to ignore that BIsmarck and his circle had as much been responsible for war as Napoleon III.
Now they called for restraint from French workers.In an address of the General Council of the International penned by Marx and Engels they said, “Thus the French working class finds itself in an extremely difficult position. Any attempt to overthrow the new government with the enemy at the gates would be desperate folly. The French workers must do their duty as citizens, but they must not let themselves be dominated by the national memories of 1792, as the French peasants were deceived by the national memories of the First Empire. They have not to repeat the past but to build up the future. Let them utilize with calmness and determination the means which republican freedom offers in order to organize their own class thoroughly. That will give them Herculean strength for the resuscitation of France and for our joint task – the emancipation of the proletariat. The fate of the republic depends on the strength and the wisdom of the French workers.” It was only the events of the Paris Commune that forced them to change their minds. As Bakunin was to say: "The impact of the Communist insurrection was so powerful that even the Marxists, who had all their ideas thrown to the wind by it, were forced to doff their hats to it. They did more than that: in contradiction to all logic and their innermost feelings, they adopted the program of the Commune and its aim as their own. It was a comic, but enforced travesty. They had to do it, otherwise they would have been rejected and abandoned by all- so mighty was the passion which this revolution had brought about in the whole world."

Cleishbotham
Mar 23 2021 11:58

Oh dear. Our comrade does seem to have rubbed up some Bakuninist sentiments the wrong way. I suppose it was foreseeable. The article acknowledges all the currents of the working class, including anarchists, who fought in the Commune and underlines that its central importance was in inspiring the working class even down to our own day. Yet all our critics can do is to try to force their own interpretation of Marx on us. For Anarcho, Marx was just a reformist and the Social Democracy that grew up in the last years of his life was made in his image. For Battlescarred, Marx was just a German nationalist. Both positions are caricatures and we don’t want to get into a sterile argument about the supposed superior wisdom of Bakunin (whose record speaks for itself). It is true that Marx changed his mind but let’s be clear about what this means. Marx was very concerned that revolution should only take place when it had some chance of success, and did not think this would be brought any closer by engaging in conspiracies of a few hundred. He always focussed on what was the real movement at the time and did privately fear the outcome of an isolated movement in France before the Commune even began its resistance. However once it started, he publicly stood by it and, as the article notes, made publicising its real meaning a major task. In a letter to Kugelmann (12 April 1871), after the Commune began, he wrote:

“If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire (written nearly twenty years before – Cleish) you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting. What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. History has no like example of a like greatness. If they are defeated only their “good nature” will be to blame. They should have marched at once on Versailles, after first Vinoy and then the reactionary section of the Paris National Guard had themselves retreated. The right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples. They did not want to start the civil war, as if that mischievous abortion Thiers had not already started the civil war with his attempt to disarm Paris. Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too “honorable” scrupulosity! However that may be, the present rising in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection in Paris. Compare these Parisians, storming heaven, with the slave to heaven of the German-Prussian Holy Roman Empire, with its posthumous masquerades reeking of the barracks, the Church, cabbage-junkerdom and above all, of the philistine.”

In other letters Marx said that perhaps in 3 countries at most the working class (under certain conditions which were not subsequently fulfilled) might arrive peacefully at power but everywhere else, including Germany, “the working class were fully aware from the beginning of their movement that you cannot get rid of a military despotism but by a Revolution” (to Hyndman 8 December 1880). The evolution of the German Social Democratic Party away from this perspective is well known and Engels lived long enough to complain about it. But Marx is also clear of the future significance of the Commune. In another letter to Kugelmann (17 April 1871 – again whilst the Commune existed) he underlined the historical importance of the Commune for the future:

“The decisive, unfavourable “accident” this time is by no means to be found in the general conditions of French society, but in the presence of the Prussians in France and their position right before Paris. Of this the Parisians were well aware. But of this, the bourgeois canaille of Versailles were also well aware. Precisely for that reason they presented the Parisians with the alternative of taking up the fight of succumbing without a struggle. In the latter case, the demoralisation of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained. ...”

The Commune memory, bitter though it was at the time, has inspired workers across the world. The same cannot be said of the Russian Revolution which has left us a very confused legacy. As the article says, but which Anarcho either fails to read, or chooses to ignore.

“The Communards lost honourably, being crushed by the counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks did not, as they found themselves administering a state capitalist monster which eventually devoured them.”

Obviously in a short article intended to commemorate a great historic event, this is necessarily a brief comment on a subsequent event which took inspiration from 1871. Anarcho, though, repeats his usual erroneous oversimplification:

“And I should note that the Bolsheviks, once they had seized power in the name of the soviets, systematically marginalised them -- gerrymandering, packing and, when needed, simply disbanding them to maintain the party in power”

The trick is in the “once”. It did not happen like that. The first six to eight months after the October Revolution saw the expansion of soviets and even refinements in the system which made them more representative of the working class. Lenin himself was still arguing along the lines of The State and Revolution in January 1918:
“Anarchist ideas now assume living forms in this epoch of the radical demolition of bourgeois society. However it is still necessary, first of all, in order to overthrow bourgeois society, to establish the strong revolutionary power of the toiling classes, the power of the revolutionary State ... The new tendencies of anarchism are definitely on the side of the Soviets”
It was a time of great social experiments as well as economic crisis. As S. A. Smith showed in his Red Petrograd, the economic crisis and sabotage of the bourgeoisie forced workers to take over factories and demand their nationalisation (actually what they were demanding was that the State take financial responsibility for the factory) and in the end the workers forced the nationalisation of industry on the Bolsheviks in June 1918. However by this time the economic crisis had undermined the popularity of the Bolshevik Government, and it was around this time that they started to rig elections (although it seems to have been done locally at first). The earliest record of an election being ignored was in April 1918 when Mensheviks and SRs won a majority in Sormovo so the Sormovo soviet was subsumed under the Nizhni Novgorod soviet.
This was part of a process of decline (admittedly which speeded up during the Civil War – but we will be detailing this in a forthcoming book).
Alexander Rabinowitch, in an article on the First City District of Petersburg, noted that in “the first eight months after October”:
“… the workers, soldiers and sailors who had supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government rushed to realize their aspirations – most fundamentally power to ordinary citizens exercised through revolutionary soviets – they became the new regime’s primary institutions of urban local government.”
However;

“… during the Russian Civil War (roughly speaking between June 1918 and January 1920), the power and independent authority of these institutions were gradually decisively undermined, with the result by the war’s end, generally speaking, they were effectively eliminated as significant autonomous political entities.” [A. Rabinowitch “The Petrograd First City District Soviet During the Civil War” in D Koenker et al Party, State and Society in the Russian Civil War p.133]

Instead of soviet power the RCP(B) built a state based on the Red Army and the Cheka which ended up making concessions to the peasantry and built a new type of exploiting state over the working class. Some Bolsheviks on the Left of the Party predicted this as early as April 1918. In the journal Kommunist, Radek (who became a state loyalist himself by the end of the year) could write an epitaph for the Russian Revolution. We have quoted it many times but here it is
“If the Russian revolution is crushed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, it will be reborn from its ashes like the Phoenix; but if it loses its socialist character, and by this disappoints the working masses, this blow will have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and international revolution.”
I see that our two venerable anarchists did not comment on our earlier article on Kronstadt in this blog. We don’t expect you to agree with us on it all (any more than with the quote from Lenin above where he talks about the possibility of Anarchists agreeing with the need for a revolutionary state!) but certainly we would hope that Battlescarred, as a Platformist, might agree with us that the working class does need political organisation in advance of the revolution but that this is only to guide the fight to overthrow the capitalist state and to counteract the counter-revolution in the shape of the statist forces (not least the Trotskyists and Stalinists who will be advocating a re-run of the same depressing history). The task of building a new society can only be down to the working class as a whole. This is why we wrote at the end of our brief Kronstadt article in this blog:
“No isolated working class outpost can complete the task of building socialism, especially in a country with a relatively small working class. The revolution has to be international. On the plus side, even the devastating experience of Kronstadt confirms that Soviets are the historically discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They alone are capable of drawing the mass of the class into shaping a different society. This cannot simply be done by a party. An international political organisation is essential to unite the class in overthrowing capitalism. Its members will be the most ardent at spreading world revolution. But the International itself is not a government in waiting. As the Internationalist Communist Party wrote in its 1952 Platform:
"At no time and for no reason does the proletariat ... delegate to others its historical mission, and it does not give power away to anyone, not even to its political party." (Political Platform of the PCInt, 1952).”
Rather than fight the corner of “two dead men with beards” we prefer to see what we can draw from working class experience, and make that part of the fight for the future. In that sense we are up for dialogue with anyone else seriously engaged in that aim.

Battlescarred
Mar 24 2021 11:54

Cleisbotham labels me as a "Bakuninist" and a "Platformist", neither of which I am, but thanks anyway. And for someone who accuses me of making caricatures of Marx, saying that I described him as a German nationalist,this is itself a caricature and Cleisbotham seems to have failed to read , or understand, what I was saying.

heraclitus
Mar 24 2021 14:10

To argue that Marx and Engels’ support for German unification and warning the Parisian workers against revolt, proves they were social democrats and reformists is somewhat ridiculous. What they were arguing for were the best conditions for the development of the European proletariat. To have a proletarian revolution a developed proletariat must be in existence and that was what was behind the letters quoted in the first two posts above. Once the commune was formed Marx and Engels whole heartedly supported it despite Marx’s earlier warning that French working class was in a position of extreme difficulty, a warning which incidentally proved correct. (Approximately 20000 communards were massacred by Versailles troops.) Marx and Engels also drew out the historical lessons of the commune. One of these lessons was that the proletariat could not simply take hold of the bourgeois state but that it the entire repressive apparatus must be destroyed. This was a reversal of what Marx and Engels had written in the “Communist manifesto.”
Reversal of earlier positions illustrates that Marxism is a method of analysis not a dogma. What is true for one historical period is not necessarily true in a subsequent period. This is true of the national question. Formation of national states in Germany or Italy brought about the formation of national proletariats making a unified struggle against capital easier. Hence these struggles could be seen as progressive and politically the working class could support them. Whereas in a world dominated by imperialism, characteristic of the 20th century, these struggles become inter-imperialist struggles and are not progressive hence support for them is reactionary. To apply statements from one historical period to a subsequent one, as is being done, is a violation of historical materialism.

Dyjbas
Mar 24 2021 14:49
heraclitus wrote:
To argue that Marx and Engels’ support for German unification and warning the Parisian workers against revolt, proves they were social democrats and reformists is somewhat ridiculous. What they were arguing for were the best conditions for the development of the European proletariat. To have a proletarian revolution a developed proletariat must be in existence and that was what was behind the letters quoted in the first two posts above. Once the commune was formed Marx and Engels whole heartedly supported it despite Marx’s earlier warning that French working class was in a position of extreme difficulty, a warning which incidentally proved correct. (Approximately 20000 communards were massacred by Versailles troops.) Marx and Engels also drew out the historical lessons of the commune. One of these lessons was that the proletariat could not simply take hold of the bourgeois state but that it the entire repressive apparatus must be destroyed. This was a reversal of what Marx and Engels had written in the “Communist manifesto.”
Reversal of earlier positions illustrates that Marxism is a method of analysis not a dogma. What is true for one historical period is not necessarily true in a subsequent period. This is true of the national question. Formation of national states in Germany or Italy brought about the formation of national proletariats making a unified struggle against capital easier. Hence these struggles could be seen as progressive and politically the working class could support them. Whereas in a world dominated by imperialism, characteristic of the 20th century, these struggles become inter-imperialist struggles and are not progressive hence support for them is reactionary. To apply statements from one historical period to a subsequent one, as is being done, is a violation of historical materialism.

Comment from heraclitus but got marked as spam.

sherbu-kteer
Mar 24 2021 15:33

I think the above comment is mistaken in explaining Marx's stances in this way. The advice given to the French workers was a question of tactics: how French workers should immediately respond to the political changes if the time. It's not about the conditions that need to be in existence in order for the revolution to succeed, but what to do now. Marx's advice is that they be modest, not rock the boat too much, and do their duties as citizens in order to save the republic. There are many worker struggles now that are in challenging circumstances, but would our advice to them ever be like the advice Marx gives the French workers?

Marx's broad strategy was parliament-oriented. The parliamentary system was a feature of bourgeois democracies that he thought the proletariat must take advantage of. He argued for revolution, but when he came to strategy, this is what he prioritised. This can be seen in the International, where his determination to have the national sections form political parties and contest elections contributed to the International's split.

On the national question, it wasn't just about unifying in of itself but that the unification was occurring through war and oppression, at the expense of other peoples. Which is something Marx knew perfectly well:

Quote:
If the Prussians win, the centralisation of the state power will be useful for the centralisation of the German working class. German predominance would also transfer the centre of gravity of the workers' movement in Western Europe from France to Germany, and one has only to compare the movement in the two countries from 1866 till now to see that the German working class is superior to the French both theoretically and organisationally. Their predominance over the French on the world stage would also mean the predominance of our theory over Proudhon's, etc.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_07_20.htm

I think by now we can say that history has proved this whole notion wrong...

Red Marriott
Mar 24 2021 16:02
sherbu-kteer wrote:
Marx's broad strategy was parliament-oriented. The parliamentary system was a feature of bourgeois democracies that he thought the proletariat must take advantage of. He argued for revolution, but when he came to strategy, this is what he prioritised. This can be seen in the International, where his determination to have the national sections form political parties and contest elections contributed to the International's split.

And this is the truth that the left-comms here have repeatedly tried to airbrush from history with their unconvincing revisionism. See comments below articles here;
http://libcom.org/blog/we-are-against-all-institutional-parties-21052020
http://libcom.org/blog/founding-comintern-then-now-03032019

Dyjbas
Mar 24 2021 18:40

A comrade already addressed this above actually:

Cleishbotham wrote:
In other letters Marx said that perhaps in 3 countries at most the working class (under certain conditions which were not subsequently fulfilled) might arrive peacefully at power but everywhere else, including Germany, “the working class were fully aware from the beginning of their movement that you cannot get rid of a military despotism but by a Revolution” (to Hyndman 8 December 1880). The evolution of the German Social Democratic Party away from this perspective is well known and Engels lived long enough to complain about it.

Red Marriott, it seems strange to me that rather than recognise a commonality here - we have not only always opposed parliamentarism, but today we also think that even using parliament as a tribune is tactically and politically harmful - you instead castigate us for... not repeating Marx verbatim. Times change, tactics change, you learn with the real movement. That's our (and Marx's) method. Would you really rather we still advocated parliamentary activity just because Marx at one point in the distant past, under specific conditions, thought it useful?

sherbu-kteer wrote:
On the national question, it wasn't just about unifying in of itself but that the unification was occurring through war and oppression, at the expense of other peoples.

Saying something is historically progressive does not mean it's "good". Capitalism has developed the means of production to the point where a world in common is now a possibility, but we still oppose capitalism! Likewise, the formation of national states in the 19th century was a brutal process which also brought about the formation of the modern proletariat, the very social force that can be the gravedigger of all national states.

On the split in the First International, I recommend Franz Mehring as he provides a more nuanced non-sectarian narrative.

sherbu-kteer
Mar 25 2021 00:38

I didn't suggest Marx was saying unification was "good" in some moral sense, but he clearly states that the centralisation that results from a war with France would be advantageous to the German workers' movement, and thus the European workers' movement -- and, bizarrely, because it would mean the predominance of Marxism over Proudhonism. I don't see how this is the same as saying that capitalism makes its own grave-diggers or whatever.

It's not sectarian to say that Marx's desire for the International's sections to contest elections helped divide it. I don't think there's even anything in that Mehring text that suggests otherwise, though a text written in 1918 is obviously not going to have as full a picture as a well-researched modern text.

Red Marriott
Mar 25 2021 11:11
Dyjbas wrote:
Red Marriott, it seems strange to me that rather than recognise a commonality here - we have not only always opposed parliamentarism, but today we also think that even using parliament as a tribune is tactically and politically harmful - you instead castigate us for... not repeating Marx verbatim.

You participated in the earlier debates I linked to - so should be well aware that that is not my point and that your attempt to again use it as a red herring is irrelevant. As shown most clearly in the falsehoods in your Comintern and Party articles, you routinely misrepresent Marx & Lenin's views; to make the great Masters' past views appear to verify your own present group ideology, so invested as you are in being seen as 'good, true marxists and therefore their true heirs and representatives on earth'. As I said in the Party thread;

Quote:
You want to have it both ways - first referencing them as if their eternal relevance verifies your position, then saying their views aren't eternal truths when it's pointed out you're misrepresenting them.

Dyjbas
Mar 25 2021 12:26

You're the only one here talking about "great masters", "true heirs", "eternal truths", etc. Fortunately we don't all have to have the same "one true" interpretation of Marx as you do!

Mike Harman
Mar 25 2021 12:34

On Marx changing his mind, you can see that he thought the expansion of capitalism into Russia would be a waste of time, against the 'Markists' in Russia - i.e. that instead Russia could have an agrarian revolution and import labour-saving technology already developed in Western Europe. Introducing capitalism as a transitional stage from feudalism to socialism would just mean massive displacement and death, not anything 'progressive'.

https://libcom.org/library/marx-russian-mir-misconceptions-marxists

This is also written about 50 years before some people think capitalism became 'decadent'.

Red Marriott
Mar 25 2021 13:33
dyjbas wrote:
You're the only one here talking about "great masters", "true heirs", "eternal truths", etc. Fortunately we don't all have to have the same "one true" interpretation of Marx as you do!

Yes, but you're the only ones relating to Marx & Lenin in that way. You can hardly write an article without supposedly 'verifying' its views by quoting - albeit highly selectively and often misleadingly - from your masters. Your crude self-serving misrepresentation and revisionism of history is made clear by the comments below several of your articles like the ones linked to earlier.

Reddebrek
Mar 25 2021 17:43
heraclitus wrote:
Reversal of earlier positions illustrates that Marxism is a method of analysis not a dogma. What is true for one historical period is not necessarily true in a subsequent period. This is true of the national question. Formation of national states in Germany or Italy brought about the formation of national proletariats making a unified struggle against capital easier. Hence these struggles could be seen as progressive and politically the working class could support them. Whereas in a world dominated by imperialism, characteristic of the 20th century, these struggles become inter-imperialist struggles and are not progressive hence support for them is reactionary. To apply statements from one historical period to a subsequent one, as is being done, is a violation of historical materialism.

This is simply false, at no point has the rise of nationalism created "Unified proletariats" its kept divisions in tact and stoked them further. I don't mean just across the currently established borders but within them too. What this analysis has done is taken the liberal enlightenment spring time of the people's essentialism and assumed nations have a real community with bonds that serve to bind and unite. Its complete nonsense, nationalism was never progressive and the weakness of the 18th and 19th century socialists for it including Marx and Engels was one of the greatest hinderances to genuine class solidarity.

The second part is also ahistorical. Nationalism and wars of national liberation did not "become" inter-imperialist struggles they always have been this. How can anyone possibly look at risorgimento or the struggle for Irish independence and not notice all the powerful rivals looking to profit? What's the difference between regime change in the middle east allowing US bases to be set up to menace Iran or whoever today and the English crown invading because Ireland might allow Spanish ships in its ports in the 1600s? Besides your convenient epoch boundaries anyway? You can arbitrarily define imperialism however you want, it doesn't alter the material realities of the birth and death of nations and the role of empire.

If Marx and Engels reversing their positions in the 1870s is proof of method of analysis and lack of dogma, then it is only fair to assume your reversal is the absence of analysis and the embrace of dogma in the name of historic materialism.

Mike Harman
Mar 25 2021 19:37
Reddebrek wrote:
This is simply false, at no point has the rise of nationalism created "Unified proletariats" its kept divisions in tact and stoked them further. I don't mean just across the currently established borders but within them too. ...

The second part is also ahistorical. Nationalism and wars of national liberation did not "become" inter-imperialist struggles they always have been this. How can anyone possibly look at risorgimento or the struggle for Irish independence and not notice all the powerful rivals looking to profit?

And you can see bits of realisation of this in Marx as well, like the letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in 1870

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm

In this he's talking about the negative effects of both English and Irish nationalism on working class solidarity. Suggests that there should be a campaign in England to withdraw all troops from Ireland (but makes no mention of supporting any particular Irish independence movement, rather that he thinks the withdrawal of English troops would result in an agrarian revolution).

Generally there is loads to learn with Marx in the critique of political economy, and there is some very interesting stuff in the later writings on Russia (and apparently ecology although I haven't checked those out yet), but his commentary on contemporary events and the state is inconsistent and hit and miss. You can treat this as sometimes wrong, sometimes right, or you can treat it as right at the time, then right at a different time, then right at a different time - if you really like doing acrobatics.

alb
Mar 29 2021 20:15

Surely the first part of Marx's letter to Nieuwenhuis quoted in the blog is very relevant for assessing the Commune. Dated ten years after the event, it can be seen as Marx's considered opinion on it, as opposed to the pamphlet he wrote on behalf of the IWMA immdiately after its bloody suppression which was more of a eulogy/obituary and was not the place nor the time to express criticism.

"[The Paris Commune was] merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people – the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc." (Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881) (My empasis).

Perhaps the Communards could have got a better deal if they had acted differently (like seizing the gold in th vaults of the Bank of France as a brgaining counter) but the outcome of that deal could only have been some form of "bourgeois democracy" not socialism. That -- a political framework within which the working class movement could develop with less hindrance -- was all that was possible in the circumstances, as Marx recognised in this letter,