Saturday, March 13, 2021

Mass Action or Intelligent Organisation. (1923)

From the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

They say that God is on the side of the big battalions. This contains an element of truth, but it is not true merely because the battalions are big. If they happen to be composed of raw recruits who don’t know the business end of a gun; don’t know why they are fighting, and wish they weren’t; and if the battalions are officered by men who not only think, like the Duke of Wellington, that their rank and file are “scum,” but are also hoping to be decorated by the enemy for services rendered, then God will have his work cut out, however big the battalions are.

Of course few people now believe that God has any say in the matter. Lord Devonport was not really disturbed when Ben Tillett invited God to strike him dead. He knew he had the dockers cornered and could starve them into surrender, and Tillett plus God was no more formidable than Tillett alone. Anyway, Ben never meant Devonport any harm.

Again, when during the war Lord Roberts saw that the Allied armies were not delivering the goods, and that the geniuses of the General Staff didn’t know what to do next, the country was placarded, with appeals for prayer signed by that old hypocrite. The prayer was, however, wisely accompanied by a campaign for increasing the output of shells, to strengthen God’s hands in the slaughter of His other children,

The consistent application of the God-idea would be fatal to any human activity, and what is almost as dangerous in working-class organisations is a notion that they will win because they are big in numbers. This takes a variety of, but its general result is a disregard of the actual facts of the present situation and of the necessity for solid preparatory work before the workers can take effective action.

The outstanding features of that situation are these: That the private ownership of the means of life by the capitalist class is the main cause, direct or indirect, of the remediable evils from which the workers suffer, and that as a consequence nothing but the abolition of that private ownership can be a solution. Further, that the capitalists maintain possession by their control of Parliament and its administrative, judicial, and executive machinery, including the armed forces; this control being buttressed by propaganda in the schools, the Church, and the Press.

Thirdly, that the overwhelming mass of the workers, although discontented with their condition, have not yet traced their suffering to its origin in the social structure itself, and are therefore not only unwilling to attack the capitalist system, but are prepared, as during the war, to fight for it, and, as shown at subsequent, elections, to vote for it. Now, we want Socialism and we want it immediately, but unfortunately the majority of the workers are opposed to us, and while they stand behind the State in defence of the capitalist system we are helpless. While, materially, society has long been ripe for Socialism, we are forced to recognise that we must work and wait until the majority see that fact as we see it.

However, among those who want to abolish capitalism, who call themselves revolutionary, there are many who are not convinced that the relatively slow process outlined above is necessary. It need hardly be said that if there could be found a method of reaching the same result in a shorter time we would be only too pleased to hear of it. There is no question of sentimental attachment to particular means; any means are good enough for us provided they will serve the purpose; I do not propose to discuss in detail whether, and to what extent, the means and the end can be separated, although it will readily be seen that granted the overcoming of preliminary obstacles such as the conquest of power, the attempt at building a new society will be a failure if it makes exacting demands which the people are unable to meet. Socialist society can only be run by Socialists, and it will not be the work of a mentally enslaved people who have merely exchanged the blinkers of the capitalist politician for those of the professional revolutionary.

Let us, however, deal with the question of the moment, the conquest of power.

We have seen that the capitalists (or their agents the politicians), depending immediately on the support of the House of Commons and ultimately on the backing of the mass of the people, are able to decide what shall be done in any problem which arises. The Cabinet decides on policies which, if approved by the House of Commons, become law and are enforced through the Legal machinery. Taxes are levied for the up-keep of the State and its various departments. And all the time the law, the police, the army and navy are at hand to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Although they talked of disarming Germany, it is significant that the allied Governments never prevented their German “enemy” from maintaining the forces without which private ownership by the German capitalists could not have been protected.

It follows that the ruling class do only those things which they think are in their immediate interest or which circumstances force them to do to guard the stability of their system. For an instance of the first kind of action, it is plainly in the interests of the capitalist class to keep down the expenses of the administration, because it is they who have to pay; as instances of the second kind, it is necessary that the capitalists should spend money on the technical education of the workers in order to promote the prosperity of their industries and to enable to compete with foreign rivals; and it is also necessary for the capitalists to spend millions of pounds, as they are now doing, on relief for the unemployed.

If the unemployed received no support at all they would in desperation make organised attacks on private property, and their unrelieved discontent would endanger capitalist candidates at elections. Obviously, to leave men in utter starvation would be to force on them proof that existing society had nothing to offer them and could not reasonably demand their allegiance. That could but lead to rioting and disorder, which would make normal trading and commercial activities impossible. The capitalists give doles because it pays them to do so; it is for them a form of insurance, and a cheap one.

Various impatient people observing this, but failing to appreciate it correctly, have conceived the notion that at certain times of “crisis,” when discontent is rife and feeling runs high, and when the minds of many workers are in a condition of ferment, it should be possible by concentrated propaganda, daring leadership, and inspiring example, for a comparatively few revolutionaries so to leaven the mass as to turn its energies to an attack on the system.

It is a plausible theory and an attractive one for those of us for whom the capitalist present is an intolerable burden in comparison with the possibilities of the Socialist future; but will it stand examination?

Is it true that at these moments of crisis the ruling class lose their grip on the situation? Is it, then, any more difficult for the politicians and the Press to keep the workers in hand as regards fundamentals? And have the revolutionaries greater hope of getting into the saddle than at ordinary times? To go no further back than 1914, were the workers any less ready to accept capitalism at war than to accept capitalism at peace? As Mrs. Asquith states in the second volume of her diary, one Cabinet Minister (apparently Lloyd George) was “intriguing with the pacifists” and would have led an anti-war campaign if he could have found support for it, but he saw that the war-makers had been fully successful and he discreetly decided to go with them (Manchester Guardian Weekly, Nov. 24, 1922).

There were strikes during the war, and the Government was able to depend on the great majority, including the Trade Union officials, when it threatened, and took, drastic measures. There was a railway strike in 1919, and troops were used to run the trains, again without any notable outcry from the workers in general. The Labour leaders called off the threatened “Triple Alliance” strike on “Black Friday,” and not only did the mass actionists fail in their agitation, but J. H. Thomas and others denounced as traitors are now as popular as ever with their members.

Why did the Communists fail to make use of these opportunities when they offered? It was not for lack of will, certainly not for lack of screaming headlines and stunt propaganda. They failed because they could not compete with the capitalist Press and because they never succeeded in getting the workers interested in vital questions outside the scope of the immediate movement: On any such occasion the workers may be induced, or forced, quietly to accept less than they ask, but is there ever any possibility of their standing out for something more?

The railwaymen returned to work after a short strike because they were promised a part of their demands. Could one expect anything else? ‘The workers are always robbed, but not understanding this they will not consciously fight the robbers. Why then, if they are driven to resist a reduction in wages, should they be expected to fight for larger aims against a condition of things they accept as inevitable?

As for the immediate aim, the capitalist class can, if they wish, yield and remove the ground of the dispute. In short, if the workers are only asking for some reform of the present system, the capitalists can always grant it or fight it, as they choose. In neither case do the minority get a chance worth mentioning. During the mining dispute some 60 or 70 Communists were jailed, yet no serious effort was made by the workers to get them out. They did not gain the leadership, and the miners did not get any concession.

If, on the other hand, we have to admit that the workers must want Socialism before they can be induced to fight for it, we are back where we started, considering how we can make the workers understand Socialism. But this is the method the minority revolutionaries have rejected.

During the last two years an old issue has been revived, in the agitation for the better treatment of the unemployed. Attempts have been made to organise the unemployed, and have been fairly successful on the whole, but the old futilities have again been practised. The organisers of the movement had to choose between organising a few revolutionaries for a revolutionary purpose or a mass of non-revolutionaries for a programme of minor reforms in the amount and method of unemployment relief. They took the latter, and have succeeded in winning some points from the Boards of Guardians. But have they achieved anything lasting commensurate with their efforts ? They have added to the difficulties of the authorities, which was all to the good, but to assert, as some people have, that they seriously upset the Government is absurd. A writer in the Worker (20th. Jan., 1923), signing himself “Hobo,” gives an interesting account of unemployed organisation in Liverpool, for instance.

It began in 1921 with a gathering of 20,000 strong, and a committee “comprised for the most part of Communists.” There was a baton charge in September, most of the committee were arrested, and the unemployed turned a picture gallery “into a shambles.” “From then onwards the number declined, due to the fact that a scale of relief had been granted and that the spineless ones had got the wind up and left. We managed to keep a crowd of 10,000.”

They again came into conflict with the police, and
  “this gave us another setback in point of numbers, and the people left began to show signs of class consciousness. . . . They began, to flock to the Communist Party. Very few stayed in, but those who left were inoculated with germs of the class struggle. Due to another agitation we were granted the use of another hall. Again, after another couple of months, we got notice to quit. From. then onwards until about April or May, 1922, the apathy became terrible. . .
   “‘The Guardians or the rich,’ seeing this, began to get brave by daring to cut the relief down. A few hundred returned and wanted to know what we were going to do . . . try as we would we could not get them. to kick. . . . In September (1922). they returned again; . . . The Guardians had brought in a system of test work. . .The agitation became strong . . . the test work suddenly stopped, so did the demonstrations of our organisation. The immediate wrongs of Henry being satisfied, he drifted away again.. Thus the movement has declined, and hardly exists today outside of a small committee.”
So much for mass action. Are these the big battalions that will strike fear into the hearts of the ruling class? We are often reminded that Socialist propaganda makes but slow progress. True, but that is the nature of things; and is the method illustrated above any quicker? If it produces anything  useful at all, could the same or a greater result not have been achieved by a better direction of the energies that were thus largely wasted?

W. Hannington, Organising Secretary of the National Unemployed Movement, admits the actual impotence of that organisation outside of a strictly limited sphere, when he says in reply to a question as to the possibility of disturbances this winter : “The Government is straining the patience of these men, and they must not be surprised if there are outbreaks and disorders.” (Manchester Guardian Weekly, 12th Jan.) I suggest that the Government won’t be surprised. The people who will be surprised are the unemployed when they learn how amazingly easy it is for a few police, or if need be, soldiers, to deal effectively with large masses of ill-disciplined and unarmed men. They will get cracked heads for their pains, some of them will possibly, in the words of “Hobo,” be infected with “germs of class consciousness.” But when it is all done, are we any nearer Socialism? When the long delayed trade recovery arrives, short though it may be, will anything be left to show for all the time spent on organising the unemployed? Might these efforts not have been more fruitfully devoted to giving them a real understanding of their class position?

It is true the Socialist Party has not succeeded in organising large numbers, but have the actionists done any better? We have at least assisted materially in giving a correct understanding of Socialism to a by no means insignificant body of workers, and we are still awaiting from our numerous critics information as to the means whereby men who have been brought together to “demand the use of the Town Hall” or for any other fiddling question of the moment, can be induced to fight for Socialism without understanding it. If they could show that they had succeeded or were likely to succeed, something might be said for the idea; but according to a Communist Committee’s report, a copy of which fell into the hands of the Morning Post and was quoted by the Star (2nd Jan., 1923) the Party during the two years of its existence “has made no real progress, either numerically or in terms of influence. . . We are still only scattered individuals straggling up and down the country without a responsible hold on the working class movement.” (I must apologise for quoting from the Morning Post, but I, like the members of the Communist Party, have no other means of learning what new piece of buffoonery has been devised from time to time by the Communist dictators to disguise from their members the Party’s futility.)

Again, the Communists who have been responsible for misleading the workers by the blind-alley policy of the unemployed organisations now confess, after the harm has been done, that it was all a waste of effort.
   “The unemployed have done all they can, and the Government know it. They have tramped through the rain in endless processions. They have gone in mass deputations to the Guardians. They have attended innumerable meetings and have been told to be ‘solid’ They have marched to London, enduring terrible hardships. . . All this has led nowhere. None of the marchers believe that seeing Bonar Law in the flesh will make any difference. Willing for any sacrifice, there seems no outlet, no next step. In weariness and bitter disillusionment the unemployed movement is turning in upon itself. There is sporadic action, local rioting, but not central direction. The Government has signified its exact appreciation of the confusion by arresting Hannington.
   “The plain truth is that the unemployed can only be organised for agitation, not for action. Effective action is the job of the working-class as a whole. The Government is not afraid of starving men so long as the mass of the workers look on and keep the ring. —(Workers’ Weekly, C.P.G.B., 10th February, 1923.)
Brought up against one plain truth at home the Communists turn to agitation about another side-tracking question abroad with similar failure.

While they and the other mass actionists, the Labour Parties, are both opposing the French invasion of the Ruhr and issuing clarion calls to the workers to occupy themselves in the purely Capitalists’ dispute over the ownership of that territory, they both admit their inability to interfere effectively to stop it.
  “Edo Fimmen, Secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, in a speech to the old Confederation of Labour Congress in Paris . . . confessed . . . the impotence of the international working class in regard to the Ruhr invasion. It must be recognised that we have not been able to do what we said we would do.” —(Daily Herald, 3rd February, 1923.) 
   “The duty of the Communists is proportionately heavier. We are the minority of the working class. Alone we shall perhaps not be able to prevent war. But we must do everything in our power, so that when the masses are dragged into the war, they will have a rallying centre in the Communist Party . . . ” —(R. Fuchs, International Press Correspondence, 1st February, 1923, an official Communist publication.)
There is another aspect, too. These people always end by calling the workers apathetic. It is pertinent to ask who have done more to make them so than those, whether right-wing privy councillors, or left wing mass actionists, who make the accusation. They bring members into an organisation under false pretences, add nothing to their knowledge, take their contributions, and then abuse them because they leave in disgust when they find that their leaders cannot fulfil the promises which were the bait dangled to catch them.

It is not that the leaders necessarily intend to harm their victims. Usually, at the outset at least, they are sincerely of the opinion that the end having been achieved the means will be thereby justified. Our reply is that the end never is achieved. A little knowledge of the history of the workers’ movement might save many such mistakes, it might also save some enthusiasts from wasting valuable energies trying “to get Socialism quickly” by this method. They should remember that the S.D.F., the Clarion Scouts, the I.L.P., the B.S.P. have each in turn beaten this particular big drum with varying degrees of failure before their present counterparts took it up.

They might also remember that apathy for the rank and file mean apathy for the leaders, and that with the passing of the conditions which temporarily gave the illusion of rapid progress the men who used to bellow blood and fire from the platforms of those organisations recovered from their intoxication. They became cynical and quite a number can now be found talking with their tongues in their cheeks, for the Conservative Party.
Edgar Hardcastle

Thoughts of a scientist. (1923)

From the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard
   “I am not afraid of the priests in the long run. Scientific method is the white ant which will slowly but surely destroy their fortifications. And the importance of scientific method in modern practical life—always growing and increasing—is the guarantee for the gradual emancipation of the ignorant upper and lower classes, the former of whom especially are the strength; of the priests.”
T. H. Huxley.
(“Life and Letters,” Vol. III., Page 330).
“I have not the slightest doubt about the magnitude of the evils which accrue from the steady increase of European armaments ; but I think that this regrettable fact is merely the superficial expression of social forces, the operations of which cannot be sensibly affected by agreements between Governments.
   In my opinion it is a delusion to attribute the growth of armaments to the “exactions of militarism.” The “exactions of industrialism,” generated by international commercial competition, may, I believe, claim a much larger share in prompting that growth. Add to this the French thirst for revenge, the most just determination of the German and Italian peoples to assert their national duty; the Russian Pan-slavonic fanaticism and desire for free access to the ‘western seas’; the Papacy steadily fishing in the troubled waters for the means of recovering its lost (I hope for ever lost) temporal possessions and spiritual supremacy; the “sick man,” kept alive only because each of his doctors is afraid of the other becoming his heir.
  When I think of the intensity of the perturbing agencies which arise out of these and other conditions of modern European society, I confess that the attempt to counteract them by asking Governments to agree to a maximum military expenditure, does not appear to me to be worth making ; indeed, I think it might do harm by leading people to suppose that the desires of Governments are the chief agents in determining whether peace or war shall obtain in Europe.”
T. H. Huxley. (Page 323)

Anti-dotes for doped notes. (1923)

From the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “I am perfectly certain that there is a good deal of unnecessary unemployment. People won’t work at a wage that makes it remunerative for anyone to employ them.”—(Judge Crawford, Edmonton County Court), “Evening News,” January 22nd, 1923.)
Yea ! learned judge, but you are so vague and ambiguous, and in your brevity you omit any evidence for the above statements, a shortcoming with all enemies of the working class. They invariably make assertions as if they were undisputed facts which required no proof to support them. What, in your wisdom, fixes the limits of necessary and unnecessary unemployment? And in what category might we include those who “employ them,” and for whom you whine? Undoubtedly in the former, in order to provide “them,” the workers, with plenty of wor-r-rk, when profitable of course. How nice ! How kind ! And yet ! despite such philanthropic sacrifice there are ungrateful wretches whose exorbitant demands make it unremunerative to employ them. At least, that is what you would have us believe. But console yourself. An enormous surplus of wealth awaits a market without the “increased production” of the unemployed. There is another section of workless, however, the master class, whose wealth increases despite their idleness and their riotous dissipation in every luxurious form possible. Hearken !
  “We are supposed to be crushed with taxation, and to be labouring in the trough of a great trade depression, yet all accounts agree that there has never been such a winter holiday season as during the last six weeks. The Riviera has been thronged with English visitors, there has been a positive rush to the Alpine resorts ; at one moment the Continental trains were running in five parts, and it needed nearly a fortnight’s notice to get a sleeping berth on any of the through trains to Switzerland or to the south of France . . . money is spent lavishly, and whether at Cannes, Monte Carlo, or St. Moritz, the cheerful crowd of winter holiday-seekers seems to stint itself for nothing.”—(“World’s Work,” p. 213, February.)
Only an isolated illustration, but everywhere it is the same story, an ever-increasing abundance of wealth and a panorama of pleasure made passible by the workers, who, through ignorance, fail to see that the cause of their want, insecurity, and monotony of life, is the capitalist ownership of society’s means of living. The capitalists only allow these means of living to be operated when profitable to themselves, at best only returning on the average sufficient for a bare existence to the wealth producers. Nevertheless, whilst through lack of understanding the workers sanction their own enslavement, the knowledge they exhibit in carrying on the work of society, extended to their material interests as a class, will win them through to freedom.

* * * *
  “It is our duty to make people fit to live in the world, and not to try to make the world fit for people to live in.”—(Mr. H. Pike Pease, “Reynolds,” February 4th, 1923.)
But the world is fit to live in, and a place of splendour and gaiety, for those who can “live” in it, for the small privileged few whose ownership of it renders the “existence” of the large majority such a joyless and precarious one. “Our” duty forsooth ! duty between the conflicting interests of the robber and the robbed ! Rubbish ! While the workers look to their exploiters, with their agents, to alter the conditions under which they exist, they remain mentally in a condition to be deluded at every turn. But when a majority of them understand that society is not merely a jumble of unrelated incidents wherein a set of benevolent God ordained rulers permit them to exist, but an historically evolved stage in human enslavement that will pass like other stages have done, then, and then only can society be organised upon a co-operative basis that will allow the full and free opportunity for all to live. To talk of making people fit to live whilst retaining conditions that render life a hideous “struggle for millions from the cradle to the cemetery, is to put the cart before the horse, in other words, to talk rot.

* * * *
   “The more you try to get down to the idea of a Socialist State, the sooner you will get down to the idea of a first-class lunatic asylum.”—(Dr. Macnamara, “Reynolds,” February 4th, 1923.)
There now! the mighty hath spoken, just a bald meaningless string of words, the outcome of woeful ignorance or slimy hypocrisy. The State, like other social institutions, has not existed from all eternity, the long era of primitive man’s existence knew it not, only the advent of property with consequent class subjections makes the State a necessity.
  “The modern State is but an executive committee for administering the affairs of the whole bourgeois class.”—(Communist Manifesto.)
With the establishment of Socialism and the consequent abolition of classes and class oppression, the function of the State ceases, its need is ended. Socialism and the State are therefore incompatible. Dr. Macnamara is a supporter of capitalism, so he assumes the role of Nelson, failing to see the obvious, the chaos of the system he defends, and by a sinister inference, imputes to Socialism “the first-class lunatic asylum” he pretends not to see around him. Let us quote one capitalist statistician.
  “The great fact emerges that the enormous annual income of the United Kingdom is so badly distributed amongst us that, out of a population of 43,000,000, as many as 38,000,000 are poor.”— (C. Money, ”Riches and Poverty,” p. 43.)
But the Socialist offers evidence that wherever the present system prevails, it is productive of increasing poverty, perpetual war, prostitution, and liars who serve the ruling class by the dissemination of written and verbal matter calculated to stifle working class discontent. The toilers, not understanding the ease with which they could live under Socialism, and inclined to believe that which comes from “great” men, too often swallow such trash. Potential comrades, ”The great only appear great because you are kneeling. Arise!”

* * * *
    “As things are, nobody knows what is the real cost of unemployment, and in what proportions that cost is borne by different classes of the community. . . . Not only are the workers taxed for the maintenance of their unemployed fellows, but also the incomes out of which they must meet the charge are themselves heavily reduced by the very fact of unemployment.”—(“The Cost of Unemployment,” by Barbara Wooton, “Labour Magazine,” February.)
Well, if “nobody” knows, there appears to be a spontaneous generation of knowledge on the writer’s part within the confines of the same article, for the latter quotation contains a positive assertion as to whom she considers does pay. If by “different classes” is meant other than the working class and the non-working class, the capitalists, the only classes that can be discovered to-day, then her confusion is easily understood. Repeatedly in these columns we have pointed out, and demonstrated the fact, that the working class, being without property in the means of life, must sell their physical and mental energies for a subsistence wage, to those that own those means (the master class). They cannot pay for anything beyond what they have received their wages for, the food, clothing, shelter, and small pleasures necessary for the re-production of their labour powers. Even in regular employment, December 31st finds them as wealthy as January 1st, wages presuppose a bare living. If this were not so, wage adjustments, cost-of-living charts, sliding scales, would all be inexplicable. It is only in form that the slavery of the wage worker differs from the chattel slave, and that is the money or wage form; both receive their “keep,” and as with the slave owner, so with the capitalist, the wealth the workers produce is his. Despite the enormous proportionate increase of that wealth, the worker still continues his slave existence, and the expense of war, unemployment, pauperism and crime must be met by the owners of wealth, which is itself the proceeds of the robbery of the working class. Nobody who understands his or her position as a worker cares a damn about the cost of unemployment, it is the master’s cost, and only concerns him and the labour frauds who bleat for their paymasters in company with simpletons lacking understanding. Both assist in fogging the issue—the conflict between masters and slaves, the class war, only the full recognition of which can herald the coming of the day of working class triumph and the Social Revolution.

The Commune of Paris, 1871. (1923)

From the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

To all Socialists throughout the world, the 18th of March recalls to their minds the first organised attempt on the part of a section of the working class to administer the affairs of society in the workers’ interest. We speak of the Commune of Paris in 1871.

To convey a clear understanding of the Commune, it is necessary to give a brief outline of some of the events which led to the uprising of the Parisian workers on the 18th of March, 1871.

In 1849, an enterprising gentleman, named Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the first Napoleon, was elected President of the French Republic, and three years later he was proclaimed Emperor of the Second Empire.

For the events which enabled Bonaparte and his gang of hangers-on to become masters of France, readers are referred to Marx’s brilliant and profound monograph, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”

Of the establishment of the Second Empire, Engels says “that meant the appeal to French chauvinism, which implied the demand for the reacquisition of the frontier of the First Empire lost in 1814.” The existing frontier no longer satisfied the requirements of the Jingoes, in view of the fact that during the Bonapartist regime France had experienced a rapid industrial development. To the French ruling class the redeeming feature of the Bonapartist Government was its policy which favoured speculation and industrial activity, resulting for them in enrichment to a hitherto unheard of degree. Industrial expansion made necessary occasional wars and extensions of frontier, and the frontier which most interested the French Chauvinists was the left bank of the Rhine.

Gradually a growing section of the ruling class began more and more to express their dissatisfaction with the foreign and domestic policy of Bonaparte; whilst on the other hand, the discontent of the workers manifested itself in a way disturbing to the peace of mind, of not only the section of the ruling class opposed to Bonaparte, but to Bonaparte himself.

Among the workers, an organisation called the International Working Men’s Association, founded by Marx and Engels in 1864, was carrying on an agitation throughout Europe; and in France, the agitation was such, that Bonaparte had 60 of its most active members arrested.

Thus, confronted with the growing unpopularity among the ruling class, and fearing an uprising of the workers, Bonaparte sought refuge in satisfying the aspirations of the French Jingoes by declaring war on Prussia on the 15th of July, 1870. But the war proved disastrous for France. After various encounters, one French Army was driven into Sedan, where Bonaparte, with 80,000 men, surrendered. After this, battle after battle was lost by the French. Even the new Army under Marshal Bazaine, which had been raised to stave off the march of the Prussians on Paris, was surrounded at Metz, where Bazaine, with 180,000 men, surrendered.

As a consequence of the first great defeat at Sedan, an uprising occurred in Paris on the 4th of September, 1870, which sounded the death-knell of the Second Empire. The Republic was again proclaimed, and Thiers, who had been a statesman under the old Monarchy of Louis Phillipe, was appointed as its head.

During the war, the mass of the workers, like the great bulk of the workers during the late European war, were stupid enough to interest themselves in a quarrel which was entirely a quarrel between rival groups of the ruling class. Consequently, what was uppermost in the minds of the Parisians, was to organise a resistance against the Prussians, who were now on their way to besiege the city. The bulk of the Parisians believed in the possibility of successfully defending Paris, and the Thiers’ Government accepted a mandate from them to act as the “government of defence.” For the purpose of defending Paris all Parisians capable of bearing arms were armed and enrolled in the National Guard, which was composed mainly of working men.

Towards the end of September the Prussians began their siege of Paris, and it soon became evident to many that the Government was not treating seriously the question of defence. The fact is, that the matter of the defence of Paris was treated as a huge joke by the Thiers’ Government, and is described by Marx as “a well understood mockery of defence.” The evidence of this fact was left in the hands of the Commune when the Government made its wild flight to Versailles after the 18th of March.

As indicated above, we do not approve the action of the Parisians in demanding the continuance of the war; but even so, that in no way excuses the “government of defence” in not seriously acting in line with the mandate it had accepted to effectively defend Paris, which is one illustration of the contempt that all Capitalist Governments have for the views of the great bulk of those who elect them to power.

Of course, the Thiers’ Government had reasons of its own for disregarding the mandate. What Thiers and his gang were really desirous of defending Paris against was, not the Prussians, but the armed working men of Paris.

“Paris armed, was the revolution armed,” says Marx; and Thiers did not fail to note this significant fact.

The year 1871 opened with Paris still a besieged city, and finally on the 28th of January, it being no longer possible to carry on the farce of “defence,” the French Government capitulated to Bismark.

Engels, in his introduction to Marx’s “Civil War in France,” points out that when the Prussians entered Paris they found themselves surrounded by armed workmen, “who carefully watched lest any ‘Prussian’ should overstep the narrow limits of the quarter reserved for the foreign conqueror.”

How to disarm these workmen was the immediate problem set before Thiers. To accomplish this Thiers, with the flagrant lie on his lips that the arms of the National Guard were State property, called upon the National Guard to give up their artillery. Of course, Thiers knew well that the arms of the Guards were their own property ; they were bought by themselves by means of public subscriptions; moreover, they were officially recognised as their property in the terms of the capitulation of Paris. This move on the part of Thiers to get the National Guard to surrender their arms having failed, he next tried more forcible means.

Accordingly, Thiers dispatched a few regiments of the line to Montmartre to steal the artillery. With the usual display of “directive ability,” those responsible for the organisation to take the guns had failed to provide adequate means of transport. When the troops secured the guns the lack of transport prevented them from proceeding far, before the move became known. It is said that the women were the first to act, calling upon the troops to leave the guns alone. Meanwhile, the news having spread, some of the National Guard: appeared on the scene accompanied by women and children. Several times did General Lecomte give the order for his men to fire upon the defenceless women and children, but each time his order was disregarded. The few stragglers of the National Guard, with the women and children seeing this, pushed forward, and fraternised with the troops. The attempt to steal the guns had failed.

In vain did Thiers appeal to the Parisians to stand by “law and order,” for out of 300,000 National Guards only a few hundred could be found to rally to his support. Small wonder that they did not do so, for in addition to enduring the hardships of the 131 days siege of Paris, the Thiers’ Government had stopped the pay of the National Guard. Thus, were they and their dependents faced with starvation.

From the time that Thiers had failed to disarm the National Guard on the 18th of March, the workers had assumed control of Paris. The Thiers’ Government in the meantime had fled to Versailles.

On the 26th of March, the Paris Commune was elected and proclaimed on the 28th.

The workers had thereby committed a “crime”—the worst of all possible crimes in the eyes of the ruling class—”the violation of the sacred rights of private property.”

It cannot be said that the revolt of the Parisian workers was a Socialist Revolution, as only a few of those who took part in the movement had any Socialist knowledge. But considering the suddenness with which they were called upon to act, it must be ungrudgingly granted that the workers of Paris acquitted themselves wonderfully. Mistakes they made, of course, as they were sure to do, considering the circumstances which surrounded the movement.

The Commune accomplished many fine acts of legislation. It abolished the conscription and standing army, the only force recognised being the National Guard. All rents of dwellings from October, 1870, to April, 1871, were remitted, such rent as had been paid to be deducted from future payments. Its labour department brought about the abolition of night work for bakers, and declared all fines and stoppages from wages illegal. The fact that “foreigners” were elected to the Commune, shows the international outlook of many of the Communards. The “superior officials” who had acted under the Thiers and Napoleonic Governments having made off to Versailles, the control of nearly all the public services was in the hands of workmen administrators, placed there by the Commune.

What was Paris like during the short period of the workers’ control of affairs? Belfort Bax, in his admirable “Short History of the Commune,” tells us that the city was quiet, peaceful, and wholly free from crime. Even many middle-class Englishmen, who had no sympathy with the Commune reluctantly testified to the orderly and peaceful manner in which the Communards carried out the duties of citizenship. While the Versailles publications were demanding the wholesale slaughter of the Parisians, one could look in vain through the revolutionary journals for any blood-thirsty suggestion.

The people’s Paris of 1871 was a model against which no city throughout capitalist civilisation could compare. The wants of the populace were attended to, as best they could in the circumstances. For the “crime” of having attacked the private property institution, Thiers and his blood-thirsty gang at Versailles were planning to deluge Paris in a sea of blood.

We have said that the Commune made many mistakes, and one important mistake was its treatment of the military side of its administration. Of all the departments controlled by the Commune, the department of war was the worst conducted. Having made the initial blunder of allowing the Thiers’ Government to escape from Paris, one would imagine that they would have prepared for an attack from Thiers later. Instead, the Commune spent its time in futile attempts to negotiate with Thiers, which the latter gladly protracted till he had made arrangements with Bismark for the delivery of the French troops, taken as prisoners during the war. Thiers would hear of no compromise with the Commune, nothing but the unconstitutional surrender of Paris would meet his requirements.

Accordingly, on the 1st of April, without any warning, the Versaillese opened fire on Paris. It was then that the lack of military preparation on the part of the Commune came into prominence. The requisites of war were at places other than where they should have been. Important points of defence were discovered to be undefended. It seems that some of the leaders of the Commune thought that the Versaillese would refuse to fire upon the Parisians as had happened on the 18th of March. On this point Belfort Bax well says, they forgot
  “that insubordination in the interior of a fortress is a very different thing from insubordination in the open street under the moral pressure of a sympathetic crowd ready to protect the insubordinate from the vengeance of their superior officers.”
The time for the Commune to organise an effective defence of Paris had now gone. Strenuous efforts were made, but all was in vain. We could go on to tell of the wonderful acts of heroism. Men, women, and even children, took their part in the fight to defend the Commune. But space does not permit.

Finally, on the 21st of May, the forces of Thiers entered Paris. He had demanded the blood of the Parisians, and the time had now arrived for he and his gang to execute their evil designs of butchery in which they were ably assisted by the much “hated” Prussian, Bismark.
  “Twenty-five thousand men, women and children killed during the battle and after ; three thousand at least dead in the prisons, the pontoons, the forts, or in consequence of maladies contracted during their captivity; thirteen thousand seven hundred condemned, most of them for life; seventy thousand women, children and old men deprived of their natural supporters, or thrown out of France; one hundred and eleven thousand victims at least—that is the balance-sheet of the bourgeois vengeance for the solitary insurrection of the 18th of March.”
So writes M. Lissagaray, the author of the “History of the Commune,” who himself took part in the struggle.

Lest it be said that we are taking the evidence of a partial witness, we will give one quotation from the capitalist press of the time.
  “As many as one thousand Communists were shot after their capture (June 1st). Human life has become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog. Summary executions are still (long after the fighting had ceased) going on wholesale.”—”Times,” May-June, 1871.
Such was the fury of the bourgeois butchers under the leadership of Thiers. No deed was too foul for them to perpetrate upon their defenceless victims.

As Socialists, we are pleased to commemorate the Commune of Paris; it demonstrated to the world, in spite of its many blunders that the workers can, when given a favourable opportunity, control the affairs of society, not only without the aid of the ruling class, but the better for its absence; a fact which unquestionably added to the fury of the French ruling class.

The great value the Commune has for the workers to-day is the lesson they can draw therefrom. The Commune served to bring out the reality of the class struggle, and the ruthlessness of the ruling class when their system, the private property institution, is attacked.

Far too much of that abstraction “Humanity” seemed to characterise the Communards, they treated their bourgeois enemies far too lightly, and too kindly; every act of kindness shown by the Communards, being treated by Thiers as an act of weakness, serving to encourage him in his foul treatment of the Parisians.

If heroism and devotion to the ideal of human solidarity could accomplish anything in themselves, a different tale of the Commune would have to be told, but without sound organisation these will achieve but little.

Not the least of the factors which aided the destruction of the Commune was the mixed elements which composed it.

The Commune, like many other attempts on the part of the workers, demonstrates the absolute necessity for a sound, well-disciplined organisation, understanding, and ready to meet the requirements of the situation. The Socialist Party of Great Britain fulfils the requirement. We steadily point out to the workers the cause of their troubles, and the futility of their many attempts to remove them. The workers must cease to trust in “leaders,” particularly those of the “intellectual minority” type, for this same type of “leader” was known to the Commune.

In conclusion, let us hope that the time is not far distant when the workers sound in their understanding and strong in their determination will arise to avenge their fellows of the Commune, by overthrowing capitalist society and inaugurating the Socialist Commonwealth.
Robert Reynolds

£1000 Fund. (1923)

Party News from the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard