T. A. Jackson
Source: The Communist Review, March 1924, Vol. 4, No. 11.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
In those far-off days before the War to which we now look back with almost wistful affection, those of us who did profess and call ourselves Marxists, and Revolutionists, made it a religious duty every 18th of March to keep undying the memory of the martyred Commune of Paris. It stood for us a sign and a symbol: an undeniable and irrefutable sign of the fact of irrepressible antagonism between the working mass and those who lived by their exploitation; a symbol of the storm and struggle which lay ahead of the working class, as soon as they acquired sufficient courage and understanding to threaten seriously the permanence of the social order based upon their exploitation. To celebrate the Commune became thus a ritual practice whereby those who had become convinced that The Vote was not all-sufficient for the workers’ emancipation gave open demonstration of the faith that was in them.
Even at a time when Lloyd-George was breathing forth “threatenings and slaughter,” against the dukes, and the appearance of three-and-thirty Labour Members in the House of Commons at once made timid Primrose Dames begin packing their morables, we held to our faith.
We were denounced, we were laughed at. Worst of all, we were ignored. Very few and very motley were the groups that gathered to hear over and over again the story of how power fell into the hands of the armed workmen of Paris; of their child-like trust in the goodness of their own intentions, their appalling faith in the susceptibility of their foes to humanitarian appeals—a faith only rescued from denunciation as criminal folly by the still more awful fate that engulfed them all. Again and again, we told the tale of the slaughter—of the tigerish ferocity of Thiers (“that monstrous gnome!”) of the insatiable bloodlust of the panic-maddened bourgeoisie. Yet not one of us even in our boldest flights ever dared to predict so terrible a confirmation of our faith as we have lived to see.
“The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable” (wrote Marx in the manifesto issued by him as General Secretary of the International—the most movingly human of all his works) “is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out in civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the Governments are one as against the proletariat!”
One did not need to possess the genius of a Marx to see that fact plain even in 1871. One must have a genius for stupidity to fail to see it now. We have seen the very counterparts of the Commune, reappearing Just as it appeared after disastrous war, in two-thirds of Europe. In every case (just as though history had conspired to echo his words in brutal jest), we have seen the alliance of Bismarck and Thiers—conqueror and conquered—repeated with new and garish variations. And just as (the Socialist) Louis Blanc, and the “humanitarian” Mazzini spent themselves in denunciation of the “folly” and “criminality” of the Commune, so, too, the Social-Democrats of all lands have spent themselves in their denunciation of the “folly” and “criminality” of every Communard and Communist uprising, from Vladivostock to Hamburg, from Helsingfors to Munich. It was the Social-Democratic “Vorwaerts” (and not the Berlin counterpart of the Morning Post) that published with the corpses of the slaughtered Berlin workmen lying thick in the streets, and the groans of the wounded in their ears, the infamous incitement to the Junker Guard to persevere in their endeavour (only too successful as it proved!) to discover the hiding-place of the Spartakus leaders:—
“Five hundred corpses in a row!
Liebknecht, Rosa, Radek and Co.—
Are they not there also?”
The events that culminated in the rise and fall of the Commune in 1871 are paralleled closely by those that led up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. True, the Tsar was not captured with his army—did not, in fact, attempt leading his troops in person. That after all was an anachronistic incident due solely to the fact that Napoleon III. was a “Buonaparte,” and his fate was so far useful to his kind that it preserved his successors (even when they were Hohenzollerns) from risking a similar calamity. But in each case—France in 1870 and Russia in 1914—war entered upon in a mood of extravagant optimism brought its Nemesis in a series of unparalleled military disasters, and in the revulsion of disillusion, disgust and rage induced by these (and the suffering involved in and consequent upon them) each Empire fell.
A comparatively slight uprising by the proletariat of the respective capitals—Paris in September, 1870, Petrograd in March, 1917—revealed each Empire as a thing of straw, collapsing ludicrously as soon as the wind came from the proper angle. So, too, in November, 1918 (although in this case with more of the obvious awkwardness of new stumbling through a repetition of a part invented by others) after military disasters, and before a relatively slight blast of anger, the Hohenzollern Empire fell—also at the hands of the proletariat of the capital.
In each case, the fail left a void which the real conquerors found embarrassing to fill. In France the military situation and the total lack of class egoism by the Parisian proletariat permitted the bourgeois deputies from the capital to constitute the “Government of National Defence.” Not until six months of siege and slaughter had elapsed did the men who had actually made the revolution—the Parisian workmen—realise the full extent of their “folly.” Then this precious “Government” fled, and once again Paris was in the hands of its armed proletariat.
In Russia, the collapse of Tsardom left a similar embarrassment. A group of Duma deputies were similarly allowed to go through the motions of forming a Government, and these in their turn similarly directed their first efforts to re-establishing a general obsession of “national defence,” and “winning the war.” In their case, however, the feat was impossible. The war disasters had been too vast, the economic chaos too complete, the suffering too intense. And, besides, the Petrograd proletariat had in 1917, just the one thing that the Parisian proletariat lacked in ’71—a revolutionary leadership which made is impossible for them to lapse into the sublime imbecility of class self-sacrifice.
Alike in ’70 and ’17 the revolutionary crisis found the proletariat lacking its tried and accepted leaders. August Blanqui, who as Marx says, “would have given the Commune a head,” lay in prison during the whole process—Sedan, the fall of the Empire, the rise and extermination of the Commune. All the best-known and trusted Russian Socialist and revolutionary leaders were, in 1917, in exile—in Siberia, in Switzerland, London, Paris and New York.
Happily for the Petrograd workmen, the fall of the Tsar brought their immediate return. Cunning or stupid, the German militarists permitted the whole company of exiles in Switzerland to cross their territory. In the light of subsequent events, the British bourgeois press have invented the myth that they did so that “their agent,” Lenin, might disorganise the Russian battlefront. At the time, it was clear that the Germans were too hard-pressed to be able to risk offending a valuable neutral in Switzerland, and the Swiss bourgeoisie were eager to be rid of the whole brood—Social revolutionary, Menshevik and Bolshevik alike. In the famous train travelled not only Lenin (doomed to set loose the forces that bent Hohenzollern and Hapsburg to follow Romanoffs, Buonapartes and Bourbons into oblivion), and his colleagues, but ten Mensheviks and Social revolutionaries for every Bolshevik. It was truly strange policy—if the Germans really sent Lenin to break up the Russian front—to send with him ten others (all then better-known and more highly rated) to restore it. But the British bourgeois press proceeds in its propaganda upon a logic peculiarly its own.
However, it chanced the Russian workers had what the Parisian workmen lacked—a revolutionary leadership; with the result that when the successive Provisional Governments (beginning with Miliukoff and culminating in Kerensky) had succeeding in exhausting the patience of the proletariat (as had the French “Government of National Defence”) these were able first of all to seize the State power without waiting for it to drop into their hands, and, secondly, to follow up the seizure with a demonstration not only of their ability to protect themselves, but of their determination to pay back in kind and with liberal interest every attempt at their forcible suppression.
The Commune fell because it would fight only reluctantly, and with its back to the wall. The Bolshevik Revolution survived because it from the first made clear that it would go under only after the most desperate struggle.
Apart from that revolutionising distinction, the parallel between the situations of Paris after March, 1871, and Russia after November, 1917, is close indeed. Among the many illuminating incidents which the memoirs of Lenin have brought to light, is the fact that he counted the days after the establishment of the Soviet Republic until they had reached the full tale of 70 that covered the life of the Commune. After that he was content whatever befell—“We have lived as long as the Commune: that alone justifies our effort.”
How the whole capitalist would combined to assault the Soviet Republic and how British and German troops, locked in a death grapple at the Western end of Europe co-operated in the assault in the East—just as Bismarck and Thiers had co-operated against Paris needs no telling. The parallel ends in that Paris fell and the Soviet Republic still stands. But even yet there is much to be said for the view that Russia still stands to Europe as in 1871 Paris stood to France.
Following the establishment of the Commune of Paris in 1871, there were similar attempts in no less than ten different parts of France. They were one and all bloodily suppressed. Following the Bolshevik Revolution came attempt after attempt to follow its lead.
The bourgeois press never lets us forget the few hundreds slain in the process of the Bolshevik Revolution: it never condescends to remember the many thousands slaughtered by the counter-revolution. Finland, Esthonia, Latvia, Hungary, Bavaria, Bulgaria and the three bloody suppressions of the German proletariat—these with their victims running into hundreds of thousands are remembered no more than the 60,000 martyrs of the Commune, and the butcheries of Lyons, Marseilles, and the rest. The slaughters inflicted by the counter-revolutionary civil war in Russia itself are ignored, and their campaigns of individual assassination are remembered, if at all, only with commendation. Hardly a newspaper in Britain troubled to note the fact that Lenin died prematurely from the consequences of a wound received at the hands of these counter-revolutionary assassins. This, of course, we might have expected. We must learn also to expect “Socialists” of the Social-Democratic school to, in this respect, “out-Herod Herod.”
As though the Commune had never sunk drowned in its own blood; as though the experience of the Russian proletariat in 1905 and again in 1917, had belonged to the history of another planet; the leaders of the German Social-Democracy met their opportunity in 1918. They took office without power—that in the then circumstances was unavoidable. But being in office not only did they refuse to build the proletarian armed power which alone could make possible the realisation of their long-proclaimed objectives—they did worse. They helped both the bourgeoisie and the Junker to recover from their fright, and in the name of National Unity rebuilt the armed force which destroyed every proletarian attempt to pluck advantage from the victory which originally the proletariat had won. The German Social-Democracy saved itself from the fate of the Commune by voluntarily providing the Thiers, MacMahons and Gallifets required for the “restoration of (bourgeois) order.” To-day the famine-ravaged German proletariat keeping life in their bodies by a scanty ration of dog’s flesh and offal reflects by the graves of their dead upon the bitter truth that “we learn from history that men learn nothing from history.”
It is recorded that in Mediaeval Italy men were never so merry as when the pestilence raged and the death cart ceaselessly made its round. The contrast of cap-and-bells and black-death recurs when we lift our eyes form Germany’s Golgotha to fasten them upon the Government of Britain. Surely the Aristophanes of Heaven never conceived a more biting jest than to place the British Labour Party in office at just such a moment under just these circumstances?
Bloody but unbowed the heroic Soviet Republic mourns its mighty dead. Torn and mangled the proletariat of Germany turn from despair to desperation and back again to despair. And while, literally, millions in Moscow wait hours in the snow for a chance to pay their respects, to their beloved leader-comrade, and more millions in Germany wait hours in the frost for a mouthful of soup or a scrap raked from the ashbins of the rich; the British Labour Party (once patronised by and now fawned upon by the Eberts, Scheidemanns, Noskes and Wels) is busy with the incidentals forced upon them by their accession to office. Lord after lord, knight after knight is added to the glorious company of Right Honourables who now swarm thick as Autumn leaves in the High Places of Eccleston Square. And while Ramsay Macdonald with a straight face deliberates the nomination to the post of Lord Chancellor of the Royal Household, the toilers of all other lands too far away to see and knowing only that a “Labour” Party is in “power” look eagerly to London for a sign that the hour of deliverance has come.
On the day that Ramsay Macdonald took office the Federation of British Industries announced through Sir Eric Geddes, that it would be delighted to co-operate with the Labour Government. So, too, Hugo Stinnes was delighted to co-operate with the Social-Democrats. If there were nothing involved beyond the contrast between the pomp of the newly-promoted and the puny dimensions of the power the captains of industry are willing to concede then we could laugh, and laugh at the roaring farce.
But it is ill jesting by a deathbed and rag-time is misplaced at a massacre. The world’s proletariat has all but reached the limit of manly endurance. A little more and to submit they must become less than men. Every hour we may hear that the German workers are facing their fourth blood bath.
Inexorably history brings on the moment when the British proletariat must play their part. Even in Eccleston Square, it is impossible entirely to ignore this truth It would be a good deed if the whole Labour Cabinet could be forced to read again the history of the Commune, and a better if they could be made to follow it by a study of the descent of Social-Democracy into the pit.
Failing that the rank and file must save them—even in spite of themselves. The 60,000 martyrs of the Commune were awful enough. When it becomes a possibility that our thousands may be added to the hundreds of thousands whom the counter-revolution has slaughtered since 1917 the prospect becomes maddening.
Did the Commune die in vain? or have the British workers the will to live and thereby to save the world?
THOS. A. JACKSON.
1. In honour of the memory of Lenin now known as Leningrad.