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Commentary :: Politics
01 Mar 2006
When one studies the history of the Paris Commune of 1871 one can learn something new even though from the perspective of revolutionary strategy the Communards made virtually every mistake in the book. Nevertheless, one can still learn lessons from those experiences and measure the mistakes of the Communards against the experience acquired by later revolutionary struggles and above all by later revolutions, not only the successful Russian Revolution of October 1917 but the failed German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Chinese and Spanish revolutions in the aftermath of World War I. More contemporaneously we also have the experiences of the partial victories of the later Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions in the post-World War II period.

Notwithstanding the mistake made by the Communards and the contradictory nature of the later revolutions cited above, and as if to show that history is not always totally a history of horrors against the fate of the masses, militants today proudly honor the Paris Commune as a beacon of the socialist revolution. It is just for that reason that Karl Marx fought tooth and nail in the First International to defend it against the rage of capitalist Europe and faint-hearted elements in the European labor movement. As he noted, the Commune truly was the first workers government. Thus, it is one of the revolutionary peaks or the international labor movement.

Many working class tendencies, Anarchist, Anarcho-Syndicalist, Left Social Democratic, Communist and Left Communist justifiably pay homage to the defenders of the Paris Commune and claim its traditions. Why does an organization of short duration and subject to savage reprisals still command our attention? The Commune shows us the heroism of the working masses, their capacity to unite for action, their capacity to sacrifice themselves in the name of a future, more just, organization of society. Every working class tendency can honor those qualities, even those parliamentary-based organizations which are far removed from any active need to do more than pay homage to the memory of the fallen Communards.

Nevertheless, to truly honor the Communards it is necessary to understand that along with its positive qualities at the same time the Commune shows us the many times frustrating incapacity of the masses to act in their objective interests, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their almost always fatal desire to halt after the first successes. Obviously, only a revolutionary party sure of itself and of its program can provide that kind of leadership in order fight against these negative trends. At that stage in the development of the European working class where political class consciousness was limited to the vanguard, capitalism was still capable of progressive expansion and other urban classes were at least verbally espousing socialist solutions it may have been improbable that such a mass organization could have been formed. Nevertheless such an organization was objectively necessary to seize and, more importantly, to hold power.

The Commune thus, in embryo, presents the first post-1848 Revolution instance of the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the international labor movement. That is, the necessity of a revolutionary party to order to lead the working class to victory. Placing the problems facing the Commune in this context made me realize that this crisis of revolutionary leadership really has a much longer lineage that I had previously recognized. I had formerly placed its start at the collapse of the Socialist International at the beginning of World War I when most European socialist parties took a defensist position toward their own governments by voting for war credits. Unfortunately, this leadership question is still to be resolved.

It is a truism in politics, including revolutionary politics, that timing is important and many times decisive. As many commentators have noted, seizure of power by the Commune came too late. It had all the possibilities of taking the power on September 4, 1870 rather than March 18, 1871 and that would have permitted the proletariat of Paris to place itself at the head of the workers of the whole country in their struggle. At the very least it would have allowed time for the workers of other cities and the peasantry in the smaller towns and villages to organize their forces for action in defense of Paris and to create their own communes. Unfortunately the Parisian proletariat had neither a party, nor leaders forged by previous struggles who could or would reach out to the rest of France.

Furthermore, a revolutionary workers' party, while entirely capable of using parliamentary methods is not, and should not, be a machine for parliamentary wrangling. In a revolution to rely solely on such activity amounts to parliamentary cretinism. One can think of the role of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in the Provisional Government and the Soviets after the February Revolution in Russia in 1917. In Paris the Central Committee of the National Guard, the embodiment of organizational power and in effect the prototype for a Workers’ Council or Soviet, had more than its share of such wrangling and confusionist politics. The most militant elements within it needed to form a revolutionary party to break this impasse.

In contrast, a revolutionary party is the accumulated and organized experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the road forward, all its stages, and knows how to act in the situation, that the proletariat avoids making the same historical mistakes, overcomes its hesitations, and acts decisively to seize power. Unfortunately, history shows no other way to defeat the class enemy. Needless to say those same qualities are necessary to retain power against the inevitable counter-revolutionary onslaught. The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party. The result was that the revolution broke out in their very midst, too late, and Paris was encircled. Like other revolutionary opportunities six months delay proved fatal. Capitalist society cruelly exacted its revenge. That is the great lesson of the Commune.

Contingent history is always problematic. Nevertheless in the interest of fully drawing the lessons of the Commune let me highlight some actions which were entirely possible at the time but were not carried out. Later revolutionaries, particularly the Bolsheviks, did incorporate these lessons into their strategies. Again this presupposes the existence of a revolutionary party capable of learning these lessons.

First, let us note that if the working class had political power on March 18, 1871 it was not because it had been deliberately seized, but because its enemies had left Paris. This is very different political and psychological position from a position of the earlier French revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the later Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The proletariat took power by default due to the bankruptcy of the then current bourgeois leadership headed by Thiers and a lack of confidence of the masses in it. Thus, this turn of events required an offensive strategy as an elementary act of self-defense. This did not happen.

Was such a strategy possible? The government fled Paris in order to concentrate its forces elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was allowed to do so with impunity. Furthermore, as can be noted in other revolutions this first success of the revolutionary forces was a new source of passivity. The enemy had fled to Versailles. At that moment the government apparatus could have been crushed almost without the spilling of blood. In Paris, all the ministers could have been taken prisoner. If necessary, and as later events showed it proved necessary, they could have been used as hostages against future reprisals. Nobody would have defended them. It was however not done.

The Commune also had the complete possibility of winning even the peasant regiments, for the latter had lost all confidence and all respect for the power and the command. Yet it undertook nothing towards this end. The fault here is not in the relationships of the peasant and the working classes, but in the revolutionary strategy. The Bolsheviks went out of their way to court the demoralized peasant regiments stationed in Petrograd and elsewhere. The key to win those elements then was the land question and an end to the war. While the animating issues might be posed differently the Commune had those same possibilities to win the declassed peasant elements.

Moreover, after the defeats at the hands of the Germans the thread which tied the officers and the demoralized soldiers was pretty thin. The fleeing soldiers were hostile to the officers and thus the army was not reliable. Had there been a revolutionary party in Paris, it would have incorporated into the retreating armies some agitators. The party would have instructed those agitators to increase the discontent of the soldiers against the officers in order to free the soldiers from their officers and bring them back to Paris to unite with the people. This could easily have been realized, according to the admissions of Thiers' supporters themselves. Nobody in the Central Committee of the National Guard even thought of it.

The Central Committee of the National Guard drew its authority from democratic elections. At the moment when the Central Committee needed to develop to the maximum its initiative in the offensive, deprived of the leadership of a proletarian party, it lost its head, hastened to transmit its powers to the representatives of the Commune which required a broader democratic basis. And, as Marx noted, it was a great mistake in that period to play with elections. But once the elections had been held and the Commune brought together, it was necessary to concentrate everything in the Commune at a single blow and to have it create an organ possessing real power to reorganize the National Guard. This was not the case. By the side of the elected Commune there remained the Central Committee; the elected character of the latter gave it a political authority thanks to which it was able to compete with the Commune. But at the same time that deprived it of the energy and the firmness necessary in the purely military questions which, after the organization of the Commune, justified its existence.

Without question the Central Committee of the National Guard needed to be led. It was indispensable to have an organization incarnating the political experience of the proletariat from previous battles and always present-not only in the Central Committee, but in the working class districts of Paris. By means of a Council of Deputies or other such broad-based formation-here they naturally centered on the organs of the National Guard-the party could have been in continual contact with the masses, known their state of mind; its leading center, most probably a central committee, could each day put forward a slogan which, through the medium of the party's militants, would have penetrated into the masses, uniting their thought and their will. If an offensive was to have a chance of success it needed such guidance.

Moreover, the real revolutionary task consisted of assuring the proletariat the power all over the country. Paris as a capital city naturally had to serve as its base. To attain this goal, it was necessary to defeat Versailles without the loss of time and to send agitators, organizers, and armed forces throughout France. It was necessary to enter into contact with sympathizers, to strengthen the hesitators and to shatter the opposition of the adversary. Instead of this offensive policy which was the only thing that could save the situation, the leaders of Paris attempted to seclude themselves in an individual commune. Their fatal policy amounted to not attacking others if the others do not attack them. The Communards stubbed their toes on this outdated premise.

Naturally, nobody can reasonably argue that a revolutionary party can create the revolution at will. It does not choose the moment for seizing power as it likes, but it intervenes actively in the events, penetrates at every moment the state of mind of the revolutionary masses and evaluates the power of resistance of the enemy, and thus determines the most favorable moment for decisive action. This is the ABC’s of revolutionary strategy. This is the most difficult side of its task. The more deeply a revolutionary party penetrates into all aspects of the proletarian struggle, the more unified it is by the unity of goal and discipline, the speedier and better will it arrive at resolving its task. To state the necessity of such conditions answers the question regarding the ultimate bloody fate of the Commune.

The comparison of March 18, 1871 in Paris with November 7, 1917 in Petrograd is very instructive from this point of view. In Paris, there is an absolute lack of initiative for action on the part of the leading revolutionary circles. The proletariat, armed earlier by the bourgeois government, is in reality the sole power in Paris, has all the material means of power-cannon and rifles-at its disposal, but it is not aware of it. This is the classic ‘dual power’ situation. The bourgeoisie makes an attempt to retake the weapons. The attempt fails. The government flees in panic from Paris to Versailles. The field is clear. The "leaders" are, however, in the wake of events, they record them when the latter are already accomplished, and they do everything in their power to blunt the revolutionary edge.

In contrast, in the lead up to the Russian October Revolution after the attempted counter-revolution of General Kornilov on Petrograd in August a purely military organ, the Revolutionary War Committee was created standing at the head of the Petrograd garrison. Commissioned by the Soviet it is in reality a legal organ of armed insurrection. At the same time commissars were designated in all the military units, in the military schools, arsenals, etc. The clandestine military organization accomplished specific technical tasks and furnished the Revolutionary War Committee with fully trustworthy militants for important military tasks. The essential work concerning the preparation and the realization and the armed insurrection took place openly under the cover of defense. Again, the Communards had those same possibilities, perhaps more so, as the internal enemy was rather less significant than in Petrograd. Learn these lessons. LONG LIVE THE MEMORY OF THE PARIS COMMUNE!!

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01 Mar 2006
"That is, the necessity of a revolutionary party to order to lead the working class to victory."

fuck that Leninism horsehit!
01 Mar 2006
Long live the principle of the military sweep, that is what ended the Paris Commune and the Berkeley protesters.
01 Mar 2006
seems to me like the bolsheviks' biggest mistake was creating a revolutionary party...which like all other hierarchal leadership became consumed by greed and corruption, practiced opression and committed genocide. Doesn't seem to me like a great model to follow. Forget revolutionary elitism, leaders should empower the people.
01 Mar 2006
The lesson is that people will revolt only under revolting conditions. Revolution is a stupid dream in today's America, where even the poorest can survive on the scraps thrown off by the exploitative capitalist machine.

Focus on creating change by affecting the flows of material or ideas through the machine, the system, then you're accomplishing something.

Spouting revolutionary bullshite is either a exercise in history class or a fashion show for an exclusive black-wearing clique.
Nestor Makhno was a tin-pot dictator
01 Mar 2006
This wealthy "anarchist" ruled over his pirate army with an iron fist. They fought against the russian revolution on behalf of rich peasants and the old expropriated feudal landlords. Thankfully for the workers and peasants, the red army and the soviet power crushed this tin-pot dictator who fought on the side of Tzarist reaction.
01 Mar 2006
" This wealthy "anarchist" ruled over his pirate army with an iron fist."

Hehe who? Eric Ginsburg?
I miss my rubber duckie.
02 Mar 2006
Taking a bath without his bobbing head is just plane depressing.
02 Mar 2006
Speaking of bobbing heads, how's your nite career going?