Red Letter
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The Fall of Paris (2 of 2)
by Karl Marx
1871
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min


Forgive us for returning to a short excerpt from the Callinicos reading we did only a week ago to set the stage for the stirring conclusion of Marx's description of the fall of the Paris Commune. As Marx says elsewhere in 'The Civil War in France,' "The origin of states gets lost in a myth, in which one may believe, but which one may not discuss.”

Marx also waged an ideological struggle for influence within the International, especially against the followers of Proudhon. It was to the general council in June 1865 that Marx read the lectures which were to become the pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit, showing that, contrary to the arguments of John Weston, a follower of Robert Owen, trade unions could win higher wages for workers. In Germany, although the Lassallean ADAV remained aloof from the International, the formation at Eisenach in 1869 of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, under the leadership of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, gave Marx’s ideas the backing of an organization in his native country for the first time since the split in the Communist League nearly twenty years earlier.

Two developments decisively altered the situation of the International. First, war broke out between France and Prussia in July 1870. Prussia’s rapid and crushing victory led to the abdication of Napoleon III of France and the proclamation of the Third Republic. The reactionary nature of the French provisional government under Thiers then led the workers of Paris to take up arms in March 1871 and proclaim their own government, the Commune. Thiers retreated to Versailles, and dispatched an army which, despite the Parisians’ heroic defense, suppressed the Commune, drowning the uprising in blood.

The International had little influence over the Commune, and Marx himself was doubtful whether the rising had any hope of success. But he sprang to its defense. On May 30, 1871, three days after the fall of the Commune, the general council adopted an address entitled The Civil War in France, drawn up by Marx. It is one of the finest of Marx’s writings, at once a moving vindication of the Communards, a bitter denunciation of their murderers, and an important statement of Marx’s theory of the state, which was later to inspire Lenin’s The State and Revolution.

The fall of the Commune led to an international hue and cry against all socialists. The International naturally became one of the main targets of this campaign. Marx was lifted by the press from obscurity to notoriety as the “Red Doctor,” puppet master of the Commune and, according to some of the more lurid accounts, an agent of Bismarck. The Civil War in France was a popular success, selling eight thousand copies. One result was that the English trade unions, which at this stage represented chiefly a comparatively privileged craft elite, withdrew their support from the International. Odger and Lucraft, the British members of the general council, resigned after The Civil War in France was published.

—Alex Callinicos
The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx

The moderation of the Commune during the two months of undisputed sway is equalled only by the heroism of its defence.

What does that prove? Why, that for months the Commune carefully hid, under a mask of moderation and humanity, the bloodthirstiness of its fiendish instincts to be let loose in the hour of its agony!

The working men’s Paris, in the act of its heroic self-holocaust, involved in its flames buildings and monuments. While tearing to pieces the living body of the proletariat, its rulers must no longer expect to return triumphantly into the intact architecture of their abodes. The government of Versailles cries, “Incendiarism!” and whispers this cue to all its agents, down to the remotest hamlet, to hunt up its enemies everywhere as suspect of professional incendiarism. The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!

When governments give state licences to their navies to “kill, burn, and destroy,” is that licence for incendiarism? When the British troops wantonly set fire to the Capitol at Washington and to the summer palace of the Chinese emperor,F. In August 1814, during the war between Britain and the United States, British troops seized Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings to the ground. In October 1860, during the war waged by Britain and France against China (the first of the Opium Wars), British and French troops pillaged and burned down the summer palace of the Chinese emperors near Beijing, a treasure-house of Chinese art and architecture. F was that incendiarism? When the Prussians not for military reasons, but out of the mere spite of revenge, burned down, by the help of petroleum, towns like Chateaudun and innumerable villages, was that incendiarism? When Thiers, during six weeks, bombarded Paris, under the pretext that he wanted to set fire to those houses only in which there were people, was that incendiarism? – In war, fire is an arm as legitimate as any. Buildings held by the enemy are shelled to set them on fire. If their defenders have to retire, they themselves light the flames to prevent the attack from making use of the buildings. To be burned down has always been the inevitable fate of all buildings situated in the front of battle of all the regular armies of the world.

But in the war of the enslaved against their enslavers, the only justifiable war in history, this is by no means to hold good! The Commune used fire strictly as a means of defence. They used it to stop up to the Versailles troops those long, straight avenues which Haussman had expressly opened to artillery-fire; they used it to cover their retreat, in the same way as the Versaillese, in their advance, used their shells which destroyed at least as many buildings as the fire of the Commune. It is a matter of dispute, even now, which buildings were set fire to by the defence, and which by the attack. And the defence resorted to fire only then when the Versailles troops had already commenced their wholesale murdering of prisoners.

Besides, the Commune had, long before, given full public notice that if driven to extremities, they would bury themselves under the ruins of Paris, and make Paris a second Moscow, as the Government of National Defence, but only as a cloak for its treason, had promised to do. For this purpose Trochu had found them the petroleum. The Commune knew that its opponents cared nothing for the lives of the Paris people, but cared much for their own Paris buildings. And Thiers, on the other hand, had given them notice that he would be implacable in his vengeance. No sooner had he got his army ready on one side, and the Prussians shutting the trap on the other, than he proclaimed: “I shall be pitiless! The expiation will be complete, and justice will be stern!” If the acts of the Paris working men were vandalism, it was the vandalism of defence in despair, not the vandalism of triumph, like that which the Christians perpetrated upon the really priceless art treasures of heathen antiquity; and even that vandalism has been justified by the historian as an unavoidable and comparatively trifling concomitant to the titanic struggle between a new society arising and an old one breaking down. It was still less the vandalism of Haussman, razing historic Paris to make place for the Paris of the sightseer!

But the execution by the Commune of the 64 hostages, with the Archbishop of Paris at their head! The bourgeoisie and its army, in June 1848, re-established a custom which had long disappeared from the practice of war – the shooting of their defenceless prisoners. This brutal custom has since been more or less strictly adhered to by the suppressors of all popular commotions in Europe and India; thus proving that it constitutes a real “progress of civilization”!

On the other hand, the Prussians in France, had re-established the practice of taking hostages – innocent men, who, with their lives, were to answer to them for the acts of others. When Thiers, as we have seen, from the very beginning of the conflict, enforced the human practice of shooting down the Communal prisoners, the Commune, to protect their lives, was obliged to resort to the Prussian practice of securing hostages. The lives of the hostages have been forfeited over and over again by the continued shooting of prisoners on the part of the Versaillese. How could they be spared any longer after the carnage with which MacMahon’s praetoriansG. In ancient Rome the privileged life-guards of the general or emperor; they constantly took part in internal disturbances. Later the word “praetorians” became the symbol of the mercenary, tyrannical nature of the militarists.G celebrated their entrance into Paris?

Was even the last check upon the unscrupulous ferocity of bourgeois governments – the taking of hostages – to be made a mere sham of?

The real murderer of Archbishop Darboy is Thiers. The Commune again and again had offered to exchange the archbishop, and ever so many priests in the bargain, against the single Blanqui, then in the hands of Thiers. Thiers obstinately refused. He knew that with Blanqui he would give the Commune a head; while the archbishop would serve his purpose best in the shape of a corpse.

Thiers acted upon the precedent of Cavaignac. How, in June 1848, did not Cavaignac and his men of order raise shouts of horror by stigmatizing the insurgents as the assassins of Archbishop Affre! They knew perfectly well that the archbishop had been shot by thesoldiers of order. M. Jacquemet, the archbishop’s vicar-general, present on the spot, had immediately afterwards handed them in his evidence to that effect.

All the chorus of calumny, which the Party of Order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime.

The conspiracy of the ruling class to break down the revolution by a civil war carried on under the patronage of the foreign invader – a conspiracy which we have traced from the very 4th of September down to the entrance of MacMahon’s praetorians through the gate of St. Cloud – culminated in the carnage of Paris. Bismarck gloats over the ruins of Paris, in which he saw perhaps the first installment of that general destruction of great cities he had prayed for when still a simple Rural in the Prussian Chambre introuvable of 1849.H. This is what Marx called the Prussian Assembly by analogy with the French Chambre introuvable. The Assembly elected in January and February 1849 consisted of two chambers: the first was a privileged aristocratic “chamber of the gentry"; the composition of the second was determined by two-stage elections in which only the so-called “independent” Prussians took part. Elected to the second chamber, Bismarck became one of the leaders of the extremely reactionary Junker group. H He gloats over the cadavers of the Paris proletariat. For him, this is not only the extermination of revolution, but the extinction of France, now decapitated in reality, and by the French government itself. With the shallowness characteristic of all successful statesmen, he sees but the surface of this tremendous historic event. Whenever before has history exhibited the spectacle of a conqueror crowning his victory by turning into, not only the gendarme, but the hired bravo of the conquered government? There existed no war between Prussia and the Commune of Paris. On the contrary, the Commune had accepted the peace preliminaries, and Prussia had announced her neutrality. Prussia was, therefore, no belligerent. She acted the part of a bravo, a cowardly bravo, because incurring no danger; a hired bravo, because stipulating beforehand the payment of her blood-money of 500 millions on the fall of Paris. And thus, at last, came out the true character of the war, ordained by Providence, as a chastisement of godless and debauched France by pious and moral Germany! And this unparalleled breach of the law of nations, even as understood by the old-world lawyers, instead of arousing the “civilized” governments of Europe to declare the felonious Prussian government, the mere tool of the St. Petersburg Cabinet, an outlaw amongst nations, only incites them to consider whether the few victims who escape the double cordon around Paris are not to be given up to the hangman of Versailles!

That, after the most tremendous war of modern times, the conquering and the conquered hosts should fraternize for the common massacre of the proletariat – this unparalleled event does indicate, not, as Bismarck thinks, the final repression of a new society up heaving, but the crumbling into dust of bourgeois society. The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out into civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national governments are one as against the proletariat!

After Whit-Sunday, 1871, there can be neither peace nor truce possible between the working men of France and the appropriators of their produce. The iron hand of a mercenary soldiery may keep for a time both classes tied down in common oppression. But the battle must break out again and again in ever-growing dimensions, and there can be no doubt as to who will be the victor in the end – the appropriating few, or the immense working majority. And the French working class is only the advanced guard of the modern proletariat.

While the European governments thus testify, before Paris, to the international character of class rule, they cry down the International Working Men’s Association – the international counter-organization of labor against the cosmopolitan conspiracy of capital – as the head fountain of all these disasters. Thiers denounced it as the despot of labor, pretending to be its liberator. Picard ordered that all communications between the French Internationals and those abroad be cut off; Count Jaubert, Thiers’ mummified accomplice of 1835, declares it the great problem of all civilized governments to weed it out. The Rurals roar against it, and the whole European press joins the chorus. An honorable French writer [Robinet], completely foreign to our Association, speaks as follows:

“The members of the Central Committee of the National Guard, as well as the greater part of the members of the Commune, are the most active, intelligent, and energetic minds of the International Working Men’s Association... men who are thoroughly honest, sincere, intelligent, devoted, pure, and fanatical in the good sense of the word.”

The police-tinged bourgeois mind naturally figures to itself the International Working Men’s Association as acting in the manner of a secret conspiracy, its central body ordering, from time to time, explosions in different countries. Our Association is, in fact, nothing but the international bond between the most advanced working men in the various countries of the civilized world. Wherever, in whatever shape, and under whatever conditions the class struggle obtains any consistency, it is but natural that members of our Association, should stand in the foreground. The soil out of which it grows is modern society itself. It cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage. To stamp it out, the governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labor – the condition of their own parasitical existence.

Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.

 
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