1912-03 The Commune And ‘Unity’

By W.P. —from The Socialist, March 1912 (reprinted in The People 03-2000)

We learn from the past. True it is there are many who criticize the
mistakes of the past generations.
There are some who seem only grateful to our forefathers for their struggles that brought success. It is better to have struggled and failed than never to have struggled at all. Historic mistakes are sometimes the bitter price paid for ultimate victory. The errors of the past should be a guiding light for future action. A movement like the modern socialist one can neglect the history of past failures only at its peril. We can glean from the Paris Commune many points that should strengthen us in our struggle against capitalism.
Many critics of the Paris Commune are positively jubilant over the discord and hostility that prevailed within the council elected by the Paris populace….The critics contend that this “socialist” council, by its internal dissension, proves beyond confutation the impossibility of ever getting
humanity to work together in a harmonious manner. From the discord existing within the council the anti-Socialists’ claim that they are right in their contention that “human nature” must be changed before any alteration in society can take place.
We desire to examine the circumstances that provoked the Commune, and to see if there is not something behind the reason the members of the Commune Council quarreled even when the government troops were hammering down the gates of Paris.
Before the inauguration of the Commune the French government at Bordeaux
repeatedly insulted the Parisians by a series of impudent and blundering
demands. We know that the government was highly eager to reinstate the monarchy, [1] but was afraid of Paris, the population of that city controlling numerous formidable cannons—those delightfully persuasive arguments of Winston Churchill & Co. during strikes.[2] The government’s hatred and fear of Paris led it to make many attacks on Paris, which incurred not only the opposition of the Socialists, but of other sections [of the population] that had no sympathy with the final aim of the revolutionaries.
From Bordeaux the government arrogantly demanded that all overdue rents
and commercial bills be paid at once. The stupidity and insolence of such a demand may be easily recognized when we remind our readers how long Paris had been in a state of siege, a condition of things which completely dislocated industry. There is no denying the effects this action of the
government had on the small middle class and workers, these two sections [of the population] were in open revolt against the government. The National Guard had their pay stopped, and those heroic defenders of Paris must have been incensed at the ingratitude of the government. When the clique at Bordeaux suppressed the Republican journals, it aroused the opposition of the Republicans.

The determination of the government to humiliate Paris may be judged from the fact that it decapitalized that city. In Paris a large portion of the population worships their city, they consider it the pivot around which civilization revolves; these patriotic Parisians shrieked when Versailles was nominated the capital of France. To all these elements of revolt against the government, we must add the Socialists, who hoped to gather all the rebellious units in one movement against capitalism and proclaim the overthrow of that system.
The desire for “unity” of the rebel forces was realized when the “psychological moment” arose. Unity of forces is a peculiarity of intense moments in history.
Under certain conditions the chemist can unite elements that fly apart at the slightest change of conditions. Astudy of history shows that sections [of the population] have united not because of solidarity of purpose, but rather due to a sentimental yearning. In many cases superficial unity covers a multitude of weaknesses that produce paralysis in the “united” organization….Unity does not always mean strength. Milk is not strengthened by uniting it with water. Unity can only mean strength when the units are agreed upon the final aim of their endeavors and upon the methods of obtaining that end.
Where these conditions are not fulfilled disaster must overtake the “united” elements.
Disaster overtook the communal council. After the Commune was proclaimed, after the middle class gained their point concerning their overdue commercial bills and rents, they had no sympathy with the Socialists, whom they considered too extreme.
When the patriotic Parisians realized what fighting the government meant their ardor and enthusiasm suddenly cooled. Even the Republicans could not work with the Socialists, whose demands were too revolutionary. In a word, the various elements united against the government found their aims were not the same, hence the bickering and quarreling in the communal council, where the antagonism of interests found its highest expression.
We find, therefore, that the material interests of the various elements were not identical, and consequently these differences had to be fought out
and were fought out. The friction within the council is thus traced to the conflict of interests and not to the weakness of human nature.
We learn from the past. We Socialists learn from the Commune the valuable lesson that under no circumstances must the revolutionary movement
aid or seek the aid of organizations whose aims and objects differ from those of revolutionary socialism.
We learn from the Commune that no unity is possible where every unit is not agreed as to the objective and method of attainment. By ignoring this lesson we may rush into the arms of those who would betray and leave us in the lurch at the last moment, as the non-Socialist elements did with the Parisian workers in 1871. We must shun alliances and spurn treaties with the capitalist class. Our demand for social ownership must be made in language plain and explicit. Our hostility must be class hostility, organized hostility. Our quarrel is with the capitalist class: we do not reckon with or recognize individuals. We must not descend to that quintessence of idiocy that impelled Ben Tillett [3] to advocate the murder of individual capitalists (vide Forward, Feb. 17).
By education and organization we can raise the united army of labor on the political and industrial field. By avoiding false unity and substituting revolutionary teaching, we, the workers, can, by relying upon ourselves, destroy capitalism and usher in the Socialist Republic.
This lesson the failure of the Commune teaches us.
Notes

[1] A majority of the National Assembly were monarchists. According to one source, 200 were “Legitimists” who wanted to restore the old Bourbon line of kings toppled by the French Revolution and restored for a time after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. An equal number were “Orleanists” who favored that line of claimants to the throne. A smaller group of 30 wanted the Napoleonic line restored to power. These divisions, widespread opposition among French workers, farmers and other petty bourgeois, and bickering between the two primary pretenders to the French crown, finally torpedoed the monarchists’ schemes.
[2] As British home secretary during the general strike at Liverpool in 1911, Churchill sent two warships and troops to intimidate the workers and break the strike.
[3] Ben Tillett was a leader of the dockers’ union who, despite his militant rhetoric during the 1911 general strike, became an ardent supporter of British involvement in World War I and an opponent of strikes.

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