Click on the headline to link to a “Wikipedia” entry for the Paris Commune.
THE FALL OF PARIS, THE SEIGE AND THE COMMUNE, ALISTAIR HORNE, PENGUIN BOOK, 1997
When one studies the history of the Paris Commune of 1871 one learns something new from it even though from the perspective of revolutionary strategy the Communards made virtually every mistake in the book. However, one can learn its lessons and measure it 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 immediate aftermath of World War I. More contemporaneously we have the experiences of the partial victories of the later Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.
Notwithstanding the contradictory nature of these later experiences, and as if to show that history is not always totally a history of horrors against the fate of the masses we honor the Paris Commune as a beacon of the coming world proletarian 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. It is one of our peaks.
Over the past year or so I have reviewed several books on the Paris Commune with an eye to the political lessons that can be drawn from that experience. The book under review takes a slightly different look by emphasizing the relationship between war and revolution, although this is not necessarily the author’s intent. Obviously every war does not necessarily generate a revolution, witness today’s American adventure in Iraq, but it is more than a truism that war is the mother of revolution.
The author here has made a very comprehensive study not only of the Commune but the key events that led up to it starting with the ill-fated (immediately for France and eventually for Europe) Franco-Prussian War and subsequent siege of Paris by the victorious German armies. He has done this by highlighting the various decisive military turning points. Those military events led to the downfall of Louis Bonaparte and his benighted Second Empire, the creation of another republic and eventually the Commune. The author moreover details the dramatic turns of military events that caused the fleeing Thiers government to abandon Paris to the Communards. The tensions in society, particularly between the capitalist class and the working class, that had been exacerbated by the siege reared up into a mini-civil war over the question of the disposition of the National Guard troops (and their cannon). From that point civil war turns to class war and we are all too familiar with the bloody results for the Communards.
If in one sense one cannot understand the Paris Commune without understanding the effects of the German siege on the class struggle in Paris that is not true of the military policy, or rather lack of it, that caused the Commune’s bloody defeat at the hands of the Thiers government. In short, the Communards made, as it did in the realm of revolutionary politics, virtually every military mistake in the book. I have reviewed elsewhere in this space some of those political problems so I will not repeat them here. On the military level the main strategic blunder was not to rapidly pursue the Thiers government when it fled to Versailles. More than one commentator, including Lenin and Trotsky, has noted that the defensive is the death of revolutionary struggle.
This is particularly true in conditions of civil war. This passivity reflected a certain Parisian provincialism but also a problem with the semi-autonomous structure of the National Guard units on which the Commune relied for defense. Those units did not want to leave Paris. Christ, they did not even want to leave their districts. The long and short of it is that they were satisfied with some concept of ‘socialism/republicanism’ in one city. This passivity in the face of the myriad politico-military problems with the command structure as well as the diffusion of authority and no real central command, either military or civilian for that matter, spelled doom. In the Commune’s short life the problems never were resolved and in the end contributed as much to defeat as Versailles’ siege/subjugation policy. For those not familiar with the details of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune this is a well-thought out and interesting study, including use of on the spot commentary by such witnesses as the American Ambassador Washburne, the Parisian journalist Goncourt and the ex-National Guardsman Childs. Read on.