The Paris Commune (de Cleyre)

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Voltairine de Cleyre

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By Voltairine de Cleyre

THERE are times and occasions which reduce all men to direct, primitive feeling, so strong that to whatever degree of sophistication one may have trained oneself about what one ought to feel or ought not to feel, what is logical or what is not logical, reasonable or unreasonable, one is no longer able, or even disposed, to battle with the imperative mandate of the Man Within. The surge is irresistible: to the faint Reason that would offer argument, there rises up an all-silencing rebuke, a stern scorn, as of one who may in less intense moments hearken placidly and be ruled, but who now is possessed of a single sentiment and has no time for vain palavering.

To me, the commemoration of the 18th of March is one of those times. I cannot remember, at this moment, and I do not wish to remember, that I have a philosophy, a creed of any kind, to set limits upon what I feel, or to measure my passion with a yard-stick. And in speaking now, I speak simply as a human being, not as an Anarchist. For the feelings that take possession of me, when I remember what the Commune was, what it struggled to be, what its enemies have made of it, and what they did to the thousands of men, women, and little children who filled the graves, the prisons, and the exile posts of France in the Commune's name, are not at all in accord with a high and calm philosophy which looks upon the struggles of men with still, impartial eyes, and accepts successes and failures alike as part of a drama with an assured denouement, the final liberation of all. I will not say to myself, "Can I, dare I, feel so, being an Anarchist? What right have I to feel so?" I feel, and the feeling will not be gainsaid.

I feel that there is too much of the blood of the innocent on our enemies' hands, for us to contemplate shaking them and talking of a pleasant understanding in the future. Some other time perhaps,—afterward—when things shall have been evened. Not now.

Not now, remembering the beleaguered city, Paris the Beautiful, Paris the Devoted, Paris the Eternal Rebel, set round with a foreign army and forsaken by the traitor government of Versailles, which had neither helped her nor allowed her to help herself! And so, encompassed and deserted, and betrayed, she rose up alone under that black pall, flinging it from her, and lifting her proud face, beaded with struggle and white with purpose, and broke the fetters from her hands and feet and flung them in the traitors' teeth. Out of her darkest need, her netherest depth, her bitterest betrayal, she sought and found the strength to rise, alone and free. She sought deliverance where only deliverance can be found, within herself. And though she struggled and was conquered, she set that day a beacon light upon a hill,—a light they could not drown with all the blood they spilled.

But oh, what false colors they have given that light,—the preachers and the teachers who have miswritten history, and lied, and lied, and lied. What have they not said about the Commune ? That it was a carnival of burning, of thuggery, of theft, of murder! That it was the triumph of indecency over moral order and virtue! That it was the idle, the vicious, the jealous, and the envious who made it! That it arose without an accountable reason like a great fungus out of the scum of men.

Oh, how they have lied, these pillars of society, these educators of our children! The sons and daughters of the Commune were of all walks in life, their thousands ranging through all the skilled crafts that have made Paris the art workshop of the world, through the simpler yet more necessary workers, and around the circle of labor, to the scholars, students, journalists, authors, engineers, publicists, and men of military training, but of free spirit.

If the long roll of the 3,600 prisoners taken by the butchers of Versailles were read, there would be found among them so many names decorated with honor by their very enemies, that the mere data of their biographies would make a book. There was more learning, more skill, more devotion and purity of sacrifice brought to the service of the Commune, and freely given, than her detractors ever conceived as in existence.

And their purpose was to realize that for which previous revolutions had been fought and had failed,—the independence of a people with common interests and common needs against the tyranny of an external force, organized for the purpose of drawing blood and treasure from them in the name of their defense.

In the name of protection and defense, the government of Versailles had taxed them, deserted them, sold them,—and having completed the sale and bought off the Prussians, they turned like tigers to tear them.

And on the night before the 23d of May they entered the city, like foreign invaders, and the storm began; lightning of flashing powder, the thunder of cannon, the hail of lead, the patter of blood. The spring sun broke over the cemeteries where the living fought, barricaded by the dead, over the streets where the soldiers rode up and down firing as they pleased, over the houses where women and children waited to be dragged out and murdered. It shone upon the earlier and happier victims who died fighting, upon the cold-blooded massacres of citizens lined up in groups against the walls of their homes, shot and thrown in heaps, upon the butcheries of the wounded in the very hospitals, doctors and nurses shot by the side of those they tended or driven off to the bastions to await still greater suffering.

And at night the fires arose; and they who had devastated Paris threw the blame of her burning on her own children.

And then—the stakes of Satory! The midnight executions when prisoner after prisoner was led out by the lantern light, pinned to a stake, shot, buried in the trench that stretched at his feet! And the torture of mothers to make them reveal the whereabouts of their sons; the hungering and the beating of little children to make them reveal the whereabouts of their parents! The long and terrible marches from prison to prison, in the night, in the mud, in the rain, under the insults of the soldiers, under the blows of their rifle-butts, marching, falling, dying in the ditches, under the prison walls. Then the long-drawn tortures of waiting in cold and pale-lit cellars, sleeping on the water-soaked earth—yea, and blood-soaked—kept worse than rats in holes, waiting for—justice! The "justice" of the conqueror.

Then for months and months, the processions to the convict-ships, the gruesome journey under the shadow of the cannon over long seas to the marsh-fevered shores of Guiana, and the coral-reefed wastes of New Caledonia and the Isle of Pines. And there, the fiendish ingenuity of torture developed by the professional prison-keeper, year after year poisoning and crushing, till many died, and many went mad, and all were wasted in body and embittered in spirit.

With all these images before my eyes, distinct and lit with a white, awful clearness, as in the paralysis of a lightning flash,—I do not want to "love my enemies, nor let by-gones be by-gones." I do not want to be philosophical, nor preach their inclusion in the brotherhood of man. I want to hate them—utterly. They have the power, they have the weapons, they have the law, they have the prisons; and what they have done before they will do again, whenever and wherever people try to be rid of them. They will do it until the people become the stronger. And then—perhaps—then when they are beaten and thrown down, when they are made to understand how useless they are as they are, will be the time to think about forgiving them, and teaching them to do some useful service in the world.

The patience that we need, we who want the free community, is not patience with them, but with the stupidity and stolidity of the people, by whom our enemies enslave us, together with themselves.

I wish that every inconscient child of Labor might feel upon his head the club of power and on his wrist the chain; might see before his eyes, forever, the sacrifice of those who have hurled themselves against the barriers and broken themselves in a self-regardless endeavor to bring freedom into the world—freedom to these others who have never wanted it nor conceived it, these others who are ready slaves to do the will of tyrants upon their fellows who want to be men. If they, these wretched creatures, who live as beasts in sleep, and lend themselves to drag any load at any beggar's price, who accept their existence as an alms allowed them by a Court of Charity,—if they were once awakened—Oh, for our conscious and intending enemies there would be no very long story to tell. They might take their Bibles and read, "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged," and remember the stakes of Satory, and say to themselves, "It is better to do like Judas, and buy a rope with the price of our iniquity and go away and hang ourselves!"

Ah, but Paris failed!

Yes, Paris failed; and many another uprising of the spirit of Paris will fail, before the great insurrection comes which will not fail.

They will fail because the people do not demand enough, are too patient and law-abiding in their suffering, too naive not to expect good from their enemies, too nurtured in respect of power to offer resistance to the Club. They will fail because they will not attack the essential thing which is their hurt,—they will not take back the sources of life from those who have seized them, but play a stupid game of spilling their blood for the winning of a few cents wages, which will be taken away from them again, at the next economic crisis, no matter what form of political power rules them. They will fight for little things, and leave the power to precipitate the same struggle over and over in the hands of those with whom they fight. They will go on losing as much flesh and blood in every struggle as would serve to win the whole battle, did they but understand that the thing to fight for was the expropriation of the world's sources of production, and the machinery of it, and their reinvestment in the whole people.

Paris was a blow for the decentralization of political power; it must at any rate have failed (unless the other Communes of France had followed its example), because the centralized State power was too mighty for even its heroism to prevail against. But Paris failed to strike at economic tyranny, and so came short of what it could have achieved, had it possessed itself of what resources it could have had. The lesson is long in the learning, and sometimes it seems that one generation quite forgets what is taught to its predecessor; but the school is a large one, and each section has to do its own learning, probably.

We in America are still in the primer class; we have to learn the very ABC, which is that all trades, all workers, skilled or unskilled, have a common interest, and that all police clubs feel alike. That the rights of assemblage, speech, and petition, exist for none except those who assemble in the interests of corporate bodies and political gangs, for those who have nothing to say, and nothing to petition for; that as for the rest, they may neither meet, nor talk, nor march, nor petition without feeling the club; so the best thing is to meet and march and demand—not petition—for the club will be no heavier for the one than the other. So far the people have learned not even this, being drunk with their government-school-drilled tradition that everything is done by the people and for the people, by our best of all possible governments, which is of the people. They have to learn what the people of monarchical governments know from the start, that the government is "agin' em," and they must be "agin' it."

It is a far cry from this baby lesson which the workers of America are learning, to the conception of the free community whose economic affairs shall be arranged by the groups of actual producers and distributors, eliminating the useless and harmful element now in possession of the world's capital; and whose political rights will never be embodied in useless papers, called Constitutions, which every petty city official may violate at his pleasure,—but will exist actively in the free and active personalities of its members, in their desire and determination to assert themselves.

It is a far cry from the strike of the people simply to inflict suffering on themselves, to the strike of the people which will transfer that suffering to their oppressors; from the strike which "quits" to the strike which "takes possession," from that which lays down its tools to that which takes possession of its tools and instead of absenting itself from the shops turns its masters out. But the first page of the lesson has been begun; and there is hope for more speedy learning with the acceleration of solidarity among our enemies.

The Commune went down, as many another Commune will go down. But she went down gloriously, with flashing eyes; low in the blood-spilled dust, by the wall of Pere-la-Chaise her face was lifted still; and the haunting ghost of its defiant, dying light yet flickers on the wreath-hung stone. And wherever the people rise in spontaneous rebellion, recognizing their common brotherhood, there the light flashes out again, and the old voice cries:

They say she is dead, the Commune is dead;
That if she were living her earthquake tread
Would scatter the honeyless hornet's hive.
* * *
Go revel once more ye cowardly knaves
With the wantons your lusts have made,
Be drunken again on the blood of the slave,
That are slain in your shambles of trade,
But know ye this, I am not dead.
* * *
I am not dead, I am not dead,
I live a life intense, divine;
Yours be the days forever fled,
But all the morrows shall be mine.

  • Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Paris Commune,” Mother Earth 9, no. 1 (March 1914): 14-20.