Book Review: The Commune, Paris, 1871, Selected Writings by Louise Michel, William Morris, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Voltaraine de Cleyre, Alexander Berkman, and Maurice Brinton

30 Jun

I usually only review books which I regard as important to the evolution of Left discourse.. Otherwise, what is the point? This book, however, does not reach that standard, but it is noteworthy in that there are some very revealing quotes from Trotsky. In no other place of which I am aware does the leader of the “Left Opposition” state so clearly that socialism can only be achieved top-down. Everywhere else, as far as I know, he and Lenin pay lip-service to the idea of revolution from below, hollow and patronizing though the claim is coming from them, and insist that that is what the Bolshevik program was designed to facilitate. Perhaps of less import but of greater surprise is the insipid quality of Trotsky’s patrician musings. These will no doubt come as something of a shock to his devotees.

As the panel of essayists suggests, the book is a look at the Paris Commune of 1871 from a Libertarian perspective. The first article is by Louise Michel and in it she describes life at the barricades. It is a brief and moderately interesting account of the rigors they faced and the revolutionary buoyancy they shared. Michel saw herself as a poet, and her lyrical observations could, perhaps charitably, be described as inspired, but this is certainly not Michel’s most important work. It lacks the thorny insights and irrepressible, often rapturous, brio which characterize most of her writings.

The next essay is from William Morris and it is a brief chronology of the Commune recounted with great sympathy. The humor, goodwill and humanity which typifies his other writings are everywhere present here too, but the article is of little analytical value, and in and of itself, like Michel’s, does not merit reading.

Bakunin’s “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State” follows and it is, as expected, quite supportive of the Communards. It contains an ardent defense of liberty, remarkably and refreshingly free of cliche and the usual shibboleths which all-too-often mar expositions on this topic. It is as simple and striking an elucidation of the anarchist conception of freedom as I have ever encountered.

Bakunin lauds the Commune on the grounds that it was anti-statist, a view not shared by many anarchists (more on this later). He also noted that most of the Communards were not socialists but moved in that direction as a natural result of their emancipation and the pull of the actual course of events. He offers this view in support of the anarchist position in favor of direct action and in opposition to engagement in the political process.

This essay also includes his theory as to the origin of religion. It struck this reviewer as fanciful, idiosyncratic, and bizarre. Bakunin sees in the human capacity for abstraction the beginnings of the concept of god. While Bakunin’s thoughts on religion are oft perspicacious and still relevant, his cosmology of the godhead leaves much to be desired.

Next up is Kropotkin’s “The Commune of Paris.” Like Bakunin, he too stresses its spontaneous and atheoretical nature. “…this fruitful idea [of the Commune] was not the product of one individual’s brain, of the conceptions of some philosopher; it was born of the collective spirit, it sprang from the heart of the whole community.” The rest of the essay is in the same vain.

Unlike Bakunin, Kropotkin criticizes the Commune on the grounds that it was too statist, preferring that it had adopted the same federal structure within the Commune as it advocated nationwide. It seems counterintuitive that Bakunin, being more of a anarcho-collectivist/syndicalist mind, perceived the Commune as anti-statist, and Kropotkin, the anarcho-communist, saw it in the opposite light. Categorization and generalization may be essential to critical thinking, but they do have their pitfalls, particularly where human beings are concerned.

Kropotkin does reproduce from Arthur Arnould’s Histoire Populaire et Parlementaire de la Commune de Paris this short message from the Versaillais to the Communards:

You shall perish, whatever you do! If you are taken with arms in your hands, death! If you use them, death! If you beg for mercy, death! Whichever way you turn: right, left, back, forward, up, down, death! You are not merely outside the law, you are outside humanity. Neither age nor sex shall save you and yours. You shall die, but first you shall taste the agony of your wife, your sister, your mother, your sons and daughters, even those in the cradle! Before your eyes the wounded man shall be taken out of the ambulance and hacked with bayonets or knocked down with the butt end of rifles. He shall be dragged living by his broken leg or bleeding arm and flung like a suffering, groaning bundle of refuse into the gutter. Death! Death! Death!

Here follows two essays by Voltairine de Cleyre, both with the title of “The Paris Commune.” In them she details the murder, torture, and rape which occurred when the Versaillais made good their threat. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, save for the author’s extraordinary composition skills. De Cleyre’s prose is sumptuous and warm, almost tactile, easily the best writing in the anthology, a real pleasure. Nevertheless, these essays too do not contribute anything of value to the discourse on the Commune, despite their literary virtue.

Next comes Alexander Berkman’s “The Paris Commune and Kronstadt.” Nothing splits the Left quite so contentiously as Kronstadt, and this is precisely Berkman’s aim.

He likens the Kronstadt rising to the Paris Commune, and even more controversially the Bolsheviks to Thiers and the Versaillais:

“For though Kronstadt as well as the Commune ended in fearful tragedies, both of them stand out in proletarian history as stirring and momentous struggles for liberty and justice. They are beacon lights, shedding hope and encouragement on the road to emancipation.”

Berkman then gives a brief sketch of the Kronstadt uprising which is sure to rouse the ire of Leninists everywhere. Who represented socialism, the Kronstadters of the Bolsheviks? Here we find ourselves at the heart of the dispute between libertarian and authoritarian socialists, stateless and statist communism. To vanguardists the Bolsheviks were trying to implement socialism while holding down the fort against reaction, and the Kronstadters were jeopardizing the revolution with their insurrection. To libertarians (and some Left Marxists), the Leninist state was a obscene caricature of socialism and it was the insurrectionists who were trying to save the revolution. Berkman is clear: Bolshevism is just another form of counterrevolution, and its Leftist rhetoric mere pretension, a sham. While I share Berkman’s contempt of Leninism, he fails in this piece to make a compelling case. In fact, he does nothing more than broach the topic and align himself with one faction. This subject deserves better treatment.

By far the most interesting part of the book is the last essay, written by Maurice Brinton and Phillipe Guillaume. It begins with a quote from Trotsky, which comes from the introduction he wrote in 1921 to C. Tales’ book, La Commune de Paris, 1871. It is the first of many Trotsky quotes in the article, some of them stupefying. It should be remembered that in 1921, the year of Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks had brought the civil war to an end by defeating their enemies Right and Left. Lenin was still alive and active, and the Bolsheviks now settling into the day-to-day running of the Soviet state. It was their hay day.


“For Trotsky and Tales the great defect of the Commune was the absence of revolutionary leadership. ‘The Commune,’ Trotsky emphasized, shows us ‘the incapacity of the masses to choose their own path, their indecision in the leadership of the movement, their fatal inclination to stop after the first successes…’ How can this be overcome? Trotsky is quite explicit: ‘It is only through the help of a Party, basing itself on the whole history of the past, theoretically foreseeing the paths of development and all its stages, and extracting from them the necessary formulas for action, that the proletariat frees itself from the need of constantly restarting its own history…’ He summarizes his views with his usual logic: ‘We can look, page by page, through the history of the Commune. We will find in it only a single lesson: There must be a strong Party leadership'”(Brinton’s emphasis).

To rebut Trotsky’s tendentious and self-serving interpretation of the “single lesson” of the Commune the authors employ the views of none other than Marx and Engels:

“It is interesting to contrast the Bolshevik appreciation of the Commune with that of its great contemporaries, Marx and Engels. In his Civil War in France…Marx does not once attribute the defeat to the absence of a ‘strong Party leadership.’ …He describes the Commune as ‘essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form, at last discovered, under which to work out the…emancipation of labour.’ He does not say that it is a Party which discovered this…form… The masses in struggle themselves created this form of organization, just as in 1905 they were themselves to create the soviets, at first denounced by Bolsheviks as ‘sectarian organizations’…Engels was to write ‘what is still more wonderful is the correctness of much that was done by the Commune, composed as it was of Blanquists and Proudhonists.’ In other words the everyday experience of the masses impelled them to take measures of a class character. They generated their own class consciousness…”

Composed as it was of non-Marxists, however did they manage…

What follows is a brilliant deconstruction of vanguardist thought. The authors wonder if the failure of the Commune was due to the lack of leadership, how then do explain its successes? “Why did Marx refer to it as ‘the glorious harbinger of a new society?’ Why did Engels state that the measures taken by the Communards would, in the end, have led to ‘the abolition of class antagonisms between capitalists and workers’? Why did he [say] ‘Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Brinton and Guillaume draw a clear line of demarcation between Marx and Engels interpretation of the Commune and those of Lenin and Trotsky.

The authors also contrast Marx and Engels’ fulsome endorsement of the principle of the revocability of representatives, a view not shared by the Bolshevik dictatorship. Engels:

“The working class must…safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials by declaring them all…subject to recall at any moment.”

Astonishingly, Trotsky writes:

“The Commune was but an attempt to replace the developing proletarian revolution by a petty-bourgeois reform: communal autonomy. This idealist chatter, of the type indulged in by parlour anarchists, was in reality a cover for cowardice when confronted with revolutionary action, which needed to be carried out ceaselessly and to the end…”

This argument is as absurd as it is shameless. It requires a hopelessly compromised mind (assuming he is sincere in these assertions and not intentionally distorting the Commune’s legacy in such a way as to justify Bolshevik oppression) to study the Commune and see cowardice in any place, time, or in any guise. Moreover, such facile nonsense is a barrier to recovering any lesson of value from the event. This is defamation of the ugliest sort.

But it is by no means unique in Trotsky’s canon. His writings on the Spanish Civil War are just as contemptible. At one point he goes on page after page critiquing anarchist principles and ends up saying that anarchists are cowards who have no principles. There is an argument that Marxism, like any other totalizing philosophy, can have an infantilizing effect in that it forces its adherents to compress all phenomena into established theoretical channels and thus prevents honest appraisal. One must conclude that either Trotsky has succumbed to this malady, or that he is simply libeling his rivals to advance his own position. The former, unlike the latter, may be forgivable, but in either case his conclusions are despicable. We, as a Left, need to analyze the successes and failures of revolutionary events like the Commune and the Spanish Civil War, but to ascribe cowardice to our French and Spanish martyrs, those who dared so much,who achieved so much, those who risked everything, who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to the cause of universal emancipation, those who “stormed heaven” on our behalf, is an abomination. It is an act of treason against the social revolution. It is the squalid act of a squalid little man.

If Trotsky’s counterrevolutionary essence is still not clear, he wrote:

“Before the broad masses of soldiers can acquire the experience of well choosing their commanders, the revolution will be beaten by the enemy, who is guided in the choice of his commanders by the experience of centuries. The methods of amorphous [sic] democracy (simple eligibility) must be supplemented and to a certain degree replaced by measures of selection from above. The revolution must create an organ composed of experienced, reliable organizers in which one can have absolute confidence, and give it full powers to choose, designate, and educate the command.”

Amorphous, replaced, from above, give full powers to choose and designate, and this from the man who warned us all about the evils of “substitutionism.” So much for the self-emancipation of the working class.

And to think Trotsky is remembered by his thralls as an advocate of democracy.

Brinton and Guillaume’s essay is worth the price of the book alone. It is available online, but I am happy to give my money to anyone who publishes anarchist literature. Let your conscience be your guide.


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