In an earlier post, frequent visitor L. Raymond had this to say about the Paris Commune. For those of you who have never heard of the Paris Commune (for shame!), some basic information can be found here.
I often enjoy sparring with L. Raymond, because this is someone who is virtually always polite, makes carefully considered comments based on actual knowledge, and more than once has said things that made me think. This was one of those occasions.
I had a strong emotional reaction to the comment because (as should surprise none of you) I feel an intense loyalty to the memory of the Communards, so I had to take some time to consider whether I had any genuine, principled disagreement, and, if so, what it was. It should also surprise none of you that, after consideration, where I ended up was a difference of method. In brief, Raymond’s argument seems to be that the failure of the Commune was because of bickering and squabbling among its leaders.
Now, what first leapt to mind is an incident from the aftermath of the US Civil War. There was considerable argument among Southern Apologists as to what mistakes led to their loss at Gettysburg, and, above all, who should be blamed: Lee, Longstreet, and A.P. Hill being the leading candidates. At one point, someone asked George Picket his opinion, and he said, “I thought the Yanks had something to do with it.”
So, yeah, when Will Shetterly talks about the butchery of at least 30,000 Paris workers by the capitalists, his point is valid. And, yet it doesn’t actually address the substance of the dispute.
This is the significant thing that, in my opinion, L. Raymond’s comment is overlooking:
Those disagreements came from somewhere. Yes, I have a distaste for those who look back from the tall mountains of history and say, “Do you see how stupid those people were? They should have done this other thing.” But distaste, as my father would have said, is unscientific. What is more significant is that each position, each dispute, each element in the complex and contradictory process that was the developing leadership of the Commune, was a reflection, not of the ego of the individual (which provided the expression but not the substance), but rather of genuine social forces.
Let me say that again. The disputes among the leadership of the Communards reflected actual, real differences: liberal democrats spoke for the the most advanced sections of capital. The communists spoke for the interests of the working class (Marx’s program–nationalizing the National Bank and turning toward the peasantry of rural France–would, in my opinion, have made success of the Commune possible). Other elements spoke for the wealthier peasants, others for certain privileged sections of the working class, and so on.
Here is my point, and here is why I actually want to address the issue: As a materialist, I believe that political ideas represent, are the products of, actual social relations. To concentrate on the disputes and squabbling that prevented the unity of the Commune is to miss the point that these disputes themselves were a product of the early, undeveloped state of the French working class at that time. If we begin our analysis with the correlation of material forces, we can understand where the ideological disputes came from; if we begin with the ideological disputes as if they were the random products of individual egos, we will understand nothing.
That is why this post is about method: it provides a perfect, shining example of how the materialist approach differs from the idealist approach to history. And I should point out, in case someone missed it, that the argument occurred in a discussion of how to be an optimist. If you start with material conditions and consider how changes in ideas can flow from those, there is plenty to be optimistic about; if you just look at ideas at a given moment, you’re liable to give in to despair.
The Paris Commune was, in the end, a tragedy. But to those of us on the Left, it is also an inspiration: after Paris, no one could doubt the power of the Working Class. And we did not despair; we learned from it and went forward. Those who saw merely the ideas, attitudes, and mistakes of individuals have nowhere to go except a descent into cynicism.