Public libraries or private bunkers: the next war

Posted in Comment with tags on February 21, 2013 by Rustbelt Radical

Ede

If you are like me you know that, other than the game of baseball (not to be confused with the MLB), the only thing standing between the United States and full on barbarism is the public library.

I know, there are dark clouds of austerity overhead and the business model far too many library systems have adopted threatens to undermine their commonwealth essence. In line at the main branch the other week, when my turn came to check out I was ushered to the desk with a ‘next customer.’ Customer?!

Still, it might be the only institution of the bourgeois state wholly undeserving of being smashed. Indeed, I suspect that there will be more than a few librarians in the ranks on the ramparts when that day comes. You will know them by their worn, sensible shoes and how, with quiet insistence and their glasses slipping down their noses, they build a barricade properly.

It’s not just books, music and movies that libraries offer. My library has public rooms for meetings, even commie ones. Yesterday as I peaked in the meeting room an elderly lady was leading two young men in chanting a mantra. At least I think that is what was going on. It has access to computers, classes to write resumes and for adult reading, information for new immigrants and new mothers, help with taxes, group gardening get togethers and so much more. All this by virtue of being a member of the community.

Even though budget cuts have meant less new books or periodicals and other services, a library will often carry volumes, especially older ones, impossible to find other places. Books are not treated as disposable commodities there, but as resources to be kept and cared for so that they might be used and enjoyed again and again by a myriad of people over years.

I was one of those kids who skipped school to go to the library. I took the city bus to school every morning and if I stayed on it would pass school and take me downtown and to the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library. It was a safe place to cut, who questions a kid at a library?

Yes, I love a good library.

Think of what could be done with the library principle. Think of all of all the things you use that could be checked out instead of bought. Every working class street in the country has a lawn mower for every house and half of them have a full wood working shop in the garage and could outfit several teams of various sports with the equipment piled up in the basement. Why do we each need our own lawnmower? So if we have to, we can all mow at the same time? The street needs one lawn mower (maybe two), one wood working shop. And think of the activities we might do with items on loan instead of bought. How many bedazzlers  or baseball bats or roller skates do we really need to produce to meet the need? And we don’t each need our own tool box or bike. My library of the future has those too.

And cars? Daily travel to work or appointments or to the store by public transportation, but how about that road trip up north? No problem, take a jeep and guide to scenic byways out with your library card. And then think of how, if items were used that way, we would produce and care for those items. Instead of making as many as possible, we might produce as sturdy as possible or as (gasp) useful as possible. We could even have meetings in one of those rooms the library offers to discuss what the neighborhood would find useful to begin with.

The biggest change required by libraries after the revolution (other than their expansion into many realms) is the abandonment of the Library of Congress classification system used by American libraries. While the Dewey Decimal System may have its flaws, it doesn’t place criminology (HV) right next to Marxism (HX) on the shelf.

Then there are our opponents. The ones with whom the next civil war will be fought. Those who abhor the library’s principle of shared services and public access. Those for whom the only thing public should be executions. They want us to live behind razor wire and ‘No Trespassing’ signs; each in our own private bunker, clutching on to an assault rifle and with the crosshairs on our neighbor, our children raised in fear of the savage. The ones who want the world to look too much like it already does. And though they might have taken The Fountainhead out on loan once, they read their Rand and firmly believe that ‘civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.’

We, however, agree with Marx that ‘only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating [their] gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.’ The next war will be fought, in part, over public libraries. To the barricades comrades!

Distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes

Posted in History with tags , , on February 16, 2013 by Rustbelt Radical

IWMA_soiree-London-1865International Working Men’s Association
London Conference – September, 1871

Considering the following passage of the preamble to the Rules:

“The economic emancipation of the working classes is the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means”;

That the Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association (1864) states:

“The lords of land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labour… To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes”;

That the Congress of Lausanne (1867) has passed this resolution:

“The social emancipation of the workmen is inseparable from their political emancipation”;

That the declaration of the General Council relative to the pretended plot of the French Internationalists on the eve of the plebiscite (1870) says:

“Certainly by the tenor of our Statutes, all our branches in England, on the Continent, and in America have the special mission not only to serve as centres for the militant organization of the working class, but also to support, in their respective countries, every political movement tending towards the accomplishment of our ultimate end – the economic emancipation of the working class”;

That false translations of the original Statutes have given rise to various interpretations which were mischievous to the development and action of the International Working Men’s Association;

In presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working men, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it;

Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;

That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes;

That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists

The Conference recalls to the members of the International:

That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united.

Crisis in the left: a modest proposal

Posted in Comment with tags on February 15, 2013 by Rustbelt Radical

Fork in the road

The current crisis in the British SWP is a long time coming and has brought out a ton of ‘I told you so’s’ and rather precious pronouncements of superiority in too much of the left. We can only hope that the best of that organization comes out of it by shedding the Zinovievist albatross that has prevented the left from developing a relationship with the working class that could actually contribute to building a party the left rightly claims as necessary. Gloating is absurd. The whole house of the left is in crisis.

The revolutionary left, at least that part of it which wishes to engage in the world around it, has spent a good deal of time these last few decades prostrating itself before the sins of the past. This is especially true of that generation of 1970s party builders who misspent their youth vying with each other for the mantle of legitimate leader of the working class. The experience itself was, apparently, not bad enough so they never cease to remind the youth of its dangers reciting story after story of expulsions from the Socialist Workers Party or a terrifying session of Anti-Revisionist self-criticism. Yikes. Sounds like it really sucked comrades. It’s a wonder any of you walked away from the experience with any of your marbles to play with. Unfortunately, as the crisis in the SWP today in part shows, a good deal of that 1970s party building business is not yet in the past.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have my own guilty past to plead ‘guilty’ to. An organization I once belonged to made us intervene at a National Organization of Women conference from the floor to demand it support the victory of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Yikes is right. But there is something of the parent lecturing the child about the need to grow up and avoiding the parent’s mistakes in all this. Ignoring that it was precisely the experience of those mistakes that allowed for the parent to outgrow whatever they felt they needed to overcome. There is also something, and I think this is strongest in the generation of baby boomer radicals, so self-centered and self-absorbed in it.

We’ll make our own mistakes, thank you very much. And make them we will.

There are plenty of lessons to draw from the past and from the present. We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss any and all of the assumptions we make about ourselves and our world. On the contrary, those questions are the indispensable breaths of air needed to live for the left. No more so true than the assumptions about the past we base ourselves on in the present.

However, there are ways of looking at history. One is to look at history backwards, looking over your shoulder at the past to see how you got to where you are. This view of the past tends to see inevitabilities and not contingencies as the past progressed to the present. It’s a crap way of looking at how we got here and tells us far more about our current state of mind than it does anything about the past. It’s lazy and often leads us to place our current selves in the past and lecture its inhabitants with what they should or should not do; the view of what to do conveniently illuminated by the knowledge of the consequences of what is already done. It leads us to assert things like: the ‘Bolsheviks should not have banned factions at the 10th Party Congress in 1921.’ I have lots more ‘should haves’ and ‘should not haves’ to apply to history. For example, if I were in Hernando De Soto’s position, I would not have invaded native North America. That understanding and two dollars and fifty cents will buy me a decent cup of fair trade coffee and a clear conscience.

The other way to look at history is from the past forward. The makes the past live; where people act among a host of contingencies particular to their place and time without knowing the outcome of their actions beforehand. This way to look at history, where people are responding to their world, not ours, doesn’t mean that all things are simply relative to their own time, they are not. The past is entirely responsible for the present and the present is the point at which the past and future meet. To understand the living past, and therefore to genuinely understand the moment we are in now, it is first necessary to understand the contexts in which the past, and not the present, took place. Which among other things means a lot more work than the other way. But it is infinitely richer in lessons and understanding, including in the kind of humility that some of the ‘should have’ crowd wrongly claim.

The revolutionary left is in crisis. A reading of left history will rarely show a time when it was not. I can’t think of one period since 1848 where the left did not think there was a crisis on the left. But that doesn’t make this crisis any less real. Aside from places like Greece, the left has not developed during the general capitalist crisis of the last years. In fact, politics has been pulled further to the right nearly everywhere (including Greece). Organizations across the spectrum, with few exceptions, have not greeted the new situation with new organizational outlooks. On the contrary, it has been a whole lot more of the same.

The left makes a fetish of organization, often basing those organizations at a fixed point in a tradition. How many organizations was Trotsky a member of? And yet it is the Fourth International of 1938 that defines what it is meant to be a ‘Trotskyist?’ Marxism itself would have been moribund early if Marx and Engels had insisted the First International soldier on organizationally after its crisis (and of the changing circumstances that crisis was a part).

A modest proposal: Every left group in the US to go out of business tomorrow, spend a few years in the social movements and working class creating political space free from current organizational fetters so that the organizational reconstitution of the left might come about through the needs of the class and the movement rather than the needs our current organizations have. I am not advocating the end of organization, just the end of all the current ones so that we might build anew. I am not advocating abandoning politics or the best of our tradition, quite the contrary. I want to make those politics matter and give life to that tradition.

A bold throw of the dice to meet the new day comrades!

In the absence of the left taking me up on my idea, which seems likely, I propose that we solve the crisis by me and a few friends declaring the Fifth International (or Sixth if that one is taken as I think it might be) over a weekend conference in my apartment. We’ll need at least eight people to have a seven person National Committee, so who’s in? Since we are ultra-democratic, the person who has to be the rank and file member will be rotated bi-annually (until we become mass).

Michigan Unions March, In Pictures

Posted in Comment with tags , on December 15, 2012 by Rustbelt Radical

Well, what to say about the state of our fair (sic) State. The latest attack on Michigan unions is a long time coming. Both in terms of the appetites of the right and of money and  the decline of the union movement. Now that we know the end of the story (this chapter anyway,) it’s impossible not to see it coming when we think back to the beginning. The majority of unions, and all the leading ones, long ago joined in the bosses’ mantra of competitiveness. That game is a rigged one and one that workers will always, always, lose.

Solidarity (the real stuff, not the phrases or the House) should have been the response to the speedway to hell all of those bad intentions have made. It has to be the watchword going forward, that’s for sure. A good deal of that solidarity was on display in Lansing Tuesday last. Sharing the outrage that was stewing in me ever since the news came down on Thursday were 10,000 and more proud union brothers and sisters marching with only days notice. But it felt, at times, more like shared grief than shared rage. I’m not sure at what stage of loss everyone else was in, but it was one of them.

Still, despite it all, much of what is best about the union movement and the class represented by it was on display on the steps of that damned State House. Here is a gallery of photos from the day so you might judge for yourself. Click on one and a slide show opens.

Columbus Day: Past, Present and Future

Posted in Comment on October 8, 2012 by Rustbelt Radical

Today is Columbus Day. Five hundred and twenty years ago, more or less, events in human history occurred on the cosmic scale of a supernova. A universe transformed. The explosion quickly enveloping not just one hemisphere, but the earth entirely. Rather than finding a new world, the collision Columbus inaugurated had created a new one. This one.

It is impossible to overstate what happened to human society, to human culture, in that century or two following Columbus’s ignorant arrival. Genocide and slavery. New concepts of race and new categories of class. A constant revolution of production unleashed and a market made of the world. Ecological transformations measured in decades, in years. New languages, new foods, new religions, new heights and new lows. The birth of global capitalism and of new traditions of dead generations to weigh like nightmares on us, those that are living.

We cannot change the past, but we can make the future. And not a distant one, but the one being created right now. At this place, the present, where past and future meet, we make choices. In some senses, the great struggles in the world are struggles not for an imagined world, a utopia, or even a future worthy of living in. But rather to do justice for those who came before us. For our great grandparents who worked as children in mines and mills, for our uncles who died in rich men’s wars, for our aunts who bled to death in back alley abortions, for our ancestors shipped as chattel in hellish holds, for the hair they cut from our heads and the swats that we received for speaking Anishinabe.

I have time-travel fantasies and they usually involve the temporal transfer of a few dozen heavy machine guns and some RPGs to the Tainos of the Caribbean. But the past is impervious to our wishes and history’s cloth woven more finely than to allow the pulling of a few threads to change patterns. Still, there is nothing in the world that is inevitable but struggle, sometimes open, sometimes not. The outcome of that struggle is not inevitable. Circumscribed, yes. Inevitable, no. To damn indigenous peoples to inevitability is to do a great disservice to them, their resistance and their adaptability. It also does a disservice to how history really works. Are we any less trapped than they? No, we are only as trapped as they. That is why so many of them chose, like we choose, to fight.

The new world born in 1492 is deserving of a terrible justice; a death sentence of sorts. We cannot unmake the past, it is fully a part of us and the new world we have a chance to create, if we choose to struggle for it, will be based on its foundations. How could it be otherwise? The death of this empire and of the capitalist system which bore it will not undo the wrong, but it will at least begin to end its perpetuation. Is not that the whole point of why Columbus Day revolts so many of us? It is a reminder of the injustice, passed down to us from the past, present and before us.

There are a million injustices in the world one could make a case as being rooted in the Conquest. Of the indigenous of Peru and their fight against the voracious bulldozers of mining companies. Of the exploitation, racism and subsequent poverty endemic in reservation and ghetto alike. Of the logic of capitalist accumulation that insatiably razes the very world that sustains us. Of all of these live legacies, yes. But more than that.

Columbus and those of his time had no idea of the transformations they were unleashing. No view beyond glorying in the Kingdom of God and/or the Kingdom of Gold and that, maybe, their descendants  might carry on their name and their glory. They blindly smashed their way into a New World. The greatest justice we could do to rectify past injustices, to those of the present is the same justice that we might pass down to the future. A world unmade and made consciously, and in common. A world where we do not smash blindly, as the forces of the ‘free’ market, over our earth. A world without empire and without rapine. Only then might we finally execute a long overdue warrant on Columbus and the world, this damned world, he helped onto to the stage of history. We might begin to, on a new basis, meet one another anew on that beach in the Bahamas and to set about to make a world of our own. A world worthy, not of avarice, but of us. All of us.

An Awful Election

Posted in Comment with tags , on September 8, 2012 by Rustbelt Radical

 

Misère, comrades, misère!

We are still two months from the November elections and the campaign has gone on for forty-six months already. The conventions these last weeks offered only occasional amusement at a gaff or outrage, but were utterly business as usual.

The Romney/Ryan ticket looks like an American Psycho version of a Dockers ad. I looked on to their Tampa gathering occasionally and can only say that they make me sincerely wish for a civil war, horrors and all. And sooner rather than later. It’s like we live on different planets. Mine has public libraries and the only thing they want public are the executions. The Republicans, at one time the party of Frederick Douglass, are now exclusively (except, perhaps, the delegation from Maine; that last redoubt of the old-school GOP) the party of white reaction. Their play book is the same Republican one of the last forty years; play to the basest fears of an already base white, working class and, très petit, bourgeois anxiety. A base whose superiors dangle a mirror from their perch down to so that they might look up and marvel when they see themselves above.

Obama and the Democrats offer only to finish the job they have been engaged in through the first term; of triangulating every last bit of political space left in the country. Where racist Republicans at convention boo Latinas of their own party, the Democrats showcase an undocumented student and then deport tens of thousands of her country folk. If the Republicans are the party of white reaction, than the Dems are the party of banal, multi-cultural reaction. The politics of a branding campaign with the morality of an advertising executive.

Obama has done the job he was hired to do; he corralled the opposition to Bush’s policies by continuing them. His base allows everything it bemoaned about the Bush administration and more; Guantanamo and Bagram, ceaseless drone attacks, attacks on civil liberties, the drug war, deportations, bank bailouts, corporate control, etc. As long as it is a Democratic doing it, it’s not reactionary. There is a myth that the Democrats once had this golden age when they were for the people. It’s a lie, but it keeps folks thinking they might ‘win back’ the party and excuse every kind of crime so they might do so. If Obama wins a second term, and I am pretty sure he will, it will be because  both the ruling class and ‘progressives’, including union leaders, are just fine with him. He works for the one while working the other. It is what the Democrats do, it’s their raison d’être.

The Democrats are a party of the Empire and always have been, but it doesn’t stop the asshole who parks next to me from plastering a peace sign right next to his Obama 2012 bumper sticker on his Prius. False consciousness, mixed consciousness or willful ignorance? I have a simple rule for political seriousness; if you excuse in one party what you find reprehensible in another, you are a hack and no amount of progressive rhetoric or hand wringing gets you off the hook. You are an abettor.

The system is rotten, there are no genuine politics or ideological divergences involved, only marketing blocks. The whole thing is a third-tier reality TV show. A year ago the actual issues confronting people were being articulated on homemade signs the breadth of the land. Everywhere, including on the most craven media outlets, the words, though not always the issues, of Occupy were being discussed. Things like questioning who had power in society and what it was like to face a foreclosure or tens of thousands of dollars of student debt without a hope of a job; to be doomed before you begin. At the height of a Presidential election– the most politically engaged period in American life –and the talk is of a dotty old man’s failed performance with an empty chair and of  Michelle’s Wow! style and toned arms. Both of the institutional parties are as debased as the social order they serve.

And the third parties? It was only a few months ago that I was wondering how Occupy might influence the coming vote. Five years into an economic crisis combined with multiple wars, environmental wreck and the worst wealth disparity since children were working in coal mines and this is what is on offer at election time? Yes, the Greens are running the entirely respectable Jill Stein with a program that is the same. I’ll probably vote Green this year, but it won’t be with any enthusiasm. Nader has, though I voted for him in the past, thankfully stayed out the race this time. And then there is Rocky Anderson, Rosanne Barr, and the propaganda campaigns of a few others on the ballot here and there. Nope, this election is a total buzz kill. The only hope for a positive outcome somewhere is if the good people of Colorado or Oregon or Washington make a dent in the drug war by voting to legalize herb.

My inbox is empty of passionate emails from comrades debating how to position ourselves this year. This, the latest ‘most important choice in a generation’, just doesn’t seem to have captured the imagination of the folks I parley with. And they are hardly people without opinion. It won’t split a single left group, the discussion bulletins are all quiet. Though the same debates over Obama (which is the same debate, with a different hue, engaged in about the Democrats every election) among the left will continue. Class independence; when you forsake it, it’s forsaken. I have even seen one or two groups pretzel themselves into a position of supporting both the Assad government in Syria and the re-election of Barack Obama.

By and large the far left is as unengaged in the election as that broad layer of activists that occupied Zucotti, as well as Kalamazoo and Wichita, is. In 2008, those activist progressives may have hit the neighborhood stoops for Obama. This year they may vote for him without hitting the stoops, but it will be with the conviction of a faltered faith. Some are just done with the two-party system of bourgeois democracy, now so thoroughly commodified by the bourgeoisie–as is their wont wherever they go. On the other hand, the Democrats still trap many of those activists, including union activists, that one would think would be essential to the building of an alternative that could strike mass roots. A lot of young people and folks of age to vote for the first time will stay at home, there’s just not the excitement or sense of possibility that 2008 had. As usual, many, if not most, working class people, so alienated are they from the ‘public’ institutions, will not even darken the door of their precinct polling place  this November sixth. And no one, including way too much of the left, has a single thing to say to them.

I simply can’t believe that what we saw on the public square in city after town after village last fall isn’t still to make itself felt. If not on this election, than on what comes after. We are not in that place of before. That place where the world we live in had to be described in tepid euphemism or not at all. ‘We are the 99%’ was and is the clearest expression of political reality in mass culture since the 1930s. No, there is a genuine crisis of legitimacy in the ruling order now. Enough folks, through their own experiences, are sure that the brakeless roller coaster we are on is a ride far more scary than thrilling and they want off.

Never in my political life have I met such widespread openness to the critique we Marxists have been on about for generations. And no one I know thinks that it is going to get any easier for the great mass of people, expectations have been suitably lowered along with wages. The world is an a state of upset, and while the heady days of early 2011 are long since shot down in the street, all know that we cannot continue as we have. The alternative is going to come, if not from us then from our enemies. That is what makes the lack of an organized political alternative developing in its absence so disheartening. Of all the times I would have expected that alternative to at least initially develop, it would be now. Things never seem to work out like we expect (which doesn’t seem to stop us our expectations).

So here I am with my lowered expectations: The ruling class wins in November and the struggle to field our side in the class war continues.

Engels on The Commune

Posted in History with tags , on June 1, 2012 by Rustbelt Radical

On the 20th anniversary of the Paris Commune, March 18, 1891.

I did not anticipate that I would be asked to prepare a new edition of the Address of the General Council of the International on The Civil War in France, and to write an introduction to it. Therefore I can only touch briefly here on the most important points.

I am prefacing the longer work mentioned above by the two shorter addresses of the General Council on the Franco-Prussian War. [Chapter 1 and Chapter 2] In the first place, because the second of these, which itself cannot be fully understood without the first, is referred to in The Civil War. But also because these two Addresses, likewise drafted by Marx, are, no less than The Civil War, outstanding examples of the author’s remarkable gift, first proved in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for grasping clearly the character, the import, and the necessary consequences of great historical events, at a time when these events are still in process before our eyes, or have only just taken place. And, finally, because we in Germany are still having to endure the consequences which Marx prophesied would follow from these events.

Has that which was declared in the first Address not come to pass: that if Germany’s defensive war against Louis Bonaparte degenerated into a war of conquest against the French people, all the misfortunes which befell Germany after the so-called wars of liberation[B] would revive again with renewed intensity? Have we not had a further 20 years of Bismarck’s government, the Exceptional Law and the anti-socialist campaign taking the place of the prosecutions of demagogues,[C] with the same arbitrary police measures and with literally the same staggering interpretations of the law?

And has not the prophecy been proved to the letter that the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine would “force France into the arms of Russia,” and that after this annexation Germany must either become the avowed tool of Russia, or must, after some short respite, arm for a new war, and, moreover, “a race war against the combined Slavonic and Roman races”? Has not the annexation of the French provinces driven France into the arms of Russia? Has not Bismarck for fully 20 years vainly wooed the favor of the tsar, wooed it with services even more lowly than those which little Prussia, before it became the “first power in Europe,” was wont to lay at Holy Russia’s feet? And is there not every day hanging over our heads the Damocles’ sword of war, on the first day of which all the chartered covenants of princes will be scattered like chaff; a war of which nothing is certain but the absolute uncertainty of its outcome; a race war which will subject the whole of Europe to devastation by 15 or 20 million armed men, and is only not already raging because even the strongest of the great military states shrinks before the absolute incalculability of its final outcome?

All the more is it our duty to make again accessible to the German workers these brilliant proofs, now half-forgotten, of the far-sightedness of the international working class policy in 1870.

What is true of these two Addresses is also true of The Civil War in France. On May 28, the last fighters of the Commune succumbed to superior forces on the slopes of Belleville; and only two days later, on May 30, Marx read to the General Council the work in which the historical significance of the Paris Commune is delineated in short powerful strokes, but with such clearness, and above all such truth, as has never again been attained on all the mass of literature which has been written on this subject.

If today, we look back at the activity and historical significance of the Paris Commune of 1871, we shall find it necessary to make a few additions to the account given in The Civil War in France.

The members of the Commune were divided into a majority of the Blanquists, who had also been predominant in the Central Committee of the National Guard; and a minority, members of the International Working Men’s Association, chiefly consisting of adherents of the Proudhon school of socialism. The great majority of the Blanquists at that time were socialist only by revolutionary and proletarian instinct; only a few had attained greater clarity on the essential principles, through Vaillant, who was familiar with German scientific socialism. It is therefore comprehensible that in the economic sphere much was left undone which, according to our view today, the Commune ought to have done. The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The bank in the hands of the Commune – this would have been worth more than 10,000 hostages. It would have meant the pressure of the whole of the French bourgeoisie on the Versailles government in favor of peace with the Commune, but what is still more wonderful is the correctness of so much that was actually done by the Commune, composed as it was of Blanquists and Proudhonists. Naturally, the Proudhonists were chiefly responsible for the economic decrees of the Commune, both for their praiseworthy and their unpraiseworthy aspects; as the Blanquists were for its political actions and omissions. And in both cases the irony of history willed – as is usual when doctrinaires come to the helm – that both did the opposite of what the doctrines of their school proscribed.

Proudhon, the Socialist of the small peasant and master-craftsman, regarded association with positive hatred. He said of it that there was more bad than good in it; that it was by nature sterile, even harmful, because it was a fetter on the freedom of the workers; that it was a pure dogma, unproductive and burdensome, in conflict as much with the freedom of the workers as with economy of labor; that its disadvantages multiplied more swiftly than its advantages; that, as compared with it, competition, division of labor and private property were economic forces. Only for the exceptional cases – as Proudhon called them – of large-scale industry and large industrial units, such as railways, was there any place for the association of workers. (Cf. Idee Generale de la Revolution, 3 etude.)

By 1871, even in Paris, the centre of handicrafts, large-scale industry had already so much ceased to be an exceptional case that by far the most important decree of the Commune instituted an organization of large-scale industry and even of manufacture which was not based only on the association of workers in each factory, but also aimed at combining all these associations in one great union; in short an organization which, as Marx quite rightly says in The Civil War, must necessarily have led in the end to communism, that is to say, the direct antithesis of the Proudhon doctrine. And, therefore, the Commune was also the grave of the Proudhon school of socialism. Today this school has vanished from French working class circles; among them now, among the Possibilists no less than among the “Marxists”, Marx’s theory rules unchallenged. Only among the “radical” bourgeoisie are there still Proudhonists.

The Blanquists fared no better. Brought up in the school of conspiracy, and held together by the strict discipline which went with it, they started out from the viewpoint that a relatively small number of resolute, well-organized men would be able, at a given favorable moment, not only seize the helm of state, but also by energetic and relentless action, to keep power until they succeeded in drawing the mass of the people into the revolution and ranging them round the small band of leaders. this conception involved, above all, the strictest dictatorship and centralization of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government. And what did the Commune, with its majority of these same Blanquists, actually do? In all its proclamations to the French in the provinces, it appealed to them to form a free federation of all French Communes with Paris, a national organization, which for the first time was really to be created by the nation itself. It was precisely the oppressing power of the former centralized government, army, political police and bureaucracy, which Napoleon had created in 1798 and since then had been taken over by every new government as a welcome instrument and used against its opponents, it was precisely this power which was to fall everywhere, just as it had already fallen in Paris.

From the outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment. What had been the characteristic attribute of the former state? Society had created its own organs to look after its common interests, originally through simple division of labor. But these organs, at whose head was the state power, had in the course of time, in pursuance of their own special interests, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society, as can be seen, for example, not only in the hereditary monarchy, but equally also in the democratic republic. Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate, powerful section of the nation than in North America. There, each of the two great parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions.

It is well known that the Americans have been striving for 30 years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and that in spite of all they can do they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. and nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends – and the nation is powerless against these two great cartels of politicians, who are ostensibly its servants, but in reality exploit and plunder it.

Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states – the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts – administrative, judicial, and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were also added in profusion.

This shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and really democratic state is described in detail in the third section of The Civil War. But it was necessary to dwell briefly here once more on some of its features, because in Germany particularly the superstitious belief in the state has been carried over from philosophy into the general consciousness of the bourgeoisie and even to many workers. According to the philosophical notion, “the state is the realization of the idea” or the Kingdom of God on earth, translated into philosophical terms, the sphere in which eternal truth and justice is or should be realized. And from this follows a superstitious reverence for the state and everything connected with it, which takes roots the more readily as people from their childhood are accustomed to imagine that the affairs and interests common to the whole of society could not be looked after otherwise than as they have been looked after in the past, that is, through the state and its well-paid officials. And people think they have taken quite an extraordinary bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap.

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers