In the year of the 100th anniversary of the Great October Revolution, we are afforded the opportunity to reconsider the significance for the class struggle world-wide of celebrating key events through which the working class has changed the course of history.
Karl Marx showed in his penetrating contemporary analysis, The Civil War in France, that the Paris Commune (18 March – 28 May 1871) was one such event. Then, for the first time, the working class seized power and revealed the imperative and potential for organised workers to defeat the capitalist state. The Commune would “be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society” Marx wrote that summer.
The ruling class was determined that this would not be so. As Marx exposed in his analysis of the role of the contemporary mass media, they applied the full ideological force of “the daily press and telegraph” to supress awareness of the true nature of the Commune and ensure that the working class was turned against the Communards and their achievements.
Such was the whipped-up prejudice created in London that on the first anniversary, when Karl Marx and others joined refugees from Paris to celebrate the memory of the Commune they were even denied access to their already hired venue. In Paris, so fearful was the establishment of organised workers retaining consciousness of their power and potential, it attempted to obliterate completely the memory of the Commune. However, on 18 March 1880, despite every effort to prevent it, the anniversary of the Commune was openly marked – A victory for the people of Paris in their long fight to secure the freedom to celebrate it!
After Marx died on 14 March 1883, the annual commemoration of his death was to become closely connected by closeness of date and commonality of substance with the annual celebration of the Commune. To mark the first anniversary of his passing and the 18 March proclamation of the Commune, thousands came together at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery. Police turned them away and even Eleanor was not allowed in to place flowers on her father’s grave. Undeterred they held a huge rally in a nearby park.
By now, the annual coming together of the Left in London had become a truly international gathering. In 1886, the Commune anniversary at the South Place Institute was attended by representatives of the movement from France, Germany, Italy and Russia. On this occasion Eleanor Marx made what is regarded as one of the finest and most significant speeches of her life on the crucial role played by women Communards.
However, not everyone on the Left was convinced of the merits of celebrating “a defeat”. In response to these critics, on 19 March 1887, 130 years ago, William Morris published in Commonweal, “Why we celebrate the Commune.” In this short piece he sets out the unquestionable duty of all socialists. The events had been subject to “slander, lies, hypocritical concealments, and false deductions”. A deeply rooted superstition had been created in the minds of those who had information enough to have heard of the Commune and ignorance enough to accept the bourgeois legend as the truth. Through the celebrations they, and others who had not been touched by socialism, might learn.
And Morris was clear that although the Communards may have failed at enormous cost in their immediate aims, they nonetheless “quickened and strengthened the ideas of freedom by their courageous action and made our hope of today possible.”
We do well to reflect on this as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Great October Revolution when the working class, building on the knowledge made available by Marx and its application to struggle and revolution by Lenin, took and held onto state power through the will and sacrifice of the people, began the work of creating a society free from exploitation and oppression and opened irreversibly the gate to the stage of transition from capitalism to socialism.
As in the time of Marx, the forces of imperialism and reaction have done and continue to do everything in their power to besmirch, mystify, supress and eradicate the legacy of that glorious victory. They have not succeeded. It is our duty and joy to celebrate it. From it we will learn and be inspired. From it we will reclaim and share our history and by so doing, we will be emboldened to struggle and sacrifice for the final defeat of imperialism, war and exploitation, secure in the knowledge that a peaceful, just and socialist future will be ours.
Long live the world-transforming legacy of Karl Marx!
Long live the life-transforming values of the Great October Revolution!
Long live the international struggle for peace and socialism!