Impressions of the Paris Congress (Morris, 1889)

From Marxists-en
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Impressions of the Paris Congress. I.[edit source]

We delegates of the League met as agreed at London Bridge Station, and found an enormous crowd of people going our way. We got stowed into the carriages somehow, and whiled away the time in singing songs and selling a few numbers of Commonweal to divers good folk who had only a glimmering about the events that the French were going to celebrate on the morrow. Getting to the boats at Newhaven, we found that the clerk of the weather had provided us with a sell in the form of spring tides, so that the boats which were timed to start at 11 pm did not stir from the harbour till close on 3 am. And even then there was not enough water for us to get into Dieppe for an hour or two; so that, in short, instead of getting into Paris at 8 a.m. we did not start from Dieppe till 10, and got to Paris at 1.30, somewhat weary with the long journey.

We were met at the station by several old acquaintances, and made the best of our way to our headquarters, which is in the Montmartre district, the northern suburb of Paris. As a matter of course we thus missed the first sitting of the Congress at the Rue Petrelle, though I, having been put upon the committee, went down to the hall and saw our friend Lafargue and the members of the Organizing Committee; after which there was nothing left for us but to take our pleasure as we best could in wandering about the city and seeing what I should irreverently call the ‘fun of the fair’.

The next morning, Monday, we went down to the Salle Petrelle, and found the delegates assembling; I found myself also appointed to verify the mandates of the English-speaking delegates, and had plenty of work to do. It was obvious from the first that the Salle Petrelle was not large enough for the Congress, as it would not hold 300 persons, and besides the delegates the public was admitted. Hasty arrangements were made for another hall, and we were presently on the way to a kind of theatre, called the Fantasies Parisiennes, in the neighbouring Rue Rochechouart, where we soon got to business, with Vaillant and Liebknecht in the chair. The first business was of course the roll-call of the delegates, which of itself was a somewhat imposing ceremony, considering the great number of them, and the trouble and even risk to which some of them had been put to come. The numbers of the delegates first taken were as follows: French, 180; Germans, 81, English, 21; Belgian, 14; Austrian, 8; Italian, 11; Russian, 6; Swiss, 6; Denmark, 3; Roumania, 4; Spain, 2; Poland 4; Hungary, 3; America, 2; Portugal, 1; Greece, 1; Holland 4; Sweden, 1; Norway, 1. In all, 353; but later comers made up the list to upwards of 400. The spirit of the Congress was good, the enthusiasm undoubted. As above said, the mere presence of so many Socialists come together from so many countries so earnest and eager was inspiriting and encouraging.

Little was done at this morning meeting except what might be called formal business; but it was clear from the first that there were two parties in the Congress, one of which was anxious almost at any price for fusion with the Possibilist Congress, and the other quite contented to let them hold their deliberations by themselves. Accordingly a meeting of the English delegates met on the Monday afternoon to decide upon their course of action, at which the delegates of the League were unanimous for keeping quite apart from the Possibilist Congress, which has no pretentions to being a Socialist Congress, and considering that Germany is quite unrepresented there, and that there is a distinct smack of jingoism about it, no valid pretensions to being international.

We expected that this question of fusion would come on in the evening sitting of Monday, but the whole time was taken up in settling various details of the constitution of the Congress, some of which excited angry feeling among the French delegates; the cause of which it was difficult, or impossible rather, for a stranger to understand. Underlying it all, however, was this question of fusion: for it must be understood that the Belgian, Dutch, and Italian delegates had a definite mission to bring about a fusion of the two congresses, and that many of them were very hot about it. The chairman (a Swiss) at this evening meeting, though apparently a straightforward sincere man, had no hold on the meeting, so that it got rather out of hand; and no doubt there was some of the usual police element present. However, amongst the genuine Socialists no harm was meant and none was done.

The next morning we received at our headquarters comrades Charles and J. and R. Turner, and at the Congress the ground was cleared for the settlement of this question of fusion. There were practically three resolutions before the meeting. Domela Nieuwenhuis spoke for the fusion in a speech which his obvious earnestness and goodwill made very impressive; though he ignored the fact that as to the French party neither the Guesdists nor the Possibilists really desired it, and rightly so, as the breach was too great between them to be healed by a mere formality. Tressaud, the Marseilles delegate, in a speech quite straightforward and to the point, spoke against the fusion, and I followed him, and supported him with the full assent of our comrades of the League.

Liebknecht brought forward another motion which threw the onus of making the fusion on the Possibilists; and this was clearly the popular view among the French and German delegates. The propositions made, a long time was spent in a somewhat wearisome and very involved discussion as to how we were to vote, and at last it was settled that the voting should be by nations. Then the voting took place, and it became clear that if we voted for Tressaud’s proposal, as we should have preferred to do and thus took our votes away from Liebknecht, we should risk giving the majority to those who wished for fusion on almost any terms, and thus should find ourselves sitting in a Congress which, as above said, was not a Socialist one. We therefore voted for Liebknecht’s proposal, appending to our vote a statement that if Tressaud’s had been brought up we should have voted for it; and we found that the French delegates had voted in the same way. There was a large majority for Liebknecht’s motion; and a committee was appointed to confer with the Possibilists and see if anything practical in the way of fusion could follow from this motion, which expressed a wish for fusion, but only on the terms that there should be no submission on our part; and thus a long sitting came to an end.

The next morning (Wednesday) we heard that the Possibilists had accepted the fusion; but on condition that we should submit to having our mandates examined by the united Congresses, which it was clearly impossible for us to agree to, as even those who had been most eager in pressing on the fusion admitted. We answered the Possibilists therefore that we could not agree to these terms, and in the evening received an answer from them in return breaking off the negotiations for good and all.

We had thus wasted two whole days in discussing a matter which in the opinion of the delegates of the Socialist League ought never to have been discussed at all, since our Congress was open even at the last moment to the delegates of any genuine working-men’s association, so that there was nothing to prevent any one from joining us who felt friendly towards us. And furthermore, the plain truth is that real union between the two French sections was impossible, and an artificial union would have produced worse quarrels, and have prevented any profitable discussion to say the least of it.

On Wednesday morning, with this matter of the fusion hanging unsettled over us, began the reading of the reports, Bebel leading off for Germany. These have lasted all today; but as we shall go to press before an account of the end of the Congress could be given, I will leave these for the present.

Our comrades should understand that whatever is said in the Congress, whether French, German, or English, has to be translated doubly; and the translations seemed on the whole to be very well done. Mrs Aveling acted as translator between German and French and English; Vollmar did the German part: the translators had their difficult task made more difficult by the buzz of conversation which arose as soon as the original speaker ended.

The earnestness and enthusiasm of the delegates was very impressive, and seems to have made some impression even on bourgeois observers; and whatever eagerness there was in debate, we all met out of debate with great friendliness and goodwill. A great many of the delegates have continually found themselves sitting at the same table for the meal after the session in the pleasantest and most fraternal manner in the cheaper restaurants round about place of meeting.

I am sorry to say that I must finish this letter with mentioning a disagreeable affair, on which it is impossible to be wholly silent. In the discussion which took place in the Possibilist Congress anent the fusion, Mrs Besant allowed herself to say that the English delegates at our Congress represented nothing but themselves. We have in consequence offered our comrades here to give them every opportunity for the fullest scrutiny of our mandates; but it is quite clear that we owe no account of ourselves to a Congress for which we have received no mandate.

Thursday, July 18th, 1889.

Impressions of the Paris Congress. II.[edit source]

On the Wednesday, after the introduction of a delegate from the far-off country of Finland, who was received with much enthusiasm, Bebel began the reading of the reports with a history of the German movement in more recent days. This took two hours in the delivery, I should think, and of course could not be translated; a short resume was all that could be given in French and English, but even from that it was plain that the original was able and exhaustive. I should mention that most, if not all, of the reports have been handed in in writing and will be printed; so that we shall have the benefit of noting the views of the delegates as to the position of the movement in the various countries.

A Spanish delegate (I think) followed Bebel, and spoke in his native tongue, which was translated by Lafargue. His address seemed emphatic and pithy.

In the evening the veteran Layoff read a long and interesting report from Russia. After which came a threatening of the repetition of the fruitless noise of Monday evening, for what cause I, as a stranger, am utterly unable to say. The chairman (Anseele), however, disposed of this pretty easily, though I think in England we should have thought him a little too ready to adopt the last resort of ‘chucking out’.

Then Jules Guesde got up and delivered what as a speech must be considered as the speech of the Congress, and was certainly splendid oratory. It was hardly a report, however, and to some of us there seemed too strong a flavour of electioneering in it; which, considering the position of the French Social-Democrats, was of course to be expected.

Next morning, after some preliminaries, I was called upon to report for England. I should mention here that we SL delegates were strongly of the opinion that Keir Hardie, who represented the Parliamentary side of English Socialism, should have an opportunity of speaking to that side, and that we pressed this on the Committee. In the light of what occurred later, I think this ought to be noticed.

I was told that the time now pressed so much that the rest of the speakers of reports would be asked to keep within ten minutes, which I tried to do — and I think kept within twenty. I handed in my written report later on.

I was followed by Adler, for Austria, who by no means imitated my brevity (nor did any one else). Volders reported for Belgium; Italy, Holland, and Poland also reported. After these national reports came the special reports — ie., for associations, etc. Keir Hardie spoke for the Scotch miners; I missed his speech, and chiefly remember a speech of the delegate for the Waiters’ Association — very straightforward and to the point, complaining of the irrational contempt in which these luckless slaves of the well-to-do are held even by their working brethren: and also a speech of Madame Zetkin, who represented the working women of Berlin. This last was in fact a very clear and closely reasoned essay on the relation between the industrial position of women and Socialism. When printed it will be valuable as clearly establishing the difference in view between the Socialist and the ‘Woman’s Rights’ women. It was received with as much applause as any other speech; more than any, I think, except Guesde’s.

The fag-end of this sitting (a very long one) was devoted to short speeches by various delegates. Here Kitz, as a result of a great deal of pressing on my part, was allowed to read the text of a resolution condemning the privileged thieves of society for their brutal treatment of the ‘criminals’ who have been first manufactured and then punished by our robber sham-society. We understood that he would have an opportunity of moving this resolution; but the opportunity did not turn up.

Two or three Anarchists spoke in this sitting, and spoke well, though to my mind they did not put forward any distinctively Anarchist doctrines: they were well received by the mass of the delegates; who indeed throughout strongly applauded any revolutionary sentiments. The gibe of one Anarchist deserves to be noted. Apropos of palliation by legislation on labour, he said: ‘When I was a Collectivist I was taught the Iron Law so well by Marx and Liebnecht, that I cannot forget it now I am an Anarchist.’

That evening (Friday) the Paris Municipality threw open the splendid public rooms of the Hotel de Ville to the delegates of both Congresses and their friends, and entertained them very handsomely after the generous ‘custom of the country’. Also there was a friendly meeting held at our friend Maxime Lisbonne’s Taverne dur Bagne, which is got up to simulate a prison, with (in all senses) fearful pictures on the walls: waiters dressed as convicts, and where for the consideration of 1½ francs you can be solemnly ironed in public (I don’t know what charge is made for taking off the irons). Here Louise Michel spoke, and there was much enthusiasm shown. I was not able to attend either of these entertainments, as I had to spend the night in writing out my report from my notes.

On Saturday morning we found Cunninghame Graham in the chair, and we expected that Bebel’s propositions would be formally put, debated on, and (certainly) carried by a large majority; but this was not duly done. I must explain here that for three days past I had handed in a resolution of a wide Socialist character, so that the Congress might pledge itself definitely to Socialism, which all our English comrades thought necessary to be done, if it were only to give our Congress a reason for existence in opposition to the Possibilist Congress. The organizers said that the preamble of Bebel’s propositions practically carried with it the sense of my resolution. This was true; but I pleaded that a separate resolution ought to be put, as there were delegates present who would vote against Bebel’s propositions who would assuredly vote for a Socialist resolution, and that moreover the resolution would not have the same force imbedded in a preamble which would not be noticed alongside of its ‘practical’ deduction.

The organizers agreed therefore to the putting of a distinct resolution, and on this Saturday morning I spent some time in Conference with our French and German friends (including Bebel), and arranged for the modification of my resolution by the introduction of matter from the French and German preambles, which, however, did not alter the sense of the original resolution.

Coming back to the Congress Hall again nothing serious seemed doing, and knowing that the vast majority of the delegates were in favour of Bebel’s propositions, believing also that nothing serious would be put forward in opposition, I left for Rouen after the morning session along with Kitz and Tarleton, and was therefore not a witness of the lamentable scene that followed; therefore, what I say of it is subject to correction by those of our comrades who were there.

It was clear that no discussion of the propositions was to be allowed, and the clôture was voted. Thereupon, our friend Merlino rose to protest against this proceeding, but was howled down; he was attacked in words by a delegate and accused of carrying on organized interruption, and his expulsion was ordered by the chairman. This was carried out with much brutal violence, against which the League delegates attempted to protect him. After his expulsion, Mrs Schack and Tochatti rose also to protest, and then all our delegates present left and handed in a written protest against the violence and the smothering of the discussion.

Now surely, short as the time for discussion was, time could have been found for two speakers at least to put forward the contrary to the very propositions which from the first we had been called together to discuss; and since the Congress (though undoubtedly in the main composed of Social Democrats) had distinctly invited Socialists of all kinds, it must be said to have stultified itself in refusing to listen to opinions which everybody knew were held by some of the delegates; and the intolerance of the majority must remain a serious blot on what was otherwise a successful demonstration at least.

On the Saturday morning, the delegates went to Pere la Chaise to hang a wreath on the Mur des Federés, the deathplace of so many of the murdered men of the Commune. Cunninghame Graham and Tochatti spoke there amongst others, and so came to an end this great gathering.

Looking back on it, it seems clear that if the Congress had gone on with its business instead of trying to stand well with the public by discussing the possibility of a fusion, which almost all of us knew was impossible, we should have gained at least one whole day for debating the pros and cons on Bebel’s propositions; and if, in addition, the reports of the different nations had been taken as read (since they are all to be printed) we should have had time enough for a debate which would have satisfied everybody, and sent the delegates of all shades away contented. Because in the course of that debate everything could have been said that was necessary about the movement generally.

Finally, the impression made on me by attendance at this International Congress is that such gatherings are not favourable for the dispatch of business, and their real use is as demonstrations, and that it would be better to organize them as such. I mean that two or three great public meetings should be held (after the due formalities of verification, etc., have been gone through), that opportunities should be given for the delegates to meet each other in social and conversational meetings, and that there should be no voting, no ‘playing at Parliament’. This is my wisdom after the event; but I think it is worth considering, as no doubt there will soon be another International Socialist Congress.