The Paris Commune

October 1993

This is the notes for a talk given to a WSM meeting that washeavily based on The Communards of Paris, 1871: edited byStewart Edwards, and published by Cornell Paperbacks; CORNELLUNIVERSITY PRESS

As its in note form it includes sections copied from this book.Other talks are here [These notes arealso inSpanish]

End of the War

In 1871 France went to war with Prussia and was defeated. The headof the national government was Adolphe Thiers, he had negotiated thedetails of the peace with Prussia. After doing this he was faced withthe problem of regaining control of Paris, of convincing the citythat the war with Prussia was over and of disarming the NationalGuard. Thiers has only twelve thousand troops left after the truce todo this with against several hundred thousand national guards.

He had no time. The rural majority in the Assembly was moving fromBordeaux where it had held its first meetings to be clear of thePrussians, to Versailles, close to Paris.

The Prussians were still occupying Northern France, as securityfor the payment of the war indemnity which France had agreed to payas a condition of peace. In order to be able to pay the firstinstalments on this indemnity and so to secure the evacuation ofnorthern France by the Prussian troops , the French government wouldneed to raise loans. Money could only be raised however is the publichad confidence in the new government. Thiers's principal problem was,therefore , the restoration of confidence. Order would have to bere-established, shops opened up, business resumed and life returnedto normal. Above all, since Paris was the heart of the nation, Pariswould have to be brought under the control of the Nationalgovernment.

Paris however was defiant. It would not accept a Prussian victory.This meant it was not pleased with the government that hadcapitulated to the Prussians. Patriotic resentment of the Frenchdefeat inevitably meant resentment of the new government atVersailles. The Paris National Guard remained on alert, ready toresist any forcible entry on the Prussians into Paris. Cannons leftover from he siege of Paris were taken to various parts of Paris. Inthe end it was those cannons taken to working class districts thatbecame the critical issue. As Thiers said afterwards

" businessmen were going around repeating constantlythat financial operations would never be started up again until allthose wretched were finished off and their cannons taken away"

It was the governments attempt to capture the National Guard'sguns early on the morning of Saturday, that sparked of therevolution. The plan was to occupy strategic points throughout thecity, capture the guns and arrest known revolutionaries. Thiershimself and some of his ministers went to Paris to supervise theoperation. At first, Paris being asleep all went well. But sooncrowds began to collect jeering at the soldiers. The National guardbegan to turn out, not in support of the government but not reallyknowing what to do. The regular troops still waiting for transport toarrive to cart the guns away began to find themselves out numbered.Events first took a serious turn at Montmartre when the troopsrefused to fire on the crowd and instead arrested their owncommander, who was later shot. Elsewhere in the city officers foundthey could no longer rely on their men, and in the early afternoonThiers decided to abandon the capital. Jumping into a waiting coachhe scribbled an order for the complete evacuation of the army toVersailles and summoned the rest of his ministers to follow him. Theretreat of the army to Versailles was chaotic. The troops wereinsubordinate to their officers and it was only the gendarmes whocould keep some kind of order. So hasty was the withdrawal thatseveral regiments were forgotten and left stranded on Paris (20thousand). The officers were taken prisoners, while some 1,500 menleft behind with no orders just sat out the period of the commune.The government has abandoned the city.

By 11.00 that night the Central committee of the National Guardfinally mustered up enough members and enough courage to take-overthe abandoned Hotel de Ville, while other National Guard commandersand men occupied the remain in public buildings in the capital.

It was the Blanquests who had finally taken the initiative whenBrunell led the hesitant Bellevois (head of National Guard committee)into the deserted Hotel de Ville. When the central committee at lastarrived in the Hotel de Ville there was great confusion , nationalguards and soldiers were wandering everywhere and no one had theauthority to lead. This revolution was a spontaneous uprisingthroughout the capital, there having being no central direction byany of the various National Guard committees.

The Duval, Eudes, Brunel and all the Montmartre committee were formarching on Versaille, however the Blanquests were not listened to.The insurgents found Paris open for the taking, but the main concernof the National Guard Central committee was to "legalise" it'ssituation by divesting itself of the power that had so unexpectedlyfallen into its hands. Instead therefore of following up the rout ofthe army by marching on Versailles as the Blanquists had urged theCommittee entered into the negotiations with the only constitutionalbody left in the city the Mayors to arrange the holding of theelections. As one communard asked on voting day "What does legalitymean at a time of revolution" This search for a return to legalitybrings out the moderation of the revolutionaries so far. Many of themembers of the Central Committee felt that events had outstrippedthem. As one of them said "that evening we did not know what to do;we did not want possession of the Hotel de ville we wanted to buildbarricades. We were very embarrassed by our authority" . It was leftto the bohemian literary figure of Edourard Moreau, to persuade thecentral committee amidst shouts of 'Long live the commune' to remainin occupation of the Hotel de Ville at least for a few days untilmunicipal elections could be held.

8 days later Paris wide elections were held with 227,000 votesbeing cast. This was only half the total on the electoral registersbut these dated back to before the war, since when there had been abig reduction in the population. This exodus worked to the advantageof the more "working class" areas as it was mainly the more wealthiersections that had left. So also did the proportional system ofrepresentation adopted by the Central committee which gave morerepresentation to the densely populated working-class districts thanthe previous system. The results showed an overwhelming swing to theleft, only about 15 to 20 moderate republican being elected and theysoon resigned.

The most solidly working class districts were the most stronglypro-communard. The list of the Vigilance committees which hadattracted only a small proportion of voters in the national electiona month ago now found itself in the majority. This was not because ofa sudden rush of converts to the 'revolutionary socialist position',but because the republican majority in Paris was now willing to votefor the commune as a defensive vote against Thiers and the monarchistNational Assembly at Versailles. In the working class districts thevictory had a more precise meaning, something, it was now hoped wouldnow be seriously done to favour those previously excluded fromgovernment.

The commune was formally installed in the Hotel de Ville two dayslater in the glorious spring sunshine of Tuesday, 28 March. Thenational Guard battalions assembled, the names of the newly electedmembers were read out , as, wearing red, they lined up on the stepsof the Hotel de Ville under a canopy surmounted by a bust to therepublic. On high the red flag was flying as it had done ever since18 March and guns saluted the proclamation of the Paris Commune.

The composition of the Commune

The commune finally numbered 81 members, the average age was 38,five members being over 60. Raoul Rigault, the communes head ofpolice was at 25 the youngest of 15 in their twenties, eighteen morehaving just turned 30.

The members of the Commune lacked political experience. Theirdebates were often rambling, matters being dropped rather that pushedto a decision and entirely unrelated points were raised and thenpersued. Their caused considerable personal acrimony and eventuallythis lead to a split. The commune as a whole lacked politicaldirection. This was especially serious because it had to win a civilwar in order to survive at all. It was on questions such as educationor the reform of working conditions that because of the trade unionexperience of some of its members the commune showed to its besteffect.

Blanqui, as an experienced revolutionary might just have providedsome political cohesion but he had been picked up by police and spentthe second revolution of his lifetime in prison.

Charles Deleschulz was the most notable political figure from thepast to sit on the commune. He had been a radical Jacobean figure inthe 1848 revolution until forced into exile and was imprisoned whenhe tried to return secretly. However years on Devil's Island hadruined his health. He could only speak in a croaking voice and stayedabove the personal struggles and quarrels of the commune until calledupon to play a dignified but doomed role at the end, walkingdeliberately to his death on a barricade at what is today is thePlace de la Republic.

18 members of the commune came from middle class backgrounds fromwhich they had extricated themselves during their school and studentdays. In all some 30 members of the commune can be classed as fromthe provinces, half of them being journalists on republican papers.The rest included 3 doctors, only 3 lawyers, three teachers, one vet,one architect and 11 who had been in commerce or working as clerks.

About 35 members were manual workers or had been before becominginvolved in revolutionary politics. These were mainly craftsmen inthe small workshops that made up the long established trade centresof the capital. Typical of his group were copper bronze and othermetal workers, carpenters, masons house decorators and bookbinders.What is striking is how few came from the new heavy industries thathad grown up on the outskirts of Paris. In the whole workers in thenew large scale industries in the factories and suburbs of Paris hadnot yet formed their own ways of organisation and combat. It seemsthat the local leadership as it had developed felt too unsure ofitself, too unsuited to play a more important role on a wider scale.This they left to militants from other more petty bourgeoisdistricts.

About 40 members had been involved in the French Labour movementand most of them had joined the international. Their experience intrade unions and workers association had made them suspicious ofpolitical power and this gave their thinking an anarchist tinge (morein the tradition of Proudhon rather than Mikhail Bakunin). About adozen members of the commune were Blanquists. Their main hope was tosave the revolution by getting Blanqui released, either by helpinghim escape in exchange for hostages... the Archbishop of Paris beingthe most notable.

The Commune was installed on the 28th of March and on the 2nd ofApril Thiers troops began to attack. At first the Commune met insecret on the ground that it was a 'council of war' however secrecywas not what was expected of a general assembly. The CentralCommittee of 20 districts, the International and some of the popularclubs all pressed the commune to make its sessions public. Followingthis pressure the Commune did agree to the publication of its debatesin the daily Journal Officiel, and in principal agreed the public toits debates. However it proved difficult to find a large enough roomand the problem was never really solved.

Such theory that was ever formulated in 1871 was based on theideas of 1793 of popular sovereignty: those elected to represent thepeople were to act as delegates, not as parliamentary members. Thepopular clubs in particular several times claimed that sovereigntylay as much with them as with the as with the Commune at the Hotel deVille. Those elected by the people were subject to recall by thepeople and it was the duty of those elected to report back and remainin constant touch with the sources of popular sovereignty. Their wastalk in some of the clubs of bringing pressure on the commune , andattempts were made towards grouping the forces of the clubs so as tobe able better to do this. Some members of the Commune did try tokeep in close touch with the forces that brought them to powerfrequenting the clubs.

Politics of the Commune.

The actual social legislation passed by the commune seemsreformist rather than revolutionary, taking up demands that had beenformulated by the labour movement during the preceding 20 to thirtyyears. Rents owing for the period of the siege were cancelled butotherwise the rights of private property were not questioned. Aftermuch debate a three year delay was granted for the payment ofoutstanding bills. Taken together these measures shocked bourgeoisieopinion outside Paris. The Commune set up unemployment exchanges inthe town halls and abolished night work for bakers in face ofopposition from the employers. The most pressing social questionfacing the commune was that of unemployment and took the radical stepof allowing trade unions and workers co-operatives to take overfactories not in use in order to start up them up again. However moreextreme suggestions that "all the big factories of the monopolists"should be taken over by the workers were rejected. By the 14 of May43 produces co operatives had been formed among the many craftindustries in the city.

In the field of education the main effort was to provide basicelementary education for all. The reform movement was stronglyagainst the church schools which amounted to just over half theschools in Paris. National guards were used to evict priests and nunsand replace them by republicans. Women's education was given specialattention having being the most neglected area. A special commissionwas formed with an all-female membership to oversee the attempts madeto set up girls schools. Day nurseries to be situated near thefactories were also proposed as a means to help working women. Noneof these schemes - of co-operative industrial organisation or ofeducational reform could come to much. There was too little time andthe war had to be won.

More important than any particular measure was the very existenceof the commune as a government that included a substantial proportionof working men and one that for once seriously intended to improvethe lot of the majority of the population

Theirs and his ministers at Versailles has no doubt that the ParisCommune was a declaration of social change that had to be crushed bycivil war. This was a view shared by governments outside France, forthe very existence of the Commune roused the fury of the Europeanbourgeoisie. On the 29 March The London Times described therevolution as the "predominance of the Proletariat over the wealthyclasses, of the workman over the master, of Labour over Capital" TheRussian Emperor pressed the German government not to hinder theFrench repression of the Commune because the government at Versailleswas " a safeguard for both France an all Europe" and Bismarckthreatened to use the German army if Theirs did not hurry up. It isfrom the Right as much as from the Left that the socialist nature ofthe Commune can be and was seen.

A festival of the Oppressed

In many ways the most striking aspect of the Commune was thefestive nature of Paris; it was a 'festival of the oppressed', . Theatmosphere within the capital was not that of a city dominated bywar, the city had 'all the signs of simply being on holiday'.

Soon however the mood became grave. The funerals of NationalGuardsmen killed in the fighting became grand processions across thecity, headed by members of the commune and anyone who refused to bearhis head was forced to by the hisses of the crowd. Another moment ofdrama was provided when the Freemasons rallied to the Commune andmarched with their banners, never seen before in public to the citywalls, where they sent off a deputation to see Theirs (who refused tomet them and they returned to Paris). Huge Public ceremonies wereheld such as the burning of a guillotine and the demolition of theVerdoone Column (a symbol of the empire) . "The excitement was sointense" an English observer wrote " that people moved about as if ina dream" Even on the very day that the Versailles forces broke intoParis-Sunday the 21 of May there were large crowds in the Tuileriesgardens listening to one of a series of concerts given in aid of thewounded widows and orphans.

To an extent the commune was the re conquest of the city by thegreater part of the population who had been driven out to the suburbsby Haussmans redevelopment schemes. For a time a large part of thepopulation became actively involved in public affairs whether at thelevel of their district or of that of the whole city

The end of the Commune

The commune heavily fortified as it was and with a substantialmilitary force at its disposal was able to hold our against Thiersand the army for two months however on the 21st of May the governmenttroops entered Paris. There followed a werek of bitter and bloodystreet fighting all the more bitter because the Parisians could nolonger hope to win.

Few preparations had been made for the eventuality that the Frenchtroops would enter Paris and the much talked on second line ofdefence did not exist. Those in charge of erecting barricades hadbeen too methodical and slow so very few barricades existed. Throughthe night and into Monday morning troops poured into Paris by 5different gates. They quickly occupied two bourgeois districts in thesouth west of the city. From there a two pronged attack occurred onealong the left bank of the Seine and the other on the Right bank.Haussmans boulevards were to show their value in enabling rapidmovement of large numbers of men to outflank revolutionary districtsand their barricades. By the morning of Monday May 22 the westernthird of Paris was in government hands after hardly any fighting andsome 1,500 National Guards had surrendered.

The commune assembled at 9.00, twenty members being found at theHotel de Ville, a poster was drawn up calling citizens to arms on theBarricades.

Barricades were quickly erected in the centre of Paris. On therude de Rivoli 50 masons built in a few hours a barricade 18 feethigh and several yards deep. Swarms of children brought up barrows ofearth and the prostitutes from La Halle helped filled the sacks. Over160 barricades were erected on the first day, over 600 in all. Mostwere only 5-6 feet high constructed of paving stones dug up from thestreets with sometimes metal grills from the base of trees thrown atthe foot, a cannon or a machinegun and a red flag wedged on top.

The barricades in the rue de Gaubourg were made largely ofmattresses from a nearby warehouse, thrown down into the street bywomen. Others were simply obstructions of overturned busses and cabs,sandbags bricks or anything else. Everybody who passed was forced tohelp. In the Place Blanch a battalion of 120 women erected thelegendary barricade which they defended vigorously on the Tuesdaymany being massacred after it fell. Those Federals that had retreatedin front of the French army dispersed back to their homes saying theypreferred to die in their own quarters.

The very strong criticisms Blanqui had made in 1868 of the June1848 rising are also applicable to the barricades on the commune. Thetactic of fighting for your own area with no central organisationmade it easy for the army to group its forces and take the barricadesone by one.

Early Tuesday morning the Versailles troops moved through theneutral zone outside Paris, the Prussians turning a blind eye, andentered Paris through another gate capturing 2 more suburbs of Paris.The massacres that were to grow more fearsome as the werek advancednow began, 42 men, 3 women and 4 children were shot in front of awall, a court martial was improvised in a house on rue de Rosiers andfor the rest of the week batches of prisoners were taken there to beexecuted. On Tuesday night the Communards began to burn down anybuildings that threatened the safety of the barricades by shelteringsnipers. The whole of the rue de Rivoli was a sheet on flames, theTuluise Palace and the Ministry of Finance were all on fire. Firemenhad been sent to try and put it out but they were unsuccessful, andits huge red and black plumes from masses and masses of documentsrose into the sky showering the city with a fine rain of charredpaper. The wind carried fragments as far as Saint German ten milesaway and crowds assembled to watch the spectacle of Paris burning.The barricade there was not finally taken until Wednesday morning,one of the last to fall being a women who sprang onto it waving a redflag defiantly at the troops.

Some 30 defenders were taken prisoner and shot, their bodiesthrown into the ditch in front of the barricade. At 8.00 on Wednesdayit was decided to abandon the Hotel de Ville and it was set on fireto cover the retreat. Paris in flames was and still often is the mostcommon picture presented of the Commune, the list of buildingsdestroyed is enormous, some buildings, understandably, like thePrefecture of Police and the Palace of Justice being fired by theCommune, some by the Versailles shells. Rumours were spread, almostdefinitely unfounded or the petroleuses, women incendiaries who wentaround setting fire to basements, on the bases of the rumour manyinnocent women were shot. However many of the communards knew thiswas to be their last stand and were pleased to take Paris with them.On the Wednesday a National Guard officer tried to persuade his mento join him in the Arsenal munitions depot to blow it (and them) up,assuring them " we will all go up together mes enfants".

As word of the massacre spread crowds began to press for theexecution of Hostages held in revenge for the massacres going onthroughout Paris. Ferre agreed to sign an order for six to be handedover. The Governor of the prison, himself appointed by the communerefused to surrender the Archbishop whom the crowd wanted most of allbecause his name was not on the list. Ferres secretary hurried backand Ferres added to the note "and particularly the Archbishop", andso he was shot,

Meanwhile in Paris a more indiscriminate slaughter was takingplace, each time a barricade fell, the defenders were put up againsta wall and shot; 300 were shot after they fled for sanctuary into theMadelaine church. The seminary adjoining Saint-Suplice had beenturned into a hospital, Versailles troops arrived and proceeded toshoot all the medical staff and their patients leaving behind 80corpses, they same occurred in Beaujon hospital. The battle for theLatin Quarter lasted 2 days, the Tuesday and the Wednesday.Throughout Thursday and Friday the Communards were pushed back,gradually loosing control of the city.

Saturday morning dawned foggy and raining for the second dayrunning. some of the last fighting on this day took place in thePere-Lachise cemetery where about 200 National Guards had foolishlyfailed to put into a proper state of defence. The army blew open thegate and there was biter hand to hand fighting around the tombs inthe heavy rain and falling light. Those not killed in the fightingwere lined up against a wall in the eastern corner of the cemeteryand shot, the killings continued there for several days. The verylast barricade held out for a quarter of an hour defended by a singleman. He fired his last shot and walked away and so by Sunday the 28thof May the Commune had completely collapsed.

If the battle was over the shooting was not. The Versaillesvictory quickly became a blood bath, anybody in any way connected tothe commune or just in the wrong place at the wrong time was shot.Anybody who was in Paris was thereby suspect, guilty even. Thisreaction of the officers shows the shift to the right that hadoccurred within the French army.

Far more died during that last week in May than in any of thebattles of the Franco Prussian war, than on any of the previousmassacres in French History. The terror of the French revolutionamounted to about 19,000 deaths in a year and a half. There is noexact figure but something in the region of 30,000 Parisians werekilled during the commune compared to the Versailles losses of 900dead and 6,500 wounded.

About 50,000 were arrested, among them Louise Michel. At her trialshe demanded to be shot saying "Since it seems as if every heart thatbeats for liberty has only the right to a little lead, I too demandby share" . Instead she was deported to New Caledonia, a Frenchcolony of the coast of Australia along with 4,500 others. Many diedin prison or on the transports. Those who escaped went onto exile inSwitzerland, Belgium, Britain or further afield. Two in fact ended upmarrying two of Marx's daughters in Britain. As Marx wrote to Engels" Longuet is the last Proudhonist, Lafargue is the last Bakuinist.The devil take the two of them" .

Nine years later a general amnesty was voted. This was as a resulta republican and 'socialist' electoral victories , culminating in theelection of a shoe-maker, ex member of the Paris Commune as asocialist Deputy for Belleville. Just previously 25,000 people hadresponded to the appeal of the socialists, and in spite of policeattacks had held the first commemorative demonstration at the "Wall"of Pierre-Lachaise.

The Legacy of the Commune

The immediate consequences of the defeat of the Commune weredisastrous for the French Labour moment as a period of severerepression followed the blood letting of the last week. Parisremained under martial law for 5 years and the International wasoutlawed. Armed with new political powers, the police were active inrounding up political activists who were given heavy sentences. TheInternational was practically forced out of existence. The leadingactivists of the working class were either dead, imprisoned or inexile.

This is the notes for a talk given to a WSM meeting that was heavilybased on The Communards of Paris, 1871: edited by StewartEdwards, and published by Cornell Paperbacks; CORNELL UNIVERSITYPRESS

As its in note form it includes sections copied from thisbook. Other talks are here

Part of the pages of the
Workers Solidarity Movement

[Main Index][About WSM][Join]
[Contact Us][Publications][Position papers]