The Commune of Paris, 1871
To all Socialists throughout the world, the 18th of March recalls to their minds the first organised attempt on the part of a section of the working class to administer the affairs of society in the workers’ interest. We speak of the Commune of Paris in 1871.
To convey a clear understanding of the Commune, it is necessary to give a brief outline of some of the events which led to the uprising of the Parisian workers on the 18th of March, 1871.
In 1849, an enterprising gentleman, named Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the first Napoleon, was elected President of the French Republic, and three years later he was proclaimed Emperor of the Second Empire.
For the events which enabled Bonaparte and his gang of hangers-on to become masters of France, readers are referred to Marx’s brilliant and profound monograph, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”
Of the establishment of the Second Empire, Engels says “that meant the appeal to French chauvinism, which implied the demand for the reacquisition of the frontier of the First Empire lost in 1814.” The existing frontier no longer satisfied the requirements of the Jingoes, in view of the fact that during the Bonapartist regime France had experienced a rapid industrial development. To the French ruling class the redeeming feature of the Bonapartist Government was its policy which favoured speculation and industrial activity, resulting for them in enrichment to a hitherto unheard of degree. Industrial expansion made necessary occasional wars and extensions of frontier, and the frontier which most interested the French Chauvinists was the left bank of the Rhine.
Gradually a growing section of the ruling class began more and more to express their dissatisfaction with the foreign and domestic policy of Bonaparte; whilst on the other hand, the discontent of the workers manifested itself in a way disturbing to the peace of mind, of not only the section of the ruling class opposed to Bonaparte, but to Bonaparte himself.
Among the workers, an organisation called the International Working Men’s Association, founded by Marx and Engels in 1864, was carrying on an agitation throughout Europe; and in France, the agitation was such, that Bonaparte had 60 of its most active members arrested.
Thus, confronted with the growing unpopularity among the ruling class, and fearing an uprising of the workers, Bonaparte sought refuge in satisfying the aspirations of the French Jingoes by declaring war on Prussia on the 15th of July, 1870. But the war proved disastrous for France. After various encounters, one French Army was driven into Sedan, where Bonaparte, with 80,000 men, surrendered. After this, battle after battle was lost by the French. Even the new Army under Marshal Bazaine, which had been raised to stave off the march of the Prussians on Paris, was surrounded at Metz, where Bazaine, with 180,000 men, surrendered.
As a consequence of the first great defeat at Sedan, an uprising occurred in Paris on the 4th of September, 1870, which sounded the death-knell of the Second Empire. The Republic was again proclaimed, and Thiers, who had been a statesman under the old Monarchy of Louis Phillipe, was appointed as its head.
During the war, the mass of the workers, like the great bulk of the workers during the late European war, were stupid enough to interest themselves in a quarrel which was entirely a quarrel between rival groups of the ruling class. Consequently, what was uppermost in the minds of the Parisians, was to organise a resistance against the Prussians, who were now on their way to besiege the city. The bulk of the Parisians believed in the possibility of successfully defending Paris, and the Thiers’ Government accepted a mandate from them to act as the “government of defence.” For the purpose of defending Paris all Parisians capable of bearing arms were armed and enrolled in the National Guard, which was composed mainly of working men.
Towards the end of September the Prussians began their siege of Paris, and it soon became evident to many that the Government was not treating seriously the question of defence. The fact is, that the matter of the defence of Paris was treated as a huge joke by the Thiers’ Government, and is described by Marx as “a well understood mockery of defence.” The evidence of this fact was left in the hands of the Commune when the Government made its wild flight to Versailles after the 18th of March.
As indicated above, we do not approve the action of the Parisians in demanding the continuance of the war; but even so, that in no way excuses the “government of defence ” in not seriously acting in line with the mandate it had accepted to effectively defend Paris, which is one illustration of the contempt that all Capitalist Governments have for the views of the great bulk of those who elect them to power.
Of course, the Thiers’ Government had reasons of its own for disregarding the mandate. What Thiers and his gang were really desirous of defending Paris against was, not the Prussians, but the armed working men of Paris.
“Paris armed, was the revolution armed,” says Marx; and Thiers did not fail to note this significant fact.
The year 1871 opened with Paris still a besieged city, and finally on the 28th of January, it being no longer possible to carry on the farce of “defence,” the French Government capitulated to Bismark.
Engels, in his introduction to Marx’s “Civil War in France,” points out that when the Prussians entered Paris they found themselves surrounded by armed workmen, “who carefully watched lest any ‘Prussian’ should overstep the narrow limits of the quarter reserved for the foreign conqueror.”
How to disarm these workmen was the immediate problem set before Thiers. To accomplish this Thiers, with the flagrant lie on his lips that the arms of the National Guard were State property, called upon the National Guard to give up their artillery. Of course, Thiers knew well that the arms of the Guards were their own property ; they were bought by themselves by means of public subscriptions; moreover, they were officially recognised as their property in the terms of the capitulation of Paris. This move on the part of Thiers to get the National Guard to surrender their arms having failed, he next tried more forcible means.
Accordingly, Thiers dispatched a few regiments of the line to Montmartre to steal the artillery. With the usual display of “directive ability,” those responsible for the organisation to take the guns had failed to provide adequate means of transport. When the troops secured the guns the lack of transport prevented them from proceeding far, before the move became known. It is said that the women were the first to act, calling upon the troops to leave the guns alone. Meanwhile, the news having spread, some of the National Guard: appeared on the scene accompanied by women and children. Several times did General Lecomte give the order for his men to fire upon the defenceless women and children, but each time his order was disregarded. The few stragglers of the National Guard, with the women and children seeing this, pushed forward, and fraternised with the troops. The attempt to steal the guns had failed.
In vain did Thiers appeal to the Parisians to stand by “law and order,” for out of 300.000 National Guards only a few hundred could be found to rally to his support. Small wonder that they did not do so, for in addition to enduring the hardships of the 131 days siege of Paris, the Thiers’ Government had stopped the pay of the National Guard. Thus, were they and their dependents faced with starvation.
From the time that Thiers had failed to disarm the National Guard on the 18th of March, the workers had assumed control of Paris. The Thiers’ Government in the meantime had fled to Versailles.
On the 26th of March, the Paris Commune was elected and proclaimed on the 28th.
The workers had thereby committed a “crime”—the worst of all possible crimes in the eyes of the ruling class—”the violation of the sacred rights of private property.”
It cannot be said that the revolt of the Parisian workers was a Socialist Revolution, as only a few of those who took part in the movement had any Socialist knowledge. But considering the suddenness with which they were called upon to act, it must be ungrudgingly granted that the workers of Paris acquitted themselves wonderfully. Mistakes they made, of course, as they were sure to do, considering the circumstances which surrounded the movement.
The Commune accomplished many fine acts of legislation. It abolished the conscription and standing army, the only force recognised being the National Guard. All rents of dwellings from October, 1870, to April, 1871, were remitted, such rent as had been paid to be deducted from future payments. Its labour department brought about the abolition of night work for bakers, and declared all fines and stoppages from wages illegal. The fact that “foreigners” were elected to the Commune, shows the international outlook of many of the Communards. The “superior officials” who had acted under the Thiers and Napoleonic Governments having made off to Versailles, the control of nearly all the public services was in the hands of workmen administrators, placed there by the Commune.
What was Paris like during the short period of the workers’ control of affairs? Belfort Bax, in his admirable “Short History of the Commune,” tells us that the city was quiet, peaceful, and wholly free from crime. Even many middle-class Englishmen, who had no sympathy with the Commune reluctantly testified to the orderly and peaceful manner in which the Communards carried out the duties of citizenship. While the Versailles publications were demanding the wholesale slaughter of the Parisians, one could look in vain through the revolutionary journals for any blood-thirsty suggestion.
The people’s Paris of 1871 was a model against which no city throughout capitalist civilisation could compare. The wants of the populace were attended to, as best they could in the circumstances. For the “crime” of having attacked the private property institution, Thiers and his blood-thirsty gang at Versailles were planning to deluge Paris in a sea of blood.
We have said that the Commune made many mistakes, and one important mistake was its treatment of the military side of its administration. Of all the departments controlled by the Commune, the department of war was the worst conducted. Having made the initial blunder of allowing the Thiers’ Government to escape from Paris, one would imagine that they would have prepared for an attack from Thiers later. Instead, the Commune spent its time in futile attempts to negotiate with Thiers, which the latter gladly protracted till he had made arrangements with Bismark for the delivery of the French troops, taken as prisoners during the war. Thiers would hear of no compromise with the Commune, nothing but the unconstitutional surrender of Paris would meet his requirements.
Accordingly, on the 1st of April, without any warning, the Versaillese opened fire on Paris. It was then that the lack of military preparation on the part of the Commune came into prominence. The requisites of war were at places other than where they should have been. Important points of defence were discovered to be undefended. It seems that some of the leaders of the Commune thought that the Versaillese would refuse to fire upon the Parisians as had happened on the 18th of March. On this point Belfort Bax well says, they forgot
“that insubordination in the interior of a fortress is a very different thing from insubordination in the open street under the moral pressure of a sympathetic crowd ready to protect the insubordinate from the vengeance of their superior officers.”
The time for the Commune to organise an effective defence of Paris had now gone. Strenuous efforts were made, but all was in vain. We could go on to tell of the wonderful acts of heroism. Men, women, and even children, took their part in the fight to defend the Commune. But space does not permit.
Finally, on the 21st of May, the forces of Thiers entered Paris. He had demanded the blood of the Parisians, and the time had now arrived for he and his gang to execute their evil designs of butchery in which they were ably assisted by the much “hated” Prussian, Bismark.
“Twenty-five thousand men, women and children killed during the battle and after ; three thousand at least dead in the prisons, the pontoons, the forts, or in consequence of maladies contracted during their captivity; thirteen thousand seven hundred condemned, most of them for life; seventy thousand women, children and old men deprived of their natural supporters, or thrown out of France; one hundred and eleven thousand victims at least—that is the balance-sheet of the bourgeois vengeance for the solitary insurrection of the 18th of March.”
So writes M. Lissagary, the author of the “History of the Commune,” who himself took part in the struggle.
Lest it be said that we are taking the evidence of a partial witness, we will give one quotation from the capitalist press of the time.
“As many as one thousand Communists were shot after their capture (June 1st). Human life has become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog. Summary executions are still (long after the fighting had ceased) going on wholesale.”—”Times,” May-June, 1871.
Such was the fury of the bourgeois butchers under the leadership of Thiers. No deed was too foul for them to perpetrate upon their defenceless victims.
As Socialists, we are pleased to commemorate the Commune of Paris; it demonstrated to the world, in spite of its many blunders that the workers can, when given a favourable opportunity, control the affairs of society, not only without the aid of the ruling class, but the better for its absence; a fact which unquestionably added to the fury of the French ruling class.
The great value the Commune has for the workers to-day is the lesson they can draw therefrom. The Commune served to bring out the reality of the class struggle, and the ruthlessness of the ruling class when their system, the private property institution, is attacked.
Far too much of that abstraction “Humanity” seemed to characterise the Communards, they treated their bourgeois enemies far too lightly, and too kindly; every act of kindness shown by the Communards, being treated by Thiers as an act of weakness, serving to encourage him in his foul treatment of the Parisians.
If heroism and devotion to the ideal of human solidarity could accomplish anything in themselves, a different tale of the Commune would have to be told, but without sound organisation these will achieve but little.
Not the least of the factors which aided the destruction of the Commune was the mixed elements which composed it.
The Commune, like many other attempts on the part of the workers, demonstrates the absolute necessity for a sound, well-disciplined organisation, understanding, and ready to meet the requirements of the situation. The Socialist Party of Great Britain fulfils the requirement. We steadily point out to the workers the cause of their troubles, and the futility of their many attempts to remove them. The workers must cease to trust in “leaders,” particularly those of the “intellectual minority” type, for this same type of “leader” was known to the Commune.
In conclusion, let us hope that the time is not far distant when the workers sound in their understanding and strong in their determination will arise to avenge their fellows of the Commune, by overthrowing capitalist society and inaugurating the Socialist Commonwealth.
(Socialist Standard, March 1923)