Backwaters of History No.7 – The Paris Commune

Whilst crowds lined the streets of London to watch Queen Victoria pass on her way to open the Albert Hall, on Tuesday, March 28th, 1871, the streets of Paris were lined with denser and more exuberant crowds. Around Paris was camped the German army of Prince von Bismarck with a young lieutenant Hindenburg amongst his officers. On the previous Sunday Paris had been to the polls and on this Tuesday the results had been declared. Now, with a predominantly working-class Commune, the Parisians were jubilant and staged a monster procession.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon I, who had made himself Napoleon III of France, had embarked on a war with Prussia, mainly in an endeavour to revive his failing prestige. His war had been unsuccessful and after defeats at Saarbrucken, Weissenberg and Metz, Louis Napoleon surrendered to the Prussians at Sedan on September 2nd, 1870. The French armies were held prisoners in Germany and at Metz. On the 4th of September Paris rebelled and proclaimed a republic. A collection of lawyers, professional politicians, careerists and job hunters constituted themselves a Government of National Defence and, although the Prussians were at the gates of Paris, this government proposed to offer resistance. Behind the scenes it prepared to capitulate.

On the 28th January, 1871, Paris, starved out, capitulated, its fortifications were disarmed and the weapons of the regular troops were handed over to the enemy. But, within Paris there was a military organisation known as the National Guard, a voluntary defence organisation composed mainly of members of the working class. This National Guard retained its weapons and cannons and entered into a truce with the Prussians. The troops of Bismarck who had besieged Paris for 131 days and were now prepared to occupy it, found that the workers of Paris would only allow them to occupy certain small sections of the city and, in those section, they were virtually prisoners.

The Government of National Defence resigned and on February 8th a National Assembly was elected at Bordeaux. This assembly almost unanimously elected a M. Thiers as head of the executive power. Theirs saw the danger that an armed working-class presented to French capitalism and made plans to disarm the Parisian National Guard.

He sent General Lecompte with troops to sneak away the cannons that the National Guard had purchased with its own subscriptions, claiming that these cannons were state property. The plan was to get the guns away before the people of Paris realised what was happening, but the scheme went awry. The people came out of their houses and surrounded the troops, offering them coffee and breakfast until finally the troops fraternised with the workers handing their rifles into the crowd in exchange for glasses of wine. In all parts of Paris the attempt to steal the guns had failed. Paris was now up in arms against the Thiers government seated at Versailles.

A Central Committee of the National Guard, elected without distinction of rank, from the various companies, took over the control of affairs in Paris and set about the job of maintaining distribution of what food and supplies were available and seeing to the general running of the city. This committee firmly met the opposition of the city mayors and other pro-government elements until it stood down in favour of the newly elected Commune.

The Commune got straight to work. On March 30th, it decreed the abolition of the standing army and conscription and declared that only the National Guard, to which all citizens should belong, might bear arms. The rents of all dwellings were remitted from October 1870 to April 1871 and if rent for that period had been paid it was to be deducted from future payments. Pawnshops were stopped from selling pledges. All foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in their jobs, it being claimed that “the flag of the Commune is that of the Universal Republic.”

On April 1st it was decided that no member of the Commune, nor any of its functionaries, should receive a wage or salary higher than 6,000 francs a year – a workman’s wage. On the following day the Commune disestablished the church, stopped payments from public funds for church purposes and decided to confiscate all ecclesiastical property on behalf of the people.

During the next few weeks Judges and other judicial functionaries were brought under the control of the Commune, so was the police force; the guillotine was publicly burnt; night work for bakers was abolished; Pawn shops were closed; Napoleon Bonaparte’s triumphal column at Place Vendome, which was “a symbol of chauvinism and mutual hatred amongst nations,” was overthrown and a chapel, built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI, was destroyed.

Plans were prepared to organise a federation of co-operative societies into which working men were to be enrolled with a view to taking over and managing those factories and workshops that had been closed by the employers. Educational facilities were made available to all and many outstanding grievances were remedied.

The Commune was composed mainly of working men who made of it a working, and not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. With only workmen’s wages to be earned all the political sharks and job seeking racketeers who had previously occupied the administrative posts, faded from the picture and working men took their places.

Whilst the Commune was passing its various enactments the Thiers government at Versailles was preparing to suppress the rebellious city. Attacks had been made since the early days of April, in fact the city was under shell fire whilst the Commune was sitting. Thiers persuaded Bismarck to release French troops taken prisoner during the war so that an army could be built to march on Paris. During April and early May thousands of the Parisians were taken prisoner by the Versaillese and subjected to revolting atrocities. Thousands more were killed.

On Sunday, May 21st, the newly formed Versaillese army marched into Paris through five breaches in the defences. The workers of Paris threw up barricades and fought like tigers.

    “Let good citizens arise! To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls. No hesitation. Forward, for the Commune and for liberty. To arms!”

    “Let Paris bristle with barricades, and from behind these improved ramparts still hurl at her enemies her cry of war, of pride, of defiance, but also of victory; for Paris with her barricades is inexpungable.”

    (Two proclamations of May 22nd, quoted by Lissagaray in his “History of the Commune of 1871.”)

The government troops fought their way through the city inflicting great slaughter and destroying buildings. By the following Sunday, May 28th, the Parisians were defeated, the Commune was gone and most of its members were dead. When the city was subdued the Thiers government took its revenge.

    “And now the murder of defenceless men, women and children, which had raged the whole week through in ever-increasing proportions, reached its highest point. The breechloader no longer killed fast enough; the conquered were slaughtered in hundreds with the mitrailleuses; the ‘Wall of the Federals’ in the Pere la Chaise cemetery, where the last massacres took place, remains to-day a dumb but eloquent witness to the frenzy of the crime of which the governing classes are capable as soon as the proletariat dares to stand up for its rights. Then, as the slaughter of all were seen to be impossible, came the arrests en masse, the shooting down of arbitrarily selected prisoners as victims for sacrifice, and the transference of the remainder into great camps, where they awaited the mercy of the courts-martial.”

    (F. Engels’ introduction to “The Civil War in France,” by Karl Marx.)

The “Wall of the Federals” was the wall against which one hundred and forty seven of the Communards were lined up and shot in cold blood on May 28th, 1871. Every Whit Sunday workers of Paris march and lay wreaths against this wall.

    “Twenty-five thousand men, women and children killed during the battle or 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. This is the balance-sheet of the bourgeois vengeance for the solitary insurrection of the eighteenth of March.

    “What a lesson of revolutionary vigour given to the working men. The governing classes shoot in a lump without taking the trouble to select hostages. The vengeance lasts not an hour; neither years nor victims appease it; they make of it an administrative function, methodical and continuous.”

    (Lissagaray’s “History of the Commune of 1871.”)

It is easy, today, to see the faults of the Communards but we must not lose sight of the fact that they were not Socialists. Very few of them had more than a feeling of working-class solidarity, with an urgent desire to do something to remedy the evils of their day. If all their reforms had been fully operated capitalism would still have held sway, although with a different complexion.

Nevertheless, the Paris Commune stands as an heroic landmark in the history of the working-class and gives us an indication how workers can act when called upon to re-organise society.


Books to read:-

“Civil War in France,” by Karl Marx.

“History of the Commune of 1871,” by Lissagaray.

“The Paris Commune of 1871,” by Frank Jellinek.

“The Paris Commune,” by V. I. Lenin.

“The Paris Commune,” by E. S. Mason.

Selected Chapters in:

“The State and Revolution,” by V. I. Lenin.

“Terrorism and Communism,” by K. Kautsky.

“Defence of Terrorism,” by L. Trotsky.

“Vital Problems in Social Evolution,” by A. M. Lewis.


W. Waters

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