The Paris Commune itself, though arising immediately out of the Franco-Prussian War, was actually a direct product of the development of capitalism in France that brought misery to the worker and to the small trader. The idea of the Commune was borrowed partly from the French Revolution during which it had a short life. Its leading partisans drew inspiration mainly from traditions of the past in defining their ideas and shaping their policies; the future only appeared to most of them in blurred and contradictory outlines.
On 20 September, 1870, after the defeat of the French armies and the capture of Napoleon III, Paris was invested by the Germans and a four month’s siege began. A Republic was immediately proclaimed and members of the National Assembly appointed themselves as the Provisional Government, declaring their intention to resist the enemy to the end. An Assembly member, Thiers, eventually emerged as the head of the government, with another Assembly member, Trochu, as its military director. In contradiction to the Republican declaration the government sent Thiers to seek for a successor to Napoleon!
It was the popular belief in Paris that the city could never be taken, and every reverse suffered by the army was followed by threatening demonstrations against the government, accusing it of incapacity, and making a demand for a Commune. This demand, as we have mentioned, was partly based on tradition. During the French Revolution, when France was sorely beset on all sides, the Commune of 1792-3 put backbone into the defence, and the memory of that Commune had persisted, hallowed by the march of time.
On 31 October the Paris Town Hall was invaded by an angry crowd, some demanding a Committee of Public Safety and others the Revolutionary Commune. Members of the government were made prisoners. Blanqui and Flourens tried, for a short time with success, to get control of the situation. Soon a battalion of the National Guard arrived and rescued the government members. The government, anxious to allay opposition for the time, declared an amnesty for all those who had taken part in the disturbance. Later, in defiance of the amnesty pledges, Blanqui was taken prisoner and played no further active part in the struggle.
On 20 January, 1871, Trochu declared that further resistance was impossible, although he had made no serious attempt to organise resistance, and that peace negotiations must be opened with the enemy. When making this declaration he exposed the government’s hypocrisy by stating that, on the evening of 4 September, he had assured his colleagues that Paris had no chance of successfully withstanding a siege, and that to attempt to hold out against the Prussian army would be folly. On 29 January the city surrendered and the German flag was hoisted on the forts, in spite of the demonstrations by angry crowds which had to be dispersed by gunfire.
At the beginning of February carefully manipulated elections were held for the sole purpose of ratifying the peace terms. The result showed the sweeping domination of monarchical and clerical influences in the provinces whilst Paris remained republican. Throughout the country the National Guard was still armed and, in the peace terms, it had been stipulated, by force of circumstances, that the Paris National Guards should be allowed to retain their arms. As soon as peace was signed the government began to give evidence of its intention to disarm and crush the revolutionary elements in Paris.
The first move made by the government was to transfer the seat of government to Versailles, a few miles from Paris, out of the reach of popular demonstrations. Soon rumours were spreading that the government intended to disband the National Guard. This would have been a calamity for thousands of workers. Since the beginning of the siege many businesses had been compelled to close down or curtail their activities, throwing workers out of work and forcing them to depend upon their pay as National Guards; the disbanding would have deprived them of their means of living. This determined them to hang on to their weapons at any cost.
The government also proposed to enforce the payment of all overdue bills and arrears of rent, which had been suspended during the siege. The enforcement of the payment of arrears brought the poorer section of the small proprietors over to the side of the Paris workers. The propertied class had not forgotten the happenings of June, 1848, and were deliberately driving the poor to despair and insurrection so that they would have an excuse, when the workers came out on the streets, to repeat their former attempt at extirpating any revolutionary ideas.
Mass meetings of protest were held and a Central Committee of the National Guard was subsequently appointed, made up of three members from each Paris district, and sub-committees were also appointed for some of the districts. The members of the Central Committee, elected by the people in the districts, were quite unknown men. They were picked out for their practical capacity and trustworthiness. The Central Committee was appointed on the 11 March, 1871, the day that the Red Republican journals (a loose organisation of radicals that had come into prominence in 1848 and still existed) were suppressed by the government, and Flourens and Blanqui were condemned to death for their part in the demonstration of 31 October.
Thiers and his ministers arrived in Paris on the 18 March, supported by 25,000 troops, and proceeded with their design to disarm the National Guard, which numbered about 200,000 men. At 3 o’clock in the morning a secret attempt was made to seize the cannon belonging to the Guards of the Monmartre district. The cannon were captured but the government had forgotten to provide means of transport. In the meantime the people in the neighbourhood awoke and women surrounded the troops calling upon them to leave the cannon alone. Subsequently National Guards and stray soldiers collected around the brigade guarding the cannon. General Lecomte, who was in charge, ordered his men to fire on the crowd. Although ordered to fire three times the soldiers did not respond. Then Lecomte was arrested and taken to the Guards headquarters. Eventually the attempt elsewhere to steal the cannon also failed.
Before the Central Committee could meet to organise the insurrection the government stole out of Paris and entrenched themselves at Versailles. Even after the Central Committee took control the defence, including the elementary precaution of closing the city gates, was neglected, whilst arrangements were being made for the election of a Commune.
Whilst the election was in progress the Central Committee set about organising the public services, suspended the sale of goods from pawnshops, forbade landlords from evicting tenants, and prolonged for a month the period of voucher bills. Two members of the Committee were sent to the bank and obtained, through the medium of Rothschild, money to pay the wages of the National Guard and the expenses of running the public services. The astonishing thing is that all through the time the Commune existed the Bank remained in the hands of its old management and the Commune officials had to beg for the money they needed, although there was a vast amount of specie in the vaults of the Bank. This was only one of the many examples that showed how respect for private property still clung closely to supporters of the insurrection.
The government of Thiers now gathered its army together, including prisoners of war which Germany released for the purpose, officially declaring war on the Commune on the 1 April and then, without further warning, gave orders to open fire on the city. The Parisians were thrown into confusion. Their forces were not yet organised and lacked officers possessing military knowledge, staff work which should have provided ammunition, guns, and other appurtenances of warfare at the proper places, was in no condition to meet the needs of the struggle. At the beginning there was a child-like trust in the reluctance of the Versailles troops to fire on their fellow countrymen; a trust that was soon dissipated by the fiendish acts that followed. A sortie against Versailles on the 3 April was repulsed. From that date onwards Paris was on the defensive and its death agony began. Three important defects contributed to the defeat of the Commune: It lacked internal harmony, which hindered the determined adherence to any line of action; it lacked experienced military leaders, which hindered the building up of adequate measures of defence; and it possessed too great a reverence for private property.
As the defences crumbled and the end drew near the Committee of the Commune disbanded to join the fanatical resistance at the barricades, which prolonged the death agony. Eyewitnesses related afterwards the terrible story of the horrors that were enacted as the victors turned Paris into a shambles.
On the 29 May the last fort was captured. This ended the Commune, but it did not put an end to the vengeance. For weeks afterwards the indiscriminate slaughter of prisoners continued, only easing eventually for fear of pestilence. A working class which had dared to demand some liberty from oppression, and failed to win it, was met with the cry “Woe to the vanquished”, and they endured woe to an immeasurable extent.
March 1971: Karl Marx and the Paris Commune