Paris Commune 1871
THE PARIS COMMUNE
May 28 marks the 150th anniversary since the French Army captured the Communards’ final positions, officially marking the end of the Paris Commune, the first living example of workers in control of political power. Preceded by the Franco-Prussian War, which ended after Prussian forces besieged Paris for over four months, the Commune began on March 18, 1871, following a failed attempt by the French Army to seize 400 cannons that the Government of National Defence deemed ‘state property’, even though Parisians themselves paid for the cannons via a subscription. The French Army retreated to Versailles and Paris’s National Guard then took control of the city for over two months before the French Army could gather enough reinforcements to return and slaughter the Communards during Bloody Week. Along with the Prussian Army, who’d just defeated the French, they injured as many as 10,000 Communards and massacred as many as another 10,000, with 147 alone being shot at what’s now called Communards’ Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery the day before the French and Prussian armies fully suppressed the uprising. The French Army captured over 43,000 prisoners during and immediately after Bloody Week, 13,500 of whom were either sentenced to imprisonment, deportation, forced labour, or death.
The Paris Commune arguably stands out as the first peek at what the last phase of capitalism might have looked like, as well as what challenges the working class might face in attempting to surpass it. Though the Commune was ultimately foiled, events like this are always worth analysing for any lessons that can be learned, whether good or bad, and applied to the future.
One of the best aspects of the Commune was that it was leaderless. Leaders necessarily imply followers placing all their faith in them, even though no one’s infallible. Having a leader also allows an easy target to be picked off, incapacitating their followers at the drop of a hat. Rather than leaders, the Commune had mandated delegates, elected by the Communards themselves, who were recallable any moment the people felt a delegate wasn’t carrying out their will — a direct democracy. They also had plans to implement the same structure of self-government across the rural areas of France, having district assemblies in the central towns and having those send delegates to the National Delegation in Paris — decentralised self-government. Magistrates and judges were elected and immediately revocable, as well.
The Commune also passed a decree which implemented a separation of church and state, as well as another allowing everyone to attend school free of charge, with some arrondissements giving out free school supplies, clothes, and food for children — mutual aid. The police were also made revocable, and they abolished conscription, along with the standing army, declaring the National Guard — which included all citizens able to bear arms — as the Commune’s only armed force. Much to the surprise of the bourgeois government, there was no violence between Communards during the entire two months. Pensions were also granted to the unmarried companions and children of national guardsmen killed in active service. The death penalty was abolished and the guillotine was even brought out by the National Guard and publicly burned as the crowd celebrated.
It’s said that the highest salary given to an employee of the Commune was 6,000 francs, though that claim has been contested. Regardless, they abolished child labour, as well as night work for bakers, since it’s very difficult to get sleep while you’re cooking bread. Employees were given the right to take over and run any businesses that were abandoned by their owners and any fines imposed by employers on their employees were prohibited. All workmen’s tools and household items that were given to pawn shops during the siege, valued up to 20 francs, were returned for free and, later, the Commune ordered the closure of all pawn shops themselves, since they were deemed a private exploitation of labour. There was a moratorium on all rents during the siege, meaning they were supposed to be paid back afterward, but the Commune forgave all rent for homes from October 1870 through April 1871, with any amounts already paid counting instead towards future rent, along with a postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on any debts.
It’s much easier to play Monday morning quarterback with uprisings rather than actually participate in them, but it’s always important to take a critical look at these kinds of situations to parse out any decisions made due to bad circumstances from those made due to bad foresight. One of the first that stands out is the fact that, despite many women playing important roles in the Commune, they weren’t allowed to vote in the Commune elections. Only three countries had ever granted women suffrage before this, but — considering the fact that the Communards were seeking economic equality — it wouldn’t have been much of an ideological leap to extend that equality to women, too. Another drawback was the fact that they opted to keep the Commune Council’s meetings secret, citing war with the bourgeois government as their reason. They obviously should’ve tried their best to prevent any sensitive information from getting back to the French Army, though perhaps a reasonable middle ground could’ve been reached.
Aside from those decisions, there were a couple made that were pretty useless. One was the adoption of the French Republican Calendar. Considering the Commune was still at war, finagling with the date should have been the last thing on anyone’s mind, if only because it could complicate communications with allies outside the city. Communards also took to burning various buildings and monuments, two of the most prominent being the Vendôme Column and the home of Adolphe Thiers, the chief executive of the French government during the Commune. While individuals may decide to do that themselves, the only things the Commune administration should have been focused on at that time were keeping Parisians alive and surviving as a political institution— and burning buildings assists with neither of those.
As far as the financial decisions go, the Communards decided to take a loan from the Rothschild Bank to cover their expenses, rather than seize the 254 million francs in gold coins and banknotes left inside the vaults of the Bank of France — essentially leaving their greatest bargaining chip on the table. Had the Commune threatened to collapse the French currency, they might have got Thiers to do anything they wanted. Not only did they neglect to exploit that opportunity, but if employees took over a business, they also recognised the previous owner’s right to compensation. Employers rob employees for their surplus value and, by virtue of that alone, would have no reasonable right to compensation in this circumstance. That money could instead be used for more mutual aid.
Another big issue was censorship and repression. The Commune banned multiple pro-Versailles newspapers and created a Committee of Public Safety to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune, in the same vein as the Committee of the same name which committed the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Considering how many times efforts like this had taken a turn for the worse before, the Commune should have avoided them at all costs. They also issued a decree which accused the Catholic Church of ‘complicity in the crimes of the monarchy’, arresting roughly 200 church officials afterward, along with another decree later called the Decree on Hostages, which stated that for every prisoner of war or Commune official that was executed by the French Army, the Commune would execute three hostages. However, it’s worth noting that, despite this decree and the fact that the French Army executed multiple Communards beforehand, the Commune executed none of their hostages until after the start of Bloody Week — and even then it was only 63, which pales in comparison to the roughly 10,000 Communards murdered in cold blood during that same week by the French and Prussian armies.
Arguably, there were also more than a few mistakes made on the military front. A major setback happened when the National Guard tried to march on the French Army in Versailles. The National Guard took power after the French soldiers refused to fire on them once instructed to during the soldiers’ attempted seizure of the cannons. The Communards naively assumed the same thing would happen again and advanced without cavalry, artillery, food, ammunition, or ambulances. Not only that, but they didn’t even scout the area ahead, subsequently passing a line of forts on the way that they thought were occupied by more national guardsmen but which had actually just been re-occupied by the French Army, causing the National Guard to suffer heavy artillery fire as a result.
“[A]part from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people — the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc.” (Letter to F.D. Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881) (see Marxist Archive)
As the French Army was returning to recapture Paris, divisions arose within the Commune about whether to give absolute priority to military defence, or to political and social freedoms and reforms. This decision honestly should’ve been a no-brainer, considering that any reforms would be undone if the Commune were to be drowned in blood. A key fort, Fort d’Issy, was captured by the French Army and the National Guard left the fortifications undefended by one part of the city wall at Point-du-Jour, allowing 60,000 soldiers to enter the city within a few hours. Without an overall planned defence or many barricades having been prepared in advance, it quickly turned into a bloodbath. To add insult to injury, when the Commune Council found out the walls of Paris had been breached, they were holding a trial for a former General — something that clearly could’ve waited until the war was over — and the last military commander they’d chosen, Louis Charles Delescluze, was a journalist who had absolutely zero military experience.
Most importantly, though, even if the Communards had done everything correctly, they were still acting prematurely. Not only was the majority of the working class still not socialist, but the majority of the Communards weren’t socialists in the proper sense, either. Aside from that, capitalism was still in its relative infancy, far from the complete global hegemony we’ve reached now and any developments that are bound to happen in the future. As frustrating as it may be, we have to remember that, no matter how badly a minority of the working class may want to establish socialism, they’ll fail until the material conditions have developed for them to succeed — two key conditions being productive forces capable of sustaining a socialist society, as well as a vast majority of the global working class understanding what socialism is and what responsibilities it would entail, while actively wanting to establish it. Nonetheless, the Commune was a noble effort that will surely go down in history as one of, if not the greatest, attempt at liberating the proletariat.