The "Paris Commune" (French: La Commune de Paris) was a government that briefly ruled Paris from 18 March (more formally from 26 March) to 28 May 1871. It has been variously described as either Anarchist or Socialist in tenor, depending on the ideology of the commenter.
In a formal sense the Paris Commune of 1871 was simply the local authority (council of a town or district–French "commune") that exercised power in Paris for two months in the spring of 1871. But the conditions in which it was formed, its controversial decrees, and its tortured end make it one of the more important political episodes of the time.
The Commune put forward a radical social agenda that included separation of church and state, women's suffrage, abolition of interest on debts, and worker self-management, among others. However, while they appealed to the workers, they were not able to broaden their appeal.
The Commune was the result of an uprising within Paris after the Franco-Prussian War ended with France's defeat. This uprising had two root causes: on the one hand the disaster in the war, on the other the growing discontent among French workers, which can be traced to the 1830s, when the first worker uprisings took place in Lyon and Paris.
The war with Prussia, started by Napoleon III ("Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte") in July 1870, turned out disastrously for the French and by September Paris itself was under siege. The gap between rich and poor in the capital had widened in recent years and now food shortages, military failures, and finally a Prussian bombardment were adding to an already widespread discontent. Parisians, especially workers and the lower-middle classes, had long been supporters of a democratic republic. A specific demand was that Paris should be self-governing, with its own elected council, something enjoyed by smaller French towns, but denied to Paris by a government wary of the capital's unruly populace. An associated but more vague wish was for a fairer, if not necessarily socialist economic system, summed up in the popular cry for "la république démocratique et sociale!"
In January, 1871, when the siege had lasted for four months, the moderate republican Government of National Defense sought an armistice with the newly-proclaimed German Empire. The Germans included a triumphal entry into Paris in the peace terms. Despite the hardships of the siege, many Parisians were bitterly resentful and were particularly angry that the Prussians (now at the head of the new Empire) should be allowed even a brief ceremonial occupation of their city.
By that time hundreds of thousands of Parisians were armed members of a citizens' militia known as the "National Guard," which had been greatly expanded to help defend the city. Guard units elected their own officers, who in working-class districts included radical and socialist leaders.
Steps were being taken to form a "Central Committee" of the Guard, including patriotic republicans and socialists, both to defend Paris against a possible German attack, and also to defend the republic against a possible royalist restoration, following the election of a monarchist majority in February 1871 to the new National Assembly.
The population of Paris was defiant in the face of defeat, and was prepared to fight if the entry of the German army into the city led to an armed clash. Before the Germans entered Paris, National Guards, helped by ordinary working people, managed to take large numbers of cannon (which they regarded as their own property, as they had been partly paid for by public subscription) away from the Germans' path and store them in "safe" districts. One of the chief "cannon parks" was on the heights of Montmartre.
Adolphe Thiers, head of the new provisional government, realized that in the present unstable situation the Central Committee formed an alternative center of political and military power. In addition, he was concerned that the workers would arm themselves with the National Guard weapons and provoke the Germans.
The Germans entered Paris briefly and left again without incident. But Paris continued to be in a state of high political excitement. The imperial and provisional governments had both left Paris for Versailles, a safer haven against the German armies, and during the time required to return there was a power vacuum in the capital of France.
As the Central Committee of the National Guard was adopting an increasingly radical stance and steadily gaining in authority, the government felt that it could not indefinitely allow it to have four hundred cannons at its disposal. And so, as a first step, on 18 March Thiers ordered regular troops to seize the cannon stored on the Butte Montmartre and in other locations across the city. Instead of following instructions, however, the soldiers, whose morale was in any case not high, fraternized with National Guards and local residents. The general at Montmartre, Claude Martin Lecomte, who was later said to have ordered them to fire on the crowd of National Guards and civilians, was dragged from his horse and later shot, together with General Thomas, a veteran republican now hated as former commander of the National Guard, who was seized nearby.
Other army units joined in the rebellion which spread so rapidly that the head of the government, Thiers, ordered an immediate evacuation of Paris by as many of the regular forces as would obey, by the police, and by administrators and specialists of every kind. He fled himself, ahead of them, to Versailles. Thiers claimed he had thought about this strategy ("retreat from Paris to crush the people afterward") for a long time, while meditating on the example of the 1848 Revolution, but it is just as likely that he panicked. There is no evidence that the government had expected or planned for the crisis that had now begun. The Central Committee of the National Guard was now the only effective government in Paris: it arranged elections for a Commune, to be held on 26 March.
The 92 members of the Commune (or, more correctly, of the "Communal Council") included a high proportion of skilled workers and several professionals (such as doctors and journalists). Many of them were political activists, ranging from reformist republicans, through various types of socialists, to the Jacobins who tended to look back nostalgically to the Revolution of 1789.
One man, the veteran leader of the 'Blanquist' group of revolutionary socialists, Louis Auguste Blanqui, was elected President of the Council, but this was in his absence, for he had been arrested on 17 March and was held in a secret prison throughout the life of the Commune. The Commune unsuccessfully tried to exchange him first against Mgr Darboy, archbishop of Paris, then against all 74 hostages it detained, but that was flatly refused by Adolphe Thiers (see below). The Paris Commune was proclaimed on 28 March, although local districts often retained the organizations from the siege.
The Commune adopted the previously discarded French Republican Calendar during its brief existence and used the socialist red flag rather than the republican tricolore—in 1848, during the Second Republic, radicals and socialists had already adopted the red flag to distinguish themselves from moderate Republicans similar to the moderate, liberal Girondists during the 1789 Revolution.
Despite internal differences, the Council made a good start in maintaining the public services essential for a city of two million; it was also able to reach a consensus on certain policies whose content tended towards a progressive, secular and highly democratic social democracy rather than a social revolution. Lack of time (the Commune was able to meet on fewer than 60 days in all) meant that only a few decrees were actually implemented. These included the separation of church and state; the right to vote for women; the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended); the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries; the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions of National Guards killed on active service, as well as to the children if any; the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen's tools and household items up to 20 francs in value, pledged during the siege as they were concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war; the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and abolition of interest on the debts; and, the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner, who was to receive compensation.
The decree separated the church from the state, made all church property public property, and excluded religion from schools—after the fall of the Commune, the Third Republic would have to wait until the 1880-1881 Jules Ferry laws and the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State to implement again these measures which founded French laïcité. The churches were allowed to continue their religious activity only if they kept their doors open to public political meetings during the evenings. Along with the streets and the cafés, this made the churches one of the main participatory political centers of the Commune. Other projected legislation dealt with educational reforms which would make further education and technical training freely available to all.
Some women organized a feminist movement, following on from earlier attempts in 1789 and 1848. Thus, Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder, and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian exile and member of the Russian section of the First International (IWA), created the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés ("Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Injured") on 11 April 1871. The feminist writer André Léo, a friend of Paule Minck, also was active in the Women's Union. Believing that their struggle against patriarchy could only be followed in the frame of a global struggle against capitalism, the association demanded gender-equality, wages' equality, right of divorce for women, right to secular education and for professional education for girls. They also demanded suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, between legitimate and natural children, the abolition of prostitution (obtaining the closing of the maisons de tolérance, or legal official brothels). The Women's Union also participated in several municipal commissions and organized cooperative workshops. Along with Eugène Varlin, Nathalie Le Mel created the cooperative restaurant La Marmite, which served free food for indigents, and then fought during the Bloody Week on the barricades  On the other hand, Paule Minck opened a free school in the Church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre, and animated the Club Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank . The Russian Anne Jaclard, who declined to marry Dostoievsky and finally became the wife of Blanquist activist Victor Jaclard, founded with André Léo the newspaper La Sociale. She was also a member of the Comité de vigilance de Montmartre, along with Louise Michel and Paule Minck, as well as of the Russian section of the First International. Victorine Brocher, close to the IWA activists, and founder of a cooperative bakery in 1867, also fought during the Commune and the Bloody Week .
Famous figures such as Louise Michel, the "Red Virgin of Montmartre" who joined the National Guard and would later be sent to New Caledonia, symbolize the active participation of a small number of women in the insurrectionary events. A female battalion from the National Guard defended the Place Blanche during the repression.
The work-load of the leaders of the Commune was enormous. The Council members (who were not "representatives" but delegates, subject in theory to immediate recall by their electors) were expected to carry out many executive and military functions as well as their legislative ones. The numerous ad hoc organizations set up during the siege in the localities ("quartiers") to meet social needs (canteens, first aid stations) continued to thrive and cooperated with the Commune.
At the same time, these local assemblies pursued their own goals, usually under the direction of local workers. Despite the formal reformism of the Commune council, the composition of the Commune as a whole was much more revolutionist. Revolutionary trends present included Proudhonists - an early form of moderate anarchists - members of the International socialists, Blanquists, and more libertarian republicans. The Paris Commune has been celebrated by Anarchist and Marxist socialists continuously until the present day, partly due to the variety of tendencies, the high degree of workers' control and the remarkable cooperation among different revolutionists.
In the IIIe arrondissement, for instance, school materials were provided free, three schools were "laicised" and an orphanage was established. In the XXe arrondissement, school children were provided with free clothing and food. There were many similar examples. But a vital ingredient in the Commune's relative success at this stage was the initiative shown by ordinary workers in the public domain, who managed to take on the responsibilities of the administrators and specialists removed by Thiers. After only a week, the Commune came under attack by elements of the new army (which eventually included former prisoners of war released by the Germans) being created at a furious pace in Versailles.
The Commune forces, the National Guard, first began skirmishing with the regular Versailles Army on 2 April. Neither side really sought a major civil war, but neither was either side ever willing to negotiate. The Marquis de Galliffet, the fusilleur de la Commune who later took part as Minister of War in Waldeck-Rousseau's government at the turn of the century (alongside independent socialist Millerand), was one of the generals leading the counterassault headed by Thiers.
The nearby suburb of Courbevoie was occupied by the government forces on 2 April, and a delayed attempt by the Commune's own forces to march on Versailles on 3 April failed ignominiously. Defense and survival became overriding considerations, and a determined effort was made by the Commune leadership to turn the National Guard into an effective defense force.
Strong support came also from the large foreign community of political refugees and exiles in Paris: one of them, the Polish ex-officer and nationalist Jarosław Dąbrowski, was to be the Commune's best general. The Council was fully committed to internationalism, and it was in the name of brotherhood that the Vendôme Column, celebrating the victories of Napoleon I, and considered by the Commune to be a monument to Bonapartism and chauvinism, was pulled down.
Abroad, there were rallies and messages of goodwill sent by trade union and socialist organizations, including some in Germany. But any hopes of getting serious help from other French cities were soon dashed. Thiers and his ministers in Versailles managed to prevent almost all information from leaking out of Paris; and in provincial and rural France there had always been a skeptical attitude towards the activities of the metropolis. Movements in Narbonne, Limoges, and Marseille were rapidly crushed.
As the situation deteriorated further, a section of the Council won a vote (opposed by bookbinder Eugène Varlin, a correspondent of Karl Marx, and by other moderates) for the creation of a "Committee of Public Safety," modelled on the Jacobin organ with the same title, formed in 1792. Its powers were extensive and ruthless in theory, but in practice it was ineffective.
Throughout April and May, government forces, constantly increasing in number - Prussia releasing French POWs to help the Thiers government -, carried out a siege of the city's powerful defenses, and pushed the National Guards back. On 21 May a gate in the western part of the fortified city wall of Paris was forced and Versaillese troops began the reconquest of the city, first occupying the prosperous western districts where they were welcomed by those residents who had not left Paris after the armistice. It seems an engineer (who had spied regularly for the Thiers government) found the gate unmanned and signaled this to the Versaillais.
The strong local loyalties which had been a positive feature of the Commune now became something of a disadvantage: instead of an overall planned defense, each "quartier" fought desperately for its survival, and each was overcome in turn. The webs of narrow streets which made entire districts nearly impregnable in earlier Parisian revolutions had been largely replaced by wide boulevards during Haussmann's renovation of Paris. The Versaillese enjoyed a centralized command and had superior numbers. They had learned the tactics of street fighting, and simply tunnelled through the walls of houses to outflank the Communards' barricades. Ironically, only where Haussmann had made wide spaces and streets were they held up by the defenders' gunfire.
During the assault, the government troops were responsible for slaughtering National Guard troops and civilians: prisoners taken in possession of weapons, or who were suspected of having fought, were shot out of hand and summary executions were commonplace.
The Commune had taken a "decree on hostages" on April 5, 1871, according to which any accomplice with Versailles would be made the "hostage of the Parisian people," its article 5 stating furthermore that the execution by Versailles of any war prisoner or partisan of the regular government of the Paris Commune would be followed on the spot by the execution of the triple number of retained hostages. This decree, however, was not applied. The Commune tried several times to exchange Mgr Darboy, archbishop of Paris, against Auguste Blanqui, but that was flatly refused by Adolphe Thiers, whose personal secretary, Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, declared: "The hostages! The hostages! too bad for them (tant pis pour eux!)."
The Commune unsuccessfully made other negotiation attempts, proposing the exchange of all 74 hostages it detained against Blanqui. Finally, during the Bloody Week and the ensuing executions carried out by Versaille troops, Théophile Ferré signed the execution order for six hostages (including Mgr. Darboy), who passed before a firing-squad on May 24 in the prison de la Roquette. This led Auguste Vermorel to ironically (and perhaps naively, since Thiers had refused any negotiation) to declare: "What a great job! Now we've lost our only chance to stop the bloodshed." Théophile Ferré was himself executed in retaliation by Thiers' troops  .
The Catholic Encyclopedia states that on 24 – 26 May, more than 50 hostages were murdered. In some cases, certain leaders of the Commune gave the orders, in other cases they were killed by mobs.  Amongst the victims was the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy.
The toughest resistance came in the more working-class districts of the east, where fighting continued during the later stages of the week of vicious street fighting (La Semaine sanglante, the bloody week). By 27 May only a few pockets of resistance remained, notably the poorer eastern districts of Belleville and Ménilmontant. Fighting ended during the late afternoon or early evening of 28 May. According to legend, the last barricade was in the rue Ramponeau in Belleville.
Marshall MacMahon issued a proclamation: "To the inhabitants of Paris. The French army has come to save you. Paris is freed! At 4 o'clock our soldiers took the last insurgent position. Today the fight is over. Order, work and security will be reborn."
Reprisals now began in earnest. Having supported the Commune in any way was a political crime, of which thousands could be, and were, accused. Some of the Communards were shot against what is now known as the Communards' Wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery while thousands of others were tried by summary courts martial of doubtful legality, and thousands shot. Notorious sites of slaughter were the Luxembourg Gardens and the Lobau Barracks, behind the Hôtel de Ville. Nearly 40,000 others were marched to Versailles for trials. For many days endless columns of men, women and children made a painful way under military escort to temporary prison quarters in Versailles. Later 12,500 were tried, and about 10,000 were found guilty: 23 men were executed; many were condemned to prison; 4,000 were deported for life to the French penal colony on the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific. The number of killed during La Semaine Sanglante can never be established for certain, and estimates vary from about 10,000 to 50,000. According to Benedict Anderson, "7,500 were jailed or deported" and "roughly 20,000 executed" .
According to British historian Alfred Cobban, 30,000 were killed, perhaps as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned and 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia. Thousands more - including most of the Commune leaders - succeeded in escaping to Belgium, Britain (a safe haven for 3-4,000 refugees), Italy, Spain and the United States. The final exiles and transportees were amnestied in 1880. Some became prominent in later politics, as Paris councilors, deputies or senators.
In 1872, "stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left." For the imprisoned there was a general amnesty in 1880, except for those convicted of assassination or arson. Paris remained under martial law for five years.
Karl Marx found it aggravating that the Communards "lost precious moments" organizing democratic elections rather than instantly finishing off Versailles once and for all. France's national bank, located in Paris and storing billions of francs, was left untouched and unguarded by the Communards. Timidly they asked to borrow money from the bank (which of course they got without any hesitation). The Communards chose not to seize the bank's assets because they were afraid that the world would condemn them if they did. Thus large amounts of money were moved from Paris to Versailles, money that financed the army that crushed the Commune.
Communists, left-wing socialists, anarchists and others have seen the Commune as a model for, or a prefiguration of, a liberated society, with a political system based on participatory democracy from the grass roots up. Marx and Engels, Bakunin, and later Lenin and Trotsky tried to draw major theoretical lessons (in particular as regards the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the "withering away of the state") from the limited experience of the Commune.
A more pragmatic lesson was drawn by the diarist Edmond de Goncourt, who wrote, three days after La Semaine sanglante,
"…the bleeding has been done thoroughly, and a bleeding like that, by killing the rebellious part of a population, postpones the next revolution… The old society has twenty years of peace before it…"
Karl Marx, in his important pamphlet The Civil War in France (1871), written during the Commune, touted the Commune's achievements, and described it as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future, 'the form at last discovered' for the emancipation of the proletariat. Friedrich Engels echoed this idea, later maintaining that the absence of a standing army, the self-policing of the "quartiers," and other features meant that the Commune was no longer a "state" in the old, repressive sense of the term: it was a transitional form, moving towards the abolition of the state as such - he used the famous term later taken up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks: the Commune was, he said, the first 'dictatorship of the proletariat,' meaning it was a state run by workers and in the interests of workers. Marx and Engels were not, however, entirely uncritical of the Commune. The split between the Marxists and Bakuninists at the 1872 Hague Congress of the First International (IWA) may in part be traced to Marx's stance that the Commune might have saved itself had it dealt more harshly with reactionaries, instituted conscription, and centralize decision making in the hands of a revolutionary direction, etc. The other point of disagreement was the anti-authoritarian socialists' oppositions to the Communist conception of conquest of power and of a temporary transitional state (the anarchists were in favor of general strike and immediate dismantlement of the state through the constitution of decentralized workers' councils as those seen in the Commune).
The Paris Commune has been the subject of awe for many communist leaders. Mao would refer to it often. Lenin, along with Marx, judged the Commune a living example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," though Lenin criticized the Communards for having 'stopped half way … led astray by dreams of … justice'; he thought their 'excessive magnanimity' had prevented them from 'destroying' the class enemy by 'ruthless extermination'. At his funeral, his body was wrapped in the remains of a red and white flag preserved from the Commune. The Soviet spaceflight Voskhod 1 carried part of a communard banner from the Paris Commune. Also, the Bolsheviks renamed the dreadnought battleship Sevastopol to Parizhskaya Kommuna.
Simultaneously with the Paris Commune, uprisings in Lyon, Grenoble and other cities established equally short-lived Communes.
"In March 1871 the Commune took power in the abandoned city and held it for two months. Then Versailles seized the moment to attack and, in one horrifying week, executed roughly 20,000 Communards or suspected sympathizers, a number higher than those killed in the recent war or during Robespierre’s ‘Terror’ of 1793–94. More than 7,500 were jailed or deported to places like New Caledonia. Thousands of others fled to Belgium, England, Italy, Spain and the United States. In 1872, stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left. Not till 1880 was there a general amnesty for exiled and imprisoned Communards. Meantime, the Third Republic found itself strong enough to renew and reinforce Louis Napoleon’s imperialist expansion—in Indochina, Africa, and Oceania. Many of France’s leading intellectuals and artists had participated in the Commune (Courbet was its quasi-minister of culture, Rimbaud and Pissarro were active propagandists) or were sympathetic to it. The ferocious repression of 1871 and after was probably the key factor in alienating these milieux from the Third Republic and stirring their sympathy for its victims at home and abroad."
But two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators,” it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over, and Proudhonist theories about a “just exchange,” etc., still prevailed among the socialists. The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.
…Mindful of the lessons of the Commune, it [the Russian proletariat] knew that the proletariat should not ignore peaceful methods of struggle—they serve its ordinary, day-to-day interests, they are necessary in periods of preparation for revolution—but it must never forget that in certain conditions the class struggle assumes the form of armed conflict and civil war; there are times when the interests of the proletariat call for ruthless extermination of its enemies in open armed clashes.
For Lenin's views, see V.I. Lenin on the Paris Commune. Moscow: 1970.
For Anarchist analysis of the events,
Older works include:
All links retrieved March 24, 2015.
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