Briefing: The Paris Commune | UK week
Why was the Commune important?
For just 72 days – from March 18 to May 28, 1871 – a revolutionary government ruled Paris and espoused a host of radical causes: decent conditions for workers; free universal education; separation of church and state; the abolition of child labour; equality between men and women; citizenship for foreigners. Although quickly suppressed with remarkable ferocity, the Paris Commune inspired socialist movements around the world. Karl Marx described it as the prototype of a future revolutionary government – ”the finally discovered form for the emancipation of the working class”. Friedrich Engels saw in it the first real example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Lenin’s tomb in Red Square is still adorned with red banners of the Commune brought to Russia by French Communists.
What was the context of its emergence?
In 1870, the Second French Empire, led by Napoleon III, Bonaparte’s nephew, went to war against Prussia and its German allies. The Emperor’s generals had assured him that he would win easily and restore France’s dominant position in Europe, but the Prussians routed the French, capturing Napoleon III at Sedan on September 2, with 100,000 troops. The Second Empire collapses and the government withdraws to Bordeaux. Paris, partly deserted by the well-to-do, was besieged by the Prussians for four months, causing great difficulty – and defended by its National Guard, a militia composed mainly of workers, which became more and more radicalized. In January, the new government agreed to humiliating surrender terms with the Prussian leader, Bismarck. The French Third Republic is formed and a new government, dominated by provincial conservatives, is elected.
How was the Commune born?
Adolphe Thiers, the head of the new government, recognized the revolutionary situation in Paris, and on March 18 sent soldiers to disarm the National Guard and withdraw hundreds of cannons. The Parisians were determined to keep them. In Montmartre, in the industrial northeast of the city, the mob captures and executes the commander of the troops, General Lecomte, and another general, the hated former commander of the national guard; the government and army retreated to Versailles, and the Guard took control of the city. The Paris Commune was proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville shortly afterwards, and the red flag of socialism was hoisted over the building. On March 26, the municipal elections organized by the National Guard ended in a clear victory for the revolutionaries, who formed a new Council of the Commune.
Who were its leaders?
The council, by design, had no single leader. Its delegates, known as Communards, held a mixture of beliefs, from radical socialism to anarchism to moderate republicanism. Many influential delegates were Blanquists, supporters of Louis-Auguste Blanqui (then a prisoner of the government), who called for violent revolution and the redistribution of wealth. Others were anarchists or Proudhonists, inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who claimed that “property is theft” and wanted the state to be abolished and divided into autonomous communes run by workers’ councils – a society, as he said, “without authority”. A smaller number were less radical Republicans, who sought the gradual reform of French institutions.
What has the Commune achieved?
It existed for a little over two months and its work was interrupted forever by emergencies, but during that time it succeeded in abolishing the death penalty and military conscription. The peacetime economy was still suspended and much of the city subsisted on the pay and rations of the National Guard, but the communards introduced some economic reforms: they banned night cooking, instituted a day’s work ten hours and decide that workers can take over a business if it is abandoned by its owner. The council has, for a time, managed the public services of a city of two million people. Perhaps more importantly, it was a time of unprecedented freedom and debate – “Everyone argues, no one obeys,” one soldier complains – and grand symbolic gestures. The Communards burned the guillotine and pulled down the Vendôme column to Napoleon I, calling it a “monument to barbarism and militarism”.
When did the government object to it?
On May 21, about 130,000 well-armed government troops entered Paris. The unequal struggle with the 25,000 National Guardsmen that followed is known as the bloody week, the Bloody Week: Regular troops, mostly from conservative rural France, who saw them as ungodly extremists, kill surrendered guards on sight. The retreating Communards also killed a small number – including the Archbishop of Paris – and burned much of central Paris: the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, Notre-Dame. Their last fight took place in the working-class northeast, at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where 147 guards surrendered, many of them wounded. They were lined up against the cemetery wall (known today as the Communards’ Wall), shot and thrown into an open trench.
What happened to the remaining Communards?
The fighting died down on May 28, but a series of hasty trials and mass executions followed, in public parks and behind prison walls. About 40,000 people were arrested and more than 7,000 were deported, some to New Caledonia in the Pacific, many to other European countries where they spread the creed of internationalist socialism. (The International was written by a Communard.) The army recorded 877 dead. Estimates of deaths on the other side range between 8,000 and 30,000. Yale historian John Merriman, author of a history of the Commune, believes 15,000 to 17,000 were killed. But after the great turbulence of the previous century, this bloodbath was in fact followed by a period of stability for France: the Third Republic lasted until 1940.
In memory of cherry time
Among the half-dozen uprisings in Paris in the 1800s, the Commune stands out even today. One of the reasons for this is that, by the standards of revolutions, he was bloodless and innocently idealistic – but he was crushed with exceptional brutality for the time. This made martyrs of the communards. Marx and Lenin revered their memory and learned from what they saw as the mistakes of the Commune: they believed it should have dealt more harshly with its class enemies and properly abolished the old state, centralizing power between the hands of a revolutionary organization.
The second reason, suggests historian Robert Tombs on UnHerd, “is that it was short…He had no time either to moderate himself into bourgeois banality, or to start devouring his own children. .” As Marx noted, it was long enough only to indicate what might have been. From then on, it is easy to project fantasies onto this brief interlude of spring liberation. “Still unfulfilled, her promise intact, she remains, in the words of a famous song written by one of her rulers, The cherry season – The cherry season.