NEXT month marks
the 135th anniversary of the Paris Commune, when the working class of
The Parisian workers were
also angry when the Emperor Louis Napoleon engaged in an unnecessary
war with the Prussians. The French army was undermanned, under-equipped
and badly led. On Friday 2nd September it was defeated at the battle of
When the news arrived in
There were further defeats
for the French army as the people of
Many workers who had been thrown out of their jobs by the war joined for the pay of 1.50 francs-a-day plus 75 centimes for a wife. Women also joined the National Guard as – cantinières – officially carrying food and drink to the fighters but actually doing a lot of fighting as well. When a guardsman fighting the Prussians fell, often a cantinière would take up his rifle and carry on the fight.
Once the siege took hold,
there was a news blackout inside
Manned balloons were a little
more successful. They presented a huge target but only five out of 65
were shot down. But they were not easy to control and easily blown off
course. They landed as far away as
In spite of the all food that had been stored in preparation for the siege it soon brought great hardship. There was no rationing at first so the poor suffered disproportionately as food prices rocketed.
Strange things started to appear on menus, including animals from the zoo. During the siege records show that 65,000 horses, 5,000 cats, 1,200 dogs and an uncounted number of rats were eaten. By January 1871 they introduced bread rationing.
Fuel was also in short supply so people cut down trees and burnt them and their furniture.
Throughout the siege the Prussian bombarded the city with their huge guns, killing 97 but hunger and illness killed many more. In December 1870 the total death toll was 11,865 and in January 1871 it was 19,233.
The people were angry with the temporary French government for not striking back at the Prussians. There were no plans for a strike by the National Guard.
On 18th January the Prussian
declared their empire at
The new National Assembly was
pro-royalist and opposed to the republicanism of
Adolphe Thiers was elected head of the new government and he drew up a peace treaty with Prussians. He then stopped pay for the National Guard and ordered Parisians to pay back commercial debts and rent arrears they had run up during the siege.
Anger was rising in
Later she wrote: “I went
down, my rifle under my coat, crying ‘Treason’. A column was forming…
Crowds gathered around the
soldiers. The people of
General Lecompte was arrested, along with General Clément Thomas, an ex-commander of the National Guard.
The cannons fired three blank
shots to tell the people of
Confusion reigned – nothing had been planned and no one was in charge.
A crowd stormed the house
where the two captive generals were being held and shot them. Thiers realised he
had lost control of
After they left a new mood of
freedom s wept across
On 26th March elections were held and two days later the Commune was proclaimed. Red sashes and red flags abounded throughout the city.
A member of the Commune, Jules Vallés, wrote in his newspaper Le Cri du Peuple: “Today is the festive wedding day of the Idea and the Revolution. Soldier-citizens, the Commune we have acclaimed and married today must tomorrow bear fruit; we must take our place once more, still proud and now free, in the workshop and at the counter. After the poetry of triumph, the prose of work.”
Thirty out of the 90 Commune members were working class – a high proportion for that time. There were no formal political parties in the Commune – they were all socialists but aligned in loose groupings: Jacobins, Blanquists and communists. They were all communards.
The Commune gave working
people enormous confidence to do things they had never done before or
been allowed to do Many other French cities followed suit and set up
their own communes, including: Lyons,
Marseilles, Toulouse, Narbonne, St
Etienne, Le Creusot and Limoges. But they were all quickly crushed by the
imposed news barrier so that once again people inside
The Communards failed to confront the Thiers government or to seize the banks. If they had, they would have been in a stronger position to resist. They were busy planning social reforms but failed to plan to defend the Commune militarily.
The Commune did have arms and men – which Thiers did not have at first. But the Prussians, alarmed at the prospect of working class revolution, allowed Thiers to recruit and train a new army. He had no doubts that this was a civil war.
The Commune had three
military leaders: Lullier, Cluseret and Rossell.
They were professional soldiers but they were frustrated by a lack of
clear military policy. They were impatient with the new democratic
procedures and unable to convey the urgent need to organise
the defence of
The Commune did launch one
After this morale in the Commune fell and divisions began to appear. The Commune was also getting a very bad press internationally. The London Times reported: “The men of the Commune do not intend to be disappointed. They have promised themselves to annihilate Paris, its fortunes, its commerce, its population – and they keep their word. “Never was the work of destruction carried on with a more wicked and brutal perseverance.”
Communards were called “the mob, red insurgents, bandits, anarchists, convicts, scum, moral gangrene, socialists”.
Women played a very active role in all this. One woman speaker told a club meeting: “Yes, you women are oppressed. But just have a little more patience, for the day that will bring justice and satisfaction for our demands is rapidly approaching. “Tomorrow you will belong to yourselves and not to exploiters. The factories in which you are crowded together will belong to you; the tools placed in your hands will belong to you; the profit that results from your labour, your care, the loss of your health, will be shared among you.” There were around 90 trade unions active in the city. Workers’ cooperatives were set up – supported by the Commune. The Commune allowed workers employed in factories and workshops that had been abandoned as the owners fled the city to take them over as cooperatives.
Church control of education was abolished. People were given three years to pay off debts run up during the siege. All public officials were elected; there was a cap of 6,000 francs on top salaries and the Commune paid out to redeem all household goods like bedding and clothing that had been pawned. There was free clothing, food and school materials for children.
The famous artist Courbet was a Commune member. He wrote: “I’m
The people of
The troops entered on 21st
May Versailles by the Saint-Cloud gate. When news reached the
Communards in the Hôtel de Ville the
final Commune session ended as members left for the barricades. No one
was left behind to direct the fight except Delescluze,
the civilian delegate for war. He sent the following message to the
barricades: “Enough of militarism, no more staff officers with gold
embroidered uniforms! Make way for the people, the bare-armed fighters!
The hour of revolutionary war has struck. The people know nothing of
elaborate manoeuvres, but when they have a
rifle in their hands and cobblestones under their feet, they have no
fear of the strategists of monarchist school.” It did no good. It left
the people of
The London Times, which had
opposed the commune, protested about “the inhuman laws of revenge under
Retreating Communards torched many large public buildings and after this a scare story was put about that women Communards – dubbed Pétroleuses – were starting fires everywhere. This led to many women being shot on sight on suspicion of being incendiaries.
Two hundred Communards made a last stand against a wall in the top corner of Pere Lachaise cemetery. The next day 147 prisoners were taken to the same spot and shot.
The killing continued after the Communards had all been killed or taken prisoner; 34,722 prisoners were put on trial and many executed. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 were killed one way or another.
The new government erected a
new church, Sacré Coeur, on the
The Paris Commune failed but its lessons echo through history. After it fell Marx and Engels wrote of the necessity for a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established immediately after any socialist revolution to consolidate it and defend it against counter revolution.
Without the lessons of the Commune, the socialist advances of the following century would have been impossible.