The Paris Commune was long held up by Marxists as the archetypal proletarian government – rule by the workers for the workers. Observing the violent insurrection, and the numerous political clubs that sprang up everywhere, Marx was inspired to declare that this was the empowerment of the ordinary people. He argued that the ‘true secret’ of the Commune was the working class government which could work towards the economic emancipation of labour. For Engels, the workers’ self-government and self-advancement signified a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. For the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the Commune provided a model of action and inspiration, with old Communards present in Petrograd in 1917. The Communists even sent a piece of a flag used in the Paris Commune of 1871 on their first lunar expedition. But it also provided a warning of what might happen when a revolution in the capital was not supported in the provinces. The Marxist perspective dominated historiography on the Paris Commune until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this interpretation has now been largely discredited. We will examine how the Commune came to power, its actions, the nature of its support and leadership, and its wider significance in French history. We will address the key themes that have dominated historians’ understanding of the Commune, namely whether the Commune marked the formation of proletarian consciousness, and whether this really was a struggle between Paris and the provinces.
Origins of the Commune
The Paris Commune of 1871 must be understood within the context of earlier insurrections in the capital’s history. The Revolution of 1789 served as a source of inspiration for the Communards of 1871, and they consciously sought portray themselves as the continuation of that tradition. So dominant were memories of the Revolution that Marx warned against the danger of their creating a ‘reactionary cult of the past’. Many of those involved in the events of 1870-1871 also had personal memories of the revolution of 1848. The roots of the Paris Commune undoubtedly lie in the republican memories of earlier revolutions and their subsequent suppression by the forces of conservatism. For the revolution of February to June 1848 was cut short by the election of Louis-Napoleon in December 1848, and many far-left republicans were forced into exile after the coup of 2 December 1851, in which Napoleon III, as he now called himself, declared the establishment of the Second Empire. The French collapse in the battle of Sedan saw the left rise up to proclaim a republic. Many perceived the remainder of the conflict as being as much about safeguarding this revolution as it was about resisting the German invasion.
But the revolution of 4 September 1870, which was spearheaded by republicans in the capital and in several major provincial cities such as Lyon and Marseille, was not supported by significant sections of the population. Even in government, there was open hostility between the likes of Gambetta and the conservative army commanders. While Gambetta saw the concept of a levée en masse as being the key to safeguarding the fatherland in danger, military chiefs were not convinced that the national guard could be a serious fighting force. Thus the 200,000 or so national guards deployed in the capital were left idle as the siege of Paris unfolded, left simply to watch over the city ramparts and keep order. This inaction led to a demoralising sense of uselessness; many were often drunk on the job, while many others spent their evenings listening to orators at the many extreme left-wing clubs that sprang up from the increasing impatience at the failure to break out of the impasse. Soon the political clubs began to develop considerable power over both the national guardsmen and the government, one club leader declaring that the government could not undertake any military operation without consulting the clubs first.
Unrest and dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the war effort exploded on 5 October when red leaders led the Belleville and Ménilmontant battalions of the national guard to the town hall to demand an immediate sortie. Trochu, who was in charge of the city’s defence, refused, however. So three days later there was a much noisier march to the town hall in which cries of ‘long live the Commune’ were heard for the first time. At this point it I should perhaps clarify what was meant by the term Commune. The word had deep roots in French history. In political terms, it had several meanings, including municipalism, and communism. It was strongly reminiscent of the 1793 Commune which enabled the most radical revolutionaries to control Paris during the Terror. All the hopes of republicans in Paris were encapsulated in the word Commune as a revolutionary embodiment of the people which would surmount all problems.
To return back to the events of 1870, though, a failed sortie from Paris, and news of the capitulation of Metz led to renewed unrest on 31 October. The mayor of Montmartre, Clemenceau, issued a poster declaring that if the government accepted an armistice, this would be considered an act of treason. Around 15,000 national guardsmen gathered spontaneously at the town hall. The revolutionary leader Gustave Flourens proposed that the Belleville national guard overthrow the government and replace it with one headed by the men of the extreme left, such as Blanqui and Delescluze. In the event only around 400 men turned up, and the situation was easily contained until a shot was fired into the crowds, causing panic to break out. Flourens led a handful of men into the town hall, where they took several members of the government hostage. In negotiations wth the governemnt for their release, it was agreed that there would be immediate elections and no reprisals against the insurgents. In reality, however, the elections held on 3 November turned into a vote of approval for the government, while the insurgents were quickly rounded up by police.
Since September, patriots led by revolutionary leaders and the national guard had been demanding a sortie torrentielle in order to break the deadlock of the siege. By late January, the government and army felt obliged to acquiesce, ordering a sortie from Buzenval on 19 January. It was another disaster, bringing angry crowds to the town hall once again.
So – as we have seen, over the course of the war, there were constant undercurrents of unrest in Paris, which goes back to the lack of political unity during the Franco-Prussian War. What seems to have really sparked the mobilisation of the city’s republicans was the feeling that patriotic and republican Paris was being betrayed by a conservative government and a conservative population in the provinces. The elections of 8 February produced a massive monarchist majority. The actions of the government were therefore viewed through in these terms. With memories of the suppression of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 vivid in the popular imagination, the instinctive reaction of many in the capital was to resist the actions of the government.
Such suspicions of the government were fuelled by the capitulation and armistice of 26 January. Many in the capital believed it a betrayal by those who opposed republican and patriotic Paris. The government’s agreement to a triumphal entry into Paris on 1 March was particularly galling for a city that believed it had not been defeated militarily. For unlike in Petrograd in 1917, where revolutionaries wanted to end the war and the government attempted to continue it at the expense of the population, in France in 1871, the situation was the other way round, with revolutionaries wanting to continue the war. The prospect of a German parade and the loss of their pay led many national guardsmen to re-mobilise themselves spontaneously and to establish their own political leadership, which was regarded as the framework for the political organisation of Paris. They seized the guns bought by public subscription and rejected their official commanders as defeatist royalists.
The next step in convincing the capital that the government was operating against its interest was the so-called ‘measures against Paris’. On 11-12 March 1871, the National Assembly adopted four bills, each of which was detrimental to the capital. They included ending pay for National Guardsmen, and end to the moratorium on the sale of goods at pawnshops, overdue bills payable with interest, and the National Assembly being adjourned to Versailles. The end of the moratorium on rent and other of the four measures hit the poorest sections of Paris the hardest, thereby fuelling extreme-left claims that this was an act of class war. The government decision to return to Versailles rather than Paris caused intense anger and fuelled calls for Paris to have its own government. It was interpreted by many Parisians as a deliberately hostile act by the reactionary rural majority.
The uprising of 18 March was essentially spontaneous, lacking any significant direction by extreme-left figures until relatively late in the day. Essentially, national guards and the people of Paris responded to what they perceived to be an act of provocation by the government of Adolphe Thiers based in Versailles. In reality, the actions of the government were intended to avoid provocation. The National Assembly had been pressing Thiers to impose order on the capital. The problem was that while the city had been disarmed as part of the armistice with Germany, 400 cannon remained in the hands of the national guard, having been paid for out of public donations. To avoid confrontation, the government planned a surprise seizure of the artillery to be followed by a police round-up of radicals and revolutionaries. But there was a delay in the arrival of the horses needed to haul the cannon away, which gave defending guardsmen time to raise the alarm.
The main scene of the confrontation was at Montmartre. One national guardsman named Turpin challenged the soldiers attempting to seize the cannon, only to be shot. With the alert sounded, women began to gather and attempt to fraternise with the soldiers, offering them food. The divisional commander, General Lecomte, realising he had lost control of his men, ordered them to shoot, but by then it had become psychologically impossible, so the men turned round and captured Lecomte. That afternoon, crowds spotted General Thomas, a commander of the forces that had repressed the demonstrations of June 1848, and when they heard that guardsman Turpin had been shot, they killed him and Lecomte.
These were spontaneous actions by national guards and local residents, and not the carefully co-ordinated moves of revolutionary leaders acting as the vanguard of the proletariat, as Marxist historiography later claim. Indeed, it was only in the middle of the morning that the national guard Central Committee gathered to formulate a plan. By 10pm, one group of guardsmen acting on behalf of the Central Committee occupied the prefecture, and by 11pm, another had occupied the town hall. By midnight, then, the authority of the state had effectively collapsed in the capital, leaving the Central Committee as the only body with any authority over Paris.
In the following two days, there were negotiations between the Central Committee and the National Assembly, but these ultimately broke down and elections for the municipal council of Paris were called for 26 March. This announcement made clear the break with legality. The Commune was officially proclaimed on 28 March amidst great optimism.
Interpretations of the Commune
Some historians have claimed that what began as a revolution by a minority turned into a general war of secession. As Roger Gould has argued, despite neighbourhood localism, the uprising of March 1871 is best understood as the whole city rising collectively to defend municipal liberties, and this perception was shared by participants. As we have seen, the national guard was at the centre of the uprising. Owing to mass mobilisation, which reinforced neighbourhood solidarity and created ties across residential communities, it effectively became the organisation of Parisian citizenry and created a framework for a collective city-wide identity.
This desire for municipal autonomy must be understood within the context of the administration of Paris before 1870. Under the Second Empire, the capital was subject to the worst excesses of political spying by the secret police as they sought to suppress the activities of republicans and the far left.
A particularly powerful impulsion leading to calls for municipal autonomy was the notion of a battle between Paris and the provinces. This idea had its origins in the June Days of 1848, when insurrectionaries were suppressed by government troops comprising volunteers from the provinces. Napoleon III’s coup of 2 December 1851 against the republicans had also been supported by provincial votes in a plebiscite later that month. Thus in February and March 1871, many looked back at 1848 and 1851 with foreboding, fearing that history might be about to repeat itself. And so when Thiers ordered the seizure of the cannon on 18 March, many instinctively resisted, seeing it as an assault on Paris. Under the Second Empire, the feeling of Parisian isolation was considerable. Many saw the capital as an island of republicanism surrounded by a sea of reaction. The experiences of the siege only increased the sense that provincial France had abandoned the capital. Thus from the end of the siege in late January through to the beginning of the civil war in early April, there was a broad consensus on the injustice and illegitimacy of the actions of the government.
We should, however, be careful not to overstate the extent to which Paris stood alone. Uprisings in Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse demonstrated sympathy for the plight of the capital. Thus the myth of peasant France attacking republican Paris had to be modified with the realisation that the provinces offered the only hope of survival. So from mid-April, the Paris Commune began to emphasise the common causes between Paris and the provinces.
Still the question remains why the desire for greater municipal autonomy should result in civil war. The answer essentially lies in Robert Tombs’s argument that behind the question of municipal liberties lay aspirations for the triumph of a revolutionary city over a reactionary country. It was these ideas that led ultimately to civil war.
Commune as Proletarian Revolution
For over a century, the Marxist analysis dominated interpretations of the Commune. The first major work to challenge this view came in 1964 when Jacques Rougerie published a pioneering analysis of the Commune which was fiercely attacked by Communist historians for questioning the traditional Marxist view. He argued that far from being a proto-proletariat, the Communards were mainly workers in small-scale industry, with artisan, white collar, and lower middle-class leaders. Thus, he argued, the Commune was not the first proletarian revolution but the last traditional Parisian revolt – in his words ‘dusk not dawn’.
Research undertaken since then has largely corroborated Rougerie’s findings. If we turn first to the social composition of Communard support, we find, in the words of Robert Tombs, that the Communards were the ‘people’ rather than the proletariat. Many of those at the heart of the Commune were skilled manual and white collar workers, while established politicians and the commercial middle classes who normally tried to take over leadership in revolution remained relatively aloof.
In terms of collective identity, class was not a very significant factor. Rather than class antagonism, Communard rhetoric referred to a class alliance. The statutes of the national guard Central Committee spoke of the defence of the Republic against monarchists and foreign invaders, making only one reference to ‘exploiters and oppressors who treat their equals as property’. While class rhetoric had been important during the siege of Paris, with the end of the German blockade, provisions began to reach the people once more, thus reducing the appeal of class war. There does, however, seem to be evidence that support for the Commune was strongest within the workers. When the final assault by government forces came, resistance was confined to the workers, as the administrative and military authorities collapsed. Likewise, the political coalition between moderate and extreme left elements proved to be an unstable coalition. Revolutionaries could not inspire the majority of Parisians to defend the Commune to the end. So the Commune drifted to its bloody dénouement, while more moderate elements jumped ship as soon as its authority slipped.
Policies of the Commune
Aspirations for greater municipal autonomy and desires to improve the standard of living for ordinary Parisians were evident in the policies of the Paris Commune. National guardsmen took over the role of the police, they reversed the four measures against Paris, restored freedom of the press and amnestied political prisoners. They sought to help workers by ensuring decent wages and conditions. On 2 April, the Commune declared the separation of Church and State. They were particularly concerned with establishing free, non-clerical, secular, and preferably mixed education. Many believed that it was vital to educate women for as mothers, they needed to create and educate republicans. The Commune sought also to bring art and music to the people. Even as troops from Versailles entered the capital, free open air concerts were being held. One of the reasons for such policies was that the Commune’s political leaders saw the workers as their main constituency. Indeed, Henri Lefebvre has argued that behind the Commune lay the reconquest of Paris by workers and the poor who had been forced out by the reforms of Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s.
The final element in the history of the Commune that needs addressing is its violent fall. The suppression of the Commune surpassed the violence of the Terror of 1793-4, to be exceeded only by the death toll of the Franco-French war of 1944-5. The uprising of 18 March signalled the collapse of state power in the capital. The government, headed by Adolphe Thiers, was located in Versailles rejected the move as illegal and illegitimate. So, having just signed the peace with Germany, France went to war with itself. The government in Versailles recalled the army, and launched an attack on Paris on 2 April 1871. The Commune portrayed the conflict as a matter of the defence of Paris against royalist forces supported by papal soldiers, police and primitive peasants from the west. It therefore responded with an abortive attack on Versailles on 3 April. Thus began the civil war in earnest. Hopes for a peaceful resolution disappeared when it emerged that the Versailles army had executed insurgents taken prisoner in the fighting. In response, the Commune passed the notorious ‘hostage decree’, in which anyone suspected of complicity with Versailles would be imprisoned and for every prisoner killed by Versailles, the Commune would kill three of its prisoners.
Most of those who fought on the side of the Commune were former national guardsmen. The Army of Versailles, by contrast, included peasants longing for peace, country gentlemen hoping for a restoration of the monarchy, craftsmen, middle class men opposed to insurrection who supported a moderate Republic. What bound them all together was not conviction but discipline and coercion.
On 21 May 100,000 men from the Versailles army entered western Paris. Thus began the semaine sanglante, or week of blood, which lasted from 21 to 28 May 1871. The army encountered little resistance, yet it continued to execute prisoners, prompting Communard forces to retaliate with the execution of its hostages including the Archbishop of Paris. From 23 May Communard resisters began to set fire to public buildings to cover their retreat. Hostile observers claimed that it was the work of working class women, the so-called pétroleuses. The myths of the pétroleuses played a key role in anti-Communard propaganda, firing the imagination as it struck at the heart of the idea of domesticity on which bourgeois society was based. For others on the right, the total destruction of the town hall, and Tuileries Palace, and part of the Louvre was a worse crime than the taking of lives.
The killings of ordinary people began as soon as Versailles forces ‘liberated’ each district. Young and old were sometimes rounded up for no reason other than their appearance. The aim was not to ‘expiate’ the crimes of the Commune or to exterminate those responsible, but rather to terrorise the whole community, meaning that anyone, including women and children was a legitimate target. During one week, between 10 and 30,000 Parisians lost their lives, as compared with under the Terror of 1793, when it took 16 months to kill 2600. Around 45,000 were arrested, including over 1000 women. Over 5000 were imprisoned, 4500 were deported to new Caledonia, and 9000 fled.
The Paris Commune had a profound impact on French politics and culture. But it is important to understand it as having essentially sprung from a patriotic rejection of the armistice with Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and from a feeling that the nation and the Republic had been betrayed. In the eyes of many Parisians, those who supported the Commune were the true patriots, whereas those who opposed it, including Catholics, monarchists, the Army of Versailles and even moderate republicans, were traitors. Without the unique circumstances created by the ‘people’s war’ against Germany, the Commune probably would not have happened.