Paris Commune

From Academic Kids

The term "Paris Commune" originally referred to the government of Paris during the French Revolution. However, the term more commonly refers to the socialist government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 (more formally from March 26) to May 28, 1871.

In a formal sense the Paris Commune of 1871 was simply the local authority (council of a town or district - French "commune") which exercised power in Paris for two months in the spring of 1871. But the conditions in which it was formed, its controversial decrees and tortured end make it one of the more important political episodes of the time.



Destruction of the Vendme Column during the Paris Commune
Destruction of the Vendme Column during the Paris Commune

The Commune was made possible through a civil uprising of all revolutionist trends within Paris after the Franco-Prussian War ended with French defeat. The war with Prussia, started by Napoleon III ("Louis 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 and the continuous Prussian bombardment were adding to an already widespread discontent. Working people were becoming more open to radical ideas. A specific demand was that Paris should be self-governing, with its own elected Commune, something enjoyed by most French towns, but denied 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, way of managing the economy, summed up in the popular cry for "La Sociale!"

In January, 1871, when the siege had lasted for four months, Louis-Adolphe Thiers, soon to be Chief Executive (later President) of the Third Republic, sought an armistice. The Prussians included the occupation of Paris in the peace terms. Despite the hardships of the siege many Parisians were bitterly resentful and were particularly angry that the Prussians should be allowed a brief ceremonial occupation of their city.

By that time many tens 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. Battalions in the poorer districts elected their own officers and possessed many of the cannons which had been founded in Paris and paid for by public subscription. The city and its National Guard had withstood the Prussian troops for six months. The population of Paris was defiant in the face of occupation — they limited the Prussian presence to a small area of the city and policed the boundary.

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Women and children help take two Guards' cannon to Montmartre: contemporary sketch

Steps were being taken to form a "Central Committee" of the Guard, and Louis-Adolphe Thiers, president of the French government, the new Third Republic, realised that in the present unstable situation this body could come to form an alternative centre of political power. In addition, he was concerned that the workers would arm themselves with the National Guard weapons and provoke the Prussians.

The events at this juncture are confused, but what is clear is that before the Prussians entered Paris, National Guards, helped by ordinary working people, managed to take the cannons (which they regarded as their own property) away from the Prussians' path and store them in "safe" districts. One of the chief "cannon parks" was on the heights of Montmartre.

The rise and nature of the commune

The Prussians entered Paris briefly and left again without incident. But Paris continued to be encircled while the issue of war indemnities dragged on.

As the Central Committee of the National Guard was adopting an increasingly radical stance and steadily gaining in authority, the government could not indefinitely allow it to have four hundred cannons at its disposal. And so, as a first step, on March 18 Thiers ordered regular troops to seize the cannons stored on the Buttes Montmartre. Instead of following instructions, however, the soldiers, whose morale was in any case not high, fraternised with National Guards and local residents. When their general, Claude Martin Lecomte, ordered them to fire on an unarmed crowd they dragged him from his horse. He was later shot, together with General Thomas, a hated former commander of the Guard who was picked up by a mob in the Outer Boulevards.

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Generals Lecomte and Thomas being shot in Montmartre after their troops join the rebellion: a photographic reconstruction, not an actual photograph

Other army units joined in the rebellion which spread so rapidly that President 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 himself fled, ahead of them, to Versailles. The Central Committee of the National Guard was now the only effective government in Paris: it almost immediately abdicated its authority and arranged elections for a Commune, to be held on March 26.

The 92 members of the Commune (or, more correctly, of the "Communal Council") included skilled workers, several "professionals" (such as doctors and journalists), and a large number of 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. The charismatic socialist, Louis Auguste Blanqui, was elected President of the Council, but this was in his absence, for he had been arrested on March 17 and was held in a secret prison throughout the life of the Commune. The Paris Commune was proclaimed on March 28, although local districts often retained the organizations from the siege.

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 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 remission of rents for the entire period of the siege (during which they had been raised considerably by many landlords); the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries; the abolition of the guillotine; 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 state pawnshops, of all workmen's tools of their trade, pledged during the siege as they were concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war; they postponed debt obligations, and abolished interest on the debts; and, in an important departure from strictly "reformist" principles, the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner.

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The Commune returns workmen's tools pawned during the siege

They ended conscription and replaced the standing army with a National Guard of all citizens who could bear arms. Projected legislation separated the church from the state, made all church property state property, and excluded religion from schools. The churches were only allowed to continue their religious activity if they kept their doors open to public political meetings during the evenings. This made the churches the chief participatory political centres of the Commune. Other projected legislation dealt with educational reforms which would make further education and technical training freely available to all.

The commune adopted the previously discarded French Republican Calendar during its brief existence and used the red flag rather than the tricolore.

The load of work was eased by several factors, although the Council members (who were not "representatives" but delegates, subject to immediate recall by their electors) were expected to carry out many executive functions as well as their legislative ones. The numerous ad hoc organisations 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 anarchist and 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.

Friedrich Engels, Marx's closest associate, would later maintain 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. Its future development, however, was to remain a theoretical question. After only a week it came under attack by elements of the new army (which included former prisoners of war released by the Prussians) being created at a furious pace in Versailles.

The assault

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Map showing the progress of the Versaillese troops through Paris in La Semaine Sanglante (the final assault against the Commune). Click map to see a larger image or to download a high-resolution image.

The Commune was assaulted from April 2 by the government forces of the Versailles Army, and the city was constantly bombarded. The government advantage was such that from mid-April on they refused to negotiate.

The outer suburb of Courbevoie was captured, and a delayed attempt by the Commune's own forces to march on Versailles failed ignominiously. Defence and survival became overriding considerations. The working-class women of Paris now played a steadily more important role. They served with the National Guard and even formed a battalion of their own which later fought heroically to defend the Place Blanche, a key to Montmartre. (But we should note that even under the Commune women did not have the vote, and there were no female members of the Council.)

Strong support came also from the large foreign community of political refugees and exiles in Paris: one of them, the Polish ex-officer and fighter for the independence of his country from Russia, Jaroslaw Dombrowski, 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 Vendme Column, celebrating the victories of Napoleon I, and considered by the Commune to be a monument to chauvinism, was pulled down.

Abroad, there were rallies and messages of goodwill sent by trade union and socialist organisations, 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 sceptical attitude towards the activities of the metropolis. Movements at Narbonne, Limoges, and Marseilles were rapidly crushed.

As the situation deteriorated further, a section of the Council won a vote (opposed by bookbinder Eugne 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. But the time when a strong central authority could have helped was now almost past.

On May 21 a gate in the western part of the fortified city wall of Paris was forced (or, more probably, betrayed) and Versaillese troops began the reconquest of the city, first occupying the prosperous western districts where they were made welcome by those residents who had not left Paris after the armistice.

The strong local loyalties which had been a positive feature of the Commune now became something of a disadvantage: instead of an overall planned defence, each "quartier" fought desperately for survival and was overcome in its turn. The webs of narrow streets which made entire districts nearly impregnable in earlier Parisian revolutions had been largely replaced by wide boulevards. The Versaillese enjoyed a centralised command and had modern artillery.

During the assault, the government troops were culpable in the slaughter of unarmed citizens: prisoners were shot out of hand and multiple executions were commonplace. In a futile gesture of defiance on May 27, a mob seized and brutally murdered 50 hostages, several of them priests, who had been held by the Commune. In all, government losses were around nine hundred. These deaths were to be avenged many times over.

The toughest resistance came in the more working-class districts of the east, where fighting continued for a further eight days of vicious street fighting (La Semaine sanglante, the bloody week). By the May 27 only a few pockets of resistance remained, notably the poorer eastern districts of Belleville and Mnilmontant.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of the next day the last barricade, in the rue Ramponeau in Belleville, fell, and 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."

Commune prisoners being marched to Versailles: from a contemporary illustrated magazine
Commune prisoners being marched to Versailles: from a contemporary illustrated magazine

Reprisals now began in earnest. Having supported the Commune in any way was declared a 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 Pre Lachaise cemetery while thousands of others were marched to Versailles for trials. Few Communards escaped, mainly through the Prussian lines to the north. For many days endless columns of men, women and children made a painful way under military escort to temporary prison quarters in Versailles. Later they were tried; a few were executed; many were condemned to hard labour; many more were deported for long terms or for life to virtually uninhabited French islands in the Pacific. The number of killed during La Semaine Sanglante can never be established for certain but the best estimates are 30,000 dead, many more wounded, and perhaps as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned; 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia. For the imprisoned there was a general amnesty in 1889.

Paris remained under martial law for five years.

The commune in retrospect

The better-off citizens of Paris, and many of the earlier historians of the Commune, saw it as a classic example of mob rule, terrifying and yet at the same time inexplicable. Most later historians, even those on the right, have recognised the value of some of the Commune's reforms and have deplored the savagery of its repression. However, they have found it difficult to explain the unprecedented hatred which the Commune aroused in the middle and upper classes.

On the left, there have been many who criticise the Commune for showing too great moderation, especially given the grave situation it was in. 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 "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..."

The Paris Commune has been subject to the awe of 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. At his funeral he had his body wrapped in the remains of a red flag preserved from the Commune. The Soviet spaceflight Voskhod 1 carried part of a communard banner from the Paris Commune for propaganda purposes. Also, the Bolsheviks renamed the dreadnought battleship Sevastopol to Parizhskaya Kommuna in honor of the Commune.

See also

References and external links

  • The two most important primary sources are:
    • The verbatim record of the sessions of the Commune (Procs-verbaux de la Commune. 2 vols., Paris, 1944-1945) — long out of print, though secondhand copies are to be found
    • The history of the Commune by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, an observant and reliable journalist with socialist convictions who was present at or close to most of the events he describes (Histoire de la Commune de 1871. Most recent edition, 3 vols in 1, Paris, Maspero, 1969), which is available in English translation online (
  • Another online classic is Marx's own contemporary analysis, The Civil War in France (, written during and immediately after the events.
  • For anarchist analysis of the events, two important documents from the time are Mikhail Bakunin's The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State and Peter Kropotkin's The Commune of Paris
  • Also online is Agor@'s book-length site about the Commune ( (in French)
  • Returning to primary sources, there is a well-written account in 4 volumes called Les Convulsions de Paris (Paris, 1878) by the journalist Maxime du Camp who takes a hard and rhetorical right-wing position. His book can be found in major libraries or through Galaxidion ( the main French online source for secondhand and antiquarian books.
  • Two carefully researched histories in English, readily available secondhand, are:
    • Alistair Horne. The Fall of Paris. The Siege and the Commune 1870-71. London, Macmillan, 1965. (A much shorter but lavishly illustrated version was published in 1971 under the title, The Terrible Year). Broadly neutral in its judgements.
    • Frank Jellinek. The Paris Commune of 1871. London, Gollancz, 1937. Also, N.Y., Grosset & Dunlap, 1965. Written from a socialist point of view.
  • The Revolutionary Idea in France 1789-1871 by Godfrey Elton (London, Edwin Arnold, 1923), available in many university libraries, is one of the few books which places the Commune in a longer-term historical perspective. It is conservative in tone.
  • The fullest bibliography of the Commune is that of Robert le Quillec: La Commune de Paris. Bibliographie Critique 1871-1997. Paris, La Boutique de l'Histoire, 1997. 2660 books, pamphlets and other materials are listed.
  • As well as innumerable novels (mainly in French) set in the Commune, at least three plays have been written and performed: Nederlaget, by the Norwegian Nordahl Grieg; Die Tage der Commune by Bertolt Brecht; and Le Printemps 71 by Arthur Adamov.
  • There have been numerous films set in the Commune: the most recent as of 2005 is also the longest (5 hours). La Commune Paris 1871 ( was made in Montmartre in 2000 and directed by Peter Watkins. As in most of his other films he uses ordinary people instead of actors, to create a documentary effect.
  • The Italian composer, Luigi Nono, also wrote an opera "Al gran sole carico d'amore" ("In the Bright Sunshine, Heavy with Love") that is based on the Paris Commune.
  • Other external links:

el:Παρισινή Κομμούνα eo:Pariza Komunumo (1871) fi:Pariisin kommuuni fr:Commune de Paris (1871) he:הקומונה הפריזאית it:Comune di Parigi ja:パリ・コミューン nl:Commune van Parijs no:Pariskommunen pl:Komuna Paryska sv:Pariskommunen zh:巴黎公社


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