The Commune of 1871

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space. In his space capsule he carried the remnant of the red flag flown over the Hotel de Ville in the heart of the Paris Commune in 1870.

The Franco-Prussian War initiated through the deceit of Bismarck in July of 1870 was lost to the French. In September of 1870 the Emperor of the French, Louis Napoleon III, surrendered after the battle of Sedan. Though the war continued under a republican government by the end of September Paris was under siege. During the war the population of Paris increased, the differences between the wealthy and the poor grew, and the bombardment by the Prussians increase the already widespread discontent.

On 17 January 1871, after four months of siege, the republican Government of National Defence sought an armistice with the newly proclaimed German Empire. The Germans insisted upon a triumphal entry into Paris in the armistice terms. Despite the widespread discontent of the siege, many Parisians resented bitterly that the Prussians should be allowed even a brief ceremonial occupation of their city.

During the war thousands of Parisians were enrolled into the armed militia called the National Guards. Named for the National Guards of the French Revolution. Unfortunately many of these units contained or were led by more radical socialists inspired by the writings of Karl Marx.

These guards attempted to form a "Central Committee" of the Guard, which including patriotic republicans and socialists. Its stated reason was to provide defense against a possible German attack, (which never occurred) but in reality the Commune was more concerned with a Royalist Restoration of the Bourbon line. This fear was increased following the election of February 1871 in which a monarchist majority was elected to the National Assembly.

Parisians were boldly intractable to the Germans in the aftermath of defeat, and the guardsmen were prepared to offer opposition if the German entrance into Paris resulted in aggression. The Guards assisted by the population removed field pieces in the path of the Germans which had been purchased for the Army by popular subscription. They regarded these pieces as public property and placed them in safe districts, one of which was Montmartre.

Adolphe Thiers, head of the new provisional government, realised that in the present unstable situation, the Central Committee formed an alternative centre of political and military power. The newly renamed German Army entered Paris, stayed briefly and then left. Paris remained in a high state of anxiety.The Provisional Army of France left Paris for Versailles as it afforded a better defensive position against the Germans should the Armistice be broken and fighting resume. Unfortunately this left a huge power vacuum in Paris. Thiers fearing a power grab by the radicals ordered his remaining troops to take charge of the artillery at Montmartre. It was believed that the National Guard could not control the 400 cannon it now had. As the soldiers arrived instead of taking the guns the soldiers fraternised with the National Guards. The commander of the force General Claude Lecompte in the company of the former commander of the National Guard, General Thomas was shot by the National Guards.

As other army units left the army to join the National Guards, Thiers ordered the police, loyal army units and as many people who would listen to retreat towards Versailles. They would soon be referred to as the Versaillais. Those who remained in Paris would be given the name Communards. 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 March 26.

The newly elected 92 members of the "Communal Council" included skilled workers and professionals. Many of them were political activists, ranging from reformist republicans, various types of socialists and Jacobins who tended to look to the Revolution of 1789 for inspiration.

To connect themselves to the revolution of 1789 the Commune reconstituted the revolutionary calendar, and to distinguish themselves from the more moderate republican government raised the red flag of socialism. The council enacted certain measures, these included the separation of church and state; 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 and children of National Guards killed on active service; the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workman's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, 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 which separated the church and state was particularly onerous as it made all church property public, and removed the teaching of religion from school. Churches were allowed to continue religious activity only if the churches could be used at night for public political meetings. Churches became the second most common participatory areas for political activity.

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 included an early form of moderate anarchists members of the International Socialist, Blanquists, and libertarian republicans groups. The Paris Commune has been celebrated by Anarchist and Marxist socialists continuously since then, partly due to the variety of tendencies, the high degree of workers' control and the remarkable cooperation among different revolutionists.

After only a week, the Commune came under attack by elements of a new army formed by returning prisoners, being created at a furious pace in Versailles.

On April 2, the Commune forces, now called the National Guard to connect the commune with the revolution of 1789, first began skirmishing with the regular Versailles Army . Both sides shied away from a Civil War, and neither side wanted compromise. The National Assembly's army brutally crushed the Commune, and when the Commune had been demolished, the National Assembly proceeded with executions that numbered 20,000 in one week. One of the generals leading the counter-assault headed by Thiers was the Marquis de Galliffet, (the fusilleur de la Commune who later took part as Minister of War in Waldec-Rousseau's government at the turn of the century. )

The Versaillais captured the suburb of Courbevoie on 2 April. The Commune was rebuffed in an abortive attack towards Versailles the next day. It became apparent to the Commune that the National Guard was no match in it's current form with the Army in Versailles, made of battle hardened troops fresh from prisoner of war camps in Prussia. In order to improve the National guards the commune sought to instill discipline, and rudimentary tactics.

Politically the Commune was fully committed to international socialism, and therefore the Vendôme Column, celebrating the victories of Napoleon I, and considered by the Commune to be a monument to Bonapartism was pulled down.

Although there was support from international sources, such as labour unions and Marxist groups world wide, the Versailles government prevented news from going into Paris, and no information coming out. Similar uprisings in other cities along the lines of the Paris Commune were crushed quickly.

In an effort to further connect he commune with the revolution of 1789 a committee of safety was formed. This council had broad sweeping powers but it was largely ineffective.

All through the rest of April and into May the Commune forces were pushed back. A cause of this pushing back was in part due to the districts inability to work together, where they had once came to together in common cause for the commune they became disjointed because of their philosophy as anarchists to allow an overall authority. Each group fought only for themselves and each in turn was defeated. In addition the replaced by wide boulevards created during Haussmann's renovation of Paris replaced the narrow Parisian streets which featured prominently during prior revolts, and had proven almost impregnable. On the other hand the Versaillais Army had trained for street fighting and were very adapted to it. If the National Guards barracaded a boulevard the Versaillais simply out flanked them by burrowing through a the walls of the houses on eirther side to get behind them and attack from all sides at once.

In the assault on Paris, the Versaillais were responsible for killing 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 the order of the day. It was not restricted to the Versaillais as the Commune forces also executed The Catholic Encyclopedia states that between 24 May and May 26, 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. Among the victims was the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy.

On May 27 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 May 28. According to legend, the last barricade was in the rue Ramponeau in Belleville.

"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." wrote Marshall MacMahon.

Reprisals began in earnest. Having supported the Commune was immediately declared as a crime. Thousands were accused, thousands were shot, more thousands were deported. All future Marxists and communists laud the commune and refer to it. Marx, who was still alive wrote that it was the basic form of a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Marx also stated that the commune wasted time in forming a government when it should have should have finished off the Versaillais when they could. Lenin(1) and Mao continued to draw lesson from it.


The form of government created by the commune was doomed to fail. In its desire to be all things to all men and women it failed in it's most basic dimension. Anarchy is inherent in this form of government. If no one is in authority nothing gets done. Like a ship on the ocean who changes its captain and direction it never arrives in port, sooner or later it is bound to flounder. In it's direct attack on the Church they saw it as the only viable competition. They did not learn from the lessons learned from an earlier revolution that one does not escape justice when one attacks the church by force in France.

Dieu Le Roy!


Notes:(1) V.I. Lenin, "Lessons of the Commune", Marxists Internet Archive. Originally published: Zagranichnaya Gazeta, No. March 2, 23, 1908. Translated by Bernard Isaacs. Accessed August 7, 2006.
...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...

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