Paris Commune

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Paris Commune
Barricade Voltaire Lenoir Commune Paris 1871.jpg
Barricades Boulevard Voltaire, Paris
Date18 March – 28 May 1871
LocationParis, France
ResultRevolt supressed
France French governmentRed flag.svg Communards
Red flag.svg National Guards
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Adolphe ThiersRed flag.svg Louis Auguste Blanqui
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Paris Commune
Barricade Voltaire Lenoir Commune Paris 1871.jpg
Barricades Boulevard Voltaire, Paris
Date18 March – 28 May 1871
LocationParis, France
ResultRevolt supressed
France French governmentRed flag.svg Communards
Red flag.svg National Guards
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Adolphe ThiersRed flag.svg Louis Auguste Blanqui
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The Paris Commune or Fourth French Revolution (French: La Commune de Paris, IPA: [la kɔmyn də paʁi]) was a socialistic government that briefly ruled Paris starting from the middle of March 1871. Though elected as the city council (in French, the "commune"), the Commune eventually proclaimed its own authority to govern all of France.[1] Its controversial governance and its break with the elected government of France led to its brutal suppression by regular French forces in "The Bloody Week" ("La Semaine sanglante") beginning on May 28, 1871. Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant political repercussions both inside and outside France during the 20th Century.


Le Père Duchesne looking at the statue of Napoleon I on top of the Vendôme column: "Eh ben! Bougre de canaille, on va donc te foutre en bas comme ta crapule de neveu!... (Well now! Damn rascal, we will knock you the fuck down just like your crook of a nephew!..."). Note it is dated in the French Republican Calendar

The Commune resulted from an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, caused by the disaster in the war and growing discontent among the workers.[2] This discontent can be traced to the first worker uprisings, the Canut Revolts, in Lyon and Paris in the 1830s[3] (a Canut was a Lyonnais silk worker, often working on Jacquard looms).

Parisians, especially workers and the lower-middle classes, had long supported a democratic republic. A specific demand was that Paris should be self-governing with its own elected council, something enjoyed by smaller French towns but denied to Paris by a national government wary of the capital's unruly populace. An associated, but less well-articulated, wish was for a more "just", if not necessarily socialist, way of managing the economy, summed up in the popular appeal for "la république démocratique et sociale!" ("the democratic and social republic!")[citation needed]

In addition, the First International had been growing in influence and confidence. Hundreds of societies affiliated to it across France. In early 1867, Parisian employers of bronze-workers attempted to de-unionize their workers. This was defeated by a strike organised by the International.

Later in 1867, an illegal public demonstration in Paris was answered by the legal dissolution of its executive committee and fines to the leadership. Tensions escalated; Internationalists elected a new committee and put forth a more radical programme, the authorities imprisoned their leaders, and a more revolutionary perspective was taken to the International's 1868 Brussels Congress. The International had considerable influence even among unaffiliated French workers, particularly in Paris and the big towns.[4]

The killing of Victor Noir incensed Parisians and the arrests of journalists critical of the Emperor did nothing to quiet the city. A coup was attempted in early 1870, but tensions eased significantly after the plebiscite in May of that year. The war with Prussia, initiated by Napoleon III in July 1870, was initially met with patriotic fervour.[5]

Then the defeats at Wissembourg, Spicheren, and Wörth turned public opinion. Rumours accusing the Emperor of military incompetence began to circulate Paris. Agitation by radicals, most notably Louis Auguste Blanqui, increased. While many of Paris' wealthier citizens and the whole of its German population fled the city, they were replaced by poor refugees from the surrounding countryside.[6]

New Governments[edit]

Destruction of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune. The column was taken down at the demand of painter Gustave Courbet, who, after the collapse of the Commune, was sentenced to six months in prison and later ordered to pay for putting the column back up.

Paris was informed of the defeat at Sedan on the afternoon of the 3rd of September. Crowds of protesters took to the streets immediately, appealing to the parliamentary opposition to depose the Emperor. Protests continued late into the night. The following day, workers in Montmartre and Belleville began a mass demonstration. They were quickly joined by workers and citizens from throughout the city, then by battalions of National Guard, swelling the protest to hundreds of thousands. Demonstrators pushed into the Legislative Chamber while legislators were adjourned. When deputies returned, the crowd demanded that Napoleon III be deposed and the Chamber assented. Leon Gambetta proclaimed that he and other Republicans would go to the Hôtel de Ville to form the government of the new Republic: the Government of National Defense, headed by Louis Jules Trochu[7]

Late on the 4th, the representatives of the First International sent a delegation to the new government to declare its non-belligerence and deliver demands for new elections, freedom of the press, and the curbing of police activity. These demands were not wholly granted. In response, radicals organised public meetings across Paris to elect delegates to twenty Committees of Vigilance, one for each of the city's arrondissements. Four delegates from each committee assembled in a Central Committee at the headquarters of the International, and there was a significant overlap in the membership. In effect, Paris had two governments and disputes quickly broke out.[8]

In January 1871, after four months of siege the moderate republican Government of National Defense sought an armistice with the newly proclaimed German Empire. The Germans included a triumphal entry into Paris in their peace terms. Given the hardships of the siege, many Parisians were bitterly resentful of the Prussians (now at the head of the German Empire) being allowed even a brief ceremonial occupation of their city.[citation needed]

Hundreds 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. Guard units elected their own officers, who, in working-class districts, included radical and socialist leaders.[citation needed]

Steps were taken to form a "Central Committee" of the Guard, including patriotic republicans and socialists, both to defend Paris against a possible German attack and also to defend the republic against a possible royalist restoration. The election of a monarchist majority to the new National Assembly in February 1871 made such fears seem plausible.[citation needed]

The population of Paris was defiant in the face of defeat and prepared to fight if the entry of the German army into the city should provoke them sufficiently. Before German troops entered Paris, National Guardsmen, helped by ordinary working people, managed to move large numbers of cannons (which they regarded as their own property because they had been partly paid for by public subscription) away from the Germans' path and store them in "safe" districts.[clarification needed] One of the chief "cannon parks" was on the heights of Montmartre.[citation needed]

Adolphe Thiers was elected "Executive Power" of the new government to postpone the issue of whether to have a president or king. Thiers, as head of the new provisional national government, realized that in the current unstable situation the Central Committee of the Guard formed an alternative centre of political and military power. He was also concerned that workers would arm themselves with the National Guard's weapons and provoke the Germans.[citation needed]

Rise and nature[edit]

A contemporary sketch of women and children helping take two National Guard cannons to Montmartre
Generals Lecomte and Clément-Thomas being shot in Montmartre after their troops join the rebellion. (A photographic reconstruction, not an actual photograph of the event.)

The Germans entered Paris briefly and left again without incident, but Paris continued to be in a state of high political excitement. The newly elected National Assembly was in the process of moving to Bordeaux from Versailles (several miles south-west of Paris), having decided that the capital city was too turbulent for them to meet there. Their absence created a power vacuum in Paris as well as suspicion about the National Assembly's intentions, as it had a large royalist majority.

As the Central Committee of the National Guard adopted an increasingly radical stance and steadily gained authority, the government felt that it could not indefinitely allow it to have four hundred cannon at its disposal. So, as a first step, on March 18, 1871, Thiers ordered regular troops to seize the cannon stored on the Butte Montmartre and in other locations across the city. The soldiers, however, whose morale was low, fraternized with National Guards and local residents. The general at Montmartre, Claude-Martin Lecomte, who was later said to have ordered them to fire on the crowd, was dragged from his horse and later shot, together with a General Clément-Thomas (a veteran republican who was now hated as the former commander of the National Guard) who was seized nearby.

A barricade near Hôtel de la Marine, 1871

Other army units joined the rebellion, which spread so fast that the head of the government, 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 fled ahead of them to Versailles. Thiers claimed he had thought about this strategy (to retreat from Paris, and crush the insurrection afterward) for a long time, while meditating on the example of the 1848 Revolution, but he may have panicked. There is no evidence that the government had anticipated the crisis. The Central Committee of the National Guard was now the only effective government in Paris; it arranged elections for a commune (the governments of French cities are often referred to as communes) to be held on March 26.

The 92 members of the Communal Council included a high proportion of skilled workers and several professionals. Many of them were political activists, ranging from reformist republicans, various types of socialists, to the Jacobins who tended to look back nostalgically to the Revolution of 1789.

Louis Auguste Blanqui

The veteran leader of the Blanquist group of revolutionary socialists, Louis Auguste Blanqui, was hoped by his followers to be a potential leader of the revolution, but he had been arrested on March 17 and was held in prison throughout the life of the Commune. The Commune unsuccessfully tried to exchange him, first against Georges Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, then against all 74 hostages it detained, but Thiers flatly refused (see below). The Paris Commune was proclaimed on March 28, although local districts often retained the organizations from the siege.

Social measures[edit]

The commune adopted the previously discarded French Republican Calendar during its brief existence and used the socialist red flag rather than the republican tricolour. In 1848, during the Second Republic, radicals and socialists had also adopted the red flag to distinguish themselves from moderate Republicans; this was similar to the symbolic distinctions adopted by the moderate, liberal, Girondist movement during the 1789 revolution.

Despite internal differences, the Council made a good start in organizing the public services essential for a city of two million. It also reached consensus on certain policies that tended towards a progressive, secular, and highly-democratic social democracy, rather than a true social revolution. Because the Commune was only able to meet on fewer than sixty days in all, only a few decrees were actually implemented. These included:

The decrees separated the church from the state, appropriated all church property to public property, and excluded the practice of religion from schools. (After the fall of the Commune, separation of Church and State, or laïcité, would not enter French law again until 1880-81 during the Third Republic, with the signing of the Jules Ferry laws and the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State.) The churches were allowed to continue their religious activity only if they kept their doors open for public political meetings during the evenings. Along with the streets and the cafés, the churches became centres for political discussions and activities.

Other projected legislation dealt with educational reforms that would make further education and technical training freely available to all.

The Commune returns workmen's tools pawned during the siege

In addition, employers were prohibited from imposing fines on their workmen.[9]

Feminist initiatives[edit]

Women played an important role in both the initiation and governance of the Commune. Several women and children threw themselves between Adolphe Thiers' army and the cannons they were attempting to confiscate from the National Guard on Montmartre. Despite orders from Thiers, soldiers refused to fire on their own people. This led the French army to retreat to Versailles and allowed the Paris Commune to form.

Some women organized a feminist movement, following on from earlier attempts in 1789 and 1848. Thus, Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder, and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian exile and member of the Russian section of the First International (IWA), created the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés ("Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded") on April 11, 1871. The feminist writer André Léo, a friend of Paule Minck, was also active in the Women's Union. Believing that their struggle against patriarchy could only be pursued through a global struggle against capitalism, the association demanded gender equality, wages' equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education and professional education for girls. They also demanded suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, and between legitimate and illegitimate children. They advocated the abolition of prostitution (obtaining the closing of the maisons de tolérance, or legal official brothels). The Women's Union also participated in several municipal commissions and organized cooperative workshops.[10] Along with Eugène Varlin, Nathalie Le Mel created the cooperative restaurant La Marmite, which served free food for indigents, and then fought during the Bloody Week on the barricades.[11]

Paule Minck opened a free school in the Church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre and animated the Club Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank.[11] The Russian Anne Jaclard, who declined to marry Dostoievsky and finally became the wife of Blanquist activist Victor Jaclard, founded the newspaper Paris Commune with André Léo. She was also a member of the Comité de vigilance de Montmartre, along with Louise Michel and Paule Minck, as well as of the Russian section of the First International. Victorine Brocher, close to the IWA activists, and founder of a cooperative bakery in 1867, also fought during the Commune and the Bloody Week.[11]

Famous figures such as Louise Michel, the "Red Virgin of Montmartre", who joined the National Guard and would later be sent to New Caledonia, symbolized the active participation of a small number of women in the insurrectionary events. A female battalion from the National Guard defended the Place Blanche during the repression.

Local organizations[edit]

The workload of the Commune leaders was enormous. The Council members (who were not "representatives" but delegates, subject in theory to immediate recall by their electors) were expected to carry out many executive and military 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 and first aid stations, for example) continued to thrive and cooperate with the Commune.[citation needed]

Paris, May 29, 1871

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 revolutionary. Revolutionary factions included Proudhonists (an early form of moderate anarchism), members of the international socialists, Blanquists, and more libertarian republicans. The Paris Commune has been celebrated by anarchists and Marxists ever since then, due to the variety of political undercurrents, the high degree of workers' control, and the remarkable co-operation among different revolutionists.[citation needed]

For example, in the third arrondissement, school materials were provided free, three parochial schools were "laicised", and an orphanage was established. In the twentieth arrondissement, schoolchildren 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 who managed to take on the responsibilities of the administrators and specialists who had been removed by Thiers.[citation needed]

After only a week, the Commune came under attack by elements of the army (which eventually included former prisoners of war released by the Germans) being reinforced at a furious pace at Versailles.[citation needed]

The Suppression of the Commune[edit]

The Commune forces, the National Guard, first began skirmishing with the regular Army of Versailles on April 2. Neither side really sought a major civil war, nor was either side ever willing to negotiate. The nearby suburb of Courbevoie was occupied by the government forces on April 2, and a delayed attempt by the Commune's forces to march on Versailles on April 3 failed ignominiously. Defense and survival became overriding considerations, and the Commune leadership made a determined effort to turn the National Guard into an effective defense force.

Strong support also came from the large foreign community of political refugees and exiles in Paris: one of them, the Polish ex-officer and nationalist Jarosław Dąbrowski, was to be the Commune's best general. The Council was fully committed to internationalism, and in the name of brotherhood the Vendôme Column, celebrating the victories of Napoleon I, and considered by the Commune to be a monument to Bonapartism and 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 skeptical attitude towards the activities of the metropolis. Movements in Narbonne, Limoges, and Marseille were quickly crushed.

As the situation deteriorated further, a section of the Council won a vote (opposed by bookbinder Eugène Varlin, an associate of Mikhail Bakunin and correspondent of Karl Marx, and by other radicals) for the creation of a "Committee of Public Safety", modelled on the Jacobin organ with the same title that was formed in 1792. Its powers were extensive and ruthless in theory, but in practice it was ineffective.

On May 26, the Commune executed fifty hostages, mostly policemen and priests, on Rue Haxo. Defenders of the commune later claimed that the photograph by Eugene Appert was faked, but the execution was public and attended by a large crowd. A plaque marks the spot today. (Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.)

Throughout April and May, government forces, constantly increasing in number—with Prussia releasing French POWs to help the Thiers government—besieged the city's powerful defences, and pushed back the National Guards. On May 21 a gate in the western part of the fortified city wall of Paris was opened, and Versaillese troops began the reconquest of the city. They first occupied the prosperous western districts, where they were welcomed by residents who had not left Paris after the armistice. It seems an engineer (who had spied regularly for the Thiers government) found the gate unmanned and signaled this to Versailles.

The strong local loyalties that 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 its survival, and each was overcome in turn. The webs of narrow streets that made entire districts nearly impregnable in earlier Parisian revolutions had been largely replaced by wide boulevards during Haussmann's renovation of Paris. The Versaillese enjoyed a centralized command and had superior numbers. They had learned the tactics of street fighting and simply tunnelled through the walls of houses to outflank the Communards' barricades. Ironically, only where Haussmann had made wide spaces and streets were they held up by the defenders' gunfire.

"Bloody Week"[edit]

The street fighting at the end of May, in what was later called "Bloody Week" (La Semaine Sanglante), was without mercy. Communards captured with weapons were often summarily executed by the army. On its side, the Commune had taken about sixty hostages, mostly Dominican and Jesuit priests, as well as Georges Darboy, the Archbishop of Paris. The Commune had taken a "decree on hostages" on April 5, 1871, according to which any accomplice of the government would be made a "hostage of the Parisian people." The decree stated that the execution by the government of any war prisoner or supporter of the Paris Commune would be followed on the spot by the execution of a triple number of hostages. During "Bloody Week" the leaders of the Commune tried to exchange their hostages for captured leaders of the Commune. When the government refused to negotiate, the Archbishop, a judge and four priests were executed by a firing squad in the courtyard of La Roquette prison.[12][13] On May 26, an additional fifty hostages, including priests, gendarmes and four civilians, were shot by a firing squad on Rue Haxo in eastern Paris. A plaque and a church, Notre Dame des Hotages (Our Lady of the Hostages) marks the place where they were shot.[14]

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

Fierce street fighting took place throughout what became known as La Semaine Sanglante ("The Bloody Week"). By 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. Marshal 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."

As the fighting ended, retribution began. Communards captured with weapons were often executed on the spot. One hundred forty-seven Communards were shot against what is now known as the Communards' Wall in Père Lachaise Cemetery.[15] A plaque marks the place where they were shot. Several hundred others were summarily executed by firing squad in the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Lobau Barracks, behind the Hôtel de Ville.

In the following months twelve thousand Communards were tried, and about ten thousand were found guilty: twenty-three men were executed, and many of the others were condemned to prison. The painter Gustave Courbet, who had been a sort of culture minister for the Commune and who had organized the pulling down of the Vendome Column, was sentenced to six months in prison and given a fine of five hundred francs. Later, in 1873, he was ordered to pay for putting the column back up, but he died before he could make the first payment. Four thousand Communards were deported to penal colonies in New Caledonia, but were amnestied a few years later. Paris remained under martial law for five years.

Thousands of Communards, including most of the Commune leaders, succeeded in escaping to Belgium, Britain (a safe haven for 3,000-4,000 refugees), Italy, Spain and the United States. Most of the prisoners, except for those convicted of assassination or arson, were released by an amnesty in 1880, and those who had been exiled were allowed to return. Some of Communards amnestied in 1880 became prominent in politics, as Paris councillors, deputies or senators.

The burning of the Tuileries Palace[edit]

Ruins of the Tuileries Palace, one of the Paris public buildings burned by the Communards as the Commune collapsed. It was later torn down rather than restored.
The ruins of the Hotel de Ville of Paris, also burned by the Communards, but later rebuilt.

As the Commune collapsed under the assault, the Communards tried to destroy as many of the palaces and other public buildings of Paris as they could. The Tuileries Palace, which had been the residence of most of the monarchs of France from Hery IV to Napoleon III, was the first target. At 7:00 p.m on 23 May 1871, twelve men under the orders of a Communard named Dardelle set the Tuileries on fire, using petroleum, liquid tar and turpentine. The fire lasted 48 hours and gutted the palace, except for the southernmost part, the Pavillon de Flore[16] The dome of the palace was blown up by explosives placed in the central pavilion and detonated by the converging fires. A Commune leader named Bergeret sent a note to the Committee of Public Safety: 'The last vestiges of Royalty have just disappeared. I wish that the same may befall all the public buildings of Paris'.[17]

The library of the Louvre, connected to the Tuileries, was also set on fire and entirely destroyed. The rest of the museum was saved by the efforts of the museum curators and fire brigades. Besides the Tuileries and the Louvre Library, the Communards also burned the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais de Justice, the Prefecture of Police, the Palais Royal, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the houses of people asociated with the regime of Napoleon III, such as the home of the playwright Prosper Merimee, the author of Carmen. [18]

The casualties[edit]

This photograph is said to show Communards killed in 1871

Most estimates of the number killed during La Semaine Sanglante came from members of the Commune who had gone into exile; the official army report by General Felix Antoine Appert, mentioned only military casualties, which amounted to 877 killed, 6,454 wounded, and 183 missing, during the period from April through May. The report said nothing about Communard casualties, other than that the information was "very incomplete." [19]

The number of casualties during Bloody Week was raised at a hearing of the National Assembly on August 28, 1871, where the leader of the army during the suppression the Commune, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, testified. One of the members of the Assembly, M. Vacherot, told the Marshal, "A general has told me that the number killed in combat, on the barricades, or after the combat, was as many as 17,000 men." The Marshal responded: "I don't know what that estimate is based upon; it seems exaggerated to me. All I can say is that the insurgents lost a lot more people than we did." Vacherot continued, "Perhaps this number applies to all of the siege, and to the fighting at Forts d'Issay and Vanves." MacMahon replied, "the number is exaggerated." Vacherot persisted: "It was General Appert who gave me that information. Perhaps he meant both dead and wounded." To which MacMahan replied, "Ah, well, that's different." [20] From this exchange it was evident that the number seventeen thousand was not an official report of executions during Bloody Week, as was later claimed, but simply a guess about the number of Communards who might have been killed and wounded during the entire battle from April through May. However, the number seventeen thousand soon took on a life of its own.

One of the first to cite the number of civilian casualties was a former Communard, Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, who wrote from London in 1876 that at least seventeen thousand and probably twenty thousand people were killed in bloody week.[21]

Camille Pelletan, in La Semaine de Mai (1880) raised the estimate of the number killed to thirty thousand.[22] Vladimir Lenin seized upon the number twenty thousand and cited it as proof of the brutality of the ruling classes: he wrote, "20,000 killed in the streets...Lessons: bourgeoisie will stop at nothing." [23] The historian Benedict Anderson also cited the number of twenty thousand.[24] The British historian Alfred Cobban also used this estimate in 1965, writing: "the death toll of the Communards was probably not less than twenty thousand."[25]

In 2012 Robert Tombs of St. John's College, Cambridge did a careful survey of the cemetery and police records from the period, which recorded in detail the numbers of those buried in each of the city cemeteries after bloody week, and the numbers of those temporarily buried in parks and mass graves who were later exhumed and reburied in cemeteries. He concluded that the actual number killed during and immediately after bloody week was probably closer to between 6000 and 7500.[26]


A plaque honours the dead of the Commune in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Karl Marx found it aggravating that the Communards "lost precious moments" organising 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. They asked to borrow money from the bank, which they got easily.[27]

The Communards did take over the Paris mint and issued a 5 franc coin (identifiable by a trident mintmark) which is today quite scarce. However, they chose not to seize the national bank's assets because they were afraid that the world would condemn them if they did.[citation needed] 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 Friedrich Engels, Mikhail Bakunin, and later Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong tried to draw major theoretical lessons (in particular as regards the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the "withering away of the state") from the limited experience of the Commune. A different 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..."[28]

Karl Marx, in his important pamphlet The Civil War in France (1871), written during the Commune, praised the Commune's achievements, and described it as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future, "the form at last discovered" for the emancipation of the proletariat.

Marx wrote that: "Working men's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators' history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.".[29]

Friedrich Engels echoed this idea, later maintaining that the absence of a standing army, the self-policing of the "quarters", 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—he used the famous term later taken up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks: the Commune was, he said, the first "dictatorship of the proletariat", meaning it was a state run by workers and in the interests of workers. But Marx and Engels were not entirely uncritical of the Commune. The split between the Marxists and anarchists at the 1872 Hague Congress of the First International (IWA) may in part be traced to Marx's stance that the Commune might have saved itself had it dealt more harshly with reactionaries, instituted conscription, and centralized decision making in the hands of a revolutionary direction, etc. The other point of disagreement was the anti-authoritarian socialists' oppositions to the Communist conception of conquest of power and of a temporary transitional state (the anarchists were in favor of general strike and immediate dismantlement of the state through the constitution of decentralized workers' councils as those seen in the commune).

The Paris Commune has been regarded with awe by many Leftist leaders. Mao would refer to it often. Lenin, along with Marx, judged the Commune a living example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", though Lenin criticized the Communards for having "stopped half way ... led astray by dreams of ... establishing a higher [capitalist] justice in the country ... such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over"; he thought their "excessive magnanimity" had prevented them from "destroying" the class enemy.[30] At his funeral, Lenin's body was wrapped in the remains of a red and white flag preserved from the Commune[citation needed]. The Soviet spaceflight Voskhod 1 carried part of a communard banner from the Paris Commune. Also, the Bolsheviks renamed the dreadnought battleship Sevastopol to Parizhskaya Kommuna.

The Paris Commune was the dictatorship of the proletariat, but this dictatorship was weak and incomplete. The Communards lacked the fundamentals—a Marxist proletarian party, discipline, organisation, a clear understanding of the aims of their struggle, and an alliance with the peasantry. The Commune committed a number of serious errors. It did not venture to confiscate the tremendous assets of the French bank and showed hesitance in dealing with counter-revolutionary agents and accessories, saboteurs, spies and the slanderous campaign in the bourgeoise press. The Commune paid too little attention to military training.

Marx Engels Lenin on Scientific Socialism[31]


Some other assessments of the Commune's reign were highly critical. For example, the American Ambassador at the time, Elihu Washburne, writing in his personal diary which is quoted at length in noted historian David McCullough's book, The Greater Journey (Simon & Schuster 2011), described the Communards as "brigands", "assassins", and "scoundrels"; "I have no time now to express my detestation.... [T]hey threaten to destroy Paris and bury everybody in its ruins before they will surrender." Ultimately, the fighting resulted in the burning by the Communards of the Tuileries Palace, the Library of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, Palais de Justice, Prefecture of Police, Palais Royal, and many houses. Fires were also started in Notre Dame, but were extinguished before it could be destroyed. The sewers from the Hotel de Ville to the Banque de France had also been mined. Edwin Child, a young Londoner working in Paris, noted that "the women behaved like tigresses, throwing petroleum everywhere and distinguishing themselves by the fury with which they fought"[32] (although it has been argued in recent research that these famous female arsonists of the Commune, or pétroleuses, may have been a myth[33][34]). Washburne unsuccessfully sought to save the Commune's hostages, six of whom would eventually be executed during the last phase of the fighting in Paris, by entreating Thiers to accept the proposed exchange with Blanqui (see above for details).[35] Washburne wrote that the Commune was guilty of "unparalleled atrocities", followed by "awful vengeances" as the government troops retook Paris.

Other communes[edit]

Simultaneously with the Paris Commune, uprisings in Lyon, Grenoble and other cities established equally short-lived communes.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Fictional treatments[edit]

Comics artist Jacques Tardi translated the novel into a comic, which is also called Le Cri du Peuple.



  1. ^ Horne, Alistair (1965). The Fall of Paris. The Siege and the Commune 1870-1. London, MacMillan. pp. 331–332. 
  2. ^ Haupt/Hausen 1979, pg. 74-75
  3. ^ Edwards 1971, pg. 1
  4. ^ March, Thomas (1896). The history of the Paris Commune of 1871. London, S. Sonnenschein & co., ltd.; New York, Macmillan & co. pp. 3–6. 
  5. ^ March, Thomas (1896). The history of the Paris Commune of 1871. London, S. Sonnenschein & co., ltd.; New York, Macmillan & co. pp. 7–9. 
  6. ^ March, Thomas (1896). The history of the Paris Commune of 1871. London, S. Sonnenschein & co., ltd.; New York, Macmillan & co. pp. 10–12. 
  7. ^ March, Thomas (1896). The history of the Paris Commune of 1871. London, S. Sonnenschein & co., ltd.; New York, Macmillan & co. pp. 14–20. 
  8. ^ March (1896). The history of the Paris Commune of 1871. pp. 24–26. 
  9. ^ Marx and the Proletariat: A Study in Social Theory by Timothy McCarthy
  10. ^ Women and the Commune[dead link], in L'Humanité, March 19, 2005 (French)
  11. ^ a b c François Bodinaux, Dominique Plasman, Michèle Ribourdouille. "On les disait 'pétroleuses'...[dead link]" (French)
  12. ^ Les otages de la Commune de Paris, L'Histoire par l'image, URL accessed on January 12, 2007 (French)
  13. ^ Extract from Maxime Vuillaume, Mes cahiers rouges au temps de la Commune, (1909) (French)
  14. ^ Gregor Dallas, An Exercise in Terror: the Paris Commune 1871, History Today, Volume 39, Issue 2, 1989.
  15. ^ Cobban, Alfred (1965), A History of Modern France, p. 215. Penguin Books
  16. ^ "Paris". Encyclopædia Britannica 17 (14th ed.). 1956. p. 293. 
  17. ^ 'Paris under Siege' by Joanna Richardson publ. Folio Society London 1982
  18. ^ Rene Heron de Villefosse, Histoire de Paris, Bernard Grasset (1959). The father of the author of this book was an assistant curator at the Louvre, and helped put out the fires.
  19. ^ Rapport d'ensemble de M. le Général Appert sur les opérations de la justice militaire relatives à l'insurrection de 1871, Assemblée nationale, annexe au procès verbal de la session du 20 juillet 1875 (Versailles, 1875)
  20. ^ Deposition de M. le maréchal Mac-Mahon (28 August 1871) in Enquéte Parlementaire sur l'insurrenction du 18 mars 1871 (Paris: Librarie Législative, 1872), p. 183.
  21. ^ Lissagaray Prosper-Olivier (1876), Histore de la Commune de 1871, Paris Maspero, reprinted in 1972.
  22. ^ Pelletan, Camille (1880), Paris, Dreyfous
  23. ^ V.I. Lenin, On the Paris Commune, Moscow, Progress Publishers.
  24. ^ In Benedict Anderson (July–August 2004). "In the World-Shadow of Bismarck and Nobel". New Left Review. :

    "In March 1871 the Commune took power in the abandoned city and held it for two months. Then Versailles seized the moment to attack and, in one horrifying week, executed roughly 20,000 Communards or suspected sympathizers, a number higher than those killed in the recent war or during Robespierre's ‘Terror’ of 1793–94. More than 7,500 were jailed or deported to places like New Caledonia. Thousands of others fled to Belgium, England, Italy, Spain and the United States. In 1872, stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left. Not till 1880 was there a general amnesty for exiled and imprisoned Communards. Meantime, the Third Republic found itself strong enough to renew and reinforce Louis Napoleon's imperialist expansion—in Indochina, Africa, and Oceania. Many of France's leading intellectuals and artists had participated in the Commune (Courbet was its quasi-minister of culture, Rimbaud and Pissarro were active propagandists) or were sympathetic to it. The ferocious repression of 1871 and after was probably the key factor in alienating these milieux from the Third Republic and stirring their sympathy for its victims at home and abroad."

  25. ^ A History of Modern France. Vol 2: 1799–1861, Penguin Books, 1965. p. 215.
  26. ^ Robert Tombs, "How Bloody was La Semaine Sanglante of 1871? A Revision," Historical Journal (Sept 2012) 55#3 pp 679-704.
  27. ^ Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. McLellan), pp. 592-94
  28. ^ Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt, Robert Baldick, Pages from the Goncourt Journal (Oxford, 1962), p. 194
  29. ^ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, English Edition of 1871
  30. ^ 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.

    ...Mindful of the lessons of the Commune, it [the Russian proletariat] knew that the proletariat should not ignore peaceful methods of struggle—they serve its ordinary, day-to-day interests, they are necessary in periods of preparation for revolution—but it must never forget that in certain conditions the class struggle assumes the form of armed conflict and civil war; there are times when the interests of the proletariat call for ruthless extermination of its enemies in open armed clashes.

  31. ^ Marx Engels Lenin on Scientific Socialism. Moscow: Novosti Press Ajency Publishing House. 1974. p. 160. 
  32. ^ Eye-witness accounts quoted in 'Paris under Siege' by Joanna Richardson (see bibliography)
  33. ^ Robert Tombs, The War Against Paris: 1871, Cambridge University Press, 1981, 272 pages ISBN 978-0-521-28784-5
  34. ^ Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, Cornell Univ Press, 1996, 304 pages ISBN 978-0-8014-8318-9>
  35. ^ Katz, Philip M. 1998. From Appomattox to Montmartre: Americans and the Paris Commune P.48
  36. ^ a b Albert Boime, Olin Levi Warner's Defense of the Paris Commune, Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3/4 (1989), (pp, 4, 13).


Older works include:

External links[edit]