France commune

Briefing: The Paris Commune | The week in the UK

Why was the Commune important?

For 72 days only – from March 18 to May 28, 1871 – a revolutionary government ruled Paris and espoused a large number of radical causes: decent conditions for the workers; free universal education; separation of Church and State; the abolition of child labor; equality between men and women; citizenship for foreigners. Although it was quickly suppressed with remarkable ferocity, the Paris Commune inspired socialist movements across the world. Karl Marx described it as the prototype of a future revolutionary government – “the form finally discovered for the emancipation of the working class”. Friedrich Engels saw in it the first real example of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Lenin’s tomb in Red Square is still decorated with red Commune banners brought to Russia by the French Communists.

What was the context of its emergence?

In 1870, the Second French Empire, led by Napoleon III, Bonaparte’s nephew, went to war against Prussia and its German allies. The emperor’s generals assured him that he would win easily and restore France’s dominant position in Europe, but the Prussians routed the French, capturing Napoleon III at Sedan on September 2, with 100,000 men. The Second Empire collapsed and the government fell back on Bordeaux. Paris, in a way deserted by the well-to-do, was besieged by the Prussians for four months, causing great hardship – and defended by its National Guard, a militia made up mostly of workers, which is becoming increasingly radicalized. In January, the new government agreed to humiliating terms of surrender with Prussian leader Bismarck. The Third French Republic was formed and a new government, dominated by provincial conservatives, was elected.

How was the Municipality born?

Adolphe Thiers, the head of the new government, recognized the revolutionary situation in Paris and, on March 18, sent soldiers to disarm the National Guard and withdraw hundreds of cannons. The Parisians were determined to keep them. In Montmartre, in the industrial northeast of the city, the mob captured and executed the commander of the troops, General Lecomte, and another general, the hated former commander of the National Guard; the government and the army fall back on Versailles and the Guard takes control of the city. The Paris Commune was proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville shortly after, and the red flag of socialism hoisted on the building. On March 26, the municipal elections organized by the National Guard resulted in a clear victory for the revolutionaries, who formed a new Council of the Municipality.

Who were its leaders?

The council, by design, did not have a single leader. Its delegates, known as the Communards, had a mix of beliefs, from radical socialism to anarchism to moderate republicanism. Many influential delegates were Blanquists, supporters of Louis-Auguste Blanqui (then a prisoner of the government), who called for violent revolution and the redistribution of wealth. Others were anarchists or Proudhonists, inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who famously asserted that “property is theft” and wanted the state to be abolished and divided into autonomous municipalities run by councils. workers – a society, as he put it, “without authority”. A smaller number were less radical Republicans, who called for the gradual reform of France’s institutions.

What did the Municipality achieve?

It only existed for a little over two months and its work was forever interrupted by emergencies, but during that time it managed to abolish the death penalty and military conscription. The economy in peacetime was still suspended and much of the city subsisted on the salary and rations of the National Guard, but the Communards introduced some economic reforms: they banned night cooking, instituted a working day ten o’clock and decided that workers could take over a business if it was abandoned by its owner. The council for a time managed public services for a city of two million people. Perhaps more importantly, it was a time of unprecedented freedom and debate – “Everyone argues, no one obeys,” complained one soldier – and great symbolic gestures. The Communards burned the guillotine and shot down the Vendôme column to Napoleon I, calling it a “monument to barbarism and militarism”.

When did the government oppose it?

On May 21, approximately 130,000 well-armed government soldiers entered Paris. The uneven struggle with the 25,000 National Guards that followed is known as the bloody week, the bloody week: the regular troops, mostly from conservative rural France, who saw them as ungodly extremists, killed the surrendered guards on sight. The retreating Communards also killed a small number – including the Archbishop of Paris – and set fire to much of central Paris: the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, Notre-Dame. Their last fight took place in the north-east of the workers, at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where 147 guards, many of them wounded, surrendered. They were lined up against the cemetery wall (now the Communards’ wall), shot and thrown into an open trench.

What happened to the remaining Communards?

Fighting fizzled out on May 28, but a series of rushed trials and mass executions followed, in public parks and behind prison walls. About 40,000 people were arrested and over 7,000 were deported, some to New Caledonia in the Pacific, many to other European nations where they spread the credo of internationalist socialism. (The International was written by a communard.) The army recorded 877 dead. Estimates of deaths on the other side vary between 8,000 and 30,000. Yale historian John Merriman, author of a History of the Township, believes 15,000 to 17,000 were killed. But after the great upheavals of the previous century, this bloodbath was in fact followed by a period of stability for France: the Third Republic lasted until 1940.

Souvenir from the time of cherries

Among the half-dozen uprisings in Paris in the 1800s, the Commune still stands out today. One of the reasons for this is that, by the standards of the revolutions, he was bloodless and innocently idealistic – yet he was crushed with exceptional brutality for the time. This made the martyrs of the Communards. Marx and Lenin revered their memory and drew lessons from what they considered to be the errors of the Commune: they believed that it should have treated its class enemies more harshly and properly abolished the old state, centralizing power between them. hands of a revolutionary organization.

The second reason, suggests the historian Robert Tombs on UnHerd, “is that it was short … He had neither time to moderate himself in bourgeois banality, nor to start devouring his own children. “. As Marx noted, it was long enough only to indicate what might have been. Therefore, it is easy to project fantasies on this brief interlude of spring release. “Always unfulfilled, her promise not diminished, she remains, in the words of a famous song written by one of its leaders, The cherry season – The cherry season.


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