France commune

What can we learn from the commune of Paris – on the occasion of its 150th anniversary?

The workers of Paris in 1871 had already suffered a life of misery at the hands of their ruling class.

The workers worked in dangerous conditions, doing unskilled jobs with brutally long hours.

Hunger, malnutrition, homelessness and lack of education were only part of the price paid by the working class for industrialization and capitalism.

In the summer of 1870, Emperor Napoleon III, a gesticulating and rather unhappy character, declared war on Prussia.

There had been a diplomatic struggle over the Prussian attempt for the Spanish throne and so he marched against Bismarck in the hope of weakening the enemies of France and making territorial gains.

The French Empire had dragged its people, already suffering from the misery and misery caused by rapid industrialization, into another war. He was therefore unpopular from the start.

Napoleon, however, had been misguided as to the state of his army. The men were ill-prepared, ill-trained and ill-equipped.

The Prussian army, on the other hand, had more men and a strategy that enabled them to act with precision.

Thus, on September 2, the emperor surrendered with 83,000 soldiers at the battle of Sedan.

Two days later, the French workers in Paris invaded the chambers of the legislative body and, with cries of “Down with the Empire!” Long live the Republic !, they forced the proclamation of the fall of the empire and the start of the Third Republic.

The political order of France had collapsed.

A national defense government is formed by opponents of the emperor and headed by General Louis Trochu.

This new government was made up of deputies who were in Paris during the fall of the empire. The national defense government said it “would not cede an inch of land” and the fighting therefore continued.

The Prussians began the long siege of Paris on September 19, 1870. Bismarck, convinced that the French would surrender quickly and that this would leave the French army dangerously intact, ordered to annihilate the army and starve Paris.

The lack of food in the city forced Parisians to eat whatever meat they could find.

Rats, dogs, cats and horses became commonplace on workers’ tables, and ultimately desperation drove Parisians to eat zoo animals.

The government scampered off to Versailles to escape the angry crowds, far more frightened by the Parisians than by the Prussian forces.

Only the poorest, the workers, remained. More than 60,000 died of hunger and disease, the only aid coming from the working class in towns and villages surrounding the capital, who sent what they could spare.

When the national defense government surrendered to Bismarck, the terms of the armistice – signed at the Palace of Versailles – included the complete surrender of Paris.

The Versailles government banned left-wing newspapers and made previously suspended debts and rents payable within 48 hours.

They had failed to protect the working class in Paris and now seemed to punish them more.

The workers had enlisted in the National Guard – formed to defend the city – and were armed, although largely outnumbered by the French and Prussian armies.

The French army has been sent twice to disarm Paris – the second time by sending nearly 18,000 men to take the guns and disarm the National Guard, which refused to surrender its arms. In both cases, the Versailles army left with nothing.

With this, the remaining administration in Paris, as it was, fled. The government had abandoned its capital.

On March 28, the workers took power and the red flag replaced the French tricolor above the Town Hall.

The commune immediately set up a workers’ salary, canceled all debts and interest, and paid pensions to unmarried spouses and illegitimate children.

Communard children are entitled to free education, and abandoned factories are seized – now owned by workers and often used as communal bakeries and kitchens.

The pawn shops were shut down, anything worth less than 20 francs returned to its original owner. The tools needed for the job have been returned regardless of their value.

Each worker was enrolled in the National Guard and rifles were distributed among the population.

But the Parisian workers now fought both against the Prussian army and against the French bourgeoisie.

On May 21, 1871, the French army entered Paris. In one week, they had executed 30,000 Communards.

In total, around 125,000 were physically expelled, either by execution, arrest or deportation, or by flight. Many of those who escaped went into exile.

Indeed, large numbers came to England, forming large communities in places like Clerkenwell and Fitzrovia.

One of those arrested was Louise Michel – the illegitimate daughter of a chambermaid – who, in the years leading up to the commune, had become increasingly involved in socialist and revolutionary clubs and had been imprisoned for participating in women’s demonstrations.

Michel had joined the National Guard as an infantryman, serving in the 61st Montmartre Battalion with around thirty other women.

When the Versailles army stormed Montmartre on May 23, Michel was left for dead in a trench but later escaped.

After threats to shoot her mother, she surrendered. She was taken from Versailles to Satory with other prisoners, some of whom were awakened in the night to dig their own graves and then shot dead.

During her trial, which ended in exile in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, she said: “Since it seems that any heart that beats for freedom is only entitled to one piece. lead, I too claim my share. If you let me live, I will never stop crying out for revenge and I will avenge my brothers. I’m finished. If you are not cowards, kill me!

Although the commune fell, it had carried out an armed takeover of political power never seen before – the working class of Paris proved that it had the skills to run public affairs.

Engels described the commune as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat – a government based on force by the working class, which had organized itself for the purpose of liberating the exploited masses, over the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat was politically dominant for the first time. Its economic program and its form of democracy have had an impact as far as the West Indies and China.

Engels’ description was defended by Marx and later by Lenin who, in the months leading up to the Russian Revolution, called for the creation of a “Paris commune-type state”.

As a leader of the First International – an organization whose aim was to build global resistance to capital – and having published a pamphlet, Civil War in France, as an official statement on the importance of the commune, Marx became a well-known political figure. in Europe and many of his observations on the commune shape the way we socialists view our struggle today.

This week we celebrated International Women’s Day and it therefore seems appropriate to mark this 150th anniversary of the commune with the words of Louise Michel: “We revolutionaries are not just chasing a scarlet flag. What we are pursuing is an awakening of freedom, old or new. It is the old communes of France, it is 1703; we are in June 1848; we are in 1871. It is especially the next revolution which advances under this dawn.

Sarah McDonough is an industry representative for the TSSA, Euston, and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Cambridge branch).


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