140 years ago, the world’s first experiment in workers’ self-government came to an end. For a few short weeks the workers of Paris had given shape to a new kind of socialist politics from below.

P√®re Lachaise cemetery in Paris’s 20th arrondissement is a place of silent, crumbling beauty and a destination for those seeking the last resting places of political and cultural figures from Wilde and Balzac to Jim Morrison.

140 years ago this week it was far from silent. In the last days of May 1871 its avenues of tombs, gravestones were the macabre setting for a battle and provided the last line of defence of the world’s first experiment in workers’ self-government.

Père Lachaise is where the Paris Commune was finally crushed by the Versailles government. But for a little over two months, the Commune saw the working class take the tiller of history and begin to offer a concrete vision of what a society without exploitation might look like. The Commune may have been defeated but the vision remained, a seed that would bring forth future revolutionary struggles and provide lessons still relevant today.

Karl Marx grasped the significance of the Commune. In the constitution of the Commune, they [the working class] have “taken the actual management of their revolution into their own hands and found at the same time, in the case of success, the means to hold it in the hands of the people itself, displacing the state machinery, the government machinery of the ruling classes by the government machinery of their own”, he wrote in The First Draft of the Civil War in France.

From war to revolution

The Commune was born out of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71: a war which led to the fall of the Second Empire, the capture by the Prussians of Emperor Napoleon III, and the creation of the Third Republic.

By the Autumn of 1870 the Prussian army was laying siege to Paris, where conditions for the population, particularly in the ‘red districts’ such as Belleville, declined precipitously. Malnutrition was widespread as the population was forced to resort to eating pets, wild birds and vermin. Sanitation and the disposal of refuse became increasingly difficult and mortality rates began to escalate rapidly.

From their positions in the outskirts of Paris, the Prussians subjected the city to continual shelling. Class antagonisms soon came to the fore, particularly as the wealthy were seen as being able to avoid the worst privations.

Yet intimations of what was to come could be seen in agitation by district committees and workers’ associations. The Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondissements published a manifesto demanding the expropriation of all private food supplies and the institution of rationing. It also accused the Government of National Defence of negotiating for surrender, seeing the threat from the left as greater than that posed by the Prussians.

Other social and political changes moved apace. Clubs rouges (Red Clubs) in the working class districts played an increasingly important role. Participants in their debates questioned the government’s ability and willingness to defend Paris.

Divisions were also appearing in the forces of the state. While the regular army remained loyal to the government, the situation amongst the National Guard was quite different. The National Guard were first created in the Great Revolution (1789-93) as people’s militias. Although their structure had been formalised during the 1800s during the siege its membership had been opened up to all able-bodied citizens capable of bearing arms. The Guard quickly divided along political lines with the emergence of red battalions, which began to play an active role in the politics of pre-revolutionary Paris.

The Women’s Club played an important role, anticipating the active role working women would play in the Commune. Those thrown into political activity were recruited from the poorest of Paris.

A bourgeois commentator, Ernest Vizetelly, commented disdainfully that these were:

“Femmes du people, cooks, washerwomen, and such like, with a fair sprinkling of shopwomen and seamstresses, the youngest among them being not less than five-and-twenty.”

Such women were to be instrumental in the events that sparked the revolution and the creation of the Commune proper.

By January 1871 the government of Adolphe Thiers was seeking to end the war through a treaty with the Prussians and the passing of new financial laws enabling the payment of reparations in return for a Prussian withdrawal from France. The Versailles government, operating under Prussian protection, demanded that Paris should be disarmed.

The workers’ response was a wave of uprisings in major French cities. Without an armistice, the Prussians continued their offensive, resuming the siege to Paris which had been temporarily lifted.

In negotiations with the Government of National Defence the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck, insisted that Paris lay down its arms and the Government moved to disarm the National Guard. For Thiers, the fact that this would be resisted by the National Guard and the working class was a matter of little consequence. Thiers regarded the working class of Paris as little more than a rabble and discounted the protestations of the Parisians as mere histrionics. He could not have been more wrong.

By the end of January the working class was increasingly organised and beginning to form its own organisations. Activists came from many traditions. The majority of the prominent figures in what would be the Commune were either followers of the moderate anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, or the revolutionary socialist, Louis Auguste Blanqui (although a socialist, he rejected the role of mass movements, advocating a conspiratorial form of insurrectionary politics).

Fewer in number but also significant were supporters of the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, and of Karl Marx. A number of the leading figures were known within the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) and were in correspondence with Marx and Engels.

Representatives of these currents and the Delegation of the Twenty Arrondissements shared a common building, the Corderie, with the Trade Union Federation. These groups came together to sign a common set of principles and agreed to form local vigilance committees.

They agreed “to seek by all possible means the suppression of the privileges of the bourgeoisie, its overthrow as a controlling class and the political accession of the workers – in a word, social equality. No more employers, no more proletarians, no more classes.”

The Paris Commune

It was the question of arms that provided the spark for the revolution. Cannons for the defence of Paris had been bought through a public subscription. These cannons had been requisitioned by the Red battalions and installed in the working class districts of Montmartre and Belleville.

In early March plans were laid by the government for the suppression of the workers institutions, the National Guard and the seizure of the cannon. In the early hours of 18 March troops under the leadership of General Lecomte entered Montmartre to take weapons, but failed to secure the horses needed to pull the cannons out of the area. By the morning, as Montmartre awoke, the troops had still not yet removed the weapons.

One of the leading women in the Commune, schoolteacher Louise Michel, ran down the buttes Montmartre shouting treason. Lecomte ordered the troops to fix bayonets but the troops refused. After issuing the order three times the troops dropped their arms and began to shed their uniforms.

The army was changing to the side of the people and the general was arrested. Another general who had unwisely gone to Montmartre to observe the removal of the guns was arrested and summarily executed. So was Lecomte soon after, shot by a firing squad including a number of the troops he had led into Montmartre.

The insurrection spread quickly, with Government forces melting away or switching to the side of the people. The Commune had been born.

Government of the city passed to the Central Committee of the National Guard which called for elections on 26 March. Elected by proportional representation the Communal Council consisted of 92 members. Although many middle-class Parisians voted against the Commune, many had withdrawn from the city with the lifting of the siege and working class districts gave an overwhelming vote of support (in some districts by a margin of more than 80%).

Sixty-four red delegates took their positions in the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). Twenty-four right wing delegates boycotted the Commune and two delegates were absent and a series of by-elections followed. Although some of the Commune members were middle class, 33 were artisans and others included lawyers, doctors and soldiers.

Workers from the growing heavy industries were notable by their absence, and this was one of the weaknesses of the institution. All the Commune delegates were men. Another weakness, it has sometimes been argued, was the lack of a leadership capable of giving the revolution a strategic direction. Many of the anarchists argued against any centralisation of power and the complete dismantling of the states.

For Marx and Engels, the Commune helped systematise their political programme and fleshed out their ideas of what a workers’ state would look like. For Lenin and Trotsky the lessons of the Commune informed their thinking of what a government of soviets (workers’ councils) would look like and the inspiration of the Commune was central in both 1905 and 1917.

Most notably, the Commune was a key inspiration and reference for Lenin’s State and Revolution. This did not mean that they didn’t have their criticisms of the Commune. Marx felt that the Commune could perhaps have survived had it had taken a more strategic and disciplined approach, centralising decision-making under a directorate during the civil war with the reactionary Versailles government. Lenin criticised the ‘excessive magnanimity,’ of the Commune to its class enemies.

The Commune proposed radical reforms including a variety of work in each trade, a reduction in working houses, an end to competition between make and female workers, equal pay for equal hours of work, a local and international federation of trade sections and to ease the movement and exchange of goods.

The Commune also proposed that every trade association member should be expected to belong to the International Working Men’s Association. This latter point highlights the fact that although the defence of France was a key driver toward insurrection, a strong current of internationalism ran through the work of the Commune.

Although women couldn’t vote for delegates, the Commune also saw vigorous campaigning for women’s rights – women demanded that their voices be heard in the debates of the red clubs. The women of the Commune voiced their criticism of the male domination of government and key institutions, the authoritarianism of the church, profiteering by bakers and butchers, and marriage.

Lessons of the Commune

Marx was hugely enthusiastic about the Paris Commune, describing the revolt as ‘storming heaven’. Writing in The Civil War in France, the official statement of the General Council of the International, he outlined what he saw as the unique structural features of the Commune.

The pamphlet was written in the dying days of the Commune and published in June 1871.

The Commune, Marx argued, was without historical precedent. “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” wrote Marx. Rather the working class needed to build its own state institutions. The key features of this new state included:

  • The replacement of the standing army by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service
  • Communes to elect assemblies of delegates who would in turn elect delegates to the National Delegation in Paris. All delegates would be subject to instant recall.
  • The repressive organs of the old government to ‘amputated,’ with the political functions of the police removed.
  • Delegates to be paid the wage of an ordinary worker.
  • Rather than a separation of powers, the judiciary, executive and legislature would be combined in the same body. “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

Yet these changes were not enough. Without the economic emancipation of labour, “the Communal Constitution would have been an impossibility and a delusion.”

“The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery,” Marx continues.

“The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute.”

In another demonstration of its internationalism, the Commune voted to allow foreigners to stand as delegates. In April the Commune decided that the Victory column in the Place Vendôme, cast from guns captured by Napoleon 62 years before should be demolished as a symbol of nationalism and incitement to national hatred.

Violent counter-revolution

Thiers and the forces of reaction were not prepared to allow the revolution to continue, and plans for a fresh assault on Paris gathered pace. The Versailles government was alarmed by national municipal elections that suggested widespread sympathy for the Commune. As the final negotiations for a Treaty with Prussia progressed, Thiers tried to position himself as a conciliator and the Parisians as conspirators who were compelling the government to shed blood.

Anticipating an attack, the Commune formed a five-member Committee of Public Safety at the end of April to coordinate the defence of Paris. The Commune was divided on the issue but the Committee was instituted.

On 21 May, Versailles troops entered Paris. The rich western arrondissements put up weak resistance. Many of the bourgeois inhabitants longed for what they regarded as the restoration of order.

In Montmartre and the workers’ Eastern Paris it was a very different story. Fighting was brave and the leaders of the Commune’s forces – √©migr√© Pole, Jaroslav Dombrowski, and Gustave Cluseret, a naturalised American – struggled to coordinate an effective defence.

Yet the Commune’s militias and the National Guard lacked the experience of the regular army, had little real strategy and coordinate their efforts poorly. The people sought to form barricades and to dig up cobblestones for using against the Versailles army but were little match for troops who had recovered much of their strength since the defeats of the previous year.

Although in some places the Commune operated a scorched earth policy, buying it time as it fell back, the workers’ forces were pushed back into Belleville and the high ground of Buttes Chaumont and P√®re Lachaise. As the Versailles army advanced it unleashed widespread terror, executing prisoners, civilians and surrendering troops.

As many as 30,000 workers and members of the Commune are believed to have been executed in the last days of the Commune and the following weeks. Almost 40,000 were imprisoned and another 7,000 deported.

The last shots of the battle were fired close to the memorial to Balzac in Père Lachaise l. The 147 survivors of the cemetery battle were marched to what is now known as the Mur des Fédérés or Communards Wall and shot. They were buried in a mass grave at the foot of the wall.

The Commune is sometime painted as a heroic failure. Yet although it was crushed, for a few short weeks the workers of Paris gave shape to a new kind of state and a socialist politics imposed not from above but built from below. It is where our socialism was born.

Further reading

The most important source on the Commune remains Marx’s The Civil War in France and the First Draft of the Civil War in France.

The Marxist Internet Archive has a very useful section on the Paris Commune which includes documents produced by the Commune and a timeline of events.

Worthwhile books on the Commune include Donny Gluckstein’s The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy and Rupert Christiansen, Paris Babylon; Grandeur, Decadence and Revolution 1869 – 1875. Although written by a Daily Telegraph art critic, the latter contains a wealth of detail and is a sympathetic portrait of the Commune and provided very useful in writing this article. Well worth tracking down.