Barricades defending the Paris Commune, April 1871. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Barricades defending the Paris Commune, April 1871. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Paris Commune only lasted from 28 March to 28 May 1871 but it inspired Karl Marx and continues to inspire and inform socialists today argues Judy Cox

The Paris Commune transformed the international socialist movement and irrevocably changed the lives of the entire Marx family. On 18th March 1871, the French Government surrendered to the German armies of General Bismark. The city of Paris had endured appalling hardship during a period of siege by the German troops and were reluctant to surrender. French minister Adolph Thiers sent French troops to disarm the Parisian national guard which was made up of working men. In the early hours of the morning, women delivering milk from house to house spread the news that Thiers’ soldiers were taking the cannons. Hundreds of women from Montmartre surrounded the cannon and confronted General Lecomte. He ordered his soldiers to fire, but the women appealed to them and the troops choose to shoot their general instead. By noon most of the cannons were in the hands of the Parisians. They took the defence of the city into their own hands and in the process created innovative new ways of organising the city and implementing democratic control from below.

The revolutionary council elected on 26 March not only organised essential services but also enacted a huge range of social measures. The Council disbanded the standing army and separated the Church from the state, ending religious domination over the schools and confiscating Church property. Marx described the significance of this legislation: ‘Having got rid of the physical force element of the old government, the Council broke the spiritual force of repression, or “parson power”.’ The officials of the Commune received only an average workers’ wage and were instantly recallable. The Commune reformed working conditions, ending night working for bakers and limiting the working day to 10 hours. They also explored ways to transform the nature of work itself by giving workers the right to take over workshops left empty when owners fled the city.

The democratic system meant that government was responsive to worker’s grievances. The death penalty was abolished. Parisians dragged the Guillotine into the Place de Vendome and burnt it in front of a cheering crowd. Tools and household items pawned during the siege were returned. The unmarried partners of soldiers were granted pensions. Marx described the impact of these measures:

When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hand plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their natural superiors…the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, symbol of the Republic of Labour, flying over the Hotel de Ville.

For two months the workers, the artisans and the urban poor of Paris were in the saddle and a huge outburst of creativity was unleashed. Walls were plastered with news posters. PainterGustav Courbet organised a Federation of Artists which confiscated the art collection stored in Adolph Thiers’ Parisian mansion. At Courbet’s instigation, militaristic statues were pulled down. Artists drew up manifestos calling for ‘Communal Luxury’ and ‘Public Beauty’. Political clubs sprang up across the city, including the Union of Women. Contemporary commentators sneered at the large number of women who attended meetings of the clubs. Hostile contemporaries described how screeching women with crying babies and red sashes dominated some of these clubs. Marx saw it differently: ‘The real women of Paris showed again the surface heroic, noble and devoted. Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris, almost unaware  in its incubation of a new society, of the Cannibal at its gates-radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative!’


The Marx Family

The Commune turned the Marx home in London in a public place, firstly of fervent debate and organization and later as a place of refuge for the stream of penniless and persecuted Communards. One of the Marx family’s oldest friends, Gustav Flourens, was elected as an official of the Commune but was captured and shot dead on 3rd April. The grief at the Marx home was deeply-felt, with Jenny Marx calling Flourens, ‘The bravest of the brave’. Laura Marx was married to French revolutionary Paul Lafargue and was living in Bordeaux. In the spring of 1871, Laura had a sickly child and a new baby. Lafargue faced arrest after visiting the Commune, as an envoy of the First International and for being Karl Marx’s son in law. Jennychen and Eleanor, who was only 16, were determined to visit their sister. They travelled across France on false passports using the name Williams to hide their relationship with their notorious father. The two young women were nevertheless arrested and interrogated for several days as officials first tried to make them incriminate Paul Lafargue and then accused them of being subversives. At one point, the policeman in charge asked Jennychen, ‘And the International – is the association powerful in England?’ She answered defiantly:‘Yes, most powerful and so it is in all countries!’ Eventually, Jennychen and Eleanor were released. Back in London, they helped organise the relief of desperate Communard refugees, a campaign they took very personally. Jennychen married exiled Communard Charles Longuet in 1872 and Eleanor became engaged to Hippolyte-Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, historian of the Commune.


The Commune transformed Marx from an obscure socialist activist into an international hate figure. Those terrified by the Commune refused to believe that ordinary men and women were capable of running their own city and sought the real ‘leaders’. They found Marx who was portrayed as the ‘Red Doctor’ and ‘Dr Terror’. He wrote to a friend, ‘I have the honour to be at this moment the best calumniated and most menaced man of London. That really does one good after a tedious 20-year idyll in the back woods’. Marx’s account of the Commune, The Civil War In France, sold thousands of copies and was translated into every major European language. It was in this book that Marx revealed what the Communards had achieved by created their own state: ‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune – that the working cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’. The Commune exposed the nature of the capitalist state and this proved crucial to Lenin’s State and Revolution which translated the liberatory potential of the Commune into the conditions of Russia in 1917.


‘A Gender Event’

Writer Rachel Holmes calls the Commune a ‘gender event’. Marx acknowledged the role of female Communards in his writings and he encouraged women activists. Elizabeth Dimitrieff was a 20-year old Russian socialist who was sent to London to meet Marx. She spent three months in London, talking to Marx and becoming friends with his daughters. When the First International decided to send a representative to be its ‘eyes and ears’ in Paris, Marx appointed Dmitrieff. Dimtrieff was more than a representative: she became a leading figure in the Commune.

Natalie Lemel was a Parisian radical bookbinder. In the 1860s she became a strike leader, which was unusual for a woman, and campaigned for equal pay. She joined the First International in 1865. Lemel issued one of hundreds of public addresses which gives a sense of her determination to fight: ‘We have come to the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our Nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty! All women to arms! All women to duty! Versailles must be wiped out!’

In April Dimitrieff and Lemel established the ‘Union of Women’ to build support for the Commune among working women and to organize support for the wounded. Every member of the Union had to join the First International. The Union campaigned for equal pay, for education for girls, for the right to divorce and for work. It became one of the most powerful organisations of the Commune.

Anna Jaclard was another young Russian who corresponded with Marx and alongside Louise Michel, she established the Montmartre Vigilance Committee which organised ambulances and campaigned for women’s rights. When the Commune issued an appeal for aid, Anne Jaclard’s committee proclaimed, ‘The women of Montmartre, inspired by the revolutionary spirit, wish to attest by their actions to their devotion to the Revolution’. Anna was one of the many Communard refugees who made their way to Marx’s home to escape execution or transportation. That several leading female Communards had direct links with Marx and the First International suggests that Marx actively promoted female activism. There were thousands more Insurgent women in 1871, women who threw off prejudice and asserted their right to participate in the creation of a new society.


The Bloody Week

On 22nd May the French government launched its murderous suppression of the Commune. For a week soldiers burned, shot, and bombarded their own capital city. The last battle was fought at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Some 25,000 children, women and men were shot against the walls of the cemetery and across Paris, thousands more were imprisoned and transported. Dmitrieff, Lemel and many other women stayed on the barricades for days on end. The extreme brutality demonstrated by the French Government reveals the depth of the ruling class’s fear and hatred of the Commune. Eugene Pottier wrote the socialist anthem, The Internationale, to commemorate the Parisian dead and the enduring nature of their vision for a society turned upside down.

Judy Cox

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.