Rue de Rivoli, Paris, May 1871. Photo: Public Domain Rue de Rivoli, Paris, May 1871. Photo: Public Domain

Ahead of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, John Westmoreland looks at the first working-class government and why it’s an important historical milestone

Between March and May 1871 the workers of Paris ran their city as a collective, democratic government of the workers known as the Paris Commune.

The Commune was not planned in advance, nor was it (entirely) the product of an escalating class struggle. Rather the Commune was a response to the French and Prussian armies besieging Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian war.

The Prussian army which swept through France avoided entering Paris. The Parisians knew how to build barricades and wage urban war. They had done it before. Paris was the epicentre of the French Revolution in 1792 and the revolutions in 1848.

On 2 September 1870, the French Emperor Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan by the Prussians. Two days later Parisian workers led by Auguste Blanqui invaded the National Assembly and demanded an end to the Empire. In the evening the Third Republic was proclaimed.

While two Prussian armies besieged Paris the bulk of the remaining French army surrendered at Metz. The French government entered into negotiations for a peace settlement and in January 1871 Paris was surrendered to the Prussians. The regular army was disbanded leaving the National Guard to defend Paris.

The National Guard wasby now a citizens’ militia. Violent demonstrations and revolt by the rank and file had removed officers with bourgeois leanings. This army of ‘workmen in jackets’ bore the ‘soul of France’ as Jules Valles wrote in Le Cri du Peuple. The French bourgeoisie and the Prussian generals, as Karl Marx had predicted, overcame their differences and wanted to put an end to ‘the reds’ in Paris.

On March 18 Thiers ordered the French army back to Paris to disarm the National Guard. When the troops tried to seize cannons in northern Paris women citizens fraternised with the troops who then refused to obey orders. Generals Claude Lecomte and Jacques Thomas were killed by their own soldiers. Civil war had begun.

On March 26 a municipal council, the Paris Commune, was elected by the citizens of Paris. The Commune consisted of workers, among them members of the First International and followers of Proudhon and Blanqui.

The Commune was never ‘communist’. And yet, especially for Marx and the later Russian Bolshevik leadership, it revealed the very real possibility of a future Communist society.

To weigh the achievements of the Commune it is necessary to understand a little about what they fought against.

The Second Empire

In 1851, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor Napoleon, and President of the Second Republic, seized power and declared himself emperor.

The Second Empire has quite a lot in common with neoliberalism today. It has been described as a ‘modernizing dictatorship’. Under Louis Bonaparte French capitalism sought to catch up with its main economic rival Britain. To do that executive power needed to be defended from democracy.

In the 1850s steel and coal output rose massively as thousands of kilometres of railway track was laid. Banking was concentrated to provide loans for business. Money flooded up to a bourgeois industrial elite.

The power of Bonaparte rested on a burgeoning bureaucracy to control and modernise. He professed to stand above parties.

The political divisions in France that Bonaparte tried to play off one against the other could only last so long. By the 1860s Catholics and anti-clericals fought over education; traditional, monarchist Conservatives dominating rural areas protested against bureaucratic centralisation; the bourgeoisie rediscovered republican ideals hoping that this might divert the workers away from their own class interests. The emerging industrial working class found its voice in the rapid growth of socialist clubs.

Labour unrest broke out across France reaching a peak in 1869-70. United strike action involving miners and textile workers broke out in Lyon. But worker unrest was political as well as economic.

In Paris in the years 1869-70, 1300 public meetings were held. Meetings of six thousand regularly packed the Folies Belleville. Here future Communard leaders, Blanquists and internationalists, dominated.

The liberal Molinari lamented that 90 per cent of ‘thinking workers’ were either socialist or in the process of becoming so. The meetings often advocated the overthrow of the capitalist Bonapartist state which used troops against strikers, manipulated the law, and used clerical schooling to keep workers in ignorance. By mid-1869 rioting was endemic in Paris with 900 arrests in Belleville alone. The government used military force and prosecution to cow the workers.

This fight against a rigged economy and capitalist dictatorship is what shaped the Paris Commune.

The Commune was not just some accidental by-product of the war. It locked Parisians down to resist a common enemy by means of their own choosing. It suspended state power and opened a space for democratic action.

The Paris Commune

Within the Commune, there was a range of political outlook. Socialists tended to dominate at committee level, although they did not necessarily speak for the majority. Numerically speaking it is likely that most Parisians saw themselves as Republican, but so was Thiers, the man besieging Paris.

This often meant that leadership came from the workers, but it was tempered by the need to keep Republicans onside. However, the decisive democratic decisions made by the Commune were led by the workers.

As Roger McGraw has written,

“The grass-roots worker clubs had genuine insights into the need to destroy the existing state machine, rather than attempting to use it. They stressed the need for direct democracy, popular control of the militia, the creation of new alternative popular governing cadres to replace the army, police and bureaucracy. They envisaged popular control over a state elected to achieve an egalitarian social order.” Roger McGraw, France 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century, page 201.

To this, we might add that the removal of the power of the bourgeois state with its compulsion to stunt, distort and restrict human potential in order to achieve maximum production at the lowest price led to a flowering of idealism. Working-class leadership did not derive its authority from God or the market, but the needs of Parisians at the time.

On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army. All citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled to the National Guard, which was to be the sole armed force. This is what an armed democracy looks like. Led by ability rather than status, and mobilised by ideals rather than terror, this workers’ militia held off the French army until May. And this despite continuous bombardment by the army of Thiers.

The internationalism of the Commune also came from the working class. From the outset, it was decreed that all foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic”.

On May 16 the Vendôme Column, erected in honour of the victories of Napoleon, was pulled down in the same internationalist spirit.

The workers settled the issue of education decisively. The workers hated the ‘black crows’, the Catholic clergy whose teaching was little more than a catechism. The stratified education of the Second Empire was designed to create obedience in the working class, leadership in the ruling class and technical proficiency for the middle layer.

The revolutionary education policies of the Commune saw free compulsory, secular education available for all children. This meant that for the first time the education of girls, as citizens, was undertaken. For the working-class education was made to fit their purpose.

A revolutionary approach to education was implemented. The aim was to create an independent citizen/worker. A polytechnic education which taught both the skills of the workshop and developed the intellect through the arts was founded.

In many other spheres the Commune passed far-reaching reforms. These reforms gave expression to the demands of workers for the past many years. For example, bakers did not have to work nights. Cooperatives were formed such as a female clothing cooperative in the eighteenth arrondissement to provide uniforms for the National Guard. Debt was abolished and rents suspended.

The Commune took responsibility for widows and orphans, and ended the stigmatisation of illegitimate children.

And while the Communard executive was preoccupied with military necessities in working-class communities an explosion of creativity provided a ‘festival of the oppressed’. There was street theatre and art and public speaking – a social experiment which liberal historians are blind to.

It was an attempt by working-class people to change their lives, live differently and reach out to new possibilities. Newspapers and cartoons proliferated. Paris was briefly a workers’ city.


At the end of May, the French army under General McMahon gained control of Paris. He spent eight days letting his troops slaughter Communards and civilians. The sheer human beauty of the Commune had to be obliterated. Workers could think, lead, care and thrive better without capitalism, and the terror was about killing that fact.

One English journalist saw an officer ask a prisoner his occupation. On receiving a reply the officer shot him in the face, saying, “Ah, so it’s the stonemasons who would rule now?”

Karl Marx rightly predicted from the outset that the Commune could never achieve state power. It was besieged and isolated. European capitalism was not in a life or death crisis. The working class had not fought the preliminary battles necessary to make state power totter and fracture. But once the Communards ‘stormed heaven’ in Marx’s phrase, he became at once their chief defender and advocate.

Marx, like all revolutionaries, learned from the struggle. He saw that when workers’ fight for their freedom they can free themselves for ‘the muck of ages’, all the fears and doubts that enable capitalist rule, and become something new. And to be victorious the workers can’t lay claim to bourgeois state power and use it for their own ends, they must completely uproot and destroy that state.

In the Commune Marx saw that if labour is freed from the market and is instead organised to meet human need, labour itself changes. It goes from being ordered, alienated and a constraint on human development, to become “freely associated”, liberating, and a pleasure.

This is well worth thinking about in our present circumstances. As CWU leader Dave Ward put it at a recent People’s Assembly meeting, “When this is over we need to think about how our labour is valued. What price do we put on the work our NHS workers do”?

John Westmoreland will be speaking at Counterfire’s event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune on 21 March. Register here:


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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.