The first jolt to the ruling classes’ arrogant belief that only they are fit to govern came in 1871 with the uprising of the Paris Commune…
It grew out of a war and a siege. In the summer of 1870, Emperor Napoleon III of France waged an unnecessary war with Prussia. The Prussians soon proved to be a superior military force and invaded France. By September 1870, the French troops had surrendered and the Emperor, taken prisoner, abdicated.
The Parisian crowds – in disgust – proclaimed a republic. Civilians were called up to serve in the National Guard, a part-time citizens’ militia set up in the great revolution of 1789. By October 1870 Prussian armies encircled Paris, then a city of over a million and a half people.
Fortified walls and a chain of forts were strengthened. Together with the remnants of the regular army, the National Guard comprised 350,000 men and women, grouped in neighbourhood battalions with a great mistrust of the military authorities. Guard units elected their own officers and formed a central committee.
The Prussians laid siege. By December food and fuel were running out. Then came the onset of one of the coldest winters within living memory. People began to die from hunger and cold. In the middle of January 1871, ration cards were issued for the daily bread allowance.
On top of the recently widened gap between rich and poor in the capital, the food shortages, military failures, and, finally, a Prussian bombardment of the city contributed to widespread discontent. Also, the temporary government began secret negotiations and agreed an armistice with the Germans, allowing them into Paris for two days to celebrate their victory. Paris felt betrayed and outraged.
In the early hours of 18 March, government soldiers moved quietly to take over the 250 cannon held by the National Guard in the hilly areas of Montmartre, overlooking the city. Quickly, Parisians emerged from their homes to surround them. The government soldiers following Head of State Adolphe Thiers were ordered to fire on the citizens of Paris. They refused to obey the order, and joined the crowd.
Crowds and barricades emerged all over the city. Regular soldiers retired to their barracks and the government withdrew to Versailles in disorder. A red flag flew from the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). The Central Committee of the National Guard was now the only effective government in Paris: it arranged elections for a Commune, to be held on 26 March.
On 28 March the Commune was proclaimed. 92 members of the "Communal Council" were elected including a high proportion of skilled workers and several professionals (such as doctors and journalists). Nearly a third of Commune members were working class. It was the first time workers had been elected freely to make policies instead of enduring them. A member of the Commune wrote, “After the poetry of triumph, the prose of work.”
Other cities in France also set up Communes: Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Narbonne, St Etienne, Le Creusot and Limoges. However, all of these were crushed quickly by the Versailles government.
|1871: Cannon and rifles outside the City Hall in Paris.|
The Commune was a new kind of government. There were no organised political parties. The work of the Commune was done by committees, which elected delegates as leaders of government departments. By the middle of May, 90 trades unions were openly flourishing. Some 43 workers’ cooperatives sprang up, and the Commune attempted to provide money to invest.
Women, who then had few rights, threw themselves into the commune, working alongside men on public committees, an innovation. Day nurseries were set up and an industrial training centre for girls planned.
Everyone in public service had to be elected by popular vote. The Commune only had time to issue and implement a few decrees – including the separation of church and state; the remission of rents owed for the period of the siege; the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries; the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service; and the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner.
On 21 May, the Versailles troops were allowed through the German lines, to enter the city of Paris. The toughest resistance came in the more working-class eastern districts, where fighting was vicious. 20,000 Parisians were killed in one week.
Ruling class brutality
The ruling class brutality was severe and draconian. The German army, partly surrounding Paris, colluded with the French army to destroy the Commune. People fought tenaciously in their local communities until the 28 May . After the slaughter, Thiers said, “The ground is strewn with their corpses. May this terrible sight serve as a lesson.”
Obviously, the Commune made mistakes. Probably the people of Paris were so caught up in planning social reforms that they did not get to grips with the threat of the Thiers government. And if the Commune had taken control of the Bank of France in Paris (which held the country’s gold reserves), then it would have had something powerful to counter with. The Commune was never fully prepared for civil war – it did not train the National Guard nor prepare the defences of Paris very efficiently. People were left locally to fight behind barricades that the enemy outflanked.
But the events in the French capital city ushered in the prospect of a new type of society. To ruling classes everywhere, it was a fleeting alarm, as the Paris Commune was the first brief glimpse of the bounty of revolutionary power, and of what it might bring to the people. Marx championed the Commune writing of “these Parisians storming heaven.” It was short-lived, lasting only 72 days in only one city, but it happened and its example can never be erased from history. It is still an inspiration.