The Paris Commune of 1871

The Paris Commune began on March 18th, 1871, but lasted barely two months. Although widely hailed on the Left as an uprising based on class struggle against bourgeois masters, there were more complex issue behind it. After its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the population of Paris was dismayed when rural France elected an assembly with a royalist majority, and feared it might restore the monarchy. Furthermore, the mood in the capital was tense after the long siege. The National Guard, composed of citizens who had fought in the siege, greatly outnumbered the regular army, though it lacked the latter’s discipline and fire-power.

When Adolphe Thiers, head of the provisional national government, tried to disarm the Paris National Guard, violent resistance broke out, two generals were killed by the mob, and the city fell into the rebels’ hands. All regular troops and government offices were withdrawn to Versailles. Elections held a week later resulted in a Commune government of Paris. It contained several different revolutionary factions, including Jacobins of the 1793 Revolutionary tradition, Proudhonists, and Blanquistes, who favoured organized, secret conspiracy to overthrow the established order by violence. The Commune’s programme called for limits on working hours and other revolutionary goals. Divisions between the factions thwarted any coherent reform programme, and prevented the establishment of an effective fighting force.

Other Communes set up briefly in Lyon, Marseille, Saint-Étienne and Toulouse, were quickly suppressed, leaving Thiers free to prepare his move against the Paris Commune. When his spies reported that one section was undefended, he ordered government troops to enter. During the “Bloody Week” that ensued, the revolutionary defenders set up numerous barricades in the streets and burned many buildings. The regular troops bypassed many barricades by knocking through internal walls in the houses that lined the streets. In retaliation the revolutionaries executed the Archbishop of Paris among other establishment figures.

After a week of violence, the Commune was suppressed. Perhaps 20,000 insurgents died, along with about 750 regular troops. In the aftermath of the Commune, the government cracked down ruthlessly, and arrested about 38,000 people. More than 7,000 were deported, but some escaped to voluntary exile.

Karl Marx, from his exile in England, declared March 18, 1871 “the dawn of the great social revolution which will liberate mankind from the regime of classes forever,” interpreting the Commune in terms of class struggle, as he interpreted everything else. In reality, while it could just about have spread into the bloody nightmare of the Revolution of 1789, it didn’t. This time the authorities held their nerve and suppressed it.