E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

V. The Election of the Commune

Notwithstanding, the slight rallying of the bourgeois and reactionary arrondissements referred to in the last chapter, it was impossible for “order” to effect any real foothold within the city. In a day or two the “loyal” National Guards who were going to do such wonders for the Assembly melted into nothing. The Committee sent battalions of National Guards into all the reactionary quarters, and quiet, if not “order,” inside Paris at least, was re-established.

A few days previously two members of the Committee, Varlin and Jourde, had, through Rothschild, obtained a million francs from the Bank of France. This was now exhausted with the initial expenses of organising the public services, and the wages of the National Guard. The Committee again sent Varlin and Jourde to the Bank for supplies, but this time they were received with insults, and gentle persuasion in the shape of a couple of battalions of the National Guard had to be forwarded in order to effect a disbursement. This question of the bank was a crucial one. Its treatment at the hands of the Committee, and a few days later at those of the Commune, who followed in the same steps, showed a childish want of grasp of the situation, and constituted the third fatal blunder of the Revolution. There was enough in specie and in securities in the Bank to have bought up the whole of the Versailles army. In addition to this there were ninety thousand titles of depositors to serve as hostages for the good behaviour of the Government as representing the middle-classes throughout France. The Committee, and afterwards the Commune, instead of seizing the whole concern, allowed the management to remain, with its entire staff, barring the Chief Governor, who had fled, and went cap in hand from time to time to solicit the requisite funds. The sub-governor by a little diplomacy succeeded before long in nobbling an old gentleman named Beslay, who though no more than a Radical bourgeois, had had the pluck to stick gallantly to Paris, yet who, in spite of his personal honesty, had all the prejudices of his class when financial matters were concerned. He was nevertheless selected as go-between with the Bank and the Revolution. But to return to the days of March. The mayors now concentrated all their efforts towards trying to further postpone the elections. These had, after two postponements, been definitely fixed by the Committee for Sunday, the 20th of March. At last the insults towards Paris, and the general attitude of the Assembly, having disgusted many even of the moderate Republicans, there was a disposition to compromise on the part of the mayors, and the 30th was proposed. The Committee, however, stuck to the 26th, and eventually five mayors, including, Clemenceau and Floquet, finding resistance hopeless, reluctantly signed a manifesto sanctioning the elections. The rest did not protest, though they kept steadily aloof. The adhesion of the mayors, such as it was, gave the elections the cachet of technical legality.

On the Sunday, 287,000 men accordingly went to the poll, and the Paris Commune was elected and proclaimed amid general rejoicing. On the Monday there was a muster of National Guards (arms piled up in front of them) and civilian electors, in the “place” of the Hotel de Ville to meet the newly installed representatives of Paris. Salutes of cannon, bands playing the Marseillaise, and enthusiastic shouts made the welkin ring. The spies of Versailles declared the whole of Paris infected. The members of the new Commune appeared again and again on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville in response to the deafening shouts which demanded them. Amongst the elected, though the majority were revolutionists, and, at least up to their lights, Socialists, there were a small number of bourgeois Liberals and Radicals chosen, but these very soon found au excuse for backing out of an enterprise which they saw they could not manipulate as they had hoped. At the first meeting of the Commune, the before-mentioned well-meaning bourgeois Beslay was chosen president by virtue of his seniority, and it must be admitted, made a not altogether bad opening speech. The Commune next day proceeded to apportion itself in committees. There was an Executive Committee composed of Lefrancais, Duval, Felix Pyat (the old forty-eighter, with a reputation which he owed to the rhetoric he talked and penned, Bergeret, Tridon, Eudes, and Vaillant (the Blanquist, now member of the Chamber). The other committees were Finance, of which Varlin and Jourde were members, Justice, Public Safety, Labour Exchange, Victualling, Foreign Policy, Public Works, and Education.

One of the first acts of the Commune was to grant a complete release from all rent from October, 1870, to July, 1871. Thus a vast number of poor people were relieved from a crushing liability which they were utterly unable to meet without ruin. This was all very proper as far as it went, but the Commune omitted to perform two important duties which the situation imperatively demanded, the first was to issue a clear and easily intelligible manifesto explaining its programme and plan of action. The second and if anything still more serious omission was not keeping in touch with the provinces, which immediately after the 18th of March had shown the most favourable signs of sympathetic action with Paris. Lyons, Marseilles, St. Etienne, Narbonne, Toulouse, and other towns started Communes, some of them, notably Marseilles and Narbonne, with considerable chances of success. But they received no support or even communications from the head centre of the movement. As a consequence, isolated materially and morally, they most of them came to grief in a few days. Marseilles and Narbonne held out the longest but in a fortnight the whole Communistic movement in the provinces was dead. Thiers and his Versaillese, again wise in their generation, left no stone unturned to detach the provinces from all sympathy with Paris, and issued notices to all the prefects, maligning Paris and the Revolution, misrepresenting every fact and fabricating every lie.

Having succeeded in rooting out the Commune in the provinces, Thiers proceeded to stop all goods trains for Paris and to cut off all the postal communications. Rampont, the postmaster, received orders to violate the undertaking he had entered into with Thiesz, the postal delegate of the Committee, and to disorganise the postal service. The stupid Committee and Commune, hoping to the last that peace would be preserved, took no further steps for the eventuality of war. The Assembly, on its side, proceeded steadily organising the isolation of Paris and consolidation of their army, which was now strengthened by several regiments of released prisoners of war from Germany. By the end of March all the “moderate” members of the Commune had resigned, with the exception of old Beslay. The international character of the movement was accentuated by the unanimous confirmation of the election of Frankel, the Austrian, in the 13th Arrondissement. Meanwhile, the “respectable” population, the friends of “order,” were migrating en masse to Versailles.


Last updated on 12.3.2004