E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

III. The 18th of March

As already stated in the last chapter, the Assembly of reactionary bourgeois riff-raff and aristocratic fossils, hurriedly elected at the beginning; of February for the sole purpose of concluding peace, had no sooner met at Bordeaux than it began insulting the deputies for Paris. The terms of peace ratified, it resolved to continue its functions as a legislative body in defiance of the limitation of its mandate. But this was not all. The insults to Paris culminated when the Assembly passed a resolution to decapitalise the metropolis and transfer itself and the Government to Versailles. This was the last straw, which came on the top of a number of other things. Rumours were confirmed of the projected immediate suppression of the only resource of the workmen, their 1s. 3d. a day as National Guards, of their impending disarmament, and, as if of set purpose to drive them on to starvation and despair, of the undelayed enforcement of all overdue bills and all arrears of rent suspended during the siege.

Throughout February the International and other workmen’s and revolutionary associations had been active, and the indignation of the smaller bourgeoisie at the conduct of the Government of National Defence, and their irritation at the attitude of the new Assembly as regarded Paris and the Republic, made them lend their passive, where not active, support to the popular movement. Various mass meetings were held and committees formed – the upshot of which was the constitution of the Central Committee of the National Guard, three members being elected for each arrondissement. Them were also some sub committees, the most important being that of the Montmartre division, having its office in the Rue des Rosiers, and which has sometimes been mistaken for the Central Committee itself. The Central Committee was composed entirely of obscure men, till then utterly unknown to public life, but elected for their integrity and practical capacity by the comrades of their district.

The suppression of Red-Republican journals by General Vinoy, the treacherous condemnation to death of Flourens and Blanqui for the part taken by them in the affair of the 31st of October, coming on the 11th of March, the same day that the resolution to decentralise Paris became known, gave further edge to the popular fury and to the determination to resist. From this time to the 18th the storm was visibly impending; but the Central Committee; backed by the International and the workmen’s organisations, declared that the first shot should be fired by the other side.

There were at this stage three distinct elements in the Parisian movement – (1) The element of Municipal patriotism, the desire to see Paris remain paramount in France, possessing a municipal council with extensive local powers; (2) The determination to protect the Republic, as such, from the obvious Monarchical conspiracy being planned against it; and (3) The definitely Socialist Revolutionary element represented mainly, though not exclusively, by the International. The small middle-class, as might be expected, were in general moved by the first two objects; but, as we shall see, as the Revolution proceeded, its Socialistic telos, implicit from the first, came more and more to the fore, till in two or three weeks it had completely absorbed the whole movement. It is desirable to point this out, as there is a fatuous Fabianesque type of quibbler who has occasionally tried to exaggerate the first two elements, which had their share at the inception of the Commune, in order to discount its Socialistic character. It is this same sort of insufferable quidnunc who is always enlightening the public mind on the true significance of Socialism, explaining that it only means the General Post Office somewhat exaggerated nothing more whatever.

Thiers and his Ministers, members of the old National Defence gang, arrived in Paris on the 15th of March, and at once set about their measures for the great step of the disarmament of the popular force of the Metropolis. The proceeding relied upon the gullibility or imbecility of the Parisians to an incredible extent. The Government had, at the most, 25,000 considerably demoralised and otherwise not very reliable troops, while the National Guard numbered nearly 100,000 men, and although some few battalions might possibly have been gained over to the assembly, yet they were an insignificant number as against those loyal to the Central Committee. Under these unfavourable conditions, Thiers, prompted, it is said, by the big financial thimble-riggers of the bourse, decided to begin operations. The first thing to be done was to seize the cannon; and accordingly the order was secretly given, on the 17th, for 250 pieces of ordnance to be removed from Montmartre. It was all but executed by surprise at 3 o’clock on the morning of the 18th by a couple of brigades of the regular army, scarcely any resistance being offered.

But though the cannons were seized while the people were asleep, with a fatal want of foresight the Government omitted to provide any means of transport, and while this was under way Montmartre awoke and began to take in the situation. The walls were covered by a placard, in which the ominous word ”order” appeared – a word which, as we all know, generally spells bloodshed. The women were the first to move, it is said, and surrounded the cannon, apostrophising the soldiers, who hesitated. Meanwhile the rappel was beaten by a couple of drums throughout the district, and bodies of Guards began to roll up. Stragglers of the ”regulars” joined then, and the whole throng penetrated up to the Buttes Montmartre, defended by a brigade under General Lecomte, some of the foremost men of which made signs of fraternisation. Lecomte seeing this, ordered the recalcitrants under arrest, at the same time threatening them with the words, ”You shall receive your deserts.” A few shots were exchanged between federals and regulars, without doing much harm, when suddenly a body of Guards, the butt end of their muskets up, accompanied by a motley crowd of Nvonlen and children, debouched from the neighbouring street, the Rue des Rosiers. Lecomte gave the order to fire three times. His men stood immovable. The crowd pushed forward and fraternised with the troops, who immediately afterwards seized the ruffian with his officers. The soldiers whom he had just before arrested wanted to shoot him forthwith, but some Nationals rescued him and took him to the headquarters of the staff of the National Guard, where they made him sign an order for the evacuation of his positions.

Similar incidents occurred with the other brigades. There was hardly any resistance to the insurrection. The soldiers fraternised on all sides. In three hours, i.e., by 11 o’clock, all was over, almost all the cannon recaptured, almost all the battalions of the National Guard afoot, joined by numbers of regulars – in short, the insurrection was master of the field. The Government, in spite of proclamations and adjurations, could do nothing: a few hundred men were the most that rallied to them.

Thiers, seeing the whole of Paris against him, insisted upon the immediate evacuation of the city, including the forts on the south, by the Government and remaining troops. He escaped by a back door from the Hotel de Ville to Versailles. The insurrection, it will be observed, now that it had come, was a purely spontaneous popular movement. The Central Connmittee did not meet till comparatively late in the day. This lack of preparation and organisation had its drawbacks, however, in spite of the immediate success, as we shall presently see.

At half-past four in the afternoon, a general who had had a hand in the slaughtering of the insurgents in 1848, Clement-Thomas by name, was arrested. There were many who tried to rescue him from a summary execution, crying, ”Wait for the Committee!” ”Constitute a court-martial!” but without avail. The old martinet was thrust against a wall in the Rue des Rosiers, and riddled with bullets from twenty chassepots. Thoigh the scoundrel doubtless deserved his fate, it is to be regretted that the formality of a trial was not observed, as the score against him was an old one. The same observation does not apply to Lecomte, who had been seized in flagrante delicto in the morning, ordering a massacre. This cowardly miscreant, when the door of the room where he was confined was burst open by an angry crowd, grovelled on his knees, spoke of his family, and whined for mercy. What had he cared for the fathers of families among his would-be victims to the cause of ”order” of a few hours before? He was taken outside, and justice was summarily dealt out to him. Of course, the bourgeois journals everywhere bellowed lordly at the execution of these two rascally bandits of their cause.

The Central Committee and the staff of the National Guard now began to take measures for occupying the Government offices and the chief strategical positions. In the evening Jules Ferry slunk off after Thiers. Jules Favre subsequently made his escape. Late at night Vinoy succeeded in getting off his troops from the various barracks of Paris with their baggage and ammunition. Versailles was, of course, the rallying point of the whole crew. Allowing the Government and troops to slip through their fingers was the first serious mistake made by the Insurrection. This was owing to lack of discipline, organisation, and preparedness. Nothing would have been easier, if the Committee had been active and alert, than to have closed all the gates, arrested all the Governmental authorities, civil and military, to await their trial. The ”little man,” Thiers, and all the rest would have been then under their thumb. This only proves that though a popular ebullition may indeed make a revolution, yet that without organisation it will very soon make a mess of it.


Last updated on 12.3.2004