E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

IV. The Central Committee and the Reaction

The 19th of March saw the red flag waving over the Hotel de Ville and all the public buildings of the city. The Revolution had triumphed, but it had made its first mistake; it had allowed the heads of the Government to escape with the elements of an army. The Central Committee was supreme, but stupefied by its sudden accession to absolute power. Two of the members alone had the presence of mind to suggest the only course to retrieve the previous day’s mistake, viz., to march at once on Versailles, then virtually at their mercy, disperse the Assembly, and arrest the ringleaders of the Reaction. The others hung on legal technicalities. Meanwhile the clearing of the Government offices and the transference of yet more military to Versailles still went on, but the Committee (to its honour in one sense) was too eager to abdicate its functions and proceed to the elections for the Commune, to think of shutting the gates, or indeed of anything else. In order to legalise the situation and put the Revolution right with the rest of France, the cooperation of the deputies for Paris and of the mayors was resolved to be sought, in concert with whom the Committee wished to proclaim the elections.

The Thiers crew now played out their last card, in the final number which they issued of the Journal Officiel, alleging the Committee to have “assassinated” in cold blood the Generals Lecomte and Clement-Thomas, and asking whether the National Guard would take upon itself the responsibility for these “assassinations”. The Committee, to its credit, did not allow itself to be bullied into disavowing these righteous, if too hasty, acts of popular justice; but confined itself to inserting a note in the new number of the Journal Officiel (which from this day passed into its hands), explaining its true position with respect to them. The Governmental appeal had little effect on the National Guard, though it was followed by the defection of the Quartier Latin (the students), hitherto to the fore in all revolutions, but the essentially bourgeois character of which, despite its bohemian veneer, became now clearly apparent.

The delegation of mayors who came to the Hotel de Ville, after much debating, failed to effect anything. Clemenceau, who was their spokesman, urged the Committee to abdicate its functions to the deputies and mayors, who would use their best offices to obtain satisfaction for Paris from the Assembly. Varlin, one of the Committee, explained that what was wanted was no mere municipality, but a quasi-autonomous Paris, with police and legislative power, united to the rest of France by the bond of federal union alone. Even good Socialists like Milliere and Malon doubted the expediency of the Committees initiative. It was finally decided that the Committee in its turn should send four delegates to the Radical deputies and mayors assembled in the town hall of the 2nd Arrondissement. This they did; but after several hours’ wrangling, in which Louis Blanc, Clemenceau, and other Radicals, to their shame, gibed at the Committee as an insurrectionary body, refusing to treat with it on an equality, no understanding was arrived at, and the delegates left. Next morning the mayors made a final attempt to get possession of the Hotel de Ville, and sent one of their number to demand it of the Committee. The latter refused to abdicate until a Commune had been elected, and forthwith issued a proclamation that the elections would be held on the following Wednesday, the 22nd. It was only too obvious that a surrender to the deputies and mayors meant a complete knuckling down to Thiers and his Assembly.

The next thing for the Committee to do was to reorganise the public services, purposely thrown into as much disorder a, possible by their late occupants prior to their flight. The government hoped thereby is render it impossible for their successors to carry on the administration of the great metropolis. The newcomers, however, set bravely to work, and overcame all obstacles of this kind. But meanwhile the Committee, not realising that they were about to enter on a life-and-death struggle, had committed a military blunder which practically sealed the fate of the Revolution. Between Paris and Versailles, on a hill a little to the right, lies the largest and most strategically-important of the forts Mont Valerien. This had been abandoned on an order from Thiers, made during his flight – he, with a civilian’s lack of knowledge of fortification, believing it not to be worth holding. As a matter of fact, it was the military key to the whole position. For thirty-six hours it remained empty: but the Committee, instead of at once placing a strong garrison there, regarded it as a matter of subsidiary importance, and contented themselves with some vague and lying assurances (as the event proved) of its having been occupied, together with the other forts, given by a portentous, half-crazed officer named Lullier, who, by his swagger, had imposed upon them and acquired thereby the temporary command. The military stuff at Versailles, wiser in their generation, had meanwhile forced an order for its reoccupation from Thiers, and the morning of the 20th found Mont Valerien well munitioned and occupied by1,000 Versaillese soldiers.

On the 21st the Central Committee suspended the sale of pledged goods, forbade landlords to evict their tenants until further notice, and prolonged the voucher bills for a month. The same day the radical deputies and mayors made a protest against the elections announced for the next day, as illegal – falsely alleging, at the same time, that the Assembly had guaranteed the maintenance of the National Guard, the municipal elections at an early date, and other things. The Press and all the Respectability of the capital joined in a chorus of denunciation of the elections and of the Committee’s action. A rabble of swell mobsmen and fancy men paraded the Place de la Bourse, shouting “Down with the Committee.” “Long live the Assembly!” The hostility of a few of the arrondissments was so great that it became necessary to postpone the elections till the following day.

All this time Versailles, its recently-arrived Assembly, and all their hangers-on, were in a state of abject and grovelling panic. News came in of revolts in several towns of the departments, and there was an hourly dread of the approach of the battalions of the National Guard. The subsequently confirmed forger, Jules Favre, delivered an harangue in the Chamber, denouncing the insurrection in choice expletives and bristling with threatenings and slaughter at Paris – an harangue which the cowering crew of terrified reactionists applauded with wild extravagance, almost falling on the forger’s neck in their enthusiasm.

The next day the black-coated rabble spoken of above, together with some journalists and others, with Admiral Suisset at their back, again set forth, many of them with arms concealed in their clothes, this time towards the Place Vendôme, the object being to expel the National Guards from that position under cover of a peaceful demonstration. Spying two sentries of the National Guard, they made for them and nearly murdered them. Seeing this, about 200 Guards promptly took up their position at the top of the Rue de la Paix. They were greeted with savage cries, and sword-sticks were levelled at them. Bergeret, their leader, repeatedly summoned the rioters to retire, without avail. Finally, seeing the “Nationals” indisposed to use force, the rioters took courage and drew their revolvers, killing two of the Guard and wounding seven others. The muskets of the “Nationals” then went off, leaving a dozen dead, and a large number of revolvers, sword-sticks, and hats in the street. The mob scattered in all directions, yelling. Of course, ever on the alert for a pretext for a howl at the movement, the bourgeois press everywhere made immense capital out of this incident. Punch’s celebrated special constable-who says to the Chartist, “If I kill you, mind, it’s nothing; but if you kill me, by George! it’s murder” – wasn’t in it with the journalists on “respectable” middle-class newspapers on this occasion.


Last updated on 12.3.2004