E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

VIII. Internal Administration and Policy of the Commune

As already observed, the Commune had organised itself at starting into nine Commissions or delegations. These consisted of a victualling department, a department of municipal services, of finance, of war, of public safety, of justice, of external affairs, of education, and of labour. The first, the provisioning department, did not offer any special difficulties until the end of April, when Thiers ordered the stoppage of all provision trains for Paris, and even after that it was possible to keep the town supplied through the neutral zone between the German and Versaillese armies. Besides, the city itself contained enough food to have sustained a long siege if necessary. The Department of public or municipal services involved the general superintendence of public offices such as the Post Office, the Telegraphs, the Mint, the official printing press, the hospitals, the greater number of the subordinate members of the staff of which had been induced to remain or return. Theisz, a workman, took the direction of the Post Office, which involved the most trouble, owing to its having been intentionally thrown into disorder by its late director. The wages of all employees were at once raised, and the hours shortened. In well-nigh all these services the “superior officials” had made off, thus leaving the work of directing them in the hands of the workmen administrators placed there by the Commune. Camelinat, bronze worker, took over the Mint, and admirably carried on the business of coining bullion and of engraving postage-stamps. The hospitals were reorganised and remanned by an old revolutionist named Treilhard. The Commission of finance was presided over by Jourde, who had been a clerk and accountant. Varlin, a workman agitator, energetic and devoted to the cause, was also an invaluable member of this Commission, which had the task of raising and distributing the requisite funds for the payment of all the services, including the National Guards, and the war expenses generally. The whole was managed by workmen and small clerks at workmen’s wages, and not at the salaries of “boss” middle-class financiers. The department of war, with Causeret at its head, seems unluckily to have been the worst conducted of any. Here everybody was at cross purposes. Continual wrangling over the possession of the cannon resulted in a lot of artillery remaining useless. Ammunition of wrong calibre was often distributed. Important posts were left unrelieved. The commissariat was, moreover, hopelessly disorganised. The barricades which it had been decided to construct were made regardless of any intelligible strategical plan. There was a fatal tendency for the several departments to overlap in their functions, which were not precisely enough defined. This was especially noticeable between the war and police (public safety) departments.

The department last mentioned was under the direction of Raoul Rigault, an ardent young Revolutionist, but without experience and unfitted for such an important post. What was worse was that he had with him a lot of flighty young men who exacerbated matters. With such colleagues as these, Ferré, Regnard, the chief secretary of police (whose imposing appearance rests in the memory of some of us who used often to meet him in the British Museum at the end of the seventies), and such more solid men, were hopelessly handicapped in their influence. In the matter of the Picpus Convent, where racks, cages with women in a frightful state shut up in them, skulls with hair on, and other evidences of criminal practices were unearthed, nothing was done beyond transferring the nuns to St. Lazare. Decrees of the Commune were not given effect to. Journals suppressed in the morning were allowed to be sold in the evening. The only thing that was not forgotten by this department as by the whole movement was the humanitarian idea shed the so-called Christian (?) principle of doing good to those that revile you and persecute you. The Commune through this delegation supported the wives and families of the men who were fighting against it, saying “the Commune has bread for all misery and care for all orphans.”

Allied with the Commission of Police and Public Safety was that of justice. The Commune ordered that every arrest should be at once notified to this department. As regards punctiliousness in the matter of property the department of justice, like the Commune, showed itself almost pedantic, returning the cash-box of a gas company (!) seized in a search for hidden arms on the company’s premises. It dismissed a commissary for having sequestrated, police-fashion, the money found on Gustave Chaudey when arrested for having ordered the firing from the Hotel de Ville on the 22nd of January.

The delegation of justice further instituted a rigorous enquiry into the state of the prisons, and the motives for the arrest of all persons detained. This latter led to a conflict between the two departments and to the resignation of Raoul Rigault after having been admonished by Delescluze for his careless conduct of the important functions entrusted to him. With all his faults, however, it cannot be said that this young man erred on the side of harshness.

The delegation of the exterior was established mainly for the purpose of enlightening the provinces, too long neglected, and counteracting the influence of Versailles, which diligently fed them with lies. By the time it got into working order, however, the important movements which followed the 18th of March had been crushed, and it did little or nothing to give direction to, or even to keep alive, the sporadic agitation which broke forth in various places during the ensuing weeks. It despatched a few emissaries indeed, but for the most part obscure Parisians utterly unknown in the localities where they were sent. Seeing that the sole chance of the Commune lay in creating powerful diversions by means of the armed populace of the large provincial towns, the lukewarmness of the action taken is simply incredible. It must be said, nevertheless, on behalf of the Commission itself that the sum of 100,000 francs (4,000) allowed it by the Commune was ridiculously inadequate for the work of stirring up the whole of provincial France, which was what it ought to have done.

The Education Department, though it of course at once suppressed religious teaching and emblems in schools, never got beyond the stage of preparation in any constructive programme. It was supposed to be organising a scheme of primary and secondary education, but has left no trace behind it. Elise Réclus and Benoit Gastineau took excellent charge of the Bibliothéque Nationale, and Gustave Courbet, the painter, with a committee of artists, superintended the museums and picture-galleries. Some of the arrondissements were more active than the Education Committee itself. One of them, at its own motion, instituted free clothing and feeding for the children. Another, in an excellent memorandum, declared it the mission of the school of the Revolutionary Commune to teach children to love their fellow creatures, to love justice, and to bring home to them the duty of improving themselves, not for the sake of personal advancement, “but in the interests of all.” At the same time teachers were instructed in future to exclusively employ “the experimental and scientific method, that which starts from facts physical, moral, and intellectual.”

The delegation which did most work and which succeeded more than any other in giving expression to the Socialistic principles embodied in the revolution of the 18th of March was undoubtedly that of “Labour and Exchange,” presided over by our Austrian comrade, Leo Frankel. This delegation systematically set to work to collect and arrange information concerning the condition of labour, and the precise relations existing in all trades between employer and workman. It was also entrusted with the revision of the Customs and the transformation of the fiscal system. Its report recommended the return of pledges to all necessitous persons and the suppression of the pawnshops, since the Revolution of the Commune implied the speedy establishment “of a social organisation giving serious guarantees of support to workmen out of employment.” The Commune, it proclaimed, implied the rescue of workmen from the exploitation of capital.

The Labour department further procured the prohibition of night work for bakers, and made fines and stoppages of wages illegal. At its instigation the Commune decreed the confiscation of factories and workshops not in actual use, and their immediate handing over to trade-syndicates of workmen to be conducted on a co-operative basis. This decree, although defective enough in its details, nevertheless, for the first time in history, affirmed the principle of the expropriation of the capitalist class by the working class, and it is for this reason of epoch-making importance. Unfortunately tune and circumstances did not allow of its being carried into effect.

And what was the city of Paris like during the Commune? Quiet, peaceful, and, what is more, almost wholly free from crime. The last fact is admitted by friends and foes alike. Middle-class Englishmen with no sympathy for the Commune have been reluctant witnesses to the safety and good order maintained throughout the whole city during the two months that the Revolution was master. Quarters, where at other times when “order” prevails, assaults are of frequent occurrence and prostitution is rife, could he traversed without molestation of any kind night or day. While the Versailles organs were daily demanding the wholesale slaughter of Parisians, one looks in vain through all the revolutionary journals for a single bloodthirsty suggestion. The churches, closed for the farce of a Christian worship, no longer seriously believed in, and become solely the instrument for maintaining popular ignorance and subserviency, we find transformed into public halls, in which the pulpits, hung with red, are occupied by preachers of the gospel, not of Christ, but of Revolutionary Socialism. Revolutionary hymns are sung to organ accompaniment. The Tuileries, the late home of the vulgar and ostentatious profligacy of king and emperor, are now used to serve as free concert rooms for the people. Such was the Paris of the Commune!


Last updated on 12.3.2004