E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

IX. The Freemasons, the Committee of Public Safety, and Rossel

The last serious attempt at conciliation between Versailles and Paris was made by the Freemasons on the 21st of April. They were received coldly by Thiers, who assured them that, though Paris were given over to destruction and slaughter, the law should be enforced. And he kept his word. A few days after they decided in a public meeting to plant their banner on the ramparts and throw in their lot with the Commune. On the 29th, accordingly, 10,000 of the brethren met (fifty-five lodges being represented), and marched to the Hotel de Ville, headed by the Grand Masters in full insignia and the banners of the lodges. Amongst them the new banner of Vincennes was conspicuous, bearing the inscription in red letters on a white ground, “Love one another.” A balloon was then sent up, which let fall at intervals, outside Paris, a manifesto of the Freemasons. The procession then wended its way through the boulevards and the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, where the banners were planted at various points along the ramparts. On seeing the white flag on the Porte Maillot the Versaillese ceased firing, and the commander, himself a Freemason, received a deputation of brethren, and suggested a final appeal to Versailles, which was agreed to. The “chief of the executive,” of course, hardly listened to the envoys, and declined to further discuss the question of peace with anyone. They might have known before that such would have been their reception. The little smug bourgeois fiend was already scenting the proletarian blood he so longed to shed. This last formal challenge having been made and rejected, the Freemasons, definitely took their stand as combatants for the Commune.

Millière, who had worked hard to organise the provincials in Paris ever since the. early part of April, induced the “Republican Alliance of the Departments,” consisting of provincials residing in Paris, to give a formal adhesion to the Commune, 1,5,000 men accompanying Millière to the Hotel de Ville, after having voted an address to the departments. This was on the 30th of April. The same afternoon news arrived of the evacuation by the Federals of the fort of Issy, which had been the result of a surprise. A few remained behind, however, one of them a lad at the entrance, with gunpowder and a train, prepared to blow himself up rather than surrender the fort. As soon as the news was known reinforcements were sent, and the Versaillese driven from the park surrounding the fort and the fort itself was reoccupied. This affair, notwithstanding that it had no immediate military consequences, turned a sudden light on to the way the defence was being conducted, and led to the arrest of Cluseret in the evening.

It also led indirectly to the carrying out of a project mooted some days before, of the creation of a “Committee of Public Safety.” Here we see the old revolutionary tradition asserting itself. It was formally expressed by that old votary of the revolutionary tradition, Felix Pyat, who gave as a reason for it that a “Committee of Public Safety” belonged to the period which first produced the “Republic” and the “Commune”. This adoration of phrases and historical shibboleths is so thoroughly French, and has so often been the bane of French popular movements, that it is worth specially noting. However, whatever its name, the general feeling as to the necessity of some centralised power was for the moment paramount. The permanent Executive Commission of the Commune, in spite of its having been reorganised, had proved utterly ineffective in superintending things. In its latest form it consisted of Cluseret, Jourde, Viard, Paschal Grousset, Frankel, Protot, Andrieu, Vaillant, and Raoul Rigault. In the end, the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety was voted by forty-five to twenty-three. This question brought to an issue the quarrel between the so-called “majority “and “minority” on the Commune. The majority, led by Felix Pyat, and containing all the archaeological reconstructors and mere sentimentalists, as also the Blanquists (with the exception of Tridon), voted for the Committee. The minority, including the most clear headed Socialists of the Hotel de Ville, voted against it. When the question came of selecting the men to serve on it, the minority refused to take any part. Ranvier, Arnaud, Meillet, Gerardin, and Pyat were then elected by the “majority” alone. This squabble had the most disastrous effects outside, as it for the first time revealed to the world the dissensions and personal recriminations long brewing in the council-room.

On the same evening that Cluseret was arrested (30th of April) Rossel was appointed Delegate of War in his place. Rossel was a disappointed young officer who had served during the Franco-German war, and thought himself unduly neglected by the military authorities. On the lookout for a job in which he might distinguish himself, and full of bitterness towards his old superiors, he came to Paris and took service under the Revolution. He neither knew nor cared anything for the cause, and frankly confessed, when interrogated by the Commune, that he did not understand what Socialism meant, but that he hated the Government which had signed away two French provinces to the “Prussians,” and was willing to support any movement for its overthrow. In the teeth of Cluseret’s incapacity and, as some thought, treachery, a young officer with a certain military reputation, and able to talk with an air of authority on the situation, seemed a godsend to the men of the Hotel de Ville. Rossel wanted to carry things with a high hand in military martinet style, however, and from the first showed an utter lack of savoir faire in his dealings with the citizen soldiery, the National Guard. In spite of his pretensions the improvement on the Cluseret regime was not obvious. Rossel gave orders one day and revoked them the next. He started on a system of barricades, connecting the three chief strategic positions within the city – Montmartre, the Trocadero, and the Pantheon – but never saw to its carrying out. The Versaillese had meanwhile opened new batteries, and the line of fire was slowly but steadily drawing closer round Paris. Matters were complicated by the Central Committee, the personnel of which had been almost entirely changed from what it was originally by trying to intermeddle and squabbling with the war Commission. Isssy was in a few days reduced to a heap of ruins, and finally evacuated on the 9th of May. Rossel, the same evening, with an indiscretion which had all the appearance of being intentional, had placarded all over Paris, as if it had been the news of a victory, the words, “The tricolour floats over the fort of Issy abandoned by its garrison.” He immediately after wrote a letter in which he endeavoured to clear his military reputation by abusing, the organisation of the military services. These were bad enough in all conscience, but Rossel knew the position of affairs when he accepted the responsibility, and there is conclusive evidence that he did not make the best of things, even bad as they were. He wound up by sending in his resignation, and asking for a “cell at Mazas.”


Last updated on 12.3.2004