E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

X. The Last Days of Paris

In addition to their military operation, the Versaillese were not indisposed to rely on the work of spies in endeavouring to effect an entry into the city by means of treachery. These gentlemen, however, quarrelled among themselves, mutually denounced each other to their employers, and, in spite of the big promises which each made in turn, they effected nothing beyond consuming some few hundred thousand francs of governmental money. They were most of them “old soldiers,” including one or two naval officers, reactionary National Guards, and Chevaliers d’Industrie. Some of them having attempted to corrupt Dombrowski, they were denounced by him to the Committee of Public Safety. This was about the last attempt made by Thiers to gain over Paris by treachery. He saw it was no use.

Meanwhile the discussions in the council-room between the “majority” and “minority” in the Commune were, unhappily, going on more acrimoniously than ever. Rossel, in spite of his demand for a “cell at Mazas,” and of his parole not to escape, slunk off and hid himself in a safe retreat, whence he was to be fetched out some three weeks later by the Versaillese, by that time masters of Paris. His arrest was decreed, however, almost unanimously by the Commune at the opening of its sitting of the 10th of May. The next item on the agenda on this occasion was the reconstruction of the redoubtable Committee of Public Safety, which, after eight days’ existence, had been, by general consensus of opinion, voted a failure. The “minority” seized the opportunity for holding out the right hand of fellowship; but the “majority,” led by Felix Pyat, who was in the chair, persisted in their attitude of suspicion, and the schism in consequence became more accentuated than ever. The Committee was reconstructed, but again only with members of the “majority.” Ranvier, Gambon, Delescluze, Arnaud, and Eudes were the men chosen. Delescluze was afterwards made Chief of the War Office; Billioray, an insignificant member of the “majority,” occupying the vacancy thus created on the Committee; Raoul Rigault again went into the Department of “security,” this time as Procurator of Police; while Theophile Ferrée was made Prefect, Cournet (son of an old revolutionist of ’48, killed in a duel in London), who had originally replaced Rigault in the Prefecture of Police, having resigned.

The new Committee of Public Safety ordered the demolition of Thiers’s house in Paris, which was forthwith effected. There was not much use in this, seeing that the Assembly was sure to have it rebuilt at the national expense, and a decree was, of course, immediately passed at Versailles to this effect. The Commune, however, and all belonging to it, seemed to think it bore a charmed life; and hence, without seriously applying themselves to the one serious question of the hour, the defence of Paris, went on passing decrees of a useful and ornamental nature-many of which were excellent in themselves, but few of which were timely.

Among the best of what may be termed the “symbolical” measures was a decree passed by the Commune on the 12th of April for the destruction of the Vendome Column. Although preparations for carrying it out were forthwith set about, owing to various delays these were not completed for more than a month. Accordingly, it was not before the 16th of May that the great emblem of French Jingoism actually kissed the earth. Erected to celebrate the victories of the first Napoleon in his wars of wanton aggression, it was very properly regarded as a standing insult, not only to every other European nationality, but, before all, to a Revolution based on the principles of Internationalism. So the afternoon of May 16th saw a large assemblage of Parisians in the Rue de la Paix and in the Place de la Concorde, the roofs of the houses and the windows being occupied with sightseers, watching anxiously, and not without apprehension, the operations, with the formidable array of ropes leading up to the final tug which should lay prone the emblem of aggressive patriotism. At five o’clock a National Guard affixed the tricolour to its proper place, the gallery at the top of this piece of shoddy magnificence, and a few minutes later the national flag, the statue of Napoleon, and the column itself were alike lying in fragments on a vast bed of dung, appropriately prepared for them. The apprehensions proved unfounded, and the overthrow was accomplished without any noteworthy mishap.

On the 15th, the previous day, the dispute between the “minority” and “majority” had reached a climax in the withdrawal of the former under cover of a manifesto anent the “Public Safety,” which declared the Commune to have abdicated its functions into the hands of an irresponsible Committee. “As for us,” it went on to say, “we, no less than the ‘majority,’ desire the accomplishment of political and social reconstruction; but, contrary to its notions, we claim the right to be solely responsible for our acts before our electors without sheltering ourselves behind a supreme dictatorship which our mandate permits us neither to accept nor to recognise.” The manifesto further went on to state that the signatories, in order not to give rise to further dissension in the Council room, proposed retiring into their arrondissements there to organise the resistance to the common enemy. The manifesto concluded with a generous expression of the conviction that “we all, majority or minority, notwithstanding our divergences as to policy, pursue the same object, political liberty, and the emancipation of the workers.” “Long live the Social Republic! Long live the Commune!”

The manifesto bore the signatures of Beslay, Jourde, Theisz, Lefrancais, Girardin, Vermorel, Clémence, Andrieu, Serrailler, Longuet, Arthur Arnould, Clement Victor, Aurial, Ostyn, Franckel, Pindy, Arnold, Vallés, Tridon, Varlin, and Courbet. Malon subsequently gave in his adhesion.

The conduct of the minority in withdrawing at this critical juncture deserves the severest censure. The reason given was absurd. They had themselves voted for the second committee. This pedantic Parliamentarism and horror of dictatorship moreover was utterly ridiculous in the crisis through which the movement was passing. The composition of the Committee may have been open to objection, and, as a matter of fact, it proved itself sufficiently incapable. But in principle there is no doubt whatever, that a strong dictatorship was just what the situation demanded. The Committee failed, if for no other reason than because it contained no man strong enough to “dictate.” There is no gainsaying that this action of the minority in allowing their personal spleen to get the better of them, even granting that provocation had been given, was a great blow to the influence of the Commune, both internally and externally, and was naturally the occasion of much “crowing” on the part of the friends of “order” at Versailles and elsewhere. Most of the signatories seem to have felt they had committed a blunder almost as soon as the document was issued, and two days later, the 17th, saw the majority of them back at the Hotel de Ville notwithstanding their virtual resignation. The public meetings they had called the previous evening in the arrondissement; had by no means endorsed their action. This sitting of the 17th of May was the fullest the Commune ever had, sixty-six members answering to their names. Unhappily it was mainly occupied with personal recriminations between the two factions, till it was abruptly terminated at 7 o’clock in the evening by the blowing up of the powder manufactory in the Avenue Rapp, which shook Paris from end to end. Was this disaster due to an accident or was it the result of treachery? No one knows to this day.


Last updated on 12.3.2004