R. W. Postgate

The Fall of the Commune of Paris

Source: Communist Review, June 1922, Vol. 3, No. 2
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


[In the following remarkable story—based upon the account previously given in the Special Commune number of the COMMUNIST last year—the author reminds us of many important lessons which may be gleaned by a study of the Paris Commune. Comrade R. W. Postgate needs no introduction to readers of the COMMUNIST REVIEW. His brilliant survey of revolutionary documents which appear in his now famous volume on Revolution, together with his numerous other historical essays, reveal him as a writer and student of worthy achievement. In the following study of the Fall of the Commune of Paris he compresses into small space much of what he has already written on this important subject.—ED., COMMUNIST REVIEW]

FIFTY-ONE years ago, in the afternoon of Monday, May 29th, 1871, a detachment of regular troops left one of the east gates of Paris. It covered quickly the short distance to the large fort of Vincennes, over whose roofs a Red Flag was waving. There was some parleying for a moment when it reached the main gates. Then they were flung open, the blue uniforms passed inside. A few minutes later the Red Flag dipped and ran down the staff. In its place, slowly, and by jerks, the tricolor, red, white, and blue, climbed the pole. Later, as evening was falling, a smaller party left the fort and entered the fosse. In their midst were some men with staring red rosettes or ribbons in their lapels. These they stood up against the wall: the sharp rattle of a volley fire was heard and they were left dead or dying.

This was the end of an epic: the last act in the tragedy, fittingly enough celebrated by the victors by another murder. The fort that fell was the last fort of the Commune of Paris: the nine officers that were killed were the last remnant of the Communard Army. Days before the war had ended in Paris: and the flag that was run down at Vincennes was not to fly again for fifty years. The first struggle between the bourgeoisie and the workers was over and had ended in defeat for the latter.

The origins of the Commune go back to the last days of the Empire of Napoleon III. If we had been in Paris in the year 1870, we should at first have observed no opposition except that of the Republican deputies and the traditional Republican groups. The large financiers and the few representatives of “modern industry” were at one with the peasants in supporting the Bonapartes. Opposed to them under the one standard of the Republic were the small bourgeoisie and the workers, apparently a united body. Further investigation, however, would have shown us that there were in reality some deep divisions, and the sectarian groups which expressed them arose from the working class. They were two—the Blanquists, a secret armed society led by L. A. Blanqui, which distrusted the official republicans and prepared for an armed rising to overturn the Empire and substitute a Republic, which, like the Soviets in 1917, would not institute Socialism so much as turn the development of society in that direction. The second, non-political in theory, was the International, whose headquarters were in London, and whose leading spirit was Karl Marx. This society in France was really an immense Trade Union, and its livest branches were in fact local trade societies. Yet it had certain political ideals: it was Socialist and mistrusted the bourgeois Republicans and hoped for a workers’ Republic.

When, after the crash of Sedan, the official Republicans took power, these dissenting bodies became of importance. We must cut short the history of the Franco-Prussian war and the seige of Paris. Suffice it that the new Republicans showed as great incompetence as the old Imperialists, and an even greater suspicion of the revolutionary workers. Two vain attempts at revolt were made by the latter, but in the end the Republicans made a virtual surrender to the Germans on January 27th, 1871.

A new Assembly was elected. While Paris returned revolutionaries or semi-revolutionaries, the Provinces elected monarchists. The new Government was chosen by the monarchists and headed by Thiers. Before long this Assembly and Paris had come into conflict. Most serious of all was the Parisian workers’ refusal to accept the new Bonapartist General appointed to command the democratically-organised defence of Paris, the National Guard.

Feeling that the moment was approaching, Thiers prepared for his great stroke. The National Guard of Paris, the sole Republican armed force, possessed a great park of artillery on the heights of Montmartre. The guns belonged to Paris, and had been rescued by the alertness of the Guard from the Prussians, when the Government was about to let them be handed over under the armistice.

These guns Thiers proposed to seize. Without them, and with his soldiers in possession of the heights, the National Guard would be militarily only of the value of a police force. But it would be sufficiently infuriated to cause some disturbance, and then, with every card in his hands, Thiers could batter the Republican forces of Paris into pieces.

Therefore, on the night of the 17th and 18th March, General Vinoy, a Bonapartist relic, was put in charge of an expedition against Paris. He himself, with the bulk of the army, was to occupy the western half of Paris. General Lecomte was then to occupy the heights of Montmartre and seize the artillery, guarded night and day by the National Guard. For this purpose he was given the 88th Regiment of the Line and some auxiliaries.

The Eighteenth of March

The heights of Montmartre rise sharply from the general level of Paris. The 88th of the Line, under the orders of General Lecomte, toiled painfully up in the early morning of the 18th. They broke in upon the few and unsuspecting National Guards and took both the upper and lower plateau at the point bf the bayonet. There was scarcely any resistance, and by six o’clock the whole of the heights were in Lecomte’s hands. The famous cannon were captured. Scarcely anyone was about on this cold, fine March morning, and it seemed that the coup would be successful and the cannon be carried through the silent streets to Vinoy’s headquarters.

But the cannon were very heavy, and horses and gun carriages lacking. The moving of the guns to the foot of the heights went on very slowly. The sun was rising, and a few people appeared in the streets. Among them were some National Guards who had escaped during the surprise. At half past seven the silence was suddenly broken by a frantic ringing of church bells. Soon every spire had caught up and was ringing the tocsin. There echoed about the foot of the hill the dull murmur of drums, beaten to call the National Guard together, bugles sounded throughout the district. In squares and streets around the heights, National Guards were hastily running up, putting on their accoutrements as they came, and forming into line. Round the troops of Lecomte was gathering a growing crowd of spectators, mostly women and children.

Gradually the crowd approached closer. With it came up the National Guards. Twice Lecomte was able to drive them back by drawing up his men as though for a charge. But they returned. At last, some of the ranks were broken by the crowd. Frightened, the General gave the order to charge, this time in earnest. There was a moment’s anxious hesitation. The women of the crowd implored the soldiers: “Would you shoot us—our husbands—our children?” The officers threatened them. Suddenly a sergeant’s voice called: “Put up your arms!” That did it. The soldiers put up their arms, the crowd rushed in, the National Guard fraternised with the Line. In a moment, like a black wave, the Revolution had taken Montmartre. It was nine o’clock.

Lecomte was surrounded by an angry crowd of soldiers and civilians. He was saved for the moment and taken to the Chateau Rouge. Meanwhile, the rest of the 88th, down below the heights, had gone over. Vinoy, in command of the mass of the troops, lost his nerve, and ordered a complete retirement to the other side of the Seine, to the Champs de Mars in the far south-west of Paris.

An order had been signed by the Montmartre Vigilance Committee to transfer Lecomte and his officers to the guardroom at 18, Rue des Rosiers, Montmartre. The prisoners were taken thither accompanied by a vast howling crowd, no longer of the working class, but of prostitutes and idlers—the worst and cruellest dregs of Paris. A like crowd, nearly a hundred years before, had shrieked for the blood of the King, delighted in the death of the Girondins, of Hebert, of Danton, and of Robespierre. The same crowd which now yelled for Lecomte’s death two months later called for the blood of the Communards. More and more the officers of the National Guard were hard pressed to save Lecomte. Ill fortune brought them another prisoner, old Clement Thomas, who had aided in the repression of the revolt of June, 1848, and was now arrested on suspicion. After some hours of uproar, in the afternoon the crowd, among whom were many soldiers of the 88th, broke in and killed Lecomte and Thomas. As if frightened by its own brutality, the crowd then melted away, leaving the lesser officers unharmed.

The retreat of Vinoy and the collapse of the attack on Montmartre had thrown the Government into panic. By nightfall every member of the Government, except one, had fled from Paris, leaving behind instructions to the officials to disorganise every department, and to follow to Versailles. The one member who remained, Jules Ferry, sat tight at the Hotel de Ville and was able, with the aid of the Mayors of the arrondissements (districts like our London boroughs) to form for a day a centre of counter-revolution.

In default of aid, however, the flying Government sent plenty of advice and proclamations. It nominated a new commander of the National Guard, Saisset, and called upon the Parisians to rally round him. But these and other acts only called attention to its own nullity, the only real non-revolutionary power lay with the group of Mayors, whom Ferry left to themselves next day.

Yet the Government had run from its own shadow. There was really no central direction on the other side to be afraid of. The defeat of Vinoy, the death of Lecomte and the rout of the Government, had not been the work of the Central Committee of the National Guard. The rank and file of the National Guard had assembled spontaneously. The Committee only gave the most general orders to their own Commandant-in-chief, Lullier, and did not see to their execution. Thus, he failed to close the gates, disperse the few counter-revolutionary groupings, or seize Fort Mont Valerien, which commanded the western side of Paris, and was re-occupied by Government troops. Not until the 20th or 21st did the Committee realise that it was sole governor of Paris. It was still so oppressed by its own incompetence and lack of constitutional authority, that it permitted itself to be deluded by the Mayors, who were gaining time for the Government. It entered into negotiations with them to arrange for the election of a Paris municipal body; it attached such importance to their assent that they were able to delay this election till March 26th.

Till that date, the Committee did nothing. Meanwhile, Thiers was carefully collecting an army. He concentrated his untrustworthy troops into a large camp at Satory, from which civilians were banished. It was hardly possible for an ordinary man to approach it. Inside, the soldiers were well fed and treated and subjected to careful propaganda. Moreover, he went to Bismarck, who was still occupying northern France to the very walls of Paris, and secured from him relays of prisoners from Napoleon’s army to supplement the attack on Paris.

On March 26th the Paris municipality was elected. It had a crushing revolutionary majority, and took the name of the Commune.

What was the Commune?

What did the Commune mean? What was the challenge this name involved?

It was not, as the proclamation of a Soviet would be to-day, an absolutely clear-cut and certain defiance to the ruling class. It implied no such clear, detailed and elaborate revolt as the word “Soviet” does. It was still vague. “Commune” was, and still is, a respectable French bourgeois word. It means an Urban or Rural District Council, and as such is part of the French State machinery. Legally, therefore, the proclamation of the “Commune” might have meant only the assumption by Paris of the ordinary municipal autonomy, which had previously been denied her. Anarchists have been found who claimed that this demand, together with the broader scheme of decentralisation outlined later, was the real essence of the Commune. Such an argument is entirely misleading. A dispute about details of local government is not a possible basis for a revolution. Historians who write and think in such terms have missed their vocation.

First and foremost , to both the workers and smaller middle class, who rallied to it, the Commune meant the great Commune of 1792 and 1793—the strong revolutionary organ of all the poorer classes of Paris, which had torn down the King and erected the Republic, which had purged the Convention of Girondins, and throughout the critical years had led and made the Revolution. Again and again, it had overturned and broken down the power of reaction and the moneyed classes. It was this body which Paris was calling back to life—a power which should turn upon the enthroned reaction, the money power represented by the Thiers Government, and snap it like a brittle stick, as the old Commune on the 10th of August, 1792, had broken for ever the French Monarchy.

This idea had taken hold of all classes. But a new idea was in the minds of the majority of the Communards, and that idea, the future showed, was the essence of the Commune, and all that was vital and dangerous in it. The rest was Republican and decentralist sentimentalism, mere historical dreaming. The new idea was that the Commune was the Workers’ Republic. All the working class of Paris, and the small shopkeepers and working employers who were still in the proletarian environment, felt that the workers had taken their fate into their own hands. At the very beginning, on March 20th, the Journal Officiel wrote:—

“The proletarians of the capital, in the midst of the failure and treason of the governing classes, have realised that the hour has arrived for them to save the situation by taking over the direction of public affairs. . . . The proletariat, in the face of the permanent threat to its rights, of the absolute refusal of its legitimate aspirations, and of the ruin of the country and all its hopes, understood that it was its imperative duty and absolute right to take its destiny into its own hands and ensure victory by seizing power.”

This was the Commune—the seizure of power by the workers. This is what made it great and dangerous to the governing class. It is for this that it lives and is remembered in history.

So, on March 26th, when the Commune was proclaimed, a great wave of happiness and relief swept over Paris. Rarely have such scenes been witnessed as were seen in the square of the Hotel de Ville that day. The delirious enthusiasm spread even to the bourgeoisie. Worker and employer rejoiced together. Old men who had seen ’48 were weeping silently. Young men, women and children—all were radiant. The flowers scattered, the red flags dipping and waving, the singing crowds, the maddening pulse of the “Marseillaise,”—there was something in all this that gave the feeling of a great freedom, a new life. Spies reported to Versailles that Paris was “mad with the Commune.” It was true. Paris felt that an old oppressing tyranny had been broken; she felt that rare joy of a revolutionary moment, when the old and evil weight is cast aside, and for a moment all is possible when there is a vision or a feeling of the future which compensates for past and coming sufferings and intoxicates like wine. Such a moment comes to few, and rarely. It had come before in Paris—on the night of August 10th, 1792, when the Tuileries had been stormed and the King lead fallen, or on February 25th, 1848, when the last Bourbon had taken to his heels. This spirit, in our days, has been felt in Petrograd in the March of 1917, when the Tsar fell; in Budapest in the first days of the Soviet Republic; it even touched, for a fleeting moment, Berlin on a November day four years ago.

Such was the feeling in Paris in the first days of the Commune. There are few living now who can remember it, but they have always cherished the memory of what Valles called les grands jours, les jours de la Commune, and something of the enthusiasm of those days has been handed down to us.

But rejoicing could not last for ever. Thiers was preparing his army, and on April 2nd it was ready. He turned his guns on Paris that day. That day, too, occurred the first battle between the Federals, as the National Guards were called, and the Versaillese, as the troops of Thiers were named. Next day the Commune replied by a grand sortie, which met with disaster and defeat due, not to the rank and file but to the utter incompetence of the generals. From that day, April 3rd, Paris and Versailles settled down to a grinding and bloody trench warfare. Along all the western walls of Paris the battle was fought relentlessly day by day, and day by day the Communards were more outnumbered.

The fiasco of April 3rd was followed by the appointment of Cluseret to command the whole Guard. He was supposed to have distinguished himself in the American Civil War. Be that as it may, Cluseret destroyed the Commune. He simply failed to attend to his duties—to relieve regiments in the field, to provide munitions and supervise contractors, to organise the defence. He did nothing, and what little he could have done was defeated by the interference of the re-elected Central Committee, which claimed to issue orders without consulting him.

Twenty-seven days of this folly nearly destroyed the Communard Army. On April 30th Cluseret was arrested, and a young officer named Rossel took his place. Now some beginnings of organisation were made. The front was divided up under three competent generals: munitions were organised. But on May 9th the fort of Issy fell: Rossel made an attempt at a coup d’etat against the Commune, failed and fled. Delescluze, a veteran enemy of Blanqui, but a Blanquist in ideas, took over in a vain attempt to reduce the War Department to order.

Inside the Commune

From March the 26th, two months elapsed before the Commune fell. So it had had time to outline a general policy and to began, clumsily and hesitatingly, the creation of a workers’ state.

Inside the Commune there was a majority and a minority. Very roughly, these were composed of the Blanquists, plus the romantic Republicans, and the International respectively. The members of the International, together with the rest of the minority, were not opposed to the majority on any question of Socialist principle. They were opposed entirely to the policy, or lack of policy, of the majority. Of this majority, the Blanquists were deprived of guidance and policy by the capture of their leader, Blanqui, by Thiers’ Government. Blanaui’s policy had always been, briefly, concentration on the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship, and upon the successful prosecution of the war on the bourgeoisie. For this reason he had deliberately eschewed all discussion of general Socialist policy, and selected his followers for their audacity and obedience rather than their theoretical principles. So he had built up a close body of militant revolutionaries, but now, when he himself was in prison, captured by Thiers in the provinces, his followers were without any leader. The grave faults of his organisation at once came out. No one could take the place of Blanqui, and, incapable of any regular policy, the Blanquists drifted. They carried out small coups and showed isolated instances of vigour, but were unable to follow any general policy. They were lieutenants without a general. Their greatest anxiety was to recover Blanqui; they offered to Thiers to exchange for Blanqui all the hostages in the hands of the Commune, but Thiers, prudently enough, refused.

The vacillations of the Blanquists were made worse by the mass of the Commune members, who were accustomed to look to the old leaders of ’48 for guidance. The Commune was essentially a chance and haphazard assembly of working class representatives. If we were to-day to take a haphazard assembly of workers’ delegates, hastily elected without the chance of sifting or of organisation, we should undoubtedly find them a “mixed lot.” There would be probably one or two actual scoundrels, a sprinkling of foreigners, a number of steady and honest workers of but second-rate abilities, a disproportionate number of mere talkers, and a few who by their ability and courage were able to impress themselves on the assembly. Such exactly, was the Commune. There were in it one or two whose characters were not above suspicion. An ex-forger, Blanchet, was expelled, and of two others it is suspected that they had been police spies. There were a few foreigners. The mass of the Commune members were working men of solid worth, but they were completely under the influence of the mere talkers, of whom Felix Pyat may stand as the type. The stock-in-trade, rather than the policy, of these men was only the memory of 1793, and their only resource an imitation of those days.

The members of the International, who mostly belonged to the minority, were in some ways more “realist” than the rest, though they were called dreamers. The International, in 1870 a strong trade union federation, found that the unions had disappeared during the seige. It was, consequently, reduced to reliance upon its political “sections,” which in Paris had not become strong or typical of the International till 1871. The programme of the International was the handing, over of capitalist industry to autonomous workers’ associations, arising out of the trade unions (it has been rediscovered in England under the title of Guild Socialism), while the political state was to be a decentralised Republic. The International was, indeed, too pre-occupied with its ideal State to realise the supremacy of the demands of the Department of War.

In among the members of the Commune were scattered one or two who were fully competent for their duties, such as Delescluze or Varlin. But these few heroic men could not possibly raise the members of the Commune up to their own level. The incompetence and vacillation of the Commune stands out in startling relief from the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rank and file of the National Guard.

It is not surprising to find, therefore, that there is little to record concerning the Commune’s general policy. Two manifestoes which were issued to the provinces contained little but emotional appeals. The “programme” passed by the Commune confined itself strictly to the decentralist theories mentioned above.

The Commune, naturally, repealed the destructive decree of the Assembly on rents and bills. It excused the workers all rent, and provided for their existence by continuing the pay and allowances of the National Guard. It returned all the furniture and property of the poorer classes which were in the pawnshops. It separated Church and State, confiscated ecclesiastical property and secularized education. It pulled down the Vendome column, the most famous Paris monument to the victories of Napoleon I. It fixed a maximum salary of 240 a year for Communard officials. It suppressed a certain number of anti-Communard journals.

But that was all. Rightly or wrongly, the Commune was too oppressed by the military needs of the moment to occupy itself with outlining the basis of a new society.

The Administration of the Commune

There is more to record when we consider the administration of the Commune.

The Executive Commission which was elected at the beginning of the Commune, was, owing to its personnel, completely useless and inactive. Its place was taken, so far as it was taken at all, by the meetings of the delegates to the various public services, and later by the two Committees of Public Safety.

Of these delegations, perhaps, the most efficiently run was that of Finances, in the hands of Jourde and Varlin, both members of the Minority, and the latter a member of the International. Jourde was of the small middle class, Varlin a working bookbinder. They had to provide, mainly from the municipal revenues of Paris, 675,000 francs a day. This was done only by the strictest economy and the most careful book-keeping. The administration of Jourde and Varlin remains a model of care and scrupulousness.

The one grave fault to be noted in this department is to be blamed, nor on Jourde and Varlin so much as on the Commune. The Bank of France owed Paris 9,400,000 francs, and in addition, was persuaded, with difficulty, to pay over another 7,290,000 francs. The narrowness of Jourde’s resources, consequently, half-starved all the Communard administration. Nevertheless, the Commune steadily refused to seize the Bank of France. In specie and in various forms of paper, there was enough money therein to have bought up the whole Government—to have covered France and Versailles with a horde of Communard agents—to have bribed every Versailles official. There was exactly 2,980,000,000 francs in the Bank—say a hundred and fifty million pounds. Fifty years ago one could have done anything with such a sum. But the influence of Beslay, a most worthy old gentleman who had joined the Commune, prevented any such seizure. His good faith and insistent exposition of the Proudhonist theory of credit, actually intimidated the Commune into inaction, so little was its cohesion or community of policy.

Largely dependent upon the Finances were a series of minor departments, carried on with ability and integrity. Theisz, a silversmith, took charge of the Posts and Telegraphs, to discover that Thiers’ officials had practically looted the Post Office, removing even the stamps, and leaving nothing but an empty shell. He restored the Paris postal services very swiftly, while ameliorating the conditions of employment. He was unable, naturally, to restore the telegraph wires to the provinces, cut by Thiers, but he ran a successful service of secret agents, who slipped through the lines at nights, and posted Parisian letters in the pillar boxes of towns in the enemy’s hands. The Mint was directed by Camelinat, a bronze worker, and under his hands, such technical improvements were carried through, that, after the fall of the Commune, the Versailles Government asked him to return under a safe conduct, to instruct their own Master of the Mint in the improvements he had perfected.

Public Relief, another department subsidiary to the Finances, was directed admirably by Treilhard, an elderly revolutionary of ’48. He managed to turn upside down the whole spirit of the administration: to deprive it of all feeling of charity and give to the relief the appearance of right. He was particularly severe with the “sisters of mercy” and doctors who considered that their position entitled them to bully the poor. The lack of time alone prevented Treilhard from re-organising the service entirely.

Of lesser departments, the Food Commission deserves mention. The regular provisioning of Paris, and the fall in prices were its work—in name, at least. The real credit must, in fact, be given to Viard, the delegate who occupied the Ministry of Agriculture, and who, after May and, dispensed with the services of the Commission altogether, without any evil results.

In the Department of Justice (Eugene Protot, delegate) and Education (Edouard Vaillant, delegate), there is little to record beyond the announcement of certain minor reforms, particularly the secularisation of education, which had for a long time been demanded by advanced bourgeois reformers.

The delegation to External Affairs was very poorly served. Grousset, the delegate, was, it is true, starved of money, but it was his business to insist on being supplied. There was enough money in the Bank to have subsidised the revolutionary papers in every French province and to have worked up, by means of responsible agents, who in vain offered their services, the dying Communard movements in the great French towns. The movement could easily have been revived sufficiently to make impossible the great military concentration that Thiers was carrying on against Paris. Instead, Grousset contented himself with the writing of a few not very well chosen manifestoes and leaving their distribution to chance and good luck.

None of the above delegations, nor the delegation of Public Security, took the opportunity as they should have done, to go through and expose the secret documents of the capitalist regime. There were undoubtedly enough records of the corrupt intrigues of Napoleon’s reign to have made as great a sensation as the publication of the Secret Treaties did in our days.

In the delegation to Labour alone was there any progress made towards a workers’ society. Leo Frankel, an Austrian labourer, was delegate. He, like all other members of the International, was in regular communication with the Paris Federal Council of the International, and carried out its policy (Marx, in the General Council, had at one time hopes to direct the policy of the International in the Commune from London, but the difficulty of communication, among other reasons, made this impossible.)

Frankel, therefore, tried to carry out as far as possible in the time at his disposal, the programme of the International—the transformation of the capitalist system into a system of workers’ productive societies. Unlike most of his colleagues, he did not make the mistake of carrying out his plans for, and not by, the workers, or of taking paper decrees, as the equivalent of accomplished facts. Faced with the complete disappearance of the Trade Unions, and the urgent needs of the Department of War, which forbade any widespread economic upheaval, he proceeded cautiously. He realised that his immediate tasks were to recreate the Trade Union movement, to settle any outstanding disputes in the workers’ favour, and to hand over the administration of the various industries and services to the unions as they became strong and active enough to be able to take them over.

The calls of service in the National Guard made this very difficult. But his first task was carried through very ably. At the fall of the Commune there were functioning, vigorously, 34 chambres syndicales—that is to say, central committees of unions covering a single trade—43 productive societies, and 11 miscellaneous workers’ associations. There were, that is to say, 34 well organised trades, and it is to be observed that, although most of these unions had nominally existed since 1870 at least, they had become, in all but name, extinct in March, whereas there is evidence that they were alive and militant throughout the Commune.

Among immediate measures against the employers may be counted the enforcement of a “fair wages” clause for Communard contracts, the suppression of night baking, and the forbiddance of all fines or retentions of wages by the employers. Frankel was not able to carry through his proposal for an eight-hour day.

For obvious reasons he was only able to make the smallest beginning in the handing over of industry to workers’ associations. He secured a decree from the Commune giving preference, for all contracts, to workers’ societies, with the result, that towards the end, practically all the requirements of the National Guard were so supplied. He called together a Commission of Inquiry, consisting of delegates of all the chambres syndicales of the Unions, to arrange for the taking over by the workers concerned of all the abandoned or closed workshops and factories in Paris, of which there were a great number. This Commission met twice, on the 10th and 18th May, but, most unfortunately, all record of their deliberations and decisions had disappeared.

The police service—“General Security”—was in the hands of the Blanquists, Raoul Rigault—a young man of 25—was first Delegate to Public Security (say Chief of Police), then Procureur (say, Public Prosecutor). In his hands was always the general direction of affairs. Cournet, a fellow Blanquist, took his place as delegate to Public Security, and later gave way to Theophile Ferre. Both Ferre and Rigault achieved a name as the most “terrible” members of the Commune.

Violent attacks were made upon Rigault for “levity” in his administration, but on the whole, unjustly. It is true that his service was based exactly upon the Empire’s police system, and had obvious and grave faults. He had, however, to make something out of nothing in a few days, and, naturally, did so in the easiest manner, by following his predecessors. It was, at least, something to have secured that the Paris streets were quiet and orderly, that violent crime was unknown, and that none of the Versailles plotters dared to come out into the open. Ferre and Rigault also went through the archives of the old Prefecture of Police, and uprooted a number of spies and traitors still in the Communard ranks.

To stop the murder of prisoners by the Versaillese, the Commune passed a decree that for every prisoner murdered, three hostages should be shot from anti-Communards remaining in Paris. Rigault in consequence, collected a number of hostages, mostly minor agents of reaction, but including the Archbishop of Paris, the President of the High Court, and—best prize of all—Jecker, the capitalist who had inspired Napoleon’s Mexican war. Nevertheless, the decree was not carried out, for although the Versaillese resumed, after a pause, their practice of shooting prisoners, no prisoner or unarmed man was killed by the Communards throughout the seige, from April 2nd to May 23rd.

The Fall of the Commune

The flight of Rossel had been followed by the appointment of a committee of Public Safety. A fine name, but mere names would not make Pyat and his kind change their characters. It was recalled for its own incompetence, and the defence left to Delescluze. But his efforts were obviously hopeless: his men were outnumbered by 10 to 1. After Issy, Fort Vanves had fallen, and the end was only a matter of time.

The Commune, romantic as ever, attempted to meet the situation by appointing another Committee of Public Safety (May 15th). The minority, disgusted at what they considered to be playing with a serious situation, quitted the Commune and withdrew to the arrondissements (boroughs), for the members of the Commune were ex officio the borough council for their district. The Federal Council of the International persuaded them that to withdraw at this moment would be scandalous, and they returned.

On May 22nd, a spy gave signals to the Versailles army that the extreme south-west end of Paris (Auteuil) was undefended, and the Government troops crept in during the afternoon. That evening and next morning they poured in by all the western gates.

May 23rd found the Commune taken by surprise. Delescluze, Dombrowski, Rigault, and a few others attempted to organise the defence. Some of the members of the Commune, particularly those who had most bravely flaunted their red sashes a few days before, crept into ignominious hiding. The various battalions of the National Guard, following the natural instincts of popular forces, withdrew to defend their own quarters. Dombrowski, and later Rigault, were killed fighting. La Cecilia, Wroblewski, Varlin, Frankel, and others, attempted to organise the resistance in their own quarters, but, owing to the defections in the Commune itself—nearly the first to run, was, of course, Felix Pyat—there was no concerted resistance.

The Versaillese were able to capture nearly all the barricades on the 23rd and 24th by outflanking them, so disorganised was the resistance. The casualties in battle were very small. If they had pushed on, as General Clinchant demad, Paris would have fallen at once. But that was not their plan, nor the orders of M. Thiers.

Immediately upon their entry into Paris, the Versaillese troops organised a massacre. The soldiers had orders, which were executed, to kill at once all who surrendered with arms in their hands. They murdered, moreover, anyone whom casual suspicions or interested denunciations indicated. Crowds of idle passers-by were penned together, searched and ordered to show their hands. Any black marks on the palm which might be taken to be powder stains were sufficient evidence for execution. Any man who had retained any portion of the National Guard clothing was shot. (As though in 1919, every Londoner had been shot who had retained any portion of his army clothing). The police received 399,823 letters of denunciation, of which but a twentieth were signed. And the writing of such a letter was sufficient to make forfeit the life of the man delated, if he could be found. The fable of petroleuses—women petrol throwers, who were supposed to have fired Government buildings, led to the inclusion of women in this massacre. The firemen were almost exterminated, because some malicious person had spread the story that they had filled their hose-pipes with petrol.

Civilians whom good fortune saved from immediate death, were taken for trial before one of the numerous court-martials. The “trial” never lasted more than a few minutes, and death was the sentence in fully half the cases. The bodies were left lying in the Paris streets, or half buried in haste.

Those who were not shot by order of the courts were sent to Versailles for re-trial. Before they could pass the gate of La Muette, they were stopped by the vain and theatrical General Marquis de Gallifet, who selected a number of them to be shot on the spot. One day it was the white-haired he killed, another, those who were taller or uglier than their neighbours—any fantastic reason that amused his ghastly fancy.

Then the wretched, fainting convoys marched uncovered under the blazing summer sun to Versailles, often forbidden water or rest, sometimes even shot en masse as a nuisance to their captors. They arrived at Versailles only to suffer fresh tortures, beaten and spat on by the “swell mob” and crowded into stinking underground dungeons.

Such horrors had occurred before in out-of-the-way corners of the world, against black men in colonial wars, but never before in the centre of Europe.

Maddened by these brutalities, the remaining Communards demanded the forfeited lives of the hostages remaining in their hands. Ferre, disdaining to evade responsibility, gave the order and they were shot. The few defenders of the Commune were now forced back into the eastern quarters of Paris. The Luxembourg and the south side of the river were lost, Montmartre had been taken by surprise, and the Hotel de Ville was in flames. Belleville, the workers’ quarter, was the only Communard stronghold. The sun hid itself, and the heavy downpour brought by great guns, had begun.

On the 25th, 26th, and 27th, the Versaillese met at last with an organised resistance. Their troops, in overwhelming numbers, were checked everywhere. The National Guards made a heroic, amazing resistance. The story of those days is one continuous record of noble bravery and unquestioning devotion. The progress of the Versaillese was slow and dearly bought.

But the end was not in doubt. The Communards were slowly but inevitably thrust back. Delesduze, who alone gave soiree sort of general direction, saw all was over on the 25th. He had seen 1830 and 1848: he was unwilling to outlive another defeat. Worn and frail, and looking very old, he walked under the eyes of his friends, down the streets to a barricade at the Chateau d’Eau, which the Versaillese guns had reduced to a mere pile of stones. Unarmed, but for a cane, he slowly climbed it. There was a moment’s pause, for the soldiers were astonished at the sight of this old man still wearing his red sash as a member of the Commune. Someone fired: he span round, and fell dead.

But not one man’s death could end the battle. Slowly the Versaillese pressed forward. On the 26th they took the Place de la Bastille and the old Faubourg Saint Antoine. On the 27th, descending from the north, they took the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. In the early hours of Sunday they took the remaining Communard barricades, on the heights of Belleville. Next day the outlying fort of Vincennes surrendered, and the last red flag was pulled down.

For these last few days Thiers had loosed Gallifet himself upon the city. What he did can hardly be described. Suffice it that for months after Belleville was a town of the dead. The traveller, passing through, saw no light or sign of life in the deserted houses; street after street was empty and desolate, as though a pestilence had swept the inhabitants away. Gallifet had depopulated the workers’ quarters as though he had been Tamerlane, or any other mad Eastern ruler. The unfortunate victims were taken mostly to the Pere Lachaise cemetery, where—since flesh and blood was failing—machine guns were used for execution. To this day the wall where so many Communards were murdered is known as le mur des federes (Wall of the National Guards), and is a sacred place of pilgrimage for Socialists the world over.

Though resistance was over, the massacre was not. It went on gaily till the 2nd or 3rd of June, when it was stopped—for sanitary, not for humanitarian reasons. Then “regular” trials began. Disease and madness had claimed their victims among the prisoners, others had been shot by their guards on various excuses. Now more were sent to execution, and some to long periods of imprisonment. Others, whom even military justice recognised as having had no share in the Commune, were freed. But the mass of the Communards were deported en bloc to the South Sea island of New Caledonia.

The National Assembly passed a unanimous vote of thanks to Thiers, and appointed MacMahon, the Marshal in command of the army, President of the Republic.

* * *

Many years later an amnesty was proclaimed by the victors, oblivion and forgiveness offered. But there are some who have not forgotten and not forgiven. They remember the words of the old Communard, a veteran of ’48, before his judges: “Twice, now, you have defeated us. But there will be a third time, and we shall win.”