MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations



Paris Commune (1871)

The Paris Commune, the first successful worker's revolution, existed from March 26 to May 30, 1871.

Following the defeat of France (ruled at the time by Louis Bonaparte) in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, the Government of National Defense concluded the war with the Germans on harsh terms – namely the occupation of Paris, which had heroically withstood a six months siege by the German armies.

Paris workers reacted angrily to German occupation, and refused to cooperate with the German soldiers; being so bold as to limit the area of German occupation to only a few parks in a small corner of the city, and keeping a very watchful eye over the German soldiers to ensure that they not cross those boundaries. On March 18, the new French government, led by Thiers, having gained the permission of Germany, sent its army into Paris to capture the military arms within the city to insure that the Paris workers would not be armed and resist the Germans. The Paris workers peacefully refused to allow the French Army to capture the weapons, and as a result the French Government of "National Defense" declared War on the city of Paris. On March 26, 1871, in a wave of popular support, a municipal council composed of workers and soldiers – the Paris Commune – was elected. Throughout France support rapidly spread to the workers of Paris, a wildfire which was quickly and brutally stamped out by the government. The workers of Paris, however, would be another problem. Within Paris, the first workers government was being created:

On March 26 the Paris Commune was elected and on March 28 it was proclaimed. The Central Committee of the National Guard, which up to then had carried on the government, handed in its resignation to the National Guard, after it had first decreed the abolition of the scandalous Paris "Morality Police". On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared that the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, was to be the sole armed force. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be reckoned to a future rental period, and stopped all sales of article pledged in the municipal pawnshops. On the same day the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic".

On April 1 it was decided that the highest salary received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore also by its members themselves, might not exceed 6,000 francs. On the following day the Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the State, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all Church property into national property; as a result of which, on April 8, a decree excluding from the schools all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers – in a word, "all that belongs to the sphere of the individual's conscience" – was ordered to be excluded from the schools, and this decree was gradually applied. On the 5th, day after day, in reply to the shooting of the Commune's fighters captured by the Versailles troops, a decree was issued for imprisonment of hostages, but it was never carried into effect. On the 6th, the guillotine was brought out by the 137th battalion of the National guard, and publicly burnt, amid great popular rejoicing. On the 12th, the Commune decided that the Victory Column on the Place Vendôme, which had been cast from guns captured by napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This decree was carried out on May 16. On April 16 the Commune ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by the manufacturers, and the working out of plans for the carrying on of these factories by workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organized in co-operative societies, and also plans for the organization of these co-operatives in one great union. On the 20th the Commune abolished night work for bakers, and also the workers' registration cards, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by police nominees – exploiters of the first rank; the issuing of these registration cards was transferred to the mayors of the 20 arrondissements of Paris. On April 30, the Commune ordered the closing of the pawnshops, on the ground that they were a private exploitation of labor, and were in contradiction with the right of the workers to their instruments of labor and to credit. On May 5 it ordered the demolition of the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI.

Frederick Engels
Introduction to The Civil War in France

Less than three months after the Commune was elected, the city of Paris was attacked by the strongest army the French government could muster. 30,000 unarmed workers were massacred, shot by the thousands in the streets of Paris. Thousands more were arrested and 7,000 were exiled forever from France.

The Paris Commune

On April 7, the Versailles troops had captured the Seine crossing at Neuilly, on the western front of Paris; on the other hand, in an attack on the southern front on the 11th they were repulsed with heavy losses by General Eudes. Paris was continually bombarded and, moreover, by the very people who had stigmatized as a sacrilege the bombardment of the same city by the Prussians. These same people now begged the Prussian government for the hasty return of the French soldiers taken prisoner at Sedan and Metz, in order that they might recapture Paris for them. From the beginning of May the gradual arrival of these troops gave the Versailles forces a decided ascendancy. This already became evident when, on April 23, Thiers broke off the negotiations for the exchange, proposed by Commune, of the Archbishop of Paris [Georges Darboy] and a whole number of other priests held hostages in Paris, for only one man, Blanqui, who had twice been elected to the Commune but was a prisoner in Clairvaux. And even more in the changed langauge of Thiers; previously procrastinating and equivocal, he now suddenly became insolent, threatening, brutal. The Versailles forces took the redoubt of Moulin Saquet on the southern front, on May 3; on the 9th, Fort Issy, which had been completely reduced to ruins by gunfire; and on the 14th, Fort Vanves. On the western front they advanced gradually, capturing the numerous villages and buildings which extended up to the city wall, until they reached the main wall itself; on the 21st, thanks to treachery and the carelessness of the National Guards stationed there, they succeeded in forcing their way into the city. The Prussians who held the northern and eastern forts allowed the Versailles troops to advance across the land north of the city, which was forbidden ground to them under the armistice, and thus to march forward and attack on a long front, which the Parisians naturally thought covered by the armistice, and therefore held only with weak forces. As a result of this, only a weak resistance was put up in the western half of Paris, in the luxury city proper; it grew stronger and more tenacious the nearer the incoming troops approached the eastern half, the real working class city.

It was only after eight days' fighting that the last defender of the Commune were overwhelmed on the heights of Belleville and Menilmontant; and then the massacre of defenceless men, women, and children, which had been raging all through the week on an increasing scale, reached its zenith. The breechloaders could no longer kill fast enough; the vanquished workers were shot down in hundred by mitrailleuse fire [over 30,000 citizens of Paris were massacred]. The "Wall of the Federals" [aka Wall of the Communards] at the Pere Lachaise cemetery, where the final mass murder was consummated, is still standing today, a mute but eloquent testimony to the savagery of which the ruling class is capable as soon as the working class dares to come out for its rights. Then came the mass arrests [38,000 workers arrested]; when the slaughter of them all proved to be impossible, the shooting of victims arbitrarily selected from the prisoners' ranks, and the removal of the rest to great camps where they awaited trial by courts-martial. The Prussian troops surrounding the northern half of Paris had orders not to allow any fugitives to pass; but the officers often shut their eyes when the soldiers paid more obedience to the dictates of humanity than to those of the General Staff; particularly, honor is due to the Saxon army corps, which behaved very humanely and let through many workers who were obviously fighters for the Commune.

Frederick Engels
Introduction to The Civil War in France

Further Reading: Paris Commune History Archive; Karl Marx on The Civil War in France
Communards: The Story of the Paris Commune of 1871, As Told by Those Who Fought for It., by Mitchell Abidor