Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XI
The Council of the Commune wavers

The Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville was still astir when the newly elected members of the Commune assembled in the municipal council-hall.

The ballot had returned sixteen mayors, adjuncts, and Liberals of all shades, [108] a few Radicals, [109] and about sixty revolutionaries of all sorts. [110]

How came these latter to be chosen? All must be told, and virile truth at last substituted for the stale flattery of the old romantic school styling itself ‘revolutionary’. There might be something more terrible than the defeat: to misconstrue or to forget its causes.

Responsibility weighs heavily enough upon the elected, but we must not charge it all to one side — the electors also have their share of it.

The Central Committee had told the people on Sunday the 19th, ‘Prepare for your communal elections.’ They thus had a whole week in which to frame a mandate and select their mandatories. No doubt the resistance of the mayors and the occupation of the military posts kept away many of the revolutionary electors from their arrondissements, but there still remained enough citizens to conduct the work of selection.

Never had a mandate been more indispensable, for the question at issue was to give Paris a communal constitution acceptable to all France. Never did Paris stand in such need of enlightened and practical men, capable at once of negotiating and of combating.

Yet there was never less preparatory discussion. A few men only recalled to prudence a people habitually so over-scrupulous in electoral matters, and which had just made a revolution to get rid of their representatives. The Committee of the twenty arrondissements issued a manifesto very pertinent in several points, and which might have served as an outline; the two delegates at the Home Office tried, through an article in the Officiel, to impress Paris with the importance of her vote. Not a single assembly framed the general programme of Paris; only two or three arrondissements gave some sort of mandate.

Instead of voting for a programme, they voted for names. Those who had demanded the Commune, made a mark at the Corderie or during the siege, were elected without being asked for further explanations, some even twice, like Flourens, in spite of the blunders of the 31st October. Only seven or eight, and those not the best, of the obscure men of the Central Committee were named, the latter, it is true, having decided not to present itself for election. The public meetings in many arrondissements sent up the most violent talkers, romanticists sprung up during the siege, and lacking all knowledge of practical life. Nowhere were the candidates put to any test. In the ardour of the struggle they took no thought for the morrow. One might have fancied that the object in view was a simple demonstration, not the founding of a new order of things.

Twenty-four workmen only were elected, and of these a third belonged rather to the public meetings than to the International or the working men’s societies. The other delegates of the people were chosen from the middle-class and the so-called liberal professions, accountants, publicists — there were as many as twelve of these doctors and lawyers. These, save a few really studious men, whether veterans or new-comers, were as ignorant as the workmen of the political and administrative mechanism of the bourgeoisie, albeit full of their own personality. The safety of the Central Committee lay in this, that it was unadorned with great men, each one provided with a formula of his own. The Council of the Commune, on the contrary, abounded in chapels, groups, semi-celebrities, and hence endless competition and rivalry.

Thus the precipitation and heedlessness of the revolutionary electors sent up to the Hôtel-de-Ville a majority of men, most of them devoted, but chosen without discernment, and, into the bargain, abandoned them to their own inspirations, to their whims, without any determined mandate to restrain and guide them in the struggle entered upon.

Time and experience would no doubt have corrected this negligence, but time was wanting. The people never hold sway but for an hour, and woe to them if they are not then ready, armed from head to foot. The elections of the 26th March were irreparable.

Only about sixty of those elected were present at the first sitting. At its opening, the Central Committee came to congratulate the Council. The chairman by seniority, Beslay, a capitalist of a fraternizing turn of mind, made the opening speech. He very happily defined this young revolution: ‘The enfranchisement of the Commune of Paris is the enfranchisement of all the communes of the Republic. Your adversaries have said that you have struck the Republic. It is as with the pile, to be driven deeper into the earth. The Republic of 1793 was a soldier, who wanted to centralize all the forces of the nation; the Republic of 1871 is a workman, who above all wants liberty to construct peace. The Commune will occupy itself with all that is local, the Department with what is regional, the Government with what is national. Let us not overstep this limit, and the country and the Government will be happy and proud to applaud this revolution.’ This was the naive illusion of an old man, who, nevertheless, had had the experience of a long political life. This programme, so moderate in its form, was nothing less than the death-knell of the great bourgeoisie, as shown during this very sitting.

There were already some jarring notes. The violent and the giddy-headed launched out into random motions, and wanted the Commune to declare itself omnipotent. Tirard, elected by his arrondissement, took advantage of this occasion to withdraw, stating that his mandate was purely municipal, that he could not recognize the political character of the Commune; gave in his resignation, and ironically bade farewell to the Council: ‘I leave you my sincere good wishes; may you succeed in your task,’ etc.

The insolence of this dishonest man, who for eight days had been busy in fomenting civil war and now threw up the mandate solicited in his address to the electors, evoked general indignation. The more impatient wanted to have him arrested, others to declare his mandate forfeited. He escaped scot-free because he had said at the Versailles tribune, ‘When you enter the Hôtel-de-Ville, you are not sure to return from it.’

This incident no doubt induced the Council to vote the secrecy of their sittings, their awkward pretext being that the Commune was not a parliament. This decision produced a very bad effect, violating the best traditions of the great Commune of 1792-93, as it gave the Council the appearance of a conspiracy, and it was found necessary to quash it two weeks after, when the newspapers abounded in fantastic reports, as a natural consequence of the secret sittings. But the publicity never consisted in anything but the insertion of curtailed reports in the Officiel. The Council never admitted the public, whose presence would have prevented many errors.


The next day the Council subdivided itself into commissions charged with the various services. A Military Commission, and others of Finance, Justice, Public Safety, Labour and Exchange, Provisions, Foreign Affairs, Public Services, and Education were named. The Executive Commission was composed of Lefrançais, Duval, Félix Pyat, Bergert, Tridon, Eudes, and Vaillant, of whom Duval, Bergeret, and Eudes also belonged to the Military Commission.

It had just been voted that all decrees should be signed The Commune — a vote too soon forgotten — when the delegates of the Central Committee were announced. After waiting half an hour they were introduced. ‘Citizens,’ said their spokesman, ‘the Central Committee comes to hand over to you its revolutionary powers. We resume the functions defined by our statutes.’

This was the moment for the Council to affirm its authority. The only representative of the population, alone responsible, it should now have absorbed all powers, not tolerating the co-existence of a Committee which was sure always to remember the paramount position it had held and strive to recover it. In the previous sitting, the Council had done justice to the Central Committee in voting that they had deserved well of Paris and the Republic, and now taking them at their word, ought to have declared that the role of the Committee had come to an end. Instead of an authoritative decision in this sense, recriminations were resorted to.

A member of the Council recalled the promise of the Central Committee to dissolve after the elections. Unless they aimed at power, there was no necessity for the maintenance of their organization. Varlin and Beslay defended the existence of the Committee, which was combated by Jourde and Rigault. The delegates, who would have yielded to a peremptory word, held out against this weakness. ‘This is,’ they said, ‘the Federation that has saved the Republic. The last word is not yet said. To dissolve this organization is to break your strength. The Central Committee does not pretend to share in the government. It remains the bond of union between you and the National Guard, the right hand of the Revolution. We again become what we were, the great conseil de famille of the National Guard.’

This simile made a marked impression. The debate was prolonged, and the delegates of the Committee withdrew, no conclusion having been arrived at.

Thereupon, without preamble, like a Jack-in-the-box, Félix Pyat Jumped up and proposed the abolition of the conscription.

On the 3rd March he had stolen away from the National Assembly, as he had on the 31st October deserted the Hôtel-de-Ville, and, a few days after, sneaked out of prison. On the 18th March he did not stir, while Delescluze had joined the revolution from the first day. Félix Pyat waited for the triumph, and on the eve of the elections came to beat the drum before the Committee, ‘which teaches modesty to the proudest name and inspires men of genius with a feeling of inferiority.’ Elected by about 12,000 votes in the tenth arrondissement, he was now forward to take his seat at the Hôtel-de-Ville.

The hour awaited for twenty years had at last struck; he was about to tread the boards. Amidst the crowd of dramatists, miracle-workers, romanticists, visionaries, and Jacobin relics, trailing since 1830 at the heels of the social revolution, his business had been that of appeals to regicide and revolutionary insurgency, of epistles, allegories, toasts, invocations, evocations, pieces of rhetoric on the events of the day, tinkering with the old Montagnard wares, and doing them up with a little humanitarian varnish. Under the Empire his rabid manifestoes had been the joy of the police and of the Bonapartist journals, excellent sops to throw to the people, who could not extract from them a practical idea or a grain of sense. This intoxication was more than half-feigned. The dishevelled madman of the stage behind the scenes turned crafty and wary to a degree. At bottom he was only a splenetic sceptic, sincere only in his self-idolatry. He came to the Commune his pockets crammed with decrees.

When he read his motion, it was lustily cheered by the romanticists and passed at once. Yet still in the morning the Council had intimated nothing of the sort, but only stated in the proclamation in which they presented themselves to Paris: ‘Today the decision on house-rents, tomorrow that on the overdue bills, the public services re-established and simplified, and the National Guards reorganized, these are our first acts.’ And now it abruptly encroached upon national affairs. Commune in the morning, Constituent Assembly in the evening.

If they wanted to change the revolution from a communal into a national one, they ought to have said so, boldly set forth their whole programme, and demonstrated to France the necessity of their attempt. But what signified this decree, improvised at random, without a preliminary declaration and without a sequel? This quid pro quo was not even taken up. Under pretext of avoiding parliamentarism, the matters at issue were hurried over.

Then the Council decreed the general exemption of rents due between October, 1870, and July, 1871. Versailles had offered only delays; this was contrary to equity. The Council exempted rents for the good reason that property ought to bear its share of the general sacrifices; but it did not exempt a lot of industrialists who had made scandalous profits during the siege. This was contrary to justice.

Finally, they neglected to announce themselves to the provinces, already so forsaken by the Central Committee. A commission had certainly been charged to draw up an address, but its work had not pleased, and another one had been named, so that what with one commission and another, the programme of the Commune was kept in suspense for twenty-two days, and the Council had allowed all the insurrections of the provinces to die out without giving them any advice or ideas.

These encroachments, this disorder, disturbed Paris with the thought that the new power had neither very clear ideas nor consciousness of the situation. The Liberal fraction of the Council took advantage of this pretext to withdraw. If their convention of the 20th had been sincere, if they had cared for the destinies of Paris, the mayor and adjuncts elected would have courageously stood by their mandates. Like those of the provinces, they deserted, but were still more culpable, since they had not protested against their elections. Many had never been seen at the Hôtel-de-Ville; others wrung their hands, lamenting, ‘Where are we going?’ Some shammed mortal illness: ‘You see 1 am at my last gasp.’ Those who have been most abusive since, then sought for humble evasions. Not one broke boldly.

Their resignations, [111] the double elections, left twenty-two seats vacant on the 30th, when the Council verified the credentials. Faithful to the best traditions of the French Republic, it admitted the Hungarian Frankel, one of the most intelligent members of the International, elected in the thirteenth arrondissement. Six candidates had not received the eighth part of the votes required by the law of 1849; the Council passed by this irregularity because the arrondissements of these candidates, composed of reactionary quarters, were emptying themselves from day to day.

The men of order, twice chastised, continued migrating to Versailles, which they stocked with a new store of rancour and rhodomontades. The town had assumed a warlike aspect; all announced that the struggle was near at hand. Already M. Thiers had cut off Paris from France. On the eve of the April term, the 3 1 st March, the director of the general post-office, Rampont, belying the word of honour he had given the delegate of the Central Committee, Thiesz, made off after having disorganized the postal service, and M. Thiers suppressed all the goods trains and kept back all correspondence destined for Paris.

On the 1st April he officially announced war. ‘The Assembly,’ he telegraphed to the prefects, ‘is sitting at Versailles, where the organization of one of the finest armies that France has ever possessed is being completed. Good citizens may then take heart and hope for the end of a struggle which will be sad but short.’ A cynical boast of that same bourgeoisie which had refused to organize armies against the Prussians. ‘One of the finest armies,’ was as yet only the rabble of the 18th March, strengthened by five or six regiments; about 35,000 men, with 3,000 horses, and 5,000 gendarmes or sergents-de-ville, the only corps that had any solidity.

Paris would not believe in the existence even of this army. The popular papers demanded a sortie, speaking of the journey to Versailles as a promenade. The most impetuous was the Vengeur, in which Félix Pyat furiously shook his cap and bells. He exhorted the Commune ‘to press Versailles. Poor Versailles! it no longer remembers the 5th and 6th October, 1789, when the women of the Commune alone sufficed to catch its king.’ On the morning of Sunday the 2nd April the same member of the Executive Commission announced to Paris: ‘Yesterday at Versailles the soldiers, requested to vote by aye or no if they were to march on Paris, answered No!’