Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XIX
Formation of the Committee of Public Safety


M. Thiers was fully acquainted with the failings of the Commune, but he also knew the weakness of his army. Besides, he prided himself upon playing the soldier before the Prussians. In order to appease his colleagues, eager for the assault on Paris, he was haughty in receiving the conciliators, who multiplied their advances and their lame combinations.

Everybody intermeddled, from the good and visionary Considérant down to the cynic Girardin, down to Saisset’s ex-aide-de-camp Schoelcher, who had replaced his plan of battle of the 24th March by a plan of conciliation. These encounters became the common topics of raillery. Since its pompous declaration, ‘All Paris will rise,’ the Ligue des Droits de Paris had been altogether sunk out of sight. It was perfectly understood that these Radicals were in search of some decent contrivance to back out of the peril. At the end of April their sham movements served only as a foil to set off the courageous conduct of the Freemasons.

On the 21st April the Freemasons, having gone to Versailles to ask for the armistice, complained of the municipal law recently voted by the Assembly. ‘What!’ M. Thiers replied, ‘but this is the most liberal one we have had in France for eighty years. “We beg your pardon, and how about the communal institutions of 1791?’ ‘Ah! you want to return to the follies of our fathers?’ ‘But, after all, are you then resolved to sacrifice Paris?’ ‘There will be some houses riddled, some ‘persons killed, but the law will be enforced.’ The Freemasons had this hideous answer posted up in Paris.

On the 26th they met at the Châtelet, and several proposed that they should go and plant their banners on the ramparts. A thousand cheers answered. M. Floquet, who, with an eye to the future, had sent in his resignation as deputy, together with MM. Lockroy and Clémenceau, protested against this co-operation of the middle class with the people. His shrill voice was drowned in the enthusiastic cries in the hall. [143] On the motion of Ranvier, the Freemasons went up to the Hôtel-de-Ville, preceded by their banner, where they were met by the Council in the Court of Honour. ‘If at the outset,’ said their spokesman, Thirifocq, ‘the Freemasons did not wish to act, it was because they wanted to have certain proof that Versailles would not hear of conciliation. They are ready to-day to plant their banner on the rampart. If one single ball touches it, the Freemasons will march with the same ardour as yourselves against the common enemy.’ This declaration was loudly applauded. Jules Vallès, in the name of the Commune, tendered his red scarf, which was twisted round the banner, and a delegation of the Council accompanied the brethren to the Masonic temple in the Rue Cadet.

They came three days after to redeem their word. The announcement of this intervention had given great hope to Paris. From early in the morning an immense crowd encumbered the approaches to the Carrousel, the rendezvous of all the lodges; and, despite a few reactionary Freemasons, who had put up posters protesting, at ten o'clock 10,000 brethren, representing fifty-five lodges, had gathered in the Carrousel. Six members of the Council led them to the Hôtel-de-Ville through the midst of the crowd and an avenue of battalions. A band, playing music of solemn and ritual character, preceded the procession; then came superior officers, the grand-masters, the members of the Council, and the brethren, with their wide blue, green, white, red or black ribbon, according to their grade, grouped around sixty-five banners that had never before been displayed in public. The one carried at the head of the procession was the white banner of Vincennes, bearing in red letters the fraternal and revolutionary inscription, ‘Love one another.’ A lodge of women was especially cheered.

The banners and a numerous delegation were introduced into the Hôtel-de-Ville, the members of the Council waiting to receive them on the balcony of the staircase of honour. The banners were fixed along the steps. These standards of peace by the side of the red flag, this middle class joining hands with the proletariat under the proud image of the Republic, these cries of fraternity dazzled and brightened up even the most downcast. Félix Pyat indulged in a rhapsody of words and rhetorical antitheses. Old Beslay was much more eloquent in a few words broken by true tears. A brother solicited the honour of being the first to plant on the rampart the banner of his lodge, La Persévérance, founded in 1790, in the era of the great federations. A member of the Council presented the red flag: ‘Let it accompany your banners; let no hand henceforth turn us against each other.’ And the orator of the delegation, Thirifocq, pointing to the banner of Vincennes: ‘This will be the first to be presented before the ranks of the enemy. We will say to them, “Soldiers of the mother country, fraternize with us, come and embrace us.” If we fail, we shall go and join the companies of war.’

When the delegates left the Hôtel-de-Ville, a free balloon, marked with the three symbolical points, made an ascent here and there dropping the manifesto of the Freemasons. The immense procession having shown the Bastille and the boulevards its mysterious banners, frantically applauded, arrived about two o'clock at the cross-roads of the Champs-Elysées. The shells of Mont-Valérien obliged them to take the side-streets on their way to the Arc-de-Triomphe. There a delegation of all the venerables went to plant the banners at the most dangerous posts, from the Porte-Maillot to the Porte-Bineau. When the white flag was hoisted on the outpost of the Porte-Maillot the Versaillese ceased firing.

The delegates of the Freemasons and some members of the Council, appointed by their colleagues to accompany them, advanced, headed by their banner, into the Avenue of Neuilly. At the bridge of Courbevoie, before the Versaillese barricade, they found an officer who conducted them to General Montaudon, himself a Freemason. The Parisians explained the object of their demonstration, and asked for a truce. The general proposed that they should send a deputation to Versailles. Three delegates were chosen, and their companions returned to the town. In the evening silence reigned from St. Ouen to Neuilly, Dombrowski having taken upon himself to continue the truce. For the first time for twenty-five days the sleep of Paris was not disturbed by the report of cannon.

The next day the delegates returned. M. Thiers had hardly deigned receive them, had shown himself impatient, irritated, decided to grant nothing and to admit no more deputations. The Freemasons then resolved to march to battle with their insignia.

In the afternoon the Alliance Républicaine des Départements made an act of adhesion to the Commune. Millière, who had quite joined the movement without being able to gain the confidence of the Hôtel-de-Ville, exerted himself to group the provincials residing at Paris. Who does not know what the provinces contributed in blood and sinew to the great town? Out of 35,000 prisoners of French origin figuring in the official reports of Versailles, there were, according to their own statement, only 9,000 born Parisians. Each departmental group was to strain itself to enlighten its native place, to send circulars, proclamations, delegates. On the 30th all the groups met in the Court of the Louvre to vote an address to the departments, and all, about 15,000 men, headed by Millière, went to the Hôtel-de-Ville ‘to renew their adhesion to the patriotic work of the Commune of Paris.’

The procession was still passing when a sinister rumour spread: the fort of Issy had been evacuated.

Under cover of their batteries, the Versaillese, pushing forward, had on the night of the 26th to the 27th surprised the Moulineaux, by which the park of Issy may be reached. On the following day sixty pieces of powerful calibre concentrated their shells on the fort, while others occupied Vanves, Montrouge, the gunboats and the enceinte. Issy answered valiantly, but our trenches, to which Wetzel ought to have attended, were in bad condition. On the 29th the bombardment redoubled and the projectiles ploughed the park. At eleven o'clock in the evening the Versaillese ceased firing, and in the nocturnal stillness surprised the Federals and occupied the trenches. On the 30th, at five o'clock in the morning, the fort, which had received no warning of this incident, found itself surrounded by a semi-circle of Versaillese. The commander, Megy, was disconcerted, sent for reinforcements, but received none. The garrison grew alarmed, and these Federals, who had cheerfully withstood a hailstorm of shells, took fright at a few skirmishers. Mégy held a council, and the evacuation was decided upon. The cannon were precipitately spiked — so badly that they were unnailed the same evening — and the bulk of the garrison left. Some men with different notions of duty made it a point of honour to stay at their post. In the course of the day a Versaillese officer summoned them to surrender within a quarter of an hour on pain of being shot. They did not even answer.

At three o'clock Cluseret and La Cécilia arrived at Issy with a few companies picked up in haste. They deployed as skirmishers, drove the Versaillese from the park, and at six o'clock the Federals reoccupied the fort. At the entrance they found a child, Dufour, near a wheelbarrow filled with cartridges and cartouches, ready to blow himself up, and, as he believed, the vault with him. In the evening Vermorel and Trinquet brought other reinforcements, and we reoccupied all our positions.

At the first rumour of the evacuation, National Guards had hurried to the Hôtel-de-Ville to question the Executive Commission. It denied having given any order to evacuate the fort, and promised to punish the traitors if there were any. In the evening it arrested Cluseret on his arrival from the fort of Issy. Strange rumours circulated about him, and he quitted the Ministry without leaving the slightest trace of any useful work whatever. As to the defence of the interior, all he had done was to bury cannon at the Trocadero, which, he said, were to breach Mont-Valérien. At a later period, after the fall of the Commune, he endeavoured to throw his whole incapacity upon his colleagues, treating them in English reviews as vain and ignorant fools, imputing villanies to a man like Delescluze, stating that his arrest had ruined everything, and modestly calling himself the ‘incarnation of the people.’ [144]

This panic of Issy was the origin of the Committee of Public Safety. Already on the 28th April, at the end of the sitting, Miot, one of the best-bearded men of 1848, had risen to demand ‘without phrases’ the creation of a Committee of Public Safety, having authority over all the Commissions. Being pressed to give his reasons, he majestically replied that he believed the Committee necessary. There was only one opinion as to the necessity of strengthening the central control and action, for the second Executive Commission had shown itself as impotent as the first, each delegate going his own way and decreeing on his own account. But what signified this word Committee of Public Safety, this parody of the past and scarecrow of boobies? It jarred with this proletarian revolution, this Hôtel-de-Ville, whence the original Committee of Public Safety had torn away Chaumette, Jacques Roux and the best friends of the people. But the Romanticists of the Council had only a smattering of the history of the Revolution, and this high-sounding title delighted them. They would have there and then voted it but for the energy of some colleagues, who insisted on a discussion. ‘Yes,’ said these latter, ‘we want a vigorous Commission, but give us no revolutionary pasticcio. Let the Commune be reformed; let it cease to be a small talkative parliament, quashing one day, just as it suits its caprices, what it created the day before.’ And they proposed an Executive Committee. The votes were equally divided.

The affair of Issy turned the scale. On the 1st May 34 Ayes against 28 Noes carried the title of Committee of Public Safety. on the whole of the project 48 voted for and 23 against. Several had voted for the Committee notwithstanding its title, with the only object of creating a strong power. Many explained their votes. Some alleged they were obeying the mandat imperatif of their electors. Some wanted to make the cowards and traitors tremble'; others simply declared, like Miot, that ‘it was an indispensable measure’. Félix Pyat, who had egged on Miot, and violently supported the proposition in order to win back the esteem of the ultras, gave this cogent reason.. ‘Yes: considering that the words Public Safety are absolutely of the same epoch as the words French Republic and Commune of Paris.’ But Tridon: ‘No: because I dislike useless and ridiculous cast-off old clothes.’ Vermorel: ‘No: they are only words, and the people have too long taken up with words.’ Longuet: ‘Not believing any more in words of salvation than in talismans and amulets, I vote No.’ Seventeen collectively declared against the institution of a Committee, which, they said, would create a dictatorship, and others pleaded the same motive, which was puerile enough. The Council remained so sovereign that eight days after it overturned the Committee.

Having protested by this vote, the opponents ought afterwards to have made the best of the situation. Tridon had certainly said, ‘I see no men to put in such a Committee;’ all the more reason not to leave the place to the Romanticists. Instead of coming to an understanding with those of their colleagues who were desirous to concentrate the power and not galvanize a corpse, the opponents folded their arms. ‘We can they said, ‘appoint no one to an institution considered by us as useless and fatal.... We consider abstention as the only dignified, logical, and politic attitude.’

The ballot, thus stigmatized beforehand, gave a power without authority; there were only 37 votes. Ranvier, A. Arnaud, Leo Meillet, Charles Gerardin, Félix Pyat were named. The alarmists might comfort themselves. The only one of real energy, the upright and warm-hearted Ranvier, was at the mercy of his blind kindliness.

The friends of the Commune, the brave soldiers of the trenches and of the forts, then learnt that there was a minority at the Hôtel-de-Ville. It put in its appearance at the very moment when Versailles unmasked its batteries. This minority, which, with the exception of some ten members, comprised the most enlightened and the most laborious members of the Council, was never able to accommodate itself to the situation. These men could never understand that the Commune was a barricade, not a government. This was the general error, the superstitious belief in their governmental longevity; hence, for instance, they delayed for seven months the date for the total return of the pledges at the pawnshops. There were perhaps as many dreamers in the minority as in the majority. Some put forward their principles like the head of a Medusa, and would have made no concessions even for the sake of victory. They strained the reaction against the principle of authority to the verge of suicide. ‘We,’ they said, ‘were for liberty under the Empire; in power we will not deny it.’ Even in exile they have fancied that the Commune perished through its authoritative tendencies. With a little diplomacy, by yielding to circumstances and the weaknesses of their colleagues, they might have detached from the majority all men of real value.[145] Tridon had come to them uninvited, but his was a superior mind; they ought to have made advances to the others, opposing to the mere braggarts precise ideas, and by true energy reduced the turbulent. They remained unrelenting, dogged, and contented themselves with forcible protests.

Thenceforth divergences degenerated into hostilities. The council-room was small, badly ventilated; the soon over-heated atmosphere ruffled the temper. The discussions grew bitter, and Félix Pyat turned them into attacks. Delescluze never spoke but for union, concord. The other would have preferred the Commune dead rather than saved by one of those he bore a grudge against, and he hated whoever smiled at his craziness. He did not mind discrediting the Council, casting aspersions on its most devoted members, so much did he resent a trespass on his vanity. He could lie with perfect effrontery, carve out some infamous calumny, slaver a colleague, then suddenly, in emotional attitude, open his arms, exclaiming, ‘Let us embrace.’ He now accused Vermorel of having sold his journal to the Empire after having offered it to the Orleanists. He glided about in the lobbies, the Commissions, a Barrère of the boards, now insinuating, now foaming, now patriarchal. ‘The Commune! why it is my child! I have watched over it for twenty years.. I have nursed, I have rocked it.’ To hear him, the 18th March was owing to him. He thus enlisted the naive, the light-headed sent to the Council by the public meetings, and, despite his blank incapacity, shown by the man while a member of the first executive, despite his attempts at flight, he picked up twenty-four votes at the election of the Committee of Public Safety. The aspic profited by it to hiss forth discord.

Disunion within the Council was fatal, the mother of defeat. It ceased — let the people know this as well as their faults — when they thought of the people, when they rose above these miserable personal quarrels. They followed the funeral of Pierre Leroux, who had defended the insurgents of June, 1848; ordered the demolition of the Brea church, built in memory of a justly punished traitor; of the expiatory monument, an affront to the Revolution; were not forgetful of the political prisoners still at the Bagnio, and ennobled the Place d'Italie with the name of Duval. All Socialist decrees passed unanimously; for though they differed they were all Socialists. There was but one vote in the Council to expel two of its members guilty of some former offence, [146] and no one even in the thick of the peril dared to utter the word capitulation.