The Paris Commune
Source: Gaston Da Costa, La Commune Vécue. Paris, Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies, 1903.
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
Translator’s note: Few revolutionary figures have been as revered as Louis Auguste Blanqui, the tireless revolutionary conspirator who spent thirty-seven years of his life in various French prisons. Blanqui’s goal was to overthrow the existing order through small, well-organized groups of conspirators, and neither he nor his followers had any set design for the society that would follow their successful revolution.
It’s undying hatred for the bourgeois order earned Blanquism a not-insignificant following in the working class quarters of Paris, and though it only had seven members on the Commune, its ideas had an influence far out of proportion with their numbers.
Blanqui himself was unable to participate in the Commune, having been arrested and sentenced to death for his part in the seizing of the Hotel de Ville on October 31, 1870, but his followers occupied key posts in the Commune.
La Commune Vecue is the account of the life of the Commune from the Blanquist point of view. Written by Gaston Da Costa, its four volumes are an organizational jumble, but they are a fascinating record of the thought of a vital revolutionary trend.
Gaston Da Costa (1850-1909) was the son of an atheist republican father and a religious mother, a marriage that was far from happy. Da Costa studied law, and during the siege he was chief of staff for Raoul Rigault, who was police prefect. His relationship with Rigault, and his life-long bachelorhood, led to rumors of homosexual relations between the two men. A firm Blanquist, when Rigault was named the Commune’s procurator the 21-year-old Da Costa was made one of his assistants, as a result of which he was accused of a role in 45 arrests and the execution of a police informant after the Commune’s fall. As well as having played a role in the burning down of the Palais de Justice and the prefecture of police.
He fled Paris on May 28, the last day of the Commune, but was denounced and arrested in July. He cracked under interrogation, giving away what he thought to be the hiding places of several Blanquists, though all had been able to find other shelter in the interim. Despite his having provided information he was sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to forced labor for life. He was pardoned in 1880, and was placed in shackles on the ship taking him back to France for refusing to uncover his head during prayers on the ship.
After Blanqui’s death, Blanquism was a form of political action in which the extreme right and left could join hands, and upon his return to France Da Costa was given a job by the great propagandist Henri Rochefort on his newspaper L'Intransigeant. During the Boulangist agitation Da Costa was a key figure in that movement’s Blanquist left.)
The government led by Trochu and Favre (for it is these two rhetoricians who best personify it) would be forgiven everything, even its betrayal, if after failing to keep its word, it had been inspired by the patriotic wishes of Paris; if it had used its thousands of sailors, its 80,000 men of the active army, and its 300,000 National Guardsmen and, ceaselessly harassing the enemy, prepared and led the sortie that was possible, hoped for, necessary, and useful.
But instead of doing any of this, Trochu, who on October 31 only asked for two weeks to surrender Paris, until January 19 committed every possible military mistake. At the same time, the civil power, compounding its inertia with administrative negligence, sped up the moment of famine. Finally, on January 19, a stupidly conceived attempt at a sortie, miserably led by its chiefs – with the exception of Bellemare – pitifully failed. This occurred despite the bravery demonstrated at Buzenval by the disdained marching battalions of the National Guard.
This failed attempt awakened the patriotic anger of the Parisians, an anger more threatening than that of October 31 because it was even more justified, and because everyone understood that we had either to die of hunger, surrender, or smash the circle that was choking us.
This time the indignation was general. Bourgeois republicans and revolutionaries appeared to have agreed through insurrection to put an end to a harmful government that played Bismarck’s pitiless game by maintaining Paris in a state of inaction and driving it to famine .
While the Government of National Defense was busying itself with the capitulation, the people of Paris, convinced that the failure of January 19 was strictly attributable to the failings of the commanders, became ever bolder at the idea of a sortie en masse, an action it still considered possible.
The days of January 20 and 21 were extremely feverish, notably in the 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements.
On January 20, it was learned that Trochu had renounced the military command of the garrison but remained president of the government, naming Vinoy the governor of Paris. The latter, no longer concerning himself with the Prussians, hastened to affirm his determination to prevent the imminent population uprising:
“Internally the party of disorder is stirring things up, while at the same moment the cannons thunder. I will be a soldier to the end. I accept this danger, convinced that the collaboration between the good citizens, the army, and the National Guard will not be lacking and will maintain order and public safety.”
There was not a mention of the enemy in the entire proclamation.
Under these conditions, the accession of the soldiers to supreme military power of coups d'état could only increase popular exasperation to its highest point. And this is precisely what happened.
During the night of January 21, National Guardsmen of the faubourgs went to the Mazas prison and freed Flourens, as well as all the prisoners arrested after the events of October 31.
Flourens immediately went to Belleville, where he had been elected mayor during his detention. He took control of the town hall, which had been occupied by a governmental commission, and ordered the battalions of the legion to go to the town hall. This order was only partially executed because Flourens, ever hot headed, hadn’t clearly stated what he wanted done, not knowing this himself. The National Guardsmen of the neighborhood hesitated before following a man whose bravery they, of course, admired, but whose confusions demonstrated on October 31 had worn them out.
In the meantime, all across the city, revolutionary militants were active, and secret meetings were held at various locations, particularly in Montmartre and in the 13th and 14th arrondissements. A meeting was set for the next day at the Place de l'Hotel de Ville.
The government for its part, foreseeing a tempestuous day, wasn’t inactive: the battalions of the Breton Mobile Guard, sailors, and Municipal Guards occupied the Hotel de Ville. At the same time, Clément Thomas posted the following proclamation:
Last night a handful of agitators forced the gates of Mazas prison and freed several detainees, among them M. Flourens.
These same men attempted to occupy the town hall of the 20th arrondissement and install the insurrection there.
Your commander-in-chief counts on your patriotism to repress this culpable sedition.
The city’s salvation depends on this.
While the enemy bombards it, the seditious unite with them to annihilate the defensive forces.
In the name of public salvation, in the name of the laws, in the name of the sacred duty that commands us to unite to defend Paris, be ready to have done with this criminal enterprise.
At the first call, let the entire National Guard arise and the troublemakers will be struck powerless.
The Commander of the National Guard,
Paris, January 22, 1871”
It required a certain aplomb to write in this way at the very moment that the government was concerned only with deciding on the terms of the capitulation.
And so they accused us of wanting to annihilate the defense at the very moment when they were surrendering. It was clear that this accursed government, which had put in place an inert dictatorship, would never stop lying from its first moment to its last.
Whatever the case, this poster had the effect of hindering, or at the very least considerably diminishing, the next day’s attempted revolt.
Many said that we had to continue to wait and that the government would still make one last effort. Led by revolutionary chiefs, only a few battalions went the next day to the Hotel de Ville.
On the foggy morning of January 22, between 11:00 and noon, groups of demonstrators, most of them without weapons, began to form on the square. From time to time armed citizens, their rifles slung over their shoulders, joined them. This crowd was quite noisy, more threatening than that of October 31, but just as undecided about the action to be taken. People commented on the failed sortie of January 19, they spoke against their leaders, and they spoke of treason. The naming of Vinoy as governor exasperated them and the demonstrators took the general’s proclamation as a threat. They awaited the arrival of the people from the faubourgs to put an end to the traitors of the Government of National Defense.
For such an undertaking to succeed, the Alliance Républicaine, the spokesmen for the overwhelming majority of the discontented battalions, would have had to summon the discontented. In that case, the few revolutionary battalions, having brought the masses along with them and easily invaded the Hotel de Ville despite Chaudey and his Bretons, would have determined the outcome of the day, as they did on September 4.
Such was not the case. After the events of the previous night, the Alliance Républicaine was inclined to reconciliation for fear of the revolutionary element that would have ensured its victory. It limited itself to sending a delegation which, after having preached for calm on the square, entered the Hotel de Ville and was taken to Gustave Chaudey, deputy mayor of Paris.
Chaudey, made arrogant by the reinforcements he had received during the night, was disdainful of the crowd. Had he seen them at the head of a great mass of demonstrators, he would have been concerned about the revolutionaries. With reason he felt that with his Mobile and Municipal Guards solidly sheltered, he would easily be able to handle their small numbers if the need arose.
Chaudey responded to the delegation which, summing up its mission, demanded the predominance of civil over military power and the immediate election of the Commune.
On the first point, the government shared the ideas of the Alliance Républicaine, but the government was absolutely opposed to the election of a Commune and resolved to repel, any violent attempt to impose it, with arms if needed.
The good Tony Réveillon, gentle spokesman of the delegation, withdrew after this threatening response and gave an account of his failure to the people on the square.
If at that moment Réveillon would have transmitted Chaudey’s response to the many battalions that his friends had foolishly kept at a distance from the Hotel de Ville, the government’s threat would have brought the invasion of the square in its wake. It’s true that, under this hypothesis, the threat would probably not have been made.
At that hour, under the orders of the young, former commander Sapia, fragments of various battalions of the 14th arrondissement were lined up in battle ranks across from the fences, violently arguing with the officers of the Mobile Guard and the famous Colonel Vabre, future organizer of the executions of the Place St Jacques.
In addition, several companies of battalions from Batignolles entered the square through the Rue de Rivoli, while a battalion from the 10th arrondissement arrived through the Rue du Temple, and the 101st battalion from the 13th arrondissement entered through the Arcole Bridge, all to vehement cries of “Long Live the Commune! Down with Trochu!”
Several times already Mobile Guards had opened the windows on the ground floor and aimed at the crowd. An immense clamor answered these threats. And then, with the Mobile Guards quickly closing the windows and doors, Sapia and his men tried to pass through the fence that protected the building.
One or two shots rang out from the square, but were aimed at the walls of the palace and not at the men who defended it, since at this key moment all its door and windows were closed .
Behind these 200-300 armed National Guardsmen, there amassed crowd of a few hundred men and women, passersby who didn’t think there was any imminent danger. The other National Guardsmen were at the quay and on the Rue de Rivoli.
Suddenly, without any warning, the windows and doors opened. The crowd and the National Guard received the fire of a squadron, which instantaneously produced panic and confusion.
The Mobile Guards, coming out of the building, charged the square, turned to the right and pushed the guardsmen towards the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue du Temple.
With the first shots, Sapia fell along the fence, his head shattered. A few men fell around him, but it was on the square itself, in the crowd of passersby and women, that the bullets of the Mobile and Municipal Guards – who fired from the second floor windows – hit the most victims, around fifty in all.
The armed citizens had taken refuge in the buildings of the bureaus of public assistance, taxes, and the labor service, the Café of the National Guard, in other shops on the Rue de Rivoli, on the square itself, behind the streetlamps, and on the quay. From all these locations, they fired back on the Municipals Guards who, sheltered behind the windows, continued the fusillade.
The drama lasted barely a half an hour.
During this time Chaudey telegraphed Jules Ferry to request reinforcements in order to “complete the clean up of the square.”
And, in fact, shortly afterwards, two battalions of Mobile Guard and two squadrons of Municipals answered the call.
It was all over.
Gustave Chaudey’s friends have claimed that this telegram did not render him responsible. It was a pointless effort, since before his implacable revolutionary judges, Ferry’s deputy accepted responsibility for his own acts.
During the course of the evening, in the mad agitation caused by the pitiful victory, Jules Ferry wrote this unbelievable dispatch:
Paris, January 22, 1871 4:52 p.m.
Mayor of Paris to the commanders of the nine sectors:
A handful of seditious National Guardsmen, members of the 101st of the March, attempted to seize the Hotel de Ville. They fired on the officers and seriously wounded an adjutant major of the Mobile Guard .
The Hotel de Ville was fired on from the windows that look out on it from the other side of the square, which had been occupied in advance. Bombs were thrown at us and shots fired at us.
The aggression was at its most cowardly and odious at the beginning, since they fired one hundred rifle shots on the colonel  and his officers at the moment they were dismissing a delegation that had just been admitted to the Hotel de Ville.
It was no less cowardly afterwards when, after the first shots, after the square had been emptied and our fire had ceased, we were fired on from the facing windows.
Tell all of this to the National Guard and inform me if order has been restored.
We rendered homage to Jules Ferry for his personal courage on March 18, but we must here render him this justice and say that on this occasion he deployed as much daring in falsehood as he did in action.
The undertaking of January 22 failed for the following two reasons: the lack of decisiveness of the Alliance Républicaine, which didn’t want to lead the unarmed crowd to the Hotel de Ville, and the lack of organization of the revolutionary party.
We cannot say this often enough: since the besieging of Paris by the Prussians, the Blanquist party had sent its men into the battalions of the National Guard, and in doing so lost all cohesion.
And then we must admit that Blanqui’s cry of “the fatherland in danger,” as meritorious as it was, was also a disintegrating factor for the revolutionary forces it disposed of until then. The great revolutionary, in granting credit to the evil men of September 4 was absolutely in the wrong. And so, when after these pointless concessions he wanted to take in hand and bring together his dispersed forces, he failed. Not because these forces had ceased to be absolutely devoted to him, but he failed because they had lost all enthusiasm.
And later, when the great insurrection of March 18 broke out, the Blanquist party, remaining dispersed, had great difficulty in reconstituting itself on the battlefield, if we can use the expression. But it is precisely here that the merits of this political organization appear. With Blanqui absent and amidst general confusion, the Blanquist party was able to affirm its strength to such a point that everything that was truly revolutionary between March 18 and May 28 bears its imprint.
And from this I draw the conclusion that a thousand revolutionaries, solidly organized with action in mind, will always be necessary in order to win out over the indecisiveness of 100,000 demonstrators and then to lead them, whatever their hopes, indignation, or even their rage.
1. The proclamations of the Alliance Républicaine (radicals) and the Union Républicaine (moderates) which confirm, after the battle of Buzenval, the previous declarations of the delegates of the twenty arrondissments.
2. We know that in a sadly famous poster, Trochu declared that the governor of Paris would never capitulate. This is why, like the good Jesuit he is, Trochu passed the act on to Vinoy!
3. The reader will note that I accept the reactionary’s version, though it is not supported by any certain testimony.
4. This is false. The name of the officer could not be given.
5. This colonel was the famous Vabre, the executioner and gravedigger of the Place Saint Jacques.