The Paris Commune 1870
Written: by Eugène Varlin, 9 October 1870;
Translated: from the original for marxists.org by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2006.
In several companies protests have arisen against me, and especially my opinions, following the publication of a letter that I felt obliged to address to the Reveil in order to reestablish the truth about the National Guard’s intervention in the events of Saturday October 8.
In order to put an end to any ambiguous interpretations, and even more, in order to establish that in those circumstances I acted in conformity with the line of conduct that I’d laid out, and which had been accepted by your delegates the day of my election, I convoked a general meeting of the battalion for last Sunday.
Unfortunately, a coarse protest, published and distributed in many copies at the last moment, and above all the more than inconvenient attitude of some of the men of the 8th company, prevented the sharing of frank and categorical explanations between the commander and the citizens who compose the battalion. The meeting could not take place.
And so I must resort to this letter in order to respond to the attacks that have rained down upon me for the last eight days.
When upon the invitation of a few political friends I accepted the candidacy for the rank of Commander of the 193rd I did nothing but surrender to an obligation, that of assisting in any way possible in the definitive establishment of the Republic.
We found ourselves in the presence of Prussians forces we had to repulse, and we felt behind us those elements of reaction that the revolution of September 4 hadn’t destroyed.
Instructed by the experiences of the past we knew to what abusive use an armed force can be put when it finds itself in unthinking or insincere hands. We had to take precautions to prevent the new military force that was going to result from the organization of the National Guard from becoming an instrument of despotism.
For this we thought that it was necessary above all that the chiefs of the new battalions be chosen from among tried and true republicans who, amidst the tergiversations of political maneuverings have served to rally the National Guard and prevent it from committing acts that could compromise the Republic or destroy it.
It was thanks to these considerations that in other arrondissements we have seen the names dearest to democracy chosen as battalion chiefs. And it was for this reason that I, too, accepted to become a candidate. My past as member of the International Workingmen’s association, and the condemnations I received for this work spoke of my devotion to the cause of the democratic and social republic.
An incident of the discussion that occurred during my election suffices on its own to characterize this.
I found myself in competition with a citizen whose political past presented longer service to the republican cause than mine. But in June ’48 this citizen, as artilleryman in the National Guard, had fought the starving people who had risen up after having served three months of misery at the service of the republic and demanded those social reforms without which “Republic” is nothing but a vain word.
It was upon my vow that I would never lead my battalion to fight against republicans that I was elected.
Did the delegates who named me represent the opinion of the battalion? If I would have believed that this was not the case I would never have accepted the mandate.
As I declared the day of my election, I am not a man who will ever, in any circumstance, act against my principles, and what is more I don’t admit that a citizen, whatever his rank, can lead men against their will.
I thus could only accept to be battalion chief on condition of finding myself in perfect harmony of opinion with the citizens of which it was composed. I believed that this was the case.
But no! When after October 8 I was profoundly affected when I read in all the newspapers that reactionary battalions of the National Guard had spontaneously gone to the Place de l’Hotel de Ville to put down the popular demonstration in favor of the Commune. I believed that the whole battalion must have had the same sentiment. In addition, considering myself the natural representative of the battalion, the guardian of its honor and dignity, I wanted to immediately reestablish the truth, without waiting for a meeting that would have been difficult to call immediately.
I was far from supposing what I have since learned, that in the 108th Battalion there could be found a few wretches ready to try out their first bullets on French citizens who were peacefully a expressing a wish: that of seeing the immediate calling of municipal elections.
It is true that I am convinced that men capable of such cowardice are few and that they are condemned by the near unanimity of the battalion. But it is sad to think that there can be found even a few of them.
The reproach that has the most generally been made against me is that in my letter I wanted to lead people to believe that the entire battalion were partisans of the Commune. This is a false interpretation of my words.
Here are the facts: Upon arriving at the Hotel de Ville citizens who seemed to be worried by our arrival cried out to us, with an inquiring look: Vive la Commune! Along with a few voices of the battalion I answered: Vive la Commune! In thus acting my intention was not to carry out a demonstration, but rather to reassure the citizens by proving to them that we hadn’t come with hostile intentions, since even among us there were partisans of the Commune. It was this attitude above all that I set out to establish in my letter so that the epithet of reactionary not be applied to us.
In my letter I had no reason to bother myself with the fact that a part of the battalion then cried: Vive la Republique! Vive le Gouvernement Provisoire!,since the existence of the Republic and the Provisional Government weren’t in question. It was purely a matter of the election of the Commune, which the people of Paris had been calling for for a while, which the members of the Provisional Government demanded while they were in the opposition, and that they are now refusing to give the people now that they are in power.
As for the criticism of the Provisional Government I made in terminating my letter, this is entirely personal, and the battalion certainly had no need to censure me on this point.
If I had to justify my appreciation of the situation this would be quite easy: at first as member of the Central Republican Committee and then as commander I was in a position to judge the resistance the Provisional Government opposed to all the heroic proposals that could save us.
The limits of this letter don’t permit me to recall all the measures we proposed for the organization of national defense: the levee en masse; the requisition of all the material needed for the fabrication of arms and munitions; the organization of vast national workshops for the arming and equipment of citizens, where we would primarily have employed women and children; the requisition of all foodstuffs and a general rationing that would assure the existence of all and would prevent waste; the raising up of the departments by the sending of revolutionary delegates, etc. I don’t want to put the government on trial here: this would be a bad time for that. But I would like to repeat that the citizens who called for the establishing of the Commune demonstrated their patriotism in seeking to restore its revolutionary initiative to the heroic Parisian populace.
The idea wasn’t understood. History will say whether or not we were right.
In conclusion: It is indispensable that this situation end as quickly as possible. At a time when we need all our energy and, above all, unity in order to push back the foreign invasion such debates cannot be prolonged without danger.
I am ready to remove myself if I no longer find myself in harmony with the battalion, but I intend to consult it directly.
Resigning and submitting to a new legal election doesn’t appear to me a means that can assure the true expression of the majority, given that the election of battalion chief is done through suffrage in two degrees.
Since the general meeting of the battalion could not be held as I wished it, I will present myself to each company individually, which will pronounce after having heard me. The votes will then be added up, and I will submit to the majority.
Salut et fraternité,
Commander of the 193rd.
Paris, 28 Vendemiaire, year 79
Here is the letter to the Reveil which caused so much protest:
Paris, 18 Vendemiaire, year 79
Today’s newspapers give such an inaccurate account of the events of yesterday that I can’t allow to silently pass their allegations relative to the role of the National Guard on that occasion.
All the newspapers, the Republican as well as the editors [sic], “l’Officiel” in the lead, repeat that the reactionary battalions of the National Guard spontaneously went to demonstrate against the demonstration of the Republican Central Committee in favor of the election of a Paris Commune. There is in this a regrettable error, and it is of a kind to increase the irritation this sad day caused in people’s spirits.
The truth is that all of the battalions that went to the Hotel de Ville went there under the ORDER of the superior general commanding the National Guard. And the order addressed to the battalion chiefs who found themselves on picket duty that day did not at all indicate the object of that call to arms. In this way almost all of the National Guardsmen thus hastily assembled thought they were going to the ramparts to repulse the Prussians. They didn’t think for one minute that they were supposed to be playing a part in an unworthy comedy.
In fact, the National Guardsmen arrived in the middle of a demonstration the object of which most of them didn’t understand. And the proof that they hadn’t come to participate in a counter-demonstration is that when the 84th arrived, and when some of the citizens seemed to believe their arrival was a hostile act, the National Guardsmen of the 84th raised their rifle butts in the air in order to affirm their peaceful intentions. Later, the 193rd, upon arriving at the square answered with the cry “Vive la Commune” to the same cry questioningly given out by the citizens who occupied the square.
It is true that cries of “Down with the Commune” were shouted by many National Guardsmen, but I repeat: most understood nothing about the demonstration.
If all knew what fruitless approaches were made to the Provisional Government by the Republican Committees of the twenty arrondissements in order to obtain the heroic measures that could save the republic, all would be unanimous in demanding as we do those municipal elections that alone can render us our initiative and allow us to save ourselves.
Unfortunately many citizens still believe that it suffices to bring to the Provisional Government those proposals voted for every day in public meetings in order for them to hasten to use them.
Despite the fact that for the last week the Government of National Defense has decreed that no more enlistments in the National Guard will be received; despite the fact that the last forty battalions have no rifles and that of 280,000 armed National Guardsmen there are 175,000 whose arms are totally insufficient; despite this there are still people who believe that the so-called Government of National Defense has done all that was possible to be done.
It would be unfair to call en bloc reactionaries battalions that had one failing: that of believing that in a time of siege, and when the cannons rumble, they could be called to arms for another reason than going to the ramparts.
Salut et fraternité.
Commander of the 193rd