No major world city has such a tradition of revolution and revolt as Paris. Today’s gilets jaunes – the yellow-vested protesters made up of disparate elements, including anarchists, leftists, right-wing opportunists and hooligans – hark back to a long tradition of protest and so-called civil disobedience.
On the roll call of resistance are dates such as 1789, June 1848, March to May 1871 and May 1968. Perhaps only the first of those – the French Revolution – brought about permanent change. Dizzying and even glorious though the June Days of 1848 and the evenements (“events”) of May 1968 were, the established order regained control after being dealt considerable scares. The least successful of these disruptions of the state was the Paris Commune of 1871 and yet it carries great historical, inspirational and aspirational significance.
The Commune came into being because of the collapse of the French Empire. Napoleon III and the French forces under his command had been defeated and captured by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan. The emperor, 39 generals, 2 700 officers and 84 000 men had surrendered on 1 September 1870, leaving France vanquished – but Paris as yet uncaptured and unbowed.
In the city the new interior minister, Gambetta, began preparing for a national war. The National Guard in Paris was doubled, reaching 360 000 by the end of September, by which time the city was encircled by the Prussian army (some historians say it was more properly the first “German” army). Within, the makeshift defensive forces waited for an attack; without, the Prussians waited for the city to starve itself into surrender.
The defenders lost patience, sallied forth in an offensive on 27 October, but were beaten back three days later. The repulse set off changes within the city. Left-wing leaders briefly took control but the revolutionary government was halted by the arrival of battalions loyal to the old if crumbling order.
Three months later there was another sortie, on 19 January 1871, also defeated. Another left-wing rising followed, on 22 January, again quickly suppressed. The road now seemed open for surrender and a three-week truce was agreed so that elections for a national assembly could take place. The sole reason for an election in a country occupied by a foreign power was for the elected to negotiate the peace with the conquerors.
The election took place on 8 February, effectively making Adolphe Thiers the head of the executive thanks to the almost two million votes he accumulated and his election in 26 of the electoral departments. Thiers had been on and around the block for much of the century; born in 1797, he had played a prominent role in the June Days.
Two measures the assembly soon passed were to prime Paris for the Commune. One ended the moratorium on the promissory notes that much of the city used for business. The other made rents unpaid during the Franco-Prussian War liable with immediate effect. The calling-in of commercial bills promised economic ruin for the lower middle classes, who were to join the working classes in the commune to come.
To these measures, Thiers added a third, fatal element. Arriving in some triumph on 15 March, three days later he ordered that the National Guard surrender to the army the artillery guns it had secured to keep out of Prussian hands. There were protests and some deaths. Most tellingly, the confiscating forces mingled with the National Guard instead of seizing the guns. Reading the signs, Thiers left the city and transferred the administration of France to nearby Versailles.
Overnight, power lay in the hands of the Central Committee of the National Guard, which took over the running of essential services. Left-wing leaders re-emerged, most prominently Auguste Blanchi, the “eternal prisoner”, whose club rouge was arguably the most influential of the “red clubs” that had sprung up during the siege of the city.
The committee ordered elections for 26 March to set up a legitimate Commune de Paris. In that name, the committee evoked the year 11 of the French Revolution, the Jacobins of Robespierre and the sans-culottes of Hébert.
About 229 000 Parisians voted, representing about 70% of the electorate. They elected four groupings: Blanquist and Jacobin revolutionaries, Proudhonist federalists, and supporters of the First International (also known as the International Working Men’s Association). The results prompted conservatives and moderates to resign and the ensuing by-elections resulted in a Commune representation of 57 Blanquists and Jacobins, and 22 socialists and Proudhonists. Overall, 25 ouvriers – members of the working class – were outnumbered by more than two to one by petit bourgeois or professionals, but it was a sizeable number of a previously almost unrepresented class.
But the Commune could not be allowed to survive. Thiers and the Versaillais – the forces of the administration in Versailles – laid siege to Paris on Palm Sunday, 2 April, observed with icy neutrality by the occupying Prussians.
Infiltration and barricades
On 8 May, the Versaillais began to bombard the city with siege artillery. Soon, the forts girding the city’s southern defences fell. On 21 May, the attackers discovered a section of undefended wall near the Saint-Cloud gate and by dusk they had infiltrated the city.
The Communards, at bay, took to the traditional Parisian mode of resistance: the barricades. For a week, the fighting was waged street by street. The Versaillais shot their prisoners; then they rained incendiary shells on the city. Trained troops finally overcame the sheer bravery of the Communards, and the toll was terrible: at least 20 000 of the Commune killed against around 1 000 of the besiegers.
The idea of the Commune was at least as dangerous as its reality. But in destroying its physical existence, Thiers did not – could not – obliterate its example of a functioning government directed by proletarian elements. The enormous significance of the Commune can be seen in how Vladimir Lenin, in the days following the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, waited for the day when he could declare “We have lasted longer than the Commune”.
Forty-eight hours after the Commune fell, Karl Marx delivered his address on The Civil War in France to the General Council of the First International. He had no doubts about the importance and the resonances of the Commune, saying:
“And yet, this was the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the bulk of the Paris middle class – shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants – the wealthy capitalists alone excepted.”
And Marx judged that the Commune was “ … essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”.