Paris Commune

The Paris Commune (La Commune de Paris) was a government that briefly ruled Paris from 18 March (more formally from 26 March) to 28 May 1871. It existed before the split between Anarchists and Socialists, and is hailed by both as the first seizure of power by the working class. Debates over its policies and outcome contributed to the break between those two political groups.

In a formal sense the Paris Commune was simply the local authority (council of a town or district — French "commune") which exercised power in Paris for two months in the spring of 1871. But the conditions in which it was formed, its controversial decrees and tortured end make it one of the more important political episodes of the time.


The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. This uprising was chiefly caused by the disaster in the war and the growing discontent among French workers. The worker discontent can be traced to the first worker uprisings, the Canut Revolts, in Lyon and Paris in the 1830s (a Canut was a Lyonnais silk worker, often working on Jacquard looms).

The war with Prussia, started by Napoleon III in July 1870, turned out disastrously for France, and by September Paris itself was under siege. The gap between rich and poor in the capital had widened in recent years, and now food shortages, military failures, and finally a Prussian bombardment added to the widespread discontent.

Parisians, especially workers and the lower-middle classes, had long supported a democratic republic. A specific demand was that Paris should be self-governing with its own elected council, something enjoyed by smaller French towns but denied to Paris by a government wary of the capital's unruly populace. An associated but more vague wish was for a fairer, if not necessarily socialist, way of managing the economy, summed up in the popular cry for "la république démocratique et sociale!" ("the democratic and social republic!")

In January 1871, after four months of siege, the moderate republican Government of National Defence sought an armistice with the newly-proclaimed German Empire. The Germans included a triumphal entry into Paris in the peace terms. Despite the hardships of the siege, many Parisians were bitterly resentful and were particularly angry that the Prussians (now at the head of the new Empire) should be allowed even a brief ceremonial occupation of their city.

By that time hundreds of thousands of Parisians were armed members of a citizens' militia known as the "National Guard", which had been greatly expanded to help defend the city. Guard units elected their own officers who in working-class districts included radical and socialist leaders.

Steps were taken to form a "Central Committee" of the Guard, including patriotic republicans and socialists, both to defend Paris against a possible German attack and also to defend the republic against a possible royalist restoration following the election of a monarchist majority in February 1871 to the new National Assembly.

The population of Paris was defiant in the face of defeat and was prepared to fight if the entry of the German army into the city led to an armed clash. Before the Germans entered Paris, National Guards helped by ordinary working people managed to take large numbers of cannons (which they regarded as their own property as they had been partly paid for by public subscription) away from the Germans' path and store them in "safe" districts. One of the chief "cannon parks" was on the heights of Montmartre.

Adolphe Thiers, head of the new provisional government, realised that in the present unstable situation the Central Committee formed an alternative centre of political and military power. In addition he was concerned that the workers would arm themselves with the National Guard weapons and provoke the Germans.

Rise and nature

The Germans entered Paris briefly and left again without incident, but Paris continued to be in a state of high political excitement. The imperial and provisional governments had both left Paris for Versailles, a safer haven against the German armies, and during the time required to return there was a power vacuum in the capital of France.

As the Central Committee of the National Guard adopted an increasingly radical stance and steadily gained authority, the government felt that it could not indefinitely allow it to have four hundred cannon at its disposal. So, as a first step, on 18 March Thiers ordered regular troops to seize the cannon stored on the Butte Montmartre and in other locations across the city. But instead the soldiers, whose morale was low, fraternised with National Guards and local residents. The general at Montmartre, Claude Martin Lecomte, who was later said to have ordered them to fire on the crowd of National Guards and civilians, was dragged from his horse and later shot together with General Thomas, a veteran republican now hated as former commander of the National Guard, who was seized nearby.

Other army units joined the rebellion which spread so fast that the head of the government, Thiers, ordered an immediate evacuation of Paris by as many of the regular forces as would obey, by the police, and by administrators and specialists of every kind. He fled ahead of them to Versailles. Thiers claimed he had thought about this strategy (to retreat from Paris to crush the insurrection afterward) for a long time while meditating on the example of the 1848 Revolution but it is just as likely that he panicked. There is no evidence that the government had expected or planned for the crisis that had now begun. The Central Committee of the National Guard was now the only effective government in Paris: it arranged elections for a Commune, to be held on 26 March.

The 92 members of the "Communal Council" included a high proportion of skilled workers and several professionals (such as doctors and journalists). Many of them were political activists, ranging from reformist republicans, through various types of socialists, to the Jacobins who tended to look back nostalgically to the Revolution of 1789.

The veteran leader of the 'Blanquist' group of revolutionary socialists, Louis Auguste Blanqui, was elected President of the Council, but this was in his absence, for he had been arrested on 17 March and was held in a secret prison throughout the life of the Commune. The Commune unsuccessfully tried to exchange him first against Mgr Darboy, archbishop of Paris, then against all 74 hostages it detained, but Thiers flatly refused (see below). The Paris Commune was proclaimed on 28 March although local districts often retained the organizations from the siege.

Social measures

The commune adopted the previously discarded French Republican Calendar during its brief existence and used the socialist red flag rather than the republican tricolore — in 1848, during the Second Republic, radicals and socialists had already adopted the red flag to distinguish themselves from moderate Republicans similar to the moderate, liberal Girondists during the 1789 Revolution.

Despite internal differences, the Council made a good start in maintaining the public services essential for a city of two million. It also reached consensus on certain policies that tended towards a progressive, secular and highly democratic social democracy rather than a social revolution. Lack of time (the Commune was able to meet on fewer than 60 days in all) meant that only a few decrees were actually implemented. These included the separation of church and state; the right to vote for women; the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended); the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries; the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service; the free return, by the city pawnshops, of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege as they were concerned that skilled workers had been forced to pawn their tools during the war; the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and abolition of interest on the debts; and the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner, who was to receive compensation.

The decree separated the church from the state, made all church property public property, and excluded religion from schools — after the fall of the Commune, the Third Republic would have to wait until the 1880-81 Jules Ferry laws and the 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State to re-implement these measures which founded French laïcité. The churches were allowed to continue their religious activity only if they kept their doors open to public political meetings during the evenings. Along with the streets and the cafés, this made the churches one of the main participatory political centres of the Commune. Other projected legislation dealt with educational reforms which would make further education and technical training freely available to all.

Some women organized a feminist movement, following on from earlier attempts in 1789 and 1848. Thus, Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder, and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian exile and member of the Russian section of the First International (IWA), created the Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés ("Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Injured") on 11 April 1871. The feminist writer André Léo, a friend of Paule Minck, was also active in the Women's Union. Believing that their struggle against patriarchy could only be followed in the frame of a global struggle against capitalism, the association demanded gender equality, wages' equality, right of divorce for women, right to secular education and professional education for girls. They also demanded suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, between legitimate and natural children, the abolition of prostitution (obtaining the closing of the maisons de tolérance, or legal official brothels). The Women's Union also participated in several municipal commissions and organized cooperative workshops. Along with Eugène Varlin, Nathalie Le Mel created the cooperative restaurant La Marmite, which served free food for indigents, and then fought during the Bloody Week on the barricades Paule Minck opened a free school in the Church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre, and animated the Club Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank. The Russian Anne Jaclard, who declined to marry Dostoievsky and finally became the wife of Blanquist activist Victor Jaclard, founded the newspaper La Sociale with André Léo. She was also a member of the Comité de vigilance de Montmartre, along with Louise Michel and Paule Minck, as well as of the Russian section of the First International. Victorine Brocher, close to the IWA activists, and founder of a cooperative bakery in 1867, also fought during the Commune and the Bloody Week .

Famous figures such as Louise Michel, the "Red Virgin of Montmartre" who joined the National Guard and would later be sent to New Caledonia, symbolize the active participation of a small number of women in the insurrectionary events. A female battalion from the National Guard defended the Place Blanche during the repression.

The work-load of the Commune leaders was enormous. The Council members (who were not "representatives" but delegates, subject in theory to immediate recall by their electors) were expected to carry out many executive and military functions as well as their legislative ones. The numerous ad hoc organisations set up during the siege in the localities ("quartiers") to meet social needs (canteens, first aid stations) continued to thrive and cooperated with the Commune.

At the same time, these local assemblies pursued their own goals, usually under the direction of local workers. Despite the formal reformism of the Commune council, the composition of the Commune as a whole was much more revolutionist. Revolutionary trends included Proudhonists — an early form of moderate anarchists — members of the International socialists, Blanquists, and more libertarian republicans. The Paris Commune has been celebrated by Anarchist and Marxist socialists continuously since then, partly due to the variety of tendencies, the high degree of workers' control and the remarkable cooperation among different revolutionists.

For example, in the IIIe arrondissement, school materials were provided free, three schools were "laicised" and an orphanage was established. In the XXe arrondissement, school children were provided with free clothing and food. There were many similar examples. But a vital ingredient in the Commune's relative success at this stage was the initiative shown by ordinary workers in the public domain, who managed to take on the responsibilities of the administrators and specialists removed by Thiers. After only a week, the Commune came under attack by elements of the new army (which eventually included former prisoners of war released by the Germans) being created at a furious pace in Versailles.


The Commune forces, the National Guard, first began skirmishing with the regular Versailles Army on 2 April. Neither side really sought a major civil war, nor was either side ever willing to negotiate. The National Assembly's army brutally crushed the Commune, and when the Commune had been demolished, the National Assembly proceeded with executions that numbered 20,000 in one week. One of the generals leading the counter-assault headed by Thiers was the Marquis de Galliffet, the fusilleur de la Commune who later took part as Minister of War in Waldeck-Rousseau's government at the turn of the century (alongside independent socialist Millerand).

The nearby suburb of Courbevoie was occupied by the government forces on 2 April, and a delayed attempt by the Commune's forces to march on Versailles on 3 April failed ignominiously. Defence and survival became overriding considerations, and the Commune leadership made a determined effort to turn the National Guard into an effective defence force.

Strong support also came from the large foreign community of political refugees and exiles in Paris: one of them, the Polish ex-officer and nationalist Jarosław Dąbrowski, was to be the Commune's best general. The Council was fully committed to internationalism, and in the name of brotherhood the Vendôme Column, celebrating the victories of Napoleon I, and considered by the Commune to be a monument to Bonapartism and chauvinism, was pulled down.

Abroad, there were rallies and messages of goodwill sent by trade union and socialist organisations, including some in Germany. But any hopes of getting serious help from other French cities were soon dashed. Thiers and his ministers in Versailles managed to prevent almost all information from leaking out of Paris; and in provincial and rural France there had always been a skeptical attitude towards the activities of the metropolis. Movements in Narbonne, Limoges, and Marseille were quickly crushed.

As the situation deteriorated further, a section of the Council won a vote (opposed by bookbinder Eugène Varlin, an associate of Michael Bakunin and correspondent of Karl Marx, and by other moderates) for the creation of a "Committee of Public Safety", modelled on the Jacobin organ with the same title, formed in 1792. Its powers were extensive and ruthless in theory, but in practice it was ineffective.

Throughout April and May, government forces, constantly increasing in number - with Prussia releasing French POWs to help the Thiers government - besieged the city's powerful defenses, and pushed back the National Guards. On 21 May a gate in the western part of the fortified city wall of Paris was opened, and Versaillese troops began the reconquest of the city. They first occupied the prosperous western districts, where they were welcomed by residents who had not left Paris after the armistice. It seems an engineer (who had spied regularly for the Thiers government) found the gate unmanned and signaled this to the Versaillais.

The strong local loyalties which had been a positive feature of the Commune now became something of a disadvantage: instead of an overall planned defence, each "quartier" fought desperately for its survival, and each was overcome in turn. The webs of narrow streets which made entire districts nearly impregnable in earlier Parisian revolutions had been largely replaced by wide boulevards during Haussmann's renovation of Paris. The Versaillese enjoyed a centralised command and had superior numbers. They had learned the tactics of street fighting, and simply tunnelled through the walls of houses to outflank the Communards' barricades. Ironically, only where Haussmann had made wide spaces and streets were they held up by the defenders' gunfire.

During the assault, the government troops were responsible for slaughtering National Guard troops and civilians: prisoners taken in possession of weapons, or who were suspected of having fought, were shot out of hand and summary executions were commonplace.

The Commune had taken a "decree on hostages" on April 5, 1871, according to which any accomplice with Versailles would be made the "hostage of the Parisian people". Its article 5 also stated that the execution by Versailles of any war prisoner or partisan of the regular government of the Paris Commune would be followed on the spot by the execution of the triple number of retained hostages. But this decree was not applied. The Commune tried several times to exchange Mgr Darboy, archbishop of Paris, against Auguste Blanqui, but Thiers flatly refused and his personal secretary, Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, declared: "The hostages! The hostages! too bad for them (tant pis pour eux!)". The Commune unsuccessfully made other negotiation attempts, proposing the exchange of all 74 hostages it detained against Blanqui.

Finally, during the Bloody Week and the ensuing executions by Versaille troops, Théophile Ferré signed the execution order for 6 hostages (including Mgr Darboy), who passed before a firing-squad on May 24 in the prison de la Roquette. This led Auguste Vermorel to ironically (and perhaps naively, since Thiers had refused any negotiation) to declare: "What a great job! Now we've lost our only chance to stop the bloodshed." Ferré was himself executed in retaliation by Thiers' troops.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that on 24 – 26 May, more than 50 hostages were murdered. In some cases, certain leaders of the Commune gave the orders, in other cases they were killed by mobs. Among the victims was the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy.

La Semaine Sanglante ("The Bloody Week")

The toughest resistance came in the more working-class districts of the east, where fighting continued during the later stages of the week of vicious street fighting (La Semaine Sanglante, The Bloody Week). By 27 May only a few pockets of resistance remained, notably the poorer eastern districts of Belleville and Ménilmontant. Fighting ended during the late afternoon or early evening of 28 May. According to legend, the last barricade was in the rue Ramponeau in Belleville.

Marshall MacMahon issued a proclamation: "To the inhabitants of Paris. The French army has come to save you. Paris is freed! At 4 o'clock our soldiers took the last insurgent position. Today the fight is over. Order, work and security will be reborn."

Reprisals now began in earnest. Having supported the Commune in any way was a political crime, of which thousands could be, and were, accused. Some of the Communards were shot against what is now known as the Communards' Wall in the Père Lachaise Cemetery while thousands of others were tried by summary courts martial of doubtful legality, and thousands shot. Notorious sites of slaughter were the Luxembourg Gardens and the Lobau Barracks, behind the Hôtel de Ville. Nearly 40,000 others were marched to Versailles for trials. For many days endless columns of men, women and children made a painful way under military escort to temporary prison quarters in Versailles. Later 12,500 were tried, and about 10,000 were found guilty: 23 men were executed; many were condemned to prison; 4,000 were deported for life to New Caledonia. The number killed during La Semaine Sanglante can never be established for certain, and estimates vary from about 10,000 to 50,000. According to Benedict Anderson, "7,500 were jailed or deported" and "roughly 20,000 executed".

According to Alfred Cobban, 30,000 were killed, perhaps as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned and 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia. Thousands more - including most of the Commune leaders - succeeded in escaping to Belgium, Britain (a safe haven for 3,000-4,000 refugees), Italy, Spain and the United States. The final exiles and transportees were amnestied in 1880. Some became prominent in later politics, as Paris councillors, deputies or senators.

In 1872, "stringent laws were passed that ruled out all possibilities of organizing on the left." For the imprisoned there was a general amnesty in 1880, except for those convicted of assassination or arson. Paris remained under martial law for five years.


Karl Marx found it aggravating that the Communards "lost precious moments" organising democratic elections rather than instantly finishing off Versailles once and for all. France's national bank, located in Paris and storing billions of francs, was left untouched and unguarded by the Communards. Timidly they asked to borrow money from the bank (which of course they got without any hesitation).

The Communards did take over the Paris mint and issued a 5 franc coin (identifiable by a trident mintmark) which is today quite scarce. However, they chose not to seize the national bank's assets because they were afraid that the world would condemn them if they did. Thus large amounts of money were moved from Paris to Versailles, money that financed the army that crushed the Commune.

Communists, left-wing socialists, anarchists and others have seen the Commune as a model for, or a prefiguration of, a liberated society, with a political system based on participatory democracy from the grass roots up. Marx and Engels, Bakunin, and later Lenin and Trotsky along with Mao tried to draw major theoretical lessons (in particular as regards the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the "withering away of the state") from the limited experience of the Commune. A more pragmatic lesson was drawn by the diarist Edmond de Goncourt, who wrote, three days after La Semaine Sanglante, "…the bleeding has been done thoroughly, and a bleeding like that, by killing the rebellious part of a population, postpones the next revolution… The old society has twenty years of peace before it…"

Karl Marx, in his important pamphlet The Civil War in France (1871), written during the Commune, touted the Commune's achievements, and described it as the prototype for a revolutionary government of the future, "the form at last discovered" for the emancipation of the proletariat. Friedrich Engels echoed this idea, later maintaining that the absence of a standing army, the self-policing of the "quartiers", and other features meant that the Commune was no longer a "state" in the old, repressive sense of the term: it was a transitional form, moving towards the abolition of the state as such - he used the famous term later taken up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks: the Commune was, he said, the first "dictatorship of the proletariat", meaning it was a state run by workers and in the interests of workers. But Marx and Engels were not entirely uncritical of the Commune. The split between the Marxists and Bakuninists at the 1872 Hague Congress of the First International (IWA) may in part be traced to Marx's stance that the Commune might have saved itself had it dealt more harshly with reactionaries, instituted conscription, and centralized decision making in the hands of a revolutionary direction, etc. The other point of disagreement was the anti-authoritarian socialists' oppositions to the Communist conception of conquest of power and of a temporary transitional state (the anarchists were in favor of general strike and immediate dismantlement of the state through the constitution of decentralized workers' councils as those seen in the commune).

The Paris Commune has been the subject of awe for many communist leaders. Mao would refer to it often. Lenin, along with Marx, judged the Commune a living example of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", though Lenin criticised the Communards for having "stopped half way … led astray by dreams of … establishing a higher [capitalist] justice in the country … such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over;" he thought their "excessive magnanimity" had prevented them from "destroying" the class enemy. At his funeral, his body was wrapped in the remains of a red and white flag preserved from the Commune . The Soviet spaceflight Voskhod 1 carried part of a communard banner from the Paris Commune. Also, the Bolsheviks renamed the dreadnought battleship Sevastopol to Parizhskaya Kommuna.

Other Communes

Simultaneously with the Paris Commune, uprisings in Lyon, Grenoble and other cities established equally short-lived Communes.

See also

Fictional treatments

  • As well as innumerable novels (mainly in French), at least three plays have been set in the Commune: Nederlaget by Nordahl Grieg, Die Tage der Commune by Bertolt Brecht, and Le Printemps 71 by Arthur Adamov.
  • There have been numerous films set in the Commune. Particularly notable is La Commune (Paris, 1871), which runs for 5¾ hours and was directed by Peter Watkins. It was made in Montmartre in 2000, and as with most of Watkins' other films it uses ordinary people instead of actors in order to create a documentary effect.
  • The Italian composer, Luigi Nono, also wrote an opera Al gran sole carico d'amore (In the Bright Sunshine, Heavy with Love) that is based on the Paris Commune.
  • The discovery of a body from the Paris Commune buried in the Opera, led Gaston Leroux to write the tale of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra.
  • The title character of Karen Blixen's Babette's Feast was a Communard and political refugee, forced to flee France after her husband and sons were killed.
  • Soviet Russian filmmakers Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg wrote and directed in 1929 the silent film The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon) about the Paris Commune.
  • Terry Pratchett's Night Watch features a storyline based on the Paris Commune, in which a huge part of a city is slowly put behind barricades, at which point a brief civil war ensues.
  • The rise and fall of the Paris Commune was depicted in the novel Spangle by Gary Jennings.




  • Haupt, Gerhard; Hausen, Karin: Die Pariser Kommune: Erfolg und Scheitern einer Revolution. Frankfurt 1979. Campus Verlag. ISBN 3-593-32607-8.
  • Edwards, Stewart The Paris Commune 1871. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • The two most important primary sources are:
    • The verbatim record of the sessions of the Commune (Procès-verbaux de la Commune. 2 vols., Paris, 1944-1945) — long out of print, though secondhand copies are to be found
    • The history of the Commune by Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, a Communard journalist with socialist convictions who was present at or close to most of the events he describes, is vivid and partisan, but observant and factually reliable: (Histoire de la Commune de 1871. Most recent edition, 3 vols in 1, Paris, Maspero, 1969), which is available in English translation online).
  • Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, "History of the Paris Commune of 1871", Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007. ISBN 978-0-979-1813-4-4.
  • Another online classic is Marx's own contemporary analysis, The Civil War in France, written during and immediately after the events. For Lenin's views, see V.I. Lenin on the Paris Commune (Moscow, 1970)
  • For anarchist analysis of the events, two important documents from the time are Mikhail Bakunin's The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State and Peter Kropotkin's The Commune of Paris
  • Also online is Agor@'s book-length site about the Commune (in French)
  • Returning to primary sources, there is an extremely hostile account in 4 volumes called Les Convulsions de Paris (Paris, 1878) by the journalist Maxime du Camp who takes a hard and rhetorical right-wing position. This is a fair guide to the contemporary views of the Versaillais. His book can be found in major libraries or through Galaxidion the main French online source for secondhand and antiquarian books.
  • The leading modern historian of the Commune is Jacques Rougerie, whose books Procès des Communards and Paris ville libre are unfortunately unpublished in English.
  • Two concise up-to-date histories in English, readily available, are:
    • Robert Tombs. The Paris Commune 1871 London, Longman, 1999
    • David A. Shafer. The Paris Commune London, Palgrave, 2005

Older works include:

  • Alistair Horne. The Fall of Paris. The Siege and the Commune 1870-71. London, Macmillan, 1965. (A much shorter but lavishly illustrated version was published in 1971 under the title, The Terrible Year). A very lively 'Anglo-Saxon' view.
  • Frank Jellinek. The Paris Commune of 1871. London, Gollancz, 1937. Also, N.Y., Grosset & Dunlap, 1965. Written from a socialist point of view.
  • The Revolutionary Idea in France 1789-1871 by Godfrey Elton (London, Edwin Arnold, 1923), available in many university libraries, is one of the few books which places the Commune in a longer-term historical perspective. It is conservative in tone.
  • Lenin, who deemed the Paris Commune an excellent example of the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", also wrote about the Paris Commune in The Paris Commune (to be found in Lenin on the Paris Commune). It is less informative, however, than it is ideological.
  • The fullest bibliography of the Commune is that of Robert le Quillec: La Commune de Paris. Bibliographie Critique 1871-1997. Paris, La Boutique de l'Histoire, 1997. 2660 books, pamphlets and other materials are listed.
  • Barbara de Courson, Martyrs of the Paris Commune in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908).

External links

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