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  • James Houser

March 18, 1871 - The Paris Commune

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

March 18, 1871. An attempt by the French Army to seize cannons at the fortress of Montmartre in Paris. When they run into resistance from the National Guard, shots ring out, and the first casualties of the Paris Commune fall dead to the ground. Welcome to history’s first socialist revolution.

Paris had seen more than its share of revolutionary upheaval. From the original French Revolution of 1789, to the Revolutions of 1830 and 1832, any French monarch had to worry about being overthrown and replaced by the people of the city – and especially the National Guard. The Guard was not like the Army National Guard in the United States; it was at base a citizen militia that was very rarely committed to combat and was organized by districts. When the Guard turned on a King, that King usually realized the issue and got out of town fast.

In 1848, France had fallen into yet another Revolution that threw out King Louis-Philippe and, for the second time in French history, installed a republic – the Second Republic. The First Republic had been the 1792-1804 government founded by the French Revolution. In 1804, Napoleon assumed absolute power and became Emperor of the French. What happened next is both pretty funny and pretty sad. In 1848, the Second Republic elected their first President - Charles-Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon’s nephew. Within three years, he had seized absolute power and become Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. As night follows day, Napoleons overthrow republics. This, however, would be the last time. (So far. There are still Bonapartes out there.)

Making this very clear: DIFFERENT guy named Napoleon. That’s why I’ll constantly refer to him as Napoleon III.

From 1852 to 1870, Napoleon III ruled France as Emperor. He was pretty progressive and active as monarchs go. He modernized the French economy, sponsored huge public works programs, rebuilt central Paris basically into what it is today, and launched military adventures all over Europe and the world. Napoleon even gave French workers the right to strike and organize, as well as opening up educational opportunities for women. France was the big dog on the block again as far as Europe was concerned.

We should not make too much of all that progressiveness, though. Napoleon III was a monarch. He milked his people dry for his projects and military adventures, severely crimping the French economy, and often made policy without consulting Parliament at all. Yes, there was still a Parliament, but Napoleon worked hard to keep them toothless. So, still a monarch, even if he wasn’t so bad.

Napoleon III made a big mistake. Napoleon III decided to go to war with Prussia. Prussia was the rising force in Germany and quickly becoming a major threat to French interests there; it was Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s ambition to unify Germany under Prussian rule. The poor handling of a diplomatic crisis on Napoleon’s part finally led him into war with Prussia, and within weeks the French were blown out in one of the most decisive military campaigns in modern history. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) was a disaster. The main French army was bottled up and trapped inside the fortress of Metz; when Napoleon led his second army out to try and rescue them, the Prussians trapped them and forced them to surrender at Sedan. Over 100,000 French troops surrendered – including the Emperor himself.

The Emperor of the French had been captured, but the French weren’t ready to throw in the towel yet. As the Prussian armies closed a tight ring around Paris, the National Assembly swiftly declared a new republic – the Third Republic. With Napoleon out of the way, they could reestablish a republican government. This would not be easy – after all, it was the middle of a war, and Paris was surrounded.

The people and workers of Paris had become radicalized in the last several years, and had grown increasingly wary not just of the Emperor, but of the bourgeois middle and upper classes who controlled the National Assembly. The huge and rising number of industrial workers were increasingly under the influence of socialist ideologies, particularly the First International founded in 1868. The lower classes had carried out major strikes, demonstrations, and protests in the last few years before the Franco-Prussian War.

"The Siege of Paris" by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 1870

The new Third Republic was under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers, who had no choice but to continue the war with Prussia for the time being. As the Prussians kept Paris surrounded and brought it under artillery bombardment, the people of Paris suffered from starvation and deprivation and political agitation grew. Multiple demonstrations in the street, and rebellions of the National Guard, were increasingly demanding the formation of a socialist government – a Commune. The leaders of the Third Republic had to govern the country and attempt to lead the war from Bordeaux, since they could not control anything from the surrounded Paris.

By January 1871, the French realized the war could not continue and an armistice would have to be signed. Thiers negotiated a ceasefire and armistice for January 26, whereby the French Army troops garrisoning Paris would give up their arms. Critically, however, the National Guard did not give up their weapons.

As the government moved back near Paris to finalize the peace settlement and put the country back together, Thiers grew increasingly uneasy about the National Guard still having so many weapons under its control – including heavy artillery. He decided to place the National Assembly and central government to Versailles, not Paris, to keep it safe from the mobs of the street. This infuriated the National Guard and the increasingly radical workers.

In the early morning of March 18, 1871 French troops marched into Paris to seize over 170 cannons, including a large number at a fortress called Montmartre, held by the National Guard. When the troops got to Montmartre, however, they were confronted by a growing crowd and were cut off from their escape. As several soldiers started to strip off their uniforms and join the mob, others refused to fire on the encircling ranks of the Paris Mob. The mob soon descended on the soldiers, dragging off two generals to be executed unceremoniously in a back alley. The Commune had begun.

The National Guard swept across Paris, trying to catch and kill any of the leading government ministers they could get their hands on. Thiers, luckily for him, was away from his offices in the city, and most of the rest of the government had joined him. Marshal Patrice MacMahon, who would later lead forces against the Commune, barely escaped with his life.

A barricade in Paris, 1871

As Thiers ordered all regular forces out of Paris to regroup at Versailles, the National Guard – in essence, the armed people of Paris – elected a Central Committee to govern the newly founded Paris Commune. Immediately they came into conflict not only with the French National Assembly outside the city limits, but also within itself as multiple factions emerged after the first elections of March 26. The Commune adopted a political program that called for older Revolutionary goals from the French tradition as well as new, more social and labor-oriented measures. These goals actually sound pretty tame by modern standards: separation of church and state, abolition of child labor, abolition of interest on commercial debts, and pensions for Guardsmen killed on active duty.

The Commune wasn’t wholly benevolent, however. Despite the active participation of women in the movement, women were still not represented in the Central Committee or allowed to vote. It banned pro-Government newspapers while its own press flourished. The Commune soon proved not merely secular but actively hostile to the Catholic Church and rampaged through the churches of Paris, arresting most of the priests and nuns. The Archbishop of Paris would later be executed. Finally, the Commune attempted to march out of Paris, seize Versailles, and take over the whole of France, but this was prevented by Thiers, MacMahon, and their regular troops.

Map of troops surrounding the Paris Commune

The French Government was in a bind on the Commune. They had to spend time wiping out nascent Communes elsewhere in France, including Lyon, Marseilles and Toulouse. By mid-May, only the Paris Commune remained. Furthermore, the French Army had been nearly shattered during the Franco-Prussian War; only the German release of prisoners of war, including Marshal MacMahon, could grant them the troops needed to suppress the uprising. As the French Army gradually closed a ring around Paris, the Commune started to eat itself alive.

As the Commune felt the noose tightening, they appointed a Committee of Public Safety, which harkened a move to a more authoritarian bent. The Committee of Public Safety had broad-ranging powers to hunt down and kill any enemies of the Revolution, which soon developed into a typical bloodbath and witch-hunt. Luminaries such as Victor Hugo, who originally supported the Commune, condemned the Committee of Public Safety as a reincarnation of the horrid Reign of Terror from 1793, guillotines and all.

A Paris barricade, 1871

On May 21, Marshal MacMahon finally stormed the Commune. Known as the “Bloody Week,” this final assault saw terrible street fighting throughout Paris as the soldiers battered their way through the National Guard. Civilians were inevitably caught in the crossfire, and by the end of the brutal struggle the death toll was high. Over 800 soldiers had been killed, and between 10,000 and 20,000 Commune inhabitants had died – almost all while actively fighting the French Army. The Paris Commune was over.

Maximilian Luce, "A Street in Paris, 1871" c. 1905

Ever since, French and European writers have had strong views on the Commune, with many seeing it as a glorious attempt that fell apart due to its own excesses. Many of France’s writers and artists participated in the Commune, including Gustave Courbet and Victor Hugo. Emile Zola, the journalist who later broke the Dreyfus Affair, reported on the fall of the Commune, which he saw in a negative light.

The greatest impact, though, was had on the Marxists, anarchists, and socialists of Europe. Karl Marx, living in London during the events and observing from afar, lionized the Commune as his ideal example of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He wrote a prominent pamphlet, “The Civil War in France,” during the Commune and claimed it was the prototype of future revolutionary movements. Anarchists such as Michael Bakunin championed it as a “rebellion against the state,” placing it at the forefront of his defense of the First International. So many anarchists went to Paris to take part in the Commune that the anarchist movement in Europe was briefly leaderless.

The Commune would be regarded later, too, with awe by lefist and socialist revolutionaries. More Communes modelled on that of Paris would emerge in the 20th Century, including Moscow (1905), Budapest (1919), and most importantly Petrograd in 1917 for the Russian Revolution. Of the Commune, Vladimir Lenin said “we are only dwarves perched on the shoulders of these giants.”

It was the first socialist revolution the world had ever seen. It would not be the last.

Book Recommendations: The classic history of the Paris Commune is Alistair Horne's The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-71 (London: Macmillan, 1965).

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