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A Red Spectre: Remembering the Paris Commune on its 150th Anniversary

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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 27th May, 2021 19 min read

A Red Spectre: Remembering the Paris Commune on its 150th Anniversary

A City in Ruins

150 years ago this week, Paris, which regarded itself as the ‘Citadel of Civilisation’ (Horne, 1965: 418), tore itself apart and lay in ruins. Black smoke billowed from every corner of the city and dead bodies lay strewn across its rues. Some of the city’s most famous landmarks and buildings, including the Hôtel de Ville, had been deliberately razed to the ground. The Tuileries Palace, once the seat of Napoleon’s imperial dictatorship, was engulfed in flames for 48 hours straight. On burning the Tuileries Palace, Jules Bergeret, a military officer of the recently established Paris Commune, stated that: “the last vestiges of Royalty have just disappeared. I wish that the same may befall all the public buildings of Paris” (quoted in Richardson, 1982: 185).

The famous Louvre, which was attached to the Tuileries Palace complex, with all its renowned colonial artifacts and renaissance paintings, was only saved by the miraculous work of Parisian firemen and museum employees. Other plans to burn the bourgeois areas of the capital were only halted by the forward advance of the French Army, who systematically swept through Paris, engaging in brutal street fighting with the defending National Guardsmen. At the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, a couple of thousand communards were shot in what was the final act of retribution against the Paris Commune. After the semaine sanglante (‘bloody week’), an estimated twenty thousand communards were rounded up and executed across the city. 

These were the scenes in Paris 150 years ago this week, when the Paris Commune dramatically expired for good on May 28th 1871. In brief, the Paris Commune was a revolutionary left-wing government that took power in Paris immediately after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The National Guard, mainly composed of working class people from the poorer areas of Paris, seized power after being armed for the prior war, outraged by what they saw as gross incompetence leading to national humiliation at the hands of the Prussians. It’s Central Committee sanctioned a newly elected government, the Commune Council, largely composed of left-wing radicals and republican intellectuals. The Commune lasted a tumultuous two months before being suppressed by the national government that had fled the city. 

Despite being a historical flash in the pan, the complex legacy of the Commune would go on to influence revolutionary politics in untold ways. Revolutionaries from Lenin to Mao would look to the Paris Commune for inspiration of how society should be shaped. Marx himself saw the Commune as ushering in a new revolutionary epoch. This essay will attempt to dissect the Paris Commune into some of its constituent parts, as well as assess the legacy that it left on the world. 

Provincial rights and Republicanism

‘When you know Paris, she is not a town, she is an animated being, a natural person, who has her moments of fury, madness, stupidity and enthusiasm.’ Captain d’Hérisson (quoted in Horne, 1965: 265)

The political content of the Commune is complex and disputed. The Commune is widely seen as pulling its support from two intersecting axes. Firstly, the ‘Commune’ was called so, not because it was communist in character, but because its supporters wanted Paris to be a ‘commune’, the Middle Age French term for an independent township. The word ‘commune’ was meant to invoke the idea of Parisian autonomy and supremacy over the rest of metropolitan France. 

The reason for this was the fact that Paris had been neutered by France due to its revolutionary pedigree, losing its right to self government and being kept under the thumb of various conservative and monarchical forces in the wake of revolutions in 1789, 1830 and 1848. The term ‘Commune’, beyond referring only to a local democratic unit, was meant to incite the revolutionary spirit of previous French revolutions. With each of these past failed revolutions, the working classes of France had felt swindled out of their birthright of a better society (Horne, 1965: 194). More specifically, ‘Commune’ was meant to suggest that it was the natural ancestor of the original ‘Paris Commune’ in 1792 (Tombs, 1999: 73), which ruled the city through those tumultuous days of terror. Thus, the word ‘Commune’ superseded the demand for local democracy and linked to a larger overarching desire for the republican values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

This brings us to an area in which the Commune is easy to define. That is the overwhelming republican flavour of the Commune and its supporters. At its most basic level, republicanism meant an abolition of the monarchy and a commitment to some sort of popular sovereignty, whether that be through elections or other means. During the early stages of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Napoleon III was captured by Prussian forces and in his absence the Third French Republic was declared. He would turn out to be the final monarch of France, with republicanism preceding and surviving the life and death of the Commune. Of all the vast groups that played a role during the days of the Commune, from Jacobins to Proudhornists to Blanquists, all were united under the idea that human progress was inherently tied to the republican form of government. The Commune’s ‘Declaration to the French People’ on 19th April 1871 enshrined this republican commitment by recognising it as the only legitimate form of government (Tombs, 1999: 78-118). 

A Revolution from Below

‘What is happening is nothing less than the conquest of France by the worker… the convulsive agents of dissolution and destruction.’ Edmond de Goncourt (quoted in Horne, 1965: 292)

Although the ‘Commune’ was not communist, meaning it was not directly influenced by Karl Marx’s teachings, it did have a distinctly working class character. The National Guard, who spearheaded the takeover when they seized the Hôtel de Ville on 18th March 1871, were largely drawn from the lower echelons of Parisian society. Some historians have argued that the Commune was not socialist or inherently left-wing. It’s true, the average supporter of the Commune wasn’t well versed in Marxist theory and Marx himself held fluctuating opinions about the Commune. Despite this, the proletarian character of the Commune remained one of its raison d’etre and was arguably driven by something more immediate than Marxist theory, that being popular discontent from the worsening economic conditions of the Second Republic. Whilst Imperial France pillaged and plundered far flung areas of the globe, from Algeria to Indochina, French workers in Paris were faced with a rising cost of living, slum housing, awful working conditions and the prevalence of child labour (Horne, 1965: 294).

This influence of Marxist and socialist ideals was also apparent in the makeup of the Commune’s representatives. On 26th March almost 230,000 people voted in the Commune’s first set of elections, with radical revolutionaries largely triumphing over moderate republicans. Radicals won almost 190,000 votes and one third of the members elected to the Commune’s Council were also members of Marx’s First International (Schulkind, 1985: 141). However, Marxism was not yet the iron fisted ideology that it was to become in decades time, and the First International had a loose plurality about its views. The rest of the Council was made up of neo-Jacobins and Proudhonists, each with their own political divisions and idiosyncrasies.

Ultimately, this ideological variation and immaturity contributed to the downfall of the Commune and Price has argued that communards were marred by infinite ideological divisions in which supporters were ‘motivated by a confused body of thought’ that lacked any ideological consistency (1972: 77). Indeed, the personal experience of poverty and a sense of injustice motivated many working class communards, but the political consciousness of many more stopped there, rendering a plan of action on how to overcome such injustices almost impossibly diverse and fractured. This played out through the multiple splits of the Commune Council, which was often paralysed by disagreement, even with the French Army lurking menacingly outside the walls of Paris.

The socialist credentials of the Commune also make for mixed reading when we assess the practical policies implemented by the ruling Council. The official ‘Declaration to the French People’ about its aims embodied both municipal and democratic rights for Paris through decentralisation as well as social reform that aimed to tackle poverty (Price, 1972: 76). However, this broad position was deliberately vague in order to appeal to the broadest possible number of Parisians. The chaotic and vulnerable situation that the Commune found itself in meant that it never got a chance to practically apply those vague platitudes. The few policies that it did manage to enact were largely aimed at improving the material conditions of the working classes who had suffered during the siege. This included the abolition of child labour, the implementation of debt forgiveness, and the end of night work in bakeries. 

Despite these short term measures aimed at improving the lot of working class people in Paris, the Commune lacked a large-scale economic vision characteristic of Marxism. It largely left bourgeois property rights untouched and showed no willingness to intervene in private business. In actuality, it might not have felt the need to, given that 90% of Paris’ businesses employed less than 10 people and many communards were derived from those same small companies (Tombs, 1999: 91). Again, a lack of ideological coherence is evident in this inaction of the Commune. If, as critics at the time were to claim, the Commune was a Marxist coup, we would expect to find a ruthless and uncompromising implementation of socialist ideas. There was no such thing during this period, with political rhetoric and symbols such as the red flag being more potent than any economic reform that aimed to improve the lot of the toiling masses.

Ultimately, despite the existential confusion about its own ideology and inaction in government, the Commune must be seen, as Price suggest, as “essentially an insurrection of the poor” (1972: 82) in which “supporters tended to see their own personal Utopia, or a means of settling a grudge against the established order” (Horne, 1965: 294). The Commune was fueled by the discontent of an exploited working class, even if the effective operation of power eluded many communards' grasp.

Early Feminism in the Paris Commune

“It’s up to the women to give the signal to the greatest mobilization which will sweep away all hesitation and resistance. We know that they are anxious, enthusiastic, ardent to give themselves entirely to the great cause of Paris; their souls committed to the struggle, their eyes filled with fire rather than with tears. Let the women participate actively in the struggle. They already are participating in their hearts.” André Léo in La Sociale, Wednesday April 12th 1871 (quoted in Jones & Verges, 1991: 501).

Before the events of 1871 occurred, left-wing organisations had an uncomfortable relationship with women in the revolutionary movement. Marx’s First International only voted to allow women to become members in 1865 (Rubel, 2003: 345), on the prior basis that women were not considered workers and were seen to depress men’s wages (Tombs, 1999: 103). The word féministe is said not to have even appeared in France before 1872, giving testament to the peripheral nature of women’s issues during the mid to late 19th century. Revolutionary women largely remained unorganised and the growing momentum of class politics seemed to focus on the economic reality of men. Despite this, during the Commune, as Rubel notes, women were on “the barricades, on ships on the Seine, as seamstresses, educators, nurses, and political agitators, women actively involved themselves in an extraordinarily broad range of political activities.”

One of the Commune’s strongest legacies is its alleged feminist credentials. Revolutionary women like Louise Michel were immortalised by the reputation they gained for their role in the Commune. Parisian women’s thirst for blood and violence shattered the Western conception of women as passive and nurturing mothers. Unlike famous contemporaries like Florence Nightingale, the women of the Commune traded the angelic aura of femininity and embraced anger and destruction. Michel seemed to be the personification of this anger and she was omnipresent during the life of the Commune. She worked tirelessly through organisations like 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 Wounded’) and the Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee. She was also a member of the National Guard and fought alongside men during the semaine sanglante.

Schulkind has argued that the Commune’s progressive feminist agenda was in part fueled by the female experience of the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. She argues that the “pervasive quietness” of women in public life was changed through shared hardships of life during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, resulting in the pursuit of democratic and patriotic objectives during the tumultuous time of the Commune (Schulkind, 1985: 135). Furthermore, it seems obvious that the Commune, with its whirlwind of anti-establishment politics, offered a chaotic but legitimate space of liberation in which women could air their long held grievances at being treated like second class citizens, financially dependent on men and oppressed by a conservative state.

In terms of practical policy, the Commune had some success in appointing women to various positions of power in public life. Women were appointed to positions of authority in a way that they never had been, administering welfare institutions, commissions and heading liaison missions to other cities within France (Schulkind, 1985: 136). The Commune also decreed equal pay for teachers of both sexes for the first time and granted modest pensions to the wives and partners of National Guardsmen who’d been killed in action (Tombs, 1999: 105). Despite this, the Commune Council did not have a single elected female representative and was dominated by men who had the long held advantage of being able to build careers on their radical politics. Many of these men still embodied the attitude of male supremacy and were hostile towards the rights of women.

Public discourse during the period also demonstrated changing attitudes that arrived with the inauguration of the Commune. In an era in which women were relegated to the private sphere and were strictly non-political entities, Tombs (1999: 103) asserts that women were liberated in the sphere of public political discourse. Special ‘Red Clubs’ for women were established, in which women took part in lively debates about revolution, equal pay and equal education for women. Furthermore, women established revolutionary media outlets like Le Sociale, from which an extract was quoted at the start of this section. The Commune’s journal officiel expressed the need for “active collaboration” of the women in Paris in the advent of a government and society based on “the reign of Labour and Equality” (Tombs, 1999: 137-139). Discourse like this married progressive feminist discourse with the proletarian flavour of the Commune, going beyond merely liberal measures like voting rights, and tied women’s liberation to the existential battle between labour and capital.

In the final days of the Commune, Michel is said to have been everywhere, from defending the barricades to organising ambulances. The herculean efforts of her and other women could not save the Commune and Michel was arrested during semaine sanglante. The hard fought progress for women was crushed almost immediately after the restoration of national rule in Paris as the conservative elites restored the status quo. Ironically, the restoration of this sexist system might have actually saved women like Michel from being sentenced to death. Instead she, along with thousands of other communards, were deported to penal colonies like New Caledonia. For Michel, her revolutionary flame never died and she became an iconic anarcho-feminist figure through her activities during the Commune and later teachings. Her legacy for proletariat France was clear when around 100,000 people attended her funeral in 1905. 

The Legacy of the Commune

A century and a half later, in March 2021, a  group of Parisians marked the anniversary of the start of the Commune with a performative demonstration featuring life size cut-outs of communards. They stood beneath one of Paris’ most iconic sights, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, which was built between 1875 and 1914 to expiate the crimes of the Commune. The location for the Sacré-Cœur was the butte of Montmartre, which was the scene of the initial uprising. When the French Army tried to remove cannons from the butte, patriotic working class crowds protested and ended up shooting two French generals. This was the initial flashpoint that triggered the desertion of Paris by the national government and the seizure of power by the Commune. The towering church was supposed to express the literal manifestation of traditional values triumphing over the radical politics of the Commune.

Since its short-lived life and spectacular death, the Commune has been etched into left-wing folklore for much of the last century and a half. Marx saw the Commune as a litmus test for his own theory of dialectic materialism. It was the first sign that the working class would inevitably rise up against capitalism and overthrow bourgeois society. He extensively drew on the experience of the Commune, later writing The Civil War in France and optimistically asserting that the Commune will be “forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class” (Bergman, 2014: 1417). Indeed, for Marx and other left-wing revolutionaries, the Commune was remarkable as it was the first time the lower echelons of industrial society had, albeit spontaneously, realised their own potential and seized control of one of the centers of the Western world. As such, interest in the Commune amongst revolutionary groups exploded.

Perhaps no group studied and dissected the Commune as much as the Bolsheviks. The revolutionary regime acted as a beacon of historical hope for their own plans for the ailing Imperial Russia, as well as highlighting the potential pitfalls of any insurrection. Lenin identified two significant mistakes that he would not repeat when taking power in October 1917. In its early days the Commune had been paralysed by its own sudden injection into power. Unsure how to effectively pull the levers of power, the power centers of the Commune had been crippled by prioritising oration over a lack of action. They failed to arrest the recently expelled French government that lay impotent in the Palace of Versailles and they did not take over the central banks of Paris. Consequently, this allowed the banks to syphon funds off to the national French government to fund their counter-revolutionary efforts. Lenin wrote obsessively of these mistakes and wasted no time in correcting this historical error through his own actions during the Russian Revolution.

Ironically, the Bolsheviks interpretation of the Commune was to contribute significantly to the slide into authoritarianism that occurred when they gained power in 1917. Fueled by the memory of the fragility of the Commune, the Bolsheviks believed that only ruthless action could guarantee the survival of the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks implemented a number of repressive measures under the guise of revolutionary necessity and nothing seemed to indicate the death of liberty more than the crushing of the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921. This occurred after the island of Kronstadt, once the Bolsheviks most steadfast supporters, issued a declaration demanding free elections, freedom of the left-wing press, and freedom of assembly. Kamenev, a leading Bolshevik revolutionary of the time, directly incited the memory of the Paris Commune in his justification of the brutal repression of those once loyal sailors on the island of Kronstadt (Bergman, 2014: 1430). The rebellion was mercilessly crushed and the event has come to be seen as the final consolidation of dictatorial power for the Bolsheviks.

In conclusion, the Paris Commune remains a significant moment in modern industrial history, marking one of the first spontaneous industrial revolutions in the Western world. Although the memory, along with the ideal of revolution, has gradually faded, the Commune has still provoked lively debate amongst French politicians today (see Schofield, 2021: BBC News). The Commune was a diverse phenomenon, running with the torch of previous revolutions in France, and as such championing republicanism, equality and anti-establishment sentiments. The precarious nature of its existence meant that the change it sought was almost impossible to implement and instead of the Commune being an effective governing force, it was more of an institutional embodiment of the feelings of anger and rage that poorer Parisians felt with bourgeois society.

For a full overview of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, I recommend reading ‘The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune’ by Alistair Horne.

Bibliography

Bergman, Jay. (2014) ‘The Paris Commune in Bolshevik Mythology’ in English Historical Review Vol. 129, Iss. 541, pp. 1412-1441.

Horne, Aliaster. (1965) ‘The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune’

Jones, Kathleen. & Vergès, Françoise. (1991) ‘Women of the Paris Commune’ in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 14 No. 5, pp. 491-503.

Price, R. D. (1972) ‘Ideology and Motivation in the Paris Commune of 1871’ in The Historical Journal, Vol. 15 Iss. 1, pp. 75-86.

Rubel, Maximilian. (2003) ‘The Emancipation of WOmen in the work of Marx and Engels’ in Fauré, Christine. (ed.) ‘Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women’, pp. 335-356.

Schofield, Hugh. (2021) ‘Paris Commune: The revolt dividing France 150 years on’, accessed at [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56426710], BBC News.

Schulkind, Eugene. (1985) ‘Socialist Women during the 1871 Paris Commune in Past and Present No. 106, pp. 124-163. 

Tombs, Robert. (1999)  “‘Political Form At Last Discovered’? The Commune as Government” & “A New Revolutionary People?” in The Paris Commune 1871, Pearson Education Ltd. pp. 72-98 & pp 109-145.


Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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