Paris Commune, 1871, France

The Paris Commune is interesting because of the effect it had on the world in the 120 years that followed, with the rise and fall of communism. Short-lived, it quickly developed a reputation as being the model for a fairer system of government, that could and should be applied elsewhere. It was, essentially, an uprising by the people for the people.

Paris Commune: Background

In 1870 the Prussians had invaded France, and in a series of successful battles they moved rapidly towards Paris.

By September 1870 Paris itself was under siege, a siege that was to last several months - in preparation for the siege a great deal of food had been taken into the city, and the city walls fortified. This was still however a period of grave food shortages in the city, and the situation was severely aggravated by the German bombardment that started in January 1871.

It was under these conditions that the workers of Paris demanded an independent government for the city.

After four months under siege, an agreement was reached with Prussia which allowed them to enter the city, albeit temporarily -  the Prussians triumphantly entered the city as agreed, and then left, also as agreed.

 
 

This 'surrender' was widely disapproved of by the working classes, and many of these workers formed part of the armed National Guard in the City. This National Guard had developed largely under the earlier siege, strengthened to combat a German entry to the city. In addition to their own arms, the National Guard had successfully seized several hundred cannon in the city.

On March 18 1871 Adolphe Thiers, the head of the new government in Paris, ordered that the cannon be seized from the National Guard. The soldiers, however, largely took the side of the National Guard  - those who went to seize the cannon from Montmartre throwing their uniforms off when they got there, and mingled instead with the crowd - and the seizure was not successful. The revolt increased, and soon Thiers and his remaining followers were forced to retreat from the city. leaving the national Guard as the  ruling power in the city. The National Guard then organised elections, under which a commune would be formed.

Paris Commune

The Paris Commune took place from March 26 to May 28, 1871.

Following the elections there were 92 members of the ruling council -  the 'Commune'. Moving rapidly, the Paris Commune established the principles under which the city would operate. This included a separation between church and state, abolishing night work in Paris bakeries, return of pawned items to workers so they could resume work, and the rights of employees to take over the running of an enterprise that had been abandoned by its owner, among others.

In addition to these 'moderate' reforms there were also a large number of revolutionaries, anarchists and marxists who formed part of the Council. These worked remarkably well together, along with the people of Paris, and had successes for example in organising free food and materials to school children.

 
 

The Commune inspired both Karl Marz and Friedrich Engels, who saw in the Paris Commune a pattern of success that could be followed elsewhere.

Paris Commune: The Decline

Not surprisingly, Thiers was rapidly organising a force to retake Paris from the Commune. After just a week of existence the commune was under attack. and very quickly there were battles between the Commune members and the invading National Guard.

During April and May, the National Guard and the commune were pushed back into the city, and the city wall was breached on May 21 1871. After this the army made more rapid, and brutal, progress. Numerous National Guard members were executed immediately. By May 28 the fighting on the barricades was over and the National Guard had been defeated.

There was now an enormous wave of massacres against those guilty of 'political crimes' - thousands of people identified as supporters of the Paris Commune were shot, and many more were exported from France.

Paris Commune: the Consequences

The importance of the Paris commune was that is served as a model for a socialist structure of government  for the following hundred years. Mao, Lenin, Marx all considered it as a model, although general opinion was that the Commune should have shown more 'enthusisam' in preparing for, and fighting against, the invading army. In reality the commune avoided this because they wanted to retain the support of international opinion, and this would have been made impossible if they had employed more brutal and military rule and methods.

Mao and Lenin of course learned this lesson well, and never lacked enthusiasm for fighting against opposition forces.