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Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune Of 1871
by John Merriman
(Yale University Press, £10.99)
THIS blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of the 1871 Paris Commune is, at times, almost too painful to read.
The barbaric savagery employed by the bourgeoisie in annihilating the attempt — for the first time in the modern history of the working class — to organise a government in the name of a new social order can only have been surpassed by the nazis.
The “honettes gens,” determined to save “property, religion and society,” employed the full weight of the French army, smarting from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, to revenge its humiliation on the people of Paris. A bloodbath ensued.
Napoleon III’s abdication had left Adolph Thiers in charge and from Versailles he ordered the army to seize strategically placed cannons on the slopes of Montmartre where Parisians, having weathered the Prussian invasion, were determined to oppose a return to the old order.
Facing a professional military armed with new breech-loading rifles the National Guard, drawn largely from the ranks of working-class Parisians, held out for two months.
This was to be a final act of the 1789 French revolution, when the bourgeoisie took power from the feudal elite. They were now in no way prepared to surrender that power to the people — the communards — who set about instituting a new constitution based on equality.
In his book John Merriman draws on contemporary reports from a variety of commentators, for and against the Commune. Among them was a member of Marx’s First International, who commented: “Never has a revolution so surprised revolutionaries.”
Nevertheless the communards, with the overwhelming support of most Parisians, set about the dual tasks of preparing the ground for a new society and defending it against reaction.
There was even a brief cultural flowering of many artists supporting the new freedoms. Notable among them was the great painter Gustave Courbet, who became mayor of one of the districts.
Well before the infamous “Bloody Week,” any communards captured were summarily executed, signalling the Versailles troops’ intentions. Conversely, the communards strove to be “legalistic” in treating prisoners humanely, with only a few exceptions.
Women — the “Amazons of the Seine” — played an important part in the defence of the Commune. Female prisoners, even non-combatants, were treated with particular brutality before execution.
Apart from its material deficiencies, the Commune’s lack of a centralised defence policy, owing to the National Guard forces being based on administrative districts with their own leaderships and loyalties, left Paris largely at the mercy of Thiers’s “vast execution squad.”
This was very much a class war and only social class, recognisable by accent, could hope to save the few lucky Parisians from the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of men, women and children.
Over 30,000 not killed on the streets were rounded up to face forced marches to show trials and certain execution in Versailles.
Following the fall of the Commune, Thomas Cook of London almost immediately organised tours of the largely destroyed French capital. Capitalism never misses a chance of profit.
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