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What can we learn from the Paris commune – on its 150th anniversary?

SARAH McDONOUGH tells the story of how the French working class seized political power in the capital in 1871 – and how their actions inspired revolutionaries and radicals down the decades to today

THE workers of Paris in 1871 had already suffered a lifetime of hardship at the hands of their ruling class.

The workers toiled in dangerous conditions, working unskilled jobs with brutally long hours.

Hunger, malnutrition, homelessness and a lack of education were just part of the price the working class paid for industrialisation and capitalism.

In the summer of 1870, Emperor Napoleon III, a posturing and rather hapless figure, declared war on Prussia.

There had been diplomatic struggle over the Prussian attempt for the Spanish throne and so he marched against Bismarck with the hope of weakening France’s enemies and making territorial gains.

The French empire had taken its people, already suffering from the squalor and misery brought by rapid industrialisation, into another war. It was, therefore, unpopular from the start.

Napoleon however had been badly advised as to the state of his army. The men were badly prepared, poorly trained and ill equipped.

The Prussian army, in contrast, had more men and a strategy which allowed them to act with precision.

And so, on September 2, the emperor, along with 83,000 soldiers, capitulated at the battle of Sedan.

Two days later, the French workers in Paris invaded the chambers of the legislative body and, with cries of “Down with the Empire! Long live the Republic!, they forced the proclamation of the fall of the empire and the beginning of the Third Republic.

The political order of France had collapsed.

A government of national defence was formed by those opposed to the emperor and headed by General Louis Trochu. 

This new government consisted of parliamentary deputies who happened to be in Paris when the empire fell. The government of national defence declared it would “not surrender an inch of soil” and so the fighting continued.

The Prussians began the long siege of Paris on September 19 1870. Bismarck, convinced that the French would surrender quickly and that this would leave the French army dangerously intact, ordered the army to be annihilated and for Paris to be starved into surrender.

The lack of food in the city forced the Parisians to eat whatever meat they could find. 

Rats, dogs, cats and horses became commonplace on the workers’ dinner tables and eventually, desperation led the people of Paris to eat zoo animals.

The government decamped to Versailles to get away from angry mobs, far more afraid of the people of Paris than they were of the Prussian forces.

Only the poorest, the workers, remained. Over 60,000 died of starvation and disease, the only aid coming from the working class in the towns and villages surrounding the capital, who sent in what they could spare.

When the government of national defence surrendered to Bismarck, the terms of the armistice — signed at the Palace of Versailles — included the complete surrender of Paris.

The Versailles government banned left-wing journals and made debts and rents which were previously suspended payable within 48 hours.

They had failed to protect the working class of Paris and were now seemingly punishing them further.

The workers had enlisted in the national guard — formed to defend the city — and were armed, though hugely outnumbered by both the French and Prussian armies.

The French army was twice sent to disarm Paris — on the second occasion sending almost 18,000 men to take the guns and disarm the national guard, which refused to give up its weapons. On both occasions, the Versailles army left with nothing.

With this, the remaining administration in Paris, such as it was, fled. The government had abandoned its capital.

On March 28, the workers took power and the red flag replaced the French tricolour above the Hotel de Ville.

The commune immediately implemented a workers’ wage, cancelled all debts and interest and paid pensions to unmarried spouses and illegitimate children.

The communard children were entitled to a free education and abandoned factories were seized — now owned by the workers and often used as communal bakeries and kitchens.

Pawnshops were closed down, with anything worth under 20 francs being returned to its original owner. Tools needed to work were returned regardless of value.

Every worker was enrolled in the national guard and guns were distributed among the population.

But the Parisian workers were now fighting against both the Prussian army and the French bourgeoisie.

On May 21 1871, the French army entered Paris. Within a week they had executed 30,000 communards.

Altogether, around 125,000 were physically removed, either through execution, arrest or expulsion, or by fleeing. Many of those who escaped went in to exile. 

Indeed, a large number came to England, forming sizeable communities in places like Clerkenwell and Fitzrovia.

One of those arrested was Louise Michel — the illegitimate daughter of a chambermaid — who, in the years leading up to the commune, had become increasingly involved in socialist and revolutionary clubs and had been jailed for taking part in women’s demonstrations.

Michel had joined the national guard as a footsoldier, serving in the 61st Montmartre battalion with around 30 other women.

When the Versailles army stormed Montmarte on May 23, Michel was left for dead in a trench but later escaped.

After threats to shoot her mother, she turned herself in. She was taken from Versailles to Satory with other prisoners, some of whom were woken in the night to dig their own graves and then shot.

At her trial, which ended in her exile to New Caledonia in the south-west Pacific, she said: “Since it seems that any heart which beats for freedom has the right only to a lump of lead, I too claim my share. If you let me live, I shall never stop crying for revenge and l shall avenge my brothers. I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me!”

Though the commune fell, it had performed an armed seizure of political power never seen before — the working class of Paris proved that it had the skills to run public affairs.

Engels described the commune as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat — government based on force by the working class, who had organised themselves with the purpose of liberating the exploited masses, over the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat was politically dominant for the first time. Its economic programme and form of democracy had an impact as far away as the West Indies and China.

Engels’s description was championed by Marx and later by Lenin who, in the months leading up to the Russian Revolution, called for the creation of “a state of the Paris commune type.”

As leader of the First International — an organisation whose aim was to build global resistance to capital — and having published a pamphlet, The Civil War in France, as an official statement on the significance of the commune, Marx became a well-known political personality in Europe and many of his observations of the commune shape the way that we socialists view our struggle today.

This week, we celebrated International Women’s Day and so it seems fitting to mark this 150th anniversary of the commune with the words of Louise Michel: “We revolutionaries aren’t just chasing a scarlet flag. What we pursue is an awakening of liberty, old or new. It is the ancient communes of France, it is 1703; it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most especially it is the next revolution which is advancing under this dawn.”

Sarah McDonough is a TSSA industrial rep, Euston, and member of the Communist Party of Britain (Cambridge Branch).

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