The Paris Commune is a term used to describe a period of rule in which the French capital was governed by a radical, leftist group between the 18th of March and the 28th of May, 1871. The commune was famously described as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” by Karl Marx.

The Commune arose due to growing discontent among the working classes, making up around half the city’s populace at the time.[1]

The government was structured such that there were no president and no mayors; instead, the decisionmaking fell to nine commissions. Each commission reported to the executive commission. The Commune members were delegates (as opposed to representatives) and were subject to immediate recall.

During the 60 days in which the Commune held government they decreed the following:

  • Separation of Church and the State
  • Abolition of night work in bakeries
  • Right of employees to take over ownership and management of their industry, given the previous owner had deserted it[2][3]
  • Prohibition of employers fining their employees

Additionally, numerous canteens, medical centres and other social welfare points were established to aid the residents of Paris during the siege.

Historical Summary[edit | edit source]

In the late 1870’s the collapse of the French empire occurred, following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in September. The nation fell under the governance of the Third Republic (who ruled until 1940) and war broke out with Prussia. The city was Paris was besieged by the Germans leading to food shortages and heavy bombardment and this, coupled with a growing dissent by the republican populace and clashed between the politicized National Guard[4] and the army, let to a revolution.

During an armistice that disarmed the French army but, crucially, not the National Guard. Several clashes between the National Guard and the French army, including a dispute over a large number of cannons that had been positioned around working class neighbourhoods by the Guard, for their defense against the government, led to the killing of two French army generals. The militarization of Paris provoked the French army to clear the capital and dissolve the commune during the bloody week of May 21st to 28th.

History[edit | edit source]

On the 19th of September, 1870, members of the National Guard (many from working class neighbourhoods) marched into the city center to lay demands for a self-governing and elected council in Paris - a situation already in place for much of the country. Shortly thereafter, on the 5th of October, a protest of 5000 echoed the demands placed by the National Guard, demanding immediate elections. The National Guard then marched a second time, this time chanting “long live the Commune”.

On the last day of October, following the surrender of a large French force to the Prussians, a demonstration was made by 15000 citizens (some heavily armed), calling for the proclamation of the Commune. Shots were fired into the protestors who, in response, stormed the Hôtel de Ville, demanding the creation of a new government[5].

On November the 3rd a vote was taken and it was overwhelmingly shown that the populace had confidence in the National Department of Defense. Following this, on the 5th of November, a council was established, with each of the 20 administrative districts voting to elect mayors.

The winter that followed was particularly harsh and, coupled with the ongoing siege of the capital, Parisians faced food shortages and lack of fuel. The food shortage became so severe that the animals from the zoo were eaten, alongside cats, dogs, horses and rats[6]. This, coupled with intense bombardment by the besieging Germans, led to a tense atmosphere inside the city.

In late January, the 26th, an armistice was signed under which it was stipulated that France would be occupied by German soldiers and that the army would relinquish their weaponry. The armistice specifically exempted Paris from occupation and, crucially, the National Guard from the disarmament - for reasons of maintaining order within the capital.

Following the armistice, national elections were held on the 8th of February. The election results mirrored the monarchistic attitudes of much of rural France at the time, however, there was a significant proportion of republicans represented in the new Government (around a third, holding 200 of the 645 seats). In Paris the republicans held the vast majority of seats (37 of the 42 available).

Another key event was the movement of 400 obsolete cannons to working-class neighbourhoods, as dictated by the National Guard for the protection of the city from attack by the national government. The national army attempted to regain control of these cannons on the 18th of March but were beaten back by National Guardsmen, in some instances, or by opposition of the cityfolk demonstrating; one army soldier was killed during the events.

During the attempted seizure, two army Generals also died during the events: they were beaten and shot repeatedly by a mob of guardsmen and deserters from their regiment, following their capture.

The National Guard send three battalions to take the Hôtel de Ville, where the government were mistakenly believed to be located.

On the 18th of March, 1871, the French army left Paris and the National Guard took control of the city. The National Guard occupied the Hôtel de Ville and rose a red, socialist flag above the building. Eight days later, on the 26th of March, 60 councillors were elected from 92 possible members, with around 48% of voters attending.

The Commune held it’s inaugural meeting on 28th of March and immediately made several noteworthy proposals, including the following:

  • Abolition of the death penalty
  • Abolition of military conscription
  • To send delegates to other French cities for the establishment of other communes
  • Incompatibility with membership of the Paris Commune and the National Assembly

The unexpectedly radical nature of the Commune caused 20 councillors to immediately resign.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 800 to 900 thousand of the 2 million residents of Paris were Industrial, Factory or Service workers (Source: L'année terrible, la guerre franco-proussienne, septembre 1870 - mars 1871, Paris, Perrin, 2009. Milza, Pierre. p. 65)
  2. Presumably this was not uncommon, given the state of war and the famine of the previous winter
  3. This is similar to the unionisation of southern Spain following the civil war in the 1930s (see Anarcho-Syndicalism)
  4. The National Guard was organised by neighbourhood and, as such, the political leanings of the Guard varied depending upon that of the neighbourhood in question. A general rule is that working-class neighbourhoods favoured the notion of a republic and it is these Guardsmen that became the main armed force for the Paris Commune
  5. Once again, the source here is Wikipedia and Milza, 2009b, pp. 206 - 213.
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