France History Workers' Movement

Paris Commune: The First Workers’ Government

By La Commune (France)

La Commune is the French section of the International Socialist League. Its name pays homage to the first workers’ government, 150 years ago.

I. The Root Causes of the Paris Commune: The Bourgeoisie Against the Revolution

“After each revolution that marked a more advanced phase in the class struggle, the purely repressive character of state power resurfaced with an increasingly impudent impetus.” (Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871: The Paris Commune, London, 30th May 1871)

The Paris Commune is the last revolution of the 19th century. It is also, during Bloody Week, the last assault that the bourgeoisie led against the proletariat in the 19th century, the last in a long series since the French Revolution of 1789, and one of the bloodiest.

During the eighteenth century, the bourgeois class moved to fully control in its own interest the state apparatus established during the absolute monarchy, that is, to appropriate political power. The revolution of 1789 is the key moment of the bourgeoisie, when it seizes power, taking it from the aristocracy and the clergy. That monarchical bourgeoisie did not yet need the republic to do its business.

On July 17, 1791, on the Champ de Mars, the bourgeoisie massacred the people who demanded that the monarchy fall and the republic be proclaimed. After the seizure of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792 by the sansculottes (shirtless) and the proclamation of the insurrectional Commune, the bourgeoisie was forced to abolish the monarchy but would use all means to defeat the proletariat and block it during the next reactionary period.

Marginalized by the aristocracy that returned to power during the Restoration, the bourgeoisie led by Adolphe Thiers came into action during the revolution of 1830. As Marx explains, “that revolution, which resulted in a transfer of power from the oligarchic government to the capitalists, transferred it from the most distant antagonists of the workers to their most direct antagonists” (Marx, The Civil War in France). With Louis-Philippe, the bankers once again took center stage and led the government. The industrial exploitation of the working class and its children grew steadily in the first half of the 19th century. The class struggle was exacerbated until 1848, especially in 1834 in Lyon with the revolt of the canuts (silk workers) and in all large urban and industrial centers whose workers fight for their survival and their rights.

In February 1848, the proletariat was in arms on the streets of Paris. The Second Republic was promulgated. At the end of June, the revolution was drowned in blood…

Faced with the threat of the proletariat and the class struggle, the Republic, with Luis Bonaparte as president, was the regime that allowed all the ruling classes, aristocrats and bourgeoisie, to get along: “The obstacles that under previous regimes still generated divisions in state power were excluded by their union; and before the rising of the threatening proletariat, they used this ruthless state power, ostentatiously, as the national war machine of capital against labor.” The Empire, after the coup of December 2, 1851, became for that bourgeoisie the useful form of government to develop banking, commerce and industry while repressing the masses. Although, to that aim the bourgeoisie had to renounce its parliamentary power, it concentrated economic and political power as never before.

Even oppressed, the masses did not give in. Strikes grew and workers organized: in 1864, in London, the International Workers Association was founded. Fiercely repressed in June 1848, the working class did not disarm and opposed the Empire.

In this framework, seeking to save the Empire and secure its dynasty, while the proletariat grew stronger every day against the power, Napoleon III resorted to a new plebiscite. Although he won the “Yes”, the industrial East of the country and the big cities, Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, where the workers lived, expressed their strong opposition to the Empire.

So Napoleon III and his government saw war against Prussia as the best answer to restore order and increase the greatness of the Empire: an external war to solve internal problems. From its birth, the Second Empire affirmed the return to the frontiers of the first. In particular, the left bank of the Rhine was highly coveted. During the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, in exchange for the neutrality of the French Empire, Bismarck had promised territorial compensation before breaking his word. Under a minor diplomatic pretext, The candidacy of a German prince to the throne of Spain, on July 19, 1870, the French Empire declared war on Prussia.

II. The Immediate Causes of the Commune: The Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris

From the beginning of August 1870, the French Empire suffered one defeat after another. At the same time, a revolutionary rise grew with the country’s entry into the war. The marches in Le Creusot and Paris against the war and the attempts to establish communes in Marseille and Lyon bear witness to the insurrectionary climate in urban and industrial centers.

With the announcement of the defeat of the French army and the arrest of Napoleon III on September 2, the revolution began in the big cities, which simultaneously proclaimed the Republic in Paris, Marseille and Lyon. On the 4th, in Paris, the protesters occupied the National Assembly.

Immediately the Republican deputies from Paris ran to the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Headquarters of the Municipality, and declared themselves a provisional government to limit the will of the protesters from the suburbs, militants of the International and socialists. These deputies, in the name of the Republic and of the fight against the Prussian enemy that was marching on Paris, formed a government of national defense that General Trochu presided over.

That government, assisted by Thiers, who was sent as a special envoy to the European courts to request their mediation, pretended to confront Prussia but was dedicated to negotiating the surrender with Bismarck to better crush the rising working class.

In Paris, where the revolution began, the civil war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would crystallize. Since September 19, Paris had been surrounded by Prussian troops. The first siege began, which lasted four months in the midst of great cold, famine and bombardments. To defend themselves, the people mobilized and armed themselves: the 24,000 national guards grew to 300,000 during the siege, in addition to the regular army. Cannons were bought by popular funds to defend Paris.

But Paris armed was the revolution armed. A victory for Paris over the Prussian aggressor would have been a victory for the French workers over the French capitalists and their state parasites. In this conflict between national duty and class interest, the ‘national defense’ government did not hesitate for a minute to become a ‘national desertion’ government.” (Marx, The Civil War in France)

The capitulations of the army, led by the monarchical generals, multiplied while the proletariat of Paris, Lyon and Marseille tried to retake power. On October 31, the working class occupied the Municipality.

The government played the farce of “national defense” until January 28, 1871, when the masks fell. The government signed an armistice with Prussia and agreed to give up Alsace and Lorraine to gain the security of being able to direct its armies against the Parisian insurgents, who suffered so much from the siege due to the betrayal of the “national defense” government.

The armistice stipulates that there must be legislative elections in the following three weeks and then the elected Assembly would ratify the peace treaty. On February 8, a mostly monarchical and reactionary Assembly was elected, prepared to seal all pacts to return to order.

On February 17, Thiers was elected “head of the executive power” by the Assembly. Since then, he multiplied the measures to behead the Parisian proletariat: he threatened to abolish the pay of the National Guards; demanded immediate payment of backed up rents and bills of exchange; transfered the capital from Paris to Versailles; appointed reactionary ambassadors; enacted death sentences against Blanqui and Flourens, leaders of the insurrection; banned “red” Parisian newspapers. And in the end he decided to disarm Paris by taking the cannons that the people themselves helped pay for with collections. It was the ultimate betrayal.

III. March 18, 1871

It was the first of the 72 days the Commune lived. The night before, the cabinet, chaired by Thiers, had decided to seize the cannons stored in Montmartre, Belleville and other neighborhoods that the National Guard had moved to place them out of reach of the Prussians who would enter Paris at the beginning of March. The cabinet also planned to arrest the main revolutionary leaders and militarize Paris. But on March 18, nothing happened as the government imagined. At three in the morning, shortly after the cabinet meeting, the troops entered the different neighborhoods of Paris, the removal of the cannons was more complicated than expected and, above all, the working-class neighborhoods of Montmartre and Belleville rose and prevented the taking of the cannons. Refusing to obey the officers’ orders to fire into the crowd, the troops fraternized with the people. Before the counteroffensive of the national guard, Thiers and his government fled to Versailles. At midnight, the central committee of the national guard took over the Municipality.

To describe the atmosphere of this first day of the Commune we cited two women who participated, one is very famous, the teacher and feminist activist Louise Michel, and the other, the paramedic, bartender and nurse Victorine Malenfant, both fought on the barricades, and a journalist who covered the daily life of the Commune.

“I come down the hill, my rifle under my coat, crying: treason! A column was formed, the entire vigilance committee was there: Ferré, old Moreau, Avronsart, Lemoussu, Burlot, Scheiner, Bourdeille. Montmartre awoke, the alert sounded, I was actually coming back, but I stormed the hills with the others.

At dawn we heard the alarm; we were going to charge, knowing that at the top there was an army lined up for combat. We thought we would die for freedom. We were like dead weight. We would die, but Paris would have risen. At certain times, crowds are at the forefront of the human tide. The hill was shrouded in white light, a splendid dawn of liberation. Suddenly I saw my mother near me and I felt a terrible anguish; she had come, all the women were there, she went up at the same time as us, I don’t know how.

It was not death that awaited us on the hills where the army was already preparing the guns to join them to those of Batignolles seized during the night, but the surprise of a popular victory.

Between us and the army, women jump on cannons and machine guns; the soldiers freeze. When General Lecomte orders the crowd to shoot, a noncommissioned officer walks out of line, stands in front of his company and yells louder than Lecomte: Point up! The soldiers obey. Verdaguerre, especially for that event, was shot by Versailles a few months later. The Revolution had been made.

…The victory was complete; It would have been long-lasting if the next day, en masse, we had marched to Versailles where the government had fled. Many of us would have fallen on the way, but the reaction would have been quelled in its cave. Legality, the universal vote and all scruples of this type that make revolutions lose entered the line as always”. (Louise Michel, La Commune, history and memories, The Discovery, Pocket 1999, 1st edition 1898)

“At around 10 o’clock, we heard the newspapermen shouting in the streets of Paris: ‘Surprise, Montmartre attacked, cannons captured, the National Guard is fraternizing with the army, the soldiers fled, General Lecomte is in prison!’ My husband and I went to find out what was true of these gossip. The Saint-Germain neighborhood seemed so far removed from the active life of the other suburbs. We went through the municipal square, where there was great animation. The newspapermen had told the truth. The entire central committee met in the Municipality. Everyone was very happy, the sun had risen, a splendid day. The Paris that wanted liberation seemed to breathe a healthier atmosphere; we actually thought that a new era was about to begin. But it is not enough to succeed, you have to know how to maintain the ground you have conquered.

The people and the central committee did not even think of taking the necessary measures to continue their victory and ensure their success. It was almost 2 a.m. when we were in the town square; everyone seemed to celebrate, and this poor Paris that always needs tinsel gave us the spectacle of a magnificent military parade, the gendarmes went to Versailles, carrying boxes, trunks and bundles on their shoulders, carrying with them money and files; and besides, all those men were going to reinforce the battalions of Thiers and company, which were actually in disarray at the time. People are said to be evil and cruel, I say they are stupid; he is still the poor bird that lets himself be plucked, and this time, really, he did so foolishly, stupidly.

…On March 18, so beautiful in his dawn, he was already defeated in the twilight. The failure of the revolution takes place in its entirety on this day that promised so much. If in the first moment of effervescence the doors of the capital had been closed and prevented from stealing files and money and doing justice to these people, I am not saying kill them, but simply imprison them, until moral force had defeated brute force, Thiers would not have had time to deceive public opinion in the interior with his lies and corruption”. (Victorine Brocher, Memories of a living dead, a woman of the people in the Commune of 1871, Libertalia 2017, 1st edition 1909)

…At half past seven, the Municipality is surrounded. The gendarmes who occupy it flee through the basement of the Lobau barracks. Around 8.30, Jules Ferry and Fabre, totally abandoned by their men, without orders from the government, left. Soon after, Brunel’s column emerges in the square and takes possession of the deserted, black Common House. Brunel lights the gas and raises the red flag to the bell tower.

…The place lived like broad daylight. Life could be seen circulating through the windows of the Municipality, but nothing like the tumults of the past. Sentinels allowed only officers or members of the central committee to enter. They had arrived one by one since 11 o’clock and were meeting about twenty in the same room where Trochu had given the lecture, very anxious and hesitant. None had dreamed of this power that fell so heavily on his shoulders.

Many did not want to sit in the Municipality and kept repeating: “We do not have a government mandate”; the discussion was reborn with each new arrival. A young man, Edouard Moreau, put the ideas in order. It was agreed that the position they had won could not be abandoned, but that they would stay there only until the elections, two or three days at the most…

The night was calm, deadly calm for freedom. Through the southern gates, Vinoy carried regiments, artillery, and baggage to Versailles. The soldiers crawled out, insulting the gendarmes. The General Staff, according to their traditions, had lost its mind, forgetting in Paris three regiments, six batteries, all the gunboats that were enough to abandon in the course of the water. The slightest demonstration of the federated would have stopped this exodus. Far from closing the doors, the new commander of the national guard, Lullier, left  – and boasted to the court martial – all the exits open for the army”. (Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871, La Découverte / Poche 2000, 1st edition 1876)

Its history is clear and joins the analysis of Marx and Engels on the offensive that must have been carried out on March 18, 1871 against Versailles and on the requisition of gold in the Bank of France. (On the offensive against Versailles, see Marx’s letter to Wilhelm Liebknecht of 6th April 1871. On the Bank of France, see Engels’s introduction from 18th March 1891 to Marx’s Civil War in France). Both episodes show us the wisdom of Marx’s famous formula: “The working class cannot just take a ready-made state machine and use it for its own ends.” As Trotsky wrote in 1921: “In this way we can turn page by page through the history of the Commune and we will find only one lesson there: a strong party leadership is needed.” (Trotsky, The Lessons of the Commune, February 1921)

Courtesy International Socialist League