The Paris Commune 1

April 30 – May 2, 1871

“You find me up to my neck in public affairs on behalf of the people of Paris. President of the Federation of Artists, member of the Commune… I’m under a spell. Paris is a real paradise ! No police, no stupidity, no violent acts of any kind, no arguments. Paris passes days like this. In a word, a real delight. All the forces of the State are united in federation, making up one whole. I’m the one who created the model among artists of all different kinds.” Gustave Courbet, letter to his parents 30 April 1871

Let’s set the table for a short series on the Paris Commune, which I wanted to start much earlier here on Substack but didn’t get to. Rather than attempt to fit the Commune into a thesis, or a contemporary argument about uprisings or America as the journalists over there do, we can look at documents, reflections, actualités as the Commune unfolded on a daily or weekly basis. The insurgents who made the Commune were personalities who still loom large in the culture and history of France and, to some degree, the world. In that sense, the Commune, whether a freak born out of the convergence of France’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians and the rising consciousness of the working class or even, in the long view, a historical necessity, has never been defeated. Karl Marx himself was of two minds about it.

“Compare these Parisians, storming heaven, with the slaves to Heaven of the German, Prussian, Holy Roman Empire, with its posthumous masquerades, reeking of the Church, of the barracks, of cabbage junkerdom, and above all, the Philistine,” he wrote in a letter in early April 1871.

“Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris would be desperate folly. The French workmen . . . must not allow themselves to be deluded by the national souvenirs of 1792 . . . They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.” Marx again, this time from The Civil War in France. Thus the debate was framed, which resonated down through the class struggle, about ‘spontaneous’ uprisings of the working class versus militant organizations planning for the long duration. Arthur Arnould, a writer, journalist and active participant in the Commune, gave his riposte to the gradualists.

“Paris had no government.” Arnould refers to the unwinding spiral of defeat that began with the Emperor’s surrender in September 1870, the Prussian bombardement of Paris in January and their march through the city a month later. The government of Thiers clung to Versailles, and when they needed cannons, raided Montmartre. The city was on its own. “We had nothing but anonymous power, representation by Monsieur Tout le Monde. At that moment, and this is a point on which I can’t insist too much, because it’s so important and it seems to have gone unnoticed, the Commune already in fact existed.” Not in a mystical sense, although perhaps Arnould means that, too.

So instead of the short discursive articles our dynastic “legacy” press devotes to the Commune before they pass on to the more pressing issues of the moment, let’s look at a few of the original documents produced by individuals and collectivities who were there. Historical actors who essentially had no chance but did their thing anyway. No argument is ever really resolved but we can appreciate a bit of the context by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Marx sat on both sides of the historical see-saw when it came to the Commune – Was it too early or ahead of its time ? Workers cannot just grab the means of production and expect changes to magically ensue, he argued, they must be led by a vanguard; no, they must grab the means of production, smash them and start over – All of which he saw happening from his London perch. But he did say the following, which seems a good place to start :

“The great measure of the Commune was its very existence.” 

Whichever way the argument goes, Paris was under siege, and the hardest winter was just beginning. “One must truly render justice to the Paris population and admire it. It is astonishing that this population, confronted by the insolent display in the food shops, heedlessly reminding a population dying of hunger that the rich with their money could always, yes always, obtain for themselves poultry, game, and other delicacies of the table, did not break the shopwindows nor attack the shopkeepers and their goods,” wrote Edmond de Goncourt in his journal.

On January 22 a few National Guard battalions from working class Belleville staged a demonstration in front of the Hôtel de Ville, a protest against the incompetence of the government. Guns inside the building opened up and bullets straffed the crowd. 30 National Guards and civilians were killed. The government responded to the massacre by arresting 80 Parisians and banning leftwing newspapers. Perhaps that’s what Arnould meant by having no government.  

By February the Prussians were marching down Louis Napoleon’s boulevards. In late March Paris held its first municipal elections in over twenty years. Let’s return to the event announced in the poster at the head of this column, a meeting on April 30th, 1871 in the courtyard of the Louvre, full of grand speeches, but more importantly, a call to the nation to support the Commune.

Of the many meetings that took place on April 30th in 1871 – and meetings were essential to the Commune as a way to thrash out its future trajectory – two stand out, a meeting at City Hall concerning a revival of The Committee of Public Safety, whose name itself invoked debate, and the second, in the Court of the Louvre, that drew some 100,000 participants, and broached an issue crucial to the existence of the Commune : its relation to departments throughout France. If the Commune had any chance of surviving, if the uprising and the radical new people’s republic was going to spread to the rest of France, the other departments had to participate in the insurrection. On the one hand, with the government barely able to defend Versailles, there was no better time; on the other, Paris, where every strain of socialist and anarchist thinking had been incubating for thirty years, was both far in advance of the regions and a cut-off captive of forces beyond its control. To understand the drama about to take place in the courtyard of the Louvre, a drama hidden behind beautiful declamations, we must think about who were the citizens of Paris at that time.

100,000 is no mean number for an afternoon meeting. Who were they ?

Workers who crowded inside the enclosed court of the Louvre because this meeting was called with them in mind. Still, that doesn’t give us much more than a cardboard cutout.

These were the skilled and unskilled laborers who had come to carry out Louis Napoleon’s pharoanic ambitions, the transformation of Paris during the 1860s under Haussmann’s guidance. These were the men and women who tore down old Paris from the roofs and built the new structure from the plumbing in the basements. They came in large numbers from the Auvergne, the Ardège, Burgundy, and what is today called Occitania, France’s midi and southwest. They were captives in a Paris under Prussian siege, but more importantly, they were a vital link to the provinces, ambassador who made national support for the Commune a possibility. It is impossible to generalize about where they came from, how conservative or forward looking their regions were. But the Commune program of universal education, enfranchisement and health care depended in some sense on them.    

 They met 1 o’clock sharp in what was then the closed courtyard of the Louvre, the palace of Catherine de Medici still at that time facing the Tuileries. (For ony a few weeks longer, little did they know.) Jean-Baptiste Millière reads the Alliance’s resolution.



“Considering that after having sacrificed France to the interests of political and clerical parties and to their personal ambitions, these men, who were in charge of the national defense, wanted to quell the spirit of independence in Paris which prevented them from enjoying the fruit of their treason; to that end, the monarchist majority in the National Assembly and its executive power have provoked the population of Paris, while its Bonapartist leaders attacked it, complicit in the crime of December 1851 (Napoleon III’s coup d’etat).

“That the government of Versailles, starting once again, with greater savagery than the Prussians, the bombardement of Paris by Bonapartist generals who assassinated unarmed prisoners, renewed in one stroke both the horrors of the war from outside France and the coup d’Etat ; that while the government carried out an atrocious war, Paris, perfectly at peace, defended itself with courageous heroism and loyalty in order to maintain, on behalf of the whole of France without giving itself the slightest preëminence : the Republic one and indivisble, the only government capable of putting an end to violent revolutions; and the independence of the Commune, the guaranty of individual rights,

“Declares that it solemnly renews its agreement to the patriotic work of the Paris Commune, and that it implores the good citizens of every department to give Paris the moral support and whenever possible, the actual assistance to aid the capital in its struggle for our national and municipal rights.”

(Let’s make a little detour to Jean-Baptiste Millière for a moment. Millière is a true knockabout son of rebel France who passes relatively quietly through the Commune except for this moment of oratory. Born in Lamarche-sur-Saône in 1817, son of a cooper, he trains as a lawyer and edits a vanguard newspaper in Clermont- Ferrand until he’s run out of town. Opposing Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat of December ‘51 gets him deported to Algeria, then a French colony. Amnistied in 1859, he returns home, works quietly in insurance until political opinions get him sacked, whereupon he crosses the street and edits la Marseillaise, un journal frondeur, the outstanding opposition paper of its time. He takes charge of the 108th battalion of the National Guard in the October uprising against the government and is present in Paris throughout the Commune but takes no official position, holds no office and doesn’t participate in hostilities at the end of May. He turns up here, in his one great walk-on as a character in the drama of the Commune, exhorting the rural areas, which he knew better than most, to join the Commune in resistance.)     

Jean-Baptiste Millière by Nadar, 1860s.

Gustave Lefrançais responded for the Commune.  “Citizens, yesterday we had the joy of receiving representatives of the country’s Masonic lodges and watching as they cheered, as you do today, the Universal Republic, recognized as residing in some manner in the Paris Commune.

“Today, citizens, you are here on a more special mission, in the name of all of France, where, representing the departments, you support the cause of the same Commune. We want Versailles to know : the Commune of Paris is not only the expression of the will of a group or a Parisian party; the Commune of Paris, representing the great traditions of ’93, represents the French Revolution in its entirety. Thanks to you, citizens, for coming to pledge your support. You have a great mission to undertake now. Your pledge to the Commune means that from here on you have nothing in common with the party whose seat is in Versailles. (Extended applause.

“Your pledge to the Commune, for it to be translated into an official, effective act, must have as a consequence, citizens, the challenge, in each of the departments that you represent, to those who, hypocritically, in a untrue manner, still refer to themselves as delegates of universal suffrage, and who aren’t ashamed of strafing the capital of France, still the seat of the European revolution and the representative of the civilization of the 19th century; you must, I say, challenge all your representatives to resign immediately from a mandate that has been full for a very long time and as you know, in what fashion it was; you must command them, under pain of treason toward France, towards all humanity, to imediately relinguish their mandate, which no longer has any reason to be and at this hour means nothing more than ruins and destruction.   (Bravo ! Very good ! )

“Unite with us, in order to tell the Assembly that their mandate has expired and that it should no longer exist, to cry to the government :  too much blood !  too many crimes ! Do not undermine the liberty of the great city, which for a long time fights and suffers, not only for its survival but for all of France.

“Let us therefore support the Commune, so that we will find liberty there, the liberation of Alsace and Lorraine, delivered so miserably into the hands of the cowards who sit in Versailles.”

Lefrançais finished, “We hope that before long, citizens, we will celebrate the grand party of the French Republic.” (Extended applause.)

Beautiful oratory, of course. Don’t let that deceive. This is a plea, desperate perhaps or not, on behalf of the elected Commune to the workers, great in number but stranded in Paris, to exercise their influence in their home regions, to inspire other uprisings; to get the local communes and legislatures to reject the representatives of the Versailles government, causing its collapse and bringing about new national elections. Desperate manœuvering at the eleventh hour. It remains, for historians, the great What If ? What if the rest of the country had rebelled ?          

(Bravos prolongés to Michèle Audin, writer and historian, for her site gathering the documents of the Commune, here. All translations in this article except for the citation from Goncourt’s diary are mine.)

American readers will have to disabuse themselves of acquired meanings that inhere to the word commune, for which there is barely an American equivalent. The term dates from the Middle Ages, designating towns where the nobles were granted political, judicial and civil authority. Communes spread throughout the low countries, Germany, Italy, sometimes organizing into larger structures like the Hanseatic League, and becoming in time, the scene of struggles between flourishing bourgeois and tenants of the feudal system. It continues to be a powerful source of direct democracy in the provinces of France, influencing revolutionary thinkers over the last two centuries, and figuring in the philosophical reflections of Bruno Latour, which Riffs will get to shortly.

Arnould’s Commune which existed both in and out of time, the Universal Republic which workers and radicals proclaimed in the 1860s, these are two poles of the lived realities in the rebellion that took place in Paris between March and May of 1871.