Anniversary Of The Paris Commune, 1871
Note: The Paris Commune was 72 days when the working class seized power in Paris and put in place their own government. The seizing of power came out of a long history of challenging the monarchy that began in 1789. As Speak Out Now writes: “In the 1860s, there was a severe economic crisis in France. The French workers responded with strikes. They organized labor unions and political clubs. Revolutionary ideas were taking hold. ” It also came after a decade of war between France and Prussia, a war France lost in 1870. After this defeat the Bonaparte monarchy was overthrown and a republic in exile took control of Paris, but this new capitalist-based republic in exile was not ready to govern, that is when the worker’s revolt took charge, the republican government fled to Versailles, and the new red flag was raised over the Paris city hall. The Paris Commune began.
During the Commune workers occupied their own city, creating a progressive democratic assembly from March 18 to May 28, 1871. They held an election with universal suffrage. The city was divided into districts and people voted for 90 representatives they knew. Each representative could be immediately recalled and was paid worker’s wages. What did the new government do, Speak Out Now writes:
The Commune immediately tried to make a series of economic decisions to help ordinary people get back on track. The Catholic Church was one of the richest and most powerful French institutions and a pillar of the past royal and feudal structure. The Commune abolished the church budget and confiscated church property – proclaiming it national property. Another decree removed religious symbols from the schools.
Rents had been suspended during the months of German siege but the capitalist government had tried to reinstate them. The Commune put a moratorium on rents. It spread repayments on loans over three years and proclaimed that the payments would not start until July 15 of that year, with no back interest.
They forbid the sale of items in pawnshops because they knew that the economic crisis had forced many skilled workers to pawn their tools, and thus making them unable to work. They ordered the release of all items pawned before April 25.
The Commune established the eight-hour day. They tried to reopen closed workshops and began to regulate wages and contracts. In some workshops, factory councils planned the work and elected their own foremen. They came up with workman’s compensation for stone cutters who performed dangerous work with no insurance. They abolished fines on workers that had been levied if the workers made mistakes. This was truly a government that put the workers’ interests first.
They brought relief to the bakers who had been forced to work at night so the rich would have fresh croissants in the morning. The Commune felt that the bakers’ sleep and health was worth more than the whims of the rich! Members of the Commune went out to the bakeries to make sure this new rule was enforced and closed down any bakeries that tried to violate it. The Commune was a working, not a talking, body. Women were active in the Commune. They fought against prostitution, seeing it as the exploitation of women. They argued to do away with the stigma of children who were considered illegitimate. They took care of the wounded and were some of the most determined fighters on the barricades when the Commune came under attack.
The Commune aimed to make education free, compulsory, and secular. They opened a school where workers could get technical training. One school district provided free school materials to poor children. Another provided free clothing and food to school children, knowing that you can’t do well in school if you are hungry or poorly clothed.
The Commune was brutally destroyed by the French Government in a series of battles from May 21 to May 28 known as “the Bloody Week”, thousands were killed, tens of thousands were taken prisoners.The commune has been talked about and analyzed by many for the lessons it taught. We thought on this anniversary we’d remember some of the lessons of the Paris Commune. KZ
February 18th, 1871 When the Working Class Seized Power for the First Time
La Commune de Paris is the first example in modern history of an occupation where workers take take control of their own city and form a progressive democratic assembly of the people. It lasts from March 18 to May 28, 1871 before being brutally destroyed by the French Government.
1870 – Paris is besieged by the Prussians. The gap between rich and poor widens. The French government under Adophe Thiers is only concerned with the interests of the capitalists who want to keep their property safe. To this end, the goverment willing to make a deal with the Germans.
February 1871 – Working people decided to take matters into their own hands. They join together with members of the National Guard, the citizen soldiers who have been defending Paris. Together they take the guns into their own neighborhoods. In fact these cannons were paid for by the people themselves so they rightly believe that they own them. When the government sends in the regular army to retrieve the weapons, many soldiers refuse to obey orders and join the people of Paris.
The national government, the police and bourgeoisie flee to Versailles. The people of Paris hold elections. Many left wing citizens including Socialists and Republicans (that is those were against Monarchy) come together to form the Commune. They take down the French tricolor and raise the red flag.
The Commune starts organizing public services essential for a city of two million. They reach consensus on new ideas for a progressive, secular social democracy. This includes separation of church and state, universal suffrage, the people’s right to have a roof over their heads. They believed that higher education and technical training should be free and open to all.
Women Speak up and Take Action
Women join the clubs rouges and identify with the socialist politics of the exploited worker against the capitalist profiteer. Men are shocked at being contradicted and even shouted down. They called them hyenas, viragos and whores. The working women, seamstresses, street vendors and sweatshop workers are determined to make their voices heard.
They start clubs for women only. They believe that the struggle against patriarchy can only be pursed through global struggle against capitalism. The Women’s Union demands gender equality, equal wages, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education and professional education for girls. The also demand that a distinction no longer be drawn between married women and those living with their partners and between legitimate and illegitimate children. They advocate for an end to prostitution. They organize cooperative workshops and a cooperative restaurant Le Marmite that serves free food to homeless people. For the first time in history the Commune implemented their demand for equal pay for equal work when female teachers are paid the same as the men. In the end women fight heroically on the barricades to defend their new found freedom.
13 April – The Manifesto of the Federation of Artists proposes that Art should be run by artists, free of commercial considerations, and promises without exception to preserve the treasures of the past, to illuminate the work of the present and to educate for the future. Plans for a program of exhibitions and a journal are established and teaching reforms instituted.
Gustave Courbet is one of the leaders of the Commune. He instigates the demolition of Napoleon’s statue in the Place de Vendome because it is a symbol of militarism and imperialism. He writes I get up, I eat breakfast, I sit down and preside for 12 hours a day, my head begins to feel like a baked apple. But despite all this unaccustomed turmoil of the heas and brain, I’m in a state of enchantment. Paris est un vrai paradis.
The poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud are also involved. In the last days of the Commune, Edward Manet draws heartbreaking pictures of the Communards slaughtered at the barricades by the French Army
Practicing Direct Democracy
Now the national government and its bureaucrats have fled, people form their own local organizations to take care of themselves. They set up first aide stations. In one neighborhood children receive free food and clothing, in another they are given free school materials.
The Commune is fully committed to internationalism and believes that working people everywhere in the world have the same interests at heart. At the instigation of Courbet, the citizens tear down the Vendome Column, a symbol of the imperialism of Napoleon. At first trade unions from all over Europe send their good wishes and support. Most of the Communards believe in non violence and leading by example. They believe if the rest of France knew what they were doing, they would join them.
The Movement under Assault
The French National government in Versailles cuts off communication between the people of Paris and the rest of France. The Communards cannot get their message out. Both the German Empire and French government are united in their hatred of the Commune and all it stands for. The Germans release POWs to the French government who send them to “liberate” Paris.
Working people defend themselves against government forces, building barricades with whatever they have to hand including sandbags, old doors and furniture, whatever they can find. The violence of the government is overwhelming, even woman and children are shot by the soldiers. The People retaliate by burning down government buildings including the City Hall.
Fighting cumulates in La Semaine Sanglante (the bloody week) of vicious street fighting. The poor working class districts fight to the end May 28th. 30,000 people are massacred. Government reprisals now begin in earnest. Anyone who supported the Commune is considered a criminal. Many are executed, nearly 40,000 marched to prison at Versailles including whole families, to be killed, imprisoned or deported. Some escape.
Ideas Live On
Though the Commune lasted for one brief spring a hundred and forty years ago, their ideas about how to live together with equality and sharing, with reason not force, their belief that together we ordinary citizens can change our world, are just as alive and urgent today as they were then.
You can find out much more at The History of the Paris Commune. The site includes original photographs and and documents translated into English by Mitchell Abidor.