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One hundred and fifty years ago this month, the working class seized control of a major city and held it for over two months – the first time any such thing had happened. They did not just arm themselves and erect barricades – they elected representation, issued directives and implemented them, day by day. And the women were very much a part of it, including some of the lower level leadership, like Louise Michel, the Breton Anarchist woman who declared to the authorities who drowned the revolution in blood: “If you let me live, I will never stop crying out for vengeance.”
We should not allow the 18th of March to pass without stopping a least a moment to ponder on that momentous occasion and the extraordinary acts taken by mostly ordinary people. If we consider that the industrial commodity production of the industrial revolution had created the working class, the proletariat, it had been struggling for centuries against the exploitation of its labour power by the capitalists, the expropriation of all production for sale in exchange for the minimum in wages required to keep the workers alive and to produce the next generation of workers to be exploited. They had participated in many failed uprisings and even successful revolutions but in the latter case, always to the benefit of other social classes.
In 1871 they were successful beyond strikes, protests, riots and insurrections and, for the first time, in their own interests – they seized a major European city, the capital of a powerful State and ran it for their own benefit.
A number of conditions obtained which helped prepare the ground for the uprising: defeat of French state in war against Germany, ceding of Alsace-Lorraine, war shortages of food, firewood, coal and medicine in plummeting temperatures and a simmering discontent from the failure of a rising the previous October and others before that. But the action that precipitated the rising that led to the founding of the Commune was the attempt of the Government to seize the old cannons in the working class Montmartre district. As the casting of these had been paid for by popular subscription, the people saw them as their property and also as their own protection (having still living memories of the suppression of the 1848 revolution among many).
The attempt by the Government’s soldiers resulted in the death of a resisting member of the National Guard, a popular armed force and this in turn led to the surrounding of the military and, when ordered to fire on the crowd, mutinies, desertions and the capture of officers. Soon afterwards the crowds began to take control and prominent high officers were grabbed and shot. By midday the Government was leaving and had ordered the regular army, which had already been retreated to the Seine, to leave and to reassemble at Versailles. Unfortunately one of the escaped was Marshall Patrice McMahon1 of the French Army.
MEASURES OF REVOLUTIONARY MANAGEMENT
The Commune organised not only the defence of the city but its running and organisation along socialist lines.
On April 1st – that no employee or member of the Commune’s salary could exceed 6,000 francs. On April 2nd, the separation of Church and State, the abolition of all State payments for religious purposes and the transformation of all Church property into national property.
On 6th April the guillotine was brought out by the 137th Battalion of the National Guard and burned to great rejoicing. On 8th April the removal of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers from schools was decreed and began to be implemented.
On 12th April, that the Column of Victory in the Place Vendome should be demolished, as the symbol of and incitement to national chauvinism and hatreds (this was carried out on the 16th). On the 16th the Commune ordered the systematic registration of all closed factories and the working out of plans for their management into production by the workers formerly employed in them, in cooperative societies. These cooperatives were to be organised in one great union.
On 30th April, the closing of all pawnshops. On 5th May the demolition of the symbol of expiation for the execution of Louis XVI, the Chapel of Atonement.
The Commune also abolished child labour and night work for bakers, made citizens of migrants (a number of which were also prominent in the Commune), granted pensions to unmarried partners of soldiers killed and their children, postponed commercial debts and outlawed interest on them and ensured the right of recall by voters of their delegates. The Commune’s local committees organised local defences, ran schools, provided clothing for children, food for the destitute, established canteens and first-aid stations …
A number of newspapers were published during the life of the Commune, varying from communist to anarchist to republican.
DEFEAT AND MASSACRES
The French Versailles Government was unable to take back control of the city even with their own regular army without systematic artillery bombardment to clear the way through to Paris and within it also. They appealed to those who had beaten them in the war, the German generals, to help them overcome the revolutionary resistance or at least allow them to pass. On the 11th May, the French Versailles troops under Marshal McMahon had blasted their way to the City Walls, then passed by the forts the Prussians had earlier taken on the north and east of the city. As the Versailles troops drove deeper into the city, resistance stiffened and intensified as they reached the working class quarters in the eastern half of Paris. It took eight days for the regular French Army to overcome the resistance on the heights of Belleville and Menilmontant.
“And then the massacre of defenceless men, women and children, which had been raging all week, reached its zenith.”2
Despite women not having the right to vote, they were active in the struggle, including in leadership roles, though not formally. Women were not only in the rearguard but helped build the barricades and fought on them, chaired committees and took part in debates. Many were killed in battle and many survivors were tried and sentenced to prison. Louise Michel, who was one of the leading activists, in her memoirs estimated their numbers in first-hand activity at 10,000; she fought with a unit of 30 women at Place Blanche in Montmartre until they were overrun.2
At the Hotel de Ville, which had been the headquarters of the Commune, the Versailles troops executed around 300 prisoners and burned the building (since rebuilt). One group of Communards retreated to the Pere Lachaise cemetery to make their stand and there, with no weapons or ammunition remaining, 147 survivors were placed against the wall and shot, their bodies thrown into a long ditch dug along the wall.
All armed resistance ended on 28th May but not the retributions of the French ruling class (with the support of the Republican bourgeoisie).
The full number of massacred will probably be never known and estimates vary from 10,000 to 20,000. On the wall of the Pere Lachaise cemetery some years later a plaque was erected and it has been a place of annual pilgrimage since for the Left (except during the Nazi occupation).
Louise Michel, who defied the judges at her trial in December and challenged them to have her shot, was sentenced to penal exile, along with 10,000 Communard survivors, hers being to New Caledonia, a French colonial possession in the Pacific3. She arrived there after 20 months’ jail, where she met many other revolutionaries and apparently there became an Anarchist, returning to France under the general amnesty for the Communards in 1880 (and continued revolutionary activities almost to the day of her death in 1905, a few months short of her 75th birthday).
FOR THE FUTURE AND THE PAST
With the Paris Commune of 1871, the proletariat had for the first time seized and managed a major city. It would be 46 years later before they succeeded in seizing a country – Russia. In the case of the Commune, the workers had learned how to take a city but were unable to hold it against sustained external attack; with the Soviet Union, they took a country and fought off external attack but were unable hold it against subversion from within. One hundred and fifty years after the Commune’s and a century after the Soviet Union’s achievements, we are overdue for another revolution. Hopefully this time we will have learned to hold on to its gains.
The Communards sounded the trumpet proclaiming the approaching end of capitalism and gave an answer then and since to those who say a revolution is not possible or if it is, that the workers are incapable of governing themselves and supplying the means to satisfy the needs of society.
Let us take a moment to reflect and to honour.
1Descendant of Irish gentry who had fled Cromwellian confiscations and repression and settled in France.
2Engels, opus cited in Sources.
3A long way from the west of the Australian continent.
Engels, selected writings, (ed. W.O. Henderson, Penguin 1967), Introduction to the Civil War in France