Vive La Commune women on the frontlines

Primer on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune – II

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This is Part 2 of the PRISM primer on the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. This part narrates the events surrounding the Commune proper, from 18 March to 28 May 1871. It starts with the Versailles regime’s attempt to seize the National Guard cannon, and the uprising of 18 March as the Paris people’s response. It ends with the Bloody Week of 21-28 May and the intense repression against the Communards in the immediate aftermath.

Part II. The rise and fall of the Paris Commune, March 18 – May 28, 1871

To summarize, the following factors combined to create the conditions for civil war between the worker-led toiling masses of Paris and the Thiers government: (1) the shameful defeat in the war against Germany; (2) the general state of economic ruin among the masses during the Paris siege; (3) deep social discontent among the workers against capitalist exploitation, together with vague but growing aspirations for a socialist system; (4) widespread indignation of the masses against the upper classes and government authorities, which were reactionary-monarchist, incompetent, and wallowing in their luxurious lifestyles.

Woodcut rendition of the dramatic start of the 18 March uprising, in which a big crowd of women and children supported National Guard units in defending the cannons of Montmartre from attempts by Versailles troops to seize them.

1. How did the Paris Commune rise up in defiance of the Versailles regime?

From the time of the Prussian siege until the new National Assembly was formed, the masses of Paris led by a militant working class had organized and armed themselves into National Guard units of 200,000 men, and with a capacity to make independent political decisions. The masses’ armed strength was estimated at 450,000 rifles and other firearms, 2,000 cannons, and immense stocks of ammunition.

The National Guard units in Paris, now composed of 215 battalions except for one or two Bonapartist battalions, constituted themselves into the Federation of the National Guard (thenceforth they were also called the Federals).

On March 3, the Federation’s program and statutes were approved by delegates elected from all Paris arrondisements. On March 15, the Federation elected a Central Committee (CC) to which they now reported instead of the Versailles-appointed commander. All able-bodied citizens were enjoined to organize committees of battalions, councils of legions, and to send delegates to the CC.

Paris was now an armed camp of the proletariat defying the government at Versailles. A situation of dual power existed. The most urgent questions were these: How would the Versailles regime defuse the bomb that was Paris? And would Paris just bow down and disarm?

The Versailles regime, backed by the Prussian state, knew it had to disarm Paris. But the people had paid for the city’s defense with their own blood, sweat and tears. They asserted their right to bear arms. In fact, they had paid for 400 pieces of artillery with their own money at the start of the siege. They could not just be ordered to stand down, disarm, and allow the arrest of their leaders, especially by a monarchist regime with Prussian backing.

People of Paris defend the National Guard cannons. Thiers brought his provocations to high pitch by demanding the surrender of Parisian arms, including the 400 cannons which the masses deemed as theirs. Arriving in Paris on March 15, Thiers’ real aim was to seize the fortifications and fully disarm the National Guard. But his immediate focus was on getting the cannons.

On the early dawn of March 18, Thiers mobilized 20,000 army troops and loyal Guard units to seize the artillery pieces: 171 cannon emplaced on the Montmartre heights, 74 on the Belleville heights, and the rest in 16 other locations. Through posters all over the city, he also called on all Parisians to side with Versailles and condemn the CC of the Federals. Army teams of the 88th Regiment under Gen. Lecomte disabled the Montmartre guardsmen, seized some pieces, and moved them with difficulty to the foot of the heights. But a great number of cannon remained on the heights.

Meanwhile, a big crowd composed mostly of women and children began to gather and shame the troops who struggled to move the cannon pieces, offering bread and wine to persuade the hungry troops to stand down. Others used drums to sound the alarm, and soon the main streets were echoing with church bells and bugles. National Guard forces arrived from all directions. Together with the crowd, they convinced the army troops not to fire (despite Lecomte’s repeated orders) and to fraternize instead with the Federals.

The Federals arrested Lecomte and forced him to order his troops to evacuate another fort. At 9 am the Federals retook the Montmartre heights and replaced the cannon pieces. Similar tugs of war to control other cannon occurred elsewhere. The army units sent by Thiers were dissolving. At 11 am, the Federals had retaken nearly all the cannon except for 10 pieces. At around 3 pm, Thiers and his ministers fled back to Versailles. In the Chaussee des Martyrs later that afternoon, the 1848 butcher Gen. Clement-Thomas was spotted and arrested by the crowd. He and Lecomte were both executed by some of their own mutinous soldiers.

Central Committee acts as provisional government. The CC of the Federals, representing the people of the city, was now the sole power in Paris. That same day (March 18), crowds gathered at the Hôtel de Ville amidst shouts of “Vive la Commune!” By midnight, the CC began to function as organ of political power. In its proclamation of March 18, it said:

The proletarians of Paris, in the midst of the defeats and betrayals of the ruling class, have come to understand that they must save the situation by taking the conduct of public affairs into their own hands. … They have realised that it is their highest duty and their absolute right to make themselves the masters of their own fate and to seize the power of the government.

Some CC members were hesitant to openly declare that they were now the provisional revolutionary government of Paris. However, with the full support of almost the entire population and seeing no other choice, the CC began to take its first tentative and often unsure steps in that direction. Despite the worry that it had no authority to legislate, it was already performing the acts of a provisional government.

Its earliest measures were related to occupying and strengthening the forts around Paris, and preparing for the elections to the Commune. It also created a de-facto ministerial cabinet, delegating specific leaders to take on specific official functions—often simply because the Thiers camp, in its move to Versailles, had fully stripped Paris of its administrative apparatus.

The March 21-22 reactionary march. Some conciliatory mayors, especially in the wealthy 1st and 2nd arrondissements, instigated a mob of royalists, Bonapartists, reactionary students and bullies on March 21 and 22. Their aim was to challenge the CC’s authority and capture the headquarters of the Federals. At the Place Vendôme, on March 21, National Guard forces under Jules Bergeret’s command peacefully dispersed the mob. The next day’s reactionary march proved more violent, when the mob returned with firearms and other weapons. Bergeret’s forces had to disperse them with a single volley—with casualties on both sides.

Municipal elections held, Commune proclaimed. The CC had been reticent in immediately holding municipal elections throughout Paris, hoping to get first the mayors’ (heads of arrondisements) consent and thus gain some legality for the elections. After having postponed the vote twice, the CC was now pressured by the Federal rank and file to finally hold it on March 26. The handful of delegates elected by wealthy districts waived their seats, leaving the overwhelming majority of 60-80 revolutionary delegates of working-class districts to carry the work of the Commune.

On March 27, practically the whole Paris population turned out to welcome the election results with joyful singing, dancing and cheering. The next day, some 200,000 gathered around the Hôtel de Ville to the sound of cannon salutes, bugles, and drums. Red flags waved in the air, and the revolutionary songs “Marseillaise” and the “Chant du Depart” were sung. The National Guard’s CC turned over the power to the newly-elected Commune, and the members of both CC and Commune appeared together on the hotel balcony, with red scarves over their shoulders.

Amid the noise of drums and cannon, a Federal’s voice boomed: “In the name of the people, the Commune is proclaimed!” A united response reverberated from the thousands who gathered: “Vive la Commune!”

On 28 March 1871, a huge crowd of 200,000 gather around the Hôtel de Ville amidst red flags and revolutionary songs and chants to proclaim the Commune.

Some of the better-known leading members of the Commune and their main assignments or roles were the following:

  • Émile Eudes (medical doctor, journalist, member of the International, Blanquist), as commissioner for war; later, with Paul Antoine Brunel (French army lieutenant, Blanquist);
  • Charles Delescluze (lawyer, journalist, revolutionary veteran Jacobinist of 1830 and 1848, politician of the Second Republic, political prisoner of long standing, member of the International), as commissioner for foreign relations and for war;
  • Jarosław Dąbrowski or Jaroslav Dombrowski (member of the Polish nobility, former Russian army officer, old Narodnik revolutionary, refugee from Siberian exile), as a leading general and later commander-in-chief of the Paris Commune’s military forces;
  • Émile-Victor Duval (worker, member of the International, Blanquist), prefectory of police;
  • Raoul Rigault (journalist, revolutionary since his youth), prefectory of police;
  • Louis-Eugène Varlin (bookbinder, trade-unionist, member of the International, Proudhonist) and François Jourde (accountant), as commissioners for finances; Varlin also served as lead person on labor relations and later became a war commissioner;
  • Édouard-Marie Vaillant (engineer and lawyer, member of the International, Proudhonist), as commissioner for the interior, including education;
  • Leó Frankel (Hungarian goldsmith, organizer of migrant workers, member of the International), as commissioner for labor and exchange;
  • Félix Pyat (journalist, playwright, independent socialist politician), as member of the Committee on Public Safety;
  • Théophile Ferré (probably a law clerk), as member of the Committee on Public Safety;
  • Adolphe Alphonse Assi (worker, member of the International, Proudhonist-leaning) to administer the government machinery at the Hôtel de Ville;
  • Edouard Moreau de Beauvière (literary writer), to supervise the Journal officiel (the revolutionary newspaper of the Commune) and the printing press;
  • Louise Michel, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, and many other women of working-class and petty-bourgeois backgrounds, while they did not hold any official positions in the Commune and its armed forces, nonetheless served as leaders of its various local and women’s organizations and as practical military commanders and street fighters in the final weeks.

2. How did civil war unfold between the Paris Commune and the Versailles government?

Despite the signs of growing counter-revolution, the CC (even before the new Commune’s election) had been complacent and careless in dealing with the Versailles effort to retake the forts and to tighten its encirclement around Paris.

The CC tasked Gen. Charles Lullier (the National Guard overall commander, who turned out to be most incompetent) with securing the city fortifications before Versailles took them first. But Lullier was very slow in completing the task. Surprisingly, he did not occupy the strategic fortress of Mont Valerien—the key to Paris and to Versailles. On March 20, the fortress was occupied by Versailles troops.

The CC tolerated Lullier’s other questionable actions. After the Commune was proclaimed, he was replaced by Émile Eudes, Paul Antoine Brunel, and Émile-Victor Duval as military troika, with Bergeret as National Guard commander. Duval and Eudes pushed for an immediate march on Versailles, to force Thiers to either surrender or flee. But this was rejected—again showing how indecision and softness prevailed among Commune leaders in dealing with Versailles. Thiers thereby gained breathing space to quickly consolidate his military position.

Even among the general population of Paris, there was misplaced optimism that any further conflict with the Versailles troops could be defused peaceably, by fraternization between the two sides, in a hoped-for repeat of the March 18 uprising.

While Thiers carefully marshalled his forces, the Commune leaders groped in the dark towards the correct course of military action. On April 2, finally, they faced a serious military challenge. Versailles troops attacked a Guards detachment and murdered their captives. Paris immediately took up the cry: “To Versailles! March on the Versaillese!”

On the early morning of April 3, a 28,000-strong National Guard force marched towards Versailles along four separate routes. The 15,000 troops of Jules Bergeret and Gustave Flourens had to pass on the north and east flanks beneath the cannon of Mont Valerien (the key fort which Lullier did not occupy). The Federals assumed that the troops inside the fort would not fire on them, and that fraternization would again save the day. But the fort rained gunfire on the Federals, who had to fight in a disorganized way through other enemy strong points before they could fall back to Paris. (Flourens was captured and killed during the retreat.)

The botched march to Versailles and the hasty retreat stunned the Parisians. It reinforced the military conservatism among the Commune leaders. From then on, Paris fell back to the defensive and no longer dared to resume the offensive against Versailles.

3. What were the main political trends within the Paris Commune?

Lenin explained the trends within the Paris Commune in terms of class alignments:

At first this movement was extremely indefinite and confused. It was joined by patriots who hoped that the Commune would renew the war with the Germans and bring it to a successful conclusion. It enjoyed the support of the small shopkeepers who were threatened with ruin unless there was a postponement of payments on debts and rent (the government refused to grant this postponement, but they obtained it from the Commune). Finally, it enjoyed, at first, the sympathy of bourgeois republicans who feared that the reactionary National Assembly … would restore the monarchy. But it was of course the workers … , among whom active socialist propaganda had been carried on during the last years of the Second Empire and many of whom even belonged to the International, who played the principal part in this movement.

On a daily basis, the Commune had to resolve the many questions of policy and attend to the thousands of details in governing a city of 2 million amid a most uneasy situation. Here it faced internal difficulties, as Engels described: “The Commune was consumed in unfruitful strife between the two parties which split it, the Blanquists (the majority) and the Proudhonists (the minority)…”

Blanquists. This was a group led by Louis Auguste Blanqui, which advocated a type of socialist revolution to be carried out not by the masses but by a small and tight conspiratorial group, which would seize power in behalf of the people and wield dictatorial rule to build socialism for the people. Their great majority were socialist only by proletarian instinct—with a few exceptions like Vaillant who was familiar with the socialist theories of Marx and Engels. (Blanqui himself was among the leaders of the Oct. 31, 1870 uprising, but was captured by Versailles forces and remained a political prisoner throughout the Commune until he was released in 1879.)

The Blanquists did not see the need either for a broad mass movement or the leading role of the working class, as it could not distinguish between the proletariat and the revolutionary bourgeoisie. It was more interested in the practical measures for overthrowing capitalism rather than pursue rigorous theories and principles for building socialism.

Blanquists, estimated at 1,000-strong even before the Commune, were organized into highly compartmentalized cells of about 10 persons each. Many were armed and ready to perform practical tasks once the uprising began. Their audacity, discipline, and leadership skills made up for their small number. They were predominant in the National Guard CC; they initiated and led the (failed) October 31, 1870 uprising during the siege of Paris, and were the majority in the Commune itself.

Proudhonists and other Internationalists. The minority in the Commune (but a most influential one) were followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a former utopian-socialist who is considered to be the founder of anarchism. Many of them were also members of the International, where there was a strong anarchist bloc led by Mikhail Bakunin. In principle, the Proudhonists modeled their economic program on the interests of the small peasant and craftsman. They belittled the role of organized workers in large-scale mass production and industry, and granted its importance only in exceptional cases such as railways.

In practice, however, when the Commune presented them with the most urgent measures for its survival, the Proudhonists (especially the left-wing militants) set aside Proudhon’s anarchist theories. Rather, as Engels said: “It does the Commune the greatest honor that in all its economic measures the ‘driving spirit’ was not any set of ‘principles’, but simple, practical needs.” Most of these measures reflected, not the spirit of Proudhonism, but more closely “the spirit of German scientific socialism.”

The only social measure that fully hewed to Proudhon’s principles was the decision not to confiscate the Bank of France—a big blunder that greatly contributed to the Commune’s downfall.

Women’s powerful role. One distinctive characteristic of the Commune is that it unleashed a gigantic women’s movement. The struggle for women’s rights, equality and liberation in France had suffered setbacks during the 60 years of Bonapartist regimes and restored monarchies. Super-macho values predominated even among the Commune’s mostly male leaders and National Guard fighters, especially among the Proudhonists.

There were a few exceptions, such as Eugène Varlin, Benoît Malon, Édouard Vaillant and Leó Frankel, who promoted women’s equality in their areas of responsibility. As the Commune pressed ahead, many more women activists stood up to assert their equality and leading roles. They won the support and respect of more and more Commune leaders.

Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Paule Mink, Louise Michel, Nathalie Lemel, André Léo, Eliska Vincent, and Noémi Reclus were just a few of the many leading women of the Commune. They had already been trade-unionist fighters, socialist organizers and feminist campaigners leading workers’ strikes and girls’ education programs in the 1860s. During the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris, many women activists joined the “vigilance committees,” ran cooperatives and mutual-aid groups, and led the militant crowds that marched alongside their National Guard units throughout those turbulent months.

On their initiative when the Commune emerged, the Union des Femmes (Women’s Union) was organized among the city’s working-class women, with its first meeting on April 11. The Women’s Union, a member of the International, proved to be among the most active and militant Communards—in maintaining the organized mass base among the Red Clubs, in pushing for socio-economic measures that protected women and workers’ rights, in treating the sick and wounded, and in fighting and dying alongside men in the frontlines and barricades.

Women Communards of Montmartre; Paris Commune, 1871
Women of Montmartre pledge to fight the Versailles troops to the death, with the slogan “La Commune ou La Mort,” as fighting escalates in Paris in May 1871. Women Communards fought fiercely on the barricades, and were killed or treated horribly as the Commune fell at the end of the Bloody Week.

Strong internationalist current. The Commune likewise emphasized a strong internationalist-socialist current, especially with the direct participation of many members of the International. It mobilized veterans of 1848, political refugees and immigrant workers and their families who came from other parts of Europe. Commune leaders like Leo Frankel of Austria-Hungary, the veteran Polish revolutionary Dombrowski, Elisabeth Dmitrieff and many other Communards from other nationalities raised high the banner of the world proletariat and fought in the barricades alongside their French comrades-in-arms. The Commune’s internationalist spirit was upheld right at the outset, when the foreigners elected to it were confirmed, because “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic.”

4. What were the most prominent achievements of the Commune?

In spite of many unfavorable conditions and its very short timespan, the Paris Commune was able to promulgate measures that underscored its historic proletarian-socialist revolutionary significance and aims. Its most fundamental achievement is that, for the first time in world history, the working class was able to set up its own state and learn in practice how to wield proletarian power.

Even though the Commune’s leadership and most organized sections carried different political platforms, it was able to unite the entire working class in accomplishing the democratic tasks which, as Lenin noted, “the bourgeoisie could only proclaim” but not complete. It proved to the world that the working-class masses—who throughout the Commune consciously defined and proudly called themselves as “the proletariat,” the social class most oppressed by capitalism—could organize themselves into a proletarian state, democratize the entire political system as never before, and build the foundations of socialism on the ruins of capitalism.

In many respects, the Commune was both a working-class weapon and school for class struggle and socialism. It was a product of a spontaneous rebellion, true. But along the way, it was shaped and driven forward by groups and individuals already with much experience and some theoretical understanding of the proletarian and socialist movements of the previous decades. Beneath the Commune’s seemingly spontaneous reactions to events as they unfolded, a kernel of conscious and organized proletarian-socialist revolutionary movement began to sprout and take root.

Lenin explained it this way:

The Commune sprang up spontaneously. No one consciously prepared it in an organized way. … But in modern society, the proletariat, economically enslaved by capital, cannot dominate politically unless it breaks the chains which fetter it to capital. That is why the movement of the Commune was bound to take on a socialist tinge, i.e., to strive to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie, the rule of capital, and to destroy the very foundations of the contemporary social order.

Abolition of the standing army and bureaucracy. As one of its first official acts, on March 30, 1871, the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army. Standing armies had served as the blunt weapon of previous ruling classes in history, including the French bourgeois state which now wanted to crush Paris. In its place, the Commune declared the National Guard to be the sole armed force, in which all able-bodied citizens were to be enlisted. The Commune likewise disbanded the the bourgeois battalions of the National Guard.

In a parallel move, the Commune also abolished the bureaucracy. In its place was instituted the broadest possible democracy. It cut off all lines of authority emanating from the bourgeois government sitting at Versailles, declaring as null and void all “orders and communications coming from the Versailles government or from its adherents”. It stipulated that judges shall be elected by the people. Consciously or not, its leaders had redefined and transformed the state and organs of state, which had served the ruling classes through the past centuries.

In contrast to the feudal and bourgeois states, and to emphasize its fully democratic and proletarian character, the Commune defined its own very simple rules (as Engels restated in 1891):

In the first place, [the Commune] filled all posts—administrative, judicial and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs [annually].

These rules were applied to all officials regardless of rank. Binding mandates were given to delegates to representative bodies—mandates that they must not violate lest they are subjected to recall. This system encouraged the rise of committed leaders immersed among the masses, working conscientiously as government functionaries while receiving ordinary worker’s wages.

Woodcut rendition of a committee meeting of revolutionary activists at the arrondisement (city district) level within the Paris Commune. Women still did not enjoy the right of suffrage, but they assumed important roles and official posts and pushed incessantly for their rights.

Separation of church from state. On April 2, the Commune decreed the separation of the church from the state in the most straightforward manner: it abolished all state payments for religious purposes, transformed all church property into national property, and abrogated all prerogatives of the clergy. In this regard, the Commune also introduced free tuition and made popular education purely secular.

Social and economic reforms. The Commune had its hands full in rebuilding the new ship of state and keeping it afloat in the stormy sea of civil war. Thus, its attempts at social and economic reforms accomplished very little, and were limited only to the most urgent remedial measures. Nonetheless, these minor acts reflected the Commune’s character as a popular workers’ government.

In its most significant socialist measure, the Commune decreed on April 16 that all factories and workshops abandoned by the employers were to be registered and handed over to associations of workers so they could resume production. Compensation would be paid on the basis of decision by arbitration committees. Furthermore, night-work in bakeries was forbidden. The system of fines (basically a form of legalized robbery of the workers) was abolished.

All rent payments for dwellings from October 1870 until April 1871 were remitted, with the amounts already paid to be booked as future rent payments. All sales of articles pledged in the municipal loan office were stopped. Marx commented: “The decrees about rent and commercial bills were two master strokes: without them 3/4 of the trades people [who were allied with the proletariat] would have become bankrupt.”

One of the Commune's first decisions, and certainly among the most popular, was to stop the sale of goods by pawnshops to give the impoverished workers who pawned these goods the chance to reclaim their meager valuables.
One of the Commune’s first decisions, and certainly among the most popular, was to stop the sale of goods by pawnshops to give the impoverished workers who pawned these goods the chance to reclaim their meager valuables.

Organizing the masses, full practice of democracy. Organizing the masses was among the less-documented and most taken-for-granted achievements of the Commune. Mass organizations flourished in Paris, first during the Prussian siege, and then throughout the duration of Commune. The National Guard itself was an armed mass organization of all able-bodied male citizens, united under one Federation and its Central Committee. In the working-class districts, Vigilance Committees exercised power on behalf of the arrondisement mayors. The Commune also encouraged trade unions, cooperatives, Red Clubs, and women’s associations.

On the basis of the broad masses being organized as active participants in the Paris Commune, they created a new government and continually infused new blood into it. They fully exercised not just universal suffrage but produced new leaders from their own ranks. As Jose Ma. Sison explained: “The Paris Commune had the attributes of a true democracy while being at the same time a class dictatorship over the exploiting classes.”

Women’s rights. While it remained hobbled by the exclusively male suffrage and purely male National Guard duty practiced at that time, the Commune did promote women to leading positions and enable women’s empowerment in their daily lives. It encouraged the active support of women in the Commune’s social, economic, political, and military tasks.

With the Commune’s active support, women’s organizations and committees set up welfare programs, orphanages, clinics, soup kitchens, and relentless campaigns for gender equality in the workplace and social benefits. The Commune gave particular attention to the education of girls, setting up a commission on girls’ education and supporting the initiatives of the Union des Femmes along these lines. In its last weeks, the Commune set up two technical schools, one for girls.

Finance matters. The CC of the Federals and the Commune proved much more timid in using the finances of the old order. They dared not open the coffers of the old ministry of finance. Rather, at first they meekly asked for money from the financier Rothschild—who gave 500,000 francs (happily, since he was let off so easily).

Charles Victor Beslay (a conservative-republican and Proudhonist entrepreneur) was a member of the Commune and its finance commission, and acted as its delegate at the Bank of France. But he avoided interference in the Bank’s internal affairs and the question of nationalization. Two battalions of Federals had to physically enforce the Commune’s demands for money before the Bank’s governor handed over 2 million francs. Due to the Commune’s over-legalistic concerns, however, it did not seize the Bank itself.

Failed efforts to take nationwide power. From the start, the Commune leaders were fully united and explicit in their common goal to establish a truly democratic and socialist republic for the whole of France. They believed that the Commune would soon rule not just over Paris, but would spread to other provinces. They envisioned a nationwide system of people’s communes, with a national delegation seated in Paris, which would be the basis for a new democratic and socialist republic. Many Communards hoped further that victory in France would spark other similar (i.e., worker-led socialist) revolutions throughout Europe.

Hence the Commune leaders sent emissaries and manifestos to other French departments to rally around Paris. Marx and the other leaders of the International exerted their all to rally all the national sections and workers’ movements in support of the Commune and uprisings in other cities. But time was fast running short. Before it could extend its power elsewhere, the Commune had to confront the seat of counter-revolution in Versailles.

Flag of the 143rd Battalion, a unit of the National Guard, which served the main armed force of the Commune. The flag is now encased and displayed in a Paris museum.

5. How did the Commune fall in the face of counter-revolution?

The incompetent Cluseret. For nearly a whole month after the April 3 fiasco, Gen. Gustave-Paul Cluseret was given overall command of the Parisian forces. Despite his extensive military experience with Garibaldi in Italy, with Union troops in the American Civil War, and as Fenian insurrectionist in Ireland, he proved to be as incompetent as Lullier. Under his command, the National Guard organization and provisions were completely neglected, and the Federals’ CC began to interfere in the conduct of the military operations.

On April 6-7 the Versailles troops captured a Seine River crossing on the western front, even as their April 11 attack on the southern front failed. On April 30, the fort of Issy, a heavily-defended strategic point for the defense of Paris, was evacuated by most of its garrison. The Parisians, demanding severe disciplinary action for such neglect of defenses, had Cluseret arrested and thrown into prison.

Efforts to bolster Parisian defense under Rossel. Next, the Commune gave the overall command to a young officer, Col. Louis Rossel—the only senior French army officer to join the Commune (as a “friend of the people” but not as a revolutionary). Quickly, Rossel reorganized Parisian defense. He streamlined the National Guard into mobile combat groups supported by sections of artillery, while ensuring munitions and provisions. (Note: Of the 1,740 artillery pieces in Commune hands, not more than 320 were ever used—reflecting the Commune’s tactical failure to maximize its weaponry.) He also had a second line of fortifications built within Paris—although these remained unused until the last days of desperate street fighting.

Now the city was being continually bombarded by Versailles artillery. In order to bolster Versailles’ assault on Paris, the Prussians released the French armies taken prisoner at Sedan and Metz. On May 3-4, Versailles forces took the Moulin Saquet redoubt on the southern front. On May 9, Fort Issy fell—reduced to shambles after Versailles forces battered it with 70 artillery pieces.

As the Communards fall back to the inner city, the Commune generals call for revolutionary war by the masses through street fighting. At least 15,000 Parisians, many of them women and children, respond to the call and fight alongside the men on the barricades.

Paris defenses crumble under Delescluze. In the face of the Fort Issy debacle, Rossel resigned his overall command and fled. He was replaced by Louis Charles Delescluze (an austere and noble Jacobin veteran), who was fully committed to the Commune’s principles and defense, but found it difficult to command the untrained troops and strengthen discipline in the ranks. Nonetheless, he was greatly helped by the Polish internationalist Dombrowski (Jarosław Dąbrowski)—a former officer of the Russian army and Narodnik revolutionary.

But the defense of Paris was no longer a question of honest or capable generals. The National Guard had become so disorganized that only the heroism and bravery of its worker-fighters kept the Commune alive.

On May 13-14, Versailles troops took Fort Vanves on the southern front despite the Communards’ heroic defense. On the western front, the attackers captured numerous villages and buildings until they reached the city wall and its main defenses. On May 19, a continuous barrage from 300 artillery pieces battered the defenses. The city walls began to crumble. On May 21, a massive Versailles army, outnumbering the Communards by at least 5 to 1, succeeded in forcing their way into the city.

The Prussians, who held the northern and eastern forts, were forbidden by the armistice to move towards the city. So they simply allowed the Versailles troops to pass through their side and attack the city on a wide circular front, catching the defenders by surprise. There was weak resistance in the western half, the wealthier side of Paris. It grew more tenacious as the troops approached the working-class districts in the eastern half.

Barricades and the Commune’s fall. As the Communards fell back to the inner city, Delescluze resigned his command and called instead for revolutionary war by the masses through barricades and street fighting. At least 15,000 Parisians, many of them women and children, responded to the call and entrenched themselves on the barricades. There was no longer a Paris-wide defense plan, only local initiative and sheer resistance by groups fighting in every neighborhood. Nonetheless, Dombrowski, Delescluze, Varlin, Rigault, Ferre and a few others still tried to coordinate the defense.

Everywhere, the heroic masses of Communards fought fiercely, with boundless courage and self-sacrifice. Many barricade fighters sang the “Marseillaise” and shouted “Pour la solidarite humaine!” as they fell. The Polish internationalist, Dombrowski, realizing the end was near, exposed himself to enemy gunfire on the barricades; he died of his wounds two days later.

The Commune was now on its death throes. But Thiers the monster thirsted for more killings, in his wish that a bigger bloodbath would drown the revolutionary spirit of Paris and teach it a life-long lesson. In the mind of his ilk, the Communards were more repulsive than the Prussian occupiers, and had to be exterminated en masse. Thus the Versaillese went in for the kill. The Bloody Week (May 21-28) was well underway.

Federals defending historic Montmartre, place of the first uprising, could no longer be bolstered by reinforcements and munitions. On May 22, Montmartre finally fell to 30,000 assaulting army troops. On May 25, in the barricades of the Chateau-d’Eau, Delescluze walked unflinchingly, wearing his Commune ceremonial sash, and faced the Versaillese with only a cane. He was killed in a hail of bullets.

On May 28, after eight days’ shelling and fighting across most working-class districts, often in fierce hand-to-hand combat, the last organized barricades of the Commune finally fell on the heights of Belleville and Menilmontant districts—most famously including the last 147 defenders killed at the Père Lachaise cemetery. On May 29, a Versailles brigade accepted the surrender of the fort of Vincennes, shot the Communard officers against the wall, and pulled down the red flag from the mast.

Communard women fought heroically. Author Judy Cox wrote:

Women were involved in all the military engagements during Bloody Week and many were listed among the wounded and the dead. One name on the list was that of Blanche Lefebvre, a laundress at the Sainte-Marie des Batignolles washhouse. She was a member of the Club of the Social Revolution, which had been set up on 3 May in the local church. Lefebvre was also a member of the Central Committee of the Union of Women. She was one of 120 women who held the barricade at the Place Blanche for several hours until they ran out of ammunition and were overrun. Those taken at the barricade were shot on the spot. Lefebvre was one of them. She was aged just 24.

“Genderquake: socialist women and the Paris Commune,” posted Jan. 5, 2021

The original caption in French reads: “The barricade at the Place Blanche is defended by women.”

Orgy of mass killing and state terror. All through that Bloody Week, Versailles troops mindlessly shot down not just Communards engaged in combat but defenseless men, women and children who crossed their paths.

Parisians of all ages found with the slightest indication of having fought as Communards were shot on sight. In city streets and squares, the moment fighting stopped, all civilians nearby were gathered and gunned down in groups—including the wounded, medical corps, women and children. Corpses were piled into huge heaps. Where breech-loading rifles could no longer kill the huddled victims fast enough, mitrailleuses (Belgian-made machine guns similar to the Gatling gun) were used for quicker butchery.

Leaders of the Commune and other known revolutionaries were hunted down like animals. Varlin, leader of the French section of the International, member of the National Guards CC and the Commune, was captured and taken to Montmartre, where he was tortured, blinded, and finally shot. In the case of some Commune leaders who eluded capture, unlucky people who resembled them were killed on the spot. Even some moderate republicans who were non-combatants, foreigners who looked like Internationalists, and those unfairly denounced by secret spies, were summarily executed.

When the butchers finally tired of their mass executions, they shifted to other forms of terror. They conducted mass arrests and shot on the spot those identified as Federals. The rest were herded into camps to face summary courts-martial, usually requiring just a few minutes to try each individual. Those lucky enough to be sent to Versailles for retrial had to pass through a gate where butcher officers like the Marquis de Gallifet stood guard. He randomly picked hundreds of men and women on pure whim, separated them from the mass of other prisoners, and had them shot against the wall.

The Versailles forces’ assault against female Communards was exceptionally brutal. Bourgeois counter-revolutionary propaganda ranted that women of the Commune “unsexed themselves,” and called them “evil, amazons, furies, jackals,” pétroleuses (arsonists) and “hideous viragoes.” Whipped up to a frenzy by such propaganda, government troops “systematically humiliated, stripped, raped and murdered” female fighters of the Commune. (Cox, 2021)

As the last barricades fell, the orgy of mass killing proceeded in the Père Lachaise cemetery. The Wall of the Communards (mur des fédérés) at a corner of the cemetery remains until today a sacred spot of pilgrimage for revolutionaries around the world. In Engels’ words, the Communards’ Wall is “a mute but eloquent testimony to the frenzy of which the ruling class is capable as soon as the working class dares to stand up for its rights.”

One last big group of Communards at the Père Lachaise cemetery are rounded up against a wall and massacred. The Wall of Communards, until this day, is sacred ground for all proletarian revolutionaries and resistance fighters for people’s liberation from all forms of oppression.

The dead and dying victims, including those wounded but still alive, were flung into large hastily dug pits and buried en masse. On the following nights, some movement and groans were observed from the mass graves. In working-class neighborhoods, bodies rotted inside houses while awaiting burial. Most families in Paris suffered at least one dead. Countless corpses floated on the Seine’s red-tinged waters.

In total, some 20,000 to 30,000 Parisians—including countless women and children—were killed by Thiers’ soldier-butchers during the Commune’s fall. Some 45,000 were arrested (including some 1,000 women)—many of whom were also executed. As of January 1, 1875, military courts had sentenced 13,700 persons, including 80 women and 60 children, to prison or exile to the remote islands of New Caledonia; 3,000 of these died in prison. In all, the working class lost about 100,000 of its best sons and daughters, whom Lenin called “the flower of the Parisian proletariat.” #
(Review Part I) (Read Part III)

Corrections on 2021-04-16, with additions in bold/red:

  • In its place, the Commune declared the National Guard to be the sole armed force, in which all able-bodied citizens were to be enlisted.
  • On the following nights, some movement and groans were observed from the mass graves. (replacing “still-moving limbs and groans emerged”)
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