"Storming heaven", the Paris Commune of 1871

Submitted by Matthew on 16 March, 2011 - 5:00

The Paris Commune came out of the Franco-Prussian war (July 1870-January 1871).

After the defeat of the French forces by the Prussian army at Sedan on 1 September 1870 the French Emperor, Napoleon III resigned and a Republic was set up after mass demonstrations in Paris, calling for the Third Republic.

With the Prussians marching upon Paris, a newly established “Government of National Defence” was organised.

On 20 September 1870, the Prussians began a siege of Paris which would last for four months. When, in October, the French government began negotiations with the Prussians, the Parisian workers rose up and established a revolutionary government which was suppressed a month later

At the end of January 1871 Paris was surrendered to the Prussians. But the population remained armed and only a small section of the capital was actually surrendered.

On 8 February rigged elections to a National Assembly were held. The Assembly was meant to ratify the terms of “peace”. An enormous clerical and monarchical majority was the result.

The “National Assembly”, with Adolphe Thiers as the chief executive — scared of the revolutionary mood in Paris — wanted to overthrow the Republic and disarm the armed workers. It deposed Paris as capital of France and transfered the government to Versailles.

Meanwhile in Paris a Central Committee of the National Guard was created — to resist reaction. On 18 March Thiers attempted to disarm Paris and sent the regular army into the city. After fraternisation with Paris workers, led by working-class women, they refused to carry out their orders.

Elections were held on 26 March and a Paris Commune was proclaimed, taking over from the Central Committee. The Commune was to be both the legislature (law maker) and executive, responsible for carrying out the new laws.

The majority of representatives were working class and were socialists of one sort or another — insurrectionary left Republicans who were followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui; as well as members of the International Working Men’s Association (the First Interntional) who in France were mainly influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and many were (out of line with Proudhon’s views) trade unionists. A small number of bourgeois Liberals and Radicals were also elected.

One of the first acts of the Commune was to grant a complete release from all rent from October, 1870, to July, 1871. There were to be many other acts in the interests of proletarian Paris. But there was never one clear manifesto.

Meanwhile the Assembly consolidated its army, strengthened by several regiments of released prisoners of war from Germany.

By the end of March all the “moderate” members of the Commune had resigned and the “respectable” population had left Paris.

On 1 April Thiers officially declared war on Paris. His attacks on Paris culminated in the mass slaughter of a “bloody week” in May. On 28 May the Commune fell.

In the next issues of Solidarity we will look at different aspects of the Commune. We begin with documents from the highpoint of the Commune’s all too brief existence. These documents were translated and printed in The Communards of Paris 1871, edited by Stuart Edwards and selected by Jill Mountford.

Eye-witness account, 18 March

The women and children were swarming up the hill-side in a compact mass; the artillerymen tried in vain to fight their way through the crowd, but the waves of people engulfed everything, surging over the cannon mounts, over the ammunition wagons, under the wheels, under the horses’ feet paralysing the action of the riders who spurred on their mounts in vain.

The horses reared and lunged forward, their sudden movement clearing the crowd, but the space was filled at once by a backwash created by the surging multitude.

Like breakers, the first rows of the crowd came crashing on to the batteries, repeatedly flooding them with people.

The artillerymen and cavalrymen of the train were holding their own with brave determination. The cannons had been entrusted to them and they made it a point of honour to defend them.

The women especially were crying out in fury: “Unharness the horses! Away with You! We want the cannons! We shall have the cannons!”

The artillerymen could see… in the face of such resistance all advance was impossible, but still they did not falter.

Soldiers who had deserted their regiments shouted at them to surrender, but they stayed in the saddle and continued to spur their horses on furiously.

A National Guardsman… shouted “cut the traces”!

The crowd let out great cheers. The women closest to the cannons, to which they had been clinging for half an hour, took the knives that the men passed down. They cut through the harness.

The artillerymen found themselves cut off their mounts… and surrounded by groups of people inviting them to fraternise.

They were offered flasks of wine and meat rolls.

The cannons had been retaken. The cannons were in the hands of the people.

An extract from an eye-witness account of the events in Montmartre on 18 March, 1871: d’Esboeufs, La Verite sur La Commune par un acien proscit.

The 11th Arrondissement was one of the most revolutionary districts. Its leaders believed the Republic needed social reform and greater control over the state by the citizens. Five of its seven candidates got elected to the Commune.

Below is the text of an election poster — a Statement of Principles of the Republican, Democratic and Socialist Central Electoral Committee of the 11th Arrondissement.

…The Revolution is the march of the peoples of the world for equal rights and duties.

In the Democratic and Social Republic this equality becomes a reality. Solidarity must reign among all men. The law must be a progressive embodiment of universal justice. The people must assert the rights and regime where this sovereignty can be exercised; therefore no majority may decide to replace it by any other form of government. If this were ever to take place it would mean no less than suicide for the people and the enslavement for future generations, along with the complete destruction of our natural, legitimate and inalienable rights which cannot be impeded or restricted:

1. The right to live;

2. Individual freedom;

3. Freedom of thought;

4.Freedom to assemble and associate;

5. Freedom of speech, of the Press and of all forms of expression;

6. Free elections.

The violation or attempted violation of any of these rights is legitimate grounds for insurrection. The Democratic and Social Republic should not and does not recognise any form of monarchy, since it delivers in the fellowship of the people of all lands as individuals.

Politics. The state is the people governing themselves through a National Assembly composed of representatives elected by universal, organised and direct suffrage and subject to removal. The people reserve the right to discuss and ratify all institutions and fundamental laws.

Work Production and Distribution. The while system of work should be reorganised. Since the aim of life is the limitless development of our physical, intellectual and moral capacities, property is and must only be the right of each one of us to share (to the extent of his individual contribution) in the collective fruit of labour which is the basis of social wealth.

The Nation must provide for those unable to work.

Public Office (Responsibility). The officials of the republic must be responsible at every level for all their actions. All public, national and communal offices should be temporary, elective and accessible to all, subject to a test of ability. All posts are to be re-numerated.

The plurality of functions is an offence against the entire Nation or one of its members and will be subject to the severest penalties.

National Defence. It is the duty of all citizens without distinction to defend the national territory.

Justice and Judiciary. Justice should be available to all; it will therefore be free for both defending and prosecuting parties.

All misconduct will be punished proportionately to the extent and consequences of the damage caused.

The jury system will be instituted in all courts.

Human life shall be considered inviolable, and no one shall be allowed to offend against it except in self-defence.

The aim of the penal system shall be the reform of the criminal.

Education. Education should be social. Secular and compulsory elementary education must be universal. Secondary and specialised education will be available to men and women citizens free of charge, on the basis of competitive and ordinary examinations.

Freedom of thought is the natural right of every individual; the various forms of worship will therefore be the entire responsibility of those who practice them. The separation of the churches and the State must be total. It is forbidden to practise any form of worship in public.

Taxation. The burdensome and vexatious fiscal system of numerous different taxes collected in a multiplicity of ways must be abolished. State revenue will be ensured by the levy of a single, progressive tax on all citizens in the form of an insurance premium. This tax will be collected at a local level and will be based on annual income. Each individual commune will control its share of the tax and will be responsible for its collection.

These are, in brief, the principles to which we are committed. We now call for the necessary reforms and political, legislative, financial and administrative measures to carry them into effect.

We look forward to a future where every citizen will exercise his rights to the full and be conscious of his duties, where there will be no more oppressors or oppressed, no class distinctions among citizens and no barriers between the peoples of different nations.

Since the family is the primary form of association, all families will join together to forma greater family, the Nation, and all nations will unite in a superior, collective entity, Humanity.

Organising women's work

The new movement was so unexpected and so radical that it was beyond the understanding of professional politicians, who merely saw it as an insignificant, aimless revolt.

Others have tried to belittle the spirit of the Revolution by reducing it to a mere demand for “municipal rights”, for some kind of administrative autonomy.

But the people are not taken in by the illusions perpetuated by governments, not by so-called parliamentary representation; in proclaiming the Commune they are not demanding certain municipal prerogatives but communal autonomy in its greatest sense.

To the people the Commune does not merely signify administrative autonomy; above all it represents a sovereign right of the community to create its own laws and political structure as a means to achieving the aims of the Revolution. These aims are the emancipation of labour, the end of monopolies and privileges, the abolition of the bureaucracy and of the feudalism of industrialists, speculators and capitalists, and finally of the creation of an economic order in which the reconciliation of interests and a fair system of exchange will replace the conflicts and disorders begotten by the old social order of inaction and laissez-faire.

For the people of the Commune this is the new order of equality, solidarity and liberty, the crowning of the communal revolution that Paris is proud to have initiated…

Today it is the duty of the commune to the workers who created it to take all necessary steps to achieve constructive results… Action must be taken and it must be taken fast. However, we must not resort to expedients or makeshift solutions that may sometimes be appropriate in abnormal situations but which only create formidable problems in the long run, such as those resulting from the closure of the National workshops in 1848.

…The Commune must abandon the mistaken ideas of old, it must gather inspiration from the very difficulties of the situation and apply methods that will survive the circumstances that first led to their use.

We will achieve this through the creation of special workshops for women and trading centres where finished products may be sold.

Each arrondissement would open premises where the raw materials would be taken in and distributed to individual women workers or to groups according to their skills. Other buildings would receive the finished products for their sale and storage.

The necessary organisation for the application of this scheme would be under the control of a committee of women appointed in each municipal district.

The Commune’s Commission of Labour and Exchange could organise the distribution of raw materials to the arrondissements from a vast central building.

Finally the Finance Delegate would make a weekly credit available to the municipalities so that work for women can be organised immediately…

A proposal for the organisation of women’s work from a printer member of the Commission of Labour and Exchange


The only way to reorganise labour so that the worker enjoys the product of his work is by forming free producers’ co-operatives which would run the various industries and share the profits.

These co-operatives would deliver Labour from capitalist exploitation and thus enable the workers to control their own affairs. They would also facilitate urgently needed reforms in techniques of production and in the social relations of workers as follows:

a) The diversification of work within each trade to counter the harmful effects on body and mind of continually repeating the same manual operation;

b) A reduction of working hours to prevent physical exhaustion leading to loss of mental faculties;

c) The abolition of all competition between men and women workers since their interests are absolutely identical and their solidarity essential to the success of the final and universal strike of Labour against Capital.

And therefore;

1. Equal pay for equal hours worked;

2. A federation of the various sections of the trades on a local and international level to facilitate the sale and exchange of products by centralising the international interests of the producers.

The general development of the producers’ co-operatives calls for:

1. Propaganda and organisation among the working masses; every cooperative member shall therefore be expected to join the International Working Men’s Association;

2. Financial aid from the State for the setting up of these co-operatives in the form of a social loan repayable in yearly instalments at 5% interest.

We also believe that in the social order of the past women’s work has been particularly subject to exploitation and therefore urgently needs to be reorganised.

…It is to be feared that the women of Paris will relapse under the pressure of continuous hardship to the passive and more or less reactionary role that the social order of the past had cut out for them. This would endanger the revolutionary and international interests of the peoples of the world and consequently the Commune.

Taken from the Address from the Central Committee of the Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded to the Commission of Labour and Exchange.

The burning of the guillotine


We have been informed of the construction of a new type of guillotine that was commissioned by the odious government — one that it is easier to transport and speedier. The Sub-Committee of the 11th Arrondissement has ordered the seizure of these servile instruments of monarchist domination and has voted that they be destroyed once and forever. They will therefore be burned at 10 o’clock on 6 April 1871, on the Place de la Mairies, for the purification of the Arrondissement and the consecration of our new freedom.

Seizing factories

On 16 April the Commune decreed that trade unions might take over any factories which were closed down because their owners had left Paris for the safety of the provinces during the war against Prussia.

The idea that workers’ co-operatives should replace capitalist production went back to the beginnings of the French labour movement, to the utopian socialist theorists of the 1830s; during the 1848 revolution more than 300 meetings on this subject had been held in different factories.

The co-operative idea was very common in the French section of the International. The strong anti-state element of French socialism, for example, Proudhon’s writings, and the close links between anarchism and workers’ organisations, meant that the aim was not nationalisation, state control over areas of the economy, but the formation of independent producers’ co-operatives. The State in Paris now meant the Commune and it was called upon to give aid in starting up such co-operatives.

Paris as festival

Would you believe it? Paris is fighting and singing! Paris is about to be attacked by a ruthless and furious army and she laughs! Paris is hemmed in on all sides by trenches and fortifications, and yet there are corners within these formidable walls where people still laugh!

Paris does not only have soldiers, she has singers too. She has both cannons and violins; she makes both orsini bombs and music. The clash of the cymbals can be heard in dreadful silence between rounds of firing, and merry dance airs mingle with the rattle of American machine-guns.

Paris would indeed be a strange sight for someone suddenly finding himself in our midst… At every stage he would come across some astonishing spectacle. Where he might expect to see a people in mourning, roaming grief-stricken among the empty streets and squares of their depopulated city, instead he would find them peacefully going about their affairs, bent, according to their fancy or the time of day, on either business or pleasure…

No better reply could be made to our stubborn enemies’ ceaseless cannonade than the refrain that a thousand voices intone every night in the music halls of Paris:

“The peoples of the workers are brothers to us,

Our enemies are the Versaillaise.”

This is an abridged article written by the symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam under the pseudonym Marius for the Commune paper Le Tribun du Peuple.

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