The Paris Commune: Historical Summary

The men in the pictures don't look much like professional soldiers, do they? And that's because they aren't - or rather, weren't. Seen here on ceremonial parade, they were ordinary Paris workmen or perhaps small shopkeepers. But despite their un-martial appearance they were prepared to die in the defence of their city council or "commune".
Does that sound cuckoo?
Read on!


Paris didn't get its own elected "commune" until 1871. (Largely because the government had always been too scared of the Parisians' rebellious spirit, to give them any degree of real autonomy!)

There had been a war (the Franco-Prussian War) which had ended with a long siege of Paris. During the siege the government had rather unwillingly allowed a large "National Guard" to form, in which all Parisian males could enrol. (The men in our pictures were members.)
But at the end of February, 1871, the government capitulated to the Germans. There was fury among the Parisian people, most of whom were against the surrender, despite having suffered terribly during the siege. And the government, by most standards a reactionary and oppressive one, decided that its first task after making peace with the Prussians must be to disarm the National Guard.

So on 18th March 1871 regular soldiers were sent to seize the Guard's cannon, which were in depots at Montmartre and other places in Paris. But things went very wrong. Instead of doing their "duty", the government's soldiers fraternised with the Guard and with the ordinary people! The government took fright, and fled to Versailles, with those soldiers who remained loyal.

Paris, if not France, was now without a government. And so the the National Guard organised elections for a commune (which from now on we shall dignify with a capital "C"!) and the members duly took office on 26th March. The government had taken with it to Versailles its bureaucrats and as many "specialists" (from engineers and doctors, to postmasters, with their stock of stamps!) as were willing to come. It was confident that without "experts" the newly-elected Commune would collapse within a week or two. Instead, the Commune flourished and quickly became the de facto authority in Paris. Its success in difficult circumstances was due chiefly to the continuing, democratic participation of the people who had elected it.


During the siege, many, or most, of the districts of Paris had thrown up their own local, ad hoc organisations, through which the ordinary residents began to take direct charge of their affairs, starting with food distribution and going on to other socially important matters. This was especially the case in poor districts like Belleville (see picture) and Montmartre.

These organisations were often called "clubs" and worked largely through general meetings, debates and consensus.

When the Commune was elected its members (paid only the wage of a skilled craftsman) often worked closely with the local organs of self-management ("autogestion"), whose activities became, if anything, even more crucial.

Meanwhile, in Versailles the former government was trying to rebuild (with Prussian help) its defeated professional army. It had been forced to accept that Paris, with its own Communal government, could thrive.


Paris in 1871 was the second city of the world, in many ways as advanced as London, with the same complicated infrastructures: sewage, water supply, food markets, gas, transport, hospitals, etc.

The Parisians and their elected representatives - who were, in fact, delegates rather than representatives, subject to recall and always answerable to their voters - managed to run all the vital services. They didn't get round to resuming the war with Germany, whose troops continued to remain encamped around Paris. But they made a start on some very progressive social reforms - though the Commune was denied time to implement them all:

A moratorium on unpaid rents which had accumulated during the siege (enacted.)
All factories and workshops deserted by their owners to be taken over and run by the employees (enacted.)
Equalisation of wages (proposed.)
Free education, including technical and art-and-design education for all (proposed.)
And - that picture on the right! - the Commune enacted that all workmen who had been forced to pledge their essential tools during the war and siege, in order not to starve, should have them restored without charge by the Mont de piété, the official pawnshops! Of the hundreds of pictures I have researched (mainly of barricade scenes!) this is the most telling... See the carpenter who's just got his planes back!

The clubs remained active, like the club Michel, which organised the fight against speculators, and the club Ambroise which organised the requisition of necessities in its district. Of course, several political tendencies were represented in the Commune: some of its members were supporters of Marx's International of Workingmen, others embraced a Jacobinism which had its roots in the French Revolution, there were admirers of Blanqui and Proudhon, as well as many with no political affiliation at all. It is also true that the vision of a society not based on a commodity economy, without wage-labour and whose dynamic would not be profit, was barely glimpsed. On the other hand, for most delegates, human needs took precedence over those of the capitalist market.


How the communal experiment might have developed is a matter of speculation. It was given only sixty days, hardly long enough to be seen as a staging post towards "socialism" or perhaps any other "-ism" at all. But it can be seen as clear evidence that the democratic self-management of society, without expensive, and usually oppressive, bureaucratic machinery, is practicable!

There have been other attempts to introduce social and political structures which involve true participatory democracy and self-management. However, these have always been on a small scale or in simple, backward and undeveloped societies.
The Paris Commune was an example of a genuinely participatory democracy within an advanced, complex social structure. But still surrounded by the Prussian armies, as well as by the government's newly-created forces, Paris remained isolated from the rest of France.

After 2 months, the government attacked and re-occupied the city.
It took one week, known as "La semaine sanglante", the Week of Blood.
By the time the government had restored its own version of "law and order", anything from 30,000 to 100,000 Parisians had been murdered by its troops (the exact figures will never be known, but 30,000 is the lowest estimate.) These included many sympathetic small businessmen and professional people, including freemasons. - 17.3.2002