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The Resolution of the Communards

The Paris Commune was founded 150 years ago today. The working class took power for the first time in history. This new government fought for workers’ control and women’s liberation.

Doug Enaa Greene

March 18, 2021
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An illustration from "Le Cri Du Peuple" by Jacques Tardi

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Whereas nobody’s left who still believes
The government whatever it promises
We have resolved we’ll build ourselves good lives
By being the only ones who govern us.
Whereas you’ll listen to what the cannon say —
No other language will you listen to —
Well then, we’ll have to turn the cannon your way.
Yes, that will be the best thing we can do!
— Bertolt Brecht, “Resolution of the Communards

On March 18, 1871, the National Guard took over all the strategic points in Paris without meeting any resistance. It was the largest revolutionary organization in Paris, but it had not planned to take power that day. Now power had practically fallen into its hands; the guard had only to decide what to do with it.

Almost immediately, the Central Committee of the National Guard decided to relinquish its power. The National Guard believed that its revolution was illegitimate and that it lacked a “legal” mandate to rule. It was decided to hold elections as soon as possible. On March 26, the working people of Paris went to the polls to elect a new Communal Council. The results reflected the diversity of leftist opinion: the 92 members of the elected council were mostly Jacobins, Blanquists, and Internationalists (i.e., members of the International Workingmen’s Association). Blanqui himself was elected, even though he was rotting in prison.

The new Communal Council now replaced the National Guard as the legitimate government of Paris. On March 28, in front of the Hôtel de Ville, now draped with red flags, the creation of the Paris Commune was formally announced. The crowd of thousands was euphoric, singing revolutionary songs such as “Ça Ira” and “La Marseillaise,” and shouting “Vive la Commune!” That same day, the Communal Council held its first meeting in a hopeful mood. In its first measures, the Commune made Blanqui its honorary president and abolished the death penalty and military conscription. The National Guard or the armed people were now the sole armed force.

In its short existence, the Paris Commune passed a series of unprecedented laws. Truly, this was a government like none before it: all privileges for state functionaries were abolished, and it was decreed that no representative could be paid more than the average worker’s wage. Furthermore, all representatives were accountable to the people and could be recalled at any time. As Marx observed, “The Commune made that catchword of bourgeois revolutions — cheap government — a reality by destroying the two greatest sources of expenditure: the standing army and state functionarism.”1Karl Marx. “The Civil War in France,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 22, 334 (henceforth MECW).

By fusing the legislative and executive functions of government, the commune made radical democracy a reality. As Marx said,

While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.2Marx, “Civil War in France,” 332–33.

Other measures included separating church and state. Religion was now declared a strictly private affair. Empty homes and public buildings were requisitioned for the homeless. Rent was suspended. Public education, art, and culture were now made available for all. Even though the commune revived the French Revolutionary Calendar, it was not simply reliving the glory days of the Jacobins. The guillotine was publicly burned. Symbols of French militarism, such as the Vendôme Column, were destroyed before cheering crowds.

The commune adopted not the French tricolor but the red flag, because “the flag of the Commune is that of the Universal Republic.”3Marx, “Drafts of The Civil War in France,” in MECW, vol. 22, 476. Foreign workers were not looked on as enemies but as comrades in struggle. Many Polish exiles proudly served in the commune, such as former military officer Jaroslav Dombrowski, who served as a commander of the National Guard.

You might also be interested in: The Commune at 150: Socialists and the State

Considering that the commune lasted only 72 days, the communards did not have time to work out a complete plan for the transition to socialism. They did, however, take some courageous first steps to overturn centuries of social, economic, and political inequality.

Workers’ Control

In a letter written to Marx, the Hungarian-born Internationalist Leo Frankel said, “If we could bring about a radical modification in class relations, the revolution of March 18th would be the most fruitful of all those revolutions that history has recorded.”4“Letter Written to Karl Marx by Leo Frankel Following his Election as a Member of the Commune,” in The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, ed. Eugene Schulkind (New York: Grove Press, 1974), 117–18. Frankel was uniquely placed to realize those “radical modifications.” He was a delegate to the commune’s Commission of Labor and Exchange, which was largely staffed by members of the International, and he undertook measures to protect the interests of the working class. Among the commission’s actions were closing pawnshops, which ruthlessly exploited the workers. The commission also abolished night work by bakers and fines in factories.

The commission had far more ambitious plans, however. It promised to resume the economic life that the war and siege of Paris had disrupted. During the revolution, many capitalists fled Paris, abandoning their factories and leaving thousands unemployed. In a decree presented to the commune, Frankel argued that these factories should be taken over and run by the workers themselves:

Considering that a number of workshops have been abandoned by their management without any regard for the interests of their workers and in order to evade the fulfillment of civic responsibilities; Considering that as a result of this cowardly desertion many productive activities vital to the community’s well-being have been stopped, and the livelihood of many workers jeopardized … [The abandoned workshops] are now to be operated by co-operative associations of the workers who are employed in them.5For the full text of the decree, see “Decree on Co-operative Operation of Abandoned Workshops,” in Schulkind, Commune of 1871, 162–63.

The decree did not represent the complete nationalization of industry, since it applied only to abandoned factories and compensated the owners. But labor unions welcomed the measure. The Tailors’ Union praised the action in the highest terms: “No government has ever given the working class a better chance to assert their rights. To abstain would be to betray the cause of the emancipation of the working class.”6“Trade Union of Tailors,” in Schulkind, Commune of 1871, 164. Typographical workers saw cooperative ownership as an important step to socialism: “We will abolish monopolies and employers through the adoption of a system of workers’ cooperative associations. There will be no more exploiters and no more exploited. We will thrive working or die fighting.”7Schulkind, Commune of 1871, 165.

The International hailed the commune’s actions as the dawn of a new age:

The people — the proletariat is victorious. … After many violent upheavals, we have now achieved a revolution through the combination of unity and justice; this revolution is above all a social revolution. We are not witnessing today the usual change of dynasty, or the organization of a moderate republican form of government with essentially royalist institutions. This revolution represents the unshakeable establishment of new political forms that give expression to all our social demands.8“Newspaper Articles Under Name of a Neighborhood Section (Ivrybercy) of the International,” in Schulkind, Commune of 1871, 181–82.

Despite the sincerity of Frankel and the enthusiasm of the workers, the decree on workers’ control was carried out haphazardly and chaotically. Private industry and workers’ control coexisted uneasily. The dire military situation made it impossible to do much to truly plan the economy. In the end, only a few dozen factories were run by worker cooperatives, and not all of them were organized democratically.9Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune 1871 (New York: Longman, 1999), 94.

For all its limitations, though, the decree on workers’ control showed that the imperatives of profit and the market were not the only way to organize the economy. The commune showed that the associated producers can plan the economy to their benefit.

Women’s Liberation

The working-class women of the commune were considered pétroleuses by the French middle classes: women who torched buildings and private property during the so-called Bloody Week. These pétroleuses were proof for the patriarchal bourgeoisie that the commune had unleashed all sorts of bestial passions that threatened to destroy the family, religion, and civilization itself. While, the ferocious pétroleuses setting France ablaze were largely a reactionary myth, the commune did seek to liberate working-class women. Women participated in every stage of the commune from March 18 to the final stand in May. They viewed the revolution as their own, taking on many roles, from teachers and nurses to soldiers and politicians. For the women active in the commune, social equality was inseparable from political questions.

You might also be interested in: The Women Incendiaries of the Paris Commune

One of the most famous women who took part in the commune was the anarchist Louise Michel, known as the “Red Virgin of Montmartre.” Initially, Michel worked as a nurse during the siege of Paris, but she was later active in both the Women’s Vigilance Committee and the National Guard. During the commune, she was an ally of the Blanquists Raoul Rigault and Théophile Ferré. At one point, Michel planned to assassinate President Adolphe Thiers, although her Blanquist comrades talked her out of it.

Michel fought on the barricades during the Bloody Week and was captured by Thiers’s counterrevolutionary army, known as the Versaillais. In her subsequent trial, Michel was defiant in defending her role during the commune. “I am also charged with being an accomplice of the Commune,” she said. “That is quite true, since above everything else the Commune wanted to bring about the Social Revolution, and Social Revolution is my dearest wish. Moreover, I am honored to be singled out as one of the promoters of the Commune.”10Louise Michel, “The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel,” The Anarchist Library. Michel was sentenced to exile but returned to France after the surviving communards were amnestied. She remained an unrepentant anarchist militant until her death.

The commune undertook a number of measures in favor of women. Civil marriage was recognized, and divorce, illegal since 1816, was reestablished. It recognized “illegitimate” children, in effect making unmarried women the equals of married women.

These decrees were supported by the Union des Femmes, one of the most important women’s organizations during the commune. The union’s main organizer was Elisabeth Dimitrieff, a 20-year-old lower-class Russian and a member of the First International who had served as Marx’s secretary in London.11Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 70–79. At its height, the Union des Femmes had from 3,000 to 4,000 members, who were largely drawn from the working class.

The union demanded a series of immediate reforms for women, such as reduced working hours, equal pay, trade unions, and cooperatives.12“Letter from the Association of Women to the Commission of Labor and Exchange, followed by Text of Proposal,” in Schulkind, Paris Commune of 1871, 175–76. Ultimately, the organization believed that without challenging the foundation of women’s oppression the commune’s revolution would be incomplete: “The Commune, representing the principle of extinction of all privilege and all inequality — should therefore consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes.”13“From the Women Citizens,” in Schulkind, Commune of 1871, 173.

While the commune accomplished much, its promise of women’s liberation still remains unfulfilled.

Defending the Revolution

From its first day, the great question confronting the commune was whether to focus on military defense or on carrying through with social reforms. This was no abstract discussion. The French Army was determined to reconquer Paris and drown the revolution in blood. For Blanquists such as Émile Duval, it was imperative for the Commune to strike first.

The chances for victory were greatest during the opening days of the revolution. Since most of the French army were POWs, Thiers had only 12,000 troops at his command. The National Guard had superior numbers, and a swift strike could succeed. Instead, the Communal Council wanted to avoid civil war and began negotiations with Thiers. It was a forlorn hope for the commune. Thiers recognized that civil war had begun and could end only with one side or the other victorious. The Blanquist Gaston Da Costa understood this as well: “It would not be striking it with decrees and proclamations that a breach in the Versailles Assembly would be achieved, but by striking it with cannonballs.”14Quoted in Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 117.

By the time the National Guard took the offensive on April 4, it had neglected the most basic preparations for war. Lissagaray describes its pitiful state: “They neglected even the most elementary precautions, knew not how to collect artillery, ammunition-wagons or ambulances, forgot to make an order of the day, and left the men for several hours without food in a penetrating fog. Every Federal chose the leader he liked best. Many had no cartridges, and believed the sortie to be a simple demonstration.”15Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007), 137. The offensive was an utter disaster for the commune.

Thiers used the commune’s earlier delay to his advantage. He reorganized the army and negotiated with Bismarck for the release of POWs. Over the next two months, the French army rebuilt its forces and surrounded Paris in preparation for a final assault. The Commune never again took the offensive since it lacked a disciplined and centralized army. In two months, the commune went through five war delegates to head the National Guard, but none provided the military leadership they desperately needed.

While the commune was full of great revolutionary energy, it had no clear leadership or program. The diversity of interests, ideologies, and personalities in the Communal Council made it an ineffective governing body. There was no single figure among the ranks of the communards who could provide clear moral and political authority. As a result, the commune was bogged down by inertia and disorganization.

The Blanquists believed that stern measures were needed to defeat the enemy. In light of the commune’s disarray, Rigault believed that Blanqui alone could lead them to salvation: “Without Blanqui, nothing could be done. With him, everything.”16Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870–71 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 338. The problem was that Blanqui was in prison and negotiations with Thiers failed to secure his release. In an act of desperation, Rigault offered to exchange the Archbishop of Paris and 70 other hostages held by the commune for Blanqui. Thiers refused. Marx noted that Thiers’s actions deprived the commune of its natural leader: “The Commune again and again had offered to exchange the archbishop, and ever so many priests into the bargain, against the single Blanqui, then in the hands of Thiers. Thiers obstinately refused. He knew that with Blanqui he would give to the Commune a head; while the archbishop would serve his purpose best in the shape of a corpse.”17Marx, “Civil War in France,” 352. For a discussion on whether the communards could have achieved victory if Blanqui had been present, see my “Missing Victory? Blanqui and the Paris Commune,” Cosmonaut.

Bloody Week

By the middle of May, the fate of the Paris Commune was a foregone conclusion. Thiers’s armies were amassed. They were ready to defeat the commune, and everyone knew it. It was just a matter of when. On May 21, the French army passed through an undefended portion of the city’s perimeter. By that evening, more than 60,000 enemy soldiers were inside Paris.

Thiers wanted to crush the commune and “restore order for a generation,” so no terms of surrender were offered. What followed over the next seven days has gone down in history as the “Bloody Week,” which saw more people killed in a week than the Jacobin Terror of 1793–94 killed in a year. Some 20,000 to 25,000 men, women, and children were indiscriminately massacred as the French Army reconquered Paris.18Horne, Fall of Paris, 418. Horne says that the numbers range wildly from 6,500 to 40,000, but most French historians agree on 20,000 to 25,000. The stark contrast between red and white terror during Bloody Week has been noted by many writers, such as the communist novelist Guy Endore. Endore’s work, The Werewolf of Paris originally published in 1933 was set in the backdrop of the Paris Commune and one of the most important works in the werewolf genre. The Werewolf of Paris makes the following observation about the terror of Bloody Week: “The Commune shot fifty-seven from the prison of La Roquette. Versailles retaliated with nineteen hundred. To that comparison add this one. The whole famous Reign of Terror in fifteen months guillotined 2,596 aristos. The Versaillists executed 20,000 before their firing squads in one week. Do these figures represent the comparative efficiency of guillotine and modern rifle, or the comparative cruelty of upper and lower class mobs?” Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris (New York: Pegasus Crime, 2012), 263-264. As Marx noted, this ferocious violence by bourgeois society was no accident: “The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge.”19Marx, “Civil War in France,” 348.

After the last communards were killed at Père-Lachaise on May 28, “order” was restored to Paris. Thousands of communards were taken prisoner, many of whom later died of hunger and thirst. Others were sent into distant exile in New Caledonia. Only in 1880, when amnesty was granted, could they finally return home.

The Paris Commune was defeated, but it was a blazing manifesto to the entire world. The communards had shown that a different world is possible, one free of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Nevertheless, it is not enough to look to the commune for inspiration. Rather, workers must understand both its successes and failures in order to achieve a lasting victory.

The third part of this series will appear on Sunday.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.


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