Paris Commune

Paris Commune
   A short-lived rebel government in power in the French capital from 18 March until 28 May 1871, at which point it was violently put down by Adolphe Thiers’ Government of National Defense. When the provisional government in France signed a humiliating peace with Bismarck following the conclusion of the Franco–Prussian War in 1871, the republican and socialist majority in the city of Paris reacted with disgust. Napoleon III had agreed to relinquish Alsace-Lorraine to Bismarck, and allow the Prussian army to occupy Paris. Horrified at such concessions, Parisians demanded a continuation of the war, and a return to the principles of the First Republic. As rebellion against the government appeared impending, the Bordeaux-based National Assembly further infuriated the public by ending the legal ban on wages owed to the National Guard, thus robbing the impoverished population of many of the public funds they had been surviving on. The balance finally tipped when it was decreed that all artillery in Paris be surrendered. Government troops sent to seize canons were violently resisted with two generals hanged. Parisians demanded independence from the national government, and open revolt broke out. On 18 March, the Paris Commune was hastily assembled to organize the rebellion and take up the governance of Paris. The National Guard, having defended Paris during the five-month Prussian siege, held elections 10 days later to select a 92-member body to run the Commune. A 229,000 strong electorate put into power a collection of moderates and radicals, who in turn formed a Central Committee including neo- Jacobins, Blanquists, socialists from across the spectrum, anarchists, and members of the First International from all walks of Parisian life. The group favored a federal approach to governance, both in terms of a system for their central executive, and the way in which their program would be adopted by a federation of autonomous selfgoverning communes throughout France. Indeed, they divided Paris itself into 48 sections. The name Paris Commune was chosen not because of its relation to the word “communism” (though this connotation was enough to galvanize frenzied bourgeois opposition), but to pay homage to a movement of the same name in 1792 that had done much to radicalize the French Revolution in the turmoil of that time. The Paris Commune’s defying of Thiers’ bourgeois republic caused indignation in the National Assembly, which sat initially in Bordeaux before fleeing to the Palace of Versailles. The monarchist National Assembly refused to recognize the authority of the Paris Commune, and with neither party contemplating compromise, Thiers demanded that the revolt be ruthlessly crushed. The communards, rather than being able to concentrate on implementing their raft of radical reforms to hand control to workers, pursue anti-clerical measures, and execute the Franco–Prussian war, were instead forced to prepare themselves for invasion. The Versailles army, led by General Gallifet, slowly progressed, avenue by avenue, toward the center of Paris. Having seen in April their initial offensive on the forts of Mont Valerian repelled by the communards, the Assembly troops made steady gains, blockaded themselves in, and in the final days of May prepared for a final assault. On 21 May, the Versailles troops began a week of bloody fighting which would see some 25,000 people killed. The besieged communards burned down a number of public buildings such as the Hôtel de Ville, and executed a number of their prisoners including the Archbishop of Paris. Their resistance was brutally put down by Thiers’ men, and any last vestige of hope they may have possessed was extinguished by the summary execution of the remaining communard leadership at the cemetery of Pére Lachaise, a site which was to become a shrine for socialists and Marxists everywhere. Following the demise of the Commune, the National Assembly undertook a series of fierce reprisals, imprisoning or executing 13,000 suspected Commune supporters, and deporting 7,500 to New Caledonia. National Guard troops who had fought on the side of the Commune were arrested or executed, as the reactionary classes attempted to teach working class socialists and radicals a painful lesson.
   The inadvertent legacy of this was a widening of class divisions in France, as mutual hatred and bitterness reached new heights on all sides.
   The Paris Commune was of immense importance to Marxists throughout Europe, if only through the legendary status it assumed among radicals as the first ever proletarian revolt. The violence that the Commune was met with, while slowing the march of revolutionary socialism in France, instilled in Marxian thinkers an awareness that radical revolution would be met with reprisals from conservative elements. Karl Marx himself claimed that the Paris Commune had represented the first step to full communist revolution, and in The Civil War in France (1871) he provided a description of events relating to the Commune that was later used by Vladimir Ilich Lenin to justify the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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