Paris Commune

views updated May 14 2018


the franco-prussian war
the versailles government
the outbreak of the paris commune
the character of the paris commune
the defeat of the paris commune
the legacy and significance of the paris commune

The Paris Commune of 1871 was the most important urban popular rising in Europe between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of February 1917. It ended the series of Paris popular risings begun in July 1789 and continued in July 1830 and June 1848; it involved a popular revolutionary seizure of power in Continental Europe's premier city; and it inspired a legend of revolutionary government, heroic resistance, and tragic martyrdom that enjoyed a century's iconic status for the European Left.


The reasons for the outbreak of the Paris Commune were many and complex. Paris was a quite exceptional city. Its population had risen from approximately 1.2 million in 1850 to nearly 2 million in 1870, a figure larger than that of the combined populations of the next fourteen most populous French cities. Rapid expansion reflected the city's status as France's most important industrial center and largest building site. More than one-fifth of all French urban workers lived in Paris and they tended to be highly skilled and literate. The rebuilding of Paris under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (Prefect of the Seine, 1853–1869) in the interests of modernization, imperial prestige, security, and the bourgeoisie necessitated tax increases, involved authoritarian planning decisions, and attracted large numbers of construction workers and other migrants to the capital.

At the same time, workers and their families were displaced from the city center to outlying suburbs with virtually nonexistent public transport. Since Paris was the imperial capital, as well as the principal business center and urban resort of the rich in France, Paris workers were exposed to the extravagances and excesses of the court and of the wealthy elite in this "New Babylon." Moreover, Paris had a revolutionary tradition going back to 1789, renewed in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and demonstrated again in the resistance to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's (later Napoleon III; r. 1852–1871) coup d'état of 2 December 1851. Thereafter, election results and the plebiscite of May 1870 confirmed that Paris remained the center of opposition to the Second Empire. The liberalization of the regime during the 1860s simply facilitated the emergence of radical opposition leadership, for example, against state centralization, of opposition newspapers, and of opposition ideologies (the Belleville Programme of 1869), aided by the law of 18 June 1868, which tolerated public meetings.

the franco-prussian war

The political alienation of the Paris working class from the Second Empire did not mean that a revolutionary situation existed in Paris before July 1870. It took the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and the decisions of the Thiers government to transform political alienation into violent revolution. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War on 19 July 1870 rapidly led to the defeat at Sedan on 2 September, when Napoleon III and approximately one hundred thousand French soldiers surrendered. The news of this catastrophe in turn led on 4 September to a crowd invasion of the Legislative Body (the lower house of the French parliament), the proclamation of the Third Republic at the Hôtel de Ville (the Paris city hall), and the formation of a Government of National Defense. The new French government included a radical, Léon-Michel Gambetta (1838–1882), as Minister of the Interior, but moderate republicans predominated. The moderate republicans wanted to make peace, but the demands of Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) for a large indemnity and the cessation of Alsace and much of Lorraine were considered too high. The war therefore continued. By 19 September German forces had surrounded Paris, cutting it off from the rest of France. Paris had modern fortifications, consisting of a thirty mile rampart and sixteen outlying forts; the city had numerous defenders, including both regular soldiers and members of the National Guard (a civilian militia), who were reasonably well supplied with weapons and ammunition; and the city initially had substantial food stocks. Consequently, the Germans decided not to try to capture the city by assault, while the Parisians were able to survive a prolonged siege.

The Government of National Defense (except Gambetta) wanted to end the war as quickly as possible and so neither introduced radical measures nor prosecuted the war vigorously. In contrast, most of those besieged in Paris, fired by political radicalism and patriotic republicanism, urged a total mobilization of national resources for the war effort and an aggressive military strategy against the Germans. The failure of sorties from Paris or of a relieving force from the provinces to end the siege, the German decision to begin an artillery bombardment of Paris from 5 January 1871, and, above all, the near-exhaustion of food supplies in Paris, led to the negotiation of an armistice on 28 January 1871.

By this date the siege had transformed the situation in Paris. A revolutionary leadership had emerged, partly through vigilance committees set up in each arrondissement or district. A popular revolutionary program had been developed, including the introduction of an elected city council or commune, the election of all public officials, and the replacement of the police and the regular army by the National Guard. The National Guard itself had been hugely expanded to more than 340,000 men, all of whom were paid one franc and thirty centimes per day and most of whom were issued with a uniform and military equipment. Recruitment was organized on a neighborhood basis and officers were elected. Much of the population of Paris had been radicalized by political clubs and newspapers; by the conservative and defeatist policies of the Government of National Defense; and by the whole traumatic experience of the siege, especially the desperate food situation, aggravated by the nonimplementation of an adequate food-rationing system.

the versailles government

One of the conditions of the armistice was that elections should be held as soon as possible for a National Assembly that would approve the final peace treaty between France and the newly proclaimed German Empire. The elections (8 February 1871) revealed the political division between Paris and the provinces. Nearly all the forty-three representatives elected in Paris were prowar radical republicans, whereas provincial voters returned more than four hundred conservatives but barely one hundred republicans. The National Assembly, meeting at Bordeaux on 17 February, chose Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877) as head of the executive. Unsurprisingly, Thiers and his new government pursued conservative policies, unsympathetic to Paris: a law of 15 February limited National Guard pay to those who could present an official certificate of dire poverty;

the Germans were allowed to hold a military parade down the Champs Elysées on 1 March; a right-wing aristocrat, General de Paladines, was appointed on 3 March commander of the Paris National Guard; six radical Paris newspapers were suppressed; a military court condemned two radical leaders (Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens [1838–1871] and Auguste Blanqui [1805–1881]) to death; the moratorium in Paris on the payment of rents and commercial bills of exchange was ended; and the National Assembly decided to meet at Versailles, former seat of absolute monarchy and recent setting for the proclamation of the German Empire (18 January 1871).

the outbreak of the paris commune

Finally, the Versailles government on 18 March sent troops to remove cannon parked in the working-class suburbs of Belleville and Montmartre. This attempt to deprive the National Guard of its most dangerous weapons is understandable, but so too is the Parisian response. Angry crowds of National Guards and civilians obstructed the troops, who refused to resist. Several officers were arrested and two generals, Claude Martin Lecomte (1817–1871), the commander of the troops at Montmartre, and Clément Thomas (1809–1871), the former commander-in-chief of the Paris National Guard, were executed.

A panicked Thiers, fearing that troops of the Paris garrison and civil servants would become prisoners of the insurgents, ordered all soldiers and government civil servants to withdraw to Versailles, thereby creating a power vacuum. The remaining representatives of authority in Paris, the mayors of the city's arrondissements, the National Assembly representatives of Paris, and the Central Committee of the National Guard all agreed that elections should be held on 26 March for a new commune or city council. Political radicalization during the siege, hatred of Thiers and the Versailles government, and the behavior of the bourgeoisie (who tended either to leave Paris or to boycott the elections) led to a sweeping left-wing victory: only nineteen moderates, as opposed to seventy-three members of the Left, were elected. The Paris Commune was formally proclaimed in a solemn ceremony on 28 March.

The military situation for the Paris Commune was hopeless from the start. The Paris National Guard lacked discipline and units were usually reluctant to fight outside the neighborhoods from which they had been recruited. Attempts to mount sorties against the well-entrenched Versailles troops all failed. Communes in Lyon, Marseille, Limoges, Toulouse, Narbonne, St. Étienne, and Le Creusot were soon suppressed, so no help came from provincial France. The German army remained encamped on the outskirts of Paris, ostensibly neutral but potentially hostile to the Commune. Bismarck released French prisoners of war to the Versailles government, which was able to build up forces of overwhelming strength and begin a steady assault on the city's defenses. The southwestern ramparts were penetrated on 21 May, although it took a week of sometimes intense fighting against insurgents defending buildings and street barricades before the Commune finally fell on 28 May.

the character of the paris commune

Despite its increasingly desperate military situation, the short-lived Paris Commune was remarkable for its social and political character. Most members of the Commune council belonged either to the lower middle class or to the working-class elite, at a time when upper-class elites dominated governments throughout Europe. Politically, Communards saw themselves as being republicans, revolutionaries, patriots, and Parisians. No organized political parties existed, although there were factions such as the Blanquists (revolutionaries) and the Jacobins (left-wing republicans). Although distorted by military demands and limited by lack of time, Communard priorities can be discerned. Communards believed in grassroots democracy and the election and public accountability of all officials. The National Guard, recruited from all able-bodied men, replaced the police and the regular army. The confiscation of church buildings, the destruction of religious symbols, the dismissal of religious personnel from their jobs, and the planning of a secular educational system all featured in an anticlerical crusade. Women-friendly policies included equal pay for male and female teachers, support for women's committees and women's cooperatives, and pensions for common-law wives of National Guards killed in action.

Economic policy, though, was relatively conservative. Night-work in bakeries was banned and the price of bread was fixed. The moratorium on rents was reinstated and extended to objects pawned in the state pawnshops. However, property was not confiscated, except church property; and, until the last week of the Commune, property was not destroyed, again except church property and symbolically significant buildings and monuments, such as Thiers's townhouse and the Vendôme column. A decree of 16 April did provide for the confiscation of workshops, but only if they had been abandoned. Compensation was to be paid to their owners, and the decree was not put into practice. The Commune also promoted the establishment of producers' cooperatives.

the defeat of the paris commune

The final week of the Commune (21–28 May), "the Bloody Week," witnessed atrocities on both sides. Communards burnt prominent public buildings, such as the Hôtel de Ville and the Tuileries Palace, and executed hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy (1813–1871) on 24 May, and a group of fifty (mostly priests and policemen) on 26 May. The Versailles troops shot numerous prisoners, most notoriously in front of a wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

After final resistance had been overcome, nearly forty thousand suspects were rounded up, of whom approximately ten thousand were found guilty. In all, it is likely that as many as twenty-five thousand Parisians were executed, with notoriously radical neighbourhoods such as Belleville especially targeted. Four thousand people were transported to New Caledonia and the remainder were imprisoned. An amnesty was not granted until 1880.

the legacy and significance of the paris commune

The total military defeat of the Commune and the harsh treatment of suspected Communards virtually

destroyed the radical Left in French politics for nearly a decade and massively discouraged any future resort to violent popular revolution in France. Under the leadership of Thiers until 1873, and then the Duc de Broglie (Albert, 1821–1901) and Marshal de Mac-Mahon (1808–1893) (commander of the troops who suppressed the Commune), the Third Republic emerged as a conservative regime. A monarchist restoration was avoided, but when republicans came to power from 1877 their radicalism was anticlerical rather than socialist. Paris lost its National Guard and mayor (the latter until 1977). The French parliament and president did not leave Versailles for Paris until 1879. Public buildings burnt by the Communards were rebuilt exactly as they had been, except for the Tuileries Palace. The basilica of Sacré Coeur was erected on the heights of Montmartre, where the Commune had begun and Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been executed. Altogether, the memory of the Commune was officially obliterated while conservatives portrayed the Communards as bloodthirsty savages and blamed the burning of public buildings on female incendiarists (pétroleuses).

In contrast, Karl Marx (1818–1883) hailed the Commune as a proletarian government that had destroyed the bourgeois bureaucratic machine and as "the glorious harbinger of a new society" that should serve as a model for future revolutionary governments. He did, however, criticize the Commune for failing to launch an immediate attack on Versailles and for failing to seize the gold reserves of the Bank of France. For the French Left, the Commune became a symbol of heroic resistance and martyrdom, annually commemorated at a ceremony at Pére Lachaise cemetery.

See alsoBlanqui, Auguste; First International; France; Franco-Prussian War; Marx, Karl; Paris; Republicanism; Socialism.


Primary Sources

Marx, Karl. The Civil War in France. Peking, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Edwards, Stewart. The Paris Commune 1871. London, 1971.

Greenberg, Louis M. Sisters of Liberty: Marseille, Lyon, Paris, and the Reaction to a Centralized State, 1868–1871. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

Rougerie, Jacques. Paris libre, 1871. Paris, 1971.

Shafer, David A. "'Plus que des Ambulancières': Women in Articulation and Defence of Their Ideals during the Paris Commune (1871)." French History 7 (1993): 85–101.

Tombs, Robert. The War against Paris, 1871. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

——. The Paris Commune 1871. Harlow, Essex, U.K., and New York, 1999.

William Fortescue

Paris Commune

views updated May 17 2018

Paris Commune

France 1871


In March 1871 the citizens of the city of Paris rejected the authority of the French national government at Versailles. The immediate origins of this revolt against the central government lay in the Franco-Prussian War and the four-month siege of Paris. Fuelled by intense patriotism and isolation from the rest of France, radical and socialist elements came to the fore among the Parisian lower classes. With the end of the siege and the defeat of France, the Parisian population felt betrayed. In the face of open defiance from the Parisian National Guard, the government withdrew from Paris. In its place, municipal elections created the Paris Commune, which instigated some social reforms. The Commune was eventually defeated, resulting in the massacre of approximately 25,000 people in one of the worst periods of violence in French history. In the immediate aftermath, the labor movement in France was destroyed, and the international socialist movement faced repression. However, the Paris Commune raised the profile of socialism, and in its failure, became an important example to socialists worldwide.


  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well as vigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.
  • 1853: Crimean War begins in October. The struggle, which will last until February 1856, pits Russia against the combined forces of Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia-Piedmont. A war noted for the work of Florence Nightingale with the wounded, it is also the first conflict to be documented by photojournalists.
  • 1861: Unification of Italy under Sardinian king Victor Emmanuel II.
  • 1864: Foundation of the International Red Cross in Geneva.
  • 1867: Dual monarchy established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1871: Franco-Prussian War ends with France's surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, which proclaims itself an empire under Prussian king Wilhelm, crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I.
  • 1871: U.S. troops in the West begin fighting the Apache nation.
  • 1871: Boss Tweed corruption scandal in New York City.
  • 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1873: Financial panic begins in Vienna and soon spreads to other European financial centers as well as to the United States.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.
  • 1880: Completion of Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier. With twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, it is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)

Event and Its Context

The Siege of Paris

The immediate seeds of the revolt that created the Paris Commune lay in the Franco-Prussian War. In particular, four months of siege isolated Paris from the rest of France. With the defeat and capture of Napoleon III at Sedan, the victors declared a republic on 4 September 1870. However, the new moderate provisional government was more concerned with neutralizing the threat of radical revolution than with fighting the Prussians. As a result, it tried to negotiate peace with Otto von Bismarck as quickly as possible while simultaneously claiming to be committed to the defense of Paris. The Parisian population, including a well-armed National Guard, became increasingly frustrated at the inaction and apparent duplicity of the government.

Intense republican patriotism and isolation from central authority proved to be a heady mixture. In the working-class districts of the city, committees and clubs formed and began making increasingly radical demands. Most significantly, many people began to request municipal elections. In French, the term commune refers to the municipal authority in major cities. However, the Paris Commune had a revolutionary history that gave it particularly radical overtones. It had played an important role in the most radical stage of the French Revolution. Therefore, the demand for a Paris Commune elected through direct democracy was ominous. The government managed to stall most of these demands, but its control over the population became increasingly fragile.

Finally, the siege of Paris ended on 28 January. In its eagerness to end the war, the French government acceded to most of Bismarck's demands. Over the next two months, Paris became increasingly alienated from the central government. National elections returned a National Assembly that was even more conservative than the provisional government. The new regime, led by Adolphe Thiers, was insensitive to the suffering of the Parisian lower classes and passed a series of measures that inflicted further economic hardship. This succeeded in uniting the working and lower middle classes of Paris against the government.

The Paris Commune

The standoff between Paris and the National Assembly, then based at Versailles 25 miles to the southwest of the city, came to a head on 18 March. Thiers was determined to take strong action against the increasingly defiant Parisian National Guard. Therefore, he sent in troops to take possession of the National Guard's cannons. However, the people of Paris firmly resisted the attempt. In the working-class district of Montmartre, women and children defied the troops, who refused to fire on the crowd. With this open rejection of central power, Thiers called for the evacuation of the government from Paris. The army and most of the bureaucracy abandoned the city and fled to Versailles. Control of Paris had fallen to its citizens.

The recently formed National Guard Central Committee emerged as the main authority in the wake of the government's hasty retreat. The committee's immediate concern was to hold municipal elections and transfer power as quickly as possible to the Commune. The elections, held on 26 March, returned a Paris Commune that was far to the left of the National Assembly at Versailles. Most districts elected representatives who were opponents of the Versailles government. Significantly, 35 out the 91 representatives were manual laborers, mainly craftsmen from small workshops. One of the Commune's first and most effective measures was to abolish the back payment of rents accumulated during the siege. This was a huge relief to the lower classes of the city and helped to rally support for the Commune.

However, such decisive action proved to be rare. With no obvious leader, the Commune consisted of shifting factions with different political and social agendas. Jacobins motivated by the ideals of the French Revolution clashed with the supporters of Louis-August Blanqui, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, and other socialist theorists. The lack of clear leadership or direction meant that the Commune was often paralyzed by conflict. The constant feuding alienated many people, and the Commune struggled to develop new forms of authority. At the outset, decentralized, federalist principles were emphasized. However, as the military situation grew more desperate, the Committee of Public Safety, a central authority modeled on the French Revolution, formed. Many representatives rejected the committee, fearing its dictatorial overtones. Some of the more zealous members favored repressive measures to stifle criticism and pursue opponents of the regime within Paris. Such activities eroded support for the Commune.

Despite these problems, some interesting social reforms were attempted. The Commission of Labor and Exchange dealt with the organization of labor. Workers' cooperatives were a strong part of French socialist thought, and during the Commune, 43 producers' cooperatives were set up in the city's craft industries. In support of this, the Commune decreed that abandoned workshops could be taken over by trade unions to form cooperatives, and 10 factories were occupied as a result. Many of these looked to the Commune to provide work at reasonable prices, thus challenging the competitive basis of the capitalist system of production. Education was another area in which reforms were attempted. Schools were set up to replace those run by the church, according to a policy of free secular public education.

Most of this reform occurred at the grassroots level. In many of the working-class districts, people worked to create new organizations and institutions. On the boulevards and in the cafés of Paris, the lower classes gathered to meet and discuss these issues. There was a strong sense of celebration during the weeks of the Commune, to the extent that it has been referred to as "a festival of the oppressed." Despite the limitations of the Commune, for the first time, the lower classes were allowed an active part in running their city and creating social forms and relations that answered their needs. Most historians agree that the reform measures taken by the Commune were not socialist. There was no move to attack the principle of private property or to nationalize the assets of the Bank of France, which extended credit to the Commune. However, with its reforms, the Commune was responding to long-term concerns of the French workers' movement.

The Civil War

In the days after Thiers's withdrawal from Paris, some of the rebels advocated an immediate attack on Versailles. However, the National Guard Central Committee was unwilling to take such drastic action. Therefore, Thiers had time to reorganize his demoralized and mutinous army. The release of French officers captured during the Franco-Prussian War was particularly significant in restoring discipline. The Versailles government also used propaganda to encourage the army, portraying the Commune as a group of madmen, criminals, and foreign agents provocateurs. The government forces first attacked on 2 April. In response, the National Guard launched a major assault towards Versailles the next day. The Parisian forces were routed, and many of those taken prisoner were executed. This was the only offensive military move made by the Commune. Thiers's troops closed in and placed Paris effectively under a second siege. The decentralized nature of the Commune, with its emphasis on localized authority, made the war effort difficult to coordinate. Even the National Guard Central Committee struggled to impose discipline on the individual National Guard units.

Defeat and Repression

Inevitably, on 21 May the Versailles forces began entering the city. Centrally organized defense of the city or of strategic points became impossible as the National Guard reverted to defending its own districts against the invaders. However, the chaotic war effort of the previous two months was forgotten, as those who still supported the Commune fought on the barricades to defend it. This became known as semaine sanglante, the bloody week, in which indiscriminate slaughter occurred on both sides. Responding to the bestial portraits painted of the Communards over the previous two months, the Versailles troops shot men, women, and children in working-class areas. In response, the Communards began shooting their prisoners, including the Archbishop of Paris. By this stage, much of the center of Paris was in flames, set alight by the retreating Communards and Versailles artillery.


The immediate consequence of the fall of the Paris Commune was the utter decimation of the French labor movement. The death toll on the side of those supporting the Commune was approximately 25,000, most of which occurred during the last week of frenzied bloodshed. A further 40,000-50,000 were arrested, and many were sentenced to long imprisonment or deportation. Some 3,300 fled into exile overseas. However, amnesty was granted to the exiles in 1880, and many of them returned to France. The repression following the Commune affected the whole European labor movement, eventually contributing to the collapse of the First International.

However, the Paris Commune did raise the profile of the socialist movement. After its defeat, Karl Marx wrote a brilliant polemic against Thiers and the republican government, which acknowledged the Commune as the first example of a workers' government. This brought Marx notoriety and made the International appear to be a more influential organization than it really was. Following the Commune, interest in Marx's socialist theory increased, and several new editions of the Communist Manifesto were published, although none of those involved in the Commune could be described as followers of Marx. The example of the Commune was important to the refinement of Marx's ideas about the socialist revolution. In turn, Marx's writings on the Commune were very influential in the development of Lenin's revolutionary strategy and the Bolshevik revolution. More generally, the Commune became an important symbol of heroic sacrifice for the socialist movement.

Key Players

Blanqui, Louis-August (1805-1881): French revolutionary socialist. Blanqui played an important in leading socialist opposition to the provisional government in 1870-1871. While he was imprisoned on the eve of the Paris Commune, his followers played a prominent role in it.

Delecluze, Charles (1809-1871): French republican journalist.Delecluze was a major figure in the Commune, although he was hampered by poor health as the result of long imprisonment. Delecluze took over the position of war delegate in the final days of the Commune and died on the barricades.

Thiers, Adolphe (1797-1877): French conservative politician.As first president of the Third Republic, Thiers was the architect of the defeat of the Paris Commune.

Vaillant, Edouard (1840-1915): Labor activist. Vaillant emerged as an important leader during the Paris Commune, especially in the area of educational reform. With the defeat of the Commune, he escaped to London, returning to France in 1880.

See also: Communist Manifesto Published; First International.



Edwards, Stewart. The Paris Commune, 1871. London: Eyrie and Spottiswood, 1971.

Lindemann, Albert S. A History of European Socialism. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Magraw, Roger. France 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century.London: Oxford, 1983.

Smith, William C. Second Empire and Commune: France1848-1871. 2nd ed. London & New York: Longman, 1996.


"Marxist History: The Paris Commune, March-May, 1871"[cited 6 November 2002].

Additional Resources


McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. London:Macmillan, 1973.

Williams, Roger L. The French Revolution of 1870-1871.New York: Norton, 1969.

—Katrina Ford

Paris Commune

views updated May 23 2018

Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871) Revolutionary government in Paris. Anger with the national government after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War provoked Parisians into establishing an independent city government. Socialists and other radicals played an important part in the Commune. Besieged by the forces of the national government, the city fell and the Commune was violently suppressed. The slaughter of an estimated 30,000 Communards alienated many French workers and encouraged revolutionary doctrines.

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Commune of Paris