Week 23: Wednesday, April 18, 2018
The Paris Commune, 1871

The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune contributed to the break between those two political groups. In a formal sense, the Paris Commune simply acted as the local authority, the city council (in French, the “commune”), which exercised power in Paris for two months in the spring of 1871. However, the conditions in which it formed, its controversial decrees, and its violent end make its tenure one of the more important political episodes of the time. (The above from Wikipedia.)

Bruce Thompson on the Paris Commune:

THE PARIS COMMUNE: With the rapid collapse of the French army in 1870, Paris found itself besieged by the Germans. Cut off from the rest of the country, Parisians ate horses, cats, dogs, rats, and many of the animals in the zoo. Merchants hoarded their goods while prices rose, or sold them under the counter, so “hour after hour the wretched housewives waited, often leaving empty-handed, with hatred in their hearts equally for the petit bourgeois as represented by the heartless butcher and for the rich bourgeois who could afford to buy without queuing” (Alistair Horne). One of the lasting legacies of the Commune was a bitter residue of class hatred. During the long months of the siege about 65 manned balloons were launched from the city, carrying nearly 11 tons of official dispatches. Only five of these fell into the hands of the enemy and only two balloonists died. This success helped to maintain morale, but indiscriminate bombardment of the city by Prussian heavy guns obviously had the opposite effect. Shells fell at random at the rate of 300-400 a day. Capitulation to Bismarck convinced the city’s belligerent Left that the new French government under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers was planning a deal with the enemy to restore the old imperial regime. Seizing guns from an artillery park atop the hill of Montmartre, the revolutionaries set up a rival regime, the Commune of Paris. In the ranks were veterans of the barricades of 1848 (and a few from 1830), revolutionary feminists (Louise Michel), and a variety of idealists and radicals. When Thiers’ forces conquered the city they behaved brutally; incendiaries responded by burning the Tuileries Palace, a large part of the Palais-Royal, the Palais de Justice, the Préfecture de Police, the Ministry of Finance and the superb medieval Hôtel de Ville. The number of lives lost during the bloody last week of May 1871 was between 20,000 and 25,000—an orgy of killing worse than the bloodletting of the Terror in 1793. The great city, already diminished by months of siege and bombardment, was now devastated by this terrible ordeal of punitive savagery and popular fury. The painter Auguste Renoir narrowly escaped death at the hands of an enraged mob. As Rupert Christiansen has shown, one can track the reaction of French élite opinion to the upheavals of 1870-71 via the diaries of the aristocratic man of letters Edmond Goncourt. On 28 March 1871 he recorded his opinion of the Commune: “The newspapers see nothing in what is going on but a question of decentralization: as if it had anything to do with decentralization! What is happening is nothing less that the conquest of France by the worker and the reduction to slavery under his rule of the noble, the bourgeois, and the peasant. Government is passing from the hands of the have’s to those of the have-not’s, form those who have a material interest in the preservation of society to those who have no interest whatever in order, stability, or preservation. Perhaps, in the great law of change that governs all earthly things, the workers are for modern society what the Barbarians were for ancient society, the convulsive agents of dissolution and destruction.” A few days later, on April 2, Goncourt welcomed the arrival of the government’s troops: “The sound of gunfire, about ten o’clock, in the direction of Courbevoie. Thank God, civil war has broken out! When things have reached this pass, civil war is preferable to hypocritical skullduggery…. I set out straight away for Paris, studying people’s faces, which are a sort of barometer of events in revolutionary times; I see in them a hidden satisfaction, a sly joy. Finally a newspaper tells me that the Belleville troops have been beaten! I am filled with a jubilation which I savor at length. Let tomorrow bring what it will.” For the opposite point of view, see Karl Marx’s account of the Commune.



Alistair Horne,

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1871,

Penguin Paperback,

ISBN 9780141030630


"This classic work . . . is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the civil war that still stirs the soul of France." -Evening Standard, London

In 1870, Paris was the center of Europe, the font of culture, fashion, and invention. Ten months later Paris had been broken by a long Prussian siege, its starving citizens reduced to eating dogs, cats, and rats, and France had been forced to accept the humiliating surrender terms dictated by the Iron Chancellor Bismarck. To many, the fall of Paris seemed to be the fall of civilization itself. Alistair Horne's history of the Siege and its aftermath is a tour de force of military and social history, rendered with the sweep and color of a great novel.