The Paris of the 1860s had been rebuilt by architect Baron Haussmann at the request of Napoleon III, with wide, well-planned boulevards and fine houses. It was a time of industrialisation and a growing middle class with plenty of wealth. But the resulting inflation in prices and rents left Parisian workers desperately hard up – and angry about it.
The Parisian workers were also angry when the Emperor Louis Napoleon engaged in an unnecessary war with the Prussians.
When France was defeated, the Prussians declared their empire at Versailles. In Paris there was talk of throwing out the government and setting up a commune. On 28 January the French government negotiated an armistice with the Prussians.
Parisians felt betrayed. The terms of the armistice allowed the Prussians to enter Paris for two days to celebrate their victory. The people of Paris turned their backs, shut their doors and dressed in mourning. After the Prussians departed they cleaned the streets.
The new National Assembly was pro-royalist and opposed to the republicanism of Paris. Adolphe Thiers was elected head of the new government and he drew up a peace treaty with Prussians. He then stopped pay for the National Guard and ordered Parisians to pay back commercial debts and rent arrears they had run up during the siege.
Anger rose and people took to the streets. After solidiers refused to follow orders to shoot the protesters the government fled and the people of Paris occupied the Hôtel de Ville.
A new mood of freedom swept across Paris. Although still no one was formally in charge, streets were swept, cafés stayed open. The National Guard was paid regularly and public relief was handed out to the poor. On 26 March elections were held and two days later the Commune was proclaimed. Red sashes and red flags abounded throughout the city.
A member of the Commune, Jules Vallés, wrote in his newspaper Le Cri du Peuple:
Today is the festive wedding day of the Idea and the Revolution. Soldier-citizens, the Commune we have acclaimed and married today must tomorrow bear fruit; we must take our place once more, still proud and now free, in the workshop and at the counter. After the poetry of triumph, the prose of work.
There were no formal political parties in the Commune – they were all socialists but aligned in loose groupings: Jacobins, Blanquists and communists. They were all Communards.
The Commune gave working people enormous confidence to do things they had never done before or been allowed to do. Many other French cities followed suit and set up their own communes, including: Lyons, Marseilles, Toulouse, Narbonne, St Etienne, Le Creusot and Limoges. But they were all quickly crushed by the Versailles government.
However, the Communards failed to confront the Versailles government or to seize the banks. If they had, they would have been in a stronger position to resist. They were busy planning social reforms but failed to plan to defend the Commune militarily.
The artist Courbet was a Commune member. He wrote:
I’m enchanted. Paris is a veritable paradise; no police, no outrages, no quarrels, no exactions of any kind. Paris is moving under its own steam as smoothly as you could wish. We must try and always be like this.
But in the background, the guns of Versailles continued to bombard Paris. The Prussian army supported the Versailles government against the Commune. They were terrified it would inspire socialism in Germany. On 21 May the Versailles army attacked.
The people of Paris put up barricades to defend themselves but though these delayed the advance of the government troops, they did not halt them. There followed what was called The Week of Blood as the people of Paris fought a bitter but losing battle to defend the freedom of their city.
Two hundred Communards made a last stand against a wall in the top corner of Pere Lachaise cemetery. The next day 147 prisoners were taken to the same spot and shot.
The killing continued after the Communards had all been killed or taken prisoner; 34,722 prisoners were put on trial and many executed. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 were killed one way or another.
The new government erected a new church, Sacré Coeur, on the heights of Montmartre as a religious gesture of atonement for the audacity and sacrilege of the Commune. Now a famous Paris landmark, this church remains unpopular with left-wing Parisians.
The Paris Commune failed but its lessons echo through history. After it fell Marx and Engels wrote of the necessity for a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established immediately after any socialist revolution to consolidate it and defend it against counter revolution.
A longer version of this article was originally published in The New Worker
There will be a public meeting to commemorate the Paris Commune tonight (Thursday, 24 March) at the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre, 39 Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RX See map Organised by The New Worker