28th May 1871  Defeat of the Paris Commune

Paris ablaze during The Bloody Week, the final days of the Paris Commune, 21–28 May 1871

Today we lament the unfathomably brutal suppression of the first proletarian revolution in history, the Paris Commune. Just three months earlier, on 18th March 1871, the workers of Paris rose up, seized power from the new provisional French government, declared themselves autonomous and set about trying to reinvent society. The National Guard, recruited from all able-bodied men, replaced the police and the regular army. The separation of church and state was decreed. All church property was made public.  Improved workers’ rights and education reforms were implemented. Interests on debts were abolished. And women were to be granted equal rights. In the absence of envy and oppression, a new kind of egalitarian social order emerged. “Paris is a true paradise!” the painter Courbet enthused. “No nonsense, no exaction of any kind, no arguments! Everything in Paris rolls along like clockwork. If only it could stay like this forever. In short, it is a beautiful dream!”

But the beautiful dream was about to implode, for the Communards had made a fatal error. In their idealism and magnanimity, the revolutionaries had failed to comprehensively overthrow Adolphe Thiers’ provisional government while its army was weak and demoralised following the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Instead, Thiers and his bourgeois government regrouped in Versailles and plotted with their former bitter enemy, the Prussians, to destroy the Commune.

On 21st May at 2pm, in the prosperous western area of Paris, a Versailles officer noticed a white handkerchief being waved by a middle-class traitor near the Point-du-Jour gate. The government’s army was able to enter the fortified city through an opened gate; by nightfall, over 60,000 troops were inside Paris. There was no second line of defence and, despite an attempt to quickly erect barricades, the recent addition of boulevards made the inner city impossible to defend. The Commune was doomed.

And so the slaughter began. The massacres were indiscriminate; no one was spared, as to merely be Parisian was considered an act of treason. The barricades fell quickly and, each time they did, the defenders were put up against a wall and summarily executed. 300 were cornered and gunned down after they fled into the Madeleine church. When the Versailles troops captured the seminary at Saint-Sulpice, which had been turned into a hospital by the Commune, they executed all the medical staff and patients. The dead were left everywhere – the world-famous fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens overflowed with corpses. Word had reached Versailles of the strong feminist movement within the Commune, and a cynical rumour spread amongst Thiers’ troops of the pétroleuses, or “women incendiaries”, who were allegedly setting fires to buildings. Thus there was no mercy for women, who were savagely bayoneted in the streets. For eight days, the killing continued. Every Parisian pavement was a battlefield, every house a fort. On 28th May, the Communards were driven to a last stand at Père Lachaise cemetery. Thousands were herded together and shot. A part of “The Wall of the Communards” still stands; the sculptured faces at once a challenge to capitalist rule and a monument to the martyrs of the Commune.

Over 30,000 were killed in the week known as La Semaine Sanglante (“The Bloody Week”) – more than in the French Revolution. Up to 50,000 were arrested and imprisoned; some 4,000 deported for life to New Caledonia. It would take France decades to recover from the humiliation of the massacre. For Europe’s socialist movement, however, the Paris Commune was the ideal testing ground for revolutionary theory. Karl Marx hailed it as “the glorious harbinger of a new society”  – evidence that a proletarian uprising could topple the bourgeois bureaucratic machine. He did, however, criticise the Commune for failing to launch an immediate attack on Versailles and for its failure to seize the gold reserves of the Bank of France. Marx accordingly revised his theory of the State, concluding that the working class had to smash the state – rather than take it over or leave it intact – and that to do so required a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

But no one would better learn from the mistakes of the Commune martyrs than Vladimir Lenin: if the ruling class would show no mercy, neither could the working class.

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9 Responses to 28th May 1871 – Defeat of the Paris Commune

  1. Susan Robinson says:

    How interesting. It’s been an interesting month of entries. Much I’d never heard of or considered before. Thanks!

  2. Paul Wyrd says:

    Wow, another ‘hidden from history’ story that was ommitted from my years in ‘eduation’.

    Great post, tragic story.

    • Barry says:

      Paul Wyrd, You will find, I am sure, that, if you search ‘behind the scenes’ there will be many more instances of this type. As a more famous person that I once said, ‘History is written by the victors.’ Of course, the problem with that approach is that what ever is derogatory to the victors is usually whitewashed or omitted from your education.
      While this story tells us that 30,000 were killed, it also mentions those who were imprisoned, and, I would lay odds that of those 50,000 who were imprisoned, quite likely a large amount of those also died in prison, whether from conditions or retributions by the guards of those various prisons, is something not mentioned in the story, but, you can imagine that there were quite a few who died while in prison.
      I had never heard of this massacre, either, and, it’s not surprising since it paints the so-called good guys with a rather bloody brush. I only discovered this because I was reading some interesting stories about “This Day in History” at MSN.com, and, when I saw that, I had to explore because that’s one of the ways I educate myself.
      Since I am 65 years old, the only school I attend now is the school of the internet. Good luck in gathering more education from those around the world who share the neighborhood that is the internet.

  3. Eugène Pottier says:

    It is good to see the Commune honoured on an American website, Marx’s works on the subject are very short and interesting and I can recommend it to anyone. It is also interesting to note that the song the Internationale was written by a Communard, despite being more known for being the national anthem of the Soviet Union in the beginning.

  4. although i am french, i had only summarily heard of the communards..they featured in history class as a symbolic remnant of the nervy underclass, rather than a structural icon of libertine spirit..this concise article brings the necessary essentials to present light–especially in view of increasingly top heavy governments which seek to revert to oligarchic principles.
    as ineffective laws accumulate and the executive branch is mired with enforcement difficulty, a serious consideration of past examples should be dug up from such graphic lessons in order to avoid fear and failure.

    • Barry says:

      Nadine,
      The tree of liberty must, on occassion, be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants. This quote is from someone more famous than I am, or ever will be, but, it fits in many eras of mankind’s journey on this planet.
      For a time, over the past 8 years, in the US, I was reasonably sure that we were a short step from this kind of happening, but, thank God we got through it.
      Unfortunately, we are, once again, marching towards the anarchy brought on by those with enough money to buy pretty much whatever they want. The female candidate for president, here, was and is, a liar par excellence, and after she lost, her and her puppetmasters have steadily worked to stir up hatred to the current president.
      Now, I will not say the current president is perfect, but, he seems to have better ideas in mind than enriching himself at the expense of the American people. His opponent is well known for the multitude of lies and deceitful actions she has foisted onto the government, as well as the people, and deserves to be indicted and charged with many crimes, including treason, and other crimes too numerous to be listed here, in the short amount of space I have, but, many in this country are of the opinion that she should, at minimum, be given the electric chair, or some other form of punishment. Personally, I think the gas chamber would be best, in order to allow her to suffer part of the agony that our Ambassador to Libya experienced at the hand of his torturing barbarians.

  5. Frank says:

    Great piece on the Paris Commune. I however disagree that Marx reviised his views on the state. If anything he strengthened them. Perhaps you could quote a passage from Marx orginal views on the state.

    I don’t think that is necessary, since you did such a great job of discribing the Paris Commune, I can draw from your work.

    “The National Guard, recruited from all able-bodied men, replaced the police and the regular army. The separation of church and state was decreed. ”

    One there was a separation of church and state, not an elimination of the state. Two, the new armed body, was the National Guard, in effect a workers state., surrounded by a bourgoise state.

  6. The Paris Commune was a foreshadowing of a future event coming in the near future,where it will appear that the Communists have taken over the world within a Three Month Period,A Great Persecution of the Roman Catholic Church will ensue! Neither Priests,Religious and Laity will be spared! The Miracle of the Illumination of all consciences will be sent to stop the great carnage of loss of life.

  7. Barry says:

    This is not actually a reply to the previous poster, but to the quote at the bottom of this article by Oscar Wilde. He makes a statement regarding the original disobedience, and, in my eyes, this would be the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where they disobeyed the Word of God for the words of satan. Progress is a word bandied about to give assent to much evil done in the world, ever since that original disobedience.
    Yes, we do, now and then, need disobedience because those who are in power will run roughshod over those who willingly follow their tenets by giving up their freedoms. Either Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson, once made the statement that, “Those who give up freedom/liberty for security deserve neither freedom, nor liberty.” To me, that means, allowing the state to have control over your life is to forego the benefits of those ideals. The US is probably overdue for a large insurrection, but, we all know that even a small rebellion against the laws would be savagely put down. A couple of good examples of this kind of thing would be the murders at Ruby Ridge, and those at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX. There, also, men, women and children were slaughtered for their unwillingness to toe the government’s propaganda line.

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