Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Red letter days

Paris, 18 March 1871

On the Montmartre hill, overlooking Paris from the north, stands the Sacré Coeur church, like a huge, bloated, shop soiled wedding cake. It was built in the 1870s to expiate the 'sins' of the people of Paris. The most magnificent of those so called sins had taken place on that very hill.

Since 1852 France had been ruled by the Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the great Napoleon). The Paris of the empire was the world of Zola's novels--new wide streets, department stores and theatre-brothels; a world of massive profits for the corrupt few and repression and bitter poverty for the many.

In 1870 the emperor, aiming, like so many before and since, to divert attention from problems at home, launched a war against Prussia. He hoped for easy victory (so much so that the army had only maps of Prussia, not of France). In fact the Prussian army rapidly smashed the French forces and advanced on Paris. The emperor abdicated.

The masses take control of Paris

The people of Paris, disgusted at their leaders' failure, planned their own defence. The whole male population was drawn into the National Guard; to the dismay of the middle class this meant that the working class was armed, although generally with pretty antiquated weapons. Working people collected money to buy cannon to defend the city.

Through the winter Paris was besieged by the Prussian army. The politicians fled to Bordeaux and set up a national assembly. The working people of Paris could not flee; they stayed in Paris to starve and be shelled. But the French bourgeoisie could not endure the fact that Paris was armed. At three in the morning of 18 March 1871 troops were sent into Paris to seize the cannon there, especially the 171 guns on the hill at Montmartre. But as soon as it became known that the troops were coming, the people of Paris began to organise. Barricades were set up and red flags began to fly.

When the troops arrived in Montmartre they were surrounded by local people who offered them breakfast and mugs of wine. The women played a crucial role at this point. As one general described it, 'The women and children came and mixed with the troops. We were greatly mistaken in permitting these people to approach our soldiers, for they mingled among them, and the women and children told them: "You will not fire upon the people." This is how the soldiers...found themselves surrounded and did not have the power to resist these ovations that were given them.'

When General Lecomte ordered his men to fire into the crowd they refused. Later Lecomte and another general were killed by the soldiers. The news spread rapidly through the capital and more barricades were erected. Effectively Paris had declared itself an independent state. The revolutionary novelist and journalist Jules Vallès described the joy of that first day of workers' power:

Rapidly a new power was established. Elections were held just eight days later to set up the government of the Commune. It was very different from parliamentary democracy. Members of the Commune did not enjoy big houses and expensive luxury travel; they got the same pay as a skilled worker. They were directly accountable to those who elected them and could be recalled at any time. Since the people were armed, there was no separate army or police force.

Paris was still a city of small workshops with relatively few large workplaces--the labour movement was still in its infancy. But many of those elected were working men and most of the others were journalists and intellectuals who had suffered for their opposition to the empire. Many were socialists of a sort--followers of Proudhon (who advocated a socialism based on federations of small property owners) or of Blanqui (who believed small armed groups could carry out the revolution on their own). The only follower of Marx was Leo Frankel, a Hungarian who was welcomed by the internationalist Commune and made Minister of Labour. One of the greatest weaknesses was the fact that the Commune, despite the active involvement of working women at every level, did not allow women to vote.

The Commune carried through a number of measures favourable to working people--it cancelled rent payments for a period of nine months, abolished night work in bakeries and allowed goods that had been pawned to be reclaimed free. Various groups of workers formed unions and cooperatives. But workers' power could not survive in a single city. Following the example of Paris, communes were set up in a number of cities--Lyons, Marseilles, Narbonne. But none lasted more than a few days, and the Commune was unable to win the support of the 60 percent of the French population who lived in the countryside. At the end of May the government decided it could not tolerate an independent workers' Paris. Troops were sent in and thousands of workers were massacred, imprisoned or deported. The working class movement took ten years to recover.

Despite this, for the first time working people had shown they could take power into their own hands. The Commune was to be an example and an inspiration for the next generation of socialists. As Frederick Engels wrote some years later, 'Of late, the social-democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: dictatorship of the proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune, that was the dictatorship of the proletariat.'

Hopefully the day will soon come when the Sacré Coeur is razed to the ground and replaced by a proper monument to the women and men who made the Paris Commune.
Ian Birchall


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