The 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune

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This Spring marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary socialist government that effectively controlled and governed Paris from March 18, 1871 to May 28, 1871. Although there were previous uprisings in France going back to the French Revolution of 1789, this was the first time that a grassroots, populist government based on socialist and even anarchic principles was firmly established in control of the city.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and subsequent German victory ended the authoritarian rule of French Emperor Napoleon III. He was replaced by a National Assembly which was mostly conservative and inclined to favor the restoration of a constitutional monarchy. Though most voters in France were rural, traditional and strictly Catholic, the workers and residents in Paris were much more progressive, even radical.

During the war Paris was defended by a local militia known as the National Guard composed primarily of the city’s working class residents who were much more radical than the French authorities who nominally governed the city. At the end of the war in 1871 the French government tried to disarm the National Guard and reassert its control over the city. However, like the American colonists at the Battle of Lexington nearly 100 years earlier, the National Guard had prior warning that the French Army was coming to take away their guns and they prepared themselves accordingly. There were several confrontations and shots were fired, but after their defeat at the hands of the German Army the regular French soldiers had no stomach for fighting especially against their fellow countrymen. When the French commanders realized the hopelessness of their situation they withdrew from the city.

When the French Army withdrew the National Guard moved quickly to take over the city and assert its authority. The Central Committee of the National Guard quickly organized elections in the Spring of 1871 and a communal council composed largely of working class residents who wanted changes that promoted economic and social justice.took the place of the previous authoritarian regime that governed the city. They officially proclaimed the Commune of Paris on March 28, 1871, and renounced any allegiance to the French national government.

The new government of the Commune had no authoritarian leadership, there was no president, mayor or commander-in-chief.  The Commune was essentially self-governing, with nine commissions responsible for various tasks required to manage a city of more than 2 million people. The commissions were guided by an Executive Commission composed of elected officials representing the districts of Paris.

During the short time The Commune exercised political control over the City of Paris they implemented a significant, even stunning series of reforms that in later years would be adopted by many other countries, even France and the United States in the next century. Included in the package of reforms was the complete separation Church from State, the secularization of public schools, abolition of child labor, an end to the death penalty and military conscription, prohibiting employers from imposing fines on their employees, allowing workers to organize and bargain collectively, and several other progressive reforms.

Local neighborhood committees were responsible for providing essential social and municipal services to local residents. Soup kitchens and health clinics were established throughout the city. Education of children, including textbooks, meals and even clothing, were provided free of charge. Parochial schools were taken over by the Commune and secularized. Orphanages were established throughout the city to care for runaway children and orphans.

Although women could not vote or serve as delegates to the Commune Assembly, they did play a very significant role in administration and support of various programs and policies. As part of the effort to contribute aid to the Commune, a group of women formed the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care for the Wounded. The Women’s Union advocated for gender and wage equality, the right to divorce, the right to secular and professional education for girls, and an end to discrimination against children born out of wedlock. 

In addition to political advocacy for social justice, the Women’s Union also provided all forms of assistance and aid to the people of Paris. They participated actively in several municipal commissions and organized cooperative workshops to deal with relevant issues such as public health and safety. For example they opened and operated a cooperative soup kitchen that served free food to homeless Parisians. The Women’s Union converted religious schools to secular schools, and even started a daily newspaper. Some women also took an active part in defense of the Commune against attempts by the French government to reassert its authority, and they even formed their own battalion to guard various sites throughout the city.

During the Commune newspapers and other forms of print journalism flourished throughout the city. Although newspapers sympathetic to the national government were closed, many more newspapers and journals were started and they shortly became widely available to all residents.

Some newspapers supported the Republican Assembly while other, more radical journals, supported direct democracy and a form of proletarian dictatorship. There was no suppression of journalism even though many newspapers were severely critical of the Commune and its administration.

The Commune declared that there had to be separation between church and state. In keeping with that doctrine the Commune seized assets held by the Catholic Church that were derived from public funds. Some bishops and priests were arrested for misusing funds for their own personal gain rather than for the benefit of the people they professed to serve. The Commune seized property belonging to several congregations, and converted some churches and monasteries to homeless shelters. Religious schools were also taken over and converted into secular institutions for providing free education to all children, with a ban on any kind of religious instruction or promotion.

The Commune established a commission to ensure public safety and protection of personal property. The task of policing the community was left to the National Guard, or citizens militia. At the local, or neighborhood level, a form of self-policing or community policing became prevalent. Since there was no centralized authority, enforcement of laws were primarily the responsibility of residents working together in their community.

In order to deal with the impact of high unemployment and poverty which resulted from the effects of the war with Germany and subsequent political instability, the Commune instituted several measures to provide some sort of social and economic safety net for those in desperate need. This included a suspension of rent payments and a moratorium on evictions during the state of emergency necessitated by the war and civil unrest. There was also postponement of debt obligations and the abolition of interest on those debts. Pension payments to survivors of National Guardsmen killed in active service were extended to include unmarried companions and their children.

Worker’s rights were enhanced during the Commune’s administration. Employers were prohibited from imposing fines and other punitive sanctions on their employees. Workers also had the right to seize business assets belonging to their employer if the latter was absent and did not pay wages owed to the employees. The Commune also passed laws regulating working conditions including hours and occupational safety. Prohibitions against child labor were strictly enforced.

For two months the Commune successfully governed and implemented significant improvements for the residents and the City of Paris. While there was relative peace and stability throughout the city, outside of Paris the French government was preparing to assemble a huge army to retake the city and restore the status quo as it existed before the Commune. It  took a few months to raise enough men and equipment but by the middle of May they were  ready to attack and occupy the city even if it meant a huge loss of life on both sides.

The French army entered Paris on May 21, nearly two months after the Commune was formally elected and established its authority over the city. They were met with fierce resistance by the National Guard and civilian volunteers. The city’s residents erected barricades in the street and there was intense house-to-house fighting. Casualties on both sides were in the thousands. There is no official count of the number of Communards killed and wounded but various educated estimates put the number in the tens of thousands. By the end of May the French National government was able to pacify the city and reassert its authority.

Although the Commune effectively governed Paris for only two months it became popularly known among progressives, socialists and even anarchists around the world as a model for communal government based mutual, voluntary cooperation and collective principles.

Secular humanism replaced nationalism and religion as the governing principles by which community leaders and neighborhood representatives provided for basic social and economic needs of rich and poor alike. In future years, inspired by the Commune, socialist revolutionaries would try to replicate it as they sought to replace the existing order in the 20th century. Notably, during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918-19, local governing councils which became popularly known as “soviets” were established throughout Russia in accordance with the same principles and methodology as the Paris Commune. However, these local soviets were eventually taken over by the Bolshevik regime which sought to establish its complete control and authority over all of Russia. Nevertheless, through the 20th century and into the 21st century there have been and still exist in all parts of the world various communities and cooperatives based on the same governing principles of mutual aid and voluntary association exemplified by the Paris Commune of 1871.

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