Insurgent Communards: The Road to Revolution (Part I)

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By Doug Enaa Greene

March 19, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice — In June 1871, the French poet Eugène Pottier wrote a poem entitled “L’Internationale” to commemorate the fallen Paris Commune. That poem contains the following lines, calling the working class to revolution:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!

Arise, ye wretched of the earth!

For justice thunders condemnation:

A better world’s in birth! …

’Tis the final conflict;

Let each stand in his place.

The International working class

Shall be the human race!

In 1888, Pierre De Geyter set “L’Internationale” to music. Since then, the song has become one of the most well-known leftist anthems in the world. Whenever and wherever the “L’Internationale” is sung, the cause of the Paris Commune lives on.

It is not only in song that the Paris Commune is remembered, however. The Paris Commune is a necessary reference point for revolutionaries, since it was the first time in history that the working class was victorious, took command of its destiny, and began constructing a better world. The lessons of the Commune were not lost on socialists; Lenin is said to have danced in the snow when the soviets had managed to last just a day longer than the Commune. On the 150th anniversary of the Commune’s birth, it is worth remembering its heroism, history, mistakes, and lessons for our forthcoming struggles.

The Second Empire and the First International

In 1851, it seemed that the era of revolution had ended in France. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had just overthrown the unstable Second Republic. He proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III, and his regime promised stability, prosperity, and order. The bourgeoisie seemed all too willing to exchange democratic freedoms for a police state, since they grew quite wealthy under the Second French Empire.

But the working class did not share in this good fortune. During the Second Empire, it labored without political freedoms or labor unions. The police kept a close watch, arresting 4,000 workers for violating anti-union laws from 1853 to 1866. Repression did not work, however, and the emperor sought to co-opt the proletariat. In 1864 a series of reforms were passed that legalized unions and strikes along with relaxing the censorship. While Napoleon III hoped to win over the working class with his benevolence, he instead provided space for a revolutionary opposition to grow.

One opposition group was the French section of the International Workingmen’s Association. The International was formed in 1864 after meetings between French and English workers. The guiding spirit of the organization was Karl Marx, whose inaugural address proclaimed, “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”1

In France, many members of the International were originally followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865). One of the founders of anarchism, Proudhon argued that workers should refrain from politics and strikes, and instead that they should establish cooperatives and mutual aid. For many workers, Proudhon’s vision of decentralized communes was an attractive alternative to the bureaucratic and repressive Second Empire.

Since they avoided politics, Proudhonist activists were initially tolerated by Napoleon III. Nonetheless, cooperatives and mutual aid did not save workers from feeling the brunt of the 1867 economic crisis. Thus, they began organizing labor unions and strikes, making French workers open to the International’s language of class struggle.

It wasn’t long before the Second Empire linked working-class militancy to the International. In March 1868, the police arrested members of the International and broke up its Paris branch. But the International quickly reorganized. By 1870, its Paris section numbered 70,000 members, or a seventh of all workers in the capital.2 The leading figure in Paris was the book-binder and syndicalist Eugène Varlin (1839-1871). Later, Varlin would play a major role in the National Guard and the Paris Commune.

Another source of leftist opposition came from the Blanquist Party. These revolutionaries were followers of Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881), one of the most legendary figures in 19th-century France.3 Unlike the Proudhonists, Blanqui was a proponent of revolutionary political action. He believed that success depended on a small, tightly organized conspiracy. Through force of arms, this revolutionary band would rise up to topple the old regime. Blanqui himself practiced what he preached, participating in many conspiracies and abortive coups. Despite living more than half his life in jail, his revolutionary determination remained unbent and unbroken.

In line with this vision, the Blanquist party was an elite corps that numbered no more 2,500. These militants drilled and trained in preparation for the revolution. The Blanquists, however, were not a totally underground group; they conducted public atheist and republican agitation among workers and students. Among their ranks was Raoul Rigault, Émile Eudes, and the brothers Gaston and Charles Da Costa. All of them would play prominent roles in the Paris Commune.


By 1870, economic crisis and labor strikes were threatening the stability of the Second Empire. The opposition was openly marching in the streets and defying the regime. Napoleon III believed that his regime could be saved only by a short and victorious war.

The emperor had long feared the growing power of neighboring Prussia. A minor diplomatic incident gave Napoleon III the pretext to declare war on Prussia in July 1870. This proved to be a grave miscalculation. The Prussian army of half a million was modernized and well led, making it one of the best in Europe. By contrast, the French officer corps was more interested in profiteering than in keeping up with the latest developments in warfare. In the words of the historian Frank Jellinek, the French army was “as hollow and corrupt as the Empire it served.”4

Hopes of a glorious march into Berlin disappeared as the tide of war quickly turned against the French. At the Battle of Sedan, the French were not only decisively defeated but Napoleon III himself was captured on the battlefield. Two days later, on September 4, the people of Paris rose up and proclaimed the creation of the Third Republic. The Second Empire vanished without much regret.

Jubilation was short lived, however. The transition from Empire to Republic did not amount to any fundamental change. The leaders of the new Government of National Defense, such as Adolphe Thiers, were all holdovers from previous regimes, and they opposed anything that threatened the sanctity of private property. Furthermore, the Government of National Defense was more interested in forestalling revolution than fighting invading Prussians.

Paris, still surrounded and under siege, continued to resist the Prussians. Following the precedent set by the Jacobins in 1793, Blanqui called for the creation of a revolutionary government to organize the levée en masse, or arming the people. But the Government of National Defense had no intention of conducting an all-out struggle, planning instead to conclude peace at the earliest opportunity. Bismarck was demanding harsh terms, including a large indemnity and the cession of the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, threatening the very integrity of the Republic.

As word of the government’s halfhearted conduct of the war leaked, Blanqui accused them of treason: “Are men who are certain of defeat disposed to fight? What is the good of organizing a defense considered useless and powerless in advance?”5 On October 31, mass demonstrations in Paris against the government led to a coup. Blanqui proclaimed a new revolutionary government that denounced armistice negotiations and called for the creation of a commune.

Unfortunately for Blanqui, the coup plotters did not have the necessary support to hold onto power. The Government of National Defense mustered enough loyalists to restore order. To placate Paris, the government promised new elections and no reprisals against the Left. The government managed to win the elections, and then immediately went to arrest the revolutionaries. Blanqui was forced into hiding and was caught only on March 17, the day before the revolution.

The siege

Outside Paris, the Prussian Army blockaded the city and cut off food supplies. This only aggravated the sharp social divisions in the capital. Since they could afford the rising prices, the wealthy did not suffer hunger during the siege. These disparities were most clearly on display during Christmas, when wealthy residences and restaurants held festive and plentiful celebrations, as working-class neighborhoods died of starvation. Zoo animals were slaughtered, and there soon developed a market for mice and rats. One speaker at a political meeting described the situation in these simple words: “There are people who are gorging themselves while others lack everything.”6

The Government of National Defense made little effort to alleviate these conditions by instituting price controls or rationing food, since that would interfere with “economic freedom.” In practice, “economic freedom” meant that speculators amassed profits amid popular suffering. The behavior of profiteers only made the populace more receptive to calls for price controls and social justice. By the time the siege was lifted in March, it was estimated that over 64,000 people had died. As one writer concludes, “Workers suffered disproportionately, their death rate being twice that of the upper class.”7

In this atmosphere of crisis, new mass organizations planted the seeds of a revolutionary alternative to the existing order. Chief among those organizations was the National Guard. Originally created as citizen-militia in 1789 Revolution, the National Guard was later used to suppress workers during the June Days of 1848. During the Second Empire it languished, but was revived during the Franco-Prussian war.

After the fall of Napoleon III, however, the National Guard was expanded, since most of the army was now in captivity. Soon tens of thousands of working-class men in Paris joined the National Guard. For workers, joining the National Guard brought a paycheck and was the only thing saving most families from utter destitution.

The National Guard was not an ordinary army. It was a popular force that raised and organized troops locally, creating an esprit de corps. Save for the commander in chief, all officers of the National Guard were elected democratically and subject to immediate recall. This allowed battalions to reflect the ever-changing popular mood, serving as a barometer of discontent. As the National Guard raised new battalions in working-class arrondissements, it was not uncommon for revolutionaries such as Blanqui, Eudes, and Varlin to be elected as commanders. According to Donny Gluckstein, “the election of officers was originally designed to bind and enthuse the rich in the defense of their class interests. In the hands of the working class such democracy would grow into a powerful tool of a new type of state.”8

The Government of National Defense did not view the National Guard so much as defenders of Paris but as dangerous revolutionaries. In turn, the battalions of the National Guard viewed the government as responsible for military defeat and beholden to wealthy capitalists and monarchists.

Considering the dire conditions in Paris, food distribution and local administration were major issues for workers. One organization that emerged to deal with these issues was the Vigilance Committees. At first, the Vigilance Committees were largely apolitical and more concerned with focusing on more practical issues to alleviate the crisis, such as securing provisions and distributing them equitably.9

Over time, the Vigilance Committees grew more political and acted as forums of debate on a wide range of ideas. Soon members of the International became a major force inside the Vigilance Committees. By February 23, the Vigilance Committees worked out a revolutionary program and declared their allegiance to the International: “Every member of a vigilance committee declares his adherence to the Revolutionary-Socialist Party. Consequently, he demands and seeks to obtain by all means possible the elimination of the privileges of the bourgeoisie. Lastly, all facilities are to be placed in the service of the International Working Men’s Association.”10

The idea of the Commune

In their miserable conditions, the workers saw salvation in the idea of a “commune.” The word commune, however, had many different and mutually exclusive meanings. For the Blanquists, a commune hearkened back to the Paris Commune of 1793 that had saved the First Republic. For the Proudhonists, the commune meant nothing more than local self-government.

One vision of the commune was something along the lines of a “social republic.” Recalling the traditions of revolutionary sans-culottes and socialists from 1848, the social republic had a long memory in the working class. One Parisian worker described the social republic as follows:

Here is what we want and nothing else. A united and indivisible Republic; the separation of Church and state; free and compulsory education by lay teachers; the abolition of all permanent armies and every citizen to bear arms, but in his own district, that is, as the National Guard. … Let those who declared the war, pay the costs, along with the dirty capitulators who signed the so-called peace.11

The “social republic” was not quite socialism, but it implied placing power in the hands of ordinary citizens and going beyond what was acceptable to the bourgeoisie.

One member of the International believed that the commune should be run by the proletariat:

Should it be composed of barristers? No. Of bourgeois? No. The Paris Commune must consist, essentially, only of workers and of all sorts. They must have been recognized as revolutionaries and socialists. A list of them should be drawn up and presented to the people of Paris. If this is not done we will never accomplish anything worthwhile.12

These visions of a commune were not necessarily compatible; some were moderate and others posed a revolutionary challenge to the bourgeois order. The Paris Commune itself would be made of the raw material of these ideas, but it was also something radically new.

Toward Civil War

On January 28, the Franco-Prussian War came to an end. France signed an armistice with harsh terms. The province of Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered, and Prussia was owed an indemnity of 200 million francs. The armistice terms were ratified after elections to the National Assembly. The February elections saw monarchists gain a sweeping majority in the countryside, and Thiers became the new chief executive.

In Paris, there were calls for renewed resistance to the Prussians. Across the city, arms and ammunition were seized to prepare for the battle. This led to a reorganization of the National Guard and the election of a Central Committee. The signing of the treaty meant, however, that Paris no longer focused its anger on the Prussians. A collision with Thiers and the National Assembly was now inevitable. As tension mounted in Paris, about 100,000 bourgeois citizens fled the city. The National Assembly had only 12,000 regular soldiers under its command and could no longer enforce its rule in Paris.13

In this atmosphere, the National Assembly passed two provocative decrees that could only anger the Parisian masses. In moving the National Assembly to Versailles, this was viewed as an insult to the prestige of Paris. Adding injury to insult, on March 13, the National Assembly ended the moratorium on debt repayment. During the war, payment of debts was suspended, but now workers and small shopkeepers were threatened with complete ruin. According to Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, one of the original participants (and arguably the first socialist historian of the Commune): “Two or three hundred thousand workmen, shopkeepers, model makers, small manufacturers working in their own lodgings, who had spent their little stock of money and could not yet earn any more, all business being at a standstill, were thus thrown upon the tender mercies of the landlord, of hunger and bankruptcy.”14 These two actions effectively united the broad masses of Paris against Versailles.

Thiers demanded that the National Guard be disarmed and immediately brought to heel. On March 18, he ordered troops into Paris to retake 400 cannons under the command of the National Guard at Montmartre, La Villette, and Belleville. But the soldiers at Montmartre did not quickly remove the cannons, because they lacked the needed horses. As the soldiers waited for horses to arrive, ordinary Parisians gathered around the troops.

The account Lissagaray provides of this scene is worth quoting in full. The following depicts what can happen when the masses become active and exert their own power:

As in our great days, the women were the first to act. Those of the 18th March, hardened by the siege — they had had a double ration of misery — did not wait for the men. They surrounded the machine guns, apostrophized the sergeant in command of the gun, saying, “This is shameful; what are you doing there?” The soldiers did not answer. Occasionally a non-commissioned officer spoke to them: “Come, my good women, get out of the way.” At the same time a handful of National Guards, proceeding to the post of the Rue Doudeauville, there found two drums that had not been smashed, and beat the rappel. At eight o’clock they numbered 300 officers and guards, who ascended the Boulevard Ornano. They met a platoon of soldiers of the 88th, and, crying, Vive la République! enlisted them. The post of the Rue Dejean also joined them, and the butt-end of their muskets raised, soldiers and guards together marched up to the Rue Muller that leads to the Buttes Montmartre, defended on this side by the men of the 88th. These, seeing their comrades intermingling with the guards, signed to them to advance, that they would let them pass. General Lecomte, catching sight of the signs, had the men replaced by sergents-de-ville, and confined them in the Tower of Solferino, adding, “You will get your deserts.” The sergents-de-ville discharged a few shots, to which the guards replied. Suddenly a large number of National Guards, the butt-end of their muskets up, women and children, appeared on the other flank from the Rue des Rosiers. Lecomte, surrounded, three times gave the order to fire. His men stood still, their arms ordered. The crowd, advancing, fraternized with them, and Lecomte and his officers were arrested.15

After the mutiny, Generals Claude Martin Lecomte and Jacques Leonard Clement Thomas were executed by their own men. Those soldiers who did not go over to the rebels left Paris and retreated to Versailles. The National Guard and the workers quickly seized the key areas of Paris. On March 18, a revolutionary Paris proclaimed to the world:

The proletarians of Paris … amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs. … They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.16

The Paris Commune had begun.


1 “Inaugural Address,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 21, 331. (henceforth MECW.)

2 Frank Jellinek, The Paris Commune of 1871 (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1965), 39.

3 For more background on Blanqui, see my Communist Insurgent: Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017).

4 Jellinek, Paris Commune, 57.

5 Louis-Auguste Blanqui “La Patrie en Danger,” in Communards: The Story of the Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought for It, ed. Mitchell Abidor (Pacifica, CA: Marxists Internet Archive, 2010), 40.

6 Quoted in Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 86.

7 Gluckstein, Paris Commune, 86–87.

8 Gluckstein, Paris Commune, 101.

9 “Excerpts from the Minutes of Meetings of the Federal Council of Paris Sections of the International,” in The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, ed. Eugene Schulkind (New York: Grove Press, 1974), 95.

10 “Resolutions Voted by General Assemblies of Vigilance Committees,” in Schulkind, Paris Commune of 1871, 90–91.

11 “Formation of a Revolutionary Socialist Party,” in The Communards of Paris, 1871, ed. Stewart Edwards (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), 55.

12 “Proposal Submitted to the Republican Central Committee of the Twenty Arrondisements,” in Schulkind, Paris Commune of 1871, 78.

13 Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune 1871 (New York: Longman, 1999), 65.

14 Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007), 67.

15 Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune, 72. Other firsthand accounts of the March 18 uprising can be found in Edwards, Communards of Paris, 56–65. For the role of women in the March 18 revolution, see Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 52–69.

16 “The Civil War in France,” in MECW, vol. 22, 328.