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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, often regarded as the first instance of the working-class seizing power and establishing a government dedicated to its interests. 

The uprising occurred in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, after the defeat of France, the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and the subsequent election in February 1871, of a new French republican government led by Adolphe Thiers, an aging conservative politician who was moderate in principle and ruthless in power.

Paris meanwhile remained under the control of more radical republicans allied with the city’s armed National Guard, which had bravely resisted a long siege of Paris by the Prussians.

On March 18, 1871, when Thiers sent French troops to seize the city’s cannons, the working people of Montmartre fought back, killing two generals. Radicals then seized the Hôtel-de-Ville, forcing Thiers and his government to retreat to nearby Versailles. Eight days later, on March 26, elections were held for the Council of the Commune, the government of liberated, revolutionary Paris.

This new government was made up almost exclusively of former opponents of the Empire who were dedicated to a French republic that would be truly democratic as well as socialist. Members were elected representing three distinct factions. A large group commonly referred to as neo-Jacobins was wedded to the ideals of Robespierre and Saint-Just; the followers of the eternal rebel Auguste Blanqui were dedicated to the idea of a small group of conspirators seizing power and guiding the revolution until the people reach a high enough level of consciousness to run things themselves; finally, the faction that came to be known as “the Minority” were members of the French branch of the First International, many of them disciples of the late Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who had advocated “mutualism,” an egalitarian society in which peasants, artisans and local labor cooperatives would freely exchange the goods they produced.  

The Paris Commune lasted only seventy-two days – but it forged a legend.

The roots of this legend lay in the “Bloody Week” that climaxed its brief existence.

On May 21, 1871, troops from Versailles entered Paris. In the days that followed, Thiers’ army acted with an almost unimaginable brutality. No quarter was given: bruises left on men’s shoulders by a rifle’s recoil served as proof of participation in the uprising and led to an immediate death sentence.

In the eyes of its supporters, the Communards became martyrs. In the eyes of their enemies, they were “savages,” considered even more barbaric by the French than the Arabs they had conquered in the Maghreb. General Gallifet, who bragged of killing seventy Communards himself, remarked that “The Arabs have a God; the Communards don’t.”

If groups of more than ten Communards needed to be killed, the Versaillais resorted to the use of machine guns. The federal army was no respecter of sex: fifty-two women were killed at a single fallen barricade.

The final defenders of the Commune fell on May 28, making their last stand at a wall in Père Lachaise cemetery.  

Though it has long been said that 20,000 Communards were killed during the Bloody Week, the historian Robert Tombs puts the number at between 5,700 and 7,400, while Michèle Audin, author of the best of the commemorative sites dedicated to the Commune, has estimated that more than 7,000 Communards were killed, but that the exact number is impossible to know.  

Thousands more were driven into exile or sent to penal colonies. Even Commune leaders who had been killed at the barricades received posthumous death sentences from the courts martial, in case they weren’t really and truly dead. The good people of Paris who didn’t actively kill Communards contributed what they could to ensure the extermination of the Communards. Between May 22 and June 13, the prefecture of police received 379,823 denunciations of alleged supporters of the Commune; one man was denounced seventeen times!

The French left was not only decapitated, it lost its body, too. It was only after a full amnesty was granted in 1880 and the exiles were allowed to return, that the French left revived.

And yet, despite the lives lost, the seventy-two days in the spring of 1871 almost instantly achieved mythical status. The uprising became in popular memory “le temps des cerises” – “the time of the cherries,” in the nostalgic words of the song written by one of its members, Jean-Baptiste Clément.

The essays and books by participants on the left published in the immediate aftermath contained a rough record of what had happened, along with criticism of the actions of one faction or another. But as time passed, the event itself lost its materiality and became an anarchist affair – even though there were no anarchists in France; or a communist affair, though there were no communists in France; or a socialist state, though no clear picture of socialism can be drawn from the decrees it issued.

Karl Marx, who had almost no followers in Paris in 1871, wrote The Civil War in France, one of the seminal works of the socialist movement. Engels later claimed that the Commune embodied what he and Marx meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

Decades later, Lenin allegedly danced in the snow the day his government outlived the Commune, and the lessons he and Trotsky claimed to have learned from the Commune served as the blueprints for the new Bolshevik state.

The Chinese communist uprising in Shanghai in 1927 bore the name the Shanghai Commune, and the spirit of the Paris Commune, the spirit of the workers themselves running a city, can be found again in Barcelona in 1936.

Memorialization of the Commune became an annual event in France, and in 1936 the march to the wall in Père Lachaise cemetery where the Communards made their last stand featured members of the Communist, Socialist and Radical Parties carrying images of heroes of the Commune. It took nine hours for the vast crowd to file past what was now the holiest of holies of the working-class movement in France.

In May 1968, the Parisian students erected barricades, as if to recreate the spirit of the Commune of 1871.

More recently still, some activists in Occupy Wall Street in 2011 considered themselves successors of the Paris Commune.

But what, really, was the Paris Commune?

It was not a spontaneous, prefigurative gathering of people waggling their fingers in the air at a general assembly in the spirit of Occupy: it was a state. It had no permanent president, but that did not mean it wasn’t a government. It replaced ministries with commissions and ministers with delegates, and had an elected legislature that met and followed parliamentary rules. Debate was free and open in the Commune’s Council, and though there was some opposition to this, debates were published in the Commune’s Journal officiel.

Books and articles on the Commune almost uniformly prove its enduring value by detailing the most significant of the measures it passed. In a recent article, I did the same, holding up as one of its great accomplishments the claim that its legislators were paid a workman’s wages. This claim was made in Marx’s book on the Commune and entered the vulgate unquestioned. Marx had written that “From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage.”

After the publication of my article a friend in England, a lifelong Trotskyist and so not someone who could be suspected of harboring anti-communard sentiments, wrote to tell me that a recent book had shown that the members of the Council in fact voted for themselves a wage three times that of the average workman at its sitting of March 31, which was the second gathering of the members of the Commune’s Council.  To be sure, the fifteen francs they granted themselves was not a royal sum, but it nevertheless was not the wage of a workman. In fact, there was a wide range of salaries paid those working for the Commune, with the maximum salary of an employee of the Commune det at 6000 francs per annum, far beyond that of a worker.              

Having long accepted Marx’s idée recue on faith I decided it was time to go back to the two thousand pages of minutes of the Council and reexamine what the Commune actually said and did.

To what extent were its achievements real, or even original to it?  

What else was exaggerated in the telling, aside from the death toll and the wages of the Communards?

Given its relatively short life and the fact that most of that life it was under bombardment, its ability to implement radical measures was severely limited.  But a closer reading of the archival material is revealing of its members’ actual beliefs, of their vision of class relations and the government’s role in them. It shows that the matter of what the Commune actually accomplished is more complex, and interesting, than the complacent, triumphalist image that still circulates largely unchallenged on the left.

Two decrees are often singled out as among the greatest accomplishments of the Commune: the banning of night work for bread bakers and the return at no cost of pawned items to their original owners. But a closer examination of the debates around these issues reveals that their success was something less than total.                                            

On April 20 the Commune issued its decree banning night work for bakers. So important was this measure that Leo Frankel, a member of the First International as well as an important and vocal member of the Commune’s Council, described it as “the only truly socialist decree rendered by the Commune.”

And yet, nothing is less clear than the effectiveness of the decree, and the debate around it speaks volumes of the difficulties of social change, even in the midst of a revolution.

After the initial discussion, a follow-up decree was issued eight days later, adding some important details: the decree would take effect on May 3 and, under the new order, “work could begin before 5:00 a.m.”

Once passed, the measure had been accepted with less than enthusiasm by the owners of the bakeries. In response, working bakers in the third arrondissement threatened to smash the windows of the recalcitrant shops.

In an effort to avoid riots, a member of the Commune proposed postponing the implementation of the decree until May 15. Alternatively, and responding to more quotidian concerns, another member proposed the measure be delayed “a few more days” so that leavening could be prepared. As debate continued, one council member insisted that the complaints made by both parties to the dispute shouldn’t be addressed because “it is not up to us to intervene in a matter between bosses and workers.” Yet another member of the Commune wondered if the Commune had any right to formulate any decree at all, since the bosses hadn’t been consulted! And wasn’t a concern with fresh bread in any case a bourgeois fetish, reflecting an “aristocracy of the belly”? In the countryside, after all, bread was only baked once a week and “it’s no less good for all that.”

After this lengthy debate, the decree was sustained. But there were grave problems in its implementation. Given the fear that competition among bakers would result in bread being baked outside the legal hours, who would ensure obedience? No penalty had been included in the decree. Indeed, it was unclear if the Commune or the executive committee of the Commune or a governmental department had the power to enforce the decree. Citizen Andrieu reported that he’d placed lighting agents at the disposition of those who’d carry out inspections, but who was going to collect and confiscate the illicit baguettes?

Given the level of resistance to this decree, the vagueness around its implementation, and the late date of its implementation, it is unlikely “the only truly socialist decree rendered by the Commune” had much, if any, effect.                                                                                         

The restitution to their owners of items pawned at the municipal pawn shops was a seemingly small measure that was intended to have wide impact on social welfare. In fact, it was considered a measure on a par with all other matters pertaining to relieving the needy of Paris. This decree was implemented, but its road was a rocky one and, again, didn’t accomplish all that was hoped from it.

Government-authorized pawn shops had been life savers during the siege of Paris, when tens of thousands of families and individuals pawned whatever they could spare in order to survive. The Government of National Defense had authorized the restitution at no cost of items worth fifteen francs or less, while funds provided by the Lord Mayor of London paid for items worth up to twenty francs.

On March 29, the day after the installation of the Commune’s Council, the sale of objects deposited at the pawnshops was suspended. This was widely misinterpreted to mean that all objects were now free to be returned to their original owners. Crowds lined up at pawnshops, until the council members clarified that there needed to be further deliberations on the restitution of items still in the pawnshops.  

On April 25 it was formally proposed that the pawnshops restore items worth up to fifty francs to their original owners, though this was limited to work tools, furniture, clothing, and bedding. It was also proposed that jewelry be included in the objects to be redeemable at no cost, wedding rings being an item frequently pawned in moments of distress. 

The question immediately arose of how to verify the true owner of the items. Would the town halls be able to deal with the crowds that would come to them for attestations of ownership? One member admitted he had no idea how the true owners would be determined.

The debate over the value of the items caused some puzzlement: hadn’t all quarterly rent payments going back to October 1870 been suspended? Was that not a more radical measure than that concerning pawned goods, which was aimed at several thousand families, far fewer than those effected by the suspension of rent?

Yet there was hesitation. Someday all forms of public assistance would disappear, Citizen Lefrançais asserted, but no one could predict what would replace them: “For the moment you would be causing confusion by purely and simply declaring the suspension of pawnshops and asylums for the indigent.”

Indemnification of the pawnshops for their losses was also debated. Should those who run the pawnshops, who had enriched themselves on the poverty of the poor, be allowed to continue to profit? But did they even profit? Charles Longuet, a member of the Commune’s Council, sympathized with the pawnbrokers, insisting that “if the Commune were to examine the account books of the pawnshops it would see that they can’t enrich themselves beyond the legally allowed interest rate [of 3.5 to 4%].” In any case, it wasn’t clear that the government could even afford to indemnify pawnshop owners.

A decree was finally passed on May 6 with pawned work tools, furniture, bedding, clothing, and linen worth 20 francs or less restored without charge (The details – never a strength of the Commune – were left to be worked out by others.)

The report in the Journal officiel was euphoric: “It is obvious,” the journal declared, “that the liquidation of the pawnshops must be succeeded by a social organization that provides workers with real guarantees of assistance and support in the event of unemployment or illness… The establishing of the Commune demands new, reparatory institutions capable of sheltering workers from exploitation by capital.”

By the end of the Commune 42,000 items worth 323,000 francs had been reclaimed – and the creation of “reparatory institutions capable of sheltering workers from exploitation” had been tabled as a task for another uprising.

During its brief existence, the Commune passed many other decrees – but most were never implemented, and a number were purely symbolic. 

For example, the destruction of the guillotine is frequently mentioned as one of the great moral accomplishments of the Commune. The guillotine was roundly condemned by the Communards, and “the hideous machine,” as they called it, was in fact smashed and burned in a public ceremony held on April 6 at the foot of a statue of Voltaire by a regiment of the National Guard from the eleventh arrondissement. It was not the Commune that destroyed the guillotine, but members of the National Guard, acting independently, who destroyed a guillotine.

But the symbolic destruction of one guillotine did not end the death penalty. On April 5 the Commune had passed a decree that called for the execution of three hostages in its possession for every fighter for the Commune executed by the Versaillais forces. This decree wasn’t implemented until its back was to the wall; in the chaos of its final days, it finally did so. Under orders signed by a member of the Commune, which was no longer meeting as a body, it executed sixty-four hostages during its final days, including Archbishop Darboy of Paris. Executing these men, a representative said at a sitting of the Commune at which the execution of hostages was discussed, far from violating their notion of a more just, kinder world, constituted “acting like revolutionaries.” Justified or not, the executions constituted capital punishment. Not by guillotine, but for the victim an execution is an execution, by bullet or by blade.

The Commune is praised for its open-mindedness about the realities of life among the working-class, having granted the unmarried partners of men who fell fighting for the Commune the same pensions and rights as the widows of those wedded according to the law. And yet, the debates and decrees of the Commune’s Council also reveal that it contained an unexpected strain of moralism. A public meeting held in late April listed the enemies of the “republican family”: “Celibacy, confession, prostitution, monarchical institutions, and the failure to observe shared rights and duties based on solidarity.”

In keeping with this, on May 16, prostitution – at least of the “streetwalker” variety – was banned in order to put an end to this “offense [to] public morality.” The same decree implemented measures aimed at repressing public drunkenness. Anyone found to be inebriated in public was to be taken to the nearest police station and held for two hours, while those taken after midnight were to be held till morning. Anyone serving those who drank while drunk would be fined and the money used for communal assistance. The fines would double for the second offense, and the tavern closed after a third. The methods for implementation were left to be worked out, and it’s unlikely this decree had much effect on either prostitution or public drunkenness. But their designation as enemies of the common good are indicative of an element of the Commune’s ideology. 

The Commune’s feminism is frequently spoken of today by its admirers, but this constitutes wishful thinking and an attempt to turn the Communards into young people camped in Zuccotti Park. It’s true there were clubs and organizations of and for women, that countless women worked as nurses and cantinières, that Marx’s envoy to revolutionary Paris was a woman, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, and that Louise Michel – who was not yet the Louise Michel of history – headed an ambulance service. But historian of the Commune Robert Tombs, in an interview with the French daily Libération, singled out the alleged feminism of the Commune as one of the great misconceptions about the event: “It seems to me that the idea of the Commune as a kind of feminist movement doesn’t hold water. No one gave women the right to vote. They played an important role, but this was already the case in 1848 and even 1789. The Commune was nothing new when it came to women’s rights.” Even the myth of the petroleuses, the women who supposedly set fire to the buildings of Paris as the Commune was in its death throes, which has served as evidence of the role of women as armed defenders of the social republic, is simply a recycling of a similar story that circulated after the revolution of 1848. The Commune was many things, but a feminist revolt it was not.

Charles Longuet, a Communard who later married Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny, long ago raised an important general objection to the work of the Commune: “We act,” he said, “too much with our hearts. I don’t think we have to demonstrate our moral and sentimental superiority over Versailles… It is up to us to demonstrate – and we can do so – that we are superior to them when it comes to practical wisdom, study, and real science… Rest assured that those solutions most moderate in appearance are often the most radical, the most truly socialist, simply because they are the most just. In a word, let us always be inspired in our solutions with an exacting spirit of justice rather than a vague sentiment of solidarity.”

 The sentimentality that still surrounds the Commune is unfortunate because it is so unnecessary. The evidence of its inability to do all it intended to do was never hidden: the Journal officiel was available for just a few francs and was posted in public places, so the debates and disagreements among the Communards were available for all to see in its pages.

This much is clear: The Paris Commune that actually existed for 72 days in 1871 was unable to realize its loftiest goals; at the same time, it never had a chance to betray its democratic ideals.

The Commune can be thought of as a political version of the elephant described by blind men, with anarchists, communists, and socialists able to stake a claim to it based on the part of the elephant they touch. This protean quality allows the legend of the Paris Commune to live on not just in Communist hagiography, but also in the socialist dream of a self-governing republic of equals.

Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.