The Paris Commune of 1871, the first instance of a working-class seizure of power, has been subject to countless interpretations: reviled by its enemies as a murderous bacchanalia of the unwashed while praised by supporters as an exemplar of proletarian anarchism in action, both a successful model to be imitated and as a devastating failure to be avoided. All of the interpretations are tendentious. Historians view the working class’s three-month rule through their own prism, distant in time and space. Voices of the Paris Commune takes a different tack. In this book only those who were present in the spring of 1871, who lived through and participated in the Commune, are heard. The Paris Commune had a vibrant press, and it is represented here by its most important newspaper, Le Cri du Peuple, edited by Jules Vallès, member of the First International. Like any legitimate government, the Paris Commune held parliamentary sessions and issued daily printed reports of the heated, contentious deliberations that belie any accusation of dictatorship. Included in this collection is the transcript of the debate in the Commune and a selection from the inquiry carried out 20 years after the event by the intellectual review La Revue Blanche.
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About the Author
Mitchell Abidor is the principal French translator for the Marxists Internet Archive and has published several collections of his translations, including Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938; The Great Anger: Ultra-Revolutionary Writing in France from the Atheist Priest to the Bonnot Gang; and Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those who Fought for It. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Voices of the Paris Commune
By Mitchell Abidor
PM PressCopyright © 2015 PM Press
All rights reserved.
TIMELINE OF THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE
January 10 Approximately one hundred thousand people demonstrate against Bonaparte's Second Empire after the death of Victor Noir, a republican journalist killed by the Emperor's cousin, Pierre Bonaparte.
May 8 A national plebiscite votes confidence in the Empire with about 84 percent of votes in favor. On the eve of the plebiscite, members of the Paris Federation were arrested on a charge of conspiring against Napoleon III. This pretext was further used by the government to launch a campaign of persecution of the members of the International throughout France.
July 19 After a diplomatic struggle over the Prussian attempt for the Spanish throne, Louis Bonaparte declares war on Prussia.
July 23: Marx completes what will become known as his "First Address."
July 26: The "First Address" is approved and internationally distributed by the General Council of the International Working Men's Association.
August 4–6 Crown Prince Frederick, commanding one of the three Prussian armies invading France, defeats French Marshal MacMahon at Worth and Weissenburg, pushes him out of Alsace (northeastern France), surrounds Strasbourg, and drives on toward Nancy. The other two Prussian armies isolate Marshal Bazaine's forces in Metz.
August 16–18 French Commander Bazaine's efforts to break his soldiers through the German lines are bloodily defeated at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte. The Prussians advance on Chalons.
September 1 Battle of Sedan. MacMahon and Bonaparte, attempting to relieve Bazaine at Metz and finding the road closed, enter battle and are defeated at Sedan.
September 2 Emperor Napoleon III and Marshal MacMahon capitulate at Sedan with more than eighty-three thousand soldiers.
September 4 At the news of Sedan, Paris workers invade the Palais Bourbon and force the Legislative Assembly to proclaim the fall of the Empire. By evening, the Third Republic is proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall) in Paris. The provisional Government of National Defense (GND) is established to continue the war effort to remove Germany from France.
September 5 A series of meetings and demonstrations begin in London and other big cities, at which resolutions and petitions are passed demanding that the British government immediately recognize the French Republic. The General Council of the First International take a direct part in the organization of this movement.
September 6 GND issues a statement blaming the war on the Imperial government. It now wants peace, but "not an inch of our soil, not a stone of our fortresses, will we cede." With Prussia occupying Alsace-Lorraine, the war does not stop.
September 19 Two German armies begin the long siege of Paris. Bismarck figures the "soft and decadent" French workers will quickly surrender. The GND sends a delegation to Tours, soon to be joined by Gambetta (who escapes from Paris in a balloon), to organize resistance in the provinces.
October 27 French army, led by Bazaine with 140,000–180,000 men at Metz, surrenders.
October 30 French National Guard is defeated at Le Bourget.
October 31 Upon the receipt of news that the Government of National Defense had decided to start negotiations with the Prussians, Paris workers and revolutionary sections of the National Guard rise up in revolt, led by Blanqui. They seize the Hôtel de Ville and set up their revolutionary government — the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Blanqui. On October 31, Gustave Flourens prevents any members of the Government of National Defense from being shot, as had been demanded by one of the insurrectionists.
November 1 Under pressure from the workers, the Government of National Defense promises to resign and schedule national elections to the Commune — promises it has no intention of keeping. With the workers pacified by their "legal" charade, the government violently seizes the Hôtel de Ville and reestablishes its domination over the besieged city. Paris official Blanqui is arrested for treason.
January 22 The Paris proletariat and the National Guards hold a revolutionary demonstration, initiated by the Blanquists. They demand the overthrow of the government and the establishment of a Commune. By order of the Government of National Defense, the Breton Mobile Guard, which was defending the Hôtel de Ville, opens fire on the demonstrators. After massacring the unarmed workers, the government begins preparations to surrender Paris to the Germans.
January 28 After four long months of workers' struggle, Paris is surrendered to the Prussians. While all regular troops are disarmed, the National Guard is permitted to keep their arms — the population of Paris remains armed and allows the occupying armies only a small section of the city.
February 8 Elections are held in France, unknown to most of the nation's population.
February 12 New National Assembly opens at Bordeaux; two thirds of members are conservatives and wish the war to end.
February 16 The Assembly elects Adolphe Thiers chief executive.
February 26 The preliminary peace treaty between France and Germany signed at Versailles by Thiers and Jules Favre, on the one hand, and Bismarck, on the other. France surrenders Alsace and East Lorraine to Germany and pays it indemnities to the sum of five billion francs. German army of occupation slowly withdraws as indemnity payments made. The final peace treaty is signed in Frankfort-on-Main on May 10, 1871.
March 1–3 After months of struggle and suffering, Paris workers react angrily to the entry of German troops in the city and the ceaseless capitulation of the government. The National Guard defects and organizes a Central Committee.
March 10 The National Assembly passes a law on the deferred payment of overdue bills; under this law the payment of debts on obligations concluded between August 13 and November 12, 1870 could be deferred. Thus, the law leads to the bankruptcy of many petty bourgeoisie.
March 11 The Assembly adjourns. With trouble in Paris, it establishes its government at Versailles on March 20.
March 18 Adolphe Thiers attempts to disarm Paris and sends French troops (regular army), but the workers of Montmartre, who had paid for the cannons, refuse to turn them over. Generals Claude Martin Lecomte and Jacques Leonard Clement Thomas are killed by crowd. Many troops peacefully withdraw; some remain in Paris. With Thiers outraged, the Civil War begins.
March 26 A municipal council — the Paris Commune — is elected by the citizens of Paris. Commune consists of workers, among them members of the First International and followers of Proudhon and Blanqui.
March 28 The Central Committee of the National Guard, which up to then had carried on the government, resigns after it first decrees the permanent abolition of the "Morality Police."
March 30 The Commune abolishes conscription and the standing army; the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms are to be enrolled, becomes the sole armed force. The Commune remits all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April 1871. On the same day the foreigners elected to the Commune are confirmed in office, because "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic."
April 1 The Commune declares that the highest salary received by any member of the Commune does not exceed 6,000 francs.
April 2 In order to suppress the Paris Commune, Thiers appeals to Bismarck for permission to supplement the Versailles Army with French prisoners of war, most of whom had been serving in the armies that surrendered at Sedan and Metz. In return for the five billion francs indemnity payment, Bismarck agrees. The French army begins siege of Paris. Paris is continually bombarded, moreover, by the very people who had stigmatized as a sacrilege the bombardment of the same city by the Prussians.
The Commune decrees the separation of the church from the state and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all church property into national property. Religion is declared a purely private matter.
April 5 Decree on hostages adopted by the Commune in an attempt to prevent Communards from being shot by the French government. Under this decree, all persons found guilty of being in contact with the French government are declared hostages. This decree is never carried out.
April 6 The guillotine is brought out by the 137th Battalion of the National Guard and publicly burnt, amid great popular rejoicing.
April 7 On April 7, the French army captures the Seine crossing at Neuilly, on the western front of Paris.
Reacting to French government policy of shooting captured Communards, the Commune issues an "eye-for-an-eye" policy statement, threatening retaliation. The bluff is quickly called; Paris workers execute no one.
April 8 A decree excluding all religious symbols from the schools — pictures, dogmas, prayers, in a word, "all that belongs to the sphere of the individual's conscience." The decree is gradually applied.
April 11 In an attack on southern Paris the French army is repelled with heavy losses by General Eudes.
April 12 The Commune decides that the Victory Column on the Place Vendôme, which had been cast from guns captured by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be dismantled as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This decree is carried out on May 16.
April 16 The Commune announces the postponement of all debt obligations for three years and abolition of interest on them.
The Commune orders a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by the manufacturers, and the working out of plans for the carrying on of these factories by workers formerly employed in them, who are to be organized in cooperative societies, and also plans for the organization of these cooperatives in one great union.
April 20 The Commune abolishes night work for bakers, and also abolishes the workers' registration cards, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by men named by the police — exploiters of the first rank; the issuing of these registration cards is transferred to the mayors of the twenty arrondissements of Paris.
April 23 Thiers breaks off the negotiations for the exchange, proposed by Commune, of the Archbishop of Paris [Georges Darboy] and a number of other priests held hostages in Paris, for only one man, Blanqui, who had twice been elected to the Commune but is a prisoner in Clairvaux.
April 27 In sight of the impending municipal elections of April 30, Thiers enacts one of his great conciliation scenes. He exclaims from the tribune of the Assembly, "There exists no conspiracy against the republic but that of Paris, which compels us to shed French blood. I repeat it again and again." Out of seven hundred thousand municipal councilors, the united Legitimists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists (Party of Order) do not carry eight thousand.
April 30 The Commune orders the closing of the pawnshops on the ground that they are a private exploitation of labor, and are in contradiction with the right of the workers to their instruments of labor and to credit.
May 5 The Commune orders the demolition of the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI.
May 9 Fort Issy, which is completely reduced to ruins by gunfire and constant French bombardment, is captured by the French army.
May 10 The peace treaty concluded in February is now signed, known as the Treaty of Frankfurt (endorsed by National Assembly on May 18).
May 16 The Victory Column at Place Vendôme is pulled down.
May 21–28 Versailles troops enter Paris on May 21. The Prussians who held the northern and eastern forts allow the Versailles troops to advance across the land north of the city, which was forbidden ground to them under the armistice — Paris workers held the flank with only weak forces. As a result of this, only a weak resistance was put up in the western half of Paris, in the luxury city, while it grew stronger and more tenacious the nearer the Versailles troops approached the eastern half, the working-class city.
The French army spends eight days massacring workers, shooting civilians on sight. The operation is led by Marshal MacMahon, who would later become president of France. Tens of thousands of Communards and workers are summarily executed, as many as thirty thousand. Thirty-eight thousand others are imprisoned and seven thousand are forcibly deported.
Timeline courtesy of the Marxists Internet Archive.CHAPTER 2
PARIS, FREE CITY
There is the working bourgeoisie and the parasitic bourgeoisie.
Those who Le Cri du Peuple attacks, who its editors have everywhere and always attacked, are the do-nothings, those who traffic in positions and have turned politics into a trade.
They're a herd of chatterboxes, a mass of ambitious men, a seedbed of subprefects and state counselors.
They produce nothing but froth. Through shadowy banking systems and shameful stock market speculations they grab the profits produced by those who work — they're shameless speculators who rob the poor and loan to kings, who played dice on the drums of Transnonain or December 2 and who are already thinking of ways to carve their bank out of the corpse of the bloodied fatherland.
But there is a working bourgeoisie, this one honest and valiant. It goes to the workshop wearing a cap, wanders in wooden clogs through the mud of factories, in the cold and the heat remains at its cash register or its office, in its small shop or its large factory, behind the windows of a boutique or the walls of a manufactory. It swallows dust and smoke, burns itself behind the workbench or the forge, helps out wherever needed. It is, with its courage and fears, the sister of the proletariat.
For it has its fears, its risks of failure, its days when bills come due. Thanks precisely to those parasites who need trouble and agitation in order to live, not one fortune is certain today. Nothing is stable: today's boss is tomorrow's laborer, and school graduates see their jackets worn to rags.
How many I know among those who are well established and well dressed, who have the same worries as the poor, who sometimes ask what will become of their children and who would trade all their chances of happiness and profit for the certainty of a modest job and a tearless old age.
It is this whole world of workers who fear ruin and unemployment who make up Paris, the great Paris. Why in all our misery as men and citizens wouldn't they take each other by the hand? And why, in this solemn moment, wouldn't we try for once and for all to wrest this country — where we are brothers in effort and danger — from that eternal uncertainty which allows adventurers to forever succeed, and obliges honest men to forever suffer and tremble!
Fraternity was queen the other day before the cannons and under the bright sun. It must remain queen and Paris must take a solemn decision — a decision that will be the only correct one and will only take its place in history if it manages to avoid civil war and returns to the war against the victorious Bismarck.
As for ourselves, we are ready to impose nothing, to suffer everything in this painful circle of fatality, on condition that the freedom of Paris remain safe and that the flag of the republic shelter, in an independent city, a courageous people of workers.
Workers and bourgeois: several hundred years ago, in that Germany from which the cannons that struck us came, four cities declared themselves free cities; for centuries they were great and proud, rich and peaceful. In all corners of the world they were heard, and they cast merchandise and gold on all shores!
In order to cut the Gordian knot that had bound together our recent misfortunes other than with the saber, there is only one message:
PARIS, FREE CITY!
Through the intermediary of the people's representatives we will immediately negotiate with the government of Versailles for a status quo without battle, and with the Prussians for the settling of indemnities.
No blood will be shed, the cannons will remain cold, the barracks will close, and the workshops reopen and work recommence.
Work starts anew! This is the inflexible necessity, the supreme desire. Let us all come to agreement so that everyone finds tomorrow his work. Citizens of all classes and ranks: this is salvation!
Paris, a free city, returns to its labors.
This secession would save the provinces from their fears and the faubourgs from famine.
Bordeaux said: Down with Paris!
We for our part cry out: Long live France, Long live Paris! And we promise to never extend to that France that slanders us the hand that they took as a threat.
Excerpted from Voices of the Paris Commune by Mitchell Abidor. Copyright © 2015 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents
Timeline of the Civil War in France,
Paris, Free City,
The People of Belleville,
Debate in the Commune on the Hostages and the Committee of Public Safety,
Inquiry on the Commune,
Gaston Da Costa,
A Rebel from Lyon,
M. Victor Jaclard,
M. Louis Lucipia,
General de Gallifet,