Celebrating the Paris Commune of 1871: “Glorious harbinger of a new society”

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 15 February 2021

Eleanor Marx wrote of the Paris Commune:

It is time people understood the true meaning of this Revolution; and this can be summed up in a few words… It was the first attempt of the proletariat to govern itself. The workers of Paris expressed this when in their first manifesto they declared they “understood it was their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies by seizing upon the governmental power”.[1]

Karl, her father, had addressed the International Workingmen’s Association (known as the First International) on 30 May 1871. He began with: “On the dawn of March 18, Paris arose to the thunder-burst of ‘Vive la Commune!’ What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalising to the bourgeois mind?”[2]

Marx went on to describe why he was so inspired. The Paris Commune

was the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle class – shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants – the wealthy capitalist alone excepted.[3]

Many of the lessons Marx drew from this momentous event have in the last half century been largely lost to workers struggling to get control over their lives. But if we listen to the voices of the women and men of the Commune, if we examine the barbarous response of the National Government headed by the reactionary Adolph Thiers, we find that the lessons are just as relevant to our struggle many years later. As Walter Benjamin argued so poetically:

The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual… [The latter] are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turned, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed.[4]

In paying heed I will attempt to capture the incredible atmosphere of joy, experimentation and creativity which flourished. But we cannot flinch from the horror of that terrible last week, known as la semaine sanglante, where at least 30,000 people were slaughtered by a government determined to crush not just the physical presence of this social revolution, but also its spirit. The preparedness of the ruling class to inflict such violence should be burned into the consciousness of every anti-capitalist activist. Any movement with a vision of a new society must confront the vexed question of how to win in the face of such barbarism.

The Commune established a more thoroughly democratic society than capitalism has ever seen before or since. The reforms introduced were far in advance of anything the capitalists had ever sanctioned, some of which still have not been won in many countries. The 150th anniversary of this marvellous event is a good time to revisit the inspiring first steps of the revolutionary workers’ movement, and draw the lessons that can be learnt from its successes and ultimate defeat.

The uprising

It all began as the sun rose over the radical working-class arrondissements[5] of Montmartre and Belleville on 18 March 1871. Soldiers began seizing nearly 250 cannon deliberately placed in these working-class areas by the National Guard, a popular Parisian militia. The soldiers had been sent there by the head of the new republican government, Adolphe Thiers. Among other things, Thiers was widely despised for his role in the brutal suppression of workers’ rebellions in 1848.

But contrary to Thiers’ expectation of a swift exercise, the affair spun out of control. The incompetent army had forgotten to bring horses to drag the cannon, which gave the Guardsmen time to fraternise with soldiers. Expecting a treasonous crowd, the soldiers began turning their rifles up as the streets rang with declarations of Vive la République!

The London Times correspondent describes the scene as women came out to buy bread and prepare for the day: “Small savage groups of blouses [were] making cynical remarks upon everybody’s cowardice… ‘If they had only left them to us to guard they would not have been captured so easily’.” This militancy and self-assurance of the working women of Paris, convinced that they could fight better than the men, will reverberate through the whole revolution. Our witness, moving along to the suburb of Belleville, recorded soldiers and Guardsmen finding they had much in common. Let’s pause to witness a typical scene:

There was something intensely exciting in the scene. The uncertainty for a moment whether the men were meeting as friends or enemies, the wild enthusiasm of the shouts of fraternization, the waving of the upturned musket, the bold reckless women laughing and exciting the men against their officers, all combined to produce a sensation of perplexity not unmingled with alarm at the strange and unexpected turn things were taking.[6]

Fraternisation, courageous defiance by the masses of Paris and mutiny were the hallmark of the day. When troops blocked the entrance to the church of Saint-Pierre to stop anyone ringing the tocsin in order to alert the National Guard and citizens to the danger, workers got into other churches, climbing into the steeples. The tolling of the tocsins brought increasing numbers crowding into the streets.[7]

The correspondent described these areas as “rugged open spaces where the lawless crowds of these parts love to hold their meetings and park their cannon”. Belleville, side by side with Montmartre on the right bank, is described as “[t]he most solidly working-class district in all of Paris, and the most revolutionary”.[8] These cannon were regarded as their cannon, financed by workers’ subscriptions to the National Guard since the revolution of 1848. And they were the only means of defence against the Prussian army shelling the city since Thiers had moved his troops to Versailles. When the Times correspondent queried a National Guardsman about possible fighting, he was rebuked: “Sacrebleu, do you suppose we are going to allow these Canaille to take our cannon without firing a shot?”[9] After all, the National Guard had deliberately positioned their cannon to defend these key suburbs.

Hostile crowds quickly gathered to block the soldiers trying to move the cannon. Eyewitness accounts all draw our attention to the large numbers of women and children. Louise Michel, one of the most flamboyant and radical figures of the Commune, later recalled the events at Montmartre:

Montmartre was waking up; the drum was beating. I went with others to launch what amounted to an assault on the hilltop. The sun was rising and we heard the alarm bell. Our ascent was at the speed of a charge, and we knew that at the top was an army poised for battle. We expected to die for liberty.

It was as if we were risen from the dead. Yes, Paris was rising from the dead. Crowds like this are sometimes the vanguard of the ocean of humanity… But it was not death that awaited us… No, it was the surprise of a popular victory.

Between us and the army were women who threw themselves on the cannons and on the machine guns while the soldiers stood immobile.[10]

General Lecomte three times ordered the soldiers to fire on the crowd. “A woman challenged the soldiers: ‘Are you going to fire on us? On our brothers? On our husbands? On our children?’” Lecomte threatened to shoot any soldier who refused to do just that. As they hesitated, he demanded to know if they “were going to surrender to that scum”. Michel recalled:

[A] non-commissioned officer came out from the ranks and…called out in a voice louder than Lecomte’s. “Turn your guns around and put your rifle butts up in the air!” The soldiers obeyed. It was Verdaguerre who, for this action, was shot by Versailles some months later. But the revolution was made.[11]

Later, Lecomte and another General, Clément Thomas, were taken prisoner before being shot. This incident would become the centre of controversy for years to come, trotted out by enemies of the Communards to demonstrate their barbarism. Of course, the two men’s role in perpetrating mass violence to crush the revolution of 1848 and Lecomte’s repeated orders to kill women and children are rarely mentioned.

Hostile witnesses viewed events through the jaundiced eyes of those accustomed to wielding unchallenged authority, but the narrative is the same. A Versailles army officer recorded that where he was in charge they were

stopped by a crowd of several hundred local inhabitants, principally children and women. The infantry detachment which was there to escort the cannon completely forgot their duty and dispersed into the crowd, succumbing to its perfidious seductions, and ending by turning up their rifle butts.[12]

A proclamation by Thiers was posted around the city: the taking of the cannon was “indispensable to the maintenance of order”, the intention of the government was to rid the city of the “insurrectionary committee” propagating “communist” doctrines, threatening Paris with pillage. This slur that the rebels wanted to destroy Paris, issued by the reactionary who had abandoned Paris to be shelled and occupied by the Prussians, was the source of even more determined resistance.

Once the horses arrived, some soldiers succeeded in beginning to move some of the cannon in Belleville. Guardsmen and residents responded by building barricades to physically prevent their removal. The crowd swelled, transforming itself from a mass of spectators to increasingly angry and active participants. One observer wrote that they saw

women and children swarming up the hillside in a compact mass; the artillery tried in vain to fight their way through the crowd, but the waves of people engulfed everything, surging over the cannon-mounts, over the ammunition wagons, under the wheels, under the horses’ feet, paralysing the advance of the riders who spurred on their mounts in vain. The horses reared and lunged forward, their sudden movement clearing the crowd, but the space was filled at once by a back-wash created by the surging multitude.

In response to a call by a National Guardsman, women cut through the horses’ harnesses. The soldiers began dismounting, accepting the offers of food and wine from the women. As they broke ranks they became “the object of frenetic ovations”.[13]

Some time later the Times correspondent returned to Montmartre and visited the barricade, the first stone of which he had seen laid. It had now

grown to considerable dimensions by reason of the rule which is enforced that every passer must place a stone, a pile of which is placed for the purpose on each side of the street… New barricades were springing up in every direction… It was now midday, and the whole affair wore a most strange and incomprehensible aspect to one not brought up to making barricades… Instead of a government blocking every street as was the case in the morning, a hostile cannon was now looking down every street.[14]

The barricades would develop their own centres of activity, drama and tragedy which would become a focus for historians. Eric Hazan, in his book The Invention of Paris, a History in Footsteps, includes a history of barricades and their “theatrical role” with reference to the Commune’s use of them.[15]

Cordons of soldiers had been replaced by National Guards supervising barricade-building. The streets, so quiet first thing in the morning, were now “swarming with [Guardsmen], drums were beating, bugles blowing, and all the din of victory”.[16]

By midday, General Vinoy, assigned to capture the cannon, was fleeing Paris. A Commune sympathiser wrote in his diary:

Legally we had no more government; no police force or policemen; no magistrate or trials; no top officials or prefects; the landlords had run away in a panic abandoning their buildings to the tenants, no soldiers or generals; no letters or telegrams; no customs officials, tax collectors or teachers. No more Academy or Institute: the great professors, doctors and surgeons had left… Paris, immense Paris was abandoned to the “orgies of the vile multitude”.[17]

How to explain this seemingly spontaneous mass mobilisation over a few hundred cannon? Paris had been under siege by the Prussians since 19 September 1870 and shelled relentlessly since 5 January. Anger with Thiers was intense. He had gone to war with Germany the previous July for the glory of the French empire. Confronted with defeat by Bismarck’s army, he baulked at the idea of arming the population of Paris. And the bourgeoisie refused to support any defence of Paris while the National Guard, with its working-class membership, remained in control of armaments. It was clear that to win the war with Bismarck, all cities, especially Paris, needed to be mobilised under arms. But the history of France since the revolution of 1789 had been one of recurring social upheavals which terrified the bourgeoisie. An army general later summed up the problem: “the diplomacy of the government and almost all of the defence revolved around one thing: the fear of revolt”.[18] So Thiers had conspired with Prussia’s Bismarck to crush radical Paris as a condition of a treaty to end the war. Removing the cannon was part of that process.

“Paris armed is the revolution armed”, remarks Marx. And so Thiers, “by surrendering to Prussia not only Paris, but all France…initiated the civil war they were now to wage, with the assistance of Prussia, against the republic and Paris”.[19]

Attempting to seize the cannon was in reality simply the trigger which unleashed a well of bitterness fed by poverty and squalor in the overcrowded working-class districts. The restructuring of Paris by Georges-Eugène Haussmann,[20] appointed by Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, who ruled from his coup d’état in 1852 until September 1870, had been devastating. New, wide boulevards cut swathes through workers’ districts, destroying 100,000 apartments in 20,000 buildings. This displaced thousands from central Paris, with the poor crowding into Montmartre and Belleville. In the midst of a booming economy, it is estimated that a majority of the working class required government assistance.[21] Alongside growing misery, the wealthy enjoyed glitzy arcades packed with elegant stores and cafés within walking distance of their magnificent private residences. As Merriman says, “the bourgeoisie’s day had truly arrived”.[22] The rebuilding of Paris, which was meant to stave off social unrest, had instead stoked it for decades.

The victorious movement of March 1871 had brought to life what became known as the Paris Commune. Its task was now to reorganise life in the city, based on principles of justice, equality and freedom from tyranny.

The Commune – a new power

As we follow events over the next 72 days we will witness truly awe-inspiring achievements. Innovative democratic institutions were established. And the experience of taking control over their society inspired mass involvement in debates about all aspects of their lives. They replaced the state with one under their control. They vigorously attempted radical reforms in the family, the conditions of women, in the workplace, and education, well ahead of the times, as they debated the role of science, religion and the arts in society.

Edmond de Goncourt – co-founder of the naturalist school of literature in France and whose will established the Goncourt Academy which annually awards the prestigious French literary prize – left this testimony to the Commune’s proletarian character:

The triumphant revolution seems to be taking possession of Paris…barricades are being put up everywhere, naughty children scramble on top of them… You are overcome with disgust to see their stupid and abject faces, which triumph and drunkenness have imbued with a kind of radiant swinishness…for the moment France and Paris are under the control of workmen… How long will it last?… The unbelievable rules…the cohorts of Belleville throng our conquered boulevard.

He is disgusted by their “mocking astonishment” at their achievement, noting that they wear their shoes without socks! He admits that the “government is leaving the hands of those who have, to go into the hands of those who have not”.[23]

By midday on 18 March, the population had established a situation of dual power: radical Paris in a standoff with the government in Versailles. On one side was Adolph Thiers, a reactionary through and through. His government, elected as recently as February, had already fled to the decadent safety of Versailles, accompanied by the army and a stream of bourgeois and respectable middle-class figures. Now it operated from the Grand Château of the Bourbon monarchy in Versailles, the reactionary centre of the centuries-old alliance between the Catholic church and the Bourbons. Thiers, determined to crush the Commune, would be backed by all of respectable opinion, both in France and across Europe.

On the other side of the barricades, workers created the most democratic institutions known to humanity at that time. Marx would write of their achievements: “[t]he great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people”.[24] Such a state of affairs was a direct threat to the repressive rule of Thiers, the monarchy and the church.

Whenever the oppressed rise up and fight for their rights, a sense of revelry inevitably follows. This is what inspires sympathetic witnesses of revolutions to describe such moments as festivals of the oppressed. Paris in 1871 was no different. Even bitter enemies of the Commune could not but convey the joyous atmosphere in the wake of the victory of 18 March. One recorded the experience of standing in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the Paris town hall now occupied by the Communards, while the names of those elected to form a Commune Committee were read out:

I write these lines still full of emotion… One hundred thousand perhaps, where did they come from? From every corner of the city. Armed men spilled out of every nearby street, and the sharp points of the bayonets, glittering in the sun, made the place seem like a field of lightning. The music playing was the Marseillaise, a song taken up in fifty thousand resolute voices: this thunder shook all the people, and the great song, out of fashion from defeats, recovered for a moment its former energy.

…An immense sea of banners, bayonets, and caps, surging forward, drifting back, undulating, breaking against the stage. The cannons still thundered, but they were heard only in intervals between the singing. Then all the sounds merged into a single cheer, the universal voice of the countless multitude, and all these people had but one heart just as they had but one voice.[25]

The elected Commune Committee was entrusted with the momentous responsibility of defending the city against Versailles, organising food supplies, care for the wounded; indeed, of reorganising the entire life of the city.

The state

The old state power had been demolished, a significant move Marx emphasised:

[F]or the first time since the days of February 1848, the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind. “We,” said a member of the Commune, “hear no longer of assassination, theft, and personal assault; it seems indeed as if the police had dragged along with it to Versailles all its Conservative friends”.

To emphasise the significance of this, Marx puts it in a broader context:

The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic” [the popular slogan of the mass movement]…did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.

Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers…to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire. Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.[26]

This revolutionary move was the basis on which the new democracy that Marx celebrates could be built.

The majority of [the Commune Committee’s] members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms.

This was a key point Marx emphasised: how elected delegates and government officials can be made accountable. But not just elected delegates. “Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.”[27]


Marx concluded that these innovative democratic structures were “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour” and explained:

The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labour emancipated…productive labour ceases to be a class attribute.[28]

The Commune Committee was not just left to get on with decreeing reforms while everything went back to the old normal. Historians have documented the incredible flowering of organisation, debate and social experimentation that took place, adding a tapestry of rich detail which illuminates Marx’s theoretical generalisations. Many of the organisations and their proposals were based on demands which had been discussed by socialists and worker militants for decades. The difference now was that they were not just topics for debate and protest. Now they became the expression of the poor and oppressed as they began to take control of their lives.

The Committee set up a range of Commissions to deal with specific areas. The Jewish-Hungarian worker, Léo Frankel, a member of the International and collaborator of Marx, was appointed minister of labour to deal with workers’ rights and working conditions. Night work by bakers was abolished; employers were banned from reducing wages by levying their employees with fines under any pretext, “a process in which the employer combines in his own person the parts of legislator, judge, and executor, and filches the money to boot”.[29]

Some issues were complicated due to conflicting priorities. Military supplies were obviously of paramount importance. But the Commune’s purchase of the cheapest equipment did not sit easily beside workers’ demands for decent wages. The commissioner for finance, Proudhonist François Jourde, baulked at rewriting contracts with employers, hardly surprising given the Proudhonists supported private property. But as Frankel pointed out, “the revolution was made exclusively by the working class. I don’t see what the point of the Commune is if we…do nothing for that class”. In response to the workers themselves, new contracts specifying a satisfactory minimum wage were agreed. The employers were not consulted.

An additional clause decreed by the Labour Commission stated that where possible contracts be awarded “directly to the workers’ own corporations”. Workers’ corporations can be understood here to refer to co-operatives, associations and trade unions. They were strongly backed by Frankel’s Commission as a vehicle for socialism. The Commission also decreed that the enterprises of any employers who fled to Versailles were to be taken over by its workers.[30]

Another of Marx’s collaborators in the International played a key role in influencing the Labour Commission.[31] The Russian socialist Elisabeth Dmitrieff was central to establishing the Union des Femmes, or Women’s Union. It was the women’s section of the First International. A mariage blanc[32] had provided Dmitrieff with an escape route out of Russia. She had spent the last three months in London, where she met with Marx almost daily, discussing theories of revolution. Prior to that she had joined the International in Geneva, where she had met the future Communards Eugène Varlin and Benoît Malon. According to historian Kristin Ross, the Union des Femmes became the largest and most effective organisation in the Commune.[33] It met daily in almost every one of the twenty arrondissements. The membership was dominated by workers in the garment trades: seamstresses, laundresses, dressmakers and so on.[34]

The Union des Femmes’ discussions included theoretical questions about ending private property and the issues of gender-based inequality, as well as solving the day to day struggle to provide fuel and food to families. At the same time they participated in the defence of the Commune, maintenance of barricades, tending to the sick and wounded. Ross sums up: “In some ways, the Women’s Union can be seen as the practical response to many of the questions and problems regarding women’s labour that had been the discussion topic [for years]”.[35]

Another historian, Donny Gluckstein, argues: “[t]he Labour Commission’s work was shaped by, and depended absolutely on, the Women’s Union and the trade unions’ workers’ corporations, which in turn were empowered by the commission.”[36] Spelling out their mission, the Union des Femmes declared: “We want work, but in order to keep the product. No more exploiters, no more masters. Work and well-being for all”. At their urging, the Commune set up cooperatives to make Guardsmen’s uniforms, which provided well-paid work under the women workers’ control.[37]

While women suffered special oppression, their working lives were also shaped by the broader conditions facing the working class. They made remarkable moves in the direction towards workers’ control, in spite of limited time and conditions of war: “There were a dozen confiscated workshops, above all those linked to military defence… Five corporations had begun searching out the available workshops, ready for their confiscation”. And state-owned establishments such as the mint and the national print shop were put under workers’ management. Even the café workers, given these leads, began to set up a trade union.[38]

The radical clubs

The tradition of radical political clubs, inspired by the 1789-92 revolution and revived in 1848, had emerged from the underground in the year leading up to the Commune. They discussed a wide range of issues: political strategy, which reforms to prioritise, women’s rights, attitudes to the church and science, how to better organise defence and strengthen the barricades and more. Previously these issues were confined to radical circles, but now the clubs attracted a wider audience and enthusiastic support for their proposals. Workers were the great majority of participants, but middle-class radicals also joined in. Between 36 and 50 clubs met daily, mostly in the working-class districts. Some were huge, involving thousands, with women playing a prominent role both in their own clubs and in mixed ones with men.[39] Many discussions resulted in sending resolutions to the Commune Committee, and there was an ongoing debate regarding its relationship to the clubs.

An anti-Communard gave a sense of the spirit which made the clubs such a vibrant part of the new democracy:

From Rue Druout right up to the Montmartre district the boulevards had become a permanent public meeting or club where the crowd, divided into groups, had filled not only the pavements but also the road to the point of blocking…traffic. They formed a myriad of public assemblies where war and peace were hotly debated.[40]

Élie Reclus, an ethnographer given responsibility for the management and preservation of the Bibliothèque Nationale, called them “schools for the people”, where constructive debate flourished and a heightened sense of community was created. Ross describes the clubs as “a quasi-Brechtian merging of pedagogy and entertainment”.[41]

A week after the declaration of the elected Commune Committee, on the initiative of the club in the third arrondissement that was endorsed by the Commune Committee, churches across the city were commandeered as meeting places and organising centres. These venues, unlike street meetings, created a sense of seriousness and permanence in the clubs, even of high drama. Lissagaray, member of the International and author of one of the first books published about the Commune, penned a colourful description of one such meeting:

The Revolution mounts the pulpits…almost hidden by the shadow of the vaults, hangs the figure of Christ draped in the popular oriflamme. The only luminous centre is the reading desk, facing the pulpit, hung with red. The organ and the people chant the Marseillaise. The orator, over-excited by these fantastic surroundings, launches forth into ecstatic declamations which the echo repeats like a menace. The people discuss the events of the day, the means of defence; the members of the Commune are severely censured, and vigorous resolutions are voted to be presented to the Hôtel de Ville the next day.[42]

It is wonderful to imagine such revolutionary proceedings taking place beneath soaring ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. Occupying these odes to privilege and power was a constant reminder of the momentous challenge the Commune had thrown down before the bourgeoisie, the monarchy and their ally, the church.

Separating church and state

Marx noted that once the state force was dismantled, the Commune

was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression…by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies… The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.[43]

Anti-church sentiment was not just the preserve of small numbers of radicals. The Catholic church had thrown its wealth and power behind Bonaparte’s dictatorship, never concealing its bitter hostility to republicanism. So the growing opposition to Bonaparte was organically anti-clerical, among both middle-class radicals and the urban poor. In the large cities, attendance at religious ceremonies had sharply declined before the revolution, especially among workers. It’s not difficult to see why. The church taught that the poor would be rewarded for their suffering by passing from this vale of tears to the glories of heaven. But to enter that heaven you had to silently endure endless misery. As well, the church, in this time of the Enlightenment and a rapidly changing world, was seen as a bastion of ignorance, summed up by the Syllabus of Errors in 1864 which denounced modern society.[44] As Merriman writes: “[t]he church’s close association with people of means had long drawn popular ire; the birth of the Commune merely unleashed it”.[45]

State laws were strongly influenced by the church’s teachings about the family, women’s role and morality. So the programs for reforms raised in the clubs around such issues were more often than not entwined with anti-religious bitterness.

There were no bounds to the irreverence displayed once the churches were commandeered. Mock masses, holy water replaced with a pile of tobacco, statues of the Virgin Mary dressed in the uniform of women supplying provisions to the National Guard, sometimes with a pipe in her mouth. At the same time the Communards in many cases allowed ceremonies for the devout to go ahead in the mornings before the clubs met. As such the meetings would often take place amidst flowers, crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia left behind from morning mass and other religious events.

Church properties provided much needed venues, a practical issue which just happened to intersect with the anti-church sentiment. Notre-Dame-de-Lorette became a barracks at one stage, then a jail for those arrested for refusing to fight. The Women’s Union’s cooperative was housed in Saint-Pierre in Montmartre, also used as a storage place for munitions and a school for girls. Another became a medical facility.[46] In a reversal of the old order, speakers in the clubs insisted that the clergy pay rent to the Commune for use of ecclesiastical spaces for “their comedies”. Proceeds were to go to the widows and orphans of the fighting. The club of Faubourg Saint-Antoine suggested that church bells be melted to make cannon.[47]

The hostility to the church is a theme in many records of the time. For instance, when the archbishop, who had been arrested, called the head of police and court officials “my children”, the sharp response was: “We are not children – we are the magistrates of the people!” Merriman cites a document in which the archbishop is described as “Prisoner A who says he is a servant of somebody called God”.[48]

While one third of all students attended religious schools, the church exercised a virtual monopoly over the education of girls, a fact directly related to the lower rates of literacy among women.[49] In general, religious education was backward and stifling. A commission headed by a range of artists, teachers and songwriters instigated closing down the church schools and removing religious symbols.[50] Where necessary, crowds took direct action to shut schools taught by religious figures, who had never been required to have the qualifications demanded of regular teachers. Many of them resigned, asking for lay teachers to replace them. By May religious teaching was banned in all schools.


Members of the First International were prominent in debating and proposing innovations on a number of intersecting questions around education. The official journal of the Commune records that they were active in organising public educational meetings and reorganising education “on the largest of possible bases”. Ross puts well how central was the issue:

A lived experience of “equality in action”, the Commune was primarily a set of dismantling acts directed at the state bureaucracy and performed by ordinary men and women. Many of these dismantling acts were focused, not surprisingly, on that central bureaucracy: the schools.[51]

Discussions about education went well beyond secularisation. A third of children had no access to education at all, and the Commune would try to implement compulsory and equal education for both boys and girls. Teachers’ wages were raised, with women and men on equal pay. A school of industrial arts was established with a woman as director. Students would receive scientific and literary instruction, then use some of the day for the application of art and drawing to industry. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the polytechnic schools was Eugène Pottier, member of the International and a supporter of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier’s concept of “attractive work”. A son of a box-maker, Pottier was a fabric designer and a poet. Unlike today, theoretical and practical debates about education were not carried out in the rarefied circles of academia, but in the clubs around the city. Declarations reflecting those debates were printed as posters and pasted on walls in the streets. One which bore Pottier’s name read in part:

That each child of either sex, having completed the cycle of primary studies, may leave school possessing the serious elements of one or two manual professions: this is our goal…the last word in human progress is entirely summed up by the simple phrase: Work by everyone, for everyone.[52]

“Secular nurseries” were also set up near workplaces employing women. They were guided by principles laid down by the utopian socialist Charles Fourier: caregivers were not to wear black or dark-coloured clothing, and were rotated to avoid boredom or tiredness setting in, “it being important that children should be looked after only by cheerful and young women, whenever possible”. Religious representations were replaced with pictures and sculptures of real objects such as animals and trees, including aviaries full of birds. Boredom was thought to be “the greatest malady” of children.[53] We get a glimpse of some of what those children were taught in this anecdote from a gentleman who witnessed a “band” of 200 “toddlers” marching behind a drum and a small red flag. “They sing at the top of their lungs ‘La Marseillaise’. This grotesque parade celebrated the opening of a lay school organised by the Commune.”[54]

Marx’s collaborator, Benoît Malon, helped set up an asylum for orphans and runaways, where they could be offered basic instruction. Paule Mincke opened one of the first schools for girls. They requisitioned a Jesuit school, because it was endowed with the most advanced equipment and laboratories. Édouard Vaillant set up a professional school of industrial art for girls, occupying the École des Beaux Arts. This school introduced a new approach to teaching. Any skilled worker over the age of 40 could apply to become a professor.[55]

The emphasis on science as fundamental to the advance of society was a powerful theme. A young scientist from the US, Mary Putnam Jacobi, happened to be in Paris. Her experience in that spring “led to a political awakening” and inspired her to spend the next three decades campaigning against sexist assumptions about women’s biology. She became a powerful advocate for the equal contribution of women to medicine and developed the philosophy that the advance of science and the advance of women were one and the same objective. She depathologised menstruation by disproving the then widely held notion that rest was necessary in order to prevent infertility, one of the reactionary ideas of the Proudhonists.

Women’s rights and the family

Marx mocks “the absconding men of family, religion, and, above all, of property”, and writes:

In their stead, the real women of Paris showed again at the surface – heroic, noble, and devoted, like the women of antiquity. Working, thinking, fighting, bleeding Paris – almost forgetful, in its incubation of a new society, of the Cannibals at its gates – radiant in the enthusiasm of its historic initiative![56]

As already discussed, women were involved in pushing many of the Commune’s most radical proposals. This is not surprising. Women – due to the specific nature of their oppression – can be the bearers of more conservative ideas in stable times, especially when trapped in the home. But when they challenge their chains of oppression, they often become the most dynamic element of mass movements, with less to lose and more to gain from a fundamental transformation of the status quo.

The Commune immediately made farsighted and fundamental improvements to women’s lives. The remission of rents and the ban on sales of goods deposited at the pawn shops lifted a huge burden from workers’ families. A decree on 10 April granted wives – legal or defacto – of Guardsmen who were killed defending the Commune a pension of 600 francs. Each of her children, legitimate or not, could collect 365 francs until they turned 18. And orphans would receive the education necessary “to make their own way in society”.[57] As Edith Thomas, in her social history of women in the Commune, remarks: “This was an implicit recognition of the structure of the working-class family, as it really existed, outside the context of religious and bourgeois laws”. Unions libres were common among workers but not recognised by the church or the state, denying women their dignity, to say nothing of economic discrimination given that unmarried women were not eligible for any widow’s allowance. And “[i]n a city where about a quarter of all couples were unmarried, the church, which normally charged 2 francs to register a birth, demanded 7.50 francs [about two days’ wages for many] for an ‘illegitimate’ child”.[58]

Thomas comments that the widows’ pension was “one of the most revolutionary steps of its brief reign. That this measure outraged the bourgeoisie, and that it was received with jubilation by members of the Commune are indications of its significance”. [59]

But women weren’t passive recipients of reforms. It was mostly women who dragged the guillotine into Rue Voltaire and burned it on 10 April. Women were some of the most militant in both women’s and mixed clubs. They were particularly strident in their denunciation of marriage. In a club in Les Halles, a militant woman warned that marriage “is the greatest error of ancient humanity. To be married is to be a slave. In the club of Saint-Ambroise a woman declared that she would not permit her sixteen-year-old daughter to marry, that she was perfectly happy living with a man “without the blessing of the Church”.[60] At least one other club also voted in favour of divorce, a policy which was implemented by the Commune Committee. These kinds of discussions in the clubs were the catalyst for the kinds of reforms we have seen. They didn’t just come from the Commune Committee on high. And marriage ceased to be a formal contract, it was simply a written agreement between couples, easily dissolved.[61]

Michel’s Club de la Révolution, along with others, raised the right to abortion, which was endorsed by the Committee. At the Club of the Free Thinkers Nathalie Lemel – a book binder, and member of Marx’s group in the International who worked with that other comrade of Marx, Elisabeth Dmitrieff and her Union des Femmes – along with Lodoyska Kawecka, who dressed in trousers and wore two revolvers hanging from her sash, argued for divorce and the liberation of women.[62]

Many of the ideas about women’s liberation, just as those about education, did not originate in the Commune. Marx’s grouping in the International, along with feminists such as André Léo, had created a tradition of support for these attitudes among the most militant workers and socialists. But the revolutionary movement opened up a whole new opportunity for their ideas to win popular support.

The role of art

The anti-capitalist, anti-elitist orientation of the International naturally attracted artists, writers and other intelligentsia whose dependence on patronage and state subsidies curtailed their artistic and political expression.

Eugène Pottier has become famous for his authorship of The Internationale, a song imbued with all the internationalism and irreverence of the Commune. Before that he also wrote the founding manifesto of the Artists’ Federation in which he penned the term “Communal luxury”, adopted by Kristin Ross as the title of her book.[63] The founder and president of the Federation was Gustave Courbet, later persecuted because he was accused of ordering the demolition of the Vendôme column.[64] The Federation held debates about the role of art and the artist in society, the integration of art into everyday life and how to overcome the counterposition between beauty and utility. It attracted well-known artists such as Corot, Manet and Daumier, who scorned those who fled Paris for Versailles such as Cézanne, Pissarro and Degas. Émile Zola, who associated with the reactionaries in Versailles, disgraced himself with mocking attacks on Courbet for his participation in politics, a sphere considered foreign to artists.[65]

The Federation refused to deal with any artistic creations which were not signed by their creator. This was a response to the previous practice of artists having to sell their works unsigned so that a dealer could pocket the profits. The personal history of Napoléon Gaillard, another member of the International, demonstrates their theories. A shoemaker, Gaillard was appointed commissioner for barricades. But how to sign a creation as immense as a barricade? An enemy of the Commune explained how Gaillard solved this problem:

[He] appeared so proud of his creation that on the morning of May 20, we saw him in full commandant’s uniform, four gold braids on the sleeve and cap, red lapels on his tunic, great riding boots, long, flowing hair, a steady gaze…and with his hand on his hip, had himself photographed.[66]

In harmony with the theories developed in the Federation, Gaillard would write philosophical treatises on the foot and the boot, and invent rubber galoshes. There were people who would not wear any other shoe than those he designed, years after his death. From exile he wrote “[t]he Art of the Shoe is, no matter what one says, of all the arts the most difficult, the most useful, and above all the least understood”. He insisted that he be known as both a worker and an “artist shoemaker”. His stance and writings summed up the Artists’ Federation’s arguments for overcoming the counterposition of the useful to the beautiful, calling for the public to demand shoes made for the foot as it is, rather than as it is assumed it should be.[67]

The attempt to overcome the separation of art from industry and life in general became a subject of much debate and experimentation, strongly influencing the British socialist novelist and fabric designer William Morris.

The Commune’s internationalism

Marx and Engels had argued in The German Ideology decades earlier that workers could only become fit to create a new society through struggle against the old. Paris in March 1871 illustrated their point dramatically. France had been at war with Prussia since July 1870, yet the Commune was determinedly internationalist in spirit: “Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world”. A Jewish-Hungarian worker was appointed to the key position of minister of labour. They “honoured the heroic sons of Poland [J Dabrowski and W Wróblewski] by placing them at the head of the defenders of Paris”. And “to broadly mark the new era of history it was conscious of initiating, under the eyes of the conquering Prussians on one side, and the Bonapartist army…on the other, the Commune pulled down that colossal symbol of martial glory, the Vendôme Column”.[68]

This was not just a militant, spur of the moment act. Great thought and planning went into the removal of the statue that was on top of the column. There is a photograph of a pile of rubble in the Place Vendôme, all that remains of Bonaparte’s statue, surrounded by undamaged buildings: the Communards had employed their most skilled engineers and workers to bring it down. Indeed, their original goal was to move the monument to a museum, but it proved too fragile to survive the toppling. The Place Vendôme was renamed Place Internationale.[69]

Like many of the reforms being proposed, the ideas of internationalism had been developing among radical workers before March 1871. Lissagaray outlines the development of a combative working class, independent of the increasingly conservative liberal bourgeoisie. In 1870, as rumours circulated about the coming war with Prussia:

[T]he revolutionary socialists crowd the boulevards crying, Vive la paix! And singing the pacific refrain – “The people are our brothers/And the tyrants are our enemies”… Unable to influence the bourgeoisie, they turn to the working men of Germany… “Brothers, we protest against the war, we who wish for peace, labour and liberty. Brothers, do not listen to the hirelings who seek to deceive you as to the real wishes of France”.[70]

The Commune’s embrace of foreign militants in their midst and the demolition of the symbol of imperial might demonstrated that their internationalism was more than rhetorical.

Reorganising society democratically

Contemporary observers, both hostile and sympathetic, commented that the Commune’s elected leaders were unknown. That was not as true as it might seem; many of them had already made their name in debates in the popular clubs. To respectable society, then as now, such mass leaders were invisible. The other comment which recurs throughout the observations then and through all the histories is their inexperience. And how could it be otherwise? As Marx stresses, this was the first time workers had been sufficiently formed as a class to lead a movement for change. So even experienced activists were tackling new questions.

Donny Gluckstein looks at the way the democracy worked in some detail. He correctly puts it in the context of having to defend the Commune against Versailles with its trained army against the much smaller numbers of the rag-tag forces of the National Guard. Prisoners of war were released by Bismarck to help crush Paris. They were bombarded with lies and horror stories about the intentions of the Parisians, whipped into a frenzy of hatred that would be unleashed in the last week of May. But that murderous final stanza was merely the conclusion of growing bombardments and incursions into Paris by the army. These attacks killed scores of Guardsmen, with many others arrested.

Given these conditions, the humanitarian principles the Commune sought to live by often conflicted with the need for defence. For instance, the abolition of the death penalty distanced the idea of revolution from such cruelty. But in the face of massacres and hostages disappearing into the Versailles jails, it was reinstated. Only three were ever executed, but as we subsequently saw following the October Revolution in Russia, there is an unavoidable tension between honourable long-term goals and the immediate question of survival.

Gluckstein shows how the Commune Committee – headquartered in the Hôtel de Ville – related to the network of committees in the arrondissements, the clubs, and myriad other organisations which flourished. He argues that “the main living link between the mass movement and the Communal Council was the clubs”. [71]

We cannot understand how democracy functioned in the Commune without grasping the vibrant life of those clubs. They argued for the creation of a stronger leadership in the form of a Committee of Public Safety, which provoked widespread debates. The name invoked the terror of the Great Revolution, which contradicted the image of remaining lawful and pacific which the leaders at the Hôtel de Ville had insisted on. Some women formed their own vigilance committees in spite of reluctance from the Commune Committee. The club Saint-Séverin, possibly where supporters of the International had some sway, asked the Commune to “finish off the bourgeoisie in one blow [and] take over the Banque de France”, a point Marx had made on multiple occasions.

A meeting of 3,000 at Louise Michel’s Club de la Révolution on 13 May, just a week before the final bloody week, unanimously called for the abolition of magistrates, the immediate arrest of priests and the execution of a hostage every 24 hours until the release of political prisoners by Versailles.[72] These are the demands of some of the most radical Communards, which shows both the level of debate and how arguments made by organised militants could get a mass audience. This was partly helped by the indecision in the Hôtel de Ville, which inflamed popular impatience.

Clubs insisted they should oversee the actions of the Commune Committee. Eleven of them formed a federation to produce a bulletin, some summoned the Council members to attend their meetings so there was more of an exchange of views. These chaotic events reflected both the dynamism which had been unleashed, but also much confusion about how to win against the increasingly threatening Versailles troops. Gluckstein concludes that it was the “sections” which included organisations such as the Union des Femmes that most effectively worked with the Hôtel de Ville, establishing a “strong and reciprocal” relationship: “In education, for example, much of the momentum came not from the Commune’s commission but from the pre-existing bodies of educators”. And we have already seen the reciprocal role of the Union des Femmes in relation to the Commission of Labour and the Commune Committee.[73]

This issue of how the clubs pressured the Commune Committee, took initiatives and demanded that the Committee inform them of their decisions is important in understanding the role of women in the revolutionary process. Judy Cox correctly challenges Gay Gullickson who, like most historians, downplays the advances for women because they weren’t members of the elected Commune Committee. This is doubly mistaken. Firstly, like many feminists, Gullickson assumes that men can’t represent women’s interests. But support for women’s rights is not simply a question of gender, but of politics. As Cox points out, “The Marxist wing of the First International was the only political organisation in France which supported the female franchise. At least four socialist male members of the Commune – Eugène Varlin, Benoît Malon, Édouard Vaillant and Leó Frankel – took initiatives that promoted women’s equality in their areas of responsibility”.[74]

But it was not simply a matter of principled men standing up against oppression. As already indicated, women’s voices were loud and clear in the clubs, on the barricades and in every activity of the Commune. To modern supporters of women’s liberation, the fact that women weren’t granted the right to vote in the elections seems shocking. But there is no evidence that women demanded it. As Ross says:

The [Women’s] Union showed no trace of interest in parliamentary or rights-based demands. In this its members were, like Louise Michel, Paule Mincke and other women in the Commune, indifferent to the vote (a major goal in 1848) and to traditional forms of republican politics… Participation in public life, in other words, was for them in no way tied to the franchise.[75]

This is true, but the National Committee of the New Guard assumed, when they found themselves at the head of a successful insurrection, that they should operate legally. So the elections for which they got agreement from the mayors were held under the government’s existing law, which only allowed for male suffrage. We don’t know what the outcome would have been if prominent women had led a fight for female suffrage, but it is clear that many would have backed them.

Gullickson takes the positions of the right-wing Proudhonists – against whom Marx campaigned relentlessly – as evidence of a general chauvinist male culture which sidelined women. But even the left of the Proudhonists, such as Lefrançais, supported women’s rights. And in spite of her feminism, Gullickson does not respect the voice of André Léo,[76] a prominent feminist from well before the Commune and editor of the magazine La Sociale. To bolster her case Gullickson quotes an account Léo published of New Guard officers and a physician who acted disrespectfully towards women volunteers. Yet Léo concluded that very article with: “we noticed the very different attitudes present. Without exception the [middle-class] officers and surgeons showed a lack of sympathy that varied from coldness to insults; but from the National Guards came respect and fraternity”. And, because she aired the grievance against the officers, Louis Rossel, the Commune’s war delegate, asked her for advice about involving more women in the military campaign.[77]

Of course not everyone was immediately convinced of the most radical points described here. The point is that women were challenging backward views, agitating for the reforms they needed, and the Commune endorsed their demands. The majority of Léo’s articles in La Sociale dealt with issues not specifically about women. But when she did, she emphasised the need and the potential for solidarity between the sexes. One of her articles was titled “Toutes avec Tous” (all women and men together).[78]

We can add a further point. Gullickson can’t recognise the immense advances that women made, and the tradition they left for the working class to learn from because she, like other liberal feminists, focuses on elected leaders. While what happens at that level is not irrelevant, socialists should focus on the changes taking place below the surface, where workers were busy establishing democratic structures, raising new ideas and taking incredible initiatives. In the tumultuous events that characterise any revolution, the democratic character of the process cannot be fully understood simply by analysing constitutions or formal structures. It is about the dynamic of that process, and the incipient tendencies that emerge spontaneously through the struggle which can be developed further by conscious political intervention.

Much of the retrospective critiques of the Commune identify their failure to seize the wealth stored in the National Bank as a key mistake. Yet this itself was partly a product of the rigorous democracy that was the norm throughout the Commune. Raoul Rigault, a Blanquist and member of the International, was in charge of the “ex-Prefecture of police”. He was a colourful figure with a history of political agitation and organising, dubbed the “professor of barricades” by a magistrate in one of his many trials.[79] He ordered some guards to seize the Bank of France to nationalise the wealth stored there. But prone to the elitism typical of the Blanquists, he did not consult with the rest of the Communal Council, and so the proposal was blocked by the Proudhonists. One of them insisted that the bank “should be respected as private property belonging to the shareholders”! By the time the Communal Council considered Rigault’s instruction, the opportunity had been missed.[80]

Engels maintained that “[t]he bank in the hands of the Commune – this would have been worth more than 10,000 hostages”. It is debatable whether this would have pushed Versailles to settle for peace as Engels asserted, but it is clear that the money within could have been used to deepen the Commune’s achievements. For instance, the Commune had to spend 21 million francs on defence, leaving just 1,000 francs for education, an issue dear to the heart of virtually all who participated. More to the point, such reluctance to take on a bastion of governmental power and the bourgeoisie reflected the constant desire to operate within the bounds of bourgeois legality and to avoid being cast as responsible for the civil war raging around them.[81] While there are examples of a lack of accountability from some leaders, the weaknesses historians identify have to be seen in the context of the siege, the civil war, and social and economic breakdown. The significant achievement is that which Marx emphasised: the embryo of a workers’ democracy, with elected and recallable representatives, plus judges and officials at every level. This historical breakthrough warrants our main emphasis, rather than the understandable shortcomings.

A final point. The structures established by the Commune cannot be taken as a direct model for revolutionaries today. The working class in Paris was the largest group, numbering 900,000, surrounded by 400,000 petty bourgeois running 4,000 greengrocers’ shops, 1,900 butchers, 1,300 bakeries. However, Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris had discouraged the establishment of large workplaces. Those that were established were mostly in the outer rim of Paris. The Cail plant in north-east Paris, employing 2,800 to produce steam engines and locomotives, was the exception rather than the norm. Workplaces of over 10 workers were only seven percent of the total, with 31 percent employing between two and ten. Gluckstein concludes:

The nature of production…had an influence on the organisational structure of the 1871 movement… Trade union action was difficult to mount and broad activities could not easily be built from tiny workplaces. Such units of production could not provide a collective focus for the working class. Instead that came from the National Guard and the clubs which offered a framework for collective expression and organisation.[82]

In the Russian revolution of 1905 workers would take another leap forward and create soviets, reflecting the huge growth of the industrial working class, brought together in workplaces massively larger than anything in Paris in 1871. This meant that the focus of organisation shifted to the workplace, even as the streets remained an important focal point for large and united protests that brought workers from across different industries together. This is profoundly important. As Rosa Luxemburg argued, “where the chains of oppression are forged, there they must be broken”. Nevertheless the principles of the Commune lived on in the soviets: all delegates and people in places of responsibility to be recallable at any time, accountable to the electors, paid workers’ wages and remaining at work where they experienced the conditions about which they made decisions. The Paris Commune is therefore best understood as a premonition, or a harbinger, of a future society. In Marx’s words:

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation…they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society.[83]

Some aspects of the Commune have been superseded by subsequent developments, and we do not know precisely how the working-class revolution of this century might look. However the basic principles of collectivity and democracy it established remain vitally important to the modern working class.

Ruling class savagery – la semaine sanglante

Marx had argued that we make our own history, but not in circumstances of our choosing.[84] The uprising which erupted on 18 March forced the Communards to reorganise society amidst a Prussian siege and a bitter civil war. These factors strongly contributed to the defeat of this heroic uprising.

On Sunday 21 May, troops from Versailles stormed Paris. New barricades went up in street after street, as the population mobilised for a final heroic attempt to maintain their Commune. An eyewitness described how one of the barricades was constructed and defended by “a women’s battalion of around a hundred and twenty. At the time that I arrived, a dark form detached itself from a carriage gate. It was a girl with a Phrygian bonnet over her ear, a musket in her hand, and a cartridge-belt at her waist. ‘Halt, citizen, you don’t pass here!’”[85] We see how women have developed from pleading with soldiers not to shoot in March, to now playing a role as proud, fighting combatants in May, prepared to die with dignity and honour.

Just one week later, 30,000 or more people had been murdered by the counter-revolutionaries. The chapter headings used by Lissagaray in his book sum up the experience: “The Versailles fury”, “The balance sheet of bourgeois vengeance”. The essence of the events is captured in the title of John Merriman’s book, Massacre.[86] Though there are debates about the death toll, I see no point in quibbling about the precise figures. Many casualties were never recorded, their bodies thrown into mass graves and later incinerated. Countless others disappeared into jails or colonial transportation, where who knows how many died. Others fled to seek sanctuary, and there are few records of who survived wounds inflicted in the fighting. This barbarity was at first cheered on in the respectable bourgeois papers of Europe, whose journalists had followed the army around “like jackals”. One journalist had called for “an end to this international democratic vermin” of Red Paris. But faced with “the smell of carnage”, swarms of flies on corpses, trees stripped of leaves, the streets full of dead birds, even some of these bourgeois commentators were repulsed. “Let us not kill any more”, pleaded the Paris Journal, “Enough executions, enough blood, enough victims” lamented the Nationale.[87]

But the upper classes who lived off the labour of those being massacred expressed no such limits to their savagery.[88] Respectable women took tours of the dungeons where the arrested were incarcerated, holding their lace-edged handkerchiefs – made by the women at whom they gawked – to their noses against the stench of filth and dying Communards. In particular, they took delight in poking the women with their parasols. Many public figures, including judges and other respectable bourgeois and middle-class types, continued to bay for blood. To justify this frenzy, they invented lies which appealed to the prejudices of this scum. An anonymous Englishman described the Communards as “lashed up to a frenzy which has converted them into a set of wild beasts caught in a trap”. This, in his opinion, “render[ed] their extermination a necessity”.[89] The ruling class especially hated the women Communards, whom they depicted as “vile”, “wild” and sexually depraved.

Their fury was stoked by hysterical stories of the infamous pétroleuses, supposedly prepared to burn down the whole of Paris. So the legend of the pétroleuses demands our attention. Edith Thomas titled her book on the women of the Commune Les Pétroleuses, translated as The Women Incendiaries. She examines the evidence and concludes that it’s not clear whether there were any pétroleuses in the way reactionaries used the term. At the same time, the Communards clearly did use fire as a weapon of war to destroy buildings from which the Versaillese could gun people down. Fire was also used as a form of barricade, a wall of flames to keep the soldiers back, set by the fighters who must have included women and possibly even children.[90] Merriman documents orders given by the war delegate with the National Guard, Charles Delescluze, the ageing Jacobin, and others, including men in the Commune Committee, to blow up or set fire to houses. Delescluze, aware that it had become impossible to muster the kind of military response necessary to repel the soldiers, “adopted a strategy of mass popular resistance”. Generals of the National Guard specifically ordered “the burning of a number of monumental Parisian buildings, all in the fancy parts of town”, as well as official buildings. One of the Communard generals ordered the Tuileries Palace to be set ablaze. Gustave Lefrançais, the most left-wing Proudhonist, admitted that he was one of those “who had shutters of joy seeing that sinister palace go up in flames”. When a woman asked Nathalie Lemel what it was she could see burning in Montmartre, Lemel replied simply, “it’s nothing at all, only the Palais-Royal and the Tuileries, because we do not want a king anymore”.[91]

Marx was right to defend the burning of the city:

The working men’s Paris, in the act of its heroic self-holocaust, involved in its flames buildings and monuments. While tearing to pieces the living body of the proletariat, its rulers must no longer expect to return triumphantly into the intact architecture of their abodes. The government of Versailles cries, “Incendiarism!” and whispers this cue to all its agents…to hunt up its enemies everywhere as suspect of professional incendiarism. The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!

…The Commune used fire strictly as a means of defence. They used it to stop up to the Versailles troops those long, straight avenues which Haussmann had expressly opened to artillery-fire; they used it to cover their retreat, in the same way as the Versaillese, in their advance, used their shells which destroyed at least as many buildings as the fire of the Commune. It is a matter of dispute, even now, which buildings were set fire to by the defence, and which by the attack. And the defence resorted to fire only then when the Versailles troops had already commenced their wholesale murdering of prisoners.[92]

The heroism of children, women and men as they fought to defend their “Communal luxury” would live on in the memory of the socialist movement and workers. Fighting and dying became a sign of revolutionary honour. Memoirs often recall scenes like this one from Lissagaray about the barricade of the Faubourg du Temple:

[T]he most indefatigable gunner was a child. The barricade taken, all its defenders were shot, and the child’s turn also came. He asked for three minutes’ respite; “so that he could take his mother, who lived opposite, his silver watch in order that she might at least not lose everything”. The officer, involuntarily moved, let him go. Not thinking to see him again; but three minutes after the child cried, “Here I am!” jumped onto the pavement, and nimbly leant against the wall near the corpses of his comrades.

Lissagaray concluded, “Paris will never die as long as she brings forth such people”.[93] And Victor Hugo, who did not originally support the Commune, but responded in solidarity in the face of the massacre, wrote a poem about this incident. He ends with the wishful thought that the officer pardoned the child.[94]

Gustave Courbet recalled:

The drunkenness of carnage and destruction had taken over this people ordinarily so mild, but so fearsome when pushed to the brink… We will die if we must, shouted men, women and children, but we will not be sent to Cayenne.[95]

Louise Michel became famous for her confrontational stance at her trial:

Since it seems that every heart which beats for liberty has only right to a little lead, I too demand my part. If you let me live, I shall not cease to cry vengeance… If you are not cowards, kill me.[96]

Out of fear that she would become a martyr around which workers could mobilise, she was condemned to transportation to New Caledonia, where she met Nathalie Lemel. During the defence of Paris, Lemel had taken command of a contingent of the Union des Femmes. They marched, red flag in the lead, from a meeting in the mairie[97] of the fourth arrondissement to defend Les Batignolles. There, the 120 women held back government troops for several hours. Those who were taken were shot on the spot, one of whom was the dressmaker Blanche Lefebvre, an organiser of the Union des Femmes and another member of Marx’s circle. Some held a barricade on Place Pigalle for a further three hours, but all were killed on what Lissagaray called “this legendary barricade”. Lemel cared for the wounded for hours. Her comrade Elisabeth Dmitrieff was at Montmartre with Louise Michel and Léo Frankel in the last hours.[98]

The mass of the poor had few options but to die bravely, which they did with pride. The more educated, if fortunate, found their way into exile. Frankel was smuggled out by a coach driver and escaped to Germany with Dmitrieff. They could be disguised as a Prussian couple because they spoke German fluently. Dmitrieff would return to Russia, only to go into exile in Siberia with a revolutionary with whom she had a genuine marriage. Because of her isolation, she never heard of the amnesty and so lived out the rest of her life in the tundra where so many revolutionaries perished. Michel kept her word and eventually returned to France under the amnesty, was arrested on a demonstration of unemployed workers in 1883 and sentenced to six years of solitary confinement, arrested again in 1890. She returned to France from England, to where she had escaped, and died of pneumonia in January 1905.[99]

A doctor commented on the bravery of the Communards:

I cannot desire the triumph of your cause; but I have never seen wounded men preserve more calm and sang-froid during operations. I attribute this courage to the energy of their convictions.[100]

And this is how the Commune’s supporters interpreted the courageous resistance. It inspired generations, illustrating why the sentiment “it is better to die fighting than to live on your knees” is the most principled response to ruling-class barbarism. If they had meekly surrendered in the name of avoiding violence, there is no evidence that lives would have been saved, and the revolution would surely not have inspired generations of working-class and socialist activists.

Political assessments

“We’ll change henceforth the old conditions” runs a line of Pottier’s Internationale. But how is it to be done? Which politics and theory related best to the needs of the Commune? When remembering workers’ struggles, assessing the political ideas tested in battle is an important part of honouring their memory. If the suffering of the masses in defeat is to be worth the blood spilled, it is the responsibility of those inspired by them to try to learn the lessons, lest their sacrifices be endlessly repeated. In the last article Rosa Luxemburg wrote before being murdered in January 1919, she made reference to the Paris Commune as a metaphor for the fate of the revolution unravelling around her. But, from the perspective of the historic mission of the working class, such defeats served a purpose:

Where would we be today without those “defeats”, from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism?… [W]e stand on the foundation of those very defeats; and we cannot do without any of them, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding.[101]

Again and again, in the intervening 150 years, workers have shown that if only they can take control, they would build a humane society, a socialist world. In every struggle we can celebrate the signs of this, and that inspiration unites those of many different politics on the left. Just think. One hundred and fifty years ago, when the fight for women’s rights was in its infancy, the more radical clubs in Paris demanded and got support for the right to abortion.

However, the question which has eluded workers so far is how to win control and hold it, how to defeat the powerful forces of capitalism arrayed against them. Proudhonists, Jacobins and Blanquists were the most influential political groups in the Commune Committee. Marx’s International had thousands of members, but was far from cohered around his theory and politics. None of these groups could offer the lead required.

The National Guard had elected a Central Committee only a couple of weeks before the uprising. Though inexperienced, they gathered to consider what to do in light of the spontaneous insurrection. By the end of the day the Hôtel de Ville was occupied as the headquarters of the insurgents. But they lacked the confidence to assert their authority and organise the necessary defence and reorganisation of the city. In their political confusion, they turned for leadership to the only constitutional body left in Paris, the mayors, who were appointed by the hated central government! The Central Committee of the National Guard insisted that only a newly elected body could take on all the urgent tasks the city confronted. It was eight days before negotiations with the mayors enabled the election of an authoritative body, in which valuable time was lost to the advantage of the Versailles soldiers threatening Paris. Élie Reclus asked on voting day: “What does legality mean at a time of revolution?”[102]

Virtually every historian who has written about it comments on the shambolic nature of the National Guard, which ensured that the Versailles government’s victory was easier than it should have been. Similarly, most make a point of discussing the Commune’s flat-footed response to the mass uprising. Few, however, draw any political conclusions or seriously explain what went wrong. Edwards sums up the reasons for the disaster: the main concern of the majority of the Committee “was to ‘legalize’ its situation by divesting itself of the power that had so unexpectedly fallen into its hands”. The Blanquists urged a march on Versailles, “a plan which might well have succeeded” following the fraternisation between the army and the Guardsmen.[103] Gluckstein argues that Thiers and Co. would never be weaker than in those first hours and days after 18 March 1871. Military discipline had evaporated, and the French army was yet to be buoyed up by prisoners of war released by Bismarck. Supporting this view is the fact that Thiers rejected a request for troops to set up an anti-Commune outfit inside Paris: “Neither 5,000, nor 500, nor five; I need the few troops still available – and in whom I don’t yet have full confidence – to defend the government”. A Commune supporter reported that in Versailles the regular troops were not even trusted to patrol the streets.[104]

Auguste Blanqui shared with Marx the expectation that the war would create a situation ripe for revolution. But unlike Marx he did not see the working class as the agent to make that revolution, only as supporters for a coup. As a result, his supporters had not built roots in working-class organisations or communities, and he languished in jail throughout the revolution due to his involvement in an attempted insurrection just months before. “Blanqui’s own account of the debacle [of August 1870] is painfully honest”, Gluckstein explains. Blanqui wrote of the response of the workers of Belleville to these gun-toting strangers calling for them to rise up: “[t]he population appeared dumbstruck…held back by fear”. And he concluded “We can do nothing without the people!” In spite of their history of organising conspiratorial coups by tiny numbers, the Blanquists participated with great enthusiasm in the mass uprising and the institutions it threw up. Their strength was their preparedness to organise and respond with the necessary violence to defeat the murderous forces arrayed against the Commune.[105] However, lacking their most authoritative leader, the Blanquists were defeated in the debate about marching on Versailles, and a critical moment was missed.

Despite their hostility to organisation, the Proudhonists took many of the leading positions in the Commune Committee. Their tradition had long cultivated a hostility to political organisation of all kinds, which manifested in a reluctance to give elected bodies of the Commune real authority. This then undermined the confidence of those bodies to act decisively, providing Versailles time to get on the offensive. The Proudhonists’ respect for private property was also responsible for the decision to leave the enormous wealth of the bourgeoisie safe in the National Bank, and informed a general reticence to take decisive measures in the field of economic and military policy.

Proudhonism today is dead as a political current; however, Proudhon’s disciple, Bakunin, still influences some activists. In a typical formulation, Bakunin wrote in his critique of the Commune: “the cause of [humanity’s] troubles does not lie in any particular form of government but in the fundamental principles and the very existence in government, whatever form it takes”.[106] But this radical-sounding generality obscures the fact that the Commune’s troubles came not from an abstract category, but from the very real power of Thiers’ counter-revolutionary army. Only an equally organised power based on working-class democracy could have defended the Commune from the massacre that was to come. Bakunin’s abstract slogans – which live on in anarchist milieus today – provide absolutely no guide for what to do in the face of the threat posed by the brutal machine that is the bourgeois state. Workers could not – and still cannot – ignore politics and organisation.

But it wasn’t just the question of defence. The demand of the bakers to end night work raised a lot of debate because Commune Committee members, influenced by such ideas as Bakunin articulates, refused to issue a decree to abolish night work, even though they supported it. Bakers had been campaigning for two years, hampered by the tiny size of the bakeries which mitigated against effective organisation. The Committee’s response was ludicrous. They opposed any state action on principle, and argued that the workers should “themselves safeguard their interests in relation to the owners”. Benoît Malon represented the views of the bakers, 3,000 of whom marched to the Hôtel de Ville demanding a decree: “until now the state has intervened against the interests of workers. It is at least fair that today the state intervene for the workers”.[107]

Abstract shibboleths against all organisation are no guide to how the left should have related to the radical organisations such as the Union des Femmes, the Artists’ Federation, and the clubs. If you took these principles seriously you would boycott them, a completely sectarian and destructive attitude which would make you irrelevant, unable to contribute to developing people’s consciousness and winning arguments for strategies to win.

It was Marx and Engels who best generalised the lessons of the Commune. Marx had been committed to a view of working-class self-emancipation well before the Commune showed a glimpse of how it could be done. He had witnessed the radical workers’ societies and, critically, the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844, and had subsequently never doubted the creativity and organisational genius of the organised proletariat. His Theses on Feuerbach answered the question of how workers could be “educated” for a new society: they educate themselves through their own conscious activity. Marx and Engels developed this idea further in their German Ideology, where they argued that to build a socialist society, “the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution”.[108]

Now the Parisian masses had revealed the answer to the question of what to do about the repressive state. Marx had been grappling with this since he concluded in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that the problem had been until then that “[a]ll revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it”.[109] But what could take its place? Two days after la semaine sanglante, Marx gave his address to the International, emphasising the achievements of the Commune and its importance to the future of the workers’ movement. He had warned against such an uprising in the weeks previous, fearing it was premature, yet did not hesitate to leap to its defence. As with so much of his political work, his writings on the Commune emphasise its fundamental aspects. Unlike the bourgeois revolutions which primarily benefited a minority of capitalist exploiters, the potential of a workers’ revolution to liberate the whole of humanity was now shown in practice. He explains how the democratic structures, with the army and police disbanded and the population armed, were the foundation on which workers can be emancipated from the exploitation of their labour. In this way, the practice of the workers of Paris actually broke new ground; their heroism created the conditions for Marx and Engels to clarify and concretise their previous ideas regarding the self-emancipation of the working class. Overall, Marx’s writings on the Commune stand in sharp contrast to the abstract shibboleths in Bakunin’s work.

But it would be Lenin who brought all these elements together, transcending what is usually assumed to be a contradiction between spontaneous revolts and organisation.[110] The counterposition between spontaneity and organisation abounds in Bakunin’s critique, and is taken for granted by many activists today. The issue is particularly fraught when women are involved. Women’s activities in rebellions like this are often portrayed as elemental, unplanned and not very political. This emphasis on spontaneity is often sexist and downplays the role of leadership, foresight and planning by the women themselves. The Commune perfectly illustrates Lenin’s arguments. To begin with, there can be no revolution without spontaneity. The radicalisation sufficient to generate the Paris Commune did not develop incrementally, it exploded and shocked the world. It’s true that the uprising that seized the cannon in Montmartre emerged in a context of rising discontent and bitterness, but the rebellion in turn radicalised and transformed the situation decisively.

The Commune shows how there is not some barrier between a revolutionary upsurge itself and the activities and politics that exist beforehand. For instance Eugène Varlin and Nathalie Lemel were involved in workers’ campaigns for women’s rights and equal pay in the 1860s. In the growing number of strikes before 1871, some workers had learnt from their experiences. A strike by 5,000 bronze workers in 1867 won with support from the International, which organised funds from workers in other countries. The lesson of international solidarity was not forgotten. And other workers – significantly in textiles from where women participated in Dmitrieff’s Union des Femmes – began to see the value of organisation and strikes in a number of cities. In a strike by miners in the Loire region workers’ wives had fought bravely against the gendarmes during a strike at Le Creusot in 1870. Ideas promoted by the Proudhonists, who argued that “women should stay indoors and avoid the physical and moral dangers of workshops”, were now rejected by working-class men. They declared that women should exercise their independence and “will march alongside us in the exercise of democratic and social cooperation”. Those ideas could most effectively be kept alive and popularised if taken up by organisations, rather than being left to the whimsy of individual happenstance.[111]

Lenin’s most significant theoretical breakthrough was to see that the task for revolutionaries is to prepare for the spontaneous outbursts before they happen. This preparation is not a purely intellectual exercise, but entails participating in every struggle, raising ideas which challenge participants to reject the ideas of capitalism. Not all workers will develop class consciousness at the same time; consciousness will always be uneven, as it was in the Commune. This means revolutionaries need to build a party which organises the most class-conscious and militant workers, the “vanguard” as Lenin called them. Such a revolutionary party needs to raise the level of class consciousness generally, by which Lenin meant the degree to which workers understand the role of their own class, and that of all other social layers, and how much they understand their class power. They need to understand that their class can and must lead other classes in a revolution if capitalism is to be overthrown. The party needs a history of participating in and leading struggles so they gain a wide understanding of the momentum of struggle, how to judge different strategies and the arguments of different political organisations. Only this offers the best chance that the arguments of those who always support compromise and moderation will be defeated.

The vanguard must have burned into their consciousness that if our side seriously challenges the ruling class and their state, there is no limit to their “undisguised savagery and lawless revenge”, in Marx’s words. Revolutions have time and again crashed against the seemingly timeless existence of the state, and the mistake of seeking to remain within the “rule of law”. Lenin’s solution was to organise the vanguard to be prepared to repeat the first acts of the Commune: to disband the police and army, and to arm the working class and poor. It must not shrink from responding to ruling-class violence in order to defend the revolution.

The Commune’s legacy

In the Paris Commune, the ruling class saw the shape of a new society. They understood that such a world of equality and justice could only be built on the ruins of capitalism. So they sought to systematically obliterate its memory.

In the Louvre today, images of the royal family overthrown in the Great Revolution are sympathetically portrayed. But a small collection from the Commune is hidden away in the basement. A collection of artefacts, documents and the like is included in the museum dedicated to the art of Paul Éluard in Saint-Denis. Ironically it is housed in an old Carmelite convent. It was originally set up by the Communist council of Saint-Denis.

In the 1870s the bourgeoisie set out to refashion Paris with monuments to the Republic. The last quarter of the nineteenth century has been referred to as “a golden age of monument building” as part of the effort at “self-definition” following the trauma of 1870-71. Restoring the Vendôme column was, of course, a huge priority. Sometimes the purpose of new monuments or buildings was made explicit. The church of Sacré-Coeur was built on Montmartre. When laying the foundation stone, architect Charles Rohault de Fleury declared that Sacré-Coeur reclaimed for the nation “the place chosen by Satan and where was accomplished the first act of that horrible Saturnalia”.[112]

It is easy to see the negation of the Commune in the grotesque splendour of the Sacré-Coeur. But a lot of the reconstruction was not so explicit. Much of the art which was promoted and the spaces reorganised were merely presented as celebrations of the Republic. But try as they may, the memory often reverberated in what was not said or built. One space allowed to socialists was the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Federals),[113] located in the Père Lachaise cemetery where the blood of unknown numbers was spilled in the last days of the Commune. Presumably authorities thought this the most fitting memorial: calculated to sear our souls and to signal that attempts at anti-capitalist rebellions will always be drowned in unimaginable savagery. But they were mistaken. Visitors leave a constant sea of red roses, and leave with a renewed hatred of the bourgeoisie and a desire to fight for the promise of the Commune. In 1907, the Parisian municipal council planned to install Paul Vautier-Moreau’s Monument to the Victims of Revolutions, sculpted from the stones of the barricades, on which was engraved Victor Hugo’s clarion call to end the “vengeance”. There was such an outcry from supporters of the Commune, who preferred to keep that space simply for the Communards, that it had to be placed outside the wall of the cemetery.[114]

William Morris paid homage to the destruction of the Vendôme column in his novel News from Nowhere, published in 1890. The apricot orchard which replaces Trafalgar Square, dominated by the statue of Admiral Nelson is, as Ross says, a “symbolic revisioning [of] both the Place Vendôme and Trafalgar Square…their aesthetic of nationalistic and timeless monumentality become supra-national space”.[115]

In spite of the efforts of the descendants of the butchers who saturated Paris in blood, the memory of this first workers’ revolution cannot be completely suppressed. So a social history of Paris, published in English in 2010, revisits some of the accounts by its participants and supporters. Eric Hazan, the author, reminds us how modern day charlatans, rather than obscure the history completely, cynically attempt to co-opt the inspiration of the Commune for their own opportunistic reasons. A plaque in Paris has inscribed on it: “The last barricade of the Commune resisted in the Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi. A hundred and twenty years later, the Socialist party and its first secretary Pierre Mauroy render homage to the people of Paris who sought to change their lives, and to the 30,000 dead of the Time of the Cherries”. Hazan, who documents the truth of those days, reminds us: “This trumpery makes short work of history, for Louis Blanc, the Mauroy of his day, maintained that ‘this insurrection is completely to be condemned, and must be condemned by any true republican’.”[116] Le temps des cerises to which the inscription refers is a song written in 1866. It became popular during the Commune, with verses added as it was sung on the barricades and in the clubs. The title is a metaphor for the hope for a new life after a revolution, making the hypocritical inscription by the reformist party even more galling.

For decades workers remembered the Communards’ courageous defiance. On May Day 1901, thousands of mourners joined the funeral procession for Paule Mincke through the streets of Paris. They chanted “Vive la Commune!” and “Vive l’Internationale!” as more than 600 police, 500 soldiers and 100 cavalry guarded the streets against any possibility of a repeat of 1871.[117] More than 100,000 attended Louise Michel’s funeral in Paris in 1905. Socialists and anarchists celebrated the Commune every March. The ghastly images of tortured women beamed around the world by the bourgeois press could not undercut the sense of pride and solidarity that their courage inspired. In the NSW outback mining city of Broken Hill, for at least a decade into the twentieth century, the Socialist Sunday School organised the annual anniversary commemoration of the Commune. In another piece I concluded that “[it] certainly was not portrayed as a celebration of male achievements, as is often claimed by feminist historians: ‘What greater and grander sublimity can be depicted than that of men and women who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for even a dream?’” An article in the socialist paper in the town “emphasised female bravery”, telling the story of when soldiers tried to force Communards to kneel before their guns: “one woman with a child in her arms refused to do so, shouting to her companions: ‘Show these wretches that you know how to die upright’.”[118]

An historian of the annual events which continued for decades writes:

They drew on the Commune as an example of international cooperation, drawing on their shared class identity. The Commune was rewritten annually, creating a palimpsest. Speakers drew on the Commune as a symbol of working-class government, or of revolution, a symbol of warning and hope, of past, present and future, something to learn from, and revere.[119]

In spite of so many efforts to obscure its history, the Commune is still invoked as a reference point for the idea of revolution, or challenges to authority to this very day. As I write, a post by Buzzfeed, “Stormings of History Ranked from Best to Worst”, appeared in response to the invasion of the Capitol by far-right Trump supporters. The Commune is their second-best example, second only to the October Revolution.[120] Even the prestigious Lancet in the year of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary pays homage to the Commune with an article about Mary Putnam Jacobi. The conclusion is a tribute to the power of the Commune to inspire hope for a better world: “The origins of her philosophy, a philosophy that provides the seed for an American renaissance today, lay in the blood spilt on the streets of Paris 150 years ago”.[121]


We began with the image of the “sphinx” conjured by Marx to convey how the Commune terrified the bourgeoisie and their hangers-on. We leave it as the world descends into ever more horrifying chaos which creates catastrophes one after the other. The World Bank warns governments around the globe to avoid making premature cuts to measures taken to prevent the economy from completely collapsing. This advice is not driven by humanitarian concern for those who would suffer from the cuts, but by fear of revolt. The sphinx haunts them still.

The Paris Commune reminds us of what Walter Benjamin said, that the fine and spiritual aspects of life we hunger for can only be won by the struggle for the rough, material things which make them possible. And that “they are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle”. That is why the Paris Commune still commands our attention, and is worthy of serious study. And why it still has the power to inspire our confidence in the working class to create a “Communal luxury” for humanity to this day.


Benjamin, Walter 1968, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, Essays and Reflections, Schocken Books.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2005, “Militant spirits: the rebel women of Broken Hill”. https://sa.org.au/interventions/rebelwomen/militant.htm

Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin vs ‘Leninism’”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/lenin-vs-leninism/

Buzzfeed 2021, “Stormings of History Ranked from Best to Worst”, January. https://www.buzzfeed.com/tessred/stormings-of-history-ranked-from-best-to-worst-dogxsiwtv3?utm_source=dynamic&utm_campaign=bfsharefacebook&fbclid=IwAR0Bm0V61HcfuBZsc6jth8J51i6z-enf8-N_WefnVp1pITFqvlRQoAa9_kI

Cox, Judy 2021, “Genderquake: socialist women and the Paris Commune”, International Socialism, 169, 5 January. http://isj.org.uk/genderquake-paris-commune/

Edwards, Stewart (ed.) 1973, The Communards of Paris, 1871 (Documents of Revolution series, Heinz Lubasz, general editor), Thames and Hudson.

Eschelbacher, Andrew 2009, “Environment of Memory: Paris and Post-Commune Angst”, Nineteenth Century Art World, 8 (2), Autumn. https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn09/environment-of-memory

Gluckstein, Donny 2006, The Paris Commune. A Revolution in Democracy, Bookmarks.

Hazan, Eric 2011, The Invention of Paris. A History in Footsteps, translator David Fernbach, Verso.

Horton, Richard 2021, “The Paris Commune and the birth of American medicine”, The Lancet, 397, (102070), 16 January. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00086-6/fulltext

Landrigan, Aloysius Judas 2017, Remembering the Commune: Texts and Celebrations in Britain and the United States, MA thesis, University of Melbourne. https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/198112

Lissagaray 1976 [1876], History of the Paris Commune of 1871, translator Eleanor Marx, New Park Publications.

Luxemburg, Rosa 1919, “Order Prevails in Berlin”, Die Rote Fahne, 14 January. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm

Marx, Karl 1845, Theses on Feuerbach. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

Marx, Karl 1852, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

Marx, Karl 1871, The Civil War in France. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1932 [1846], The German Ideology. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/index.htm

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin 2008, Writings on the Paris Commune, Red and Black Publishers.

Merriman, John 2016, Massacre. The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871, Yale University Press.

Ross, Kristin 2016, Communal Luxury. The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Verso.

Thomas, Edith 1966 [1963 as Les Pétroleuses], The Women Incendiaries, Secker and Warburg.

Tod, MK 2020, Poetry about the Paris Commune, blog, 10 September. https://awriterofhistory.com/tag/poetry-about-the-paris-commune/

* The phrase “glorious harbinger of a new society” is from Marx 1871. Thanks to the sharp eyes and insights of Omar Hassan and Mick Armstrong, the final result is vastly improved on the original draft.

[1] Lissagaray 1976, introduction, p3.

[2] This address would be published as part of the pamphlet, The Civil War in France.

[3] Marx 1871.

[4] Benjamin 1968, pp254-255.

[5] An arrondissement is similar to a suburb in Australian cities.

[6] Edwards 1973, pp58-59.

[7] Merriman 2016, p41.

[8] Edwards 1973, p15.

[9] Edwards 1973, pp59-60.

[10] Gluckstein 2006, p13.

[11] Merriman 2016, p44. The government is often referred to as Versailles because it was ensconced there.

[12] Gluckstein 2006, p13.

[13] Merriman 2016, p43.

[14] Edwards 1973, pp60-61.

[15] Hazan 2010, pp236-245.

[16] Edwards 1973, pp61-62.

[17] Gluckstein 2006, p14.

[18] Edwards 1973, p22. Italics in Edwards.

[19] Marx 1871.

[20] Usually known as Baron Haussmann.

[21] Gluckstein 2006, pp68-69.

[22] Merriman 2016, pp7-8.

[23] Merriman 2014, pp46-7.

[24] Marx 1871.

[25] Gluckstein 2006, p53. Bold in Gluckstein.

[26] Marx 1871.

[27] Marx 1871.

[28] Marx 1871.

[29] Marx 1871.

[30] All the examples and quotes about the Labour Commission from Gluckstein 2006, pp28-31.

[31] The International included this grouping, but also Proudhonists, who dominated the French section, Blanquists and others.

[32] Many revolutionary women escaped the stifling pressure from their families by entering a “white marriage” in which the man expected no sexual relationship.

[33] Ross 2016, pp27-29.

[34] Thomas 1967, pp62-63.

[35] Ross 2016, p27.

[36] Gluckstein 2006, p50.

[37] Ross 2016, pp26-28.

[38] Gluckstein 2006, p31.

[39] Gluckstein 2006, pp48-49.

[40] Gluckstein 2006, pp45-46.

[41] Ross 2016, p17.

[42] Quoted in Gluckstein 2006, p49. Lissagaray uses oriflamme for scarlet banner which, in its literary meaning, denotes a principle or ideal that serves as a rallying point in a struggle.

[43] Marx 1871.

[44] Merriman 2016, pp10-11.

[45] Merriman 2016, p104.

[46] Merriman 2016, pp107-109; Gluckstein 2006, p49.

[47] Merriman 2016, p105.

[48] Merriman 2016, p101.

[49] Merriman 2016, p11.

[50] Ross 2016, pp39-40.

[51] Ross 2016, p40.

[52] Ross 2016, p44.

[53] Ross 2016, pp41-42.

[54] Merriman 2016, p104.

[55] Ross 2016, pp40-41.

[56] Marx 1871.

[57] Thomas 1967, p53.

[58] Merriman 2016, p105.

[59] Thomas 1967, p54.

[60] Merriman 2016, pp105-106.

[61] Gluckstein 2006, pp32-33.

[62] Cox 2021.

[63] Ross 2016.

[64] See below for an explanation of this demolition.

[65] See Ross 2016, pp42-65 for an account of the debates in the Artists’ Federation and the artists involved.

[66] Ross 2016, pp55-56.

[67] Ross 2016, pp55-56.

[68] Marx 1871.

[69] Ross 2016, p23.

[70] Lissagaray 1976, pp10-12.

[71] Gluckstein 2006, pp46-53.

[72] Gluckstein 2006, p49.

[73] Gluckstein 2006, p50.

[74] Cox 2021.

[75] Ross 2016, p28.

[76] This was the pseudonym of Victoire Léodile Béra, under which she wrote several novels, and the name she is known by in the records of the Commune.

[77] Gluckstein 2006, pp188-190.

[78] Gluckstein 2006, pp185-191.

[79] Merriman 2016, p16.

[80] Gluckstein 2006 pp156-157. For an analysis of why Proudhonists were on the right of the Communards, see Gluckstein, pp71-76.

[81] Marx et al 2008, p71.

[82] Gluckstein 2006, pp69-71.

[83] Marx 1871.

[84] Marx 1852.

[85] Hazan 2010, p238.

[86] Lissagaray 1976; Merriman 2016.

[87] Lissagaray 1976, pp307-11.

[88] Lissagaray 1976, pp146-174; Merriman 2016, chapters 9 and 10. Their accounts give more detail than belongs in an article of this length.

[89] Merriman 2016, p226.

[90] Thomas 1966, pp140-159.

[91] Merriman 2016, pp156-159.

[92] Marx 1871.

[93] Lissagaray 1976, p287.

[94] Tod 2020.

[95] The notorious penal colony in French Guiana. Merriman 2016, p147.

[96] Lissagaray 1971, pp343-344.

[97] Local town hall.

[98] Thomas 1966, p132.

[99] Merriman 2016, p245.

[100] Lissagaray 1976, p238.

[101] Luxemburg 1919.

[102] Edwards 1973, p26.

[103] Edwards 1973, p26.

[104] Gluckstein 2006, p130.

[105] Gluckstein 2006, pp76-80.

[106] Bakunin, “The Paris Commune and the idea of the state”, in Marx et al 2008, p78.

[107] Gluckstein 2006, pp28-29.

[108] Marx and Engels 1932, p60.

[109] Marx 1845.

[110] For my assessment of Lenin, see Bloodworth 2013.

[111] Gluckstein 2006, pp68-71 for details of strikes and the maturing of working-class activists.

[112] Eschelbacher 2009.

[113] As the Guardsmen were often referred to.

[114] Eschelbacher 2009.

[115] Ross 2016, p60.

[116] Hazan 2010, p291.

[117] Cox 2021.

[118] Bloodworth 2005.

[119] Landrigan 2017, p78.

[120] Buzzfeed 2021

[121] Horton 2021.

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