Remembering the Commune

March 18, 1871  May 28, 1871


The Commune at 150

A special ROAR series commemorating the historic revolutionary episode of the 1871 Paris Commune.

 

From the very first days of its short-lived existence in 1871, exactly 150 years ago today, the revolutionary Commune of Paris has occupied a central place in the radical imagination of the international left. For the Communards themselves, the revolution did not end, but rather began at the city’s limits. In their perception, the founding of the Commune in Paris was but a first step towards the building of the Universal Republic: a Commune of Communes encompassing the entire globe and uniting all peoples in a confederacy of liberatory democracies.

ROAR places itself firmly in this tradition. Our first print issue, “Revive la Commune!”, was entirely dedicated to the revival of the commune in the 21st century, both in spirit and in practice. Now, on the 150th anniversary of this historic chapter in revolutionary history, we once again turn to those fateful 72 days between March 18 and May 28, 1871, to draw the necessary lessons from the Communards’ heroic struggle for freedom and democracy and to explore the forms and ideas in which the Commune lives on today.

This page will be regularly updated with new essays and content until May 28. 

For 72 days, the Communards fought to build a democratic and social republic, organizing elections for their popular commune, initiating radical social measures and discussing political issues in revolutionary clubs, all while organizing armed resistance with the National Guard against the counterrevolution from Versailles.

Timeline

Key moments in the history of the Paris Commune

The people rise up

March 18 – French government troops attempt to seize the cannon of the National Guard, but the city’s population rises up in resistance. The government evacuates the capital and the National Guard takes control of the Hôtel de Ville.

The Red Flag is waving over the Hôtel de Ville

March 19 – The Central Committee of the National Guard takes possession of public offices and proclaims elections for the Commune. In the ensuing chaos, the National Guard fails to take control over key strategic points surrounding the city.

The people of Paris elect delegates for the Commune

March 26 – Parisians go to the polls to choose their representatives to the Commune. The elected delegates are an eclectic mix of members of the National Guard’s Central Committee, socialists, conservatives, Jacobins, Proudhonists and others. Pierre Vésinier, Secretary of the Commune, calls it “a great and peaceable victory gained by the social and democratic Revolution.”

The Declaration of the Commune

March 28 – The Commune is proclaimed on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville. The Central Committee of the National Guard resigns and cedes power to the Commune. In the words of journalist Jules Vallès, writing in his newspaper Cri du Peuple: “The Commune is proclaimed by a revolutionary, patriotic celebration, a day of peace and joy, excitement and solemnity, splendor and merriment worthy of the days lived by men on 1791… Today is the festive wedding day of the Idea and the Revolution.”

The French government in Versailles launches its first attacks

April 2 – After its retreat from the city and its regroupment in Versailles, the French government begins its siege of Paris. It marks the beginning of weeks of bombardment and fighting between the Communards and the Gendarmes of the French army.

On the same day the Commune decrees the separation of the Church from the State, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all Church property into national property. Religion is declared a purely private matter.

The National Guard burns the guillotine

April 6 – The 137th batallion of the National Guard organizes the public destruction of the guillotine, burning it in the Place Voltaire to the great excitement of many spectators. The official journal of the Commune reported:

“They burned it at the foot of the statue of the defender of Sirven and Calas, the apostle of humanity, the precursor of the French Revolution, at the foot of the statue of Voltaire.”

The Commune postpones debt payments

April 16 – The Commune announces the postponement of all debt obligations for three years and the abolition of interest. This debt moratorium was in fact a reinstatement of measures put in place by the old bourgeois Government of National Defense at a time of national emergency, which had been abolished by the National Assembly.

The day before, on April 15, the Federation of Artists of the Paris Commune of 1871 had published its manifesto, outlining a revolutionary new approach to art.

The Commune Publishes its Manifesto

April 19 – In the Declaration to the French People, the Commune outlines its political program, presenting a powerful vision of the role the Commune can play in bringing about a “new era of experimental, positive, scientific politics.”

Thiers ends negotiations for a hostage exchange

April 23 – Thiers breaks off the negotiations for the exchange, proposed by the Commune, of the Archbishop of Paris and a large number of other priests held hostage in Paris, for only one man, Blanqui, who had twice been elected to the Commune but was a prisoner in Clairvaux.

The Vendôme Column is torn down

May 16 – The Vendôme Column is pulled down. The Vendôme Column was erected between 1806 and 1810 in Paris in honor of the victories of Napoleonic France. It was made out of the bronze captured from enemy guns and was crowned by a statue of Napoleon.

In the words of Élie Reclus (brother of Élisée): “The column had to fall when confronted by the Universal Republic.”


Long live the Commune!

Essays


Elisabeth Dmitrieff: feminist, unionist, Communarde

Carolyn Eichner

At the age of 20, Dmitrieff founded and led the Union des femmes, the foremost radical feminist and socialist organization that emerged during the Commune.

CONTINUE READING


“Resist much, obey little”: Walt Whitman and the Paris Commune

Kevin Potter

Whitman’s salute to the Paris Commune is a valuable lesson in international solidarity, but some of his political ideals caution against embracing him fully.

CONTINUE READING


“If socialism wasn’t born of the Commune, it is from the Commune that dates that portion of international revolution that no longer wants to give battle in a city in order to be surrounded and crushed, but which instead wants at the head of the proletarians of each and every country, to attack national and international reaction and put an end to the capitalist regime.”

Edouard Vaillant, Communard


The Survival of the Paris Commune

Kristin Ross

The Commune of 1871 was never truly vanquished — its political imaginary lived on and is today being liberated and revived in a new cycle of struggles.

CONTINUE READING


China’s Communards in the Cultural Revolution

Dennis Bos

The memory of the Paris Commune in China was used to justify political purges, but it also inspired the founding of communes from Beijing to Shanghai.

CONTINUE READING


“The Paris Commune was something more and something other than an uprising. It was the advent of a principle, the affirmation of a politics. In a word, it was not only one more revolution, it was a new revolution, carrying in the folds of its flag a wholly original and characteristic program.”

— Arthur Arnould, writer, journalist, Communard


From red scarfs to yellow vests: the communalist tradition

Sixtine van Outryve

The legacy of the Paris Commune and its dreams of radical social change resonate through time, inspiring revolutionary thinkers and activists to this day.

CONTINUE READING


Élisée Reclus: the making of a Communard

John P. Clark

The experience of the Paris Commune had a profound impact on the thinking of Élisée Reclus and inspired him to develop his extensive philosophy of freedom.

CONTINUE READING


“Everywhere the word ‘Commune’ was understood in the widest sense, as having to do with a new humanity, formed of free and equal companions, ignorant of the existence of ancient borders, and assisting each other in peace from one part of the world to the other.”

Élisée Reclus



Contemporary Observations

The classics


The Civil War in France

Karl Marx

On the dawn of March 18, Paris arose to the thunder-burst of “Vive la Commune!” What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?

CONTINUE READING


Postscript to “The Civil War in France”

Friedrich Engels

In 1891, on the 20th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Engels put together a new edition of “The Civil War in France,” emphasizing its historic significance.

CONTINUE READING


“What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. History has no like example of a like greatness. If they are defeated only their ‘good nature’ will be to blame.”

— Karl Marx


The Paris Commune and the idea of the state

Mikhail Bakunin

Bakunin did not unreservedly praise everything done by the Commune, and did not hesitate to point out some of its major mistakes. But in contrast to some of his colleagues, he made allowances for its shortcomings.

CONTINUE READING


The Commune of Paris

Peter Kropotkin

The Commune of Paris was doomed to perish, but by its eminently popular character it began a new series of revolutions, by its ideas it was the forerunner of the social revolution.

CONTINUE READING


“When on March 18 the people of Paris made a revolution to the cry of ‘Long Live the Commune’, it was in order to re-conquer all civil, political and economic rights, to preserve their weapons, rifles and cannons that had served to defend Paris against the foreigner and which must, by remaining in their hands, ensure all the conquests of the Revolution.”

— Pierre Vésinier

John P. Clark

John Clark is an eco-communitarian anarchist writer, activist and educator in New Orleans. His most recent book is Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community. He directs La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology and is a member of the Education and Research Workers’ Union of the IWW.

    Sixtine van Outryve

    Sixtine van Outryve is a PhD researcher in political and legal theory at UCLouvain in Belgium. Her research focuses on the theory and practice of direct democracy in a communalist perspective, more specifically on social movements struggling for self-government in France and North America. She is also the co-author of an exhibition for the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune called “Vive la Commune!”

      Dennis Bos

      Dennis Bos (1969) teaches Dutch history at Leiden University and is a historian of left-wing socialism and the labor movement.

        Kevin Potter

        Kevin Potter is a doctoral student in the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna.