The Paris Commune was the name given to an uprising that lasted from March 18, 1871, to May 28, 1871. The Commune symbolized for anarchists, socialists, and communists an early 19th-century example of a heroic workers’ revolution. For forces of the Right, the Commune represented rebellion against property, individuals, order, and the state.
The Commune arose following France’s defeat, while under the leadership of Napoleon III, in its war with Prussia in 1870–71. The Prussian armies occupied northern France, then surrounded and laid siege to Paris. Led by Louis-Adolphe Thiers, who would later become president of the Third Republic, the French negotiated a peace agreement with the Prussians, and an armistice was signed on February 28, 1871. Following this cease-fire the French national government moved from Bordeaux to Versailles outside of Paris.
Parisians, angered by the defeat, became increasingly defiant and refused to accept Prussian victory. For Thiers and the national government, their position was impossible without control of Paris. The government needed order and a return to normalcy to build national confidence. They also required money to pay Prussia indemnities so that Prussian troops would withdraw from French soil.
It was in this context that the Commune of Paris was proclaimed on March 18. The Parisian National Guard, or citizen’s militia, which controlled cannons within the city, gave their support to the Communards. Government troops under the command of General Claude Lecomte arrived on March 18 to seize these cannons and suppress any rebellion. Lecomte’s troops refused to fight and he and his officers were taken prisoner. In turn, 600 barricades were erected throughout the city to resist further attack.
The Commune set up offices at the Hôtel de Ville, adopted revolutionary red banners, and called for municipal elections. These elections led to the creation of a Commune government on March 28. The Commune leadership numbered 80 to 90 and were young and inexperienced. In addition, the Commune lacked direction and a dominant leader.
Its makeup was varied and included old radicals tied to the revolution of 1789, Blanquists (followers of the radical Louis Blanqui), anarchists, and those representing the socialist labor movement. The policies that were enacted were more moderate than radical and included free education, an end to conscription, working-hour restrictions, and unemployment and debt relief.
The threat posed by the Commune led the national government on April 2 to end the rebellion. The suburb of Courbevoie was taken and the National Guard’s counterattack on Versailles was handily defeated. The Commune was isolated, and it lacked cohesive leadership; further, the local neighborhoods did not have a citywide plan of defense.
On May 21 a gate in the western part of the city was breached, and the government forces began their reconquest of Paris. What followed is known as the la semaine sanglante (the bloody week) as the national army moved from west to east crushing all resistance. At 4:00 on the 28th the last barricade at the rue Ramponeau in Belleville fell to the forces of Marshal Patrice MacMahon, who proclaimed the Commune rebellion over.
The suppression of the Commune was bloody and without mercy. Both sides committed atrocities, which led to additional retaliation. Prisoners who survived were often shot. The week of May 21 saw more killed than in the entire Franco-Prussian War or in any previous French massacre.
Official estimates are 19,000 Communard deaths against national losses of approximately 1,000. Some have suggested that the death toll in the fighting was far higher and closer to 30,000 killed. Another 50,000 were arrested or executed, with 7,000 prisoners exiled to New Caledonia in the Pacific. Paris remained under martial law for the next five years.
The immediate consequences of the Commune were fear of substantial social reform and a limitation of democratic rights in French society. It created a suspicion among classes that has lasted to the present.
The Commune became an inspiration for revolutionary change, even though the social agenda of the Commune was hardly revolutionary, and the uprising itself ultimately killed workers and failed to liberate them. Twentieth-century communist propagandists saw the Commune as a useful event for exploitation.