Paris Commune Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The short-lived Paris Commune failed as an attempt by French revolutionaries to seize control of France, but it provided future generations of socialists with an inspirational symbol.

Summary of Event

During the spring of 1871, a bitter civil war between the people of Paris and the national government erupted. The background to the revolt included several interrelated factors. Paris had just emerged from the Franco-Prussian War, angry because the so-called Government of National Defense had failed to break the four-month-long siege of the city and defeat the Germans. Traditionally republican Paris was also fearful that the royalist majority in the National Assembly at Bordeaux would attempt to restore the monarchy. Paris was also outraged over the concessions that Adolphe Thiers Thiers, Adolphe , the president of the National Assembly, had made to the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and France[France] , while negotiating the treaty that ended the war. Moreover, many Parisians were threatened with ruin after the assembly passed several laws that forced immediate payment on overdue promissory notes and ended the moratorium on the payment of back rent. Paris Commune (1871) France;Paris Commune [kw]Paris Commune (Mar. 18-May 28, 1871) [kw]Commune, Paris (Mar. 18-May 28, 1871) Paris Commune (1871) France;Paris Commune [g]France;Mar. 18-May 28, 1871: Paris Commune[4550] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 18-May 28, 1871: Paris Commune[4550] Blanqui, Auguste Courbet, Gustave Michel, Louise Thiers, Adolphe Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph

Disturbed by this growing Parisian hostility, the National Assembly, which had just relocated to Versailles Versailles , tried to recapture some cannons held by local National Guard units in Paris. The failure of this attempt to disarm Paris on March 18, 1871, marked the beginning of the insurrection. On March 26, elections to the Paris Commune were held. Elected members of the Commune held a variety of beliefs. Moderate republicans jostled for position of power with radical republicans, and various socialist groups argued about the ideas of Auguste Blanqui and Blanqui, Auguste Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph and the nascent Marxist Marxism;and anarchism[Anarchism] Anarchism;and Marxism[Marxism] concepts expressed by some leaders of the First International.

From its inception, the Paris Commune was weakened by serious internal divisions. Disagreements over the source of ultimate authority between official and semiofficial governmental institutions were part of the problem. A clash of interests and political philosophies between the Jacobin Jacobinism;and Paris Commune[Paris Commune] majority and the socialist minority within the Commune was another. As a result of these conflicts, members of the Commune could not come to any understandings on such basic questions as the role and aims of government.

Many socialists, especially the Proudhonists, looked upon the Commune as the first step toward the creation of a decentralized state. The Jacobins, however, saw the Commune as a revival of the First French Republic when radical Paris, working through a dictatorship, forced its views on the rest of the nation. In terms of its aims, the Jacobin majority not only adopted the same terminology but also wished to concentrate on the same type of political and social issues that had confronted the leaders of 1793.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

(Library of Congress)

In opposition, the socialist minority, led by members of the First International, were more concerned with using the Commune as a means to combat the new problems introduced by industrialization, such as the increasing disparity of wealth between the possessors and the nonpossessors. Inspired by their ideas, the Paris Commune did represent a brilliant, although short-lived, period of social experimentation. Female workers, led by Louise Michel Michel, Louise , formed political groups to push for an improvement in conditions for women, and even artists, led by the realist painter Gustave Courbet Courbet, Gustave , attempted to marshal their collective talents for the betterment of the human condition.

In the end, however, the Commune failed to do the one thing that every revolutionary government must do in order to succeed: It did not carry the fight to its enemy. Unwilling to assume the offensive, the Commune waited until the strength of Thiers’s Thiers, Adolphe army was overwhelming, while members debated petty issues and ignored the all-important question of survival. Given this failure, the destruction of the Commune was almost inevitable, and it came during the week of May 21-28, known as Bloody Week, when the Versailles army mercilessly crushed all Parisian opposition to the national government. Scholars have estimated that the number of Communards killed during Bloody Week may have been as high as thirty thousand, many of whom were summarily executed after they surrendered.

Significance

The original outbreak of revolution in Paris in March of 1871 also inspired a number of similar revolts in several other French cities, notably Toulouse, Lyon, Marseille, Saint-Étienne, and Narbonne. Plagued by the same internal difficulties that weakened the Paris Commune, these local insurrections also succumbed quickly to armed repression organized by the government in Versailles. As a result, none of these provincial communes lasted more than a month.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aminzade, Ronald. Ballots and Barricades: Class Formation and Republican Politics in France, 1830-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Best English-language account of the “provincial” communes that appeared in March, 1871, in response to the outbreak of insurrection in Paris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christiansen, Rupert. Paris Babylon: A Social History of the Paris Commune. New York: Viking, 1995. Detailed account, based on diaries, letters, and photos, of everyday life in Paris during the Prussian siege and Commune.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Stewart. The Paris Commune, 1871. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971. Edwards presents a sympathetic leftist interpretation of the Commune that incorporates the findings of many French studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrenberg, John. Proudhon and His Age. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996. Social biography that places the life of the leading French socialist thinker of his time within the context of a changing French society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71. New York: Pan Macmillan, 2002. Compelling narrative history of the Paris Commune that brings its dramatic events to life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jellinek, Frank. The Paris Commune of 1871. London: Victor Gollancz, 1937. In this classic English-language analysis of the Commune, Jellinek essentially accepts the Marxist interpretation of the event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lissagaray, Prosper. History of the Commune. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. Account of the Commune written by an important participant who later participated in radical exile politics in London.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. On the Paris Commune. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. Collection that brings together the classic Marxist writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, most notably Marx’s Civil War in France, whose publication was a turning point in the history of the International Working Men’s Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Edward S. The Paris Commune: An Episode in the History of the Socialist Movement. New York: Macmillan, 1930. A basically unsympathetic account of the Commune by a historian who is clearly in opposition to those who argue that the event represented a major turning point in the history of socialism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schulkind, Eugene. “Socialist Women During the 1871 Paris Commune.” Past and Present 106 (February, 1985): 124-165. Detailed and nuanced analysis of the role of women during the Commune.

Paris Revolution of 1848

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France

First International Is Founded

Bakunin Founds the Social Democratic Alliance

Franco-Prussian War

Battle of Sedan

Prussian Army Besieges Paris

Third French Republic Is Established

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