Letter From the Editor: The (Not So) Glorious Twenty First of May, 1871

As editor of the Iron Warrior, I have a couple hundred words to rant or proselytize as I please– and finding nothing more pleasing than history, I intend to devote these letters to a recollection of what happened at approximately this date.

The end of May is easily filled by the Paris Commune. The word ‘Commune’ conjures up images of the fl ower laden hippies of the 1960s, but here refers to the municipal government of the City of Paris. The first Paris Commune was formed during the French Revolution, and while it was briefly an insurrectionary force under the auspices of Danton, it was decidedly neither socialist nor hippy.

To sum up the revolving door of revolution which defined nineteenth century France; the first French Revolution led to a constitutional monarchy, which transformed into a republic after a few bouts of mob violence. After a spate of war and decapitation, Napoleon took the reins; when he was defeated, the crowned heads of Europe brought back the old monarchy in a slightly subdued form. In 1830, the people of Paris duly rose up and drove out the monarchy in the Three Glorious Days; this noble republican endeavor landed them a third king, thanks in part to one Adolphe Thiers.

In 1848 the people of Paris rose up again and established the Second Republic of France, which violently suppressed a worker’s revolt and then elected Napoleon’s nephew Prince President.

Louis Napoleon the Third was a pale shadow of his uncle– but happily for him, the people of France had also gotten progressively stupider in the intervening fifty years and so, without much ado, he finagled his way out of a Republic and into the Second French Empire.

Unhappily for him, the people of Germany had not gotten stupider; when he declared war on the newly ascendant Prussia, Otto von Bismarck kicked his ass, whereupon the people of Paris rose up and declared the Third French Republic.

The Third French Republic began under somewhat inauspicious circumstances; the people of Paris were besieged by the Prussians, cut off from the rest of France, and eating rats. The Republic sent out a handful of National Guardsmen out on suicide charges, and then surrendered.

The good faith the Republic had thus far accumulated by these valiant deeds was squandered in the eyes of the radicals when the fi rst elections- poorly advertised and generally confused– returned a crop of royalists, led by the same Adolphe Thiers that had cheated them of the 1830 Revolution. This government relocated the government from Paris to Versailles, which also did little to endear them to Parisians.

It was widely believed that the new government had sold them out to the Prussians, and were plotting a restoration of the monarchy. The latter point was true; they former, dubious.Adolphe Thiers sent the army to retrieve certain cannons which had been placed in the working class Parisian district of Montmartre during the siege. This was meant to be done under cover of night, to avoid a riot– and the army did indeed manage to secure the cannons on the night of March 18 1871. The army did not, however, remember to bring horses to tow away the cannons, and so the soldiers were obliged to loiter awkwardly until horses were found. The sun rose, the tocsin was sounded, and Paris rioted.

Aside from a handful of lynched generals, it was a decently peaceable affair; the National Guard rose in strength and the government of Versailles was driven out of Paris. The city was now in the control of the revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries were split into roughly three camps. The Blanquists represented a kind of proto-Bolshevism– they had the same ruthless, authoritarian communist tendencies and the same notion of a revolutionary vanguard, but without the competence. The Jacobins were a relic of 1792, the party of Robespierre and Danton and Saint Just, with a bit of socialist fl avour thrown in. The Proudhonists were moderate anarchists, who believed in decentralization, direct democracy, puppies and kittens, and getting themselves killed whenever possible.

This merry band could then have marched onto Versailles and returned with Adolphe Thiers’ head on a spike, and the world would have woken up to a fait accompli and a socialist France.

The Blanquists did indeed advocate this plan; the Proudhonists and Jacobins vetoed it. The Proudhonists, in particular, believed that the rest of France would join them in repudiating the Versailles government and then the proletariat could simply ignore their enemies out of existence.

The uptick of all this leftist finagling was that the revolutionaries sat and waited while Adolphe Thiers massed an army to march on Paris.

Presently, however, elections were held and the Paris Commune was officially convened. Decrees were issued to abolish the death penalty and military conscription, to establish labour rights and women’s rights, and a host of other progressive causes. All that stood in the way of their new socialist utopia was the fact that they were all about to be killed by the army of Adolphe Thiers.

The Proudhonists remained opposed to all the panoply of an insurrectionary state. The Jacobins and Blanquists, opposed to the prospect of imminent death, overruled them and began preparations for the military defence of Paris– but this was done in a manner so haphazard that it was almost inferior to the idealistic solution of the Proudhonists.

The National Guard was left to a rotating roster of commanders, with or without previous military experience, who bungled about without any clear chain of command before being sacked by the government of the Commune.

The internal security of the Commune was given over to one Raoul Rigault, a Blanquist and militant atheist with the rare gift of competence, described by contemporary newspapers as “fond of good wine, always talking…astonishing the novices with his gift of speech… much appreciated by girls of low condition”. He became, in effect, the leader of the secret police. The Proudhonists made angry anarchist noises in the background.

All of this frantic, endearing incompetence was put to an end by the forces of the regular French army on the week of the 21st of May, 1871. The Commune, in its haste, apparently just kind of forgot about a gate leading into Paris and the army of Adolphe Thiers simply walked in. This marked the beginning of the Bloody Week, during which the army slogged its way into the center of Paris, street by street.

Captured Communards were lined up against the wall and shot if their hands smelled on gunpowder. The Communards, in turn, executed a handful of political prisoners, held as hostages to guarantee the safety of the National Guardsmen, including the Archbishop Darboy.

Having failed to destroy the actual ‘bourgeois state’, the Commune settled for destroying the physical monuments of the old regime, by burning the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries, and a host of churches– including, unsuccessfully, the Cathedral at Notre Dame. For a week, fires raged throughout the city of Paris, while Communards and soldiers fought in the streets below.

About ten to twenty thousand insurrectionaries died in the fighting or were executed in the aftermath, including Raoul Rigault and other prominent Communards. Survivors were imprisoned or deported to New Caledonia, before being eventually pardoned in 1880.

This episode effectively marked an end to the Parisian insurrectionary tradition which had begun in the French Revolution of 1789.

If you want a more comprehensive account of the misadventures and deaths of these (and other) plucky rebels, I refer you to Mike Duncan’s podcast, Revolutions, which is available on Spotify and is replete with tales of revolutionaries dying in horrible ways. Meanwhile, if you have any other interesting historical events you want advertised to the student populace, reach out to me at iwarrior@uwaterloo.ca!

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