Paris Commune of 1871

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Paris Commune of 1871


the first proletarian revolution and the first government of the working class. Established in Paris, it lasted for 72 days (March 18 to May 28).

The founding of the Paris Commune was a natural historical phenomenon evoked by the profound social contradictions in French society. These contradictions had been aggravated toward the end of the 1860’s by the completion of the industrial revolution, the numerical and organizational growth of the proletariat, and the rise of class consciousness among the proletariat. The Paris Commune was also a consequence of the struggle of the French and international working class against capitalist exploitation and the political hegemony of the bourgeoisie. In France, the first attempt to overthrow the bourgeois system was the June uprising of 1848. By the end of the 1860’s progressive members of the French proletariat were increasingly preoccupied with the idea of a revolution that would result in the destruction of the capitalist system. Their interest in this idea was promoted by the successful struggle waged by Marx and his followers against petit bourgeois currents in the First International.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 exacerbated class contradictions in France. The defeat of French forces revealed the rottenness of the Bonapartist regime and exposed the betrayal of national interests by the country’s ruling circles. On Sept. 4, 1870, a revolution broke out in Paris. The Empire fell, and France again became a republic. However, the new government, which proclaimed itself the Government of National Defense, continued Napoleon Ill’s antipopular policy, refusing to satisfy the democratic and patriotic demands of the popular masses and embarking on a course of sabotaging the defense of Paris, which was besieged by Prussian troops. The government’s policy of capitulation aroused the indignation of the Parisian workers. On Oct. 31, 1870, and Jan. 22, 1871, uprisings took place, accompanied by demands that a commune be proclaimed. Both uprisings were suppressed.

On Jan. 28, 1871, an armistice was concluded between France and Prussia. The new government formed in February by A. Thiers, a henchman of the bourgeoisie, accepted conditions onerous for France and signed the preliminary Versailles peace treaty on February 28. An important step toward rallying democratic forces for the struggle against the government’s reactionary policy was the creation of the Republican Federation of the National Guard, which was headed by the Central Committee. A revolutionary situation developed in Paris and in several major provincial cities (Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseille). The Thiers government failed in its attempt to disarm the proletarian districts of the capital and to arrest the members of the Central Committee of the National Guard on the night of March 17–18. The soldiers refused to fire on the people. The National Guard repulsed the government troops and, going over to the offensive, occupied government buildings. The Thiers government fled to Versailles.

On Mar. 18, 1871, the red banner of proletarian revolution was raised over the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The Central Committee of the National Guard became the provisional government of the Paris Commune. Between March 20 and March 29 revolutionary communes were also proclaimed in a number of provincial cities, including Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse. Most of them lasted for only a few days. The Marseille Commune, which outlasted the others, survived for ten days. The main reason for the rapid collapse of the communes outside Paris was that the leading role in them was played by petit bourgeois democrats and bourgeois radicals, who were indecisive in the struggle against the counterrevolution.

Elections to the Paris Commune were held on March 26, and the Commune was proclaimed on March 28. Of the 86 men elected, more than 20 representatives of the big and middle bourgeoisie had quit the Commune by mid-April. Additional elections were held on April 16. The members of the Paris Commune included more than 30 workers and more than 30 representatives of the intelligentsia (journalists, physicians, teachers, and lawyers). The Commune was a bloc of proletarian and petit bourgeois revolutionaries. A leading role was played by socialists, especially the approximately 40 members associated with the First International, including followers of Blanqui, Proudhon, and Bakunin. Among the members of the Paris Commune there were several Marxists or persons whose thinking was close to Marxism, as well as many well-known figures in the working-class movement, including L. E. Varlin, E.-V. Duval, J. P. Johannard, A. D. Serraillier, and the Hungarian worker L. Frankel. Outstanding representatives of the creative intelligentsia were members of the Commune—for example, E. M. Vaillant, a physician and engineer; the artist G. Courbet; the writers J. Vallès and E. Pottier; and the journalists A. J. M. Vermorel and E. M. G. Tridon. The heterogeneous composition of the Paris Commune led to disagreements over a number of questions of theory and practice. As a result, the Commune split into two fractions: the “majority,” consisting chiefly of Blanquists and of neo-Jacobins, who agreed with the Jacobin program of 1793–94; and the “minority,” with a core of Proudhonists.

The Paris Commune is historically significant because it crushed the police and bureaucratic machinery of the bourgeois state and created a new type of state, the first form of the dictatorship of the proletariat in history. On March 29 the Paris Commune passed a decree abolishing the standing army and replacing it with the armed citizenry (the National Guard). Under a decree issued on April 1, the maximum salary for civil servants was to be equal to the pay of skilled workers. Separation of church and state was declared in a decree passed on April 2. Somewhat later, the Commune abolished the prefectures of police and assigned the duty of keeping order and ensuring the safety of the citizenry to the reserve battalions of the National Guard.

The new apparatus of authority was built on democratic principles: election of officeholders with responsibility for their actions, rotation of all officials, and collegial administration. Breaking away from bourgeois parliamentarism and the bourgeois principle of the separation of powers, the Commune was simultaneously a legislative and an executive body. On March 29, ten commissions staffed by Commune members were formed, including the Executive Commission, which was responsible for the general direction of affairs of state. Among the nine specialized commissions were the Military Commission, the Foreign Affairs Commission, the Financial Commission, and the Public Services Commission. In addition, there were commissions for labor, industry, and exchange; public safety; supply; education; and justice. On May 1 the Executive Commission was replaced by the Committee of Public Safety, made up of five members of the Commune who were granted broad powers over the various commissions.

The Commune implemented a number of measures designed to improve the material condition of the broad strata of the population. Back rents on apartments were canceled. Pawnbrokers were to return to the owners items worth up to 20 francs, without compensation. A three-year extension (from July 15, 1871) was granted on repayment of commercial notes. In the interests of the workers, the Commune adopted a resolution demanding that the 5-billion-franc indemnity to Germany be paid by those responsible for the war: former deputies to the Legislative Corps, senators, and ministers of the Second Empire. Several major socioeconomic reforms were carried out, including the abolition of night work in bakeries, the prohibition of arbitrary fines and illegal deductions from workers’ and office employees’ pay, and the introduction of a mandatory minimum wage. In addition, workers’ control over production was established in certain large enterprises, and public workshops for the unemployed were opened. A serious step toward socialist transformations was the decree on the transfer to workers’ cooperative associations of enterprises abandoned by owners who had fled from Paris. However, the Commune did not succeed in implementing this measure.

In socioeconomic policy, the Paris Commune made a major error in failing to take over the Bank of France and confiscate the considerable valuables (almost 3 billion francs’ worth) deposited there. Thus, the Commune condemned itself to enormous financial and political difficulties. To a considerable extent, the Proudhonists were responsible for this blunder.

With regard to schools and cultural and mass education policy, the Paris Commune was very active, launching a struggle to liberate the schools from the influence of the church, to introduce free compulsory education, and to combine study of the fundamentals of science with practical training in a craft. The Commune carried out a number of measures for the reorganization of museums and libraries, adopted a decree transferring the theaters to actors’ collectives, and endeavored to bring culture to the broad masses of the people.

In foreign policy the Paris Commune was guided by a desire for brotherhood among the workers of all countries and for peace and friendship among peoples. The Vendôme Column, a symbol of militarism and wars of aggression, was destroyed in May 1871, in accordance with a decree issued on April 12.

The Commune relied on the support of public organizations: political clubs, trade unions, vigilance committees, sections of the First International, women’s groups, and other revolutionary associations. Many foreign revolutionaries took part in the struggle for the Commune, including the Polish revolutionaries J. Dąbrowski and the brothers A. Okołowicz, E. Okołowicz, and F. Okołowicz; the Italian A. Cipriani; and the Russian socialists A. V. Korvin-Krukovskaia, E. L. Dmitrieva, and P. L. Lavrov.

K. Marx maintained close contact with the Paris Commune, managing to convey to its leaders practical advice concerning economic, political, and military matters. He criticized the tactical errors of the Communards, especially their passivity during the first two weeks after the March 18 uprising, and he warned them not to fall under the influence of petit bourgeois elements.

At the end of March the first clashes broke out between the Communards and the Versaillais (the name given by the Communards to the counterrevolutionary forces based at Versailles). The Thiers government received assistance from the command of the German occupation forces, which released 60,000 French prisoners of war to fill the ranks of the Versaillais. On April 2 the Versaillais launched an offensive against Paris. On April 3 detachments of the National Guard moved on Versailles. The Communards’ march was badly organized, and on April 4 the advancing columns were thrown back, suffering heavy losses. This failure did not discourage the defenders of revolutionary Paris. Despite all their difficulties, which included insufficient artillery, the unsatisfactory work of the quartermasters, and a shortage of experienced and skilled commanders, the Communards offered firm resistance to the enemy and often took the offensive. However, the military leadership, which was for a long time headed by G. P. Cluseret, adhered to the erroneous tactic of passive defense. On April 30, Cluseret was replaced by L. Rossel, who was replaced by L.-C. Delescluze on May 10. An extremely negative factor contributing to the Communards’ difficulties in their struggle against the Versaillais was duplication in the military bodies of revolutionary Paris (the Commune’s Delegation for War, the Central Committee of the National Guard, and the district military bureaus, for example). The Commune’s indecisiveness in its struggle against counterrevolutionary elements in Paris made it easier for these elements to engage in sabotage, wrecking, and espionage, as well as in diversionary tactics and other activities designed to undermine the Commune. On May 21 the Versaillais (about 100,000 troops) marched into Paris, but it took them a week to take full control in the city. The heroic defenders of the Commune fought to the last drop of blood, struggling over every street. A particularly stubborn battle was fought at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

The suppression of the proletarian revolution of 1871 was accompanied by an unprecedented orgy of counterrevolutionary terror. As many as 70,000 persons were shot, sent into penal servitude, or imprisoned. If those who left France to escape persecution are included, 100,000 people were victims of the terror.

One of the main reasons for the defeat of the Paris Commune was the isolation of the capital from the rest of the country, owing to the siege by German occupational forces and the Versaillais. In general, the Commune did not pay enough attention to establishing solid ties with the workers in the provinces. Above all, it underestimated the importance of an alliance with the peasantry. As a result, the peasantry was indifferent to the fate of the Commune, and to a considerable degree, this made defeat inevitable. An essential role in the Commune’s defeat was played by the tactical errors of its leaders and by their failure to appreciate the importance of offensive military tactics and the need for ruthless suppression of the enemy’s resistance.

The experience of the Paris Commune was profoundly analyzed in the works of K. Marx, F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin. Thus, it has played a major role in the development of the theory of scientific communism, in the liberation struggle of the working class in later decades, and in the preparation and execution of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In honor of the first proletarian revolution, the workers of the world celebrate the Anniversary of the Paris Commune. Lenin wrote: “The cause of the Commune is the cause of the social revolution, the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the toilers. It is the cause of the proletariat of the whole world. And in this sense it is immortal” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 20, p. 222).


Protokoly zasedanii Parizhskoi Kommuny 1871 g., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1959–60.
Pervyi Internatsional i Parizhskaia Kommuna: Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1972.


Marx, K., F. Engels, and V. I. Lenin. O Parizhskoi Kommune [collection]. Moscow, 1971.
Parizhskaia Kommuna 1871 g., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1961.
Parizhskaia Kommuna 1871 g. Moscow, 1970.
Istoriia Parizhskoi Kommuny 1871 g. Moscow, 1971.
Parizhskaia Kommuna 1871. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from French.)
Choury, M. Kommuna v serdtse Parizha. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from French.)
Molok, A. I. Germanskaia interventsiia protiv Parizhskoi Kommuny 1871 g. Moscow, 1939.
Gosudarstvo i pravo Parizhskoi Kommuny. Moscow, 1971.
Danilin, Iu. I. Parizhskaia Kommuna i frantsuzskii teatr. Moscow, 1963.
Danilin, Iu. I. Poety Parizhskoi Kommuny. Moscow, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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