What You Need to Know About the Paris Commune of 1871

What It Was, What Caused It, and How Marxist Thinking Inspired It

The Paris Commune was a revolutionary uprising of workers who ruled Paris democratically for two months in 1871.
Rioters and petroleuses firing public buildings in Paris during the Paris Commune, 1871 (1906). From Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. VII. [Cassell and Company, Limited, London, Paris, New York & Melbourne, 1906]. (Colorised black and white print). Artist Unknown. Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Paris Commune was a popular-led democratic government that ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. Inspired by the Marxist politics and revolutionary goals of the International Workingmen's Organization (also known as the First International), workers of Paris united to overthrow the existing French regime which had failed to protect the city from Prussian siege, and formed the first truly democratic government in the city and in all of France.

The elected council of the Commune passed socialist policies and oversaw city functions for just over two months, until the French army retook the city for the French government, slaughtering tens of thousands of working-class Parisians in order to do so.

Events Leading Up to the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune was formed on the heels of an armistice signed between the Third Republic of France and the Prussians, which had laid siege to the city of Paris from September 1870 through January 1871. The siege ended with the surrender of the French army to the Prussians and the signing of an armistice to end the fighting of the Franco-Prussian War.

At this period in time, Paris had a considerable population of workers—as many as half a million industrial workers and hundreds of thousands of others—who were economically and politically oppressed by the ruling government and the system of capitalist production, and economically disadvantaged by the war.

Many of these workers served as soldiers of the National Guard, a volunteer army that worked to protect the city and its inhabitants during the siege.

When the armistice was signed and the Third Republic began their rule, the workers of Paris and feared that the new government would set the country for a return to monarchy, as there were many royalists serving within it.

When the Commune began to take formation, the members of the National Guard supported the cause and began to fight the French army and existing government for control of key government buildings and armaments in Paris.

Prior to the armistice, Parisians regularly demonstrated to demand a democratically elected government for their city. Tensions between those advocating for a new government and the existing government escalated after news of the French surrender in October 1880, and at that time the first attempt was made to take over government buildings and form a new government.

Following the armistice, tensions continued to escalate in Paris and came to a head on March 18, 1871, when members of the National Guard successfully seized government buildings and armaments. 

The Paris Commune -- Two Months of Socialist, Democratic Rule

After the National Guard took over key government and army sites in Paris in March 1871, the Commune began to take shape as members of a Central Committee organized a democratic election of councilors that would rule the city on behalf of the people. Sixty councilors were elected and included workers, businessmen, office workers, journalists, as well as scholars and writers.

The council determined that the Commune would have no singular leader or any with more power than others. Instead, they functioned democratically and made decisions by consensus.

Following the election of the council, the "Communards," as they were called, implemented a series of policies and practices that set out what a socialist, democratic government and society should look like. Their policies focused on evening out existing power hierarchies that privileged those in power and the upper classes and oppressed the rest of society.

The Commune abolished the death penalty and military conscription. Seeking to disrupt economic power hierarchies, they ended night work in the city's bakeries, awarded pensions to the families of those who were killed while defending the Commune, and abolished the accrual of interest on debts.

Stewarding the rights of workers relative to the owners of businesses, the Commune ruled that workers could take over a business if it was abandoned by its owner, and prohibited employers from fining workers as a form of discipline.

The Commune also governed with secular principles and instituted the separation of church and state. The Council decreed that religion should not be a part of schooling and that church property should be public property for all to use.

The Communards advocated for the establishment of Communes in other cities in France. During its reign, others were established in Lyon, Saint-Etienne, and Marseille.

A Short-Lived Socialist Experiment

The short existence of the Paris Commune was fraught with attacks by the French army acting on behalf of the Third Republic, which had decamped to Versailles. On May 21, 1871, the army stormed the city and slaughtered tens of thousands of Parisians, including women and children, in the name of retaking the city for the Third Republic. Members of the Commune and the National Guard fought back, but by the 28th of May, the army had defeated the National Guard and the Commune was no more.

Additionally, tens of thousands were taken as prisoners by the army, many of whom were executed. Those killed during the "bloody week" and those executed as prisoners were buried in unmarked graves around the city. One of the sites of a massacre of Communards was at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, where there now stands a memorial to the slain.

The Paris Commune and Karl Marx

Those familiar with the writing of Karl Marx might recognize his politics in the motivation behind the Paris Commune and values that guided it during its short rule. That's because leading Communards, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis Auguste Blanqui, were affiliated with and inspired by the values and politics of the International Workingmen's Association (also known as the First International). This organization served as a unifying international hub of leftist, communist, socialist, and workers' movements.

Founded in London in 1864, Marx was an influential member, and the principles and aims of the organization reflected those stated by Marx and Engels in The Manifesto of the Communist Party.

One can see in the motives and actions of the Communards the class consciousness that Marx believed was necessary for a revolution of workers to take place. In fact, Marx wrote about the Commune in The Civil War in France while it was happening and described it as a model of revolutionary, participatory government.