Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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COMMUNE, Paris. The municipal authority in the city of Paris has been twice usurped—once in 1792, and again in 1871, by an insurgent power known under the name of the Commune de Paris.


—On Aug. 10, 1792, while the mob was invading the Tuileries, several chiefs of the movement, presenting themselves as delegates of sections, occupied the Hotel de Ville, and there constituted themselves into a commune, with all the political and administrative attributes of a government. The commune notified the national assembly of its revolutionary existence, demanding powers without limit, and the creation of an extraordinary tribunal authorized to pass judgment without appeal on the "crimes committed on the 10th of August, and on other crimes and circumstances relative thereto." The commune of Paris became all powerful under the influence of Danton, Robespierre and Marat.


—In vain did the assembly try to break its tyranny. It passed a decree dissolving the insurrectionary commune, and providing for the election of a new municipal council. The commune was the stronger: it issued decree after decree; "it ordered that the bells should be turned into cannon, and iron railings into pikes; that the silver of the churches should be melted down, and that wages and arms should be given to the indigent; that domiciliary visits should be made to discover arms and arrest suspected persons." During this time the enemy had crossed the frontier; in Paris, exasperation had reached its height, and the leaders of the commune took advantage of this to arouse the vengeance of the people against the assembly and the royalists. After hearing the news of the capture of Verdun, on Sept. 2, the crowd rushed to the prison and massacred about a hundred captives: priests, nobles, sextons, guards of the king, whom the commune had arrested as suspected persons.


—The national assembly, which was about to make way for the convention, was powerless to repress those crimes. The convention itself was obliged to reckon with the commune, and to endure, side by side with itself, in the capital in which it was in session, this revolutionary power which knew no government but that of terror. The clubs, the feeling in which found expression in the stormy meetings of the convention, urged men on in the way of folly and disorder. The commune, after having destroyed, under the pretext of liberty, the political and administrative hierarchy of the city, could not fail to attack religion, which it looked on as a creation of the old régime. It closed the churches, turned Notre Dame into the "temple of reason," and even published a decree providing for the demolition of steeples, "which, because they towered over other buildings, seemed to be in conflict with the principles of equality." This lasted till July 27, 1794 (9 thermidor). The commune fell at last in consequence of a reaction, which could not but be bloody. Robespierre, Couthon, Saint Just and eighty two of their colleagues, most of them obscure men, whom blindness and revolutionary caprice had brought into the commune, perished on the scaffold. The commune of Paris left in history a memory so odious that no one could have imagined it would come to life again, with its name, its doctrines, its terror and its blood. And yet it re-appeared and reigned anew in 1871. Our own generation has looked on the Paris commune.


—In 1871, as in 1792, the commune was born of a political revolution, under the pressure of a great national defeat in the presence of invasion. It took advantage of popular exasperation, and we may say that it was guilty of every species of crime as well as every species of folly. It had its clubs, its proclamations, its vagaries, its suspected persons, its massacres of prisoners, its hatred of religion, and the liberty, equality and fraternity practiced in 1793. Perhaps, during its shorter reign (from March 18 to May 24), it was still more cruel without being less stupid. The history of this lamentable period is written in the memories of men as well as in tombs and ruins. It is useless to retrace its details; but it seems important to note the starting point of the commune of 1871, to seek in written documents the thought which inspired its acts, and bring into bold relief the pretended belief which it appealed to.


—The fall of the empire, on Sept. 4, 1870, left France and Paris without a regular government. From that moment revolution, ill restrained by improvised authority, had free rein. Paris was soon besieged by the Germans, and cut off from all communication with the rest of the country. History will pay a proper tribute to the patient energy with which the whole Parisian population endured this rude trial; but it will also tell with what ease the seeds of anarchy and disorder were scattered about during the four months of the siege in the great capital. The amnesty was far from calming the passions of the multitude, embittered by the physical sufferings of hunger and cold. The people would not admit that they had been conquered; they accused the signers of the capitulation—which, however, was delayed as long as possible—of incompetence or treason. The entry of a part of the German army into Paris was a bitter humiliation to them. Later, however, when intercourse with the provinces had become free, and especially when the results of the elections to the national assembly at Bordeaux were made known, elections which seemed opposed to Parisian opinion, a great part of the population thought, that, after having been abandoned in their distress, they were again betrayed in their political aspirations. The decision by which the national assembly established its seat at Versailles also exasperated Parisian feeling, not only among the lower classes, too easily given to excitement, but also among the middle classes, who thought their interest sacrificed and Paris decapitated. The regular army had been disarmed, almost dissolved; the national guard had preserved its arms, and, under the direction of daring chiefs, the battalions of the suburbs had taken possession of the cannon which they had collected at Montmartre and Belleville. Disorder had paved the way for revolution. In vain did the scarcely formed government try, on the 18th of March, to recapture by force the artillery which threatened the city. The troops sent against Montmartre were repulsed, or laid down their arms in the face of the revolution; and two generals were assassinated after a sham trial. In the evening the whole government, and whatever regular troops remained, removed from Paris by the order of Thiers; a necessary measure, no doubt, but one which gave up the peaceful population to the mercy of the insurgents, and which could only fill the measure of general discontent. In short, Paris, barely freed from the Prussians, was about to be attacked by the army re-organized at Versailles. A civil war began. By what series of criminal instigations and deplorable misunderstandings was Paris again put in the condition of a besieged place? How was it that a considerable part of the population allowed itself to be induced to join the revolutionists, or endure them? The story of this very complicated situation is a long one. The commune of 1871 was, in a certain way, the result of a really marvelous accumulation of events and incidents, of a combination of the most diverse elements, and, as has been said, of a psychological state which at that moment defied good sense and reason.


—We might believe, at first sight, that the commune movement was determined by a desire to preserve the republican form of government, attacked, as it was said, by monarchical manœuvres, and to acquire municipal independence in administration as in politics. These are merely pretexts and poor excuses: the republican form of government was not threatened at all in March, 1871; and, at that very moment, the national assembly was preparing to revise the legislation relating to the condition of the communes, in a liberal sense. Moreover, the character of the men who had taken possession of the Parisian movement showed, that, under an apparent modesty there was hidden something very different. These were the men who since 1830 had figured in revolutions, in disturbances, in secret societies that were organized to overturn every government, the republic included. To these veteran conspirators were added the orators of clubs, some literary men of broken reputation, preachers of socialistic doctrines, the chief members of working men's associations, and, to complete the list, a whole army of foreigners, cosmopolitan revolutionists, who simply came at the call of disorder. Communal liberty was, for the greater number, merely a word devoid of meaning, a good word to inscribe on a banner to draw the crowd after them. In reality these men were seeking to seize upon governmental power at any cost, not only in Paris, but in all France, where the chiefs of the commune had numerous confederates. These men wanted power for its own sake alone, and endeavored to obtain it by the most violent means, guided by no rule but the principle that the end justifies the means. It was necessary to subvert the government, whatever it might be, and to overthrow everything which stood in the way—religion, laws, labor, the army, regular administration. It was, indeed, a universal revolution, masked at one time under the simple title of communal reform, at another appearing under the pompous title of social regeneration.


—In 1871 the same arguments and shibboleths were used as in 1792. But, from 1792 to 1794, France was on the eve of a real revolution, a revolution which had abolished not only royalty, but also caste privilege, the remnants of feudal rule; and extreme parties might with some show of reason fear the return of the old régime. This was not the case in 1871. At that time there was neither privilege nor caste; and no party dreamed of restoring what had been destroyed since 1789. The revolutionary faction did not need to fight against what no longer existed. But it summoned to its aid the new interests which had been created in consequence of the emancipation of the bourgeoisie, and which were personified in manual labors. It claimed that the working classes had remained in a state of oppression, that their day of emancipation had come, and that they, too, had to win their rights. Such had been, for more than 30 years, the theme of socialistic preachers and political adventurers. The commune of Paris was, under a vague term, merely the expression of a revolutionary feeling, more developed in France than elsewhere, through the inflammable temperament and the ignorance of the people, by the premature granting of universal suffrage, and by the very frequency of revolutions, which, rightly or wrongly, have succeeded. Yet, we must know in what consisted the autonomous commune, of which the Paris commune claimed to be the type, and which served as a rallying cry for the revolutionary attempt of 1871. We here give a description inserted in a programme of the commune, dated April 19. "The absolute autonomy of the commune, extended to every locality in France, assures to each one of them the entirety of its rights, and to every Frenchman the full exercise of his faculties and his powers as a man, a citizen and a workman.


—The autonomy of the commune should have no limit, but the equal right to autonomy of all the other communes which adhere to the contract, the association together of which communes shall assure the unity of France.


—The inherent rights of the commune are to vote the communal budget, receipts and expenses; the determination and apportionment of the taxes; the management of local administration; organization of the magistracy and local police; education; the administration of property belonging to the commune; the choice by election or competition of communal magistrates and functionaries of every kind, with the permanent right of controlling and dismissing them; the absolute guarantee of individual liberty, of liberty of conscience and liberty of labor; permanent intervention of citizens in communal affairs, by a free expression of their ideas and by a free defense of their interests; the organization of local forces and the national guards, who, electing their own chiefs, alone watch over the maintenance of order in the city." * * * * "The communal revolution," added the programme, "inaugurates a new era of experimental, positive and scientific politics. It is the end of the old governmental and clerical world, of military and bureaucratic rule of spoliation, stock jobbing, privileges, monopolies, to which the proletariat owes its serfdom, and the country its misfortunes and disasters."


—Thus every commune in France was to form a complete autonomous whole, dependent only on itself. Men did not stop at legislative reform which is really capable of giving municipal unity more or less of the attributes of liberty, according to circumstances and the progress made in course of time. To attain this end a revolution was not necessary. Men went further: it was a question of making the commune absolutely independent. Nationality was therefore suppressed. The fatherland existed no longer; and really, in the eyes of these revolutionists, assembled from every point in Europe and the world, the idea of fatherland had had its day. The fatherland was replaced by the universal republic, baptized with strange sponsors, some of them unknown; others too well known, who had selected Paris as their place of rendezvous, to commit, with deliberate purpose, monstrous acts which no party would avow, or excuse, even by a state of war.


—The commune thought, that, to establish the universal republic, all means were good, even murder. Princes might be an obstacle in its way, they were merely to be done away with.—"Society has but one duty toward princess death; there is but one formality to ascertain their identity." This is how a functionary of the commune expressed himself in an article which the commune published, with approval, in its official journal, March 27, 1871. In 1792 the commune of Paris admitted, at least, the preliminary formality of a trial it wished the execution of Louis XVI., but intended that the king should first be condemned as a criminal. In 1871 the title alone of king or prince was a crime to be punished with death.


—By suppressing conscription by its decree of March 29, the commune suppressed the army, which it replaced by the national guard, to which all ablebodied citizens were to belong. What use was there really for an army when there was no longer a country to defend? This abolition, moreover, was merely the result of declamation which had been heard for years, in the clubs, and even in the legislature, against military organization.


—While proclaiming liberty of conscience, the commune closed or profaned the churches, caused the emblems of Catholic worship to be removed, imprisoned the archbishop of Paris, and shot him; and while wishing to make everything the common property of all, the commune decreed confiscation, the destruction of several public monuments, and even private houses. It revived the ancient law concerning suspected persons, and rendered it more grievous by a decree concerning hostages; and the victims were chosen from all ranks of life, and destined to death. It violated individual liberty daily, by forcing citizens to take up arms against the regular government, and by resorting to compulsory enrollment. It showed no more respect for the laws governing the constitution of the family, one of its decrees put illegitimate children on the same footing with legitimate children, and consecrated, so to speak, the free union of the sexes, which had been preached in the clubs.


—Several members of the international society of working men formed a part of the commune, in which they had very great influence. They controlled a large army of workmen already well disciplined through strikes. The moment had come to put in practice the combinations which were to suppress wages and replace them by association. The commune created a labor committee which was commissioned with carrying out the high-sounding promises, by the aid of which the revolutionary politicians had led astray the minds of the laboring population, and introduced disorder into the workshops. They merely succeeded in drawing up some decrees in which the principles of the association were explained in vague terms, but there was nothing that could be applied, and in this matter the commune failed miserably.


—In a word, if we review the different measures taken under the reign of the commune, we find no practical idea, no serious plan, no useful reform. Nothing could result from it but insensate and criminal acts, as in 1793. For a second time the commune of Paris gorged itself in blood. To the horrors of a foreign it added the disgrace of a civil war, and did not even know how to meet defeat with honor; its crowning effort was to burn Paris. Unfortunate indeed are the nations which witness such scenes and forget them.


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