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Remembering the Paris Commune: When Workers and Women Rose Up Against the Oligarchy

Many historians regard the Paris Commune as the precedent for subsequent uprisings against the plutocracy and ruling elite.

(Photo: Basic Books)

The short-lived Paris Commune of 1871 lasted only a little more than two months before being ruthlessly crushed. A new book by Yale Professor John Merriman, “Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune” provides a remarkably detailed account of an armed uprising that rejected oligarchical government. Click here to get the book by contributing to Truthout!

Many historians regard the Paris Commune as the precedent for subsequent uprisings against the plutocracy and ruling elite. Who were the Parisians who revolted against the ruling class ensconced in Versailles and suffered deadly retribution as a result?

The following is an excerpt from chapter 3 of Massacre entitled “Masters of Their Own Lives” that begins to answer that question.

Who were the Communards? British journalist Frederic Harrison assessed the Communards in Paris, writing, “The ‘insurgents’ … are simply the people of Paris, mainly and at first working men, but now largely recruited from the trading and professional classes. The ‘Commune’ has been organized with extraordinary skill, the public services are efficiently carried on, and order has been for the most part preserved.” In his view, the Commune, while being “one of the least cruel, has been perhaps the ablest revolutionary government of modern times.”

The average Communard was the average Parisian: young, between twenty-one and forty years of age, with the largest number men aged thirty-six to forty. Three-fourths had been born outside Paris and arrived in the waves of immigration, above all from northeastern France but also from the northwest, along with seasonal migrants from the Creuse in the center; 45 percent were married, and 6 percent were widowers, although many workers lived in unions libres, which the Commune legitimized. Only 2 percent had secondary education. In a time of increased literacy, only about 11 percent were illiterate, although many ordinary Parisians enjoyed only basic reading and writing skills.

Most Communards hailed from the world of Parisian work and included artisans and craftsmen who produced articles de Paris and jewelry. Their numbers included skilled and semiskilled workers—many working with wood, or in shoemaking, printing, or the small-scale production of metals—as well as construction workers, day laborers, and domestic servants. Shopkeepers, clerks, and men in the liberal professions were also well represented. They were among “the people” who had suffered during the siege and felt threatened by monarchist machinations. Of female Communards, 70 percent came from the world of women’s work, particularly textiles and the clothing trades. Some courageously provided food and drink to Communard fighters or served as doctors’ assistants tending to the wounded. Louise Michel saw no problem with incorporating prostitutes into the corps of women nursing injured fighters: “Who has more right than these women, the most pitiful of the old order’s victims, to give their lives for the new?” The Commune accorded pensions to widows and children, whether “legitimate” or not, of men killed fighting for the Commune.

However average or ordinary most Communards were, many observers—foreign and local alike—saw the Commune as a pitched conflict between classes. During his relatively short time at the US Legation, for instance, Wickman Hoffman took note of “the class hatred which exists in France.” For the American, it was “something we have no idea of, and I trust that we never shall. It is bitter, relentless, and cruel; and is, no doubt, a sad legacy of the bloody Revolution of 1789, and of the centuries of oppression which preceded it.”

Hippolyte Taine, a conservative historian, was sure that the Commune was a proletarian revolution. On April 5 he wrote that most fundamentally the “present insurrection” was socialist: “The boss and the bourgeois exploit us, therefore we must suppress them. Superiority and special status do not exist. Me, a worker, I have abilities, and if I want, I can become the head of a business, a magistrate, a general. By good fortune, we have rifles, let’s use them to establish a republic in which workers like us become cabinet ministers and presidents.”

Edmond Goncourt and his brother Jules had assessed, shortly before the latter’s death a year earlier, that “the gap between wages and the cost of living would kill the Empire.” A workman had indeed reason to ask, “‘What good does it do me for there to be monuments, operas, café-concerts where I have never set foot because I don’t have the money?’ And he rejoices that henceforth there will be no more rich people in Paris, so convinced is he that the gathering of rich people into one places raises prices.”

The economic and political divisions in Paris’s quartiers did seem to bear out the Commune’s origins in class conflict. The more plebeian neighborhoods of Paris led the way in support of the Commune. The social geography of Paris reflected a divide between the more prosperous western half of the city and the People’s Paris of the eastern districts, as well as between the center and the proletarian periphery. Baron Georges Haussmann’s massive urban projects during the Second Empire had only intensified the divide, but with the uprising on March 18, the periphery had arguably conquered the beaux quartiers. This is not to say that there were none who opposed the Commune in poorer arrondissements like the Eleventh, Twelfth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth or that there were no devoted Communards in the relatively more privileged Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Arrondissements. It does indicate that social geography counted for much.

The Second Arrondissement embodied the social and political divide that existed even within relatively prosperous districts. The western parts of the arrondissement were more bourgeois, more anti-Communard, and highly suspicious of proletarian Belleville and its national guardsmen and the Vengeurs de Flourens, a military unit named in honor of the martyred Communard, who came down to parade in the conservative quartiers below. In the early weeks of the Commune, many residents advocated conciliation and a negotiated settlement and voted for moderate representatives in the election of March 26. The more plebeian eastern neighborhoods of the Second Arrondissement sent delegates to the Commune; the middle-class residents to the west did not. Around 12,000 people required living assistance in the arrondissement and were more likely to be guardsmen whose families’ depended on the 1.50 franc daily payment. A mechanic put it this way: “I have seven children, and my wife was ill. I had no other means of feeding my family.”

Given the needs of its plebeian supporters, the organization of work remained a significant goal for Communard militants. The “Declaration of the French people” of April 19 called for the creation of institutions that would provide ordinary people with credit, facilitating “access to property” and “freedom of labor.” Ideas and even concrete projects for the “organization of work” were in the air, amid confidence that the defense of the National Guard cannons on March 18 had inaugurated a new era, full of possibilities that would make Paris and the world a better place.

Thus the “social question”—the condition of the poor and how to help them—remained important to many ordinary Parisians. The idea that revolution could bring about reforms that would reduce or even eliminate the considerable differences in conditions of life, opportunities, and expectations remained entrenched in the collective memory of Parisian workers. As Eugène Varlin stated, “We want to overthrow exploitation of workers by the right to work [le droit au travail] and the association of workers in corporation.” Workers hoped that newly established cooperatives would reflect the organization of the Commune itself: decentralized and locally governed. The anarchist Proudhon’s influence was apparent in many workers’ organizations in many trades. The Proudhonists and Blanquists imagined that France, like Paris, would evolve into a federation of communes, becoming a free country just as Paris had for the moment become a free city (ville libre). Such echoes could be heard at the meeting of women in Trinity Church on May 12, when a speaker thundered, “The day of justice approaches with giant strides. . . . [T]he workshops in which you are packed will belong to you; the tools that are put into your hands will be yours; the gain resulting from your efforts, from your troubles, and from the loss of your health will be shared among you. Proletarians, you will be reborn.”

This was a time of big dreams.

The regulations established by a workshop set up in the Louvre to repair and convert weapons reflected how some workers envisioned manufacturing operating in the future. Foremen and chargehands (who supervised lathes) were to be elected, just as the National Guard units elected officers. The regulations also laid out the responsibilities of the administrative council, to consist of the manager, the foreman, a chargehand, and one worker “elected from each workbench,” which would set salaries and wages and ensure that the workday did not exceed ten hours.

On April 16, the Commune ordered a survey of workshops abandoned by employers who had fled Paris so that workers’ cooperatives could ultimately take them over, which indeed happened in a few in- stances. A small cooperative iron foundry started up in Grenelle. Members moved into one workshop after four days and another after two weeks. The cooperative, employing about 250 workers, produced shells crucial to the city’s defense against Thiers. Workers elected “managing directors”—not a very socialist term—led by thirty-nine-year-old Pierre Marc, who had inherited a foundry from his father. The cooperative paid rent to the previous owner of the shop, and its workers earned less than their counterparts employed by the Commune’s Louvre shell factory. Producers’ cooperatives were thus organized along traditional class lines, and workers were expected to show up with their livret, a re- cord book of employment, which they had been required to have with them since 1803, despite wide resentment of this obligation.

In addition to reorganizing Paris’s workers, the Commune also endeavored to improve their working conditions. The abolition of night baking by a decree issued on April 20 was one such concrete social measure in the interest of labor taken by the Commune. The debate centered on advantages for bakers and the fact that workers’ virtual nighttime enslavement benefited “the aristocracy of the belly.” Some master bakers resisted, fearing the loss of clients, and the application of the measure was postponed until May 3, with another decree the next day threatening to seize bread produced before 5 a.m. and distribute it to the poor. Many Parisians still demanded warm croissants first thing in the morning, however, making it difficult for the Commune to enforce the measure. Other Communard decrees established a maximum salary for municipal employees (6,000 francs a year), prohibited employers from taking assessed fines from workers’ wages (an increasingly common practice during the Second Empire), and established labor exchanges in each arrondissement.

Given the circumstances and ideological divisions among Communard leaders, it is not surprising that no full-fledged attempt to transform the economy took place, despite the role of socialists who ultimately wanted workers to control the tools of their trades. Yet most Communards accepted the idea of private property. Moreover, for Blanquists, a complete social revolution would have to wait until political power was secured.

Even though the structure of the economy remained relatively unchanged, the status of women improved by leaps and bounds. Indeed, the solidarity and militancy of Parisian women, who had suffered such hardship during the Prussian siege, jumps out as one of the most remarkable aspects of the Paris Commune. Women, taking pride in their role as citoyennes, pressured the Commune to attend to their rights and demands and pushed for an energetic defense of the capital. Citoyenne Destrée proclaimed in a club, “The social revolution will not be operative until women are equal to men. Until then, you have only the appearance of revolution.”

Such militants considered the condition of women a reflection of the “bourgeois authoritarianism” of the defunct empire and of the enemies gathering their forces at Versailles. Here, too, the Commune seemed to offer exciting possibilities for change. Élisabeth Dmitrieff, who had helped organize cooperatives in Geneva and then arrived in Paris in late March as a representative of the International, stated, “The work of women was the most exploited of all in the social order of the past. . . . [I]t’s immediate reorganization is urgent.”

The economic disadvantage faced by ordinary female workers infused women’s demands. Many communardes remained more interested in improving their lives than in achieving political equality, a demand strikingly absent from women’s discourse. As Louise Michel explained, “[A woman] bends under mortification; in her home her burdens crush her. Man wants to keep her that way, to be sure that she will never encroach upon his function or his titles. Gentlemen, we do not want either your functions or your titles.” Many women were doubly exploited—by their family situations and by their employers. One woman denounced bosses as “the social wound that must be taken care of” because they took advantage of workers, whom they considered “a machine for work,” while they lived it up. Dmitrieff called for the elimination of all competition and for equal salaries for male and female workers, as well as a reduction in work hours. She also demanded the creation of workshops for unemployed women and asked that funds go to aid nascent working-class associations.

Dmitrieff, born Elisavieta Koucheleva in the northwestern Russian province of Pskov in 1850, was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat and a German nurse twenty years his junior. Élisabeth entered into a mariage blanc (a marriage of convenience) to get out of Russia, after having been active in a student group in Saint Petersburg. She carried funds from her sizable dowry into exile in Geneva in 1868. Dmitrieff went to London, where she met Karl Marx and his family. Immediately following the proclamation of the Commune, Marx sent her to Paris, and she sent reports on the situation back to him.

Dmitrieff cut quite a figure. She wore a black riding costume, a felt hat with feathers, and a red silk shawl trimmed in gold. A police description put her at about five feet, three inches tall, with chestnut hair and gray-blue eyes. Léo Frankel was probably but one of the Communards who fell in love with her. Dmitrieff combined a precocious feminism with a socialism influenced by Marx and a firm expectation that revolution would some day come to Russia.

Like Dmitrieff, some women during the Commune wore clothing that reflected their determination to effect change. Some garments were colorful, indeed flamboyant, with the color red omnipresent—for example, in sashes. Other women wore men’s clothing and carried rifles. Lodoïska Caweska, a thirty-year-old Polish woman, rode at the head of soldiers, adorned in “Turkish pants, high-buttoned shoes with a red cockade, and a blue belt from which hung two pistols.”

On April 8, Dmitrieff sought to rally citoyennes in defense of Paris in the tradition of the women who had marched to Versailles in October 1789. Three days later, mothers, wives, and sisters, including Dmitrieff and Nathalie Le Mel, published an “Appeal to the Women Citizens of Paris”: “We must prepare to defend and avenge our brothers.”

That evening, the Union des Femmes was constituted, led by a council of five women, with Dmitrieff as general secretary. The union called on women to form branches in each arrondissement. Saluting the Commune as representing “the regeneration of society,” the organization asked women to build barricades and to “fight to the end” for the Commune. It set up committees in most arrondissements as recruiting centers for volunteers for nursing and canteen work and barricade construction.

The Union des Femmes also took the fight for equal rights to Paris’s factories. The manufacture of National Guard uniforms, the vast majority of which women produced, was one Parisian industry that kept going full steam. The Commune had first signed contracts with traditional manufacturers for the production of uniforms, but a report determined that under this arrangement female workers were earning less than under the Government of National Defense. The Union des Femmes demanded the award of all future contracts to workers’ producers’ cooperatives and that the Tailors’ Union and delegates from the Commission of Labor and Exchange negotiate piece rates.

The Commune gave women in the Union des Femmes, which included perhaps as many as 2,000 women, unprecedented public responsibilities, but the response was not all positive. Some Communard leaders and other men reacted with uncertainty and even outright hostility. An official of the Tenth Arrondissement told the female administrator of a welfare hostel that members of the union committee “were to be kept away from all administrative agencies.” Yet, without question, women made essential contributions to the Commune, encouraging the military defense of Paris, and caring for wounded Communard fighters.

Excerpted with permission from Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, by John Merriman. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher. Copyright ©2014.

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