Civil War in France and Consequences of the New Paris Commune

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

A civil war had broken out in France, Paris being the focus of it for 72 days. It was like the original French Revolution of 1789 was replaying itself. Who declared itself in control in Paris during that time?

Picture showing a company of the French National Guards
A volunteer force of citizens in arms declared its control in Paris during the civil war. (Image: French Army 1870-71/Public domain)

Civil War in France

During the civil war in France, the Central Committee of the National Guard, a volunteer force of citizens in arms, declared itself in control in Paris. Yet they refused to march on Versailles, as some suggested they should, to eliminate the rival power center. Rich Parisians, fearing turmoil, fled the city, flocking to Versailles, which swelled to six times its earlier small size.

Learn more about the Paris Commune which made Marx one of the most hated men.

The New Paris Commune

Municipal elections held amid all the chaos in Paris on March 26, led to victory for revolutionary candidates. The Hôtel de Ville was decked with red flags and French tricolors on March 28 to celebrate the new Paris Commune. ‘Commune’ simply meant local or city government, in French.

While some cheered, some worried. The French writer, Edmond de Goncourt hinted, ‘What is happening is very simple, the conquest of France by the workers and the enslavement under their despotism of nobles, middle class, and the peasants. The government is leaving the hands of those who have, to go into the hands of those who have not’. Bismarck called the Commune ‘a pack of thieves’.

Learn more about the decades following the death of Marx in 1883.

Varieties of Communards

Commune’s government was a mix of various people. The Commune supporters were called Fédérés or Communards, which came in many different varieties including neo‐ Jacobins, who looked back to the original French Revolution with hopes of reenacting it. Others were socialists, but not owing special loyalty to Marx. They included Socialist Proudhonists, who wanted federations of communes to be freely established and associated throughout France, and eventually the world. Others among the socialists were Blanquistes, calling for violent action. Rather than being purely proletarian, the Communards were as much petite bourgeoisie, a category that included shopkeepers, white‐collar workers, and proud artisans.

Gestures and Promises

Given its brief tenure, the Commune did not have time for new practice but undertook symbolically weighty gestures and promises. Armed citizens, not professional soldiers, were now its army. Its program pledged to end government support for religion, promised a 10‐hour workday for laborers, restored the revolutionary calendar from the first French Revolution, and re‐created a Committee of Public Safety, just like in the Reign of Terror in 1793.

Orders went out for the demolition of two chapels, but time ran out to accomplish that. The crowds though managed to topple the Vendôme Column with its statue of the first Napoleon, later re‐erected, and demolished the Paris house of President Thiers.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Bloody Week

The French government in Versailles collected its military forces and sent them to encircle Paris. Paris which had just endured a German siege was again besieged, by the French. This second siege lasted nine weeks. But the agony was just beginning. On May 21, government soldiers entered Paris. The house‐to‐house fighting, the street skirmishes that followed was called the ‘Bloody Week’ for, the very cobblestones ran red as Frenchmen fought Frenchmen.

Picture shows guards around barricades around the Place de la Concorde.
Fighting from house to house was called the Bloody Week as French fought each other. Communards resisted the onslaught by throwing barricades all around the urban landscape. (Image: Auguste Hippolyte Collard/CC0/Pubic domain)

The Communards resisted the onslaught by throwing up barricades across the urban landscape and established a Commission of Barricades, one of whose leaders became obsessed by the masterpiece of a barricade he had built in the Place de la Concorde, a construction sullied by actual fighting

Killing by the Communards

During that standoff, both sides shot hostages. The Commune had hoped to use the Catholic archbishop of Paris to trade for their comrades in government prisons, but as the situation worsened, on May 24 they shot him and five other priests. An estimated 63 to 107 hostages were shot by the Communards.

In their dire straits, the Communards set buildings on fire to hold off the advancing government army. The Tuileries Palace and the Hôtel de Ville were burnt, the soaring Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame and Louvre narrowly escaped the flames. Rumors had that Communards, called petroleuses- female arsonists were wandering with cans of kerosene, setting fires.

An illustration shows a group of Pétroleuses arrested in Versailles.
It was rumored that female arsonists called the petroleuses wandered around with kerosene setting fires. (Image: Robertson A. Daryez/Public domain)

Desperate fighting raged in the large Père‐Lachaise cemetery in the eastern parts of the city, on the last day of ‘Bloody Week’. Among the new graves were 147 Communards, who had been captured by government troops and executed. That cemetery contains the ‘Wall of the Communards’ pocked with bullet holes.

Results of Suppression

Some 20,000 rebel and non-rebel Parisians and about 750 government troops were killed in the suppression of the Commune, fueled by fear and hatred which was indiscriminate.

One French General declared, ‘the simple fact of having to stay in Paris under the Commune is a crime’. After the suppression of the Commune, the government arrested 38,000 survivors and deported more than 7,000, many to New Caledonia, the farthest French colony, near Australia. Many of the Communards who fled went into exile in England, joining Marx, Napoleon III, and other political exiles there.

Learn more about the first man to bring communist theory into power in 1917.

Expunging Sins of the Commune

The memory of the Paris Commune was fiercely disputed. On Montmartre, overlooking Paris, the great white basilica of Sacré‐Coeur was built, funded by a national contribution to do penance for the defeat to the Germans in 1871 and to expunge the sins of the Commune. The rebels treated the Wall of the Communards as a shrine and kept the memory alive.

In 1870, Marx was living in his London exile, but after the Commune, which he was blamed for, he became famous and notorious overnight. In the lead‐up to the Franco‐Prussian War, Marx and Engels had sided with their native Germany, but afterward, felt Germany had gone too far in imposing a harsh peace. Once the Commune was declared, Marx was electrified and supported it totally, from a distance.

Common Question about Paris Commune

Q: What was the commune established in Paris in 1871?

The Paris Commune was established in Paris in 1871, to defeat the existing French government.

Q: Who were the Communards?

The Commune’s government was a mix of variety of people. The Commune supporters were called Fédérés or Communards, which came in many different varieties, including neo‐ Jacobins, some socialists, including Socialist Proudhonists, Blanquistes, calling for violent action. It also included a category of shopkeepers, white‐collar workers, and artisans.

Q: What did the Paris Commune do?

Paris Commune, a group of radical revolutionaries overthrew the existing French government and formed a government themselves.

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