The Paris Commune and Mistakes of Napoleon III

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

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

In May 1871, there were horrifying scenes of a city in flames, that was Paris, also called the City of Light. But now it was a battlefield in a civil war that was tearing the French society apart. How did this come to be? And, how was Karl Marx involved?

A painting shows the battlefield in France.
The French army attacked the entire neighborhoods to end the urban revolt. (Image: Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier/Public domain)

The Paris Commune

Advancing toward the city center, the French government’s army bombarded the entire neighborhoods, determined to quell the urban revolt, shattering the barricades that were set up across the broad boulevards. At the city center, the royal palace and the Hôtel de Ville were on fire. Many believed that radical revolutionaries who called themselves the Paris Commune had set those fires on purpose.

Picture shows the ruins of the Hôtel de Ville
It was rumored that the Hôtel de Ville was set on fire by the orders of a group of radical revolutionaries who called themselves the Paris Commune. (Image: Auguste Hippolyte Collard / CC0 / Public domain)

Many people blamed Karl Marx and his ideas for it, even though Marx himself was in exile in London, the revolutionary legend who finally, grew up around the Paris Commune that was vital to later communist movements.

Learn more about the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The Upheaval Was Due to a Set of Misunderstandings?

The violent upheaval of the Paris Commune and its severe suppression produced multiple misunderstandings. Marx and his enemies saw the revolt as proof of Marx’s influence. Marx saw the revolution in Paris as a potential breakout moment for his ideology. Few Communards were actually Marxists, his opponents blamed him for sparking the revolt and atrocities like the murder of hostages. Marx became both famous and infamous, at the same time. The memory of the Paris Commune, substantially reworked, became a communist tradition, and for Lenin and others, a template for understanding later revolutionary action.

Reason Behind Paris Commune

There was a reason leading to the Paris Commune, the political experiment that lasted for 72 days from March 18 to May 28, 1871.

From 1851, France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon, but not the genius Napoleon Bonaparte who rode the French Revolution to power but his nephew, Napoleon III, who traded on his unmatchable name recognition among French voters to be elected President of France in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848. When elected, like his uncle, he seized power in a coup d’état in 1851 and became emperor of the French.

Learn more about the Marxist concepts to better understand Marx’s model of history.

Napoleon the Small

The successor of his uncle, Napoleon III, his second French Empire, was a strange regime, and he himself a very mysterious man. As dictator, he argued that he was both a revolutionary and a man of order, progressive and conservative, above the divisions of society. Repeated plebiscites in which he secured majority approval for his policies gave legitimacy to his claim. He promised to construct modern infrastructure for a prosperous France and rebuilt Paris, from a medieval warren of alleyways into the metropolis of wide avenues and neoclassical architecture. Mysterious and unpredictable, he dominated Europe for several decades. In spite of that, he was ridiculed and hated by his opponents, mocked as ‘Napoleon the Small’, a phrase coined by the writer Victor Hugo.

Mistakes of Napoleon III

A painting  shows Napoleon III with his army, launching a coup in Strasbourg
Battle of Sedan was a disaster as Napoleon III was captured along with his army by the enemy. (Image: Regamey Frédéric, Elsaessische Druckerei und Verlagsanstalt, 1911/CC BY 2.0 / Public domain)

Marx was one of those adversaries who wrote scathingly about Napoleon III in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’. In one of his quoted sayings, he declared that history repeated itself, ‘First as tragedy then as farce’. He implied that Napoleon the First had been great, while his nephew, Napoleon III was just a ‘grotesquely mediocre adventurer’, a demagogue with a ‘greedy band of desperadoes behind him’.

Farce ensued when the reckless foreign policy of Napoleon III led to his downfall. Napoleon III’s last mistake was to declare war in July 1870 against Prussia and the allied German states, a mistake lured into by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. What followed was a disaster at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870. Napoleon III managed to pull off a feat, to be a Commander in Chief who was captured by the enemy along with his entire army. Later, after he was released from prison in Germany, he headed off to exile in Britain, like Karl Marx.

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

The Third French Republic

After the crushing defeat at Sedan, an emergency government took over in Paris, replacing the emperor. The Third French Republic was declared and resistance against the Germans continued. Paris came under German siege from September 19, thus, began an ordeal that continued for four and a half months.

Siege Diet

A macabre like carnival atmosphere reigned in the besieged city. As food supplies dwindled, Parisians ate cats, which were specially prepared and called ‘gutter rabbits’. Rat salami became a local specialty, even the poor elephants in the city zoo were on the menu. To keep local spirits up, alcohol consumption tripled in the city. In a mood of continuing defiance, Parisians weighed themselves, weekly to see how the so‐called ‘siege diet’ they were on was proceeding.

Learn more about the violent upheaval of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Armistice Negotiations

Determined resistance could not stop the victorious Germans. Remaining French armies surrendered in October, and the provisional government surrendered on January 28, 1871. Armistice negotiations began, and the Germans under Prussian leadership forced upon France a hard peace, demanding a huge indemnity; all of Alsace and a third of Lorraine.

In February 1871, a National Assembly was elected and met to decide what to do next to structure the republic. On March 1, along the Champs‐Élysées in Paris, 30,000 Prussian soldiers marched in a victory parade, as one of the conditions of the peace treaty.

Parisians boiled with rage, and after the parade, women rushed out to wash the very stones of the street to cleanse them of the German taint. Parisians also feared that the new National Assembly was preparing to restore the French monarchy. The situation went from tense to threatening.

Disarming National Guard troops

Preemptively, President Thiers, the head of the provisional government, sought to disarm the National Guard troops in Paris, many of the workers. On March 18, when government troops tried to take control of cannon, positioned about the city on the heights of Montmartre, a revolt broke out. The government troops were chased off, except for two generals who were captured by the crowd and killed on the spot. At that, the provisional government pulled out of Paris, taking the army with it to Versailles, 11 miles away, once the royal preserve of the Bourbon monarchy.

Common Questions about Paris Commune

Q: What was the Paris Commune?

The Paris Commune was a political experiment that lasted for 72 days from March 18 to May 28, 1871. The reckless foreign policy of Napoleon III led to his downfall and his last mistake was to declare war in July 1870 against Prussia and the allied German states and was captured by the enemy along with his entire army. To take revenge, the radical revolutionaries called the Paris Commune overthrew the existing French Government.

Q: What was the purpose of the Paris Commune?

The purpose of the Paris Commune was to overthrow the existing French government which had failed to safeguard Paris from Prussian siege. A group of workers and students, inspired by Marx’s theories, united to form a so-called democratic government.

Q: Who ruled France after 1870?

After the crushing defeat at Sedan, an emergency government took over in Paris, replacing the emperor. The Third French Republic was declared and resistance against the Germans continued. Paris came under German siege from September 19, thus, began an ordeal that continued for four and a half months.

Q: Who led the Paris Commune of 1871?

President Adolphe Thiers led the Paris Commune of 1871.

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