Ghosts of the Paris Commune

The methods and politics of the Paris Commune served as inspiration for Easter Rising leaders like James Connolly.

When Karl Marx looked at the revolutionary self-governance of the 1871 Paris Commune, he saw an embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Decades later, James Connolly, the leading Irish Marxist, seized on that same ethos of worker democracy. Writing in Workers’ Republic in May 1899, Connolly argued, “[T]he Commune, if it had been successful, would have inaugurated the reign of real freedom the world over — it would have meant the emancipation of the working class.”

The 1871 Paris Commune, an urban insurrection that lasted from March 18 until its brutal suppression on May 28, has always retained an important place in radical history and memory, synonymous with workers’ barricades in the streets and defiant red flags.

Its similarities with the 1916 Easter Rising, a nationalist rebellion put down after less than a week, are less frequently noted. But viewed through the lens of Connolly, the Commune comes into focus as an important antecedent to the 1916 rebellion.

A syndicalist who joined the Industrial Workers of the World while in the United States and later led the Easter Rising, Connolly’s “co-operative commonwealth” shared much with the Paris Commune’s manifesto. A student of history and leader of the Irish Citizen Army, Connolly also found much to learn from the urban warfare that marked the last days of the Commune.

In the aftermaths of both the Paris Commune and the Easter Rising, the Irish establishment used the specter of left-wing radicalism to bludgeon domestic leftists. These were early examples of anticommunist tropes that would persist for decades. But in at least one respect, they weren’t wrong: the methods and politics seen in the Paris Commune did shape Irish revolutionaries, particularly Connolly.

The Menace Abroad

Less than twenty years after the events of Paris, Irish socialist Jim Connell, inspired by the Commune, wrote the now-iconic anthem “The Red Flag.”

Connell’s positive view of the Paris Commune was not widely shared in Ireland. Denunciations were heard from the pulpit and pressroom. Some of the most vocal condemnations of the Paris Commune came from the Nation, a newspaper with origins in the 1840s Young Ireland movement.

The aspirations of the Commune, the Nation declared, were

utterly repugnant to the genius of the Irish race. Religion and Patriotism, the two most holy and glorious principles known to human nature, have ever been the guiding lights of the Irish people, the motive power of all their actions.

Likewise, the Freeman’s Journal lamented how “the women of Paris have been prominent in the streets, with a red flag, demanding arms . . . and conducting themselves like ugly fiendish sisters of the witches in Macbeth.”

Above all, it was the anticlericalism of Commune partisans that rankled many in Ireland. In the Commune, they saw a dangerous threat to the Catholic Church. And indeed, anti-church sentiment ran strong. One Parisian publication sympathetic to the Commune declared that “as Jesus Christ was born in a stable, the only treasure that Notre-Dame ought to possess is a truss of straw.” During the Commune, churches were appropriated for communal purposes amid popular anger over their accumulated wealth and conservative politics.

The history of the Catholic Church in Ireland engendered a drastically different view of the clergy. Subjected to enormous repression in the decades before 1829 Catholic Emancipation, the Church was popularly regarded not as an oppressor like in France, but as an institution that had itself been oppressed.

With strong support among the populace, the Church’s antipathy toward the Commune proved harmful to early socialist organizing efforts. When part of the Socialist International’s Dublin branch met in a small room above a Dublin shop less than a year after the suppression of the Commune, a contemporary newspaper reported that the speaker was interrupted and informed that “the Internationalists had shot the Archbishop and priests of Paris.” A “great uproar ensued.”

The landlord of the house was not keen on the gathering.

[He] burst into the room in an excited state, and called those present a set of ruffians and blackguards. He said he had been led to the room on the pretence that the meeting was to be for a discussion of the labour and wages question, and that he would sooner burn the house over his head than hire it for the nefarious purposes of Internationalism.

Connolly and the Commune

For radicals in the late nineteenth century Ireland was a barren environment but the exception to this was James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). The party took a prominent role in the centenary celebrations of the 1798 United Irish rebellion, participated in protests against the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and in anti–Boer War agitation.

Gaining its strength from its attempt to synthesize socialism with anti-imperial separatism, one British newspaper noted disapprovingly that the party was “composed of a number of the most extreme and least reputable representatives of the nationalists of Dublin.”

Earlier socialist organizations in the city, such as the Socialist League, had organized commemorative meetings of the Commune in private, for fear of being broken up. But those hostile to the revolutionary politics of Paris had plenty of reason to reproach Connolly’s party. The ISRP held annual commemorations, with Connolly himself gave a lecture on the Commune in Dublin in March 1898.

Connolly’s interest in the uprising was no doubt influenced by his contact with participants. For instance, Connolly met with Commune veteran Leo Meillet and even appeared to adopt some of his rhetoric. During one commemoration in Edinburgh, where Connolly was born, Meillet declared that “without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation”; in February 1916, Connolly wrote in his newspaper that “without the shedding of blood there is no redemption.”

But Connolly latched onto the Commune for reasons that were more political than personal. Like many other radicals, the democratic ideals of the Commune captured the Irish socialist’s heart and mind.

Connolly’s commitment to popular sovereignty showed up repeatedly in his writings. In an 1897 article, “Socialism and Irish Nationalism,” Connolly wrote that socialism should seek “in the interest of the democracy to strengthen popular action on all public bodies.” And he argued repeatedly for a cooperative commonwealth, “a society in which all productive property is owned in common and managed by democratic co-operatives, which in turn are organized along co-operative lines, industry-by-industry, region-by-region.”

Connolly also saw the Commune as an enormously instructive event. In his pamphlet Labour, Nationality and Religion, Connolly cited the Commune’s suppression as a quintessential ruling-class response to revolutionary activity:

It is a well-established fact that from the earliest revolutionary outbreak known down to the Commune of Paris, or Red Sunday in Russia, the first blood has been shed, the first blow struck, by the possessing conservative classes. And we are not so childish as to imagine that the capitalist class of the future will shrink from the shedding of the blood of the workers in order to retain their ill-gotten gains.

Connolly’s interest in history wasn’t confined to the realm of the abstract. In its pages, he sought not just material for societal analysis, but lessons for immediate application.

The Art of War

Connolly’s use of historical example is perhaps most evident in the organization of urban warfare during the revolutionary period.

Amid a mass, protracted labor dispute in 1913 — remembered today as the Dublin Lockout — trade unionists and radicals formed the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The ICA’s original aim was to protect trade union demonstrations and the right of assembly from police assault.

Within a year, however, it was reorganized along more formal lines, becoming an armed body of men and women that regularly drilled in Dublin’s Croydon Park. An expressly internationalist militia, the ICA constitution pledged to “support the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations.”

Of those fighting in the year of the Easter Rising, the Irish Citizen Army was the only one that offered equal membership to men and women and trained them both in the use of arms. One of those members, Constance Markievicz, would later describe the women as “on absolutely the same footing as the men,” saying that Connolly made clear that the same grueling training would be expected of them if they were to take part in the fight.

Writing on the Easter Rising, historians Michael Foy and Brian Barton describe the Irish Citizen Army as “committed ideologically to the single, unambiguous goal of revolution, an objective dearly understood and supported by its membership . . . its training and lectures were both directed toward preparing for urban warfare.”

Connolly mined history for lessons to apply to the fight. Readers of the Workers’ Republic were escorted back through the events of 1871, but the 1848 insurrection in Paris. In that battle, Connolly informed his readers that

the streets were barricaded at tactical points not on the main streets but commanding them. The houses were broken through so that passages were made inside the houses along the whole length of the streets. The party walls were loop-holed, as were also the front walls, the windows were blocked by sandbags, boxes filled with stones and dirt, bricks, chests, and other pieces of furniture with all sorts of odds and ends piled up against them.

Connolly also taught members of the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers about urban warfare. James Barry, a young Volunteer in Cork, remembered that Connolly spoken to him and others in the southern city, and that “the subject of his lecture was street fighting. He went into considerable detail in explaining the tactics to be employed in the seizure, occupation and defence of barricades in city streets.”

For Connolly, the past warranted study because “the lessons are invaluable for all students of warfare who wish to understand the defence and attack of cities, towns, villages, or houses.” The Easter Rising was not to be a suicide mission, but an endeavor fought with the knowledge of past battles and tactics.

Armed with that knowledge, volunteers knocked holes in walls to move between buildings. W. J. Brennan-Whitmore, a senior Irish Volunteer and member of the General Post Office garrison, recalled that “the idea of boring from one premises to another was part of Connolly’s plan for holding the city. It was intended that the whole block would be bored in this way.”

The barricades of the Paris Commune were also a point of reference. In Paris, Robert Toms writes, there were

900 barricades built all over the city, including those prepared in advance, such as the useless defence lines in Western Paris and the huge, much-photographed, redoubts facing the Place de la Concorde, constructed laboriously and impressively by the Commune’s Barricades Commission.

In their manifesto to the citizens of Dublin issued on the insurrection’s second day, the Provisional Government encouraged able-bodied citizens to assist them by building barricades in the streets. In the North King Street area, under the control of the Four Courts Garrison, British forces were only able to advance 150 yards over two days, losing forty-five men between fatalities and casualties in a highly barricaded and defended area of the city.

When images of these urban redoubts were transmitted to the world, they quickly became part of the Easter Rising’s iconography as well — barricades for a brief time were as synonymous with Dublin as they were with Paris.

Beyond aesthetic association, they represented another tactic gleaned from history that advantaged the rebels in battle. Despite being vastly outnumbered and saddled with inferior weaponry the ultimately-unsuccessful uprising sustained a casualty rate that was just 40 percent that of the British.

The British also suffered some of their heaviest losses in areas where the rebels applied the lessons of their study. For example, British attempts to advance over Mount Street Bridge while under intense fire from occupied buildings proved deadly. The incident, historian Fearghal McGarry notes, appeared to demonstrate “the advantages enjoyed by a defensive force in an urban environment.”

A Dream To Preserve

Press condemnation of the Easter Rising frequently focused on the radicalism of James Connolly and his followers. The Daily Chronicle derided Connolly as an “industrial anarchist of the most pronounced type” who advocated “no trust with employers, violence if necessary, cynical repudiation of contracts and unceasing war by any and every means.”

Many media outlets rushed to compare the six-day rebellion to the Paris Commune. For the Irish Examiner in Cork, it was little more than a “squalid version” of the same, while the Irish Catholic went as far as to state that “to find anything like a parallel for what occurred it is necessary to have recourse to the bloodstained annals of the Paris Commune.” And the Daily Sketch reached for the same historical parallel on May Day 1916, writing that “the wild scenes of the past week recall the savage horrors of the Commune.”

Connolly would have smiled on the comparison — just not for the reasons impugning journalists would suggest.

As historian Nick Hewlett has argued, it was “the direct participation of ordinary people that helps explain why the Commune has become such an important focus in labour movement mythology.” It was this vision, of a workers’ republic, that led Connolly to rise one hundred years ago.

Like many workers in the Paris Commune, he ultimately gave his life for that ideal when he was executed by firing squad. But his vision did not die with him.