The Paris Commune Was a Unique Experiment in Running a City for Its People

On this day in 1871, the Paris Commune began its brief history before a conservative government drowned it in blood. While it lasted, the Commune sketched out a new way to run a major city based on democracy and the public good, not private profiteering.

National guardsmen pose in front of an artillery barricade in the Place Vendome, during the civil war between the Third Republic and the Paris Commune, following the Franco-Prussian War. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The Paris Commune ended in mass violence with the slaughter of thousands of Communards on the barricades and the burning of much of the city. This final struggle forged the Commune as an iconic event in the history of socialism and the collective memory of popular struggle.

Yet it is now only vaguely remembered that before the Commune’s demise, the people of Paris had set about reconstructing authority and governance in the city along unprecedentedly revolutionary lines, grounded in the popular euphoria surrounding the central government’s retreat from Paris on March 18, 1871.

Despite near-constant threats to the Commune’s existence from the rival government occupying Versailles, the audacious common folk of Paris imagined and began to constitute a new city and a new politics of their own design. Time, as it turned out, was short.

Birth of the Commune

The surrender of Napoleon III to the Prussian army on the outskirts of Paris in early September 1870 had set the stage. A provisional government faced little choice but to mobilize the population in defense of Paris and other major cities.

Into this political space a broadly republican popular movement leapt forward to provide organization for resistance and to claim the right to self-governance. This meant enhancing the National Guard, organized in neighborhood-based units and only minimally under a central leadership already badly discredited by the military debacle of the previous weeks.

Encircled by the Prussian army, Parisians endured months of privation unequally distributed along class lines. At the same time, cut off from outside political and military support, Parisians invested local government, reinforced by the National Guard, with greater authority, through the “localization of activity.”

That strategy included the formation of cooperatives, local political clubs, and secularized public schools. November municipal elections brought a significant augmentation of the Left’s influence, though well short of a dominating presence except in a handful of arrondissements.

The advent of the Commune came only in the aftermath of a succession of events that profoundly altered the political stakes for a besieged Paris. First came the signing of an armistice on January 28, 1871, between the provisional national government ensconced outside the city at Versailles and the Prussians.

The terms of the armistice proved humiliating and included the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, a substantial indemnity payment, and a brief symbolic march of Prussian troops through the heart of Paris. A newly emboldened, broadly republican movement in which the Left’s influence had grown dramatically seized the role of defending the “fatherland” by asserting Paris’s autonomy.

The months of resistance and hunger set the stage not only for national resistance but for a civil war. On the one hand stood the Communards, and on the other, a discredited national government barricaded with its middle-class supporters at Versailles and in the rural areas adjacent to Paris.

The government’s failure to recapture cannons that were under the control of the Central Committee of the Parisian National Guard crystalized an already polarized politics. The central government added fuel to the fire by rescinding the Commune’s moratoriums on the sale of goods in government pawnshops and reinstituting the payment of rents and other bills that had accrued during the siege.

The First Order of Business

For an all-too-brief period, before being overtaken by brutal and ultimately cataclysmic suppression at the hands of central government troops under the command of Adolphe Thiers, the Paris Commune provided a unique setting for new forms of local governance to crystalize and challenge the traditions of urban bourgeois hegemony.

Following the final withdrawal of the central government in March, the Commune issued a succession of declarations outlining in broad principles what was already being carried out to varying degrees in the streets and arrondissements. The first order of business was to establish viable democratic polities and governing procedures in the spirit of the Proudhonist vision of local associationism, which had deep roots among Parisian working people.

Municipal elections on March 26 produced a new governing council for the self-declared Commune of Paris. While attacking bureaucratic control by setting maximum salaries of officials and breaking lines of authority from the central government, the Commune also limited the claims of landlords and creditors, affirmed “municipal liberties,” and circumscribed religious authority.

The communal vision came somewhat more sharply into focus with the famous April 19 Declaration, even as the prospects for all-out civil war deepened. A month of political contention and two municipal elections had set the stage for a programmatic statement of far-reaching scope. The former mayors and deputies had shown their class colors and largely retreated to the protective embrace of Adolphe Thiers’s Versailles government-in-waiting.

The Declaration of April 19 was vague at key points, and its aspirations were ultimately overwhelmed by the imperative to defend militarily the fragile social and political space within which the Commune defined itself. Nonetheless, it delineated the outlines of an alternative social order. This was to be a city within a federation of similarly constituted cities.

Such a locally constituted republic would forge an alternative unity of French citizens. Through the free exercise of liberties within self-governing municipalities, cities would claim democratic control of their own budgets and administration. They would expand municipal services, create a whole new set of institutions ranging from public schools to cooperative workshops, and while not directly attacking property, would “universalize power and property,” as circumstances might dictate.

Their vision was prescriptive, open-ended, and optimistic about the promise of municipal self-government. Future generations of municipal socialists would draw inspiration from that promise and the project of “social regeneration.” More importantly, the experience of governing in those early days suggested more powerfully than prescriptive declarations the tangible meaning of the municipal social republic envisioned.

Haussmann’s Legacy

Though piecemeal and incomplete, the Commune took some concrete steps to implement this vision both before and after the declaration. Some initiatives had been rooted in communal resistance to monarchist authority over the years immediately preceding the Commune.

The massive reconstruction of Paris at the hands of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann during the prior two decades took on legendary status, thanks in part to his own self-promotion. The construction of wide boulevards less susceptible to barricading and the destruction of many old, central working-class neighborhoods created a new urban landscape into which the rapidly expanding population of Paris flowed with unpredictable consequences.

That expanded population included large numbers of construction workers and stonemasons, some of whom had long been part of regular seasonal migrations to Paris from other parts of the country, like the Creuse. Their slow displacement from the central boarding houses and hiring fairs of the Place de Grève accompanied more permanent settlement in the new working-class neighborhoods on the periphery.

Whether by reputation for chronic contention with authorities or because of the new solidarities in their adopted neighborhoods, the stonemasons and other building workers were overrepresented among the arrested and deported Communards following the final street battles in late May.

Systematic studies by Jacques Rougerie, Manuel Castells, and others confirm that this “urban revolution” was not driven by a new proletariat but rather, as Rougerie termed it, “an intermediate working class” which included building workers, traditional artisans, and a significant component of shopkeepers, clerks, and professionals. As Castells put it:

They were the people of a great city in the process of mutation, and the citizens of a Republic in quest of its institutions.

David Harvey has shown that the “Haussmannization” of Paris in the years after 1848 produced urban space more starkly organized on class lines that set the stage for the upheaval of 1871.

Ironically, the bourgeois transformation of Paris created conditions that promoted a diverse new citywide working class infused with the scent of a broader internationalism that potentially challenged the bourgeoisie’s “superior command of space.” And that challenge, as Roger Gould has argued, grew precisely out of the neighborhood solidarities of these new “urban villages” that encompassed a new class.

Harvey and others have enumerated workers’ urban initiatives in the Commune that reflected their own claims over the control of Parisian space. The organization of municipal workshops for women; the encouragement given to producer and consumer cooperatives; the suspension of the night work in the bakeries; and the moratorium on rent payments, debt collections, and the sale of items from the municipal pawnshop at Mont-de-Piété reflected the sore points that had bothered working-class Paris for years.

In some cases, during the days immediately following March 18, as Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray recounted, “former subordinate employés” assumed new responsibilities, as happened for instance in the postal service. They had to improvise with limited resources in the face of sabotage by departing higher officials.

The Commune’s brutal denouement has, in some respects, obscured the innovative, localist social and political reforms that it briefly instituted and that it passed on to social democratic reformers who, in the 1890s and beyond, sought to craft a municipal socialism shorn of the revolutionary aspirations and the risks that were all-too-brutally embodied in the crushing of the Commune.

Interpreting the Commune

Memory of the Commune lingered for decades, not only in the nightmares of the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies but among social democrats who, like their Communard forbearers, saw in the city the opportunity to address the immediate grievances workers continued to face and to dream of an alternative social and political order they might constitute in cities.

The paradox of brutal defeat in defense of what increasingly came to seem the utopian promise of municipal revolution was not lost on subsequent commentators. Contestation over the memory and meaning of the Commune unfolded most vigorously among socialists themselves.

Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France in its earliest editions provided almost instant history of the events in Paris as they unfolded. Drawing on what limited sources he could find — newspaper accounts, smuggled letters, and occasional firsthand reports — Marx cobbled together a report to the General Council of the First International delivered in late May 1871 just days after the final massacre of Communards. Marx’s agenda was multilayered, and each layer subsequently fed into the memory and constructed meaning of the Commune.

First, he sought to assert the proletarian character of the revolt, though he would subsequently revise that assessment. Second, and perhaps most basically, he defended the nobility of the Communards’ revolt and sacrifice, seeing it as a watershed event in the promulgation of socialism, though its immediate consequences were clearly more ambiguous.

Third, he stressed the state-dismantling and state-building features of the Commune in ways that implicitly challenged the anarchists’ celebration of what they asserted was its nation-state–destroying character. Subsequently, he would belittle the moderation and “feel-good” measures undertaken by the Commune in the days and weeks following its initial creation.

A further subtext in the responses of Marx, Engels, Karl Kautsky, Vladimir Lenin, and other Marxists was the continuing ideological war with Proudhonist associational influences, which, in their view, had been all-too-manifest in the Commune. Its emphases on localism, decentralized democracy, and producerist cooperative economy were seen as harbingers of a different socialist order, one that subsequently would continue to animate the practical reform programs of municipal socialists.

Communal Spirits

The horrific scenes of the Commune’s suppression between May 21 and 28 provided ample material for the elevation of those events to legend. Estimates of those slaughtered in battle or by execution ranged from seventeen thousand to forty thousand. Nearly fifty thousand were arrested, many sent into exile as far away as the French colony of New Caledonia in the South Seas.

Subsequent observers would continue over the next decade and more to attempt to make sense of the stirring events in Paris or, in the case of anti-Communard bourgeois commentators, to contest or efface its memory. In France, socialist politics became a tangled web in which the Commune served as a touchstone for both “possibilist” and “impossibilist” factions.

Paul Brousse, who served a “political apprenticeship” as an anarchist, came to believe in the revolutionary promise cities held, despite the failure of the Paris Commune. He advocated “le Socialisme Pratique” wherein “meaningful socialist measures could be achieved on the local level prior to revolution at the centre.”

The key was a shift in tactical thinking away from violence toward politics. Others drew parallel conclusions, albeit in different contexts. Mary Putnam, an American living in Paris as the events of May 1871 unfolded, enjoyed close ties to a family sympathetic to the Commune and believed the events she witnessed signified a legitimate defense of “municipal rights.”

The Commune continued to be honored as a moment of socialist martyrdom, and anniversaries and other symbolic occasions provided opportunities to affirm the sacrifices of the Communards on behalf of socialism. International commemoration of the Commune and particularly the date of March 18 became, in the words of Georges Haupt, “an idea, a profession of faith, and a confirmation of a historical future, of the inevitable victory of the proletarian revolution.”

But even as commemoration of the Commune became a fixture of socialist rhetoric and iconography, so did the debates over its meaning intensify. The relevance of the Commune to the ongoing project of socialist transformation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the deep polarization within the movement itself.

American socialist Phillips Russell, visiting Paris in May 1914, on what turned out to be the eve of the Great War, joined a procession of “thirty, perhaps forty thousand . . . working men and women, and children too,” in commemoration of the Commune. The huge crowd grew suddenly silent as it approached a wall in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

This was the spot where, as Russell recalled, “the workingmen and women, who took charge of Paris forty-three years ago and ran it peacefully and well,” had been mowed down by the army of Thiers, “their bodies piling in heaps against the wall.” Deeply impressed by the commemoration, in the face of a massive police presence, Russell “learned that the spirit of the Commune still lives in the hearts of its working people.”