In 1894 Ernest Belfort Bax, one of the pioneer British Marxists, wrote a long series of articles on the Commune in Justice, the paper of the first British Marxist group, the Social Democratic Federation. We have abridged and adapted Bax’s narrative account of the Commune and also incorporated a few pages from a mid-1880s Socialist League pamphlet, written by Bax and William Morris.
Sunday 21 May, was one of those glorious spring days in which the avenues of the Champs Elysées and the Tuilleries Gardens show up in the clear air a splendour of young foliage, to which hardly another capital in Europe than Paris can offer a parallel.
This afternoon a monster open-air concert was being held under the trees in the Tuilleries Gardens, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of National Guards slain in defence of Paris [when seiged by the Prussian army]. Thousands of Parisians in holiday attire thronged the grounds.
At theclose of the performance a staff-officer of the National Guards announced from the platform another concert at the same time and place for. the following Sunday. Alas!
What a different scene was that following Sunday destined to present — a murky rainfall, Paris enveloped in thick smoke, blood running in the gutters, corpses and human remains piled-up, encumbering the streets. How many of those workmen — and their families then peacefully enjoying themselves were never to see another Sunday! This is how it happened.
The defence had become more completely disorganised than ever since the defection of Louis Rossel (former head of Communes military defence). Several of the city’s gates was completely undefended. The Versaillese on their side had unmasked a formidable array of breech-batteries on the previous day.
The sound of these, hour after hour, pounding on the defences, was insufficient to make the Parisians realise that the end was at hand.
The first detachment of Government troops entered at the gate of St Cloud, one of the undefended points, at about 3 o’clock. Jaraslaw Dombrowski, who for the last fortnight had been at the head of the now hopelessly disintegrated defence, was apprised of the state of affairs one hour later by an officer of the National Guard.
He at once issued an order to the war office for seven cannon, and for the immediate mobilisation of the best battalions. He had the Auteuil Gate occupied. Soon after, other points were occupied by National Guards, and the gate at the Jena bridge was barricaded.
Dombrowski lost no time in communicating with the Committee of Public Safety, which in its turn sent Billioray to inform the Commune.
The message he brought was received with consternation. Instead of at once entering upon a serious discussion of the situation which might have led to a definite plan of defence, the council practically broke up into groups of desultory talkers till eight o’clock struck, and the chairman formally proclaimed the proceedings at an end.
It was the last sitting of the Commune of Paris.
“Every member to his district” was now the fatuous cry. Instead of at once passing a resolution declaring the Commune as sitting in permanence— thereby giving a centre and rallying point to the defence — the Commune abandoned the Hotel de Ville. Effectively it was the suicide, of the Commune.
The last hope lay in a strong, well-organised rally of all the forces at the disposal of the Commune within the city, and the construction of a system of barricades connecting the three chief strategic points, Montmartre, the Trocadero, and the Pantheon. But all was confusion at this critical moment and everyone left the Hotel de Ville for his own segment of Paris. Energy was not lacking, but it showed itself when too late and was dissipated in isolated, disorganised action.
Delescluze at the War Office remained calm, and quieted the Commune with the assurance that the street-fighting would be favourable to the Parisians.
The chief of the general staff, Henri Prudhomme, then sent for the commander of the observatory on the Arc de Triomphe, who declared he could see nothing of the Versaillese. On the strength of his report a placard was issued casting doubt on the fact of the entry.
At 11 o’clock however, a member of the Commune riding down one of the outer streets near the enceinte, the Rue Beethoven, found the lights out and his horse stumbling in pools of blood. Ominous black figures lay against the wall, which proved to be corpses of murdered National Guards.
At midnight General Cissey with a body of men scaled the ramparts at another undefended point and entered Paris without encountering any resistance. They then opened several gates from the inside, and by dawn the Versaillese army was streaming into the city at five distinct points. Paris woke to find the fifteenth arrondissement captured, Passy and the Trocadero occupied by Versaillese, and Versaillese shells even falling in the centre of the city.
Such little discipline as had survived was now at an end. The anarchic element came everywhere to the front.
A placard was issued by Delescluze proclaiming that the naked arms of the people would be more than a match for all the military strategists in the world. He poured contempt on organisation and on “learned manoeuverers.” Thus he gave official sanction to the scatter-brained idiocy of the impromptu demagogue and the worst elements in the National Guard.
Barricades, were hurriedly thrown up in different quarters without any system, and for the most part only just as the Versaillese were seen to be threatening the position.
At 9 o’clock a few members of the Commune, insufficient to form a quorum, presented themselves at the Hotel de Ville, and separated after a desultory conversation without anyone so much as suggesting any definite scheme of defence.
The same characteristics that were present when the battle was raging round the walls were apparent in the street defence — the same limitless bravery, in some cases young boys fighting with desperation, the same impossibility of getting reinforcements, cannon, and ammunition when and where required.
The heights of Montmartre were the main stronghold left to the Commune. As a position Montmartre was very strong, and, with a properly directed defence, might have held the enemy at bay for many days. But everywhere was the same cry, “We must defend our own quarter.” Nevertheless, as evening drew near barricades sprang up in every direction. Paris did indeed seem to be rising en masse. This deceived many who even still sincerely believed in victory.
The night of Monday-Tuesday was a night of silent preparation. In all quarters the pickaxe was to be heard removing paving stones and digging the foundations of barricades, which rose by the hundred. Men, women, and children were at work.
Now began that enthusiasm, that limitless courage arid contempt of death, displayed in defence of an ideal, the colossal proportions of which dwarf everything similar in history, and which alone suffices to redeem the sordidness of the nineteenth century.
If mere courage could have defeated the enemy, the Commune would not have fallen.
Here was a heroism in the face of which the much-belauded Christian martyrs in ancient Rome cut a very poor figure. The Christian died believing that the moment the tooth or claw of the panther tore open his throat was the moment of his transition to a new and endless personal existence of honour and glory.
His steadfastness was purely selfish.
The Communist workman believed that the moment the ball of the Versaillese soldier struck his heart his personal existence came to an end for ever. Yet he was willing to surrender himself completely for a future that meant the happiness of his class and a nobler life for humanity, but which he himself would never see.
This unparalleled devotion, this gigantic heroism of the whole working-class of Paris, was indeed magnificent, but, alas! it was not war.
Had Cluseret, had Rossel, had the Committee of Public Safety but organised a comparatively simple system of barricades and made due preparations beforehand, a few well-equipped battalions of National Guards might have saved the situation everything had been let run to confusion. Finally, the cry of “Every man to his district!” when every man ought to have been at strategical points, settled matters.
An immense number of barricades were thrown up, without system, in each district, and heroically defended, but without method. The outcome was capture and massacre.
Thus was the Paris of the revolution annihilated piecemeal. Barricade after barricade, protected for hours, or for two or three days, by a handful of men, was at last overwhelmed by a whole regiment of “regulars.”
Up to Tuesday evening it was only with great hesitation that the Versaillese pressed forward. They suspected that their unresisted entry and capture of important positions , was a trap, that the whole Versaillese army once fairly inside the city would be annihilated by means of ambush and underground mines. Unfortunately, their caution was wholly unnecessary.
At 10 o’clock on the Monday night the Ministry of Finance behind the Tuilleries, catching fire from the shells of the Versaillese, blazed up. It was the first of the great conflagrations.
Early on the Tuesday morning, the German Chancellor, Bismarck, whose troops still surrounded Paris, surrendered the forte St Ouen to the Versaillese army, which poured into Paris. Bimarck acted out of class solidarity with the French bourgeoisie, so recently his enemies in war. For their part, the “patriotic” French bourgeois was ready to lick his boots.
Meanwhile, before the common danger the members of the Commune rose above the petty squabbles and personalities of the council-room. Members of the “majority” and “minority” met in generous rivalry as to who could do the most. But how little there was to be done!
Montmartre, the almost impregnable fortress, on Tuesday fell to the Versaillese. From there, forty-two men, women, and children were taken to the Rue des Rosieres, and butchered. The soldiers tried to force them all to kneel; but one woman with a child in her arms refused to kneel, shouting to her companions, “Show these wretches that you know how to die upright!”
On the south side of the Seine, a Polish exile named Wroblewski, who knew something of military matters, improvised a rough system of defences which served to keep the enemy at bay for a while over a considerable area.
Lisbonne, the member of the Commune, commanded a body of Federals in the Pantheon quarter. He achieved wonders with small means, defending the approaches to the Luxembourg for two whole days.
The Committee of Public Safety issued a placard calling upon the Versaillese soldiery to refuse to fire on their brothers of Paris. The “Central Committee” did the same. But it was of no avail.
By the Tuesday night, scarcely half of Paris remained to the Commune. The Versaillese now pushed boldly forward in every direction.
In the course of the evening Raoul Rigault, maddened by the horrors he saw perpetrated on all sides by the friends of “order,” but acting on his own responsibility alone, went to Sr Pelagie and ordered Gustave Chaudey, accused of having instigated the firing from the hotel de Ville in January, to be taken out into the prison yard and shot, together with three gendarmes.
To a shortage of ammunition was now added, in many cases, want of food.
Conflagrations now broke forth in all quarters of Paris, lighting up the midnight sky, some caused by the shells of the Versaillese, some caused by the action of the Communards to defend themselves from unseen snipers on the roofs and upper storeys of houses.
The horror of these nights cannot be described. The glare of a hundredfires reflected in pools of blood; corpses and human remains everywhere.
Such a scene of horror was barely known to history before. The proscriptions of his enemies by the ancient Roman Dictator, Sylla, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 73 AD, the sudden massacre of Protestants by Catholics in Paris on the eve of the Feast of St. Bartholomew in 1572 — all pale before this blood orgy of the propertied class of France, which had the approval, tacit or avowed, of the same class throughout the world.
A class that, while it could witness unmoved the indiscriminate torture and butchery of countless Communards, could, nevertheless, with a refinement of cynicism, pretend to snivel and lament over the killing of an Archbishop by the Communards!
But one corpse lay that night of Tuesday-Wednesday in the Hotel de Ville on a bed of blue satin, a solitary taper at its head, before which the hurry and scurry of the headquarters was stilled; before which all involuntarily bowed their heads. It was the body of Dombrowski, who had been mortally wounded during the afternoon.
Towards morning the corpse was transferred to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. As it passed the barricades all Federals presented arms. At the July column a halt was made, and hundreds of National Guards crowded round to get a last sight of their devoted commander. Thus did this valiant soldier of the people pass into history.
From early morning of Wednesday 24 May desperate battles were fought at the Palais Royal, the Bank, the Bourse, and the Church of St Eustache. On that day the official journal of the Commune appeared for the last time.
What remained of the defence was now further hampered and obstructed by the sham-equality craze so congenial to minds of an anarchist turn. Officers going with important messages which brooked not a moment’s delay were seized and compelled to carry hods for barricades, with the words, “There are no more epaulettes to-day,” and “Why shouldn’t you help to make barricades as well as we?”
To argue that such a thing as “division of functions” was necessary to the success of any social undertaking would have been useless. Thus one more nail was hammered into the coffin of Parisian defence.
The shooting of spies, real and supposed, occurred now and then; at last the good-natured and long-suffering Paris workman had been driven mad with rage and suspicion as the accounts poured in of the orgy of blood which for four whole days had been carried on in the occupied quarters.
The women of working class Paris were massacred alongside the men. Relationship to a National Guard, a mere expression of horror, a tear shed for a friend, was an excuse for instant butchery. The murderers, officers and men, developed a collective blood-lust.
Now, after four days during which every quarter of Paris occupied by the Versailles army had been turned into a slaughterhouse, after the death of thousands of victims — men, women, and children — whose mutilated corpses lay heaped up pell-mell in the streets — what was left of the National Guards turned on the three hundred hostages. These had been taken as a guarantee that the laws of war should be observed. Not one had so far been harmed despite the butcheries of Communards.
The hostages were held at the prison of La Roquette. As a last resort Théophile Ferré, the head of the Commune’s Public Security Department, decided to try and stem the tide of butchery by a reprisal. But did he follow the example of the assassins of “order” and command the whole three hundred hostages to be shot out of hand? Certainly not! He selected six of the most prominent of the bulwarks of bourgeois “order.”
When the question arose as to who should form the firing squad, dozens crowded round, each with a dear relation or friend to avenge — one a father, another a brother, a third a wife. Finally, a firing party of thirty was selected. The six hostages, the Archbishop Darboy, Bonjean, the presiding judge of the Court of Appeal, Daguerry, curé of the Madeleine, and three Jesuits were led out. Before giving the order to fire, Ferré pointed out to them that it was not the Commune which was responsible for their deaths, but their murdering friends of Versailles.
One whole bank of the Seine now showed up like a wall of flame. But the quarters where the red flag was displayed became fewer and fewer. Everywhere was the bourgeois tricolour.
The defence was now mainly in the hands of Wroblewski, who did his utmost to piece together the shattered fragments, but in vain.
A Versaillese officer was caught spying round the Bastille and was shot, an event denounced by Thiers at Versailles with brazen impudence as “without respect to the laws of war.”
On Friday 26 May, at sunset, poor Delescluze, half dead with illness and fatigue, seeing all was hopeless, walked out with his scarf round his waist and a cane in his hand, and mounted the barricade at the Chateau d’Eau. A moment afterwards to fall dead under a hail of bullets. Thus this noble old Revolutionist died, in death, as in life, true to his faith.
As the defence receded, the tide of massacre ruse higher and higher. Denunciations poured in on all sides. Organised hunts were made in the occupied quarters, and every available building was choked with prisoners, who were taken out in batches and shot. In some cases they were buried half-dead. Through the night was heard the agonised cries of the wounded and mangled.
From the Friday evening the whole defence centred in Belleville.
And the heroism grew with the hopelessness of the situation. Barricades were defended to the last man. Asked by an English journalist what he was dying for, one of the defenders promptly replied, “For human solidarity”.
On this day Millière was taken and shot on the steps of the Pantheon by order of General Cissey. They tried to force him on his knees as a homage to the capitalistic civilisation he had attacked. His last cry was “long live humanity!”
By the terms of a Convention arranged between the Duke of Saxony and the Versaillese, the Germans now cut off the Federal retreat on the north and east. Thus did the heads of the French Government conspire with their official enemy to destroy Paris.
The defenders, lashed to a frenzy of rage by the stream of accounts of the blood-lust of the Versaillese, now took out and shot forty-eight of the hostages, ecclesiastics and gendarmes.
It must be remembered that these men represented the corruption and oppression of the Empire in their worst forms. All this time, it should be remembered, despite the incessant massacre of Communard prisoners, Versaillese prisoners taken by the forces of the Commune were treated as prisoners of war and interned in churches and other places.
Raoul Rigault was recognised in the Rue Gay-Lussac entering a house, was dragged out, and taken to a Versaillese officer who interrogated him. Kigault’s only reply was, “Long live the Commune! Down with the assassins.” He was thrust against a wall and shot.
The Communard Varlin, was seized in the Rue Lafayett. His hands tied behind his back, he was subjected to a hail of blows, insults, and sabre-cuts, for a whole hour. One side of his face was a mass of blood, the eye torn from the socket. Finally, the wretches dashed his brains out with the butt ends of their muskets. Varlin was a young workman who had devoted all his leisure time to study, a clever organiser, and one of the best and most active members of the Commune.
By Saturday night only a portion of Belleville remained to the defence. The murky rainfall and dense clouds of smoke of the Sunday morning disclosed but a few streets still holding out. It was not till near midday that the last barricade, that of the Rue de Paris, was taken.
This street was the last entrenchment of the partisans of the Commune. It was defended by a single man for a quarter of an hour, all his companions having fallen. Wonderful to relate, this last combatant escaped with his life.
The fort of Vincennes alone remained now — a solitary outpost — and that surrendered at discretion on the following day, Monday29 May.
The Commune was now dead. Order reigned in Paris. Smoking ruins, corpses, and desolation were all that met the eye. One side of the Seine ran red with blood. The gutters ran blood. The roads were red with blood. Clouds of flesh-flies rose from the heaps of corpses; flocks of scavenging crows hovered overhead.
But though the fighting was over, the killing went on. Paris subjugated, the assassins could organise the slaughter at their leisure. These massacres were arranged at Versailles before the entry of the troops; the utterances of Thiers are in themselves quite sufficient to prove this
In the prison of La Roquette alone nine hundred prisoners were slain in cold blood, and without any pretence or form of trial. The courts martial disposed of others.
“Have you taken arms, or served the Commune? Show your hands.” If the judge thought the man looked likely, “classé” was the word. He was shot. Anyone spared was kept for Versailles. None were released — sex or age made no difference.
The reactionary press egged on these murders to the utmost.
The wholesale slaughter went on for the first few days of June; the courts martial till the middle of the month. Twenty thousand in all were killed in Paris in cold blood, besides those slain in Versailles.
There were prisoners besides the massacred: people were arrested wholesale, men, women, and children, in nine days 40,000 of them. The treatment of these poor people could scarcely be credible if it were not attested by the Reactionary Press itself, which rejoiced in the sufferings of these martyrs of the people.
Upwards of 399,000 denunciations were made; in all, probably, 50,000 people were actually arrested. Of these, some were released after long months of imprisonment in cruel prisons, hulks, and forts. Some (at least 1,179) died on the hands of their tormentors. Some were condemned to deportation, some were shot after a regular trial.
The chief crime of the Commune was its ill-judged mildness and humanity. Yet the vilifiers of the Commune succeeded immediately in giving currency to the grotesque notion among the unthinking of the Commune as responsible for the horrors of its own suppression!
Never before has a murderer been so successful in casting the obloquy of his own foul crime upon his innocent victim whose mouth he has closed in death.
The city was now divided into four military districts. In each numerous courts were established which worked all day organising the butcheries. The property of the murdered men was plundered by the soldiery.
To wear a worker’s dress; to have deplored the carnage, let alone to have ever spoken or written a word in favour of the rights of workmen, was enough to get a citizen of Paris instantly butchered. Everywhere might be seen columns of prisoners being led to the slaughter.
Foremost among the wretches who took a delight in the fiendish work was the debauched Bonapartist scoundre, Gallifet. The description by the London Daily News correspondent of this monster’s deeds of blood as witnessed by him has been often quoted. He ordered some hundreds of old men, women and children out of a column of which he was in charge, and had them shot dead. This dastardly ruffian now occupies a high position in the French army.
At last all prisoners were taken to one or two specially appointed places to be mowed down. These wholesale massacres went on till 3 June, when they were stopped mainly from fear of pestilence through the accumulation of corpses, which it was impossible to dispose of.
The executions of those condemned by the permanent tribunal, which took place on the plain of Satory, outside Paris, continued till the end of the year. Meanwhile, with tens of thousands of proletarians butchered in cold blood crying for vengeance, the Assembly assisted in a solemn thanksgiving service for the restoration of “order.”
Next issue: the lessons of the Paris Commune