The Rule of the Commune
The Commune itself was an organization which was created through a union between a number of different radical organizations, each looking to put some sense of themselves into the new government. For a time, they succeeded in that quest.
The CommuneÕs Identity Crisis
Unfortunately for the Communards, after the Commune took power, no one was actually sure what the new government was. There was no set platform, no specific goals, and no definition as to what exactly this new government would do and how it would rule. The Commune, more than anything else, was a government that was created in order to be the opposite of everything the Parisians had put up with in the last ninety years. Since 1789, the Parisians had known just about every type of government, from tyrannical dictator (Robespierre) to Emperor (Napoleon) to a full fledged Republic, and each of them had failed in turn. The Communards wanted the Commune to be something new and different, which was a government for the working class instead of for the aristocracy or bourgeois. As a result, the Commune was Ņlittle more than a slogan with no platform.Ó There were, however, a large number of different parties that had influence in the new Commune.
The inherent difficulties in a coalition government were even more pronounced in the Paris Commune. The political groups couldnÕt agree over who should chair the discussions, much less what should be done about General Trochu and President Thiers, the current leaders of the French government who were holed up just outside of town in Versailles. Their discussions were always constrained by the fact that the Prussian army had never quite gone away, but were camped nearby to Versaille. Unsure what response Prussia would give to a military strike against Versailles, they decided not to risk such a strike.
By the time they decided to do nothing, a day had gone. The second day under the Commune was marked by the development of numerous committees to split up the authority and responsibility of the government. They founded the executive committee of the Commune, which held no executive power other than itÕs name. The existence of the Comitˇ Centrale and the National Guard constrained the powers of each of the new committees.
The Failures of the Commune
The incompetence of many of the men in positions of authority in the Commune caused several serious lapses in judgment which contributed to itÕs eventual fall. One of these incompetents was Charles Beslay, who had been given the position of chair of the commune the first day. Beslay was told to go the Bank of France and seize itÕs assets. When he arrived, he decided that rather than to confront the four hundred some armed clerks, it would be smarter to acquire the required funds through loans. This ended in failure, as the head of the bank, the Marquis de Ploeuc, smuggled money out to Versailles and Beslay never did get the money he needed to keep the Commune financially secure.
Curiously enough, when it became clear that the executive arrangement was not working as intended, the Commune government founded a new executive body, which they named the Committee of Public Safety, bringing back memories of RobespierreÕs Reign or Terror from after the first French Revolution, shortly before the First Empire. The head of this new body was Raoul Rigault, who was a radical even by the standards of his fellows. Rigault was responsible for the creation of a government setup remarkably similar to that of Robespierre. Rigault is especially remembered for being an staunch atheist and a particular conversation he had with a Jesuit priest.
Rigault: What is your profession?
Priest: Servant of God.
Rigault: Where does your master live?
Rigault (to a clerk): Take this down: X, describing himself servant of one called God, a vagrant.
At the same time, Thiers was preparing for a second siege of Paris. He had acquired permission from Otto von Bismarck, who remained in command of the Prussian forces, to increase the size of his army to 130,000 men. His second siege took place as the Commune continued to issue large numbers of edicts. The defense of the Commune ended the same way as the founding: in a time of great confusion. ThiersÕ forces had been pounding away with artillery at the Point du Jour Gate for several days. Atop the Gate was a white flag, which was a signal to ThiersÕ army to begin an assault at that point. For reasons unknown, the National Guard had abandoned the Gate and left it completely undefended. On May 13, the regular army broke through that gate and into the city of Paris completely unopposed, not having to face the some thousand artillery pieces at the command of the defenders and outnumbering them by more than three to one. Combat was short and furious, and the Versailles army encountered little resistance until they reached the H™tel de Ville. Even then, the incompetence of the National Guard prevented an adequate defense of the city. The defenders seemed to dissolve into the night as the fight proved hopeless. One of the only divisions which remained to continue the fight was a WomenÕs Brigade let by Louise Michel, the Rouge Vierge. By the time the fight was through, much of Paris had been burned to the ground. As the fighting degenerated, the remaining leader of the Communards, Delescluze, lost control of his subordinates, including the violent Rigault. Hostages were executed by the maniac leader, including the Archbishob of Paris. Rigault was executed shortly thereafter by the invading forces. Delescluze himself was killed shortly afterwards during the fighting, standing atop a barricade and waiting for the fatal shot.
The Collapse of the Commune
The collapse of the Commune was a result of a number of factors, but several were more important in the end than others. First was the basic contradictions between the political leaders of the Commune. The hours spent arguing between leaders cost them precious time that their opponents in Versailles were not wasting in the same way. The decision not to invade Versailles before the legitimate government could reestablish a military presence cost them the conflict. Secondly, the mistakes made when handling the national bank and refusing to seize all the assets allowed the Versaille government to have a steady flow of income which they used to maintain their support. Karl Marx and Lenin both studied the Commune in depth, learning each of the mistakes that it made. Lenin was careful not to repeat any of them when he started his own revolution. In many ways, the Commune was a trial run for LeninÕs revolution in Russia, as each had similar beginnings in a failed military conflict and a distrusted government.
Several other philosophical leaders outside of Communism also wrote articles about the Paris Commune and what it meant for the spread of their indivudual ideologies. One of these was Peter Kropotkin, whose work discussed the rise, fall, and effect of the Commune on anarchism in Europe.