ONE OF the greatest dates in our history was 18 March 1871. The story starts at the heights of Montemartre, Paris, at about 3am. The whole square is dominated by 250 cannon. The guns had just been used in a war between France and Germany in which Paris had been besieged for the whole winter.
The war ended in what most Parisians saw as a total sell out. Immediately after the armistice was signed an election in Paris returned a hard right government. It was headed by Adolphe Thiers, described by Karl Marx as a “monstrous gnome”.
Thiers’s immediate problem was Paris. Most of the people of Paris were workers, and they were angry—angry at the government, angry at the backdating of rents suspended during the siege, and angry at their working conditions.
And Thiers was very worried about the cannon on Montemartre. The cannon had got to Montemartre by a very simple process—the working men, women and children of Paris had seized them and taken them there.
The orders for this tricky operation had been given by the National Guard, the force of volunteers set up in Paris to fight the Prussians. The central committee of the National Guard was a genuine democracy.
Government soldiers were sent to seize the cannon back, and were left guarding them. Rows broke out in the streets around Montemarte as the people gathered to defend the cannon.
Then up the road to Montemartre a woman came running. Her name was Louise Michel. She was 41 years old. She was a member of a committee set up to look after the guns.
While she tended a wounded man, she overheard a general say the French army was now in charge of Paris, “and the filthy, disgusting rabble that had taken his guns out of the place where they should have been were going to get taught a lesson.”
Louise Michel understood what was said extremely well. She was the daughter of a serving maid. She became a teacher, but was kicked out of several schools because she insisted on teaching her way. She became very active in the radical movement in Paris, quickly becoming a prominent speaker.
There was a tremendous hostility toward any woman who had independent ideas. Louise Michel had to put up with the silly sniggering and banter which greeted any intervention by a woman, yet she managed to establish credibility in the movement.
She joined the International Working Men’s Association, which was set up by Karl Marx and others. It was very difficult for a woman to join, as the name implies.
Louise Michel also managed to join the National Guard, which was pretty remarkable because the National Guard was entirely composed of men.
Anyway, she heard the general’s comments and ran off down the hill shouting that treachery was afoot, that their place was being taken over by the army, that their guns were being taken back, that they had to come out and stop this thing happening. She ordered that all the church bells be rung.
The wretched soldiers were still guarding the cannon. People gathered and the generals tried to keep control.
Then suddenly they saw a crowd of people coming, led by Louise Michel. She had collected about 200 women, most of them with rifles, and came charging up the hill towards 3,000 armed soldiers.
Later she wrote, “We ran up at the double, knowing that at the top was an army in battle formation. We expected to die for liberty. All womankind was at our side—I don’t know how”.
Three times the general told his troops to fire. Three times they refused. Suddenly a sergeant shouted, “We’ll have to mutiny.” It was a glorious scene as the crowd embraced the soldiers and bottles of wine were shared.
But Adolph Thiers was not at all happy. He took the entire machinery of the government to Versailles, 40 or 50 miles down the road. And Thiers swore that there would be revenge for what had been done in Paris.
On the evening of 18 March the central committee of the National Guard was declared the government of Paris.
Immediately there was an argument in the central committee. Some wanted to march immediately on the army at Versailles. They said, “If we go now to Versailles, by smashing the government there we can raise the workers in all French cities.”
And Louise Michel, who was not on the committee, was outside, grabbing anyone she knew and insisting, “We have to march upon Versailles—now is the time.”
But the majority on the committee went for the legal option. They decided to hand over to an elected body who would then be able to govern properly.
The elections were held on 26 March. The National Guard issued this proclamation: “Do not lose sight of the fact that the men who will serve you best are those you choose from among yourselves, living your life, suffering your ills. Distrust the ambitious as much as the upstart. Distrust also talkers, who are incapable of translating words into action. Avoid those fortune has too highly favoured, for only rarely is he who possesses fortune disposed to see the working man as his brother.”
The elections were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. And the people elected by and large represented what one writer called the Red Republicans.
The elections were different from all other elections. The decision makers weren’t just workers in government. They were workers carrying out the decisions of government. When have we seen workers at the head of the police forces, worker judges, worker newspaper proprietors? The Paris Commune achieved this.
The Paris Commune was only allowed to exist for two months, during most of which it was under constant siege from the Versailles army. Two months is the time it takes between a bill in parliament going between its first and second reading today.
But the Commune managed to revoke the the backdated rents and ban evictions. Pawn shops were ordered to hand back all the goods they had had from workers. Night work in bakeries was banned. The Commune started a process of accident insurance for workers, the first such scheme in France.
Education in Paris was taken out of the hands of the nuns and the monks and put into the hands of people, who were instructed in a wonderful decree from the Commune to concentrate on facts rather than fantasies, and to apply themselves to putting right “the greatest malady of children—boredom”.
The cultural atmosphere was absolutely fantastic—all the churches were taken over for debates.
But the Commune was not perfect. Unlike the National Guard, the Commune was elected by geography. The people who were elected were inclined to be isolated from the people who elected them.
One result of this weakness was seen in how the Commune conducted the war. Thiers launched his counter-attack from Versailles.
Bombardment after bombardment came right to the gates of Paris. But the conduct of the war was handed over to former army officers. They had no idea how to tap into the democracy the Commune represented.
The Versailles army got into the city because nobody was guarding the gates. The cannon at Montemartre, the symbol of the social revolution, was left untended, and at the crucial point couldn’t be used.
Marx wrote that the Paris Commune was elected by universal suffrage but women didn’t have the vote. Despite this, the action taken by the women during the Commune was magnificent.
Women fought for the Commune from a sense that their class had taken power, and must be defended. Louise Michel led a battalion of 120 women in defence of the Commune.
Now you come to the end of this story. In the whole period of the war, from 2 April to 25 May, 887 men from the Versailles army were killed in combat. In the ten days following 25 May, after the Versailles army took complete control of Paris, 25,000 people were taken out of the city and shot.
Anyone in any way associated with the National Guard—men, women, children—were put to death. Louise Michel escaped these deaths, but she was not lucky to escape them. She was transported to the colonies and later imprisoned again when she returned to France.
She never lost her defiant spirit. As she lay dying she was told of the Russian Revolution of 1905. She got out of bed, danced around the room, then lay back and said, “Right—now I am ready to die.”
Paul Foot’s talk Louise Michel and the Paris Commune is available on CD for £7. A new book, Louise Michel, is also on sale for £9.99. Both are available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com