Red Letter
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The Fall of Paris (1 of 2)
by Karl Marx
1871
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min


[French President Adolphe] Thiers took the opportunity to build up an enormous army. It began to bombard the city systematically from forts on the outskirts, defeating the Communard forces in a series of skirmishes, and then broke through into the city itself on 21 May. If Thiers expected an easy conquest, he was to be disappointed. The workers of Paris fought street by street, block by block, building by building. It took Thiers’ troops a week to drive them back from the affluent western part of the city through the centre to the Commune’s stronghold in the east, crushing the last resistance early in the morning on Whit Sunday.

The defeat of the Commune was followed by an orgy of violence almost without precedent in modern times. The bourgeois paper Le Figaro boasted, ‘Never has such an opportunity presented itself for curing Paris of the moral gangrene that has been consuming it for the past 25 years’. The victorious commanders of the Versailles troops seized the opportunity. Anyone who had fought for the Commune was shot on the spot—1,900 people between Whit Sunday morning and Whit Monday morning alone (more in one day than in Paris during the whole of the ‘Great Terror’ of 1793-94). Troops patrolled the streets picking up poorer people at will and condemning many to death after 30 second trials because they looked like Communards. A preacher told of witnessing the execution of 25 women accused of pouring boiling water over advancing troops. The London Times commented on:

...the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children... So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history... The wholesale executions inflicted by the Versailles soldiery sicken the soul.

The total number of killings came to somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 according to calculations by present day French historians. Another 40,000 Communards were held in prison hulks for a year before being put on trial—5,000 of these were sentenced to deportation and another 5,000 to lesser penalties.

One of the deportees was the best-known leader of the fighting women, Louise Michel. She told the court, ‘I will not defend myself; I will not be defended. I belong entirely to the social revolution. If you let me live, I shall not cease to cry vengeance’. The Commune had been held back from granting women the vote by the prejudices of its time. But working class women understood, despite this, that the crushing of the Commune was a crushing of themselves.

Chris Harman
A People’s History of the World

The first attempt of the slaveholders’ conspiracy to put down Paris by getting the Prussians to occupy it was frustrated by Bismarck’s refusal.

The second attempt, that of March 18, ended in the rout of the army and the flight to Versailles of the government, which ordered the whole administration to break up and follow in its track.

By the semblance of peace negotiations with Paris, Thiers found the time to prepare for war against it. But where to find an army? The remnants of the line regiments were weak in number and unsafe in character. His urgent appeal to the provinces to succour Versailles, by their National Guards and volunteers, met with a flat refusal. Brittany alone furnished a handful ofA. This name was given to the Versailles soldiers of royalist sympathies recruited in Brittany, by analogy with those who took part in the counter-revolutionary royalist insurrection in North-Western France during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.

mouchards: Informants
ChouansA fighting under a white flag, every one of them wearing on his breast the heart of Jesus in white cloth, and shouting “Vive le Roi!” (Long live the King!)

Thiers was, therefore, compelled to collect, in hot haste, a motley crew, composed of sailors, marines, Pontifical Zouaves, Valentin’s gendarmes, and Pietri’s sergents-de-ville and mouchards. This army, however, would have been ridiculously ineffective without the instalments of imperialist war prisoners, which Bismarck granted in numbers just sufficient to keep the civil war a-going, and keep the Versailles government in abject dependence on Prussia. During the war itself, the Versailles police had to look after the Versailles army, while the gendarmes had to drag it on by exposing themselves at all posts of danger. The forts which fell were not taken, but bought. The heroism of the Federals convinced Thiers that the resistance of Paris was not to be broken by his own strategic genius and the bayonets at his disposal.

Meanwhile, his relations with the provinces became more and more difficult. Not one single address of approval came in to gladden Thiers and his Rurals. Quite the contrary. Deputations and addresses demanding, in a tone anything but respectful, conciliation with Paris on the basis of the unequivocal recognition of the republic, the acknowledgment of the Communal liberties, and the dissolution of the National Assembly, whose mandate was extinct, poured in from all sides, and in such numbers that Dufaure, Thiers’ Minister of Justice, in his circular of April 23 to the public prosecutors, commanded them to treat “the cry of conciliation” as a crime! In regard, however, of the hopeless prospect held out by his campaign, Thiers resolved to shift his tactics by ordering, all over the country, municipal elections to take place on April 30, on the basis of the new municipal law dictated by himself to the National Assembly. What with the intrigues of his prefects, what with police intimidation, he felt quite sanguine of imparting, by the verdict of the provinces, to the National Assembly that moral power it had never possessed, and of getting at last from the provinces the physical force required for the conquest of Paris.

His bandit-warfare against Paris, exalted in his own bulletins, and the attempts of his ministers at the establishment, throughout France, of a reign of terror, Thiers was from the beginning anxious to accompany with a little by-play of conciliation, which had to serve more than one purpose. It was to dupe the provinces, to inveigle the middle class elements in Paris, and above all, to afford the professed republicans in the National Assembly the opportunity of hiding their treason against Paris behind their faith in Thiers.

On March 21, when still without an army, he had declared to the Assembly: “Come what may, I will not send an army to Paris.”

On March 27, he rose again: “I have found the republic an accomplished fact, and I am firmly resolved to maintain it.”

In reality, he put down the revolution at Lyons and MarseillesB. Under the impact of the proletarian revolution in Paris which led to the establishment of the Commune, revolutionary mass actions of a similar nature took place in Lyons and Marseilles. However, these were brutally crushed by French government troops.B in the name of the republic, while the roars of his Rurals drowned the very mention of his name at Versailles. After this exploit, he toned down the “accomplished fact” into a hypothetical fact. The Orleans princes, whom he had cautiously warned off Bordeaux, were now, in flagrant breach of the law, permitted to intrigue at Dreux. The concessions held out by Thiers in his interminable interviews with the delegates from Paris and the provinces, although constantly varied in tone and color, according to time and circumstances, did in fact never come to more than the prospective restriction of revenge to the “handful of criminals implicated in the murder of Lecomte and Clement Thomas,” on the well-understood premise that Paris and France were unreservedly to accept M. Thiers himself as the best of possible Republics, as he, in 1830, had done with Louis Philippe, and in 1849 under Louis Bonaparte’s presidency. While out of office, he made a fortune by pleading for the Paris capitalists, and made political capital by pleading against the laws he had himself originated. He now hurried through the National Assembly not only a set of repressive laws which were, after the fall of Paris, to extirpate the last remnants of republican liberty in France; he foreshadowed the fate of Paris by abridging what was for him the too slow procedure of courts-martial,C. Under the law concerning the procedure of military courts, submitted by Dufaure to the National Assembly, it was ruled that cases were to be investigated and sentences carried out within 48 hours.C and by a new-fangled, Draconic code of deportation. The Revolution of 1848, abolishing the penalty of death for political crimes, had replaced it by deportation. Louis Bonaparte did not dare, at least not in theory, to re-establish the regime of the guillotine. The Rural Assembly, not yet bold enough even to hint that the Parisians were not rebels, but assassins, had therefore to confine its prospective vengeance against Paris to Dufaure’s new code of deportation. Under all these circumstances, Thiers himself could not have gone on with his comedy of conciliation, had it not, as he intended it to do, drawn forth shrieks of rage from the Rurals, whose ruminating mind did neither understand the play, nor its necessities of hypocrisy, tergiversation: The act of abandoning something or someone, of changing sides; desertion; betrayal. Okay, now use it in a sentence.tergiversation, and procrastination. The act of evading any clear course of action or speech, of being deliberately ambiguous; equivocation; fickleness.

In sight of the impending municipal elections of April 30, Thiers enacted one of his great conciliation scenes on April 27. Amidst a flood of sentiment rhetoric, he exclaimed from the tribune of the Assembly:

“There exists no conspiracy against the republic but that of Paris, which compels us to shed French blood. I repeat it again and again. Let those impious arms fall from the hands which hold them, and chastisement will be arrested at once by an act of peace excluding only the small number of criminals.”

To the violent interruption of the Rurals, he replied:

“Gentlemen, tell me, I implore you, am I wrong? Do you really regret that I could have stated the truth that the criminals are only a handful? Is it not fortunate in the midst of our misfortunes that those who have been capable to shed the blood of Clement Thomas and General Lecomte are but rare exceptions?”

France, however, turned a deaf ear to what Thiers flattered himself to be a parliamentary siren’s song. Out of 700,000 municipal councillors returned by the 35,000 communes still left to France, the united Legitimists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists did not carry 8,000.

The supplementary elections which followed were still more decidedly hostile.

Thus, instead of getting from the provinces the badly-needed physical force, the National Assembly lost even its last claim to moral force, that of being the expression of the universal suffrage of the country. To complete the discomfiture, the newly-chosen municipal councils of all the cities of France openly threatened the usurping Assembly at Versailles with a counter assembly at Bordeaux.

Then the long-expected moment of decisive action had at last come for Bismarck. He peremptorily summoned Thiers to send to Frankfort plenipotentiaries for the definitive settlement of peace. In humble obedience to the call of his master, Thiers hastened to despatch his trusty Jules Favre, backed by Pouyer-Quertier. Pouyer-Quertier, an “eminent” Rouen cotton-spinner, a fervent and even servile partisan of the Second Empire, had never found any fault with it save its commercial treaty with England,D. This trade treaty between England and France was concluded on January 23, 1860. Under its terms France was to abandon her prohibitive Customs policy and replace it by introducing new import duties. As result of the influx of English goods to France, competition in the home market dramatically increased, causing dissatisfaction among some French manufacturers.D prejudicial to his own shop-interest. Hardly installed at Bordeaux as Thiers’ Minister of Finance, he denounced that “unholy” treaty, hinted at its near abrogation, and had even the effrontery to try, although in vain (having counted without Bismarck), the immediate enforcement of the old protective duties against Alsace, where, he said, no previous international treaties stood in the way. This man who considered counter-revolution as a means to put down wages at Rouen, and the surrender of French provinces as a means to bring up the price of his wares in France, was he not the one predestined to be picked out by Thiers as the helpmate of Jules Favre in his last and crowning treason?

On the arrival at Frankfurt of this exquisite pair of plenipotentiaries, bully Bismarck at once met them with the imperious alternative: Either the restoration of the empire or the unconditional acceptance of my own peace terms! These terms included a shortening of the intervals in which war indemnity was to be paid and the continued occupation of the Paris forts by Prussian troops until Bismarck should feel satisfied with the state of things in France; Prussia thus being recognized as the supreme arbiter in internal French politics! In return for this, he offered to let loose for the extermination of Paris the Bonapartist army, and to lend them the direct assistance of Emperor William’s troops. He pledged his good faith by making payment of the first installment of the indemnity dependent on the “pacification” of Paris. Such bait was, of course, eagerly swallowed by Thiers and his plenipotentiaries. They signed the treaty of peace on May 10 and had it endorsed by the Versailles Assembly on the 18th.

In the interval between the conclusion of peace and the arrival of the Bonapartist prisoners, Thiers felt the more bound to resume his comedy of conciliation, as his republican tools stood in sore need of a pretext for blinking their eyes at the preparations for the carnage of Paris. As late as May 18, he replied to a deputation of middle-class conciliators –

“Whenever the insurgents will make up their minds for capitulation, the gates of Paris shall be flung wide open during a week for all except the murderers of Generals Clement Thomas and Lecomte.”

A few days afterwards, when violently interpellated on these promises by the Rurals, he refused to enter into any explanations; not, however, without giving them this significant hint:

“I tell you there are impatient men amongst you, men who are in too great a hurry. They must have another eight days; at the end of these eight days there will be no more danger, and the task will be proportionate to their courage and to their capacities.”

As soon as MacMahon was able to assure him, that he could shortly enter Paris, Thiers declared to the Assembly that

“he would enter Paris with the laws in his hands, and demand a full expiation from the wretches who had sacrificed the lives of soldiers and destroyed public monuments.”

As the moment of decision drew near, he said – to the Assembly, “I shall be pitiless!” – to Paris, that it was doomed; and to his Bonapartist bandits, that they had state licence to wreak vengeance upon Paris to their hearts’ content.

At last, when treachery had opened the gates of Paris to General Douai, on May 21, Thiers, on the 22nd, revealed to the Rurals the “goal” of his conciliation comedy, which they had so obstinately persisted in not understanding.

“I told you a few days ago that we were approaching our goal; today I come to tell you the goal is reached. The victory of order, justice, and civilization is at last won!”

So it was. The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly. Even the atrocities of the bourgeois in June 1848 vanish before the infamy of 1871. The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris – men, women, and children – fought for eight days after the entrance of the Versaillese, reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!

To find a parallel for the conduct of Thiers and his bloodhounds we must go back to the times of Sulla and the two Triumvirates of Rome.E. This refers to the reign of terror and bloody repression in Ancient Rome at the various stages of the crisis of the slave-owning Roman Republic in the first century B.C.E. – Sulla’s dictatorship (in 82-79 B.C.E.), and the first and second triumvirates: Pompey, Caesar, Crassus (60-53) and Octavian, Antonius, Lepidus (43-36 B.C.E.) respectively.

Mitrailleuse: a breech-loading machine gun using small projectiles and consisting of a number of barrels fitted together and so arranged that the barrels can be fired simultaneously or successively and rapidly and first used by the French army in the war of 1870 with Germany
E The same wholesale slaughter in cold blood; the same disregard, in massacre, of age and sex, the same system of torturing prisoners; the same proscriptions, but this time of a whole class; the same savage hunt after concealed leaders, lest one might escape; the same denunciations of political and private enemies; the same indifference for the butchery of entire strangers to the feud.

There is but this difference: that the Romans had no mitrailleuses for the despatch, in the lump, of the proscribed, and that they had not “the law in their hands,” nor on their lips the cry of “civilization.”

And after those horrors look upon the other still more hideous face of the bourgeois civilization as described by its own press!

“With stray shots,” writes the Paris correspondent of a London Tory paper, “still ringing in the distance, and unintended wounded wretches dying amid the tombstones of Pere la Chaise – with 6,000 terror-stricken insurgents wandering in an agony of despair in the labyrinth of the catacombs, and wretches hurried through the streets to be shot down in scores by the mitrailleuse – it is revolting to see the cafes filled with the votaries of absinthe, billiards, and dominoes; female profligacy perambulating the boulevards, and the sound of revelry disturbing the night from the cabinets particuliers of fashionable restaurants.”

M. Edouard Herve writes in the Journal de Paris, a Versaillist journal pressed by the Commune:

“The way in which the population of Paris [!] manifested its satisfaction yesterday was rather more than frivolous, and we fear it will grow worse as time progresses. Paris has now a fete day appearance, which is sadly out of place; and, unless we are to be called the Parisiens de la decadence, this sort of thing must come to an end.”

And then he quotes the passage from Tacitus:

“Yet, on the morrow of that horrible struggle, even before it was completely over, Rome – degraded and corrupt – began once more to wallow in the voluptuous slough which was destroying its body and pulling its soul – alibi proelia et vulnera, alibi balnea popinoeque [here fights and wounds, there baths and restaurants].”

M. Herve only forgets to say that the “population of Paris” he speaks of is but the population of the Paris of M. Thiers – the francs-fileurs returning in throngs from Versailles, Saint-Denis, Rueil, and Saint Germain – the Paris of the “Decline.”

In all its bloody triumphs over the self-sacrificing champions of a new and better society, that nefarious civilization, based upon the enslavement of labor, drowns the moans of its victims in a hue-and-cry of calumny, reverberated by a world-wide echo. The serene working men’s Paris of the Commune is suddenly changed into a pandemonium by the bloodhounds of “order.”

And what does this tremendous change prove to the bourgeois mind of all countries? Why, that the Commune has conspired against civilization! The Paris people die enthusiastically for the Commune in numbers unequally in any battle known to history. What does that prove? Why, that the Commune was not the people’s own government but the usurpation of a handful of criminals! The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives at the barricades and on the place of execution. What does this prove? Why, that the demon of the Commune has changed them into Megaera and Hecates!

 
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