History of the Paris Commune of 1871

16. The Manifesto and the germs of defeat

For the second time the situation was distinctly marked out. If the Council did not know how to define the Commune, was it not in the most unmistakable manner, and before the eyes of all Paris, declared to mean a camp of rebels by the fighting, the bombardment, the fury of the Versaillese, and the rebuff of the conciliators? The by-elections of the 16th April – death, double election returns, and resignations had given thirty-one vacant seats – revealed the effective forces of the insurrection. The illusion of the 26th March had vanished; the votes were now taken under fire. Also the journals of the Commune and the delegates of the Syndical Chambers in vain summoned the electors to the ballot-box. Out of 146,000 who had mustered in these arrondissements at the election of the 26th March, there came now only 61,000. The arrondissements of the councillors who had deserted their seats gave 16,000 instead of 51,000 votes.

It was now or never the moment to explain their programme to France. The Executive Commission had on the 6th, in an address to the provinces, protested against the calumnies of Versailles, but had confined itself to the statement that Paris fought for all France, and had not set forth any programme. The Republican protestations of M. Thiers, the hostility of the extreme Left, the desultory decrees, had completely led astray the provinces. It was necessary to set them right at once. On the 19th, a commission charged to draw up a programme presented its work, or rather the work of another. Sad and characteristic symbol this; the declaration of the Commune did not emanate from the Council, its twelve publicists notwithstanding. Of the five members charged to draw up the draft, only Delescluze contributed some passages; the technical part was the work of a journalist, Pierre Denis.

In the Cri du Peuple he had taken up and formulated as a law the whim of Paris a free town, hatched in the first gush of passion of the Vauxhall meetings. According to this legislator, Paris was to become a Hanseatic town, crowning herself with all liberties, and from the height of her proud fortress say to the enchained communes of France, ‘Imitate me if you can; but mind, I shall do nothing for you but set an example.’ This charming plan had turned the heads of several members of the Council, and too many traces of it were visible in the declaration.

‘What does Paris demand?’ it said. ‘The recognition of the Republic. Absolute autonomy of the Commune extended to all localities of France. The inherent rights of the Commune are: the vote of the communal budget; the settlement and repartition of taxes; the direction of the local services; the organization of its magistracy, of its internal police, and of education; the administration of communal goods; the choice and permanent right of control over the communal magistrates and functionaries; the absolute guarantee of individual liberty, of the liberty of conscience and the liberty of labour; the organization of urban defence and of the National Guard; the Commune alone charged with the surveillance and assurance of the free and just exercise of the right of meeting and of publicity … Paris wants nothing more … on condition of finding in the great central administration, the delegation of the federated communes, the realization and practical application of the same principle.’

What were to be the powers of that central delegation, the reciprocal obligations of the Communes? The declaration did not state these. According to this text, every locality was to possess the right to shut itself up within its autonomy. But what to expect of autonomy in Lower Brittany, in nine-tenths of the French Communes, more than half of which have not 600 inhabitants,[122] if even the Parisian declaration violated the most elementary rights, charged the Commune with the surveillance of the just exercise of the right of meeting and of publicity, forgetting to mention the right of association? It is notorious, it has been proved but too well. The rural autonomous communes would be a monster with a thousand suckers attached to the flank of the Revolution.

No! Thousands of mutes and blind are not fitted to conclude a social pact. Weak, unorganized, bound by a thousand trammels, the people of the country can only be saved by the towns, and the people of the towns guided by Paris. The failure of all the provincial insurrections, even of the large towns, had sufficiently testified this. When the declaration said, ‘Unity such as has been imposed upon us until to-day by the Empire, the monarchy and parliamentarism is only despotic, unintelligent centralization,’ it laid bare the cancer that devours France; but when it added, ‘Political unity, as understood by Paris, is the voluntary association of all local initiative,’ it showed that it knew nothing whatever of the provinces.

The declaration continued, in the style of an address, sometimes to the point: ‘Paris works and suffers for all France, whose intellectual, moral, administrative, and economical regeneration she prepares by her combats and her sufferings…. The communal revolution, commenced by the popular initiative of the 18th March, inaugurates a new era.’ But in all this there was nothing definite. Why not, taking up the formula of the 28th March, ‘To the commune what is communal, to the nation what is national,’ define the future commune, sufficiently extended to endow it with political life, sufficiently limited to allow its citizens easily to combine their social action, the commune of 15,000 to 20,000 souls, the canton-commune, and clearly set forth its rights and those of France? They did not even speak of federating the large towns for the conquest of their common enfranchisement. Such as it was, this programme, obscure, incomplete, impossible in many points, could not, in spite of some generous ideas, contribute much to the enlightenment of the provinces.

It was only a draft. No doubt the Council was going to discuss it. It was voted after the first reading. No debate, hardly an observation. This assembly, which gave four days to the discussion on overdue commercial bills, had not one sitting for the study of this declaration, its programme in case of victory, its testament if it succumbed.

To make things worse, a new malady infected the Council, the germs of which, sown for some days, were brought to full maturity by the complementary elections. The Romanticists gave rise to the Casuists, and both came to loggerheads on the verification of the new mandates.

On the 30th March the Council had validated six elections with a relative majority. The reporter on the election of the 16th proposed declaring all those candidates elected who had received an absolute majority. The Casuists grew indignant. ‘This would be,’ said they, ‘the worst blow that any Government had dealt universal suffrage.’

But it was impossible to go on continually convoking the electors. Three of the most devoted arrondissements had given no result; one of them, the thirteenth, being deprived of its best men, then fighting at the advanced posts. A new ballot would only set forth in bolder relief the isolation of the Commune; and then, is the moment of the fight, when the battalion is decimated, deprived of its chief, the opportune time for insisting upon a regular promotion)

The discussion was very warm, for in this outlawed Hôtel-de-Ville there sat outrageous legality-mongers. Paris was to be strangled by their saving principles. Already, in the name of holy autonomy, which forbade intervention with the autonomy of one’s neighbour, the Executive Commission had refused to arm the communes round Paris that asked to march against Versailles. M. Thiers took no more efficient measure to isolate Paris.

Twenty-six voices against thirteen voted the conclusions of the report. Twenty elections only were declared valid, [123] which was illogical; one with less than 1,100 votes was admitted, another with 2,500 rejected. All the elections should have been declared valid, or none at all. Four of the new delegates were journalists, six only workmen. Eleven sent by the public meetings came to strengthen the Romanticists. Two whose elections had been validated by the Council refused to sit because they had not obtained the eighth part of the votes. The author of the admirable Propos de Labiénus,[a book dealing with the abuses of the Second Empire] Rogeard, allowed himself to be deceived by a false scruple of legality – the only weakness of this generous man, who devoted to the Commune his pure and brilliant eloquence. His resignation deprived the Council of a man of common sense, but once more served to unmask the apocalyptic Félix Pyat.

Since the 1st April, scenting the coming storm and professing the same horror for blows as Panurge, Félix Pyat had attempted to leave Paris, sent in his resignation as member of the Executive Commission to the Council, and declared his presence at Versailles indispensable. The Versaillese hussars making the sortie too perilous, he had condescended to stay, but at the same time assuming two masks, one for the Hôtel-de-Ville, the other for the public. In the Council, at the secret sittings, he urged violent measures with the vivacity of a wild cat; in the Vengeur he held forth pontifically, shaking his grey hairs, saying, ‘To the ballot-box, not to Versailles!’ In his own paper he had two faces. If he wanted the journals suppressed, he signed ‘Le Vengeur’; if he wanted to cajole, he signed Félix Pyat. The defeat of Asnières struck him again with fear, and anew he looked out for a loophole. The resignation of Rogeard opened it. Under the shelter of this pure name Félix Pyat slipped in his resignation. ‘The Commune has violated the law,’ wrote he. ‘I do not want to be an accomplice.’ And, to debar himself from any return to the Council, he involved the dignity of the latter. If, said he, it persisted, he would be forced, to his great regret, to send in his resignation ‘before the victory.’

He had counted on stealing away as from the Assembly of Bordeaux; but his roguery disgusted the Council. The Vengeur had just condemned the suppression of several reactionary papers demanded many and many a time by Félix Pyat. Vermorel denounced this duplicity. One Member: ‘It has been said here that resignations would be considered as treason.’ Another: ‘A man must not leave his post when that post is one of peril and of honour.’ A third formally demanded the arrest of Félix Pyat. ‘I regret,’ said another, ‘that it has not been distinctly laid down that resignation can only be tendered to the electors themselves.’ And Delescluze added, ‘Nobody has the right to withdraw for personal rancour or because some measure does not chime in with his ideal. Do you then believe that every one approves what is done here? Yes; there are members who have remained, and who will remain till the end, notwithstanding the insults hurled at us. For myself, 1 am decided to remain at my post, and if we do not see victory, we shall not be the last to fall on the ramparts or on the steps of the Hôtel-de-Ville.’

These manly words were received with prolonged cheers. No one’s devotion was more meritorious. The habits of Delescluze, grave and laborious, his high aspirations, alienated him more than any other from many of his colleagues, light-headed idlers, prone to personal bickerings. One day, weary of this chaos, he wanted to resign. It sufficed to tell him that his withdrawal would be very prejudicial to the cause of the people to persuade him to remain, and await, not victory – as well as Félix Pyat he knew that impossible – but the death that makes the future fruitful.

Félix Pyat, so lashed from all sides, not daring to snap at Delescluze, turned round upon Vermorel, whom for all argument he called ‘spy’; and as Vermorel was a member of the Commission of Public Safety, accused him in the Vengeur of putting out of the way evidence accumulated against him at the prefecture of police. This member of the hare species called Vermorel a ‘worm.’ Such was his mode of discussion. Under the veil of literary refinement lurked the amenities of Billingsgate. In 1848, in the Constituante, he called Proudhon ‘swine’; and in 1871 in the Commune, he called Tridon ‘dunghill.’ He was the only member of this Assembly, where there were workmen of rude professions, who introduced ribaldry into the discussions.

Vermorel, replying in the Cri du Peuple, easily floored him. The electors of Félix Pyat sent him three summations to remain at his post: ‘You are a soldier; you must stay in the breach. It is we alone who have the right to revoke you.’ Ferreted out by his mandatories, threatened with arrest by the Council, this Greek chose the lesser danger, and re-entered the Hôtel-de-Ville in mincing attitude.

Versailles was jubilant at these miserable triflings. For the first time the public became acquainted with the interior of the Council, its infinitesimal coteries, made up of purely personal friendships or antipathies. Whoever belonged to such a group got thorough support, whatever his blunders. Far more; in order to be allowed to serve the Commune, it was necessary to belong to such a confraternity. Many sincerely devoted men offered themselves, tried democrats, intelligent employees, deserters from the Government, even Republican officers. They were overweeningly met by some incapable upstarts of yesterday, whose devotion was not to outlast the 20th May. And yet the insufficiency of the personnel and the want of talent each day became more overwhelming. The members of the Council complained that nothing was getting on. The Executive Commission did not know how to command, nor its subordinate how to obey; the Council devolved power and retained it at the same time, interfered every moment with the slightest details of the service; conducted the government, the administration, and the defence like the sortie of the 3rd April.

Notes

[122] Seventy-three communes have more than 20,000 inhabitants; 108 have from 10,000

to 20,000; 309 from 5,000 to 10,000, 249 from 4,000 to 5,000; and 581 from 3,000 to 4,000. There are then only 1,320 communes having more than 3,000 inhabitants, 800 at most that possess any political life.

[123] Vesinier, Cluseret, Pillot, Andrieu (I st arrondissement, Louvre); Pothier, Serraillier, 1. Durand, Johannard (2nd, Bourse); Courbet, Rogeard (6th, Luxembourg); Sicard (7th. Palais-Bourbon); Briosne (9th, Opéra); Philippe, Lonclas (12th, Reuilly); Longuet (16th, Passy); Dupont (17th, Batignolles); Cluseret, Arnold (18th, Montmartre); Menotti Garibaldi (19th, Buttes-Chaumont); Viard, Trinquet (20th, Ménilmontant).

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