History of the Paris Commune of 1871

4. The Central Committee calls for elections

Paris only became aware of her victory on the morning of the 19th of March. What a change in the scene, even after all the scene-shifting in the drama enacted during these last seven months! The red flag floated above the Hôtel-de-Ville. With the early morning mists the army, the Government, the Administration had evaporated. From the depths of the Bastille, from the obscure Rue Basfroi, the Central Committee was lifted to the summits of Paris in the sight of all the world. Thus on the 4th September the Empire had vanished; thus the deputies of the Left had picked up a derelict power.

The Committee, to its great honour, had only one thought, to restore its power to Paris. Had it been sectarian, hatching decrees, the movement would have ended like that of the 31st October. Happily it was composed of newcomers, without a past, and without political pretensions; men of the small middle-class, as well as workmen, shopkeepers, commercial clerks, mechanics, sculptors, architects, caring little for systems, anxious above all to save the Republic. At this giddy height they had but one idea to sustain them, that of securing to Paris her municipality.

Under the Empire this was one of the favourite schemes of the Left, by which it had mainly won over the Parisian petty bourgeoisie, much humiliated at the sight of Governmental nominees enthroned at the Hôtel-de-Ville for full eighty years. Even the most pacific amongst them were shocked, scandalized by the incessant increase of the budget, the multiplied loans, and the financial swindling of Haussmann. And how they applauded Picard, revindicating for the largest and most enlightened city of France at least the rights enjoyed by the smallest village, or when he defied the Pasha of the Seine to produce regular accounts! – Towards the end of the Empire, the idea of an elective municipal council had taken root; it had to a certain extent been put into practice during the siege, and now its total realization could alone console Paris for her decentralization.

On the other hand, the popular masses, insensible to the bourgeois ideal of a municipal council, were bent on the Commune. They had called for it during the siege as an arm against the foreign enemy; they still called for it as a lever for uprooting despotism and misery. What did they care for a council, even elective, but without real liberties and fettered to the state – without authority over the administration of schools and hospitals, justice and police, and altogether unfit for grappling with the social slavery of its fellow-citizens? What the people strove for was a political form allowing them to work for the amelioration of their condition. They had seen all the constitutions and all the representative governments run counter to the will of the so-called represented elector, and the state power, grown more and more despotic, deprive the workman even of the right to defend his labour, and this power, which has ordained even the very air to be breathed, always refusing to interfere in capitalist brigandage. After so many failures, they were fully convinced that the actual governmental and legislative regime was from its very nature unable to emancipate the working man. This emancipation they expected from the autonomous Commune, sovereign within the limits compatible with the maintenance of the national unity. The communal constitution was to substitute for the representative lording it over his elector the strictly responsible mandatory. The old state power grafted upon the country, feeding upon its substance, usurping supremacy on the foundation of divided and antagonistic interests, organizing for the benefit of the few, justice, finance, army, and police, was to be superseded by a delegation of all the autonomous communes.

Thus the municipal question, appealing to the legitimate susceptibilities of the one, to the bold aspirations of the other, gathered all classes round the Central Committee.

At half-past eight they held their first sitting in the same room where Trochu had been enthroned. The president was a young man of about thirty-two; Eduard Moreau, a small commission agent. ‘He was not in favour,’ he said, ‘of sitting at the Hôtel-de-Ville , but since they were there, it was necessary at once to regularize their situation, tell Paris what they wanted, proceed to the elections within the briefest term possible, provide for the public services, and protect the town from a surprise.’

Two of his colleagues immediately said, ‘We must first march on Versailles, disperse the Assembly, and appeal to France, to pronounce.’

Another, the author of the Vauxhall motion, said, ‘No. We have only the mandate to secure the rights of Paris. If the provinces share our views, let them imitate our example.’

Some wanted to consummate the revolution before referring to the electors. Others opposed this vague suggestion. The Committee decided to proceed at once to the elections, and charged Moreau to draw up an appeal. While it was being signed, a member of the Committee arrived, saying, ‘Citizens, we have just been told that most of the members of the Government are still in Paris; an attempt at resistance is being organized in the first and second arrondissements; the soldiers are leaving for Versailles. We must take prompt measures to lay hands on the Ministers, disperse the hostile battalions, and prevent the enemy from leaving the town.’

In fact, Jules Favre and Picard had hardly left Paris. The clearing of the Ministries was publicly going on; columns of soldiers were still marching off through the gates of the left bank. But the Committee continued signing, neglecting this traditional precaution – the shutting of the gates – and lost itself in the elections. It saw not – very few saw as yet – that this was a death struggle with the Assembly of Versailles.

The Committee, distributing the work to be done, appointed the delegates who were to take possession of the Ministries and direct the various services. Some of these delegates were chosen outside the Committee, from amongst those who were reputed men of action, or the revolutionaries. Some one having spoken of an increase of pay, his colleagues indignantly answered, ‘We are not here to imitate the Government of the Defence. We have lived till now on our pay; it will still suffice.’ Arrangements were made for the permanent presence of some members at the Hôtel-de-Ville, and then they adjourned at one o’clock.

Outside the joyous clamour of the people enlivened the streets. A spring sun smiled on the Parisians. This was their first day of consolation and of hope for eight months. Before the barricades of the Hôtel-de-Ville, at the Buttes Montmartre, in all the boulevards, onlookers were thronging. Who then spoke of civil war? Only the Journal Offtciel. It recounted the events in its own way. ‘The Government had exhausted every means of conciliation,’ and in a despairing appeal to the National Guard it said, ‘A committee taking the name of Central Committee has assassinated in cold blood the Generals C1ément-Thomas and Lecomte. Who are the members of this Committee? Communists, Bonapartists, or Prussians? Will you take upon yourselves the responsibility of these assassinations?’ These lamentations of runaways moved only a few companies of the centre. Yet – a grave symptom this – the young bourgeois of the Polytechnic School came to the mairie of the second arrondissement, where the mayors had flocked, and the university students, till now the advanced guard of all our revolutions, pronounced against the Committee.

For this revolution was made by proletarians. Who were they? What did they want? At two o’clock every one hurried to see the wall-posters of the Committee just issued from the Imprimerie Nationale. ‘Citizens, the people of Paris, calm and impassible in their strength, have awaited without fear, as without provocation, the shameless fools who want to touch our Republic. Let Paris and France together lay the foundation of a true Republic, the only Government which will for ever close the era of revolutions. The people of Paris is convoked to make its elections.’ And turning to the National Guard: ‘You have charged us to organize the defence of Paris and of your rights. Our mandate has now expired. Prepare, and at once make your communal elections. Meanwhile we shall, in the name of the people, hold the Hôtel-de-Ville.’ Twenty names[90] followed, which, save three or four, Assi, Lullier, and Varlin, were only known through the posters of the last few days. Since the morning of the 10th August, 1792, Paris has not seen in her Hôtel-de-Ville such an advent of obscure men.

And yet their posters were respected, their battalions circulated freely. They took possession of the posts; at one o’clock the Ministries of Finance and of the Interior; at two o’clock the Naval and War Offices, the telegraph, the Journal Officiel, and Duval was installed at the Prefecture de Police. And they had hit the mark. What indeed could be said against this new-born power whose first word was its own abdication?

Everything around them bore a warlike aspect. Let us cross the half-open barricades of the Rue de Rivoli. Twenty thousand men camped in the square of the Hôtel-de-Ville, bread stuck on the end of their muskets. Fifty ordnance pieces, cannon, and machine-guns drawn up along the façade served as the statuary around the town hall. The court and staircases were encumbered with guards taking their meals, the large Salle du Trône swarming with officers, guards, and civilians. In the hall on the left, which was used by the staff, the noise subsided. The room by the river-side, at the corner of the edifice, was the ante-chamber of the Committee. About fifty men were writing there, bending over a long table. There discipline and silence reigned. We were far from the anarchists of the 31st October. From time to time the door, guarded by two sentinels, opened to a member of the Committee who carried orders or made inquiries.

The sitting had recommenced. A member asked the Committee to protest against the executions of Cldment-Thomas and Lecomte, to which it was entirely foreign. ‘Take care not to disavow the people,’ answered another, ‘for fear they in turn should disavow you.’ A third said, the Journal Officiel declares the execution took place under our eyes. We must stop these calumnies. The people and the bourgeoisie have joined hands in this revolution. This union must be maintained. You want everybody to take part in the elections. “Well, then,’ he was apostrophized, ‘abandon the people in order to gain the bourgeoisie; the people will withdraw, and you will see if it is with the bourgeois that revolutions are made.’[91]

The Committee decided that a note should be inserted in the Journal Officiel to re-establish the truth. Eduard Moreau proposed and read the draft of a manifesto, which was adopted.

The Committee were discussing the date and mode of the elections when it was informed that a large meeting of the chiefs of battalions, the mayors and deputies of the Seine was being held at the mairie of the third arrondissement. M. Thiers during the morning, had given over to the union of the mayors the provisional administration of Paris, and they were trying their authority on the National Guard. The Committee was assured that they intended to convoke the electors.

‘If it is so,’ said several members, ‘we must come to an agreement with them to make the situation regular.’ Others, remembering the siege, simply wanted to have them arrested. One member said, ‘If we wish to have France with us, we must not frighten her. Think what an effect the arrest of the deputies and mayors would produce, and what, on the other hand, the effect of their adhesion would be.’ Another, ‘It is important to collect an imposing number of voters. All Paris will go to the ballot-boxes if the representatives and mayors join us.’ ‘Say rather,’ cried an impetuous colleague, ‘that you are not equal to your position; that your only preoccupation is to disengage yourselves.’ They finally decided to send Arnold to the mairie as delegate.

He was badly enough received. The most radical adjuncts and deputies, Socialists like Millière and Malon, flatly declared against the Hôtel-de-Ville, appalled at the dangerous initiative of the people. Many too said, ‘Who are these unknown men?’ Even at the Corderie, Internationalists and former members of the Committee of the twenty arrondissements maintained a diffident attitude. However, the meeting decided to send commissioners to the Hôtel-de-Ville. for, whether they liked it or not, there was the power.

The Central Committee had, in the meantime, fixed the elections for the Wednesday, decreed the raising of the state of siege, the abolition of the court-martials, and amnesty for all political crimes and offences. It held a third sitting at eight o’clock to receive the commissioners. These were the deputies Clémenceau, Millière, Tolain, Cournet, Malon, and Lockroy, the mayors Bonvalet and Mottu, the adjuncts Murat, Jaclard, and Léo Meillet.

Clémenceau, half accomplice, half dupe of M. Thiers’ coup-d’état, in his quality of mayor and deputy, was the spokesman. He was prolix and pedantic. ‘The insurrection has been undertaken upon an illegitimate motive; the cannon belong to the State. The Central Committee is without a mandate and in no wise holds Paris. Numerous battalions were gathering round the deputies and mayors. Soon the Committee will become ridiculous and its decrees will be despised. Besides, Paris has no right to revolt against France, and must absolutely acknowledge the authority of the Assembly. The Committee has but one other way of getting out of the difficulty – to submit to the union of the deputies and mayors, who are resolved to obtain from the Assembly the satisfaction claimed by Paris.’

He was frequently interrupted during this speech. What! They dared speak of an insurrection! Who had begun the civil war, attacked first? What had the National Guards done but answer a nocturnal aggression, taken back cannon paid for by themselves? What had the Central Committee done but follow the people and occupy the deserted Hôtel-de-Ville?

A member of the Committee said, ‘The Central Committee has received a regular, imperative mandate. This mandate forbids them to allow the Government or the Assembly to touch their liberties or the Republic. Now the Assembly has never ceased putting the existence of the Republic in question. It has placed a dishonoured general at our head, decapitalized Paris, tried to ruin her commerce. It has sneered at our sufferings, denied the devotion, the courage, the abnegation Paris has shown during the siege, hooted her best-loved representatives, Garibaldi and Victor Hugo. The plot against the Republic is evident. The attempt was commenced by gagging the press; they hoped to terminate it by the disarming of our battalions. Yes, our case was one of legitimate defence. If we have bowed our heads under this new affront, there was an end of the Republic. You have just spoken of the Assembly of France. The mandate of the Assembly has expired. As to France, we had not the pretension of dictating her laws – we have too often suffered under hers – but we will not submit to her rural plebiscites. You see it; the question is no longer to know which of our mandate is the most regular. We say to you the revolution is made; but we are not usurper s. We wish to call upon Paris to name her representatives. Will you aid us, and proceed with us to consult the elections? We eagerly accept your cooperation.’ As he spoke of autonomous communes and their federation, ‘Have a care,’ said Millière, ‘if you unfurl this flag they will launch all France upon Paris, and I foresee days fatal as those of June [1848]. The hour of the social revolution has not yet struck. Progress is obtained by slower marches. Descend from the heights where you have placed yourselves. Victorious today, your insurrection may be vanquished tomorrow. Make as much of it as you can, but do not hesitate to content yourselves with little. I adjure you to leave the field open to the union of the mayors and deputies; your confidence will be well placed.’

One of the Committee: ‘Since the social revolution has been spoken of, I declare our mandate does not go so far.’ (Others of the Committee, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ ‘No! No!’) ‘You have spoken of a federation, of Paris as a free town. Our duty is more simple. It is to proceed to the elections. The people will afterwards decide on their action. As to yielding to the deputies and mayors, this is impossible. They are unpopular and have no authority in the Assembly. The elections will take place with or without their concurrence. Will they help us? We will receive them with open arms. If not, we shall do without them, and, if they attempt to obstruct our way, we shall know how to reduce them to impotency.’

The delegates resisted. The discussion grew hot. ‘But, in fine,’ said Clémenceau, ‘what are your claims? Do you confine your mandate to asking the Assembly for a municipal council?’

Many of the Committee: ‘No! No!’ ‘We want,’ said Varlin, ‘not only the election of the municipal council, but real municipal liberties, the suppression of the prefecture of police, the right of the National Guard to name its own leaders and to reorganize itself, the proclamation of the Republic as the legal Government, the pure and simple remittance of the rents due, an equitable law on overdue bills, and the Parisian territory banned the army.’

Malon: ‘I share your aspirations, but the situation is perilous. It is clear that the Assembly will listen to nothing as long as the Committee occupies the Hôtel-de-Ville. If, on the contrary, Paris entrusts herself again to her legal representatives, I believe they could do more than you.’

The discussion was protracted until half-past ten; the Committee defending its right to proceed to the elections, the delegates their pretension of superseding the Committee. They at last agreed that the Committee should send four of its members to the second arrondissement. Varlin, Moreau, Arnold, and Jourde were appointed.

There they found the whole staff of Liberalism: deputies, mayors, and adjuncts; Louis Blanc, Schoelcher, Carnot, Peyrat, Tirard, Floquet, Desmarets, Vautrain, and Dubail, about sixty altogether. The cause of the people there had a few partisans, sincere, but terribly dismayed by the uncertain future. The mayor of the second arrondissement, Tirard, presided, a Liberal, nervous, haughty, one of those who had helped to paralyse Paris in the hands of Trochu. In his evidence before the Rural Committee of Inquiry, he has mutilated, travestied this sitting, where the Radico-Liberal bourgeoisie laid bare all its baseness. We shall now, for the instruction of and in justice to the people, give the plain truth.

The delegates: ‘The Central Committee does not wish anything better than to come to an agreement with the municipalities, if they will proceed with the elections.’

Schoelcher, Tirard, Peyrat, Louis Blanc, all the Radicals and Liberals in chorus: ‘The municipalities will not treat with the Central Committee. There is only one authority – the union of the mayors invested with the delegation by the Government.’

The delegates: ‘Let us not discuss the point. The Central Committee exists. We have been named by the National Guard and we hold the Hôtel-de-Ville. Will you proceed to make the elections?’

‘But what is your programme?’

Varlin set it forth. He was attacked from all sides. The four delegates had to face twenty assailants. The great argument of the Liberals was that Paris could not convoke herself, but ought to wait for the permission of the Assembly. A reminiscence this of the times of the siege, when they fell prone before the Government of the Defence.

The delegates affirmed, on the contrary: ‘The people has the right to convoke itself. It is an undeniable right, which it has more than once made use of in our history in moments of great peril, and at present we are passing through such a crisis, since the Assembly of Versailles is making for monarchy.’

Then recriminations followed: ‘You are now face to face with force,’ said the delegates. ‘Beware of letting loose a civil war by your resistance.’ ‘It is you who want a civil war,’ replied the Liberals. At midnight Moreau and Arnold, quite disheartened, withdrew. Their colleagues were about to follow, when some adjuncts entreated them to stay. ‘We promise,’ said the mayors and deputies, ‘to make every effort to obtain the municipal elections with the shortest delay.’ ‘Very well,’ answered the delegates, ‘but we maintain our position; we want guarantees.’ The deputies and mayors, growing obstinate, pretended that Paris must surrender unconditionally. Jourde was about to retire, when some of the adjuncts again detained him. For a moment they seemed to be coming to an understanding. The Committee was to give up all the administrative services to the mayors, and let them occupy one part of the Hôtel-de-Ville; itself, however, was to continue sitting there, to retain the exclusive direction of the National Guard, and to watch over the security of the town. This agreement only required to be confirmed by the issue of a common proclamation, but when the heading of the latter came to be discussed, the contest grew more violent than before. The delegates proposed, ‘The deputies, mayors, and adjuncts, in accord with the Central Committee.’ These gentlemen, on the contrary, desired to hide themselves behind a mask. For an hour Louis Blanc, Tirard, and Schoelcher overwhelmed the delegates with indignities. Louis Blanc cried to them, ‘You are insurgents against a most freely elected Assembly.[92] We, the regular mandatories, we cannot avow a transaction with insurgents. We should be willing to prevent a civil war, but not to appear as your auxiliaries in the eyes of France.’ Jourde answered the manikin that this transaction, in order to be accepted by the people of Paris, must be publicly consented to, and, despairing of making anything out of this meeting, withdrew.

And amongst this elite of the liberal bourgeoisie, former exiles, publicists, historians of our revolutions, not one indignant voice protested, ‘Let us cease these cruel disputes, this barking at a revolution. Woe to us if we do not recognize the force manifesting itself through unknown men! The Jacobins of 1794 denied it, and they perished; the Montagnards of 1848 abandoned it, and they perished; the Left under the Empire, the Government of the National Defence, disdained it, and our integrity as a nation has perished. Let us open our eyes, our hearts; let us break out of the beaten track. No; we will not widen the gulf that the days of June, 1848, and the Empire have placed between us and the workmen. No; with the disasters of France in view, we shall not allow her living forces still in reserve to be touched. The more abnormal, monstrous our situation is, the more we are bound to find the solution, even under the eye of the Prussian. You, the Central Committee, who are the spokesmen of Paris, we, who are listened to by Republican France, we will mark out a field for common action. You supply the force, the broad aspirations, we the knowledge of realities and their inexorable behests. We shall present to the Assembly this charter free from all Utopian views, equally regardful of the rights of the nation and of those of the capital. If the Assembly rejects it, we shall be the first to make the elections, to ask for your suffrage. And when France sees Paris raising her force counterpoised by prudence at her Hôtel-de-Ville, vigorous newcomers allied with men of old repute, the only possible bulwark against royalists and clericals, she will rise as in the days of the Federation, and at her voice Versailles will have to yield.’

But what was to be expected of men who had not even been able to pluck up sufficient courage to wrench Paris from Trochu? Varlin single-handed had to stand their combined attack. Exhausted, worn out – this contest had lasted five hours – he at last gave way, but under protest. On returning to the Hôtel-de-Ville, he recovered all his wonted energy, his calm intelligence, and told the Committee he now saw the snare, and advised it to reject the pretensions of the mayors and deputies.


[90] Assi, Billioray, Ferrat, Babick, Ed. Moreau, C. Dupont, Yarlin, Boursier, Mortier, Gouhier, Lavalette, F. jourde, Rousseau, C. Lullier, Blanchet, J. Grollard, Barrond, H. Geresme, Fabre, Fougeret, the members present at the morning sitting. The Committee decided later that its publications should bear the names of all its members.

[91] The minutes of the first Central Committee have disappeared, but one of its most assiduous members has restored the principal sittings from memory. It is from his notes, checked by several of his colleagues, that we have taken these details. It is superfluous to say that the minutes published by the Paris journal, which have been used by reactionary historians, are incomplete, inexact, drawn up from hearsay, unintelligent indiscretions, and often from pure imagination. Thus, for instance, they make all the sittings presided over by Assi, attributing to him the principal part, because under the Empire he was very incorrectly supposed to have directed the strike of Creuzot. Assi never had any influence in the Committee.

[92] Verbatim. It is from the little man of Paris that the little man of Versailles borrowed the phrase, completing it himself.

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