The Paris Commune as a Product of Varied Tensions

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8 min read

Published: Nov 6, 2018

Words: 1512|Page: 1|8 min read

Published: Nov 6, 2018

Following the defeat of France that toppled the Empire of Louis Bonaparte, German soldiers were sent in to occupy France. The temporary government set up by Adophe Thiers wanted to fully cooperate with the German army, which angered many Parisians. As protests and general resistance began to increase, especially among French workers who had fought in the National Guard, Thiers’s government decided to send in their own soldiers to disarm the left-leaning National Guard and people of Paris, who had been rightfully skeptical of longtime politician Thiers’s Versaille-based republic turning back into a monarchy or aristocracy.

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Fighting between the National Guard, the Versaille army, and the remnants of the French Army broke out after the National Guard and workers of Paris had peacefully refused to surrender their weapons and Theirs declared war on the city of Paris. On March 26th, 1871, a democratic council of workers and soldiers of Paris, called the Paris Commune, was elected in a landslide. This was the first worker’s state to be established in history.

The Paris Commune quickly took many measures against the former aristocracy and hostile military forces, declaring a total separation of church and state, setting a salary cap of 6,000 francs for any member of government, abolished Paris’s tyrannical morality police, and banned all practice of religion in schools. Furthermore, they began to take steps to protect workers and continue industrialization: a national union was formed, factories were re-opened as cooperatives, mandatory conscription was done away with, worker’s registration cards were abolished, and free education, materials, and food were provided for all children.

Answering the question as to how much of the Paris commune was a direct product of an accumulation in tensions and frustrations characterized by class conflict can only answer the question partially and would usually lead to an implicit narrowing in perspective, as well as a possible undermining of the culmination in identities, ideologies and loyalties that shaped the people of Paris in the years leading to the establishment of the commune. Thus, making the commune a product of varied tensions; some of which revolve around class and economic struggle, of which its opposition was heavily mobilized by if not purely Marxist sympathies then most certainly leftist, as well as the clashes of national identity and cultural politics within an ever-evolving nation whom in times of national crisis seemed to forcefully unify under the divine sacrament of patriotism, which usually came at the expense of a either civil unrest or extreme economic hardship. Suspended by a thin thread, mitigating circumstances via provisional arrangements of one sort or another, only to go to and fro between one radical ‘universally’ acknowledged political attitude that was deemed best for the whole, with little accommodation to the hybridity of the emergingly divergent Parisian cultural composition, which in many ways lived, ideologically at least, in a parallel reality to the rest of France. The argument I would like to raise in this essay, is the extent and limitations of influence that Marxian class conflict as a concept actually had within the formation of the commune, and what are the more culturally formative stresses in place, which gradually and passively mounted on mass consciences; whether cultural, political, or economic that led to the almost symbolic Parisian constructed institution that legitimized itself as the sole revolutionary voice and body of France, informed by the history of the Franco-Prussian war, Theirs’ provisional government and the commune’s short lived reign, in an attempt to trace the intersection back to a time further than 1871 as a means to show how contracted conflict contributes to the fragmentation of a nation and the making the commune more a product of a uniquely organized and successful mob rebellion (albeit shot lived) triggered predominately by a sense of nostalgia and idealism, making the commune more of a social space that was able to maintain and carry through the anarchist revolutionary culture of Paris.

It would take France 77 years following the first French revolution of 1792, two empires, two more revolutions, several unsuccessful uprisings, seven coalition wars and nine monarchs before the last of France’s autocratic past left her in 1870 with the exile of Napoleon the third following the devasting blow to the country’s prestige and position globally rendered by its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. The war itself, based on several accounts was doomed from the start, and its outcomes proved to be disastrous to both France’s already fragile national identity and its governing power. The war ultimately led to the collapse of the second empire and a reinforcement of general distrust within the public towards elites, this was not nesseailry newly found because of the defeat, According to John Merriman in Massacre, the war was triggered due to a sense of Decadentism on the emperor’s behalf to restore the balance of power back to a time when France seemed to triumph over continental Europe, but he also states that “The French Emperor had other reasons for wanting a war. His empire had been further weakened by the growing strength of republicans and socialists in France”, The threat hence was as internal as it was external. The French, notably mentioned in Massacre ‘The Parisians’ also seemed to portray a sort of Decadentism of their own, “Many ordinary Parisians, too, seemed to want war, including some republicans. Crowds sang the Marseillaise, which been forbidden in imperial France because it was identified with republicanism and the French Revolution. The popular mood and the expectation victory were reflected by one publisher's decision to produce a French Dictionary for the Use of the French in Berlin” . The war started roughly around the end of July of 1870, with the primitive move of French troops to Rhine, and following a series of nonsequential victories to the French, the Prussians took hold of victor status and by the time August came, demoralization of French troops was at its peak and talk of a revolution arouse once again in a Paris still under threat of Prussian invasion and by the time September came, the emperor surrendered at Sedan. Within the organization and mobilisation of the war itself, I believe the issues and clashes within recruited troops and their leaders cannot be passively dismissed, because it shows how when a lack of belief or trust is integrated into mass awareness, leads to radical conclusions or ideological rafts between people carrying divided loyalties and prejudices, this is not majorly the reason why France lost to Prussia, the obvious lack of organization and overestimation coupled with an underestimation of Prussian efficiency and warfare advancement on the French part to win this war was certainly a primary reason as to why they lost, but this I believe goes hand and hand with the build-up of difference that led to the almost immediate demoralization and hopelessness of French soldiers, who entered a war hopeful of reclaiming something, and left it with a severe sense of disappointment. Also, again, clarified by Merriman in the following observation “Military complacency had set in and traditional routines took over. The officer corps was ridden by cliques, intensified by tensions between aristocratic officers and men of ordinary social origins and expectations - lower-middle-class, workers and paysans”. The war seemed to have reaped no benefits to the French besides an awakening of the rebel suppressed in the capital during the tenure of the second empire, the notion of war being a monumental event that forces a people into unification because of a sense of duty and diligence did not characterize the Franco Prussian war at the slightest. It did however highlight an apparent attitude contrast between Parisian city dwellers and their neighbouring provincial cityones, whom besides having a slightly more diverse ethnographic reality due to different their geographical positions, and also the impacts of empire and its ability to hybridize culture, had completely different alliances and loyalties, one that the capital’s radicalistic parties did not seem to understand due to their hastiness to dismiss provincial humility and their want to become leaders of their own destiny, eager to correct the mistakes of their pasts. Years of paranoia, of a fear of revert, of a narrowness, to be finally salvaged by spaced created in communities to voice and exist, how where they to allow yet another revert? Idealism and partisan loyalty developed into a mania that would carry them through well into the establishment of the Paris commune.

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Unfortunately, the Paris Commune was under attack by Theirs’s renewed army, and fell by May 28th of 1871. Although there was resistance by the National Guard, it was far too late to win a decisive victory, and over thirty thousand unarmed Parisians were shot and killed in the streets of Paris at the hands of the Versaille army following the surrender. Initially, the Commune had attempted peaceful negotiation and resistance and was horribly unprepared for a military invasion, which lead to its defeat. This fatal flaw was taken into account by later revolutionaries, including Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh, who all brutally crushed military threats, oftentimes going too far and unnecessarily taking human life in the name of revolution.

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The History of the Paris Commune During the German Army’s Occupation of France. (2022, December 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“The History of the Paris Commune During the German Army’s Occupation of France.” GradesFixer, 02 Dec. 2022,
The History of the Paris Commune During the German Army’s Occupation of France. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
The History of the Paris Commune During the German Army’s Occupation of France [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 02 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from:
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