March 1871 saw events of great significance in the history of the working class movement. We refer to the establishment of the Paris Commune of 1871.
On 18 March 1871, when they learned that the regular army was leaving Paris, units of the National Guard moved quickly to take control of the city. The followers of Blanqui, who went quickly to the Latin Quarter and took charge of the gunpowder stored in the Pantheon, and to the Orleans train station. Four battalions crossed the Seine and captured the prefecture of police, while other units occupied the former headquarters of the National Guard at the Place Vendôme, as well as the Ministry of Justice. That night, the National Guard occupied the offices vacated by the government; they quickly took over the Ministries of Finance, the Interior, and War. At eight in the morning the next day, the Central Committee was meeting in the Hôtel de Ville. By the end of the day, 20,000 national guardsmen camped in triumph in the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, with several dozen cannons. A red flag was hoisted over the building.
It still holds a message for us, a message of hope and a message of warning. For the first time, a section of the French working class, owing to a set of favourable circumstances, obtained control of supreme power and held it for a period of three months. Their defeat was due to many causes, chief of which were the unity of the international capitalists against them and the as yet unreadiness of the French working class for a social change in their interests. But the people were not ready for such a fundamental change, and the forces without were too strong. The French Capitalists had made an arrangement with Bismarck under which one of the first stipulations was the pacification of Paris, and accordingly, Bismarck released the captured French troops, who were let loose upon Paris by the Versailles government. The Communards contested with unsurpassed bravery and devotion every foot of ground and resisted for several days after the gates of Paris had been opened by treachery, and bitter was the toll they paid for the rising. The savagery of the government troops even called forth comment from such a conservative paper as the London Times. Such was the vengeance wreaked by the French ruling class for an insurrection that failed. It will be well for the working class to remember the Commune and profit by its lessons.
The great lessons of the Commune of Paris, and its annual celebration helps to bring vividly home to the socialist worker the deep meaning of the class struggle and the ruthlessness of the master class when its interests are threatened. It is by no means the only valuable lesson afforded by that historic tragedy, but it is one that will repay a moment’s attention. On the heads of the Communards mountains of calumny have been heaped. Therefore, it is our duty to vindicate the memory of those brave men and women.