The Commune had organised itself into nine Commissions or delegations. The Department of public or municipal services involved the general superintendence of public offices such as the Post Office, the Telegraphs, the Mint, the official printing press, the hospitals. Theisz, a workman, took the direction of the Post Office.
The wages of all employees were at once raised, and the hours shortened. In well-nigh all these services the “superior officials” had made off, thus leaving the work of directing them in the hands of the workmen administrators placed there by the Commune.
Camelinat, bronze worker, took over the Mint, and admirably carried on the business of coining bullion and of engraving postage-stamps.
The hospitals were reorganised and remanned by an old revolutionist named Treilhard.
The Commission of finance was presided over by Jourde, who had been a clerk and accountant. Varlin, a workman agitator, energetic and devoted to the cause, was also an invaluable member of this Commission, which had the task of raising and distributing the requisite funds for the payment of all the services, including the National Guards, and the war expenses generally. The whole was managed by workmen and small clerks at workmen’s wages, and not at the salaries of “boss” middle-class financiers.
The police (public safety) department was under the direction of Raoul Rigault, an ardent young Revolutionist, but without experience and unfitted for such an important post
Decrees of the Commune were not given effect to. For instance, journals suppressed in the morning were allowed to be sold in the evening.
The only thing that was not forgotten by this department as by the whole movement was the humanitarian ideal of doing good to those that revile you and persecute you. The Commune supported the wives and families of the men who were fighting against it, saying “the Commune has bread for all misery and care for all orphans.”
In the matter of property the department of justice, like the Commune, showed itself almost pedantic. It dismissed a commissary for having sequestrated, police-fashion, the money found on Gustave Chaudey when arrested for having ordered the firing from the Hotel de Ville on the 22 January.
The delegation of justice further instituted a rigorous enquiry into the state of the prisons, and the motives for the arrest of all persons detained.
The Education Department, though it of course at once suppressed religious teaching and emblems in schools, never got beyond the stage of preparation in any constructive programme.
Elise Réclus and Benoit Gastineau took excellent charge of the Bibliothéque Nationale, and Gustave Courbet, the painter, with a committee of artists, superintended the museums and picture-galleries.
Some of the arrondissements were more active than the Education Committee itself. One of them, at its own motion, instituted free clothing and feeding for the children.
Another, in an excellent memorandum, declared it the mission of the school of the Revolutionary Commune to teach children to love their fellow creatures, to love justice, and to bring home to them the duty of improving themselves, not for the sake of personal advancement, “but in the interests of all.”
At the same time teachers were instructed in future to exclusively employ “the experimental and scientific method, that which starts from facts physical, moral, and intellectual.”
The delegation which did most work and which succeeded more than any other in giving expression to the Socialistic principles embodied in the revolution of 18 March was undoubtedly that of “Labour and Exchange,” presided over by the Austrian, Leo Frankel.
This delegation systematically set to work to collect and arrange information concerning the condition of labour, and the precise relations existing in all trades between employer and workman.
Its report recommended the suppression of the pawnshops, since the revolution of the Commune implied the speedy establishment “of a social organisation giving serious guarantees of support to workmen out of employment.” The Commune, it proclaimed, implied the rescue of workmen from the exploitation of capital.
The Labour department further procured the prohibition of night work for bakers, and made fines and stoppages of wages illegal. At its instigation the Commune decreed the confiscation of factories and workshops not in actual use, and their immediate handing over to trade-syndicates of workmen to be conducted on a co-operative basis. This decree, although defective enough in its details, nevertheless, for the first time in history, affirmed the principle of the expropriation of the capitalist class by the working class, and it is for this reason of epoch-making importance.
And what was the city of Paris like during the Commune? Quiet, peaceful, and, what is more, almost wholly free from crime. The last fact is admitted by friends and foes alike. Middle-class Englishmen with no sympathy for the Commune have been reluctant witnesses to the safety and good order maintained throughout the whole city during the two months that the Revolution was master.
Quarters, where at other times when “order” prevails, assaults are of frequent occurrence and prostitution is rife, could he traversed without molestation of any kind night or day.
While the Versailles organs were daily demanding the wholesale slaughter of Parisians, one looks in vain through all the revolutionary journals for a single bloodthirsty suggestion.
The churches, closed for the farce of a Christian worship no longer seriously believed in and become solely the instrument for maintaining popular ignorance and subserviency, we find transformed into public halls, in which the pulpits, hung with red, are occupied by preachers of the gospel, not of Christ, but of revolutionary socialism.
Revolutionary hymns are sung to organ accompaniment. The Tuileries, the late home of the vulgar and ostentatious profligacy of king and emperor, are now used to serve as free concert rooms for the people.
Such was the Paris of the Commune!
The Versaillese had meanwhile opened new batteries, and the line of fire was slowly but steadily drawing closer round Paris.
In addition to their military operation, the Versaillese were not indisposed to rely on the work of spies in endeavouring to effect an entry into the city by means of treachery. Some of them having attempted to corrupt Dombrowski, they were denounced by him to the Committee of Public Safety. This was about the last attempt made by Thiers to gain over Paris by treachery. He saw it was no use.
Meanwhile the discussions in the council-room between the “majority” and “minority” in the Commune were more acrimonious than ever. At its sitting on 10 May, the Commune reconstructed the Committee of Public Safety. The “majority” persisted in their attitude of suspicion towards the “minority”, and the reconstructed Committee again contained only members of the “majority.”
The Commune, however, and all belonging to it, seemed to think it bore a charmed life; and hence, without seriously applying themselves to the one serious question of the hour, the defence of Paris, went on passing decrees of a useful and ornamental nature-many of which were excellent in themselves, but few of which were timely.
Among the best of what may be termed the “symbolical” measures was a decree passed by the Commune for the destruction of the Vendome Column.
Erected to celebrate the victories of the first Napoleon in his wars of wanton aggression, it was very properly regarded as a standing insult, not only to every other European nationality, but, before all, to a revolution based on the principles of internationalism.
On the afternoon of 16 May a large crowd of Parisians in the Rue de la Paix and in the Place de la Concorde, saw the emblem of aggressive patriotism kiss the earth. The national flag of the bourgeoisie, the statue of Napoleon, and the column itself were alike lying in fragments on a vast bed of dung, appropriately prepared for them.
On the 15th, the previous day, the dispute between the “minority” and “majority” ended in the withdrawal of the “minority. Their manifes declared that the Commune had abdicated its functions into the hands of an irresponsible Committee. “As for us,” it went on to say, “we, no less than the ‘majority,’ desire the accomplishment of political and social reconstruction; but, contrary to its notions, we claim the right to be solely responsible for our acts before our electors without sheltering ourselves behind a supreme dictatorship which our mandate permits us neither to accept nor to recognise.”
The manifesto concluded: “We all, majority or minority, notwithstanding our divergences as to policy, pursue the same object, political liberty, and the emancipation of the workers.” “Long live the Social Republic! Long live the Commune!”
The reason given by the minority for withdrawing was absurd. They had themselves voted for the second Committee of Public Safety. This pedantic Parliamentarism and horror of dictatorship moreover was utterly ridiculous in the crisis through which the movement was passing. In principle there is no doubt whatever, that a strong dictatorship was just what the situation demanded. The action of the minority in allowing their personal spleen to get the better of them, even granting that provocation had been given, was a great blow to the influence of the Commune, both internally and externally, and was naturally the occasion of much “crowing” on the part of the friends of “order” at Versailles and elsewhere.
Most of the signatories came back, recognising their error. Within two days the majority of them came back at the Hotel de Ville. The public meetings they had called the previous evening in the arrondissement; had by no means endorsed their action.
This sitting of the 17 May was the fullest the Commune ever had, sixty-six members answering to their names. Unhappily it was mainly occupied with personal recriminations between the two factions, till it was abruptly terminated at 7 o’clock in the evening by the blowing up of the powder manufactory in the Avenue Rapp, which shook Paris from end to end.
This article will be continued in the next issue of Solidarity