Primary Source Paper:
The 19th century marked a turning point in European history. The industrial revolution was in full swing and was quickly transforming all aspects of society. Skilled workers saw their individual crafts reduced to anonymous assembly line manufacturing. These workers were forced to adjust to a new working class standard with incredibly long working hours and minimum pay. As conditions worsened, many workers turned to the ideas put forth by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. These men promoted the idea of communism, as well as defined the development of two new social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletarian. Their pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, helped to inspire the 1871 Paris uprising that established the Paris Commune. Even though the Paris Commune only lasted a total of three months, this event would hang over Europe for the next twenty plus years, as well as inspire the works of many artists and help to further develop the communist theories put forth by Marx and Engels.
Prior to the Paris Commune, Napoleon III ruled over France from 1852-1870 in the Second French Empire. When Napoleon III took the throne, he hired Georges Haussmann to rebuild Paris. Haussmann widened all the streets in France creating large boulevards which were disadvantageous in the building of barricades, unlike the previous French streets of the French Revolution. This process took about seventeen years to complete, but forever altered the process of uprisings within Paris. During Napoleon III’s rule, the public in France gained the freedom of assembly and the right to strike, which had been illegal until 1864. A wave of strikes occurred in early 1870. That summer, Napoleon III entered into a war against Otto von Bismarck, starting the Franco-Prussian War. During the war, the civilians still living in France suffered from insufficient amounts of food and the spread of diseases. This war resulted in French defeat and Napoleon III was exiled. Prussia demanded that France annex Alsace-Lorraine to Germany as well as pay an indemnity. In February 1871, the French Third Republic began to take shape under Adolphe Thiers, who would later be elected president. Another demand of Prussia’s was that Thiers disband the French Army. He complied with this demand, but the men of the French National Guard did not surrender their guns after the war. Thiers sent troops to collect these guns, but the National Guard had been warned of their arrival by women sympathizers in the nearby market (Merriman). The National Guard then promptly executed two of Thiers’ generals by firing squad. After learning of the executions, Thiers evacuated his troops from Paris. The National Guard and sympathizers then took control of Paris and declared the beginning of the Paris Commune.
The Paris Commune began on March 18, 1871. Those in charge of the Commune refused to accept Thiers’ government’s authority. Since Thiers evacuated his troops before the civilians took over Paris, he was able rally his troops to regain control of Paris – using Haussmann’s boulevards to his advantage. On May 21, Thiers and his troops surrounded the city and began murdering civilians with the smallest connections to the Commune. This began “La Semaine Sanglante” or “The Bloody Week” where over 20,000 people were executed. The Paris Commune was officially dissolved on May 28. A famous French saying that came out of this terrible time was, “A Paris, tout le monde ètait coupable,” (a Paris, everyone was guilty) (Merriman). This would become the largest mass murdering of people by their state until the Armenian genocide in WWI.
One of Edouard Manet’s famous paintings depicts the results of the Paris Commune. His painting The Barricade (1871) is a watercolor that displays “socialist defenders of the Commune [that] were caught and shot at the barricades they patrolled…the soldiers carried out the shooting with detached ruthlessness, which Manet showed to convey the measured approach the government took to eliminate the Commune” (National Galleries). Manet is speaking out against the actions of Thiers’ government, but realizes that in a time so politically violent he cannot afford to publish this painting while still living in France. The significance in this painting does not lie solely with its depiction, but with the context in which Manet received inspiration for it. He watched, and drew, the summary execution as it took place. Rather than just being a painting, it is transformed into an early form of frontline journalism. This painting shows Manet as a war photographer. He gives the audience an insight to the horrors people in Paris were experiencing. Manet eventually published The Barricade which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The pamphlet was written in order to distribute a cohesive communist theory and potential guideline for achieving a classless society. The edition used here was found in the Simpson Library and contains The Communist Manifesto, a translation of the first draft of Friedrich Engels’, The Principles of Communism, and a final section entitled, The Communist Manifesto After 100 Years. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels define two new social classes that have emerged from the industrial revolution and capitalist economy – the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. They state “that the first step in the revolution of the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” (39). In The Principles of Communism, Engels restates that “[the industrial revolution] has to an ever greater degree ruined the old middle class…and two new branches have been created which are gradually swallowing up all the others – big capitalists and the wholly propertyless” (68).
The Paris Commune was one of the first successful examples of the proletariat class overthrowing its oppressor, the bourgeoisie. Although only lasting three months, the Paris Commune helped Marx and Engels to further develop their theories toward a real world application of Communism. After witnessing the events surrounding the rise and fall of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels “added a principle of great importance which was absent from the original, namely, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’” (90). When asked in The Principles of Communism, “What will this new social order have to be like?” Engels responded that “above all, it will have to take control of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals, and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole, according to a common plan, and with participation of all members of a society” (74).
The Paris Commune may not have had long term success, but it had long lasting effects for communist revolutions around the world. Huberman and Sweezy state that “in their last joint preface, Marx and Engels [argued that] by 1882, Russia formed ‘the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe,’ and this development inevitably gave rise to new questions and problems which did not and could not arise within the framework of the original Manifesto” (91). This did not mean that the general principles put forth by the Manifesto were obsolete, but that as society changes, so too will the non-textual application of Communism.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 3rd ed. New York, New York:
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Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “The Principles of Communism.” In The Communist
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Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “The Communist Manifesto After 100 Years.” In The
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24, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clDZl40CJik.
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