History and Historiography

The populist spirit of the Paris Commune

By Robert Tombs, Unherd

One hundred and fifty years ago, revolutionaries were far more interested in democracy than feminism and Marx.

When I was a student in Paris, I would spend every 18 March walking the streets of Montmartre, where the Paris Commune was born. I would visit the side street in eastern Paris where the last barricade fell, the Mur des Fédérés against which Communard prisoners were executed, as well as the stones in the Luxembourg Gardens pitted by the bullets of the firing squads.

Sentimental, I know. I think what I found moving was that the Communards, including most of their leaders, were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Here was a crisis not of their making or choosing, but one they seized nonetheless.

At the crack of dawn on 18 March 150 years ago, the French government sent troops to repossess a large number of cannon in the possession of the Paris National Guard, the citizen militia. Crowds of Parisians turned out to stop the troops and, in a panic, the government, the army, the police and the senior civil service fled. Paris was left in the hands of its people.

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