1886 Article about the Paris Commune


March 1997
Vol. 106 No. 12





History, such as it is, has traduced the citizens of Paris, but the history that is written to please an aristocracy is not a reliable history. It might be urged, on the other hand, that a history written to please the people of Paris was equally unreliable. The following tribute to truth from the pen of Frank Pixley, an American, editor of the San Francisco ARGONAUT, which is not by any means biased in favor of the organized workers, will therefore be read with peculiar interest, and it will, no doubt, be "gathered up for history" in the true account of the gallant struggle for rational municipal administration of affairs made by the workingmen of Paris. Says Mr. Pixley:

The Commune is held up as the personification of misrule and destruction. Communists are represented as the worst element of city life that delight in bloodshed and conflagration, and Paris of 1871 is described as a scene of frightful disorder, submitting to anarchy and murder.

I was present in the city of Paris during the entire period that the Commune held sway. I was there from the day of the entry of the Germans till the arms of Versailles destroyed the Commune, and the experiment of communal government was wiped out of existence by the death of 40,000 citizens who fell in battle in the streets of the capital of France.

I saw that great city of central Europe held for five weeks by the men of Vilette, Montmartre and the Faubourg St. Antoine; by the artisans and laborers who, for the first time in 17 years, had the opportunity to bear arms. There was the Bank of France, with its hoarded wealth of coin, the house of Rothschild, the Bank of the Hopes of Amsterdam; there were the great magazines and the storehouses filled with costly fabrics; shops with jewels of untold value; palaces with costliest gems of art; pictures and marbles of inestimable price. There was a vast population, which for months had endured privation, hunger and distress. The gendarmerie had been driven out, and there was no other government but that of the Commune.

And yet during five weeks -- weeks of menace from without and suffering within -- I saw and heard of no single act of pillage and murder.

For five weeks the great forts of the enciente sent their destructive missiles to the heart of the city. From the Trocadero, on a Sunday afternoon, to Pere la Chaise, the Commune soldiers contested against the Versailles troops. From barricade to barricade, from one open space to another, fighting inch by inch, the soldiers of the Commune, with their wives fighting by their sides, sullenly disputing every stone, block and curbstone, retreated to the cemetery, and there, amid the graves of the dead, the last of the communists laid down their lives in hopeless, desperate valor.

They may have been wrong and misguided, but that they were thieves, murderers and incendiaries, I most indignantly deny.

During the five weeks I saw no act of vandalism; I saw no plunder; I saw organization and order.

During the week of government victory I saw scenes of unparalleled brutality. I saw a hundred inexcusable bloody acts. I saw a well-dressed matron stabbed to death in the back and her body flung like a dead beast into an open porte cochere because she lagged behind in the train of prisoners. I saw five little girls lying dead in a heap near the Palais d'Industrie, with their little petticoats thrown over their faces, shot as petroleuses, by Versailles soldiers. I saw a man torn from his carriage and killed by a hundred deadly bayonet thrusts. I saw hundreds and hundreds of communists fusiladed and buried in a trench near the river Seine. I saw every sublieutenant of the army of France armed with the power to arrest, try and execute citizens, and this after the fight was over. I have read the death decrees and the decrees of exile that for five years followed the communist uprising.

I do not believe that the communists burned or attempted to burn Paris. I believe that the whole petroleum story comes from an absurd scare.

The war of the Commune was to the Great Revolution what the mad raid of John Brown was to our Civil War. It was the first electric burst from the overcharged clouds. It will ultimate in the adoption of all the great principles for which the Commune contended.

The Commune was composed of the scholars and thinkers of France. It was a band of patriots. If it had in it the mad element of fanaticism, it may be excused. If oppressed labor classes looked to it for relief, it was but natural. If fanaticism and disorder enrolled themselves to fight under its banner, it was because it was the first and only flag where they might enlist. If poverty, distress and desperation looked to it for a change, it was but rational

The history of the Commune is written by its enemies. Like all lost causes, it will be misrepresented. What there was of good in it will be suppressed. What there was of bad will be exaggerated.

The effort of an eyewitness, at this time and in these columns, is but a feeble effort at stemming the tide and current of opprobrium running against the communists of Paris. Nearly all the press of England and America, nearly every pulpit in Christendom, has denounced the Commune. The press has thundered its anathemas against it, and the throne of God has been bombarded from every Catholic and Protestant priest and preachers' desk with unstinted censure.

Why the Roman Church should do so I may guess. Why the Protestant should I do not understand.

This little fragmentary scrap of observation may be gathered up for history, and may help to swell the protest that in the interest of truth may sometime be made.

To the facts of which I speak I bear testimony of a living witness. Of this Commune I was a part. I helped to build the barricade at the Place de l'Opera. It was begun by a woman in a purple frock, and a lad of perhaps 14 years of age. The rule was that every passer-by should add a stone from the Belgian pavement of which the boulevard was made. I made occasion to pass often. From my window in the Hotel de Hollande, rue de la Paix, I saw the bloody fight of the Place de l'Opera. At this barricade I saw this woman bring water, load the guns and bear away the empty ones, and when the soldiers of the Commune were beaten off, I saw this purple-gowned amazon, with disheveled hair and bloody arms, alone defend the ramparts that she had aided to raise until she was stabbed to death with bloody bayonets.

I rode to two midnight sorties with Dombrowski, and I breakfasted with Ockelowitz in the Place Vendome, for the Americans had the universal pass with the officers and soldiers of the Commune. I treated a regiment of Vilette to a half-cask of red wine. It was cheap, and I was paid in hearing them cheer the toast I gave them in bad French -- "The Two Republics -- The Republic of France and the Grand Republic of America."

I shall live to see its realization.

I rode in an open voiture at midnight to the heights of the Boulevard de Montmartre to witness the artillery duel between it and Valerian. I met with polite attention; I was not robbed.

Let London or New York, or San Francisco fall under control of its worst citizens, and we should see scenes of pillage, rapine, violence, drunkenness, theft and murder. Yet in this great rich city of Paris, given over to the Commune for five weeks, with all its wealth and wine, I saw order, sobriety and respect to persons and property.

Hence, I feel it my duty to say that communism does not mean a forcible and unlawful distribution of property, nor is the word communism a synonym for every crime.

-- Frank Pixley