Lecture notes: The socio-political forces that made the Paris Commune

Paul Mason
12 min readMay 15, 2021

Outline of a talk at the Critical University 15 May 2021

If we go back to March 18th, and look at the famous imagery of the National Guard on their barricades, we’re only seeing one half of the story. This is the French labour movement as it saw itself: orderly, respectable and quite obviously gendered — the men have the guns, flags and uniforms, the women and children stand to the side.

The battalions were rooted in local communities but, as Martin Phillip Johnson shows, there was a lot of crossover — so that a man in one area might actually travel to be with friends in another area’s battalion. Which suggests they were based both on community and workplace.

But March 18th itself, and the subsequent trajectory of the Commune as a revolutionary government, involved a completely different demographic: la canaille, the mob: the shanty-dwelling ultra poor, including migrants from outside Paris, overlapped with the classic bohemia of artists, impoverished law students, registered sex workers, slum children… and nobody took their photos, although they drew them.

In my part of this session, I want to discuss the politics and the demographics of the movement that made the Commune, and what we can learn from it. It’s important to say here that, if you’ve only learned about the Commune from reading, say Lissagaray, or Marx, the social revolution, gender etc aspects of the commune are completely sidelined, and so the political debates also become inexplicable.

Let’s start by sketching the timeline between the 1848 Revolution and the Commune.

The February 1848 Revolution overthrows the King and creates the Second Republic. By June, the workers and bourgeoisie are at war, and the workers get massacred. Two years of chaos — Louis Napoleon takes power. He’s elected president, but converts himself into the Emperor — founding the Second Empire.

Paul Mason

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Author of How To Stop Fascism.