The Paris Commune: the Cry of the People

Over the coming three months rs21 will use articles from the Commune’s leading newspaper Le Cri du Peuple to draw out the history of the Paris Commune.

A ceramic portrait of Jules Vallès
Jules Vallès, rue Soufflot, ceramics by Jérome Gulon

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, celebrated in the socialist movement as the first popular revolution to establish a government oriented on the needs of the working class and opposed to the interests of capital. Out of war and siege emerged a new model of society whose innovations in democracy and egalitarianism, however short-lived, have shaped socialist thought. We can continue to learn from the Commune today.

Over the coming three months rs21 will use articles from the Commune’s leading newspaper, Le Cri du peuple (the Cry of the People), to draw out elements of its history. In this first piece we present a commentary by Ian Birchall on the paper and its editor-in-chief, Jules Vallès, and an original translation by rs21 members of a letter to the editor which captures the ferment within Parisian society at the end of February 1871, three weeks before the events which brought the Commune into existence.

Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple

As Marx and Lenin showed, the Paris Commune of 1871 played a vital part in developing the understanding of the state. In Lenin’s words ‘the Commune was able in the space of a few weeks to start building a new, proletarian state machine’. The Commune had no single leader, but was made by many activists from different backgrounds and traditions. As Jules Vallès put it in an article at the end of his life: ‘For every one that is known there are thirty who aren’t. It is these unknowns, those who have no name or past, who only owe it to their conviction, to their instinctive eloquence the fact that they have become leaders of groups, leaders without stripes or epaulettes.’

Vallès himself, a revolutionary journalist and activist, was one of the most interesting figures to play a role in the Commune.

Born in 1832, Vallès was a student in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution; aged just sixteen he moved a resolution in a club for republican youth demanding the abolition of the baccalauréat examination and ‘absolute freedom for childhood’.

He took part in the opposition to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s reactionary coup of 1851 which established the Second Empire – but recalled that when he and his student friends tried to persuade workers to join the opposition, they were told by those who remembered the crushing of the rising in June 1848 that workers had no reason to defend the Republic: ‘Young bourgeois! Was it your father or your uncle who shot and deported us in June?’

After various jobs he became a journalist, launching in 1867 La Rue (the street), which was suppressed by the government. He was twice jailed for articles attacking police brutality and the Empire. He stood unsuccessfully as an election candidate, declaring: ‘I have always been the advocate of the poor, I am becoming the candidate of labour and I shall be the representative of poverty.’

When Napoleon III – as Bonaparte became – launched an ill-fated war against Prussia in 1870, much of the left took a nationalist position, but Vallès was part of the internationalist minority which opposed the war. He described taking part in a demonstration – probably a few hundred at most:

‘I was nearly murdered at a street corner, by a handful of warmongers in whose presence I had screamed my horror of war. They called me a Prussian and would probably have strung me up if I hadn’t told them my name. … We took strips of cloth on which we had written with a stick of wood dipped in a cup of ink: “Long live Peace”, and we marched with them through the streets of Paris. Passers-by attacked us.’

He later noted that by now he was becoming weary of the nationalist anthem from the 1789 Revolution, the Marseillaise:

‘It has become a State anthem. Instead of inspiring volunteers, it leads herds. It is not the alarm sounded by true enthusiasm, but the jingle of a bell round the neck of cattle.’

His comrade in the Commune, Eugène Pottier, would provide a replacement with the Internationale.

When the Commune was proclaimed on 28 March 1871, Vallès was elected a member on the basis of his reputation as a radical journalist. At the same time Le Cri du peuple, launched in February 1871, became one of the most successful papers of the Commune period. In an article of 5 March he declared war on the whole exploitative nature of society: ‘when the poor have no more blood, the rich have no more gold’. It appeared daily until 23 May and up to 100,000 copies were printed. Since it was common to have public readings of newspapers (for the benefit of the fraction of the population who could not read) it probably reached four times that number.

Vallès was a member of various commissions of the Commune, including one devoted to education. There was not much time for the Commune to make reforms in the education system, which under the Second Empire had been tightly controlled to stifle opposition to the regime. But education was taken from the hands of the church and made accessible to all.

Vallès helped to draft a document which advocated ‘Propagation of complete, professional secular education, reconciling freedom of belief, the interests and rights of the child with the freedom and rights of the father of the family.’ (published in Le Cri du peuple, 27 March. The absence of any reference to the mother’s rights perhaps reflects the Commune’s general weakness on the question of women’s equality.)

The Commune’s reforms are sometimes seen as a forerunner of the introduction in the 1880s of secular education – laïcité – which survives to the present-day (sometimes serving as a pretext for Islamophobia). The aim of laïcité was to strengthen the power of the state by taking education out of the hands of the church, in order to use the schools to strengthen the sense of national identity and to prepare pupils to grow up as good soldiers. Nothing could have been further from the intentions of Vallès, who despised nationalism and militarism, and wanted an education system geared to the needs of the child.

When the Commune was crushed in late May Vallès escaped with his life, though he was subsequently sentenced to death in his absence. He spent the next ten years in exile – mainly in London – and continued to write. Among other things he was working on what is generally regarded as his masterpiece, a trilogy of novels based on his own life from childhood to the Commune.

In 1880 there was an amnesty for communards and he returned to Paris. He became a friend of the novelist Émile Zola, and had long discussions with him when Zola was writing Germinal. Germinal ends with the hero, Étienne, going to Paris to work for the First International shortly before the Commune. Perhaps this was as a result of Vallès’s influence.

Vallès continued to be an activist. He supported the two-month strike of Anzin miners in 1884. He also relaunched Le Cri du peuple in association with a member of the younger generation, Sévérine, who was to become one of the first campaigning feminist journalists and an early supporter of abortion rights.

Unfortunately his health was in decline – he suffered from diabetes – and he died aged only 52. Some 60,000 people attended his funeral. As a writer and a revolutionary he was part of the best tradition of those who made the Commune and established the first workers’ state.

The cover of Le Cri du peuple, 23 February, 1871

In Ordinary Times

Jean-Baptiste Clément (1836-1903) was a writer, member of the Commune Council, lifelong socialist militant and author of the song ‘Le Temps de Cerises‘ (The Time of Cherries). [1] The second issue of Le Cri, published on 23 February 1871, carried a letter in which he explained why he felt the newspaper’s title was so appropriate. The lyrical tone of the letter reflects his occupation but also palpably conveys the feelings of a population which had lived through a series of immense traumas.

On 4 September 1870, following the collapse of Napoleon III’s armies in a series of battles and the emperor’s capture at Sedan, a republican Government of National Defense was formed, led by bourgeois politicians and with General Trochu as president. Paris then endured a siege by the Prussians (19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871) which the Government, relocated to Bordeaux and despite its rhetoric, failed to take effective measures to lift. [2] The Government’s eventual surrender to the Prussian army, which continued to occupy the eastern territories of Alsace of Lorraine, was bitterly felt. On 8 February elections to a National Assembly returned a conservative majority. Whilst the majority of Parisian deputies opposed capitulation, ministers led by Adolphe Thiers and Jules Favre set about agreeing terms with the Prussians.

The period of the siege saw the growth of independent workers’ institutions and of the currents which formed the Parisian socialist milieu. The National Guard militia, a body with a tradition of electing its officers, became more working class in composition – recruitment was aided by the provision of a small daily wage to otherwise unoccupied workers. Vigilance Committees were set up to fill the administrative vacuum, seeking out and distributing supplies. [3] On 31 October 1870 followers of the insurrectionist Auguste Blanqui took over the Hôtel de ville (city hall), but lacking both wider support and a plan were ejected by Breton troops loyal to the Government. Clément’s letter, in addition to voicing the pain of Paris’ suffering people, also points toward a newly-discovered sense of self-reliance, dignity and purpose.

To the editor

My dear friend,

In ordinary times you would have called yourself The People; simply ‘the People’, isn’t that so?

The people are strong, righteous and just; yet, the people are nothing when they allow themselves to be muzzled like a little dog and led like a flock of geese.

But in these times of cowardly betrayals and shameful capitulations, you were right to call yourselves the Le Cri du Peuple – of the people who protest, the people who have been sold out, but will not surrender.

The cry of the people, a searing, menacing cry that has not ceased from 4 September until 28 January, and which neither Prussian bayonets nor Mr. Thiers’ schemes could stifle.

A cry mingled with tears and admiration, with patriotism and gratitude, which escaped from the swollen chests at the feet of the Strasbourg statue, crushed here under the weight of flowers of mourning, [4] crushed there under shells and cannonballs!

A cry of hatred and anger to avenge Metz, defended by the brave and delivered up by traitors – by the executor of the lofty works of the empire and he who allowed Sedan, by this Bazaine [5] for whom the bourgeois were already braiding laurels while he cooked up the deal which was to cut off our heroic Alsace!

A cry of indignation, of the homeland in mourning under the windows of the Hôtel de ville – Trochu’s barracks in which sat the very men who were one day to sell us out, to shoot us! The cry of 31 October, stifled at night by Breton hordes and bourgeois bands armed with chassepots, [6] chased by machine guns – murderous escorts which never fail to murder the people, though with which they never answered the Prussian!

A cry of horror from the people in soldiers’ uniform, their weapons at their feet, whilst incompetent and treacherous leaders left our troops to be massacred on the Avron plateau, only to bring them back defeated and demoralised, dispersed in the woods and on the streets of our wrecked villages, just like a gang of Mandrins [7] after a failed robbery!

A cry of the people, with only black bread of bran and oats for rations! A cry of children, wasting away, of exhausted mothers, of emaciated old men dying of poverty misery and cold and poverty whilst the pot-bellied and the privileged, the criminally supplied, live lavishly in their hotels, dying of indigestion at famous restaurants!

A cry of rage and despair from the people betrayed from Sedan to Bourget, from Avron to Montretout! A cry of heroes who want to run to the front but are forced to retreat; a cry of the wounded who fall without being able to take revenge, knowing full well that they will not be avenged! Cries of the dying, as they think: ‘They sold us to the Prussians; they will sell our corpses to their crows!’

A cry of malediction from women and mothers for having given so much, for having suffered so much, only for some to see their husbands, and others their sons, falling on the cobblestones of the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville under the bullets of the Vendeans of Trochu and town constables of the empire, disguised by Jules Favre as Breton Mobiles! [8]

A cry of the people protesting against the capitulation of Paris, against the entry of the Prussian armies, against the infamous act of this rural Assembly which has slipped the government into the tiny shackles of Little Thiers!

That is why you were right to call yourself the Cry of the People.

But, patience, tomorrow, we will call ourselves ‘the people’, the true People.


J.-B. Clément


[1] Mitchell Abidor, Communards (Pacifica, CA, 2010), pp. 288-9.

[2] French socialist and lithographer Emile Aubry stated at a meeting of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in London on 1 November 1870, “the thing which frightened the bourgeoisie was the National Debt that could be incurred by the war. They were afraid that after the war was over the interest would not be paid. If the Prussians would guarantee the payment of the interest on the National Debt, he believed the capitalists would assist them in conquering France.” Documents of the International Working Men’s Association (Moscow, 1964), vol. 4, p. 84.

[3] Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A revolution in democracy (Chicago, IL, 2006), pp. 94-5.

[4] The statue of a female figure called The City of Strasbourg in Place de la Concorde was draped in mourning following the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia.

[5] François Achille Bazaine, Marshal of France, surrendered the last organised French army to Prussia at Metz.

[6] An early type of bolt-action rifle.

[7] Louis Mandrin was a 18th century outlaw and folk hero. Mandrin also means a chuck or spindle used on a metalworking lathe; ‘une bande de Mandrins après un coup manqué’ could also mean a broken spindle, perhaps a reference to the occupation of conscripted soldiers.

[8] The Vendée is a region of western France where reactionary views traditionally held sway. The Gardes Mobiles from Brittany were similarly relied upon by conservative regimes.


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