The Paris Commune: Rent Strike!

rs21 members present three new translations from Le Cri du peuple (The Cry of the People), the leading newspaper of the Paris Commune.

Image: gallica.bnf.fr

At the start of March 1871, in the period between the conclusion of the peace treaty between the National Assembly and the Prussians and the establishment of the Commune, the question of whether the Assembly would repeal the moratorium on the payment of rents and other debts was much discussed. During the siege of Paris by Prussian forces it had been necessary for the Government to defer these payments because no work was to be found. As Donny Gluckstein writes, of a population of one and a half million, ‘900,000 people had come to depend on the tiny salary of 1 ½ franc per day paid to each main serving in the National Guard’, in a city ‘where 19 out of 20 were tenants who paid rents on a quarterly basis’. [1]

The question was reflected in the pages on Jules Vallès’ newspaper Le Cri du peuple, which established a section called The Tenants’ Tribune. Here we present three translations from Le Cri: two letters from the Tenants’ Tribune and an editorial by Vallès. The first letter, from a landlord arguing for the rights of property owners, is of interest in that it demonstrates Vallès’ attitude to freedom of speech, despite his own partisan view. [2]

On 10 March the National Assembly pushed through the repeal, and ‘two or three hundred thousand workmen, shopkeepers, model makers, small manufacturers working in their own lodgings, who has spent their little stock of money and could not yet earn more, all business being at a standstill, where thus thrown on the tender mercies of the landlord, of hunger and bankruptcy.’ [3] This move was a significant factor in alienating Paris from the National Assembly and paving the way for the Commune.

From issue 11 (5 March 1871)

Once and for all, let it be understood that Le Cri du peuple does not in any way take responsibility for the opinions that its correspondents express on the very serious and delicate question of rents.

Le Cri du peuple opened a forum in which everyone can talk. It is up to the public alone to come to conclusions, because even when a proposal appears, at first glance, eccentric or precipitate, the future may prove it to be right. In any case, it had the absolute right to be put forward.

Citizen editor,

Here is a serious question, if there ever was one, that deserves to be examined from the point of view of strict law. Many tenants would not be subject to legal action by their landlords, and in all cases, as payments of the current term cannot be made due to a lack of work for the masses of workers, the result is a conflict which seems severely detrimental to workers and landlords.

Let us faithfully examine the element of the cause.

Paris is encircled, besieged. All of the city’s forces are concentrated in the hands of the Government of National Defense, which has the most extensive powers to use, and even abuse, property. It requisitions provisions and housing, and overissues banknotes to meet the needs of defenders.

It is undeniable that, while this Defense lasted, those who had no housing or who were forced to move from their homes due to shelling, were immediately provided with accommodation at the expense of the Defense. Do people who have retained their original housing, thanks to the landlord’s consent, owe more rent than the other defenders, such as soldiers, Guardes Mobiles, and sailors? Obviously no.

But it does not follow that the landlord should lose their rent. The Defense had barracks built to house its troops. This represents a rent, even a very high one, for the Defense in particular; and it had to spend the necessary amount of money for housing in the form of construction capital.

Nothing could be fairer than the National Guards, who gave up all work to dedicate themselves to the Defense, having their rents during the war paid by the common masses, that is to say by the state, since the defense was national in character.

The state has taxes to guarantee its loans, but at the same time, it uniformly distributes disasters which particularly affected certain parts of the territory over all taxable people. It is not fair for certain administrative regions of the south and the west, which did not suffer from the presence of the enemy, to not endure common sufferings.

In the meantime, landlords who evict their tenants for failing to pay their rent, thereby deny themselves the benefit of a distributive law which could act in their favour.

Blancho, 21, Rue de Seine

From issue 13 (7 March)

Citizen editor,

I am writing to ask you to include a few lines in your brave newspaper, because one has to be truly courageous to deal with the issues of poor evicted tenants, and to tell the truth, as it is, about the government of national shame.

This is why I hope that your newspaper will be my medium, and that, among the thousands of readers who will read these lines, there will be some in the same position, and others will be moved by compassion after hearing our cries of distress. I have been staying in the same house for three years, I have always paid rent, until this cursed war happened for reasons beyond my control. I have since endured all its consequences: hunger, cold, illness. I have suffered more than I could, and I have no hope of recovering.

I am a machinist, widowed for six years, not entitled to the 75 centimes [pension] of the spouses of the National Guard, without work, without money, deprived of everything, suffering everything, rather than stooping so low as to ask for something. I can’t help myself, I could never become a beggar.

You might wonder what I have been living on. Ah! I needed to take my courage in both hands to escape the vigilance of the caretaker and to be able to pawn or sell anything I could without being seen. Only hunger can push you to such thoughts. And when you are made to go back up with your package, that day you have to go without eating.

The caretaker is among the fortunate people of this world, he has a warm fire and good food.

‘War! What is that!’ he says, ‘on 8 April, you will pay three terms, you will leave your furniture without touching a single thing.’ This is what the landlady of the house I live in wants. She needs money; she cannot wait; she counts on taking ownership of the furniture, which is why she did not plead her case in front of a Justice of the Peace, where I wanted to make an arrangement to pay a certain amount of money per month.

I cannot, says this worthy magistrate – the landlady is not here, and also she has waited for so long. It would constitute a serious attack on property rights.

Please accept my kindest regards, Mr Editor.

Widow Pasquet

From issue 14 (8 March)

On 8 January of last year, two days before the murder of Victor Noir [4], I published an article titled Le Terme in the Marseillaise, which addressed the dire question of rents, by threatening landlords and the government with a strike which, at a certain day at noon, would jeopardise the social order.

I remember that two lawyers, Jules Ferry and Clément Laurier, were reading this article in the lobby, laughing at my ideas and my threats. I also recall that the proletarians came up to me, quite moved, to thank me. It seems that I had conveyed their anguish with feeling, and shown, in all its shabby horror, the pain that grips the hearts and breaks the arms of the poor when they are evicted, in all its meanspirited horror.

I wrote the following:

Judgement has been drawn up; the bailiff arrives. There are only four or five in Paris who dare to perform this grim task. Four or five, such as those who erect the guillotine.

The bailiff is coming!

He takes everything: the rags hanging from a nail and the armchair where the grandmother used to sleep, he takes the workbench and the clock, he takes the soup from the soup tureen, and the baby vests on the cradle.

If, in order to bring down the uncomfortable bed which is left to him, the man throws his smock on a chair, the bailiff takes that smock from the chair.

When everything is sealed and marked for sale, if the desperate man screams:
You have everything, but let me stay within these walls, a week, a fortnight, even a month, I will work to the point of death. Without a home, I will have no work, and my children will starve and die of cold. I will work to the point of wearing my eyes out, to the point of burning my hands.

It is the police commissioner who answers these cries and prayers of the wretched; policemen come up, with clubs in their pockets and swords at their sides.

We must get out of here, do you hear? We must leave this black hole which reeked of fever, where rain fell and wind blew: but we were not on the streets at least, and we all got under the blankets together when it was freezing.

We had gotten used to this dim light, to this fetid air, and there was even a pot of basil blooming at the window. The neighbours had a truly good heart, they looked after the children when the mother went to work.

It is over: the sky is above their heads and mud is under their feet. Raggedly dressed, this whole family of workers sits against the drain.

If these proletarians wanted though.

There are 30,000 rich people who hold the spoil of the homeland over an area of thirty square leagues. There are 1,400,000 of us that they exploit and ruin, 1,400,000!

They have been patient, but this very day the poor know their worth, that work is everything, and that there is no fortune that does not have its roots in the fertile mud of the suburbs.

The bourgeoisie, which has been a queen, must deal with the people who are in the process of becoming king.

Landlords of Paris, the Republic gives you a moment of reflection so that in the face of the authority they despise, the people and the bourgeoisie can reconcile, if possible.
But if you continue to be stubborn and contemptuous, who knows what danger threatens you?

It would be a sinister and silent revolt.

It doesn’t have a name in history yet; it will have one:

RENT STRIKE.

What if on 8 April at noon, the poor collectively declared out loud that they would not pay you?

You would then have to take furniture one by one, the women and their children one by one, send legions of bailiffs to seize goods in the rooms, and herds of agents to drag out human flesh.

Would they succeed at it, bailiffs or policemen?

Let them do it! Here they are, these workers, thrown into the stream on your command, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

They do not shout: To arms! They walk through the neighbourhood or the city, like a regiment of exiles. They camp where they can, in a church or barracks, just in front of the Town Hall.

If they do not relocate or stop, the fires in the factories will be extinguished, the anvils silent, the tool-holders rotten: work is not being done.
And when in Paris work is not being done, it is worse than when in Rome in the past, Romans proclaimed Gallic tumult in the public square.

It is ruin for all, if it is hunger for these nomadic insurgents.

When mothers see that their children are hungry, children must eat, and when they cry in attics or barracks, there might be nestlings that the cannon would not hold back.

Look through your stone gatehouses at the rising tide of the Revolution:

Spare the poor!

——-

Five days after I said that, the man that Pierre Bonaparte had assassinated was buried.
Well, the empire was less threatened by the 150,000 men who, on 12 January, had descended on the Grande-Armée Avenue behind the Rochefort carriage, than the bourgeoisie is threatened today by the misery of the poor who cannot pay all three terms.

We can see it, the Revolution is always right; it does not cause, but predicts, catastrophes.
How can we expose this terrible situation?

We beseech all citizens to raise their voices and to speak out.

All on the bridge!

Will the bourgeoisie want to throw a piece of its cargo into the sea, as in a shipwreck, and in order to save itself, sacrifice the three terms? Or will it risk sinking with the drowning people to the bottom of the abyss?

In any case, the wind is blowing: it is the tempest.

Jules Vallès


Footnotes

[1] Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A revolution in democracy (Chicago, IL, 2006), p. 13

[2] Jules Vallès: ‘I wrote some time ago and I repeat today that I am for the absolute and unlimited freedom of the press. I deeply regret we blocked the reappearance of the Figaro and Le Gaulois, even if they were to laugh at our cannons and call us looters. liberty with no shoreline!’ Recounted in Albert Gagnière, Histoire de la presse sous la Commune (1872), p. 156. Thanks to Mitchell Abidor for providing this information.

[3] Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (1876), p. 59

[4] Journalist killed by Pierre Bonaparte, cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, during preparations for a duel between Bonaparte and Henri Rochefort, publisher of the Marseillaise, a republican newspaper.

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