Karl Marx: The Civil War in France

The Third Address
May, 1871

[France Capitulates & the Government of Thiers]


In September 4, 1870, when the working men of Paris proclaimed the republic, which was almost instantaneously acclaimed throughout France, without a single voice of dissent, a cabal of place-hunting barristers, with Thiers for their statesman, and Trochu for their general, took hold of the Hotel de Ville. At that time they were imbued with so fanatical a faith in the mission of Paris to represent France in all epochs of historical crisis that, to legitimate their usurped titles as governors of France, they thought it quite sufficient to produce their lapsed mandates as representatives of Paris.

In our second address on the late war, five days after the rise of these men, we told you who they were. Yet, in the turmoil of surprise, with the real leaders of the working class still shut up in Bonapartist prisons and the Prussians already marching on Paris, Paris bore with their assumption of power, on the express condition that it was to be wielded for the single purpose of national defence. Paris, however, was not to be defended without arming its working class, organizing them into an effective force, and training their ranks by the war itself. But Paris armed was the revolution armed. A victory of Paris over the Prussian aggressor would have been a victory of the French workmen over the French capitalist and his state parasites. In this conflict between national duty and class interest, the Government of National Defence did not hesitate one moment to turn into a Government of National Defection.

The first step they took was to send Thiers on a roving tour to all the courts of Europe, there to beg mediation by offering the barter of the republic for a king. Four months after the commencement of the siege [of Paris], when they thought the opportune moment came for breaking the first word of capitulation, Trochu, in the presence of Jules Favre, and others of his colleagues, addressed the assembled mayors of Paris in these terms:

“The first question put to me by my colleagues on the very evening of the 4th of September was this: Paris, can it, with any chance of success, stand a siege by the Prussian army? I did not hesitate to answer in the negative. Some of my colleagues here present will warrant the truth of my words and the persistence of my opinion. I told them, in these very terms, that, under the existing state of things, the attempt of Paris to hold out a siege by the Prussian army would be a folly. Without doubt, I added, it would be an heroic folly; but that would be all.... The events [managed by himself] have not given the lie to my prevision.”

This nice little speech of Trochu was afterwards published by M. Carbon, one of the mayors present.

Thus, on the very evening of the proclamation of the republic, Trochu’s “plan” was known to his colleagues to be the capitulation of Paris. If national defence has been more than a pretext for the personal government of Thiers, Favre, and Co., the upstarts of September 4 would have abdicated on the 5th – would have initiated the Paris people into Trochu’s “plan,” and called upon them to surrender at once, or to take their own fate into their own hands. Instead of this, the infamous impostors resolved upon curing the heroic folly of Paris by a regimen of famine and broken heads, and to dupe her in the meanwhile by ranting manifestos, holding forth that Trochu, “the governor of Paris, will never capitulate", and Jules Favre, the foreign minister, will “not cede an inch of our territory, nor a stone of our fortresses.”

In a letter to Gambetta, the very same Jules Favre avows that what they were “defending” against were not the Prussian soldiers, but the working men of Paris. During the whole continuance of the siege, the Bonapartist cut-throats, whom Trochu had wisely entrusted with the command of the Paris army, exchanged, in their intimate correspondence, ribald jokes at the well-understood mockery of defence. (See, for instance, the correspondence of Alphonse Simon Guiod, supreme commander of the artillery of the Army of Defence of Paris and Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, to Suzanne, general of division of artillery, a correspondence published by the Journal officiel of the Commune.) The mask of the true heroism was at last dropped on January 28, 1871. With the true heroism of utter self-debasement, the Government of National Defence, in their capitulation, came out as the government of France by Bismarck’s prisoners – a part so base that Louis Bonaparte himself had, at Sedan, shrunk from accepting it. After the events of March 18 on their wild flight to Versailles, the capitulards left in the hands of Paris the documentary evidence of their treason, to destroy which, as the Commune says in its manifesto to the provinces, “those men would not recoil from battering Paris into a heap of ruins washed by a sea of blood."

To be eagerly bent upon such a consummation, some of the leading members of the Government of Defence had, besides, most peculiar reasons of their own.

Shortly after the conclusion of the armistice, M. Milliere, one of the representatives of Paris to the National Assembly, now shot by express orders of Jules Favre, published a series of authentic legal documents in proof that Jules Favre, living in concubinage with the wife of a drunken resident at Algiers, had, by a most daring concoction of forgeries, spread over many years, contrived to grasp, in the name of the children of his adultery, a large succession, which made him a rich man, and that, in a lawsuit undertaken by the legitimate heirs, he only escaped exposure by the connivance of the Bonapartist tribunals. As these dry legal documents were not to be got rid of by any amount of rhetorical horse-power, Jules Favre, for the first time in his life, held his tongue, quietly awaiting the outbreak of the civil war, in order, then, frantically to denounce the people of Paris as a band of escaped convicts in utter revolt against family, religion, order, and property. This same forger had hardly got into power, after September 4, when he sympathetically let loose upon society Pic and Taillefer, convicted, even under the empire, of forgery in the scandalous affair of “Etendard.” One of these men, Taillefer, having dared to return to Paris under the Commune, was at once reinstated in prison; and then Jules Favre exclaimed, from the tribune of the National Assembly, that Paris was setting free all her jailbirds!

Ernest Picard, the Joe Miller of the Government of National Defence, who appointed himself Finance Minister of the republic after having in vain striven to become home minister of the empire, is the brother of one Arthur Picard, an individual expelled from the Paris Bourse as a blackleg (see report of the Prefecture of Police, dated July 13, 1867), and convicted, on his own confession, of theft of 300,000 francs, while manager of one of the branches of the Societe Generale,[A] Rue Palestro, No.5 (see report of the Prefecture of Police, dated December 11, 1868). This Arthur Picard was made by Ernest Picard the editor of his paper, l’Electeur Libre. While the common run of stockjobbers were led astray by the official lies of this finance office paper, Arthur was running backwards and forwards between the finance office and the Bourse, there to discount the disasters of the French army. The whole financial correspondence of that worthy pair of brothers fell into the hands of the Commune.

Jules Ferry, a penniless barrister before September 4, contrived, as mayor of Paris during the siege, to job a fortune out of famine. The day on which he would have to give an account of his maladministration would be the day of his conviction.

These men, then, could find in the ruins of Paris only their tickets-of-leave[1]; they were the very men Bismarck wanted. With the help of some shuffling of cards, Thiers, hitherto the secret prompter of the government, now appeared at its head, with the tickets-of-leave men for his ministers.

Theirs, that monstrous gnome, has charmed the French bourgeoisie for almost half a century, because he is the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption. Before he became a statesman, he had already proved his lying powers as an historian. The chronicle of his public life is the record of the misfortunes of France. Banded, before 1830, with the republicans, he slipped into office under Louis Philippe by betraying his protector Lafitte, ingratiating himself with the king by exciting mob riots against the clergy, during which the church of Saint Germain l’Auxerrois and the Archbishop’s palace were plundered, and by acting the minister-spy upon, and the jail-accoucheur of the Duchess de Berry.[B] The massacre of the republicans in the Rue Transnonian, and the subsequent infamous laws of September against the press and the right of association, were his work.[C] Reappearing as the chief of the cabinet in March 1840, he astonished France with his plan for fortifying France.[D] To the republicans, who denounced this plan as a sinister plot against the liberty of Paris, he replied from the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies:

“What! To fancy that any works of fortification could ever endanger liberty! And first of all you calumniate any possible government in supposing that it could some day attempt to maintain itself by bombarding the capital; [...] but that the government would be a hundred times more impossible after its victory than before.”

Indeed, no government would ever have dared to bombard Paris from the forts, save that government which had previously surrendered these forts to the Prussians.

When King Bomba [Ferdinand II of Spain] tried his hand at Palermo, in January 1848, Thiers, then long since out of office, again rose in the Chamber of Deputies:

“You know, gentlemen, what is happening at Palermo. You, all of you, shake with horror [in the parliamentary sense] on hearing that during 48 hours a large town has been bombarded – by whom? Was it a foreign enemy exercising the rights of war? No, gentlemen, it was by its own government. And why? Because the unfortunate town demanded its rights. Well, then, for the demand of its rights it has got 48 hours of bombardment.... Allow me to appeal to the opinion of Europe. It is doing a service to mankind to arise, and to make reverberate, from what is perhaps the greatest tribune in Europe, some words [indeed words] of indignation against such acts.... When the Regent Espartero, who had rendered services to his country [which M. Thiers never did] intended bombarding Barcelona, in order to suppress its insurrection, there arose from all parts of the world a general outcry of indignation.”

Eighteen months afterwards, M. Thiers was amongst the fiercest defenders of the bombardment of Rome by a French army.[E] In fact, the fault of King Bomba seems to have consisted in this only – that he limited his bombardment to 48 hours.

A few days before the February Revolution, fretting at the long exile from place and pelf to which Guizot had condemned him, and sniffing in the air the scent of an approaching popular commotion, Thiers, in that pseudo-heroic style which won him the nickname Mirabeau-mouche [Mirabeau the fly], declared, to the Chamber of Deputies:

“I am of the party of revolution, not only in France, but in Europe. I wish the government of the revolution to remain in the hands of moderate men... but if that government should fall into the hand of ardent minds, even into those of radicals, I shall, for all that, not desert my cause. I shall always be of the party of the revolution.”

The February Revolution came. Instead of displacing the Guizot Cabinet by the Thiers Cabinet, as the little man had dreamt, it superseded Louis Philippe by the republic. On the first day of the popular victory, he carefully hid himself, forgetting that the contempt of the working men screened him from their hatred. Still, with his legendary courage, he continued to shy the public stage, until the June [1848] massacres had cleared it for his sort of action. Then he became the leading mind of the “Party of Order”[F] and its parliamentary republic, that anonymous interregnum, in which all the rival factions of the ruling class conspired together to crush the people, and conspired against each other to restore to each of them its own monarchy. Then, as now, Thiers denounced the republicans as the only obstacle to the consolidation of the republic; then, as now, he spoke to the republic as the hangman spoke to Don Carlos: “I shall assassinate thee, but for thy own good.” Now, as then, he will have to exclaim on the day after his victory: L’Empire est fait – the empire is consummated.

Despite his hypocritical homilies about the necessary liberties and his personal grudge against Louis Bonaparte, who had made a dupe of him, and kicked out parliamentarism – and, outside of its factitious atmosphere, the little man is conscious of withering into nothingness – he had a hand in all the infamies of the Second Empire, from the occupation of Rome by French troops to the war with Prussia, which he incited by his fierce invective against German unity – not as a cloak of Prussian despotism, but as an encroachment upon the vested right of France in German disunion. Fond of brandishing, with his dwarfish arms in the face of Europe, the sword of the first Napoleon, whose historical shoeblack he had become, his foreign policy always culminated in the utter humiliation of France – from the London convention[G] of 1840 to the Paris capitulation of 1871, and the present civil war, where he hounds on the prisoners of Sedan and Metz[H] against Paris by special permission of Bismarck.

Despite his versatility of talent and shiftiness of purpose, this man has his whole lifetime been wedded to the most fossil routine. It is self-evident that to him the deeper undercurrents of modern society remained forever hidden; but even the most palpable changes on its surface were abhorrent to a brain (all the vitality of which) had fled to the tongue. Thus, he never tired of denouncing as a sacrilege any deviation from the old French protective system.

When a minister of Louis Philippe, he railed at railways as a wild chimera; and when in opposition under Louis Bonaparte, he branded as a profanation every attempt to reform the rotten French army system. Never in his long political career has he been guilty of a single – even the smallest – measure of any practical use. Thiers was consistent only in his greed for wealth and his hatred of the men that produce it. Having entered his first ministry, under Louis Philippe, poor as Job, he left it a millionaire. His last ministry under the same king (of March 1, 1840) exposed him to public taunts of peculation in the Chamber of Deputies, to which he was content to reply by tears – a commodity he deals in as freely as Jules Favre, or any other crocodile. At Bordeaux, his first measure for saving France from impending financial ruin was to endow himself with three millions a year, the first and the last word of the “Economical Republic,” the vista of which he had opened to his Paris electors in 1869. One of his former colleagues of the Chamber of Deputies of 1830, himself a capitalist and, nevertheless, a devoted member of the Paris Commune, M. Beslay, lately addressed Thiers thus in a public placard:

“The enslavement of labor by capital has always been the cornerstone of your policy, and from the very day you saw the Republic of Labor installed at the Hotel de Ville, you have never ceased to cry out to France: ‘These are criminals!’”

A master in small state roguery, a virtuoso in perjury and treason, a craftsman in all the petty strategems, cunning devices, and base perfidies of parliamentary warfare; never scrupling, when out of office, to fan a revolution, and to stifle it in blood when at the helm of the state; with class prejudices standing him in the place of ideas, and vanity in the place of a heart; his private life as infamous as his public life is odious – even now, when playing the part of a French Sulla, he cannot help setting off the abomination of his deeds by the ridicule of his ostentation.

The capitulation of Paris, by surrendering to Prussia not only Paris, but all France, closed the long-continued intrigues of treason with the enemy, which the usurpers of September 4 had begun, as Trochu himself said, on the very same day. On the other hand, it initiated the civil war they were now to wage, with the assistance of Prussia, against the republic and Paris. The trap was laid in the very terms of the capitulation. At that time, above one-third of the territory was in the hands of the enemy, the capital was cut off from the provinces, all communications were disorganized. To elect, under such circumstances, a real representation of France was impossible, unless ample time were given for preparation. In view of this, the capitulation stipulated that a National Assembly must be elected within eight days; so that in many parts of France the news of the impending election arrived on its eve only. This assembly, moreover, was, by an express clause of the capitulation, to be elected for the sole purpose of deciding on peace or war, and, eventually, to conclude a treaty of peace. The population could not but feel that the terms of the armistice rendered the continuation of the war impossible, and that for sanctioning the peace imposed by Bismarck, the worst men in France were the best. But not content with these precautions, Thiers even before the secret of the armistice had been broached to Paris, set out for an electioneering tour through the provinces, there to galvanize back into life the Legitimist party, which now, along with the Orleanists, had to take the place of the then impossible Bonapartists. He was not afraid of them. Impossible as a government of modern France, and, therefore, contemptible as rivals, what party were more eligible as tools of counter-revolution than the party whose action, in the words of Thiers himself (Chamber of Deputies, January 5, 1833), “Had always been confined to the three resources of foreign invasion, civil war, and anarchy”? They verily believed in the advent of their long-expected retrospective millennium. There were the heels of foreign invasion trampling upon France; there was the downfall of an empire, and the captivity of Bonaparte; and there they were themselves. The wheel of history had evidently rolled back to stop at the “Chambers introuvable” of 1816.[I] In the assemblies of the republic, 1848 to 1851, they had been represented by their educated and trained parliamentary champions; it was the rank-and-file of the party which now rushed in – all the Pourceaugnacs of France. [a character in one of Molière’s comedies, typifying the dull-witted, narrow-minded petty landed gentry.]

As soon as this Assembly of “Rurals"[J] had met at Bordeaux, Thiers made it clear to them that the peace preliminaries must be assented to at once, without even the honors of a parliamentary debate, as the only conditions on which Prussia would permit them to open the war against the republic and Paris, its stronghold. The counter-revolution had, in fact, no time to lose. The Second Empire had more than doubled the national debt, and plunged all the large towns into heavy municipal debts. The war had fearfully swelled the liabilities, and mercilessly ravaged the resources of the nation. To complete the ruin, the Prussian Shylock was there with his bond for the keep of half a million of his soldiers on French soil, his indemnity for five milliards[K], and interest at 5 per cent on the unpaid instalments thereof. Who was to pay this bill? It was only by the violent overthrow of the republic that the appropriators of wealth could hope to shift onto the shoulders of its producers the cost of a war which they, the appropriators, had themselves originated. Thus, the immense ruin of France spurred on these patriotic representatives of land and capital, under the very eyes and patronage of the invader, to graft upon the foreign war a civil war – a slaveholders’ rebellion.

There stood in the way of this conspiracy one great obstacle – Paris. To disarm Paris was the first condition of success. Paris was therefore summoned by Thiers to surrender its arms. Then Paris was exasperated by the frantic anti-republican demonstrations of the “Rural” Assembly and by Thiers’ own equivocations about the legal status of the republic; by the threat to decapitate and decapitalize Paris; the appointment of Orleanist ambassadors; Dufaure’s laws on over-due commercial bills and house rents[L], inflicting ruin on the commerce and industry of Paris; Pouyer-Quertier’s tax of two centimes upon every copy of every imaginable publication; the sentences of death against Blanqui and Flourens; the suppression of the republican journals; the transfer of the National Assembly to Versailles; the renewal of the state of siege declared by Palikao, and expired on September 4; the appointment of Vinoy, the Décembriseur[M], as governor of Paris – of Valentin, the imperialist gendarme, as its prefect of police – and of D’Aurelles de Paladine, the Jesuit general, as the commander-in-chief of its National Guard.

And now we have to address a question to M. Thiers and the men of national defence, his under-strappers. It is known that, through the agency of M. Pouyer-Quertier, his finance ministers, Thiers had contracted a loan of two milliards. Now, is it true or not –

1. That the business was so managed that a consideration of several hundred millions was secured for the private benefit of Thiers, Jules Favre, Ernest Picard, Pouyer-Quertier, and Jules Simon? and –

2. That no money was to be paid down until after the “pacification” of Paris?[N]

At all events, there must have been something very pressing in the matter, for Thiers and Jules Favre, in the name of the majority of the Bordeaux Assembly, unblushingly solicited the immediate occupation of Paris by Prussian troops. Such, however, was not the game of Bismarck, as he sneeringly, and in public, told the admiring Frankfort philistines on his return to Germany.



(1) In England common criminals are often discharged on parole after serving the greater part of their term, and are placed under police surveillance. On such discharge they receive a certificate called ticket-of-leave, their possessor is being referred to as ticket-of-leave-men.

[A] Société Générale du Credit Mobilier – A large French joint-stock bank founded in 1852. Its main source of income was speculation in securities. The bank was closely linked with the government circles of the Second Empire. In 1867 it went bankrupt and was liquidated in 1871.

[B] On February 14 and 15, 1831 the Paris mob plundered the church of St. Germain l’ Auxerroisand Archbishop Quélen’s palace in protest against the Legitimist demonstration during the Requiem mass for the Duke de Barry. Thiers, who was present among the rioting crowd while it was committing excesses in the church and in the Archbishop’s palace, persuaded the French National Guards not to interfere.

In 1832, by the order of Thiers, who was at that time minister of the Interior, the Duchesse de Berry (mother of the Comte de Chambord) – the Legitimist pretender to the French throne – was arrested and subjected to a humiliating medical examination aimed at giving publicity to her secret marriage and in this way ruling her political career.

[C] An allusion to the ignominious role of Thiers, then Minister of the Interior, in suppressing the people’s insurrection in Paris against the July monarchy on April 13-14, 1834. The insurrection was put down with savage brutality by the military who, for example, massacred the inhabitants of one of the houses on Rue Transnonain.

September Laws – reactionary laws against the press introduced by the French Government in September 1835. They provided for imprisonment and large fines for publications criticizing the existing social and political system.

[D] In January 1841, Thiers submitted to the Chamber of Deputies a plan for building a range of military fortifications around Paris. Revolutionary-democratic sections saw this move as a preparatory step for the crushing of popular demonstrations. The plan provided for the building of particularly strong fortifications in the vicinity of the workers districts.

[E] In April 1849 France, in conjunction with Austria and Naples, organized an intervention campaign against the republic of Rome in order to crush it and restore the pope’s temporal power. French troops severely bombarded Rome. Despite heroic resistance, the Republic was crushed and Rome occupied by French troops.

[F] Party of Order – A party of the influential conservative bourgeoisie founded in 1848. It was a coalition of the two French monarchist factions – the Legitimists and Orleanists; from 1849 until the coup d’etat of December 2, 1851, it held the leading position in the Legislative Assembly of the Second Republic.

[G] On July 15, 1840, England, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Turkey signed the London Convention, without the participation of France, on rendering aid to the Turkish Sultan against the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali, who had the support of France. As a result, a threat of war arose between France and the coalition of European powers, but King Louis Philippe did not dare begin hostilities and abandoned his support of Mohammed Ali.

[H] In order to suppress the Paris Commune Thiers appealed to Bismarck for permission to supplement the Versailles Army with French prisoners of war, most of whom had been serving in the armies that surrendered at Sedan and Metz.

[I] Chamber of Deputies in France in 1815 and 1816 (during the early years of the Restoration), which consisted of extreme reactionaries.

[J] Landlord Chamber, the Assembly of “Rurals” – A nickname of the National Assembly of 1871, which met in Bordeaux and was largely made up of reactionary monarchists, provincial landlords, officials, rentiers and traders “elected” in rural districts. There were about 430 monarchists among the Assembly’s 630 deputies.

[K] The preliminary peace treaty between France and Germany signed at Versailles on February 26, 1871 by Thiers and Jules Favre, on the one hand, and Bismarck, on the other. According to the terms of this treaty, France ceded Alsace and East Lorraine to Germany and paid it indemnities to the sum of 5 billion francs. The final peace treaty was signed in Frankfort-on-Main on May 10, 1871.

[L] On March 10, 1871, the National Assembly passed a law on the deferred payment of overdue bills; under this law the payment of debts on obligations concluded between August 13 and November 12, 1870 could be deferred. Thus, law led to the bankruptcy of many petty bourgeoisie.

[M] Décembriseur – a participant in the Bonapartist coup d’etat of December 2, 1851 and supporter of acts in the spirit of this coup.

[N] According to the newspapers, the internal loan, which the Thiers government wanted to float, gave Thiers and members of his government over 300 million francs “commission.” On June 20, 1871, after the suppression of the Paris Commune, the law on the loan was passed.