Following the defeat by the Prussians of the French army and the capture of Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III’s government collapsed. On September 4, 1870, a group of bourgeois republicans proclaimed the Third Republic and established a government of national defence. Several Internationalists who had been imprisoned by Napoleon III’s regime for their labour organizing and agitation were released to a hero’s welcome by the French working class, and Eugène Varlin returned from his temporary exile in Belgium.
Michael Bakunin, the Russian anarchist who had become active in the International in 1868, travelled to Lyon in the hope of turning the inter-imperialist war between Prussia and France into a far-reaching social revolution. Bakunin set forth his position in a pamphlet, Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, excerpts from which I included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. His associate, James Guillaume, who had established contacts with Varlin and other French Internationalists, was in the process of publishing and distributing the pamphlet from Switzerland.
In Lyon, Bakunin met up with other members of the International who supported his revolutionary socialist approach, including Albert Richard from Lyon, and André Bastelica, from Marseilles. On September 24, 1870, following a popular demonstration that called for “a levy on the rich and the appointment of army officers by free election,” Bakunin and his associates issued a proclamation, reproduced below, calling for a federation of revolutionary communes to replace the bourgeois state. The proclamation was enthusiastically received, but Bakunin’s own associates were reluctant to put it into practice.
When the Municipal Council tried to reduce the pay for workers in local factories that had been turned into “national workshops,” thousands of Lyon workers protested outside the city hall, enabling Bakunin and his associates to seize the hall and reiterate their demands. Control of the hall passed back and forth between the protestors and the National Guard, but eventually the Guard recaptured the hall and Bakunin was arrested. He was freed by a small group of comrades and then made his way to Marseilles, where he stayed with Bastélica, eventually returning to Switzerland. A week after Bakunin left Marseilles, there was an attempt to establish a revolutionary commune there too.
Despite attempts by Marxists and some historians to portray the Lyon uprising as a tragicomic farce, as Paul Avrich points out, news “of the Lyon Commune touched off a chain reaction up and down the Rhone valley and through Provence.” There were attempts to establish revolutionary communes in “Toulouse, Narbonne, Cette, Perpignan, Limoges, Saint-Etienne, Le Creusot, and other towns” (Avrich, Anarchist Portraits: 236). The most significant attempts were made at the end of October in Marseilles and Paris, presaging the revolutionary Paris Commune of March 1871.
THE REVOLUTIONARY FEDERATION OF COMMUNES
The disastrous plight of the country, the incapacity of official powers and the indifference of the privileged classes have placed the French nation on the verge of destruction.
If the people do not hasten to organize and act in a revolutionary manner, their future is doomed; the revolution will have been lost. Recognizing the seriousness of the danger and considering that urgent action by the people must not be delayed for a moment, the delegates of the Federated Committees for the Salvation of France and its Central Committee propose the immediate adoption of the following resolutions:
Article 1 —The administrative and governmental machinery of the State, having become impotent, is abolished. The French people resume full possession of their destiny.
Article 2—All criminal and civil courts are suspended and replaced by the justice of the people.
Article 3—Payment of taxes and mortgages is suspended. Taxes are to be replaced by contributions from the federated communes levied upon the wealthy classes in proportion to what is necessary for the salvation of France.
Article 4—Since the State has been abolished, it can no longer intervene to secure the payment of private debts.
Article 5 — All existing municipal organizations are hereby abolished, replaced in all the federated communes by committees for the salvation of France. All governmental powers will be exercised by these committees under the immediate supervision of the people.
Article 6—Each committee in the principal town of a Department will send two delegates to a revolutionary convention for the salvation of France.
Article 7— The Convention will meet immediately at the town hall of Lyons, since it is the second city of France and in the best position to provide energetically for the country’s defence. This Convention, supported by the all the people, will save France.