Cluseret now entered upon his duties as delegate of war. His name was already known to Englishmen owing to his connection with the Fenian attack on Chester Castle in 1867. He is regarded by many active participators in the Commune as at once insincere and incapable. The latter charge seems to be fairly made out; as to the former I am not prepared to offer any opinion. There were two main plans of defence possible to be adopted, that of the outer enceinte, with its forts, redoubt, &c., but which required more men, more means, and more military experience than the Commune had at its disposal, and that of the inner enceinte, the ramparts, which if effectively carried out would have made Paris practically impregnable. Cluseret and the Commune adopted neither, but messed about with both, neutralising the one by the other.
The cowardly assassinations of Fhlourens and Duval had excited everyone. In deference to public opinion the Commune ordered the seizure of hostages in full accordance with the practice recognised by war. Unfortunately the first hostages they could have had had been allowed to escape at the outset of the movement. However, Darboy, the Archbishop of Paris, Lagarde, his grand-vicar, Daguerry, Curé of the Madeleine, Bonjean, Presiding judge of the Court of Appeal, Jecker, a financial politician responsible for the Mexican expedition and a few Jesuits were laid by the heels. A decree and a proclarmation were then issued threatening reprisals in the event of any further murders on the part of the Versaillese. But the decree remained a dead letter. The Versaillese continued their cold-blooded assassination of prisoners, and no reprisals were taken. As I propose devoting a separate chapter to the consideration of the whole question of the hostages I shall say no more here.
The fatal incapacity and weakness of the Commune now for the first time became apparent in internal and external policy. Ever since its first sitting, however, it had become increasingly evident that it was below the level of the situation. Beyond two or three comparatively unimportant decrees a fortnight showed no constructive work done.
Meanwhile immense heroism was displayed at certain points of the outworks by the Federal troops. The Porte Maillot, a frightful position, exposed to the full fire of Fort Valerien, was held for seven weeks by successive relays of men. It was now that that marvel of self-devoting intrepidity, Dombrowski the Pole, appeared upon the scene. This man, by his calm fearlessness and dashing courage, performed incredible feats with the slenderest means. He swept the Versaillese from Asnières, while his equally heroic brother took the Castle of Bécon and, what was still more, routed the troops of Vinoy when they attempted to recover it. But these isolated flashes of momentary success could not materially affect the situation.
Talk of conciliation went on all the time, and many were the efforts made by well-intentioned persons (e.g. the “Union Syndicale,” and the “League of the Rights of Paris”; to bring about an understanding. But Thiers would have none of it. He would hear of no compromise, not even of a truce or armistice, nothing but unconditional surrender.
On the 16th of April the complementary election, for the Commune – necessitated by the vacation of thirty-one seats through death, double elections, and resignations were held. The change was very marked from the 26th of March. Instead of the 146,000 who had appeared at the polls in the same arrondissements on the previous occasion only 61,000 voted now. It was felt that all hope of peace was at an end, and that all who voted were voting for war to the knife with Versailles. The inactivity and vacillation of the Commune up to this time had also alienated many sympathisers.
After these elections, on the 19th, it was finally decided to issue a political programme. This programme, which was supposed to be drawn tip by a commission of five members, was mainly the work of a journalist, Pierre Denis, assisted by Delescluze. The former, a writer in Jules Valles’ Cri du Peuple, was fanatical on the question of federal autonomy, and this he managed to place in the forefront of the new declaration which demanded the recognition of the republic, and the autonomy of the township or commune (irrespective of its size) throughout France. In the first instance, however, it was only the autonomy of Paris which was called for. The rest of France was to follow suit as best it could. The rights of the Commune were defined as including the voting of the budget, of taxation, the organisation and control of the local services, magistracy, police, and education, the administration of communal wealth, &c., in short, to all intents complete autonomy. A central council of delegates from the various communes throughout France was referred to, but its functions were nowhere defined. It was apparently forgotten that without adequate safeguards such a council would have been a hopelessly reactionary body, owing to the fact that the large majority of the small rural Communes would have voted under Clerical influence. The idea was for the complete autonomy of Paris in all internal affairs to be forthwith recognised, and that of the other Committees, throughout France, apparently as demanded.
As an International Revolutionist I have been always strongly sympathetic with all movements for local autonomy as most directly tending to destroy the modern “nation” or centralised bureaucratic state, and if the movement had been properly organised in co-operation with the other large towns in the earlier clays of March a decentralising programme, properly worked out, might have formed the common political basis. Now, however, it was too late. The idea of constituting Paris a solitary island in the midst of the ocean of provincial France in the vague hope that other islands would spring up in time of themselves, and form an archipelago, was little better than a crude absurdity. The manifesto contained some good passages, probably the work of Delescluze, but as it stood it was ill-timed and not to the point. Neverthless it was accepted almost without discussion by the Commune, so perfunctory had its proceedings become.
There were now two distinct parties within the council of the Commune, the so-called “Majority” and “minority.” These originated in the first instance over a hot discussion on the question of the verification of the elections of the 16th, and tended, as is the wont of such factions, to become increasingly bitter and personal. The Commune soon became split up into cliques which alternately dominated, and which still further exacerbated the situation by their mutual recriminations and intrigues. In this way the defence was paralysed, and decrees, good or bad, remained more often than not an empty form.
All this time the Versaillese were organising their attack, and getting into military order the reinforcements they were almost daily receiving from Germany, consisting of troops who after their defeat and detention in German garrison towns were perfectly ready to take part in a successful campaign against anybody, no matter whom. The army of Versailles at the end of April amounted to 130,000 men, and more were coming in. Bismarck and the German military authorities had been only too anxious to offer Thiers and the French bourgeoisie every assistance within their power to crush their common proletarian foe.