by midtowng | 12/01/2008 02:42:00 PM
In June of 1940, with the victorious armies of Nazi Germany quickly approaching Paris, the French government prepared to flee to Bordeaux. According to Alistair Horne's book, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, before the federal government left Paris they instructed the police chief and the police force under him to stay at their posts until the German troops arrived. At which point he was to turn over responsibility to the German commander.
Above all he was to prevent any and all public demonstrations.

These strange instructions, that appear to show a government more afraid of its own people than a Nazi war machine, make little sense unless you take into account Parisian history. Specifically the years 1870 and 1871.

This is the 2nd part of a series. The first part can be found here.

The Paris Commune was one of those rare events in history that wasn't just about people and things. It was primarily about ideas.
It was a milestone moment that signaled the end of all socialist and revolutionary ideas of the 18th Century, and the start of all socialist and revolutionary ideas of the 20th Century. What's more, the people involved were either the actual architects of those ideas, or the perfect caricature of them.

So to tell this story properly, I must first introduce you to the people and ideas that caused this event to take place.

The Eternal Revolutionary

Blanquism: refers to a conception of revolution generally attributed to Louis Auguste Blanqui which holds that socialist revolution should be carried out by a relatively small group of highly organized and secretive conspirators.[1] Having taken power, the revolutionaries would then use the power of the state to introduce socialism or communism.
By the time of the Paris Commune, Louis Auguste Blanqui had achieved a near mythical status in left-wing circles.
Blanqui was nick-named "l'enfermé" because he spent more than half of his life in prison (33 years in all) due to his repeated attempts at overthrowing the government of France.

As a medical student at the age of 22, he was wounded three times in street fighting at a student revolt against the monarchy. He barely escaped imprisonment that time.
He took part in the 1830 July Revolution, but felt betrayed (as most working-class people did) by the results. He was imprisoned in both 1831 and 1836 for various plots against the government.
On May 12, 1839, Blanqui led five hundred followers in an attack on the Hotel de Ville in Paris. They took city hall, but were quickly cut off from the rest of Paris. After two days of fighting they were overwhelmed. This was the first time that Blanqui was sentenced to death. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Several years later he was pardoned and made it back to Paris just in time for the 1848 February Revolution. He was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years because of his participation in a May 15 occupation of city hall by a popular protest. Thus he missed the June Days Revolt that followed shortly thereafter - a pattern that would repeat during his lifetime.
After a couple more terms in prison, he escaped in 1865 and fled to Belgium. He came back to France in 1869 under the general amnesty.

Blanqui was a socialist who thought that a republic was a means to that end. He identified with the poor and working-class, and harbored a disdain for the rich and ruling-class. However, he never developed a fully formed philosophy. He was a man of action, rather than a man of theory, who didn't have the patience to wait for an opportunity. He believed in making history, not waiting for it.

Blanqui was elected President of the Paris Commune.

The Aristocrat

The diametric opposite to Blanqui, and the villain of this tale, was Adolphe Thiers. Thiers was everything that Blanqui wasn't. Self-righteous and ideological, he coveted power above all else. He was humorless, uncompromising and partisan to a fault.
Technically Theirs was considered a "conservative Republican". However, in those days that meant he believed in a Republic for the landholding gentry. Thiers once used the term "vile masses" in public when referring to the working-class.

Born to the merchant class, he was adopted into the aristocracy around the same time he began his career as a scholar in his 20's. By luck and chance Theirs positioned himself to take advantage of 1830 July Revolution, where the new government became a constitutional monarchy and voting rights were only granted to the top 1%.
He became Minister of the Interior in 1832. His first defining moment, and an disturbing predecessor of the Paris Commune, came with the Canut Revolts of Lyon.

"Vivre libre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant!" (Live free working or die fighting!)
- cry of the Canut uprising

The Canut revolts were the first clear worker revolts of the Industrial Revolution anywhere in the world. It's primary cause was the poor working conditions of the silk workers who were still organized in a pre-Industrial manner. The catalyst was the steadily declining salary and economic downturn.
The first Canut revolt was in 1831, and involved a bloody battle when the workers drove the national guard units from the city. However, it was settled without further bloodshed when Marshal Soult, the Minister of War, took extra steps to prevent more violence. The workers of this revolt had no political agendas to speak of.

Typical Lyon Silk Workers home

By early 1834 the silk industry was booming, and this was causing the wages of silk workers in Lyon to climb. Despite record profits, the owners decided that worker's wages were too high and began cutting them arbitrarily.
This caused several strikes. The strike leaders were arrested and put on trial because labor unions were outlawed at the time. The government moved to expand the law banning mutual workers' associations to include republican political parties as well. This triggered a revolt.
Troops fired into unarmed crowds. The workers responded by storming the armory, again, and drove the national guard out of town, again. Barricades were erected, and Lyon became an armed camp.

There was a difference this time, and that difference was Thiers was in charge. On April 12 the army took the offensive. There were no negotiations with the rebels. There were no steps taken to avoid casualties. There was no mercy shown. Instead Lyon was taken back piece by piece in bloody street fighting.
Hundreds of workers were killed in the fighting. 10,000 insurgents were captured and put on trial the next year. Thousands were either deported or given long prison sentences.

Within a few years Thiers became Prime Minister. In 1840 his aggressive foreign policy contradicted the King's, and he was dismissed from the cabinet.
After a few years out of politics, he emerged to lead a parliamentary opposition group. Once again Thiers was perfectly positioned for historical change - the 1848 February Revolution. Loyal to the end, Thiers advised the King to leave the capital and besiege it, a similar strategy to the 2nd Canut Revolt. But the King declined.

Thiers was a leader in parliament during the short-lived Second Republic. During the June Days Revolt Thiers suggested the government leave the capital and besiege it, but Cavaignac overruled him. Thiers backed the bloody repression that followed.
Thiers voted for the presidency of Louis Napoleon, hoping that his incompetence would lead to a restoration of the Orleanist Monarchy. Instead he was arrested during Napoleon's 1851 coup and forced into exile. He was pardoned the following year.
Thiers returned to France and politics in the 1860's and spent the next several years beating the war drums against Prussia.

Thiers was Prime Minister when the Paris Commune formed.

Proudhonism versus Internationalists versus Jacobinism

At no other place and time did three competing revolutionary philosophies of three different centuries compete for dominance.
There is no possible way I can summarize all three philosophies and still do them justice. At the same time, I can't tell this story without mentioning them.
"Capital"... in the political field is analogous to "government"... The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them . . . What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason.
- Proudhon

The largest contingent of the commune leadership were Proudhonists, followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon was the father of anarchism, the dominant revolutionary philosophy of the 19th Century.
Proudhon's anarchism is not the same thing as chaos. In fact, Proudhon's famous statement is "anarchy is order". His other famous statement is "Property is theft." Proudhon was closely aligned with the socialists and after 1848 began calling himself a federalist.

Growing up in poverty, he was mostly self-educated. He participated in the 1848 February Revolution, and was later elected to parliament in June 1848. He argued against the abolition of the National Workshops, which sparked the June Days Revolt. Proudhon manned the barricades during the revolt, which he later wrote was "one of the most honorable acts of my life".
Already biased against violence, he opposed the violent insurrectionist philosophy of Blanquists and Jacobins.

The second largest contingent in the Paris Commune were the Jacobins. The Jacobins were a group straight out of the Great Revolution of 1789.
The terminology of the Paris Commune was replete with the rhetoric of the Jacobin revolutionaries of 70 years earlier. All debate on how to conduct the war began with comparisons to the "heroes of '93".

Like Blanquists, Jacobinism is not a specific philosophy. It is a more general term for any group that supports: a republican government, universal suffrage, public education, separation of church and state, and wanted to achieve these goals through violent revolution.
By the mid-1800's the term Jacobin also meant someone who supported a centralized Republic at the expense of local and regional governments.

The last and smallest revolutionary group in the Paris Commune was the Internationalists, so named after the International Workingmen's Association that Karl Marx helped found in 1864.

Karl Marx

While Marx was a leader of the IWA, he hardly dominated it. Right from the start the IWA divided between the Marxists and the Proudhonists led by Mikhail Bakunin. The arguments between these two camps gradually increased in intensity until the 1872 convention, when the subject of the Paris Commune forever split the "collectivists anarchists" and the communists. Bakunin argued passionately against Marx's idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat."

"If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself."
- Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin

The anarchists were ejected from the IWA after 1872. By the time they tried to regain international recognition, Marxism was already set to dominate revolutionary ideology in the 20th Century.

The next edition of this series will address the Siege and the creation of the Paris Commune.

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