Postmodernism, Part 31: Paris Commune

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  (Additional support includes 1848: Year of Revolution, by Michael Rapport; The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne; A History of Germany, by Bayward Taylor; Bismarck and the German Empire, by Dr. Erick Eyck.)


Enlightenment and Darkness

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.  Postmodernist philosophy is based on the metaphysical nihilism of (Nazi) Martin Heidegger.  Postmodernist radical left politics don’t flow from Heidegger’s philosophy, but from twentieth century Marxists’ crisis of faith (in the face of undeniable Marxist catastrophe).

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

The postmodernists took refuge in the totalitarian collectivist Rousseau.  Rousseau’s ideas inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to Napoleon’s beatdown of Germany.

Right Collectivism

Right Collectivism morphed out of the German Counter-Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel), Rousseau, and Napoleonic stress disorder.  The Germans gave Rousseau their own twist: hero worship, state worship, and dialectical history (plus German supremacy).

Left Collectivism

Left Collectivism also came from the German Counter-Enlightenment, plus passion: romanticism and disgust.  Romanticism valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution (not morality).  Marx and Engels (disgusted at industrial working conditions) mated Hegel with Darwin to concoct scientific socialism” (revealed history and Communist prophecy, cloaked in pseudo-science).  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

Marx and company were bitterly disappointed with the Revolutions of 1848.  In France, the Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering leftist uprisings – crushed).  In Germany, Communism was an epic fail.  (Marx exited, stage left.)  In Italy, Mazzini and Garibaldi were unsuccessful and returned to exile.  Then, Bismarck used “blood and iron” unite northern Germany, defeating Austria.

The French got nervous, and when the French get nervous, things go downhill.

Prelude to the World Wars

Perhaps, both France and Prussia wanted war.  Bismarck may have wanted war, to complete German unification.  (Southern Germans weren’t keen on Prussian domination.)  France may have wanted war, for prestige and to stave off “Red” revolution.  The Franco-Prussian War sets the stage for twentieth century catastrophe: the World Wars, Communism, and Nazism.

louis-napoleonLouis-Napoleon (Napoleon III)

“Never had an international cataclysm been unleashed over such a futile pretext,” a French historian would write.  France was infuriated by Bismarck’s diplomatic gamesmanship.  An 1870 Spanish revolution found Spain looking for a new King.  Bismarck secretly maneuvered to put Prussian Prince Leopold on the throne.  France loudly protested (to avoid German encirclement).  Leopold withdrew.  Unsatisfied, the French ambassador demanded further promises of Prussia’s King, who coolly declined.  Bismarck leaked a telegram, implying a diplomatic snub of France.

gramont-ministerForeign Minister Gramont

On July 15, 1870, France declared war on Prussia.  Neither Napoleon III nor his liberal Prime Minister Ollivier wanted war.  Others did want war: the bellicose Paris press (critical of French foreign policy failures), military leaders (eager to put the Prussian upstarts back into their place), Foreign Minister Gramont (who had urged the French ambassador to provoke Prussia’s King), and Napoleon’s wife – the haughty Empress Eugenie (who wanted an Empire for her son’s inheritance).  The war hawks prevailed.  The Paris mobs were ecstatic (not a good thing).

As the war began, world opinion favored Prussia (but that would change, as time wore on).  France was the belligerent.  France found no allies among the Great Powers.  (The British hated French arrogance and decadence.  Russia disliked them over the Crimean War and meddling in Poland.  Austria wasn’t eager to face Prussia, again.)  France stood alone.

Prussia seemed the underdog, but, in the nineteenth century arms race, France had lagged (with the exception of rifles).  Prussia had better military organization, an excellent general staff, better troops, better artillery, and better transport.  France had woeful military organization, a mediocre general staff, spotty troops, antiquated artillery, and inadequate transport.

moltkePrussian Gen. von Moltke

For most purposes, Prussia defeated France within six weeks.  Urged on by Empress Eugenie and bellicose mobs, ill-prepared and ailing Napoleon III led an invasion of Germany.  (Napoleon III lacked the military genius of Napoleon I, but was more capable than his general staff.)  Three Prussian armies soon pursued them retreating back into France.  Napoleon III and one French army surrendered at the Battle of Sedan.  The other French army (what was left of it) was trapped, in the Siege of Metz (to be starved into surrender).

Two Prussian armies moved to take Paris (leaving one to besiege Metz).

Siege of Paris

“Down with Empire! Long live the Republic!” roared the Paris mobs.  In Paris, a new government was declared at the (legendary) Hotel de Ville (infamous for revolutionary hijinks).  Leftist radicals were there, declaring a “Red” government, but republican Jules Favre led moderates to join them in a compromise government.  (Empress Eugenie and son fled.)  General Louis-Jules Trochu was named President.

trochuGen. Louis Trochu

Trochu marshaled the defense of Paris.  His superiors had sent him to Paris (sick of his criticisms and warnings).  Trochu had too few disciplined troops: hundreds of thousands of National Guards (poorly trained, poorly armed, or raw recruits), better disciplined Garde Mobiles (Bretons, many who spoke no French), and a handful of regulars (dispirited, and scornful of the National Guards).  Paris set to work: training, manufacturing weapons and ammunition, deploying artillery, and bolstering their formidable defense: an encircling wall and chain of powerful forts.

The Prussians intended on waiting them out.  The siege wore on into the bitter winter.  (The besieged French army, at Metz, surrendered, in October.  Three Prussian armies now encircled Paris.)  The French made several ill-fated attempts to break out (but were terribly unlucky, had poor secrecy, and were mostly doomed, anyway).  In Paris, as food ran out, they ate the horses, donkeys, pets, zoo animals, and finally, the rats.  Outside, the Prussians were  better off, but cold and homesick.

Prussia needed to end the siege.  They faced political pressure at home and abroad.  The long siege was becoming expensive and risky.  World opinion had turned against them.  (Insufferable France had started the war, but now, innocents were suffering in Paris.)  The longer Prussia stayed, the more they risked defeat (by foreign intervention or attacks on vulnerable supply lines).

siege-of-parisSiege of Paris

In January 1871, the Prussians tried (unsuccessfully) to bombard Paris into submission.  In three weeks, the Prussian bombardment killed but 97 (including innocent women and children).  (This number pales in comparison to the 1,200 that died from disease, during the siege, or the several hundred Prussians killed in return fire.)  Paris went on about its business.  However, by mid-January, Paris was running out of food.


The Paris government was afraid to surrender – not afraid of the Prussians (outside) but of the Reds (inside).  In October, the government had put down a Red insurrection (that was supported by leftist National Guards).  The Red leaders sat in jail.

clemenceauGeorges Clemenceau

Now, radicals rejected surrender, including Georges Clemenceau, future French leader in the First World War.  (The radicals would rather die – to the last man, woman, and child.)  The Reds called for a new government: a Paris Commune (a name recalling the Reign of Terror).  The government feared another insurrection by leftist Guards (like October or the Reign of Terror).

On January 18, Paris staged one final (futile) breakout attempt (to convince the mobs to accept surrender).  It was a bloody slaughter, with thousands killed.  Poorly trained National Guards often refused orders, mutinied, or fired on their comrades.  Trochu was replaced as military leader.

On January 22, another Red insurrection was put down.  Armed Reds marched on the jail, freeing Red leaders.  The Reds marched to the Hotel de Ville, where radicalized National Guards joined them.  A firefight broke out between the Reds and the Hotel’s Breton Mobile defenders.  Government reinforcements arrived, dispersing the Reds.

favre-julesJules Favre

Civil war was imminent.  The government sent Jules Favre to (not so) secretly negotiate peace with (gloating, obnoxious, callous) Bismarck.  (In Paris, rumors spread of the secret negotiations.)  On January 27, a harsh armistice was reached: France would surrender Alsace-Lorraine (ouch), pay hefty reparations (double ouch), and disarm.  “I cannot at any price have the National Guard disarmed,” Favre complained, “That would mean civil war!”  The negotiators compromised: all National Guards would remain armed (terrible idea), with only one armed regular division (terrible idea, in light of the other terrible idea).

Paris Commune
thiers-adolpheAdolphe Thiers

Paris radicals were getting angry.  France elected a conservative Assembly in February 1871 (in part, a rural reaction against Paris radicalism). The Assembly elected (ruthless conservative) Adolphe Thiers as executive (angering radicals).  Thiers concluded the Peace Treaty with Prussia, ceding Alsace-Lorraine (angering Red patriots).  The Assembly passed an execrable law that crushed struggling debtors (angering the poor), and sentenced some Red leaders to death, ex post facto (angering the Reds).  Fearing Paris radicals (and leftist Guards), the government cut payments to the Guards (angering the Guards and the Reds) and voted to move the Government from Paris to Versailles (angering Paris).

The Reds rose (again) in insurrection.  One bloodthirsty mob (infected with “spy fever”) lynched a former government official (beating, kicking, and clumsily drowning him for over two hours).  Another burst into a Paris jail, freeing Red insurrectionists.  Leftist Guards declared their own governing Central Committee (mutiny and insurrection) and then seized cannons (dragging them to their neighborhoods).

lecomte-executionExecution of Gen. Lecomte

On March 18, government troops tried to recover the cannons (incompetently).  Confronted by raging mobs and Guards, troops mutinied.  General Claude Lecomte was captured, as was retired General Jacques Clement-Thomas (a republican who had defended Paris against the Prussian siege, who happened by to see what was going on).  Egged on by foul bloodthirsty mobs, an impromptu firing squad (of Guards and mutinous troops) clumsily executed the captives (who were mutilated and urinated on).  Said Clemenceau, “The mob … [was] in the grip of some kind of frenzy … Guards, women, and children … shrieking like wild beasts … [what] might be called blood lust.”

The government fled Paris to Versailles.  Reds barricaded the streets and seized government buildings.  Wrote one witness, “For the first time since ’93 [the Reign of Terror], revolutionaries were undisputed masters of Paris. … Would they go on to seize control of all France?”

ferre-theophileTheophile Ferre

On March 28, the Paris Commune came to power.  The Reds had debated what to do next.  Clemenceau called the Central Committee illegal (and was briefly jailed by his fanatical Red deputy, Theophile Ferre).  The “Friends of Order” (republican Guards who opposed the Reds) marched in peaceful protest and were massacred.  After some delay, the Reds called for elections.  (Meanwhile, Reds declared insurrections and Communes in other cities, an effort coordinated by Marx’s International and aided by Anarcho-Communist Mikhail Bakunin.)  The red flag was hoisted over Paris.

The civil war turned bloody.  After skirmishes with government troops, Paris Guards (many of them drunk) sallied forth from Paris to march on Versailles, only to be routed by government cannon fire and cavalry charges.  Government troops executed Communard prisoners (as mutineers and insurrectionists).  In retaliation, the Commune passed the infamous “Law of Hostages”, decreeing the execution of three hostages (clergy, etc.) for each Communard execution.

Versailles reorganized the military and rearmed.  Because the Peace Treaty forbade this, Versailles got Bismarck’s permission.  Bismarck (amused at French infighting) wanted the Commune stamped out, unamused that Marx was capitalizing on the Paris Commune to stir up the (Marxist) German Social Democrats.  Meanwhile, the Communards struggled to reorganize the fractious unruly National Guards (with limited success).  Paris was, once again, under siege (this time, by their French brothers).

pyat-felixFelix Pyat

The Paris Commune reigned for a brief two months.  They decreed “separation of church and state” (closing churches, seizing church property, desecrating churches, and arresting clergy, including the Archbishop of Paris, as hostages).  They banned the opposition press.  (In French Revolutionary style, the leftist press cranked up the polemics and hyperbole, including the revolutionary provocateur Felix Pyat.)  The Commune vacuously issued various (mostly empty) decrees for social reform.

delescluze-louisLouis Delescluze

As feared, the Commune further radicalized and began reenacting the 1793 Reign of Terror (including devouring its own).  On April 28, they resurrected the “Committee of Public Safety” and created a “Revolutionary Tribunal” (institutions of the Terror).  Police Chief Raoul Rigault (an acolyte of Louis Saint-Just, the Terror’s “Angel of Death”) arrested hundreds of “enemies of the Republic”.  With the Commune’s Minister of War having escaped (from death at the hands of his fellow Communards), the Commune appointed cadaverous revolutionary veteran Louis Delescluze as Minister of War (who had one foot in the Terror, one in Marx’s International, and both half in the grave).

bloody-week-1Paris Commune

Fanatics had wanted Paris to fight Prussia to the death (of the last man, woman, and child).  So, the Communards fought government troops in that spirit.  Thousands died (men, women, and children).  Government troops bombarded and retook Paris, bitterly fighting the Communards, block by block, street by street, and house to house.  Fanatical women’s brigades “fought like devils”, some armed, some pouring boiling water on the heads of government troops, some setting fires.

hostage-executionExecution of the hostages

Communard fanatics wanted Paris to burn.  They vandalized and torched Paris landmarks (including the Hotel de Ville, the Louvre, and the Tuileries); and filled Notre Dame with explosives (but were dissuaded because of the hospital, next door).  Urged on by hooting bloodthirsty mobs, improvised death squads executed hostages (clumsily and brutally, of course), including the Archbishop and clergy.  Freed hostages had barricaded themselves in one prison (with the aid of a jailer who was repulsed by the senseless murders).  Frustrated, Guards wheeled cannon and mortars to bombard the prison (but retreated in panic, at approaching government troops).

bloody-week-2Bloody Week

In the “Bloody Week,” government troops exacted vengeance and carried out harsh reprisals (without official sanction, but with few repercussions).  Government troops summarily executed many Guards and insurrectionists (including women).  They brutally “death marched” thousands off to Versailles for trial (where many died or were executed en route, or perished in miserable internment).  Paris mobs (opposed to the Reds) exacted their own vengeance, savagely attacking Communard prisoners.  Government troops mass executed (summarily or after trial) thousands of Guards and insurrectionists (actual, suspected, or sympathizers).  The number killed in the uprising is estimated to be: 10,000 (most likely) to 20,000 (earlier reported) or up to 40,000 (claimed by Marxists).

Many Red leaders were caught and tried or executed, while others escaped.  The “Terrorist” Rigault was caught, summarily executed, and tossed in the gutter (where Parisians kicked and spat on his corpse).  Delescluze committed “suicide by cop”, climbing atop a barricade as a target for government troops.  Clemenceau’s treacherous deputy, Ferre (of the Central Committee and Commune), was tried and executed.  Some Communards were imprisoned or sentenced to the “dry guillotine” (banished to Devil’s Island or the like).  Others escaped to exile (including the divisive provocateur Pyat, who escaped to London, only to return years later and be elected Senator).

Marx used the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “teachable moment”.  The lessons of the Commune would be taken up by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and others – with catastrophic results.


The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune set the stage for the World Wars.

Franco-Prussian Wars

The Franco-Prussian War (obscure to most) was a major turning point in world history, with dire consequences.

  • German unity.  Bismarck succeeded in uniting Germany.  During the siege of Paris, Prussia’s King William I was made Kaiser of the German Empire, crowned at Versailles (an insult to the French).
  • Reparations.  France would rebuild and pay reparations.  After the First World War, victorious France would force defeated Germany to pay reparations (contributing to the rise of Hitler).
  • Revenge.  Prussia’s humiliating conquest of France was partly revenge for Napoleon’s humiliating conquests of Germany.  Humiliated French leaders (including Clemenceau) would want revenge on Germany.
  • Nationalism.  Twentieth century historical revisionism often superimposes Hitler on the Franco-Prussian and First World Wars, to paint a propagandist picture of good versus evil, with evils including Germany and nationalism.  Yet, the alternative to nationalism was imperialism, the status quo ante of the European Balance of Powers, frozen in time by the 1815 Congress of Vienna.  The good versus evil dichotomy presupposes inherent virtue in that implicitly medieval power structure.
  • Balance of powers.  Prussia’s defeat of France (and Austria) shifted the balance of powers.  Germany was now a Great Power.  (France’s role as a Great Power was diminished – a source of national humiliation.)  The First World War’s Triple Entente (Great Britain, Russia, France) looks like a coalition of three of 1815’s Great Powers arrayed against the fourth (Austria), represented by the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary).
  • Ideology.  The Paris Commune signaled the end of France’s Jacobin (Rousseauist) tradition.  After the Paris Commune, it would be replaced by Marxism.  In Germany, Bismarck would struggle to keep Marx’s Social Democrats in check.  While Marx’s theories laid the philosophical foundation for Communism and Nazism (“what” and “why”), his exploitation of the Paris Commune helped write the revolutionary playbook (“how” and “when”).
  • Bismarck.  Bismarck, like Napoleon, was a game-changer.  Bismarck’s diplomacy helped secure decades of European peace.  After his exit, it was payback time: the World Wars (and the ensuing rise of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany).
Paris Commune

The Paris Commune (obscure to most non-Marxists), was also a major turning point in world history.  The Commune remains controversial (especially for historians struggling with a post-Marxist crisis of faith).

  • The Commune was an undeniable rallying point for Marx and the Communists.
  • The Commune (taken with the Revolution of 1789 and Reign of Terror) provided a template and “lessons learned” for Lenin, Stalin, and future Communist revolutionaries.
  • Some historians seem to struggle with the impossible task of distancing the Commune from both Marxism and the Jacobins (presumably, to defend Marx and Rousseau, respectively).
  • Some historians offer apologetics for the Communards (minimizing, rationalizing, or explaining away the Communards, their ideologies, and excesses).
  • Some historians seem to draw an imaginary dividing line at the Revolutions of 1848 (to associate the Commune with 1848 and obscure its lineal descent from the Revolution of 1789 and the Terror of 1793).
  • Some historians romanticize the Communards (as heroic, feminists, social reformers, etc.) but vilify the government (the establishment, personified by Thiers) for their excesses and lack of restraint.

Clearly, the Paris Commune was on a historical and ideological continuum that stretched from medievalism, to Rousseau’s collective totalitarianism, to the Revolution of 1789 and the Terror of 1793, to the Counter-Enlightenment, the Paris Commune, and Marx, to the horrors of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.  This is a big problem for the unreconstructed leftist and helps explain the obfuscation (and self-delusion). 

It is fair to criticize Government excesses and question how Thiers might have handled things differently.  Such an analysis must consider the context:

  • France (the existential threat facing the nation and its people),
  • French history (the tens of thousands killed in the revolutions of 1789, 1815, 1830, 1848; its bloody civil wars; and the Terror),
  • Paris radicalism and insurrections (past and present),
  • The Reds’ (romantic) suicidal commitment to “victory or death”, and
  • The Reds’ (nihilistic) homicidal commitment to taking Paris with them.

Thiers (a student of French history) knew all this and acted decisively to eradicate the perceived threat (at a ghastly human cost and with horrific unintended consequences).  Was he right?  Was he wrong? Can we know the answer (even with the benefit of 150 years of hindsight we possess that he lacked)?


Marx uses the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “teachable moment”.  Next: Part 32, The Commune and Communism.