Postmodernism, Part 33: The Anarchist Bakunin

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 Marxism, Freedom, and the State, by Mikhail Bakunin; Writings on the Paris Commune by Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Lenin; Freedom and Organization, by Bertrand Russell; The Russian Revolution: A New History, by Sean McKeenin.)


Enlightenment and Darkness

Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism (reason, individualism, liberal democracy, free markets).  Postmodernism is based on nihilism and radical left politics.

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics

Postmodern political philosophy is related to Rousseau, whose totalitarian collectivism inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, leading to the rise of Napoleon and his conquest of Germany.

Right Collectivism

Right Collectivism fused Rousseau, the German Counter-Enlightenment, and Napoleonic stress disorder.  Rousseau got a German makeover: hero worship, state worship, German supremacy, and the dialectic.

Left Collectivism

Left Collectivism fused German Counter-Enlightenment ideas with romanticism: passion, revolution, and disgust (at industrial working conditions).  Disgusted, Marx and Engels concocted “scientific socialism” and published the Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

The Revolutions of 1848 frustrated Marx and Engels.  The French Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering failed leftist uprisings), as did German Communism and Italian unification, but not Bismarck’s unification of northern Germany .

Red Star Rising

In the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck united victorious Germany, while defeated France divided in civil war.  Marx used the brutally crushed Paris Commune as a “teachable moment”.

The Anarchist Bakunin
mikhail-bakuninMikhail Bakunin

Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, one of his fiercest critics, had deep animosities.  Bakunin was born a Russian aristocrat (and Marx hated Slavs).  Marx was born Jewish (and Bakunin hated Jews).  Marx falsely accused Bakunin of being a spy, after Bakunin escaped from a Siberian penal colony.  (Bakunin, for his role in the Revolutions of 1848, had been sentenced to death by Germany and Austria, sent to Russia, then imprisoned and packed off to Siberia.)  Marx dropped his allegations, but later revived them to have Bakunin expelled from the 1872 meeting of the First International.


Bakunin and Marx had fundamental differences over political action and the State.  Marx was an “authoritarian communist” (State Socialist) while Bakunin was a “revolutionary collectivist” (Anarchist) who argued for liberty:

  • Liberty is essential to individual material, moral, and intellectual development.
  • Without liberty, political and social equality are a pack of lies.
  • A State that can limit liberty, will reduce individual rights to zero.
  • Equality must be built spontaneously by freely organized producers’ associations (not by a paternalistic domineering State).
peter-kropotkinPeter Kropotkin (Anarchist)

Bakunin shared Marx’s goals (a new social order based on the organization of labor, collective ownership of the means of production) but fundamentally differed on the means:

  • Communists use political power (of the urban proletariat and radical bourgeois).
  • Anarchists use non-political social power (of the working class and all people of goodwill).
  • Communists seek the political power of the State.
  • Anarchists seek to destroy the political power of the State.
  • Communists advocate authority, force, and planning by “superior minds” (imposed on the “ignorant” masses).
  • Anarchists advocate liberty, persuasion, and spontaneous organization.
  • Communists have faith in the “profound intelligence of all the doctors and guides of humanity who, after so many failures, still keep on trying to make men happy”.
  • Anarchists have faith in the “practical good sense and wisdom in the instinctive aspirations and real needs of the masses”.

The problem isn’t the form of government, but “the very existence of government, whatever form it takes,” Bakunin argued.

The State is “a mere abstraction, a fiction, a lie,” Bakunin admonished, a vast slaughterhouse where all the real aspirations and living forces of a country go to die. “No abstraction exists for and by itself,” he explained, the State “represents the no less real interests of the exploiting class … a dominant oligarchy [ruling] an enormous mass of … hopeless creatures … who live in perpetual illusion”.

 The Paris Commune

Bakunin put an Anarchist spin on the Paris Commune, claiming that it was a “bold, clearly formulated negation of the State”.  The Commune, he praised, marked a new era of “complete emancipation of the masses … destroying nationalism”.

mikhail-bakunin Louis Delescluze (Jacobin)

Bakunin rejected Marx’s Communist spin on the Commune.  Most Communards were not socialists, but Jacobins, he reminded (correctly).  The socialist minority had little influence, he said, and imposing socialism was a lower priority than meeting immediate needs (like food, shelter, and defense).

Bakunin rejected Marx’s criticisms of the Commune.  The Communards “were right a thousand times over,” he replied, for avoiding dictatorship and slavery.  Social revolution through political revolution, he said, risks political dictatorship and economic slavery.

The State
marx-karlKarl Marx

Marxism is “the out and out cult of the State”, Bakunin chided.  Marx worshiped “power so much that he wanted to impose and still means … to impose his dictatorship on us … the establishment of the great People’s State”.  He derided Marx’s lust for power.  Marx, he claimed, had established a sort of Communist Church, where Marx ruled an army of fanatics (mainly German Social Democrats).

The State will not whither under Communism, Bakunin scoffed, quite the opposite.  Based on Marx’s theories and actions, Bakunin predicted the Marxist State must:

  • Be supreme and absolute,
  • Conquer and enslave,
  • Have a State morality (of power) that negates human morality,
  • Control education to control thought,
  • Use secret police to monitor thought,
  • Use censorship to limit thought and opinion, and
  • Use the military against domestic enemies.

Marx’s State is based on a lie, Bakunin warned, because the State is an abstraction and a lie, and so is the “public good” (“will of the people”, “common interest”, “public safety”).  These abstractions are only the sacrifice of real people’s wills and interests, he wrote.  The “omnivorous abstraction” of the State cannot impose itself on millions, he said, without a ruling class.

Marx’s State won’t destroy class privilege, Bakunin advised.  History shows the absolute necessity of a privileged class, he said, and “a people who or more or less ignorant … riffraff … always incapable of governing themselves [who] must submit … to the benevolent yoke” of a wise and just ruling minority of “superior intelligence”.

gulag Soviet Gulag forced labor

Marx’s State will never “be able to do without the forced labor of the masses,” Bakunin warned, “whether wage-earners or slaves” because this is the “absolutely necessary basis of the liberty and and culture of the [ruling] political class”.  This was true in the United States, he said, whose morality was depraved by Northern industrialists who imposed ruinous protectionism on evil Southern agricultural oligarchs.

Marx’s State will be corrupt, Bakunin cautioned, because power corrupts.  In an ideal State, he said, the masses would elect the brightest and most virtuous, but power would corrupt their morality by breeding contempt (for the “inferior” masses) and hubris (arrogant overestimation of their own merits).

Marx’s State will be “the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and contemptuous of all regimes”, Bakunin predicted, because Marx’s extremely complex government is totalitarian, governing everything: politics and economics (industry, agriculture, banking).  “All that will require an immense knowledge and many ‘heads overflowing with brains’,” he said, “It will be the reign of scientific intelligence … a hierarchy of real and pretended scientists … ruling in the name of knowledge … [over] an immense ignorant majority”.

International Communism

Marx’s vision of global emancipation is only German world domination, Bakunin warned.  Marx is a German nationalist, he reminded, who claims to seek “the emancipation of the proletariat of all other counties”.  How,  Bakunin asks, “can this contradiction be resolved?”  There is only one way, he answered, the triumph of Germany is the triumph of humanity and all that opposes “this great new omnivorous power is the enemy of humanity”.

In 1871, Marx tried to use the International to set up “this great Pan-German State”, Bakunin reminded.  Marx failed “not for lack of very great efforts and much skill on his part, but probably because the fundamental idea which inspires him is false and its realization is impossible”.


In 1872, Marx nearly killed the International with his mad dreams of imposing “a universal State, government, [and] dictatorship,” Bakunin recounted.  Marx, “a new Moses”, inscribed his commandments on the flag of the International, and attempted to impose “a dictatorial government … directed by a head extraordinarily filled with brains … a complete fabric of political and economic institutions strongly centralized and very authoritarian”.

Marx was mad to dream that the working masses of the world would unite under the flag of the International, Bakunin exclaimed, madness “driven by ambition, or vanity, or both at once”.  Nothing could be more burlesque or revolting, he scoffed, than this “heresy against common sense [and] … the experience of history”.  The Popes, at least, had an excuse, “the absolute truth which they claimed rested in their hands by the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he admonished, but Marx has no excuse because he claims no such absolute truth.


In 1872, the First International fell apart, largely due to Marx’s disputes with Bakunin and others.  After Marx’s death, the Second International would take up the cause of defining Marxist orthodoxy.  Bakunin’s dire predictions of Marxist totalitarianism would prove accurate.

Bakunin’s anarchist ideas and Bastiat’s libertarian ideas had much in common:

  • Both decried the fiction of the State and how it deluded the masses.
  • Both looked to a sort of natural law – fundamental liberty, based on our innate need to survive.
  • Both objected to State limits on our natural liberty.
  • Both viewed society as a natural institution born of our social nature (not as some mere creature of the State).

Bakunin and Bastiat had many fundamental differences:

  • Bastiat was a Christian.
  • Bakunin was an atheist, who violently opposed the Church (for many reasons, including its partnership with the State and its many historical evils).
  • Bastiat thought property was a natural extension of fundamental liberty.
  • Bakunin thought property should be collectively owned.

Nietzsche predicts twentieth century catastrophe.  Next: Part 34, Tarantulas.

Postmodernism, Part 32: The Commune and Communism

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 The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne; The Red Flag: A History of Communism, by David Priestland; Civil War in France: The Paris Commune, by Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin; The Paris Commune, by Ernest Bax; Socialism by Ludwig von Mises.)


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: disgust and romanticism (that valued passion, violence, radicalism, and revolution, but not morality).  Marx and Engels (disgusted at industrial working conditions) mated Hegel with Darwin to concoct “scientific socialism” (revealed history, Communist prophecy, and pseudo-science).  In 1847, the Communist League published their Communist Manifesto.

Revolutionary Disappointment

Marx and Engels were frustrated with the Revolutions of 1848.  The French Second Republic’s socialist experiments flopped (triggering leftist uprisings – crushed).  German Communism flopped.  (Exit Marx, stage left.  Enter Bismarck, stage right.)  In Italy, Mazzini and Garibaldi were failed and returned to exile.  Bismarck united northern Germany using “blood and iron”.

Red Star Rising

The Franco-Prussian War united victorious Germany, but divided defeated France (triggering insurrection, civil war, and the Paris Commune – brutally crushed), setting the stage for the World Wars, Soviets, and Nazis.

The Commune and Communism

Marx used the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “teachable moment”.  Marx penned his dire “lessons learned”, The Civil War in France (his most influential work after The Communist Manifesto).  Lenin and Stalin expanded on his ideas and put them into action (terribly).

Marx’s Teachable Moment

In London, Marx and Engels (frustrated by proletariat intransigence) were busily making Communism “scientific” by grafting Darwinian notions onto their sketchy Hegelian metaphysics.  Their rosy dreams of a Workers Paradise were mutating into a grimy Dictatorship of the Proletariat with industrial schemes of central planning.

karl-marxKarl Marx

The Paris Commune took Marx quite by surprise.  Marx’s “First International” (an organization of socialist parties of different nations) was (predictably) fractious, split between authoritarians (like Marx) and anarchists (like Mikhail Bakunin).

The Commune gave Marx notoriety as the “Red-Terrorist Doctor” and gave Bakunin a shot at some action.  In France, Marx’s International was sprouting, spreading propaganda, and fomenting insurrections in the French provinces.  Bakunin, himself, went to Lyon to foment insurrection.

Marx’s spin on the Commune was propagandist and polemical, but he got much right:

  • Class struggle.  Marx correctly identifies a powerful class element in the Commune.  Paris suffered the sort of “third world” industrial misery described by Engels.  The Paris slums of Belleville and Montemarte were fetid breeding grounds of unrest.
  • Revolution betrayed.  Marx was correct that the bourgeois betrayed the working class in previous revolutions (1815, 1830, 1848).  Working class mobs fruitlessly manned the barricades and shed blood.  The Second Republic and Empire were thoroughly corrupt and decadent.  (Marxist revolutions are treacherous, as well, as Bakunin warned and Trotsky showed.  Bastiat argued that the revolutions were shams that made impossible promises.)
  • Turning point.  Marx was correct that the Paris Commune marked a new phase in the Marxist battle.  (Marx’s usual wishful-thinking became a self-fulfilling prophecy when taken up by his adherents.)

Marx claimed that the Commune had promised a new (Communist) political form:

  • Good government.  The Commune would have delivered “cheap” (efficient and ethical) government (free of corruption), abolishing and replacing oppression with self rule.
  • Emancipation of labor.  The Commune would have appropriated the means of production (“changing the character of labor”).  (This is the “joy of labor” idea that, under socialism, “labor awakens feelings of satisfaction, not of pain,” wrote economist Ludwig von Mises.  Yet, he said, if labor and its rewards are disconnected, we will always feel like we are doing more than our share.)
  • Enlightenment.  The Commune  freed the workers from (politically oppressive) religious education.
  • Abolition of debt.  The Commune would have freed the poor from their debts, including rural peasants (who opposed Paris radicalism).
  • Civic virtue. The Commune  ended crime (murder, robbery, assault).  (People rarely ventured out after dark.)
leninEmancipation of Labor

Marx justified the acts committed by the Paris Commune:

  • Arson.  The Communards were justified in setting Paris ablaze, he argued, because this was war.  (C’est la guerre.)
  • Murder.  The Communards were justified in murdering the hostages, he argued, because the Government had executed Communard prisoners (in violation of the laws of war).  (This is a matter of perspective, of course.  To the Government, the insurrectionists were mutineers or treasonous rebels.)
Lessons Learned

Marx criticized the Communards’ mistakes:

  • The Communards should have taken up arms and destroyed their enemies (before they could rebuild).
  • The military command (the Central Committee) surrendered power too soon (to the elected Commune) and should have retained it to destroy their enemies.  (Of course, “enemies” is a fluid concept, as demonstrated by the Reign of Terror and the Russian Revolution’s Red Terror.)

As with the Communist Manifesto, Marx closed in dramatic style:

  • “There can be neither peace nor truce between the working men of France and the appropriators of their produce,” Marx declared, “The battle must break out again and again”.
  • “The French working class is the only advance guard of the proletariat”, he stated.
  • “The Commune will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society,” Marx said.

The history of the Commune’s exterminators, Marx thundered, “has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”  (Drops mic.)

Lenin’s Lessons Learned

After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin expanded on Marx’s lessons learned:

  • Go big or go home.  “The proletariat stopped half-way,” Lenin wrote, and were misled by “dreams of establishing a higher justice”.  The Communards should have seized property and taken over the banks, he said.
  • Ruthlessness.  “The second mistake was excessive magnanimity,” Lenin wrote, “instead of destroying its enemies, it sought to exert moral influence on them.”  (Lenin would practice what he preached.)

The proletariat will not forget the lessons of the Commune, wrote Lenin:

  • By any means necessary.  “The proletariat should not ignore peaceful methods of struggle,” Lenin wrote, “but it must never forget that … the class struggle assumes the form of armed conflict and civil war”.
  • Purges.  “There are times when the interests of the proletariat will call for ruthless extermination of its enemies,” said Lenin.

The British Marxist Ernest Bax, a contemporary of Lenin, offered his own lessons learned:

  • War.  The Communards were too scrupulous, wrote Bax, they “did not appreciate the ethics of insurrection … [and] should have been guided by the French maxim a la guerre, comme a la guerre (in war, as in war).”  The Government was the rebel power and should have been crushed. (C’est la guerre.)
  • Amorality.  The Communards were too sensitive “to bourgeois public opinion.  The first thing for [a revolutionary leader] to learn is a healthy contempt for the official public opinion of the ‘civilized world’.  He must … harden his heart against … its ‘indignation’, its ‘abomination’ … and must learn to smile at all the [name-calling].”
  • Big Lie.  The tool for controlling public opinion, wrote Bax, is media control because “public opinion possessed of wavering or of no definite principles … takes the impress of any statement that it finds repeated a few times without very decisive and publicly-made contradiction”.  (“A lie told often enough becomes the truth,” said Lenin, more succinctly.)

Lenin and Stalin logically extended Marx.  Their ideas infused the Red Terror and Stalinist purges.  As we’ll see, the Red Terror bears the indelible stamp of the earlier Reign of Terror, further linking Marx and Rousseau.


Marx’s stand on the Paris Commune split the International.  One of Marx’s fiercest critics was Mikhail Bakunin (whose baleful warnings against Marx came all too true).  Next: Part 33, The Anarchist Bakunin.

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.