Anatomy of a Revolution: The Paris Commune

Anatomy of a Revolution: The Paris Commune


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The story might be one of the few things universal to the human experience. Larger than life
characters, plots, twists, turns, action and suspense are part of our lives. It’s almost
as if it’s part of our genetic code. Unless you are a scientist in which case, I never
said that and I denounce and reject my claim. This is true in things as simple as the story
we tell about our day, but also how you define yourself. In some ways, identity itself is
about the stories we tell about ourselves and those told about us. A good story can
change governments. They can bring people together, or even justify some of the worst
actions in history. The political left from democratic socialists
to Stalinists, to anarchists tells the story of the Paris Commune. It was a radical experiment
in democracy in the late 19th century. For two months these people fought overwhelming
forces. At the same time, they tried to build the society of their dreams. Since the fall
of the commune, those on the political left, from Karl Marx, to Noam Chomsky have claimed
it as a foundational myth. Historians turn the raw events of the past, like the commune
into narratives. So, you know, we have some value. Today, let’s tell this story. Let’s
show the world what happened in Paris in 1871, and find what these Communards as they were
called have to say about us now. Let’s begin with the divide in leftist activism
today. Those on not familiar with left wing circles might not know, but the left is always
in a debate over one issue or another. The most significant divide though is likely over
states. Specifically, whether they are necessary. Do we follow Karl Marx and make a government
and army to end capitalism before it too withers away? Or do we believe the anarchist argument
that no state by definition could serve anyone but a political elite?
Both Marxists and anarchists point to the Paris commune as their case for how to run
a revolution. So this story hits the core of their ideological divide. People will say
I insert politics into history, which is like inserting water into an ocean but whatever.
I want to dig into the story here and answer what happened at this famous Paris commune,
and what we can learn. Europe in 1871 was… a messy place. The industrial
revolution created vast quantities of new wealth. The problem is it created that wealth
in an extremely uneven fashion. Many historians would argue the life of an urban wage worker
was much worse than even a medieval peasant. Medieval peasant lives weren’t as bad as
we think, but that’s a different video! This 19th-century industrial society was urban.
People crammed into massive cities. They worked long hours and barely made ends meet if they
did at all. It’s a volatile mixture for revolution we see over and over again in human history.
Hey, completely unrelated, but did you know 26 people have as much wealth as the bottom
half of humanity. Neat fact! Many working people in Europe realised the
liberal revolutions left them behind. You know, the ones which tossed the English out
of America and beheaded the King of France? They seemed to result in no real changes to
the working person’s daily life. They merely replaced an aristocratic elite with a capitalist
one. Around Europe, a new political movement began
to rise. These new revolutionaries started a series of more and more radical actions.
They wanted to address the gross cruelty and inequalities of the world one way or another.
These angry people pushed towards socialism or nationalism.
France had always been a hotbed of radical politics, so early socialists were popular.
In the age of Emperor Napoleon III, many Parisians supported a democratic republic. An organised
international group of socialists, communists, and anarchists called the first international
was gaining popularity. With it, they developed ideas for radical changes to the way society
functioned. Then everything changed when the German nation
attacked. War broke out between France and the coalition of countries not far from becoming
Germany in 1870. Historians call it the Franco-Prussian War. If you were watching a more conventional
youtube channel with many more subscribers than this one, this video would be about that
instead. Then we could have maps and arrows and make the wholesale slaughter of thousands
of people look like a fun little war game or something. OK, moving on.
Long story short, soldiers rode horses, fired guns, died, and the French lost the war. By
September, the Germans surrounded Paris. To hold off the Germans, the French recruited
less-desirable men from Paris. Those enlisted from the middle and upper-middle-class, the
closest neighbourhoods to like today’s white suburbs were pro-government and happy to serve
the Emperor. Those from the lower class neighbourhoods were all hopped up on this radical leftism.
Let’s just say, leftists and emperors, don’t get along.
Radical leftists in France noticed their army had little left to resist the Germans. They
saw an opportunity to make a strike against the government. On September 19th those lower-class
soldiers marched to the centre of town. These activists demanded a new government in Paris,
a commune. Commune is a loaded word, but let me channel historian Donny Gluckstein to explain.
The Paris Commune it seems terribly radical. Commune, it sounds like something to do with
communism. Actually it’s not. The commune was literally and its still the unit of local
government in France. If you look around you have the commune de Paris the commune of Montpelier
the commune of Leon. It just means town council. So what people do is they elect the town council
and by people I mean the men. But the September 19 demonstration would be
the beginning of the unrest, not the end. Leftist protestors who wanted a commune in
Paris would meet again on October 5th and 8th. Then, things started to change after
a failed attempt to break the German siege. France’s defence minister fearing capture
escaped Paris by hot air balloon. On October 28th, Parisians learned the Germans
surrounded another French army, the bulk of their remaining men. Yet another attempt to
break German lines had failed with heavy losses. On October 31st, leaders of revolutionary
groups in Paris called for major demonstrations. Some 15,000 people came out to protest the
government and demand a commune. Again. The government put the demonstration down. Yet
during this massive upheaval, the protestors stormed the local government. They even set
up their own revolutionary government for a few hours.
Time marched on. Unrest got stronger and stronger. It became clear there was not going to be
any resolution to the war with the Germans save the French surrender. Parisians starved,
froze, and starting in early January, the Germans began to shell their city day and
night. Under this pressure, extreme factions of the
left-wing resistance to the government got desperate. This led to real firefights with
government forces. As France negotiated a ceasefire with Germany, a leftist militia
called the National Guard seized 400 old bronze cannons. They took the cannons into the working
class neighbourhoods in Paris. They were ready to arm themselves against the French government.
Paris would be for the people. The government tried to negotiate some of them back. Yet
they also refused to prolong a freeze on debt collection and shuttered radical newspapers.
These government actions only succeeded in making the Parisian radicals even angrier.
They were now less willing to come to the table.
The army tried to come for those cannons, planning to regroup outside and attack the
city if they refused… well… they refused. So on the 18th of March very early in the
morning they went to monmartre all the cannons were stores in montmartre to keep them from
the Prussians and the Versailles government tried to sieze them. and Louise Michel and
various women stopped the soldiers and said “how dare you disarm the working class? These
are out cannons. Go away.” The soldiers, ordinary people, refused to follow their officer’s
orders. The officers said shoot, shoot the women. The soldiers refused to do that. They
turned their guns upside down and were not going to fire and actually arrested the officer
and a couple of them were killed. And at that point the ruling class panicked and what was
left of it in Paris ran away to Versailles. So, Paris was left literally without any government
of the bourgeoisie. What was left was the federation. In ofther words the armed soldiers.
The armed working class and they began to run for themselves. And that in the sense
is the origin of the commune. In no time, the city of Paris belonged to
the revolutionaries. They would soon be under siege, and there was no state. What did they
do? The rubber would hit the road on March 28th,
when the new Paris commune held their first meeting. They made imprisoned socialist leader
their honorary president. On top of that, they abolished the death penalty and conscription
and voted in a dozen other measures. Honoraries aside, this was a remarkable experiment
in democracy. The commune had no president, no mayor, no general, nothing. They organised
commissions for different aspects of running the city.
So the revolution of the 18th of March takes place, the bourgeois government runs to Versailles
and then there’s a debate. What do we do? There are basically two main currents that
will sort of win out in the end in all the debates. There’s the elements of the bourgeosie,
the old mayors who ran the various arrandisements local mayors, they’re fairly bourgeois and
they drift away quite fast. So you got two currents left and the two currents are the
Blanquists and the Proudhonists. And the Blanquists trace their origins way back to 1789 and 1793
and they see a sort of daring minority that take action and decide for everybody else.
So Blanquis invented the concept of dictatorship of the proliteriot. It was his term that Marx
sort of borrowed. He wanted to establish this and he was very keen on the issue of power.
They said we need to march on Versailles, destroy our enemy, and then we can construct
a new society. That’s the blanquists who sort of action by a dedicated very mentally advanced
as they think of themselves minority acting for everybody else.
You’ve got the Proudhonists on the opposite side who are Anarchists who basically say
all authority is bad and therefore we shouldn’t be marching on versailles to overthrow it
because we’re not interested in authority either. To defeat it or to even construct
one in Paris. Everyone should just do their own thing. And then you got the Jacobins who
are sort of in the middle and the Jacobins are not a socialist current actually. They’re
a sort of radical bourgeois current. Quite a large group actually but they trade their
origins obviously back to the Jacobins of the French Revolution. These people debating
and they say what do we do? And the decision is and this is the decision which I think
is quite fateful actually. They decide to hold a municipal election.
Before long, separation of church and state, the abolition of rent and debt interest, worker
self-management were all law. Women also played a massive role in the commune,
bucking the status of women at the time. One example is Louise Michel who carried out both
combat and the maintenance of the commune. She was a teacher and nicknamed the “French
grande dame of anarchy”. Louise helped the injured, and even reportedly grabbed a gun
and a uniform herself. Though don’t expect a paradise, these women still couldn’t vote.
No women served IN the commune’s decision-making body itself.
I haven’t mentioned. For example, how advanced it was in terms of education for women and
women’s rights. It’s not a thing that’s often talked about but the revolution was started
by women, by Louise Michel and the people around her. The last defenders were prostitutes.
Companies of prostitutes who were fighting alongside the national guard who fought to
the bitter end because they recognized the liberation. In terms of equal education, equal
pay, all sorts of things. There was also long disagreement over the
bank of France. Different leftists since the fall of the commune have played Monday morning
quarterback. They debate to this day whether the people who ran the commune should’ve raided
it for the money. You’ll find Monday night quarterbacking of the commune’s actions
quite common. It’s easy to forget this radical new seed
of democracy was at war with the nation of France. Granted, the whole Germany thing occupied
France. But still, they weren’t going to let the French capital manage themselves.
The government was in Versailles. Some Parisians, such as the followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui,
wanted to send their men to march on it. Some tried, but the offensive was a quick failure,
and the French army put them on the defensive. On that note, the commune’s or Communard military
was… disorganised at best. They boasted 200,000 men on paper, but to be honest, they
had about a quarter of those tops. Significant percentages of the military just abandoned
their posts without leave. Moreover, many of the big cannons and stuff had few people
trained to use them. But, like many of the best things in this
world, the Paris commune’s time upon this earth was short. By the 21st of May, the French
army began its offensive on the city of Paris. They found an area of the city unfortified,
and French troops marched into Paris. The disorganised military began to dissolve as
the battle moved street to street. Soldiers broke ranks to save their neighbourhoods.
This takeover of the city is often called the bloody week. The government wanted not
only to suppress this revolt but make sure no one would ever think to go do this again.
We have stories of mass executions, and mass graves yet uncovered to this day. The government
exiled the few survivors around the globe. Hey friends, I want to keep giving this channel
the time it needs to put out great stories from our past. I also enjoy luxuries like
paying rent and eating food. So, I want to thank this video’s sponsor, Skillshare.
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Several prominent left-wing thinkers were alive to witness what happened at the commune.
This included the big daddy of them all Karl Marx. For left-wing activists, thinkers, and
revolutionaries, the Paris Commune was a unifying story. For a short amount of time, a revolutionary
experiment in democracy took place. The Commune was the model for how to run a democracy,
and overthrow the oppressors. That’s not to say there wasn’t disagreement.
We can begin with the Anarchists. Anarchists are a left-wing movement which espouses a
strong opposition to anti-authoritarianism. Anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was
influential on the commune. Many anarchists participated in the commune’s organisation.
During the commune, many businesses reopened as co-ops under an anarchist model and were
successful. Anarchists can point to these successes as an example of how their economic
models do hold water. Other left-wing activists, communists, and
socialists use the commune as a case study. Marxists believe the state is required to
establish communism. But, once capitalism is defeated their state would wither away.
They point to the commune’s successes and failures to make their case for a revolutionary
state. The democratic organisation of the commune was a success. Yet many Marxists would
argue running the military as democracy was more than a little responsible for the commune’s
downfall. The Soviet Union sang the commune’s anthem.
Lenin himself celebrated when the Soviet revolution had lasted longer than the Paris Commune.
But whoop dee doo, that’s an excellent story for revolutionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries,
but what does the Paris commune’s story mean today? I tried to paraphrase this a few
times, but I should leave the last word here to Dr Gluckstein.
I think the Paris Commune is very very important in the sense that people say oridinary people
are too stupid, too thick, not clever enough to run society. You need to have the very
rich, well-bred people who’ve been to the right schools and the right universities and
have the right share portfolio and they should run the world.
And I think if that’s the case then we’re all doomed. Look at global warming and all
the rest of it. Look at wher they’re taking us. So the Paris Commune shows that ordinary
people can run society, the tragedy was that it was a very very short time for them to
show that. But in a sense that’s what it achieved and that cannot be taken away.
I want to thank Dr Gluckstein for talking to me about the Paris Commune. His book on
the subject is available down in the description. I will have a playlist on other great revolutions
in this vein you can check out there too. Stay strong friends, keep fighting the good
fight, and come back soon for more Step Back.

87 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Revolution: The Paris Commune

  1. Hey pals,

    Thanks for watching this video. If you want to help make sure more like it keep getting made, you could check out this video's sponsor Skillshare. Signing up really helps me keep giving this channel the time it deserves. Also, the first 500 people who go to https://skl.sh/stepbackhistory3 will get 2 free months of awesome classes teaching skills you really will use.

    History is rife with stories of those who struggled against tyranny and oppression with a dream of a better world. Watch this series of their stories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2V6A6WEHNE&list=PLnpoOo7lhNnE4-vbGhQ3yA0zchCq-shwo

  2. I wish the Paris Commune had had more time to establish itself. Some amount of central authority is needed in any large community (if only to make sure nobody is unfairly using wealth or force to become a de facto authority without oversight), but the Commune could have been a "natural experiment" in how little is required.
    But its fate does reveal a major weakness of such disorganized governments: They are weak. Now, I'm not going to defend the militarism of modern superpowers; that's a whole other kettle of fish. All I'm saying is that such militarism is born from the seed of something that is necessary to keep such communities safe, like a vine which produces life-sustaining fruit but has grown to strangle the entire farm.
    There needs to be balance in everything—not too much authority, and that authority not supported by excess force, but also sufficient authority with sufficient force to keep the community safe from threats within and without (whether they be foreign generals, domestic CEOs, or just some prick with a lead pipe and a bad attitude). It's hard to figure out the "proper" amount of authority which maximizes freedom, quality of life, or whatever metric you're looking at, because historical examples of any given system are few and full of confounding variables, and because designing governments as experiments is generally considered unwise and immoral. If the Commune had stuck around a little longer, we might have gotten a better understanding of how such a system of direct democracy would function or fail in a (relatively) modern city.

  3. Who else thinks beard Marx is hotter than the Chinese Anime Marx? I'm not much of an authority on such subjects but it seems pretty obvious to me. (insert pointless lenny face)

  4. “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.”

  5. Oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah oh yeah yeah

  6. I do think the Marxists have a point, running militaries as direct democracies backfired pretty badly in the Spanish Civil War as well.

    Edit: a source on the Spanish militias being less than ideal – https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/9qc94f/ive_read_that_anarchist_forces_during_the_spanish/?utm_source=reddit-android

  7. The Paris commune demonstrates that we do need some centralization in the armed forces, elect officers yes, but once a general is elected he must be able to make war plans without hesitation, this is no excuse for Marxism however, as the economy can be decentralised almost completely as people have demonstrated time and time again, they are more than able to organise themselves, and pool resources to where they are needed, authority is only necessary in the Army for two reasons, element of surprise and unity of action.

  8. Speaking of France, do you think you would ever do a video on the Dreyfus Affair? The rampant antisemitism in the Yellow Vest movement reminds me of another time self-described revolutionaries blamed random Jews for their ills.

  9. Awesome video! One of the few videos on YouTube that covers the Paris commune. I subscribed, keep up the good work comrade!

  10. There’s an amazing revolutionary song called “workers Marsailles” it’s in Russian and the lyrics are literally “The kulaks and the wealthy packs plunder all of your hard work”.

  11. If you’re not getting enough from Patreon, you might consider getting support from corporate donors. They’re not going to have any trouble giving you loads of money and I can’t imagine they’ll try to influence your content.

    Just sayin’

  12. Thank you for sharing information about this wonderful part of our history! I also recently did a video on the fall of the Paris Commune.

  13. This is putting a pretty positive spin on how successful the Paris Commune was for a movement/government that lasted only two months. Granted, the demise of the Commune was not really the fault of the Commune itself, except when it totally was as a result of incredibly naive policy decisions that left them completely unprepared to defend themselves. When I think back to the Paris Commune, I don't think any other historical event more exemplifies the nativity of high idealism. But my word, it was glorious though.

  14. Rectification on the national guard and fun facts :

    the National Guard was not at all a left-wing group but a little-bourgeois militia (it had to buy its weapons and uniform)created in the great Revolution if 1789 , which was institutionalized at the time of the commonue. It was tasked with maintaining order and repressing riots as much as with Join them. It plays a decisive role in all the revolutions. It was even said that it was the guard participation that made the difference between a revolution and a riot.

    the guard was opened to all during the commune and revolutions whereas it was in time of peace the support of the bourgeois order. This question of the guard prevailed from the spirit of the time of the citizen in arms in the Parisian proletariat: the fight for a militarized and patriotic direct democracy opposed to the bourgeois republicanism privileging the vote these cleavage goes back also to the revolution (The guard must be open to all ?, the citizen must he exercise the power directly and be a "warrior" defender of his neighborhood, his city?, this was the majority vision in the Parisian proletariat in the 18th herited from the viril and equalitarian "sans-culotte" vision of patriotism).

    Moreover the Commune is also a rise "nationalist" against the inaction and complacency of the government against the Prussian army And yes from the great revolution of 1789 nationalism was leftist until the 3rd Republic in France! ( It's all evidently concerned with the Popular culture herited of the first revolution ).

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Guard_(France)

    Other : A Popular History of France by Gérard Noiriel

  15. 2:20 Indeed , a symptom of capitalism generally. Capitalism is great at creating wealth. It is also great at generating inequality. So what's the point? :-/

  16. The fact that you don’t like certain types of YouTubers doesn’t allow you to take their work and put it in your videos without asking their permission or at least credit them (I’m referring to the clip from EmperorTigerstar showed after your sarcastic remarks).
    Also, you have a very superficial understanding on the topic. The research and time required to make a decent animation like that is much higher than what you may think, In some cases one single video can take months to make and requires you to confront multiple sources to avoid errors.
    It is true that without a deep understanding of the time period which they are describing they are pretty much incapable of communicating anything outside of some information about military history, and for this reason they should be watched alongside other type of content.
    But insulting and denigrating them like you did is just not fair.

  17. The legacy of the Commune is still felt very strongly by the people of Paris today. I can't tell you how many times I've jokingly told a local that I am a communard and they profess to me their love for this period. I've had many tell me that for them this was the best period in all of Parisian history.

  18. In order for representative democracy to work, it must be representative! It can't just be some very particular set of people from the given population. This is why voting systems like First-Past-the-Post aren't good at being representative, however there isn't a perfect system as some work better than others depending on the situation.

    Direct democracy could work in very small populations, like that of a city, but not in the size of some of the biggest countries of today, including France. However, one good model would be Switzerland's mix of representative and direct democracy, which could work in other similar sized countries or in subdivisions of federal countries of compatible size.

  19. Long Live the Paris Commune! Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism – the doctrine of the emancipation of the proletariat!

  20. "Escaped Paris by hot air balloon"

    Holy shit I think that was the most late 19th century thing I've ever heard. Except for mass oppression of workers and the like, of course.

  21. If you speak French and have 13×30 minutes to spend, check out French historian Henri Guillemin’s series of conferences on the Commune.
    It was done for Swiss public television (RTS) in 1971 but still holds up completely.
    Guillemin was an incredible raconteur. There is tragedy but also some black humour…
    Guillemin was a lifelong Socialist.
    https://www.rts.ch/archives/dossiers/henri-guillemin/3477764-la-commune-de-paris.html
    (He is most famous for his series on Napoleon, which he demolishes… and got him banned from French television!)
    Good work, great channel! ✊🏼☮️❤️👍🏼

  22. inserting politics into history is like inserting "water into the ocean"– i'm guessing someone read the jameson's political unconscious! XD

  23. Nice use of art from Jaques Tardi's Le cri du peuple graphic novel… of which only the first half came out here in Sweden GRRRRR! >:(

  24. Very interesting video, thank you.
    As a german, I'm familiar with the french-prussian-war but this side of the story was totaly unknown to me.

    Maybe you could make a smiliar video about the Bavarian Soviet Republic, also a story of the plitical left side, and a sozialist state in westeurope many people dind't hear about.

    Thanks for your videos and greetings from bavaria.

  25. so complete non sequitur here but I just spotted the D&D books and DM screen behind you. are you currently playing in a campaign? what's it about ?
    do you DM or are you just a player? either way i imagine that being a historian provides you with interesting perspectives on the game?
    I'm a DM myself and since getting into the hobby have often bemoaned my lack of interest in history when i was younger.

  26. I'm a scientist, and I would say humanities foubles–sorry for bad yiddish spelling–are almost certainly in our genetic code to a degree.

    Let me preface this by saying, the argument about nature vs. nuture is just wrong. It's nature and nurture working together, your environment effects your genetic expression, so the whole debate was sorta silly from jump street, it turns out…

    Anyhoo, there was a lot of strife and conflict during our evolution. We had to hunt and gather during which time we had deal with all sorts of crazy animals/neanderthals, and then once we discovered agriculture we set about slaughtering one another right up until modernity.

    So as a scientist based on this knowledge, my hypothesis would certainly be that it's–partially–genetic. Though, the proper argument for any long-term human behavior is that it's both genetic and environmental, and that holds true for pretty much all life, unless you want to count virus's as living, which most don't…

    Haha, I think I just made a premise for a video…

  27. But eventually, the communists got too comfortable behind their Iron Curtain (REALLY comfortable) and forgot to actually destroy capitalism: opting for Detente. Where was the American Yeltsin? KGB coups in Spain and Portugal? Money for leftist (including anarchist, Trotskyist, Maoist, etc.) sabotage and wrecking? The Comintern/Comecon containment and encirclement of the USA? Nowhere.

  28. Both Marxists & Anarchists believe in the elimination of the state, one was methodical, the other was spontaneous. The Marxists believe that Socialism through a "Dictatorship of the Proletariat " would lead to the "withering away of the state, which they described as Communism. 😐

  29. The Anarchists believe that power should be in the hands of the people through communes, the syndicate unions, etc. Some Anarchists aren't violent extremists, some support the idea of a "General Strike" or other forms of civil disobedience as a way of fermenting change. 😐

  30. Communists & Anarchists have always been at war with each other, even though they have the same outcome, just the way to reach that goal. Plus Marx borrowed the slogan, "From Each According to their abilities, to each according to their needs " from Kropotkin. 😐

  31. The Paris Commune wasn't successful, but it showed an alternative to the oppressive status quo, & it showed, that in spite of what happened in the same city nearly a century earlier after the French Revolution, people can take their destiny into their own hands. ✊

  32. Gambetta left Paris because he wanted to organize the army of the Loire, not because he feared capture. It was also a way for the paris government to make Gambetta leave the capital, because he was one the only ones who opposed to surrender to the german army

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