After the French Second Empire fell in its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Paris demanded more representation in the interim Third Republic ruled by the National Assembly at Versailles. Paris was administered directly by the Assembly the same way Washington DC was administered the US Congress for many years. Furthermore, many Parisians felt that they were not adequately represented in the Assembly (they weren’t) and that the Assembly was going to bring back the monarchy (they weren’t). On 18 March 1871, the Paris Commune, or city council, revolted against Republican rule with the support of the National Guard which was not disarmed by the Prussians at the end of the war as was the French army.
The “Communards”, as they were known, were very progressive minded and even managed to put some reforms into place, such as women’s suffrage, the separation of the church and state, pensions for widows of National Guardsmen, and some worker’s rights, particularly the abolition of shift work and worker’s fines. But by the same token, many radical ideas were forced upon the Parisians at the barrel of a gun, such as banishment of rent, debt, and interest, and workers forcibly taking over their employer’s enterprises. The Commune ruled by decree and acted as the three branches of govt: executive, legislative and judicial, backed by the guns of the National Guard. The French Tricolor was immediately abandoned for the Socialist Red.
Like any organization with absolute power, absolute corruption soon followed. And the “Tyranny of the Majority” became progressively worse over the next two months. First they came for the Catholics, then the businessmen, then the managers, then the property owners, then finally anyone deemed “Enemies of the People”. Within two weeks, social order broke down and culminated in early May with the establishment of the Committee for Public Safety, which was just as brutal as it was during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But instead of guillotines, the preferred method of executing “undesirables” was firing squad.
By mid-April, the chaos descended to the point that the units of the National Guard, which were recruited and based on Parisian neighborhoods, became mere neighborhood gangs and protection rackets against the excesses of rival neighborhoods and their National Guard units, or muscle to prevent spurious denunciations of its members as “Enemies of the People”. This prevented the National Guard from coordinating the defense of Paris against the rearmed French Army supported by the Prussians. On 21 May, the “Versaillier” Army entered the city through an unguarded gate and began seizing neighborhoods. The Communards had no organized defense, so like their grandparents in 1830, and their parents in 1848, the Communards resorted to the time honored barricade, where furniture, bricks, carts and wagons formed impromptu ramparts across Parisian streets. But the French army was prepared for this and bypassed the barricades by blowing through or knocking down walls inside the buildings along the street. As the French army steadily pacified each neighborhood in turn, they shot any Communard that was found with a weapon, or had powder stains on their person. 21-28 May 1871 was known as “Bloody Week” and tens of thousands more were killed and much of Paris burned to the ground.
Future communists, socialists and anarchists would see the Paris Commune as a model. Karl Marx praised the Paris Commune, calling it the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but felt that the Communards did not go far enough fast enough. Marx would later write that Communards should have immediately eliminated all undesirables, and in the moment of the initial fervor, formed the supporters into an army to export the revolution, or at the very least defeat and “reactionaries and their armies”. Marx’s disciples: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Kim, Castro, Mugabe, Chavez, and many others would put the lessons of the Paris Commune into action to great, and deadly, effect in the 20th Century.