Sacred Headwaters #49: TINA Pt 3 – the Paris Commune
The Paris Commune was a short-lived revolutionary experiment. It challenged state sovereignty and implemented progressive ideals that wouldn't be seen again for decades. What can we learn from it?
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Issue #49: TINA Pt 3 – the Paris Commune
This is the third issue focused on challenging the concept of TINA: “there is no alternative.” This newsletter has spent a lot of time critiquing capitalism and liberalism. Faced with critique, proponents of this ideological hegemony often cede ground but ultimately defend their position by saying, either explicitly (like Margaret Thatcher) or implicitly, that this status quo is the best we can do. All we can hope for are tweaks around the margins. The ecological reality of the 21st century requires that we challenge that idea, and thankfully, humans have consistently proved this idea wrong over the vast majority of our 200,000 years on this planet. In this series, we are reading about historical and contemporary examples of and theories of human organization that disprove the technological and teleological determinism of TINA advocates.
Issue #49: TINA Pt 3 – the Paris Commune (Apr 4th, 2022)
History is an interesting thing. As the famous and ironically often misattributed quote puts it, “History is written by the victors,” but even that tells only part of the story. The reality is that history is constantly written and rewritten by the dominant powers of a given period. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois pointed out that his contemporaries were actively rewriting of the history of Reconstruction in the United States, erasing the dynamics and political compromises that followed the Civil War and led to the rise of Jim Crow. We’ve largely forgotten about US involvement in virtually every single coup in the Global South of the Cold War period, systematically implanting or supporting dictators over popular movements to support the interests of American capital (or stem the rise of Soviet power, depending who you ask). Hell, a popular infographic circulated on the Internet in 2020 depicting a hierarchy of “conspiracy theories” meant to classify how deep in the hole a given conspiracist was included Iran-Contra next to “we live in a simulation.” And, of course, the FBI tweeted about MLK Day this year, complete with a quote from Dr. King. I shouldn’t need to point out how absurd that is coming from an institution that, if it wasn’t directly involved in his assassination (on this very day in 1968), did its very best to destroy him (including attempting to convince him to commit suicide), but it’s emblematic of how history, and the history of social movements in particular, can be rewritten or overwritten in less than a single lifetime in the service of cultural hegemony. Even putting the FBI aside, King’s communism and radical politics have been replaced in our collective memories with a whitewashed, liberal approach to equality. We’re told his movement won.
In this context (admittedly a bit of a digression), I’m writing this issue about a historical event I’d never even heard of until recently: the rise and fall of the Paris Commune in 1871. It’s not fair to say it was erased from my education – American education only really covered European events to the extent they involved the United States. But the history of the Commune has been variously appropriated, caricatured, vilified, sanctified, or erased by a wide cast of characters and states over the century and a half since its tenure, and with that in mind, I’d like to take a look at what it was, what its significance was to some of its contemporaries, and what its significance may be for us today.
First, a very brief history of what the Commune actually was. In 1870, the Germany army lay siege to Paris as part of what we now call the Franco-Prussian War. The siege transformed many things about life in Paris and, like many external stressors (i.e. the pandemic), it exposed great inequalities in the city. A Parisian militia known as the National Guard was the main military force that defended the city against the Germans – not the regular French military. In early 1871, the French surrendered (giving Germany the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeast France), and, with the war over, on March 17th, the new government of the French Republic made plans to disarm Paris’s National Guard. The city had no interest in disarmament and took up arms against the French army who quickly vacated the area, along with French government officials and most of the city’s wealthier residents. Within a week, the city was holding new elections as the Paris Commune, asserting their own sovereignty and forming a government that would go on to rapidly implement progressive reforms and economic redistribution far out of the ordinary for the period.
Two months later, the French army returned and the Commune’s brief but radical tenure came to a bloody end; the French took the city with relative ease, imprisoned more than 40,000 people, and killed somewhere between 5 and 20,000 people.
The story of this interesting but short-lived piece of European history offers a relatively modern example of revolutionary change, not simply in the sense that it came about by way of revolution: in just two months, the Commune implemented gender equity policies that were virtually unheard of at the time, abolished the death penalty, canceled debt, and expropriated vacant buildings to provide public housing. Their policies were a divergence from the contemporary European norm at the same scale as, say, moving the entire world away from fossil fuels in less than ten years, transforming the global economy to no longer depend on perpetual growth, or reversing the trends of rapidly growing wealth inequality, both within and beyond borders.
The Commune’s reality, of course, was complicated, which serves to explain how the movement was both praised and criticized by people across the socialist spectrum as well as how its story came to be repurposed by various actors across the entire political spectrum over the last 150 years. What we’ll read here speaks primarily to what the Commune can offer us today, both as a proof-by-existence that alternatives to liberal state capitalism are possible and as a revolutionary social movement.
Courtney Traub, Paris Unlocked, March 10th, 2022
It was remarkably difficult to find a brief account of the history of the Paris Commune that was not obviously ideologically tilted in one or the other direction to the point of obscuring the basic facts. This article on an English-language Paris tourism website was, surprisingly enough, one of the more balanced and informative ones. It explains the broader historical context of France, the specific context of the Franco-Prussian War, and the story of the Commune’s rise, rule, and ultimate bloody fall at the hands of Adolphe Thiers’s army. Traub cites a French historian, Michel Cordillot, in an effort to understand and situate the Commune’s significance and its still controversial legacy for France and the world today. For Cordillot, the Commune marked a significant shift in France in that it forced the governing elites to recognize that working class power was not going away, ultimately ruling out the possibility of reversion to a monarchy. Traub also describes some of the political significance of the Commune within its own time period, particularly among socialist thinkers like Marx and Lenin.
Enzo Traverso, Jacobin, May 28th, 2021
In this piece, Traverso attempts to paint a picture of the Commune, the ways it has inspired and affected social movements over the last 150 years, and what relevance it may have for our struggles today. I found that there were three key takeaways from this piece. First, Traverso emphasizes how the story of the Commune has been shaped for different purposes by different movements, particularly including the way the Bolsheviks cast it as part of a retroactively outlined linear progression of human development towards socialism. Second, he drills in on what the aspirations of the Commune were – or at least, what the aspirations of notable Communards like Élisée Reclus were. According to Reclus, the goal was explicitly to build a society with no hierarchy, a “new humanity” of radical equality, and a fundamentally internationalist one. Traverso also argues, perhaps in opposition to Peter Kropotkin in the next piece who is more measured in his assessment, that the Commune practiced a radically participatory and non-hierarchical form of governance – something different from both liberal capitalism and from the state socialism we would see rise over the following century. Finally, Traverso connects the Commune with the radical movements in the 21st century including elements of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, 15M in Spain, and the autonomous region of Kurdish Rojava (which we’ll read about in another issue in this series). The most thought-provoking point he makes here is that the majority of the Communards weren’t members of the industrial working class, the traditional “proletariat” of Marxist revolutionary thought. They were artisans, teachers, temp workers, students, and more. He argues that this revolutionary make-up offers a strong parallel to the youth of the 21st century, at least in the deindustrialized Global North.
The Commune of Paris (25 minutes)
Peter Kropotkin, Le Révolté, March 20th, 1880
Peter Kropotkin was a Russian naturalist, philosopher, and anarchist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I recently read his book Mutual Aid (which I’d highly recommend); in it, he argues that “mutual aid” – the tendency towards cooperation as a means to enhance the survival of a community or group – is an inherent evolutionary driver throughout the animal kingdom, including in humans. I won’t go into too much detail here, but in one of the chapters on human history, he gives an account of the period we generally gloss over and ignore as "the Dark Ages” in Europe, arguing that there were many examples of self-organized, self-governing city states practicing radically participatory democracy and communal ownership of productive resources. For him, this – with a recognition that the accelerating globalization of the world in his time would require higher scales of federation and interconnectedness – is effectively the ideal form of human organization, one that precludes domination and hierarchy and encourages and promotes the natural human capacity for mutual aid.
It’s worth reading this piece about the Paris Commune with that in mind (though I should note he wrote Mutual Aid in 1902, two decades later). For Kropotkin, the Paris Commune was an admittedly imperfect but nevertheless critical milestone for the anarchist school of socialist thought. He argues that, up until that point, while anarchist theorists like himself were active in socialist circles, they had nothing to point to, no real (at least remotely contemporary) examples of a self-organized society without hierarchy, and that the Commune, while by no means a truly stateless society, planted the seed of a reified anarchist imaginary. While this issue is perhaps a bit heavy on the S* and A* words for some, this argument is precisely why I’m writing about the Paris Commune as part of the TINA series: it was short-lived and far from perfect, but its a demonstration both of the existence of alternatives to state capitalism and of the potential for rapid, radical change, something we desperately need.
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