Revolutions: The Paris Commune

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The city of lights; the city of love—Paris is most famous for being in flames.

Decorating the walls of the French capital you can find graffiti declaring Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible — Be realistic, demand the impossible. More than 140 years ago, the infamous Paris Commune burned so bright that upwards of 30,000 Parisians died during the government siege of the city.

The idealism and blood was thick in Paris in the spring of 1871. France had just lost a war against Prussia and much of the city’s wealthy class had fled the city and was replaced with poor refugees from the surrounding countryside. The National Guard, a local militia formed to defend the city during the war, became increasingly radical. The federal government sent in its own demoralized troops to seize the cannons from the Guard but the Guard resisted and many troops mutinied rather than fight. The rebellion spread so quickly that the government ordered a complete withdrawal. Every solider, every police, every administrator and every specialist of any kind were ordered to evacuate the city. Paris, with a population of two million at the time, was the world’s third largest city — and the government literally walked away from it.

Elections were organized by the rebels and the Paris Commune was formed. The Commune has been celebrated by anarchists and Marxists ever since, due to the variety of political undercurrents, the high degree of workers’ control, and the remarkable co-operation among different revolutionists.  But it was not to last.

The French government had only retreated a few miles to the wealthy suburb of Versailles. Skirmishes between government troops and Parisians at hastily built barricades around the cities edge began almost immediately, climaxing in La Semaine ensanglantei, the blood week, just two months after the rebellion began. The government quickly reasserted control, imprisoning or executing tens of thousands of the Commune’s sympathizers and declared martial law for five years.

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