When antifa militants and fellow-travelers took over six blocks of Seattle, Wash., and established a rogue state called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Paris Commune came to mind. Both involved seizing power and territory for largely ideological goals and both proved destructive of public property. ISIS has been far more bloodthirsty and more unified than either CHAZ or the Paris Commune, however.
Like the Paris Commune, CHAZ claims to represent the people and aspires to bring about a new anarcho-communist utopia. In fact, the Paris Commune’s proto-socialism later inspired Karl Marx, and Marx referred to the commune as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Paris Commune also consciously echoed the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, an era of expunging the old order by renaming even the days of the week and the months of the year. CHAZ oozes with this spirit.
Yet CHAZ is also far less serious and less organized than the Paris Commune. It appears Seattle’s antifa have erected a Paris Commune but without the pesky voting and with far more privilege and lenience from the authorities.
The Paris Commune
Before the Germans lost both World War I and World War II, they won an important but mostly forgotten war known as the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). At the time, Germany was divided into different kingdoms. Prussia united most of the German kingdoms before and during the war with France, dethroning the French who had been the dominant European power in the 1700s and the Napoleonic Wars. After winning the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians officially inaugurated the German Empire at the Palace of Versailles — a powerful symbol of their domination. The World War I Treaty of Versailles was in part a retribution for this historic slight.
The Paris Commune began in this context, spearheaded by the Paris National Guard. The National Guard dated back to the French Revolution of 1789, and French Emperor Napoleon III ordered the National Guard to defend Paris during the Seige of Paris in 1870. Working-class radicals in the National Guard helped defend the city but also pushed for reforms during the siege. The Germans defeated France in three different theaters, and it was clear France had lost the war. Even so, when negotiations for an armistice began at Versailles, the National Guard felt betrayed.
Emperor Napoleon III was deposed and France held national elections, leading to the Third Republic under Adolphe Thiers. The new government wanted a constitutional monarchy, while the National Guard very much did not.
The National Guard moved to seize power in Paris, setting up an alternate government to the Third Republic. At the same time, the 20 mayors of Paris attempted to take charge of the city, and they tried to negotiate with Thiers, who refused their less radical demands. The National Guard effectively brushed the mayors aside.
The guard held elections under the principle of universal male suffrage. Defenders of the social order chose not to vote, so the elections resulted in a very radical Paris government. Yet the radicals did not agree on what they wanted.
Two basic factions dominated the Paris Commune: anarchists inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and followers of socialist Louis Blanc. The Proudhonists wanted an anti-state, where men were not coerced but freely governed themselves. The Blancists and their allies, the neo-Jacobins, looked to the Terror during the French Revolution as a model. They wanted a revolutionary dictatorship to use force to change society.
The anarchists only wanted to control Paris; they would let Theirs and the Third Republic govern the rest of France. The socialists knew that war with Thiers was inevitable and they wanted control in order to remake society.
The Paris Commune undertook many social reforms. It canceled debt from the siege, restored pay for the National Guard, restored the old Jacobin calendar, gave women more rights, abolished the death penalty, and rejected the 1789 Revolution’s Tricolor Flag, replacing it with the Red Flag of socialism. The Commune only took in half as much in taxes as it spent in expenses, and the government divided over whether or not to seize the bank in Versailles. Instead, they got a loan from Thiers, in a move that Marx would condemn.
The commune went through four different governments, ultimately dominated by a Committee of Public Safety, as in the Terror. The commune deposed General Gustave Cluseret following a false report that a major fort had fallen. Later, while the Third Republic army was conquering Paris, the commune spent its time prosecuting Cluseret rather than fighting back.
The Third Republic ultimately crushed the Paris Commune, and the commune leaders, knowing the end was near, torched as much of Paris as they could. They executed prisoners, including the Archbishop of Paris. They burned the Tuilleries Palace, which remained a smoldering ruin after Thiers restored order.
The Third Republic mercilessly quashed the Paris Commune, taking almost no prisoners but executing those who surrendered. Thiers’ inability to compromise led Georges Clémenceau, who led the Paris Mayors, to say he felt “caught between two madmen.” Yet Paris Mayor Jules Ferry celebrated the fall of the Commune, writing, “I may be a liberal, a lawyer and a republican, but to my eyes, watching these reprisals is like watching the sword of the archangel” of God restoring order.
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone echoes some small part of this history, but it pales in comparison to the size and legitimacy of the Paris Commune. While the Paris Commune was always a rebellion against an elected national government, at least it had the decency to hold popular elections.
CHAZ is tiny, but the six Seattle blocks reportedly include about 500 homes. Residents have complained about the antifa militants seizing their property, blocking their freedom of movement, and claiming to represent them without ever taking a vote.
One resident feared to give more than his first name. “You can see for yourself, you can see that we don’t have the right to vote for stuff here anymore,” Brandon told the Daily Caller. “You can see the demands when they say that we want the pensions away from every police officer in Seattle. They took our rights away. That’s not okay. It’s not political. It’s just not okay.”
CHAZ has engaged in a form of taxation without representation. The rebels launched a shakedown racket in order to force local businesses to provide supplies. The rapper Raz Simone has reportedly installed himself as warlord because as one rebel of CHAZ put it, “he has all the guns.” Simone is reportedly attempting to enforce borders and prevent people from entering CHAZ without identification, although Simone himself disputes the “warlord” designation.
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Whether or not he is a “warlord,” Simone may not hold any sort of power for long, due to some offensive tweets from 2010. If cancel culture is to be applied evenly, the warlord will find himself canceled.
In fact, it seems no one is quite sure who exactly is in charge of CHAZ. In a scuffle about removing the signs reading “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” one woman asked, “Is anyone in charge here?” A man appears to have responded with something like, “This ain’t a damn democracy here!”
While the divisions in the Paris Commune actually meant something — harsher state control in order to push socialism or less state control to achieve utopia; an aggressive military stance against Thiers or a strategy to pursue peace with the Republic while preserving the independence of Paris — the divisions in CHAZ seem to revolve around the question of whether or not this is just a protest.
CHAZ is, to some degree, a rebellion aspiring to be a protest. The rebels seem more intent on changing American society than they are on setting up an autonomous state that will exist in perpetuity, but by declaring themselves outside the purview of the United States they are legally rebels. In fact, Townhall’s Julio Rosas reported that a packet circulating in CHAZ presented suggestions about the way forward: “Permanently taking over the East Precinct, move the zone to another location, or to dissolve the zone completely.”
CHAZ can’t even decide whether or not it should exist.
While CHAZ has some of the same anarchy and confusion as the Paris Commune, it lacks a true sense of embattled bravery. In fact, the rebels in CHAZ enjoy immense privilege.
As President Donald Trump urged Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Mayor Jenny Durkan (D-Seattle) to quash the rebellion and restore order, the Democrats defended the new nation of CHAZ as a “peaceful” protest and a sign of “patriotism.” In fact, Durkan insisted that it would be “illegal” and “unconstitutional” for the U.S. government to put down an open rebellion in Seattle. (She may want to tell that to Abraham Lincoln.) Durkan even compared the illegal attacks on Seattle citizens to the “Summer of Love.”
Durkan and Inslee have refused to take action despite the fact that police insist their “9-1-1 response time is triple what it was. We have people being assaulted, we have people who need an emergency response, and it’s taking us fifteen-plus minutes to get there.”
In fact, CHAZ is so privileged, residents called the Seattle Fire Department to come extinguish a dumpster fire just outside the “autonomous zone.”
CHAZ may seem a laughing matter — and some of its divisions and confusions are indeed quite humorous — but the “autonomous zone” is undermining law and order — and the normal functions of society — in a central part of a major American city.
If President Donald Trump invokes the Insurrection Act like George H.W. Bush did in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he should direct the National Guard to clear the area and help local police restore law and order but with as few casualties as possible. Legally, CHAZ is a rebellion against the United States, but Trump needs to be careful not to turn these lawless rebels into martyrs.
Law and order must be restored, and those whose homes are besieged by an occupying force may see National Guard forces as “the sword of the archangel” like Jules Ferry did. But Trump should also be wary of the response of Clémenceau, who described both sides in the Paris Commune as “madmen.”
Trump is right to call for law and order, and he should act. But he should do so carefully.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.