"What," Marx asked, "is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?"
In 1871 the Commune was the revolutionary government of Paris, a revolt against the newborn Third Republic of Adolphe Thiers. The communards, drawn from the ranks of city-dwelling laborers, overthrew the republican army and replaced it with an armed guard. The police were disbanded—or "defunded"—and reconstituted as an agency of the Commune. "It aimed to expropriate the expropriators." Churches were closed, judges were disestablished, and offices redistributed among the masses of the people.
"In a rough sketch of national organization which the Commune had no time to develop," Marx wrote in "The Civil War in France," "it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service." The Russian word for the form of social organization exemplified by the Commune is "soviet."
The Commune was crushed when Thiers organized a new regular army from the French provinces and retook Paris. Recent events in Seattle, though, drew me back to my Marx-Engels Reader. On June 8, after days of violent clashes with protesters, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered police to abandon the East Precinct headquarters in the crunchy neighborhood of Capitol Hill. The demonstrators quickly established an "autonomous zone" within a six-block area devoid of police and governed, if that is the word, by decentralized and rotating groups of social justice warriors, anarchists, and armed men. The Seattle soviet was born.
It, too, has tantalized the bourgeois mind. To the left, Capitol Hill is, as one entranced New York Times correspondent put it, "now a homeland for racial justice—and, depending on the protester one talked to, perhaps something more." To the right, it symbolizes anarchy, danger, mob rule, and the breakdown of civil order. "This is no different than ISIS taking over cities in the Middle East," said the lieutenant governor of Texas.
Yikes. The truth, writes Seattle radio host Jason Rantz in National Review Online, is somewhere between utopian hopes and conservative fears. Rantz says that the neighborhood is "at times a street fair and at other times a social-justice workshop, with an unhealthy dose of violence and intimidation mixed in." It is a problem for a left-wing municipal government, not a prelude to civil war.
What is happening in Seattle also has a fantastic, satirical quality, a frivolity that illustrates the differences between earlier periods of upheaval and our own. Both activists and officials seem to be playacting, inhabiting the roles of revolutionary Jacobin and timid liberal, even as they haphazardly work to resolve the situation, in a tragicomic script written by Tom Wolfe. The occupiers have no leaders—"They’re treating me like I’m the f—ing mayor!" says recording artist Raz Simone—and can’t even decide on a name. First they rechristened the neighborhood "Free Capitol Hill," then the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," or CHAZ. Recently, though, they seem to have dropped the call for autonomy, perhaps because authorities have been so accommodating. Thus the designation has been changed to the "Capitol Hill Organized Protest" or, depending on whom you ask, the "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" (CHOP).
It is not clear what CHOP wants. Walter Duranty’s successor in the Times noted that one petition listed three demands, another five, and an online manifesto thirty. The consistent theme is abolition of the police.
But this is an issue on which CHOP and the city of Seattle may wind up agreeing to disagree. The autonomous zone is shrinking. On June 16, city transportation crews placed concrete barriers around the empty precinct, subtly limiting the space available to activists. They met no resistance. "Minor changes to the protest zone," wrote the mayor’s office, "will implement safer and sturdier barriers to protect individuals in this area, allow traffic to move throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood, ease access for residents of apartment buildings in the surrounding areas, and help local businesses manage deliveries and logistics." That is not how Thiers would have handled things.
Nor are the leaders of CHOP as stalwart as the communards. They are negotiating with city officials for the return of police to the precinct. Until then, according to city hall, "The Seattle Police Department will dispatch to respond to significant life-safety issues in the area," including but not limited to "an active shooter incident, an assault, a structure fire, significant medical emergency (i.e., heart attack, stroke, trauma) and other incidents that threaten a person’s life safety." What type of rebellion allows the sovereign to peaceably supply materials, and to respond to criminal complaints? Not a very serious one.
Old Karl would be disappointed. "This is not a party," a local NAACP official scolded the CHOP the other day. "This is a mission and we have a mission to accomplish." But it is becoming more difficult to draw the line between carnival and campaign, especially when the mission of the campaign is so ill-defined. CHOP seems destined to go the way of Occupy Wall Street as revolutionary energies dissipate, boredom sets in, local property owners lose patience, and protesters' grievances are coopted by legitimate political structures. Enjoy the show while it lasts. Because the Seattle soviet, like its predecessors, is doomed to fail.