What Karl Marx learned from the Paris Commune

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Well before the Paris Commune, in the German Ideology and “Theses on Feuerbach”, both written in the mid-1840s, Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels argued that it was only through struggle that the mass of workers and oppressed could come to see their own power, throw off the ideas of capitalism and become capable of founding a new society.

In Paris, workers went further than anything even Marx and Engels had envisaged. Their actions made concrete the hitherto abstract concept of the self-emancipation of the working class. The Commune was, for Marx, a “glorious harbinger of a new society … the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Paris middle class—shopkeepers, tradesmen, merchants—the wealthy capitalist alone excepted”. It showed that, for workers to create and maintain their own democratic structures, the old capitalist state had to be destroyed, that it couldn’t be reconfigured or used by workers. 

A central theme of The Civil War in France, the pamphlet Marx wrote as an official response to the 1871 revolution, is his delight at the innovative radicalism of the Commune’s democracy: “The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms”.

Compare this to the unaccountable politicians of modern capitalism. All officials in the Commune’s administration and the public service were paid a worker’s wage. Dignitaries and their vested interests no longer dominated. “Its true secret was this”,  Marx wrote. “It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” 

Importantly, Marx pointed out, “The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labour emancipated … productive labour ceases to be a class attribute”.

The workers of Paris showed Marx how the capitalist state could be smashed and why it was necessary: “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes … Paris had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men … The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people … the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune”.

Marx did not hold up the Commune as socialism. But it was, in his view, the basis on which to build the new society—a harbinger of the future, not that future realised:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple [by decree of the people]. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation … they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society.” 

Despite France being at war with Bismarck’s Prussia, the Commune was determinedly international in spirit: “Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world”. 

Meanwhile, Adolphe Thiers, elected chief executive of the government, conspired with Bismarck to crush the Paris Commune as a condition of a “peace” treaty to end the war. Confronted with defeat by Bismarck’s army, he baulked at the idea of arming the population of Paris.

“Paris armed is the revolution armed”, Marx remarked. And so “the capitulation of Paris, by surrendering to Prussia not only Paris, but all France … initiated the civil war they were now to wage, with the assistance of Prussia, against the republic and Paris”.

This scenario has been repeated many times since, when governments preferred to conspire with the “enemy” rather than to see workers take control. From Russia in 1917, when capitalists openly welcomed the idea of a German dictatorship to crush the workers’ revolution, to World War Two, when France again witnessed its capitalists hand power to the invading Nazis.

In 1871 Thiers, intent on disarming Paris, attempted to seize the cannon and guns of the National Guard—weapons funded by workers in 1848. They were not about to passively surrender them. Women, children and men faced down both the Prussian invader and their own rulers.

Marx’s one serious criticism of the Communards was that they ignored his urging to crush their would-be oppressors. In his Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough, August Nimtz describes how Paul Lafargue, husband of Marx’s daughter Jenny, wrote asking: “Couldn’t Engels come here to put his talents at the disposal of the revolution?” But Jenny understood that it wasn’t just military experience the Communards needed; “the entirely natural distrust of everything ‘military’” restrained them, even though she was sure that with experience they would have learnt its necessity.

“The men of order were left not only unharmed, but allowed to rally and quietly seize more than one stronghold in the very centre of Paris”, Marx wrote. “This … magnanimity of the armed working men—so strangely at variance with the habits of the ‘Party of Order’”, made them vulnerable.

Marx’s bitter hatred of the ruling classes of Europe was intense. His contempt for Thiers jumps off the page: “A master in small state roguery, a virtuoso in perjury and treason, a craftsman in all the petty stratagems, cunning devices, and base perfidies of parliamentary warfare … with class prejudices standing him in the place of ideas”. For those who hope that the promise of a decent society might open the hearts of today’s exploiters, read Marx’s summary of their response to the Commune: 

“What does this tremendous change prove to the bourgeois mind of all countries? Why, that the Commune has conspired against civilisation! The Paris people die enthusiastically for the Commune in numbers unequalled in any battle known to history. What does that prove? Why, that the Commune was not the people’s own government but the usurpation of a handful of criminals! The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives at the barricades and on the place of execution. What does this prove? Why, that the demon of the Commune has changed them [into threats against civilisation].”

That the Commune was too reluctant to employ violence to defend itself, but fought heroically once its survival was at stake, said to the bourgeoisie only “that for months the Commune carefully hid, under a mask of moderation and humanity, the bloodthirstiness of its fiendish instincts to be let loose in the hour of its agony!” Marx supported their destruction of the city:

“The working men’s Paris, in the act of its heroic self-holocaust, involved in its flames buildings and monuments. While tearing to pieces the living body of the workers, its rulers must no longer expect to return triumphantly into the intact architecture of their abodes.”

And Marx noted: “The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!” Both men and women of the privileged classes took great pride in their slaughter and torture of the defeated Communards in the jails. 

He wanted their crimes remembered: “Look upon the other still more hideous face of the bourgeois civilisation as described by its own press!” He quoted the Paris correspondent of a London Tory paper: “Untended wounded wretches dying amid the tombstones of Pere la Chaise—with 6,000 terror-stricken insurgents wandering in an agony of despair in the labyrinth of the catacombs, and wretches hurried through the streets to be shot down in scores … it is revolting to see the cafes filled with the votaries of absinthe, billiards, and dominoes … and the sound of revelry disturbing the night”. 

When Thiers trumpeted his victory, Marx exuded white hot rage:

“‘The victory of order, justice, and civilisation is at last won!’ So it was. The civilisation and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light … This civilisation and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge … The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris—men, women, and children—fought for eight days … reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilisation, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!”

Read this pamphlet, study it. It is a precious resource for every generation of activists seeking guidance as to how a humane, decent society might be established—and a document of the lengths to which the ruling classes will go to prevent it. In The Civil War in France, Marx laid out the foundations of a politics of revolution and self-emancipation.

First published on 17 March 2021 by redflag.org.au