Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune is a brilliant example of the interaction between revolutionary theory and practice, argues Katherine Connelly
The Paris Commune made Karl Marx famous. After workers in Paris seized control of their city in March 1871 and were butchered by French troops only two months later, the press looked for a dangerous communist to blame.
They found him in Marx, a German exile from the 1848 revolutions who had found refuge in London. There were rumours that the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) that Marx founded had given secret commands to the workers of Paris. Journalists were soon calling at Marx’s home.
After living for years in obscurity, Marx rather enjoyed the notoriety – at least his ideas were getting heard.
While respectable opinion held that the Communards were uncivilized thieves and murderers, Marx boldly defended them – they had provided a glimpse of what he had hoped to see for most of his adult life: the working class in power. After their defeat, Marx helped the revolutionary refugees who fled to London, even trying to placate their angry landladies when they were unable to pay their rent.
But Marx refuted all claims that he, or the IWMA, were secretly behind the Commune. Marx had spent years arguing against those he called ‘utopian socialists’ who thought that their role was to tell everyone how to organise society after a revolution, and he also argued against conspirators who thought their role was to secretly plan the revolution.
In the revolutionary year of 1848, Marx and his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels argued in their Manifesto of the Communist Party (now famous as the Communist Manifesto), that capitalism itself, not a gang of revolutionaries, would generate social revolution.
The role of revolutionaries
What, then, did Marx think revolutionaries should do? According to the Manifesto, communists
‘are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’
These two aspects of a revolutionary’s role are integrally linked. The theoretical understanding that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’ (as Marx put it in the first rule of the IWMA) informed practical efforts aimed at all times at strengthening working-class organisation and advancing working-class interests against capitalist interests.
Therefore, what a revolutionary like Marx did depended on an assessment of the context. In autocratic Prussia, Marx had campaigned for freedom of the press; in Britain he supported the most militant Chartists; in 1848 he was one of the leading revolutionaries pressing for democratic reforms. In exile in the 1860s, he formed the IWMA so that workers on strike could strengthen their action through international networks of support.
In 1871 the context looked bleak for the Parisian working class.
The year before, the French Emperor Napoleon III had been goaded into the Franco-Prussian war only to be captured on the battlefield. A Republic was declared in Paris which soon found itself under siege by the invading Prussian army. Working-class Parisians defiantly held out, enduring widespread privation and starvation, only for the French government to surrender.
In these circumstances, Marx argued that ‘any attempt to upset the new [French] government . . . would be a desperate folly’.
Then, on 18 March 1871, the new French government tried to disarm militant, working-class Paris by sending troops to seize cannons on Montmartre. They were confronted by an angry group of working women. Ordered to fire, the troops instead turned their guns on their officers.
The government and wealthy Parisians swiftly fled the city in fear. Working-class Parisians instantly began to run the city themselves – declaring a Paris Commune.
Although up to this point he had cautioned against it, now that the French government had been ‘upset’ Marx recognised that the context he was operating in had changed.
In the abstract, declaring a Paris Commune at such a moment was a terrible idea. But now that it had happened, to maintain this stance and wait for the Commune’s failure to confirm his prediction would have flattered an intellectual commentator but have been a sectarian betrayal by a revolutionary.
The fact of the Commune posed the question ‘which side are you on?’ and Marx was in no doubt of his answer.
There were many different socialist, republican and anarchist ideas in play in the Commune, but Marx uncompromisingly identified it with the IWMA: ‘it is but natural that members of our Association should stand in the foreground’.
Sometimes this claim is derided as Marx exaggerating his influence, but Marx wrote this just after the Communards had been slaughtered in their thousands. In that context, Marx’s statement was principled and brave.
It has become fashionable for Marx’s detractors to scoff that he was a slow writer: he ‘only’ published the first volume of Capital.
What this caricature overlooks is that in revolutionary situations, when the lives of insurgents were at stake and the situation demanded quick, strategic analysis then Marx rose to the task, writing speedily, decisively and brilliantly. As Engels said in his oration, Marx was ‘before all else a revolutionist’.
After the outbreak of the Commune, Marx corresponded with some of its leading figures who sought his advice and, as he told them, he put tremendous effort into mobilising international support for the Commune: ‘I have written several hundred letters on behalf of your cause to every corner of the world in which we have [IWMA] branches’. In addition to all this, Marx wrote the IWMA’s analysis of events, The Civil War in France, completed only days after the Commune was crushed.
Marx’s analysis did not start from what he thought ought to have happened – which would have been of little use to anyone – instead, he proceeded from what had happened in struggle and what lessons could be learnt from it. This was useful: Lenin was reading The Civil War in France in 1917.
Lenin noted that Marx’s analysis of class struggle provided the only ‘correction’ he made to the Communist Manifesto: that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’
The state appears, Marx wrote, to be ‘soaring high above society’ but this is an illusion. In fact it operates in the interest of the dominant class in society.
While capitalist societies can operate with very different kinds of state – for example, France between 1851-1870 had an imperial dictatorship, Britain today has a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy – what they have in common is that economic questions, which determine the very nature of our existence and the power-relations in society, are placed beyond democratic control. Challenge that, and the state intervenes.
Therefore, the task of achieving working-class emancipation has to go beyond putting the ‘right’ people into a ‘ready-made state machinery’ that is designed to oppress the working class. Instead, an insurgent working class must do away with that machinery and seize power.
This was the lesson of the Commune in which the seizure of the city was accomplished by making all representatives in positions of power (in the military, legislature and executive) responsible to people, who could recall and replace them. As Marx observed, working-class revolution necessitated genuine democratic exercise of power that revealed the inferiority of parliamentary democracy:
‘Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people.’
When one of those journalists seeking the evil genius behind the Commune asked Marx what his IWMA strove towards, he replied: ‘The economical emancipation of the working class by the conquest of political power. The use of that political power to the attainment of social ends.’
The democratic conquest of political power in the Commune produced huge social changes that Marx celebrated as ‘the glorious harbinger of a new society’.
The Church was separated from the state revolutionising among other things the nature of education.
Women’s lives were transformed as the Commune refused to distinguish between children born inside or outside of marriage.
Nightwork was abolished for bakers.
There was a flowering of cultural expression.
The Commune made important internationalist statements: electing foreigners to its government and tearing down the Vendôme Column that celebrated France’s military victories.
Instead of creating an armed body to use against the people, the people themselves were armed.
The Commune’s representatives were paid workers’ wages (compare this with MPs today who are paid over two and a half times more than the average wage).
And all this was achieved in a city fighting for its survival, under siege, in just 72 days – by people regarded as the scum of the earth by every government in Europe.
The Paris Commune provided the briefest glimpse of what a society run by working-class people might look like. It also demonstrated how savagely a threatened ruling elite would reimpose its authority.
In his response to the Paris Commune, Marx sided resolutely with those who had lost and analysed it closely and critically so that the emancipatory promise of the Commune might one day be realised.
 David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p.374.
 Quoted in ibid, p.365.
Katherine Connelly will be speaking at Counterfire's event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune on 21 March. Register here: tinyurl.com/ParisCommune150
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Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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