France commune

Karl Marx and the Paris Commune

Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune is a shining example of the interplay between revolutionary theory and practice, argues Katherine Connelly

The Paris Commune made Karl Marx famous. After the workers of Paris took control of their city in March 1871 and were massacred by French troops only two months later, the press searched for a dangerous communist to blame.

They found it in Marx, a German exile from the revolutions of 1848 who had found refuge in London. There were rumors that the International Workers’ Association (IWMA) which Marx had founded had given secret orders to the workers of Paris. Journalists soon went to Marx.

After years of living in obscurity, Marx enjoyed notoriety instead – at least his ideas were heard.

While respectable opinion maintained 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 aided the revolutionary refugees who fled to London, even trying to appease their angry landladies when they were unable to pay their rent.[1]

But Marx refuted all claims that he, or the IWMA, was secretly behind the Commune. Marx had spent years arguing against what he called “utopian socialists” who thought their role was to tell everyone how to organize society after a revolution, and he also argued against conspirators who thought their role was to secretly planning the revolution.

In the revolutionary year of 1848, Marx and his lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, supported in their communist party manifesto (now famous as communist manifesto), that capitalism itself, and not a band of revolutionaries, would generate social revolution.

The role of revolutionaries

What, then, did Marx think revolutionaries should do? According to Manifestcommunists

“are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and most resolute section of the workers’ parties of all the countries, that which pushes forward all the others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of fully understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

These two aspects of the role of a revolutionary are integrally linked. The theoretical understanding that “the emancipation of the working classes must be won by the working classes themselves” (as Marx put it in the IWMA first rule) enlightened practical efforts aimed at all times to strengthen the organization of the working class and to advance the interests of the working class against capitalist interests.

Therefore, what a revolutionary like Marx did depended on an appreciation of the context. In autocratic Prussia, Marx had campaigned for freedom of the press; in Great Britain, he supported the most militant Chartists; in 1848 he was one of the leading revolutionaries pushing for democratic reforms. In exile in the 1860s, he formed the IWMA so that striking workers could strengthen their action through international support networks.

In 1871, the context looks gloomy for the Parisian working class.

The previous year, the French Emperor Napoleon III had been pushed into the Franco-Prussian War only to be captured on the battlefield. A republic is declared in Paris which soon finds itself besieged by the invading Prussian army. Working-class Parisians resisted defiantly, enduring widespread deprivation and starvation, only for the French government to surrender.

Under these circumstances, Marx maintained that “any attempt to upset the new [French] government . . . would be hopeless madness.[2]

Then, on March 18, 1871, the new French government tried to disarm militant and working-class Paris by sending troops to seize the cannons of Montmartre. They were confronted by a group of angry workers. Ordered to fire, the troops instead turned their guns on their officers.

The government and wealthy Parisians quickly fled the city in fear. Working-class Parisians immediately began to rule the city themselves – declaring a Paris Commune.

To take part

Although he had previously warned against this, now that the French government was “shattered”, Marx recognized that the context in which he operated had changed.

In the abstract, declaring the Paris Commune at such a time was a terrible idea. But now that it had happened, to maintain this position and wait for the failure of the Commune to confirm its prediction would have flattered an intellectual commentator but would have been sectarian betrayal by a revolutionary.

The fact of the Commune posed the question “Which side are you on?” and Marx did not doubt his answer.

There were many different socialist, republican and anarchist ideas at play in the Commune, but Marx identified him without compromise with the IWMA: ‘it is quite natural that the members of our Association are at the forefront’.

Sometimes this claim is derided as Marx exaggerates his influence, but Marx wrote it right after the communards had been massacred by the thousands. In this context, Marx’s statement was principled and courageous.

It has become fashionable for Marx’s detractors to deride him as a slow writer: he published “only” the first volume of Capital.

What this cartoon forgets is that in revolutionary situations, when the lives of the insurgents were at stake and the situation demanded quick and strategic analysis, Marx proved himself up to the task, writing quickly, from decisively and brilliantly. Like Engels said in his speechMarx was “above all a revolutionary”.

After the outbreak of the Commune, Marx corresponded with some of his leading figures who asked his advice and, as he told themhe made considerable efforts to mobilize international support for the Commune: “I have written several hundred letters on behalf of your cause to all the corners of the world where we have [IWMA] branches’. In addition to all this, Marx wrote the IWMA analysis of events, The Civil War in Francecompleted only a few days after the Commune was crushed.

Breakthrough analysis

Marx’s analysis did not start from what he thought should happened – which would have been of no use to anyone – instead it went from what had happened in the fight and what lessons could be learned from it. It was useful: Lenin read The Civil War in France in 1917.

Lenin noted that the Marxian analysis of the class struggle provided the only “correction” he brought to the communist manifestothat “the working class cannot simply take over the ready-made state apparatus and use it for its own ends”.

The state appears, marx wrote, to “rise above society”, but this is an illusion. In fact, it operates in the interests of the ruling class of society.

While capitalist societies can operate with very different types of state – for example, France between 1851-1870 had an imperial dictatorship, Britain today has a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy – which they have in common is that economic issues, which determine the very nature of our existence and power relations in society, are beyond democratic control. Challenge that, and the state steps in.

Therefore, the task of achieving the emancipation of the working class must go beyond integrating the “good” people into a “ready-made state machine” designed to oppress the working class. Instead, an insurgent working class must throw off this machinery and take power.

This was the lesson of the Commune in which the capture of the city was accomplished by making all representatives in positions of power (in the army, legislature and executive) accountable to the people, who could recall them and replace them. As Marx observedthe workers’ revolution required a real democratic exercise of power which revealed the inferiority of parliamentary democracy:

“Instead of deciding once every three or six years which member of the ruling class should distort the people in Parliament, universal suffrage should serve the people.”

When one of those journalists looking for the evil genius behind the Commune asked Marx what his IWMA was striving for, he has answered: ‘The economic emancipation of the working class by the conquest of political power. The use of this political power to achieve social ends.

The democratic conquest of political power in the Commune produced enormous social changes which Marx celebrated as “the glorious herald of a new society”.

The Church was separated from the State, revolutionizing among other things the nature of education.

Women’s lives were transformed because the Commune refused to distinguish between children born in or out of wedlock.

Night work has been abolished for bakers.

There was a flowering of cultural expression.

The Commune made important internationalist declarations: electing foreigners to its government and bringing down the Vendôme column which celebrated the military victories of France.

Instead of creating an armed body to use against the people, the people themselves were armed.

The representatives of the Commune received workers’ salaries (compare that with today’s deputies who are paid more than two and a half times more than the average wage).

And all of this was achieved in a city struggling to survive, under siege, in just 72 days – by people considered 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 resolutely sided with those who had lost it and analyzed it closely and critically so that the emancipatory promise of the Commune might one day be realized.


[1] David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p.374.

[2] Quoted in Samep.365.

Katherine Connelly will speak at the Counterfire event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune on March 21. Register here: tinyurl.com/ParisCommune150

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