Understanding the Paris Commune

Issue: 170

Donny Gluckstein

Stathis Kouvelakis has published a selection of texts from Marx and others entitled On the Commune. It provides key commentaries on the events of Paris in 1871 from contemporary observers (including direct and indirect participants). Though the book is in French, the Introduction, which itself amounts to a small book in length, is available in English online at www.versobooks.com/blogs/5039-on-the-paris-commune-part-1. It is a fascinating piece and stands to be read independently of the texts themselves.

Part summary of the contributions, part potted history of certain aspects of the Commune (insofar as these give context to the texts), its strength lies in the seamless interweaving of a number of important themes each worthy of study in their own right. These include the world labour movement and International Working Men’s Association (IWMA or First International), the events leading up to the Commune itself, the fateful 72 days and their aftermath, plus the response of Marx in particular (but Engels too) before, during and after.

The skill here is in establishing the interconnections between all of the elements without merely skimming the surface and thereby losing what is valuable in each. It would be easy to paint Marx as a figure interpreting events whose brilliant insights arose from an intellectual distance and detachment which favoured scientific analysis. That would be a terrible distortion as he was closely involved. Conversely, he could be portrayed as an activist intervening directly (through direct and indirect contacts linked personally or through the First International). This would rightly present his writings as a powerful polemical contribution to immediate debates, yet it too would be a distortion. The interplay between the two is crucial in understanding Marx’s input.

The Commune could be recounted as a historical moment, the consequence of factors that preceded it, from the French revolutionary tradition of 1789, to Napoleon III’s Second Empire, and the Franco-Prussian war. If limited to such an analysis, most of what was new and valuable in the Commune would be lost. Still, it was tragically brief—just 72 days—and left few permanent traces on the ground, partly due to the huge and violent repression that followed. That brutality has helped it be systematically expunged from official history and made to appear as a minor spasmodic episode, a curiosity of French national life.

What the masses in Paris achieved in the two months after their rising on 18 March was herculean, but the Communards had little time to implement their bold intentions in practice. It therefore required considerable political acumen to glimpse the potential in such a fleeting event, but this is what Marx was able to do. Through that the Commune, or rather his understanding of what it presaged, played a major role in the development of the workers’ revolutionary movement, contributing directly to the Russian revolution via Lenin’s State and Revolution.

Does it follow that the actual Commune, the real living event, can be lifted from its immediate circumstances and presented as a model workers’ state, an abstraction or something simply to be celebrated by singing The Internationale? Again, the answer would be ‘no’. That would be yet another distortion robbing us of key lsons related to the politics of the Commune and its ultimate fate in Bloody Week. In all these matters Stathis displays a fine dialectical sense.

He makes a great deal of two Marx’s comments: that the Commune was a “Sphinx”—a riddle or enigma, and also an “expansive form”. These are two very good ways into understanding both what happened in Paris and Marx’s approach to it.

The Introduction begins by addressing the efforts of the French bourgeoisie to neutralise, memorialise or incorporate the Commune. These not only fail to do it justice but fail in another way. Stathis points out that the left, including the Nuit Debout movement, has been rediscovering the Commune’s radicalism “as an inexhaustible resource for today’s anticapitalist struggles”. That is the right place to start.

There follows a discussion of the engagement of Marx and Engels as activists within the First International. They were ‘tied to these events by a live thread of history… they were not direct actors in this event, [but] they were involved in it.’ Marx’s public declarations—the two Addresses and Civil War in France—were simultaneously his own account and the collective expression of the IWMA General Council. That dual role shaped the content but also influenced the international labour movement not only in Paris itself (where numerous members of the IWMA played a key role in many arenas) but in Germany and elsewhere.
Through extensive correspondence Marx gave advice to people like Leo Frankel, the Delegate for Labour, and through them to the Communal Council.

Engagement worked in another way too. Learning from direct reports from the frontline and reflecting deeply on their implications, Marx and Engels’ thinking “would now mount a momentous turn, with regard to such decisive questions as war, revolutionary strategy, the state, the modes of organised action and the forms of political action.” Evidence for this is the complete reversal of Marx’s views. He initially said an insurrection would be a “desperate folly”, but by March 1871 was an enthusiastic supporter of it.

At this point Stathis makes an observation about method “whose importance can hardly be exaggerated”. It is that “a multiplicity (of interpretations and interests) is present… For the Commune itself bears multiple different meanings, which give rise to so many different interpretations depending on the chosen line of approach—a choice corresponding to the multiple social and political interests crystallised in this object”. There are strong sides to this approach but also dangers. In its favour is the view that the Commune was not a finished product but an “expansive form” bursting through existing dogmas and containing within itself the potential for new directions on many levels.

Conversely, there is the potential for a form of political abstentionism which credits the various interpretations (such as anarchist or Marxist) as somehow equally valid. Neither Marx, nor indeed Stathis, fall into this trap, however. Though a subject for debate, there is right and a wrong way of judging the meaning of the Commune.

An example of the subtlety of the Introduction is the counting of references to the “proletariat” or “working class” on the one side, and “popular masses” on the other. The balance shifts between Marx’s early drafts of The Civil War in France and final version. What appears to be a dry point of syntax is actually a discussion of the extent to which the working class is, as Marx saw it, the “universal class” whereby through its liberation the humanity is liberated as a whole. While the Commune was driven forward by workers’ action, the middle class and rural peasantry of France played a fate in its outcome, and so this question is relevant.

In identifying the Commune’s social measures the Introduction picks out this phrase of Marx: “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.” Thrown into a desperate fight for survival from the very first, much more than that could not be expected. Nonetheless the working class was both “occupying positions of authority and thus standing up to lead society, and demonstrating the idea of the working class as an active force which permeated and nourished the full spectrum of social activities. In other words, this is a view of power both ‘from above’ and ‘from below’.”

There is no space to offer detail here, but even within the severe constraints it was operating under, the Commune provided ample evidence of its transformative potential in the direction of socialism and communism. The Introduction does take us through this with some necessary but rather arcane discussions of property rights, cooperatives and so on.

Along the way Stathis brings out the central role of the Women’s Union. This tended towards “an abolition of gender and class hierarchies.” As a result we find that later on, in September 1871, Marx called for the creation of women’s sections of the IWMA on the grounds that: “Women play a great role: they work in factories; they take part in strikes, in the war, in the Commune. They have more ardour than men.”

Perhaps the most complex section of the Introduction deals with the state. Stathis shows Marx writing in the first draft of The Civil War in France that 18 March 1871 was “a revolution against the State itself”. This is the sort of interpretation that anarchists would readily embrace. However, Marx’s published text replaced that with the idea that state power was “superceded”.

There is more to this discussion than what was written in The Communist Manifesto that “the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, or is encompassed by Lenin’s emphasis (in State and Revolution) on the role of “armed bodies of men”. Picking key words from Marx, Stathis shows how the growth of the state machine “dispossessed society of its ‘common’ interests, transforming them into ‘an object of government activity’…’snatching’ control over the ‘activities’ coming from below.’

The 18 March revolution drove the bourgeois state out of the capital city. It did not try to take it over. This represented a radical rupture with the past. Yet, that did not amount to abolition of the state as such, however much the anarchists would like to see it that way. It did, however, prepare for the “withering away” of the state (even though the correspondence between the Commune’s publicly expressed aims and what was achieved on the ground was inevitably limited). The Parisian National Guard, for example, was both a manifestation of power (150,000 mainly working-class men under arms) and a living negation of alien power over the working class. It was both an element of a new state and a step towards superseding the state’s basic role of class rule by exploiters.

Stathis uses Marx’s words to convey the process. The Commune was “essentially a working class government”, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.

Marx had to think hard to reach this conclusion. In three places his preparatory draft talked of the need to “break” with the “machinery of class domination itself”. A famous passage from The Civil War in France (that also became the only change made to the Communist Manifesto) puts it differently. Marx wrote, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

In other words, the Commune represented the working class reaching for a different type of state machinery. One way of grasping the distinction between different types of states (rather than the existence of the state as such) would be to look at socialist demands during the pandemic.

We have not called for abolition of centrally organised functions necessary to tackle the virus: a functioning health service, a proper test and trace system, PPE, public health messages for social distancing, and so on. However, what has been provided has been grudging and penny-pinching. With the Police Bill it is now obvious that the motivation for these measures was more about bolstering the continuation of capitalist profit-making than preservation of human life—hence their paltry nature.

The Introduction ends with excursions into a number of new areas beyond the Commune and its brutal suppression. A slight reservation applies to references to the Russian peasant commune and the Asiatic mode of production. These are elevated to a significance in Marx’s thinking connected to the Commune they may not deserve.

Certainly, the crushing of the Commune had a profound long-term impact on Marx, just as its emergence had had. The IWMA broke apart over a row it generated between anarchists and the tendency around Marx. With the sort of insurrection seen in 1871 presently off the agenda, Marx and Engels encouraged the building of mass parties and trade unions. The widening of suffrage to working class men also created new and unknown possibilities. Regarding this it must be stressed that even when making their most optimistic assessment of this phenomenon they were clear that the need for direct action must be retained if (as we now know would happen) the ruling class set limits on changes parliaments would be permitted to introduce. This caveat is mentioned in the Introduction but perhaps not sufficiently emphasised.

In response to recent attempts to reinstate Kautsky, or paint Marx and Engels as moving away from commitment to revolution later in life, it is worth recalling the latter’s article on the 20th anniversary of the Commune (1891). Given the spectacular growth of the (officially Marxist) German Social Democracy, reference to ‘the Social-Democratic philistine’ was pointed:

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. [www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/postscript.htm]

This short review cannot do full justice to the richness of the Introduction to On the Commune. It is not always an easy read, but well worth the effort.