Karl Marx Saw Signs of the Socialist Future in the Paris Commune

An interview with Stathis Kouvelakis

24 May 2021 by Stathis Kouvelakis , David Broder

May 21, 1871 marked the beginning of Bloody Week — the seven days in which the French army crushed the Paris Commune. As many as twenty thousand Communards were killed and over forty-five thousand people were arrested, as the government troops unleashed their unbridled savagery against the revolutionary people of Paris.

From London, Karl Marx looked on with horror at the events in the French capital, as the first experience of working-class rule was drowned in blood. But in these same days he also finished writing his The Civil War in France, as he sought to counter the British press demonization of the Communards — and draw lessons from the revolutionaries’ defeat.

Stathis Kouvelakis recently edited a French-language volume of Marx and Engels’s writings on the Commune. His extensive introduction to this book, a study of the two men’s reflection on the events of 1871, has now been translated into English, for the Verso Books site (see parts 1, 2 and 3). Translator David Broder spoke to Kouvelakis about Marx and Engels’s correspondence with the Communards, the Commune’s status as a “model” of workers’ rule, and the signs of a “possible communism” in revolutionary Paris.

DB: The Commune’s opponents often painted the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), or Marx personally, as the “brains behind the operation.” What involvement did Marx (and Engels) have in advising militants involved in the Commune, and what impact did the International’s own members have?

SK: When talking about the IMWA’s role we should avoid anachronism. It was neither a robust organization of mass national parties, like the Second International founded in 1889, nor a centralized party of world revolution, like the Third International aspired to be. It was a rather loose network of heterogeneous components (trade unions, proto-parties, émigrés associations, underground organizations) reflecting the variegated realities of the workers’ movement at the time.

As far as I know there was no proper central apparatus and no one held a paid job at its General Council. The International was a forum whose congresses discussed broad programmatic orientations for the workers’ movement and an activist network setting up concrete forms of solidarity between struggles happening in various countries. It had neither the will nor the possibility of “leading” a revolution anywhere in the world — and the same goes for Marx and Engels.

That said, the IMWA did try to play an active role in the Commune and in the process leading to it. We have to distinguish, here, between the activities of the London-based General Council, of which Marx was unquestionably the central figure, and those of the French sections, particularly the Parisian one. The General Council issued three statements during the period stretching from the start of the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870) to the immediate aftermath of the Commune, the most famous of which was The Civil War in France, which analyzed the war, its consequences, and, above all, the Commune itself. Marx worked on the text from mid-April 1871 but finished it only in the last days of the Bloody Week.

The London Council had also been active in organizing solidarity with Republican France, following the collapse of the Bonapartist regime, and then with the Commune and, after its fall, with the exiled Communards. It supported the march from London’s Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park on April 16, 1871 in support of the Parisian insurgency — but, surprisingly, it had some reservations over this due to tensions with the demonstration’s main organizer, the International Democratic Association.

It is sometimes said that Marx and the London Council remained silent in public during the Commune. But the letters they sent to the Times and other papers show that they were anxious to refute the slanders spread by the Versailles press presenting them as German agents masterminding the insurrection. And the situation in Paris was quite uncertain, with small chances of success for the Communards, as Marx was quick to realize.

However, in late April, the London Council issued a public statement confirming the decision to kick out [Henri] Tolain, a prominent member already expelled by the Paris section after he deserted to Versailles. This statement insisted that the “place of every French member of the IWMA is undoubtedly on the side of the Commune of Paris and not in the usurpatory and counterrevolutionary Assembly of Versailles.”

Marx and the Londoners had to be cautious — but they did try to intervene directly in events. This proved very difficult given the disruption of communications with the besieged French capital, surrounded by Prussians and then also by the army of Versailles. The Parisian section of the International had also been severely weakened by the Bonapartist repression during the months preceding the conflict and, eventually, by the enrollment of men in the army and the consequences of the war.

Shortly after the Republic was established in September 1870, the London Council decided to send a special emissary to Paris, with full powers from the Council. They sent Auguste Serraillier, a Frenchman who had been living in Britain since many years and was close to Marx and Engels. Serraillier stayed in Paris until the end of the Commune, with only a one month interruption in late winter 1871, to report to the Council.

It’s not clear from the available material what his mission was. But we know that in the months before the outbreak of the Commune he tried to drastically reorganize the Parisian section, to change its leadership and to orient it toward a politically more proactive attitude, to bring it closer to the line defended by the Blanquists. He didn’t seem, however, to achieve much at that stage. More significant was his later role as a member of the council of the Commune and of its Commission of Labor and Exchange — a stronghold of the Parisian Internationalists.

From late March onward, a second emissary was sent to Paris, the Russian Elisabeth Dmitrieff. An extraordinary figure, she was a genuine romantic heroine but also an extremely committed and articulate revolutionary, who had previously been part of Marx’s circle in London. She played a key role in organizing the most significant women’s organization during the Commune, which pushed decisively for properly socialist measures, such as the requisition of the factories abandoned by their owners and their transfer to the workers.

Marx was also in direct correspondence with other actors, especially Leó Frankel, a Hungarian worker member of the IMWA and head of the Commune’s Commission of Labor. Only part of this correspondence has been saved but it appears quite clearly that Marx is essentially responding to the demands of his interlocutors.

He provides advice on various issues, most economic but not only, not sending ukases to be executed by others. He was enthusiastic from the outset about what was happening in Paris, he made an intense effort to get reliable information and even to intervene but he never tried or pretended to lead this experience. On the contrary, he wanted to learn from it and reformulate fundamental points of his political thinking in the light of this experience.

Drawing of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

DB: Let’s come now to this aspect. One central theme in Marx’s writings on the Commune is how to build a collective power, both to lead other social forces (what you call, following [Antonio] Gramsci, the “new historical bloc of the subalterns”) and to impose control on the state machine.

But also notable here is the lack of reference to a specific role for a party, with the emphasis instead focused on local forms of direct democracy. Was this because of Marx and Engels’s faith in the politicizing power of the revolution itself? Or was their support for the creation of workers’ parties in Germany and France in the years after 1871 somehow a response to this?

SK: Answering this question is more complex than it seems at first. There is indeed no elaboration on the role of the political organization of the working class in the writings on the Commune. But we shouldn’t forget that these texts were meant to express the views shared by the IMWA, or at least by its General Council. The discussion on the political action of the working class had started within the International even before the Franco-Prussian War and it quickly became clear that it was a divisive issue, with various currents (from British trade unionists to supporters of [Mikhail] Bakunin or [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon) defending either a strongly anti-political stance or an alliance with bourgeois radicals and reformers.

The experience of the Commune changed the terms of the debate. It became clear that the IWMA’s Parisian section was unable to provide a coherent impulse to the revolutionary movement, even though it provided the Commune with most of its elected members, cadres, and politically trained grassroots activists. It appeared hesitant and divided before the March insurrection and remained so during the Commune.

In May, the Parisian Internationalists were traumatically divided by the debate on whether to create a Committee of Public Safety, on the model of the Jacobin one of 1793. Moreover, the lack of coordination between Paris and the other cities with short-lived Communes (particularly Lyon and Marseille) certainly played a crucial role in the failure of those uprisings and the ebbing of the revolutionary wave.

Marx and Engels were quick to draw the lessons — and called for an IMWA conference only four months after the fall of the Commune. Their proposals on the primacy of the political action of the working class and on the need to set up proper parties, which would participate in the electoral process where possible, were adopted at this conference. It is significant that all the French delegates except one supported these proposals. But this success, in turn, triggered a sharp conflict within the International that led to its split at the 1872 Hague Congress and then its subsequent decline.

From that moment, we can broadly distinguish three divergent strategies within the workers’ movement. The “Marxist” one (the term began to emerge in this period) focused on building mass parties organized along class and national lines. The model here would be German social-democracy, which held its unification congress in 1875 and experienced electoral success.

In France, from the 1880s onward, the second strategy prevailed (i.e. revolutionary syndicalism) with the growth of radical trade unions and the creation of the CGT in 1895, attracting most of the combative forces. At the political level, French socialism long remained fragmented, relatively weak, and to some extent marked by bourgeois republicanism. In Italy and in Spain, various forms of anarchism held firm, and they maintained a significant presence in other countries as well, including France and the Netherlands.

However, what all these lines have in common is the will to develop an autonomous and durable action of the working class, opposed to bourgeois politics, including its progressive, republican wings. Therein lies the enduring legacy of the Commune, which was crushed in the most barbaric way by a Republican government, albeit one led by a monarchist and supported by a reactionary assembly.

DB : You tell us that the Paris working people of this period was neither just the revolutionary sansculottes nor a mass factory proletariat. Rather, the logic of capitalist command, subcontracting, etc., was pervading what remained a highly fragmentary workforce, based in small production units with preindustrial labor processes.

This could lend itself to the reading that today’s atomized, precarious workforce bears certain similarities with pre-Fordist realities. But how far did Marx (or, indeed, the socialists and labor activists of this period) assume a future of ever greater industrial concentration, and build their understanding of class on this basis?

SK: I would first stress that despite its fragmentation in small-size workplaces (and bigger factories had also started to develop), the Parisian proletariat of the time was highly politicized and organized, unlike today’s largely atomized working class. Here, the spatial dimension proved decisive: the shape of the city, with its strong class cleavage between east and west, the everyday practices binding together working-class communities, the concentration of trades in specific neighborhoods, the strong memory of past revolutions, and the formation of the battalions of the National Guard on a local basis — all this proved decisive to the emergence of a revolutionary proletariat.

But we shouldn’t forget that most of the British trade unions affiliated with the International were craft unions, first and foremost in the building industry, not the industrial unions that developed later. This was the case in nearly all Western countries, except Belgium.

That was the reality of the workers’ movement at that time. If we move now to Marx’s analysis of the trends of capitalist production in Capital, the picture is more complex than what has been often said. Of course, Marx sees big industrial concentrations, with the machinery and division of labor that go with it, as the distinctive mark of capitalism. But he also puts a lot of emphasis, for instance in his analysis of the clothing and garment industry, on other forms through which this mode of production takes hold of the labor process and reshapes it: domestic industry, based on piece wage, subcontracting, and the putting-out system. He also clearly saw that this was where the most vulnerable parts of the workforce are concentrated. Then, that meant women and children; today we could substitute “migrant labor.”

For Marx, the passage to big factories depends on political, not just economic conditions. The laws limiting working time also put a limit on the exploitation based on absolute surplus value (based on the indefinite extension of the working day and/or the lowering of wages) and stimulated the introduction of machines, and, therefore, of concentration into factories in certain branches.

But countertendencies constantly reemerge; the laws limiting working time were themselves constantly challenged by the capitalists, and various productive techniques based on absolute surplus value appear outside the industrial core, but also, in many cases, internally connected with it. The process is actually less linear and rigid than it seems. I don’t think that Marx would be disoriented by today’s realities of decentralized and just-in-time production in the North, of globalized value-chains, of increasingly precarious forms of employment, and, of course, of gigantic factories in the industrialized areas of the Global South.

The relation between the level of class organization and the productive structure has always been complex, and that was as true in Marx’s time as it has been since then. It has gone through several mediations, that vary across time and specific situations, such as various forms of unionization, or the ways unions and political organizations relate to each other and to the state.

Marx and Engels had no preconceived idea about how the working class should organize, and, in that sense, they had no “theory of the party.” They essentially reflected on a wide range of existing forms of organization, from Chartism to trade unionism and the first proper workers’ parties, always stressing the need to raise them to the level of a political force able to overthrow the economic and political power of the dominant class.

Illustration depicting the women of Montmartre marching to defend a barricade and carrying a banner saying “The Commune or Death” during the Paris Commune of 1871. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

DB: What aspects of the Paris Commune allowed Marx to speak of a “possible communism”?

SK: What is distinctive about Marx’s approach to the Commune is that he doesn’t look at it either as the realization of any preexisting socialist or communist doctrine — including his own — or as a brand-new model for future revolutions. This is very different from the way, for instance, October 1917 has been understood by nearly all the currents of the twentieth-century communist movement.

Certain aspects of the Commune do point to more structural aspects of social revolutions, in particular those relating to the Commune’s innovations as a political form. Marx sees the “secret” of that form as the expression of its class content “‘a working-class government”) articulating the “from below” and “from above” dimensions of a new type of political power.

This power combines the aspiration of popular control of public institutions and of the administration of society with the transformation of the economy. Hence Marx’s famous formulations referring to the “political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” and “a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”

These are powerful formulations, but they have often been misunderstood. Marx sees the institutions of the Commune as essentially as transitionary and partial expressions of deeper trends oriented toward social emancipation — not as something to be copied as such.

They are elements of communism understood as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” and not “an ideal to which the reality will have to adjust itself,” as the German Ideology famously puts it. It is no accident that Marx characterized the Communards’ concrete activity in near-identical terms: “they have no ready-made utopias to introduce by people’s decree … no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”

Marx was deeply aware that the Commune’s achievements — remarkable as they were given the circumstances — didn’t amount to communism. Even the plans for the socialization of the means of production drafted by the Commune’s Labor Commission in close collaboration with the Women’s Union, should not be seen as the end of the road. But combined with some notion of planning they could become something like a “possible communism” associating workers’ control at the workplace level and market-free coordination of production at a macro-level.

The Commune should then be understood as an experimental form removing structural obstacles to the transformation of social relations and empowering the laboring classes. It “does not do away with class struggle,” Marx writes, but it is “the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.”

DB: While I was translating the text, I also started rereading Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen. It presents an extreme cultural divide between Paris and a countryside marked by all manner of superstition, backwardness, plus the limited use of French money, language, and education.

This left me wondering: If, as you say, Marx no longer saw the peasantry as a “sack of potatoes” — and recognized the need to organize it — could this credibly have involved democratic forms in which the urban revolutionaries treated the peasants as equals? Did ideas of decentralized authority integrate the understanding that the revolution would proceed at a different pace in town and country?

SK: Yes, I think this is the decisive new lesson from the Commune. This point has already been made by Teodor Shanin in his seminal essay on the late Marx. Marx understands that the inability of the Commune to close the divide with the countryside was the ultimate cause of its defeat.

Four months after, Marx proposed to the IWMA’s London conference that it create “rural branches” in order to “secure the adhesion of the agricultural producers to the movement of the industrial proletariat.” To achieve this goal, “‘agitators’ should be sent to the rural districts, there to organize public meetings, and propagate the principles of the International.” None of this materialized. But it signals a strategic turn in Marx’s thinking on the temporalities of the revolution at a national but also at the world level.

Key here is the “Russian connection,” to quote Shanin, including Marx’s exchanges with Dmitrieff, German Lopatin, and Vera Zasulich — and interestingly, women play a prominent role, here. Marx would come to an understanding of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and of its specific form of social organization, the rural commune, in the peripheries of capitalism.

This process is, however, predicated on two conditions. To be successful, such a revolution should integrate some of the achievements of capitalist modernity and its temporality should converge with that of the workers in the countries of the industrialized core. This new conception of the revolution implies a multiplicity of roads and temporal developments which should, however, lead to a convergence between cities and the countryside, the proletariat and the peasantry, core and periphery, at the national and the world scale.

These texts were long buried in nearly all the Marxist traditions. But this strategy was somehow revived in the vision of the anti-colonial revolution of the four first congresses of the Third International and in the “indigenist Marxism” of José Carlos Mariátegui. It today plays a central role in the debates initiated by non-Eurocentric versions of Marxism, liberated from a linear and teleological conception of history.

Stathis Kouvelakis

teaches political theory at King’s College London. He formerly served on the central committee of Syriza and is now a member of Popular Unity.

Other articles in English by Stathis Kouvelakis (12)

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David Broder

is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.



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