1871: The first proletarian dictatorship

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Communism: a society without a state

According to the popular misconception, which is systematically upheld and disseminated by all the mouthpieces of bourgeois ideology from the tabloid press to the professors of academe, communism means a society where everything is run by the state. The whole identification between communism and the Stalinist regimes in the East rested on this assumption.

And yet it is a total falsehood, reality turned on its head. For Marx, for Engels, for all the revolutionaries who followed in their footsteps, communism means a society without a state, a society where human beings run their affairs without a coercive power standing over them, without governments, armies, prisons or national frontiers.

Of course, the bourgeois world-view has its answer to this version of communism: yes. yes, but that's just a utopia, it could never happen; modern society is too big, too complex; human beings are too untrustworthy, too violent, too greedy for power and privilege. The very sophisticated (professors like J Talmon, author of The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, for instance) even inform us that the very attempt to create a stateless society must lead to the kind of monstrous Leviathan state that arose in Russia under Stalin.

But wait: if the vision of stateless communism is no more than a utopia, an idle dream, why do the present-day masters of the state spend so much time and energy repeating the lie that communism=state control over society? Could it be because the authentic version is actually a subversive challenge to the existing order, and because it corresponds to the needs of a real movement that is inevitably force to confront the state and the society that it protects?

If marxism is the theoretical standpoint and method of this movement, the movement of the international working class, then it becomes easy to see why bourgeois ideology in all its forms - not least those that label themselves 'marxist' - has always sought to bury the marxist theory of the state under a huge tip of intellectual refuse. When he wrote The State and Revolution in 1917, Lenin talked about the need to "excavate" the real marxist position on the state from underneath the rubble of reformism. Today, in the wake of all the bourgeois campaigns identifying Stalinist state capitalism with communism, this work of excavation still needs to go on. Hence this article, which focuses on a monumental event - the Paris Commune, first proletarian revolution in history -  which bequeathed to the working class the most precious lessons on precisely this question.

The First International: Once again, the political struggle

In 1864 Marx emerged from more than a decade of submersion in profound theoretical investigation to return to the world of practical politics. In the decade that followed, his principal energies were to be directed towards two questions that were political through and through: the formation of an international workers' party, and the conquest of power by the working class.

After the long retreat in the class struggle initiated by the defeat of the great social upheavals of 1848, the proletariat in Europe began to show signs of reawakening consciousness and militancy. The development of strike movements around both economic and political demands, the formation of trade unions and workers' cooperatives, the mobilization of workers around questions of 'foreign policy' such as support for Polish independence or for the anti-slavery forces in the American Civil War, all this convinced Marx that the period of defeat was at an end. This is why he gave his active support to the initiative of English and French trade unionists to form the International Workingmen's Association[1] in September 1864. As Marx put it in the report of the General Council to the 1868 Brussels Congress of the International, "this Association has not been hatched by a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous growth of the proletarian movement, which itself is the offspring of the natural and irrepressible tendencies of modern society". Thus, the fact that the motives of many of the elements who formed the International had little in common with Marx's views (the chief concern of the English trade unionists, for example, was to use it as a means to prevent the import of foreign strike-breakers) did not prevent him from taking a leading role within it, sitting on the General Council for most of its life and writing many of its most important documents. Since the International was a product of the movement of the proletariat at a certain stage in its historical development, a stage in which it was still forming itself as a force within bourgeois society, it was both possible and necessary for the marxist fraction to work alongside other working class tendencies within the International, to participate in its immediate activities around the day-to-day combat of the workers, while at the same time trying to free the organization from bourgeois and petty bourgeois prejudices and to imbue it as far as possible with the theoretical and political clarity it required if it was to act as the revolutionary vanguard of a revolutionary class. 

This is not the place to go into a history of all the doctrinal and practical struggles which the marxist fraction fought within the International. Suffice it to say that they were based on certain principles that had already been laid out in the Communist Manifesto and reinforced by the experience of the 1848 revolutions, in particular:

- that "the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves" (opening lines of the Provisional Rules of the IWMA). Hence the need for an organization "established by the working men themselves and for themselves" (speech on the 7th anniversary of the International, London, 1871) and to break free of the influence of bourgeois liberals and reformers - in short, to work out an independent class policy and action for the proletariat even in a period where alliances with progressive bourgeois fractions was still on the agenda. Within the International itself, the defense of this principle was to lead to a rupture with Mazzini and his bourgeois-nationalist followers;

- that, consequently, "the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all parties formed by the propertied classes" and that "this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end - the abolition of classes" (resolution of the London Conference of the International on Working Class Political Action, September 1871). This defense of the class party -  a centralized, international organization of the most advanced proletarians[2] - was waged against all the federalist, 'anti-authoritarian' anarchist elements, notably the followers of Proudhon and Bakunin, who believed that all forms of centralization were inherently despotic, and that in any case the International certainly should have nothing to do with politics, either in the defensive or the revolutionary phases of the proletarian movement. Marx's 'Inaugural Address' to the International in 1864 had already insisted that "To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes". The 1871 resolution was thus a reiteration of this founding principle against all those who believed that the social revolution could come to pass without workers taking the trouble to form a political party and to fight for political power as a class.

In the period between 1864 and 1871, the debate about involvement in 'politics' was largely related to the question of whether or not the working class should enter the sphere of bourgeois politics (the call for universal suffrage, participation of the workers' party in elections and parliament, struggle for democratic rights, etc) as a means to obtaining reforms and strengthening its position within capitalist society. The Bakuninists and the Blanquists[3], champions of the omnipotent revolutionary will, refused to analyses the objective material conditions within which the workers' movement was operating, and rejected such tactics as a diversion from the social revolution. Marx's materialist fraction, on the other hand, recognized that capitalism as a global system had not yet completed its historical mission, had not yet laid down all the conditions for the revolutionary transformation of society, and that consequently it was still necessary for the working class to fight for reforms both at the economic and political levels. In so doing, it would not only improve its immediate material situation, but would be preparing and organizing itself for the revolutionary showdown that would inevitably be produced by capitalism's historical trajectory towards crisis and collapse.

This debate was to continue in the workers' movement for decades to come, though in different contexts and with very different protagonists. But in 1871 momentous events in Continental Europe were to add a whole new dimension to the debate on working class political action. For this was the year of the first proletarian revolution in history, the actual conquest of political power by the working class - the year of the Paris Commune.

The Commune and the materialist conception of history

"Every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programs" (Marx to Bracke, 1875)

The drama and tragedy of the Paris Commune are brilliantly described and analyzed in Marx's The Civil War in France, which was published in the summer of 1871 as an official address of the International. In this passionate diatribe, Marx shows how a war between nations, France and Prussia, was transformed into a war between the classes: following France's disastrous military collapse, the Thiers' government based in Versailles had concluded an unpopular peace and sought to impose its terms on Paris; this could only be done by disarming the workers regrouped in the National Guard. On 18 March 1871 troops sent by Versailles tried to seize cannons under the control of the Guard; this was to be the prelude to a massive repression against the working class and its revolutionary minorities. The workers of Paris responded by taking to the streets and fraternizing with the Versailles troops. In the days that followed they proclaimed the Commune.

The Commune of 1871, in name, was an echo of the revolutionary Commune of 1793, organ of the sans culottes during the most radical phases of the bourgeois revolution. But the second Commune had a very different meaning, looking not to the past, but to the future  - to the communist revolution of the working class.

Although Marx had, during the siege of Paris, warned that an uprising in conditions of war would be "a desperate folly" ('Second Address of the General Council of the IWMA on the Franco-Prussian War'), when the uprising did come Marx committed himself and the International to expressing the most unwavering solidarity with the Communards - among whom the International's members in Paris played a leading role, even though hardly any were of a 'marxist' political persuasion. He could have no other reaction in the face of the vile slanders that the world bourgeoisie threw at the Commune, and of the horrifying revenge that the ruling class exacted from the Parisian proletariat for daring to challenge its 'civilization': after slaughtering thousands of fighters on the barricades, thousands more - men, women and children - were shot down in mass executions, incarcerated in the most abject conditions, deported to hard labor in the colonies. Not since the days of ancient Rome had such a slave-holders' blood orgy been enacted.

But beyond the elementary question of proletarian solidarity, there was another reason why Marx was driven to recognize the fundamental significance of the Commune. Even though the Commune was 'historically' premature in the sense that the material conditions for a world-wide proletarian revolution had not yet matured, the Commune was none the less an event of world-historical importance, a crucial step on the road to this revolution; it was a treasure-house of lessons for the future, for the clarification of the communist program. Before the Commune, the most advanced fraction of the class, the communists, had understood that the working class had to take political power as a first step towards building the classless human commonwealth. But the precise manner in which the proletariat would establish its dictatorship had not yet been clarified because such a theoretical advance could only be based on the living experience of the class. The Paris Commune was such an experience, perhaps the most vivid proof that the communist program is not a fixed and static dogma but something that evolves and grows in intimate connection to the practice of the working class; not a utopia, but a great scientific experiment whose laboratory is the actual movement of society. It is well known that Engels made a particular point, in his later introductions to the Communist Manifesto of 1848, of stating that the experience of the Commune had rendered obsolete those formulations in the text which conveyed the idea of capturing the existing state machine. The conclusions that Marx and Engels drew from the Commune, in other words, are a demonstration and a vindication of the historical materialist method. As Lenin put it in The State and Revolution:

"There is no trace of utopianism in Marx, in the sense that he made up or 'invented' a new society. No, he studied the birth of the new society out of the old, and the forms of transition from the latter to the former, as a natural-historical process. He examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement and tried to draw practical lessons from it. He 'learned' from the Commune, just as all the great revolutionary thinkers learned unhesitatingly from the experience of great movements of the oppressed classes ..."

Our aim here is not to retell the story of the Commune. The main events are already described in The Civil War in France, as well as in many other works, including those by revolutionaries like Lissagaray who fought on the barricades himself. What we shall try to do here is to examine exactly what it was that Marx learned from the Commune. In another article we will look at how he defended these lessons against all the prevailing confusions in the workers movement of his day. 

Marx against state-worship

"This was ... a revolution not against this or that Legitimist, Constitutional, Republican or Imperialist form of state power. It was a revolution against the state itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life" (Marx, first draft of The Civil War in France).

The conclusions that Marx drew from the Paris Commune were not, on the other hand, an automatic product of the workers' direct experience. They were a confirmation and an enrichment of an element in Marx's thought that had been a constant since he first broke from Hegelianism and moved towards the proletarian cause.

Even before he clearly became a communist, Marx had already begun to criticize the Hegelian idealization of the state. For Hegel, whose thought was a contradictory mélange of radicalism derived from the impetus of the bourgeois revolution, and of conservatism inherited from the stifling atmosphere of Prussian absolutism, the state - and the existing Prussian state at that - was defined as the incarnation of the Absolute Spirit, the perfected form of social existence. In his critique of Hegel, Marx by contrast shows that far from being man's highest and noblest product, the rational subject of social existence, the state, and above all the bureaucratic Prussian state, was an aspect of man's alienation, of his loss of control over his own social powers. Hegel's thought was upside down: "Hegel proceeds from the state and conceives of man as the subjectivised state; democracy proceeds from man and conceives of the state as objectified man" (Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State, 1843). At this point, Marx's standpoint is that of radical bourgeois democracy (though very radical, as he was already arguing that true democracy would lead to the disappearance of the state), a standpoint which saw human emancipation as something that lay first and foremost in the sphere of politics. But very rapidly, as he began to view things from the perspective of the working class, he was able to see that if the state alienated itself from society, it was because the state was the product of a society founded on private property and class privilege. In his writings on the Wood Theft Law, for example, he was beginning to adopt the view that the state was the guardian of social inequality, of narrow class interests; in The Jewish Question he was beginning to recognize that real human emancipation could not be restricted to the political dimension but demanded a different form of social life. Thus at its very inception Marx's communism was busy demystifying the state, and it never deviated from this path.

As we have seen in the articles on the Communist Manifesto and the revolutions of 1848 (International Reviews 72 and 73), as communism emerged as a current with a definite political program and organization, it carried on in the same vein. The Communist Manifesto, written before the great social upheavals of 1848, looked forward not only to the seizure of political power by the proletariat, but to the ultimate extinction of the state once its roots - a class-divided society - had been dug out and discarded. And the actual experiences of the movements of 1848 enabled the revolutionary minority organized in the Communist League to cast considerable light upon the proletariat's road to power, stressing the need, in any revolutionary upheaval, for the working class to maintain its own arms and class organs, and even (in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) first suggesting that the task of the insurrectionary proletariat was not to perfect the bourgeois state machine but to smash it.

Thus the marxist fraction did not set about interpreting the experience of the Commune without any theoretical patrimony: the lessons of history are not 'spontaneous' in that the communist vanguard builds on an already-existing framework of ideas. But these ideas themselves must be constantly examined and tested in the light of working class experience, and it was to the glory of the Parisian workers that they offered convincing proof that the working class cannot make its revolution by taking charge of a machine whose very structure and mode of functioning is adapted to the perpetuation of exploitation and oppression. If the first step of the proletarian revolution is the conquest of political power, this can only come about through the violent destruction of the existing bourgeois state.

The arming of the workers

That the Commune arose out of the attempt by the Versailles government to disarm the workers is highly symbolic: it demonstrated that the bourgeoisie cannot tolerate an armed proletariat. Conversely, the proletariat can only come to power with arms in hand. The most violent and ruthless ruling class in history will never allow itself to be voted out of power - it can only be forced out, and the working class can only defend its revolution against all attempts to reverse it by maintaining its own armed force. Indeed, two of the most stringent criticisms that Marx made of the Commune were that it didn't make sufficient use of this force, standing "in superstitious awe" in front of the Bank of France instead of occupying it and using it as a bargaining counter, and failing to launch an offensive against Versailles when the latter still lacked the resources to launch its counter-revolutionary attack on the capital.

But despite its weaknesses in this respect, the Commune made a decisive historical advance when, with one of its first decrees, it dissolved the standing army and introduced the general arming of the population in the National Guard, which was effectively transformed into a popular militia. In so doing, the Commune took the first step towards the dismantling of the old state machine, which finds its expression par excellence in the army, in an armed force standing guard over the population, obeying only the highest echelons of the state machine and totally divorced from any control from below.

Dismantling bureaucracy through workers' democracy

Alongside the army, indeed deeply interpenetrated with it, the institution which most clearly identifies the state as a "parasitic excrescence" that has alienated itself from society is the bureaucracy, that Byzantine network of permanent officials who regard the state almost as their own private property. Again, the Commune took immediate measures to free itself from this parasite. Engels summed these measures up very succinctly in his introduction to The Civil War in France:

"Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society - an inevitable transformation in all previous states - the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts - administrative, judicial and educational - by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were added besides".

Marx also pointed out that by combining executive and legislative functions in itself, the Commune was a "working, not a parliamentary body". In other words, it was a higher form of democracy than bourgeois parliamentarism: even in the latter's hey-day, the division between legislative and executive meant that the latter tended to escape the control of the former and so spawn a growing bureaucracy. This tendency has, of course, been fully confirmed in the epoch of capitalist decadence, in which the executive organs of the state have turned the legislature into a mere facade.

But perhaps the most important proof that the proletarian democracy embodied in the Commune was more advanced than anything evolved under bourgeois democracy is this principle of revocable delegates.

"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, constituted in Communes" (The Civil War...). Bourgeois elections are founded on the principle of the atomized citizen in the polling booth, casting a vote which gives him no real control over his 'representatives'. The proletarian conception of elected and revocable delegates, by contrast, can only function on the basis of a permanent and collective mobilization of the workers and the oppressed. In the tradition of the revolutionary sections from which the Commune of 1793 had emanated (not to mention the radical 'agitators' elected from the ranks of Cromwell's New Model army in the English revolution), the delegates to the Commune's Council were elected by public assemblies held in each arrondissement of Paris. Formally speaking, these electoral assemblies had the power to formulate the mandates of their delegates and revoke them if necessary. In practice, it would appear that much of the work of supervising and pressurising the Communal delegates was carried out by the various 'Vigilance Committees' and revolutionary clubs which sprang up in the working class neighbourhoods and which were the focal points of an intense life of political debate, both about general, theoretical questions confronting the proletariat, and about immediate questions of survival, organisation and defence. The declaration of principles by the Club Communal, which met in the church of St-Nicholas-des-Champs in the Third Arrondissement, gives us a glimpse of the level of political consciousness attained by the proletarians of Paris during the heady two months of the Commune's existence:

"The aims of the Club Communal are as follows:

To fight the enemies of our communal rights, our liberties and the republic.

To defend the rights of the people, to educate them politically so that they may govern themselves.

To recall our mandatories to their principles if they should stray from them, and to support them in all their efforts to save the Republic.

Above all, however, to uphold the sovereignty of the people, who must never renounce their right to supervise the actions of their mandatories.

People, govern yourselves directly, through political meetings, through your press; bring pressure to bear on those who represent you - they cannot go too far in the revolutionary direction...

Long live the Commune!"

From semi-state to no-state

Based as it was on the permanent self-mobilization of the armed proletariat, the Commune, as Engels said, "was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word" (letter to Bebel, 1875). Lenin, in his State and Revolution, cites this line and expands on it:

"The Commune was ceasing to be a state since it had to suppress, not the majority of the population, but a minority (the exploiters). It had smashed the bourgeois state machine. In place of a special coercive force the population itself came onto the scene. All this was a departure from the state in the proper sense of the word. And had the Commune become firmly established, all traces of the state in it would have 'withered away' of themselves; it would not have had to 'abolish' the institutions of the state - they would have ceased to function as they ceased to have anything to do".

Thus the 'anti-statism' of the working class operates at two levels, or rather in two stages: first, the violent destruction of the bourgeois state; second, its replacement by a new kind of political power which as much as possible avoids the "worst sides" of all previous states and which ultimately makes it possible for the proletariat to do away with the state altogether, to consign it, in Engels evocative phrase, "to the Museum of Antiquities alongside the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe" (Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State)

From Commune to communism: the question of social transformation

The withering away of the state is predicated upon the transformation of the social and economic infrastructure - upon the elimination of capitalist relations of production and the movement towards a classless human community. As we have already remarked, the material conditions for such a transformation did not exist on a world scale in 1871. In addition to which, the Commune was in power only for two months, and only in one besieged city, even though it inspired revolutionary attempts in other cities in France (Marseilles, Lyons, Toulouse, Norbonne, etc).

When bourgeois historians try to debunk Marx's claims about the revolutionary nature of the Commune, they point to the fact that most of the social and economic measures it took were hardly socialist: the separation of Church and State, for example is entirely compatible with radical bourgeois republicanism. Even the measures which had a more specific impact on the proletariat - abolition of nightwork for bakers, assistance with the formation of trade unions, etc - were designed to defend workers against exploitation rather than do away with exploitation itself. All this has led some 'experts' on the Commune to argue that it was more the last gasp of the Jacobin tradition than the first salvo of the proletarian revolution. Others, as Marx noted, mistook the Commune "for a reproduction of the mediaeval Communes which first preceded, and afterwards became the substratum of ... the  modern state power" (The Civil War...).

All these interpretations are based on a total failure to understand the nature of the proletarian revolution. The lessons of the Paris Commune are fundamentally political lessons, lessons about the forms and functions of proletarian power, for the simple reason that the proletarian revolution can only begin as a political act. Lacking any economic seat inside the old system, the proletariat cannot undertake a process of social transformation until it has taken over the reins of political power, and this on a world scale. The Russian revolution of 1917 took place in a historic epoch where world-wide communism was a possibility, and it was victorious on the scale of a vast country. And still the fundamental legacy of the Russian revolution relate to the problem of working class political power, as we shall see later on in this series. To have expected the Commune to have introduced communism in a single city would have been to expect miracles, and as Marx insisted "the working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic circumstances, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society is pregnant" (The Civil War...).

Against all the false interpretations of the Commune, Marx insisted that it was "essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor" (ibid).

In these passages, Marx recognizes that the Commune was first and foremost a political form, and that there could be no question of any overnight utopias being established under its rule. And yet at the same time, there is a recognition that once the proletariat takes power into its hands, it can and must inaugurate, or rather "set free", a dynamic leading to the "economic transformation of labor", despite all the objective limitations placed on this dynamic. This is why the Commune, like the Russian revolution, does also contain valuable lessons about the future social transformation.

As an example of this dynamic, this logic towards social transformation, Marx pointed to the expropriation of the factories abandoned by capitalists who had fled the city, and their handing over to workers' cooperatives, who were to be organised in a single union. For him, this was an immediate expression of the Commune's ultimate aim, the general expropriation of the expropriators:

"It (the Commune) wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour. But this is communism, 'impossible' communism! Why, those members of the ruling classes who are intelligent enough to perceive the impossibility of continuing the present system - and they are many - have become the obtrusive and full-mouthed apostles of co-operative production. If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production - what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, 'possible' communism?" (ibid).

The working class as vanguard of the oppressed

The Commune has also left us with important elements for understanding the relationship between the working class, once it has seized power, and the other non-exploiting strata of society, in this case the urban petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry. By acting as the determined vanguard of the entire oppressed population, the working class showed its capacity to win the confidence of these other strata, who are less capable of acting as a unified social force. And to keep these strata on the side of the revolution, the Commune introduced a series of economic measures that lightened their material burdens: abolition of all kinds of debts and taxes, transformation of the immediate embodiments of the peasant's oppression, "his present bloodsuckers - the notary, advocate, executor - into salaried communal agents, elected by, and responsible to, himself" (ibid). In the case of the peasants, these measures remained largely hypothetical, since the Commune's authority did not extend to the rural districts. But the workers of Paris did to a considerable extent win the support of the urban petty bourgeoisie, particularly through the postponement of debt obligations and the cancelling of interest. 

The state as a necessary evil

The Commune's electoral structures also enabled the other non-exploiting strata to participate politically in the revolutionary process. This was inevitable and necessary, and was to be repeated during the Russian revolution. But at the same time, from the retrospective of the 20th century we can see that one of the main indications that the Commune was an 'immature' expression of the proletarian dictatorship, that it was the creation of a working class which had not yet reached its full development, was the fact that the workers did not have a specific and independent organization within it, or a preponderant weight in its electoral mechanisms. The Commune was elected exclusively from territorial units (the arrondissements) which, while being dominated by the proletariat, could not have allowed the working class to impose itself as a clearly autonomous force (especially if the Commune had spread to embrace the peasant majority outside Paris). This is why the workers' councils of 1905 and 1917-21, elected by workplace assemblies and grounded in the main industrial centers, were an advance upon the Commune as a form of the proletarian dictatorship. We would go so far as to say that the Commune-form corresponded more closely to the state composed of all the Soviets (workers', soldiers', peasants', town residents') which emerged out of the Russian revolution.

The Russian experience has made it possible to clarify the relationship between the specific organs of the class, the workers' councils, and the Soviet state as a whole. In particular, it showed that the working class cannot identify directly with the latter, but must exert a constant vigilance towards and control over it through its own class organizations, which participate in it without being engulfed by it. This is a question which will be examined later on in this series, though it has already been dealt with extensively in our publications (see in particular the ICC pamphlet The State in the Period of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism). But it is worth nothing that Marx himself had a glimpse of the problem. The first draft of The Civil War in France contains the following passage:

"...the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organized means of action. The Commune does not do away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive to the abolition of all classes and therefore of all class rule ... but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way".

Here is a clear insight into the fact that the real dynamic towards the communist transformation does not come from the post-revolutionary state, since the function of the latter is, like all states, to contain class antagonisms, to prevent them tearing society apart. Hence its conservative side in comparison to the actual social movement of the proletariat. Even in the brief life of the Commune, we can determine certain tendencies in this direction. Lissagaray's History of the Paris Commune, in particular, contains a good deal of criticism of the hesitations, confusions, and, in some cases, empty posturings of some of the Commune Council delegates, many of whom indeed embodied an obsolete petty bourgeois radicalism that was frequently outflanked by the more proletarian neighborhood assemblies. At least one of the local revolutionary clubs declared the Commune to be dissolved because it was not revolutionary enough!

Engels, in a more famous passage, is surely delving into this same problem when he says that the state - even the semi-state of the period of transition towards communism - "is at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat will have to lop off as speedily as possible, just as the Commune had to, until a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to discard the entire lumber of the state" (Introduction to The Civil War in France). Further proof that, as far as marxism is concerned, the strength of the state is the measure of man's unfreedom.

From national war to class war

There is another vital lesson of the Commune which relates not to the problem of the proletarian dictatorship, but to a question which has been a particularly thorny one in the history of the workers' movement: the national question.

As we have already indicated, Marx and his tendency in the First International recognized that capitalism had not yet reached the apogee of its development. Indeed, it was still being held back by the vestiges of feudal society and other archaic remnants. For this reason, Marx supported certain national movements in so far as they stood for bourgeois democracy against absolutism, for national unification against feudal fragmentation. The support the International gave to Polish independence against Russian Tsarism, for Italian and German unification, for the American North against the slaveholding South in the Civil War, was based on this materialist logic. They were also causes which mobilized the sympathy and active solidarity of the working class: in Britain for example, there were mass meetings in support of Polish independence, and large demonstrations against British intervention on the side of the American South, even if the cotton famine resulting from the war led to real hardships amongst textile workers in Britain.

In this context, where the bourgeoisie had not yet exhausted its progressive historical tasks, the problem of wars of national defense was a very real one that had to be considered seriously by revolutionaries in each war between states; and it was posed with great acuity when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. The policy of the International towards this war was summarized in the 'First Address of the General Council of the IWMA on the Franco-Prussian War'. In essence, this was a statement of basic proletarian internationalism against the "dynastic" wars of the ruling class. It cited a manifesto produced by the French section of the International when war broke out: "Once more, on the pretext of the European equilibrium, of national honour, the peace of the world is menaced by political ambitions. French, German, Spanish workmen! let our voices unite in one cry of reprobation against war! ... war for a question of preponderance or a dynasty, can, in the eyes of workmen, be nothing but a criminal absurdity..." Such sentiments were not restricted to a socialist minority: Marx recounts, in the First Address, how internationalist French workers chased the pro-war chauvinists off the streets of Paris.

At the same time, the International held that "on the German side, the war is a war of self-defense". But this did not mean poisoning the German workers with chauvinism: in answer to the statement of the French section, the German affiliates to the International, while sorrowfully accepting that a defensive war was an unavoidable evil, also declared "the present war to be exclusively dynastic ... we are happy to grasp the fraternal hand stretched out to us by the workmen of France ... Mindful of the of the watchword of the International Workingmens' Association: proletarians of all countries unite, we shall never forget that the workmen of all countries are our friends and the despots of all countries our enemies" (resolution of a meeting at Chemnitz of a delegation representing 50,000 Saxon workers).

The First Address also warned that German workers should beware that the war did not turn into a war of aggression on the German side as well, and it already contained a recognition of Bismarck's complicity in the war, even though this was before the revelations about the Ems telegram, which proved the extent to which Bismarck actually lured Bonaparte and his 'Second Empire' into the war. In any case, with the collapse of the French army at Sedan, the war did become a war of conquest by Prussia. Paris was besieged and the Commune itself arose around the issue of national defense. The Bonaparte regime was replaced by a Republic in 1870 because the Empire had proved itself incapable of defending Paris; now the same Republic proved that it would rather deliver the capital to Prussia than allow it to fall into the hands of the armed workers.

But although in their initial actions the Paris workers were still thinking in terms of a defensive kind of patriotism, of preserving the national honor besmirched by the bourgeoisie itself, the rise of the Commune in fact marked a historic watershed. Faced with the prospect of a workers' revolution, the Prussian and French bourgeoisies closed ranks to crush it: the Prussian army released its prisoners of war to swell the counter-revolutionary French forces under Thiers, and allowed the latter through their lines in their final push against the Commune. From these events, Marx drew a conclusion of historic significance:

"That after the most tremendous war of modern times, the conquering and the conquered hosts should fraternize for the common massacre of the proletariat - this unparalleled event does indicate, not, as Bismarck thinks, the final repression of a new society upheaving, but the crumbling into dust of bourgeois society. The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as that class struggle bursts out into civil war. Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national governments are one as against the proletariat!" (The Civil War...)

For its part, the revolutionary Parisian proletariat had already begun to take a number of steps beyond its initial patriotic stance: hence the decree enabling foreigners to serve on the Commune, "because the flag of the Commune is the flag of the Universal Republic"; the public destruction of the Vendome Column, symbol of France's martial glory ... the historic logic of the Paris Commune was to push towards the world-wide Commune, even if this was not possible at that time. This is why the uprising of the Paris workers during the Franco-Prussian war, for all the patriotic phrases that accompanied it, was in reality the harbinger of the explicitly anti-war insurrections of 1917-18 and the international revolutionary wave which followed them.

Marx's conclusions also pointed towards the future. He may have been premature to say that bourgeois society was crumbling to dust in 1871: this year may have marked the end of the national question in Europe, as Lenin noted in his Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism, but it continued to be a question in the colonies as capitalism entered into its last phase of expansion. But in a deeper sense Marx's denunciation of the humbug of national war anticipated what would become a general reality once capitalism had entered its decadent phase: henceforth, all wars would become imperialist wars and there could no longer be any question of national defense as far as the proletariat was concerned. And the revolutionary upheavals of 1917-18 also confirmed what Marx had said about the capacity of the bourgeoisie to unite against the threat of the proletariat: faced with the possibility of a world-wide workers' revolution, the bourgeoisies of Europe, who had been tearing each other apart for four years, suddenly discovered that they had every reason to make peace in order to stifle the proletariat's challenge to their blood-soaked 'order'. Once again, the governments of the world were "one as against the proletariat".


In the next article, we will look at the struggle that Marx and his tendency waged against those elements in the workers' movement who failed to understand, or even sought to undermine, the essential lessons of the Commune, in particular the German Social Democrats and Bakunin's anarchists.  CDW

[1] The name International Workingmen's Association was of course a reflection of immaturity in the class movement, since the proletariat has no interest whatever in institutionalizing sexual divisions in its own ranks. As in most great social upheavals, the Paris Commune saw an extraordinary ferment amongst proletarian women, who not only vociferously challenged their 'traditional' roles but also were often the bravest and most radical defenders of the Commune, in the revolutionary clubs as well as on the barricades. This ferment also gave rise to the formation of women's sections of the International, which was an advance at the time even if such forms have no function in today's revolutionary movement.

[2] The term "constitution of the proletariat into a party" reflects certain ambiguities about the role of the party which were also a product of the historical limitations of the period. The International contained some of the features of a unitary organization of the class; and throughout the 19th century, the notion that the party either represented the class, or was the class in its organized form, was very deeply implanted in the workers' movement. It was not until the 20th century that such ideas were overcome, and then only after much painful experience. Nevertheless, there already existed a basic grasp of the fact that the party is the organization not of the whole class, but of its most advanced elements. Such a definition is already outlined in the Communist Manifesto, and the First International also saw itself in such terms when it said that the workers' party was "that section of the working class which has become conscious of the common class interest" ('The Prussian Military Question' and the German Workers' Party', written by Engels in 1865).

[3] The Blanquists shared the Bakuninists' voluntarism and impatience, but they were always clear that the proletariat had to establish its dictatorship in order to create a communist society. This is why Marx was, on certain crucial occasions, able to form an alliance with the Blanquists against the Bakuninists on the question of working class political action. 


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