The Experience of the Paris Commune and Marx’s Reflections on Communism

1. The Transformation of Political Power
The bourgeois of France had always come away with everything. Since the revolution of 1789, they had been the only ones to grow rich in periods of prosperity, while the working class had regularly borne the brunt of crises. But the proclamation of the Third Republic would open new horizons and offer an opportunity for a change of course. Napoleon III, having been defeated in battle at Sedan, was taken prisoner by the Prussians on 4 September 1870. In the following January, after a four-month siege of Paris, Otto von Bismarck obtained a French surrender and was able to impose harsh terms in the ensuing armistice. National elections were held and Adolphe Thiers installed at the head of the executive power, with the support of a large Legitimist and Orleanist majority. In the capital, however, where the popular discontent was greater than elsewhere, radical republican and socialist forces swept the board. The prospect of a right-wing government that would leave social injustices intact, heaping the burden of the war on the least well-off and seeking to disarm the city, triggered a new revolution on 18 March. Thiers and his army had little choice but to decamp to Versailles.
To secure democratic legitimacy, the insurgents decided to hold free elections at once. On 26 March, an overwhelming majority of Parisians (190,000 votes against 40,000) approved the motivation for the revolt, and 70 of the 85 elected representatives declared their support for the revolution. The 15 moderate representatives of the parti des maires, a group comprising the former heads of certain arrondissements, immediately resigned and did not participate in the council of the Commune; they were joined shortly afterwards by four Radicals. The remaining 66 members – not always easy to distinguish because of dual political affiliations – represented a wide range of positions. Among them were twenty or so neo-Jacobin republicans (including the renowned Charles Delescluze and Félix Pyat), a dozen followers of Auguste Blanqui, 17 members of the International Working Men’s Association (both mutualist partisans of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and collectivists linked to Karl Marx, often at odds with each other), and a couple of independents. Most leaders of the Commune were workers or recognized representatives of the working class, 14 originating in the National Guard. In fact, it was the central committee of the latter that invested power in the hands of the Commune – the prelude, as it turned out, to a long series of disagreements and conflicts between the two bodies.
On 28 March a large number of citizens gathered in the vicinity of the Hôtel de Ville for festivities celebrating the new assembly, which now officially took the name of the Paris Commune. Although it would survive for no more than 72 days, it was the most important political event in the history of the nineteenth-century workers’ movement, rekindling hope among a population exhausted by months of hardship. Committees and groups sprang up in the popular quarters to lend support to the Commune, and every corner of the metropolis hosted initiatives to express solidarity and to plan the construction of a new world. One of the most widespread sentiments was a desire to share with others. Militants like Louise Michel exemplified the spirit of self-abnegation – Victor Hugo wrote of her that she ‘did what the great mad souls do […] glorified those who are crushed and downtrodden’. But it was not the impetus of a leader or a handful of charismatic figures that gave life to the Commune; its hallmark was its clearly collective dimension. Women and men came together voluntarily to pursue a common project of liberation. Self-government was not seen as a utopia. Self-emancipation was thought of as the essential task.
Two of the first emergency decrees to stem the rampant poverty were a freeze on rent payments and on the selling of items valued below 20 francs in pawn shops. Nine collegial commissions were also supposed to replace the ministries for war, finance, general security, education, subsistence, labour and trade, foreign relations and public service. A little later, a delegate was appointed to head each of these departments.
On 19 April, three days after further elections to fill 31 seats that became almost immediately vacant, the Commune adopted a Declaration to the French People that contained an ‘absolute guarantee of individual liberty, of liberty of conscience, and liberty of labour’ as well as ‘the permanent intervention of citizens in communal affairs’. The conflict between Paris and Versailles, it affirmed, ‘cannot be ended by illusory compromises’; the people had a right and ‘duty to struggle and to conquer!’. Even more significant than this text – a somewhat ambiguous synthesis to avoid tensions among the various political tendencies – were the concrete actions through which the Communards fought for a total transformation of political power. A set of reforms addressed not only the modalities but the very nature of political administration. The Commune provided for the recall of elected representatives and for control over their actions by means of binding mandates (though this was by no means enough to settle the complex issue of political representation). Magistracies and other public offices, also subject to permanent control and possible recall, were not to be arbitrarily assigned, as in the past, but to be decided following an open contest or elections. The clear aim was to prevent the public sphere from becoming the domain of professional politicians. Policy decisions were not left up to small groups of functionaries and technicians, but had to be taken by the people. Armies and police forces would no longer be institutions set apart from the body of society. The separation between state and church was also a sine qua non.
But the vision of political change was not confined to such measures: it went more deeply to the roots. The transfer of power into the hands of the people was needed to drastically reduce bureaucracy. The social sphere should take precedence over the political – as Henri de Saint-Simon had already maintained – so that politics would no longer be a specialized function but become progressively integrated into the activity of civil society. The social body would thus take back functions that had been transferred to the state. To overthrow the existing system of class rule was not sufficient; there had to be an end to class rule as such. All this would have fulfilled the Commune’s vision of the republic as a union of free, truly democratic associations promoting the emancipation of all its components. It would have added up to self-government of the producers.

2. The Commune as Synonym of Revolution and Social Reforms
The Commune held that social reforms were even more crucial than political change. They were the reason for its existence, the barometer of its loyalty to its founding principles, and the key element differentiating it from the previous revolutions in 1789 and 1848. The Commune passed more than one measure with clear class connotations. Deadlines for debt repayments were postponed by three years, without additional interest charges. Evictions for non-payment of rent were suspended, and a decree allowed vacant accommodation to be requisitioned for people without a roof over their heads. There were plans to shorten the working day (from the initial 10 hours to the eight hours envisaged for the future), the widespread practice of imposing specious fines on workers simply as a wage-cutting measure was outlawed on pain of sanctions, and minimum wages were set at a respectable level. As much as possible was done to increase food supplies and to lower prices. Nightwork at bakeries was banned, and a number of municipal meat stores were opened. Social assistance of various kinds was extended to weaker sections of the population – for example, food banks for abandoned women and children – and discussions were held on how to end the discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate children.
All the Communards sincerely believed that education was an essential factor for individual emancipation and any serious social and political change. School attendance was to become free and compulsory for girls and boys alike, with religiously inspired instruction giving way to secular teaching along rational, scientific lines. Specially appointed commissions and the pages of the press featured many compelling arguments for investment in female education. To become a genuine ‘public service’, education had to offer equal opportunities to ‘children of both sexes’. Moreover, ‘distinctions on grounds of race, nationality, religion or social position’ should be prohibited. Early practical initiatives accompanied such advances in theory, and in more than one arrondissement thousands of working-class children entered school buildings for the first time and received classroom material free of charge.
The Commune also adopted measures of a socialist character. It decreed that workshops abandoned by employers who had fled the city, with guarantees of compensation on their return, should be handed over to cooperative associations of workers. Theatres and museums – open for all without charge – were collectivized and placed under the management of the Federation of Parisian Artists, which was presided over by the painter and tireless militant Gustave Courbet. Some three hundred sculptors, architects, lithographers and painters (among them Édouard Manet) participated in this body – an example taken up in the founding of an Artists’ Federation bringing together actors and people from the operatic world.
All these actions and provisions were introduced in the amazing space of just 54 days, in a Paris still reeling from the effects of the Franco-Prussian War. The Commune was able to do its work only between 29 March and 21 May, in the midst of heroic resistance to attacks by the Versaillais that also required a great expenditure of human energy and financial resources. Since the Commune had no means of coercion at its disposal, many of its decrees were not applied uniformly in the vast area of the city. Yet they displayed a remarkable drive to reshape society and pointed the way to possible change.
The Commune was much more than the actions approved by its legislative assembly. It even aspired to redraw urban space, as demonstrated by the decision to demolish the Vendôme Column, considered a monument to barbarism and a reprehensible symbol of war, and to secularize certain places of worship by handing them over for use by the community. If the Commune managed to keep going, it was thanks to an extraordinary level of mass participation and a solid spirit of mutual assistance. In this spurning of authority, the revolutionary clubs that sprang up in nearly every arrondissement played a noteworthy role. There were at least 28 of them, representing one of the most eloquent examples of spontaneous mobilization. Open every evening, they offered citizens the opportunity to meet after work to discuss freely the social and political situation, to check what their representatives had achieved, and to suggest alternative ways of solving day-to-day problems. They were horizontal associations, which favoured the formation and expression of popular sovereignty as well as the creation of genuine spaces of sisterhood and fraternity, where everyone could breathe the intoxicating air of control over their own destiny.
This emancipatory trajectory had no place for national discrimination. Citizenship of the Commune extended to all who strove for its development, and foreigners enjoyed the same social rights as French people. The principle of equality was evident in the prominent role played by the 3,000 foreigners active in the Commune. Leo Frankel, a Hungarian member of the International Working Men’s Association, was not only elected to the Council of the Commune but served as its ‘minister’ of labour – one of its key positions. Similarly, the Poles Jaroslaw Dombrowski and Walery Wroblewski were distinguished generals at the head of the National Guard.
Women, though still without the right to vote or to sit on the council of the Commune, played an essential role in the critique of the social order. In many cases, they transgressed the norms of bourgeois society and asserted a new identity in opposition to the values of the patriarchal family, moving beyond domestic privacy to engage with the public sphere. The Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Care for the Wounded, whose origin owed a great deal to the tireless activity of the First International member Elisabeth Dmitrieff, was centrally involved in identifying strategic social battles. Women achieved the closure of licensed brothels, won parity for female and male teachers, coined the slogan ‘equal pay for equal work’, demanded equal rights within marriage and the recognition of free unions, and promoted exclusively female chambers in labour unions. When the military situation worsened in mid-May, with the Versaillais at the gates of Paris, women took up arms and formed a battalion of their own. Many would breathe their last on the barricades. Bourgeois propaganda subjected them to the most vicious attacks, dubbing them les pétroleuses and accusing them of having set the city ablaze during the street battles.
The genuine democracy that the Communards sought to establish was an ambitious and difficult project. Popular sovereignty required the participation of the greatest possible number of citizens. From late March on, Paris witnessed the mushrooming of central commissions, local subcommittees, revolutionary clubs and soldiers’ battalions, which flanked the already complex duopoly of the Council of the Commune and the central committee of the National Guard. The latter had retained military control, often acting as a veritable counter-power to the Council. Although direct involvement of the population was a vital guarantee of democracy, the multiple authorities in play made the decision-making process particularly difficult and meant that the implementation of decrees was a tortuous affair.
The problem of the relationship between central authority and local bodies led to quite a few chaotic, at times paralysing, situations. The delicate balance broke down altogether when, faced with the war emergency, indiscipline within the National Guard and the growing inefficacy of government, Jules Miot proposed the creation of a five-person Committee of Public Safety, along the lines of Maximilien Robespierre’s dictatorial model in 1793. The measure was approved on the first of May, by a majority of 45 to 23. It proved to be a dramatic error, which marked the beginning of the end for a novel political experiment and split the Commune into two opposing blocs. The first of these, made up of neo-Jacobins and Blanquists, leaned towards the concentration of power and, in the end, to the primacy of the political over the social dimension. The second, including a majority of members of the International Working Men’s Association, regarded the social sphere as more significant than the political. They thought that a separation of powers was necessary and insisted that the republic must never call political freedoms into question. Coordinated by Eugène Varlin, this latter bloc sharply rejected the authoritarian drift and did not take part in the elections to the Committee of Public Safety. In its view, the centralization of powers in the hands of a few individuals would flatly contradict the founding postulates of the Commune, since its elected representatives did not possess sovereignty – that belonged to the people – and had no right to cede it to a particular body. On 21 May, when the minority again took part in a session of the Council of the Commune, a new attempt was made to weave unity in its ranks. But it was already too late.
The Paris Commune was brutally crushed by the armies of Versailles. During the Semaine sanglante, the week of blood-letting between 21 and 28 May, a total of 17,000 to 25,000 citizens were slaughtered. The last hostilities took place along the walls of Père Lachaise cemetery. It was one of the bloodiest massacre in the history of France. Only 6,000 managed to escape into exile in England, Belgium and Switzerland. The number of prisoners taken was 43,522. One hundred of these received death sentences, following summary trials before courts martial, and another 13,500 were sent to prison or forced labour, or deported to remote areas such as New Caledonia.
The spectre of the Commune intensified the anti-socialist repression all over Europe. Passing over the unprecedented violence of the Thiers state, the conservative and liberal press accused the Communards of the worst crimes and expressed great relief at the restoration of the ‘natural order’ and bourgeois legality, as well as satisfaction with the triumph of ‘civilization’ over anarchy. Those who had dared to violate the authority and attack the privileges of the ruling class were punished in exemplary fashion. Women were once again treated as inferior beings, and workers, with dirty, calloused hands who had brazenly presumed to govern, were driven back into positions for which they were deemed more suitable.
And yet, the insurrection in Paris gave strength to workers’ struggles and pushed them in more radical directions. The Commune had shown that the aim had to be one of building a society radically different from capitalism and embodied the idea of social-political change and its practical application. It became synonymous with the very concept of revolution, with an ontological experience of the working class.

3. The International After the Paris Commune
Although Mikhail Bakunin had urged the workers to turn patriotic war into revolutionary war, the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association in London initially opted for silence. It charged Karl Marx with the task of writing a text in the name of the International, but he delayed its publication for complicated, deeply held reasons. Well aware of the real relationship of forces on the ground as well as the weaknesses of the Commune, he knew that it was doomed to defeat. He had even tried to warn the French working class back in September 1870, in his Second Address on the Franco–Prussian War:
Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen […] must not allow themselves to be swayed by the national souvenirs of 1792 […]. They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organization. It will gift them with fresh herculean powers for the regeneration of France, and our common task – the emancipation of labour. Upon their energies and wisdom hinges the fate of the republic.
A fervid declaration hailing the victory of the Commune would have risked creating false expectations among workers throughout Europe, eventually becoming a source of demoralization and distrust. Marx therefore decided to postpone delivery and stayed away from meetings of the General Council for several weeks. His grim forebodings soon proved all too well founded, and on 28 May, little more than two months after its proclamation, the Paris Commune was drowned in blood. Two days later, he reappeared at the General Council with a manuscript entitled The Civil War in France. It was read and unanimously approved, then published over the names of all the Council members. The document had a huge impact over the next few weeks, greater than any other document of the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century. Three English editions in quick succession won acclaim among the workers and caused uproar in bourgeois circles. It was also translated fully or partly into a dozen other languages, appearing in newspapers, magazines and booklets in various European countries and the United States.
Despite Marx’s passionate defense, and despite the claims both of reactionary opponents and of dogmatic Marxists eager to glorify the International, it is out of the question that the General Council actually pushed for the Parisian insurrection. Marx himself pointed out that ‘the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it have been’.
After the defeat of the Paris Commune, the International was at the eye of the storm, held to blame for every act against the established order. ‘When the great conflagration took place at Chicago’, Marx mused with bitter irony, ‘the telegraph round the world announced it as the infernal deed of the International; and it is really wonderful that to its demoniacal agency has not been attributed the hurricane ravaging the West Indies’.
Marx had to spend whole days answering press slanders about the International and himself: ‘at this moment’, he wrote, [he was] ‘the best calumniated and the most menaced man of London’. Meanwhile, governments all over Europe sharpened their instruments of repression, fearing that other uprisings might follow the one in Paris. Thiers immediately outlawed the International and asked the British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, to follow his example; it was the first diplomatic exchange relating to a workers’ organization. Pope Pius IX exerted similar pressure on the Swiss government, arguing that it would a serious mistake to continue tolerating ‘that International sect which would like to treat the whole of Europe as it treated Paris. Those gentlemen […] are to be feared, because they work on behalf of the eternal enemies of God and mankind’. Giuseppe Mazzini – who for a time had looked to the International with hope – had similar views and considered that principles of the International had become those of ‘denial of God, […] the fatherland, […] and all individual property’.
Criticism of the Paris Commune even spread to sections of the workers’ movement. Following the publication of The Civil War in France, both the trade union leader George Odger and the old Chartist Benjamin Lucraft resigned from the International, bending under the pressure of the hostile press campaign. However, no trade union withdrew its support for the organization – which suggests once again that the failure of the International to grow in Britain was due mainly to political apathy in the working class.
Despite the bloody denouement in Paris and the wave of calumny and government repression elsewhere in Europe, the International grew stronger and more widely known in the wake of the Commune. For the capitalists and the middle classes it represented a threat to the established order, but for the workers it fuelled hopes in a world without exploitation and injustice. Insurrectionary Paris fortified the workers’ movement, impelling it to adopt more radical positions and to intensify its militancy. The experience showed that revolution was possible, that the goal could and should be to build a society utterly different from the capitalist order, but also that, in order to achieve this, the workers would have to create durable and well-organized forms of political association.
This enormous vitality was apparent everywhere. Newspapers linked to the International – such as L’Égalité in Geneva, Der Volksstaat in Leipzig, La Emancipación in Madrid, Il Gazzettino Rosa in Milan, Socialisten in Copenhagen, and La Réforme Sociale in Rouen – increased in both number and overall sales. Finally, and most significantly, the International continued to expand in Belgium and Spain – where the level of workers’ involvement had already been considerable before the Paris Commune –, opened new sections in Portugal and Denmark, and experienced a real breakthrough in Italy. Many Mazzinians, disappointed with the positions taken by their erstwhile leader, joined forces with the organization and Giuseppe Garibaldi, although he had only a vague idea of the International, declared: ‘The International is the sun of the future!’.

4. The Civil War in France and Marx’s Reflections on Communism
In a letter to Wilhelm Liebknecht, Marx complained of ‘too great honesty’ of the Parisian revolutionaries. In trying to avoid ‘the appearance of having usurped power’, they had ‘lost precious moments’ by organizing the election of the Commune. Their ‘folly’ had been ‘not wanting to start a civil war – as if Thiers had not already started it by his attempt at forcibly disarming Paris’. He made similar points to his friend Ludwig Kugelmann a week later: ‘The right moment was missed because of conscientious scruples […] Second mistake: The Central Committee surrendered power too soon, to make way for the Commune. Again from a too honourable scrupulousness’.
At any event, alongside critical observations on the course of events in France, Marx never failed to highlight the exceptional combative spirit and political ability of the Communards. He continued:
What resilience, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not still at the gates of Paris! History has no like example of a like greatness.
Marx understood that, whatever the outcome of the revolution, the Commune had opened a new chapter in the history of the workers’ movement:
The present rising in Paris – even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society – is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June Insurrection in Paris. Compare these Parisians, storming the heavens, with the slaves to heaven of the German-Prussian Holy Roman Empire, with its posthumous masquerades reeking of the barracks, the Church, the cabbage Junkers and above all, of the philistines.
Marx continued these reflections a few days later in another letter to Kugelmann. Whereas his close friend had wrongly compared the fighting in Paris to ‘petty-bourgeois demonstrations’ like those of 13 June 1849 in Paris, Marx again exalted the courage of the Communards: ‘World history’, he wrote, ‘would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances’. His thinking here shows just how remote he was from the kind of fatalist determinism that his critics attributed to him:
[History] would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature if ‘accidents’ played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such ‘accidents’, which include the ‘accident’ of the character of those who first stand at the head of the movement.
The circumstance that worked against the Commune was the presence of the Prussians on French soil, allied with the ‘bourgeois riff-raff of Versailles’. Bolstered by their understanding with the Germans, the Versaillais ‘presented the Parisians with the alternative of taking up the fight or succumbing without a struggle’. In the latter case, ‘the demoralization of the working class would have been a far greater misfortune than the fall of any number of “leaders”’. Marx concluded: ‘The struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained’.
A fervid declaration hailing the victory of the Paris Commune would have risked creating false expectations among workers throughout Europe, eventually becoming a source of demoralization and distrust. Marx therefore decided to postpone delivery and stayed away from meetings of the General Council for several weeks. His grim forebodings soon proved all too well founded, and on 28 May, little more than two months after its proclamation, the Paris Commune was drowned in blood. Two days later, he reappeared at the General Council with a manuscript entitled The Civil War in France. It was read and unanimously approved, then published over the names of all the Council members.
The document had a huge impact over the next few weeks, greater than any other document of the workers’ movement in the 19th century. Speaking of the Paris Commune, Marx wrote:
The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents. The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excresence. While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society.
The Paris Commune had been an altogether novel political experiment:
It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour. Except on this last condition, the Communal Constitution would have been an impossibility and a delusion. The political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute.
For Marx, the new phase of class struggle that opened with the Paris Commune could be successful – and therefore produce radical changes – only through the realization of a clearly anticapitalist programme:
the Commune intended to abolish […] class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It 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. […] 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 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? The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce by decree of the people. 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 processes, 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 itself is pregnant.
In communist society, along with transformative changes in the economy, the role of the state and the function of politics would also have to be redefined. In The Civil War in France, Marx was at pains to explain that, after the conquest of power, the working class would have to fight to ‘uproot the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule’. Once ‘labour was emancipated, every man would become a working man, and productive labour [would] cease to be a class attribute’. The well-known statement that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’ was meant to signify, as Marx and Engels clarified in the booklet Fictitious Splits in the International, that ‘the functions of government [should] become simple administrative functions’. And in a concise formulation in his Conspectus on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, Marx insisted that ‘the distribution of general functions [should] become a routine matter which entails no domination’. This would, as far as possible, avoid the danger that the exercise of political duties generated new dynamics of domination and subjugation.
Marx believed that, with the development of modern society, ‘state power [had] assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. In communism, by contrast, the workers would have to prevent the state from becoming an obstacle to full emancipation. It would be necessary to ‘amputate’ ‘the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power, [to wrest] its legitimate functions from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restore [them] to the responsible agents of society’. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx observed that ‘freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it’, and shrewdly added that ‘forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the ‘freedom of the state’’.
In the same text, Marx underlined the demand that, in communist society, public policies should prioritize the ‘collective satisfaction of needs’. Spending on schools, healthcare and other common goods would ‘grow considerably in comparison with present-day society and grow in proportion as the new society develop[ed]’. Education would assume front-rank importance and – as he had pointed out in The Civil War in France, referring to the model adopted by the Communards in 1871 – ‘all the educational institutions [would be] opened to the people gratuitously and […] cleared of all interference of Church and State’. Only in this way would culture be ‘made accessible to all’ and ‘science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it’.
Unlike liberal society, where ‘equal right’ leaves existing inequalities intact, in communist society ‘right would have to be unequal rather than equal’. A change in this direction would recognize, and protect, individuals on the basis of their specific needs and the greater or lesser hardship of their conditions, since ‘they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal’. Furthermore, it would be possible to determine each person’s fair share of services and the available wealth. The society that aimed to follow the principle ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ had before it this intricate road fraught with difficulties. However, the final outcome was not guaranteed by some ‘magnificent progressive destiny’ (in the words of Leopardi), nor was it irreversible.
Marx attached a fundamental value to individual freedom, and his communism was radically different from the levelling of classes envisaged by his various predecessors or pursued by many of his epigones. In the Urtext, however, he pointed to the ‘folly of those socialists (especially French socialists)’ who, considering ‘socialism to be the realization of [bourgeois] ideas, […] purport[ed] to demonstrate that exchange and exchange value, etc., were originally […] a system of the freedom and equality of all, but [later] perverted by money [and] capital’. In the Grundrisse, he labelled it an ‘absurdity’ to regard ‘free competition as the ultimate development of human freedom’; it was tantamount to a belief that ‘the rule of the bourgeoisie is the terminal point of world history’, which he mockingly described as ‘an agreeable thought for the parvenus of the day before yesterday’.
In the same way, Marx contested the liberal ideology according to which ‘the negation of free competition [was] equivalent to the negation of individual freedom and of social production based upon individual freedom’. In bourgeois society, the only possible ‘free development’ was ‘on the limited basis of the domination of capital’. But that ‘type of individual freedom’ was, at the same time, ‘the most sweeping abolition of all individual freedom and the complete subjugation of individuality to social conditions which assume the form of objective powers, indeed of overpowering objects […] independent of the individuals relating to one another’.
The alternative to capitalist alienation was achievable only if the subaltern classes became aware of their condition as new slaves and embarked on a struggle to radically transform the world in which they were exploited. Their mobilization and active participation in this process could not stop, however, on the day after the conquest of power. The Paris Commune had been a remarkable revolutionary example to follow. Social mobilization would have to continue after the revolution, in order to avert any drift toward the kind of state socialism that Marx always opposed with the utmost tenacity and conviction.
In 1868, in a significant letter to the president of the General Association of German Workers, Marx explained that in Germany, ‘where the worker is regulated bureaucratically from childhood onwards, where he believes in authority, in those set over him, the main thing is to teach him to walk by himself’. He never changed this conviction throughout his life and it is not by chance that the first point of his draft of the Statutes of the International Working Men’s Association states: ‘The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’. And they add immediately afterwards that the struggle for working-class emancipation ‘means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties’.

 

References
[1] This work was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Insight Development Grant (Project n. 430-2020-00985).
[2] On the main events leading up to the revolution, see Maurice Choury, Les origenes de la Commune (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1960); Alain Dalotel, Alain Faure, and Jean-Claude Freiermuth, Aux origines de la Commune. Le movement des reunions publiques à Paris, 1868–1870 (Paris: Maspero, 1980); and Pierre Milza, L’année terrible. I: La guerre franco–prussienne (septembre 1870-mars 1871) (Paris: Perrin, 2009).
[3] See Jacques Rougerie, Paris libre 1871 (Paris: Seuil, 1971), p. 146; Pierre Milza, L’année terrible. II: La Commune (Paris: Perrin, 2009), pp. 236–44; and also the more recent Claude Latta, ‘Minorité et majorité au sein de la Commune (avril-mai 1871)’, in: Michel Cordillot (ed.), La Commune de Paris 1871. Les acteurs, l’événement, les lieux (Ivry-sur-Seine: Les Éditions de l’Atelier/Éditions Ouvrières, 2021).
[4] Victor Hugo, ‘Viro Major’, in: Nic Maclellan (ed.), Louise Michel (New York: Ocean Press, 2004), p. 24.
[5] Jacques Rougerie, La Commune de 1871 (Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), pp. 62–3.
[6] The Commune of Paris, ‘Declaration to the French People’, in: Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune 1871 (London: Longman, 1999), pp. 218–9.
[7] See Rougerie, Paris libre 1871, p. 100.
[8] Cited in Hugues Lenoir, ‘La Commune de Paris et l’éducation’, in: Cordillot (ed.), La Commune de Paris 1871, pp. 495-8.
[9] See Gonzalo J. Sanchez, Organizing Independence: The Artists Federation of the Paris Commune and its Legacy, 1871–1889 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); and Hollis Clayson, Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life under Siege (1870–1871) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
[10] For a list of the 28 clubs that existed at the time of the Paris Commune see Martin Philip Johnson, The Paradise of Association: Political Culture and Popular Organizations in the Paris Commune of 1871 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 166–70.
[11] See Edith Thomas, Les «Pétroleuses» (Paris: Gallimard, 1963); and Alain Dalotel, ‘La barricade des femmes, 1871’, in: Alain Corbin and Jean-Marie Mayeur (eds.), La barricade (Paris: Éditions la Sorbonne, 1997), pp. 341–55.
[12] References on this topic include the classic study of Georges Bourgin, ‘La Commune de Paris et le Comité central (1871)’, Revue historique, vol. 1925, n. 150: 1–66; and the recent Pierre-Henri Zaidman, ‘Le Comité central contre la Commune?’, in: Cordillot, La Commune de Paris 1871, pp. 229–36.
[13] Some who went there solidarized with and shared the fate of the Algerian leaders of the anticolonial Mokrani revolt, which had broken out at the same time as the Commune and also been drowned in blood by French troops.
[14] On the morrow of its defeat, Eugène Pottier wrote what was destined to become the most celebrated anthem of the workers’ movement: ‘Let us group together and tomorrow / The Internationale / Will be the human race!’.
[15] Cf. Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune, 26 mars 1871 (Paris: La fabrique éditions, 2018), p. 355.
[16] See Arthur Lehning, ‘Introduction’, in: Idem. (ed.), Bakunin – Archiv, vol. VI: Michel Bakounine sur la Guerre Franco–Allemande et la Révolution Sociale en France (1870–1871) (Leiden: Brill, 1977), p. xvi.
[17] See Marcello Musto, ‘Introduction’, in: Marcello Musto (ed.), Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 30–6.
[18] Karl Marx, Second Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association on the Franco–Prussian War, MECW, vol. 22, p. 269.
[19] See Georges Haupt, Aspect of International Socialism 1871–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), who warned against ‘the reshaping of the reality of the Commune in order to make it conform to an image transfigured by ideology’, p. 25.
[20] Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, MECW, vol. 46, p. 66.
[21] Karl Marx, Report of the General Council to the Fifth Annual Congress of the International, in: Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the C.C., C.P.S.U. (ed.), The General Council of the First International 1871–1872: Minutes (Moscow: Progress, 1986), p. 461.
[22] Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 18 June 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 157.
[23] Institute of Marxism-Leninism (ed.), The General Council of the First International 1871–1872, p. 460.
[24] Giuseppe Mazzini, L’Internazionale, in: Gian Mario Bravo (ed.), La Prima Internazionale: Storia documentaria, vol. II (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1978), pp. 499–501.
[25] Henry Collins and Chimen Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement (London: MacMillan, 1965), p. 222.
[26] See Georges Haupt, L’Internazionale socialista dalla Comune a Lenin (Torino: Einaudi, 1978), p. 28.
[27] Ibid., pp. 93–5.
[28] See Nello Rosselli, Mazzini e Bakunin (Torino: Einaudi, 1927), pp. 323–4.
[29] Giuseppe Garibaldi to Giorgio Pallavicino, 14 November 1871, in: Enrico Emilio Ximenes, Epistolario di Giuseppe Garibaldi, vol. I (Milano: Brigola 1885), p. 350.
[30] Karl Marx to Wilhelm Liebknecht, 6 April 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 193.
[31] Marx is referring to the workers’ uprising of June 1848, which was drowned in blood by a conservative republican government.
[32] Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 12 April 1871, MECW, vol. 44, pp. 131–2.
[33] Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 17 April 1871, MECW, vol. 44, pp. 136–7.
[34] See Karl Marx to Léo Frankel and Louis-Eugène Varlin (draft), 13 May 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 149: ‘The Prussians won’t hand over the forts to the Versailles people, but after the definitive conclusion of peace (26 May), they will allow the government to invest Paris with its gendarmes. […] Thiers & Co. had […] asked Bismarck to delay payment of the first instalment until the occupation of Paris. Bismarck accepted this condition. Prussia, being herself in urgent need of that money, will therefore provide the Versailles people with every possible facility to hasten the occupation of Paris. So be on your guard!’.
[35] Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 17 April 1871, MECW, vol. 44, p. 137.
[36] See Marcello Musto, Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 199-220.
[37] Three English editions of The Civil War in France in quick succession won acclaim among the workers and caused uproar in bourgeois circles. It was also translated fully or partly into a dozen other languages, appearing in newspapers, magazines and booklets in various European countries and the United States.
[38] Karl Marx, ‘On the Paris Commune’, in: Musto, Workers Unite!, pp. 215–6.
[39] Ibid., pp. 217–8.
[40] Ibid., pp. 218–9.
[41] Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, MECW, vol. 22, pp. 334–5.
[42] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Fictitious Splits in the International’, MECW, vol. 23, p. 121.
[43] Marx, ‘Notes on Bakunin’s Book Statehood and Anarchy’, MECW, vol. 24 p. 519.
[44] Marx, The Civil War in France, p. 329.
[45] Ibid., pp. 332–3.
[46] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, MECW, vol. 24, p. 94.
[47] Ibid., p. 85.
[48] Marx, The Civil War in France, p. 332.
[49] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p. 87.
[50] See Marcello Musto, ‘Communism’, in: Marcello Musto (ed.), The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 24–50.
[51] Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857–58, MECW, vol. 28, p. 180.
[52] Karl Marx, ‘Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft of 1857–58) [Second Instalment]’, MECW, vol. 29, p. 40.
1857-58) [Second Instalment]’
[53] Ibid.
[54] Karl Marx to J. B. von Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, MECW, vol. 43, p. 134.
[55] Karl Marx, ‘Provisional Rules of the Association’, MECW, vol. 20, p. 14.

 

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Marcello Musto (Ed.), Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration

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Palgrave Macmillan

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2021, pp. xiii-xix

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