The Class Struggles in France: Before and After the Commune. By Paul Lafargue


Although, prior to 1848, Socialism scat­tered into an endless number of variations of schools and school-lets, it could not, all in all, count many adherents. It did not gain a foothold among the masses of the workers and it enticed only a few artisans and bour­geois.

Therefore there was no reason for the capitalist class to worry about that kind of Socialism; it regarded its adherents as queer specimens and harmless visionaries, which indeed they were. These adherents themselves contributed all that is humanity possible to appear as such and to be very grotesque. They wore garments of very peculiar cut—the St. Simonists buttoned their coats at the back so that they needed the aid of a comrade when dressing, and thus had their attention directed towards co-operation—excessively big hats, long beards, etc. So long as Louis Philippe ruled, the bourgeois political parties continued to struggle for ascendancy as though there were no Socialists in existence. But the June insurrection revealed to them the existence of a Socialism essentially dif­ferent from that of the Utopians, of a Socialism that appeared to them as the most terrible of all monstrosities. The vicious and silly slanders spread by the entire press about the insurgents, the capitalists ac­cepted as gospel. The newspapers de­clared that Communism and Socialism aimed at a division of goods. The capital­ists believed that. For the individualist bourgeois, whose entire mental activities centre upon what he can pocket, a division of goods is the most horrible eventuality he can think of.

Prince Napoleon, who under Louis Philippe had played the role of a Commun­ist reformer, now offered himself to the bour­geoisie to save society from Communism. The brand of Socialism which had not had sufficient comprehension to organise a poli­tical party and to instil into the workers a consciousness of their class interests, in the hands of a Bonapartist pretender became a political instrument wherewith to overthrow the republic, erect the empire and “protect order, the family and property.” The first appearance of Socialism on the political stage furnished weapons to the reactionary parties by means of which they retarded political development and suppressed the working class for the benefit of the capitalist class.

The first years of the empire brought an unparalleled prosperity traceable to the foundation of the “Credit Mobilier” (a credit bank for movable property), of the “Credit Foncier” (a credit bank for real property), and of other credit institutions of modern finance, to the building of railroads, the development of agriculture, etc. Due to this prosperity, the June insurrection and the terror it had carried into the ranks of the bourgeoisie were totally forgotten. Those who still remembered the insurrec­tion regarded it as an extraordinary event caused-by extraordinary conditions, a repe­tition of which they would never live to see. In a like manner Socialism was forgotten and not even spoken of. It was ranked among the whims gone out of fashion, like the National Guard, for which early in the government of Louis Philippe the bour­geoisie had greatly enthused itself.

But Napoleon III. did not forget that he owed his throne to the first political mani­festation of the class struggle. When there came the years of commercial and industrial decline, when a series of bank crashes caused by the collapse of the “Credit Mobilier” ruined numerous existences in all layers of the bourgeoisie, then the republican party again raised its head and attacked the empire. It was then that Napoleon felt the time had come to re-kindle anew the class struggle between the proletariat and the capitalists. The working class and the capitalist class were mutually to rend each other, and the government, as a smirking bystander, was tranquilly to look on and make good use of the respite cleverly gained. Prompted by such considerations, Napoleon restored the right of assembly abolished at the time of his coup d’etat, but limited it to meetings in which economic questions were to be considered. Every meeting dealing with political questions had to be dispersed by the police. These restrictions produced effects opposite to those aimed at. Napo­leon raised politics to the position of for­bidden fruit, which alone excited the ardent interest of the public. It remained apa­thetic, indifferent, toward the economic questions, which the Emperor wanted to put in the foreground of public interest in order to incite the workers against the capitalists and to conjure up before the eyes of the scared bourgeoisie the “red spectre” of Communism and of the division of goods.

The workers, who for fifteen years had heard no more of Socialism, did not even understand the meaning of the term, while the words republic, liberty, etc., smote their ears like a fanfare of trumpets. In order to cater to the passionate interest of their audiences, the speakers at the meetings did not open a fight against the employers and against capital, but interlarded their discourses with allusions to the Emperor and Empress and even with attacks upon both. Instead of picturing the misery of economic exploitation and the allurements and advan­tages of collective property, they indulged in romantic lamentations about the shame of political oppression, about the happiness of liberty, the greatness of the republic and of the revolution. So that quiet might re­turn to the political waters, Napoleon was prompted again to prohibit public meetings. But it was then too late—the stone had begun to roll.

For the first time since the Great Revolu­tion of the past century—if one disregards the June insurrection and the revolt of Lyon in 1831—a real popular movement swept through the land. Until then only the various layers of the propertied classes had participated in the political struggles. Now, however, it was the workers who got into motion, who assailed the imperial govern­ment and fought for the republic. The working class appeared on the stage of political struggles and made common cause with the republican faction of the bourgeoisie. And therewith it obeyed unconsciously, fol­lowing the logic of events, the slogan Marx and Engels had given to the proletariat in 1847 in the “Communist Manifesto,” namely, “everywhere to support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political conditions.” This first political manifestation of the working class showed how untenable had been the anti-political tactics of the Socialists prior to 1848. This attitude, forced upon the prole­tariat by existing conditions, confirmed the capitalists in the opinion that there were no longer any classes. They were full of the sweet illusion that the workers, in the pre­sent as in the past, as well as forever after, would see in the propertied their “natural” leaders and, forgetting about their own class interests, would render to the bourgeoisie dray-horse service in the mainten­ance of its interests. So far from opposing the foundation of the International, the bour­geois republicans joined it hoping that : it could be made to serve them. Like Mazzini, they, too, sought in the International a weapon against the empire. And, indeed. it proved to be such a weapon. While Jules Favre and the leaders of the republican party flirted with the government and accepted its favours, the members of the Paris section of the International proudly and contemptuously rejected the offers of Rouher, the vice emperor. They understood that, first of all and at any price, there must be a change in the political situation, that the empire must be overthrown and the republic restored so that Socialism could develop and gain a foothold among the working class.

But at that, the Socialism that could then be offered to the workers was by no means such as to satisfy them and meet their requirements. It confronted them as “mutualism,” as the Socialism of the artisans and petty industrialists, built up and extended by Proudhon through his own anarchistic and reactionary theories. It was he who, in the name of liberty, had publicly championed the secular power of the Pope; and he had also defended the right of American Southern States to abandon Union in order to maintain slavery. The members of the Paris section of the International who, barring a few exceptions such as Varlin and Malon, were Proudhonist “Mutualists,” at the congresses of the International were conspicuous by their reactionary and arrogant attitude. Tolain, Limousin, Chemale and the other Proudhonists entertained the strange assumption that they were to lead the International and force upon it their ideas, although they could not even lay claim to being clear upon its purpose. They always voted with the minority against all Communist motions. The fall of the empire surprised the working class before it had been able to attain a firm organisation or rise to a clear Socialist conception. It strove for nothing but the resto­ration of the republic. The few workers and artisans forced into the foreground by the political agitation of the later years, also possessed no Socialist convictions. Thus, in 1870, the bourgeois republicans calmly took the place of the Bonapartists, just as in 1848 they had crowded the Orleanists out of power. The workers, even the members of the International, took this to be the natural course of events. On September 4th, 1870, there was in France but one single class politically active, the capitalist class.

It was the Paris Commune of March, 1871, which, though not a Socialist revolu­tion, was a grand repetition of the June insurrection, and made clear to the percep­tion the class struggle latent in the lap of capitalist society. Versailles, where had gathered the representatives of all political parties whom the prevailing conditions had closely welded together, Versailles became the embodiment of capitalist interests. The Paris of the Commune, on the other hand, was the advance guard of the proletariat.

For the second time the modern class struggle in its most pronounced and most terrible form, entered the arena of political life. The rising of the proletariat in 1848 resembled a bolt of lightning out of the blue sky, ominously lighting up the horizon and then striking earthward without leaving a trace. Under the Second Empire the June insurgents as well as the Socialism of Fourier and St. Simon had been forgotten. The Commune, however, although only an insurrection of the Parisians, shook up the entire nation and awakened in the minds of the workers the conviction that under the walls of Paris the struggle went on for their very own cause. For the first time it came about that the workers experienced this emotion, and it was destined to become an indelible one. The subsequent economic events could only deepen it and prepare the workers to become conscious of their inter­ests as a class, and would cause them to come together as a class in a political party.


The Franco-German war of 1870-71 led to a revolution of the economic conditions of France. The large machine industry, which since the trade agreement with Eng­land in 1863 had been slowly developed, suddenly took on a colossal upward swing. French industry had then to meet a severe task; it had to heal the wounds which the war had inflicted upon one-third of the coun­try ; it had to furnish the means for the gigantic armaments, the colossal building-up of militarism ; and, finally, it had to fill the gap caused by the cession of Alsace-Lor­raine, the province of France most highly developed industrially before the year 1870. French industry met these demands in the course of a few years. In all parts of the country factories shot up like toadstools, destroyed petty industry and created an in­dustrial proletariat, which until then had been present only in a few cities of the north-east, the only part of the country where large machine industry had got a firm foothold. Ten years after the war the in­dustrial proletariat could be found all over France.

If the June insurrection had buried Utopian Socialism, the Commune had given the coup de grace to the Proudhon “mutualism.” The Fourierists and St. Simonists had been transformed into mani­pulators of great industrial and financial undertakings, while the mutualists landed in the Senate, as did Tolain, or in worse places, as did Chardey, Fribourg, Pierre Denis. A few attached themselves to the new Socialist movement.

The International, during its short life, had fulfilled an important mission the fruits of which were now to be harvested. The imagination of the scared bourgeoisie pic­tured the International as a powerful, gigantic organisation, firmly organised, able to dispose of millions who, blindly and without remonstrance, would obey the Lon­don General Council, which latter ordered strikes and prepared insurrections like that of the Paris Commune. Nothing can be more beside the facts than this conception. The International did not play this role, could not have played it. But even if the mission it actually did fulfil was less romantic, it was none the less great and impor­tant. It had the mission to bring nearer to one another and into communication the workers of Europe and America, who had until then been separated by political boun­daries and national hatreds and prejudices ; it had the mission to formulate Socialist theories which, so to speak, became the Socialist confession of faith of the world proletariat; it had the mission to create, in theory, an international Socialist movement at a time when there existed in no country, Germany alone excepted, a national Socialist movement. Only a revolutionary and scientific genius like Marx could have con­ceived the thought of such a work, could prevent the International from being led into wrong channels and, instead, perform the task that had been set in so short a time. When the International, which in reality had died after the congress at The Hague in 1872, a few years thereafter entirely dis­appeared there existed in the world an inter­national Socialist Party the members of which had the mission to found in their home countries national Socialist parties.

The men who in France, after the fury of the Versailles reaction had somewhat sub­sided, took up the Socialist movement at the point where the Commune had left off, had been members of the International. They had. therefore, drawn their new Social­ist convictions from the common fund of Socialist theories which the International had formulated at its various congresses. Ten years after the fall of the Commune, the congress held at Marseilles, attended by representatives of the working class from all parts of France, decided against a strong minority to organise the workers as a class party, which was to participate in economic conflicts through the support of strikes and in the political struggle utilise the ballot to conquer the powers of state and by means of them transfer the land and the means of production into the possession of the entire nation. Therewith the Socialist Party had found its proper field of action, had raised its standard, and now it remained only to draw together its forces and to organise them. This task was taken in hand eagerly and with enthusiasm.

(From the Weekly People.)

(Socialist Standard, March 1928)

Leave a Reply