Karl Marx and the Paris Commune

What happened in Paris in March 1871 must have seemed at the time a tremendous political upheaval. The French government lost control of Paris for a few months to a municipal council, or “commune”, made up of extreme republicans whose banner was the Red Flag and who proclaimed the Emancipation of Labour. What happened was indeed unprecedented. Never before had any government even claimed to represent the interests of the working class; never before had so many workers taken part in the political administration of a large city. Since 1871 of course there have been many governments, at national as well as local level, that have labelled themselves “Labour” or “Socialist” or “Communist” and in which workers have participated, but the Paris Commune was the first.

In 1870 Marx was still actively working in the International Working Men’s Association, now known as the First International, which had been set up five years previously. His long-term strategy was to encourage the working class in all countries to act independently in order to prepare them for Socialist political action. He was consistently opposed to immediate working class uprisings as advocated by, among others, the anarchist Bakunin. Indeed opposition was his first reaction to the idea of an uprising in Paris following the defeat in September 1870 of France in the Franco-Prussian War. A manifesto, drafted by Marx and issued by the IWMA in September to mark the overthrow of Napoleon III and the proclamation of a Republic in France, advised the French working class:

“Any attempt at upsetting the new government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris would be desperate folly. The French workmen . . . must not allow themselves to be deluded by the national souvenirs of 1792 . . . They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.“ (1)

This was a call, not to insurrection, but to work within the new Republic to gradually build up the strength of the French working class movement.

The Paris revolutionaries who, despite this advice, did attempt uprisings in October 1870 and January 1871 were composed of two elements: Jacobins and Blanquists who did look backwards to the First French Republic of 1792 and who were in the majority, and the Paris section of the IWMA who were more interested in organising the workers. Only a handful of them were Socialists in the sense that Marx was, but all of them were in favour of social reforms for the workers (which was enough at that time to be regarded as a socialist).

When on March 18, 1871, Paris did rise in answer to the provocative attempt of the government to take away the cannon of the National Guards, a mainly working class militia, Marx conceded that the revolutionaries had no choice. To have allowed the government succeed would only have demoralised the working class (2). So Marx gave his full support to the insurrectionary Commune once it had been established, even though he knew that it could not survive for long and that it was not really socialist.

Most people must rely for their knowledge about the Commune on the manifesto Marx wrote in May 1871, on behalf of the IWMA called The Civil War in France (3), just after Paris had been brutally suppressed amid great slaughter. This is essentially a propagandist document defending and honouring the name of the Commune and those who died for it. In many respects, however, it gives a misleading impression of what the Commune really was and invests it, as Paul Lafargue who was a close associate of Marx at this time later admitted, with a socialist character it certainly never had (4).

Marx wrote of the Commune that it was “to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule”. Answering charges in the capitalist press that the Commune was “communist”, he went on:

“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that 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 — but this is Communism, “impossible” Communism!”

This suggests that the conscious aim of the Paris Commune was the establishment of Socialism. But this was not so (and even if it had been it would not have made any difference to its chances of survival). Those who held this view of the tasks of the Commune were only a minority, the majority being made up of the Jacobins and Blanquists who looked back to 1792 rather than forward to Socialism and who wasted their time with revived “committees of public safety” and even with the old revolutionary calendar.

Further light in Marx’s view of the Commune is revealed by some draft notes he wrote for the manifesto in April and May 1871 which were not published till 1934 (5). Here Marx says that the most important point about the Paris Commune was its mere existence; was the fact that workers were actually governing Paris. He described the Commune, as a form of political organisation, as

“not the social movement of the working class . . . but the organised 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 . . . but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.”

It is quite clear from this that Marx regarded the Commune not as Socialism or even a transition to Socialism, but merely as the political framework within which this transition could take place. He had always advocated that the working class should win control of political power before trying to establish Socialism. He now saw, as the quotes above indicate, the Commune as the form political institutions should take during the period of transition to Socialism. He was not necessarily saying that Socialism was the policy of those who controlled the Paris Commune, but merely that the political institutions they had established — where democratic administration by and for the people replaced the bureaucratic dictatorship of the State machine over the people — were the sort a Socialist working class would also have to establish after they had won political power.

In these draft notes Marx expressed the view that the Commune, as a democratic political institution, would be tantamount to “working class government” in places like Paris where the workers were in the majority. Before the numerical predominance of the working class could become politically significant the old bureaucratic government machine had first to be taken over, then broken up and be replaced by a democratic regime such as the Commune. This is what he meant by the often-quoted (usually out of context and nearly as often misunderstood) statement, which occurs in three different forms in the draft; that “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” It must be admitted, however, that Marx sometimes seemed to ignore or underestimate the need for the working class to have Socialist ideas as well as democratic institutions before their numbers could be a force for Socialism.

One difficulty in trying to assess Marx’s views on the Paris Commune is that he did not always clearly distinguish between the Commune as a system of democratic government and the Commune as the actual regime which governed Paris from March to May 1871. Whatever may have been the merits of the Commune as the type of administration the workers should have established had they won power anywhere in 1871 — and in 1971 this can only be an academic issue — the real Paris Commune was not a political instrument in the hands of a conscious Socialist majority. Indeed it was not even as democratic as the picture Marx gave of it in The Civil War in France, admittedly before he had a real chance to check the facts. The members of the Commune, for instance, were not paid ordinary workmen’s wages but at least three or four times the wages of the average craftsman (6).

Ten years later Marx by implication admitted that in 1871 he had given a misleading picture of the Commune — though his political conclusions that the working class, after winning control of the machinery of government would have to put it onto a fully democratic basis before using it as an instrument of emancipation was, and still is valid. In 1881 a Dutch Social Democrat, Niewenhuis, wrote to Marx about what the Socialist movement should do once it had come to power. Marx replied on 22 February that he did not think that the Socialist movement would come to power in any country unless at the same time it was strong enough to overcome any capitalist resistance. He went on:

“Perhaps you will refer me to the Paris Commune, but apart from the fact that this was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no wise socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of commonsense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people — the only thing that could be reached at the time.” (7)

So in 1881 Marx openly recognised that the Commune was not Socialist and that it could not have succeeded beyond reaching some compromise with the French government. We can only speculate what sort of compromise Marx had in mind, but it was probably the establishment of a (capitalist) Republic which would have allowed the working class to organise politically and industrially.

The failure of the Paris Commune in fact vindicated the perspective Marx had of the workers gradually building up their political and industrial strength, rather than trying to stage immediate armed uprisings against the capitalist State. The Paris Commune was one such uprising, an important but exceptional incident in the history of the working class which demonstrated both the need to win political power and the futility of the barricade as the way to do this.


1.K. Marx, The Civil War in France, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966, pp. 35-6.

2. Letter to L. Kugelmann, April 17, 1871, Marx Engels Selected Works, Vol II, FLPH, Moscow, 1958, p.464.

3. All quotes are from the Peking edition above.

4. “The manifesto of the civil war drawn up by Marx for the General Council invested the Commune with a socialist character it had certainly not possessed during its ephemeral existence”, wrote Lafargue in 1897 (quoted in Tsuzuki, The Life of Eleanor Marx, pp.33-4).

5. Included as part of the Peking edition of The Civil War in France.

6. F. Jellinek, The Paris Commune of 1871, 1937, p.391. J. Rougerie, Procès Des Communards, 1964, p.246.

7. Letter to F. Domela-Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, Marx Engels Selected Correspondence, FLPH, Moscow, 1956

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