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The Marxist Analysis of The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune
Karl Marx

Following the Prussian victories and the collapse of Napoleon III's (r. 1852-1871) regime in 1870, France entered another period of revolutionary crisis. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) had destroyed the Second Empire (1852-1870). Thus, a constituent assembly was to meet at Versailles to draft a new constitution and negotiate the peace treaty with the victorious Prussians. The treaty was negotiated quickly enough; according to its terms, France had to pay a sizable indemnity and cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (for which the French harbored resentment until World War I). During these negotiations, Paris remained unconquered, though besieged by Prussian troops. Conditions in the city were horrific: bread was both scarce and expensive, and domestic animals were in constant danger of becoming an entrŽe. With the capitulation to the Prussians and the draconian peace signed, the people of Paris acted. Revolutionary committees were formed and soon established the Paris Commune, a social-democratic republic. The representatives at Versailles, who would eventually produce the constitution of the French Third Republic (1870-1940), ordered the French army to take over the siege from the Prussians. The Parisians remained defiant, but after four more months of siege, the Paris Commune was destroyed by the army in May 1871, during the ferocious "bloody week" in which thousands of Communards were killed and thousands more arrested and soon deported. Karl Marx (1818-1883), the founder of Marxist socialism and one of the leading revolutionary figures of his era, heartily endorsed the Paris Commune, calling it the model for the future revolutions and the new proletarian "social republic." In the aftermath of the bloody destruction of the Commune, however, many European socialists believed Marx had been too hasty in his conclusions. In this selection, excerpted from The Civil War in France, Marx explains why the Paris Commune should be the model for future socialist revolutions and republics.

Questions to Consider
  • What, according to Marx, were the most significant features of the Commune's organization and goals?

  • How could the Commune serve as a model for future socialist revolutions and republics?

  • Why did moderate socialists reject Marx's conclusions?

The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of "social republic" with which the Revolution of February was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.

[N]o sooner do the working men anywhere take the subject into their own hands with a will, than uprises at once all the apologetic phraseology of the mouthpieces of present society. The Commune, they exclaim, intends to abolish property, the basis of all civilisation! 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!

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple [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 realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen's gentlemen with the pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility. When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their "natural superiors," and, under circumstances of unexampled difficulty, performed their work modestly, conscientiously, and efficiently--performed it at salaries the highest of which barely amounted to one-fifth of what, according to high scientific authority, is the minimum required for a secretary to a certain metropolitan school-board--the old world writhed in convulsion of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hôtel de Ville.

Source: Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin, The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune (New York: International Publishers, 1940, 1968), 56-57, 61-62.