The Civil War in France

June 9, 2008

David Rapkin introduces a collection of Karl Marx's speeches on the Paris Commune of 1871--the first time that workers' power shook the world.

ANYONE READING The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels can't help but be amazed at the pamphlet's relevance after 150 years. But already by 1872, on one critical point, Marx himself was convinced that the Manifesto was "out of date."

The occasion for this revision, not just in the Manifesto, but in one of the fundamental tenets of Marxism, was the epic struggle in 1871 of the Paris Commune, a mass movement of workers and the poor that for the first time in history established a short-lived workers' government in Paris. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Commune was a spectacular demonstration that the future belonged to the world's working class.

The central lesson of the Commune, which had Marx and Engels scrambling to rewrite Marxism's founding document, is of such importance that socialism is ultimately impossible without it.

"One thing especially was proved by the Commune," writes Marx. "That the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes." In order for workers to govern themselves, the workers must first assure that the bourgeoisie cannot simply use their military forces to repossess what they have temporarily lost.

The modern Marxist theory of the state owes its existence to the courageous struggle of the Paris Communards, who taught people everywhere another equally important lesson: workers, in alliance with society's other oppressed classes, are completely capable of managing their own affairs. Europe's ascendant bourgeoisie and decrepit monarchs were shocked and outraged; ordinary people everywhere saw their wildest dreams begin to take material form in Paris.

FOR TWO months in 1871, the downtrodden workers and poor of war-torn Paris were able to run the city after having driven their rulers and most of their bosses away. Remarkable as this may seem, it was an ordinary event under capitalism that gave Parisians such an opportunity: inter-imperialist war.

France's losing war with Prussia, part of the newly formed German Empire, left Paris besieged and bombarded, with the people hungry and angry. The war, started by France's ruler Napoleon III in 1870, had dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor, and fueled the popular demand for Paris to become a self-governing city.

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While France's provisional government, led by Adolphe Thiers, signed a self-serving armistice with Germany, Parisians were subjected to a humiliating ceremonial Prussian occupation of Paris, while the country's rulers cowered in safety at Versailles, far outside the city.

But instead of suffering in silence, the working class of Paris took matters into their own hands. As Prussian troops marched on the city, armed worker National Guards and ordinary workers were able to carry off cannons and other armaments and secure them in key positions.

The National Guards were actually citizens' militias, armed and trained by France's rulers against the Prussians, but now willing to turn their guns against "their own" corrupt government. When regular troops were sent by Thiers from Versailles to seize these weapons, many of the troops fraternized with the workers and the rest were sent packing. Two of the hated leading officers were killed. Workers, who had been armed by their rulers to fight the "foreign enemy," were left in control of the city.

The Civil War in France collected Marx's celebrated speeches to the International Working Men's Association on the occasion of the Commune. In the book, Marx describes the dynamic situation: "Paris was not to be defended without arming its working class, organizing them into an effective force, and training their ranks by the war itself. But Paris armed was the revolution armed."

After successfully defending their weapons against some regiments of Thiers' troops, "the glorious working men's Revolution of 18th March took undisputed sway of Paris," says Marx. "The Central Committee" of the National Guard, bolstered by democratically elected men and women from the ranks of the city's working class, became the new "provisional government."

Marx describes the panic-stricken wealthy as "the men of order, trembling at the victory." They well remembered the massacres of workers they had perpetrated in years past. But "their panic was their only punishment," writes Marx. The Commune allowed the city's police to retreat to Versailles and the "men of order were left not only unharmed, but allowed to rally and quietly to seize more than one stronghold in the very center of Paris."

This leniency on the part of workers was to prove decisive. Understandably not wanting to stoop to the level of their oppressors, the Central Committee underestimated the threat from Thiers, the army and the police. It appeared that all they had to do was to seize the existing state structure and begin to govern in a new way. But the bourgeois state, in the form of Thiers' army, lay in wait.

MARX ALWAYS considered it a mistake that the National Guard didn't immediately march on Versailles and destroy Thiers' forces. Yet the initial rout of the regular troops bought the Commune two months in which to begin restructuring society. With the standing army in Versailles, the Commune became the rule of the "armed people," writes Marx. The composition of the Commune and the laws it passed began to transform society.

One of Marx's most famous descriptions of the sham of bourgeois democracy was inspired by the Commune: "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" with representatives from "the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms."

All public service was done at workers' wages. Odious tasks such as night work in bakeries was abolished. Closed factories were taken over and run by workers. The Vendôme Column, "that colossal symbol of martial glory," was dragged down.

Although France was a religious society, the Commune struck out at the corruption of the official church. Marx explains that "the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the 'parson-power' by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies...The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Commune was its political ideals. During the war, the French bourgeoisie, says Marx sarcastically, "had found the time to display their patriotism by organizing police hunts upon the Germans in France." By contrast, the Commune made a German worker its minister of labor--despite the fact that Paris had been besieged and bombarded by the Germans. Revolutionary internationalism was the order of the day.

Sadly, the Commune was destroyed in an orgy of bloody revenge, perpetrated not only at the hands of Thiers' army from Versailles, but also by the Prussian leader Bismarck, who cut a deal with his French "enemies" and released thousands of French prisoners of war so they could help crush the Commune. Bismarck also threw in many of his own troops for good measure. The rulers of the two warring nations shook hands and made up over the dead bodies of the workers of Paris.

Somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 workers were killed as Paris was retaken. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned or exiled. "The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters," Marx wrote. "Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge."

But the workers of the Paris Commune did not fight and die in vain. When some day we finish the task begun by the workers of Paris in 1871, it will be in large part because they showed us the way.

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