Karl Marx was born on 5th May 1818 in the German town of Trier. In his twenties he started to develop the political theory which is now known as Marxism, very soon developing his ideas with his life time companion, friend and collaborator Frederick Engels.
These two, simple sentences are the very essence of Marxism. And since the early 1840s, when Marx started to develop his ideas, there has been a continual struggle to keep that issue at the forefront of workers’ movements throughout the world.
In the 19th century workers who attempted to change the world were far in advance of some of the so-called ‘leaders’, intellectuals and demagogues who spoke well but were found to be wanting when it came to action. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the prime example of this where workers knew instinctively what had to be done.
VI Lenin, the great Marxist theoretician, who was the first leader to be able to lead a successful proletarian revolution, learnt – and implemented – the lessons, both positive and negative, from the Commune and ensured that the Russian workers, peasants and soldiers had a better chance of success against an even more powerful reactionary force. However, Lenin’s ideas were based on the solid bedrock of Marxism, which philosophy he developed into what is now known as Marxism-Leninism.
The significance of Marx’s ideas have never been underestimated by capitalist, imperialist and reactionary forces. In the, now, 173 years since the publication of The Manifesto of the Communist Party (in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, pp477-519.) there have been countless occasions when those movements who have used Marxism as their ideological base have been attacked and vilified as being inappropriate to the circumstances or as being a ‘foreign import’. The danger that these ideas pose to the ruling classes in most countries of the world demonstrate the value they have for those who are oppressed and exploited – the majority of the population of the world.
But from its inception Marxism has not only had to contend with the attacks from capitalism and imperialism. Within the working class itself there have been those revisionists who have sought to emasculate Marxism of its revolutionary content and these cowards, traitors and renegades have caused incalculable damage to any advances in the conditions of the world’s workers and peasants.
However, those attacks only serve to make Marxism relevant in the present circumstances, where the people of the world are suffering during a health pandemic which has been made worse – and longer lasting – due to the fact that capitalism has no real interest in effectively dealing with such a situation that benefits the majority of people.
So far there’s been no indication that this crisis – caused by the political and economic situation under which all in the world live – has caused workers to rethink the old certainties (even if they did exist pre-2019). The negative effects of covid-19 will last for a long time and there’s no chance that the world will just change, taking into consideration the situation of the majority of the population, without them taking action to change their condition themselves.
Those ‘crumbs’ which capitalism have thrown to avoid the destruction of its rotten and moribund system are becoming harder to find and are getting scattered more widely.
Implementing the ideas of Marx – and how they have been developed by Lenin and Mao – is the only way there will be a long-term and sustainable future for the workers and peasants of the world.
Marxism is far from being dead.
Long Live Marxism!
As part of the commemoration of Marx’s birth we reproduce the interview below (first published on the 200th Anniversary) with David Harvey who has produced a series of video lectures which seek to make Marx’s most important work, Capital, (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Capital Volunme 1, Capital Volume 2 and Capital Volume 3) understandable and more accessible to those who might find the three, large volumes too daunting.
Why Marx Still Matters
An interview with David Harvey
This article originally appeared as an interview on Daniel Denvir’s podcast, The Dig, in 2018
On the second centenary of Karl Marx’s birth, global capitalism is stumbling from crisis to crisis. In the wake of the financial crash, interest in Marx’s ideas has blossomed once again. This should come as no surprise: they remain vital to understanding not only the dynamics of capitalism itself but the manner in which it structures our modern world.
David Harvey is one of the world’s leading scholars of Marx. His course on the three volumes of Capital became synonymous with Marx’s re-emergence in recent years, and has been viewed by millions online. This course has been condensed into the recently-published Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, a companion to Marx’s magnum opus, which addresses its relevance today.
In this interview, David Harvey speaks with journalist Daniel Denvir about Marx’s work, his understanding of capitalism’s contradictions, and why his ideas endure so long after his time.
You’ve been teaching Capital for quite a long time. Can you lay out a brief overview of each of the three volumes?
Marx is very much into detail, and it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of exactly what the whole conception of Capital is about. But really, it’s simple. Capitalists start the day with a certain amount of money, take the money into the marketplace and buy commodities like means of production and labour power, and put them to work in a labour process that produces a new commodity. That commodity is sold for money, plus a profit. Then the profit is redistributed in various ways, in the form of rents and interest, which circulates back into money, which starts the production cycle again.
It’s a circulation process. And the three volumes of Capital deal with different aspects. The first deals with production. The second deals with circulation and what we call ‘realisation’ — the way the commodity is converted back into money. And the third deals with distribution — how much goes to the landlord, how much goes to the financier, how much goes to the merchant, before it is all turned around and sent back into the circulation process.
That’s what I try to teach, so that people understand the relationships between the three volumes of Capital and don’t get lost entirely in any one volume or parts of them.
You differ with other Marx scholars in that you pay a lot of attention to volumes two and three, in addition to volume one. Why is that?
It’s clear that in Marx’s mind, he had an idea of the totality of the circulation of capital. His plan was to break it down into these three component parts in the three volumes. So I just follow what Marx says he’s doing. Now, the problem of course, is that volumes two and three were never completed, and they aren’t as satisfactory as volume one, which is a literary masterpiece. So I can understand why, if people want to read Marx with a certain sense of joy and fun, that they would stick with volume one. But I’m saying, ‘No, if you really want to understand what his conception of capital is, then you can’t understand it as just being about production. It’s about circulation. It’s about getting it to market and selling it, then it’s about distributing the profits.’
One reason that it’s important is that we need it to understand this dynamic of constant expansion that drives capitalism.
You get this idea of a ‘bad infinity’ in volume one. The system has to expand because it’s always about profit, creating what Marx called a ‘surplus value’, and the surplus value then gets reinvested in the creation of more surplus value. So capital is about constant expansion.
And what that does is this: if you grow at 3 percent a year, forever, then you get to the point where the amount of expansion required is absolutely huge. In Marx’s time, there’s plenty of space in the world to expand into, whereas right now we’re talking about 3 percent compound rate of growth on everything that’s happening in China and South Asia and Latin America. The problem arises: where are you going to expand into? That’s the bad infinity coming into being.
In volume three, Marx says maybe the only way it can expand is by monetary expansion. Because with money there’s no limit. If we’re talking about using cement or something like that, there’s a physical limit to how much you can produce. But with money, you can just add zeros to the global money supply.
If you look at what we did after the 2008 crisis, we added zeros to the money supply by something called ‘quantitative easing’. That money then flowed back into stock markets, and then asset bubbles, especially in property markets. We’ve now got a strange situation where, in every metropolitan area of the world that I’ve visited, there’s a huge boom in construction and in property asset prices – all of which is being fuelled by the fact that money is being created and it doesn’t know where to go, except into speculation and asset values.
You’re trained as a geographer, and for you Marx’s account of capitalism is fundamentally about dealing with problems of space and time. Why are these two axes of space and time are so critical?
For instance, the interest rate is about discounting into the future. And borrowing is about foreclosing on the future. Debt is a claim on future production. So the future is foreclosed on, because we’ve got to pay our debts. Ask any student who owes $200,000: their future is foreclosed, because they’ve got to pay off that debt. This foreclosure of the future is a terribly important part of what Capital is about.
The space stuff comes in because as you start to expand, there’s always the possibility that if you can’t expand in a given space, you take your capital and go into another space. For instance, Britain was producing a lot of surplus capital in the nineteenth century, so a lot of it was flowing to North America, some through Latin America, some to South Africa. So there’s a geographical aspect to this.
The expansion of the system is about getting what I call ‘spatial fixes’. You’ve got a problem: you’ve got excess capital. What are you going to do with it? Well, you have a spatial fix, which means you go out and build something somewhere else in the world. If you have an ‘unsettled’ continent like North America in the nineteenth century, then there’s vast amounts of space you can expand into. But now North America has been pretty much covered.
The spatial reorganisation is not simply about expansion. It’s also about reconstruction. We get deindustrialisation in the United States and Europe, and then the reconfiguration of an area through urban redevelopment, so that cotton mills in Massachusetts get turned into condominiums.
We’re running out of both space and time right now. That’s one of the big problems of contemporary capitalism.
What do mainstream economists miss about all of this?
They hate contradictions. It doesn’t fit with their world view. The economists love to confront what they call problems, and problems have solutions. Contradictions don’t. They exist with you all the time, and therefore you have to manage them.
They get heightened into what Marx called ‘absolute contradictions’. How do economists deal with the fact that in the crisis of the 1930s or the 1970s or more recently, surplus capital and surplus labour sit side by side, and nobody seems to have a clue as to how to put them back together so that they can work for socially productive purposes?
Keynes tried to do something about this. But by and large, economists have no idea how to deal with these contradictions. Whereas Marx is saying that this contradiction is in the nature of capital accumulation. And this contradiction then produces these crises periodically, which claim lives and create misery.
In terms of that contradiction, you describe in your book ‘surplus capital and surplus labour existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.’ How has capitalism attempted to resolve this?
The response to the 2007–8 crisis was to, in most of the world – except China – double down into a neoliberal austerity politics. Which made things worse. Since then, we’ve had more cuts. It hasn’t worked very well. Slowly, unemployment has come down in the United States, but of course it’s gone shooting up in places like Brazil and Argentina.
The neoliberal argument had a lot of legitimacy in the 1980s and 1990s as being liberatory in some way. But nobody believes that anymore. Everybody realises it’s a con job in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
But now we’re seeing the emergence of an ethno-nationalist protectionism-autarky, which is a different model. That doesn’t sit very well with neoliberal ideals. We could be headed into something which is much less pleasant than neoliberalism, the division of the world into warring and protectionist factions who are fighting each other over trade and everything else.
The argument of somebody like Steve Bannon is that we need to protect the working people of America from competition in the job market by limiting immigration. Instead of blaming capital, you blame the immigrants. The second thing is to say, we can also get support from that population by putting up tariffs and blaming Chinese competition. In effect, you’ve got a right-wing politics that is gathering a great deal of support by being anti-immigrant and anti-offshoring.
You’re well known for your scholarly work, but you’re perhaps known better as a teacher of Marx. Why do you think it’s important for leftists outside of the academy to engage with Marx’s work?
When you’re involved in political action and activism, you’ve usually got some very specific target. Let’s say, lead paint poisoning in the inner city. You’re organising around what to do about the fact that 20 percent of the kids in inner-city Baltimore suffer from lead paint poisoning. You’re involved in a legal battle, and in fighting with landlord lobbies and with all kinds of opponents. Most people I know who are involved in activist forms of that kind are so consumed with the details of what they’re doing that they often forget where they are in the overall picture – of the struggles in a city, let alone in the world.
Often you find that people need assistance from outside. That lead paint thing is much easier to handle if you’ve got all of the people who are involved in the educational system, who see kids in schools with problems with lead paint poisoning. You start to build alliances. And the more alliances you can build, the more powerful your movement could be.
I try not to lecture people about what they should think, but try to create a framework of thinking, so that people can see where they are in the totality of complicated relationships that make up contemporary society. Then people can form alliances around the issues they’re concerned with, and, at the same time, mobilise their own powers to help other people in their alliances.
I’m into building alliances. In order to build alliances, you have to have a picture of the totality of a capitalist society. To the degree that you can get some of that from studying Marx, I think that it’s helpful.
‘World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.’ Karl Marx, April 17th, 1871
The 18th March 2018 marks the 147th anniversary of the start of the Paris Commune. For the workers and oppressed of the world this was probably the most significant event of the 19th century. During the short 72 days of its existence it demonstrated that once workers are united in a common goal they can quickly change their lives for the better. At the same time the murderous manner in which it was suppressed showed that the ruling class will stop at nothing to prevent the workers from taking control of their own lives.
What was the spark that caused this prairie fire?
Before it got light on the morning of 18th March 1871 washer-women, on their way to work, came across a group of soldiers trying to steal some of the artillery pieces which the local National Guard had secured in working class districts once the Prussians had entered Paris. After a long siege the national government had acquiesced to Prussian demands that the National Guard be disarmed and this group of, reluctant, soldiers were given the task to do so before the general population was awake.
Feelings were running high as those in the working class districts of the capital were prepared to hold out against the invaders and this attempt to take away the guns they had paid for was seen as the last straw. The alarm went up. Angry crowds started to gather. A couple of the state’s generals were shot and things moved quickly.
What in other circumstances might have just have been a riot became one of the most significant political events of the 19th century, where working people not only opposed the existing regime but decided to replace it with a structure that benefited the working class and not just the rich. This structure became known as the Paris Commune.
The Communards hadn’t planned in advance what to do and didn’t really understand how they were entering into brand new territory and the majority of those involved in the Commune wouldn’t have known the exact nature of the progressive organisation they were building – or of it’s possible long-term effects.
Mao stated in August 1927, 56 years after the Commune, that ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ (Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II, pp. 224-225) and the spark for the Commune was the attempt by the bourgeois Thiers government to disarm the workers. Due to the siege of Paris by the Prussians many workers in the National Guard actually knew how to use what they had and this combination of armed workers with dangerous ideas made them a threat to the very existence of the bourgeois, capitalist state.
And how did they respond?
There had been political tension in Paris since the end of January when the bourgeois government capitulated to the Prussians and had allowed them to enter the city. The petty-bourgeois elements of the National Guard dissolved away and the Central Committee of the National Guard was staunchly proletarian. This meant there was a structure that was able to step into the vacuum created on that tumultuous day in March – what they did next took the Parisian workers into the unknown.
18th March – Rue Basfroi
By the evening of the 18th the National Guard was in control of key points in the city and had occupied the Town Hall (the Hôtel de Ville), where the Red Flag was hoisted. The next day, the 19th, elections for the Commune were announced for March 26th. On March 28th the Paris Commune was officially proclaimed.
However, instead of following the tried (and failed) road of parliamentary cretinism the Commune started to create a new organisation which had as its central tenet the interests of the working class. For such temerity, for such audacity they were to be severely punished within less than 70 days.
I can do no better than quote the words of the great theoreticians of Marxism for their analysis of the experience of the Commune, some thoughts written within days of the destruction of the first example of workers taking power into their own hands.
The Communards ditched the old reverence to the established electoral order;
‘From the very outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment.’ Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, p15
‘ … the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw out the entire lumber of the state.’ Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, p17
‘… the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p66
However, the Paris Commune saw the significance of their new organisation as something that would have to extend beyond the Paris city limits.
‘In a rough sketch of national organization which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short-term of service.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p71
It also bore the seeds of longer term ambitions and had international implications.
‘It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’ Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, p74
What did the Commune achieve – if only for a short time?
On March 30th the first decree of the Commune concerned the suppression of a standing army and an armed people, the National Guard, would be the only army – all citizens capable of bearing arms to be enrolled, both men and women.
Your Commune has been established!
Your Commune has been established.
The vote of March 26 has sanctioned the victorious revolution.
A craven aggressive power had seized you by the throat; in your self-defence you have driven beyond your walls the government that sought to dishonour you by imposing a king.
Today, the criminals whom you had not even thought to prosecute, abuse your magnanimity in organizing a centre of monarchical conspiracy at the very gates of the city. They invoke civil war, they seek to corrupt; they accept every complicity; they have even dared to beg for foreign support.
We summon these abominable intrigues to the judgement of France and the world.
We have just given you instructions which defy all comparisons.
Your are masters of your destiny. Strengthened by your support, the representatives that you have designated will undertake to repair the disasters brought about by the defiant power. The industry that has been compromised, the labour that has been suspended, and the commercial transactions that have been paralysed will all receive the most vigorous impetus.
Today, the awaited decision on rents;
Tomorrow, that on loans;
All public services re-established and simplified;
The National Guard, henceforth the only armed force in the city, reorganized without delay;
Such will be our first acts.
The elected representatives of the people only ask, to ensure the triumph of the Republic, that you give them your support and confidence.
They will do their duty.
Hotel-de-Ville of Paris March 29th 1871 The Paris Commune
Among the other decrees (which were enacted with greater or less success with the time constraints) were;
rents for dwellings abolished
articles that had been pawned declared not for sale
the wage differentials between men and women were abolished
officials would not get any more than ‘workingmen’s wages’
the church was separated from the state
church property was to be national property
religious iconography was to be removed from schools
the guillotine to be publicly burnt, as a symbol of the old regime
Burning the Guillotine in front of Voltaire’s statue
night work for bakers was abolished
planned the reopening of factories closed by owners and these to be run on a collective basis
razed the Chapel of Atonement – built to expiate the execution of Louis XVI
Paradoxically, in a city on a war footing, besieged by hostile forces, both national and international, this all resulted in a situation where the streets of Paris were safer than they had been for decades – without a police force.
Did the Commune make any mistakes?
Of course. Many. Some forced due to the circumstances, some because someone, for some reason, made the wrong decision. Perhaps some mistakes could have been foreseen and lack of experience, lack of knowledge or even stupidity got in the way. And even in a revolutionary situation there will always be those traitors who hide themselves behind revolutionary rhetoric and seek to undermine the movement to benefit of their traditional ‘masters’.
The Commune wasn’t planned, it evolved. It wasn’t the result of a group of revolutionaries working out how best to change society. At the time of the Commune most revolutionaries in Europe were following the Blanqui model of a small group of insurrectionists creating a situation where the rest of the population would follow. (This failed approach was resurrected by Che Guevara in the 1960s under the name of the ‘foco’ theory.) The Commune was different. It was a period when thinking men and women had taken state power and they were trying to work out how to go forward – against all the odds.
And during all this they were under military attack, both from the reactionary bourgeois forces of Thiers and the presence of the Prussian occupying force.
The majority of them were workers who had never been in a position of making decisions about the rest of their community in their lives. They weren’t the trained sycophants and lackeys the ruling class accumulates around themselves. If they had not made mistakes that would have been a surprise.
Some of their mistakes were strategic, some tactical. They had no over-arching theory to guide them. The theory that would lead to a successful revolution of the oppressed and the exploited, Marxism, was in the process of being formed by its originators.
In 1927 Chairman Mao wrote;
‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’ Mao Tse-tung, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 28.
He had learnt from past experience, in China’s failed insurrections and revolutions, the success of the October Revolution in Russia and the failure of the Commune in Paris in 1871. Chairman Mao learnt from the past but the Paris Commune was the present for the Communards, for the Parisians. They had no experience to guide them. The were true trail-blazers and so mistakes were inevitable.
With hindsight it’s always easy to criticise what people did in the past.
But some of their mistakes need reiteration, not least to remind future revolutionaries of some of the matters they have to consider.
The Central Committee of the National Guard (the precursor of the Commune) gave the reactionary forces almost ten days grace after the thwarted seizure of the guns on Montmartre. This allowed reaction to organise and allowed them to create chaos within the centre of Paris. When you have power you must use it – reaction never rests.
The Central Committee of the National Guard was too magnanimous during this period and allowed a violent demonstration by reactionary forces to take place. Marx criticised ‘this magnanimity of the armed working men’ (The Civil War in France, p60). Reaction is the viper in the nest – it has to be crushed.
This lesson was well learnt by future revolutionaries after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. If you can criticise Comrades Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin and ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky for some of their actions (but not many) it will not be due to their ‘magnanimity’.
‘It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush its resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat is that it did not do this with sufficient determination. But the organ of suppression is now the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p50
They didn’t take over the banks. How this would have worked in practice is difficult to say, especially as they had such a short time in control, but if the Commune had lasted longer then this would have become a very serious matter. Better to take them over and not have an impact than not and then suffer the consequences down the line. Something else the Soviets learnt.
Reactionary parties were allowed to stand in the elections for the Commune on 26th March. This can be a difficult one. There will be the argument that not everyone supports the new order and that opposition forces should be given an opportunity to have their say. The problem is that they have been having their say for thousands of years and still the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – that’s the case in the 21st century world and was definitely the case in 1871 Paris.
The slaughter during the last week of May 1871 was a direct consequence of the innocence, naiveté and magnanimity of the Parisian working class. They suffered for their mistakes – how many more others are to suffer because future generations haven’t learnt the lessons of the past – and of the Paris Commune in particular?
But whatever the failings of the Commune it was not given the time to sort out its shortcomings or mistakes.
What can we still learn from The Commune?
The biggest ‘crime’ of the Communards was that they wanted to plan things for and by themselves and did not choose to be limited by the established bourgeois state. Play the game by their rules and you’ll get a pat on the head. Play another game which doesn’t include them and they will (attempt to) destroy you. That’s what happened in May 1871.
In ‘theory’ revolutions of the oppressed and exploited should be an easy matter. After all we outnumber the ruling class (in whatever country, in whatever social situation – beit slavery, feudalism or capitalism) by factors of hundreds of thousands in some instances. But it doesn’t work that way.
How many slave revolts can people cite during the whole of the Roman Republic and Empire – a period of something like 2,000 years? Spartacus, yes. And?
How many slave revolts can people cite in the 300/400 period of slavery in the United States of America? Nat Turner (possibly but not guaranteed – and that only lasted less than two days). And?
However dire their existence and conditions most people cling to life and misery rather than freedom and dignity. Many individuals in the past have chosen the latter but history doesn’t always record those brave men and women as the ‘prize’ for their independence was death. There are a few episodes in history where the oppressed and exploited have come together to change their situation. In a British context I will cite the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the English Revolution of 1640.
Fourteenth century peasants would have normally lived and died within sight of their home, only leaving it if they were conscripted into some war for a tribal warlord (as that was basically what the monarchy was at that time) to establish his (and sometime her) right to rule them. The Rebellion, led by Wat Tyler, therefore, was something that came out of the blue, something which would have left most peasants thinking they were in some sort of dream.
When some of them went to London and their leader had a meeting with the King they were probably even more bemused. Then terrified as they were once again ‘put in their place’. They followed their charismatic leader to the capital who, riding a horse (what peasant rode a horse in 1381?), was set to meet the child monarch. Once out of his environment Tyler was treacherously stabbed in the back by the Sheriff of London. The rebellion melted quicker than summer snow.
(Traditionally, ‘commoners’ – i.e., anyone not of Royal birth – in Britain walk away backwards from a meeting with the monarch. This is interpreted as a sign of respect but it comes from the fact that, in the past, no one would trust a King/Queen as they were as likely to stab you in the back as look at you. That’s a lesson Wat Tyler learnt too late and which everyone should remember. Never literally, or figuratively, turn your back on the oppressor.)
Just about 260 years later there was another revolt against a British monarch. Although there were enough grievances amongst the population this particular revolt was led, and instigated, by the nascent bourgeoisie who had their own agenda but needed the anger of the people to achieve their aims – they also needed young, working class men to fight in their war. After nine years of war, where something like 11% of the male population lost their lives, the war criminal Charles Stuart had his divine head separated from his less than divine body.
The reason I mention these two events is to try to suggest how rare are those episodes in history where the oppressed and exploited actually get to a stage of challenging the fundamentals of power. They will always riot (especially in summer, riots rarely happen in the winter, although revolutions often do), they will always go on strike, they will always gripe and make things awkward for the ruling class, but they rarely challenge the class rule.
In 1381 the peasants trusted the monarchy and their trust was thrown back at them and they returned to their misery. In 1640 the few revolutionaries that did exist in Britain thought they could advance their ideas and practices (Gerrard Winstanley, for example, with the Digger Movement) but once the monarchy had been tamed the bourgeoisie had no need of certain sections of the army and used the forelock-tuggers to destroy progress – another lesson that we should learn, not all the oppressed and exploited will side with us against the oppressors and exploiters and are quite happy to destroy their own people.
But Marx saw something different with the working class revolt in Paris. There had been revolutions in France in 1789, 1830 and 1848 but they had been subverted for the benefit of the ruling class, if not initially, eventually. The Paris Commune was something qualitatively different.
‘In September 1870, Marx called the insurrection an act of desperate folly. But, when the masses rose, Marx wanted to march with them, to learn with them in the process of the struggle, and not to give them bureaucratic admonitions. He realised that to attempt in advance to calculate the chances with complete accuracy would be quackery or hopeless pedantry. What he valued above every thing else was that the working class heroically and self-sacrificingly took the initiative in making world history. Marx regarded world history from the standpoint of those who make it without being in a position to calculate the chances infallibly beforehand, and not from the standpoint of an intellectual philistine who moralises: “It was easy to foresee … they should not have taken up … “. VI Lenin, Selected Works, Vol 12, p111
For the first time the working class were fighting, consciously, for themselves. Not that they were necessarily conscious of all that they were doing. They moved the working class movement forwards by defending and promoting the interests of their class. Starting by defending their right to their armaments they decided they could promote those interests that had been denied them by the ruling class.
Serendipity (the washer women arriving at the time the government troops attempted to steal the artillery of the National Guard and those troops preferring to be mutinous rather than go against their class brothers and sisters) also had a role to play. Being in the right place at the right time even has a role in social advancement.
…. and what has already been learnt.
Karl Marx had always closely followed events in Europe and especially what was happening in France with the country at war with Prussia. With the ignominious defeat of the French – and the subsequent declaration of the unification of Germany, on 18th January 1871, which took place in the ‘occupied’ Palace of Versailles in the humiliated France – Marx knew that the situation in Europe was about to change as the new, militaristic and powerful economic power of the new country would have to come into conflict with the most dominant economic power, Britain. It wasn’t a matter of if a war between these two powers would occur, only when. The world was too small for two such ambitious, imperialist powers to exist side by side.
Both Marx and Engels had also very closely followed and studied the revolutionary workers movements in France and Germany (especially) but other movements in Eastern Europe as well. Engels actually fought on the barricades in the Baden, Prussia, during the 1848 Revolution – even writing articles on military tactics which were published in the Manchester Guardian.
They knew that Paris was a seething cauldron of proletarian discontent but that were in a perilous position to take on the combined might of the French state – which had the tacit support of the Prussian occupiers. Although he recommended caution Marx was fully behind the Parisian workers when they were forced to either fight or capitulate after the incident of the attempted theft of the artillery of the National Guard by the reactionary government of Thiers.
He followed matters as closely as possible and, in fact, the first draft of The Civil War in France was written before the Commune was crushed in the blood soaked week at the end of May, 1871.
Apart from that seminal work Marx made an extremely important, and often ‘forgotten’ or ignored, annotation to The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. In the 1872 Preface to the German edition of the book one sentence is of special significance:
‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p2.
The reason this short sentence is frequently overlooked is because this had the effect of challenging those who believed that a workers’ revolution could succeed peacefully and through bourgeois, parliamentary means – the ideas that have been shown countless times in the almost 150 years of the Commune to be a fallacy but which are still promulgated by modern-day Social Democrats.
Lenin also learnt from the organisation structure of the Commune and later, after the October Revolution of 1917, the Soviets were introduced with many of the attributes of proletarian democracy that had existed in Paris for a couple of months in the spring of 19871.
‘The way out of parliamentarianism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the electoral principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops to “working” bodies. “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.” VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p55
Lenin believed in elections and representation but of a new kind that didn’t trap the workers who were attempting to build Socialism into the stultifying trap of parliamentary cretinism.
‘We cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions, but we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarism,’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p56
For the first time ever the proletariat had a model which worked – in all sorts of ways – if only for a short time.
‘The Commune is the form “at last discovered” by the proletarian revolution, under which the economic emancipation of labour can take place…. [It] is the first attempt of a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ….. by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p66
Although Marx had based his theories of scientific socialism on the experiences of the workers’ and peasants’ struggles in the past he was more than willing to change his approach if new experience told a new story or gave a better example of how to do things in the future.
‘Marx did not indulge in utopias; he expected the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question as to what specific forms this organization of the proletariat as the ruling class will assume and as to the exact manner in which this organization will be combined with the most complete, most consistent “winning of the battle of democracy.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p48
All great revolutionary thinkers learn from great events – from both their success and failures. It can’t be otherwise and this is why both Marx and Engels constantly referred to the Commune in their writings after 1871. When Lenin was trying to make sense of the Russian situation he found inspiration in the events in Paris – which were taking place at the very time he was celebrating his first birthday 3,249 kilometres away in Simbirsk, Russia.
Lenin also liked the way the Communards organised themselves, in a new way and very different from the hierarchical structure that characterises capitalist states.
‘There can be no thought of abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely. That is utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will permit to abolish gradually all bureaucracy – this is not utopia, this is the experience of the Commune, this is the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p57
The proletarian dictatorship replaces the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This turns the world upside down and now instead of subordination to a monarchy, an aristocracy or an industrial or financial bourgeoisie society would now be under the control of the armed working class.
‘We are not utopians, we do not indulge in “dreams” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination; these anarchist dreams, based upon a lack of understanding of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and “foremen and bookkeepers.” But the subordination must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and toiling people, i.e., to the proletariat.’ VI Lenin, The State and Revolution, p58
It was the Commune, without an organised, revolutionary Party leadership, that came up with the form of the new State that Marx had been looking for. It was workers themselves, and not ideologues, who realised what was needed to liberate themselves from oppression and exploitation.
They were not a movement as Lenin wrote about 31 years later; ‘Without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement.’ (VI Lenin, What is to be Done? – Burning questions of our movement, p28), but without the Paris Commune Lenin might not have come up with this important conclusion.
However the lack of organisation was one of the contributory factors in the defeat of the Paris Commune. Not the only factor, as they had so many things going against them, but divisions based upon different political interests didn’t help in the struggle against the reactionaries. Future revolutionaries who have not learnt that lesson will end up suffering the same fate.
Women and the Paris Commune
Women had played a role in previous revolutions in France but the part they played was not recorded in a consistent manner and is often overlooked. Their role in the French Revolution (1789-1799) is often caricatured with harridans knitting at the public executions of the aristocracy but this is merely promoted to deny what actually was taking place – even when against the odds.
The Women’s March on Versailles, in October 1789, forced the royal court back to Paris – and was the virtual beginning of the end for this episode of the Bourbon’s. The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women agitated for full citizenship for women – their position in society being vague (to say the least) when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published in August 1789.
Meetings of the Patriotic Women’s Clubs were held in churches – something that was copied in many of its aspects during the Commune.
Women’s Club – 1793
Revolutionary women also played a major role in the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat, the radical writer who produced the periodical ‘Friend of the People’, who was assassinated by a counter-revolutionary woman (not everyone who should be is always a revolutionary) in July 1793. They carried the bath tub in which he had been murdered – which even I think is a strange way of playing tribute.
Women were also very much involved in demonstrations against the increase of the price of basic foods and were prepared to riot when their demands were not met.
However, as the revolution was hijacked and moved to the right organised women’s groups were permanently shut out of the French Revolution after October 30, 1793.
So there was a tradition of women fighting for their freedom in uprisings and revolutions in France but in the Paris Commune of 1871 it (like the workers’ movement in general) took a qualitative leap.
It should be remembered that women were the ones who really started the revolution in March 1871 when they prevented the theft of the workers’ armaments and sounded the alarm which woke Paris to the theft and to a new dawn in so many ways.
They revived the clubs using, as in the 1790s, the same churches from where the clergy had been evicted following the decree on religion.
‘The sacred revolt of the poor, the exploited and the oppressed’
Although there are examples of women taking up arms in the 1790s this was more prevalent in the Paris Commune, especially so when the reactionary state machine started its slaughter of all those who had dared to challenge state power at the end of May 1871. Not only fighting side by side with their male comrades on the barricades but also causing mayhem by setting alight and destroying many buildings in the centre of the city. These ‘petroleuses’ (women incendiaries) were especially vilified by the reaction for the contempt they held for bourgeois property.
‘A girl soldier’
One renowned woman of this group of female revolutionaries was Louise Michel. Louise was an anarchist – and this will probably be the only time where an anarchist will be lauded on this blog – but was steadfast in the face of the threat of death once the Commune had been destroyed. She showed her contempt for the court at her trial – which took place as the fires in the city were still smouldering.
The reaction wanted contrition and regret, what they got was defiance and hatred;
‘You must cut me off from society! You have been told to do so, well, the Public Prosecutor is right! Since it seems that every heart that beats for liberty has the right only to a lump of lead, I demand my share! If you let me live, I shall not cease calling for vengeance, and I shall denounce to the vengeance of my brothers the murderers of the Commission of Pardons! … If you are not cowards kill me!
They were cowards and she was sentenced to, first, imprisonment in Paris and then deportation to the French colony of New Caledonia (off the eastern coast of Australia), returning to Paris when the surviving Communards were given an amnesty.
She wrote a poem in honour of her fellow Communard and friend, Théophile Ferré, the Blanquist Delegate to the Police, who refused to recognize a military court’s right to judge him after the defeat of the Commune and was sentenced to death and executed.
The Red Carnation
If one day to the cold cemetery I were to go, brothers, cast on your sister, like a final hope, some red carnations in bloom.
In the final days of the empire, as the people awoke, red carnation, it was your smile that told us all was reborn.
And now, go blossom in the shade of dark and drear prisons, go blossom near the sombre captive, and tell him we love him.
Tell him that in these changing times everything belongs to the future; that the victor with his pallid brow can die as easily as the vanquished.
She remained active in revolutionary politics (if anarchist politics can be called ‘revolutionary’) until her death in 1905 – the year of the revolutionary events in Russia which were to lead to the October Revolution of 1917.
In 2008 a film was released, ‘Louise-Michel’, directed by Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, where female workers made redundant from a textile factory decide to pool their redundancy payments to hire a hit man to eliminate the boss. I’m sure Louise would have approved
Long Live the memory of The Paris Commune!
Eternal glory to the Parisian Martyrs of the Working Class!
If the only thing I achieve with this post is to stimulate an interest in this oft forgotten event in the 19th century it would have been worthwhile. When I say ‘forgotten’ I’m not saying that it has been forgotten by the world revolutionary movement. The Paris Commune sits in the pantheon of our revolutionary past.
However, not unsurprisingly, it is ignored in general history education in – at least – schools in the UK. The war between France and Prussia will be taught as this led to the creation of the German State which, ultimately, led to the clash between the European imperialist powers and the ‘First World War’ – called the ‘Great War’ by the murderous British imperialists.
That killing fields of the young working class and peasantry between 1914 and 1919 did have a positive result – the October Revolution of 1917. VI Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party that initiated that revolution learnt from the positive and negative aspects of the valiant struggle of the Parisian workers in 1871.
So the ‘forgotten’ event of 1871 has had a direct effect upon the society in which we live today, coming towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Capitalism and imperialist of the Anglo-Saxon world has never forgiven, and will never forgive, the Russian workers for their audacity to challenge capitalist rule and succeeded in the construction of a Socialist society for, an unfortunately short period of 39 years.
That 39 years, as opposed to 72 days, would not have been possible but for the determination, imagination and sacrifice of the Parisian proletariat from March to May 1871.