Socialist Worker

The Civil War in France: When workers took power in Paris

In the final part of our series Marieke Mueller shows how The Paris Commune confirmed Marx’s belief that a new society was possible

Issue No. 2223

Karl Marx did not just analyse capitalism, he also asked how it would be possible to create an entirely different kind of society.

In The Communist Manifesto Marx writes that the working class, which produces the wealth in society, has the power to bring about change.

A socialist society had to emerge from revolutionary action by the working class.

The idea that working class people can take over society and democratically organise it according to human need and not profit was proven by events in Paris on 18 March 1871.

Marx deals with this and the aftermath in his pamphlet The Civil War in France.

The Parisian working class in 1871 had suffered war, famine and siege by the Prussian army.

As France’s Republican government became increasingly discredited, workers got organised. The ruling class wanted to make ordinary people pay for the disaster.

The obstacle for them was Paris and its militant workers organised in the National Guard.

“Paris armed was the Revolution armed”, says Marx. On 18 March the Republican government tried to seize the cannons of the Montmartre area of Paris.

Workers defended themselves and soldiers refused to shoot them.

After this uprising, the government fled from the city and Paris was left to the working class.

The Paris Commune—the first ever workers’ government—began. It would end just two months later, in a bloodbath of the workers of Paris.

In its short existence the Commune introduced major political and social changes.

Its governing body consisted of workers and their representatives, who received no more than an average working class wage and were instantly recallable.

The Commune abolished night work in bakeries. All abandoned factories were to be appropriated by workers. It closed down pawn shops.

But, as Marx says, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence”—it was a working class government. Many of its initiatives came from workers’ organisations.

Marx argued the Commune was a radical and democratic product of working class self-organisation.

This remains an important intervention in a debate about the meaning of the Commune.

Marx does not write an academic analysis—he learns from the concrete experience of the struggle. The Commune was a unique development, even for Marx.

But it had proved him correct in his belief that the working class could overthrow their rulers and run society themselves.

He described it as “the political form discovered at last under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”.

Despite this, the Commune left many areas of the capitalist state untouched. Marx therefore also drew important conclusions from its mistakes.

The Commune did not press home its advantages at the beginning of its life.

The National Guard did not challenge the Republican army and it didn’t confront the centralised state power.

It also kept many of the old structures, such as the French central bank.

This made it clear to Marx that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.

The organs of the capitalist state are there to guarantee the continuing exploitation of workers. For instance, it was the army of the Republican state that smashed the Commune.

The working class therefore has to abolish all capitalist structures.

The Civil War in France was written shortly after the Paris Commune fell in May 1871. But its lessons remain vital for us today.

When we are told that there is no alternative to the cuts, we need to remember that there is nothing natural about them.

We have the power to decide whether we want to fund war or the NHS.

But, wherever mass mobilisations take place, the question of the state is just as present as it was in 1871.

Having learnt from events like the Commune, Marx, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and others wrote that the working class has to create its own, radically democratic, forms of organisation to replace those of capitalism.

This theory remains central to the fight for a world without exploitation, poverty and war.

The Civil War in France is included in The First International and After: Marx’s Political Writings Volume 3, which has just been reprinted by Verso. Phone Bookmarks bookshop on 020 7637 1848 or go to

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