By Siobhan Brown
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Why Read The Civil War in France?

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
The Paris Commune of 1871 was the result of the world's first working class revolution. It survived for only two months but it was the most democratic and liberating government the world had seen up till that point. It offered a glimpse of a model of democracy that goes beyond the limited parliamentary democracy which is the best we can expect under capitalism.
Issue 381

Marx did not pluck a theory of what real democracy would look like from thin air – he learnt it from the concrete example of the Paris Commune. The Civil War in France, a pamphlet based on speeches to the First International, was written by Marx in 1871. It is both an impressive, succinct history of the Paris Commune and a powerful polemic against capitalism.

In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris barraged and besieged. The gap between rich and poor widened alarmingly. The Commune arose from a disgust at a bourgeois government that had overthrown the empire of Napoleon III but had delivered nothing for workers or the poor – the republican values of “liberty, equality and fraternity” had not been met for the majority of French people. The social make up of Paris at the time included a growing working class and mass unemployment. Around 60 percent of Parisians couldn’t even afford to pay for their own funerals.

The Commune achieved more in 72 days than most reformist governments do in years of office. Thousands were pulled out of poverty. The Commune abolished conscription. There were huge gains for women who were granted the right to divorce on demand and public canteens were set up.

But as well as these gains, Marx recognised that the Commune represented a new form of democracy – a democracy that belonged to workers. He said that this was a “working class government… the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.

The Paris Commune established radical democratic principles. All public officials were elected and subject to recall. They were to be paid no more than 6,000 francs, an average workers’ wage, so there was no interest in misrepresentation or corruption. Marx writes that “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”. The Paris Commune was a living example of what Marx meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat – not a new tyranny over the workers, but the collective democratic rule of workers over their exploiters. In the Commune it was workers who held the reins of political and social power.

But, of course, the lessons of the Commune played a crucial role in the development of Marx’s theory of the state. It was these that Lenin would later draw on in State and Revolution to argue for a second workers’ revolution to take power in the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The communards underestimated the power and determination of the ruling class to do all it could to claw power back. They failed to recognise the danger represented by the continued existence of the old state machine outside Paris.

While the Commune was improving the lives of ordinary people, outside of Paris Adolphe Thiers was mobilising troops to crush the Commune and its gains. He did this with the help of the Prussian leader Bismarck – the rulers of the two nations, previously at war, shared the crushing of the Commune. Between 10,000 and 50,000 workers were killed as Paris fell from workers’ control.

The Civil War in France is a seminal book for two reasons. It shows both the huge potential and also terrible risks that revolutionaries can face. If workers do not smash the old state they allow the old regime to take power back. Marx wrote of it, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune… that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

But the enduring lesson is that workers can take power and change society. Revolutionaries ever since the writing of The Civil War in France have drawn both lessons and inspiration from Marx’s account of the Paris Commune.

Engels, in a preface to a twentieth anniversary edition of the pamphlet, recognised the fear that the bourgeoisie feel at the working class taking power. He says, “The social democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: dictatorship of the proletariat. Well and good gentlemen, do you want to know what this looks like? Look at the Paris Commune.”

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