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A savage lesson in working-class power

Marx’s Civil War In France drew from the crushing of the Commune vital lessons for revolutionary advance, says ALEX GORDON

This Friday, November 7, Marx Memorial Library hosts our final lecture commemorating 150 years since the founding of the International Working Men's Association.

Jonathan White will speak on Marx's brilliant vindication of the 1871 Paris Commune and his final publication for the IWMA, The Civil War In France.

In La Semaine Sanglante ('The Bloody Week') of May 21, 1871, a French army was humiliated but not disarmed by victorious Prussia in order to allow French soldiers - not Prussians - to storm Paris, crush the Commune and drown the city in blood.

When fighting ended on May 28, the French army had massacred between 20,000 and 30,000 (of an urban population of two million according to the 1869 census) mainly working-class Parisian men, women and children in an orgy of violence.

The slaughter shocked even moderate, respectable bourgeois opinion in Britain and the US.

The London Times correspondent reported that Versailles troops had been "shooting, bayonetting, ripping up prisoners, women and children during the last six days. So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history."

Within days Marx delivered an address to the IWMA published as the Civil War in France.

It sold 8,000 copies in short order because it provided working men and women with a brilliant account of the events in France, a piercing analysis and a furious and outraged condemnation of the violent bourgeois counter-revolution.

But as Jonathan White points out The Civil War in France is also a critical advance in the science of Marxism as the revolutionary consciousness of the working class.

The Paris Commune lasted under three months, yet in The Civil War in France, Marx argued it was an event of epochal significance for the working class, which enabled him to develop the revolutionary science we now call Marxism.

Firstly, as Jonathan argues, the events of The Civil War in France permitted Marx to influence the development of longer-term working-class political strategy.

With the appearance of the Commune, the class struggle reached a new phase of clarity, simplicity and savagery:

"When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain workmen for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their 'natural superiors' under circumstances of unexampled difficulty the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hotel de Ville."

Marx understood that the French bourgeoisie was bankrupt if not financially, then historically.

A class that in the previous century laid claim to be the embodiment of progress, reason and enlightenment, now became animated principally by fear of the future development of the working class.

Such spasms of reactionary violence against the organised working class have occurred periodically since 1871 (Germany 1919, Spain 1936, Chile 1973 and today in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, for example) but never before.

Secondly, The Civil War in France is also a scientific analysis of the class nature of the Paris Commune as a model of working-class government.

Already by the time of Marx's address, the Commune had been subjected to a variety of interpretations by the political currents of the day, Proudhonist socialists, radical republicans and anarchists.

Marx defines it thus: "It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour."

Working people took direct political power as a rising class with the potential to build alliances with the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie against the capitalist class. But most importantly, La Commune was a government by and for the working class.

This is evident from the measures it took for the benefit of working people - regulation of working time, prohibition of employers levying fines on their workers and the appropriation of closed workshops and factories, abandoned by their capitalist owners who had fled the Commune, by associations of working people.

The Commune, in beginning the war against capitalist property and in starting the process of breaking up state power and reinvesting it in the people through a democratic political organisation of society, was beginning what Engels called the withering away of the state as part of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Those attending this lecture will be able to pay a visit afterwards to the very pub in Clerkenwell where surviving Communards who avoided transportation to French penal colonies by escaping to London met to keep the memory of the Commune alive.


Jonathan White will be speaking on Marx's Civil War In France, Friday at 7pm. All talks are free and open to members of the public and take place at Marx House, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1.

Alex Gordon is chairman of Marx Memorial Library & Workers' School



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