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The Character of the Commune

Karl Marx

The Civil War in France - First Draft

The centralized State machinery which, with its ubiquitous and complicated military, bureaucratic, clerical and judiciary organs, entoils (inmeshes) the living civil society like a boa constrictor, was first forged in the days of absolute monarchy as a weapon of nascent modern society in its struggle of emancipation from feudalism. The seignorial privileges of the medieval lords and cities and clergy were transformed into the attributes of a unitary State power, displacing the feudal dignitaries by salaried State functionaries, transferring the arms from medieval retainers of the landlords and the corporations of townish citizens to a standing army, substituting for the checkered (party-coloured) anarchy of conflicting medieval powers the regulated plan of a State power, with a systematic and hierarchic division of labour. The first French Revolution with its task to found national unity (to create a nation) had to break down all local, territorial, townish and provincial independence. It was, therefore, forced to develop, what absolute monarchy had commenced, the centralization and organization of State power, and to expand the circumference and the attributes of the State power, the number of its tools, its independence, and its supernaturalist sway of real society, which in fact took the place of the medieval supernaturalist heaven, with its saints. Every minor solitary interest engendered by the relations of social groups was separated from society itself, fixed and made independent of it and opposed to it in the form of State interest, administered by State priests with exactly determined hierarchical functions.

This parasitical [excrescence upon] civil society, pretending to be its ideal counterpart, grew to its full development under the sway of the first Bonaparte. The Restoration and the Monarchy of July added nothing to it but a greater division of labour, growing at the same measure in which the division of labour within civil society created new groups of interest, and, therefore, new material for State action. In their struggle against the Revolution of 1848, the Parliamentary Republic of France and the governments of all continental Europe, were forced to strengthen, with their measures of repression against the popular movement, the means of action and the centralization of that governmental power. All revolutions thus only perfected the State machinery instead of throwing off this deadening incubus. The fractions and parties of the ruling classes which alternately struggled for supremacy, considered the occupancy (control) (seizure) and the direction of this immense machinery of government as the main booty of the victor. It centred in the creation of immense standing armies, a host of State vermin, and huge national debts. During the time of the absolute monarchy it was a means of the struggle of modern society against feudalism, crowned by the French Revolution, and under the first Bonaparte it served not only to subjugate the Revolution and annihilate all popular liberties, it was an instrument of the French Revolution to strike abroad, to create for France on the Continent instead of feudal monarchies more or less States after the image of France. Under the Restoration and the Monarchy of July it became not only [a] means of the forcible class domination of the middle class, and [read but] a means of adding to the direct economic exploitation a second exploitation of the people by assuring to their [i.e., the middle class] families all the rich places of the State household. During the time of the revolutionary struggle of 1848 at last it served as a means of annihilating that Revolution and all aspirations at the emancipation of the popular masses. But the State parasite received only its last development during the Second Empire. The governmental power with its standing army, its all directing bureaucracy, its stultifying clergy and its servile tribunal hierarchy had grown so independent of society itself, that a grotesquely mediocre adventurer with a hungry band of desperadoes behind him sufficed to wield it. It did no longer want the pretext of an armed Coalition of old Europe against the modern world founded by the Revolution of 1789. It appeared no longer as a means of class domination, subordinate to its parliamentary ministry or legislature. Humbling under its sway even the interests of the ruling classes, whose parliamentary show work it supplanted by self-elected Corps législatifs and self-paid senates, sanctioned in its absolute sway by universal suffrage, the acknowledged necessity for keeping up "order," that is the rule of the landowner and the capitalist over the producer, cloaking under the tatters of a masquerade of the past the orgies of the corruption of the present and the victory of the most parasite fraction, the financial swindler, the debauchery of all the reactionary influences of the past let loose - a pandemonium of infamies - the State power had received its last and supreme expression in the Second Empire. Apparently the final victory of this governmental power over society, it was in fact the orgy of all the corrupt elements of that society. To the eye of the uninitiated it appeared only as the victory of the Executive over the Legislative, of [read as] the final defeat of the form of class rule pretending to be the autocracy of society [by] its form pretending to be a superior power to society. But in fact it was only the last degraded and the only possible form of that class ruling, as humiliating to those classes themselves as to the working classes which they kept fettered by it.

The 4th of September was only the revindication of the République against the grotesque adventurer that had assassinated it. The true antithesis to the Empire itself - that is, to the State power, the centralized executive, of which the Second Empire was only the exhausting formula - was the Commune. This State power forms in fact the creation of the middle class, first [as] a means to break down feudalism, then [as] a means to crush the emancipatory aspirations of the producers, of the working class. All reactions and all revolutions had only served to transfer that organized power - that organized force of the slavery of labour - from one hand to the other, from one fraction of the ruling classes to the other. It had served the ruling classes as a means of subjugation and of pelf. It had sucked new forces from every new change. It had served as the instrument of breaking down every popular rise[v] and served it to crush the working classes after they had fought and been ordered to secure its transfer from one part of its oppressors to the others. This was, therefore, a revolution not against this or that, legitimate, constitutional, republican or imperialist form of State power. It was a revolution against the State itself, of this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life. It was not a revolution to transfer it from one fraction of the ruling classes to the other, but a revolution to break down this horrid machinery of class domination itself. It was not one of those dwarfish struggles between the executive and the parliamentary forms of class domination, but a revolt against both these forms, integrating each other, and of which the parliamentary form was only the deceitful bywork of the Executive. The Second Empire was the final form of this State usurpation. The Commune was its definite negation, and, therefore, the initiation of the Social Revolution of the 19th century. Whatever therefore its fate at Paris, it will make le tour du monde [a trip round the world]. It was at once acclaimed by the working class of Europe and the United States as the magic word of delivery. The glories and the antediluvian deeds of the Prussian conqueror seemed only hallucinations of a bygone past.

It was only the working class that could formulate by the word "Commune" and initiate by the fighting Commune of Paris - this new aspiration. Even the last expression of that State power in the Second Empire, although humbling for the pride of the ruling classes and casting to the winds their parliamentary pretensions of self-government, had been only the last possible form of their class rule. While politically dispossessing them, it was the orgy under which all the economic and social infamies of their régime got full sway. The middling bourgeoisie and the petty middle class were by their economical conditions of life excluded from initiating a new revolution and induced to follow in the track of the ruling classes or [to become] the followers of the working class. The peasants were the passive economical basis of the Second Empire, of that last triumph of a State separate of and independent from society. Only the proletarians, fired by a new social task to accomplish by them for all society, to do away with all classes and class rule, were the men to break the instrument of that class rule - the State, the centralized and organized governmental power usurping to be the master instead of the servant of society. In the active struggle against them by the ruling classes, supported by the passive adherence of the peasantry, the Second Empire, the last crowning at the same time as the most signal prostitution of the State - which had taken the place of the medieval Church - had been engendered. It had sprung into life against them. By them it was broken, not as a peculiar form of governmental (centralized) power, but as its most powerful expression, elaborated into seeming independence from society, and, therefore, also its most prostitute reality, covered by infamy from top to bottom, having centred in absolute corruption at home and absolute powerlessness abroad.

But this one form of class rule had only broken down to make the Executive, the governmental State machinery the great and single object of attack to the revolution.

Parliamentarism in France had come to an end. Its last term and fullest sway was the Parliamentary Republic from May 1848 to the coup d’état. The Empire that killed it, was its own creation. Under the Empire with its Corps législatif and its Senate - in this form it has been reproduced in the military monarchies of Prussia and Austria - it had been a mere farce, a mere bywork of despotism in its crudest form. Parliamentarism then was dead in France and the workmen’s revolution certainly was not to awaken it from this death.

The Commune - the reabsorption of the State power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of the organized force of their suppression - the political form of their social emancipation, instead of the artificial force (appropriated by their oppressors) (their own force opposed to and organized against them) of society wielded for their oppression by their enemies. The form was simple like all great things. The reaction of former revolutions - the time wanted for all historical developments, and in the past always lost in all revolutions, in the very days of popular triumph, whenever it had rendered its victorious arms, to be turned against itself - first by displacing the army by the National Guard.

"For the first time since the 4th September the Republic is liberated from the government of its enemies. ... [It gives] to the city a national militia that defends the citizens against the power (the government) instead of a permanent army that defends the government against the citizens."
(Proclamation of Central Committee of 22 March.)

(The people had only to organize this militia on a national scale, to have done away with the standing armies; [this is] the first economical condition sine qua [non ] for all social improvements, discarding at once this source of taxes and State debt, and this constant danger to government usurpation of class rule - of the regular class rule or an adventurer pretending to save all classes); at the same time the safest guarantee against foreign aggression and making in fact the costly military apparatus impossible in all other States; the emancipation of the peasant from the blood-tax and [from being] the most fertile source of all State taxation and State debts. Here [is] already the point in which the Commune is a luck for the peasant, the first word of his emancipation. With the "independent police" abolished, and its ruffians supplanted by servants of the Commune. The general suffrage, till now abused either for the parliamentary sanction of the Holy State Power, or a play in the hands of the ruling classes, only employed by the people to sanction (choose the instruments of) parliamentary class rule once in many years, [is] adapted to its real purposes, to choose by the Communes their own functionaries of administration and initiation. [Dispelled is] the delusion as if administration and political governing were mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste - State parasites, richly-paid sycophants and sinecurists in the higher posts, absorbing the intelligence of the masses and turning them against themselves in the lower places of the hierarchy. Doing away with the State hierarchy altogether and replacing the haughteous masters of the people into [read by] always removable servants, a mock responsibility by a real responsibility, as they act continuously under public supervision. Paid like skilled workmen, 12 pounds a month, the highest salary not exceeding £240 a year, a salary somewhat more than 1/5, according to a great scientific authority, Professor Huxley, to satisfy a clerk for the Metropolitan School Board. The whole sham of State mysteries and State pretensions was done away [with] by a Commune, mostly consisting of simple working men, organizing the defence of Paris, carrying war against the praetorians of Bonaparte, securing the approvisionnement [supply] of that immense town, filling all the posts hitherto divided between government, police, and prefecture, doing their work publicly, simply, under the most difficult and complicated circumstances, and doing it, as Milton did his Paradise Lost, for a few pounds, acting in bright daylight, with no pretensions to infallibility, not hiding itself behind circumlocution offices, not ashamed to confess blunders by correcting them. Making in one order the public functions - military, administrative, political - real workmen’s functions, instead of the hidden attributes of a trained caste; (keeping order in the turbulence of civil war and revolution) (initiating measures of general regeneration). Whatever the merits of the single measures of the Commune, its greatest measure was its own organization, extemporized with the foreign enemy at one door, and the class enemy at the other, proving by its life its vitality, confirming its thesis by its action. Its appearance was a victory over the victors of France. Captive Paris resumed by one bold spring the leadership of Europe, not depending on brute force, but by taking the lead of the social movement, by giving body to the aspirations of the working class of all countries.

With all the great towns organized into Communes after the model of Paris, no government could repress the movement by the surprise of sudden reaction. Even by this preparatory step the time of incubation, the guarantee of the movement, came. All France [would be] organized into self-working and self-governing Communes, the standing army replaced by the popular militias, the army of State parasites removed, the clerical hierarchy displaced by the schoolmaster, the State judge transformed into Communal organs, the suffrage for the national representation not a matter of sleight of hand for an all-powerful government but the deliberate expression of organized Communes, the State functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes.

Such is the Commune - the political form of the social emancipation, of the liberation of labour from the usurpations (slaveholding) of the monopolists of the means of labour, created by the labourers themselves or forming the gift of nature. As the State machinery and parliamentarism are not the real life of the ruling classes, but only the organized general organs of their dominion, the political guarantees and forms and expressions of the old order of things, so the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organized means of action. The Commune does not [do] away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive to [read for] the abolition of all classes and, therefore, of all classes [class rule] (because it does not represent a peculiar interest, it represents the liberation of "labour," that is the fundamental and natural condition of individual and social life which only by usurpation, fraud, and artificial contrivances can be shifted from the few upon the many), but it affords the rational medium in which that class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way. It could start violent reactions and as violent revolutions. It begins the emancipation of labour - its great goal - by doing away with the unproductive and mischievous work of the State parasites, by cutting away the springs which sacrifice an immense portion of the national produce to the feeding of the State monster on the one side, by doing, on the other, the real work of administration, local and national, for working men’s wages. It begins therefore with an immense saving, with economical reform as well as political transformation.

The Communal organization once firmly established on a national scale, the catastrophes it might still have to undergo, would be sporadic slaveholders’ insurrections, which, while for a moment interrupting the work of peaceful progress, would only accelerate the movement, by putting the sword into the hands of the Social Revolution.

The working class know that they have to pass through different phases of class struggle. They know that the superseding of the economical conditions of the slavery of labour by the conditions of free and associated labour can only be the progressive work of time (that economical transformation), that they require not only a change of distribution, but a new organization of production, or rather the delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organized labour (engendered by present industry), of [read from] the trammels of slavery, of [read from] their present class character, and their harmonious national and international co-ordination. They know that this work of regeneration will be again and again relented and impeded by the resistance of vested interests and class egotisms. They know that the present "spontaneous action of the natural laws of capital and landed property" can only be superseded by "the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labour" by a long process of development of new conditions, as was the "spontaneous action of the economic laws of slavery" and the "spontaneous action of the economical laws of serfdom." But they know at the same time that great strides may be [made] at once through the Communal form of political organization and that the time has come to begin that movement for themselves and mankind.

From "The Civil War in France - First Draft", Karl Marx, 1870.

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