Karl Marx’ thinking and works can really only be understood if it is considered in its entirety. For example, you cannot draw sound conclusions of Marx’ analysis of revolution simply by assessing his early works like “The German Ideology” and “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”. In this regard a proper conceptualization would require an enquiry into how his theoretical submissions in his early works developed when tested in practice. Marx understood and called for melding theory with practice as the ultimate test for theory. He saw the labor movement as the site for testing his theories. It is instructive to therefore see how the French Revolution  of 1848-49 and the Paris Commune of 1871 (the two revolutionary periods in Marx’ life) impacted on the evolution of his political thinking.

Of the two texts “The Communist Manifesto” and “The Civil War in France”, “The Civil War in France” is considered more important as it reflects Marx’s political maturity in respect of his theory of revolution. “The Communist Manifesto” which Marx wrote before the French Revolution is really more of a theoretical prediction of future revolutionary developments based on scientific historical research. “The Civil War in France” however was written after the class struggle there had produced a new system, the commune. But never in his wildest dreams did he or any other thinker ever visualize the commune as a possible state form. This new form of state had in fact developed despite the influence of “Blanquist conspiratorial theories” and “Proudhonist anti-statist anarchist ideas” of that time. The commune was conceptualized and developed directly and spontaneously from class struggle. It was created to respond to the people’s need for a new state form.

Marx himself regarded his most important contribution to be his identification of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as the agency and core mechanism for the transition to socialism. Hence it is not surprising that Marx looked to the Paris Commune (as the first workers government and dictatorship of the proletariat) for inspiration. He referred to it as “a new point of departure of world-historic importance,”

The main theoretical questions raised in “The Communist Manifesto” were answered by the Paris Commune including: What would a government of the dictatorship of the proletariat look like? How would it use state power to deal with the former oppressors as opposed to the oppressed so as to further socialism? How would the other classes that formed tactical alliances with the proletariat against the previous system respond to the new worker’s state? Why did previous revolutions fail?

V. I. Lenin in “In Memory Of The Commune” points out that in spite its rather short existence and of the unfavorable conditions giving rise to and establishing it, “the Commune managed to promulgate a few measures which sufficiently characterise its real significance and aims. The Commune did away with the standing army, that blind weapon in the hands of the ruling classes, and armed the whole people. It proclaimed the separation of church and state, abolished state payments to religious bodies (i.e., state salaries for priests), made popular education purely secular, and in this way struck a severe blow at the gendarmes in cassocks. In the purely social sphere the Commune accomplished very little, but this little nevertheless clearly reveals its character as a popular, workers’ government. Night-work in bakeries was forbidden; the system of fines, which represented legalised robbery of the workers, was abolished. Finally, there was the famous decree that all factories and workshops abandoned or shut down by their owners were to be turned over to associations of workers that were to resume production. And, as if to emphasise its character as a truly democratic, proletarian government, the Commune decreed that the salaries of all administrative and government officials, irrespective of rank, should not exceed the normal wages of a worker, and in no case amount to more than 6,000 francs a year (less than 200 rubles a month).”

Ultimately, notwithstanding a call for the study of all Karl Marx’s works, it is the study of the actual Paris Commune which is key to understanding Karl Marx’ theory of revolution.

Selected Readings

1. Karl Marx, The Paris Commune in “The Civil War In France”


2. V. I. Lenin in “In Memory Of The Commune”

3. V. I. Lenin in “Lessons Of The Commune”

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For!
Long Live comrade Karl Marx


Leader: Botsang Moiloa
Tel: +27 83 884 7787
6 May 2015


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