150 Years of Possible Communism

Author: Dom Rottman

18 March 2021

150 years ago today, living, functional, “impossible” communism was established. Yes, real communism, without the gulags and the antisemitism, without the party and the “Chinese characteristics,” without the cult of personality and without the questionable treatment of human rights, a communism where everyone sincerely tried to live by the principle: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.

On 18 March 1871 the Paris Commune was declared by a Paris unruly and resentful on account of the poor treatment of the working class compounded by the emotional and economic strife of the Franco-Prussian War. The French Third Republic, born in wartime after the capture of Napoleon III, had an army not only badly beaten but also forcibly disarmed by terms of Otto von Bismarck’s Armistice that January. The French National Guard, who felt themselves comrades of the working people, rejected the authority of the new government and drove it and whatever was left of the army in Paris out of the city, forcing them to retreat to Versailles.

The Commune was a watershed moment in Marxist philosophy and political thought. Orthodox Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Anarchists, or just those with Marxist sympathies look back on the Commune with great praise and admiration, criticisms notwithstanding. How is it that all of these ideologies who are today so deeply critical of one another (believe me, no one hates Marxists more than other Marxists) claim heritage from the same event? How can one event start a chain reaction to Stalinism on one hand and a desire for a free society of mutual aid on another?

The answer is simply differences in interpretation, in particular the interpretation of a single phrase. It wouldn’t be the first time different interpretations caused a major break; the history of religion, Abrahamic religions in particular, tells us as much. Yet the Paris Commune is perceived as something for only radicals to squabble about and nothing more, which is a grave and unfortunate mistake for two reasons. Firstly, it’s historical impact is tremendous, not only from an ideological standpoint, but as a direct influence on Vladimir Lenin and the establishment of the USSR. Secondly, it conceals the political lessons it offers to everybody. Indeed, the Commune should be properly examined not in spite of it being a radical project, but precisely because its establishment was inspired by thought and politics–the aforementioned schools of thought included–that purport to be for all, especially working, people. While the first point is doubtless a worthy discussion, for the sake of space, the second point is our primary concern.

A disclaimer must be made: While the Paris Commune influenced Marxist thought, it was not itself a Marxist project. While he wrote and gave addresses about the Commune, Karl Marx himself was not there. Many of the Communards were likely familiar with the thoughts and writings of Marx and/or his radical colleagues (many of whom he vehemently disagreed with), but it is not as if the National Guard took everything Marx had written to that point and followed a formula to the letter. It was, however, a project of the working class, and one which was both socialist and communist; socialist because the workers owned the means of production, and communist because it was guided, if not so explicitly, by–as most human organizations are–that basic human principle: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. Isn’t that a communist paradise? Even paradise, though has to be managed; even in paradise, there is still politics. Hence the crucial, single most important phrase about the whole Commune:

“But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” The Commune offers real potential for possibilities and understandings of politics, even today. The economic benefits and justice of worker ownership are indeed important, but where the Commune stands unique is particularly in its revolutionary politics, a phenomenon of spontaneous political action. Despite this abstract phenomenon, though, it’s hard to ignore the description of the–seemingly–concrete political organization of the Commune that Marx gives. In fact, the phenomenon of spontaneous political action in the Commune is perhaps best understood through the contrasting lens of such a description.

Marx judiciously selects his first observation: “The first decree of the Commune…was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.” The police, too, was “stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune.”

What this meant, particularly, was that every communard was obligated to be a member of the national guard, without whose force and composition of working people would have made the establishment of the Commune impossible. It follows, then, that if the proletariat is a revolutionary class, and the National Guard is, in this case, a revolutionary force, the proletariat should become the “armed people” rather than having the actual institution of the National Guard remain separate–otherwise, it becomes a de facto standing army. If we bring up, as I often like to, Max Weber’s definition of the state–An institution with a monopoly on force in a demarcated territory–the Paris Commune is exceptional with regards to governance and therefore politics. Can we really speak of a proper “state” in the Weberian sense when every person is armed, where a monopoly on force is dissolved?

Marx continues to describe a concrete political organization in the Commune. He writes that all public servants, judicial, executive and legislative (now one function and not separated), were to be done in short terms by working people at workman’s wages bound by responsibility, universal suffrage, and revocability. The last attribute is a rather simple but still today a novel idea. At any time, communards may gather together to decide to recall a public servant for any reason. This function is sometimes called the Imperative Mandate. Many radicals then and now find it appalling that the arbitrarily arranged nature of the ballot box is the only means for the people to influence their representatives. Indeed, Marx here calls such electoral politics antithetical to the idea of universal suffrage: “Instead of decided 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…nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune tha[n] to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchic investiture.”

While the imperative mandate or this political organization Marx describes is itself perhaps radical in a liberal politics loathe to consider even term limits, nothing here–save, perhaps, the important condition of dissolution of the monopoly on force–speaks directly to the character of spontaneous political action. How are we to understand this essential political character, or why is it important at all, if Marx supposedly gives us a ready-made formula right here? Let us return for a moment to the concept of universal suffrage and its place in the Commune. Marx, seen here as in other writings, had no explicit problem with electoral politics as long as they truly were designed, as they were in the Commune, to serve the people. In contrast, Mikhail Bakunin, Marx’s Anarchist rival, was deeply skeptical–to put it mildly–about any electoral politics even with universal suffrage, claiming that any assembly would necessarily give rise to a new state and ruling class, regardless of if it was bourgeois or proletariat. Yet Bakunin, like Marx, gave the Commune great praise, lauding it as a “bold, clearly formulated negation of the State.” Is it possible that Marx had bad sources on the events and organization of the Commune, or did Bakunin conveniently ignore that the Commune was at least partially organized by that function which he so despised?

Perhaps. But perhaps particular function wasn’t the point, nor should it be. We could just as well imagine that, for example, the Commune functioned on some kind of consensus process where everyone had to either agree or at least have no strong objections to a representative or policy. Radical as that would be, though, it still misses the point, the point of spontaneous political action that may–or may not–lead to various political functions in any conceivable capacity; elections for one thing and consensus for another, long discussions of persuasion for some things and others just done without need for administration, or whatever unexpected function, deed, or thing could arise from spontaneous political action.

If Bakunin were a Communard, he would perhaps grumble about any elections taking place. But in the big picture, that was hardly the point and the miracle of the politics, of the revolution of the Commune, a revolution made only by “the spontaneous and continued action of the masses, the groups and associations of the people.” Likewise, Hannah Arendt, on the subject of the Commune, writes of “the amazing formation of a new power structure which owed its existence to nothing but the organizational impulses of the people themselves,” A power which she claims reappears during every political revolution.

As for Marx, there’s no reason to believe he got hung up on the particulars either. In fact, he would probably caution against doing so: “It is generally the fate of completely new historical creations to be mistaken for the counterpart of older and even defunct forms of social life, to which they may bear a certain likeness.” Furthermore, Marx cites the “multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected” not as a bad thing, but as a demonstration that the Commune “was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.” For two months, Paris was a space of radical political freedom, where spontaneous political action could arise only by and for the people.

So what of that phrase, “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”? For Marx, it means the state must be fundamentally changed when the working class seizes political power. It need not do so violently–beyond the violence inherent in a state. Marx might be pleased to know, for example, that the government of Portugal is currently led by a socialist coalition. The next step in such a case would be a fundamental change in the structure of government aimed towards the emancipation of labor such that then the state would, per Engels, “wither away.” For Lenin, the state must also be fundamentally changed–violently. It must be “smashed,” by a vanguard party which must then create a new state–led only by the vanguard party–which would then, somehow, wither away. For Anarchists, it means that, since the state is a dominative power by definition, and thus cannot be transformed or made to “wither away,” the state must be abolished. Yet whatever the means, whatever the names, for a classless, stateless society, for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” for a power structure or council to house Arendt’s politics, the Commune remains a model. The only thing clear in that famous phrase is that the state, at least in its current form, if not altogether, is antithetical to the political freedom exhibited in the Commune.

This is evident not only in the state’s hierarchical nature but also in the Commune’s birth and death. Born in the fringes of history, between a shambling French nation fraught with unrest and Bismarck’s bloody, iron fist, the Commune was possible only because of the weakened state power surrounding it. In like turn, when the new French Republican government capitulated to Bismarck’s every whim, Prussia and France drowned Paris in a week of blood until every last position held by the Communards was captured on 28 May 1871.

Awash with blood, the proper tides of political history seamlessly cover the absolute freedom and potential of the Commune and its political treasure sunken to the depths, tirelessly recovered again and again for hope that one day their worth will be recognized, not for what was and what could have been, but for what could still be. It is not important how it was otherwise, or how it could become otherwise. It is that simply because politics was otherwise, that politics obviously could still be otherwise.

The Paris Commune was reduced to a short revolt, a mere footnote, taught only as a passive remark in a Western Civ class, neutered and defanged of all radicalism, of all revolutionary content and potential–the fact that I even heard its name uttered then was a small miracle. “But this is Communism, ‘impossible’ Communism!” And, to be unabashedly cynical, that is perhaps why it is so suppressed; that political freedom could and would happen under “–what else, gentlemen, would it be but Communism, ‘possible’ Communism?”

Further reading:

  1. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” from The Marx-Engels Reader (W. W. Norton & Company; 2nd Revised & enlarged edition, March 17, 1978)
  2. Mikhail Bakunin, “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State” from Bakunin on Anarchism (Black Rose Books; 2nd edition, June 1, 1980)
  3. Hanna Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Classics; September 26, 2006)