By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Karl Marx was officially charged with writing a manifesto by the First International. On May 30, 1871, two days after the end of the suppression of the Paris Commune, Marx read his text on the Commune to the General Council of the International, later published under the title, ‘The Civil War in France’. Who was the target audience of that manifesto?
Hailing the Communes
In the manifesto, Marx hailed the Commune as the greatest moment in history. He wrote, “History has no comparable example of such greatness. Its martyrs are enshrined forever in the great heart of the working class”. Marx was enthusiastic because he was sure that the Commune was a sign of his predictions coming to pass. The working class had shown, they understood the need to seize governmental power. But, Marx added, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready‐made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”
Marx defined the Commune as, “the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of the organized form of their suppression.” Marx concluded, “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.”
Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Even though it had failed, Marx and Engels considered the Commune, the first living example of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Engels stated, “Do you want to know what this dictatorship of the proletariat looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That is the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Thus, in their view, the Paris Commune was not an end, but the first sign of things to come.
The Revolution Incarnate
Marx was rhapsodizing, being blamed for the Commune, Newspapers calling him, ‘the revolution incarnate’. Forged documents appeared in France proving that Marx had masterminded the Commune. Some even claimed that Marx was Bismarck’s secret agent. The Pall Mall Gazette said he was the ‘head of a vast conspiracy’.
Marx was pleased by this and wrote to a friend that he was honored to be the most calumniated and menaced man in London. The government paper, the Observer, threatened him of legal prosecution.
Commune was transformed, politically diverse, and tentative in practice because it lasted so briefly, without one coherent unifying theory, with only a handful of Marxists. It was not a concerted attempt to use the 1848 Communist Manifesto as a roadmap to the future. But instead, it was turned into a distinct legend, which diverged a lot from the reality, and became part of revolutionary theory.
Later, in the historic year of 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Lenin was determined to outlast the days of the Paris Commune.
The Bolsheviks treasured relics of the Paris Commune, including importing the last living Communard from France to the Soviet Union, where he survived testimony to the link between Paris and Moscow. Almost a century after the Commune, in 1964, the Soviet spacecraft Voskhod 1 took a piece of a Communard flag into space.
Withering First International
The Commune also heightened friction within the First International. British activists who wanted to agitate for peaceful change did not like Marx’s support for violent revolt, or the abuse that they got in public because of being associated with the Commune. Marx’s feud with Mikhail Bakunin continued. Bakunin also celebrated the Commune but argued that Marx, being too authoritarian, was not in line with its spontaneous uprising. The next year, in 1872, Marx and Engels got him expelled. But, fearing he would lose control of the First International and not wanting it to fall into anyone else’s hands, Marx succeeded in having the First International’s steering committee moved from London to New York, where it withered and in 1876, it was disbanded in Philadelphia.
Marx’s Grim Years
Marx’s later years proved grim as he suffered from depression, and pulled back from political organizing, died in 1883, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in North London. At his funeral, Engels mentioned him as, ‘the greatest living thinker’, ‘the man of science’, the Darwin of history who had discovered the law of evolution in human affairs. But he was, ‘before all else a revolutionist and fighting was his element’. He became the ‘best hated and most calumniated man of his time’, and, ‘his name will endure through the ages, and so will his work’.
Engels’ Authority on Marxism
Engels lived on until 1895. Now the highest authority on Marxism, he completed the second and third volumes of Das Kapital, published in 1885 and 1894.
When Engels died in 1895, he willed his considerable fortune to Marx’s two surviving daughters. They did not have a happy fate as both of them died by committing suicide.
Marx, the Man
Marx was a revolutionist and thinker. His thought was not monolithic or unchanging, and was not always consistent, which complicated life for those who sought to put his ideas into action.
Marx was emphatically not a liberal. He was not concerned with the democratic procedure but with his vision of the coming crisis that would produce the perfect future. Marxism became a tradition. As he famously wrote in the opening of, The Eighteenth Brumaire:
Men make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them. The tradition of countless dead generations is an incubus [inner demon] to the mind of the living. At the very times when they seem to be engaged in revolutionizing themselves and their circumstances, in creating something previously nonexistent, at just such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously summon up the spirits of the past to their aid, borrowing from them names, rallying‐cries, costumes, in order to stage the new world‐historical drama.
Impact of Marx’s Writings
Marx, whose name, rallying‐cries, image, and writings, used as a program for the future. As a result, in vigorous debates and arguments among revolutionaries, Marx’s texts were cited as conclusive proof, his vocabulary deployed to explain a world that had already changed in remarkable ways from one of Marx’s own time. Again, and again, those who considered themselves authentic disciples of Marx would fight ferociously over who was being true to the Marxist tradition.
Common Questions about Paris Commune
Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto because he was officially charged with writing one from the First International, addressed to the Parisians. But he didn’t deliver the text for two and a half months, due to his ill health.
The communist manifesto is addressed to the Parisians, the working class, and the commune.
First International was an organization that aimed to unite socialists to address the problems of the working class.