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On the Paris Commune: Part 1

The first installment of a new text by Stathis Kouvelakis on the development, events and legacy of the Paris Commune, published in three parts across the week. 

Stathis Kouvelakis29 March 2021

On the Paris Commune: Part 1

Here follows a translation by David Broder of Stathis Kouvelakis’s introduction to a new selection of texts on the Paris Commune by Marx and other figures, published under the title Sur la Commune de Paris, Textes et controverses, précédé de Événement et stratégie révolutionnaire. The text will be published in three parts across the coming week. Thanks to Editions Sociales for their kind permission.

Revolutionary Strategy and the Event: Marx and Engels's Encounter with the Paris Commune

So, the terrible struggle waged in Paris has not come to an end — it has merely changed face and taken to a different terrain. Other means of combat will be needed in order to pursue it'  - The Viscount of Meaux, 4 September 1871 [1]

Any perspective on the past tells us at least as much about the subject doing the looking, and the historical moment in which their perspective is situated, as about the object they are looking at. Editing a collection of Marx and Engels's texts on the Paris Commune of 1871 is a quite different prospect today to what it would have been in decades past, separated from us by a deep historical rift even if they are not ever so remote in purely chronological terms. Half a century ago, upon the 1971 centenary of the Commune, it would have been almost self-evident that delving into these texts was a useful endeavour. One could either take them as offering the truth of the events in question, or else approach them from a more polemical standpoint or with a critical distance. But, in either case, Marx and Engels seemed tied to these events by a live thread of history — the history of the revolutionary workers' movement, of which the Commune appeared as the foundational moment. Indeed, upon the 1971 centenary this history even seemed to have gathered new momentum, three years after the 'global '68' of worker and student revolts and the victorious anti-colonial revolutions. These texts were, therefore, a fundamental — in some people's eyes, exclusive — doorway into understanding and establishing a connection with this 'theoretical, political, ideological, mental continuation of the Commune'. As Georges Haupt wrote, Marx and Engels's writing on the Paris Commune 'forms a history in itself, the second chapter, in fact, of its ... own history'.[2] It is, then, no accident that the centenary was a high point of both public commemorations of the Commune and the work of historians on this topic. In 1971 the historiography was doubtless both more diverse and theoretically well-grounded than it ever had been before — thus confirming the Commune's status as a perfect example of a "still-hot" object of historical inquiry. 

Yet, even before the 1970s were over, a major, truly epochal rupture was underway: for the crisis of capitalism unleashed a vigorous ruling-class counter-offensive, waged under the banner of neoliberalism. Unable to respond effectively, the workers' movement entered a long phase of decline which would hit all of its organisational forms. As a result came the working classes' retreat from the political, cultural and symbolic stage — or rather, their carefully nurtured invisibilisation. This decline intensified with the crisis of bureaucratic socialism, which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and China's great capitalist turn. Any idea of an alternative to capitalism seemed to have disappeared from the horizon. The foundations of this history, the Paris Commune first among them, dropped back into a past that suddenly became alien and disconnected from the tendencies at work in today's socio-political processes. To use Marx's famous metaphor,[3] we might well ask if “the sphinx” has definitively fallen silent. We might ask if it has become part of an inert past now left over to the (supposedly) detached attention of historians — and, indeed, the sights of a state-power always hungry to rewrite a consensual "national narrative".

The Commune today — has this history gone cold?

If these assessments are valid, then it would seem logical enough that the Commune should have turned into an object of 'cold' observation, linked to a now bygone revolutionary history and therefore unable to rouse any passions. Indeed, there are some signs that this is the case. Take the example of 4 June 2003, when a plaque commemorating the 'insurgents of the Paris Commune, shot against this wall' was put up  — under the auspices of a Gaullist president of the Senate — in the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of the main execution sites during the Semaine Sanglante (Bloody Week) of May 1871. In his speech at its unveiling,[4]Senate president Christian Poncelet declared that 'in putting up this plaque to the memory of the insurgents of the Commune, the Senate, the Nation in parliament, symbolically reintegrates the insurgents — so numerous in their bloody sacrifices and victims of multiple denials — into the body, into the course of national history and our republican conscience'. Yet Poncelet did not stop at this consensual appeal — for he followed this up with an emphatic tribute to the 'insurgents of the Commune', who, he said, had 'upheld the honour of a humiliated France that revolted against the defeat at Sedan'. The Commune had 'demanded a reckoning from those who too long purported to govern better than [the people], but without them, and who had failed to avoid disaster'; it embodied 'the revenge of the outsiders against the arrogance of those who claimed to know better'. Poncelet then denounced 'the Right with its scorn for this disorder, [a Right which] expressed its fear of the people — the frightened bourgeois' fear that they would lose everything faced with the spontaneous tumult coming from the people, the toiling and dangerous classes'; and so, too, 'that part of the Left behind Marx, which had so little esteem for this hardly scientific, badly organised, spontaneous uprising so distant from the theoretical revolution'. The holder of the third most important office of the French state provided a rather different explanation of this event's meaning: it represented 'the sacrifice of les misérables, led by the likes of Blanqui or Louise Michel, more anti-heroes than heroes, noble in their defeat, but with a precarious legacy'. Yet, this sacrifice 'was not in vain' — for 'there would have been no Republic without the Paris Commune'. 

It might seem that the case had suitably been made, given that that thirteen years later, the National Assembly adopted a resolution that 'declare[d] the victims of the repression of the Paris Commune of 1871 rehabilitated' and 'considere[d] it necessary that the republican values upheld by [its] actors should be better known and publicised'. This time around, the move came under a Socialist president, and on the initiative of his party's parliamentary group. The speech by the head of the Socialist group of MPs, in fact paling by comparison with Poncelet's,[5]made the case for the 'rehabilitation of the victims of the repression of the Paris Commune of 1871 — of course, on the basis of the facts as established by historians'. This was, therefore, above all a 'judicial rehabilitation' that sought to provide symbolic redress for the wrongs done by the repression (the number of casualties was also specified, here); it did not imply any kind of revision or rewriting of history. It thus resulted in the adoption of a simple parliamentary 'resolution' and not a 'memory law', a second 'amnesty' or any other legislative measure. As for the nature of this event, while the resolution considered the 'refusal to capitulate' to Prussia the 'immediate cause' for the Commune, its 'great cause' — or at least the only one mentioned by the Socialist leader in parliament — was 'to take a stand for the Republic.'

Even apart from these official interventions, other signals from France's public institutions and civil society also help create a pacified, memorialising image of the Commune. Telling, in this regard, is the fact that even such a figure as Louise Michel enjoys a popularity and recognition which cuts across other political divides. In 2009 it was unsurprising when she lent her name to a 'society for resisting the mood of the times', founded by Daniel Bensaïd — himself a far-left intellectual and militant. But in March 2010 she was given bodily form in Solveig Anspach's TV movie on her years as a deportee; Sylvie Testud played Michel in this film, aired on the public broadcaster. In 2013 feminist collectives and historians even demanded that Michel be honoured in the Panthéon, and in June 2014, Madame Figaro magazine, a publication hardly likely to be suspected of leftist sympathies, handed one of its 'heroine of the year' awards to Le roman de Louise, a biographical essay by Henri Gougaud. If further evidence were needed of her now-iconic status, as of 2014 no less than 500 streets and almost 200 lycées around France bore the name of a woman who had become an icon of revolution, and yet also a consensual figure. 

As for scholarly history — in truth, the only sort left standing after the dissolution of the cultural and educational institutions of the workers' movement — there are ever more works which claim to provide a study of the Commune unbound from its political or ideological stakes. In Éric Fournier's words, it has become possible, in a 'context that is now politically pacified' to separate 'the history of the Commune from the memory of the Commune'.[6] Here, the former is taken to mean a 'human and social science open to the most complete, objective and impartial possible reading of the past' while the latter has to do with 'uses of the past' which are 'inevitably political' and connected to 'highly ideological interpretations, disputes, deep emotions and legends'.[7] This statement of principle overlaps with a pronounced tendency in recent historiography to turn the Commune into a purely singular event — making it into a product of unique circumstances with neither antecedents nor sequels. In this view, the Commune obeys the laws of contingency and fragmentation alone; it is now stripped of any overall coherence and instead dispersed among a multitude of different facets and micro-subjectivities. This event is thus walled off in a self-enclosed nineteenth century, with which the only (perhaps) possible communication would be quasi-poetic in character.[8] In a sort of identity of opposites, the postmodern approach thus converges with the traditional liberal-conservative view, as expressed in renewed form by François Furet and his disciples.[9] These latter make the Commune into an anomaly, an utterly sterile event, except insofar as it is taken as the last act of the anomaly that is — or rather, was — the French revolutionary tradition. This anomaly is itself blamed for denying France a peaceful course of development toward liberal democracy, such as Tocqueville had imagined based on his vision of the Anglo-American world.

There is also good reason to reject the proposed separation between memory and history, which restricts the political dimension of the Commune to this first category the better to preserve the second. For it seems that the determination to depoliticise the Commune, characteristic of the current period (and which is, in its own way, highly political) in fact plays out precisely on the terrain of memory, in particular at the local level, in the East Paris locations most emblematic of the events of 1871. Reflecting the deep sociological transformation of these neighbourhoods, which are today heavily 'gentrified', the recent memorial events devoted to the Commune have prioritised the 'cultural' terrain — even making it a matter of popular folklore, disconnected from any kind of militant vision. Based on local associations, they chime with the policy pursued by the Socialist-led city hall, which consists of promoting 'depoliticized commemorations' from which parties and political organisations are excluded. [10] 

Yet, upon closer inspection, this image starts to crack. For the official tributes we have cited were rather ad hoc gestures — owing to political calculations dictated by particular conjunctures — rather than a real integration of this event into the national story as endorsed by the French state. So, for instance, the National Assembly's passing of the bill initiated by the Socialist group in late 2016 owed to that party's desire to send a message to a left-wing electorate alienated by the rapidly accelerating right-wing course of François Hollande's presidency. Besides, making such a signal did not commit the party to anything much even at the symbolic level, as it amounted to integrating the Commune into a 'republican teleology, a smooth history conforming with the chosen end point' from which this event's own particular charge had been removed. [11] In presenting the Communards as passive victims, as a pledge for their posthumous juridical rehabilitation, it refused them the status of actors in an event that left a profound mark on French and even world history. As for Christian Poncelet's speech, we can say that it is a hapax in the trajectory of the French right: a unique moment which illustrates this politician's rather atypical journey. The son of modest farmers in Les Vosges, and a Christian and loosely socialist trade unionist in his youth, Poncelet has always identified himself with some sort of 'left-Gaullism'. The moment chosen for this intervention also corresponded to a rather particular conjuncture; at the time, as the newly elected Senate president, Poncelet was trying to shake up this institution's archaic image, when voices from the then-left-wing majority in the National Assembly were calling for the abolition of the upper house or at least its thoroughgoing reform. [12] In 2007, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — who was already a presidential candidate representing, in his own words, the ‘uninhibited Right' — set the record straight as he spoke of the 'great revolutionary fracture, the Empire, 1830, 1848, the Commune and the painful separation of Church and State' as so many events that had broken 'the unity of France'.[13] As for Emmanuel Macron, he has shown no hesitation in asserting his continuity with Adolphe Thiers, stating that 'Versailles is where the Republic took refuge when it was under threat'. [14] Ultimately this ought not be so surprising, coming from a president whose term has seen demonstrators mutilated, gravely injured or jailed in numbers not seen for half a century. 

In determining what place the Commune takes up in France's 'national narrative, the decisive test doubtless comes elsewhere — that is, in the curriculums used in the classroom. While the Commune had been all but absent up to the turn of the millennium — except insofar as it was something to be vilified, when this event was still in the recent past[15] — it made its entrance into some ‘lycée général’ courses in 2002, and then in the eighth-grade curriculum in 2008. Yet this opening proved short-lived: in 2011 the Commune was again erased from the curriculum, in a teaching framework that all but skipped over the first three quarters of the nineteenth century — i.e. France's period of wars and revolutions. There are but a few meagre traces of the Commune in the eleventh-grade textbooks, with the use of them left up to teachers' own judgement.[16]  

So it appears that, on the whole, the Commune has vigorously resisted its reduction to a 'cold' object of historical inquiry. This is especially true given that — as we shall discuss further — the works by historians who claim to stick to impartial scholarship alone themselves seem to disprove any such pretence. For they show soon enough that they have biases of their own, which are all the more potent because they go unacknowledged. We know from experience that the ideology par excellence is precisely the one that presents itself as 'non-ideological'. The Commune's resistance to such a fate confirms the assessment offered by Michel Winock, a historian who could hardly be suspected of revolutionary radicalism, but who once showed real interest in the Communards. As he puts it, 'the 72 days of the Paris Commune have always had a unique status in our national history. The textbooks long presented it as a parenthesis, a pointless lapse of time, an event with no further projection, and certainly difficult to integrate into the Republic's triumphal march. The insurgents of March 1871 had apparently served no purpose: neither to overthrow the Empire... nor to establish the Republic — if not through their defeat itself, proving that the Republican order was not the "reds'" Republic... In short, an event too many, which had the evident further sin of compromising the Third Republic's humane reputation, by way of the Bloody Week'.[17] While the continuity stills holds as far as the dominant narrative is concerned, the discontinuity appears in what Winock goes on to say next: 'From this futureless development it becomes clear that the Commune's dead had no right to enter the republican Pantheon. These dead belong to another tradition, the workers' movement's own'.[18] The protracted decline of this movement — going hand-in-hand with the fading cultural and educational dimension of its activities — has had the effect that this event is now largely unknown outside of limited circles of militants and history buffs. Yet, after a long eclipse, we can also point to some signs of recovery, which have accompanied moments of revival in social movements and the political Left. The starting gun for Jean-Luc Mélenchon's presidential campaigns (in 2012 and 2017) was fired with a rally in Paris attended by several tens of thousands of people. In each case the event was held on 18 March — the anniversary of the beginning of the Communard uprising, to whose tradition the candidate pointedly laid claim. In spring 2016, the same location used for each of these rallies — Paris's Place de la République — was baptised 'Place de la Commune de Paris' by the Nuit Debout movement.[19] This movement sought to reinvigorate an assembly-based democracy and drive the ongoing mobilisation against the neoliberal reform of the Labour Code through a horizontal coordination among multiple initiatives. We can also note the international spread of the idea of 'communes', combining direct democracy with local power and social experimentation. These experiences often refer to the thinking of US anarchist Murray Bookchin, who identified the Paris Commune as one of his main sources of political inspiration, indeed the origin of his 'communalist' thinking.[20] While these ideas are libertarian in character, part of the Kurdish national movement has also laid claim to them, even while also building its forces around a solidly structured, disciplined armed organisation with a highly centralised political leadership. It has drawn inspiration from these ideas to inform the 'democratic confederalism' implemented in the northern Syrian territories under its control, often termed the 'Rojava commune'.[21]

So, as the 150th anniversary approaches, it can, paradoxically, be said both that the Commune's 'relevance' has again been rediscovered and that the event itself is widely unknown.[22] In its own, negative way, this lays the ground for a possible innovative reappropriation of this past as an inexhaustible resource for today’s anticapitalist struggles. 

Marx and Engels's 'involvement' in the Commune

Perhaps, then, today again provides a fitting moment for a renewed reading of Marx and Engels's texts on the Commune. In doing so, we can move away from the — often overly selective — past readings of the pair's writings, even without thereby seeking to defuse their political charge. Several distinct lines of approach can be pursued for such a reading.

These texts are, first of all, an exceptional historical document, written by authors who, while, of course, spatially distant from the Paris events (Marx was in London, Engels most of the time in Manchester), were nonetheless tied to them by a thousand strings. Indeed, Marx and Engels were not simple observers or intellectuals theorising matters after the fact. Rather, they were fully actors in the workers' movement of their time, and in particular, in its main organisational network, the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA). The International's General Council was headquartered in London, and the pair played a prominent role in its work. Their analyses, produced in the heat of the moment, were part of an effort to gain a handle on the course of events — in their Parisian epicentre, of course, but equally in terms of their international ramifications, especially in Germany and Britain. We could thus say that right from the start Marx and Engels participated in the internationalisation of the Paris revolution. Historical research has highlighted this fact[23] — something which ought to be unsurprising, given that these were convinced internationalists who counted among the pioneers of the workers' and socialist movement's transnational networks. [24] We see this in Marx's 13 May 1871 letter to Léo Frankel, a Hungarian militant active in the German section of the Paris IWMA, who was elected to the Commune Council and placed in charge of its Labour and Exchange Commission. Here, Marx relayed his own activity in doubtless exaggerated terms: 'I have written several hundred letters on behalf of your cause to every corner of the world in which we have branches. The working class, for the rest, was on the side of the Commune from the beginning.'[25] 

This transnational activism met with a certain backlash, in a powerful press campaign which portrayed the IWMA and its supposed leader Marx as the 'brains' who were pulling the strings of the Paris uprising from London. The sheer extent of this campaign revealed how powerful the newspapers had become, thanks to both technological development and their now truly global field of operations. This itself prompted Marx to offer some interesting reflections on the — to say the least, rather warped — dialectic of technological progress: 'I am overrun by other people — newspaper men and others of every description — who want to see the "monster" with their own eyes. Up till now it has been thought that the growth of the Christian myths during the Roman Empire was possible only because printing was not yet invented. Precisely the contrary. The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricate more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day than could have formerly been done in a century.'[26] Here we are far from the Communist Manifesto's optimistic forecasts as to the emergence of a 'world literature'[27] liberated from pre-modern superstitions and particularisms — a new reality which the ceaseless development of the bourgeois cosmos was itself supposed to bring.

It is thus worth dispensing with both conspiratorial myths and anachronistic understandings of the role that the International — and Marx and Engels personally — played in the Paris Commune. The IWMA was not a centralised, homogenous, organisation, desirous — or even capable — of lighting the revolutionary flame or even dictating a political 'line' to its own sections and its members acting on the ground. Moreover, we know that the IWMA's Paris Federation, which had experienced considerable growth during the years prior to the Commune, found itself both weakened by the outbreak of war and the subsequent repression, and politically disoriented by the course of events during the siege of the capital. One sign of this weakness — and the difficulties that resulted from the encirclement of Paris — is the fact that communications between the Paris IWMA and the General Council were interrupted. The members of this latter body repeatedly complained of this fact; it led them to constantly put off adopting any public position regarding the revolution in Paris. Such a position was finally taken (with the Address written by Marx) only after the fall of the Commune.[28] But this did not mean that they remained passive: two days after the proclamation of the Republic on 4 September 1870, the London leadership had dispatched Auguste Serraillier — a French cobbler and member of the Central Council who had lived in England for many years — to Paris, with full powers to represent it as its emissary. Serraillier would play an important role in events and he was also an essential source of information for the General Council. In late March 1871 he was joined by Elizabeta Tomanovskaya, a young revolutionary who had previously been active in the Russian-émigré section in Geneva; during her spell in Paris she would adopt the nom de guerre Dmitrieff. [29] The few surviving fragments of her exchanges with the International evidence her frenetic activity as well as her collaboration with other IWMA militants; the official emissary Serraillier and, above all, Frankel. This latter headed up the Labour and Exchange commission (itself a real den of Internationalists) with which the Women's Union created and led by Dmitrieff established close relations. She would become a leading figure in the women's movement, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Paris Commune.

But that was not all. For despite all the difficulties these militants faced, cross-Channel communication was not only prompted by requests coming from the leadership in London. Even apart from the IWMA activists sent over from Britain, major actors in the Commune wrote to Marx — as a central figure in the IWMA — to seek his advice on economic and even strategic questions. This was especially the case of Léo Frankel, in charge of the Labour and Exchange commission, which would become the body in charge of developing the Commune authorities' most advanced social experiments. While the letters that appear in the 'Correspondence' section of this collection are full of gaps, given the loss of the greater part of the documents, they do give us telling insight into the tenor of these exchanges — and of the breadth of subjects on which Marx either offered his view or transmitted crucial information. These ranged from economic questions to military and diplomatic matters — including the passing-on of the secret accord that Bismarck had reached with the Versailles government's foreign minister Jules Favre, which Marx obtained via old personal contacts.[30] It can also be supposed that the advice that he passed on to the Commune Council, recommending the reinforcement of the Paris defensive lines, came from Engels, a specialist in military matters. So, as Émile Bottigelli noted in 1953, 'we should indeed speak of [Marx's] participation in the Commune',[31] understanding this term in a broad sense. This participation underlined the international dimension of the event itself. The Commune was fully wrapped up with the decisive strategic questions that the workers' movement faced: what attitude should it adopt faced with the Franco-Prussian war, the new Republic proclaimed in the wake of the defeat at Sedan, and subsequently, faced with the Paris insurrection? Here, too, Marx and Engels played a primary role in influencing the political line of the German socialists to whom they were closest (August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht's SDAP) and in defining an overall orientation. This was the objective of the two IWMA addresses on the Franco-German war, both written by Marx.

In order to give proper account of the pair's intervention, it is important to give proper place not only to The Civil War in France — the most ambitious and best-known of Marx's writings on the Commune — but also a whole array of writings covering the multiple different aspects of this event. This set of documents, made up of IWMA addresses and resolutions, extracts of debates in the General Council and correspondence with militants with a front-row view of the action, is, certainly, heterogeneous. But it also has a fundamental coherence. It allows us to retrace the evolution of Marx and Engels's thinking and their positions — even while also bearing and mind that today we can only lay our hands on a small part of the exchanges between, on the one hand, Marx, Engels, and the General Council in London and, on the other, the International's emissaries in Paris and the Commune's leaders. Added to this is the partial and often unsatisfactory character of the minutes of the discussions at IWMA General Council meetings. The available set of documents does, nonetheless, seem sufficient for clarifying one essential point regarding the status of Marx and Engels's intervention. While they were not direct actors in this event, they were involved in it. Therefore, their analyses cannot be taken for an intervention from an external standpoint — and still less as the projection of a pre-established schema seeking validation via the empirical material supplied by events in Paris. This immanent, militant dimension of their writings is especially apparent the fact that while the three published texts from the period of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune (the two IWMA addresses and The Civil War in France) while written by Marx, nonetheless appeared as collective texts emanating from the International's General Council. Indeed, they above all addressed the IWMA's own militants and were collectively signed by the members of its leadership body, who together assumed political responsibility for them. [32] This also meant that their author could not simply express his own personal point of view without considering the need for synthesis, flowing from the collective nature of the texts in question. We ought to bear this factor in mind whenever we note a gap between Marx and Engels's views as expressed in their personal writings and the formulations used in these texts. For these latter were written under two types of constraints: they had to express a viewpoint shared by a collective leadership body, and respond to the enormously hostile portrayal of this event in the wider public sphere.

Because these writings were themselves part of the continuation of the debates and the problems internal to the processes that unfolded in this period, they represent an effort to produce a genuine 'intelligibility of the event'.[33]  Yet these texts — and especially the Civil War in France, 'rich on an exceptional set of sources'[34] gathered through a combination of militant and media channels — were not a matter of simple journalism or militant pamphleteering alone. For they mobilised a certain conceptual apparatus, which was itself put to the test — that is, put to the test of its own transformation. In their encounter with the event Marx and Engels devoted themselves to listening to it. They strove to get a measure of its unprecedented character: after all, for the first time in modern history, working people (and we will come back to the specific configuration of these people) took power and held it for six weeks, in continental Europe's most emblematic capital. They were thus driven to take positions on questions that were sharply debated even within the Paris revolution, at the same time as they honed their arguments against their opponents. In doing so, they strove to learn from the Commune, in order to draw 'lessons' which they considered valuable for the international movement of which they were part, but also for themselves. Under the impact of the event, their thinking would now mount a momentous turn, with regard to such decisive questions as war, revolutionary strategy, the state, the modes of organised action and the forms of political power most suited to the struggle for emancipation. We should grasp these texts' singular importance, their proper truth-content and their ability to stand the test of time within this tension between a thought in movement, always in search of a handle on the real; a thought strategically oriented toward revolutionary action; and an event whose temporal brevity was matched only by its density and its potent echoes.

War, (inter)national(ism) and revolution 

One of Marx and Engels's main contributions lies in their understanding of the chain of events and circumstances that led from the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war to the revolutionary upheavals which it catalysed — ultimately culminating in the Paris insurrection of 18 March. From this understanding emerged a new analysis of the relationship between war and revolution, itself over-determined by the question of the nation: the legitimacy of its defence, the role of national sentiment, the meaning of internationalism. Their analysis moreover marked itself apart from the two reference points which had hitherto dominated their thinking — and that of their whole generation — i.e. the French Revolution and the 1848 revolutions of. 

Marx and Engels were far from surprised when Louis Bonaparte declared war on Prussia. Impassioned followers of the developments of European geopolitics, their view of the Second Empire and its leader was already long-established. For them, Bonaparte was an adventurer, who faced with his precarious position at home pursued the chimera of Napoleonic hegemony over the Old Continent. He thus became the ever more conscious instrument of the similar plans advanced by Tsarist Russia — i.e. the bastion of reaction in Europe. Ever since the Italian campaign (1859) in which Bonaparte had come to the Kingdom of Piedmont's aid in its struggle against Austria, posing as the defender of Italian unity and national rights, they had discerned a tendency which would inevitably lead to a collision between France and a Prussia seeking to achieve German unity: 'I argued in detail ... that the financial and internal political problems of the "bas empire" had reached a critical point and that only a foreign war could prolong the rule of the coup d'état in France and hence the counter-revolution in Europe. I demonstrated that the Bonapartist liberation of Italy was a mere pretext to keep France in subjection, to subject Italy to the rule of the coup d'état, to shift France's "natural frontiers" to Germany, to transform Austria into a tool of Russia and to force the nations into a war waged by the legitimate counter-revolution against the illegitimate counter-revolution'.[35]

For these reasons, Marx and Engels were quick to condemn the war of aggression which Bonapartist France had unleashed — and to support Prussia, on the grounds that it was waging a defensive war. At the same time, they forcefully emphasised the opposition that both French and German workers' organisations put up against the war, and insisted that support for Prussia in no way meant exonerating Bismarck's authoritarian regime. This was the central thread of the IWMA's first address, which confidently forecast the end of the imperial regime. This position sparked recurrent accusations of 'pan-Germanism', especially from Bakunin, andallowed the French press to present the IWMA (and Marx in particular) as an instrument in the hands of the Prussian government. But it also corresponded to a whole set of motivations which extended far beyond the question of whether the war was 'defensive' in character or otherwise. Marx and Engels supported German unification on principle, as a historic necessity which would give the proletarian struggle the appropriate national framework in which it could mount its social revolution. Following the failure of the revolutions of 1848 — a defeat for national unification under popular-democratic hegemony — and the outcome of the Austrian-Prussian war of 1866 (Marx and Engels had energetically taken Austria's side at the time — a position which ought to cleanse them of any suspicion of "Prussianism"), it was now left up to Prussia to bring this mission to completion. Marx clearly stated as much in an 8 August 1870 letter to Engels: 'The Empire is made, i.e., the German Empire. It seems as if all the trickery that has been perpetrated since the Second Empire has finally resulted in carrying out, by hook and crook, though neither by the path intended nor in the way imagined, the "national" aims of 1848--Hungary, Italy, Germany!'[36] Engels's position was no different: 'the fact that this war was ordered by Lehmann [Wilhelm I], Bismarck & Co., and must minister to their temporary glorification if they conduct it successfully, we have to thank the miserable state of the German bourgeoisie. It is certainly very unpleasant but cannot be altered. But to magnify anti-Bismarckism into the sole guiding principle on this account would be absurd. ... Bismarck, as in 1866, is at present doing a bit of our work for us, in his own way and without meaning to, but all the same he is doing it'. [37] Conversely, Prussian defeat would mean the continuation of a state of fragmentation; there would be 'no question of an independent German working-class movement either' for 'the struggle to restore the national existence [would] absorb everything.' [38]

A catalyst to German unification, the Franco-Prussian war also allowed France to shake off Bonapartism and to again turn to a republican order. Yes, this meant a bourgeois republic; but for Marx and Engels this, too, represented a necessary stage and an advance for the proletariat's struggle. So, the war killed two birds with one stone. 

Added to this is another argument, doubtless more difficult to  swallow. Having had their fingers burned by confrontations with representatives of the French organisations within the IMWA, and betting on both the rise of the German workers' movement and their closeness to one of its components (i.e. Liebknecht and Bebel's SDAP), Marx and Engels believed that France's defeat (which they regarded as certain, right from the outset) was bound to mean a lasting weakening of this country's role on the European stage. In particular this meant a weakening of its role as the  hotbed of revolution on the continent, thus implying that the workers' movement's centre of gravity would shift toward Germany. According to Marx's 20 July 1870 letter to Engels, such a development would lead to 'the predominance of our theory over Proudhon'.[39] In a private missive the two of them sent to the SDAP leadership at the end of August 1870, they reiterated this position, though now they could recognise it as an established fact: 'This war has shifted the centre of gravity of the working-class movement on the Continent from France to Germany. This places greater responsibility upon the German working class...'[40] Here, too, it is worth avoiding any misunderstandings: at the moment that Marx and Engels formulated this idea they were betting not on the crushing of some hypothetical working-class uprising in France (an insurrection they considered highly improbable), but rather on a military defeat that would lead to the fall of Bonapartism and the establishment of a republican order. Once the Republic had been proclaimed — the IWMA General Council's second address (9 September) emphasised — the French workers had to 'calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation. It will gift them with fresh Herculean powers for the regeneration of France, and our common task — the emancipation of labour'. [41] Yet this sort of “Realpolitik of theory” could express a certain cynicism, difficult to maintain out in the open. In his 10 September 1870 letter to Engels, Marx thus termed the SDAP leaders 'jackasses' after they published some of the passages of the private letter they had sent them the previous months — emphasising that its 'brutal language' on 'shifting the centre of gravity' was 'intended to spur them on, but ... not to be published now under any circumstances' [42] 

In fact, faithful to the principle set out in the First Address, the IWMA's Second Address — published only five days after the disaster of the French in Sedan and the proclamation of the Republic in Paris — abandoned the position of support for Prussia. For it was now Prussia that was waging a war of aggression and occupying parts of French territory. The text vigorously denounced the bid to annex Alsace and part of Lorraine and called for recognition of the French Republic. Indeed, the IWMA and Marx personally committed themselves to multiple public actions in this cause. But whatever their adaptations to a conjuncture which was itself ever-changing — and despite the authority that the International conferred upon them — their positions also met with serious reservations, and even sharp opposition from various quarters of the International, starting with the IWMA's Paris Federation, which found it hard to stomach the initial support for Prussia. In its 12 July appeal 'To the Workers of All Countries' the IWMA's Paris Federation Council had roundly condemned Bonaparte's war and — addressing its 'German brothers' — insisted that 'divisions among us will only lead to the complete triumph of despotism on both sides of the Rhine'. [43] The IWMA's First Address cited this text and paid tribute to it. But the Paris Federation Council's 4 September appeal 'To the German People, to the Socialist Democracy of the German Nation' [44] drew sarcastic comments from Marx and Engels, who saw it as an expression of French chauvinism and of the enduring hold of the patriotic discourse of 1792-93.[45] The IWMA's Second Address dated 9 September, directed to the French workers, rejected both the call for a revolutionary war to chase out the Prussians (for the workers 'must not allow themselves to be swayed by the national souvenirs of 1792') and any attempt at overthrowing the government of National Defence, which 'would be a desperate folly'. When Auguste Serraillier had set off to Paris a few days earlier, as the IWMA's emissary, he did so carrying this same orientation. 

In his 12 September letter to Marx, Engels is just as clear on this point: 'If anything at all could be done in Paris, a rising of the workers before peace is concluded should be prevented.'[46] He damned the 'people in Paris' who would not 'dare to see things as they really are' and admit that 'France's active power of resistance is broken where this war is concerned, and that with it the prospects of repelling the invasion by a revolution fall to the ground too'.[47] Yet, this was indeed the position that the International's Parisian militants had defended with all their might since the proclamation of the Republic, fully in line with the patriotic ferment that had spread through the population.

Defending the Republic would be the particular goal of the 'Vigilance Committees' organised in a 'Central Committee for the Twenty Arrondissements'. Launched on the initiative of IWMA militants, this body sought to rally all forces that looked to popular mobilisation to defend the Republic and steer national defence against the Prussian invasion.[48] As the first affiche rouge on 15 September 1870 detailed, concretely this meant using outright revolutionary measures (the levée en masse, arming the citizenry, requisitions, the dissolution of special police corps, the establishment of popular control over defence measures), to help the government formed on 4 September ensure the 'safety of the patrie and the Republic'.[49] 

It is thus wholly unsurprising that when Auguste Serraillier reached Paris on 8 September, seeking to enact the orientation set out by the General Council in London, he found nothing but intense hostility, chauvinism and anti-German sentiment.[50] In a letter he sent to Marx soon after his arrival, he provided a telling picture of his consternation —, something of a premonition of the fate that World War I would inflict upon the Second International. 'It is unbelievable that for six years people can be Internationalists, abolish frontiers, no longer recognise anyone as a foreigner, and arrive at the stage they have now reached, simply in order to preserve a factitious popularity to which they will sooner or later fall victim. ... Moreover, what a situation they are creating for the International by their ultra-chauvinist discourses! How many generations may it not take to erase the profound antagonism of nationality which they are seeking to revive by whatever means their feeble imagination can suggest!’ [51] Writing a few months later to the Geneva-based Johann Philipp Becker — a key figure in the International's European networks and a close collaborator of Marx and Engels — such pillars of the German section of the Paris IWMA as Léo Frankel and Viktor Schily also remarked upon the ambient 'chauvinism' and the 'hatred toward Germans, being fed from all quarters'.[52] We can get a sense of the atmosphere, prevalent even within the workers' movement, from the example of the lithographers' section — 'one of the Paris associations at the vanguard of the Parisian proletariat', as Jacques Rougerie puts it, and among the first to join the IWMA. In its 19 February manifesto, it accused 'German lithographers, printworkers, scribes and designers' of 'playing the role of spies' and 'always having contributed to undercutting pay'; it thus demanded their 'elimination' 'from all the workshops in France'.[53] Yet, despite the difficulties of his position, Frankel, who considered himself 'in a sense the only representative of German social democracy' in France, admitted that he had hoped for Prussian defeat — for this would have opened the way to a German Republic at the same time as bringing to power the French republicans and allowing for a lasting peace between the two nations. [54] 

Starting out from the opposite position, Marx nonetheless rapidly understood that the collapse of the Second Empire and the (albeit rather precarious) transition to the Republic on 4 September 1870 had radically changed the situation. Firstly, because the establishment of the new republican order stripped Bismarck of the only pretext with which he could justify the continuation of the war and its transformation into a war of conquest — i.e. that it was a war against not France itself, but against Louis Napoléon's aggressive machinations. Yet Bismarck not only pursued military operations but continued to treat the former French emperor, now a captive in Germany, as a legitimate interlocutor. This was the basis on which Marx (backed up by Engels, who was co-opted to the General Council on 20 September) and the whole IWMA — submitting to the Paris Federation's urgent demands to this effect — threw themselves into a campaign for international recognition of the French Republic. In particular they sought recognition by the British government, and an honourable peace between the belligerents without annexations or exorbitant reparations. [55]

But there was also more to this situation. Marx understood that the conduct of the war under the new regime revealed a fundamental change in the French bourgeoisie's attitude: for unlike in 1792, the bourgeoisie was now defeatist. Or, more precisely, it preferred to cave to the Prussians rather than have to deal with a popular revolution going further — in Paris in particular — than the hesitant republicanism the government of National Defence embodied. Marx paid close attention to the French popular mobilisation and, within it, the working-class and socialist forces who backed the continuation of the war and the imposition of popular control over national defence. Hence on 19 October he wrote to Edward Spencer Beesly: 'I must tell you that according to all information I receive from France, the middle class on the whole prefers Prussian conquest to the victory of a Republic with Socialist tendencies.' [56] In a 13 December letter to Kugelmann he noted the persistence of the resistance put up by Gambetta's Army of the Loire, which was 'beyond [the German army's] calculation'. But above all, Marx emphasised the fierce will  of the besieged and starved Parisians not to capitulate. From this, he concluded that 'however the war may end, it has given the French proletariat practice in arms, and that is the best guarantee of the future.' [57] Once the armistice was signed (February 26 1871), matters became even clearer. The possibility of resumed revolutionary initiative hinged upon a rejection of the bourgeois-republican government's shameful capitulation: 'Despite all appearance to the contrary, Prussia's position is anything but pleasant. If France holds out, uses the armistice to reorganise her army and finally gives the war a really revolutionary character the new German, Borussian [Prussian] Empire may still get a quite unexpected thrashing as its baptism.'[58] In other words, Marx (like Frankel) grasped the fundamental ambivalence of this popular-republican patriotism, sharpened by the Prussian invasion and the bourgeois elites' defeatism. This impulse was liable to reactionary chauvinism, but it was also a decisive factor for reviving the 'revolutionary energy' which Marx now so keenly wished to come into play. The turnaround in Marx and Engels's positions (and their formulation) was complete: a few months beforehand they abruptly dismissed any prospect of a 'revolutionary war', taking this for a mere parody of 1792-93, but it was now on the agenda: and if it materialised, it would be the Prussian victors' turn to get the thrashing they so richly deserved. All this foreshadowed the virulent denunciation of the 'capitulard' republicans and the 'treason' of Thiers and his government, which studded the pages of The Civil War in France. 

So, we see that Marx's positions — and, less clearly so, Engels's[59] — shifted considerably over the period stretching from the beginning of the war to the armistice and the 8 February 1871 elections. From a discussion of the blame to be laid on the belligerents — in which the roles of attacker and attacked were rapidly inverted — or of the need for German national unification, which the pair would never question (even if Engels would later prove lucid as to the longer-term consequences of this authoritarian and militarist 'revolution from above')[60] the focus shifted toward the unprecedented factors which had emerged from the situation created by the Franco-Prussian war. There were two such factors. First was the fact that the French bourgeoisie and its political personnel, including a large part of its republican flank, preferred to abandon their national function rather than take the risk of pursuing a war which depended on the armed population (in particular, the Parisian Garde Nationale) which threatened to put their class domination into doubt. There thus began a deep crisis in the legitimacy of its leadership role — a crisis of its hegemony, to use a Gramscian term which applies well here. This also marked the end — the splitting — of the republican project understood as a project uniting a national-popular bloc claiming the tradition of the 1789 Revolution. This provided the opening in which the second factor — the popular mobilisation — stepped into the breach and pitched the course of events in a new direction. In Paris, this mobilisation took on an ever-stronger proletarian coloration; it declared that it would take up the tasks of national defence and of entrenching, through outright revolutionary means, a republican order left precarious by the defeatism of the bourgeois camp and the concomitant resurgence of traditionalist-reactionary forces. Marx brought these themes together in his first draft of The Civil War in France. Here, he commented upon the first article in the Commune's Journal officiel which spoke of how 'The proletarians of the capital, in [the] midst [of] the défaillances [failures] and the treasons of the governing (ruling) classes, have understood [compris] that the hour has arrived for them to save the situation in taking into their own hands the direction (management) of public affairs (the state business)': [61]

It is here plainly stated that the government of the working class is, in the first instance, necessary to save France from the ruins and the corruption impended upon it by the ruling classes, that the dislodgment of these classes from power (of these classes who have lost the capacity of ruling France) is a necessity of national safety.

But it is no less clearly stated that the government by the working class can only save France and do the national business, by working for its own emancipation, the conditions of that emancipation being at the same time the conditions of the regeneration of France. [62]

Marx and Engels certainly did not foresee the 18 March uprising coming, any more than anyone else did. But given what we have seen, it is no exaggeration to say that as Marx and Engels closely followed both the political-military situation and signs of popular action,  they were intellectually and politically prepared to welcome something that they had earlier publicly termed a 'desperate folly'. And this, even though they were fully conscious of the extraordinarily unfavourable balance of forces. They could thus salute an unprecedented revolutionary crisis which established a close interconnection between 'proletarian emancipation' and 'the national business'. Yet, as Daniel Bensaïd reminds us, an encounter — in political praxis as in love — while never written in advance, does however suppose this prior openness to the 'brilliance of the event', the capacity to 'capture eternity' in the amazing temporal condensation of the moment when the unprecedented happens. [63] It should, then, be no surprise that in his famous 12 April 1871 letter to Kugelmann, Marx exclaimed: 'What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! After six months of hunger and ruin, caused rather by internal treachery than by the external enemy, they rise, beneath Prussian bayonets, as if there had never been a war between France and Germany and the enemy were not at the gates of Paris. History has no like example of a like greatness' [64] Faced with his correspondent's craven attitude, Marx spelled out a principle at the heart of revolutionary politics: the capacity to grasp the right moment, the kairos, to take hold of a contingent link in the chain of events — in this case the adversary's poorly calculated attempt to seize the National Guard's canons — to break linear time and bring the unprecedented to life:  'World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. ... the demoralization of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained'. [65]  

[1] Vicomte de Meaux, 'Rapport sur les mouvements insurrectionnels en province', Enquête parlementaire sur l’insurrection du 18 mars, Paris: Librairie Germère-Baillière, 1872, vol. 1, p. 278

[2] The Commune as Symbol and Example', in Georges Haupt, Aspects of International Socialism, 1871-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 – this quote from p. 24. It is appalling that the works of this major historian of the workers' movement should have been so sidelined; they have long disappeared from the bookshops and, all too often, even from bibliographies. 

[3] 'What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?' — Marx, 'The Paris Commune' in The Civil War in France, text from

[4] html 

[5] www.assemblee-nationale. fr/14/cri/2016-2017/20170063.asp#P919073

[6] Éric Fournier, La Commune n’est pas morte. Les usages politiques du passé de 1871 à nos jours, Paris, Libertalia, 2013, pp. 7-8.

[7] Ibid.

[8] A telling example of this approach comes in a text by Robert Tombs, a British conservative historian who has recently been all the rage in France, which served as the conclusion to the conference held in Narbonne upon the 140th anniversary. In this text he developed the metaphor of the 'roundabout' or 'crossroads' from which one could arrive 'from any direction' only to then set off again in all directions. The various 'wretched', 'glorious', 'quixotic' or simply 'bizarre' journeys are reduced to a strictly individual affair, with the various figures' end points spread across the entire political spectrum. From Rochefort or Dr Parisel to Louis Michel 'each person had their own reasons', as Jean Renoir might have said, but no logic or overall coherence is to be drawn: 'for a few weeks from March to May 1871, a diverse bunch of people arrived from all directions, met at the crossroads of the Commune: a unique, unpredictable, never-repeated moment' (Robert Tombs, 'Conclusions' in Marc César, Laure Godineau (ed.), La Commune de 1871. Une relecture, Ivry-sur-Seine, Creaphis, 2019, pp. 535-543, quote p. 543). Maybe he should have spoken less of a roundabout than of the  passengers’ hall  of some big railway hub...

[9] According to François Furet (La Révolution française, Paris, Hachette-pluriel, 1988, vol. 2, pp. 418-419) 'this last great uprising of the French revolutionary tradition was also the one that created most fear and spilled most blood, as if it formed the ultimate exorcism of a violence inseparable from our public life since the end of the eighteenth century. In this Paris in flames, the French Revolution bade farewell to history'. Tombs fully embraces this 'vividly formulated' conclusion (The Paris Commune 1871, London: Routledge, 2014, p. 183.) Rejecting both the idea that it helped entrench the Republic and its casting as the foundational event in a later revolutionary socialism, and noting that it was all but 'an isolated Parisian event', he concludes, 'the Commune's defeat, and what were diagnosed as the causes of defeat, that undeniably constitute its greatest historical significance ... it showed that the French Revolution had already bidden farewell to history' (ibid., p. 214).

[10]  See Mathilde Zederman, 'Memories of the Paris Commune in Belleville since the 1980s: Folklorization and New Forms of Mobilization in a Transforming Quartier', History and Memory, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 109-135 – quote from Pascal Joseph, Socialist deputy mayor of the 20th arrondissement responsible for memory and veteran combatants, , ibid., p. 122.

[11]  See the remarks by Éric Fournier, 'La Commune de 1871: enjeux de sa commémoration et de son enseignement, Aggiornamento hist-geo, 15 May 2013, available at 

[12]  In 1998, as premier in a 'Plural Left' government, Lionel Jospin remarked in an interview that 'a parliament like the Senate, with so many powers, where a change of majority is never possible, which is not elected by universal suffrage and which does not even have the feature of being a federal parliament, given that we are a unitary state, is an anomaly across democratic countries': 'Lionel Jospin donne la priorité à ses choix économiques et sociaux', Le Monde, 21 April 1998.

[13]  Nicolas Sarkozy, 2 February 2007 speech in Maisons-Alfort, available at linterieur-et-de-lamena.

[14] See Michel Becquembois, 'Macron, une certaine idée de Versailles', Libération, 10 May 2018, available at taine-idee-de-versailles_1649142. Macron had said this in a documentary broadcast on France 3 the previous night.

[15]  For an in-depth study (though it stops at the start of the 1970s), see Etya Sorel, 'La Commune dans les manuels scolaires', La Nouvelle Critique, special issue 'Expériences et langage de la Commune de Paris', 1971, pp. 131-145.

[16] See Éric Fournier and Quentin Deluermoz, 'Le deuxième exil des communards', Aggiornamento hist-geo, 27 July 2011, available at; Éric Fournier, La Commune n’est pas morte..., op. cit., pp. 150-152.

[17] Michel Winock, La Gauche en France, Paris, Perrin, 2006, pp. 158-159.

[18] Ibid., p. 159. See also his book, co-authored together with Jean-Pierre Azéma, Les Communards, Paris, Seuil, 1964.

[19] On this movement see, Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘What’s next for Nuit Debout ?’ Jacobin, May 15 2016, 

[20]  'The word [Communalism] originated in the Paris Commune of 1871, when the armed people of the French capital raised barricades not only to defend the city council of Paris and its administrative substructures but also to create a nationwide confederation of cities and towns to replace the republican nation-state': Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution. Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, London & New York, Verso, 2015, p. 26.

[21] See Stephen Bouquin, Mireille Court, Chris den Hond, La Commune du Rojava. L’alternative kurde à l'État-nation, Bruxelles & Paris, Critica & Syllepse, 2017; for an analysis with greater critical distance, see Jordi Tejel, 'Le Rojava: heurs et malheurs du Kurdistan syrien (2004-2015)', Anatoli, no. 8, 2017, pp. 133-149

[22] Quentin Deluermoz, Commune(s) 1870-1871. Une traversée des mondes au xixe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2020, pp. 2-3.

[23] Notable among recent works are the insights offered by Quentin Deluermoz, Commune(s)..., op. cit., pp. 75-97, 271-275, 297-317.

[24] It is worth noting that long before their involvement in founding the IWMA (1864) Marx and Engels were, together with Moses Hess and Philippe Gigot, originators of the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels in 1846. This genuinely transnational network's aim was to build ties between British Chartists and Belgian, French, German etc. socialists. At a more theoretical level, the 1848 Manifesto had defined the communists as not a ' separate party opposed to the other working-class parties' but as all those who, '[i]n the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries ... point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality' and 'always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.'

[25] Marx to Léo Frankel, 13 May 1871, text from

[26] Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 27 July 1871, text from

[27] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, chapter one, text from

[28] In his hardly warm letter to Léo Frankel on 26 April 1871, Marx criticised his correspondent for this silence:  'One of these days, the General Council is to issue an Address on the Commune. It has put off this manifesto up to now, because it was expecting the Paris Section from day to day to supply it with precise information. In vain! Not a word! The Council could not afford to wait any longer because the English workers have been eagerly awaiting its explanation' (Marx-Engels Collected Works, henceforth MECW, Vol. 44, p. 141). At the 18 April General Council meeting, Herman Jung stressed the 'need' to agree upon a public text on the Paris events, but emphasised that 'while we wanted direct communications from Paris, we have had nothing but false information from the newspapers'  (MEGA I.22 537).

[29]  Of aristocratic background, Elizabeta Tomanovskaya-Dmitrieff (1850-1910), influenced by Chernyshevsky's feminist and populist socialism, moved to Geneva in 1868, where she associated with Russian émigré revolutionaries and especially the circle around Nikolai Utin. Close to Marx and a great rival of Bakunin's within the International's Russian section, Utin sent her to London in December 1870 with a letter to Marx and the General Council, seeking arbitration of the conflict within this same section. On this colourful figure see Sylvie Braibant, Élisabeth Dmitrieff, aristocrate et pétroleuse, Paris, Belfond, 1993; Woodford McLellan, Revolutionary Exiles. The Russians in the First International and in the Paris Commune, London: Frank Cass, 1979, pp. 150-153; Carolyn J. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades. Women in the Paris Commune, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 69-95; Edith Thomas, 'Les "Pétroleuses"', L’Amourier, 2019 (1963), pp. 113-130.

[30] See his 12 June 1871 letter to Edward Spencer Beesly.

[31] 'Note de l’éditeur', in Karl Marx, La Guerre civile en France 1871, Paris, Éditions sociales, 1972, p. 17. This is a note to the French edition — through this text we instead use the English original, the text of which is available at

[32]  Proving that this was no mere formality, two of the most prominent members of the General Council — George Odger (1814-1877), a former cobbler, pioneering trade unionist and IWMA president, and Benjamin Lucraft (1809-1897), a chair-craftsman and veteran of the Chartist movement — refused to add their names; indeed, the latter virulently condemned the Commune (see minutes of the 20 June 1871 General Council meeting, in MEGA I.22 565-6). This marked the onset of the British trade unions' disengagement from the IWMA, considerably weakening the International and helping drive its subsequent fragmentation. Like the craft unions in general, Odger and Lucraft would come to ever more clearly operate in the orbit of the Liberal Party.

[33] It is worth remembering that even though it was the ultimate product of work that had begun in mid-April and been through two draft manuscripts, The Civil War in France was almost entirely written during Bloody Week.

[34] As per the hardly indulgent assessment of Jacques Rougerie, in La Commune de 1871, Paris, PUF, 1992, p. 77.

[35] Karl Marx, Herr Vogt (1860), MEGA I.18 140, English text from

[36] Marx to Engels, 8 August 1870, text from

[37] Engels to Marx, 15 August 1870, text from

[38] Ibid.

[39] Marx to Engels, 20 July 1870, text from

[40] Marx and Engels to the Brunswick Committee of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, approximately 1 September 1870, text from

[41] IWMA, 'Second Address on the War', 9 September 1870, text from

[42] Marx to Engels, 10 September 1870, MECW, Vol. 44, p. 69. See also Engels's response, pp. 75 et sqq. The SDAP manifesto including the extracts from their letter is in MEGA I.21 1064-1066.

[43] For the full text, see Le Rappel, 13 July 1870, available at

[44] Full text in Jacques Rougerie, Paris libre 1871, Paris, Seuil, 1971/2004, p. 32-33.

[45] See the letters between Marx and Engels dated 6, 7 and 12 September 1870.

[46] Engels to Marx, 12 September 1870, text from 

[47] Ibid. 

[48] On the Paris IWMA's role in creating this Committee, see Jean Dautry and Lucien Scheler's classic work, Le Comité central républicain des vingt arrondissements de Paris (septembre 1870-mai 1871), Paris, Editions sociales, 1960, and the further sources provided by Jacques Rougerie, 'Quelques documents nouveaux pour l’histoire du Comité central républicain des vingt arrondissements', Le Mouvement social, no. 37, 1961, pp. 3-29.

[49] Full text in Dautry, Scheler, Le Comité Central..., op. cit., p. 32-35.

[50] Serraillier's report to the IWMA General Council, 28 February 1871.

[51] Serraillier to Marx, cited in Marx to De Paepe, 14 September 1870, text in MECW, Vol. 44, p. 80.

[52] See the letters to Becker from Viktor Schily (26 February 1871), and Léo Frankel (5 March 1871) in Götz Langkau, 'Die Deutsche Sektion in Paris', International Review of Social History, vol.17, no. 1, 1972, pp. 146-148

[53] Full text in Jacques Rougerie, Procès des communards, Paris, Julliard, 1964, pp. 169-171 – citation from p. 171.

[54] Letter from Frankel to Becker, in Götz Langkau, 'Die Deutsche Sektion...', art. cit., p. 148.