It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.
But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?
Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?
Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871
Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”
A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic” state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen [community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word, commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).
For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.
Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state. Συνέχεια