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The Political Form at Last Discovered

From the special series 1871-2021. The 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

The struggle, by now more than a hundred years old, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie encompasses the whole world. One hundred and fifty years ago, in March 1871, in a single city — Paris — and in a very short time span — 72 days — the assault on the sky attempted by the proletariat and ferociously repressed by a rising bourgeoisie resolved, in practice, fundamental theoretical issues of socialism that until that moment only had provisional solutions.

In the Manifesto [1848], Marx and Engels had limited themselves to stating that the indispensable precondition for the communist revolution was the conquest of democracy, i.e., the conquest of the state machinery on the part of the proletariat. However, it remained to be seen whether and to what extent the dictatorship of the proletariat could avail itself of the bourgeois state machinery. Moreover, in the definition Lenin gives, Marx’s theory is a summing up of experience, we cannot expect the Manifesto to anticipate an answer that would be able to come only from the subsequent course of the class struggles. […]

Not by chance, in the 1872 Preface to the German edition of the Manifesto, Engels observed that this programme has in some details become antiquated, because one thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes’. But, also, because the Commune allowed the discovery of the typical characteristics the dictatorship of the proletariat was to assume.

Of these typical characteristics, one must be emphasised: the Commune was a State-non-State.

In his Address on The Civil War in France [May 30th 1871], Marx dealt with this crucial point, drawing, precisely from the Commune, a theoretical balance that became a fundamental stage in the elaboration of the Marxist science of revolution, grasping a fundamental novelty: Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of [labour].

Unfortunately, the Commune would have few opportunities to realise lasting projects, but the direction of travel was by then mapped out.

In order to achieve its own emancipation, the working class will have to endure long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men, wrote Marx, but they have no ideals to realise, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.

Lenin notes that, in Marx, there is no trace of utopianism, no invention of a future society, but only the study of the forms of transition from one society to another, based on facts and on experience of the mass proletarian movement. He ‘learned’ from the Commune, just as all the great revolutionary thinkers learned unhesitatingly from the experience of great movements of the oppressed classes, and never addressed them with pedantic ‘homilies’.

Arrigo Cervetto grasps in this elaboration of Marx, Engels and then Lenin the application of the materialist conception of politics, and titles an article in The Political Shell precisely The Political Form at Last Discovered:

Discovered, and not invented, discovered by means of the mind from material facts, as Engels wrote in his Anti-Dühring, and not invented by the mind. Here is the essence of Marxism with regard to the question of political forms, the question of the state. The discovery is the scientific result of the materialist conception of politics. Marx the scientist did not invent a project to bring about a political form, as many others have done and will do, but was able to grasp how a new social movement expresses a new political form. The latter was different from those which preceded it because it was ‘expansive’ […] because it freed and expanded all the potentials and capacities of the producing class, to the point where it made them become the conscious activity of a classless society of producers.

The economic emancipation of labour needed a new political form, which Marx discovered in the movement of the superstructure just as he had discovered surplus value in the movement of the structure. He recognised an underlying historic pattern: the expansive tendency drives towards the extinction of the State.

Lenin brought back this discovery of Marx’s, just months before the real movement in Russia put it back on the agenda of theory and practice.

The Commune wanted a world of free men — that is communism — but this is incompatible with the existence of any form of state because, as Lenin summarises, as long as the state exists there is no liberty and when there is liberty, there shall be no state. The concepts of freedom and democracy are usually considered to be identical, instead, democracy precludes freedom. The dialectic (course) of development is as follows: from absolutism to bourgeois democracy; from bourgeois democracy to proletarian democracy; from proletarian democracy to none at all.

This is why the Communards were massacred; they were suppressed by a bourgeoisie that even today considers its own class rule to be ‘eternal’ and therefore not susceptible to being replaced. […]

What, then, was the Paris Commune? In what sense did that revolution not limit itself to laying hold of the state machinery but, after smashing it, replaced it with an absolutely unprecedented form, suited to being the political shell of social emancipation?

In his Address on The Civil War in France, Marx explained that the Commune had not only got rid of the standing army and replaced it with a National Guard- that is all the armed manhood of Paris. The power of the Paris workers also stemmed from the absence of the old bureaucrats, who had preferred to follow Thiers to Versailles. This was why the workers had had to reorganise social and administrative life on completely new bases, fully corresponding to the interests of the proletariat. The Commune had demonstrated — commented Lenin — that it is possible to build new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy […] to replace the specific ‘bossing’ of state officials by the simple functions of ‘foremen and accountants. How? By giving birth to a government made up essentially of working men, of acknowledged representatives of the working class and based on principles of eligibility, revocability and responsibility before the people of all its political, judicial and administrative organs. No less important was the remuneration of these public offices with workmen’s wages. Lenin commented: and that these functions can (and must) be stripped of every shadow of privilege, of every semblance of official grandeur.

Furthermore, Marx clarified that the Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time, which replaced the bourgeois state organs with new revolutionary institutions, within a coherent framework of different measures: the expropriation of large capitalist property [of means of production] in favour of workers’ cooperatives, the replacement of the standing army by the armed people, the abolition of the police, the separation of the church from state and the expropriation of the property of the churches.

A valid model not only for the industrial centres of France, but as the political form of even the smallest country hamlet.

These simple expedients — explained Marx — ensured that the Commune, even in its short life, laid the foundations of a new way of governing, thus providing the model for passage towards a future higher social organisation, socialism. […]

Since this 1871 battle, the world has changed radically. Having reached the height of its development, the bourgeois epoch has, for some time, been experiencing increasingly disruptive convulsions, which will bring it to its inevitable end. The liberal state itself, its powers, its imperialist democracy and its representative institutions are being increasingly questioned, overwhelmed by a breakdown in confidence and by widespread pessimism which, in the old Western powers, reflect the reaction to a huge shift in forces that emphasises their decline, while China’s imperialist rise as a new continental giant proceeds irrepressibly.

But, dialectically, that young class which raised its head 150 years ago to fight, at that time, a desperate battle, has enormously multiplied its numerical force, to the point of comprising the majority of the humankind, a power among the powers.

In social evolution — wrote Cervetto — the new species has stood up, has ‘assaulted the sky’, and is at last walking upright. It will fall back, it might fall back, but by now it has demonstrated that it can walk with its feet on the ground and its head in the air.

The Commune fell. The first assault on the sky in the history of our young, rising, international class was stifled in blood in one of the first metropolises of modern capitalism.

Marx ended his Third Address as follows: Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators[’] history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest[s] will not avail to redeem them.

Today the heirs of that class at the time still in nappies crowd in their billions into metropolises and megalopolises with tens of millions of inhabitants. Today, hundreds of metropolises with names that are unknown most of the time, surrounded by enormous districts with rookeries, huge banlieues and often spectral bidonvilles, have the same embers smouldering under the ashes from which came the spark that launched the movement of the Paris proletariat on March 18th, 1871. Today’s international proletariat unites men and women of every nationality, ethnic group and culture and has a force that is 100 times stronger. The glorious, pioneering experience of the Commune remains in the collective memory of our class. The Commune is the watchword of the future of this international class because it was the bold champion of the emancipation of labour, and of absolutely international government.

Lotta Comunista, February 2021