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International Socialist Review Issue 34, March–April 2004

The Civil War in France

By Elizabeth Lalasz

Elizabeth Lalasz is a member of the ISR editorial board.

THE CIVIL War in France is Karl Marx’s seminal work on the Paris Commune of 1871. For seventy-two days, from March 18—May 28, the working class took control of the city of Paris and began to run it for themselves in their own class interests. For the first time in human history the world got a glimpse of what socialism would really look like–that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

Marx wrote The Civil War during the events of the Commune and presented it as an address to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association (later known as the First International) on May 30, only two days after the last barricade in Paris was destroyed. The Civil War, published as a pamphlet in early June 1871, is a testament to Marx’s keen ability to discern the significance of historical events as they were taking place. Frederick Engels, Marx’s close friend and political collaborator, noted

the author’s remarkable gift…for grasping clearly the character, the import and the necessary consequences of great historical events, at a time when these events are still in progress before our eyes or have only just taken place.1

Six months before the Commune, Marx had warned the Parisian workers that insurrection would be "an act of desperate folly."2 But once events began to take practical shape in March 1871, Marx enthusiastically supported the Commune and followed its every step. He prized the historical initiative of the Parisian masses above everything else. "What elasticity, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians!" Marx wrote in a letter to a colleague before the Commune’s defeat.

The present rising in Paris–even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine and vile curs of the old society–is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June [1848] insurrection in Paris. Compare these Parisians, storming heaven, with the slave to heaven of the German-Prussian Holy Roman Empire, with its posthumous masquerades reeking of the barracks, the Church, cabbage-junkerdom and above all, of the philistine.3

Even if the Commune did not succeed, what happened was "essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle."4 But the Paris Commune was also a school for Marx and Engels. The Commune showed that the shape of workers’ rule would consist not of taking over the existing institutions of the state–its police, courts, and parliamentary talk-shops–but of destroying and replacing them with new forms of workers’ self-organization and power. In his 1872 preface to the Communist Manifesto, Engels noted that the workers of Paris had clarified this question (quoting Marx’s address on the Commune):

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."5

From war to the Commune

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III), the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I), came to power in 1851 after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution–the first in a wave of revolutions that swept Europe that year. What followed was an anemic bourgeois republic afraid of its own shadow. Napoleon III’s coup created the Second Empire. Marx described it as

the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation. It was acclaimed throughout the world as the savior of society. Under its sway, bourgeois society, freed from political cares, attained a development unexpected even by itself. Its industry and commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; financial swindling celebrated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set off by a shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious and debased luxury.6

On July 19, 1870, France declared war on Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia. Napolean III and the French ruling class hoped the war would usher in a wave of patriotism to sweep away the working class’s discontent. But the Second Empire proved incapable of fighting an offensive campaign, and the war quickly became a disaster. By late August 1870, the Prussian army soundly defeated the French at Sedan and on September 2, 83,000 French soldiers, with the emperor at their head, surrendered. Shortly after, Prussian forces began to advance on Paris.

When news of the surrender reached Paris, the Second Empire was shaken to its core. On September 4, 1870, Parisian workers, peasants, shopkeepers, and artisans stormed the Palais Bourbon and forced the legislative assembly to proclaim the fall of the empire. By evening, the Third Republic–the Government of National Defense–was proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville (the city hall) in Paris.

The new government, led by conservative bourgeois politicians, feared the working class above all else. While they talked about "defending the motherland" against the Prussian invasion, they schemed about how to capitulate to Bismarck and turn their attention to crushing the Parisian workers.

The Prussian siege of Paris began on September 19, 1870, and lasted for more than four months. The new government felt nothing but contempt for the besieged population and did not supply them with either fuel or food, though that winter was the severest in memory. For the mass of unemployed workers in Paris, their only source of income was the National Guard and its daily pay of 1.5 francs. As a result, large numbers of working men took up arms and the National Guard grew to 300,000. The influx of workers transformed the Parisian National Guard into a workers’ militia.

On January 28, 1871, the government proclaimed a truce with the Germans and quickly called national elections. The Government of National Defense used the rural population’s desire for peace to win a resounding victory in the National Assembly. At the head of the new national government was Adolph Thiers, who Marx called "that monstrous gnome."7 A National Assembly was set up in the French city of Bordeaux. France and Germany signed a preliminary peace on February 26, 1871. France conceded Alsace and Lorraine and agreed to pay a war indemnity of five billion francs, while German troops would remain on French soil until the National Assembly ratified the treaty. Paris was surrendered to the Prussians. While the armistice disarmed all regular army forces, the National Guard was permitted to keep its arms. The working population of Paris remained armed–and they allowed the Prussian army only a small section of the city.

Seeing that the government was trying to sabotage the defense of Paris, workers set up dozens of vigilance committees and political clubs. The battalions of the National Guard elected a central committee on March 3. Several days later, the government moved its headquarters to Versailles, ten miles outside Paris.

For Thiers, the main task was to disarm the working class battalions defending Paris. On the early morning of March 18, 1871, he sent troops to try and seize the National Guard’s cannons on top of the hill at Montmartre. The troops almost succeeded, but housewives running errands noticed them and sounded the alarm in nearby churches. Groups of housewives with their children, along with workers and National Guard members, mixed with the government soldiers and formed a human barricade. One of the generals gave the order to fire on the crowd. Marx wrote,

One of the Bonapartist officers engaged in the nocturnal attempt against Montmartre, General Lecomte, had four times ordered the 81st line regiment to fire at an unarmed gathering in the Place Pigalle, and on their refusal fiercely insulted them. Instead of shooting women and children, his own men shot him.8

Fearing for their lives, thousands of regular troops, along with most of the French bourgeoisie, fled Paris for Versailles. The French masses became the masters of Paris. As Marx wrote in The Civil War:

The glorious working men’s Revolution of the 18 March took undisputed sway of Paris.... Europe seemed for a moment, to doubt whether its recent sensational performances of state and war had any reality in them or whether they were the dream of a bygone past.9

The central committee of the National Guard now controlled Paris. The delegates of the central committee issued a moving proclamation the next day:

The proletarians of the capital, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking the direction of public affairs into their own hands.…The workingmen, those who produce everything and enjoy nothing, those who suffer poverty in the midst of the accumulation of products that are the fruit of their labor and toil, will they always be exposed to outrage?… The bourgeoisie, their seniors, which accomplished its emancipation three-quarters of a century ago and preceded them in the way of revolution, does it not understand that today the time has come for the emancipation of the proletariat?10

They proceeded to issue a call for elections to a new Paris Commune. On March 26, the Paris Commune was elected by popular vote (that is, of the working masses that remained in Paris) and on March 28 it was proclaimed.

The significance of the Commune

The Commune, wrote Marx,

was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor.11

This new government was created not by taking hold of the old state machinery, but by creating new organs of power based on direct workers’ control. As the events of the Commune unfolded, Marx wrote a letter to a member of the First International, Dr. Ludwig Kugelmann:

The next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to the other–in other words, to replace one repressive, bureaucratic state with another–but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.12

The Commune replaced the misrule of parliament with the direct rule of the workers:

While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding 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, constituted in Communes.13

On March 30, 1871, the Commune made its first decree–the destruction of the standing army and its replacement with the armed working class.

Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire. Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. This first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.14

The Commune decreed that all officials be elected by a majority vote of both women and men, with each recallable at any time. This was an enormous step forward for women, who under the Second Empire did not even have the right to vote. Immediate recall was the means of removing officials, which was starkly different from the parliamentary bodies of the Thiers’ government. As Marx writes in The Civil War:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration.15

Each of these Commune officials was to be paid wages no higher then the average worker (the highest wage was 6,000 francs), in order to create an effective barrier to careerism.

From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at working men’s wages. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.16

These changes, however short-lived, had a profound affect on the lives of ordinary Parisians. As Marx explains:

Having got rid of the standing army and the police, the physical force elements of the old government, the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the "parson-power," by the disestablishment and disembodiment of all churches as propriety bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles. The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.17

Among the other accomplishments of the Commune were: the abolition of night work for bakers, the remitting of rent payments, and the election of foreigners to the Commune because "the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic." Plans were drawn up to take control of factories and run them under workers’ control, and pawnshops were closed. Of course, these did not constitute a complete plan of socialist transformation, only indicators of what was possible. "In a beleaguered city, however," wrote Engels, "it was possible at most to make a start in the realization of all these measures."18

Though under siege and impoverished, the Commune created a sense of ownership over their city among Parisian workers. As a result, there was an explosion of mass participation in public life and culture, while petty crime declined considerably.

Wonderful, indeed, was the change the Commune had wrought in Paris! No longer any trace of the meretricious Paris of the Second Empire! No longer was Paris the rendezvous of British landlords, Irish absentees, American ex-slaveholders and shoddy men, Russian ex-serfowners, and Wallachian boyards. No more corpses at the morgue, no nocturnal burglaries, scarcely any robberies; in fact, for the first time since the days of February 1848, the streets of Paris were safe, and that without any police of any kind.

"We," said a member of the Commune, "hear no longer of assassination, theft, and personal assault; it seems indeed as if the police had dragged along with it to Versailles all its Conservative friends."19

Weaknesses of the Commune

One of the key reasons the Commune did not succeed was the parochialism of its leadership, which held back from acting in a centralized, decisive manner at critical moments. The central committee had only been elected several days prior to March 18, with very little time to work together as a cohesive body. Their politics were dominated by the tendencies of Auguste Blanqui and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Blanqui supported the idea of revolution on behalf of the workers, but carried out by a small group of co-conspirators. Proudhon was a federalist who supported small-scale production and equal exchange, but opposed strikes and violence, and was a sworn enemy of all centralized states.

Due to its lack of experience and politics, the leadership of the Commune was pulled by two competing ideas at the same time–one of republican nationalism and the other of workers’ struggle against the French ruling class. With no strong working-class organization or trade unions–strikes had just begun to grow to large numbers in the previous decade–there were no means to counter this confusion.

The main problem with the leaders of this revolution was that they were not prepared for the power that was handed to them. Lack of preparation led the Commune leadership to make two key mistakes. The first was that they did not organize a march on the new government at Versailles. On the night of March 18—19, 20,000 demoralized and bedraggled French troops were allowed to retreat to Versailles unhindered by the National Guard.

Thiers, enraged at the success of the Commune, sent his remaining troops to attack a Parisian suburb on April 2, 1871. In response, thousands of workers (including many women) demonstrated at the Hôtel de Ville, where the Commune met, and prepared to march to Versailles. The leaders of the Commune hesitated and voted this down. The central committee conceived their actions in purely local terms, as a municipal revolt restricted to Paris. They were not prepared to assume anything but a defensive posture toward Versailles.

Protests demanding a march on Versailles went on for days–but every attempt was stopped. If the central committee had approved such a march, there is a good chance they would have succeeded. Instead, Thiers was allowed to rebuild his army to continue to attack Paris. As Marx wrote in The Civil War:

In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers’ burglarious attempt at Montmartre, the Central Committee made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles, them completely helpless, and this putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers and his Rurals. Instead of this, the Party of Order was again allowed to try its strength at the ballot box, on the 26th of March, the day of the election of the Commune. Then, in the mairies [city halls] of Paris, they exchanged bland words of conciliation with their too generous conquerors, muttering in their hearts solemn vows to exterminate them in due time.20

The other crucial mistake was not to take over the Bank of France and seize all its assets for themselves, blocking any money from going to Versailles. Instead, the central committee asked Baron Rothschild, the bank’s owner, to open up a credit account for them and the bank remained untouched throughout the period of the Commune, a symbol of capitalist financial respectability in the midst of the Paris revolution. As Engels wrote:

The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained standing respectfully outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The bank in the hands of the Commune–this would have been worth more than ten thousand hostages. It would have meant the pressure of the whole French bourgeoisie on the Versailles government in favor of peace with the Commune.21

The end of the Commune

These weaknesses served to shorten the duration of the Commune and close the door to its victory. For weeks, troops from Versailles shelled the city, gaining strength and moving closer to an assault on the city. French troops finally began entering Paris on May 21, 1871. Although they lacked sufficient central direction, the Parisian workers fought back desperately, barricade by barricade. In these last moments of the Commune workers showed exceptional courage:

National Guards, women and children, workers in their blouses, worked all day and into the night constructing defenses on which many of them were to die.22

Versailles troops slaughtered close to 25,000 workers over the course of what came to be known as "bloody week." Men, women, and children were simply lined up and shot and left in huge piles to rot in the street. Men who were old enough to have had anything to do with the 1848 revolution were summarily dispatched in the street. Thousands were taken prisoner and marched in shackles to Versailles. Marx described the fury of the bourgeoisie:

The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge.…

To find a parallel for the conduct of Thiers and his bloodhounds we must go back to the times of Sulla and the two Triumvirates of Rome. The same wholesale slaughter in cold blood; the same disregard, in massacre, of age and sex, the same system of torturing prisoners; the same proscriptions, but this time of a whole class; the same savage hunt after concealed leaders, lest one might escape; the same denunciations of political and private enemies; the same indifference for the butchery of entire strangers to the feud.23

To the end, supporters of the Commune spoke with unflinching conviction, like Louise Michel, the most important woman militant in the Commune. Fearing her arrested mother might be executed, Michel surrendered in exchange for her mother’s release. She proclaimed proudly during her trial:

I have been told that I am an accomplice of the Commune. Certainly, yes, for the Commune wanted, above all else, the Social Revolution, and the Social Revolution is the dearest of my desires. Even more, I am honored in being one of the promoters of the Commune.…Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything, but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance.24

She was banished to the island of New Caledonia.

Though the defeat of the Parisian working class was horrifyingly tragic, the revolution in Paris was not in vain. "Whatever the immediate results may be," wrote Marx before its defeat, "a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained."25

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 will not avail to redeem them.26

Writing in later years of the Commune’s significance, Engels came back to its central lesson: The working class must shatter "the former state power" and replace it "by a new and really democratic state":

The state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another…and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at the earliest possible moment, until such time as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap.27


1 Frederick Engels, "Introduction," The Civil War in France (New York: International Publishers, 1993), 9. Hereafter referred to as CWF.

2 Vladimir Lenin, "Part Two: Writings on the Commune," CWF, 91.

3 Marx-Engels correspondence,1871, available online at

4 Lenin, in CWF, 94

5 Frederich Engels, "1872 Preface to the German Edition," Communist Manifesto, available online at

6 Marx, CWF, 56.

7 Ibid., 39.

8 Ibid, 48—9.

9 Ibid.

10 Quoted in Steward Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871 (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1977), 154—55.

11 Ibid., 56—57.

12 Ibid., 86.

13 Ibid., 57.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 57—58.

18 Engels, 15—16.

19 Marx, CWF, 67.

20 Ibid., 51.

21 Engels, 18.

22 Edwards, 317—18.

23 Marx, CWF, 74—75.

24 Edith Thomas, Louise Michel (Toronto, Canada: Black Rose Books, 1980), 124—25.

25 Marx, CWF, 87.

26 Ibid., 81—82

27 Engels, 21—22.

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