Julius Martov

Decomposition or Conquest of the State


Written in 1919.
Introductory section published in Sozialisticheski Vestnik (Berlin) 8 July & 1 September 1921.
The whole article appeared for the first time in Mirovoi Bolshevism, Berlin 1923.
Translated by Herman Jerson.
Originally published in English in International Review, New York 1938.
Republished in J. Martov, The State and the Socialist Revolution (limited edition), London 1977, pp.27-48.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marx and the state

The very partisans of the “pure soviet system” (an expression current in Germany) do not themselves realize, as a rule, that the cause which is fundamentally served by the methods of contemporary Bolshevism is the organization of a minority dictatorship. On the contrary, they usually begin by looking around sincerely for political instruments that might best express the genuine will of the majority. They arrive at “sovietism” only after repudiating the instrument of universal suffrage – because it does not seem to furnish the solution they are seeking.

Psychologically the most characteristic thing about the rush of the “extreme leftists” toward “sovietism” is their desire to jump over the historic inertia of the masses. Dominating their logic, however, is the idea that soviets constitute a new, “finally discovered,” political mode. This, they say, is the specific instrument of the class rule of the proletariat, just as the democratic republic is according to them the specific instrument of the rule of the bourgeoisie.

The idea that the working class can only come to power by using social forms that are absolutely different, even in principle, from those assumed by the power of the bourgeoisie, has existed since the dawn of the revolutionary labor movement. We find it, for example, in the fearless propaganda of the immediate predecessors of the Chartist movement: the construction worker James Morrisson and his friend, the weaver James Smith. At the time when the advanced workers of the period were only beginning to conceive the idea that there was the need of seizing political power and to win universal suffrage in order to accomplish the latter, Smith was already writing in his journal, The Crisis, April 12, 1834:

... We shall have a real House of Commons. We have never yet had a House of Commons. The only House of Commons is a House of Trades, and that is only beginning to be formed. We shall have a new set of boroughs when the unions are organized: every trade shall be a borough, and every trade shall have a council of representatives to conduct its affairs. Our present commoners know nothing of the interests of the people, and care not for them ... The character of the Reformed Parliament is now blasted, and like a character of a woman when lost, is not easily recovered. It will be replaced with a House of Trades. [1]

Morrison wrote in his publication, The Pioneer, May 31, 1834:

The growing power and growing intelligence of the trade unions, when properly managed, will draw into its vortex all the commercial interests of the country, and, in so doing, it will become, by its own self-acquired importance, a most influential, we might almost say dictatorial, part of the body politic. When this happens, we have gained all that we want: we have gained universal suffrage, for if every member of the union be a constituent, and the Union itself becoming a vital member of the State, it instantly erects itself into a House of Trades which must supply the place of the present House of Commons, and direct industrial affairs of the country, according to the will of the trades that compose the associations of industry ... With us, universal suffrage will begin in our lodges, extend to the general union, embrace the management of trade, and finally swallow up the political power. [2]

Substitute Soviet for Union, executive committee, (“ispolkom”) for council of representatives, Soviet Congress for House of Trades, and you have a draft of the “Soviet system” established on the basis of productive cells.

In his polemic against the trade-union conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, B. O’Brien, who later headed the Chartists, wrote:

Universal suffrage does not signify meddling with politics, but the rule of the people in the State and municipality, a Government therefore in favor of the working man. [3]

Basing itself largely on the experience of the revolutionary labor movement in England, the 1848 communism-scientific socialism-of Marx and Engels, identified the problem of the conquest of State power by the proletariat with that of the organization of a rational democracy.

The Communist Manifesto declared: “We have already seen that the first step in the working-class revolution is raising the proletariat to the position of a ruling class, the conquest of democracy.”

According to Lenin the Manifesto poses the question of the State “still extremely in the abstract and employing ideas and expressions that are quite general” (State and Revolution, page 29, Russian ed.). The problem of the conquest of State power is presented more concretely in The 18th Brurnaire. Its concretecization is completed in Civil War in France, written after the experience of the Paris Commune. Lenin is of the opinion that, in the course of this development,

Marx has been led precisely to that conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat which forms today the basis of Bolshevism.

In 1852, in Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx wrote:

Every previous revolution has brought the machinery of State to a greater perfection instead of breaking it up.

On the 12th of April 1871, in a letter to Kugelmann, he formulated his viewpoint on the problem of revolution as follows:

If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will see that I declare the next attempt of the French Revolution to be not merely to hand over, from one set to another, the bureaucratic and military machine, as was the case up to now, but to shatter it. That is precisely the preliminary condition of any real people’s revolution on the Continent. It is exactly this that constitutes the attempt of our heroic Parisian comrades.

In this spirit, Marx declared (Civil War in France) that the Commune was: “a republic that was not merely to suppress the monarchic form of class domination but the class State itself.”

What was then the Commune?

It was an attempt to bring about the effective and rational establishment of a democratic State by destroying the military and bureaucratic State apparatus. It was an attempt to establish a State based entirely on the power of the people.

As long as he speaks of the destruction of the bureaucracy, the police and permanent army, as long as he speaks of the electiveness and recall of all officials, of the broadest autonomy possible in local administration, of the centralization of all power in the hands of the people’s representatives (thus doing away with the gap between the legislative and executive departments of the government, and replacing the “talking parliament” with a “working institution”) ; as long as he speaks of all of this in his defence of the Commune, Marx remains faithful to the conception of the social revolution he presented in the Communist Manifesto, in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is identified with the “conquest of democracy.” He therefore remains quite logical with himself when in his letter to Kugelmann, quoted above, he stresses that the “destruction of the bureaucratic and military machine” is the “preliminary condition of any real people’s revolution on the Continent.”(our emphasis.)

On this point, it is interesting to compare the experience gathered by Marx and Engels from the events of 1848 with the conclusions drawn by Hertzen. In his Letters from France and Italy, Hertzen wrote:

When universal suffrage is found alongside the monarchic organization of the State, when it is found alongside that absurd separation of power so glorified by the partisans of constitutional forms, when it is found alongside a religious conception of representation, alongside a police centralization of the entire State in the hands of a cabinet – then universal suffrage is an optical illusion and has about as much value as the equality preached by Christianity. It is not enough to assemble once a year, elect a deputy, and then return home to resume the passive role of administered subjects. The entire social hierarchy should be based on universal suffrage. The local community should elect its government and the department (province) its own. All proconsuls, made sacred by the mystery of ministerial unction, ought to be done away with. Only then will the people be able to exercise effectively all their rights and proceed intelligently with the election of their representatives to a central parliament.

The bourgeois republicans, quite on the contrary, “wanted to maintain the cities and municipalities in complete dependence on the executive power and applied the democratic idea of universal suffrage to only one civic act.” (Hertzen, Works, Pavlenkov ed., vol.5, pp.122-123).

In other words, Hertzen, like Marx, denounced the pseudo-democratic bourgeois republic in the name of a republic that was genuinely democratic. And like Hertzen, Marx rose against universal suffrage to the extent that it was no more than a deceptive appendix attached to the “monarchic organization of the State,” a legacy of the past. He opposed it because he was for a State organization built from top to bottom on universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the people.

Commenting on Marx’s idea, Lenin observes (State and Revolution, page 367, Russian ed.):

This could be conceived in 1871, when England was still the pattern of a purely capitalist country, without a military machine and, in a large measure, without a bureaucracy. That is why Marx excluded England, where a revolution, even a people’s revolution could be imagined, and was then possible, without the preliminary condition of the destruction of the State machine since the latter was available, all ready, for it.

Unfortunately, Lenin hurries to pass over this point without reflecting on all the questions posed for us by Marx’s restrictions.

According to Lenin, Marx admitted a situation in which the people’s revolution would not need to shatter the available ready State machinery. This was the case when the State machinery did not have the military and bureaucratic character typical of the Continent and could therefore be utilized by a real people’s revolution. The existence, within the framework of capitalism and in spite of the latter, of a democratic apparatus of self-administration, which the military and bureaucratic machine had not succeeded in crushing, was evidently exceptional. In that case, according to Marx, the people’s revolution should simply take possession of that apparatus and perfect it, thus realizing the State form that the revolution could best use for its creative purposes.

It is not for nothing that Marx and Engels admitted theoretically the possibility of a pacific socialist revolution in England. This theoretic possibility rested precisely on the democratic character, capable of being perfected, which the British State presented in their day.

Much water has flowed under the bridges since then. In England, as in the United States, imperialism has forged the “military and bureaucratic State machine” the absence of which had constituted, as a general feature, the difference between the political evolution of the Anglo-Saxon countries and the general type of capitalist State. At the present time, it is permissible to doubt if this feature has been preserved even in the youngest Anglo-Saxon republics: Australia and New Zealand. “Today,” remarks Lenin with justification, “both in England and in America the preliminary condition of any real ‘people’s revolution’ is the break-up, the shattering of the ‘available ready machinery of the State.’” [1*]

The theoretic possibility has not revealed itself in reality. But the sole fact that he admitted such a possibility shows us clearly Marx’s opinion, leaving no room for arbitrary interpretation. What Marx designated as the “destruction of the State machine” in Eighteenth Brumaire and in his letter to Kugelmann was the destruction of the military and bureaucratic apparatus that the bourgeois democracy had inherited from the monarchy and perfected in the process of consolidating the rule of the bourgeois class. There is nothing in Marx’s reasoning that even suggests the destruction of the State organization as such and the replacement of the State during the revolutionary period, that is during the dictatorship of the proletariat, with a social bond formed on a principle opposed to that of the State. Marx and Engels foresaw such a substitution only at the end of a process of “a progressive withering away” of the State and all the functions of social coercion. They foresaw this atrophy of the State and the functions of social coercion to be the result of the prolonged existence of the socialist regime.

It is not for any idle reason that Engels wrote in 1891, in his preface to Civil War in France:

In reality, the State is nothing more than 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 worse sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, will have at the earliest possible moment to lop off, until such time as a new generation, reared under new and free social conditions, will be able to throw on the scrap-heap all the useless lumber of the State.

Isn’t this clear enough? The proletariat lops off “the worst sides” of the democratic State (for example: the police, permanent army, the bureaucracy as an independent entity, exaggerated centralization, etc.) But it does not suppress the democratic State as such. On the contrary, it creates the democratic State in order to have it replace the “military and bureaucratic State,” which must be shattered.

If there is anything about which there can be no doubt it is that our party and the working class can only gain supremacy under a political régime like the democratic republic. The latter is, indeed, the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as has been demonstrated by the French revolution.

That is how Engels expresses himself in his critique of the draft of the Erfurt program. He does not speak there of a “soviet” republic (the term was, of course, unknown), nor of a commune-republic, in contrast to the “State.” Neither does he speak of the “trade-union republic” imagined by Smith and Morrisson and by the French syndicalists. Clearly and explicitly, Engels speaks of the democratic republic, that is, of a State democratized from top to bottom, “an evil inherited by the proletariat.”

This is stated so dearly, so explicitly, that when Lenin quotes these words, he finds it necessary to obscure their meaning.

Engels – he says –repeats here in a particularly emphatic form the fundamental idea which, like a red thread, runs throughout all Marx’s work, viz., that the Democratic Republic comes nearest [2*] the dictatorship of the proletariat. For such a republic, without in the least setting aside the domination of capital, and, therefore, the oppression of the masses and the class struggle, inevitably leads to such an extension, intensification and development of that struggle that, as soon as the chance arises for satisfying the fundamental interests of the oppressed masses, this chance is realized inevitably and solely in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, of the guidance of these masses by the proletariat. [4]

However, Engels does not speak of a political form that “comes nearest the dictatorship,” as is interpreted by Lenin in his commentaries. He speaks of the only “specific” political form in which the dictatorship can he realized. According to Engels, the dictatorship is forged in the democratic republic. Lenin, on the other hand, sees democracy merely as the means of sharpening the class struggle, thus confronting the proletariat with the problem of the dictatorship. For Lenin, the democratic republic finds its conclusion in the dictatorship of the proletariat, giving birth to The latter but destroying itself in the delivery. Engels, on the contrary, is of the opinion that when the proletariat has gained supremacy in the democratic republic and thus realized its dictatorship, within the democratic republic, it will consolidate the latter by that very, act and invest it, for the first time, with a character that is genuinely, fundamentally and completely democratic. That is why, in 1848, Engels and Marx identified the act of “raising the proletariat to a ruling class” with “the conquest of democracy.” That is why in The Civil War, Marx hailed, in the experience of the Commune, the total triumph of the principles of people's power: universal franchise, electiveness and recall of all officials. That is why in 1891, in his preface to The Civil War, Engels wrote again:

Against this transformation of the State and the organs of the State from the servants of society into masters of society – a process which had been inevitable in all previous States – the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In the first place, it confided all administrative, judicial and educational functions to men chosen by universal suffrage, and it reserved to itself the right of recalling them at any time, upon the decision of their electors. In the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only by wages not surpassing the wages received by other categories of workers.

Thus, universal suffrage is an “infallible expedient” against the transformation of the State “from a servant of society into its master.” Thus only the State conquered by the proletariat under the form of a basically democratic republic can be a real “servant of society.”

Is it not plain that when he speaks this way and identifies, at the same time, such a democratic republic with the dictatorship of the proletariat, Engels is not employing the latter term to indicate a form of government but to designate the social structure of the State power? It was exactly this that is stressed by Kautsky in his Dictatorship of the Proletariat when he says that for Marx such a dictatorship was not a question “of a form of government but of its nature.” An attempt at any other interpretation leads perforce to the appearance of a flagrant contradiction between Marx’s affirmation that the Paris Commune was an incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the emphasis he laid on the total democracy established by the Paris Cornmunards.

Lenin’s text demonstrates that when he really permitted himself to make contact with the viewpoint of the creators of scientific socialism, he rose above a simplist conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and did not then reduce it to dictatorial forms of organization of power and did not then fasten to the term the meaning of a definite “political structure.” In the quotation from State and Revolution reproduced above, Lenin puts an equals sign between “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “the guidance of these masses by the proletariat.” The equation corresponds entirely to the conception held by Marx and Engels. It is exactly this way that Marx represented the dictatorship of the proletariat under the Paris Commune when he wrote “this was the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative, even by the great bulk of the Parisian middle-class – shop-keepers, tradesmen, merchants – the wealthy capitalists alone excepted.” The voluntary acceptance by the great population of the hegemony of the working class engaged in the struggle against capitalism, forms the essential basis of the “political structure” that is called “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Similarly, the voluntary acceptance by the popular masses of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie permits us to designate the political structure existing in France, England and the United States as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” This dictatorship is not done away with when the bourgeoisie finds it worth while to offer to the peasants and the petty bourgeois, whom it directs, the appearance of sovereignty, by granting them universal suffrage. Similarly, the dictatorship of the proletariat that Marx and Engels had in mind can only be realized on the basis of the sovereignty of all the people and, therefore, only on the basis of the widest possible application of universal suffrage. [5]

Therefore, when we consider the opinions of Marx and Engels on the dictatorship of the proletariat, on the democratic republic and on the “State that is an evil,” we are obliged to arrive at the following conclusion:

To Marx and Engels, the problem of the taking of political power by the proletariat is bound up with the destruction of the bureaucratic-military machine, which rules the bourgeois State in spite of the existence of democratic parliamentarism.

To Marx and Engels, the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat is bound to the establishment of a State based on sincere and total democracy, on universal suffrage, on the widest local self-administration, and has, as its corollary, the existence of the effective hegemony of the proletariat over the majority of the population.

In that regard, Marx and Engels continue and extend the political tradition of the Mountain of 1793 and the Chartists of the O’Brien School.

It is true, however, that it is possible to discover in the works of Marx and Engels the traces of other ideas. These appear to offer round to theses according to which the forms, and even institutions, that may embody the political power of the proletariat, take on an essentially new character, opposed in principle to the forms and institutions that embody the political power of the bourgeoisie, and opposed in principle to the State as such.

These ideas belong to a special cycle and merit a separate study. We shall deal with them in the following chapter.

The Commune of 1871

When he considered the Commune in his writings, Marx could not merely present his views on the dictatorship of the proletariat. The uprising had many enemies. The first thing to be done was to defend the Commune against the calumny of its enemies. It was natural for this circumstance to influence Marx’s manner of dealing with the slogans and ideas of the movement that produced the events of March 1871.

Because the revolutionary explosion which led to the seizure of Paris by the armed people on March 18, 1871 was the expression of a fierce class struggle, it also provoked a conflict between the democratic-republican population of the large city and the conservative population of the provinces, especially that of the rural districts.

During the preceding two decades, the “backward” peasantry of France helped to crush revolutionary and republican Paris by supporting the extreme bureaucratic centralism of the Second Empire. As a result of this, the revolt of the Parisian democracy against the national representatives sitting at Versailles, appeared at first as a struggle for municipal autonomy. [6]

This circumstance gained for the Commune the sympathy of many bourgeois radicals, people who were for administrative decentralization and wide local autonomy. For some time, this aspect of the Paris Commune of 1871 hid the real nature and historic meaning of their movement even from the most outstanding Communards.

In his book of recollections of the International, the anarchist Gulllaume tells how immediately after the outbreak of the revolt, the Jura Federation sent their delegate Jacquault to Paris, in order to learn what would be the best way of helping the uprising, which the Jurassians considered to be the beginning of a universal social revolution. Great was the surprise of the men of Jura when their delegate returned with a report of the total lack of understanding shown by E. Varlin, the most influential of the “left” militants among the French Internationalists. According to Varlin, it appears, the uprising had a purely local aim – the conquest of municipal liberties for Paris. According to Varlin, the conquest of these liberties was not expected to have any social and revolutionary repercussions in the rest of Europe. (L’Internationale, Souvenirs, vol.II, page 133.)

It is understood that this could have been said only during the first days of the Commune. Soon the historic scope of their revolution started to become visible to the Paris proletariat. It is nevertheless true that the Commune never completely freed itself from the bourgeois conceptions that wanted to limit its aims to questions of municipal autonomy.

It is this lack of ideological clarity in the Communards’ minds that Marx later attacked in a letter to Kugelmann. In this letter, Marx mentions a demonstration staged against him by the Communard refugees in London, and takes the occasion to recall that it was he, however, who had “saved the honor” of the revolution of 1871. Marx “saved the honor” of the Commune by revealing its historic meaning, a meaning that the Communard combatants themselves were unaware of. But the Commune was influenced by other ideologies besides that of bourgeois radicalism. It also bore the imprint of Anarchist Proudhonism and Hébertian Blanquism, the two tendencies that fused in the general French working class movement. The representatives of these currents of thought sought in the Paris Commune a content that was diametrically opposed to that which the democratic bourgeoisie wanted to put into it. The semblance of identity between the social revolutionary and the bourgeois radical viewpoints was only due to the fact that both took a common stand against the bureaucratic and centralizing leanings of the State apparatus left by the Second Empire.

During the last few years before the Commune, the French Blanquists managed to make some contact with the working people of their country. They partially passed beyond the bourgeois Jacobinism under whose influence (and the influence of the Baboeuf school) they grew up. While they did not cease to draw their political inspiration from the heritage of the 18th century revolution, the most active representatives of Blanquism became more circumspect in regard to the Jacobin forms of democracy and revolutionary dictatorship. They tried to find for the proletarian movement of their time an ideological support in the revolutionary tradition of the “Hébertists,” the extreme Left of the sans-culotte of the French Revolution.

In 1793-1794, Hébert and his partisans found support among the real sans-culotte of the Parisian faubourgs, whose vague social and revolutionary hopes they tried to interpret. By means of this support, the Hébertists strove to turn the Paris Commune into an instrument by which they might exert pressure on the central government. Making use of the direct help of the armed populace, the Hébertists wanted to transform the Paris Commune of 1794 into a center possessing total revolutionary power. As long as Robespierre had not as yet reduced it to the level of a subordinate administrative mechanism (and he did that by crushing the Hébertists and sending their chiefs to the guillotine), the Commune of 1794 really represented the active revolutionary elements among the Parisian sans-culotte, by whom it had been chosen. Up to then, it incarnated the instinctive desire of the masses of the city poor to impose their dictatorship on rural and provincial France with its backward political conceptions. [7]

The Commune, as the instrument of the revolutionary will and the direct revolutionary action of the propertyless masses, contrasted to the democratic State, became the political ideal of the young Blanquists during the latter years of the Second Empire. [8]

In the course of the Revolution of March 18, another political trend, that of the Anarcho-Proudhonians, became visible. It moved alongside the “Hébertian” current, at times mingling with it.

Both tendencies saw in the “commune” a lever of revolution. But :o the Proudhonians, the commune did not appear to be a political, and specifically revolutionary, organization that, pitted against the just as political, and more or less democratic, State, was to obtain the effective submission of the latter by means of the dictatorship of Paris over France. They opposed every form of the State as an “artificial” – that is, political – grouping, established on the basis of the subordination of the citizenry to an apparatus, even under the fallacious guise of popular representation. The “commune” they had in mind was the “natural” social organization of producers.

According to their outlook, the commune was not merely to rise above the State, or subject the latter to its dictatorship. It was also to separate itself from the State, and invite all the 36,000 communes (cities and villages) of France to proceed the same way, thus decomposing the State and substituting for it a free federation of communes.

“What does Paris want?” asked La Commune on April 19, and it answered its own question as follows:

The extension of the absolute autonomy of the Commune to all the localities of France, assuring to each its rights, to every Frenchmen the complete exercise of his faculties and aptitudes as a human being, citizen and worker.

The autonomy of the Commune will be limited to the right of equal autonomy of all the communes participating in the pact. Such an association will assure French unity.

Logically flowing from this stand was a federalist program in the Proudhon-Bakuninist spirit, recognizing a voluntary and elastic pact as the only tie between the communes and excluding the complicated apparatus of a general State administration. The Communards were quite pleased when they were nicknamed “Federalists.”

On the 18th of March – wrote the Bakuninist Arthur Arnoult, a member of the Commune (Popular History of the Commune, page 243) – the people declared that it was necessary to escape the vicious circle, that it was necessary to destroy the evil in the egg that the thing to be done was not merely to change masters, but no longer to have any. In a miraculous recognition of the truth, seeking to reach the goal by all the roads leading to it, the people proclaimed the autonomy of the Commune and a federation of communes.

... For the first time, we were to interpret the real rules, the just and normal laws, which assure the true independence of the individual and the communal or corporative group, and to effect a bond between the various homogeneous groupings, so that they might enjoy, at the same time, union, in which there is strength, ... and autonomy, which is indispensable to ... the infinite development of all the original capacities and qualities of production and progress.

This communal federalism appeared to the Anarcho-Proudhonians to be the organization in which the economic relation of the producers would find their direct expression.

Each autonomous grouping – continues Arnoult – communal or corporative, depending on circumstances, will have to solve, within its own framework, the social question, that is, the problem of property, the relation between labor and capital, etc.

Note the restriction: “communal or corporative, depending on circumstances.” The viewpoint of the Federalist-Communard approaches quite closely to the outlook which, in 1833, led Morrisson and Smith to their formula of a “House of Trades;” which at the beginning of the twentieth century, gave rise to the doctrine of Georges Sorel, Edmond Berth, Di Leone and others, on the replacement of the “artificial” subdivisions existing in the modern State by a federation of “natural” corporative (occupational) cells; and which, in 1917-1919, created the conception of the “soviet system.”

“Communal groupings,” comments Arnoult later, “correspond to the ancient political organization. The corporative grouping corresponds to the social organization.” (Our emphasis.) Thus the communal organization was to serve as a transition between the State and the “corporative” federation.

This opposition of a “political” organization to a “social” organization presumes that the “destruction of the State machinery” by the proletariat will immediately reestablish among the producers “natural” relations, which supposedly can only manifest themselves outside of political norms and institutions. This contrast underlay the social- revolutionary tendencies that were in favor among the Communards.

Everything that the socialists stand for, and which they will not be able to obtain from a strong and centralized power, no matter how democratic, without formidable convulsions, without a ruinous, painful and cruel struggle-they will get in an orderly manner, with certainty and without violence, through the simple development of the communal principle of free grouping and federation.

The solution of these problems can belong only to the corporative and productive groupings, united by federative ties, and therefore free from governmental and administrative – in other words, political (our emphasis) – shackles, which till now have maintained, by oppression, the antagonism between capital and labor, subjecting the latter to the first. (Ibidem, page 250, Russian translation.)

That is how the most advanced of the Communards – the combatants who were closest to the social-revolutionary class movement of the French proletariat of the time – conceived the substance and scope of the commune of 1871.

Charles Seignobos is obviously wrong when he states (in his note on the Commune, found in the History of the 20th Century by Lavisse and Rambaud) that the revolutionaries renounced their initial aim – the seizure of power in France – and rallied to the cause of the autonomus commune of Paris, because they found themselves isolated from the rest of France and had to pass to the defensive. The latter circumstance merely helped the triumph of the Anarcho-Federalist ideas in the development of the Commune. If in the program of the Communards, the Hébertist conception of the Commune as the dictator of France ceded round to the Proudhonian idea of an apolitical federation, it is because the class character of the struggle between Paris and Versailles came out in the open. At that time, the class consciousness of the proletarians in the small industries of Paris gravitated entirely around the ideological opposition of a “natural” union of producers within society to the “artificial” unification of the producers within the State. We have seen how, at the beginning, Varlin presented the Commune as a thing of pure democratic radicalism. In its proclamation of March 23, 1871, the Paris section of the International declared that –

“The independence of the Commune is the guarantee of a contract whose freely debated clauses will do away with class antagonism and assure social equality.” This means the following. After the State and the power of constraint exercised by the State had collapsed, it becomes possible to create a simple “natural” social bond among the members of society-a bond based on their economic interdependence. And it is precisely the commune that is destined to become the framework within the limits of which this bond can be realized.

We have demanded the emancipation of the workers – continues the proclamation – and the communal delegation is the guarantee of this emancipation. For it will provide every citizen with the means of defending his rights, of controlling effectively the acts of the mandatories charged with the administration of his interests, and of determining the progressive application of social reforms.

It is easily seen that for the Anarchist idea of a commune of labor – that is, a union of producers, as contrasted to a union of citizens within the State – the proclamation discreetly substitutes the idea of a political commune, the prototype of the modern State, a State microcosm, inside of which the representation of interests and the satisfaction of social needs become specialized functions, just as (though certainly in a more rudimentary form) in the complicated mechanism of the modern State. P. Lavrov understood this quite well. He thus notes in his book on the Commune (P. Lavrov: The Paris Commune, page 130, Russ. ed.):

In the course of the 19th century, the unity of communal interests disappeared entirely before the increased struggle of classes. As a moral entity, the commune did not exist at all (emphasis by Lavrov). In each commune (municipality) the irreducible camps of the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie faced each other, and the struggle was further complicated by the presence of many groups of the small bourgeoisie. For a moment, Paris was united by a common emotion: irritation with the Bordeaux and Versailles Assemblies. But a passing emotion cannot be the basis of a political régime.

He adds (p. 167):

The effective autonomous basis of the régime, to which the social revolution will lead, is not at all the political commune, which admits inequality, the promiscuity of the parasites and laborers, etc. It is formed rather by a conjointly responsible grouping of workers of every kind, rallied to the program of the social revolution (our emphasis).

P. Lavrov speaks clearly of a “confusion of two notions: 1. the autonomous political commune (municipality), the ideal of tbe Middle Ages, in the struggle for which the bourgeoisie solidified itself and grew strong during the first stages of its history; and 2. the autonomous commune of the proletariat, which is to appear after the economic victory of the proletariat over its enemies, after the establishment, within the community, of a social solidarity that is inconceivable as long as the economic exploitation of labor by capital continues, and, therefore, as long as class hatred within each community is inevitable. When we analyze the demands of communal autonomy, as they were generally formulated in the course of the struggle in question, we may ask what relation could the unquestioned socialists of the Paris Commune see between the fundamental problem of socialism – the struggle of labor against capital – and the slogan of the ‘free commune’ which they inscribed on their flag?”

The paradox indicated by Lavrov consists of the following:

The very possibility of the process of transforming the capitalist order into a socialist order is subordinated to the existence of a social form whose mould, we believe, can only be furnished by a more or less developed socialist economy. This confusion is typical of the Anarchists. If it is obvious that the destruction of the basis of private economy, the transformation of the whole natural economy into socialist economy, will do away with the need of having an organization rise above the producer in the shape of the State-the Anarchists deduce from this that “the destruction of the State,” its “decomposition” into cells, into “communes,” is a prerequisite condition for the social transformation itself. There existed in the ideology of the Communards a juxtaposition of Proudhonian, Hébertist and bourgeois-autonomist notions. So that in their discussions, they passed with the greatest of ease from the political “commune” – territorial unit created by the preceding evolution of bourgeois society-to the “corporative” commune – the free association of workers, which we may imagine will be the social grouping when a socialist order has been achieved and the collective effort of one or two generations will have rendered possible "the progressive atrophy of the State as predicted by Engels. [9]

The interesting exposition made Dunoyer, one of the witnesses who appeared before the inquest commission appointed by the Versailles National Assembly after the fall of the Commune (quoted by Lavrov in his Paris Commune, page 166), suggests the following conclusion:

The “communalist” ideas, as they were conceived in the minds of the workers, merely represented an attempt to transplant into the structure of society the forms of their own combat organization.

“In 1871, the grouping of the workers within the International by sections and federations of sections was one of the elements that contributed toward the spread of the commune idea in France.” The International “possessed a ready made organization, where the word ‘Commune’ stood for the word ‘Section’ and the federation of communes was nothing else than the federation of sections.”

Compare this statement with the citations that, we made, in the preceding chapter, from the writings of the English trade-unionists of 1830, whose programs called for the replacement of the parliamentary bourgeois State with a “Federation of Trades.” Let us recall the analogous theses of the French syndicalists in the 20th century. And let us not forget that in our time, working people take to “the idea of the soviets” after knowing them as combat organizations formed in the process of the class struggle at a sharp revolutionary stage.

In all the “commune” theses we discover one recurring point. It consists in spurning the “State” as the instrument of the revolutionary transformation of society in the direction of socialism. On the other hand, Marxism, as it developed since 1848, is characterized especially by the following:

In accordance with the tradition of Babeuf and Blanqui, Marxism recognizes the State (naturally after its conquest by the proletariat) as the principal lever of this transformation. That is why already in the 60’s the Anarchists and Proudhonians denounced Marx and Engels as “Statists.”

What then was the attitude taken by Marx and Engels toward the experience provided by the Paris Commune, when the proletariat tried for the first time to realize a socialist “dictatorship?”

Marx and the Commune

The Proudhonists and the Anarchists were not greatly addicted to the study of economics. They had a naive, almost simplistic, conception of what would follow the seizure of the means of production by the working class. They did not realize that capitalism has created, for the concentration of the means of production and distribution, so huge an apparatus, that in order to lay hold of these means, the working class would require effective administrative machinery extending over the entire economic domain that was previously ruled by capital. They had no idea of the immenseness and complexity of the transformation that would come as a result of a social revolution. And only because they did not understand all these things was it possible for them to think of the autonomous “commune” – itself based on “autonomous” productive units – as the lever of such a transformation.

Marx was well aware of the preponderant role played by AnarcloProudhonism in the movement that brought forth the Paris Commune. In a letter to Engels (June 30, 1866), he refers ironically to "Proudhonian Stirnerianism,” which is inclined to “decompose everything into small groups or communes that are expected to come together again in some kind of union, but of course, not in the State.” (Correspondence, vol.III.)

In 1871, however, Marx faced the task of defending the Paris Commune against its enemies, who were drowning it in blood. He faced the task of justifying, in the shape of the Commune, the first attempt of the proletariat to seize power. If the Paris Commune had not been crushed by exterior forces, this effort would have led the workers beyond its first aims and shattered the narrow ideological bounds that repressed its vigor and denatured its content.

We can, therefore, understand why in his apology of the Commune, Marx could not even pose the question whether the realization of socialism is conceivable within the framework of autonomous, city and rural, communes. in face of the existing division of labor, economic centralization and the degree of development of the powerful means of production already attained at that time-merely to pose the question would have been tantamount to a categoric rejection of the claim that the autonomous commune could “solve the social question.”

We can understand why Marx avoided the question whether a Federalist union of communes could assure systematic social production on the scale customary to the preceding capitalism. We can understand why Marx touches only lightly on one of the most serious problems of the social revolution: the relationship between the city and the country, and merely declares, without any supporting evidence, that “the Cornmunal Constitution (organization) would bring the rural producers under the intellectual lead of the central towns of their districts, and there secure to them, in the working man, the natural defenders of their interests.” But would it be possible to hold the socialist economy in the framework of a federation of autonomous communes while this federation permitted the economic direction of the country by the city? Marx could permit himself to “adjourn” all these questions. He cold assume that such problems would automatically find their solution in the process of the social revolution and would, at the same time, cast out the Anarcho-Communalist illusions that prevailed in the minds of the workers at the beginning.

But Marx did not merely remain silent on such contradictions of the Paris Commune. It is undeniable that he attempted to solve them by recognizing the Commune as “the finally discovered political form, permitting the economic emancipation of labor,” and thus contradicted his own principle, that the lever of the social revolution can only be the conquest of State power.

The Communal Constitution – declared Marx – would have restored to the social body the forces hitherto absorbed by the parasite feeding upon and dogging the free movement of society. (Civil War in France.)

The very existence of the Commune, as a matter of course, led to local municipal liberty but no longer as a counter-weight against the power of the State, which thenceforward became useless. (Our emphasis.)

Thus, the “destruction of the bureaucratic and military machine of the State,” dealt with in Marx’s letter to Kugelmann, changed imperceptibly and came to stand for the suppression of all State power, of any apparatus of compulsion in the service of the social administration. The destruction of the “power of the modern State,” the Continental type of State, became the destruction of the State as such.

Are we in the presence of an intentional lack of precision, enabling Marx to gloss over, in silence, the weak points of the Paris Commune at a moment when the Commune was being trampled by triumphant reaction? Or did the mighty surge of the revolutionary proletariat of Paris, set in motion under the flag of the Commune, render acceptable to Marx certain ideas of Proudhonian origin? No matter what is the case, it is true that Bakounin and his friends concluded that in his Civil War in France, Marx approved of the social revolutionary path traced by them. So that in his memoirs, James Guillaume (Guillaume: The International, Vol.II, p.191) observes with satisfaction that in its appreciation of the Commune the General Council of the International (under whose auspices Civil War was published) adopted in full the viewpoint of the Federalists. And Bakounin announced triumphantly: “The Communalist revolution had so mighty an effect that despite their logic and real inclinations, the Marxists – with all their ideas overthrown by the Commune – were obliged to bow before the insurrection and appropriate its aims and program.” Such statements are not free from exaggeration. But they contain a grain of truth.

It is these, not very precise, opinions of Marx on the destruction of the State by a proletarian insurrection and the creation of the Commune that Lenin recognizes as the basis of the new social-revolutionary doctrine he presumes to reveal. On the top of these opinions of Marx, Lenin raises the Anarcho-Syndicalist canvas, picturing the destruction of the State as the immediate result of the conquest of the dictatorship by the proletariat, and replacing the State with that “finally discovered political form,” which in 1871 was embodied in the Commune and is represented today by the “soviets” – since “"the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, in different surroundings and under different circumstances, have been continuing the work of the Commune and have been confirming Marx’s analysis of history.” (State and Revolution, page 53, Russian text.)

Already in 1899, in his well-known Principles of Socialism, Eduard Bernstein observed that in the Civil War Marx appears to have taken a step toward Proudhon. “In spite of all points of difference that existed between Marx and the ‘petty bourgeois’ Proudhon, it is nevertheless true that on this question their currents of thought resemble each other as closely as possible.” Bernstein’s words throw Lenin into a great fit of anger. “Monstrous! Ridiculous! Renegade!” screams Lenin at Bernstein, and he takes the opportunity to revile Plekhanov and Kautsky for not correcting “this pervision of Marx by Bernstein” in their polemics against Bernstein’s book. [10]

But Lenin could have attacked on the same count the “Spartacist” Franz Mehring, unquestionably the best student and commentator of Marx. In his Karl Marx: The History of His Life (Leipzig, 1918), Mehring declares explicitly, leaving no room for doubt:

As ingenious as were some of Man’s arguments (on the Commune), they were to a certain extent, in contradiction with the conceptions championed by Marx and En gels for a quarter of a century and previously formulated by them in the Communist Manifesto.

According to these conceptions, the decomposition of the political organization referred to as the “State” evidently belongs among the final accomplishments of the coming proletarian revolution. It will be a progressive decomposition. That organization has always had as its principal purpose to assure, with the aid of the armed forces, the economic oppression of the working majority by a privileged minority. The disappearance of the privileged minority will do away with the need of the armed force of oppression, that is, State power. But at the same time Marx and Engels emphasized that in order to achieve this – as well as other, even more important, results – the working class will first have to possess itself of the organized political power of the State and use it for the purpose of crushing the resistance of the capitalists and recreating society on a new basis. It is difficult to reconcile the General Council’s lavish praise of the Paris Commune, for having commenced by destroying the parasitic State, with the conceptions presented in the Communist Manifesto. (Page 460. Our emphasis.)

And Mehring adds: “One can easily guess that Bakounin’s disciples have utilized the address of the General Council in their own fashion.”

Mehring is of the opinion that Marx and Engels clearly saw the contradiction existing between the theses presented in the Civil War and their previous way of posing the problem as a question of the conquest of State power. He writes: “Thus, when, after Marx s death, Engels had the occasion to combat the Anarchist tendencies, he, for his part at least, repudiated these reservations and resumed integrally the old conceptions found in the Manifesto.”

What are the “old conceptions found in the Manifesto?” They are the following:

  1. The working class seizes the State machinery forged by the bourgeoisie.
  2. It democratizes this machinery from top to bottom. (See the immediate measures which, according to the Manifesto, the proletariat of that time would have had to enact when it seized power.) It thus transforms the machinery formerly used by the minority for the oppression of the majority into a machine of constraint exercised by the majority over the minority, with a view of freeing the majority from the yoke of social inequality. That means, as Marx wrote in 1852, not merely “to seize the available ready machinery of the State” of the bureaucratic, police and military type, but to shatter that machine in order to construct a new one on the basis of the self-administration of the people guided by the proletariat.

Lenin put to his use the inexact formulae found in Civil War in France. These formulae were sufficiently motivated by the immediate need of the General Council to defend the Commune (directed by the Hébertists and the Proudhonists) against its enemies. But they did away almost completely with the margin existing between the thesis of the “conquest of political power” presented by the Marxists and the idea of the “destruction of the State” held by the Anarchists. On the eve of the revolution of October 1917, in his struggle against the republican democratism practiced by the socialist parties which he opposed, Lenin -used these formulae with such good effect that he accumulated in his State and Revolution as many contradictions as were found in the heads of all the members of the Commune: Jacobins, Blanquists, Hérbertists, Proudhonians and Anarchists. Objectively, this was necessary (Lenin himself did not realize it, without doubt) so that an attempt to create a State machine very similar in its structure to the former military and bureaucratic type and controlled by a few adherents [11] might be presented to the masses, then in a condition of revolutionary animation, as the destruction of the old State machinery, as the rise of a society based on a minimum of repression and discipline, as the birth of a Stateless society. At the moment when the revolutionary masses expressed their emancipation from the centuries-old yoke of the old State by forming “autonomous republics of Kronstadt” and trying Anarchist experiments such as “workers’ control,” etc. – at that moment, the “dictatorship of the proletariat and the poorest peasants” (said to be incarnated in the real dictatorship of the supposed “true” interpreters of the proletariat and the poorest peasants: the chosen of Bolshevist Communism) could only consolidate itself by first dressing itself in such Anarchist and anti-State ideology. The formula of “All Power to the Soviets” was found to be most appropriate to express mystically a tendency that agitated the revolutionary elements of the population at that time. This slogan presented to the revolutionary elements of the population two contradictory aims: 1. the creation of a machine that would crush the exploiting classes in the benefit of the exploited; but 2. which would, at the same time, free the exploited from any State machinery presupposing the need of subordinating their wills as individuals or groups to the will of the social entity.

No different in origin and significance is the "Soviet mysticism” now current in Western Europe (1919).

In Russia itself the evolution of the “Soviet State” has already created a new and very complicated State machine based on the “administration of persons” as against the “administration of things,” based on the opposition of “administration” to “self-administration” and the functionary (official) to the citizen. These antagonisms are in no way different from the antagonisms that characterize the capitalist class State.

The economic retrogression that appeared during the World War has simplified economic life in all countries. One of the results of this simplification is the eclipse, in the consciousness of the masses, of the problem of the organization of production by the problem of distribution and consumption. This phenomenon encourages in the working dams the rebirth of illusions that make it believe in the possibility of laying hold of the national economy by handing over the means of production directly – with the aid of the State – to single groups of workers (“worker control,” “direct socialization,” etc.)

From the ground provided by such economic illusions, we see rise again the fallacy that the liberty of the working class can be accomplished by the. destruction of the State and not by the conquest of the State. This belief throws back the revolutionary working class movement toward the confusion, indefiniteness and low ideological level that characterized it at the time of the Commune of 1871.

On one hand, such illusions are manipulated by certain extremist minorities of the socialist proletariat. On the other hand, these groups are themselves the slaves of these illusions. It is under the influence of this double factor that these minorities act when they seek to find a practical medium by which they might elude the difficulties connected with the realization of a real class dictatorship – difficulties that have increased since the class in question has lost its unity [3*] in the course of the war and is not capable of immediately giving battle with a revolutionary aim. Fundamentally, this Anarchist illusion of the destruction of the State covers up the tendency to concentrate all the State power of constraint in the hands of a minority, which believes neither in the objective logic of the revolution nor in the class consciousness of the proletarian majority and, with still greater reason, that of the national majority.

The idea that the “Soviet system” is equal to a definitive break with all the former, bourgeois, forms of revolution, therefore, serves as a screen behind which – imposed by exterior factors and the inner conformation of the proletariat – there are again set in motion methods that have featured the bourgeois revolutions. And those revolutions have always been accomplished by transferring the power of a “conscious minority, supporting itself on an unconscious majority,” to another minority finding itself in an identical situation.




1. Quoted by M. Beer in his History of British Socialism, page 265 of German ed.

2. M. Beer, page 266.

3. M. Beer, page 266. From Poorman’s Guardian, Dec. 7 and 21, 1833.

4. State and Revolution, page 66, Chapter IV.

5. In 1903. as is known, George Plekhanov declared, that when the revolutionary proletariat has realized its dictatorship, it may find it necessary to deprive the bourgeoisie of all political rights (including the right to vote). However, to Plekhanov this was one of the possibilities, one of the contingencies, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In my pamphlet The Struggle Against Martial Law within the Social-Democratic Labor Party of Russia, I tried to interpret Plekhanov’s words as presenting an example admissible only in logical abstraction and therefore used by him to illustrate the thesis: “The safety of the revolution is the supreme law and takes precedence over any other consideration.” I expressed the belief that Plekhanov himself probably did not presume that, after they had acquired power, the proletariat of countries that were economically ripe for socialism could find themselves in a situation where it was not possible for them to support themselves on the willing acceptance of their direction by the people but, on the contrary, had to deny to the bourgeois minority, by force, the exercise of political rights. In a private conversation with me, Plekhanov objected to my putting such an interpretation on his words. I understood then that his conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was not free of a certain kinship with the Jacobin dictators/zip by a revolutionary minority.

6. “The 18th of March took the aspect of a rebellion of Paris against provincial oppression,” writes Paul Louis, the historian of French socialism. Histoire du socialisme français, 2nd ed., page 308.

7. It is to Hébert’s Commune of Paris and that of Lyon that belongs the credit of initiating the extreme acts of political terror (the September executions, the expulsion of the Girondins from the Convention) and the measures of “consumers’ communism” by which the cities, deprived of resources, attempted to force the petty bourgeoisie of the villages and the outlying provinces to provide them with foodstuffs. It is in the Communes of Paris and Lyon where the expeditions of the “army of provisioning” started. There were organized the “committees of poor” for the purpose of appropriating grain from the contemporary “kulacks,” whom the jargon of the period called “aristocrats.” The two Communes of the French Revolution imposed contributions on the bourgeois and “took charge” of the stocks of commodities produced by industry during the preceding years (especially at Lyon). Front these organizations emanated the requisition of residences, the forcible attempts to lodge the poor in houses considered too large for their occupants, and other equalitarian measures. If in their quest for historic analogies, Lenin. Trotsky and Radek had shown a greater knowledge of the past, they would not have tried to tie the genealogy of the Soviets to the Commune of 1871 but to the Paris Commune of 1793-94. which was a center of revolutionary energy and power very similar to the institution of their own time.

8. In his letter to Marx, July 6. 1869 (Correspondence, vol.iv, page 175), Engels mentions Tridon’s pamphlet, Les Hébertistes, in which the author presents the argument of that wing of Blanquism:

It is ridiculous to suppose that the dictatorship of Paris over France- the rock on which the first revolution was wrecked – can simply be reproduced and meet with a different fate.

9. We find today (1918-1919) among the Bolsheviks in Russia, and in Western Europe, the same confusion, with their specific "political form that is supposed to accomplish the social emancipation of the proletariat. Also for these people, the question is said to be one of replacing the territorial organization of the State with unions of producers. Indeed, at first that was described to be the essence of the republic of soviets. This substitution is presented to us, at the same time, 1. as the natural result of the functioning of an achieved socialist régime and 2. as the prerequisite condition necessary for the realization of the social revolution itself. The confusion overflows all boundaries when an attempt is made to remedy it by resorting to the new notion of a “Soviet State.” The latter is supposed to incarnate the organized violence of the proletariat and, in that capacity, prepare the ground for the “withering away” of all forms of the State. But at the same time, it is, in principle. supposed to be opposed to the State as such. The Paris Communards reasoned the same way. They permitted themselves to imagine that the Commune-State of 1871 was something whose very principle was the opposite of any form of the State. while. in reality, it represented a simplified modern democratic State functioning in the manner of the Swiss canton.

10. Of course, Lenin, too, wrote a great deal on the subject of Eduard Bernstein’s book, without taking the trouble of correcting that “perversion.”

11. Let us recall that Lenin said that if 200,000 proprietors could administer an immense territory in their own interests, 200,000 Bolsheviks would do the same thing in the interest of the workers and peasants.



Translator’s Remarks

1*. It is as if Martov, writing in Russia, immediately after the World War, actually thought that by 1919 all democratic State machinery, developed up to then in England, Australia New Zealand, the United States and other points west, had been replaced with military-bureaucratic institutions. Something as similar is taken as an uncontradictable fact by the well-read and right-thinking Soviet citizen of 1938. In Martov’s case, the error is not accounted for altogether by the post-War blockade of Russia. We have already noted that no more than his compatriot Lenin did Martov – also a product of the Russian revolutionary movement – see clearly the relation between capitalism and popular, “democratic,” political mass support. Vet how much insight into what is really the same problem is shown by him in the immediately preceding Metaphysical Materialism and Dialectical Materialism.

2*. The version found in one English edition is “the nearest jumping-board to.”

3*. “Unity in what?” one may ask. Certainly not unity on the basis of socialist understanding, on the basis of a wide movement for the abolition of the existing system! That was never lost, nationally or internationally, because it has yet to become a fact. Paraphrasing Marx (his letter to Bolte, 23rd of November. 1871), it can be said that if “revolutionary minorities” cast their nets, with a measure of success and some historic justification, it but indicates that the working class has not yet ripened for an independent historic movement. The “revolutionary minorities” will find their fishing mighty poor when the working class reaches that maturity.


Last updated on 14.8.2008