Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Fourteen: The Decline of the International


1. Sedan

VERY much has been written about the attitude of Marx and Engels to the Franco-Prussian War, although fundamentally there is very little to be said about it. Unlike Moltke, they did not regard war as an element of God’s dispensation, but as an element of the devil’s dispensation, as an inseparable accompaniment of class society and in particular of capitalist society.

As historians, they naturally did not adopt the utterly unhistorical attitude that war is war and that every war is tarred with the same brush. For them every war had its own definite causes and consequences, and upon those causes and consequences must depend the attitude taken up by the working class towards the war. That was also the attitude of Lassalle, with whom they disputed in 1859 on the actual determining conditions of the war, whilst all three of them adopted the same fundamental attitude towards it, i.e., all three aimed at utilizing the war as thoroughly as possible in the interests of the proletarian struggle for emancipation.

The attitude of Marx and Engels to the war of 1866 was determined by the same consideration. After the failure of the German revolution of 1848 to establish national unity the Prussian government sought to exploit the German movement for unity (which was awakened again and again by the course of economic development) in its own interests and to establish instead of a united Germany an extended Prussia, as old Kaiser Wilhelm had put it. Marx and Engels, Lassalle and Schweitzer, Liebknecht and Bebel were all completely in agreement about the fact that German unity, which the German proletariat needed as a preliminary stage in its own struggle for emancipation, could only come through a national revolution, and they therefore sharply opposed all the dynastic-particularist tendencies of the Greater Prussia policy. However, after the decision had been fought out at Königgrätz they all sooner or later, according to the measure of their insight into the “actual conditions,” swallowed the unpleasant pill – they realized that a national revolution was no longer possible, owing to the cowardice of the bourgeoisie and the weakness of the proletariat, and that Greater Prussia, built up with “blood and iron,” offered more favourable conditions to the class-struggle of the proletariat than the restoration-impossible in any case of the German federal Diet with its pitiful hole-and-corner policy. Marx and Engels immediately came to this conclusion as also did Schweitzer as the successor of Lassalle. They accepted the North German League, despite its crippled and stunted form, as a given fact which offered the struggle of the German working class a firmer basis than the ghastly mismanagement of the Federal Diet, though their acceptance was hardly a willing, much less an enthusiastic one. On the other hand, Liebknecht and Bebel still maintained their Greater-German revolutionary outlook and even after 1866 they continued to work for the destruction of the North German League.

After the decision to which Marx and Engels came in 1866, their attitude towards the war of 1870 was already more or less settled. They never expressed any opinions on the immediate happenings which led up to the war, either on Bismarck’s advocacy of a Hohenzollern prince for the Spanish throne, directed against Bonaparte, or on Bonaparte’s policy of a Franco-Austro-Italian alliance against Bismarck. In any case, it was at that time hardly possible to express a reasonable judgment on either. However, as far as Bonaparte’s war policy was directed against the national unity of Germany, they both recognized that Germany was on the defensive.

In an address issued by the General Council of the International on the 23rd of July and drawn up by Marx, the latter gave detailed reasons for this standpoint. He declared that the war plot of 1870 was an improved edition of the coup d’etat of 1851, but that it sounded the death knell of the Second Empire, which would end as it had begun, as a parody. However, one must not forget that it was the ruling classes and the governments of Europe which had made it possible for Bonaparte to play the brutal farce of a restored empire for eighteen years. The war was a defensive war as far as Germany was concerned, but who had forced Germany into such a situation, who had made it possible for Louis Bonaparte to make war on Germany? Prussia. Before Königgrätz Bismarck had conspired with Bonaparte, and after Königgrätz Bismarck had not established a free Germany in contrast to an enslaved France, but had crowned all the native perfidies of the old system with all the underhand tricks of the Second Empire, so that the Bonapartist regime flourished on both banks of the Rhine. What other result could there have been but war? “If the German working class permits the present war to lose its strictly defensive character and to degenerate into a war against the French people, then both defeat and victory will be equally fatal. All the misery which Germany suffered as the result of the so-called wars of liberation would return with increased intensity.” The Address pointed out that the demonstrations of the German and French workers against the war made it unnecessary to fear such a sad result, and reminded the workers that in the background of the suicidal struggle the evil figure of Russia was on the watch. All the sympathies which the Germans could demand as their right in their defensive struggle against the Bonapartist attack would be flung away, if they permitted the Prussian government to call for or accept the assistance of the Cossacks.

On the 21st of July, two days before this address was issued, the North German Reichstag had voted a war credit of 120 million thaler. In accordance with their policy since 1866, the Lassallean parliamentary representatives had voted for the credit. Liebknecht and Bebel, the parliamentary representatives of the Eisenachers, had abstained from voting, because a vote in favour of the credit would have been a vote of confidence in the Prussian government which had sown the seeds of the present war by its attitude in 1866, whilst a vote against the credit might have been interpreted as expressing approval for the atrocious and criminal policy of Bonaparte. Liebknecht and Bebel regarded the war chiefly from the moral point of view, as Liebknecht demonstrated later in his work on the Ems despatch and Bebel in his Memoirs.

Their attitude met with vigorous opposition in their own faction and in particular from its leadership, the Brunswick Committee. In reality the abstention of Liebknecht and Bebel was not practical politics, but a moral protest which, irrespective of how justified it might be in itself, was not in accordance with the political exigencies of the situation. Although it may be possible and perhaps effective in private life to declare to two opponents: you are both wrong and I refuse to have anything to do with your quarrel, it is not possible in the life of States when whole peoples have to suffer from the quarrels of kings. The practical consequences of this impossible neutrality were revealed during the very first weeks of the war in the confused and illogical attitude of the Leipziger Volksstaat, the organ of the Eisenach faction. As a result, the conflict between the editorial board, that is to say, Liebknecht, and the Brunswick Committee was intensified and the latter appealed to Marx for advice and support.

On the 20th of July, immediately after the outbreak of war and before the abstention of Liebknecht and Rebel, Marx had written to Engels sharply criticizing “republican chauvinism” in France: “The French need a drubbing. If the Prussians are victorious then the centralization of the State power will be favourable to the centralization of the working class. German preponderance will shift the centre of the working-class movement in Western Europe from France to Germany, and one has only to compare the movement of 1866 in both countries to see that the German working class is theoretically and organizationally superior to the French. The superiority of the Germans over the French in the world arena would mean at the same time the superiority of our theory over Proudhon’s, etc.” When Marx received the appeal of the Brunswick Committee he approached Engels, as he always did in all important questions, to secure his advice, and, as in 1866, it was Engels who decided the details of the tactics adopted.

In his reply on the 15th of August Engels writes: “The situation seems to me to be as follows: Germany has been forced into a war to defend its national existence by Badinguet (Bonaparte). If Germany is defeated then Bonapartism will be consolidated for years and Germany broken for years, perhaps for generations. Under such circumstances there could be no question of any independent German working-class movement. The struggle for the establishment of national unity would absorb all energies, and in the best case the German workers would be taken in tow by the French. If Germany is victorious then French Bonapartism is destroyed in any case, the eternal squabbling about the establishment of German unity will be ended at last, the German workers will be able to organize themselves on a far broader basis than previously, whilst the French workers will also have much greater freedom of movement than under Bonapartism, no matter what sort of a government may follow there. The great masses of the German people, all classes, have realized that the national existence of Germany is at stake and they have therefore immediately sprung into the breach. Under these circumstances it seems impossible to me that a German political party can preach total obstruction (à la Wilhelm (Liebknecht) and place all sorts of subordinate considerations before the main issue.”

Engels condemned French chauvinism, which made its influence deeply felt even in the ranks of the republican elements, as severely as Marx: “Badinguet could never have begun this war without the chauvinism of the masses of the French people, the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasants and the imperialist Haussmann building proletariat created by Bonaparte in the big towns and recruited chiefly from the peasantry. Peace between France and Germany is impossible so long as this chauvinism has not been crushed, and thoroughly at that. One might have expected a proletarian revolution to undertake this task, but now that the war has begun the Germans have no alternative but to do it themselves and at once.” The “subordinate considerations,” namely that the war had been planned by Bismarck and company, and that a German victory would reflect glory on Bismarck’s system, were due to the miserable quality of the German bourgeoisie. It was all very unpleasant, but nothing could be done about it: “But to raise anti-Bismarckism to a guiding principle for this reason would be absurd. First of all, just as in 1866, Bismarck is doing a share of our work; he is doing it in his own way and without wanting to, but nevertheless he is doing it. He is giving us a clearer field than we had before. And then we are no longer living in AD 1815. The South Germans must now necessarily enter the Reichstag and with their entry a counter-weight to Prussia is established ... In any case, Liebknecht’s desire to turn back the whole course of history since 1866, just because it doesn’t please him, is nonsense, but then, we know our exemplary South Germans.

In this letter, Engels once again returns to Liebknecht’s policy: “Amusing is Wilhelm’s contention that because Bismarck was once an accomplice of Badinguet the correct attitude is therefore one of neutrality. If that opinion were generally prevalent in Germany we should soon have the Rhineland League again and the noble Wilhelm would be hard pressed to find what role he could play in it, not to speak of the working-class movement. A people used only to blows and kicks is just the right stuff to make a social revolution, particularly in Wilhelm’s beloved Statelets! Wilhelm obviously reckons with the victory of Bonaparte merely in order that his Bismarck may be done for in the process. You can remember how he always used to threaten him with the French. You are on Wilhelm’s side, of course.” The last remark was intended ironically because Liebknecht had declared that Marx had been in agreement with his and Bebel’s abstention in the war credit vote.

Marx admitted that he had expressed approval of the “declaration” of Liebknecht. It had been made at a “moment” when a certain stickling for principles was an acte de courage, but one must not conclude from this that the moment would continue and still less that the attitude of the German proletariat in a war which had become national, could be summed up in Liebknecht’s antipathy towards Prussia. Marx had good reason for referring to the “declaration” and not to the abstention itself. Whilst the Lassalleans had voted for the war credit in the general chorus of the bourgeois majority without stressing in any way their socialist standpoint, Liebknecht and Bebel had made a declaration giving the reasons for their abstention. They not only gave the reasons for their attitude, but “as social republicans and members of the International which fought against all oppressors irrespective of their nationality and sought to unite all the oppressed in a fraternal alliance” they added a protest on principle against the war and all dynastic wars, and expressed the hope that the peoples of Europe would learn from their present disastrous experiences and do everything possible to win the right of self-determination for themselves and abolish the existing strong-arm and class rule which was the cause of all State and social evils. Naturally, Marx was very satisfied with this “declaration” which defiantly and openly raised the banner of the International for the first time in history in a European parliament and, at that, in a question of world historic importance.

That his approval referred to this declaration can be seen from his choice of words. The abstention itself was not at all “a stickling for principles,” but rather a compromise, for Liebknecht had in fact intended to vote against the credit, but had been persuaded by Bebel to abstain from voting instead. Further, as every issue of the Volksstaat showed, the abstention was not an action which determined their policy merely for “the moment.” And finally, it was not an acte de courage in the sense that it contained its own justification. If Marx had meant his acte de courage in that sense, then he would have had to praise the worthy Thiers still more highly, for Thiers spoke vigorously against the war in the French Chamber although the Mamelukes of the Second Empire raged against him and overwhelmed him with the wildest abuse; or the bourgeois democrats of the Favre-Grevy school, who did not abstain from voting, but refused to grant the credits point-blank although the patriotic storm was at least as violent in Paris as in Berlin.

The conclusion which Engels drew for the policy of the German working class from his estimate of the situation may be summed up as follows: to join the national movement as long as it limited itself to the defence of Germany (an action which did not under certain circumstances exclude the conduct of an offensive until the signing of peace); to stress the difference between German national interests and the dynastic Prussian interests; to oppose any annexation of Alsace and Lorraine; immediately a republican government had taken the place of the chauvinist government in Paris to work with it to secure an honourable peace; always to stress the unity of interests between the French and German workers, who had not approved of the war and who were not fighting against each other.

Marx declared himself completely in agreement with this summing up and he wrote to the Brunswick Committee in this sense.



2. After Sedan

Before the Brunswick Committee was able to make any practical use of the advice it received from London, the situation had completely changed. The battle of Sedan had taken place, Bonaparte was a prisoner of war, the Second Empire lay in ruins and a bourgeois republic had been declared in Paris. The former deputies of the French capital placed themselves at the head of the republic and proclaimed themselves a “Government of National Defence.”

As far as the Germans were concerned, therefore, the war had ceased to be one of national defence. The King of Prussia, as the leader of the North German League, had declared repeatedly and solemnly that he was waging war not against the French people, but against the government of the French Emperor, whilst the new rulers in Paris declared themselves prepared to pay any amount of money as an indemnity for the German losses. However, Bismarck demanded that France should make territorial concessions and continued the war for the conquest of Alsace and Lorraine, ignoring the fact that he thereby made a mockery of Germany’s contention that it was conducting a defensive war.

By this action he followed in the footsteps of Bonaparte, as he did in the arrangement of a sort of plebiscite which was to relieve the King of Prussia of his solemn undertakings. Even on the eve of Sedan “notabilities” of all sorts issued “mass addresses” to the King, putting forward the demand for “protected frontiers.” The “unanimous will of the German people” made such an impression on the old gentleman that on the 6th of September he wrote home: “if the ruling houses were to oppose this feeling they would risk their thrones,” and on the 14th of September the semi-official Provinzial-Korrespondenz declared it “a naive and unreasonable demand” that the head of the North German League should stand by undertakings he had given expressly and of his own free will.

In order to enhance the “unanimous will of the German people,” the authorities proceeded to crush all opposition ruthlessly. On the 5th of September the Brunswick Committee had issued an appeal calling for working-class demonstrations in favour of an honourable peace with the French Republic and against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. The appeal contained parts of the letter which Marx had sent to the Committee. On the 9th of September the signatories to the appeal were arrested by the military authorities and taken in chains to the fortress of Lätzen. Johann Jacoby was sent as a prisoner of State to the same place, because at a meeting in Königsberg he had also protested against the annexation of French territory and uttered the heretical opinion: “A few days ago we were waging a defensive war, a holy war for our beloved Fatherland, but to-day it is a war for conquest, a war to establish the hegemony of the Germanic race in Europe.” A wave of confiscations and prohibitions, searches and arrests completed the military reign of terror, whose aim it was to place “the unanimous will of the German people” beyond all doubt.

On the day on which the members of the Brunswick Committee were arrested, the General Council of the International again came forward with an Address on the new situation, drawn up by Marx and partly by Engels. It was able to point out how quickly its prophecy that the war would sound the death knell of the Second Empire had been fulfilled, and also how quickly its doubts as to how long the war would remain a defensive war for Germany had been confirmed. The Prussian military camarilla had decided in favour of a war of conquest. How had it released the Prussian King from the solemn undertakings he had himself made with regard to the defensive war? “The wire-pullers had to present him as giving way to an overwhelming demand on the part of the German nation, and it immediately gave the cue to the German liberal middle class with its professors, its capitalists, its town councillors and its newspaper men. The middle class, which had offered an unexampled spectacle of indecision, incompetence and cowardice in the struggles for civil freedom during the years from 1846 to 1870, was of course highly delighted at the opportunity of appearing on the European stage in the role of the roaring lion of German patriotism. It accepted the deceitful appearance of civil independence in order to pretend that it was forcing something on the Prussian government – what? The secret plans of the Prussian government, no more no less. It did penance for its long and almost religious belief in Louis Bonaparte’s infallibility by demanding loudly the dismemberment of the French Republic.”

The Address then examined the “plausible excuses” which “these stout patriots” put forward to justify the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. They did not dare to contend that the inhabitants of these provinces were longing for the embrace of Germany, but they pointed out that long, long before, the territory of the two provinces had been a part of the long-since deceased German Empire. “If the map of Europe is to be remodelled according to old historical rights, then we must not forget that the Elector of Brandenburg was once the vassal of the Polish Republic as far as his Prussian possessions were concerned.”

“Many weak-minded people” were led astray by the fact that “the cunning patriots” demanded Alsace and Lorraine as “a material guarantee” against future French attacks. In a military-scientific dissertation, which was Engels’ contribution, the Address pointed out that Germany did not need this strengthening of its frontiers against France, as the experience of the present war had clearly shown. “If the present campaign has proved anything, it has proved how easy it is to attack France from Germany.” But was it not an absurdity, an anachronism, to put forward military considerations in regard to the principle determining national frontiers? “If this principle were established, then Austria would have a right to the province of Venice and to the Mincio line, and France would be entitled to claim the Rhine as a protection for Paris, which is certainly more open from attacks from the northwest than Berlin is from the southwest. If national frontiers are to be determined by military considerations, then there will be no end of the various claims established, for every military position is necessarily weak somewhere and could always be strengthened by the annexation of still further territory. And finally, frontiers laid down in this fashion can never be final, just because they would always be forced on the vanquished by the victors and would therefore bear in them the seeds of new wars.”

The Address recalled the “material guarantees” which Napoleon had seized in the Peace of Tilsit. Yet nevertheless a few years later his whole gigantic power had collapsed like a rotten reed before the onslaught of the German people. “What are the ‘material guarantees which Prussia could or dare force on France even in its wildest dreams, compared with those which Napoleon forced on Prussia? The result will be no less disastrous this time.”

The mouthpieces of German patriotism declared that one must not confuse the Germans with the French. The Germans wanted not military glory but security. They were essentially a peace-loving people. “Naturally, it was not Germany which invaded France in 1792 with the noble aim of destroying the revolution of the eighteenth century with bayonets. Was it not Germany which soiled its hands with the subjugation of Italy, the suppression of Hungary and the dismemberment of Poland? Its present military system, which divides the whole of the physically fit adult male population into two parts – a standing army on duty and a second standing army on leave – both of them equally enjoined to passive obedience to the orders of the Regent by the Grace of God – such a military system is naturally a ‘material guarantee’ of world peace and beyond that the highest aim of civilization! In Germany as in all other countries the flunkeys of the ruling power poison public opinion with incense and lying self-praise. They wax indignant at the sight of the French fortifications around Metz and Strassburg – these German patriots – but they see no harm in the tremendous system of Muscovite fortifications around Warsaw, Modlin and Ivangorod. Whilst they shudder at the thought of Bonapartist attacks, they close their eyes to the scandal of Tsarist protectorship.”

Pursuing this train of ideas, the Address then declared that the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine would drive the French Republic into the arms of Tsarism. Did the Teutonists really believe that this would offer any guarantee for the peace and freedom of Germany? “If the fortunes of war, the arrogance of victory, and dynastic intrigues mislead Germany into seizing French territory, then only two ways will be left open. Either it will have to submit to being the obvious slave of Russian penetration, no matter what the result may be, or, after a short breathing space, it will have to prepare itself for a new ‘defensive’ war, not for one of those new-fangled ‘localized’ wars, but for a racial war against the combined forces of the Slavs and the Latin peoples.” The German working class, which had been unable to prevent the war, had supported it energetically as a war for Germany’s independence and for the emancipation of Germany and Europe from the crushing incubus of the Second Empire. “It was the German industrial workers together with the agricultural workers who provided the sinew and muscle of heroic armies, whilst behind them they left half-starving families.” Decimated in battle, they were once again decimated by the misery and impoverishment at home. They now demanded guarantees that the tremendous sacrifices which they had made should not have been made in vain, that they should win their freedom, that the victories which they had won over the Bonapartist armies should not be turned into a defeat of the people as in 1815. As the first of these guarantees they demanded “an honourable peace for France” and “the recognition of the French Republic.” The Address pointed to the appeal issued by the Brunswick Committee. Although, unfortunately, it was not possible to reckon with any immediate success, history would show that the German working class was not made of the same pliable stuff as the German middleclass. It would do its duty.

The Address then turned its attention to the French side of the situation. The republic had not overturned the throne but merely taken the empty seat. It had been proclaimed, not as a social achievement, but as a measure of national defence. The republic was in the hands of a provisional government composed in part of notorious Orléanists and partly of bourgeois republicans, in whose ranks there were a number who had been branded indelibly by the June insurrection of 1848. The distribution of offices in the new government boded little good. The Orléanists had secured the strongest positions – the army and the police – whilst the alleged republicans had received the talking posts. The very first actions of the new government proved fairly clearly that it had inherited not only a heap of ruins from the Second Empire, but also the latter’s fear of the working class.

“Thus the French working class finds itself in an extremely difficult position. Any attempt to overthrow the new government with the enemy at the gates would be desperate folly. The French workers must do their duty as citizens, but they must not let themselves be dominated by the national memories of 1792, as the French peasants were deceived by the national memories of the First Empire. They have not to repeat the past but to build up the future. Let them utilize with calmness and determination the means which republican freedom offers in order to organize their own class thoroughly. That will give them Herculean strength for the resuscitation of France and for our joint task – the emancipation of the proletariat. The fate of the republic depends on the strength and the wisdom of the French workers.”

This Address met with a lively echo amongst the French workers, who abandoned their struggle against the provisional government and did their duty as citizens, particularly the proletariat of Paris, which, organized in the National Guard, took a prominent part in the heroic defence of the French capital, but did not let itself be blinded by the national memories of 1792 and worked zealously to organize itself as a class. The German workers showed themselves no less capable of carrying out their tasks. Despite threats and persecutions both the Lassalleans and the supporters of the Eisenach faction demanded an honourable peace with the French Republic, and when the North German Reichstag met again in December to vote new war credits, the parliamentary representatives of both factions voted with determination against any new credits. Liebknecht and Bebel in particular carried on this struggle with burning zeal and challenging courage and it is for this reason that the credit for it is chiefly connected with their names, and not on account of their abstention in July, as a widespread legend would have it. At the end of the Reichstag term they were both indicted for high treason.

During the winter Marx had again been overburdened with work. In August the doctors had sent him to the seaside, but he had been “laid on his back” there by a violent cold, and on the last day of the month he had returned to London with his health by no means restored. However, he had to take over almost all the international correspondence of the General Council because the greater number of its foreign correspondents had gone to Paris. In a letter to his friend Kugelmann on September 14th he complained that he was never able to go to bed before three o’clock in the morning, but that he hoped for some relief in the future because Engels was now settling down in London for good.

There is no doubt that Marx hoped that the French Republic would be able to offer successful resistance to the Prussian war of conquest. The conditions in Germany filled him with bitterness, and they were in fact in such a state that even Windthorst, the leader of the ultramontane Guelph party, made the scathing suggestion that if Bismarck must annex something or other, then he would find Cayenne better suited to his form of statesmanship. On the 13th of December Marx wrote to Kugelmann: “It would appear that Germany has swallowed not only Bonaparte, his generals and his army, but with them the whole system of imperialism, which is now making itself at home with all its sores in the land of the oak and the lime.” In this letter he records with obvious satisfaction that public opinion in England, which in the beginning had been ultra-Prussian, had now changed into the contrary. Apart from the decisive sympathies of the masses of the people for the Republic and other circumstances, “the way in which the Germans have waged the war-the system of requisitions, the burning down of villages, the execution of the francs-tireurs, the seizing of hostages, and similar recapitulations from the Thirty Years War – has caused general indignation. Naturally, the English have done the very same thing in India, Jamaica, etc., but the French are not Hindus or Chinese or Negroes, and the Prussians are not heaven-sent English. It is a typically Hohenzollern idea that a people which continues to defend itself after its standing army has been destroyed is committing a crime.” Frederick William III had suffered from this idea during the Prussian war against the first Napoleon.

Marx called Bismarck’s threat to bombard Paris “a mere trick.” “According to all the laws of probability such an action could have no serious effect on Paris. Supposing a few outworks are blown down and a few breaches made – how much use is that in a case where the numbers of the beleaguered are greater than those of the besiegers? The only real means of subduing Paris is to starve it out.” A pretty picture by the way: this “man without a Fatherland” who made no claim to any independent judgment in questions of military science declared Bismarck’s threat to bombard Paris to be a mere trick” for exactly the same reason that all the prominent generals of the German army, with the exception of Roon, condemned the proposal as a “cadet’s escapade” in a furious discussion which lasted for weeks behind the scenes at the German headquarters; whilst the whole camp following of patriotic professors and newspaper men let themselves be incited by Bismarck’s agents into paroxysms of moral indignation at the attitude of the Prussian Queen and the Prussian Crown Princess because these ladies allegedly prevented their henpecked heroes from bombarding Paris, either for sentimental reasons or perhaps for treasonable considerations.

When Bismarck then declared grandiloquently that the French government was preventing the free expression of opinion in the press and in parliament, Marx answered “this Berlin humour” in The Daily News of the 16th of January, 1871, by describing caustically the regime of police oppression which was gagging Germany. He concluded his description with the words: “France – and its cause is happily far removed from being lost – is fighting at the moment not only for its own national independence, but for the freedom of Germany and of Europe.” This sentence sums up the attitude which Marx and Engels adopted to the Franco-Prussian War after Sedan.



3. The Civil War In France

Paris capitulated on the 28th of January. The agreement which was drawn up between Bismarck and Jules Favre to define the terms of the capitulation provided expressly that the Paris National Guard should retain its arms.

The elections to the National Assembly resulted in a monarchist-reactionary majority, which then elected the old intriguer Thiers as President of the Republic. His first care after the adoption of the peace preliminaries – the cession of Alsace and Lorraine and the payment of five billion francs as a war indemnity – by the National Assembly was to disarm Paris, for the ingrained bourgeois Thiers, and also the reactionary landowners, regarded Paris in arms as nothing less than the revolution.

On the 18th of March Thiers attempted to seize the guns of the National Guard with the insolent lie that they were the property of the State although they had been cast during the siege at the cost of the National Guard and were recognized as the property of the National Guard in the agreement of the 28th of January. The attempt met with resistance and the troops detailed for the coup went over to the people. The civil war had begun. On the 26th of March Paris elected the Commune whose history is as rich in heroism and sacrifices on the part of the workers of Paris as it is in cowardly brutality and malice on the part of the Versailles parties of law and order.

It is unnecessary to stress the burning interest and sympathy with which Marx followed the development of these events. On the 12th of April he wrote to Kugelmann: “What resilient vigour, what historic initiative and what self-sacrifice these Parisians are showing! After six months of starvation and ruin brought about more by internal treachery than by the open enemy, they rise in revolt as though there had never been a war between France and Germany, as though Prussian bayonets did not exist, as though the enemy were not at the gates. History can show no similar example of such magnificence!” If the Parisians were defeated it would be due to their “good nature.” After the troops and the reactionary section of the National Guard left the field they should have marched on Versailles at once, but conscientious scruples made them wish not to open the civil war. As though the malicious abortion Thiers had not already opened it by his attempt to disarm Paris! But even if the Parisians should be defeated, their insurrection would remain the most glorious achievement of our party since the June revolt. “Compare these heaven-storming Titans with the pious slaves of the Prusso-German Holy Roman Empire with its posthumous masquerades, exuding a stale air of barracks, churches, rural obscurantism and, above all, Philistinism.”

When Marx referred to the Paris Commune as an achievement of “our party” he was entitled to do so both in the general sense that the working class of Paris was the backbone of the Commune, and in the particular sense that the Parisian members of the International were amongst the most capable and gallant fighters for the Commune although they represented only a minority on its council. The International was already notorious as the cause of all the troubles of the bourgeoisie and it served the ruling classes of all countries as the scapegoat for all unpleasant events. It was very natural therefore that the bourgeoisie regarded the machinations of the International as responsible for the Paris Commune also. Curiously, however, one of the organs of the Paris police press sought to absolve the Grand chef of the International from any responsibility in the matter and on the 19th of March it published a letter alleged to have been sent by Marx to the Paris sections, reproaching them for paying too much attention to political and too little attention to social questions. Marx immediately sent a letter to The Times characterizing this document as “an insolent forgery.”

No one knew better than Marx that the International had not made the Commune, but from the beginning he regarded it as flesh of its flesh and blood of its blood. Naturally, however, he did so only in the spirit of the program and statutes of the International, according to which all working-class movements aiming to emancipate the proletariat were the concern of the International. Neither the Blanquist majority in the Council of the Commune, nor the minority which, although it belonged to the International, was influenced chiefly by the ideas of Proudhon, could be counted amongst Marx’s immediate supporters. During the period of the Commune he kept in touch with this minority as far as the situation permitted, but unfortunately very little evidence of this is still extant.

Replying to a letter from Marx which has not been preserved, Leo Frankel, a delegate for the Department of Public Works, wrote on the 25th of April: “I should be very glad if you would assist me with your advice as far as possible, because at the moment I am responsible, completely responsible in fact, for all the reforms which I wish to introduce in the Department for Public Works. One or two lines from your last letter are sufficient to indicate that you will do everything possible to make all people and all workers, and in particular the German workers, understand that the Paris Commune has nothing in common with the old-style German commune. In any case, you will be doing our cause a good service in this respect.” If Marx replied to this letter or gave Frankel any advice we have no evidence of it.

A letter sent by Frankel and Varlin to him has also been lost, but on the 13th of May Marx replied to it: “I have spoken with the bearer. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put papers of such a compromising nature for the Versailles canaille in a safe place? Such precautionary measures never do any harm. I have received a letter from Bordeaux informing me that at the last municipal elections four members of the International won seats. Things are beginning to move in the provinces too, though unfortunately their action is localized and peaceable. I have written several hundred letters for your cause to all corners of the world where we have connections. In any case, the working class was in favour of the Commune from the beginning. Even the English bourgeois newspapers have now abandoned their preliminary hostility. Occasionally I have succeeded in smuggling a favourable article into their columns. It seems to me that the Commune is wasting too much time on unimportant details and personal disputes. Obviously there are other influences apart from those of the proletariat at work. But all this would not matter if you could make up for lost time.” Finally he pointed out that speedy action was necessary in view of the fact that three days previously the definitive treaty of peace had been signed between Germany and France in Frankfort-on-Main, and that Bismarck now had the same interest as Thiers in the suppression of the Commune, particularly in view of the fact that with the signing of the treaty the war indemnity payments were to commence.

As far as Marx gave any advice in this letter, one can feel a certain reserve and without a doubt everything he wrote to members of the Commune was couched in the same tone. It was not that he was unwilling to take complete responsibility for the actions and omissions of the Commune, for he did that immediately after its defeat in full public and in all detail, but because he felt no inclination to play the role of dictator and to determine from afar what was to be done on the spot by those who could best see what should be done and what not.

On the 28th of May the last defenders of the Commune had fallen and two days later Marx presented the General Council with the address on The Civil War in France, one of the most brilliant documents that ever came from his pen and all in all, even to-day, the crowning contribution to all the voluminous literature which has been published on the Commune. Once again he demonstrated on the basis of this difficult and complicated problem his extraordinary capacity to recognize the historic essence of a situation under the deceptive surface of an apparently insoluble confusion and in the middle of a hundred conflicting rumours. As far as the Address dealt with facts – and its two first as well as its fourth and last sections describe the actual course of events – it recognized the truth in every instance and has never been refuted in any single point.

The Address certainly gives no critical history of the Commune, but that was not its aim. It was written to defend the honour of the Commune and to justify it against the vilification and injustice of its enemies, and it did so brilliantly. It was written as a polemic and not as a historical judgment, and since then the weaknesses and errors of the Commune have been subjected often enough to severe criticism on the part of socialists, sometimes too severe. At the time Marx contented himself with the following hint: “In every revolution people of a character very different from that of the real representatives of the revolution push themselves forward side by side with the latter. Some of these people are survivors from earlier revolutions with which they are completely bound up; they have no understanding of the present revolution, but, thanks to their well-known courage and high character, or perhaps to mere tradition, they still enjoy considerable influence on the masses of the people. Others again are mere bawlers who have repeated the same declamations against the government of the day for years and thus by false pretences won the reputation of being revolutionaries of the first water. Such people also appeared on the scene after the 18th of March and in a number of cases they even played a prominent role. As far as lay in their power, they obstructed the real action of the working class just as they had obstructed the full development of all earlier revolutions. Such elements, the Address pointed out, represented an unavoidable evil. Given time, it was possible to shake them off, but the Commune had not been granted the necessary time.

The third section of the Address, which deals with the historical character of the Commune, is of particular interest. With great discernment Marx demonstrates the difference between the Commune and earlier historical forms which might appear similar to it – from the mediaeval commune down to the Prussian municipal system: “Only a Bismarck (who, were he not fully occupied with his blood and iron intrigues, would gladly return to his old handiwork as contributor to the Kladderadatsch, so perfectly was it suited to his mental calibre), only such a mentality, could conceive the idea of crediting the Paris Commune with any yearning for that caricature of the old French municipal constitution of 1791, the Prussian municipal system which debases the urban administration to a mere subordinate cog of the Prussian State machinery.” In the manifold nature of the interpretations placed on the Commune and in the manifold nature of the interests expressed in it, the Address recognized the fact that it was a political form easily capable of extension, whereas all previous governmental forms had been chiefly of an oppressive nature: “Its real secret was that it was essentially a government of the working class, the result of a struggle between the producing and the expropriating classes, the finally discovered political form under which the economic emancipation of labour could take place.”

The Address was unable to offer proof of this statement by producing a detailed governmental program of the Commune, for the latter did not develop thus far and could not do so owing to the fact that from the first day of its existence to the last it was compelled to fight a life and death struggle with its enemies. However, the Address proved its point on the basis of the practical policy which the Commune had pursued, a policy whose inner essence consisted in the destruction of the State, which in its most prostituted form (the Second Empire) represented no more than “a parasitic growth” on the social body, sapping its strength and preventing its free development.

The first decree issued by the Commune abolished the standing army and replaced it by the people in arms. The Commune deprived the police force, up to then the mere tool of the government, of all political functions and turned it into an instrument responsible to the Commune. After having abolished the standing army and the police force as the material weapons of the old government, the Commune proceeded to break its spiritual weapon of oppression, the power of the clergy. It decreed the dissolution and expropriation of all the churches as far as they were property-owning bodies. It opened up all educational institutions to the people without charge and freed such institutions from all interference on the part of the State and Church. And finally, it tore up the old State bureaucracy by the roots by making all State officials, including judges, subject to election and deposition at any time and by fixing the maximum rate of pay for State servants at 6,000 francs.

The way in which the Address dealt with these details was brilliant, but there was a certain contradiction between them and the opinions previously held by Marx and Engels for a quarter century and set down in The Communist Manifesto. They had held that one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution would certainly be the dissolution of that political institution known as the State, but this dissolution was to have been gradual. The main aim of such an institution was always to protect by force of arms the economic oppression of the working majority of the population by a minority in exclusive possession of the wealth of society. With the disappearance of this minority of wealthy persons the necessity for an armed repressive institution such as the State would also disappear. At the same time, however, they had pointed out that to achieve this and other still more important aims of the future social revolution, the working class must first of all seize the organized political power of the State and use it to crush the resistance of the capitalists and reorganize society. These opinions of The Communist Manifesto could not be reconciled with the praise lavished by the Address of the General Council on the Paris Commune for the vigorous fashion in which it had begun to exterminate the parasitic State.

Naturally, both Marx and Engels were well aware of the contradiction, and in a preface to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto issued in June, 1875 under the immediate influence of the Paris Commune, they revised their opinions, appealing expressly to the Address of the General Council and declaring that the workers could not simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for their own purposes. At a later date, and after the death of Marx, when Engels was compelled to engage in a struggle against the anarchist tendencies in the working-class movement, he let this proviso drop and once again took his stand on the basis of the Manifesto. It is not difficult to realize that the supporters of Bakunin interpreted the Address of the General Council in their own way, and Bakunin declared mockingly that although the Commune had overthrown all Marx’s ideas, the latter had doffed his hat to it in violation of all logic and been compelled to accept its program and its aims as his own. And in fact, if an insurrection which had not even been prepared but forced on the workers by a sudden and brutal attack was able to abolish the whole oppressive machinery of the State by means of a few simple decrees, was not that a confirmation of Bakunin’s steadfastly maintained standpoint It was not difficult for those who wanted to believe this to find support for their attitude in the Address, which tended rather to present as already existing something which in reality was no more than a possibility developing from the character of the Commune. In any case, the fact that Bakunin’s agitation began to meet with greater approval in 1871 than ever before was due to the powerful impression made by the Paris Commune on the European working class.

The Address concluded with the words: “The Paris of the workers with its Commune will be commemorated for ever as the glorious herald of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its destroyers have already been pilloried by history, and not ail the prayers of their priests and parsons will be able to set them free.” The Address immediately created a tremendous sensation, and in a letter to Kugelmann Marx declared: “It has kicked up the devil’s own rumpus, and at the moment I have the honour of being the most slandered and most threatened man in London. It is doing me good after twenty long and boring years of idyllic isolation like a frog in a swamp. The government organ – The Observer – is even threatening me with prosecution. Let them try it! I snap my fingers at the canaille.” Immediately after the first howl of wrath had gone up, Marx had proclaimed himself as the author of the Address.

In later years he was reproached, even from social democratic sources, with having endangered the International by burdening it with the responsibility for the Commune although it had not been the duty of the International to shoulder any part of the responsibility. To defend the Commune against unjust attacks was very well, but he should have crossed himself in the face of its defects and errors. In any case, such opinions were not widely held and the tactic proposed might have been good for a liberal “Statesman,” but not for Marx just because he was Marx. It never occurred to him to endanger the future of his cause in the deceptive hope that he could thereby diminish the dangers which threatened it in the immediate present.


Last updated on 27.2.2004